The remainder of the 2006 season is covered in this archival entry...
Week Five: October 2, 2006
Hype and reality are two things that need to remain separate in the world of college football, but unfortunately, they seem to be forming an ever more intimate relationship as the years go by. We're already seeing the harm that can be done when certain sports broadcasting empires (in Bristol, Connecticut) mix promotion with analysis, and that's the focus of this week's column.
Let's deal with the hype first. Saturday night, ESPN College Gameday Final couldn't stop pimping the Michigan-Ohio State game--to be aired on Nov. 18, conveniently enough, by the ABC/ESPN family of networks (one imagines how many of them will carry the game, which--you might recall--aired on both ABC and ESPN Classic last year, with two separate announce crews paid by the Worldwide Leader). ESPN ran multiple graphics illustrating how easy it was going to be for Michigan and Ohio State to enter their regular-season finale with unbeaten records. A surprisingly large chunk of commentary from both the studio boys in Bristol and the Gameday crew in Iowa City focused on this Michigan-Ohio State game. I've never recalled such on-air overkill for a game and a scenario that are a month and a half away. Respectable college football commentators have absolutely no business spending a disproportionate amount of time hyping a November 18 game on a September 30 broadcast. Even more disturbing was the extent to which the various ESPN commentators gave the impression that the national championship picture was clear at this point. (I don't know how much more Chris Fowler--an astute man and an impeccable broadcast journalist with a lot of principle and a sound ethical compass--can continue to stomach; isn't he getting tired of these force-fed debates that ESPN is forcing on him in the name of market share and ratings?)
Kirk Herbstreit--usually the voice of reason among the non-anchor pundits in the ESPN stable--is doing a great job (though perhaps quite unintentionally) of pushing the idea that the Michigan-Ohio State winner (assuming those two teams do enter that game 11-0) will definitely play for the national title. Herbstreit probably doesn't think he's doing that, and he's earned the benefit of the doubt as far as his intentions are concerned. Herbie's work has been so good for so long that his personal integrity is above question in this matter. But while his integrity is sound, the quality of Herbstreit's journalism is slipping in ways he might not be able to detect.
Here's the heart of the matter: it's not so much the content of Herbstreit's remarks as the force of emphasis he's providing in his commentary. It's perfectly legitimate--in the world of broadcast commentary--for Herbie to think that Michigan should be ranked second, behind the No. 1 Buckeyes. It's equally legit for the Gameday analyst and Saturday Night Football color man to opine that both teams will be 11-0 when they meet. But what's NOT okay is for Herbstreit to devote so much focus to that potential matchup--which is still one and a half months away, remember--that it becomes larger than life in the minds of his audience, which is mostly made up of fans, but also includes a lot of poll voters who watch monitors and listen to commentary from press boxes across the country. If Herbstreit and the rest of ESPN's pundits devote enough time to discussing the possibility of 11-0 Michigan playing 11-0 Ohio State, it's going to filter into a lot of people's minds that the winner of that game (again, if it comes about) should be in Glendale, no matter what any other team does. It's just like Pac-10 officials working the Oklahoma-Oregon game in Eugene: there might be no conflict of interest on the surface, but subtle psychological biases can exist on a deeper level. Just as Pac-10 officials didn't "have it in" for Oklahoma but--in the heat of battle--chose to favor the team they must face all season long (the Ducks), so it's also true that while Herbstreit has a track record of objectivity, his planting of this "Michigan-Ohio State seed" could unfairly and inappropriately influence poll voters in late November and early December, when the BCS gets decided. One hopes Herbstreit can see the fine line between acceptable analysis and inappropriate hype. If Herbie hasn't already crossed a line, he's definitely blurring the boundaries between responsible commentary and network-fed promotion of certain games at the expense of others. (Full disclosure: Herbstreit did mention LSU-Florida as the game of the week in college football for October 7, not an ABC or ESPN broadcast. That only reaffirms Herbie's credibility, while also amplifying the need for him to tone down the Michigan-Ohio State hype.)
Mature college football commentators--as opposed to overly emotional fanatics--know that the landscape changes frequently and dramatically in this sport. Fifteen-year-old kids can dream of week ten dream matchups after a September triumph for their favorite team; network pundits can mention the possibility, but only briefly--they can't overindulge in little-boy fantasies that may or may not materialize seven weeks down the line.
All this stuff matters, of course, because the upcoming weeks will tell us a lot about teams competing with Michigan for No. 2 status behind the top-rated Buckeyes. Florida and Auburn, West Virginia and Louisville (on Nov. 2), Oregon and Georgia, USC and a few one-loss teams: these contenders will rise or fall based on the next month and a half of action. Maybe Michigan will look better than all of them by the time the Wolverines head into Columbus. Then again, maybe not. The point, of course, is that in college football, you never know from one week to the next. That's why it's irresponsible for ESPN to hype a potential showdown between unbeaten Michigan and unbeaten Ohio State. It gives Michigan way too much leverage in the national title/BCS argument because it feeds the notion--before games have been won or lost across the country--that Michigan would deserve the benefit of the doubt in any contentious BCS argument. Florida or Auburn could go unbeaten, along with USC, and yet one of those teams would get left out of the big party in Glendale on January 8, all because ESPN decided to promote a big game very prematurely on September 30, which is 49 days before Nov. 18, the date of the Michigan-Ohio State game. Florida could become a juggernaut, and USC could adjust to injuries suffered on both sides of the ball to become an even more formidable team, and yet it wouldn't matter.
Maybe one can now see why broadcast commentators not employed by schools or conferences--and therefore expected to hew more consistently to objective journalistic standards (unlike the Larry Munsons of the world, who are paid to yell, "Run, Lindsay!")--must be incredibly restrained in their commentary... at least, if they want to preserve some shred of integrity in the conceptually bankrupt and laughably bad BCS process. Sensitivity about institutional media bias is bad enough as it is; commentators such as Kirk Herbstreit might have good intentions and solid track records, but in hyping certain matchups, they can still wind up creating the very kinds of unfair forces they seek to oppose. If Herbstreit is going to rightly decry the weaknesses of the BCS (as he did in 2004 and other years) because he cares about the integrity of the sport and its national championship game, then he simply has to display enough discipline to avoid giving undue weight to one team over another. Many fans could have reasonably perceived on Saturday night that Herbstreit thinks only three teams currently control their own destiny in the chase for Glendale: Ohio State (the one team that does), Michigan (debatable), and Florida (a solid case, but still somewhat debatable). On October 30, that might be a reasonably objective statement. On September 30, it's a terribly premature statement that, however well intentioned, comes across as sounding biased because it gives certain teams unfair prominence in the national title conversation. I can believe with total certainty and confidence that Herbstreit had no desire to purposefully elevate Michigan in the BCS debate; but in today's world of college football, where opinions travel fast and virtually every meaningful game is on TV (unlike 40 years ago), a system as bad as the BCS--if it's to have any real objectivity--has to be tenderly handled by commentators who must give fresh evaluations of top teams each week. If static rankings hierarchies persist because of the silly and intellectually dishonest view that a team should be ranked based on its projected record, and not its completed body of work, various poll voters--and the commentators who reinforce those views on national television--are doing the sport of college football a grave disservice.
Now that we've dealt with the hype in college football, let's deal with some reality as well. If one was to make some distinctions among the teams that are chasing the second BCS position behind Ohio State, here are a few thoughts (emphasis on "few," because it's still relatively early in the season; it's foolish to make overly strong comments when teams are still developing and have barely settled into conference play).
First of all, while giving other commentators every right to rank Michigan second--nothing wrong with that--one must wonder how good that Notre Dame victory was, given the continued porousness of the Irish defense. Second, one must wonder why Michigan--if it really is the second-best team in America--wasn't able to crack 30 points against Wisconsin and Minnesota. Yes, Michigan's competitors have not been terrifically consistent as well, but it seems as though Michigan's getting something of a free pass here.
The bodies of work among the contenders for No. 2 are fairly similar. Michigan has one lopsided signature road win and two decent conference wins; USC has a mix of very respectable non-conference wins and road conference wins; Auburn has a signature win (LSU), a "middle-tier" win over Washington State (also a USC victim), and a conference road win at South Carolina; Florida has wins over Tennessee and Alabama; a Texas team that lost to Ohio State would regain substantial credibility if it beats Oklahoma this Saturday; Oregon can play its way into the conversation if it beats Cal this Saturday and enters the USC game unbeaten; Georgia has struggled mightily, but hasn't lost, and if the Dawgs pick up the pace against Tennessee and remaining opponents, they'll have their say. The only team that truly suffers from any schedule comparison is West Virginia. Beating Louisville on the road could easily lead to an unbeaten season, but WVU will have to have only one other unbeaten team if it expects to play in Glendale. Any comparison with another unbeaten team other than Ohio State will leave West Virginia outside the candy store looking in. That is the one schedule-based comparison that isn't premature at this point.
Any rankings made right now must be based not on body of work, but on the quality of the ballclub and how it would fare against the opposition. Mindful of the need to radically reshape rankings each week as new evidence emerges--in other words, all this is subject to change--here's the current (and very fragile) read on some potential matchups involving teams other than Ohio State:
Michigan-USC: Michigan could seriously hurt USC's fragile corners, but SC would contain Mike Hart. Michigan has better big-play capability, but SC is better in the red zone on both sides of the ball. Chad Henne's a better deep-ball thrower, but John David Booty is more ball-secure. Lloyd Carr's doing an especially good job of coaching this year, but Pete Carroll is the better overall coach. A very even matchup, but if they played, I'd trust Carroll to make more defining adjustments to carry the Trojans in a close one.
Michigan-Auburn: Both defenses would dominate. Henne and Brandon Cox can be rattled. Kenny Irons is a better back than Hart, but Michigan's receiving corps is deeper and better by a longshot. Tommy Tuberville--along with Carroll, Mack Brown, and Jim Tressel--is riding a multi-year wave of great seasons as a coach. He saved his team's bacon Thursday, on a night when Steve Spurrier was in top form for South Carolina. Tubs and Al Borges have a little more feel for their offense than do Carr and Mike DeBord, whose packages don't seem to be tremendously different from those posed by Terry Malone. That might be the difference in a hard-hitting battle.
Auburn-USC: The two hottest elite coaches in the sport at the moment. Two offenses that aren't able to bust loose on a consistent basis. SC with the better passing game, Auburn the better running game. Tigers with the better secondary, SC with the better pass rush. An even-steven game.
These matchups are worth discussing because they won't happen. Florida-Auburn, on the other hand, will. Ditto for Florida-LSU, Oregon-USC, West Virginia-Louisville, and other games that will partially settle a rankings controversy. But only partially. It's time to let hype give way to reality each week in this sport, and to be open-minded enough to change one's views when the course of events demands as much.
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Week Six: October 9, 2006
Before the 2006 campaign, this columnist wrestled with a major problem that confronts all college football writers: length. I understand that many readers don't have time for extended articles, so this column--while attempting to address some of the major issues in the sport--will try to speak to those who are pinched by the clock... and not just the Washington Huskies.
This week's Affirmation is both a love letter and a policy speech to college football fans. Last year at this time (the first full weekend of October), I had to painstakingly explain to Texas Tech fans (in private e-mails and in column space) that 40 some-odd years of perceived institutional media bias against the Red Raiders should not be held against me. Tech fans felt a lot better after receiving my explanations, but that's just one fan base out of 119 in Division I-A. The other 118 fan bases dozed off... or at least that's the impression I often get. Last week, I read in the blogosphere that I produce "idiotic semi-Eastern philosophic ramblings," among other delights. One underlying point of such comments--though hardly the only one--is, "I don't have time to read this stuff." This is where a discussion about length is needed in the world of college football writing.
Simply stated, time is our collective enemy in contemporary America. Such a statement is obvious for many reasons that are well known, and don't need to be mentioned. The key question quickly becomes this (notice how my sentences are getting shorter as we speak): do Americans not like to read lengthy pieces because they simply don't have enough time, or because they really and truly don't like reading long pieces? After all, if you're upset about clock rules in college football, it's because you want more football. Well, then, wouldn't fans also want more writing and analysis? It ain't necessarily so, and this is where we get into one of many sticky points about football analysis.
For those who like reading lengthy pieces but just don't have the time to do so, there's only so much one can say (literally and figuratively). But for those who just don't like long columns with layered meanings, complex literary devices, and lavish uses of dashes and parenthetical references, we need to have a little chat.
As I continue to understand my audience in this, my sixth season at CFN, I'm becoming aware of the need some fans have for a very simple kind of analysis: "That player should be moved from corner to safety... This recruit will fill the need at middle linebacker... that kid plugs up the running lanes at the left tackle spot... this prospect has the speed on the edges coach X has been missing..." Such analysis is all about putting pieces of a puzzle together in the most immediate sense: there's a clearly identified fit here, there's a potential fit over there, and there's a definite lack of any kind of fit way out there. This player's working out, that system isn't getting the job done, the new coach is in over his head--these are the short, blunt statements a lot of fans view to be at the heart of football analysis. It's such a nuts-and-bolts kind of analysis that lengthy words with a professorial tone would be wasted on it. Call this the "meatloaf and mashed potatoes" school of football analysis: gimme the good food served simply, without fanfare or fuss.
If you want your meatloaf and mashed potatoes, then, I'll serve it to you. But before I put the plate on your table, I hope you'll read this particular column through to the end, because there are things you need to know beyond the comfort food of simple, nuts-and-bolts analysis.
Without further ado, then, here's a "meatloaf and mashed potato" version of football analysis for those who don't have the time to digest more "gourmet" meals:
Ohio State's balanced and powerful; USC needs red zone help; Michigan needs more sustained drives and more tight end production; Florida has to start games strong; West Virginia must pass the ball better; Louisville needs a test of some sort; Texas has solidified its quarterback situation; Cal has regained its toughness; Dennis Dixon makes too many mistakes for Oregon; Georgia's scoring defense was clearly overrated; Erik Ainge of Tennessee has fully come back from last season's struggles; Auburn played with little energy against Arkansas; Houston Nutt has done a tremendous job of motivating his team after a shaky start; Clemson needs to be more consistent; Washington just needs to keep playing hard, and results will come; TCU needs a quarterback; Florida State needs better, taller corners; Notre Dame needs more of a killer instinct; Nebraska needs to polish its passing attack; Missouri needs to keep forcing turnovers on defense; and Navy needs to keep coach Paul Johnson for as long as possible.
There. Tasted good, didn't it? You've received what many of you have always wanted from me: actual proof that I can write very brief, to-the-point sentences when I feel like it. I talked more like a blue-collar worker at a dusty tavern, just to show you it can be done.
But now that you've had your meat and taters, time-pinched football fans of America, it must be said that college football was built not on those kinds of observations--which belong to the world of coachspeak--but on sentences such as these:
"Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.
A cyclone can't be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed. Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.
Notre Dame won its ninth game in twelve Army starts through the driving power of one of the greatest backfields that ever churned up the turf of any gridiron in any football age. Brilliant backfields may come and go, but in Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden, covered by a fast and charging line, Notre Dame can take its place in front of the field.
Coach McEwan sent one of his finest teams into action, an aggressive organization that fought to the last play around the first rim of darkness, but when Rockne rushed his Four Horsemen to the track they rode down everything in sight. It was in vain that 1,400 gray-clad cadets pleaded for the Army line to hold. The Army line was giving all it had, but when a tank tears in with the speed of a motorcycle, what chance had flesh and blood to hold? The Army had its share of stars as Garbisch, Farwick, Wilson, Wood, Ellinger, and many others, but they were up against four whirlwind backs who picked up at top speed from the first step as they swept through scant openings to slip on by the secondary defense. The Army had great backs in Wilson and Wood, but the Army had no such quartet, who seemed to carry the mixed blood of the tiger and the antelope.
Rockne's light and tottering line was just about as tottering as the Rock of Gibraltar. It was something more than a match for the Army's great set of forwards, who had earned their fame before. Yet it was not until the second period that the first big thrill of the afternoon set the great crowd into a cheering whirl and brought about the wild flutter of flags that are thrown to the wind in exciting moments. At the game's start Rockne sent in almost entirely a second-string cast. The Army got the jump and began to play most of the football. It was the Army attack that made three first downs before Notre Dame had caught its stride. The South Bend cyclone opened like a zephyr.
The above text is roughly the first third of Grantland Rice's account of the 1924 Notre Dame-Army game, hammered out by typewriter on October 18 of that year. These words and extended metaphors, dear fans, helped make college football the uproariously popular sport it is today. Without Knute Rockne's personality, Red Grange's on-field exploits, and--yes--Grantland Rice's grand, romantic, literary sportswriting, we might not have college football as we know it.
Yes, it's entirely true that the sportswriting of Granny Rice's time feels very much out of place in today's Internet world, where the blogs are snarky and the news services enmeshed in the slam-bam-thank-you-maam kind of meatloaf and mashed potatoes analysis that large segments of fans appreciate. But just because old-time sportswriting is out of place doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be practiced; moreover, in the sport of college football--which throbs with romantic passions and sings with images of youth in full emotional upheaval--poetic sportswriting and highly layered forms of analysis SHOULD, in fact, flourish. The fact that the selection of national championship game combatants in this sport is such a subjective process--and a process that is frequently dominated by controversy--should make length and nuance all the MORE necessary in the world of football analysis, not LESS. I realize just how much I'm swimming against the tide here; if the college football punditry (including the blogosphere) was the House of Representatives, I'd be voted down by a 434-1 margin. But that's part of the point: I could provide the meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but I'd never want to. Why? Because this is not about furthering popularity; it's about honoring the craft of analysis in a way that respects, even challenges, people's intelligence. More layered explanations and detailed elaborations would--if listened to--make fans less suspicious of media figures and thereby cool off the heated relationship that exists between fans and journalists today. If College Gameday wanted to truly serve the best interests of college football, for example, the two hours of the ESPN show would be devoted (a lot more) to extended analysis free of the sound-bytes that leave brilliant broadcast journalists (Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit) hamstrung in today's climate, which seems to demand the short and punchy observation but then roars with outrage when said observation--necessarily bereft of nuance due to time constraints--cuts against a given team or conference.
This is the problem with meatloaf and mashed potatoes analysis of the short, punchy, time-saving variety: the bluntness of speech, combined with a distaste for all things poetic, literary, or overly detailed, creates a sound-byte world that's high on information, but low on perspective; high on statistics, but low on explanations of the relevance of said statistics; long on emotional criticisms that fuel local or regional antagonisms, but short on consensus-building statements that can unite America's college football fans.
The absence of fan unity is an accepted part of life for today's college football journalist. A football writer knows that s/he can't write a far-reaching statement these days without pissing off or otherwise alienating some fans in some corners of the country. We writers get this; we've known it for a long time. But just because something is well known and entrenched does not mean it should never be spoken to or challenged. Of course I have no real expectation that my words will change the subculture of college football on various levels.
But oh, I will always have hope. That can never be taken away from me. And as long as there's hope, the time-pinched college football fans of America will get a pinch of Grantland Rice--and layered, nuanced, extended analysis--from this particular columnist. It's a point of honor and principle that goes far deeper than you could ever imagine.
So now that you've had to put up with a lengthy column from me this week, here's what I hope will be a sufficient payoff for your patience: a look inside the analytical mind of a football writer, designed to (begin to) free you from the view that we writers hold inherent, entrenched biases (not the innocent kinds of biases that every person unavoidably attains from childhood onward) for or against certain teams, conferences, and other issues in college football. Once all fans can see analytical statements merely for what they are--instead of filtering them through the lenses of their school or conference affiliations--the college football world will become a much healthier community.
One of the biggest reasons fans get outraged at commentators--and worse, perceive institutional bias (not "innocent bias") on the part of football pundits--is the belief that said pundits carry double standards toward teams and leagues. Look at the USC Trojans for a classic example. When Mark May--paid and encouraged by ESPN to be a sound-byte lightning rod, not a football professor--said that USC was the second-best team in the country, much of America certainly thought the following: "May is trying to be popular, and is following the market-share philosophy that ESPN wants to promote. Sell USC again, just like last year and that absurd "greatest of all time" garbage. It's the same with Dick Vitale and Duke basketball. Why do these networks always protect the big boys? Ratings and selling products." But in reality, May is doing something I basically agree with: while I'm not sure USC is No. 2, what I am sure of is that in the world of the college football analyst, the same styles or patterns mean different things for different teams and programs. USC's close shaves are, in my mind, a sign of maturity more than a sign of weakness. (They are a sign of weakness, but not enough to hold that fact against them.) For other teams--such as Clemson or Arkansas (not in the Auburn game, but against Vandy and Alabama the previous weeks)--a close win doesn't carry the same weight. Here's where the politics of football analysis becomes complicated.
When I use the term "politics," by the way, I'm not referring to the desire to curry favor with my employer, or appeal to bigger markets, or do any of the things we associate with a political agenda these days. "Politics" also refers to the simple everyday judgments we make, in which we try to strike a balance between diplomacy and authenticity. The question, "How do I handle this conversation with an attractive but inexperienced new co-worker?", is, among other things, a political question. It's the same with college football analysis: how do we handle the conversations we have with readers, as we try to explain why this point of emphasis matters in this game but might not matter in another game? How do we give bold opinions without tearing down coaches or players in the process? How do we make vigorous criticisms while being fair and open-minded? If you think writers are always making knee-jerk statements without any prior forethought, you have no idea of what's really going on underneath the surface. A million different calculations go into each sentence and its exact tones and points of emphasis.
With USC, then, it is--I'd say--one of the unwritten rules of football analysis that the teams who prove--over and over again--that they can win close games deserve the benefit of the doubt. This is much like 2002, when after two and a half months, I still continued to doubt the Ohio State Buckeyes, who had been winning close game after close game. However, when OSU beat Michigan in the season finale, I finally reached a tipping point when I said, "hey, if you do it often enough, it stops being luck." And while I didn't pick OSU straight-up in the Fiesta Bowl against Miami, I certainly favored them against the spread and was less shocked than most when the Bucks beat them in overtime. Ohio State had proven--over the course of the season--that close games were not necessarily a sign of weakness. When you continuously pull games out of the fire, it stops being fortune and it starts being "resolve." But for other teams without the proven reputation and mental toughness of USC, it's simply dumb to assign the same level of value to a close-shave win. Same patterns, different realities, varied meanings. That's just one example of the politics of football analysis, and why firestorms--understandably--are always erupting among fan bases.
Another political element of football analysis--somewhat related to this past weekend's USC game--concerns officiating, which is the 800-pound gorilla for college football writers who, for obvious reasons, must always tread carefully when dealing with this subject. You might think that I'm hopelessly biased in favor of USC when I make this statement: the Pac-10 officials did nothing wrong at the end of the USC-Washington game. The fact that I'm a Seattle resident might make you think, "Wow! Zemek is so deep into the USC kool-aid that he lives in Seattle but still favors the Trojans in a key debate. Talk about being brainwashed by Pete Carroll!" But in reality, I had addressed this topic in a "Five Thoughts" commentary from earlier in the season. Here's the text, published on September 24:
"In an ongoing discussion of clock rules in college football, the NCAA and relevant football people would do well to consider what has been said by many since the beginning of the season: have the clock run after first downs if you want to shorten games in a more natural and fluid way. Having the clock run before first-down snaps (following changes of possession) is an artificial and manifestly awkward vehicle for moving the game along. Having the clock run after first downs (so that officials can do their job more easily) is a profoundly more effective way of managing the tempo of a game.
I said a few weeks ago that running the clock after first downs was particularly effective because it would stop the process in which a ref has to stand over the ball at the scrimmage line and then jump away when the ball is ready for play. This unwieldy process makes quarterbacks (and centers) afraid to snap the ball too early, even if they have to snap the ball right away in order to beat the game clock. This happened at the end of the 1998 Rose Bowl between Washington State and Michigan, when the Cougars got jobbed for this very reason. It happened again Saturday night in Gainesville, as Kentucky--after getting a first down in field goal range with two seconds left in the first half--spiked the ball one second too late in the eyes of the officials. Kentucky QB Andre Woodson was afraid to snap the ball with the spotting official still running away from the scrimmage line, and that half-second made all the difference. Wildcat head coach Rich Brooks was wrong to claim time had run out prematurely, but if he and his staff had noticed, the clock operator--after UK got its first down with five seconds remaining--ran three ticks off the clock. It was that (unfair) loss of three seconds (from five down to two) that killed the Cats, not the final two seconds. It's obvious now, from all appearances, that if you only have two seconds left in a half, you can't snap a ball in time after a first down, given the one-second delay that inevitably occurs between the ref winding the clock and the ball-spotting official getting away from the scrimmage line. If you've snapped the ball with one second left, you obviously can't spike the ball before the double-zeroes emerge.
This does bring up a strategic point, then... until this stupid set of clock rules gets changed, anyway: if I have no timeouts and I just got a first down in field goal range with two seconds left in the half, I will instruct my quarterback and center to initiate a premature snap, even if it means getting a delay of game penalty. At least I know I'll be able to kick the ball (the adjustment is to ensure that a five-yard flag won't make a FG attempt unmanageable in terms of distance). And if I don't want to give up five yards, I would instruct my QB to kneel underneath the center so that he can immediately put the ball on the ground, instead of receiving the belt-high snap and then throwing the ball into the turf from the waist. (NOTE: An observant reader noticed afterwards that if a QB--like any other ballcarrier--kneels, the play would be dead right there, preventing the ball from being spiked. The QB should be instructed to assume a very low crouching position--that's a needed correction to the above statement.)
Might as well get close to the ground; that's the only way one can spike a ball inside of two seconds these days.
But of course, that's all background to the bigger issue: just let the clock run after first downs so we don't have this silly ('98 Rose Bowl/Kentucky-Florida) scenario anymore. Force teams (like Wazzu and Kentucky) to get out of bounds, period. If people want to shorten a game, do it that way; get rid of the new clock rules instituted for this season.
