Thursday, April 4, 2013

Auburn's Potential Woes?

The first thing we must do is keep this in perspective so that we don't get overly excited, worried, or upset.  At this point, these allegations are only present in a journalist's report written based on a series of interviews with former Auburn players.  At this point, the NCAA isn't involved.  Last night, a report was posted by Selena Roberts, a former writer for many reputable publications among them being The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, alleging several instances of wrongdoing on the part of Auburn during the Gene Chizik regime.  The allegations are as follows:

1.  allegedly offering a bribe to a draft-eligible player, Darvin Adams, to come back for his senior season (Adams wouldn’t give a specific amount)
2.  allegedly violating the NCAA-mandated $50 per diem when entertaining recruits (Mike McNeil alleges a coach gave him $500 to entertain Dre Kirkpatrick on his visit)
3.  allegedly committing academic fraud to maintain eligibility (Mike McNeil offers himself as an example before the season in which a grade was changed from an F to a C; also, reportedly Michael Dyer was among nine players that were supposed to be academically ineligible for the BCS title game)
4.  allegedly paying players  (Mike McNeil offered an example in which Will Muschamp gave him $400 after having a difficult day at practice; Muschamp has since denied the report)
5.  allegedly having more than 40 players fail drug test after the BCS title game.

If all of these turn out to be true, it would likely lead to a “failure to monitor” or a “lack of institutional control” NCAA allegation.  However, if any one of them turn out to be true, I would consider them to be pretty significant in the NCAA’s view.  Personally, I hope they aren’t true, because I love the game.  I love college football.  I’d prefer to have every team at full strength and have a postseason to strive for, and NCAA sanctions always put that in jeopardy.  I have a few more thoughts on this situation:

1.  Let’s address Selena Roberts.  Selena Roberts' credibility has certainly been brought into question before, specifically with her early coverage of the Duke lacrosse scandal and her opinions of, and accusations against, the "culture" of the Duke Athletics Department (the accuser was found to be lying about the incident and the DA made many mistakes as well).  Knowing this, I'm sure this will be the first point of attack for many wanting to defend Auburn here.  I can't blame them because it's a valid response; they're right to be skeptical.  I also know that a couple of the quoted players (Mike Blanc and Nieko Thorpe) in her piece have subsequently claimed they were misquoted.  Perhaps the heat that social media brings is stronger than they expected; perhaps they regret not insisting on anonymity.  I'd like to point out, though, that Roberts is an Auburn alum and it is from that institution that she received her journalism degree.  While it's not impossible, I find it odd that she'd go out of her way to expose her alma mater to potential NCAA sanctions that could result in a stripped championship without merit (especially being aware of the criticism she received from the Duke fiasco).  Of course, I don't know Ms. Roberts, so I can't be sure either way.  Even if the five allegations listed above turn out to be untrue, or unable to be proven, the story of McNiel’s arrest (as Roberts tells it) and how the coaching staff handled it is an unfortunate one.  I can’t condone their communication with McNeil’s parents after his arrest -- leaving them in limbo and going to the press before letting them know how their son was doing.

2.  Good … or bad timing?  When this report first surfaced, I thought that even if the allegations were true, that Auburn may have caught a break in the timing.  The NCAA is under intense scrutiny regarding their allegedly rampant misconduct in the Miami case.  Several members of the NCAA have been fired and "The U" is striving for an unprecedented resolution:  dismissal of the infractions case.  Just a few weeks ago, Miami was attempting to persuade the NCAA to simply rule that their self-inflicted punishments would be sufficient (2 missed postseasons and some recruiting limitations), but now that it looks like Miami may have them against the ropes, and are going out for a Mike Tyson punch-out.  Whether Miami is granted the dismissal or not, I thought Auburn may gain by the controversy because the NCAA may be a little gun-shy heading into a new investigation because every move they make therein will be watched and scrutinized.  On the other hand, it could be poor timing.  Due to the controversy, the NCAA may actually put more manpower into this investigation and expend more effort to show that they can properly conduct an investigation, be thorough, and still "get their guy".   Will they tread lightly because of recent events, or will it turn up their intensity?  Time will tell, but it should be interesting.

3.  The Crystal Ball Three:  Mike McNeil, Darvin Adams, and Michael Dyer.  If I’m an Auburn fan, these are almost the last three players I want to be involved in any kind of allegations.  Mike McNeil led the Tigers in tackles in the BCS title game along with a sack and saved a touchdown with a stop.  Michael Dyer was the Offensive Player of the Game and the focal point of one the most memorable BCS Championship Game plays ever.  Remember the run, on Auburn’s game-winning drive, when Dyer, the defense, the fans, and seemingly the rest of the world thought the play was dead and then he went on to gain an additional 23 yards to the Oregon 23-yard line?  Sure you do.  We all do.  Darvin Adams had a mediocre game, with a mere 54 yards receiving, but he had a huge impact on the game.  How, you ask?  He’s the one who told Dyer to keep running!  If any of these allegations turn out to be true, Auburn fans have to be asking:  why these three guys?  The only allegation that may not cost them the crystal ball is the one alleging that Adams was offered money to stay on instead of entering the NFL Draft (he went undrafted) because that really had no impact on the game and sounds like it happened afterwards.  If Dyer shouldn’t have been eligible due to academics or McNeil shouldn’t have been eligible due academics and/or taking money, that crystal ball will be down in the BCS’s basement alongside USC’s.

4.  In Gus We Trust?  Malzahn was an offensive assistant under Chizik for three years and is now beginning his first season as Auburn's head coach.  He'll be bombarded with questions for the remainder of spring practice regarding these allegations because he was part of the Chizik regime.  After all, the natural thinking is that Dyer was his second-best offensive player (behind Cam Newton) at Auburn and Dyer even followed him to Arkansas State, so surely Malzahn would know if they had to take measures to make him eligible for the title game.  Malzahn, was never mentioned in Roberts' report, but that doesn't mean he won't be asked now.  Players currently on the team who played under Chizik will be asked about improper benefits and academic fraud all season too.  What effect will these distractions have on Malzahn's attempt to help the Tigers rebound from a season last year in which they were winless in conference play and 3-8 overall?  It's tough to say.  It was an uphill challenge already, and this situation seemingly makes the hill a bit steeper.  It also makes one curious as to whether this was the reason Malzahn completely cleaned house when assembling his staff -- leaving no remnants of the Chizik era.  Malzahn dismissed quite a few players from his Arkansas State team upon his arrival (and eventually dismissed Dyer as well) and he's already dismissed a few since taking over the Tigers' squad.  Perhaps he not only varies from Chizik in on-field football philosophies but also wants to run a program differently than his former boss -- that's pure speculation of course.  It's interesting to think about, however.

5.  Breaking the rules -- let’s think about it.  I know that one of the natural reactions for fans when their team is accused of NCAA violations is to go to the "everyone does it" defense.  I've never been a fan of this defense because it wouldn't hold water in any other venue.  I like to use speeding tickets as an example.  If Billy gets pulled over for speeding and upon the officer's arrival at the window, he says, "Officer, that guy in the blue car right there was going even faster than me!", does that mean Billy wasn't speeding?  Of course not.  Billy will still get a ticket because he broke the rules regardless of his not being the only, or even the worst-offending, rule breaker.  Everyone knows that by sheer numbers (there are 124 FBS teams) that the accused football team at the time cannot be the only team committing NCAA violations or even those exact NCAA violations.  Sometimes you're Billy and sometimes you're the blue car.  Of the alleged violations in this case, the one that concerns me the most is the academic fraud allegations.  We all have our opinions on whether these athletes should get paid (beyond scholarships, room, and board), or even if there's a fair or plausible way to do so, so we'll leave that alone for now.  The recruiting violation would concern me more if they were giving money directly to the recruit -- an entertainment per diem seems unimportant comparatively.  Grades, however, that seems like a pretty big deal for a couple of reasons.  First, there has been academic requirements for eligibility for as long as I can remember (although, admittedly they're a little more lenient, especially when it comes to required hours, for "one-and-done" basketball players).  Second, these kids are referred to as student-athletes, even if it is mostly so that the NCAA can maintain their tax-free amateur status.  The NCAA always shows those commercials announcing that the majority of NCAA athletes will go pro in something other than sports -- but if academics can be fudged, that means very little.

Bottom line:  It could very well be that this merely a man about to go on trial trying to garner sympathy from the jury pool.  It could very well be that every word in Ms. Robert's report is true (although, for her sake, I hope she tape recorded her interviews).  It could be somewhere in the middle where some of this is true and some is exaggerated.  It's far too early to tell.  What I do think is that college football fans across the nation will join me in hoping that none of it is true, or I'd like to think they will.  I'm a college football fan first, and a Buckeyes fan second.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Heading into the "Senior" Bowl!

