Thursday, August 21, 2008

CFN Archives: Old Monday Morning Quarterback Columns, Second Installment - 2006 Season

2006 Regular Season

Week One: September 4, 2006

In the season premiere of this column--which is devoted to play-calling and game strategy--can you possibly guess what we're going to discuss after the first weekend of play? It's a toughie, isn't it? Yes, it had to tax the brain, but after many wrenching hours of mental anguish, this columnist decided to focus on the new rules concerning the clock and game restarts after changes of possession. A tremendously difficult decision, I know.

In all seriousness, we're going to be dealing with the consequences of this rule adjustment throughout the year, and the ways in which coaches adjust to this rule (or not) will surely decide a number of close ballgames. Even more importantly, the rules will magnify certain strengths while devaluing other strengths, altering the strategic calculus of football throughout the 2006 season. We're going to have a lot to talk about each week in this column over the following 13 football weekends (and in the bowl games as well).

Where to begin? Let's just throw out some situations from the past weekend of play that magnified the importance of the clock rule changes.In the Michigan-Vanderbilt game, we saw the need to have your offense ready to snap the ball when it comes off the sideline after a change of possession. Michigan got back the ball with 1:14 left in the first half, but the Wolverines' unprepared offense didn't snap the ball on its first (down) play until 1:01 remained on the clock. Before a two-minute-drill drive had even started, 13 precious seconds had vanished. Two-minute drives will force teams and coaches to be especially attentive and alert all season long.

Another interesting situation came in the "endgame" phase of the Rutgers-North Carolina contest in Chapel Hill. (The "endgame" phase of a game is, just to be clear, the portion of the proceedings when the handling of timeouts, delay of game penalties, and clock/field position-based considerations helps magnify or reduce a team's given set of options. The amount of options teams have is often decisive in the endgame phase of a college football battle.) Rutgers intercepted UNC to take over with 1:11 left in the game, and up by five points. Carolina had two timeouts at the time. Under the old clock rules, UNC could have called timeouts AFTER the first- and second-down plays and--with a stop on third down--gotten the ball back with roughly 20-25 seconds left. Assuming Rutgers had run the ball on all three plays, the first two plays would have brought the clock down from 1:11 to the one-minute mark. The third-down running play would have burned the 25-second play clock plus the 10-15 seconds it takes to run a play and then spot the ball. That's a total of 35-40 seconds, which--subtracted from 60 seconds, would leave 20-25 seconds on the clock.

But under 2006 clock rules, the starting of the clock BEFORE the first-down snap effectively ended the ballgame. UNC--or any team in an equivalent position--had to call a timeout before the first-down snap in order to save an additional 25 seconds. Guess what? If the old rules would have left UNC with 20-25 seconds on the clock, the new rules--under basic math--left UNC with zero seconds. So, according to the new math of endgame clock management, if you want to get the ball back with at least 30 seconds on the clock, you need to have all three of your timeouts if the time remaining is in the area of 1:15-1:30. With just under two minutes left, you need at least two timeouts to get the ball back with at least 30 seconds left. And if the clock stands just under 2:30 in the fourth quarter, you need to have at least one timeout left, believe it or not, if you want to have a chance to get the ball back with any remotely appreciable amount of time remaining. If you're out of timeouts with 2:30 left, your opponent--if smart--will burn the 25 seconds that will elapse BEFORE the first-down snap, and run the ball three times to use up a bare minimum of 2:20, if not the whole ball of wax. This is the brave new world of endgame management.

Another unique situation arose in the USC-Arkansas game. With 12 seconds left in the first quarter, the Hogs took over deep in their own territory. Under the old clock rules, the Razorbacks would have had to run at least one scrimmage play from the shadow of their own end zone. Under the new rules, though, the Hogs could stay on the sideline, not even go out to the field to run a play, and spend extra time preparing for their offensive series during the end-of-quarter timeout. Now, to be sure, this did not have any big effect on the Trojans-Hogs game, but this situation is important to remember because it will eventually crop up in a wind-dominated game where it's extremely important to head in a given direction on the football field. A team going against the wind in the soon-to-end quarter will receive a get-out-of-jail free card, while the team with the wind will have to call a timeout BEFORE the first-down snap if it wants to force its opponent to run yet another play from scrimmage against the wind.

See how much fun we're going to have with these new clock rules throughout this season?

But that's not all, of course. Beyond specific situations, the clock rules--given that they'll reduce games by several real-time minutes and dozens of snaps--will also play into the run-pass ratios of coaches, depending on their team strengths and team goals. Early in the season, the clock rules will have a lot to do with the ways coaches try to bring along new quarterbacks.

Here's the explanation: if I'm a coach of a rebuilding program, especially a program in which the offensive system/package is brand new, I want my offense and my quarterback to get as many live-game reps as possible early in the season during the non-conference portion of my schedule. With the clock able to burn extra minutes off a game's length in 2006, I will therefore want to call a higher percentage of pass plays than I normally would in other seasons. In this one season, I will want games to be extended so that my offense can do as much situational learning as possible. This can only be done by passing the ball. If I use the kind of run-pass mix that most football coaches still view to be ideal, I'm going to have a very short game. Even more urgently, if I can't stop my opponent's ground game, the proceedings could end in under three hours of real time, with my offense not getting on the field often enough to develop any rhythm, an unmitigated disaster. If I want to grow a young offense that needs seasoning, I will have to pass the ball more than I normally would. That's one big change necessitated by the new clock rules.

On a smaller scale, the new clock rules will have profound implications not just for "building a program" or "developing an offense," but for single-game strategies. If my team is equipped to run and stop the run, I will want to lean on those strengths even more under the new clock rules. If my team can run but can't stop the run on defense, I will have to empty my playbook in the first quarter to try to ensure that I can get the lead and put a little extra pressure on my opponent. Then, with a lead, I can trust my own ground game while perhaps forcing my opponent to pass the ball more than it would like to. If my team can stop the run but can't run the ball itself, I probably don't have to fundamentally alter the way I call plays and formulate my game plan: I know that my defense can prevent my opponent from draining the clock, so I don't need to worry about a drastically shortened game. I can stick with my pass-first offense. And, finally, if I can't run or stop the run (never a good place to be), I will strategically and emotionally impress upon my players the absolute necessity of gaining an early lead. If my team is not the kind of team that can play a shortened game with fewer snaps, I have to adjust strategy to the extent that my team is both motivated and tactically ready to gain a lead and build on it. Coming from behind has become exponentially more difficult under the new clock rules, so coaches must instill even more of a sense of urgency among their players this season. It will be that much harder for a team to play the kind of "switch-flipping" football in 2006 that UCLA, for example, displayed in 2005. (And you had better hold onto all three timeouts until the final minutes if you're locked in a tight game!)