As you can see, it is now publicly known that in the mechanics of stopping the clock after a first-down play, there is always a time lag of two or three seconds between the time the ballcarrier goes down and the time when the clock gets stopped. This time lag exists--somewhat necessarily when you think about it--because the official is looking at the play first, and the first-down marker later. On this particular play at the end of the UW-USC game, the Washington receiver briefly bobbled the ball after he was already down. This might seem insignificant, but it made the official think--for just a split-second--about whether the receiver was down or not, something the official had to do. This one-second delay made the official wave his hands (the stop-clock motion) a bit later than he might otherwise have done, which in turn made the clock operator stop the clock one second later than otherwise. A chain reaction of perfectly natural events that ALWAYS occurs in a football game (just watch next weekend: you will find that three-second time lags between the end of a first-down play and the stoppage of the clock are entirely normal; you might even see a four- or five-second time lag on some plays) just happened to occur at the very end. When this kind of a reality exists, you can't blame officials. Washington's O-line simply had to be ready to run a play at the end, when--by the way--the officials took a long time to finally pronounce the ball ready for play.
What does all this mean? It means that I don't view the officiating controversies that have affected Oklahoma in the same way I've viewed the controversies that have affected LSU (against Auburn) and now Washington. It can all seem to add up to the worst and most unprofessional biases, but in reality, there are a million different considerations to be taken into account. It is not the fault of the reader or TV viewer to perceive these biases on the part of commentators; if placed in the same position--and if aware of numerous times over the past 20, 30 or 40 years when the national media (and/or game officials) did not treat one's team fairly--I would be similarly bitter and outraged. But one must understand, as you continue to receive football opinions and analysis each week, that more length and more detail should be your friend, not your adversary. There is always an explanation behind the seemingly knee-jerk opinion; having the desire to hear this explanation before judging the writer who makes it is a quality that will advance the cause of college football analysis for a long, long time to come. Politics, as they say, is personal, and the personal passions that go into college football have to be handled with care... just like that difficult conversation you might be having today with that attractive but inexperienced new co-worker at the office.
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Week Seven: October 16, 2006
When dealing with a diverse array of topics, there's a greater chance that some opinions will meet with considerable disagreement. But even if you don't agree with the week seven wrap-up of the college football season, you can't say that deficient opinions are the result of paying insufficient attention to the college football world.
Call me anal or obsessive if you want, but this columnist spent the first 54 minutes of his workday on Saturday--after a bathroom break--counting to three.
Yes, from 9:06 to 10:00 a.m. Pacific time, football ceased being about analysis, and instead turned into track and field for one American male sitting in front of one keyboard and one TV in Seattle (don't worry--this became three TVs when the games got better later in the day). To prove the point that the end of the previous week's USC-Washington game was hardly a case of bad or--at the very least--irregular officiating, the Weekly Affirmation had a stopwatch in hand (well, symbolically, anyway). In less than an hour's time, a lot was learned about a few seconds... the few seconds that regularly tick away between the end of a first-down play and the re-starting of the game clock after the ball is made ready for play.
As this column said the previous week, it is not irregular for a few seconds to drain from the clock after the end of a first down-gaining play that stays in bounds. In just 54 minutes of watching just one monitor and wearing out just one remote control, all of these multi-second time lags were uncovered:
Instances of two-second time lags were as follows: Wisconsin first down vs. Minnesota at 9:19, first quarter (play ended at 9:21); Syracuse first down vs. West Virginia at 5:40, first quarter (play ended at 5:42); Iowa vs. Indiana, 3:51, 1st (3:53); West Virginia vs. Syracuse, 13:07, 2nd (13:09); N.C. State vs. Wake Forest, 10:49, 2nd (10:51).
But wait: it just gets better. The three-second time lags like the one that hurt Washington against USC (from five seconds to two)--and made aghast national commentators apoplectic with righteous indignation--were in evidence in the first 54 minutes of a columnist's Saturday in front of the tube:
Iowa vs. Indiana, 3:29, 1st (3:32); Georgia vs. Vanderbilt, 4:02, 1st (4:05); Georgia vs. Vanderbilt, 3:33, 1st (3:36).
Oh, but you still ain't seen nothin' yet. In the second quarter of the Wake-NC State game, a Wolfpack receiver was tackled at the Demon Deacon 1, after which the ball came out late. The ball was correctly ruled down, but in the attempt to make a ruling on that live-action sequence, the officials didn't immediately stop the clock. It took FIVE seconds--from 10:21 to 10:16--for the clock to be stopped. Where's the outrage there? Someone got robbed of five precious seconds.
And here's the topper, or as fellow sportswriter Oscar Madison once said, "the ever-lovin' lulu of all time": in the Vandy-Georgia game, a play that ended at the first-down marker--and gained first-down yardage after a measurement--was not followed by a clock stoppage until fourteen whole seconds ticked off the Sanford Stadium clock. It took from 11:28 to 11:14 of the second quarter for someone to put a halt to the proceedings in Athens.
Remember, everyone: all this info--the six 2-second time lags, the three 3-second lags, the single 5-second lag; and a 14-second measurement lag (that's 11 total incidents of loose clock management)--came from watching snippets of games on one monitor over 54 minutes. One can safely assume that if one watched a full day of football (13 hours of games in all time zones) on one monitor alone, that number would reach at least 120 if the viewer was a vigilant and appreciably experienced channel surfer. Give someone five monitors for 13 full hours, and that number likely reaches (at the very least) 200. Apply that figure to all the TV games that took place in all of Division I-A on one weekend (beyond anything five monitors can handle), and that number will go much, much higher. Then include every single non-TV game as well, and you have a gigantic number. An overall figure of 500 would be quite conservative.
The contention that two- or three-second time lags are regular occurrences in college football after first-down plays is a contention that has been backed up with solid evidence. No one who was REALLY paying attention should have been the least bit outraged or shocked after the Washington-USC game, which--for the record--was preceded earlier in the season by a first-half flap involving Kentucky and Florida. The defense--or should I say the Weekly Affirmation Stopwatch--rests.
Elsewhere in the college football world, one can't talk about the past weekend without giving deserved recognition to historically downtrodden programs.
Vanderbilt and Indiana have toiled for many years in college football's shadows. They both have coaches who are great gentlemen in the college football world, the kinds of leaders you want to root for as a fan and play for as a scholar-athlete. Vandy's Bobby Johnson prohibits profanity from himself, his staff, and his players. In so doing, he teaches young men how to conduct themselves with honor and dignity in a ruthlessly emotional sport where testosterone can easily run wild. Terry Hoeppner, an Indiana native, has endured brain surgery this year to lead the program--and the kids--he loves. At two distinguished academic universities, Johnson and Hoeppner truly manage to make coaching nothing more than a sports-related extension of teaching. For that reason, they're great fits at schools that should be delighted to retain them for years... even if showcase results are slow in coming.
But about those results: they do seem to be emerging at both programs.
Vandy's win over Georgia is less surprising than Indiana's stunner over Iowa. This is so because of Georgia's marked inconsistency at quarterback, but also because Vanderbilt has consistently thrown a big-league effort at better-known SEC opponents. The Commodores lost at Alabama on a 47-yard field goal, and fumbled in Bama territory with a chance to take the lead in the second half of that game. Vandy twice had Arkansas on the ropes, but a dropped pick-six and a missed field goal turned a late win into an all-too-familiar loss against the current SEC West leader. What you saw on Saturday afternoon in Athens was no fluke; Vandy has hitters on defense and athletic playmakers on offense. The problem for the Commodores is that quarterback Chris Nickson is too slow and mechanical on a lot of plays. Though a fast quarterback, he hasn't yet learned to run when he has the chance, and in terms of the passing game, Nickson makes a lot of throws that are either too soft or tardy. With more cultivation and practice, Nickson could become a threat in ways Jay Cutler never was. This is not to say that Nickson will be better than Cutler, only that he'll provide a different dimension for Bobby Johnson. If he cleans up his game, Vandy becomes a middle-tier SEC team in 2007.
Indiana also discovered against Iowa that it has potential at the quarterback spot, while--like Vanderbilt--showing that today's upset win could lead to tomorrow's increased stature.
When the Hoosiers came from a mile back to beat Illinois the week before, hardly anyone noticed, and understandably so. But after ringing up 31 points on a Norm Parker-coached Hawkeye defense, it's apparent that Hoosier signal caller Kellen Lewis wasn't just a one-trick pony against a porous Illini squad. Lewis carved up Iowa's secondary with poise, noticeable consistency, and--this is the key for a youngster at a program trying to get off the deck--under pressure in the money quarter. Lewis' smoothest pass of the day was also his most significant: a flawless flip to James Hardy--who never broke stride as he strolled along the seam--for the winning score. Yes, like Nickson at Vanderbilt, Lewis has a ways to go: he fumbled on the next to last play of the game, but managed to gather in his mistake before it became a catastrophe. Fortunately, he--like Nickson--lived to tell about his adventures, and if Lewis can hone his skills while learning from teachable moments, he could become the quarterback who takes his program to heights rarely seen in the past two decades.
Beyond the issue of quarterbacks, though, the bigger lesson Vandy and Indiana give to all college football fans, players and coaches--especially those at beaten-down programs--is that victory is much more attainable than many people might think. With a few psychological epiphanies, a team can pass through a threshold and slay longstanding demons. Once this is done, a culture at a program can be transformed, and a winning identity can be birthed. The Vandys of the world stop being the Vandys of the world. They become Vanderbilt to last, and they get to say to their opponents, "Hoosier daddy?"
Why is victory more attainable than one might initially suspect at lowly college football programs? As this writer has been shouting from the rooftops for several years now, mental toughness--the realm of the psychological--is the cornerstone. Cultural change at a program, after all, is about mindset before anything else, not the physical or tangible elements of size, speed or strength. The line between being 4-8 and 7-5 is a fine one. It's not an easy point of distinction. Teams that lose the three extra games might have a little less quality depth, but the teams that win the three extra games in the middle tier of college football aren't exactly stacked with riches. The difference between being home for the holidays and actually making the Meineke Car Care Bowl--which the Vandys and Indianas of the world would kill for--is found between the ears and in the heart. The key lies in the ability to repeatedly perform the basic tasks of football not just in the first 57 minutes, when you smell the upset and are filled with positive emotional juices, but in the final three minutes, when you realize that, "Holy guacamole, we might actually score this upset (or choke)!" The legs get heavy with stress-induced fatigue, the brain spins sideways, the heart beats a lot faster. Performing in these moments of mental and physiological flux is what turns 4-8 into 7-5. Failing in these situations turns that GMAC Bowl bid into no December practices.
College football games, dear readers, are the most fragile and delicate sporting events known to humankind. They turn on dimes, and expectedly so, given that hormonal flows of 19-year-old male members of the human species are involved. The young people who muster up the will and focus to play through the surges and ebbs of emotion are the people who can take Vandy and Indiana from Loss Land to Winner World. It happened on Saturday, at least, and it might continue to happen in the future of the programs in Nashville and Bloomington. Other coaches of lowly programs can take heart: if they can achieve a psychic breakthrough, new horizons of success could soon follow.
The final stop on the week seven survey of the college football landscape concerns this business of conference superiority. The verdict? No conference is superior to another, including the SEC.
The Southeastern Conference has it all over the other conferences in terms of passion, noise, intensity, game atmosphere, and the other qualities that make college football sing. But for yet another season, it's impossible to give the SEC a clear nod in football quality over other leagues because the offenses just plain stink. Just ask yourself: who's the best quarterback in the SEC? Pick your person: it could be Chris Leak. It could be Erik Ainge. By the end of the year, it might be Syvelle Newton, though not likely. All three of those signal callers have their fair share of talents, but none of them could be called "great" or "elite" in any meaningful sense of those weighty terms. Ainge has desperately needed David Cutcliffe to find himself, and even then, No. 10 for the Big Orange couldn't make the money throws in the final stages of a one-point loss against Florida. Speaking of Florida, the Gators butter their bread with defense; Chris Leak commits at least one really bad turnover in every major game Florida plays. Newton could become something special under Steve Spurrier, but that's only if he can consistently display more of the form he revealed against Auburn a few weeks ago. Are SEC defenses particularly good? On balance, yes. But they aren't getting tested by elite quarterbacks these days. What in the name of Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning is going on in the South? They don't make big-time signal callers in Dixie anymore, and such a reality proves that the league was a lot better when Mr. Spurrier was still in Gainesville. The disappearance of elite quarterbacks in the SEC affirms how much the conference has regressed to Bear Bryant ball since the modernizing Visored One left his lofty perch in North Central Florida.
While the SEC is hardly great shakes, though, no other conference is filling in the void. In the Big East, Louisville barely skated by Cincy, and West Virginia is shaky on the road. Rutgers and Pitt are giving the conference some heft, but at an elite level, the league has a lot of questions to answer. As long as USC stumbles through Pac-10 play, West Coast ball can't merit a sparkling assessment. Iowa's struggles have made the Big Ten a thin two-team conference, and Oklahoma's uneven season has left the Big XII similarly bereft of quality depth. And then there's the ACC, which stands for the Acutely Compromised Conference when it comes to the full abilities of all its member teams. Even the Mountain West--the seventh-rated conference by most standards--has showcase teams who aren't showcasing much: TCU and Utah have had severe struggles on offense this year.
You might as well shelve any and all conference superiority claims for yet another season, because the verdict in 2006 is the same as it was in 2005: no league is better than the others. The mediocrity runs too deeply through all conferences for any one of them to merit special recognition or applause.
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Week Eight: October 23, 2006
You know young people: they don't always listen... except in Clemson.
Last weekend, it seemed that all the teams pursuing Ohio State wanted no part of the No. 2 national ranking. The horn sounded, the trumpet blared, and the call rang forth: make a statement if you really want to be the second-best team in the country. A week later, only Tommy Bowden's Tigers seemed to take the call to heart, and all credit to the Purple Calvin Johnson Eaters for rising to the occasion. Everyone else, though, continued to display the kind of lackluster ball that only serves to reinforce the Big East's argument in the debate that's currently tearing through the college football world.
Let's treat this subject with the depth and detail it deserves--just like any other weighty college football topic. After all, the clash of worldviews involved in the debate between an unbeaten Big East team and a one-loss team from a better BCS conference (if it gets to that point in the race for Glendale) is as profound as it is pronounced. Two deeply-held and very legitimate viewpoints are butting heads here, and they both deserve their due in the court of college football argumentation.
Those who side with the one-loss teams from stronger conferences have many compelling and legitimate arguments on their side. (And it's important for someone who takes an opposing view to represent the other side clearly, accurately and fairly in a given debate. Remember that, college football fans of America.) The best argument is strength of schedule. Ohio State and Texas had the cojones to schedule each other in consecutive years, a fact which rightly puts Mack Brown's Longhorns at the top of the list for Glendale invitees. USC doesn't duck quality opponents in its non-conference schedule--Arkansas and Nebraska are games few other schools would schedule. Michigan annually plays Notre Dame, a strong supplement to any Big Ten slate. If you're a Big East fan, you have to acknowledge that the big boys deserve a lot of respect for what they do... and whom they play. By comparison, West Virginia did play an SEC road game this year... at Mississippi State, the longtime doormat of the league's Western Division.
Before the Big East fans (and especially the wonderful people known as Mountaineers) get all huffy--remember, I am still taking your side in this debate--the obvious must be said: yes, yes, yes--West Virginia didn't know it would be a national title contender when it scheduled this game. Yes, yes, yes--schedule strength levels (see Louisville-Miami) can appear to be substantial but then turn out to be much lower in the weeks after a game is played. Yes, yes, yes--Louisville deserves major kudos for scheduling the Canes, and the dent in UL's strength of schedule rating should clearly not be held against them. But that Miami game is admittedly an exception in Big East circles. The conference needs to make a substantial effort to play big boys in future years when schedule slots are still open. It would solve a lot of questions in the college football world if Louisville could play USC this weekend, and West Virginia could tackle Michigan. Maybe we'll get those matchups down the line; we need them, too, as long as this sport continues to deny its fans a playoff and cling to the insanity and dysfunctionality of the BCS, which is the white elephant in this very big conversation room. But as long as we're stuck with the BCS, teams from lightly-regarded leagues need to schedule top-shelf non-conference opponents. It's just that simple.
Another point made by the advocates of the one-loss teams is that the Big East doesn't yet have quality depth. Among all the other games from this past Saturday, it was a point of professional responsibility for this columnist to devote extra attention to Rutgers-Pittsburgh, in order to discern how the league's two second-tier teams could compete with West Virginia and Louisville down the stretch. After watching two passionate ballclubs fight in Heinz Field with noble intensity--but a paucity of skill position studs on the edges--it's clear that the Mountaineers and Cardinals will go to battle with a lot more offensive potency than their more impoverished conference brethren from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It seems clear that the Big East still lacks the heft and weight possessed by other BCS conferences. Rutgers, the third-best team in the Big East at this point, would seem to be greatly outclassed by the third-best teams in the SEC (Tennessee) and Big Ten (Wisconsin). Pittsburgh, the fourth-best team in the Big East, lost by 28 points (when you ignore two entirely meaningless garbage touchdowns) at home to the same Michigan State ballclub that's been floundering for so much of 2006.
Those are the main arguments working against the Big East and its top teams right now. One hopes the position of the one-loss heavyweights (current or soon-to-be) was represented fairly.
But now we get to the pro-Big East part of this debate. This is where the one-loss teams and their advocates--especially the presidents of these schools, who stand as the real power brokers and potential movement-makers in college football--need to sit back in their chairs and look at life from the perspective of the little guy. A little sympathy and understanding can go a long way.
If you look at the world through the lens of Big East fans--those patient and under-served folks (in football, not hoops) who were so cruelly raided by an ACC that is so delightfully and deliciously choking on a bone of brutally bad football this year--you'd realize that in the football world, the Big East has had to endure a lot of criticism over the past several years, much of it righteous and, moreover, appropriate. All those decisive Syracuse losses in major bowl games had an effect. So, too, did Pittsburgh's dubious Fiesta Bowl invite at the end of the 2004 season. Without Miami and a side helping of Virginia Tech, the Big East wouldn't have had much of a leg to stand on in the past decade. The conference came in for a bashing... not because people hated the league, per se, but because lopsided New Year's bowl games represented a black mark on a sport that thrives on big games and attractive matchups. Anti-Big East sentiment wasn't personal; it was actually nothing more than the frustration fans rightly felt at being cheated out of better BCS bowl games. People didn't hate Pittsburgh in 2004; they simply hated the fact that Pittsburgh, not Auburn, was playing Urban Meyer's Utah team in Tempe... that's all. But Big East fans felt that these withering criticisms were being leveled at them. Keep that in mind if you're a fan/advocate of Texas, Michigan or USC, someone who might have the inclination to shout down the Mountaineer and Cardinal fans in the room.
What Big East bashers need to realize is that the 2006 Sugar Bowl fundamentally changed the landscape. Just as George Mason's run to the 2006 Final Four should open a lot of eyes about the credentials of so called "mid-majors" in college basketball, West Virginia's win in a de facto road game against Georgia should have transformed a lot of perceptions about the college football world. The Mountaineers' deceivingly convincing 38-35 win over the SEC champions proved that conference superiority (or inferiority) is a myth, a dead-end issue that goes nowhere and proves precious little about anything in college football. More importantly, WVU's Sugar Bowl win showed that a team can come from a lousy conference (which the Big East was last year; Rutgers lacked the heft it has attained this season, and Pittsburgh was nowhere to be found; South Florida overachieved, but then got bageled against a thoroughly average N.C. State team in the Meineke Car Care Bowl) and win a big-time showcase game. Much as lower seeds in the NCAA Basketball Tournament play with a chip on their shoulder and ambush blue-chip programs in the early rounds, so, too, can a motivated team from a bad conference upend an "old-money" power from a more credentialed conference.
All of this raises the age-old dilemma that will haunt and torture college football people until we get that elusive and much-needed playoff: should the little guy be rewarded and recognized for achieving big, even if its schedule is weak, or should the big boys--even with a loss--be respected for the chances they take at the highest levels of competition? Flowing from this question, one must then ask a follow-up: what is the tipping point at which an unbeaten Big East champ would deserve more leverage than a one-loss Texas or the one-loss (eventual) loser of Michigan-Ohio State? That's not a snarky or mean-spirited question, but a query that's entirely central to this debate. I'm genuinely curious. If we take our national title debates seriously in college football--as we should (though not more seriously than issues of politics, poverty and health care)--we must then have legitimate explanations and answers to tough and persistent questions that won't--and shouldn't--go away.
I'd like to know, then: what kind of non-conference schedule would lift West Virginia past a Texas or a Michigan in a potential end-of-season debate? One game at Florida? Two games against Oregon and Wisconsin? Three games against Washington State, Arkansas and Clemson, with two of them being on the road? What would it take? Again, this isn't meant to be snide or sarcastic--we're searching for answers here.
The problem with all this, though--as you can see--is that answers are hard to come by in college football. That's frustrating, but darnit, it's true, and it's a reality people have to level with, hard as it may be to do so.
With only twelve games in a season--four of them out of conference--we just don't have the diversity of competition that can provide a sufficient level of cross-pollination in non-conference matchups. Athletic directors at various schools--who schedule a lot of games years in advance--can't tell in 2002 if 2006 is going to be a national title year for their football program. Similarly, ADs who schedule big-name opponents in 2002 or 2003 (or whenever) can't tell if those big boys--again, see "Louisville versus Miami" for a classic example in this regard--will fall off the map four years later, thereby hurting their BCS ranking. All those schools who moved to the ACC couldn't have known how awful the conference would be this season. Without a playoff, there's just no way of denying it: answers are not plentiful in the currently structured college football world. Such a reality can make the simplest questions--"what will it take to make a Big East team's schedule worthy of a national title game appearance?"--seem loaded with attitudinal edge and overall nastiness. In actuality, though, there's no meanness at all; it's just a search for (re)solutions that are few and far between, and it's that lack of satisfying answers which makes fans unceasingly angry at football writers, not to mention opposing fans from conferences with different places on the college football food chain.
Yes, the Texases and Ohio States of the universe demand and deserve leverage in BCS arguments for playing each other. You are supposed to be rewarded for playing non-conference games of that nature, and it should be a powerful tiebreaker in a season-ending debate. But Big East fans--while also citing West Virginia's win over Georgia, proof that a good team from a bad league can make good when given its one big chance in the spotlight--will turn around and say, with a lot of credibility, "what about these other BCS conferences, anyway? They're not exactly lighting up the night with their level of play."
Indeed, the anti-Big East argument--made credible by the strength of schedule and quality depth arguments--is substantially countered by the 2006 Sugar Bowl and the mediocrity of name teams in all the sexier conferences. While--as said above--Rutgers would suffer if compared to the third-place teams in the SEC and Big Ten, it is just as true that Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights would rate as well as--if not better than--the third-best teams from the Big XII (Oklahoma sans Adrian Peterson), Pac-10 (Oregon), and ACC (Georgia Tech). Just as the Big East lacks quality depth, it happens to be true that the other conferences are simultaneously deteriorating in much the same way. The Big XII--which used to have RC Slocum's Wrecking Crews, Bill Snyder's loaded K-State Cats, Frank Solich's Nebraska squads powered by Eric Crouch, Bob Stoops' title-winning troops, Gary Barnett's running Ralphies, and Mack Brown's ten-win Texas teams (even if they regularly lost to Oklahoma back then)--was ridiculously stacked for several seasons running. The SEC of 1998--when Florida massively underachieved and yet rolled to an easy BCS bowl victory (an indicator of quality depth)--had teams from Mississippi State and Arkansas that would dwarf the current ballclubs fielded at those two schools. The SEC of 2001 boasted similar depth, as the quality of quarterbacking from that year drastically overshadowed the current offerings of decidedly shaky Southeastern Conference signal callers. All conferences have off years (Pac-10 in 1999, Big Ten in 2000, SEC and Big XII last year, ACC this year), but it seems as though the conferences--up and down the line--lack the aura they possessed just five to eight seasons ago. As an example, I can distinctly recall the 2004 season (and my November writings from that season), when an unusually large amount of lower-tier bowl slots went to Mid-American Conference teams and other "mid-majors," all because the seventh- and eight-place teams in the SEC and ACC (and perhaps other conferences) failed to become bowl eligible. Conference mediocrity--across the board and far beyond the Big East--has been a consistent and emerging theme in college football over the past three seasons, if not more. As a result, the Big East should not be the punching bag it currently is, even if its teams don't play the schedules they should. Moreover, the prevalence of conference mediocrity suggests that the teams at power conference schools can't expect to rely on their reputations alone when the BCS selection show comes along on the first Sunday of December. Speaking to these big boys, the following must be said (and repeated) after another weekend in which no one (except for Clemson) seemed interested in making a big statement: if you want to differentiate yourself from the field--not to mention an unbeaten Big East champion--go out there on the field and do it. Without that clear point of differentiation--which only Clemson was willing to make on Saturday--this is an entirely subjective, stylistic, and preference-based debate we're having.
Mind you, subjective debates (in the spirit of honest analysis) are grounded in facts. Yes, both sides in this larger debate have many facts and realities to point to; saying that a debate is subjective does not mean that information and truth are absent from the debate. What this does mean, though, is that at the end of the day, there's no college football court of law that can definitively determine which is the inherently better or more meritorious set of arguments. There's no court of arbitration where some truths can be fully and finally pronounced as "better" than others. There's never enough evidence in a college football season to conclusively prove whether an unbeaten little guy deserves a national title game slot over and against a one-loss team from an old-money conference. The only real solution is a playoff, and until then, we're frankly in the wildnerness. So in the meantime, I'll register my own stylistic preference in the midst of the confusion: I prefer to give the little guy the benefit of the doubt, especially if said little guy proves he can beat a big boy on the big stage, as West Virginia did against Georgia. There are proving-ground moments in the life of a team, a conference, and a sport, and that 2006 Sugar Bowl was one of those temperature-taking times. The Big East got its one chance, and the stakes were incredibly high: a decisive loss, and the conference would have DESERVED to be laughed off the stage; a close loss, and the conference couldn't have commanded as much leverage as it does today; but with a win, West Virginia and the Big East would have deserved the benefit of the doubt from a previously skeptical college football community. The Mountaineers--playing in enemy territory with all of America watching--won the ballgame in impressive fashion. They settled a longstanding and divisive argument the only way you truly can in college football: on the field.