I should probably begin by offering my congratulations to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Nick Saban, and RTRNation on becoming National Champions, the first BCS back-to-back champions, and the first to win three titles in four years since the Cornhuskers of the nineties.  I thought about writing about the game afterwards but realized that it could be summed up in two sentences:  The Tide's offensive line play was dominant in both run blocking and pass protection in a manner that moved the line of scrimmage sometimes 4 or 5 yards downfield.  Brian Kelly had a poor game plan going in and did a poorer job of making in-game adjustments.  What I don't agree with is the idea, which many people have expressed since the clock hit triple zero that night, that the outcome of the game was evidence that Notre Dame didn't deserve to be there.  They absolutely deserved to be there, they were undefeated, they played no FCS teams, and they beat some top teams.  The outcome of the game is not evidence of whether they deserved to be there -- it is only an indication of their performance once they got there.  It is just as Alabama's win last year over LSU in the BCS Championship wasn't evidence that they deserved to be there -- only that they performed well once they got there.  I always like to say that facts and statistics can always be spun in a manner that makes anything a positive for a team of choice, so I wanted to see if I could find a way to turn this championship into a positive for Buckeyes fans.  There have now been 15 BCS Champions (although 1 has been vacated); 9 of the 15 winning coaches were Buckeyes assistants prior to winning a BCS Championship!  The only exceptions being Philip Fulmer, Bobby Bowden, Bob Stoops, Mack Brown, Les Miles, and Gene Chizik, in that order.  Look at that … I was able to do it.

So as we head into our last grasp at on-field college football this Saturday (3pm CST on NFL Network) until the Spring, let's look at a few things that's been going on:

1.  The Not-So-Senior Bowl:   This year, for the first time, there will be two juniors (Alabama's D.J. Fluker and Syracuse's Justin Pugh) playing in the Senior Bowl.  You read that correctly.  The executive director of the Senior Bowl, Phil Savage (former GM of the Cleveland Browns), announced that the new rule allows fourth-year juniors who have graduated to participate in the game.  He also said that he tried to get this rule passed last year, which would have allowed players like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Donta' Hightower to participate, but couldn't get enough support.  While I understand the thinking behind the change -- it gives the NFL a chance to see more players that are eligible for the NFL draft one more time in a game atmosphere -- I don't like the direction in which this seems to be leading.  What’s next?  All fourth-year juniors?  Do they have to have already declared themselves eligible for the draft?  If so, why not let third-year sophomores play? Let’s rename the game if we’re going to let non-seniors play.  The bright side for fans is that they'll get to see at least one of the member of the Alabama offensive line play in the game as Barrett Jones is nursing an injury and Chance Warmack simply chose not to participate.  The Tide lead all teams in participants in this game with 5 players (OL Fluker, TE Michael Williams, LS Carson Tinker, LB Nico Johnson and DB Robert Lester).  Interestingly enough, an injury this week allowed a former Alabama player to participate as well.  Former 5-star all-purpose player, B.J. Scott, who now plays safety for South Alabama, was a member of the highly-touted 2008 class for the Tide.  He started his career as a wide receiver, then moved to corner where he was slated to play opposite Dre Kirkpatrick, but after an injury lost his job to Dequan Menzie and then slid down the depth chart as then-freshman Dee Milliner passed him.  Word is that former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has been practicing exclusively at wide receiver, which seems like a good move.  For those who like the story of small schools getting some television time, several will be represented in this game:  Chadron State (famous football alum: Danny Woodhead), Cornell (famous football alum:  Pop Warner), Harvard (famous football alum: Ryan Fitzpatrick), and Missouri Southern (famous football alum:  James Thrash).

2.  Let’s look at the SEC:   As expected, something that has consumed telecasts, t-shirts, tweets, and Facebook posts is that the Southeastern Conference has now claimed seven consecutive BCS National Championships.  That got me thinking about how much we really know about the SEC outside of recent success and famous former SEC players (e.g. Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Bart Starr).  The SEC was established in 1932 and had 13 charter members; 3 of those members are no longer a member of the conference:  Tulane, Georgia Tech, and Sewanee.  Georgia Tech left in 1964 due to a feud between GT coach Bobby Dodd and Alabama coach Bear Bryant which was fueled by a play involving a punt that was fair caught by Alabama in which Dodd contended a Tide player, Darwin Holt, intentionally injured a player of his named Chick Granning after Granning let up upon seeing the fair catch signal.  After watching film and still believing it was intentional, Dodd requested, via a letter, that Bryant suspend Holt for the play.  Bryant refused and Dodd began the process of withdrawing from the SEC.  Tulane left two years later to become an independent despite having success in the early years of the conference that included several unbeaten seasons.  Sewanee, currently known as University of the South, left in 1940 after leadership at the school never having wanted to join the conference in the first place, decided the game was tarnished.  Perhaps they knew it wouldn't work out:  the Tigers never won a conference game in their eight years and were shutout in 70% of their games played.  Alexander Guerry, who withdrew the school from the SEC because of his and his predecessor’s belief that it was inappropriate to offer scholarships to athletes, is often given credit for the eventual creation of Division III (no such scholarships are allowed).  A random side note about this school:  I was at this school years ago to watch a friend compete in a tennis match and it had one of the best cafeterias at which I have ever eaten.  After Tulane's departure, the SEC remained a ten-team conference until 1990 when Arkansas and South Carolina joined from the Southwest and Metro Conferences respectively and this established the creation of the SEC Championship Game (as they then had 12 teams).  It remained a 12-team conference until 2011 when it was announced that Texas A&M and Missouri would leave the Big 12 and compete in the SEC beginning the 2012 season.  A&M went 10-2 in its inaugural season behind the play of a redshirt freshman and first-year head coach (formerly of Conference USA) and was the only team to  defeat the eventual national champions.  There has to be something in there that you didn’t know about the beloved SEC, right?

3.  Chip Kelly leaves for The League.  Last Thursday, it was announced that Chip Kelly left Oregon and became the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.  When the news broke, I was sure that was going to be the big news of the next few days, or at least of the rest of that day.  I had even planned to release a "5 Things" exclusively about the move (I still may).  However, that news got blown away later that afternoon when Deadspin broke the story about the fiction that was Manti Te'o's girlfriend.  Not only had she not died within hours of his grandmother (who was real) prior to his monster game against Michigan State, she hadn't existed at all.  Chip Kelly who? (ha-ha)  Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the Aflac duck and Kelly decided to leave Phil Knight's money and move up the food chain to become a bird of prey.  The shocking part about the move was that the move to the NFL seemed all but dead after him announcing he was staying at Oregon after being interviewed extensively by Cleveland and Philadelphia and then over a week later leaving.  I've been a fan of Chip Kelly's way of doing things since he came to Oregon.  Consider the fact that in 2006 Kelly was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, spent one year at the same position at Oregon, then reeled off four years as head coach of the Ducks that included four BCS bowl appearances and a national championship game appearance (don't get me started on that game).  I know one of the reasons that he didn't take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job after last season is because he didn't feel assured that his offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich, would succeed him.  This season, even during the bowl season, Oregon announced that should Kelly decide to leave, Helfrich would take over as head coach and I'm sure that was one of his deciding factors to leave.  Of course, the 5-year, $32 million contract probably didn't hurt either.  I don't really think it was all about money, but more about the challenge.  I say that because I know that if he decides to come back to coaching, he'll have his choice of jobs and the school he chooses will open it's wallet wide to get him (the only thing that could possibly hinder that is if, as part of the forthcoming NCAA sanctions, he is assessed a show-cause penalty).  Some people think Chip Kelly's biggest challenge in transitioning to the NFL will be the inability, particularly in his first year, to get players conditioned well enough to play his high-speed game both offensively and defensively.  I disagree, I think it will be adjusting from having 85 available players to 53 on game day, particularly on the defensive side of the ball where he likes to do hockey-style line changes.  We shall see, though.

4.   More troubles for, not from, the NCAA.   I am on record as being against Mark Emmert's sanctions against Penn State as I believe he overreached his authority, circumvented the NCAA's own due process procedures, and punished an institution despite violating no NCAA rules.  At the time, I was also concerned that the severity of the punishments handed down would forever impact the NCAA's ability to punish actual violators.  First on my mind, was the Nevin Shapiro Fiasco at the University of Miami which involved a booster providing all sorts of "improper benefits", from prostitutes to abortions, to current players and the use of such benefits in an attempt to steer recruits to the programs (football and basketball).  It's been over two years since the news of this scandal broke and the NCAA has still not even sent the school its notice of allegations.  Miami has self-imposed postseason bans each of the last two seasons in attempt to soften the forthcoming punishments.  This week Mark Emmert announced that the NCAA is having its enforcement program investigated because of a "severe issue of improper conduct" regarding their investigation of the Miami-Shapiro scandal.  Allegedly, members of the enforcement program "improperly obtained information through a bankruptcy proceeding that did not involve the NCAA", referring to the bankruptcy case of Shapiro.  When this scandal was first released, I was sure that the Hurricanes would receive as close to the death penalty as had been handed down (since SMU received it).  Now, what can the NCAA do?  They can't very well hand the appropriate severity of sanctions because the natural comparison will be to the sexual abuse of children.  On top of that, the integrity of the NCAA's investigation will now forever be questioned.  Great job, Mr. Emmert.  Hurricane Mark -- the weakest in history.  