Quick Hitters From The Weekend's Action

Let's be reasonable about the David Cutcliffe lovefest, okay? Make no mistake: Cutcliffe had Erik Ainge a lot more relaxed and prepared, and certainly, the move has already paid off for Phil Fulmer and Tennessee. But let's not think Ainge has fully arrived; equally so, let's not think Cutcliffe has this offense where it needs to be. There are two words that desperately need to be injected into the larger discussion about Tennessee's offensive quality at this point in the young season: Syd'Quan Thompson. That's right--Tennessee's offense profited largely from the ineptitude of the young California cornerback who didn't have a clue on the Neyland Stadium turf Saturday evening. With two horrible plays, Thompson turned 10-yard catches into game-breakers. And after those two touchdowns, the rest of Cal's defense simply quit.

One thing that has to be understood about almost any sport, except for a purely individual sport such as golf, is that the quality of performance--if evaluated fairly, objectively and reasonably--is partly a product of the opponent's efforts. This is quite true even in a sport like tennis, which is an individual sport but is nevertheless a sport in which the individual athlete plays off an opponent who demands and calls forth a given set of actions and adjustments during a competition. Andre Agassi's second-round match at the U.S. Open last week wouldn't have been special if Andre hadn't had a gifted opponent on the order of Marcos Baghdatis to make the proceedings that much more compelling. Roger Federer's tennis matches against Rafael Nadal are special because Nadal calls forth skills from Federer that the Swiss superstar rarely has to use against other players. Almost all athletic competitions are partly framed not just by the individual athlete or team, but by their opponent.

With that said, then, Tennessee played a solid football game on Saturday, but its opponent--like it or not--detracted from Tennessee's performance by bringing nothing to the ballpark. Cal was putrid, and there's no getting around it. That's not a knock on Tennessee, just an undeniable reality. If Tennessee is to be heralded as a great team, the Vols need to step up and beat Florida on Sept. 16... and even then, that's assuming Chris Leak can elevate his game in a make-or-break, career-defining season. Tennessee is solid, and David Cutcliffe made some notable improvements. But let's not think the Vols' offensive coordinator is a genius just because a young-pup Golden Bear cornerback had a disastrous night in Knoxville. Hold off on the hosannahs until after the Gators have been beaten, and then you can claim to deserve a lofty ranking. That's quite fair, even if it outwardly seems to be a bit harsh.

That was Michigan's "new-look" offense against Vanderbilt? I think the point spread for the Notre Dame-Michigan game on Sept. 16 just went up a touchdown in favor of the Irish. Now, to be fair to Lloyd Carr, though, the Michigan head coach--who, like all other coaches, deserves just and equitable treatment from this writer--made a wonderful strategic decision to go for a first down on 4th and short with 3:15 left in the third quarter of the Vanderbilt game. This bold decision--showing trust in an offense that needed to generate momentum--represented an accurate reading of his team and its needs. The decision was rewarded with a first down that led to a game-breaking touchdown. Nice job, Lloyd, on that call. But on a larger level, your offense has some major work to do before going to South Bend, your personal house of horrors over the years.

Finally, a word in defense of all offensive coordinators in week one of a football season. Without the benefit of a preseason game, and taking into account the youthfulness of the players involved, it makes more and more sense--with each passing year--why coordinators keep game plans so simple, and passing games so horizontal, in season openers. Young quarterbacks--even those returning for a second season--need simplicity in early-season games in order to thrive. The game has to slow down for a quarterback, and a conceptually simple game plan allows that to happen, at least to some extent. In the volatile world of early-season September football--which is a very different animal from October and November conference play--merely weeding out mistakes and turnovers usually proves to be the difference (whereas in October and November, you need to make more big plays instead of merely avoiding the bad stuff). As a result, coordinators need to put their QBs in situations where they can be effective and ball-secure at the same time. Look at USC. The Trojans and co-coordinators Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian gave John David Booty a very manageable game plan. Booty didn't throw vertically, but he didn't need to, either. This USC offense--with a new quarterback playing his very first game in a loud SEC stadium--was a lot like the offense that didn't blow the doors off the joint, but which was very effective, in a 23-0 Trojan in at Auburn in 2003. That game proved to be a nice, solid, confidence-building springboard for a kid named Matt Leinart. Seems that Booty had very much the same kind of start. Simplicity has been golden for USC quarterbacks in career-opening games in SEC stadiums. Proof that a game-one game plan should not try to overthink or overextend.

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Week Two: September 11, 2006

The gutsy coaches are the winning coaches in college football, and this past weekend offered ample evidence to further support that contention.

This was talked about in the offseason: Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis led USC and Notre Dame to lofty heights in 2005 because they displayed unusual boldness in big situations while trusting their offense to make plays. Carroll and Weis are on the cutting edge as football decision makers because they have recognized, far more than anyone else, that college football is an emotion-based game where opportunities are precious, momentum is king, and points must be collected as often as possible. Economists at Berkeley have studied the habits of college football coaches, and they've determined that "drop back five and punt" is used far too reflexively as a football strategy. Conservatism doesn't belong on a college gridiron.

Anyone doubting the wisdom of these statements (or Berkeley economists, or both) needs to consider what transpired this past weekend, as the coaches with intestinal fortitude were the ones whose teams usually prevailed.

Since most of America doesn't watch college football night games on the West Coast, let's start with a game that ended after 1 a.m. Eastern time: the Oregon-Fresno State donnybrook in the Valley. If you didn't watch that wild affair, here's what you need to know: Oregon, in a tied game on the road, faked a 21-yard field goal with just under five minutes left. The fake acquired the form of an option play that was perfectly executed by backup quarterback Brady Leaf, who sold the keeper and sucked in the pitch man before making a late toss to kicker Paul Martinez, who strolled in for an easy score. The point was not that the Ducks executed the play perfectly--though that always reflects positively on the play callers and decision makers involved--but that Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti had the guts to make the call, along with the foresight to understand that the rewards of the play exceeded the risks of a failed fake.