To be clear and fair about this, West Virginia's win on January 2 doesn't mean that Big East fans have the inherently "better" argument. (Otherwise, everything said above about subjective arguments would be flatly untrue, making this writer quite the hypocrite.) It only means that the Big East/West Virginia viewpoint is every bit as legitimate as the Texas/Michigan/USC viewpoint shared by the power establishment in college football. Without a playoff and the ON-FIELD evidence needed to separate one team from another, our facts and truths and statistics--legitimate though they in fact are--are nevertheless insufficient, and it all becomes--as friends of mine would say--"a beauty contest." To think the BCS mechanisms are in any way more enlightened, legitimate, accurate or "truthful" as measurements of football merit is just about the only laughably incorrect statement a college football fan can make these days. On 99 percent of occasions, the average fan speaks from a place of truth (though also emotional heatedness and literary embellishment); it's just that we don't have a system in place that can weigh the relevance and centrality of various truths and thereby rank their importance. We all have facts, dear readers; it's a matter of determining the hierarchies of those facts that counts, and in college football, we won't have a system that can do so... not until we get a bleepity-bleepin' playoff.
In other news... what about this past Saturday of action? It raises some questions that need to be thrown at fans of various teams in the national spotlight.
All fans of major college football teams need to start applying this basic test if they're serious about honestly analyzing the sport and arrving at fair conclusions: "What would I think of my team if I weren't a fan or a member of that team's same conference?"
This doesn't mean that fans of a given team are "unfair" if they rank their team No. 2. No, that would be a ridiculous verdict. It only means that in compiling an accurate profile of one's own team, one must factor in the weaknesses along with the strengths if s/he is to be honest as a football analyst. With that point being established, let's fire away:
To Michigan fans: if you weren't Michigan fans or Big Ten fans, would you still rate the Penn State win as impressive? The Nittany Lions scored just one offensive touchdown against Illinois... the same amount of offensive touchdowns scored against your truly wonderful defense, which shall now be known as the "English Majors." It was never questioned or doubted that your defense is excellent, studly, or whatever other praiseworthy description one can use. The point was that Penn State had a bad offense, which should temper any orgasmically ecstatic assessments of Michigan's defensive effort against JoePa's pop-gun outfit. You can find many legitimate reasons to rate your Maize and Blue as the number two team in the country; moreover, for lack of better alternatives, I'd actually agree that Lloyd Carr's team should be ranked right below Ohio State. But if you cite the Penn State game or overall strength of schedule as some of your better arguments, you might want to perform a reality check, stat.
To Cal fans: if you weren't Bear backers or Pac-10 people, would you really, really rate the Bears as better than USC right now? Good teams do win tough ballgames, and avoiding turnovers is the sign of a well-coached club, but with those arguments being acknowledged, would you truly be confident right now about Jeff Tedford's team if you weren't a Berkeley resident or a West Coast native? Washington committed five more turnovers and still took you to the wall in Strawberry Canyon. Not the best indicator of a team intent on taking over the Pac-10.
To Tennessee fans: if you didn't bleed Big Orange or otherwise reside in the South, would you believe in Erik Ainge right now? I suspect that over the course of the upcoming week, Tennessee partisans will publicly support Ainge, while privately worrying that another midseason slowdown (a la 2004, before an unfortunate injury) is in progress. Vol fans probably think that Alabama's defense maxed out and threw Ainge some unique curveballs that won't confuse him again this season, while a lot of people outside the Southeastern United States will think that Ainge was never as good as his first half of 2006 indicated. The truth lies in between those two extremes, but for Vol fans, the larger point should be clear: any politicking for elevated status among the 1-loss teams in the top ten should be tempered by honest acknowledgments of Ainge's currently fragile situation. If he passes huge road tests at Columbia and Fayetteville, then Vol fans will have clear and unassailable facts on their side. Not yet, though.
And finally, to Notre Dame fans: if you weren't Notre Dame fans (hard to ever conceive of, I know), would you truly, in your heart of hearts, view the Irish's two-loss BCS lock-in as fair or ethical? I know--it's hard to step outside the box. But please try.
That's enough for this week's edition of the "what if you weren't a fan" test, but all college football diehards should consistently use that self-examination for the rest of the season... and throughout eternity, for that matter.
A final big-picture observation on the remainder of the season, before ending this week's column: November will be delicious because of the one thing that makes sports (not just college football) sing: contrasting styles.
The great rivalries and confrontations in any sport were defined by different flavors. Tennis had Navratilova's emotional net play against Chris Evert's icy groundstrokes, and later, Sampras' unstoppable serve against Agassi's relentless returns. The NBA had the halfcourt Celtics with the underrated fast break against the Showtime Lakers with the underrated halfcourt game. Baseball--in the 1980s, at least--had the power-laden New York Mets, with Darryl Strawberry and fireballing pitcher Dwight Gooden, against the finesse-driven St. Louis Cardinals, with speed merchant jackrabbit Vince Coleman and a manipulative mixmaster of a pitcher named John Tudor. Contrasts make for great sports moments, and college football--as mediocre as it has been over the past three years (see above)--could be in store for a sensational home stretch.
The big, defining November (and early December) matchups in this sport will pit different personalities against each other. In the Big East, West Virginia's ground game will take on Louisville's passing game (yeah, the Cards can definitely run, but they're not beating WVU unless Brian Brohm emerges from his current funk). After the Mountaineers and Cards do battle, they'll both tackle a rugged Rutgers outfit that will lean on old-school defense against the high-powered offenses that come from Morgantown and the Kentucky Commonwealth. The looming Michigan-Ohio State showdown is increasingly acquiring a defense-versus-offense label. Yes, the key in all of these kinds of matchups (as is usually the case throughout human history) lies in the other, less-publicized confrontation. West Virginia's passing game, for example, will likely decide the Nov. 2 battle with Louisville; Rutgers' offense will decide its battles with its conference brethren; and Michigan's offense will determine how well the Wolverines can compete in Columbus on Nov. 18. But that's a different discussion for another day. The contrasts between these teams still exist to an appreciable degree, and that's what will make November a very intriguing month for all college football connoisseurs.
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Week Nine: October 30, 2006
It's rare that a season-defining, main-event football game gets played on Thursday night, so before dealing with national title debates, the flaws of the BCS (part ten million, six hundred thirty-nine thousand, four hundred seventeen), and everything else in between, let's tackle the Clash in the Commonwealth, as the Mountaineers of West Virginia ride into Louisville for a blockbuster Big East brouhaha.
Those who read CFN's weekly "Perspective Pieces" on the week's signature games will know that on some occasions, a game lends itself to an X-and-O preview. But that's just a small portion of the panorama of possibilities possessed by a prospective Perspective Piece. A perspective on a game is not confined to a standard comparison of matchups, keys and stats. Other times, a more emotional preview is demanded, especially through the prism of a player or coach who has a lot to prove. And in still other situations, a game preview deserves the grand, sweeping poetry and romance that Grantland Rice brought to college football reportage when the sport became a national sensation in the 1920s.
In looking at 'Eers-Cards, then, let's tackle all three elements of the Battle in the Bluegrass. First, the matchup itself.
It's only one person's opinion, but in any game where there's a signature confrontation that gets most of the publicity, the belief here is that the less sexy matchup will make the difference. The big matchup in this game is clearly West Virginia's rush offense against the Cards' underappreciated and fairly athletic defense. If Pat White and Steve Slaton run wild, it's game over, period. But in light of this reality, Louisville will devote the balance of its pregame preparation to containing the WVU ground game. The scars of the 46-44 triple-OT loss in Morgantown last year will not allow Bobby Petrino's team to underestimate the explosiveness residing in the WVU backfield.
This means that the Mountaineer passing game will be one of the "shadow factors" that, while not heavily publicized, will loom large on Thursday at The Oven (aka, Papa John's Stadium). Rich Rodriguez has basically told the rest of the college football world that he doesn't need a passing game to beat Louisville or anyone else on the Mountaineer slate. Had Rodriguez valued the development of his team's passing game, he'd have thrown more than nine passes at Mississippi State. He'd have thrown more than 14 passes against Connecticut. The Mountaineers might indeed prove on Thursday that they won't need much of a passing game... perhaps because their 17-point comeback against UL in 2005 was achieved without a lot of help from the passing game. But that might be a WVU blind spot entering this contest.
Why? Because Louisville prepared for Adam Bednarik last season, not White, who came into the game only after Bednarik got injured and a few thousand Mountaineer fans left the ballpark, understandably thinking that Bednarik would never lead a comeback against the Cards. Rodriguez was able to surprise Louisville (and given that he started Bednarik at the beginning of the 2005 season, he obviously surprised himself) by unleashing White's blazing speed. It was a revelation few, if any, could have foreseen when last year's WVU-UL game started, and it's the very thing that made West Virginia's 2005 season a rags-to-riches tale unlike anything college football has seen in its 138-year history. This year, though, the Mountaineers--despite the hard-hit Appalachian region in which they reside--are the rich kids in college football. They're a member of the sport's elite (even if some claim they're not), a distinction legitimately earned with their road win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Whether WVU maintains that elite status or not is another question, however, and if Coach Rodriguez thinks he doesn't need to pass the ball, he's taking a calculated risk that endangers his team's lofty status. Rushing yards don't figure to come as easily as they did in the fourth quarter and the three overtimes from last year's Louisville game. Passing proficiency will likely be needed to turn back the Cards. If WVU is good enough to dare UL to stop the run and still blow by them with some Sugar Bowl shake-and-bake shiftiness, more power to them (and punch a ticket to Glendale, too). Chances are, though, that the passing game will need to come into play, and on more than a few occasions, for the Mountaineers to mount a big-time offensive charge against Louisville.
There other under-publicized matchup in this game--overshadowed by the WVU ground game's battle against UL's front seven--is the collision between Brian Brohm (and Mario Urrutia) against the Mountaineer secondary. If Louisville can set the pace in this game by racking up home-run pass plays against WVU's back line of defense, the scoreboard could force WVU to keep up in a track meet. And while White and Slaton have the speed of track studs, you get the idea: they'll be under more pressure to hit huge plays if pressed into a calculator-type game. It's not what Rich Rodriguez wants. The WVU coach would prefer a game in which Brohm and Urrutia (who have been struggling ever since Brohm re-entered the lineup a few weeks ago) struggle, and the 'Eers' ground game steadily gains a stranglehold on the proceedings.
For those who don't follow these teams closely, and who know who Brian Brohm is (the UL quarterback), you might wonder who Mario Urrutia is. Urrutia (No. 7) is UL's cash-money receiver, blessed with an NFL body and all the attributes you'd want in a big-time pass catcher. Against Miami back in September, it was Urrutia who made the home-run plays Bobby Petrino needs from his offense in big games. But in recent weeks, only tight end Gary Barnidge has been able to catch passes over 20 yards. Against West Virginia, it's Urrutia who must step up. He can't have a pedestrian outing in which he catches five passes totaling roughly 70 yards without a touchdown. Urrutia needs to hit at least one very long home run ball and make multiple plays of above-average significance for Louisville--without Michael Bush, remember--to ultimately prevail.
That takes care of matchups. Now, what about the emotions of the contest? Who has something to prove? Quite frankly, it's no one and everyone at the same time. West Virginia and Louisville have proven in the past that they belong at the big-boy table, if ever given the chance. As an extension of internal emotions or personal reputations, these two teams have nothing to prove, and they should be aware of that reality. But of course, from a national perspective deep inside the "media-industrial complex"--and in places such as Ann Arbor, Austin, Knoxville, Berkeley, L.A., Gainesville and Auburn--these teams have everything to prove. To put a finer point on this game, it is the Big East's equivalent of the Michigan-Ohio State showdown. If either one of these teams wants to make Glendale, it should only need to win. But to gain respect from the rest of the college football world--a different proposition altogether--both teams, as they try to win, will need to play well.
Finally, to the romance and magic of this game.
The sweet and poignant aspect of this event is that it puts college football outsiders inside the grand palace hall. These are rich kids (as said above), but they're the nouveau riche, the t-shirt-and-jean-short-wearing rebels who threaten the power establishment instead of bowing to its conventions. West Virginia and Louisville have resided in the top ten while figuring in preseason national title conversations over the past two years (UL in 2005, WVU this year). They dominate their conference. This confrontation on Nov. 2 has been greatly anticipated all year, and both teams (especially UL) should take pride in their ability to enter this matchup unbeaten. But in comparison to the rest of college football and its other BCS conferences, these teams--being in the Big East, the league that embarrassed itself and the sport in past debacles on New Year's Day from teams such as Syracuse and Pitt--find themselves outside the center of conversation. WVU and UL are indeed playing for supreme riches, but the old-money establishment won't be seen within sniffing distance of either team at a formal dinner party. Most college football fans outside West Virginia and Kentucky think--at least from the e-mail I receive--that an unbeaten Big East team has no business being in Glendale in place of a one-loss team from the SEC, Big Ten, or Big XII. This means that while WVU and UL are rich kids in college football, they lack the social connections and dinner companions that make money go a lot farther in life. The Mountaineers and Cards are inside the palatial mansion with money to burn, but the attractive, well-placed and accomplished women of high society aren't choosing to be with them. WVU and UL are filthy rich, but painfully alone and cut off from those who possess admiration, sex appeal, influence, and the other non-monetary trappings of wealth.
On Thursday night, West Virginia and Louisville will stage their own nouveau riche party in a state known for horses and stables. The beauty and impressiveness of this Bluegrass hoedown will determine if the rest of the college football world begins to respect the Big East the way it should. Should this be the case? No. Is it the case? Yes.
This ends the West Virginia-Louisville portion of this week's column. Let's shift to the national title debate itself.
The race for Glendale brings up a classic point of differentiation between "predictive analysis" and "recommendation-based analysis." Predictive analysis is a straight reading of news events as they are ("what will happen"), while recommendation-based analysis is a considered opinion of what ought to happen as a matter of fairness or appropriateness ("what should happen in an ideal or reasonable world"). The national title debate--like any other significant discussion--demands that these two parts of analysis remain segregated. First, then, the predictive analysis.
In terms of what will happen, it's becoming more and more possible that Michigan--if it plays Ohio State close (but the Wolverines shouldn't sleep on Indiana the week before going to Columbus) on Nov. 18--could very definitely have a rematch with the Bucks in Glendale. Media hype has a way of gathering steam to the extent that, once entrenched, it creates its own self-fulfilling prophecies. With this in mind, a close and gallant UM performance against OSU--even in defeat--could very easily result in the pollsters keeping Michigan second in the polls, which would give the Maize and Blue considerable leverage in a season-ending BCS race.
In offering a preliminary pick on Wolverines-Bucks, I think OSU is ready to throttle a Michigan team whose offense--much like USC's--is skating by with pedestrian performances each week. In Columbus, Chad Henne needs to have the game of his life; maybe, in the end, he will do just that. But unless the UM offense shows signs of really cranking it up on offense, the Bucks clearly have two strengths compared to Michigan's one. The English Majors could stuff Troy Smith and Co. for a half, maybe even three quarters, but if Henne can't take the heat off Mike Hart and his defense, it will catch up with the Wolverines. A lack of both ball control and credible intermediate passing will create a losing field-position battle that will eventually swamp Michigan. It's up to the Maize and Blue to develop a big-boy offense in the coming weeks, so that Troy Smith will have an opposing offense he can respect. If Smith doesn't have any pressure to produce points, chances are he won't be taken out of his comfort zone. And if that's the case, Ohio State won't be challenged.
It's a good news-bad news situation, then, for Michigan and its fans. The bad news? If UM's offense doesn't improve, it could get ugly in Columbus, and a lopsided loss would derail any Michigan hopes for a rematch on January 8. The good news, though, is this: if Michigan, up against the one true juggernaut in the sport, does indeed manage to keep things very close and competitive over 60 minutes, a lot of pollsters will keep UM second and thereby set the stage for a rematch. A close win might not lock up an OSU-UM sequel in the Desert Southwest, but it will radically improve the chances and make it a 50-50 proposition. Whoever winds up competing with Michigan come the final weekend of play (Saturday, Dec. 2) will be sweating bullets if Lloyd Carr's team pushes OSU to the wall in mid-November. That's the predictive analysis of the BCS race at this point. Unless anything truly dramatic happens (and you'll know if it does), that analysis remains in place until the Nov. 18 showdown in the Horseshoe.
Here, on the other hand, is the recommendation-based analysis of the BCS derby.
In terms of what SHOULD happen (not what WILL happen), the past weekend of play only furthered the argument of Big East fans. If the Big Ten--OSU and Michigan's conference--is worthy of having both teams in the national title game (not just in two BCS bowls; it's clear that Michigan definitely deserves a BCS bowl, even if it might not deserve a ticket to Glendale in the event of a loss to Ohio State), its third wheel should be an extremely good team. Not just pretty good, but really, really good. Borderline great, in fact.
But yesterday, there was Wisconsin, the third-best team in the Big Ten, coming very close to losing at home to Illinois. One doesn't need to make any passionate statements or catchy one liners to make this point. One can simply cite the fact (and it is a fact) that Illinois beat Wisconsin's defense for two easy touchdowns, only to drop a pass at the goal line and have quarterback Juice Williams overthrow a receiver by a country mile (the reference to a country mile is, of course, not factual; everything else is). If lowly Illinois could leave bunches of points on the field and still come within six of the Badgers at Camp Randall, the Big Ten--while more balanced than previously thought--is also a league whose third wheel isn't as dominant as it should be... at least if Michigan wants to go to Glendale on the heels of a loss in Columbus.
Other leagues also gave Big East fans still more arguments. Texas continues to pull games out on the road and show the heart of a champion, but the Longhorns are tempting fate with a lot of regularity, and are proving to be anything but dominant. Nebraska's loss hurts the Big XII's lack of star power at the top; if Oklahoma fails to beat Texas A&M this upcoming Saturday in College Station, you can call the Big XII a one-trick pony, albeit on a lower level compared to last year, when Mack Brown's Horns ruled the league with an even stronger iron fist.
And then look at what happened to Clemson, the most talented team in the ACC. Look at what happened to USC in the Pac-10. Florida and Auburn, the standard-bearers in the SEC (we finally get to see what Arkansas is really made of on these next two weekends against South Carolina and Tennessee), played very shaky ball before finally prevailing against inferior opponents. This proves a fundamental point about this whole raging debate: my agreement with the position of the Big East teams (and their fans) is not a hard-and-fast position; it is open to change and modification. If one of these "old-money" teams kicked butt each and every week, but had the proverbial "one bad game" to finish at 11-1, there would be substantial reason to give that kind of a team the nod over a 12-0 Big East champion... especially if WVU-UL proves to be a messy, sloppy, unsatisfying game in which both teams prove to be alarmingly weaker than expected. But unless or until I see a dominating 11-1 team that regularly blows away opponents, the benefit of the doubt in this whole argument MUST go to the Big East team. That's the best piece of recommendation-based analysis one can offer at this point in time.
What all of this shows is yet another another reason why the BCS is an awful system that needs to be blown up or radically restructured. BCS proponents--beginning with BCS founder and former SEC (read: old-money) Commissioner Roy Kramer--viewed the BCS as the perfect solution to college football's problems because it would "preserve the value and meaning of the regular season." The lingering argument against a playoff comes primarily from this strand of argumentation: "If the sanctity of the regular season is to be upheld, teams can't get the second chance offered by a playoff. You have to win your regular season games to have a shot at the title."
Well, then, if that argument is to be upheld, there should be no debate at all: an unbeaten Big East champ--if it does indeed manage to go 12-0--should deserve Glendale more than any one-loss team... at least, if the sanctity of the regular season is to be preserved. That's just one reason why the BCS would once again prove to be a joke (and a piece of hypocrisy that operates contrary to its original purpose) if a one-loss team beats out an unbeaten Big East champion for Glendale. But there's much more to the story as well. The other reason the BCS would prove to be a (much worse example of a) fraud if a one-loss team--especially Michigan--plays on January 8 is as follows: it would totally and conclusively destroy the belief of BCS proponents that the regular season currently serves as a de facto playoff.
This point needs no explanation whatsoever. If Michigan and Ohio State play on Nov. 18, and then--in their very next game--wind up playing each other again on Jan. 8, nearly two months later, there is simply no "playoff element" to the regular season. Period. Therefore, while a careful analysis of news events suggests that Michigan will indeed have a rematch with Ohio State IF (and this is the big "if" in the equation) it can play OSU very close on Nov. 18, one must appeal to the ranks of human pollsters to drop the loser of this game in the rankings, so that no rematch will take place.
Folks need to understand something about the situation that is emerging here--and is well within the realm of possibility: regular-season rematches that take place in the national title game (Florida-Florida State from 1996'-97) are always distasteful. In a sport where so few marquee matchups take place to begin with, it cheats and robs all of us--fans, journalists, coaches, players--when a fresh, new matchup doesn't emerge in a bowl game, and especially in the title game. If a rematch is to take place, there needs to be OVERWHELMING, BEYOND-THE-USUAL EVIDENCE that such a matchup is warranted. But wait--there's still another dimension to this discussion that needs to be mentioned.
It's bad enough when any rematch takes place in a title game. But if Michigan and OSU were to have their rematch in Glendale, it would be a rematch of a conference rivalry, not a rare out-of-conference game that two non-conference schools had the guts to schedule. OSU-Texas would, for instance, be a much better rematch than OSU-Michigan if the debate for No. 2 came down to UM and UT. And before those in Ann Arbor suggest that I be strung up at high noon by Bo Schembechler or any other proud Michigan Man, let me hasten to say this: this has nothing to do with Michigan or any of UM's on-field merits (or demerits). The point is that two teams from the same conference have an unusual burden to separate themselves from the rest of the field if they really, really want to have a rematch in the national title game. This burden only grows when you consider the fact that this game would not only be a rematch; it would be a conference rematch of teams that annually play each other. Furthermore, it would be a conference rematch of teams that annually play each other IN CONSECUTIVE GAMES! Except for the honor of being Big Ten champion, the UM-OSU game--if it leads to a rematch in Glendale--would amount to nothing more than a glorified scrimmage, a warm-up for the national title game. We can't have that... unless the Wolverines and Bucks are both light years ahead of every other team in college football. And while OSU just might be, UM definitely isn't. Not with an offense that is good for an average of about 17 points, one or two big pass plays, and 120 workmanlike yards from Mike Hart each game... and nothing more.
The other thing Wolverine fans have to understand--before having the distinct desire to lynch me and put my remains into a wood chipper--is that this argument is made on the basis of principles that transcend any conference. Simple example: what if Tennessee had beaten Florida, 23-21, earlier in the season, and Auburn hadn't stubbed its toe against Arkansas? We would have had a situation where Tennessee and Auburn--at this point in time--would be looking at the possibility of an SEC Championship Game in which both teams might have identical 12-0 records. This is a situation that would be almost exactly identical to what we currently have with OSU and Michigan. Wolverine fans, you had better believe that I'd be just as vociferous in pleading for no Volunteer-Tiger rematch in Glendale. I'd be making that appeal for all the same reasons mentioned above. Rematches--especially if they take place between conference opponents in consecutive games--have no place in a national title game. If UM and OSU do play in back-to-back games on Nov. 18 and Jan. 8, the BCS is exponentially worse than it already is... and I currently think the reputation of the BCS is so low that it would have to touch a snake in order to gain a higher, more elevated standing in my thought world.
Finally, some quick hitters across the college football landscape.
While other teams pursue conference championships and BCS bowl games, the following poor orphans of the college football world could take huge steps toward cementing bowl bids (or at least non-losing seasons) this upcoming Saturday, or--for those with bye weeks--in their next game: Kentucky, Indiana, Vanderbilt, San Jose State, and Southern Methodist. How's that for a list of downtrodden schools rising from the ash heap? Big kudos to the kids at all those programs for not giving up the ship.
Another category of feel-good stories should be reserved for those schools that went a long time without success (most of the 1970s through the early 1990s, to be specific), became noticeably good within the past decade, but then fell hard in the past two to three seasons, only to rebound this year: Maryland, Kansas State and Oregon State fit this profile to a "T." The Terps, Cats and Beavers were out in the wildnerness for many years, then briefly crashed the penthouse suite, only to be rudely kicked out, and now they're back to a stable blue-collar existence with a well-paying job. Washington State and Oklahoma State don't meet all the criteria of this category, but they've definitely bounced back from a few difficult seasons.
You don't have to be a college football fan to appreciate this: Temple won. Everyone in the world--even those downcast kids from Bowling Green--has to smile and cheer when Temple wins a football game. Long losing streaks are good for nobody, especially not the boys who have to live with that kind of albatross week in and week out. Hooray for the Temple Owls and their coach, Al Golden. A lot of young men just gained a beautiful and positive experience they'll take with themselves for the rest of their lives. While big-ticket programs compete for a huge pile of cash, the Temple Owls competed for--and won--something much more precious on Saturday in Philly: lifelong self-respect.
The past weekend offered a number of reasons why I don't follow recruiting at all, and consider the process of recruiting to be vastly overrated when it comes to finding brilliant individual performers (as opposed to establishing quality depth on a roster): great college football quarterbacks (think of a Jay Barker type more than a Peyton Manning type, a Tee Martin more than a Matt Leinart) always, always possess great intangible gifts. The big-time skills mean nothing if not accompanied by a cool head and a leader's mentality. This is why recruiting--especially at quarterback, the most important position in the sport--is oversold. You don't just plug in one great quarterback after the previous one leaves. Great quarterbacks need to have "that special something" in addition to the skills of a physical stud; they need to take mental and psychological ownership of the position, its responsibilities, and the relationships that any quarterback must forge with teammates. From this past weekend, one can appreciate how rare it is to have a truly great quarterback in college football. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee (and also Steve Spurrier at South Carolina) are realizing just how good they had it when Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman, David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Manning, Martin, and Casey Clausen led their teams. Paul Thompson is playing admirably for Oklahoma, but he's no Jason White--and that's no insult to Thompson; White was simply that good a leader and performer. John David Booty is showing signs that he might not be able to bear the weight of following Leinart and Carson Palmer. Only November (after a bye week against Stanford) will tell. And in comparison to all those quarterbacks who are struggling at big-name programs, consider the example of the shining (Lone) Star at Texas, Colt McCoy. No. 12 lacks the complete package of Vince Young, but UT's Colt Hero is proving to be every bit the leader VY was. McCoy is very athletic with a solid and very accurate arm, but he clearly possesses poise way beyond his years, and that's an indication of a rare soul under center with qualities you can't coach or teach. Mack Brown hit the jackpot in much the same way Steve Spurrier did in 1993. Having one great prospect in the pipeline does not guarantee future success. New college kids need to own their new role every three or four years. Danny Wuerffels--and Colt Heroes such as the Real McCoy--are rare for a reason.