5.  Ever heard of Nathan Noble?    I'm guessing you've not heard of him and for at least three reasons.  First, he's a kicker ... enough said.  Second, he's a 29-year-old Iraq veteran who has never played football.  Third, he's going to play at Wyoming.  I know you have to be intrigued by now though, right?  He was discovered by a television news report on him because of his veteran status (it was entitled Gridiron Soldier) in Kentucky kicking field goals after a fellow soccer coach got him to kick some footballs (because as a goalkeeper in high school he was known as being strong-legged) to see if he could do it.  He only has one year of eligibility and has been contacted by major programs like LSU, Michigan, USC, and Oregon.  He chose Wyoming because he was already a student there and wanted to finish school and because he had a better chance at playing time (he reached out to former Buckeyes kicker Devin Barclay who was a professional soccer player before playing one season for Ohio State for some advice as well).  He became a Youtube sensation (check him out) and is said to have once kicked a 68-yarder.  So as signing day approaches and we follow all the big names, like Robert Nkemdiche to see where they go (I think he’ll follow his brother to Ole Miss), I think one of the more interesting team additions will be a 29-year-old, walk-on kicker for the Cowboys.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Title Game Time!

As we roll towards the end of the 2012-13 bowl season and into the BCS title game, we can look back over the bowl season with satisfaction.  It began with a bang when Arizona scored two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds to win a game against Nevada, which turned out to be Chris Ault's, the innovator of the Pistol offense, final game coaching the Wolf Pack (he retired).  We saw a battle between Cincinnati and Duke that included a Bearcats team that had half the number of assistants as a team would normally have during a game (because many of them followed Butch Jones to Tennessee just as the interim coach of this game, Steve Stripling would do after the game) and an amazing 79-yard punt by Duke freshman Will Monday.  Minus Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech pulled off a win in a very ugly game against Minnesota that included a ridiculous 13 penalties for 135 yards charged against the Red Raiders.  We saw a game played at Yankee Stadium in the snow that did not end up being the farewell Geno Smith had in mind -- and he finished his career 0-3 against Syracuse (whose coach, Doug Marrone just became the head coach for the Buffalo Bills).  In a fantastic and fascinating game between my team's biggest rival, Michigan, and the Ol' Ball Coach-led Gamecocks, I saw something I've not seen in a game in my nearly 30 years of watching football.  The Wolverines decided to go for it on 4th and 4 at their 37-yard line with not much more than 8 minutes left in the game and holding onto a 1-point lead.  After Floyd Simmons ran for what looked like it was close to a first down, the referee spotted the ball, decided it was too close to call and asked for a stick measurement.  Here's where it got bazaar:  when the linesman pulled the chain tight and placed it on the ground, it appeared to be just short, but the referee called for a first down!  Steve Spurrier went crazy, pointing at the ball, and when the cameras finally showed a perpendicular view from ground level, it was clear the ball was just short.  The referees reviewed, and held up the call, but this part at least made sense because they couldn't review the first down call, only whether the ball was spotted correctly.  All this craziness, however, was followed by one of the biggest hits, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries that I've seen in quite some time by The Beast AKA JaDaveon Clowney!!  Let’s not forget Teddy Bridgewater and company pulling off the biggest upset in bowl history (in terms of point spread) against the Florida Gators.  With that little recap out of the way, let’s get into my thoughts on this season’s BCS National Championship Game -- a game which I am nearly certain that will break viewership records:

1.  This is the media's dream title game:  Two of the more storied programs in college football are facing one another for a championship.  These are two of most hated -- and most loved -- programs in the country, among the likes of the Yankees in Major League Baseball, the Lakers in the NBA, and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL.  Each have a certain amount of people who watch them play with the sole hope of watching them lose -- to witness their failure.  Each have a certain amount of people who watch them just to be a part of something big, not necessarily because they're really fans of football -- put instead of the hysteria that breaks out when that team wins.  Is it a coincidence that each of these teams, with so much history, and so many legendary players and coaches, are among the most controversial when it comes to the amount of championships they've won?  Of course not (check out a great article I recently read breaking down the controversial number of titles for each here), but there's nothing necessarily wrong with that controversy is there?  I mean all it does is add fuel to the fires of passion for this great game.  Both of these teams have some of the simplest, yet recognizable, uniforms in college football, and both have changed them a little bit for this game.  Notre Dame will actually have the last names of players on the uniform for just the fourth time ever; Alabama have unveiled some slightly sleeker uniforms for Monday's game.

2.  C Barrett Jones vs. NT Louis Nix:  I would have considered this the most intriguing matchup within the matchup even if Barrett Jones was 100% healthy, but it is even more so given Jones' ankle injury.  He was seen as late as Thursday wearing a boot to protect his ankle and though he has consistently said he'll play and that he'll be fine, one can't help but have some questions about effectiveness.  Nix is 6'4" and 326 pounds and he'll most often line up directly across from Jones.  Given Jones' perennial All-American status, one would be tempted to automatically give him the nod in this battle, but his ankle will be imperative to effectively impose consistent and correct leverage against Nix.  Given that the Irish so often line up in a 3-4, the good news for Alabama is that on a certain amount of plays, specifically passing downs, they'll be able to throw a second body into Nix (such as All-American Chance Warmack).  The bad news is, especially if Jones' ankle doesn't hold up, or affects his effectiveness, it could hurt the Tide particularly during running plays (because double teams will be more difficult due to linebackers attacking the gaps.  One could look at Nix's stats (45 tackles, 2 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss) and dismiss him, but that would be a mistake.  Nix's job doesn't necessarily correlate to the box score, instead, his job is to make it easier for other defenders to fill up the box score.  It's been reported that players like McCarron and Warmack have said that backup center Ryan Kelly has done a good job taking first-team reps early on during this long layoff and they are confident in him should he need to see time in this game -- while I don't doubt them, the redshirt freshman who has played in some garbage time this season and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team would have a huge weight put on him (and that's not counting Nix's 326 pounds).

3.  Brown, Black, or Bell?   A couple of freshman wide receivers that haven't gotten a lot of publicity throughout the season (nor during this bowl season layoff) are Chris Brown of Notre Dame (insert Rihanna joke here) and Chris Black of Alabama.  There's a reason why neither get their names mentioned often by the media or by the fans though.  Brown has caught two passes all season and didn't catch his first one until the eighth game of the season.  Black has caught no passes this season due to a shoulder injury in the preseason.  Besides both kids being freshman, both being wide receivers, both having the same first name followed by a last name that can be found in a Crayola box, they both have the potential to play a big role in Monday night’s game because they aren't likely to be included in the opponents' defensive game plan due to their speed.  Brown's signature moment of the season was a 50-yard reception against Oklahoma while Black's highlight is that Saban made him available (and possible removal of his redshirt) to play in the SEC Championship game but wasn't used.  Brown's speed could catch a Tide secondary by surprise at some point in the game, perhaps even on a reverse or something.  Black's play, I think, will depend on the availability of Kenny Bell.  Bell practiced on Thursday and Friday with a noncontact black jersey on, but apparently impressed AJ McCarron enough for him to say he didn't need the black jersey.  If Bell can't go, I can see Black stepping in some capacity to add a spark to the offense.  If Bell can go, look for a big play out of him.  No matter the circumstance, look for a couple of big plays from a couple of wide receivers whose last name starts with a "B".

4.  The Dreaded “C” Word … complacency.  Complacency could be the biggest enemy of this Crimson Tide team.  Take a minute to think about how the newspapers and television analysts have posed the question concerning this game since this matchup was determined over a month ago:  What does Notre Dame have to do win this game?  It's as if it's a foregone conclusion that the crystal ball is headed to Tuscaloosa.  Nick Saban's legacy has been a constant topic of conversation as well because he will have won 3 titles in 4 years (and 4 in 10 years) and he will be one of just 4 coaches with 4 championships in major college football (Leahy [ND], McKay [USC], and Bryant [UA]).  So for the last 37 days these kids have heard nothing but how it's a given that they're going to win.  Additionally, the older players already have a title (several of them have two) and the younger players have walked into a program which has reached this game three of the last four years and may expect to get more cracks at it.  Saban constantly talks about The Process which instills the discipline of focusing on only doing one's job but we have to remember these are kids who are under 23 years old, and he has two freshmen who play a big role in his offense (Cooper and Yeldon) -- the limelight may temporarily blind that focus.  It should also be noted that the Tide upperclassmen called a Players Only meeting on Thursday to address a lack of focus (presumably in response to freshman linebackers Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson being sent home due to missing curfew).  I know a lot has been made of the fact that the Tide have a chance to win three out of four on Monday night, but it should be noted that since the inception of the BCS, there hasn't been a repeat champion and the last time a team had a chance at it, the BCS title game was also being played in Miami.  Florida State after winning the '99 title against a Michael Vick-led Virginia Tech team, faced off against Oklahoma and was held to a mere 2 points.  One would think that if any current coach in college football can keep a squad from taking a game for granted, it's Saban, but it's not as if it hasn't happened before -- but in fairness, a national title wasn't on the line that day.