Had Oregon kicked that chip-shot field goal, a few things about the game (then a 24-all tie) would have been different. First, Fresno would have been able to tie the game with a field goal. Secondly, the knowledge that Fresno stopped Oregon inside the 5 would have given the Bulldogs fresh momentum in a back-and-forth battle. Bellotti's bold genius lay in the fact that he noted the connection between scoreboard leverage and emotional momentum. His fake field goal wasn't just a matter of trying to lead by seven points instead of three; it was also an attempt to rob Fresno State of the ability to claim that they stopped his offense. Bellotti saw that he could not only assume a command position on the scoreboard with a touchdown, but also deflate the Bulldogs and their rabid hometown fans. The fact that Fresno never made a stiff challenge in the final 4:55 only served to reinforce the correctness of Bellotti's decision, not to mention the quality of his instincts. Boldness paid off for an Oregon team that, should it knock off Oklahoma on "Showdown Saturday," deserves a spot in the top 10.

There were other examples of bold play calling from the past weekend. It would be hard to overlook the gutsy decision by Akron head coach J.D. Brookhart to go for the touchdown and the win on the final play of regulation against North Carolina State. With the ball outside the one-yard line with three seconds left in a game they trailed by a field goal, the Zips didn't have to get a mere inch; they needed a yard and a half, and in situations like that, the proverbial "book" says that you kick a field goal and go to overtime. But Brookhart did what the coach of any underdog should do (home or away) when confronted with a decision in which he can kick for a tie or go for the win in the final moments of regulation. (This can apply to a team down by three, and it can also apply to a team down by one and mulling over a two-point conversion.)

It's really strange, when you stop and think about it: coaches of underdog football teams are always saying, "let's give ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter." This is said ad nauseam by football coaches; it's an ingrained part of their vocabulary. Why, then, are coaches so conservative? It only stands to reason that if you want your team to have a chance in the fourth quarter, you should USE that chance when you have it. If you're an underdog team, you should completely and unreservedly welcome the opportunity to have the outcome of the game rest on one play from your offense (where you get to be proactive, not reactive, as a decision maker) from the three-yard line (for a two-point play) or anywhere close to that. Brookhart went for the whole ball of wax inside the 2, and it paid off for his team.

To be honest and balanced about all this, it must be said that one bold decision from the weekend did not meet with success. Air Force's Fisher DeBerry, when down 31-30 to Tennessee inside the 1:30 mark of regulation, went for two instead of kicking the PAT for a tie. All one can say is that if you're the head coach of Air Force going into Knoxville to play a team that dismantled Cal the previous week, you'd be ecstatic about the prospect of being able to take the lead with one play from the 3 in the final buck-30 of play. DeBerry did what any coach worth his keep should have done. That the decision didn't work out should not take away from the virtue of the decsion itself.

In the big picture, after all, the bold coaches usually turned out to be the winning coaches. And on the other side of the coin, the passive coaches usually lost, as Syracuse's Greg Robinson kicked a 19-yard field goal in the first overtime stanza of his downtrodden team's loss to a vulnerable Iowa ballclub. If Robinson really wanted to jump start his team's season--not to mention his program's long-term fortunes--he would have gone for the brass ring and inspired his players to perform better. But by kicking a field goal from the Iowa 2, Robinson reinforced the idea that his offense isn't trusted to succeed, and that he really doesn't expect much from his offense. No wonder the Orange can't score points, and no wonder SU quarterback coach Major Applewhite up and left after one year in upstate New York to go to Rice (that haven of offensive proficiency and gridiron excellence).

Boldness wins, passivity loses in college football. Pass it on. (Or run it--your choice.)

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Week Three: September 18, 2006

In this week's issue, we give you (almost) every imaginable line of analysis and insight on the Oklahoma-Oregon game, an individual event so crowded with details and fascinating subplots that it would take a book to do it justice. You'll have to settle for a feature-length column instead.

Where to start in an attempt to put this game in proper perspective? This is easily the hardest game of 2006 to analyze in a balanced fashion, and it stands a good chance of maintaining that distinction for the rest of the season. It's that complicated. This is the 2006 version of last year's Texas Tech-Nebraska game, which was the hardest game to accurately and evenly analyze in 2005.

Let's start with the most relevant element of Sooners-Ducks: the onside kick. Plainly put, there was zero doubt that: A) an Oregon player touched the ball first; and B) said Oregon player touched the ball before it traveled ten yards. Oklahoma fans claim that the Sooners eventually wound up with the ball, but that was inconclusive: given the limited time frame ABC cameras devoted to replays of that sequence, we never got to see a full shot of either team definitively possessing the ball. The best determination this writer could make was that Oregon quickly recovered the ball, but perhaps only for an instant; the ball squirted loose in the pile, after which Oklahoma recovered it. The officials hovering over the pile clearly removed a number of Oklahoma players, and found two Oregon players at the bottom of the pile. All in all, evidence here is sketchy and contradictory. It could have been that Oregon legitimately possessed the ball and that the Sooners quickly pulled it away in the pile. However, it also could have been reasoned that Oregon never fully possessed the ball, and that Oklahoma legitimately emerged from the pile with the pigskin. The one thing that does seem clear, though, is that the Pac-10 officiating crew--so preoccupied with the legality of the touching of the onside kick--was not as focused as it should have been. That's the immediate summary of the onside kick as it was seen on television.

The larger and much more important debate about the onside kick, though, is a debate that's worth having in football circles: where is the point when bad officiating (and bad replay evaluating) becomes something more than mere "bad luck," and winds up tainting the outcome of a game in a manner akin to a gambling fix or a stolen election? The point of this question is not to promote conspiracy theories; any suggestions that referees or conference commissioners are somehow "on the take" is irresponsible, grossly unfair, and mean-spirited. The point of the above question is to draw an important distinction between losses that are due to bad luck, and losses in which a team is truly robbed. Since pass interference is a judgment call, one can say that LSU received "bad luck" against Auburn, but that the outcome wasn't "tainted." However, it sure seems that Oklahoma didn't just get a bad break; the Sooners fell under the category of teams that got robbed in broad daylight. This opens up a larger discussion about officiating and luck in college football.

One must remember, at the outset, that in this and any other complicated football discussion, reasonable people can see the same reality and draw distinctly different conclusions. This is why opinions cannot, should not, and must not be viewed as expressions of personal disrespect or (worse) hatred. An opinion on anything related to a football game will inevitably cut in favor of one team and against another; opinions inevitably divide any given audience or community. One cannot give opinions for a living without saying things that some people will disagree with. It's impossible.