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Week Ten: November 6, 2006
Point number one: The Big East game of the year was a failure. Point two: no one outside the Big East, with the sole exception of Ohio State, is succeeding. It should make all college football fans pause for a quiet moment of reflection.
The ballyhooed battle between West Virginia and Louisville was--to put it plainly--a poorly-played game. There's just no getting around (or over, or under, or through) that reality. The number of fumbles, really stupid personal fouls, and inept defensive plays (memo to West Virginia linebackers: you might want to respect Louisville's passing game more than its Michael Bush-less running attack, especially if you want to shut down big plays) was too great to consider 'Eers-Cards a well-played game. Was the Big East primetime feast an entertaining game? Heck, yes. Did the two teams show considerable guts and gallantry? Absolutely. Did the game make for great television--despite ESPN's infuriating insistence on multiple celebrity interviews inside the broadcast booth? Yes, it did... in the end. (Question: why can't Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit be allowed by their bosses to do a football game--or a football preview show, for that matter--without any corporate intrusions or other horrible manifestations of brain-dead executive decision making that limit their journalistic freedom?) But none of those realities mean the game was played at a high level.
In most January bowl games--the games West Virginia and Louisville were shooting for on Thursday night--mistakes litter the gridiron. These mounds of miscues are mostly the result of a five- or six-week break and the rust that accumulates during that period of time. In a regular-season atmosphere, however, with only eleven days in between games (twelve for West Virginia, who played Connecticut on a Friday nearly two weeks before playing Louisville), supreme sloppiness should not emerge. But for the first 36 minutes of 'Eers-Cards, the top teams in the Big East displayed a nervous, flop sweat-filled, fumbling and stumbling brand of football that elite teams should not reveal on a high-stakes occasion. This game produced the bizarre and the brutal: stacks of dead-ball personal foul penalties, one after the other; three fumbles in a span of less than two minutes; and at least three separate instances in which Louisville ball carriers, running in the open field for touchdowns (or at least, for huge gains inside the West Virginia 10), fell flat on their faces. Louisville did win, but its roster--with the sole exception of Brian Brohm--was dominated by nerves. The Mountaineers, though, were felled by the ol' adrenaline to an even greater degree. In the end, the difference in this game was clear: West Virginia made the more damaging kinds of mistakes. While the Cards dropped passes, committed penalties, and stumbled on the ground in the first half, the Mountaineers fumbled balls and shanked punts in the second half. Turnovers are worth more than penalties, and second-half mistakes loom larger than first-half failures. As a result, Louisville got more cheap points and more second-half momentum. Once the first-half nerves wore off, Louisville elevated its game while West Virginia dug itself a hole that proved to be much too deep. Mistakes--not excellence--defined this game. As such, it wasn't played with notable distinction or quality. One can understand why lots of national college football fans are trying (not succeeding, but trying) to laugh the Big East off the stage.
But this is where the trajectory of the conversation takes a sharp turn.
Those who want to make fun of the Big East after the mistake festival in Louisville should look at their own conferences and teams. Except for the people of Columbus, Ohio--and even their team (albeit on just one isolated and decidedly rare occasion) didn't play great this past weekend--no one has any right to paint Louisville (or West Virginia, for that matter) in a particularly negative light.
Want to rip Bobby Petrino's Cards or Rich Rodriguez's Mountaineers for all the mistakes (and bad defense) they displayed on Thursday? Well, then: what about Michigan's escape--yes, escape--against Ball State? What about Florida beating Vanderbilt--an improved but still deficient team--by only six points? What about Auburn not being able to ring up a huge number on Arkansas State (yes, I know players are being rested for bigger battles, but still... it's Arkansas State...)? What about LSU continuing to make mistakes, despite a level of talent that exceeds what Louisville and West Virginia bring to the table? What about Wisconsin playing uninspiring football, even while winning? If you want to bash the depth of the Big East because Pittsburgh lost at South Florida, well, you also have to knock the depth of the Big Ten after Iowa's embarrassing home loss to Northwestern. Similarly, you have to shoot down the staying power of the SEC after Alabama's and Georgia's newsworthy losses on Saturday.
If you've been reading this column all year, you know what's been said: if the Big East isn't great shakes (which is true), the conference is hardly alone. All leagues are showing the same tendencies, the same inclinations toward mediocrity that didn't exist several seasons ago in this sport. If you think the Big East has bad football, has the rest of the country produced an appreciably better product? That question simply cannot be answered in the affirmative. Michigan's wins over Iowa and Wisconsin look less impressive with each week, as the Hawkeyes and Badgers slog through their schedules (Wisconsin has simply been more successful at pulling through under adverse circumstances). The SEC's top teams have markedly inconsistent offenses, independent of the good defenses that league has to offer. When the fourth-ranked team in America (Florida) puts its fans through the mental meat-grinder in the fourth quarter each week, you know that high-level football isn't on display. The Big XII is another picture of inconsistency, as its second-best team--Oklahoma--is set for a huge year... in 2007. The Northern Division champion (almost certainly Nebraska) will be saddled with at least three losses, possibly four. The ACC is laughably bad, a conference that actually has generated separation from every other BCS league... at the bottom, that is. The only conference that has yet to show its full and true colors is the Pac-10, but that's only because the league's biggest games have been backloaded in 2006. Up til now, Cal and USC have wobbled on multiple occasions, while Oregon has been the biggest yo-yo of an outfit in all of college football this year. Washington State, upon gaining third place in the league and a No. 25 national ranking, showed the world how stable and mature a program it is by losing at home to a very mediocre Arizona club.
If you want good football, clear points of differentiation among top teams, and a well-defined pecking order among the six BCS conferences, we're sorry: this just isn't your year. Moreover, it's been pretty much the same story the previous few seasons as well. If you want to rip Louisville, West Virginia and the rest of the Big East, you had better be willing to criticize your team or conference for its own manifest and major shortcomings. Ohio State fans get the only free pass in this whole discussion, for the sluggish win at Illinois was not representative of a typical Buckeye effort this season.
So with that out of the way, let's now focus on the teams chasing Ohio State for a berth in Glendale. What emerges is a series of matchups that, quite frankly, would be more entertaining than an eventual national title game.
Michigan, Florida, and the newly-triumphant Louisville Cardinals are now front and center in the chase for a ticket to the Desert Southwest on January 8. Naturally, these three programs want to hear the mariachi bands and soak up the rays in the Valley of the Sun, but from a football lover's standpoint, it would be more attractive to see them play each other... and not Ohio State.
Michigan and Florida would make for a very interesting football game. Both of these teams rely on defense first, and they both have veteran quarterbacks who, while being respected team leaders, are nevertheless beset by inconsistencies. What would ultimately make a Wolverine-Gator showdown so special is the fact that these two teams--with similar philosophies on the surface--flesh out their goals and desires in noticeably different ways. Michigan runs the ball in the classic smashmouth style familiar to the Big Ten and its Upper Midwest slobberknocker heritage. Florida tries to run the ball with an element of surprise, a greater reliance on angled blocking, and the more frequent use of wideouts... not to mention a quarterback shuffle. Even while some folks would view this hypothetical matchup as a battle of like-minded teams, it would still be--in many respects--a contrast of largely opposed styles. That makes for a fascinating football study.
But if you want contrasts in styles on a football field, Louisville would satisfy your craving to a much larger degree, and this is where the discussion gets particularly interesting.
It's pretty undeniable that in a battle of defenses, Michigan and Florida would swamp Louisville, hands down. There's absolutely no question that Louisville's defense would put the Cards at a huge disadvantage against Michigan or Florida. The physicality of a Big Ten or SEC front line would challenge Bobby Petrino's team and tax the extent of its manpower. Louisville's offense--which had virtually unlimited freedom against West Virginia's swiss cheese defense--would get punched in the mouth on some occasions by the defenses residing in Ann Arbor and Gainesville. If Michigan and Florida were to play Louisville, those old-money schools would know where their advantage would exist: up front, in the trenches, and especially on defense.
This point of comparison--however striking it may be--does not mean, though, that Louisville would not be able to compete with Michigan or Florida. Anything but.
While the Wolverines and Gators have the superior defenses, Louisville possesses something that's lacking at almost all of the 119 programs who have played Division I-A football this season: truly elite quarterbacking. Not just good, decent or competent field generalship, but awesome, off-the-charts excellence under center. This is where the Cards (and, had they won, the Mountaineers of West Virginia) could make a very loud argument about their credentials as a team worthy of playing for a national championship.
Given the fact that so much mediocre college football is being played in the United States this year, it's more than a little significant if a team has a quarterback with broad shoulders who can carry the load while making game-changing plays. Brian Brohm is one of those few signal callers who can make a huge difference in a game. Knock the West Virginia defense all you want (you should--just not too much), but Brohm made noticeably good plays against the Mountaineers. In a high-stakes game, Brohm came up with unusually exceptional displays of quality at football's most pressure-packed position. Brohm's footwork is better than Troy Smith's...not in terms of pure running ability, of course, but in terms of moving around in the pocket and sensing pressure. Against West Virginia, Brohm regularly made those slight and instantaneous baby steps that enabled him to get squared up for his throws, which were consistently on target. While Smith is a master of making something out of a broken play, and spinning out of pressure with his superb athleticism and speed, Brohm--much more of an old-school quarterback--has the best pocket presence of any signal caller in America. He rarely if ever left the pocket against the Mountaineers, but even when his protective cup was on the brink of caving, Brohm re-aligned his feet with short but telling movements to prepare his whole body for the specific throw he needed to make in a given situation. And on the few occasions when a West Virginia pass rusher got to him, Brohm was sometimes able to use his upper-body strength to shrug off the pursuit and then calmly fire a dart to one of his able (though sometimes wrong-footed) pass catchers. Brohm put on a clinic, and even if he had to face a defense of Michigan's or Florida's quality, the Louisville quarterback would make his share of plays. Brohm's defense would endanger his team's chances in a hypothetical matchup against the Wolverines or Gators. Brohm's own abilities would enable Louisville to play those two teams on very even terms.
If Louisville played Michigan or Florida, the contrast in styles would be delicious. In either matchup, you'd have a world-class quarterback against an elite defense. You'd have Bobby Petrino's blackboard mastery against the speed and power of the English Majors or Florida's ballhawking outfit. Cards-Wolverines and Cards-Gators are two matchups that would be much more intriguing and revealing than any matchup involving Ohio State. This isn't a knock on the Buckeyes; actually, it's just the opposite. Ohio State has too much balance, talent and quarterbacking quality--all of the ingredients we've been discussing here--to suffer in a comparison with Louisville, Michigan or Florida. It's the No. 2, 3 and 4 teams in America who would play the best and most entertaining games in college football this season. But since we have the BCS, none of those matchups are likely to happen.
If you think that elite Big East quarterbacking begins and ends with Brian Brohm, however, you're sadly mistaken. Part of this week's column simply has to give special recognition to the losing quarterback in the West Virginia-Louisville game. Even in defeat, Mountaineer signal caller Pat White showed that he belongs in the same conversation as his Big East counterpart, not to mention Mr. Smith in Columbus.
Here's what you have to understand if you're skeptical of the Big East and find yourself particularly inclined to rip the quality of that league's defenses: along with Brohm, Pat White is one of those rare quarterbacks who doesn't come along every year. Along with Smith and Brohm--and ahead of Brady Quinn--White is one of the three truly elite quarterbacks in the country. Quinn and two Colts--Brennan and McCoy--are a shade below the elite tier, which is reserved only for the most dynamic field generals in the United States. Pat White belongs in that select football trinity, along with his counterparts from Ohio State and Louisville.
While Smith is the ultimate hybrid quarterback--a player who can stand back and fire in old-school fashion, but then bust loose on improv plays with equal effectiveness--his Big East brethren stand on the opposite sides of the divide. Brohm, as mentioned above, is a classic quarterback cut from traditional cloth. Pat White, on the other hand, is a one-man tornado who brings a little bit of three college football legends--Mike Vick, Tommie Frazier and Jamelle Holieway--to the gridiron whenever he straps on the pads. White's unique combination of skills only reinforces the point that quarterbacks like him don't come along every Autumn. Yes, Louisville's defense--along with others in the Big East--has marked deficiencies, but Pat White is so good that he'd be able to undress elite defenses as well. Just ask Georgia about the events of January 2 in Atlanta.
The quarterback White comes closest to imitating is Michael Vick. Vick had sick speed and a rifle lefty arm. White, who throws fewer deep balls than the Hokie superstar unleashed in his Blacksburg career, hasn't had his arm showcased to a similar degree. In terms of pure speed, however, White is every bit the blur that Vick was. He's a similarly superb specimen who could run with Vick all day.
But before you think White is all specimen and little substance, think again. Like Frazier, the gritty and resourceful uber-warrior who could take hits and absorb contact, White possesses more than a little toughness. When Steve Slaton left Thursday night's Louisville game due to an injury, White--in a very revealing display of his poise and willpower--managed to carry the WVU offense on his back. The Mountaineers might have moved the ball more slowly, but they still weren't stopped, and they still rang up points. White's accomplishments without his trusty backfield mate proved to be a revelation... at least for this columnist. White's not just the driver of a high-octane offense, a roaring Ferrari of an outfit. No, with Slaton out, White had the gumption and composure needed to steer a beaten but reliable pickup truck to paydirt. White isn't just a pretty face with the blinding speed. He has Frazier's uncanny ability to take punches and still prevail.
Finally, White also merits a legitimate comparison with Holieway, regarded by many as the greatest in a long line of decorated wishbone quarterbacks at Oklahoma in the Barry Switzer halcyon days. In Rich Rodriguez's system, which--one should know--validated its credentials on Thursday night against Louisville (by showing skeptics that no, the 'Eers did not need to pass the ball more in the pre-Louisville portion of their schedule), White needs to make the same quick reads and employ the same slick ballhandling that Holieway used in the mid-1980s with the Sooners. Once again, White's ability to excel without Slaton in the fold offers convincing proof of his greatness as a masterful Mountaineer unlike any other. Even when hamstrung, this dandy from Daphne, Ala., can excel in ways few quarterbacks can. His ability to consistently move his offense even without Steve Slaton indicated that, much like Holieway roughly 20 years ago, Pat White possesses the craftiness and ballhandling ability that can keep a defense guessing, even when it knows whose hands will be touching the pigskin on virtually every snap. Much as Holieway couldn't be stopped by defenses who keyed on him, White--the nerve center of the West Virginia offense--consistently runs wild even though opposing defenses and coordinators exhaust all their intellectual and creative powers in the attempt to render him impotent. That's true dominance.
If there's a neat and tidy way of encapsulating Pat White's signature brilliance on a football field, it can be found in this simple statement: plainly put, Pat White breaks all the rules. He doesn't need to throw often to throw well--which flies in the face of conventional football wisdom (and Brian Brohm's season, which needed some rusty tuneups against Cincinnati and Syracuse before the breakout return to point-producing potency against West Virginia). He doesn't need a running back to be effective as a runner. He doesn't have to throw deep to make a huge impact on a game. He doesn't have to stay close to the line of scrimmage to run for a first down (against Louisville, he was 20 yards behind the line on a play when he easily--easily!--coasted to a first down on a 3rd and 6 scramble). Whatever the proverbial "book" says about quarterbacking can be thrown out the window when Pat White is involved. The West Virginia sensation--along with Brian Brohm and Troy Smith--is one of the three quarterbacks who stand above every other signal caller in college football. White alone is a huge reason why the Mountaineers--like the Cardinals--could hold their own in a big game against Michigan, Florida, or other top ten teams not called the Buckeyes.
In other news, a brief survey of this past Saturday's games brought to mind a very simple truth that is frequently forgotten in our collective attempts to make sense of the college football world: while players must make plays and coaches have to know their stuff, the bounce of the ball can trump everything else.
Look at life through the eyes of Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt in order to gain fresh appreciation for this unpredictable but undeniable part of the sport. Nutt knows all about bad bounces... in his very first season at the helm, a bad bounce involving a Clint Stoerner fumble at Tennessee derailed his team's chances of winning an SEC title and making a BCS bowl game. In subsequent years, crazy pigskin rolls, spins and spirals--usually involving a gifted but volatile quarterback named Matt Jones--put Nutt on rollercoaster rides that screamed for Maalox. Last season, with a lot of inexperience under center, Nutt coached far better than his team's 4-7 record would ever indicate. Arkansas lost four of its seven games by a combined total of 15 points; with just one better bounce, or one improved instinctual play by any of his green and untested players in each of those four games, the trajectory of the Hogs' season--and the nature of all the opinions attached to it--would have been profoundly different. Nutt has escaped the hot seat this year, but the unpredictable bounces of the ball had a lot to do with his lack of job security entering the 2006 campaign.
Last season, the Hogs--despite a weak passing game--still ran the ball extremely well, a testament to Nutt's ability to teach the running game. They're doing the same things this year, but now, the ball is bouncing in Houston Nutt's favor, and suddenly, the once-embattled coach isn't so embattled anymore. Nine times out of ten (okay, maybe eight), fragile bang-bang plays are breaking in Arkansas' direction. Saturday against South Carolina, the Hogs built a 20-point lead because every significant mano-a-mano battle for a jump ball or any vigorously contested pass went to the Razorbacks. And after one of the few occasions when Arkansas didn't win a 50-50 ball--a play in which Hog receiver Marcus Monk couldn't hang onto a pass in the end zone--Houston Nutt's team managed to score a touchdown on a 3rd and goal delay draw from the 15-yard line. It was that kind of a night for the Hogs until Carolina mounted a late charge. However, the deficit--and the odds--were too great for the Gamecocks to overcome. Lots of fragile bounces--the same bounces Houston Nutt has been lacking over the past several years--finally enabled Arkansas fans to say, "Houston, we have no problems." Amazing what a college football soap opera--"As the Pigskin Turns"--can do for the fortunes of a team, a coach, and a fan base.
South Carolina, meanwhile, is experiencing the negative side of this cruel and fickle dynamic.
Much as Houston Nutt wasn't a deficient teacher of the running game last year--even though he lacked fortuitous bounces of the ball--so it also is that Steve Spurrier hasn't lost his ability to teach quarterbacks in 2006. What he's done with Syvelle Newton stands as a typical example of Spurrier's legendary ability to "coach 'em up real good." Moreover, the Carolina coach had backup quarterback Blake Mitchell ready to come off the bench and excel in ways that exceeded anything Mitchell produced last season. But for all of Spurrier's skills as a developer of quarterbacks, his team isn't winning the way it did last season. For two straight weeks, the Gamecocks have allowed crucial touchdowns because members of their secondary have had interceptions clang off their fingers in the end zone, only to land in the mitts of opposing receivers. Despite top-shelf play calling from Spurrier, Carolina backs and receivers have committed huge blunders in all of their losses (Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas). In almost all of these cases, the mistakes had nothing to do with execution and everything to do with nerves and a general lack of patient concentration. Gamecock players--on both sides of the ball--have been in position to make plays all year, and that's a function of largely sound coaching. The ball, though, is bouncing off fingers instead of resting in breadbaskets. Carolina coaches can yell at their players until they're blue in the face, but at some point, the resurgence of the Gamecock program will simply come down to fending off the nerves and doing the little things that defend against the dangers of the big, bad bounce of the ball. Last season, South Carolina played very poorly but beat an Arkansas team that outrushed the Gamecocks by a 4-to-1 margin. This time around, the Roosters displayed exponentially greater playmaking capabilities, but fell short against the Razorbacks because they didn't finish a seemingly countless number of 50-50 plays that were waiting to be made. Sometimes, the bounce of the ball--and the simple but very underrated ability to guard against it--can make all the difference between a great year and a bad one. That needs to be kept in mind in a world where coaches come under such withering and regular scrutiny for reasons much more complex than the bounces taken by a ball with a very weird shape.
Want to know who else has been victimized (or helped) by the bounce of the ball this season? Well, just ask all the teams--and they are many--who suffered (or prospered) because of horrible instant replay review decisions. Ask Boston College about the kindness of the pigskin in the Eagles' crucial loss to Wake Forest. Consult LSU about the nature of the bad bounces and football flutterings that jeopardized the Tigers' prospects in Tennessee. Tell Rich Brooks that the bounce of the ball has nothing to do with Kentucky's stellar season. Tell Mark Richt that the rolls of the laced leather object have nothing to do with the downward spiral of Georgia's 2006 campaign. Sure, it's absolutely true that great teams will overcome bad luck, but in the college football world, there's only one great team, and that's the one in Columbus, Ohio. For everyone else, the fickle forces of fate and fortune have had a lot to do with the trajectories of seasons and the reputations of coaches. Teaching can overcome some mistakes, but in a game played by 20-year-olds, funky and freaky football follies will unavoidably affect whole games and seasons. That's just the way it is, and in some cases, those kinds of realities need to be accounted for when a coach's job performance is discussed.
In closing, a few quick hitters for this week.
It's the second week of November, and the two biggest games relative to the national title picture will be played in Piscataway, N.J., and Bloomington, Ind. No, that's not a misprint.
Florida is one win away from completing its SEC regular-season slate with just one loss, an accomplishment that--earlier in the year--seemed to suggest a clear path to the SEC Championship Game without any other obstacles. But now that Xavier Lee is calling the shots as Florida State's quarterback, the Noles have rediscovered what it's like to actually, you know, SCORE POINTS. Florida's trip to Tallahassee has suddenly become a perilous proposition.
Want proof that wins and losses aren't always reflective of real coaching quality? Look at the LSU-Tennessee game. Yes, the Tigers got the shaft on a(nother) botched replay review in the second quarter, but still... Tennessee made a lot fewer mistakes with a backup quarterback than LSU committed with a veteran signal caller and a number of returning starters. Phil Fulmer's staff also displayed game and clock management that were vastly superior to the continuously messy (non-)methods of Les Miles and his braintrust. Major kudos to JaMarcus Russell for overcoming mistakes and coming through under pressure, but the Bayou Bengal staff has Miles to go before anyone can say it's clearly on the right track.
Michigan looked ahead to Ohio State this past Saturday--we all know that. But what might have escaped your attention is that Indiana looked ahead to Michigan this past Saturday. Any team that allows 63 points to Minnesota is simply not concentrating at all. Expect the Hoosiers to give Michigan a battle for at least one half on Saturday. With good bounces of the ball in key situations, things could get interesting for a little while... but probably not 60 minutes.
No one should even dare to suggest that USC is somehow "back" after the Trojans' demolition of Stanford on Saturday (shame on you, Lee Corso). Saturday night's upcoming game against Oregon (please watch it if you care about being a fair evaluator of college football teams; the game starts at 10:15 p.m. in the Eastern United States) begins the season in earnest for Pete Carroll's team. The next four weeks, not the "walking bye week" known as a Stanford game, will determine just how good USC really is.
* * *
Week Eleven: November 13, 2006
We've been telling you time and time again this season, and on Saturday, you were reminded why: it's incredibly hard in this sport to go undefeated. Surviving every game--no matter the style points, and regardless of the opposition--is worthy of the utmost respect. As outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have said, "you go to the national championship with the BCS system you have."
Before talking about Saturday's larger-than-life showdown between No. 2 Michigan and No. 1 Ohio State (don't think we weren't going to address that remotely important contest), a word must be devoted to the impending train wreck that is a typical college football season in the era of the BCS, or "Badly Conceived System."
Every Autumn, some fans in some locales will always be pissed at writers for the things that are written about the local school and its overall profile. This is unavoidable in the world of the BCS. Roy Kramer and the other founders of this gawd-awful scheme thought it would make college football a conversational centerpiece and thereby sustain fan interest. Forget fairness or the purity of the sport; creating more discussion is the answer! That's the same nutty logic of Major League Baseball's wild card format, which insulted the longstanding importance of the regular season while diluting divisions to the point that the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals could take the World Series.
My fellow Americans (yes, this is another political campaign speech in the week after the elections), you have to realize that if you have a flawed system, you're going to have flawed and incomplete arguments for and against every team competing for the national title. There aren't enough games played in this sport--not outside of conferences, anyway--to create the ample evidence needed to arrive at a fair national title game when the one golden scenario--two and only two unbeaten teams, aka the "USC-Texas Scenario"--doesn't materialize. If it's anything but a clear No. 1 against a clear No. 2, the title game--hence, the title--is tainted. Eight years ago, Roy Kramer and friends decided that money and sustained conversations were a lot more important to everyone in college football than the values of fairness, purity of competition, and championship legitimacy. If arguments made for and against various teams and conferences seem to be one-sided, limited, slanted, imbalanced, and shortsighted, it's because they are.
Tell me: when you do take the one-loss team over the unbeaten team from the Big East? When do you punish the power schools for not scheduling those same Big East schools? (ESPN's Pat Forde documented the numerous times in which power schools have backed out of home-and-home series with Louisville, among other schools in similar positions.) When do you give the higher ranking to the team with the better body of work? When do you give the higher ranking to the team with the better margin of victory against the weaker schedule? Do you give the higher ranking to the team that "deserves" it, or the team that would win a game against its competitor on a neutral field? Do you keep a team ranked in a high slot if it never loses, or do you elevate a one-loss team over the unbeaten team if you think the one-loss team is better? When do you view schedule strength as an extension of the way teams finished the season? When do you view schedule strength as an extension of the way teams figured to be at the start of the season? When do you view schedule strength as an extension of the way teams figured to be when the schedules were made, often 3-5 years in advance of the actual game? When do you view a sluggish performance as an example of truly poor quality? When do you view a sluggish performance as an example of an aberration amidst a larger profile of excellence? When is a balanced conference a good league where everyone beats each other up? When is a balanced conference a bad league where no one rises to the top? When is a team "good at winning the close ones," and when is a team "living on the edge every week"? What non-conference games are representative of conference strength, and what non-conference games are incomplete measurements of league superiority? How much does the timing of a big win play into a team's ranking? How much does the timing of a loss play into a team's ranking?