5.  If I were coaching this game:   If I were Brian Kelly, I'd have spent some the 15 practices establishing and running some kind of hurry-up offense.  I'm not saying I'd run it the whole game (I doubt 15 practices would be enough to establish that kind of conditioning anyway), but I'd use it to loosen up the Tide's defense as it was proven to be effective against them both by Ole Miss and by Texas A&M.  I'd obviously establish the run early also given they have four players with at least 300 yards rushing led by seniors Theo Riddick (880 yds, 5 TDs) and Cierre Wood (740 yds, 4 TDs) and including quarterback Everett Golson (305 yds, 5 TDs).  I'd do so for two reasons:  1.  Keep AJ McCarron and Amari Cooper off the field because Notre Dame's defensive weakness is the secondary.  2.  Golson is at his strength in the play-action game which also opens up second-team All-American tight end Tyler Eifert (Irish's leading receiver) up the seam.  Defensively, I'd acknowledge my weakness in the secondary and instead of having my corners try to run stride-for-stride with Cooper and company, I'd keep everyone in front of me and depend on my teams sure tackling.  Playing zone coverage doesn't work because that's when Yeldon explodes for long gains especially when catching the ball out of the backfield (just ask LSU).  Also, I'd let Te'o play his game and not try to make him the kind of linebacker that he's not.  He's not a pass rusher like a Jarvis Jones (UGA), he's best when he can spy the passer in the passing game and read gaps in the running game.  If I were Nick Saban, I'd have done at least one thing exactly as he did and that is to have Blake Sims simulate Golson in practice as he is a similar type athlete (although not the passer Golson is).  The passing deficiency of Sims isn't an issue because they can practice against the pass using McCarron, and it's the athletic quarterbacks who have given the Tide some issue, particularly having an issue keeping contain when the QB is forced out of the pocket by the pass rush.  Another thing I'd do is practice a pass play or two out of the wildcat formation Saban uses (regardless of who takes the snap) because so many times this season McCarron has been left wide open on these plays.  I think there's a great opportunity to catch an overly-aggressive defense on these plays.  I'd also make sure my defense knows that Brian Kelly has a tendency to get frustrated with Golson and put Tommy Rees in the game for a play or a series and if that happens in this game -- put 8 in the box, pressure Rees and there is a high possibility that he'll throw a pick.  Also, I know Saban is a fan of running that soft screen to the left with Yeldon, I don't think I'd call that very often in the game because this had to have been noticed in 37 days of film study -- or run it with some kind of fake and throw it to a tight end on the right side of the formation?  Defensively, I'd also be aware of little-used Chris Brown when he's on the field because of his speed.  Additionally,  I might use a nickel corner on Eifert with safety help over the top.  I'll be giving up height either way (traditionally would cover him with a linebacker), but at least here I'm not also giving up speed and I can use the linebacker as a blitzer -- or a Golson spy.

My pick:  I picked Alabama by 3 in the SEC Championship (they won by 4) and it was a great game.  The Tide were a bad decision by Aaron Murray (who recently tweeted the will return in 2013) with 15 seconds left away from possibly losing that game.  I'm giving the Tide 3 more points of breathing room against the Fighting Irish because Everett Golson can't exploit the Alabama secondary as well as Murray can.  Alabama by 6.

Friday, December 14, 2012

CFB in-between time!

The Heisman was historic and bowl season is upon us!  Congratulations to Johnny Manziel on lifting the 25-pound trophy Saturday night.  One of the things I found impressive when looking at the breakdown of votes was that JaDeveon Clowney and Jordan Lynch combined for seven first-place votes.  Clowney was easily the best defensive player in the country and Lynch, who is still relatively an unknown, led the country in total yards.  One of the things I found quite unimpressive was the ballot of Jason White (Heisman winner in 2003) and even more so that he announced it.   White’s ballot didn't have Manziel on his ballot at all, for one thing.  He voted Collin Klein(1st), Manti Te'o (2nd), and Landry Jones(3rd).  I understand Oklahoma quarterbacks have to stick together, but Landry Jones over Johnny Manziel?  I'm glad you're taking your vote seriously, Jason.  Can I petition the Heisman Trust to have his vote next year?  On a brighter note, bowl season is upon us and we have two games on Saturday.  Nevada vs. Arizona in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl (12pm CST on ESPN) and Toledo vs. #22 Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (3:30pm CST on ESPN).  We don't even have to change channels, folks!  The first game will likely be a shootout as they both average 37 points per game, but I like the Wildcats to pull out the win hoping they can play like they did against Stanford rather than like they did against Oregon.  The second game seems to lean towards Toledo in my view.  They beat Cincinnati and nearly beat Northern Illinois, although the Aggies did pull off a win against high-scoring Louisiana Tech.  Watch Toledo running back David Fluellen who was eighth nationally in rushing yards per game (132.7 yards).  I'd like to also offer my congratulations to Kliff Kingsbury who took the head coaching job vacated by Tommy Tuberville.  Kingsbury was Texas A&M's offensive coordinator this past season after holding the same position under Kevin Sumlin at Houston.  He played for the Red Raiders and held 7 NCAA passing records when he left school (2002).  If one combines his playing career at TTU, his having coached Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel, and his having a Super Bowl ring (reserve in 2004 for the Patriots), it shouldn't be hard to see that Kingsbury could be a force on the recruiting trail.  He's the second youngest head coach in the FBS (33) behind Toledo's Matt Campbell (32).  

1. Congrats to Johnny Football:  I didn't think it would happen, mainly because I didn't think the voters, particularly former Heisman winners, would allow a freshman to win.  However, not only did they prove me wrong, but Manziel received 153 more first-place votes than runner-up Te'o.  Remember when Michael Vick was a redshirt freshman at Virginia Tech and the talk was that he may actually win three or four Heismans?  He ended up not winning any after coming in third that year and leaving for the NFL following the next season (and didn't get any Heisman hype due to several injuries).  It will be difficult for Manziel to repeat, despite winning it as a freshman.  He's losing two All-American offensive linemen (Joeckel and Matthews) and the school's all-time leader in receptions (Ryan Swope).  Additionally, he'll have the proverbial target on his back next season with more teams designing game plans specifically around his game.  We also have to consider the fact that next season has the potential to be his last season for the Aggies as he would be eligible to leave for the NFL (it will be his third year out of high school) if he decides he wants to do that.  I don't know if he'll want to do that given his size, but look at the success Russell Wilson (less than 6'0") is having as a rookie in the league.  Does he have Vick's speed or Wilson's arm strength?  No.  However, he has underrated speed and above average arm strength and he's only going to get better in terms of reading defenses.  Losing Offensive Coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, could hurt him as well, but that’ll be tough to judge until Kevin Sumlin announces his replacement.  Manziel also became the first freshman to be named first-team All-American quarterback on Tuesday, so the bar for his game is set very high.  It will be very difficult for voters to judge his game on next season alone rather than comparing it to this year (despite it not being a career award).  I'm impressed with the kid so far, and I selfishly hope he plays for three more years.

2.  The most surprising hire of the week is … Cincinnati's hire of Tommy Tuberville.  It's not surprising from the Bearcats' point of view, but instead from Tuberville's.  Athletic Director, Whit Babcock, was the assistant AD when Tuberville was at Auburn, so it's no surprise he'd reach out to him after Butch Jones fled for Tennessee.  What's surprising is that Tuberville would leave the Big 12 for a Big East conference that has been seemingly constant fluctuation the past few years (and it just got worse, as I’ll describe below).  He chooses a school that begged the ACC to take them a few weeks ago.  I've read that "Tubby" has never really fit in with the Lubbock community and perhaps that was a contributing factor.  That, of course, could have something to do with his wife running a red light and killing a man in the small town. Perhaps it is just that he feels like he has a better chance at a conference championship or a BCS bowl in Cincinnati.  That may be true in 2013, as winning the Big East will earn a berth in a BCS bowl, but when 2014 comes around that won't be the case.  Winning the Big East won't be enough as the Big East will be a part of the "Group of Five", which consists of the Big East, the MAC, the MWC, Sun Belt, and Conference USA conferences, the highest ranked of which will be eligible for one of the six major bowls (the current five BCS bowls plus the Cotton Bowl).  (Side Note:  if this system would have been in place this year, Northern Illinois would still have been chosen for a BCS bowl).  In other words, next year will be the last year that the Big East Champion gets an automatic BCS bowl bid.  Tuberville may have hurt himself in terms of recruiting as well if the story from JUCO transfer recruit Devonte Danzey turns out to be true.  Danzey claims that Tuberville avoided a direct answer when asked how long he planned to be at TTU during a recruiting dinner at a restaurant on Friday night and then excused himself to go to the bathroom and never returned.  Tuberville, of course, was announced as Cincy's new head coach on Saturday (the recruits were still on Tech's campus being given a tour at the time).  I don't know if Danzey's account is true, but I'm thinking coaches who are pursuing recruits that "Tubby" also wants, will be recounting it going forward nevertheless. I can hear it now, "Beware of the Tubby Dine 'N Dash kids!"  Honorable Mention:  Butch Jones to Tennessee.