It's this columnist's verdict, then, that of all the plays which an officiating crew and replay team must get right, an onside kick is at the very top of the list. This doesn't mean Oregon fans should feel disrespected; equally so, it doesn't mean Oklahoma fans should feel catered to. This has been a longstanding and personal view of mine over many years, and college football finally delivered a game in which the magnitude of an onsides kick was revealed.

Mature college football fans should have at least a general framework in which there's a hierarchy of injustices or situations that affect games. Smart fans will acknowledge that some blown calls are worse than others, and that some situations are more serious than others. Blown judgment calls (products of rule interpretation or points of emphasis) aren't nearly as bad as blown calls that are purely a matter of "sight" or "accurate vision." Similarly, blown calls on a first-down play in the second quarter aren't nearly as bad as blown calls on an onside kick at the end of a game.

The belief that Oklahoma got robbed--and the corresponding view that the Pac-10 replay team should be fired (and the officiating crew reprimanded)--comes from these kinds of calculations. The central question about the onsides kick was not a rule interpretation, but a matter of sight. That a replay crew couldn't see what was so obvious is what makes this a particularly galling and outrageous occurrence. The fact that this occurred on an onside kick only makes the incident that much more intolerable. Some injustices are much worse than others, and that simple truth needs to be remembered by any and all people who have a strong opinion about the way this game was decided.

Moving on in our discussion of Sooners-Ducks, the onside kick and the wild finish in Eugene provide a great case study for many other elements of football analysis. Among the timely and relevant questions that have been asked by Sooner and Duck fans in the wake of the game, one would do well to ponder these offerings:

1) Did Oklahoma's defense collapse? 2) Did Bob Stoops coach poorly in the game's final minutes? 3) Why no credit given to Oregon for the finish? 4) Wasn't the game played on even terms, making the unpredictable ending a matter of luck and not injustice? 5) Why has the media not been much more forceful in emphasizing the nature of the outrage here?

Let's tackle these one by one. On question one, the answer is an emphatic NO. Oklahoma's defense, in fact, was the unit that saved the Sooners on Saturday. After buckling early on, the Sooners limited Oregon to 10 points in 51 minutes, before the final 80 seconds witnessed 14 quick points for the Ducks. While Paul Thompson and Adrian Peterson slowly but steadily found their footing, the OU defense--with dramatically increased toughness--rattled Dennis Dixon and knocked Oregon's own spread option off balance. When the game hung in the balance late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, OU's defense made key plays to cement an advantage for the Sooners. This isn't a defense that collapsed; it was responsible for the Sooners being in position to win in the first place. And as for the final, winning touchdown scored by Oregon? Well, let's put it this way: I dare you to play your best as a 20-year-old man after seeing an emotional turnaround (and a legitimately bad call that was not overturned) go against your team. That was not a normal football situation; the emotions were so intense that they should not be held against the Sooners' defense.

That might be an incomplete and unsatisfying answer, but it relates to question two, which will fill in a lot of blanks. To answer that query, Bob Stoops did not coach poorly in the final minutes of play. Whenever "endgame strategy" is being discussed, it's this writer's opinion that if the leading coach can set up the game so that the other team must recover an onside kick in order to have a chance, he's doing his job, and doing it well. Think about it: an onside kick is very low-percentage play in which you need a kicker to manipulate the pigskin in a very weird way... and get the right bounce... to recover it. If a team must get two scores in the final minutes, and lacks enough timeouts to stop the clock and get the ball back the traditional way--by forcing a punt--that team is at a huge strategic disadvantage. Accordingly so, it is a huge tactical advantage to know that if you give up a late score, you can still win the game merely by pouncing on a kick and taking a knee once or twice.

Gary Danielson, in his brilliant commentary on the Florida-Tennessee game for CBS on Saturday, made the very astute observation that the new clock rules have created NFL-style priorities in late-game clock management. Indeed, milking the clock is now much more of a need than it ever used to be in college football. With all this having been said, then, Stoops was entirely correct to make sure the clock wound down, even if it meant that he didn't take as many risks near the Oregon goal line as he could have. With just under three minutes left, it became very likely that Oregon was going to have to recover an onside kick to have any chance of winning. The only way OU's defense could have collapsed would have been if the Sooners had enabled Oregon to score early enough to get the ball back without having to use an onside kick. But since the Sooners achieved this important tactical advantage in the endgame phase of the contest, their defense didn't collapse, and Stoops coached well.

On question three, the answer comes from two sources. The first source is something we've been talking about: namely, that Oregon's first of two late touchdowns (to make the game 33-27) wasn't tremendously impressive because the Sooners still had strategic leverage. If Oregon had won this game by scoring with 2:30 left, forcing an OU punt, and then taking the ball downfield, THAT would have represented an awesome finish. The second source is a simple fact: if the replay booth makes the proper evaluation and sight determination, the game is over right then and there. Moreover, it should have been.

On question four, it must be said that this game--while played on even terms for just over three full quarters--got broken open by the Sooners in the fourth quarter. After the Ducks tied the game at 20, the next five possessions went like this: Sooner touchdown (27-20), Duck interception, Sooner field goal (30-20), Duck interception, Sooner field goal (33-20). OU--who trailed 10-0 before anyone's seat was warm in Eugene--outscored Oregon 33-10 over the next 51 minutes to gain a 13-point lead on the road with under three minutes left. If this level of dominance was achieved on a neutral field, one could perhaps argue; but since OU--intimidated in the first seven minutes of play--could regroup in a tough stadium and bring the hammer to the Ducks represents a clear level of superiority. Oregon gained 500 yards against OU? Well, that's nice, but we should know by now that yards are grossly overrated in football, and points quite underrated. The Ducks moved the ball a lot, but with four turnovers, Oregon obviously wasted a lot of their yards and squandered a lot of their drives. That's not a function of dominance. Anyone notice how Chris Simms of the Tampa Bay Bucs threw for 353 yards on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons? He got to throw for that many yards because his team was always behind, and his team was always behind because Simms threw three picks. Yards are often accompanied by turnovers--they're a very empty statistic. OU was scoring almost all the points for a span of more than 45 minutes (or three whole quarters), and the Sooners did what few September road opponents have ever been able to do in Autzen Stadium. This game was even... for roughly 48 minutes. OU dominated the money quarter before the criminal conclusion to the proceedings. Speaking of criminal...