We could go on and on.... and on..... and on...... and on. You should get the idea: without the equivalent of an NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in football, claims of objectivity or cleanness in the BCS have no validity or legitimacy whatsoever. Better yet, without a playoff that actually decides debates on the field, so much of the talk that we inevitably get sucked into during a football season (we have to talk about it as columnists and talking heads, but we'd all rather see games instead of carrying on our ultimately futile debates) is meaningless. Fans have to realize that every argument made by any media personality or coach is an argument that has its manifest limits and substantial flaws. If we don't have a USC-Texas (or Ohio State-Miami) scenario, we're screwed, and that reality has to be kept in mind amidst the tumult and the shouting that always characterizes the final weeks of a typically frenzied college football season. Only when we get a playoff--and only when all the sport's power brokers finally agree that a plus-one (at the very least) is necessary for the integrity of this sport and the legitimacy of its national champion--will we witness a significant reduction in bitter feelings among fan bases across the United States. It's not because some sides are right while others are wrong; it's that without a playoff of some sort, there's rarely (98 percent of the time) enough evidence to crown an undisputed national champ... let alone an undisputed national title game.
So with that discussion out of the way, on to Michigan-Ohio State. Folded inside this week's column is a perspective piece on the upcoming game, just like the other perspective pieces you read during the season.
Jim Tressel is your high school calculus teacher. Sweater vest, crisp white shirt, straight-arrow tie, relentless and sober attention to detail, all the personality of a linear equation. Ron English is a liberal arts kinda guy. The Michigan defensive coordinator is expressive and emotive, letting the passions flow as he inspires his boys to unleash their energies on the field.
And so the battle lines are drawn: It's the Calculus Professor against the English Majors in an epic collision worthy of "The Game," as they call this collegiate pigksin classic. This year, the rite of November in the Upper Midwest--almost always the de facto title tilt in the Big Ten--is also half of a Final Four. No, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer won't be calling the action (Packer's former colleague Brent Musburger will have that responsibility), but this game is indeed the equivalent of a National Semifinal. Fourteen years ago, these two schools played for the Final Four in basketball; this year, they'll play for a spot in the national championship game on the gridiron.
Michigan-Ohio State is so huge this year that one team will receive a bouquet of Roses and a plane ticket to Pasadena... and yet find itself drenched in devastation, dejection and defeat. It's a sad commentary on how the BCS has destroyed college football's most venerable traditions, but systemic reform must come in future seasons. For now, the Wolverines and Buckeyes have their sights set on a championship (no, it's far bigger than the Big Ten crown) and a date in the desert on January 8. The winner of this game gets to spend 51 days immersing itself in the satisfaction of knowing that it will play for the national title. All these realities--and others which haven't been unearthed as of yet--make this the biggest occasion in the 103-year history of The Game. There have been several extremely significant showdowns between these powers over the decades (1997, 2003), and the 1969 Michigan upset ranks as this rivalry's most memorable and storied event, but in terms of the whole package, no confrontation in this hallowed series has had more to offer than this one. That's a whopper of a statement to make, but with the winner assured of a ticket to Glendale (and the loser possibly still in the running for a rematch that, while a remote possibility, could indeed happen), it's very hard to come up with an argument to the contrary.
The stakes are higher than high, the buildup already (on Sunday) over the top, the anxieties noticeably elevated with kickoff still a long ways away. Once the Maize and Blue confront the Scarlet and Gray, however, emotions will have to give way to on-field excellence.
Just what will make the difference in this awesomely cataclysmic collision? In every big game, it's the not-so-sexy matchup that usually tells the tale. On Saturday, then, that matchup is Chad Henne against the Ohio State back seven. The high-profile matchup, of course, pits Troy Smith against the English Majors, and it's no secret that Michigan has to contain the Heisman Trophy frontrunner for the first time in three meetings. But even if Troy Boy gets contained by the Wolverines' highly-touted defense, Lloyd Carr's offense--coordinated by Mike DeBord--must be good enough to take advantage of field position opportunities and silence the massive throng that will yell its brains out in the Horseshoe.
It's hard to refute the idea that Chad Henne's best season in Ann Arbor was his 2004 freshman campaign. Henne and Mike Hart took the college football world by storm that season, and while Henne has admirably shrugged off a sluggish sophomore sojourn, he hasn't found playmaking potency with tremendous regularity. Yes, he's been even more effective at minimizing mistakes while allowing his stud defense to win games, but Henne--albeit without Mario Manningham--hasn't set the world on fire this season. On Saturday, with James Laurinaitis and the rest of a resurgent OSU defense coming at him, Henne will need to establish and sustain a very hot hand. Unlike Smith, his counterpart, Henne won't make plays with his legs. Michigan's signal caller therefore has that much more of a burden to hit home-run passes and convert an extremely high percentage of third downs. Without the best performance of his UM career, Henne won't reduce the numbers the Buckeyes will put in the tackle box to stop Hart and the Wolverine ground game. It really is up to Henne to do all the things a road offense must do in a game this huge: muzzle the crowd, spread the defense, score points, move the chains, and keep the ball from the guy wearing No. 10 on the other sideline.
If the English Majors can produce a defensive touchdown, and Steve Breaston can break off a kick return, perhaps Henne won't need to play the game of his life for Michigan to win. True enough, huge plays from unexpected sources will dramatically and instantaneously change a game's trajectory. But in all likelihood, Troy Smith--so mature as a team leader in addition to being a prodigious playmaker--isn't likely to hand the Wolverines cheap points or gift-wrapped turnovers. Chad Henne and Michigan will have to take this game with two-fisted totality and wrench it away from the Buckeyes' grasp.
Yes, Michigan and Ohio State are playing for the Rose Bowl when they step onto the field Saturday in Columbus. But this time, Pasadena is, in all likelihood, the destination for the loser. In the new and dysfunctional world of college football, some things are still pure and perfect enough to transcend a sport's systemic flaws. Wolverines battling Buckeyes on green gridiron grass has always been a national sporting treasure. This year, an American classic has even more gold in the prize pot. What more could you possibly want?
The next segment of the Weekly Affirmation concerns the amazing football game played on Thursday between Louisville and Rutgers. If you've been reading this column faithfully all season long, the stunning second half--while indeed shocking to most observers, including even this one--still had a basis in some long-observed tendencies displayed by the Cardinals.
Anyone remember reading this from the September 26 edition of this column?
"A weekend of comparatively light action--with a paucity of top 25 games--allows for a discussion of some large-scale football topics, and this week's issue is something that's been forming in my mind for some time now: the relationship between performance and emotional states on a football team. Understanding this dynamic can give you, the emotionally affected fan, a chance to analyze the sport you love with greatly improved depth and clarity.
The various discussions about the Oklahoma-Oregon game last week gave rise to a debate about the quality of Oklahoma's defense, particularly in the last few minutes when the Ducks scored 14 quick points. The ebb-and-flow of the contest brought up a very interesting question about the connection between performance levels and emotional states of being: which teams play well when games are emotional, and which teams in college football play well when emotions are minimized or, in some way, taken out of the equation?
Think about this question if you're a college football fan. You have your own favorite team or conference, and you've been following this sport for an appreciable amount of time. It's worth taking the time to identify the teams that maximize positive momentum; plummet when faced with negative momentum; and benefit when the game is played in a relatively settled emotional state, after (or in between) adrenaline rushes and other volatile occasions that stir up hormonal cocktails inside young bodies.
The past weekend provided a lot of clear and striking examples of teams that handle various emotional dynamics in noticeably different ways. Louisville is a team that enjoys what I like to call "settled state" football. For the Cards and other teams like them, productive play emerges when emotions are relatively absent from the proceedings, due to a dependence on rhythm and clockwork efficiency on offense. The more cerebral and less emotional the game, the better, because Louisville wants to get into a trance where nothing disrupts timing or instincts. We saw this pattern at work on the first drive against Kansas State.
Coming out of the gate, Louisville--with oft-practiced plays that are emphasized by Bobby Petrino in the week of pregame practice--is superbly prepared and extremely attentive to details. If not challenged vigorously with a level of effort that can alter the emotional calculus of a game, the methodical Cards will cut you up. Against K-State, Louisville trotted out of the locker room and marched 97 yards for a touchdown. In a settled state, the Cards excelled. But as soon as Louisville got past the opening stages of a game and began to hiccup a few times on drives, the Wildcats and their fans jacked up the intensity of the game, and it quickly became apparent that Louisville--with backup QB Hunter Cantwell at the controls--had lost its mojo. Despite a fake punt and turnovers produced by the Cards' defense, Petrino's intricately crafted offense had been knocked off balance. The early "settled-state" start was smooth and precise; but once adversity factored into the equation, nothing added up right for Louisville's offense. This points to something telling about the Cards on a larger level: they play so well at home not because their emotions are through the roof, but because they don't have to play on the road, where negative emotions have frequently sabotaged the Cards' fragile confidence level. One can better understand last year's horror show at South Florida in light of this larger reality. Louisville can always play relaxed, "settled-state" football at home, and the absence of negative emotions--much more than the presence of good vibes--is what makes the Cards so productive at home."
The other part of the Louisville-Rutgers game that demands attention is, of course, Rutgers--but not for reasons that you might expect.
Forget the BCS race for a moment. Why? Because in 95 percent of America, the obsession with the national title race is forcing fans to emphasize the Scarlet Knights' weaknesses. Instead, the country should be praising what is the story of the year in college football, with coach of the year Greg Schiano (if he's not elected as the best coach in America, the Baker-Hamilton Commission should look into the matter).
If you read my Instant Analysis of the game, you know what I'm trying to say. If not, though, read that piece in our archives, and also consider this little snapshot from the postgame scene on Thursday night:
Erin Andrews was interviewing Coach Schiano and senior leader Brian Leonard in the tunnel. Andrews asked Schiano the typical BCS question, to which the Rutgers coach immediately responded, "We deserve to be playing Cincinnati next week." Leonard, without missing a beat--and without being prompted by either Andrews or his coach, said, "the biggest game is the next game." Leonard and Schiano then looked at each other with knowing smiles. Schiano's pride was both overflowing and evident in that one moment.
This was a priceless yet revealing window into the culture of Rutgers football because it shows the extent to which a team--and particularly its senior leaders--have not only bought into a coach's vision, but are thinking constantly like a coach. In terms of technique, scheme, adjustments, execution, positioning, mental toughness... you name it... the Scarlet Knights acted exactly the way a coaching staff would want a group of kids to comport themselves in a huge game. In the first half, Rutgers got outclassed by Louisville's talent and size. But aside of a few sweaty-palmed dropped passes, the Scarlet Knights rarely did anything "wrong" in a larger sense. Moreover, their level of self-belief and raw determination carried them through when countless other teams would have relented. It's no mere coincidence that Rutgers is undefeated. Mental toughness is more important than physical skill or talent, and the Weekly Affirmation has been saying that since this column debuted in 2001. Potential remains unfulfilled until the human mind unlocks it, and in Piscataway, Greg Schiano is liberating every single ounce of skill the undersized and unassuming Scarlet Knights possess inside themselves. Forget the BCS race and all its attendant controversies. If you're going to talk about Rutgers, you're missing the point if you look at their weaknesses. Celebrate this team's indomitable will, its inexhaustible resolve, its beautiful self-belief, and its consummate, coach-fed character. Rutgers, in short, displays the special attributes that college sports, at their best, should promote in the minds and hearts of young men. Rutgers is as good as it gets in college football... whether or not the Knights reach Glendale or, for that matter, any BCS bowl at all.
Finally, a big-picture debate relative to football analysis, the Big East, and high-scoring football games.
A major discussion that emerged in the wake of the West Virginia-Louisville game concerned the quality of a high-scoring shootout. In the aftermath of Mountaineers-Cards, it was said by a number of national columnists (not this one) that the 2006 Rose Bowl was little, if any, different from the shootout on Nov. 2. Texas-USC, they said, would have been considered a bad game by most critics if the Longhorns and Trojans played in the Big East. Put West Virginia-Louisville in the power conferences--and on the big stage in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains on January 4, 2006--and everyone would have viewed the Appalachian powers as the producers of a classic. There's a lot of truth to this view, but it has its manifest weaknesses as well.
The correct part of this assertion is that a conference affiliation, sadly but surely (along with a team's level of college football tradition and prominence; see "Dame, Notre" for proof) will determine the extent to which a given game is praised or panned by the critics. Yes, the Big East is not getting the respect it should from a lot of people across the country. Rutgers proved the conference has three horses, not just two. Moreover, the Louisville-Rutgers game showed that good defense is played in the league, and that the top teams in the conference are all strong enough to protect their home field. If this year's events in the Big East were transpiring in other "old-money" power conferences, the ink would be much more favorable than it has been for Commissioner Mike Tranghese's league. From a media standpoint, yes, there is a double standard at work.
From a standpoint of raw football merit, however, Mountaineers-Cards doesn't hold a candle to Longhorns-Trojans. Making the correct point about media influence and double standards does not automatically mean that WVU-UL was, in fact, every bit the game Texas-USC turned out to be. Columnists who made this connection between the 2006 Rose Bowl and the Big East game of the year are admittedly hamstrung by limited column space and, moreover, other time-sensitive considerations. Nevertheless, it still remains that much of their arguments were overly simplistic and lacking in the nuance that makes for a supremely satisfying football conversation.
Why was the Rose Bowl miles better than 'Eers-Cards, even though the former game had 79 points while the latter contest tallied 78? Let's tick off several primary reasons.
First of all, the Rose Bowl came after a month of down time. Some rust was to be expected in Pasadena. The Big East behemoths, on the other hand, had 11-12 days to prepare, just about the perfect amount of time for balancing sharpness with needed rest. West Virginia and Louisville should have been razor sharp if their game was to be thought of favorably. Add in the fact that the Rose Bowl was a non-conference game, and the unfamiliarity factor had to lead to some rough edges when Texas and Troy took to the field. The Mountaineers and Cards, however knew each other well. As a result, the failures of those teams have to be magnified in any mature or honest assessment of the quality of that particular contest. For these two reasons alone--the time interval between games and the familiarity of the opponent--the Rose Bowl deserves much higher marks than the Big East brouhaha in the Bluegrass.
But wait, there's more.
It's undeniably true that in the first half of the Rose Bowl, there were just as many big mistakes as there were in the 'Eers-Cards game. With that said, the second half is where a point of separation clearly emerged in a comparison of the two showdowns. The third quarter of WVU-UL--and more specifically, some very bad mistakes made by West Virginia in that stanza--proved to be the difference on Nov. 2. In marked contrast, the second half of the Rose Bowl was football from the gods. Matt Leinart displayed the quarterbacking form of a college football legend. LenDale White busted through holes provided by a decorated offensive line. Texas' defense dug deep to produce an epic stand with just over two minutes left. And finally, Vince Young--with equal parts will, skill and toughness--refused to lose in a single-game performance for the ages. USC acquitted itself well in a full effort loaded with big plays and step-up performances, especially from maligned receiver Dwayne Jarrett. Texas, though, was able to give Vince Young the ball in a meaningful endgame situation, and the man who should have won the Heisman Trophy proved to be too resilient--and too athletically overwhelming--for a young but hard-charging SC defense to overcome. The Rose Bowl started slowly, but the final 20 minutes showcased football at its highest level. West Virginia-Louisville was a game decided by three fumbles in two minutes, followed by a horribly shanked punt that produced a touchdown for the Cards. The final quarter was a ho-hum stanza in which the Mountaineers got some token scores, but never got within single-digits of their rivals from Kentucky. In the world of football analysis, simple point totals don't tell the story; a careful eye for details is required. If you break down the Rose Bowl and WVU-UL, play after play after play, you'll see two different games.
In terms of the media-industrial complex in college football, the Big East does indeed suffer, often unfairly, in a number of comparisons and debates. The comparison between West Virginia-Louisville and the 2006 Rose Bowl, however, is not one of those injustices. Texas and USC put on a show of shows, far beyond the battle in the Bluegrass on Nov. 2.
* * *
Week Twelve: November 20, 2006
It's Thanksgiving week, which means it's time to be angry as hell about the state of college football. I'm thankful for my family, my pastor, and a lot of other wondeful people in my life, but I'm properly outraged by the condition of this sport and the mess that's exposing the BCS for the big, fat turkey it has always been since its inception in 1998.
There are two basic conversations to be had this week, as an all-too-familiar BCS disaster ruins our sit-down meal of the big bird and all the trimmings. One conversation is about legal correctness, otherwise known as the letter of the law, and the other conversation concerns justice, or the spirit of the law.
Without trying to hide it or deny it, I'll come right out and tell you that I'm a huge believer in the spirit of the law. There are many occasions throughout human history in which a technically or legally correct interpretation of the law has preserved, protected or otherwise sustained injustice in a given locality or society. Bad laws are made by governments, and in some cases, they're such egregious affonts to human dignity that they must be resisted even before a court of law can overturn them. It seems pretty useless, if not outright wrong, to uphold the worth of technical legality if the given law does not promote justice.
This is where the firestorm involving Michigan and USC comes into play.
It's not a simple decision by any means: Wolverines or Trojans against Ohio State if USC wins out? What is simple, however, is that the dysfunctional nature of the BCS puts all college football fans... in Gainesville, Fayetteville, South Bend, and Morgantown, in addition to Ann Arbor and Los Angeles... in a no-win position. You either have to support the letter of the law or the spirit of the law; if you get legality, you don't get justice, and even if you get justice, you know that a hopelessly broken system didn't work the way it was supposed to, which actually winds up eroding your sense of justice in the first place.
I've been writing this column since 2001, and the above paragraph is pretty much the same thing I wrote in 2003, during the Oklahoma-LSU-USC catfight which marred that particular season. The simple fact of the 2003 season is that it luckily and briefly preserved tradition (with respect to the Rose Bowl, a centerpiece of college football history), but created controversy and the split title the BCS was supposed to prevent. The BCS, in 2003, delivered justice without legality. It delivered the right result, but a result that tore apart the sport by pitting USC and LSU fans against each other in what amounted to a constitutional crisis pitting the system and its computers against open-minded human beings represented by the Associated Press poll. By not working the way it was supposed to as a matter of mechanics, the BCS--by preserving a classic Rose Bowl between USC and Michigan instead of breaking it up--actually worked in a larger sense in 2003. Tradition and a spiritually satisfying split title--at least for one season--endured at the expense of controversy and an emotionally unsatisfying split title. LSU fans felt cheated because the law did in fact stand on their side; USC fans felt vindicated because justice--and a piece of the national pie--resided on their side. The whole country, though, felt deprived because LSU and USC never got to play on the field. Except for those rare seasons when two and only two unbeaten teams reach the title game, college football doesn't get a marriage of both legality and justice. It almost always has to settle for just half of the equation, which means that half the country leaves a college football season filing divorce papers.
In many ways, we have the same situation this year, with a few unique twists.
The argument in favor of legality, and a technical interpretation of law as it exists on the BCS books, sides with Michigan. The good people at the Michigan Law School would tell you that the BCS is mechanically designed to pit the two best teams in America against each other, and after this past weekend, it seems pretty clear that Ohio State and Michigan are the two best teams in the United States. If the BCS works the way it is mechanically designed to operate, Ohio State and Michigan will have a rematch on January 8 in Glendale. The law is a maize and blue entity in 2006, because the BCS's computer-weighted formula is designed to override the whims, extremes and other erratic, emotionally-influenced components of human judgment. Whereas polls might be inclined to drop Michigan after losing a game (think back to the Notre Dame-Florida State situation in 1993), the BCS--which probably would have kept Notre Dame No. 1 thirteen years ago--is meant to keep a team like Michigan toward the top of the standings.
With respect to college football's postseason--as is also the case with the lack of a force-out rule on legal possession of a pass thrown to the sideline--there are those in America who, in football and other matters, value a given procedure for only one reason: they distrust human judgment. Removing human judgment from any kind of procedure, in college football or other human affairs, is the paramount principle--perhaps the only one--for many people in this country when they choose to support a particular rule, law, or course of action. The pro-computer faction of America's college football fans largely fits this category, which is generally associated with the argument in favor of legality. A clean procedure with numerical forumlas is believed to have the airtight structure needed to ward off evils such as media bias and human error, which do run rampant during every college football season (more on media bias later in this column). All misguided poll votes from seasons past gave rise to this basic line of thought, and the BCS is its latest, fullest manifestation.
In opposition to the legality argument lies the pro-justice element of the college football world. This community intellectually understands the pro-legality position and its pro-BCS, pro-computer, anti-human judgment leanings. (Surely, the pro-legality folks also understand the pro-justice arguments as well, even though disagreement persists.) However, the pro-justice segment of the population has the view that doing the right thing is more centrally important than doing the thing that's procedurally consistent or legally correct. In college football, there are two basic ways in which a pro-justice view is applied: in the defense of tradition, and in the promotion of purity in the crowning of a national champion.
To go back to 2003 for a moment, that season--while empty and unfulfilling from a legal/procedural standpoint--did not satisfy both pro-justice planks. The 2003 season did uphold tradition by preserving a Big Ten-Pac-10 Rose Bowl, but it did not promote purity in the sport because it didn't address the unresolved post-bowl controversy involving USC and LSU. If the process promoted purity, the Trojans and Tigers would have played a "plus-one" game after the Sugar Bowl for the undisputed title. Therein lies the most realistic solution for college football, a solution the power brokers in the sport should deliver to everyone who invests anything in this great game.
While Michigan and Ohio State were duking it out on Saturday before ABC cameras, Keith Jackson--a former employee of the network--was interviewed on NBC by former colleague Jim Lampley. In the interview, Mister College Football--while assailing the BCS as the result of a "money grab"--made the simple suggestion that a Final Four should be held after bowl games in which the old conference tie-ins are renewed and sustained. "Leave the Rose Bowl alone," Jackson said. "Leave the Sugar Bowl alone." Then have the playoff. That's what Keith Jackson wants, and if KJ wants something, chances are it's good for the sport he covered with distinction for so many years. One can debate whether there should be a plus-one or a Final Four, but one way or another, the emergent solution to college football's problems lies not in a classic playoff or some similarly "bracketed" hoops-style tournament with seeds and multiple playoff rounds. No, the solution lies in returning the bowls to their old pre-BCS format, and then having either a plus-one or a Final Four, which is not a tournament so much as a final championship stage of the long season. After the bowls, enough teams will be weeded out of the equation to ensure that no more than four teams will be viable national title contenders. At the end of the day, a football equivalent of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee (the only connection with hoops that college football truly needs) should determine whether a plus-one or a Final Four is needed. With old bowl tie-ins restored but a champion equitably (and indisputably) arrived at, justice can be served in America, with old traditions upheld and procedural purity intact.
This brings us back to the current debate between Michigan and USC.
While the pro-legality argument favors the Wolverines, the pro-justice argument sides with the Trojans. From a coldly analytical standpoint that is consistent with legal mechanics, Michigan is better than USC at this point in time. Michigan's one loss (Ohio State) has much more value than the Trojans' one defeat (Oregon State). Ohio State is the clear No. 1 team in the country, and Michigan fought the Buckeyes tooth and nail in Columbus. It is indeed hard to imagine another team playing the Buckeyes as close as the Wolverines did in the Horseshoe. Ergo, the pro-legality folks would say that Michigan deserves to be No. 2. It's the best contention based on the available evidence presented before the court.
Justice, however, deals in the not-so-specific practice of "drawing straight with crooked lines," and in making sense of the evidence not seen, the data not available, the non-story story, the deafening silence of a situation. The things you don't see with respect to this Michigan-USC situation are, in many ways, the defining points of the argument for the pro-justice crowd and its USC adherents.
Where's the big Michigan non-conference schedule outside of Notre Dame? Can't see it.
Where's the depth of the Big Ten, which formed the backbone of the Wolverines' schedule? Michigan's only big-time win in Big Ten play came against Wisconsin. Iowa, once thought of as an elite team, ended at 6-6, with a 2-6 Big Ten record.
USC played non-traditional opponents in some of its biggest games: Arkansas and Nebraska. These games weren't rivalry games filled with emotions; hence, they were tougher for USC in that the Trojans lacked the built-in motivation Michigan had against Ohio State... and that was before the death of Bo Schembechler, less than 29 hours before the OSU game. Where were Michigan's meaningful games without the benefit of rivalry-fed motivation? If Michigan's close game against Ohio State should make UM the No. 2 team in America--and I think it should--one should also realize that Michigan, despite playing the No. 1 team in America on the road, had a built-in advantage of motivation.
And here's the biggest argument of all along these lines: where's Michigan's conference championship, which should be a prerequisite for a national title contender other than unaffiliated Notre Dame? How can you allow Michigan to do what the ACC, SEC, Big East, and Big XII champions will not have the chance to do... and possibly USC as well?
Beyond these arguments, however, the pro-justice crowd has its trump cards, which were referred to earlier in the discussion of the 2003 season: tradition and purity.
The longstanding virtue of college football and its assorted traditions is found in the simple reality that the regular season means more than the regular season of any other sport. In fact, the notion of "preserving the sanctity of the regular season" was the very rationale for the creation of the BCS in the first place. Plainly put, then, college football tradition will be eroded (maybe slaughtered) if Michigan and Ohio State have a rematch on January 8. If the Wolverines and Buckeyes have a sequel, no one can ever again say that the regular season really matters in this sport. The outwardly-stated reason for the BCS' whole existence will be fully, frontally, forcefully, finally and fatefully assaulted, and no BCS proponent could ever again say that the regular season IS a playoff in itself. Period. Tradition will take a huge hit if Michigan plays Ohio State in roughly seven weeks.