3.  The most controversial hire of the week is ... Western Kentucky’s hire of Bobby Petrino.  He may now be leader of the Hilltoppers, but this is not the peak for Petrino, but merely a stepping stone.  One could soundly argue that he has viewed every head coaching job he's held as such, however.  Fans of various teams secretly wished their team would hire Petrino even while they may despise the events that led to his dismissal from Arkansas a mere eight months ago.  Those fans may not admit it now because their team have already hired a new coach and Petrino is now taken and out of reach.  However, in private they'll admit that the bottom line is that he wins games and that's what they want for their team, especially given that their team is obviously in need of them if it was also on a quest for their next head coach.  I think the reason major programs passed on Petrino this go around is because they felt it was too soon and the athletic directors didn't want to be in the position of having to answer all of the questions that Todd Stewart (WKU AD) had to face during the initial press conference.  Stewart did his best to take the brunt of that barrage by focusing on the importance of second chances, that none of us are perfect, and that we all make mistakes.  What he was really saying?  Willie Taggart did a great job of turning this program around and we needed someone to keep that trend going, this man can bring us wins and wins translate to dollars.  Truth be told, we didn't think we had a shot at a guy with this kind of coaching resumé -- and look at the terms we got him for!  Truth is, Stewart got a great deal:  4 years at $850,000 per year and if Petrino terminates this deal at any time he is required to pay the school $1.2M in 6 monthly payments starting the month after he leaves.  There are many people who feel strongly that Petrino deserves no such chance to coach again after the motorcycle/Jessica Dorrell spectacle and those people might well feel that way forever.  Some may feel as strongly as Jeff Pearlman of CNN and I say that all of you are free to feel as you do.  However, the reality is that there was no way he wasn't going to get another head coaching job despite his moral failings because at the end of the day college football is about money and anytime you forget that ask yourself why 70 out of 120 schools get to play in a bowl game -- voila!  Honorable Mention:  Not Applicable at this time

4.  Sad to see Marcus go:  He's been my favorite running back over the past three seasons and I hate that I won't get to see him suit up for the Gamecocks again.  After his injury during the Tennessee games this season, when doctors said it wasn't a career-ending injury, I had hope.  When Steve Spurrier said that he'd let Lattimore use his medical redshirt for the 2013 season so that he can take as much time as he needed to rehabilitate, I thought it would be great to see him play in a historical season (the first year of the playoff system) in 2014.  I know it must sound a bit weird for a Buckeyes fan, for a guy who some think is absolutely anti-SEC, to be a fan of a South Carolina running back.  He has speed and power, he can catch out of the backfield, and he does a great job of picking up a blitzer in pass protection.  Lattimore almost joined Michael Dyer in the Auburn Tiger backfield to give Cam Newton a ridiculous freshman duo behind him.  He was lured to SC because Steve Spurrier convinced him that despite his reputation as a "gunslinger" kind of coach that he'd run his offense through him and the running game.  I think he's making a mistake entering the NFL Draft, but I understand why he's doing it.  He's afraid that if he sits out a year and it turns out the rehabilitation doesn't work out, that he's out of a chance to get a paycheck and at least right now his name is still on the minds of NFL General Managers.  He's counting on at least one of them taking a chance on him -- and I hope he's right.  Maybe his buddy Alshon Jeffrey can talk the Bears into spending a late draft pick on him.  Maybe The Ol' Ball Coach can use his connection in the league to talk someone into it.  I hope not only that he gets picked up by an NFL team, but that he has a successful rehabilitation and career at the next level.  Good luck, Marcus!

Bye, Bye, Big East!  Seven non-football schools (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova), at least in terms of the FBS, have defected from the Big East due to the instability that the conference is currently enduring.  Word is that it worried these schools, which are primarily basketball schools, when Connecticut and Cincinnati fought hard for acceptance by the ACC recently (they chose Louisville instead).  Cincinnati reportedly went so far as to enlist the help of alumnus Urban Meyer in an effort to make their case more compelling.  With these seven schools leaving, it severely weakens the Big East as a basketball conference (11 times since 1999 a Big East team either won, or played for, a title in Men's or Women's basketball).  Especially if one takes into account that Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Rutgers are all leaving as well.  If we look at all the basketball revenue the Big East is losing with all of these departures, and almost definitely the agreement with Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament, who would blame the football schools that are joining the conference over the next three seasons to second guess that decision?  I wouldn't blame Boise State, for example, for rescinding and returning to the Mountain West Conference where it would have seemingly just as good a chance to come out of the Group of Five starting in 2014 as it would in a diluted, or possibly extinct, Big East.  It's unclear right now what will happen to the Big East brand name (or even who would keep it) or its media deal which expires next season.  The seven basketball schools are rumored to be possibly stealing some schools from the Atlantic 10 (there are some catholic, basketball-centric, schools therein as well).   All this is very interesting in terms of the possibility that the Big East may not exist, or it may not be a football conference anymore.  Whatever happens, I think this will spark a lot more movement in the FBS conference landscape.  Let's keep an eye out ...

Friday, December 7, 2012

Heisman Eve!

Welcome to the Heisman version of 5 Things!  Ohio State, USC, and Notre Dame each have won the Heisman seven times and you'll notice I have a member of each school on my ballot.  There has only been 3 wide receivers and 0 purely defensive players to win, and I have one of each on my ballot as well.  I use the phrase "purely defensive" because there were two winners that played defense, but not exclusively.  For example, Ernie Davis of Syracuse won it in 1961.  Davis is best known as a running back, but he played linebacker for the Orangemen too.  The closest to a pure defender to win it was in 1997 when cornerback Charles Woodson won it.  Woodson was primarily a corner, but he took snaps at wide receiver as well, and was the Wolverines' top punt and kick returner.  That season, by the way, Woodson made, what I think is, one of the prettiest interceptions ever against Michigan State.  Former Buckeyes great, Archie Griffin, is the only two-time recipient of the award and given the youth of some of the players on my list, its conceivable that he could get some company some time soon.  Only two sophomores, Tim Tebow, and Mark Ingram, Jr. have lifted the 25-pound trophy and a freshman has never done so.  No matter which of the three invitees to New York wins on Saturday, history will be made.  T'eo would be the first purely defensive player to win it.  Manziel would be the first freshman to win it (he's a redshirt freshman).  Klein would be the first Kansas State player to hoist the award once called the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy.  Below I have listed the players in the order they would appear on my ballot, if I were lucky enough to be a Heisman voter:  

1.  Johnny “Football” Manziel, QB, Texas A&M:   Passing:  3419 yards, 24 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 68.3% completion percentage.  Rushing:  1181 yards, 19 touchdowns.  Kicking:  0-1 PATs

Johnny Football broke the SEC record for total yards in a game, formerly held by Archie Manning, against Arkansas when he had 557 total yards, but just two weeks later he broke his own record when he compiled 576 total yards against Louisiana Tech.  He had 345 total yards against the defense that led the nation in total defense, Alabama.  The Tide defense only allowed 246 yards per game this season.  He holds the SEC record for total yards in a season (4600) that was previously held by Cam Newton (4327).  No freshman has ever won this award, but there is no good reason one shouldn't.  Adrian Peterson came in second as true freshman (the closest a freshman has ever come) in a year that he ran for over 1900 yards at Oklahoma.  That was a mistake on the voters' part, and we'll see if they do it again.  The Aggies haven’t had a Heisman winner since John David Crow in 1957.

2.  Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame:  103 tackles, 7 interceptions, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and 1 recovered fumble (zero touchdowns scored).

Te'o never had an interception before this season.  His 7 this season are out of 16 total interceptions by the Fighting Irish defense and tied for second in the nation (Philip Thomas of Fresno State had 8).  He's an emotional favorite for some due to the off-the-field issues he's had to deal with this year.  On September 11th he lost his grandmother (undisclosed long-term illness) and his girlfriend (leukemia) in a span of just six hours.  He played against Michigan State on the day of his girlfriend's funeral to keep a promise he made to her to honor her through his play -- he had 12 tackles in that game.  Statistically, last season was a much stronger one for Te'o with the exception of interceptions (128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, and forced fumble) but he wasn't a Heisman candidate, perhaps because the list of contenders was much deeper last season.  I believe if Te'o wins this award, it'll be the first time that someone who hasn't scored a point has done so.