...What about question five? It's a darn good one. There are plenty of occasions when the use of the word "controversial" is journalistically appropriate. This ties into the previous discussion about blown calls that are matters of judgment (as opposed to blown calls that are simply matters of seeing the play and making a sight-based identification). After all, the word "controversial" means "disputatious" or "debatable." If a controversial call is made, that means the nature of the call--and perhaps the outcome that emerges from it--is thrown into question. This, as one can see, is very different from knowing--based on sight and no rule interpretations whatsoever--that a call is clearly and undeniably BAD. A bad call is not a controversial call; a bad call is beyond debate or questioning. Therefore, it truly is mystifying and puzzling as to why the national media--on this and other occasions when a truly bad call affects the outcome of a big game--chooses to use the word "controversial." Oklahoma fans are right to make such a point on this specific occasion; however, it should also be said to Sooner fans that in their team's game against Texas Tech from November of 2005, the final play on the goal line was indeed a "controversial play," since one could have interpreted (the rule in question was a somewhat elastic one) that Tech's Taurean Henderson did not have his forward progress stopped and never touched the ground with a knee or any other body part that would have rendered him "down." All in all, though, the media should be much more forceful and honest in its coverage when a truly bad call (not a controversial call) affects the outcome of a game.

The final element of Sooners-Ducks concerns the behavior of fans in response to an emotionally heated game that is tainted. Sooner fans, if I may be so bold as to say so, lay off Duck fans who aren't apologizing for Oregon's win. One must understand that in sports, the worst and most uncomfortable place to be is the mind of a fan whose team won in a tainted way. Part of being a sports fan requires an ability to accept defeat, especially when your team receives bad luck. On the other side of the coin, though, sports fans sometimes have to deal with an even more difficult dynamic: learning to accept a victory that wasn't truly earned (this was one of those very rare occasions), or an accomplishment that winds up being tarnished. Think of life as a San Francisco Giants baseball fan: you might hate what Barry Bonds has done, but Bonds is inextricably connected to the Giants' overall fortunes, and so by forsaking Bonds, one would also forsake the Giants as a whole. San Franciscans, understandably, can't do that, and I don't blame them. They love their baseball team... and they want to beat the Dodgers in a big way. Rooting against Barry Bonds--while noble and pure--would unavoidably interfere with their ability to support their team.

One should be able to understand, then, that Oregon fans are in a similarly impossible situation here. Duck fans, after all, got screwed out of an appearance in the 2002 Rose Bowl (for the 2001 national title) against Miami, and they got shafted in last year's BCS bowl derby in favor of Notre Dame, whose political muscle and leverage made a 9-2 record trump Oregon's 10-1 mark. Fans--rightfully so--will look at tainted victories and see them as the repayment for prior occasions in which their team got robbed. Oklahoma fans are left to lament the fact that a Duck fan's "evening out of the scales" came at the Sooners' expense. There's a lot of righteous anger and appropriate outrage to go around here, Sooner fans; but Duck fans should be spared here. Let Oregon supporters enjoy a lucky occurrence after past events in which the Ducks got unfairly treated; instead, OU fans should direct their anger to the NCAA, the Pac-10 Conference, and to the media for soft-pedaling the story.

That's about as complete an overview of Oklahoma-Oregon as one could possibly give without writing a Russian novel. And if you don't like some of the opinions voiced here? Well, you can't say you didn't get a legitimate explanation, and secondly, opinions are rarely personal in the first place. The ultimate hope is that a review of a very complicated football game will make all of you, dear readers, better and more objective football analysts.

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Week Four: September 25, 2006

Without huge games or loads of exciting finishes, this is the kind of week that lends itself to a large sampler platter of small notes and observations on the world of football strategy.

* Mark Richt's quarterback switch was brilliant not because there's anything about Joe Cox that makes him inherently better than Matthew Stafford, but because a QB switch is often nothing more than a psychological device. Playing for a new quarterback will sometimes shame an offensive line (and an entire offensive unit) into action, and that's exactly what happened for Georgia against Colorado on Saturday. Cox's winning throw was truly something special, but other than that play, he didn't make eye-popping plays; he merely ran the offense and threw a mix of short passes--many of them screens--that were sold and blocked with precision and vigor. The move achieved its desired goal: getting the team to play harder and better. Psychology is king in this sport, and Mark Richt showed that his own mind is attentive to the minds of his fragile youngsters. They needed that kind of a decision to wake them up, and Richt made it just in time.

* Mike Shula was, in many ways, sabotaged and taken down by a psychologically wounded placekicker on Saturday, as Leigh Tiffin didn't follow in the footsteps of Dad against Arkansas. But this doesn't mean Shula should escape blame. First of all, if his kicking game was that fragile--much as Clemson's kicking game stunk at Florida State the week before--Shula should have done everything possible to win the game without the need for a kick, which--by the way--is exactly what Tommy Bowden did against his father in Tallahassee on Sept. 16. Shula should not have played for a field goal in the first overtime, then. Secondly, though, if he wanted to play for the field goal and go about his business the right way (pun not intended), Shula should have accounted for the fact that Tiffin was pushing his kicks to the right. He could have done this in two possible ways: A) he could have had the kick placed on the far-left hashmark, so that Tiffin could push his kick to the right and split the uprights; B) Shula could have had the ball placed on the far-right hashmark, so that Tiffin would have to pull the ball and ditch his propensity to push the pigskin to the right. But what Bama wound up with was an angle placement between the middle of the field and the left goalpost. It was precisely the kind of "tweener" location that forced Tiffin to have to push the ball a little to the right; therefore, it played into Tiffin's psychological wound and the mechanical deficiency in his kicking style. If you're going to errantly settle for a field goal when your kicker is struggling (and your offense is wearing down Arkansas), you might as well settle in a sensible way. Shula didn't, and while his team quieted the Arkansas crowd down the stretch with generally better play, his Crimson Tide left Fayetteville with nothing to show for it.

* When Michigan hits vertical passes for big plays, the Wolverines excel. When they dink and dunk, they look downright ordinary. Mike DeBord should take note after the up-and-down win over Wisconsin that was cemented by big pass plays.

* John David Booty isn't turning the ball over, and he's allowing his stud defense to win games. But if USC is to get even better this season, Booty has to become a bit more productive. One key area in which the Trojans' quarterback must improve is on short-yardage and red zone situations when Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian have him run a bootleg. On this play against Arizona, Booty repeatedly ran laterally, seven to ten yards behind the line of scrimmage, on his rollout. This enabled defenders to drop back and exclusively cover the pass option. Booty needs to at least sell the run, and occasionally make a go for the first down marker on a 3rd and 3; otherwise, USC's red zone problems will continue, and the Trojans might get nipped at the wire in a close game.