In addition to tradition, there's also the question of purity. Since Michigan is the No. 2 team in America--or at least, it is very hard to disagree with such a contention (though one wishes there was more available evidence; sadly, there isn't)--one would like to find a way to enable Michigan to play Ohio State. But you see, pro-justice people in college football only want Michigan and Ohio State to play under the right circumstances... circumstances that would uphold tradition and promote purity. Such a circumstance cannot be achieved under the current legal mechanics of the BCS system; it could only be produced by a Keith Jackson-supported Final Four or a plus-one, as decided on by a Selection Committee.
If the purity of the process is to be upheld--and if Michigan is to play Ohio State under a "pure" system--there are two ways in which this dream scenario could come about.
In scenario number one, you take the current system, have USC play Ohio State in Glendale, and put Michigan against the SEC champion (assuming it has one loss) in the Sugar Bowl. If Notre Dame were to beat USC on Saturday and the SEC champion winds up with two losses, have Notre Dame play the Buckeyes and put Michigan against the Big East champion (who will almost certainly have just one loss at the end of the season) in the Orange Bowl. Then do a plus-one.
In scenario number two, one would have to envision a future reality after the current television contract expires. This reality--if attained--would make college football an ideal world for the first time in a long time, maybe ever: going back to the old bowl tie-ins, everything in the above scenario would exist except for the fact that USC and Ohio State would play in Pasadena, not Glendale; purity supplemented by tradition would be the new recipe for college football. (It's a distant dream at this point, but it's also the best plan available if only power brokers are willing to talk about a new deal for this sport.) If Michigan and Ohio State won their bowl games, they could meet again, and no one would have a single problem. Why? Because there would be a game (maybe two if in a Final Four setup) in between their first meeting and their sequel.
If Michigan and Ohio State are to play for the national title--and pro-justice people want to see it happen (but only in the right way at the right time)--let's have them win one game (followed by a plus-one) or two games (a bowl game and a Final Four semifinal) before having a rematch in the title game. The question pro-legality folks are asking right now is, "Should there be a rematch?" The question that SHOULD be asked at this time--and which pro-justice people are voicing right now--is this: "Under what circumstances should there be a rematch?" Breaking down the BCS mess in these terms enables one to have a clearer, broader and ultimately fairer view of the whole process.
But enough of the solutions and suggestions. Let's deal with what's going to happen: reality is going to leave everyone unsatisfied... as is the case in every year that lacks the one golden "USC-Texas" scenario: two and only two unbeaten teams at the end of the season. Remember, college football is an ungodly mess, and the BCS is cause for plentiful amounts of outrage.
Getting past all the hopeful planning and wishful scenario-building, reality tells us that one of two things will happen: either Michigan will play Ohio State, or USC will. While everyone (pro-legality and pro-justice) will disagree about the team that should face Ohio State on January 8, everyone can agree that the result will be a very imperfect one... just like 2003. And as in every other instance when the BCS has not gotten its USC-Texas magic bullet, the fundamental conflict--the one that has always made the BCS a travesty from the very beginning of its (now) nine years of existence--will remain: if the system works, tradition or purity--sometimes both--get killed; if the system doesn't work--which will upset the fans of the unfortunate team--justice prevails, but at a cost.
In 2006, there won't be any purity regardless of Ohio State's ultimate opponent in Glendale. Tradition will be upheld if USC is the Buckeyes' opponent, but the two best teams in America won't be playing. Hence, the system won't work, delivering justice without legality. And if Michigan gets the rematch on January 8, enabling the two best teams in the country to compete, the tradition of college football will be dealt a death blow. Hence, the system will work and deliver legality, but without authentic justice. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the basic conflict that will always emerge whenever the BCS doesn't get the single magic scenario that saves it from itself. The BCS creates premature, forced and false choices between merit and tradition, legality and justice. One direction defeats the other, and ultimately leaves half the country--if not more--unsatisfied.
Just answer this question, or at least give it a try: in the six years when the BCS did not get its one dream scenario, was there ever a sense that, yeah, you know, the system actually worked and resolved lingering questions... just like Roy Kramer and the other BCS creators said it would? Tell Ohio State fans in 1998, Miami fans in 2000, Oregon fans in 2001, USC and LSU fans in 2003, Auburn fans in 2004, and one fan base this year (Michigan or USC) that the system worked. Undisputed national title? The BCS delivers one only when the one dream scenario arrives and takes all the guesswork out of the equation. Therefore, it's clear that this "system" can't produce systemic cleanliness or real justice whenever there's any doubt or uncertainty surrounding the larger process. That, in short, isn't much of a system. The only thing the BCS ever was--and ever will be--good for is that if there's a USC-Texas scenario, USC winds up playing Texas for the national title, whereas in past years, that never could have happened. But without its only magic bullet, the BCS is rendered impotent, and becomes utterly incapable of doing anything positive for the college football community... both its pro-legality and pro-justice factions. That's cause for anger in these days before Thanksgiving.
While the BCS is, frankly, enough for a full column, there's just too much controversy in college football for it to remain unnoticed or unmentioned at this high-drama point in the national title chase.
A few brief words have to be said on the matter of media bias, another anger-producing entity which is never far away from BCS controversies and the rankings behind them.
It's no secret that ABC/ESPN devoted a rather lavish and extensive amount of coverage to this game, more than ever before for a game of equivalent (if not greater) stature. This simple but powerful fact is important for one reason and one reason only: if anyone ever thought that USC was a permanent media darling because of the L.A. market, you can't think so anymore. This time, media hype has cut against the Trojans, and not in their favor. With the flashy skill-position stars last season, USC wasn't just a media market magnet; the Trojans had style points and sex appeal. This year, Michigan--especially after beating media-friendly Notre Dame and entering a cherished American sporting event (the Ohio State game, a sociocultural centerpiece in this country) undefeated and ranked second--is the sexier story. Bo Schembechler's death has only added to the Michigan aura, giving the Wolverines the kind of momentum and mythology that are unbeatable in terms of ratings points, newspaper sales, and other relevant elements of the synergistic "media-industrial complex" in college football. This is why Michigan-Ohio State is being called a classic, despite a number of mistakes that almost equaled (not quite, but close) the miscues made in the West Virginia-Louisville game on Nov. 2.
Would I rate the Michigan-Ohio State game a classic? Yes, but grudgingly, and not for the football itself. This game is a classic because it was produced under emotionally wrenching circumstances in a tremendously hyped game. Had there not been the over-the-top hype, and had Bo Schembechler not died to make this game a seminal moment in American sports history, the pure football merits of the game would not have elevated this game to the level of a classic. But when you take all the elements of this game and put them together, yes, the game manages to make the cut as a classic. Michigan's level of fight and grit, plus the Heisman-sealing performance of Troy Smith, provided enough historic elements needed to give this game elite status in the history of college football. Without those details, however, this game would not have passed the "classic" test.
Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes would have understood that contemporary football doesn't allow for the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality that prevailed during The Ten-Year War. The two now-deceased legends wouldn't have personally engaged in a "fast-break game all the way," as Jim Tressel put it, but if they had, they still would have insisted on the fundamentals they--and presumably, all Big Ten fans of defense, blocking, tackling, and sound kicking--viewed to be central to winning football. So, Big Ten fans (and also SEC fans, who view football in a similar way; by the way, that was a nice SEC/Big Ten-style game between Cal and USC... guess they can play defense in the Pac-10...), did you like the missed tackles, the bad pass interference penalties, the silly personal fouls, the two botched snaps that enabled Michigan to stay in the game, the two huge overthrows by Chad Henne, and the other turnovers that plagued this game? And if this game was such a classic on the football merits--as opposed to all the off-field stuff--why was OSU never in real or immediate danger of losing? Where was the riveting, nailbiting finish? When Michigan used its final timeout at the 2:55 mark, it became apparent that the Wolverines would have to recover the onside kick if they wanted to have a chance. That's a pretty anticlimactic way to end a big game. Yes, the game went back and forth, as some commentators observed, but it went back and forth between a one-score OSU lead and a two-score OSU lead. Had the "back-and-forth" involved constant lead changes, THAT would have made this game a lot more special on its own merits.
Yes, this game was a classic, but more so for the emotions, the spectacle, the hype, and the ghost of a just-deceased Bo Schembechler. The game itself was somewhat better than the West Virginia-Louisville game, but not by much. The 2006 Rose Bowl towers over both games as a pure football showcase. Don't let the excess of television and Internet coverage lead you to a different conclusion.
This media section promised to be brief, so we'll conclude very neatly and quickly. We'll wrap up this week's column with a suggestion that I hope the folks at ESPN will take very, very, VERY seriously heading into 2007.
Since the Worldwide Leader has such reach, visibility and scope in the college football broadcasting world... especially now that its production values and employees are attached to both ABC and GamePlan telecasts, which comprise most of a 13-hour Saturday of football (15 if you include College Gameday)... it would be a godsend if ESPN could have a half-hour show each week in which media hype could be blunted, even silenced, by straightforward analysis away from the frenzied crowds of a live on-site Gameday audience. Complaints about media bias would die down substantially if Gameday aired from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Eastern time, followed by a 30-minute taped show (before the football games at Noon) in which the truly wonderful, accomplished and distinguished trio--Fowler, Corso, Herbstreit--sat in a video room and broke down film of top teams, followed by very specific, itemized explanations of why one team is better than another. If such a show could air each week during the college football season, and if such a process could take place throughout the ranks of college football analysts, we'd have a lot less hype and a lot more substance as we try to arrive at a legitimate national champion. After all, we're saddled with the BCS for a few more years, and unless the sport's influence peddlers institute a Final Four or plus-one, we'll have to make the best of a very bad situation. ESPN can either do the same old stuff, or create new shows in which its superior broadcast journalists--both Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit certainly qualify in this regard--can give very detailed explanations for their positions, which will eliminate much, if not all, of the suspicion and media manipulation that are sadly superabundant in the college football world.
We have the dysfunctional BCS. Why not have the media--its decision makers, not its accomplished journalists on the ground-- become part of the solution, and not the problem?
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Week Thirteen: November 27, 2006
Next week, the BCS bowls and the national title matchup will be set. This week, it's time to provide a few reminders about the nature of college football in the first installment of a season review.
Last year at this time, this space told the stories of programs who, in low-profile, under-the-radar games with few cameras or credentialed members of the national media, chose to either make or break their seasons. These weren't the sexy games that drowned in hype, but the quiet games that unmistakably propelled or punished teams of 20-year-old man-children as they sought to climb the sport's pecking order. Regular readers will know that this writer generally distrusts statistics, but the one stat you can always trust is the final score. Here, then, is the 2006 season in the form of the scores of under-the-radar games you might have overlooked. Call it this year's edition of "Stories in Scores."
Week One: Rutgers 21, North Carolina 16; Montana State 19, Colorado 10; Navy 28, East Carolina 23; Arkansas State 14, Army 6; Houston 31, Rice 30. North Carolina didn't turn out to be a good team in 2006, but had the Tar Heels found one more touchdown, the trajectory of their year could have been very different. On the flip side, Rutgers needed this season-opening win to feel good about itself... good enough to get to 9-0, at any rate. Montana State's shocker was a true indication of Colorado's nightmarish year to come. Navy showed that it still knew how to win close September ballgames, even without departed quarterback Lamar Owens. Army played Texas A&M close to the final whistle and won at Baylor, but could not beat Arkansas State, a telling sign in a disappointing season for a program that is stuck in sludge under Bobby Ross. Houston pulled out a close game to win its division in Conference USA, but the story from this game is how competitive Rice was. In retrospect, this week one score wasn't just attributable to rivalry game fires; as the rest of the season told us, the Owls could play with almost anyone on their schedule.
Week Two: Akron 20, N.C. State 17; Wake Forest 14, Duke 13; New Hampshire 34, Northwestern 17; Purdue 38, Miami (Ohio) 31, OT; Florida State 24, Troy 17; San Jose State 35, Stanford 34.
Akron didn't even have a huge season, but still beat Chuck Amato's Wolfpack, who clearly underachieved this season. Wake Forest's season-long fortunes wouldn't have been so good if the Deacs hadn't blocked a last-second Duke field goal (imagine!). Northwestern discovered it was in for a long season. Purdue learned how to win in this game against a MAC opponent. Florida State's toughie with Troy proved to be much more reflective of the Seminoles than anyone could have anticipated at the time. San Jose State, under the leadership of Dick Tomey, learned how to win against Stanford.
Week Three: Arkansas 21, Vanderbilt 19; Boise State 17, Wyoming 10; Washington 21, Fresno State 20.
The Hogs' improbable run to the SEC West title began with a close escape against the Commodores, who would once again play just well enough to lose most of their games. Boise State regularly pulls out workmanlike but not-so-sexy road wins, and this was the first one for the Broncos in their terrific twelve-and-oh season. Washington, before quarterback Isaiah Stanback got injured for the year, learned how to win against a Fresno State team that did not respond well to this one-point loss in Seattle.
Week Four: Arkansas 24, Alabama 23, OT; Connecticut 14, Indiana 7; Army 27, Baylor 20, OT; Kansas 13, South Florida 7; N.C. State 17, Boston College 15; Southern Methodist 55, Arkansas State 9.
Arkansas survived Bama thanks to the Tide's woeful placekicking in what would turn out to be the most significant under-the-radar game of the whole season. When Indiana--after a good, solid, step-up year--contemplates why it missed a bowl game, it will be the home loss to the Huskies from New England that will stand out more than any other reason. When Baylor contemplates why it missed a bowl game, it will point to the home loss to Army. Kansas built a non-losing season on the foundation of unremarkable yet unmistakably gritty wins such as the one over a competitive South Florida team that finished two games better than the Jayhawks (8-4). When Boston College wonders how it missed out on a division title, it's the loss against the Wolfpack that will hurt much more than the November setbacks at Wake Forest and Miami. SMU's resurgence under Phil Bennett began in this game against the same Arkansas State team that beat Army, who beat Baylor, who beat Kansas State, who beat Texas. (See? In this logic chain, SMU is better than Texas. We're back in 1982, folks.)
Week Five: BYU 31, TCU 17; Illinois 23, Michigan State 20; Rice 48, Army 14.
BYU's emergence under coach Bronco Mendenhall occurred in this triumph over the highly-touted Horned Frogs. Michigan State's annual el-foldo took place against an Illini team that never quit playing for Ron Zook, despite a paucity of wins. The story of Rice's feel-good movie of the year began against Army. (Logic chain number two: Rice beat Army who beat Baylor who beat KSU who beat Texas. Rice better than Texas. We're back to 1953, folks.)
Week Six: Ole Miss 17, Vanderbilt 10; Kansas State 31, Oklahoma State 27; Hawaii 41, Nevada 34.
Vanderbilt won't make a bowl game until it wins the SEC games it should win; Mississippi is one such game. Kansas State's bowl season was built on the back of this late comeback against the Cowboys. Hawaii rarely had to grind it out at home, but this close, hard-fought win over Nevada gave Colt Brennan the confidence needed to play more liberated football as the season progressed... and beat Purdue late Saturday night on the island to give the Warriors a 10-2 season, with a home date against Oregon State still to come.
Week Seven: Rutgers 34, Navy 0; Indiana 31, Iowa 28; Vanderbilt 24, Georgia 22; Louisville 23, Cincinnati 17; Maryland 28, Virginia 26; Oregon State 27, Washington 17.
A shutout of Navy's triple option indicated how far Rutgers had raised its overall level of play. Indiana's best--and Iowa's worst--moment of 2006 came at the same time in Bloomington. Georgia's down year was epitomized in this game against a Vandy team that usually doesn't win such white-knuckle headknockers. Cincinnati's surprising competitiveness in the Big East, revealed against Rutgers, was actually apparent long before that stunning coup--just ask Louisville. Maryland's rebound season was built on the back of a 21-point fourth quarter at Virginia, when no one around the country was noticing. Washington's season came to a halt with the injury of Isaiah Stanback in this game against the Beavers; on the other hand, Oregon State's rise to third place in the Pac-10 began with this breakthrough at Husky Stadium.
Week Eight: Texas A&M 34, Oklahoma State 33, OT.
While it's true that the Aggies lost three games by only six points in 2006, they also pulled out a lot of heartstoppers as well. This act of survival in Stillwater was the biggest Houdini of them all. Dennis Franchione could have had a 12-0 team on his hands, but his boys also could have fallen into a six-and-six ditch.
Week Nine: Penn State 12, Purdue 0.
Penn State wasn't aesthetically impressive this year, and the Nittany Lions didn't dominate the league the way they did last season, but they fought and competed better than most of their Big Ten brethren. This was the game that epitomized the true grit of JoePa's boys, who will go to the reasonably prestigious Outback Bowl as a reward for their determination.
Week Ten: South Florida 22, Pittsburgh 12; Minnesota 63, Indiana 26; Maryland 13, Clemson 12; Florida 25, Vanderbilt 19; Kentucky 24, Georgia 20; Arizona 27, Washington State 17; Rice 37, UTEP 31.
South Florida is the Big East's most consistently overachieving program, and its win over Pittsburgh showed why. Minnesota started poorly, but rebounded to fashion a .500 season on the strength of a win over an Indiana team that was looking ahead to Michigan. Clemson's annual "we have no business losing this game" loss occurred against the opportunistic and gritty Terps. Florida never looked pretty in 2006, but it consistently found ways to win, as shown against Vandy. Kentucky's breakthrough season under Rich Brooks was defined by a hard-earned triumph over a slumping Georgia team. Arizona's win in Pullman proved to be more than a one-game aberration; Wazzu never recovered from this loss and ended the year on a three-game losing streak, while Mike Stoops' team won three of its last four to make the .500 mark along with the Cougars. The Rice-UTEP score would have been unimaginable just one year ago.
Week Eleven: Wisconsin 24, Iowa 21; Stanford 20, Washington 3.
Even with a backup quarterback, the Badgers won in Iowa City against a team that could never put the pieces together. Wisconsin had more resolve than any other Big Ten team (including the aforementioned Penn State Nittany Lions). Washington had two more quarterbacks suffer injuries against Stanford, but then again, one would think that merely being able to breathe would have been good enough to beat Stanford at home. The Huskies' lack of a bowl game--in what was still an encouraging season--can be attributed to this Dawg of a performance against the previously winless Cardinal.
Week Twelve: SMU 34, Tulsa 24; Rice 18, East Carolina 17; Arizona 37, Oregon 10.
SMU and Rice cemented their sensational seasons with these wins. Oregon--the No. 2 team in 2001 and a top 15 team last year-- unexpectedly spiraled downward at the end of 2006, with this stunning home loss being the centerpiece of the Ducks' collapse.
Week Thirteen: Cincinnati 26, Connecticut 23; Rice 31, SMU 27, San Jose State 28, Idaho 13; East Carolina 21, N.C. State 16.
The four above scores from the past weekend all prove that once a culture of winning is established by a football team, its players gain the confidence needed to see them through pressure-packed situations in late-season crucibles... even if there aren't many cameras around.
There's a second part to "Stories in Scores" which wasn't included in last year's initial edition. While various scores determine the rise and fall of various programs, another story found in a season's worth of results is the extent to which emotions create totally different teams throughout the season. Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano said it plainly after his team's loss to Cincinnati: "It's so hard to be at your best each week." If you only look at talent, you're missing two-thirds of the puzzle in college football. If you value talent and execution, you're still one third short of a full loaf. It's mental toughness, in addition to the talent and execution, that makes teams truly good. Winning without artistry, succeeding without sizzle, prevailing without passion: these are the hidden arts of college football, and they are reflected in the fluctuations of teams' fortunes every season. As we continue "Stories in Scores," then, one must look not at week to week games, but collections of games from certain teams at different points in their seasons. For some strange reason, the funny drinking water abounded in the Pac-10 and Sun Belt.
Oregon schools--both the Ducks and Beavers--had herky-jerky, Jekyll-and-Hyde seasons that defy description. Oregon, at one point in its season, was able to hammer Arizona State, 48-13. Later, though, when emotions were decidedly more fragile for Mike Bellotti's team, the Ducks lost 34-23 to Washington State. And when UO lacked any self-belief whatsoever, the Quack Attack got obliterated by Arizona in Autzen Stadium by an unthinkable 37-10 score. All told, the folks in Eugene saw at least three different teams in 2006. It was little different in Corvallis, as Mike Riley's Beavers got crushed by Boise State, 42-14, slipped even more in an ugly 13-6 home loss to Washington State, but then rebounded to topple mighty USC by a 33-31 count. Depending on the month, Beaver backers saw a different cast of characters in the same human bodies.
Seasons were even wackier in the Sun Belt. Louisiana-Monroe lost 21-19 at Kansas, but then lost 21-19 at home to Florida Atlantic. The Warhawks lost by two at Kentucky, 42-40, and by four to Arkansas State, 10-6. ULM lost a lot of close games, but the mystery is that some of those losses came against BCS conference teams, while other losses with virtually identical margins came against Sun Belt opponents. One of those opponents was North Texas, whom UL-Monroe drilled by a 23-3 score. The Mean Green, while losing big to the Warhawks, smashed SMU by a count of 24-6 earlier in their season.
But while ULM and UNT had their share of ups and downs, no one in the Sun Belt had more of a baffling rollercoaster ride than the Arkansas State Indians. ASU beat Army 14-6 and topped Troy--the second-place team in the Sun Belt--to the tune of 33-26. On the other hand, Arkansas State also lost 55-9 to SMU, the same team that got crushed by North Texas. Yes, this was the same North Texas team that finished three notches below ASU in the Sun Belt standings and lost to the Indians by a 29-10 count in 2006. Even more mystifyingly, Arkansas State lost by two more points against Florida Atlantic (29-0) than it did at Auburn (27-0). Did the real Indians ever stand up this Autumn? If so, which was the authentic ASU team, and which was the counterfeit?
Plenty of other teams had pairs--if not trios or quartets--of games that offered dramatically different results. Georgia closed with a double-defeat of Auburn (37-15) and Georgia Tech (15-12), but that came only after a miserable midseason defined by losses to Vanderbilt (24-22) and Kentucky (24-20). Texas Tech went into College Station and upended Texas A&M, 31-27, but also lost at Colorado in humiliating fashion, 30-6. Mike Leach's Red Raiders scored only three points in a nine-point loss at TCU, but then rang up 31 points in a narrow four-point loss against Texas. And then there's the Big East, where Rutgers could beat Louisville but then lose to Cincinnati by nineteen points (30-11) the very next week. Everywhere you look in college football, the 2006 season revealed numerous teams that had distinctly different personalities depending on the pregame meals they ate, the hotels where they slept, the status of their homework assignments, or whatever it was that made them play such markedly erratic football from week to week. Fans of USC, Arkansas, Clemson, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, LSU, Auburn, South Florida, and many other schools saw manifestations of multiple personalities and emotional profiles from their teams during the course of this season.
The volatility of emotions in this sport, brought about by the difficulty of bringing the same game face to every Saturday, is what makes this sport so difficult. Merely winning is a triumph in college football, and prevailing without one's A-game is an absolute necessity for those who dare to dream of championship glory. Keep this in mind the next time you argue about style points or feel outraged at your team's upset loss. Bad days are part of this sport; it's the ability to find an ugly way to win on those bad days that separates the champions from the second-tier chumps in the world of college football.
What else should you take away from this regular season, now one week away from ending for all teams (not just some)? In addition to the centrality of emotions in the sport, you should also understand (if you didn't learn the lesson long ago) that patience--while not displayed by most programs--is indeed a virtue in college football, particularly when it comes to coaches.
There's no need to rehash the whole Larry Coker debate (should he have stayed, or should be have been fired?), but it is worth mentioning that since Coker's firing (written about by this columnist on Friday after the story broke) came about because the Miami program was believed to be in disarray, why is it that Bobby Bowden is staying on at Florida State? Yes, the FSU icon should be able to determine when he steps down in Tallahassee (the same principle applied to Joe Paterno before Penn State's breakout season in 2005), but if coaches such as Coker are going to be fired for allowing their program to decline, then Bowden should be fired if that standard is to extend to all college football programs. The Noles have no confidence, no self-belief, no execution, no game planning, and basically, no clue. As a matter of principle, Larry Coker and Bobby Bowden should be treated the same way. Sadly, they weren't. Michigan fans have to be thanking their lucky stars that Lloyd Carr stayed on. Tennessee fans have to be grateful to still have Philip Fulmer. Les Miles--as much as I've knocked him this year (and he still does need to win an SEC title to truly put an end to questions about his credentials as a head coach)--showed me a lot with a step-up November to remember. Houston Nutt was on a very hot seat when this season began; look at him now. Greg Schiano sure seemed like an inadequate coach during all of Rutgers' very lean years. Jim Grobe toiled in anonymity and obscurity for several seasons at Wake Forest before his Demon Deacons rolled to this Saturday's ACC title game. Patience is a necessity in this business on most occasions; the times when coaches should get quick hooks (John L. Smith at Michigan State, for example) are the painfully evident exceptions, not the regular rules.
To amplify this set of points, one must realize that while Division I-A college football is a cutthroat billion-dollar industry, it is--by virtue of being an industry--a part of human life in which people's livelihoods are at stake. Therefore, it mirrors our everyday existence in that it forces human beings to treat each other properly. Any situation in life, no matter what the context, demands fairness and decency from all of us toward our fellow men and women. (Perhaps the sadness or joy of a poignant and just-completed holiday weekend reminded you and your family members of the truth of that statement.) If integrity isn't part of any business, that business can't claim to be redeeming in any larger sense.
Let's put this whole discussion about coaches and patience into a context many of you could well appreciate, dear readers: what if several good years at a company were followed by a bad year when people in your division just didn't perform the same way, due to personal problems, overwhelming distractions, and the other things that will unavoidably affect human beings from time to time? What if your supervisor and other people in the upper reaches of the corporate hierarchy cut you loose because they felt your division was in an irreparable state of decline and disrepair? Wouldn't you feel used and dehumanized? Wouldn't you feel that you were valued only because of the money you made for the Boss Man, not because of your inherent human dignity or the relationships you worked so hard to build?