3.  Marqise Lee, WR, USC:  Receiving:  112 catches, 1680 yards, 14 touchdowns, 1 two-point conversion, 15 yards per catch.  Kickoff Returns:  802 yards, 1 touchdown, 28.64 yards per return

Lee, a sophomore, led the nation in receptions and was second in total yards receiving.  The next eight receivers below him in receptions all play in spread offenses as does the only one with more yards (Terrance Williams, Baylor, 1764 yards).  The Trojans offense is a pro-style offense, but it can't be denied that Lane Kiffin loves the passing game (sometimes so much it leads to his demise).  I think Marqise Lee is the best player in the country and it is amazing to me that he was able to accumulate the statistics he did despite teams consistently double teaming and/or giving safety help over the top on his side of the field.  That he demands that kind of attention despite Robert Woods, a top-notch receiver in his own right (11 touchdowns this season), playing on the other side of the field is a testament to how good this kid is. The two were also high school teammates, by the way.  He won’t get the votes because his team has five losses, despite this being an individual award and not a team award.  A wide receiver hasn't won this award since Desmond Howard won it in 1991, I don't even remember the last time one was in the invited to the ceremony to get a chance at it.  Lee, obviously wasn't invited to New York because the Heisman Trust didn't feel he had a legitimate shot to win either.  

4.  Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State:  Passing:  2495 yards, 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 66.2% completion percentage.  Rushing:  895 yards, 22 touchdowns.

Klein was recruited by Kansas State to play wide receiver but was converted to quarterback during his sophomore season (he actually caught 6 passes and a touchdown as a freshman receiver) and became the starter last year.  He led the Wildcats to their first conference (Big 12) championship (Sooners are co-champions) since 2003.  It should be noted that though he threw 7 interceptions on the season, 3 of them came in their only loss of this season against the Baylor Bears.  That game, due to the high-scoring nature of it, saw Klein attempt a career-high 50 passes, so it isn't really that surprising that he uncharacteristically threw a few picks considering the rest of the season he averaged just 20.2 passes per game.  I believe that if Klein wins it, he'll be the first quarterback to do so having started his college career as a wide receiver.

5.  Braxton Miller, QB, The Ohio State University:  Passing:  2039 yards, 15 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 58.3% completion percentage.  Rushing:  1271 yards, 13 touchdowns.

I'm sure there will be several Heisman voters that don't even rank Miller because of the Buckeyes' postseason ineligibility.  However, it should be noted that it has happened before.  When Houston's Andre Ware won it in 1989, they were not only ineligible for the postseason but were also under a television ban!  Even without the postseason ineligibility though, I don't believe Miller should, or would, get many first place votes this season.  Miller has been fun to watch because of how electrifying and dynamic he is and he basically carried the load for the Buckeyes during the first five games of the season -- willing them to victory, if you will.  You'll notice that despite only two sophomores and no freshman having one this award, I have two sophomores and a freshman on my list.  I'm excited that we'll get to see these players at least one more season (I believe Lee will leave after his next year).  Miller, having a whole season and two offseasons in Meyer's system only provides promise that he will be back on this list next season, and likely with a lower number next to his name.

Predicted Result: Te'o, Manziel, Klein, Miller, Lee

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

After Championship Week!

Given my passion for college football, I'd like to start this week by extending my thanks to late, great, President of the United States Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt without whom we may not have the game as we know it.  It was as a result of a meeting Roosevelt had with college football's powers that be, during which he strongly expressed his concern over the injuries and fatalities in college football and that they were causing many schools to consider abandoning it altogether, that led to formation of the IAAUS (Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States) in 1906.  It changed it's name to NCAA four years later.

Another regular season done (except for the Army/Navy game) and another round of complaints over bowl selections and another coaching merry-go-round.  A five-loss team put up 70 points in a conference championship game and will now play the Rose Bowl.  For the first time a non-AQ team that has a loss will play in a BCS bowl as a result of Northern Illinois being in the Top 16 in the BCS polls and being ranked above an AQ conference champion (actually, two of them).  Neither of these two teams, Wisconsin or Northern Illinois, will have its head coach on the sidelines during their bowl game.  Bret Bielema left the Badgers for Arkansas while Dave Doeren left the Huskies for N.C. State.  Kirk Herbstreit was irate that NIU is playing in a BCS bowl calling it a "sad state for college football" which led to an interesting response via an open letter from an NIU alum and former Indianapolis Colts offensive tackle, Ryan Diem.  Some SEC fans are upset that Florida is playing in the Sugar Bowl instead of Georgia because they feel the Bulldogs are being punished for playing in the SEC Championship which led to its second loss (and therefore has one more than Florida).  What those fans may not realize is that if it weren't for pressure coming from Mike Slive and company, Georgia wouldn't even have been chosen by the Capital One Bowl; they wanted Texas A&M.  One of the biggest surprises in terms of bowl selections is the case of Louisiana Tech.  The Bulldogs were 9-3 and led the nation in scoring and will not play in a bowl this year due to the Athletic Director's reported refusal of an invitation to play in the Independence Bowl against Louisiana-Monroe (he claims that he simply asked for time to consider the invitation and to see if they received any other invites) and not receiving any other invitations.  That's too bad for the 31 seniors on the team, and for the underclassmen, as I don't envision head coach Sonny Dykes staying much longer.

The biggest bowl selection mistake was … the Blue Raiders of MTSU.  I think the team that got the biggest bowl snub is Middle Tennessee who isn't "going bowling" this season.  The Blue Raiders lost big (45-0) in the Sun Belt Championship against Arkansas State on Saturday to finish the season 8-4.  However, they have wins against two teams with lesser records which are participating in bowls.  Georgia Tech played in the ACC Championship against FSU because  of North Carolina and Miami (FL) being ineligible and their loss on Saturday resulted in their having a losing record (6-7).  The Blue Raiders beat them by 21 in Bobby Dodd Stadium.  Western Kentucky finished the season 7-5 and is playing in Little Caesars Bowl against Central Michigan and the Blue Raiders beat the Hilltoppers as well.  If the bowls were looking for a reason to avoid inviting the Blue Raiders they could possibly point to the fact that they started the season with a loss to an FCS school (McNeese State), but Pittsburgh did the same and needed a win this weekend just to get to 6 wins.  Perhaps they were focused on the fact that they were blown out in the championship game to the defending conference champions, but is that enough to negate their 8-win season?  I'd like to think not.  If any team got punished for losing a conference championship game, it's this team. MTSU has only played in five bowls ... and this year should have been the sixth.

Auburn and Arkansas make interesting hires.  As I wrote last week, Auburn should have fired Athletic Director Jay Jacobs along with Gene Chizik because there was no indication that he wouldn't make the same mistake ... which I think he did.  He hired yet another coordinator that was on a national championship-winning staff and that had minimal head coaching experience.  Sure, you can point to Gus Malzahn's Arkansas State squad winning the Sun Belt Championship and finishing with a 9-3 record, but keep in mind that the Red Wolves won that championship last season too (under current Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze) and had a 10-2 record, so it's not as if he turned around a program.  Did we really learn anything about Malzahn's head coaching acumen from his season there?  I don't think so.  So Jacobs fired Chizik, presumably not giving Chizik very much credit for the 2010 national championship.  I don't blame him for that as I give most of that credit to two one-and-done, junior college transfers, Cam Newton and Nick Fairley along with a fluke Michael Dyer play against Oregon.  Jacobs, apparently, gives most of that credit to Gus Malzahn, seemingly hinging his job security to the former offensive coordinator.  The bright side for Auburn fans is that there are several offensive players still on the roster that were recruited to run Malzahn's hurry-up, spread-option, offense.  Arkansas AD Jeff Long, on the other hand, went after some serious Petrino replacements.  He tried to make Les Miles the highest-paid coach in the nation and then he reportedly offered Vanderbilt's James Franklin nearly five million a year.  I had him hiring Louisville head coach, and former Florida defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong all season, but in a surprising move he hired Wisconsin's Bret Bielema.  Bielema didn't like Urban Meyer's aggressive recruiting tactics of pursuing players that have committed to other schools earlier this year, saying, "We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form."  Well if he didn't like one coach recruiting aggressively, what's he going to do now that he's in a conference in which they all do so?  I suggest he jumps on that train and tries to get current Alabama commitment Altee Tenpenny (how great of a name is that?) to stay in his home state and play running back for the Razorbacks.  Even though Bielema is a lifetime Big Ten guy (born in Illinois, played at Iowa, and coached at Wisconsin), his coaching style actually fits in perfectly in the SEC.  He believes in big offensive lines and an offense with a running game foundation and a play-action passing attack.  Rumor has it that Bielema wants to coach the Badgers in the Rose Bowl (which they are playing in for the third straight season) but that Athletic Director and Bielema predecessor, Barry Alvarez, won't let him and may possibly coach that game himself.