* On the other side of the Pac-10 divide, if I'm a USC opponent, I want to do what Charlie Weis did last year: attack SC's corners relentlessly. If the Trojans' front seven (a bunch of studs) can't get to the quarterback right away, Arizona showed--albeit all too infrequently--an ability to run deep-intermediate flag routes for 18 to 22-yard gains. Furthermore, the ability of the Trojans' defense to defend the final third of the field makes it imperative to hit home run balls against Pete Carroll's crew. Might as well throw long on many occasions if you want to take down Troy.

* Urban Meyer of Florida needs to give Chris Leak and Tim Tebow a much more even mix of reps during a game. Coaching is about giving a team a full plate of options to work with, and thereby maximizing a team's chances to outflank opponents and win games. Having Tebow running the option clearly maximizes Florida's options, and while Leak is still the starter--and deservedly so--Meyer needs to be even less inhibited in sending Tebow onto the field.

* Don't let a seemingly impressive 45-6 score fool you: South Carolina's win over Florida Atlantic was yet another sloppy effort from a Gamecock offense that has very few legs to stand on and a bunch of players with low football IQs. Auburn should crush the Roosters unless Carolina discovers a previously unfound well of football intelligence.

* Boston College just can't stand prosperity, and the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory always sabotages a BC season. Saturday night, coach Tom O'Brien didn't do his team any favors with a horrid play call. With just under a minute left and up five, O'Brien--correctly, it should be noted--went for what would have been a game-clinching first down on 4th and a long two at the N.C. State 27. But in such a down-and-distance situation, it's foolish to think you can pound out two long yards the old-fashioned way. With opponents sure to stack the box, you need to have a reliable play-action or rollout pass available for two yards or more to go on fourth down. But O'Brien tried to sledgehammer the ball up the middle, and the play had no chance. After some leaky secondary coverage in the ensuing minute, the Eagles had their ACC advantage fly out the window in Raleigh. There are times when you want to power the ball, and there are times when you NEED to power the ball. Anything less than a full yard is a doable power run situation on fourth down; anything between a full yard and two full yards demands serious reconsideration; two yards or more requires a pass, unless you have a special run play up your sleeve. Tom O'Brien's play selection didn't make the grade, and his program suffered another debilitating loss as a result.

* Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema made the kind of dumb decision on Saturday that I see from far too many head coaches in an equivalent situation. With only 12 seconds left in the first half and his offense facing 4th and 3 at the Michigan 44, Bielema chose to punt. A little bit of thinking--and a lot of fear-conquering exercises (meditation, breathing techniques, whatever)--would cure coaches of this paralyzed way of viewing strategy at the end of the first half. Just consider: even if Wisconsin's fourth-down attempt failed, five or six seconds would have run off the clock, leaving Michigan with just one Hail Mary attempt from its own 44, fifty-six yards away from the end zone. What are coaches like Bielema afraid of here? Are they worried about their Hail Mary defense? Are they that much more preoccupied with giving up cheap points than scoring cheap points for themselves? This is coaching not to lose instead of coaching to win, and Wisconsin--who could have used a field goal just before halftime--got blown off the field in the second half. Serves Bielema right... he'll learn, though; he's only six years older than I am. (Steve Spurrier, when faced with a situation very similar to the one faced by Bielema, went for the brass ring. The play failed miserably, but hey, he had nothing to lose, and South Carolina didn't give up any points going the other way.)

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Week Five: October 2, 2006

The top five in the national polls over the next month--not to mention the texture of the SEC's two divisional races--will be dramatically affected, in one way or another, by the performance of the Florida Gators. This week's issue, then, will focus on the fascinating--and wrenching--dilemmas faced by Gator head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.

Florida's offensive braintrust faces a complex situation in which the goals and methods are clear, but the rate of progress isn't. Meyer and Mullen know what they want to accomplish, and how to accomplish it; the hard part is determining how quickly they want to pursue their goals with their own methods, crafted in Bowling Green, honed in Salt Lake City, and then taken to Gainesville. For perspective, let's turn back the clock one year.

Last season, in year one of the Meyer-Mullen pairing for Florida, Chris Leak was a fish out of water. The words "round hole" and "square peg" became a very regular part of Gator fans' vocabularies, as the head coach and offensive coordinator had a hard time tailoring their offense to Leak's strengths. Adding to the mess was the fact that Meyer and Mullen had to slowly bring Leak along while also teaching the new blocking schemes that are part of the spread option. It wasn't just Leak who had to learn a new system; his offensive line needed to absorb a lot of information as well. The predictable result was chaos, especially in the middle-third of the season against the same teams Florida is playing in 2006: Alabama, LSU and Georgia (with Auburn replacing Mississippi State on this year's October slate).

Meyer and Mullen ran smack dab into a paralyzing dilemma: should they take their lumps in year one so that the system would get taught in full, or should they scale back the offense in a clear attempt to win games, no matter how ugly? The decision had to be difficult for Florida's offensive gurus because any professed attempt to bring the program back to Steve Spurrier's gold standard meant that the Gators would have to rediscover a prolific, attack-oriented offense that would strike fear into opponents. Moreover, this goal was entirely consistent with the spread option Meyer and Mullen cultivated in their previous coaching stops. As an extension of Meyer's football personality and as a manifestation of his football mind, the spread option--unleashed to full effect by Alex Smith at Utah--was the very entity that created Meyer's stratospheric reputation in college football circles. Meyer got the Florida job for many reasons, but one of the biggies was a track record for ringing up huge numbers, a fact affirmed by his famous quote, "I just like to do stuff to bother people." Meyer made that very Spurrier-esque statement before the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, when his Utes crowned their spectacular season--and, at the time, Meyer's coaching career--with a thorough beatdown of Pittsburgh to cement his status as the "it" guy in college football. Safe to say, there were a lot of personal, psychological and aesthetic reasons for Meyer and Mullen, his compatriot, to stick with the teaching of the "classic" spread option. A lot of prestige and emotional investment were attached to that system.

But in the end, Meyer and Mullen--realizing how much money they were being paid--chose, and wisely so (in this writer's opinion, anyway), to win games and sacrifice aesthetics at the altar. Against Georgia and over the course of the remainder of the 2005 season, Meyer and Mullen scaled back the offense, simplifying the playbook for the sake of Chris Leak's comfort level. Since information overload--and a system's lack of compatibility in relation to his skill set--burdened Leak for much of the 2005 season, Meyer and Mullen decided to win games with defense and ball control. A desire for the big play went out the window, but so did the losses. Florida went 4-1 (including a bowl win over Iowa) after Meyer and Mullen consciously decided to downscale. Meyer had salvaged year one in Gainesville by conceding the limitations of his system with the personnel he had. Wins weren't aesthetically pleasing, but they emerged, and in the end, that's the bottom line for Meyer and any other college football coach.