Yes, Larry Coker and other Division I-A football coaches make a lot more money than almost all of us working stiffs do. In a certain sense, their problems aren't quite our problems. But then again, that's not entirely true. Coker and other fired coaches will be unemployed this holiday season, and all because they were valued only when they were winning. As soon as some adversity hit, however, their employer--in a phrase that truly does apply here (but not in Iraq)--"cut and ran." Coker has more money than you or I will ever hope to see in a lifetime, but like any other human organism, Coker surely has the emotional wreckage and the feeling of loneliness that comes to any person when s/he is hung out to dry. This was the same basic reason why this columnist so steadily and stridently criticized Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson for the way in which Frank Solich was so shamefully axed as the Huskers' head coach after the 2003 season. Moreover, it's the same reason why this space will continue to stand up for patience as a needed virtue in the college football coaching world. If Mike Shula gets fired in Tuscaloosa, you'll hear a cry of righteous indignation rising from the wilderness.
This is the holiday season, ladies and gentlemen. It's the time of year when pressures to make money, satisfy family members, and conform to a lot of sociocultural expectations reach an ugly peak. These pressures so often lead Americans to be stressful, angry and uncharitable at the very time of year when warm hearts ought to melt the cold and wintry air, giving life and love to the relationships that ought to be sources of comfort and profound internal nourishment. Yes, the passionate part of our inner selves might want the Larry Cokers of the world to be fired sooner rather than later, but just remember this: the money a man (or woman) makes does not mean that s/he gets to be treated worse than lower-middle class folks. If the college football industry truly cared about human dignity, it would display a heckuva lot more patience. After all, patience--last time I checked--was supposedly regarded as a virtue. Why not treat it as such?
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Week Fourteen: December 4, 2006
After a year of necessarily detailed and elaborate columns, here's a season review awards and rankings show.
Best Coach, elite division: Greg Schiano, Rutgers. Best Coach, small-fry division: Todd Graham, Rice. Runners-up, elite division: Jim Grobe, Wake Forest, and Lloyd Carr, Michigan. Runners-up, small-fry division: Dick Tomey, San Jose State, and Phil Bennett, Southern Methodist.
Best un(der)publicized coaching job for a team that wouldn't qualify as a "little darling" (San Jose State, Rice, SMU, etc.): Mike Riley, Oregon State. Runners-up: Ralph Friedgen, Maryland; Joe Paterno, Penn State; Ron Prince, Kansas State.
Best scrambling act by a coach that salvaged a deteriorating season: Mark Richt, Georgia. Runners-up: Glen Mason, Minnesota, and Karl Dorrell, UCLA.
Best maximizers of talent, elite division: Pete Carroll, USC, and Jim Tressel, Ohio State. Small-fry division: Paul Johnson, Navy, and Jim Leavitt, South Florida.
Most inspiring coach: Frank Solich, Ohio. Runners-up: Schiano, Grobe, Graham.
Best offensive coordinator: Gus Malzahn, Arkansas. Runners-up: The Petrino Brothers, Louisville, and David Cutcliffe, Tennessee.
Best defensive coordinator: Ron English, Michigan. Runners-up: Jon Tenuta, Georgia Tech, and Charlie Strong/Greg Mattison, Florida.
Best single game as a play caller on offense: Malzahn against Tennessee, Nov. 11. Runners-up: Tressel against Michigan, Nov. 18; Bill Callahan, Nebraska, against Missouri, Nov. 4.
Best single game as a play caller on defense: Schiano against Louisville, Nov. 9. Runners-up: Wally Burnham, South Florida, against West Virginia, Nov. 25; DeWayne Walker, UCLA, against USC, Dec. 2; Joe Kines, Alabama, against Tennessee, Oct. 21.
Best-coached game of the year, one coach: Schiano against Louisville. Runners-up: Tressel against Michigan, and Pete Carroll, USC, against Notre Dame, Nov. 25.
Best-coached game of the year, two coaches: Tommy Tuberville and Steve Spurrier, Auburn at South Carolina, Sept. 28. Runners-up: Rich Rodriguez and Bobby Petrino, West Virginia at Louisville, Nov. 2; Urban Meyer and Philip Fulmer, Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 16; Jim Grobe and Ralph Friedgen, Wake Forest at Maryland, Nov. 25.
Play call of the year: Tuberville's chip-kick kickoff, Auburn at South Carolina. Runners-up: Dan Mullen's winning touchdown pass play from Chris Leak to Dallas Baker, Florida at Tennessee; Malzahn's hidden run using Reggie Fish to gain 29 yards, Arkansas at Auburn, Oct. 7; Tressel's 2nd and 1 long-bomb touchdown pass against Michigan.
Player and Team Awards
Team with the most guts and grit: Oklahoma. Runners-up: Rutgers, Wake Forest, Florida.
Team/unit with the highest football IQ: Ohio State. Runners-up, whole team: Rutgers, Wake Forest, Wisconsin. Runners-up, offensive units: Louisville, West Virginia, Navy. Runners-up, defensive units: USC, Florida, Maryland.
Smartest offensive player: Billy Latsko, fullback, Florida. Runners-up: Gary Barnidge, tight end, Louisville; Troy Smith, quarterback, Ohio State; Brian Leonard, running back, Rutgers.
Toughest offensive player: Mike Hart, running back, Michigan. Runners-up: Steve Smith, flanker, USC; Marshawn Lynch, running back, Cal; Pat White, quarterback, West Virginia.
Smartest defensive player: Reggie Nelson, safety, Florida. Runners-up: Jon Abbate, linebacker, Wake Forest; C.J. Ah You, defensive end, Oklahoma; H.B. Blades, linebacker, Pittsburgh.
Toughest defensive player: Justin Harrell, defensive tackle, Tennessee. Runners-up: LaMarr Woodley, defensive end, Michigan; Tom Zbikowski, safety, Notre Dame; Paul Posluszny, linebacker, Penn State.
Most underappreciated player: Pat White, West Virginia. Runners-up: Brian Leonard, Rutgers; Marcus Monk, flanker, Arkansas; Kaipo Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, quarterback, Navy.
Team with talent that can win big with mental toughness in the future: Oregon. Runners-up: Arizona State, Michigan State, and Texas A&M.
Team with mental toughness that simply needs more talent to win big in the future: Rutgers. Runners-up: South Florida, Indiana, and Maryland.
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Week Fifteen: December 11, 2006
Next week, the season-finale of this column tackles the bowls. This week, though, let's try something different, because "different" is needed in an industry--this could apply to both football journalism and college football itself--where cookie-cutter styles and thoughts are all too prevalent.
After any game, fan bases of the two competing teams will likely have an issue with something a columnist says. I haven't had many, if any, columns or "Instant Analysis" pieces in which both fan bases wrote back in equal numbers and with similarly praiseworthy things to say. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a story or column gets good feedback from one fan base, while the other one responds with either silence or vitriolic rage.
As I look back on the 2006 season before turning my attention to the bowls, I want to address you, the readers who are so supportive and loyal to CFN. Yes, I wrote something of a "love letter" to all of you back in the middle of October, but in the heat of battle, such outpourings can either get glossed over or, worse, tainted by the fires of football frustrations. When the fresh pain of defeat lingers into that Monday when you read the Weekly Affirmation or the Monday Morning Quarterback, I couldn't blame you if those frustrations spilled into my inbox. I sincerely hope that those of you who vehemently aired your disagreements with me gained needed catharsis and relaxation after clicking the "send" button this past season (and in previous years, for that matter).
What's different about this week's column? Well, besides being a direct letter to you, dear readers, it's also an attempt to look at the dressed-down sport of football for what it is on the field, without the economic, ethical, social, cultural, racial, educational, and journalistic factors attached to the larger college football industry. This week's column is about the game and how to analyze it effectively, because everyone in the industry benefits when every human being--coach, fan, player, writer--can analyze the sport better.
The inspiration for this column was the Oklahoma-Oregon game from September 16, a game that--all controversy aside--forced any football fan to make some tough decisions as an analyst. Randall in Tulsa, Steve in Calgary, Frank in Florida, Jeff in Houston, Christy in Ohio, Andy in Atlanta, and all my other regular readers had to look at the amazing events of that afternoon in Eugene and decide, for themselves, how to analyze that profoundly puzzling pigskin passion play. So many competing tensions and realities filled the Sooner-Duck donnybrook that any analyst would have had a difficult time finding the right tone, tenor and pitch for a game analysis piece... on immediate deadline or even a few days later. And since every person's view of good football--and hence, good football analysis--is, like everything else in life, colored and shaped by personal experiences, every analytical perspective on the Oklahoma-Oregon game was going to be somewhat different in certain key respects. The challenging part of football analysis is that the facts of a situation extend beyond the ability of any one person to put them all together. Difficult analytical case studies in the world of college football are too layered for one person to line up all the facts on his or her side. The business of football analysis is much more art than science, because one must invariably pick and choose the particular facts that are more inherently central to the outcome in the eye of the beholder.
Astute readers will see what I'm getting at in this final season review of 2006. I want to leave all of you with something of value; more specifically, I want all of us--as football fans (and this includes myself)--to be better analysts, so that as the sport marches onward in the year 2013, we will be able to conduct football debates and discussions on a higher, more elevated level. If we all care enough about football to gather here, write (and read) columns, exchange hundreds of e-mails, and vigorously debate various issues, we all owe it to ourselves and each other to improve at what we're doing... just like the coaches and players who step between the white lines on Autumnal Saturdays. Each football season is precious, eagerly anticipated, and sorely missed when the tumult and the shouting subside. But that doesn't mean every season has to be the same. We don't have to have the same debates every year (though the BCS makes that very hard by always forcing the debate toward emotionalism and petty politics instead of allowing for debates to be settled on the field). We don't have to engage in the same circular arguments. We don't have to remain locked in the same defensive postures as communicators and correspondents. Football and journalism both become irritatingly stale and outrageously predictable when conversations always acquire the same shape with the same paramaters and contexts. True, there are some things about football analysis and fan-reader interactions that will never change, but there's plenty of room for improvement even while the nature of the beast remains fundamentally entrenched.
Dear readers, I'll put it to you simply: now that the season has passed, and since there aren't any games to review from the past weekend, you might be in a good emotional space to listen to me when I say that my analysis is not and has never been represented as fact. Can we get that straight?
There are many stock responses I get from readers, but the worst one is the charge of "failing to do your homework" for airing nothing more than a set of statements that a person strongly disagrees with. The whole point of referencing the Oklahoma-Oregon game was to show that the facts of a game are more numerous than any one viewpoint can contain. One could have chosen several different analytical approaches from that contest, and all would have been factual. Disagreements between Sooner and Duck fans centered around the weight, centrality or relevance of given sets of facts. The best argument from an Oklahoma perspective was that if the Sooners had been granted the ball after the onside kick, they would have won. The best argument from an Oregon perspective was that the Sooners still had multiple chances to win the game after the onside kick, but didn't come through. And in between those two overarching arguments, there were more nuanced and detailed assertions that could have supported middle-ground positions in the OU-UO debate.
One should be able to see--and acknowledge--the obvious: it's patently silly to think that an editorialist or news analyst--a person in the business of giving commentary or opinion--is failing to do one's job solely on the basis of his/her view on a topic or event. It's equivalent to saying that a political or ideological opponent hasn't "done his homework" on hot-button issues such as abortion or the death penalty: there are facts to suit almost any viewpoint, so the heart of the matter is not about doing the homework. It's about making careful, weighted judgments and establishing priorities. THIS is what the Oklahoma-Oregon game should teach us as football fans who are serious about our analysis, and therefore, it's the lesson the Sooner-Duck game can give to the nationwide college football community as it prepares for the bowls and the 2007 season.
Back in August, I issued the "Weekly Affirmation Instant Analysis Challenge," in which I offered you, dear readers, the chance to write "Instant Analysis" pieces on deadline--just as I do each Saturday during the season--with the possibility of having them published on Mondays in this column. Only two people took me up on the offer... even though thousands of folks have, over the years, told me that various Instant Analysis pieces haven't been worth a warm bucket of spit. (The problem might have been that CFN's transition to Scout.com, executed in late August, prevented many readers from finding the piece in which I gave readers this rare opportunity.) So with bowl season ahead of us, I come back with another offer: if you want to, pick one of the big bowl games--any of the January 1 games (they're all good), any BCS game, or the Holiday Bowl--and write an analytical piece. I don't know if I'll publish your offerings, but I would like to see fans making concrete attempts at taking the facts of a game, choosing the relevant ones, and making a strong argument for their game assessment in light of those facts. It would be a worthwhile exercise, and I could promise--at the very least--to read and respond to each submission.
If you're not inclined to write a piece--or if time doesn't allow--you can still do something important as you watch the bowls or reflect on the season just past: form your own priority system for making various football judgments. It is the most central thing a fan of this sport can do if s/he wants to improve as a football analyst.
Journalists such as myself will often be accused by fans of "letting a good story get in the way of the facts," or of arriving at a neat, tidy and convenient conclusion before a game ends. From what I read on Scout.com message boards during each season (yes, I'm always checking in at the sites where my pieces might be discussed...), journalists are seen as soulless drivers of controversy who want to stir the pot more than they want to get facts right. Well, there's no secret that writers like good, juicy stories, but just the same, no writer worth his (or her) keep will write about a controversy if: A) there isn't one; or B) there's no good reason for one to exist. Most writers will explore the "C-word" only if they see sufficient reason to do so. Again, doing homework--while, of course, necessary--isn't as central to the discussion as you might initially think. The big key in this and other football issues is the priority system of the analyst, the interior intellectual architecture in which judgments and analytical tacks are formed.
If you felt Oklahoma was robbed at Oregon, you felt (as I did) that an onside kick is the most important and weighty play in football outside of a game-ending play. If an onside kick stood at the top of your priority system on the matter of "important plays in a football game whose outcomes heavily influence the outcome," it would have been particularly important that the officials missed the call on the onside kick. If, on the other hand, "the ability to handle adversity" and "avoiding a prevent defense" were two very important priorities for you as a football analyst in your evaluation of teams that hold leads late in football games, you would have punished the Sooners for not making some basic plays late in the Oregon game. If you had always possessed an analytical inclination to look down on teams that squandered late advantages and allowed negative momentum to overwhelm them, it would have been entirely--and rightly--consistent to craft an analysis that, in tone and trajectory, lined up with the Oregon perspective in the game. Being right or wrong does apply to pregame statements and predictions, but not so much to postgame assessments. In the analytical world, one can simply take a large set of facts, choose the ones that are important to his/her intellectual framework, and write a piece in which the ultimate argument is supported by those relevant facts. That's all an analyst can ever do. There's no right answer, and analysts will not represent their pieces as factual compilations. They will only attempt to explain why their facts carry weight in ways that other available facts don't. It's not a battle between the realms of the factual and the non-factual; it's a battle between different points of emphasis and competing methods of interpretation--that's all.
So, CFN readers, what I want from you in the offseason requires some depth of thought--if you know anything about me, you know that I require depth of thought from my audience. (That you read my columns is a testament to the depth of thought you already bring to the table.) Formulate--if you haven't already--your priority systems for football analysis. Think about the statistics, trends and realities that matter most to you in a football game: Offense or defense? Potency or ball control? Running or passing? Blocking or skill position strength? Technical precision or emotional passion? Motivation level or pad level? Basic execution or play-calling creativity? First downs gained or third downs converted? Total yards, or total points? Time of possession, or points off turnovers? Onside kicks, or responses to onside kicks? The first 57 minutes of play, or the endgame phase? A quarterback's pocket presence, or his improvisational ability? A coaching staff's plan A out of the locker room in the first quarter, or a coaching staff's plan C out of the locker room at halftime? A team's ability to amass a big lead, or a team's ability to mount a big comeback? A massive breakdown that still ends in a close-shave victory, or a massive comeback that still ends in a narrow loss? These and countless other choices between different statistics, qualities and game narratives aren't quickly made or arrived at. You have to have a priority system in place that, through considered study and reflection, generally elevates some items above others in your own analytical pecking order. You can always make exceptions, and must say so when you do, but by and large, you need to have some kind of framework in place. This way, you can lay out your argument, root it in several key facts, and leave it at that. Another analyst will produce different arguments based on different facts with different points of emphasis, and leave the discussion table as well. Two analysts will disagree, but they'll both be factually-oriented while not needing to accuse the other of being divorced from facts or "not doing their homework." Such is the direction football analysis must acquire in future years.
Instead of jumping through the same old hoops and mouthing the same tired arguments, we can choose to do better... and learn from each other. That's not controversial, is it? Plenty of good journalists and game analysts will stir the pot only if they feel such an approach is warranted. On most occasions, football writers are just trying to paint an accurate picture of a game based on years of observations that are connected to their own experiences. A guy who's been watching SEC football since the early Bear Bryant days will have a different view from the new writer who's been watching Pac-10 football since 1990. At the end of the day, homework is overrated; points of emphasis and sets of analytical priorities are underrated. It's a personal, internal hierarchy that one needs in order to make sense of games as complex as Oklahoma-Oregon from 2006, or Texas Tech-Nebraska from 2005. My hope for all of you--and for the whole college football community--is that 2007 will bring a year of greatly elevated football analysis, based on personal growth in connection with the game on the field. Thinking about the game in an interior way will produce better exterior conversations when Labor Day weekend comes around in a little more than eight months.
As you begin your bowl season (or offseason) assignment and work to become a better football analyst, I leave you with the transcripts of two astute college football analysts, Gary Danielson and Kirk Herbstreit, from BCS-centered conversations they had on Detroit radio station WXYT last week. As you read the transcripts--and study them the way coaches would break down game film--notice how both men have mapped-out intellectual frameworks, and that while their opinions clash, they both cite a number of facts and realities to bolster their lines of argumentation. It is particularly interesting--and instructive--to note that both men agree with the view that Florida had the better schedule than Michigan. The difference is that Danielson thinks the resume should decide the issue, while Herbstreit feels that film study and a team-wide, season-long breakdown demand more weight.
Every single college football fan has a view on this kind of "debate-within-the-debate," but the larger point is that you can't label either broadcaster--both giants in the profession--as objectively right or wrong. I, for one, realize that the BCS exists to select the two best teams, which is more in harmony with Herbstreit's views. At the same time, though, I disagree with the aims and methods of the BCS system, which tries to quantify that which is unquantifiable. In this respect, I side with Danielson. Herbstreit is 1,000 percent correct when he says that Michigan would have been voted No. 2 had it played Ohio State on December 2 and not Nov. 18. Danielson, though, is just as correct when he says that one can't definitively know who the second-best team in the country is. (You need the empirical evidence of a game and/or a wider differentiation in overall won-lost record.) I think Gary Danielson is the best football analyst on the planet right now, and I generally sided with him in this larger Florida-Michigan debate. With that said, though, Herbstreit--who, to his great and everlasting credit, had the journalistic integrity to change his mind based on empirical evidence that was presented to him (in Columbus on Nov. 18)--has been unfairly savaged this season, shredded with a degree of intensity that, while perhaps not shocking in this polarized world of college football, is certainly disappointing. In future years, these transcripts you're about to read will hopefully become positive turning points in our ability to conduct rich, layered college football discussions worthy of adults. One certainly does not hope that these transcripts, in 2009 or 2013, will be viewed in one-sided or overly emotional ways.
Time for your version of "film study," CFN readers. Analyze these texts over the next several months... and check back with the Weekly Affirmation for next week's bowl overview.
...On his campaigning for Florida: "I figure I have two more months to go to catch up with ABC and ESPN. They've been [campaigning for] the Big Ten since September."
...On the controversy over Michigan losing out to Florida: "That Michigan - Ohio State game in 1969. It wouldn't have been fair for Michigan to have to play them again, would it?
"Understand that winning it on the field is all that matters. There were only two teams all year that did not have to please voters - Michigan and Ohio State. They were ranked one and two for the last six weeks of the year – I don't know why, really. They were anointed one and two, they were undefeated and they deserved their rankings. I don't know how anyone knows they are the two best teams.
"I watch a lot of tape. I assume you guys watch a lot of tape. I'll bet you do. But I don't know who the best two teams are, and I'm sure no one else does. So I don't know how the Michigan argument goes that we are the only team capable of coming within three points of Ohio State. I don't know how you can justify that argument. I know you can't. You're telling the rest of college football we're the only team capable of coming within three points of Ohio State.
"My argument was that anyone was more deserving than Michigan. I would have voted Oklahoma over Michigan. Oklahoma got robbed. They basically lost one game, okay? I would have voted Louisville, anyone other than Michigan, because there was only one team in college football that had the opportunity to play their way into that game against Ohio State without having to please one voter. Not one voter. Michigan had a shot. They're obviously a very good football team.
"I think it's small minded to think that the two best teams just happen to play in the Big Ten this year. It reminded me of the Big Ten Conference in the 70s, where Michigan and Ohio State played every year with the two best records go out to the Rose Bowl then found the rest of the country isn't quite as easy as the rest of the Big Ten.
"Michigan and Ohio State didn't mind having the Sports Reporters [stumping for them]. ESPN and ABC had that clock running for over a month [for the OSU – Michigan game] while the rest of the country fumed about that. But the first time somebody says something about somebody else, oh, my, the whining starts. My drum was banging for college football. Now we finally got to a game here because of circumstances where everybody had to stand up and say, 'you mean there's another team besides Michigan Ohio State, Notre Dame and USC out there?' I think it's laughable, totally laughable that people think they know who the best two teams are. I know football pretty good, and I think I know how to watch film pretty well. If I don't know who the best two teams are, I don't see how anybody else can do it."
...On other factors that went into his thinking: "I look at it that the rest of the country really didn't give anybody else a chance except Michigan and Ohio State for a while. Then once they looked at USC, ESPN and ABC jumped on a new bandwagon. Bob Davie was on the front page of USA TODAY saying, "I watched college football all year, and I know the two best teams are Michigan and Ohio State. Then that horse gets a little tired and they go to USC and watch and go, 'you know? Now that I look at it, I think USC is the second best team in the country.' Then when USC loses they go, 'what do we do now?' And I think the rest of the country is out there saying, 'who anointed Michigan, Ohio State, USC and Notre Dame to run all of college football?'
"My stance has been consistent on this. I've been through this three times. I did the Colorado – Nebraska game, and you applauded me when I said the second place team should not play for the national championship. I did the Oklahoma – Kansas State, and you applauded me. Now all of a sudden when I make the same stance, do Michigan fans whine."
...On Florida's case: "The SEC had five teams in the top 20. Florida played the other four. Now what kind of system do you have when the best conference in the country doesn't have according to the polls for their team to play for the national championship? Or put it this way – an equal opportunity to play in the national championship game. This whole thing about No. 3 and No. 4 – I don't think anybody cared who No. 3 and No. 4 were until USC lost. Once that happened, I think people stood up and said, 'all right, what should I do?'
"As a broadcaster of this game, I banged on the table at halftime and said, 'we are not going to talk about Florida's national championship case until at least the fourth quarter.' But I did prepare in case this happen, and I put plusses and minues on both sides, said how am I going to make my argument? That's my job. My argument was to kind of compare the best thing to the worst thing for each team. I left a blank ballot up there for a whole series. I said, 'you make your own ballot out there.' I'm getting paid very well to give my opinion. My opinion was laid out the way I saw it. Now, if I convinced people, maybe I'm a good communicator."
... On whether his opinion is influenced by his employer [CBS]: "So is everybody else's, but that's not true. When I was working at ABC and ESPN I got called to the carpet because I was doing the national championship game and said I didn't believe a second place team should do it ... they had their chance. This is the same argument. I'm the ONLY one who has remained consistent. My old partner, Brent Musberger, anointed Michigan the second best team, then in the middle of the ND - USC game said, you know, I've always said a second place team shouldn't play for the championship, then doubled back and said, "I was off.' I don't know where other people stand, but I have been.
"If Michigan had beaten Ohio State, I would be making the same argument that it's not fair that one team only has to keep it close, the other team has to knock you out. Bo was against this thing, that's why Kirk Herbstreit was against a rematch before the Michigan – Ohio State game."
... On carrying on too long on behalf of the Gators: "It wasn't Florida, even. I don't even know how good of a team they are. They're a gamer. They remind me a little of that Ohio State team that won the national championship that everybody thought would lose every game, and somehow they found a way to win at the end. Nobody thought they could beat Miami, and they seemed to find ways to win.
"My argument was, and continues to be, that you can't anoint teams. No one knows who the best team is. The Sports Reporters don't know, Mitch Albom doesn't know, Kirk Herbstreit doesn't know, Bob Davie doesn't know, and I don't know, and Michigan fans don't know. You have to go then to a resume. Now you are telling people that because Michigan beat Notre Dame, who I think is an emperor with no clothes, and they played Ohio State close, they deserve the national championship.
"Now I look at the schedules and say, now wait a minute ... there are other teams out there that have a resume. Why aren't they being considered? I think college football deserves to have something more than they get. I have railed, and as I said, they should pass rules that don't allow a second place team to go. That's not fair. So what do you do? But it is interesting that a whole year goes by, and can you name me any player besides a quarterback who plays for an SEC team?
"It's out of mind's eye. If you look at what dominates college football, it's ESPN/ABC. That publicity machine has rolled and rolled and rolled and has tilted the playing field in my opinion. So now one time somebody has an opinion that's different people say, 'wow.' You want to know what it's like in the Big 12, Pac-Ten and SEC? That's what it's like, every week from September to Nov. 25.
... On the last time he talked to Lloyd Carr: "During the Michigan - Ohio State game a year ago. I respect Lloyd Carr. People can play out this stuff the way they want to. He's an excellent coach. I was one of his defenders. I'm a Jim Herrmann defender. I didn't think their defense was all that different this year, they just had better players than a year ago. They had a dominant defensive line and Lloyd always does a good job with his football team.