One coaching door closes and another opens.   Tuesday, Boston College hired Temple's head coach (and former Florida offensive coordinator), Steve Addazio to be their next head coach following a 2-win season.  Addazio's Temple Owls only won four games this season after a nine-win first year (which may have been residual success from the Al Golden years).  I still think it's a good hire for the Eagles whose only two wins were against Maine and Maryland.  Another Tuesday hire was Purdue's hiring of Kent State's head coach, Darrell Hazell.  Hazell, just finished his first year coaching the Golden Flashes after being a longtime Buckeyes assistant and led them to their first bowl game since 1972 and a double overtime loss this Saturday away from a BCS bowl appearance.  As a Buckeye fan, I hope Hazell joins the long list of former Buckeyes assistants that includes the likes of Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Jim Tressel, Pete Carroll, Mark Dantonio, and Lou Holtz to have a successful head coaching career.  However, now that he's coaching in the Big Ten, I can't cheer him on as the Boilermakers are divisional rivals.  Those two hires, along with firings at South Florida and Florida International, open doors to yet more major head coaching opportunities.  Tennessee is supposedly pushing hard for Charlie Strong and reportedly interviewed Oklahoma State's Mike "I'm a man!" Gundy on Saturday; if either happens, yet another major job will open up.  Former Arkansas and Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt interviewed for the South Florida job previously held by Skip Holtz on Tuesday.  Bobby Petrino supposedly spoke on the phone with Auburn, but Jay Jacobs and company reportedly made no job offer and instead inquired only about the off-the-field problems that led to his firing from Arkansas.  Cincinnati head coach, Butch Jones, was being pursued by Purdue and Colorado all weekend, but I don't see him walking into a terrible situation at Colorado (obviously, Purdue is off the table now).  Fired Kentucky head coach, Joker Phillips, got a gig pretty quickly as Will Muschamp hired him as his Wide Receivers Coach.  Phillips is known as a strong recruiter and I suspect that was Muschamp's true motive in hiring him as Florida is not really a huge passing team.  I’d imagine Wisconsin will reach out to Pittsburgh head coach (and longtime Badger assistant), Paul Chryst, despite his being adamant on Twitter that he is committed to the Panthers.  I’ll be surprised if Clemson offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, isn’t the next assistant to get a head coaching opportunity, perhaps at Tennessee, Temple, Northern Illinois, or Kent State.

I'd love to pick Mark Richt's brain.  One minute, eight seconds, and eighty-five yards to go after an Alabama punt is fair caught at the Georgia 15-yard line.  Knowing Alabama would likely be in a prevent defense so that Aaron Murray and company couldn't beat them deep and to protect the sidelines (to prevent them from stopping the clock), Mark Richt clearly instructed his quarterback to exploit the middle of the field.  Murray did just that throwing four passes to tight end Arthur Lynch on the drive.  However, how could Richt not have instructed him to "clock" the ball if he makes a first down in or near the red zone?  After hitting Lynch on a 26-yard pass to the Alabama 8-yard line with 15 seconds left, Murray rushes to the line to run another play.  The clock stops momentarily because it is a first down, and I am expecting Murray to spike the ball into the ground to stop the clock, but instead he inexplicably drops back and throws it to Chris Conley (who, by the way, dropped passes all night, it seemed) who catches it and is tackled in bounds at the 5-yard line and time expires before another play can be run.  If Murray spikes it, he has at least one shot at the end zone to take a 2-point lead if it is successful.  If it's quickly thrown and an incompletion, he likely has two shots at it.  Aaron Murray is a junior and I don't see his thinking here.  Maybe he was still the "I have to get yards" mode rather than the "Oh crap, I need to get points now" mode.  Maybe Richt didn't talk to him about it or maybe they didn't go over this scenario in practice that week.  Maybe Murray was thinking that Alabama's defense was expecting him to spike it too, and he might catch them off guard.  I know its easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but it was hard not to be a right-after-he-dropped-back quarterback in this instance.  We obviously don't know if the Bulldogs would have scored if it had been able to take a couple of shots into the end zone, but it would have been fun to see what happened.  Nevertheless, this was a great game and I think it was actually a better one than the oft-titled "Game of the Century" last November that pitted Alabama and LSU against one another in Tuscaloosa.  

Still think the Coaches Poll is a good thing?   There were two BCS at-large bids available going into the weekend and Oregon was definitely going to get one of them so Oklahoma needed to beat unranked TCU and hope that the winner of the Northern Illinois/Kent State game didn't finish in the Top 16 in the BCS.  Northern Illinois beat Kent State on Friday night and on Saturday afternoon the Sooners took care of business against the Horned Frogs.  The waiting game began after Kansas State beat Texas to ensure it shared the Big 12 title with the Sooners (a loss would have given it to Oklahoma outright) and that it would represent the conference in a BCS bowl due to having a head-to-head advantage over Bob Stoops' squad.  As we know, each of the human polls count for a third of the BCS formula.  The Coaches Poll, one I've never been a fan of for a variety of reasons, came out Sunday morning and had Northern Illinois ranked 16th (rut roh).  The final regular season Coaches Poll is fully transparent and one can see exactly how each of the voters voted.  You'll notice here that there are five Big 12 coaches with a vote in the poll and you'll notice that four of them tried to get Oklahoma the bid.  Bob Stoops, Dana Holgerson, Paul Rhodes, and Art Briles each ranked Oklahoma in the top ten (three of them as high as 6) which is higher than the Sooners were ranked in the poll the week before. They all also ranked Northern Illinois 20th or below, which is lower than the Huskies were the week before in the poll.  The only Big 12 coach that seemingly didn't get the memo was Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville who happened to rank the two teams right where they would land:  Sooners 11, Huskies 16).  Perhaps it's a coincidence that only one non-Big 12 coach ranked Oklahoma higher than 9 and NIU lower than 19th (Mark Dantonio).  I am not saying I blame these coaches for trying get Oklahoma a bid, because that BCS Bowl money would have made more money for the entire conference.  I’m not even saying that coaches in other conferences didn’t do the same at some point in the season.  Obviously, the strength of the votes coming from four people wasn't powerful enough to get what they wanted, because the Huskies are playing in the Orange Bowl, but they obviously didn't take the ranking process seriously either.  What I'm saying is that this is just one more indication that this poll has no place in determining national championship participation, or any other kind of true team comparison.  

Quote of the week: "T.J. Yeldon runs through more players than the Kardashians." -- Desmond Howard on College Gameday.

FYI: Middle Tennessee State University and Florida Atlantic will move to Conference USA in 2014 from the Sun Belt Conference.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Championship Week!

It’s championship week for most teams playing this week.  The few exceptions are the following games:  Pittsburgh/South Florida, Nicholls St./Oregon State, South Alabama/Hawaii, Cincinnati/Connecticut, New Mexico State/Texas State, and all of the Big 12 matchups (in that they don’t have a championship game anymore).  Cincinnati, with a win, can move into a four-way tie for first place in the Big East, however Louisville will win all tiebreakers (they won last night, by the way) because they all involve BCS rankings and they’ll be the highest-ranked of the four.  Oklahoma needs a win to give themselves a chance at the Big 12 title (with a K-State loss) and or a share of the title and ensure an at-large bid into a BCS game (with a K-State win). Should they both win, they’ll each have a share of the Big 12 title, but K-State would be the representative at the Fiesta Bowl by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.  Texas, even if it were to beat Kansas State, cannot win the Big 12 title due to its 3 conference losses. Pittsburgh and Connecticut are each playing for bowl eligibility as they each currently sit at 5 wins.  The Oregon State/Nicholls St. game is only being played because it was supposed to be the season opener for each team but was postponed due to Hurricane Isaac. Hawaii always plays a 13-game schedule, in fact, Bill O’Brien was considering trying to schedule Hawaii for this week the next three years as a kind de facto bowl game since his squad isn’t eligible for postseason play.  There are some tough games this week so it should be fun to watch!

1. #21 Northern Illinois vs #17 Kent State (6pm CST ESPN2 Friday):  Quarterback Jordan Lynch is having the best season no one is talking about.  He has 2750 yards passing with 23 touchdowns and 4 interceptions along with 1611 yards rushing with 16 touchdowns for the Huskies.  Northern Illinois’ only loss is a 1-point game against Iowa (4-8 this season) which was Lynch’s first start and that the Huskies led the whole way until a touchdown run by Hawkeyes running back Damon Bullock with 2:15 left.  First-year head coach Darrell Hazell, who was assistant for my Buckeyes for six years, has the Kent State Golden Flashes in a position which could potentially lead to a spot in a BCS bowl game.  If they win tonight and move into the top 16 they’ll be eligible for one because they’ll be ranked above a conference champion from an AQ conference (Big East); if they jump into the top 14 they’ll automatically go to a BCS bowl.  The Golden Flashes are led by two thousand-yard rushers, that’s right, two!  Dri Archer is averaging 9.7 yards per carry (1337 yards on the season) while Trayion Durham is averaging 4.98 yards per carry (1176 yards on the season).  Kent State’s only loss was a 34-point loss at the hands of, are you ready for this, Kentucky (2-10 this season) in Week 2.  They had a nice 12-point win against Rutgers later in the year though.  I realize it’s trite, but I think the difference in this game will be turnovers because they’re rare for both of these teams as they are both in the top 20 in the nation in turnover margin.  I give the edge to Kent State, however, because they’re tied for the best turnover margin in the nation with a ridiculous +20.  Nick Saban’s alma mater wins and will watch with crossed fingers when the rankings come out Sunday night and if Oklahoma wins (and K-State wins), the Sooners will be hoping Kent State doesn’t take their spot as an BCS at-large who will face Florida at the Sugar Bowl or the winner of the ACC Championship in the Orange Bowl.