That was last year. This year, the calculus is so much more complicated for Meyer and Mullen... even while a lot of parallels can be drawn between 2005 and 2006 for the Florida offense.

On Saturday against Alabama, Florida's offense simultaneously showed how far it has progressed over the course of 12 months, and how far it still has to go to reach the juggernaut status of the Spurrier days (not to mention Meyer's Utah team in 2004). It is this fundamental tension point that will make Meyer and Mullen sleep very little over the course of the next month, with LSU, Auburn and Georgia coming up on the Gators' schedule. In the first quarter and a half, Florida's offense was pancake-flat. The offensive front was getting outplayed, Leak was slow in decision making, and receivers didn't make downfield plays. All of these same problems were so readily apparent at this same point of the 2005 season. Moreover, the Crimson Tide's defense had an extremely good read on what the Gators were doing offensively, a disturbing reminder of the futility Meyer and Mullen experienced last season in Tuscaloosa. If Brodie Croyle--not John Parker Wilson--had been quarterbacking Alabama on Saturday, the outcome might have been very different. That's not pointless speculation; rather, it's a frank acknowledgment of the fact that Alabama lacked the weapons, and especially the trigger man, needed to beat Florida this season. The meaning of this reality should be obvious--and worrisome--to the Gator Nation: once Florida plays the real big boys in the SEC, more performances like the one on Saturday against Bama will get the Gators a woodshed whipping and another season without so much as a division title.

Is this gloom-and-doom naysaying run amok? It's emotionally easy to go in that direction if you're a Florida fan right now: "Why rain on our 5-0 parade? How dare you choose to find the negatives when a team is undefeated!" But what seems like excessive negativity is little more than cerebral analysis. Against Alabama, Florida's offense scored a net total of 11 points. How does one come up with that number in a game that ended 28-13 in favor of Florida? Here's how: Florida's defense directly scored one touchdown, meaning that the Gators' offense scored 21 points. Of those 21 points, three were directly set up by a turnover that gave Florida a drive start within field goal range. Whenever a team scores a touchdown on a drive it starts in field goal range, honest analysis suggests that the offense should be credited with scoring four points, the defense with the first three. This reduces the net total from 21 points to 18. Then factor in the touchdown Florida's offense directly gave up... on a botched snap that also brought back memories of the horror show from the 2005 season. That final reduction of seven points provides the net total of 11 points. Safe to say, 11 points isn't a lot to celebrate. Yes, there's a lot to celebrate with respect to Florida's defense, but that's not the focal point of this discussion. If Florida's offense is to get the job done against the likes of JaMarcus Russell and--a week later--Kenny Irons, 11 net points has to be a first-half total, not a game total, for Florida's offense. Some would call that excessive negativity; others would call it a serious concern that is staring Meyer and Mullen squarely in the face.

What further complicates the issue for Meyer and Mullen is the fact that there were times on Saturday against Bama when the Gator offense showed signs of becoming the very juggernaut everyone in Gainesville hopes it will become. Chris Leak--a passing quarterback--ripped off a 45-yard run. Tim Tebow--a running quarterback--popped off a 23-yard pass. Meyer's and Mullen's goals became very clear on Saturday against the Tide: they want to mix and match Leak and Tebow so they can get defenses on a pendulum and ultimately render them helpless in the face of overwhelming unpredictability rooted in seemingly endless permutations of plays. Alabama's awareness of Leak's and Tebow's individual strengths enabled Meyer and Mullen to surprise Alabama with counter-tendency plays: a Leak run disguised by fullback Billy Latsko's selling of a pass play, and a Tebow pass camouflaged by a typical spread run formation. It's obvious where Meyer and Mullen are trying to go with this offense: take the same personnel and formations in so many different directions that defenses' circuits will get fried. That should be apparent to anyone who has either followed Florida up to this point, or who will study game film this week to prepare for coverage of the LSU and Auburn games ahead. The potential is there for Florida's offense to put opposing defenses at its mercy... as was the case in the Spurrier era.

The perplexing part about the Alabama game for Meyer and Mullen is that after Leak showed some running ability and Tebow showed some passing skills, the offense didn't take off. Instead of getting Bama's defense way off balance and rolling up the gaudy numbers, the Gators had to inch their way up the field, taking what they were given. It was enough to win against a not-that-loaded Bama team (who lost to Arkansas the week before), but against the fast and ferocious defenses posed by LSU and Auburn, this offense shows signs of getting swallowed up this October, just like the last one.

Surely, by now, you can see the complicated nature of Urban Meyer's life... at least as it relates to shepherding his offense through the season and figuring out a good plan in conjunction with Dan Mullen. Meyer can now mix and match quarterbacks in ways he couldn't do last season, offering him the flexibility that can potentially uncork some big plays from this offense. His offense's understanding of his and Mullen's system has developed to the point where multiple personnel groupings could substantially confuse opposing defenses. His blockers sell plays better, and as a result, they can use certain plays to set up tweaked variations later on in drives or games. The larger Meyer-Mullen blueprint is coming into focus. The only problem is that it's coming into focus so slowly, and with noticeable inconsistency, because there are still profound limitations with respect to the players who are running Meyer's offense. Leak and Tebow together make a nice hybrid quarterback, but unfortunately, no one player individually offers a complete package of skills for Florida. Add in the offensive front's inconsistency, and it becomes less clear if Florida has the raw quality to support a fully attacking scheme and the most audaciously creative game plan imaginable.

For this upcoming LSU game and for the rest of the season, Meyer will repeatedly face the same fundamental decision over and over again: does he have enough evidence to think his offense can begin to unleash the big play with regularity, or must he play close to the vest, a la 2005, and lean on the strength of his team, which is his run-stuffing defense? Last year, the decision was emotionally difficult, but strategically easy: Meyer had to play it safe to win games. This year, it's a lot more complicated, because the Alabama game showed that Meyer's offense is beginning to truly absorb some macro-level, big-picture concepts that could soon pay big dividends... but only if the Gator players have the chops to make the bold schemes work for them, and not against them.

Want to know how complicated it is to be a football coach, to weigh visions of blackboard grandeur against the barebones realities facing your team and its prospects? Just step inside the world of Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen. How they handle the next few weeks will impact the shape of the top five, the SEC's divisional races, and--for that matter--the culture of the SEC, which has returned to the old-school headcracking that dominated the landscape before another Florida coach turned things upside-down in 1990.

There's one small note from the past weekend of play calling and strategy that can't be left unmentioned. Virginia Tech trailed Georgia Tech by eleven points (38-27) in the final minutes of Saturday's game in Blacksburg. The Hokies drove inside the Yellow Jacket 20 with 55 seconds left. This is when Hokie coach Frank Beamer's mind (much like Seattle Seahawk coach Mike Holmgren in the dying moments of Super Bowl XL) turned to mush. Instead of kicking a field goal in a two-score game, Beamer had his offense stubbornly continue onward, so much so that the game ended with the Hokies--again, down by 11--trying to score a touchdown.

Can one pause to consider for a moment the stupidity and futility of that decision by Beamer, and of all other coaches who fail to kick the field goal when down by nine to eleven points in the final minutes of a game? If it's a two-score game... well... you need two scores. You're not in an advantageous position, so you have to take your medicine and make the awkward step of kicking a field goal on first down with 55 seconds to go. Of course it's not normal, but you have no choice. Getting a touchdown means nothing if you have no time left for an onside kick, a second possession, and a second score. Why can't grown men figure this out?

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Week Six: October 9, 2006 - Unavailable

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Week Seven: October 16, 2006

With games either being decided by large margins or--if close--by mistakes, there's not much in the world of play calling to talk about this week. Given that reality, it's worth looking at the race to Glendale and the fight for a No. 2 ranking no team seems to covet.

It's been a strange season, and this past Saturday was as strange as they come. Every top team not named Ohio State struggled for at least a half, if not more. Injuries have a lot to do with this--see, "Cardinals, Louisville"; "Trojans, USC"; and "Wolverines, Michigan"--but it doesn't change the larger truth of the matter: there's a paucity of truly elite teams playing top-shelf football this season.

Louisville, the team with proven quality depth (given the competence of backup QB Hunter Cantwell), struggled to beat Cincinnati at home with Brian Brohm back under center. USC figured to actually have a low-stress day at the office against an Arizona State club that, in the first 20 minutes of Saturday's action at the L.A. Coliseum, flatlined and fumbled to the N-th degree; but even then, the Trojans couldn't finish off an inferior opponent. The battle with the Sun Devils became weirdly worrisome because John David Booty not only committed gobs of mistakes, but big, touchdown-producing mistakes that were unforced. With Dwayne Jarrett back in the lineup, Booty--who should have improved--actually regressed, and that has to worry Pete Carroll more than anything else. And as for Michigan, the Wolverines--while surviving Penn State, 17-10, the same score by which JoePa's team beat Ohio State in a major night game last season in Happy Valley--prevailed in State College only because Penn State's pop-gun offense still hasn't been able to progress at all. Michigan won by merely avoiding debilitating mistakes. Yes, it's a great win for Lloyd Carr's crew, but it's also proof that the Maize and Blue is anything but a clear and authoritative No. 2 on the eve of the release of the first BCS standings.

West Virginia still has issues with its defense and a passing game that was clearly out of sync (unsurprisingly) against Syracuse. Texas--while playing well now--still got thrashed by the mighty Buckeyes at home five weeks ago. Cal had a big-time win in Pullman against Washington State on Saturday, but it's not as though the Golden Bears' offense played well. A blocked punt accounted for seven of Cal's 21 points; a 14-point effort against Wazzu won't scare opponents about Cal's overall capabilities. The more you look, the more you realize that there's a big vacuum in the race for No. 2. No one, frankly, deserves the spot, or to spin it a different way, the vote should be split among everyone in immediate contention.

If you asked me who would win between Michigan and USC today (not a few weeks from now), I'd now have to say that Michigan would deserve the nod, only because the Maize and Blue is less mistake-prone at this point. In a few weeks--when (if?) the Trojans get healthier--the verdict could change, but SC is too spotty right now to deserve the No. 2 ranking. Michigan deserves the position by default at this point.

Beyond the current chase for the No. 2 spot in the BCS, the larger significance of the mediocrity displayed by all non-Ohio State teams is this: the Big East and its heavyweights deserve their place at the table. If college football gets its worst-case scenario in terms of a BCS controversy--namely, an unbeaten Big East champ competing with several one-loss teams for the second spot in Glendale opposite the Buckeyes--the verdict here is that the Big East champ deserves the nod.

Think about this, fans, and be reasonable (if you can try): if your (non-Big East) team keeps struggling and eventually loses as a result, should it matter that your conference is better than the Big East (not that it's a clear point this season to begin with)? If USC keeps living on the edge and eventually falls off, the Trojans won't deserve a date in Glendale as much as an unbeaten West Virginia or Louisville will. If you want to talk about "preserving the integrity of the regular season," the Big East champ will have to be accorded sufficient recognition for going unbeaten. If no team can make an authoritative statement (i.e., rack up overwhelming amounts of style points), the only remaining rationale for ranking a team must be its overall record. If no ballclub can compile an attractive and aesthetically pleasing 11-1 season, the only fair choice for the BCS would be to invite an ugly 12-0 team to Glendale. As Florida and Missouri found out on Saturday, avoiding every landmine during a college football season is an extremely difficult task. Those who do manage to escape defeat--if placed in one of the BCS conferences--deserve their day in the (Valley of the) Sun if there are no more than two (and only two) unbeaten teams when December 10 rolls around.

The postscript to this whole Big East/unbeaten team debate, though, is an important one: with Rutgers and Pitt both producing solid seasons, West Virginia and Louisville don't have cakewalk schedules after their Nov. 2 showdown. While the Scarlet Knights and Panthers don't represent a pair of opponents as tough as, say, Oregon and Cal (USC) or LSU and South Carolina (Tennessee), they merit enough respect that if West Virginia and Louisville can dismiss both of them, the winner of the Nov. 2 showdown--be it the Mountaineers or the Cardinals--should deserve first consideration in the race for Glendale if all other teams suffer a loss. If, at the end of the 2006 season, Ohio State and Boise State are the only other unbeaten teams besides the WVU-UL winner, the Big East's best should play the Buckeyes on January 8. Michigan and USC are still calling the shots as they chase Jim Tressel's team, but if they slip up, the Big East winner--as an undefeated team--would deserve to travel to suburban Phoenix for a special New Year's celebration.

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