2. #16 UCLA at #8 Stanford (7pm CST ESPN2 Fox Friday):  These two teams ended up playing a home-at home series, as they played just last year in Pasadena.  Each of these teams have had a great year that include several big wins but had seemingly inexplicable losses.  The Bruins have wins over Nebraska, USC, and a 56-point blowout over Arizona yet have a 43-17 loss to a California team that only won two other games (Southern Utah and Washington State).  The Cardinal have wins over USC, Oregon State and an overtime win over Oregon yet have a loss to 7-win Washington (who lost their rivalry game last week to lowly Washington State, by the way).  I don’t know how much we can really gather from last week’s game between these two teams because only Stanford had something to play for.  They needed a win to ensure their spot in this game while UCLA was going to be here regardless (even had the Trojans brought Notre Dame down and evened the conference record with UCLA, the Bruins had the head-to-head tiebreaker).  It was almost to the Bruins benefit to lose last week as a win would have all but ensured they’d have met the Oregon Ducks today and I don’t think anyone wants to play the Ducks when a trip to the Rose Bowl is on the line.  So I don’t think Jim Mora, Jr. really played his hand as he normally would have.  Mora will expect a big game from senior running back Johnathon Franklin (1506 yards rushing this season) as he had a mediocre outing last week (only the third time this season he averaged less than 4 yards a carry).  On the other hand, ask Notre Dame how good Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor is as a controversial no touchdown call in overtime left the Fighting Irish’s record unblemished.  I think it will come down to who does a better job of stopping the run tonight because both quarterbacks have been playing well and really aren’t prone to a lot of turnovers (they’ve combined for just five picks since Kevin Hogan took over for Stanford on 11/3).  Given that Stanford lead the nation in least amount of rushing yards allowed (71.42 yards per game) and the Bruins allow double that amount, I think the edge goes to Stanford.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Mora dials up a more aggressive air attack this week, planning to throw it more than 40 times, to try to expose the Cardinal secondary, but I don’t think he’ll get that opportunity as Taylor and the Cardinal will eat up a lot of clock (they average nearly 32 minutes a game in time of possession). Stanford to the Rose Bowl.

3. #2 Alabama vs. #3 Georgia (3pm CST CBS):  This may be one of the toughest games I’ve picked all season just because these teams are pretty similar.  Both teams have a two-player rushing attack that has gained over 1800 yards.  Georgia’s freshman tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (AKA “Gershall) have rushed for 1858 yards while Alabama’s Thunder and Lightning tandem of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon have rushed for 1847 yards.  Both quarterbacks are traditional drop-back style players as they each average less than 5 rush attempts a game.  Both defenses put a lot of responsibility on their corners in both the passing and running game.  Where they differ mainly is Alabama’s secondary is fairly young with the exception of senior Robert Lester (who, by the way, seems like he’s been there forever doesn’t he?) while Georgia’s secondary is made up almost entirely of seniors with the exception of two-way player Malcolm Mitchell (who also leads the Bulldogs in receptions).  This Alabama defense is not your typical Nick Saban squad because there’s one seemingly glaring missing piece -- a star linebacker.  C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest, and Nico Johnson are all good players, but they’re not in the mold of a Rolando McClain or Dont'a Hightower.  Georgia’s Jarvis Jones seems like that kind of guy to me, however.  He has 19.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.  If he, Kwame Geathers, and Garrison Smith can put some pressure on A.J. McCarron it could spell trouble.  Especially given that one of his deep threats, Kenny Bell, has been sidelined.  I’d give safety help over the top on Amari Cooper’s side of the field all night.  Saban is killing freshman wide receiver Chris Black’s redshirt to play in this game.  He’s been out with a shoulder injury all season but has been practicing for the last three weeks.  Black was a star recruit alongside Cooper last offseason and is said to have great speed and leaping ability.  I doubt he’ll start, because I expect Kevin Norwood, who I think people have kind of forgotten about, to make a great contribution this week since I expect Cooper to get a lot of attention.  Don’t be surprised either if both tight ends for these teams make key plays.  Arthur Lynch (UGA) and Michael Williams (UA) combine for merely 37 catches, but I think that’s exactly why offensive coordinators, Bobo and Nussmeier, will include them somewhere in the game plan.  I think this game comes down to not just turnovers, but who makes the first turnover.  I think the first team to get a takeaway will likely win this game because I think that’s what will spark the lead.  Alabama has committed 13 turnovers this season and Georgia has 16 and I think that’s exactly the margin of victory, 3,  Alabama walks away with the chance to compete in its third national championship game in four years.

4. #13 Florida State vs. Georgia Tech (7pm CST ESPN):  You’ll notice Georgia Tech is unranked and that is because they are 6-6.  The only reason they are playing in this game is because both North Carolina and Miami are ineligible for postseason play (Miami self-imposed again this season).  Although, in fairness, neither of them are ranked either.  Georgia Tech has been granted a bowl waiver by the NCAA which will allow them to play in a bowl even if they lose this game and end up with a losing record (much like UCLA last season and the commish of the MAC was upset and I don’t blame him).  An oddity about the Tech is that they are third in the nation in rushing (which is normal for a triple-option team) yet don’t have a player in the top 100 in rushing yards.  They have six players with at least 380 yards rushing!  That’s good news given that Florida State just allowed 5.2 yards per carry and 244 total yards rushing to Florida last week. Also good news for them is that FSU hasn’t faced a triple-option team this season, even within their powderpuff non-conference schedule (Georgia didn’t make that mistake), so the difficulty of replicating the triple-option in practice is an advantage.  What works against the Yellow Jackets, however, is that it probably won’t matter.  FSU has what I think is the second-best defensive end tandem in the country (behind JaDeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor) with Bjoern Werner and Cornellius “Tank” Carradine who combine for 31 tackles for loss.  I think E.J. Manuel is one of the most overrated quarterbacks in the country and the only chance Georgia Tech has of winning this game is if Manuel throws a pick or two early that lead to points and then kill clock with the triple-option.  He’s thrown 5 in the last three games (3 last week) but Tech has only intercepted 12 balls all season and 4 of them were in two games (2 against Virginia and 2 against Clemson).  I know the Orange Bowl is hoping there isn’t an upset in this game because they’d hate to have to promote a matchup that includes a team with 6 losses.  I don’t think they’ll have to worry, (the Rose bowl might be tense, though), because this should be a Seminoles blowout.  Florida State wins!

5. #12 Nebraska vs. Wisconsin (7:17pm CST Fox):  Eerily similar to the FSU/GT game, Wisconsin would not be playing in this game if it weren’t for two teams above it, Ohio State and Penn State, being ineligible for postseason play.  Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten Championship game last year, so it has to feel odd to them to have to back in to earn a spot this season.  Wisconsin will have a chance to pull in its second consecutive Grange-Griffin Most Valuable Player Trophy after Russell Wilson won it last year.  These two teams have played already this season with Nebraska winning by three after coming back from a 20-3 deficit.  Quarterback Taylor Martinez took the team on his back in that game with 288 total yards and 3 touchdowns.  Montee Ball did most of the work for the Badgers carrying it 32 times for 90 yards and 3 touchdowns.  The Badgers have not looked great this year but they are coming off back-to-back overtime losses to Ohio State and Penn State and how they were able to stay in those games was keeping the ball away from the opposing teams.  They kept the ball for an amazing 37 minutes, with 1 turnover and only three penalties against the Buckeyes and for 32 minutes, with 1 turnover and only four turnovers against the Nittany Lions.  Montee Ball is back to his old self having rushed for at least 100 yards in six of his last seven games and at least 190 yards in three of those (sadly, one of those was against my poor-tackling Buckeyes).  Nebraska’s only two losses are six-point to UCLA in Week 2 and a 25-point loss to the Buckeyes, outside of those two games they’ve played pretty well.  Taylor Martinez is quietly having another solid season with over 3300 total yards and 29 touchdowns.  The Huskers are coming off a pretty ugly (we can call it a defensive matchup if we like) in which there 463 total yards for both teams combined!  There 4 turnovers and the teams combined for 9-29 third down conversions.  Believe it or not, I think that is just what the Huskers needed going into this game -- a grind-a-win-out kind of game.  It will be a grind against the big offensive line and running game of Montee Ball, but Wisconsin is on their third quarterback (senior Curt Phillips) so I don’t think the Badgers will be airing it out.  He hasn’t thrown for 200 yards in a game yet.  I think this will be a close game, which will make those at the Rose Bowl a little nervous because they don’t want to have a 5-loss team in their bowl game anymore than the Orange Bowl would want a 6-loss team in theirs.  Wouldn’t it be something if both happened? Neither will happen, however, because Nebraska will squeak out a victory in the fourth quarter.  Nebraska wins!