"Coaches can play out their campaign the way they want to. I think Jim Tressel was absolutely right on in the strategy he did. For him to have to try to determine the national ... I think to excuse yourself was absolutely right on. I think Urban Meyer played it the way he wanted to because nobody was talking about the SEC and he said okay, look at my team. We are a pretty good football team, too. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and I think for Coach Carr to attack somebody over what somebody else says is wrong. I respect Coach Carr, but I don't think he should jockey both horses."
... On whether Meyer dragged Michigan into the conversation: "He could say anything he wanted to say. Here's my opinion after watching the Michigan - Ohio State game. If the same game was played with Louisville and West Virginia uniforms, everybody would have said there's no defense on the field. That 's number one. No. 2 is there were two outstanding teams with one great player. Same as last year's game. Ohio State has the best player on the field and when the best player is the quarterback, they have a great chance of winning. It's going to be very difficult to beat OSU because they have the best player in college football."
...On Danielson's lobbying for Florida during the SEC title game, which many feel helped get the Gators a bid to the national title game: "I've got to be honest ... I have so much respect for Gary and Verne [Lundquist]. When I saw watching that game that they put that graphic up, the only thing I could think of was that the coordinating producer would force them to do something like that to kind of destroy any credibility they'd all built over the years, just obviously by standing up and talking about an SEC school. I thought it was more behind the scenes than it would be with Verne and Gary."
... On Danielson's allegations that ESPN/ABC lobby for the Big Ten: "As far as what ESPN and ABC does, the one thing I could just tell you - and Gary should know this - I've never in my life at ESPN had anybody say, 'hey, can you do me a favor? I'm not really worried about your credibility, I want you to just go out and say this because it helps the network.' I can't even imagine somebody actually doing that, and how I'd respond if they did. I've never been approached by anybody saying, 'hey Kirk, we need you to defend Michigan, because they're with ABC.'
"Don't forget, Florida ... ESPN has a lot of SEC games. To even think about that ... whatever I see, I talk about. So I thought Gary would do the same thing. I'm just assuming to give Gary the benefit of the doubt based on his work over the years that that was something he had to buy into. I'm surprised to hear him say the ESPN/ABC guys do that to Michigan. I've never been in a meeting when anybody's ever said we need to so this because we represent that school, so let's take one for the team.
"I'm going to stick my head in the sand. I go on shows in the South, and they tell me a lot of the same things – 'what do you have against the SEC?' That's the one thing about this sport ... Gary is focused on one conference. With GameDay, we focus on every conference, every school and every team. You're kind of used to people over the years saying these kinds of things. There's always going to be somebody with their feelings hurt or upset. This year it's Florida fans and Michigan fans, and of course Florida got the last laugh because they're in. But I don't look at it as the nation wanted to send ESPN and ABC a message, and that's why they picked Florida. What happened is the nation didn't want a rematch. It had nothing to do with ESPN, ABC, Kirk Herbstreit, Gary Danielson, any idiots on the outside. It had everything to do with the matchup they wanted. They did not want to see Round 2, plain and simple.
"If USC beat UCLA by 30 points, which they should have done ... where would Michigan have been ranked in the BCS standings? Third. That tells you that if it was just based on the teams, Michigan is clearly the team that is the better team. The masses understand that. But once SC was knocked out, it gave the voters a chance to say we've already seen Michigan, we don't want to see it again. By golly, look at Florida, they went through the toughest conference, they're 12-1, they deserve it. That's what it was. It wasn't based on doing the right thing. It was based on Michigan had their chance – we don't want to see a rematch, so they're going to put Florida in there."
...On his opinion that Michigan was more deserving: "To me, you look at teams on paper, and it's clearly an advantage for Florida. There's no doubt. If you're going to look at how many bowl teams they beat, how many top [ranked teams].
"Here's the problem I had; I get paid to actually watch college football, from noon to 2 a.m. I watch every game there is, and I do that for 15 straight weeks. I'm in a position where I can make an opinion on more than, well right here on paper, it says Florida beat six top 25 teams ... I don't care. I don't care. I've watched Florida every week. Congratulations, 12-1 ... that's amazing. But am I going to penalize Michigan because the Big Ten is awful this year? Absolutely not. I don't care that they beat ND and ND is terrible. I don't care that they beat Wisconsin and we don't know how good Wisconsin is. I saw them play against every team this year.
"People can say look how they played against Ball State and look how they played against Northwestern. They were bored. The difference between that and Florida ... Florida was actually trying when they played and didn't execute against Georgia and Vanderbilt, and didn't execute against Kentucky and other teams they played. Their offense has been struggling all year, so the way I finally decided to evaluate it was to say, 'if you put this teams on a neutral field, who would win?' To me, Michigan would win that game.
"The last thing is, if Michigan had played Ohio State Saturday the way they played them two weeks ago, you tell me what the masses would have thought. It was out of sight, out of mind. Michigan was a forgotten team. The performance they put on that night was forgotten, and people saw Florida saw two weeks, and at the end of the day, that's what affected them. If Michigan would have played the No. 1 team in the country when Florida was playing Arkansas, I promise you Michigan would have gotten that next chance."
... On Danielson's comment about "whining": "Who's whining? Maybe there are some things going on I'm unaware of about the whining. I don't know any whining ABC or ESPN is doing."
... On Danielson's comment that Herbstreit didn't want to see a rematch prior to the Michigan – Ohio State game: "He's right. I went into that game thinking I don't want to see a rematch. Whoever wins the game, done. But when I watched that game, I wanted to see another quarter, another four quarters. That was the only way in my mind, no matter who won that game. You can imagine if Ohio State lost 42-39 and I were to say there needs to be a rematch.
"Guys, I'm allowed to change my opinion, reevaluate based on things I see. I thought West Virginia before they lost to South Florida, they deserved serious consideration. You reevaluate based on watching games. The backlash from Michigan is no different than any other year I get backlash from Michigan. If Michigan people are upset with me, they are upset with me. If they are happy with me, they are happy with me. If Florida people ... how do you think the conversation went when I just bumped into Urban Meyer a half hour ago? He was actually great. He hugged me. I had a blue and yellow tie on and he said, 'Oh, I see you've got your Florida Gator tie on,' and he kind of laughed. The guy was a GA when I was at Ohio State, so I know him really well. I said don't take it personal – I'm just telling you what I think. He said, 'I know that's you. That's your job. That's what you do.'
"I'm not going to stoop to that level and say I don't respect Gary, because no matter what he might say or feel about me, he and Todd Blackledge are the two guys I've always admired and looked up to, will continued to do so, maybe one day I'll get a chance to tell Gary what I felt. I may change my mind based on what I see in bowl games. My hope is, as a fan of Ohio State and Michigan and other teams – I'm a fan of Florida, too - I'd love to see Michigan play well in the Rose Bowl and Ohio State play well in the championship game, see what happens."
* * *
Season Finale/Bowl Preview: December 18, 2006
With the bowl season upon us, there's only one thing to say to teams and coaches across the country: no grumbling allowed. That's the simple but powerful theme for this year's postseason parade in college football.
It's about time for every school involved in a bowl game to dump the defeatism, wipe away any whining, stuff the sob stories, can the complaints, and knock off the negativity. Every year, fans across the United States wonder if their team, conference or region is the best in the land. When the Midwest and the Central Plains take on the West Coast and the Deep South, the bragging rights are enormous. After a year of punishing conference collisions, the diehards of the Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-10 and SEC surge to the defense of teams they rooted against in the regular season. Big East and ACC fans, whose teams are despised by the four conferences with considerable football pedigrees, regard each bowl win as a watershed moment... or at least, it seems that way. For fans of any league--and the region associated with it--bowl games become a very big deal in an era when these postseason events have lost much of their romance, status and overall cachet. While the nation at large is no longer captivated by bowl games, the true fanatics in the sport approach these pigskin passion plays with maniacal intensity.
Such energy might seem excessive, but when you think about it, it's entirely reasonable for various conference crusaders to hang on the outcome of these bowl battles. Much as the NCAA men's basketball tournament validates or humbles various conferences at the end of a long season, the festival of bowl games is also intended to pit competing conferences against each other. In a sport where sexy non-conference matchups are hard to find during the September section of the regular-season schedule, bowl games--while fueling tourism in numerous communities and providing revenues to participating schools--are also meant to give college football the attractive matchups it wouldn't otherwise get. It is for this reason that bowl games--while not celebrated or cherished the way they used to be, especially among the big bowls (Michigan and USC are both sorely disappointed to be in the Rose Bowl, an absolute outrage that must be rectified as soon as humanly possible by a playoff or plus-one system)--are still worthy of a fan's enthusiasms and a writer's attention. After seeing familiar foes knock heads from mid-September through early December, it's a profound treat to witness the pigskin cross-pollination known as bowl season. Well, it's a treat if both teams play their hardest, anyway. This brings us back to our original point.
Other fans and writers might take a different view, but in 2006, the Weekly Affirmation--in its season finale--will put its foot down and flatly declare that grumbling is no longer allowed as an excuse for losing big in a bowl game, especially as a favorite. Let the proclamation resound from rooftops and hillsides. Let it echo through the valleys and drift through the deserts. Enough of grumbling or generally indifferent play from teams in bowl games--it's time to establish this demand for all bowl teams and coaches.
Fans of the sport deserve to have postseason spectacles in which the merits and weaknesses of teams are revealed in fully robust, spirited and energetic competitions. It's not fair to a conference when one of its teams dogs it in a bowl game, but it's also unfair to the winning team and its own league when that same scenario unfolds. If a conference and its member teams want to claim superiority after a bowl game, both teams need to play their hardest. Not their best, mind you, just their hardest. The winner needs to know it took the loser's best shot, and the loser needs to have the spiritual satisfaction of knowing that it took its bowl trip seriously. Sure, bowl games lack the romance they used to possess--as a kid, I can remember the Gator, Sun, Peach, Liberty and (the now defunct) Bluebonnet bowls having great passion and pageantry, even without a January 1 kickoff. The Cotton Bowl, of course, used to be a gigantic game that should, in future years, become the BCS "fifth game," followed by the plus-one in the January 8 (or roughly equivalent) slot at one of the current rotating BCS bowl sites. But even without the buzz that used to accompany bowls, what still matters is that this is a college football tradition. If you're a college football player, it should be a profound honor to play in any bowl game, even if a season was something of a disappointment. Only a few men get to play Division I-A college ball, and only half of these men (more or less) get to play in bowl games. In years when the number of bowl games was much smaller--but the prestige of playing in a game was accordingly enhanced to a substantial degree--the fathers of today's players regarded a bowl game as a tremendous privilege. In a sport that thrives on the notion (if not the reality) of "the one big game," bowls always offer the opportunity for both teams and coaches, after weeks of preparation and healing, to strut their best stuff in a one-shot situation. Any bowl game should always be an occasion when a team--regardless of what has gone before--is supremely motivated and prepared to play its very best, before seniors graduate and underclassmen wait more than eight months to play another live game. Bowl games should be viewed with much more appreciation than they currently are.
If teams want to make arguments for themselves or bolster the claims of their conference brethren, then, the days are done when grumbling can be allowed in a bowl game. Period. If Georgia Tech wanted to do something for the ACC's image last season, the Yellow Jackets should have cared about playing Utah in the Emerald Bowl, instead of getting waxed by a disgraceful 38-10 score. If Auburn wanted to validate its BCS credentials last season, the Tigers should have acted as though they belonged among the big boys. Instead, a Wisconsin team intent on sending Barry Alvarez out a winner thumped the Tigers in authoritative fashion. SEC fans made the predictable, understandable and possibly correct argument that, nine times out of ten, Auburn would have bloodied the Badgers. Know something else? That line of thought gave zero credit to a Badger team that honored not just its coach, but all of college football, with a joy-filled and passion-packed powerhouse performance. Bowl games always have the kinds of scenarios that Georgia Tech and Auburn provided last season. It's time for those kinds of results to be viewed as accurate indicators of conference quality, and to no longer be considered as aberrations or fluke occurrences.
With the past as prelude, then, here are the Weekly Affirmation's warnings to bowl teams who might be inclined to grumble and grouse their way through the motions when they step onto the gridiron:
Oregon, you spiraled downward at the end of the 2006 campaign. You're in the Las Vegas Bowl, not the Holiday. Deal with it. Pick yourself off the deck. Pac-10 fans are counting on you. Show some pride. Suck it up. This isn't an exhortation for you to win--a BYU victory would make a wonderful story for me to write about. Just make sure, Ducks, that you bring it strong and make the Cougars earn whatever they get.
Florida State, you've had a month to lick your wounds, get some veteran bodies back into the lineup, re-calibrate your offense and its design, and play a team that just showed it has some big-league fight. UCLA--coming off its win over USC--figures to play a spirited game in the Emerald Bowl. You, Florida State, are making a cross-country trip to a baseball stadium in late December to play a middle-tier Pac-10 team. Do you care? Will you care? It's not a spotlight bowl game by any means, but that makes the Emerald Bowl an even more telling indicator of your commitment level and, hence, the amount of guts you truly possess. Are you man enough to give a darn about this game? The whole world won't be watching (not even close), but your fans, ACC fans, and lots of sportswriters will be. We'll all be taking notes.
Alabama, you've been swimming in distractions. In many ways, a bowl game is preventing you from turning the page on the disappointing regular season you just turned in. Will you view a trip to the bowl game formerly--and very informally--known as the "Weed Whacker Bowl" as an opportunity or a burden? We'll see how much you care... and how well Joe Kines can light a fire under your fannies while getting an offense to actually do something.
Rutgers, you've displayed the values and qualities that make this sport sing. You're everything that's right about college football from an attitudinal standpoint. If you lose to Kansas State in a bowl game that--frankly--is far beneath your level of achievement (how can Big East officials live with the sorry and second-rate bowl slots assigned to conference teams????), the luster of this sensational campaign will fade away into the bleakness of a dark offseason.
Clemson, you gagged in the second half of the regular season. You should destroy Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. Ah, but will you?
Miami, you're in much the same situation as Florida State. You're playing way out of your element--and your geographical region--in this bowl season. Will you care about playing Nevada on blue turf in Boise, or will you not show up for the MPC Computers Bowl?
Georgia Tech, you grumbled before (and during) the Emerald Bowl last year. Already, some of your players are grousing about playing in the Gator Bowl after the dispiriting loss (in the home of the Gator Bowl, Jacksonville's AllTel Stadium) to Wake Forest on Dec. 2. Will you sulk through a second straight bowl game, or will you actually want to win? We have our doubts about you. You can prove the Weekly Affirmation to be loud wrong. Will you? The Ball--Reggie or otherwise--is in your court.
Michigan, we know: the BCS sucks (the Weekly Affirmation's been saying it for six seasons now), and in a world with true justice, you'd be playing Florida in the Sugar Bowl while USC and Ohio State play in the Rose Bowl, with a plus-one to follow a week later for a more-than-merely-mythical national championship. But we're saddled with this sorry (non-)system, so you might as well get over your disappointment and show that you're better than the team that, had it beaten UCLA, would have leapfrogged you for a date with Ohio State in Glendale. Time to shelve the sorrows and make a national statement against a formidable opponent. Time to show that, amidst your disappointment, you still do care about playing in the Rose Bowl. It's supposed to matter to a Big Ten program.
Now that we've delivered our warnings against bowl grumblers, it's time to actually examine these bowl games and pick out several interesting storylines from the more attractive matchups.
In this BCS era, one of the richest and most delicious ironies of this bowl season is the fact that the traditional January 1 bowls offer the best matchups. At a time in college football history when a return to the old bowl format--combined with the new-age addition of a Final Four or plus-one after the bowls--would be the best tonic for the sport's health, it's more than a little satisfying to note that the Rose and Cotton Bowls, two venerable games that are remaining on New Year's Day this season, have the most attractive matchups.
While Ohio State has to rate as a solid favorite over Florida in the BCS title game, it's the Rose Bowl that stands out as the most compelling and even-steven matchup among the BCS battles. That the Granddaddy has the classic Big Ten-Pac-10 pairing only adds to the luster of college football's most beautiful spectacle. The most lavishly decorated field, nestled in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains, provides the sport with its best setting, hands down. The fact that this season's Rose Bowl will have its traditional early afternoon kickoff--which allows for a sun-splashed first half and a dramatic, shadowy second half--only adds to everything a college football fan has ever loved about this game. This year's Rose Bowl is the full monty, the game played on the day it was meant to be played, in the time slot it was meant to be staged, with the conference teams that were meant to contest it. Those fans disappointed about being in the Rose Bowl will hopefully bathe themselves in the atmosphere of this game and realize that it's college football's equivalent of paradise. Mother Nature intended for the Big Ten and the Pac-10 to come together on a sparkling afternoon on the first day of the new year, so that industrious Midwesterners could take a break from the gray gloom of home and bask in the California sunshine. For all the weaknesses and imperfections that apply to bowl games, the Big Ten and the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl will always be a perfect fit... no matter what the BCS tries to do to distort expectations or manipulate matchups. USC-Michigan is a treat for the college football purist. It should be viewed as such, and hopefully, the spectacle will melt a lot of disappointed hearts when kickoff comes a callin'.
The other college football classic--shamefully reduced in stature (this columnist keeps banging the drum every year, and will continue to do so until the last dog dies)--that offers a great January 1 matchup is the Cotton Bowl, which pits Auburn against Nebraska. The Cotton Bowl used to decide national titles through the early 1990s, before the forces of the college football industry somehow diminished the importance of this venerable contest that used to stand alongside the Rose Bowl as the king of college football's coronation-completing contests. Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught, Frank Broyles, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, Gene Stallings (as the coach at Texas A&M, not at Alabama), Dan Devine, Ara Parseghian, Darrell Royal, Grant Teaff, Bill Yeoman, Pat Dye, Lou Holtz, Vince Dooley and many other great coaches coached in this game. The list of great players far exceeds the list of the sideline sultans just mentioned. This game used to be a championship-making moment, played in the heart of a state--Texas--that cherishes football with a level of passion matched only by Ohio and (maybe) Pennsylvania. The Cotton Bowl occupied a larger-than-life place in the college football cosmos for quite some time; it possessed such importance that it drove a losing player--Alabama's Tommy Lewis--to jump from the sideline and tackle Rice superstar Dickie Maegle, who was sprinting unobstructed toward the end zone in the 1954 game won by the Owls. The Cotton Bowl deserves a midday kickoff and a heightened place in college football's pecking order.
This year's matchup is worthy of a special spotlight. The Big XII runner-up--an ascendant Nebraska program under Bill Callahan--takes on an Auburn squad that has been extremely consistent over the past three seasons. Callahan and Tiger coach Tommy Tuberville have proven to be two of the more resourceful coaches in the country in recent seasons, as shown by their ability to rebound from painful experiences and build their programs back to prominence.
For Callahan, an unforgettable 70-10 loss at the hands of Texas Tech marked the low point of his first season in Lincoln. Since then, the Huskers have steadily advanced to the point that they now claim undisputed bragging rights in the Big XII North. A close loss to Texas--which was one fumble away from turning in their direction--indicated that the Huskers rightfully belonged with the big boys in their conference, proof that Callahan's restoration project is on schedule. A win over a ten-win Auburn team would catapult the Big Red into next season, with stud signal caller Sam Keller waiting to take over Nebraska's offense.
Auburn struggled with injuries and a youthful receiving corps in 2006, so on the first day of 2007, the rested Tigers will have a chance to turn preparation time into their ally as they try to make a statement against another brand-name program in the college football world. If the Tigers are to feel good about their chances of holding off LSU and Arkansas to reclaim the SEC West next year, they would love to put the pieces together on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Brandon Cox and offensive coordinator Al Borges will both have a lot to prove when they stare down the Blackshirts.
Aside of the matchup itself, this Cotton Bowl--whose ridiculously early kickoff time was bumped back half an hour (hey, gotta start small; in time, the old midday kickoff might return, as it did for one brief moment of glory in 2004)--will be special because a broadcast legend will go behind the microphone for Fox. Pat Summerall, the best NFL play-by-play voice in the last quarter of the 20th century, will jump back into the booth to call the Cotton Bowl. The Arkansas alum and current Dallas resident is perfectly equipped to call this game because his football background gives him an enormous appreciation of the Cotton Bowl's place in college football lore. No offense to the broadcasters of the Outback and Gator Bowls, but with a two- or three-monitor setup on New Year's Day, the non-muted TV will be the one carrying Pat Summerall's broadcast.
Aside of the classic bowl angle, it's worth noting that other January 1 games--even those without a lot of status or cachet--remain the best offerings in the whole bowl season, a sign that the football gods want January 1 to regain its place as the day when the sport's postseason (before a Final Four or plus-one) shines the most.
Go up and down your bowl lineup. Aside of the Holiday Bowl--which has blessedly managed to remain the most entertaining December bowl on the board--and possibly the Peach Bowl (yeah, yeah, yeah, we know the corporate name; chicken is tasty), the best non-BCS matchups are also on New Year's Day. The Gator Bowl between West Virginia and Georgia Tech will be the first of two massive encounters between the Big East and the ACC, two conferences that despise each other with a passion. The outcome of Mountaineers-Yellow Jackets will magnify, in one way or another, the next day's Orange Bowl between Wake Forest and Louisville. Since the Demon Deacons and Cardinals beat their second-place opponents, the Gator Bowl's outcome will tell a lot about the relative strength of the ACC and Big East. An even more compelling angle in the Gator Bowl is that it will shed some light on the performances of the country's two best coaches in 2006, Rutgers' Greg Schiano and Wake Forest's Jim Grobe. If West Virginia--a team that barely beat Rutgers at home with a backup quarterback--can hammer a Tech team that barely lost to Wake, it will go a long way toward indicating that Schiano did more than Grobe in 2006 (if one wants to nitpick and determine who did a better job; both coaches pulled off the equivalent of moving mountains). Conversely, if the Yellow Jackets rebound and mash the Mountaineers, it will be clear as day that Grobe's greatness would outstrip the shine of Schiano. In many ways, the Gator Bowl will prove to be a very revealing indicator about a number of college football realities.
But if you don't get too excited about "indicator" games as they affect Coach of the Year competitions, you can still love good ol' fashioned head-knockers between highly-touted teams. The Citrus Bowl (yeah, we know the corporate name... not much is in my own wallet...) offers a tremendous matchup between a one-loss Wisconsin team bearing a thin resume and a three-loss Arkansas team with a hefty portfolio. The sturdy resilience and physical prowess of the Badgers--who are blessed with resourceful quarterbacking--will confront the chalkboard creativity and speed-merchant sizzle of the Razorbacks, who lack quality signal callers. For the football connoisseur, Badgers-Hogs is a delicious matchup, a pigskin platter of prodigious proportions. It's not to be missed, a January jewel that could easily sparkle more than any BCS battle.
Next in our bowl preview blowout is a look at the Holiday Bowl. True to its reputation, the San Diego classic delivers yet another matchup that is worthy of attention and likely to entertain.
The thing that immediately catches your eye in the encounter between Texas A&M and California is the coaching matchup between Dennis Franchione and Jeff Tedford. Both men made their names in the West--Fran at New Mexico and TCU, Tedford as the offensive coordinator for the unofficial (unofficial, Nebraska fans) runner-up in the 2001 season, the Oregon Ducks. What's interesting about their current reputations is that they've been shaped by the places where they currently ply their trade. This columnist would venture to say that if Tedford resided in College Station and Franchione lived in Berkeley, the national perceptions of their performances would be different from what they are right now.
Franchione has been consistently dogged during his stay at A&M, where the local culture cares about football with a soul force that is absent from Strawberry Canyon. Every move by Fran gets dissected to the -nth degree, and even when he's made completely unobjectionable moves (Texas Tech, Nebraska), losses have still occurred because of isolated and improbable mistakes by his team. The many close-shave wins by the Aggies have been overlooked; the loss to Oklahoma--which did come as the result of a poor move (but not a horrible one) by Franchione--lingered over the head of the A&M coach until a cathartic and desperately-needed win over archrival Texas in the regular-season finale. With Franchione--one of the most fertile, flexible and creative minds in all of college football--criticism seems to stick at every turn.
Jeff Tedford, on the other hand, is a teflon figure when it comes to coaching criticism. If national media bias hurts West Coast teams (other than USC) when it comes to receiving comparable levels of exposure and publicity, the plus side is that coaches don't get hammered the way they do in the SEC (ask Mike Shula), the Big XII (ask Franchione), the Big Ten (ask Lloyd Carr about his previous offseason), or the ACC (ask Bobby Bowden or Larry Coker). Tedford is a solid coach, and there's no question that he's elevated the Cal program since taking over in Berkeley a few years ago. But Cal is still waiting on a BCS bowl berth and a Pac-10 title (if you've read this column over the years, you'd know that a title isn't a title unless you get the big BCS bowl prize to accompany it), and after two horrendous coaching performances against Arizona and USC in November, Tedford--with poor executive decisions and an inability to find winning play calls--bears more than a little responsibility for a season that failed to fulfill some rightfully lofty expectations. If there was ever a year to catch and overtake USC for the conference championship, this was it; but the Bay Area Bears couldn't get the job done. Tedford isn't on any hot seat, and moreover, he shouldn't be; just the same, however, he deserves to be called on the carpet for deficient coaching jobs in the stretch run of his team's season. Franchione's seat was getting a little toasty before the Texas win cooled things off; that was inappropriate, but it was reality. One gets the feeling that Tedford--had he switched places with Franchione--would have felt a hot seat in 2006, while Fran would have been the teflon man in Berkeley.
This coaching drama makes the Holiday Bowl particularly personal. No, not in the sense that players will be playing for their coaches, and not in the sense that Fran and Tedford will be trying to beat the other (they'll be trying to win a game for their kids and their conferences). This game is personal because it will be an X-and-O case study, a pigskin laboratory in which two coaches--one slightly overrated (Tedford) and one slightly underappreciated (Franchione)--will duel in a game where their teams should be substantially motivated to perform well. Cal won't grumble through a Holiday Bowl the way it did two years ago against Texas Tech; A&M should be thrilled to play in a bowl game this big after that crushing two-game losing streak against Oklahoma and Nebraska. The Holiday Bowl will be an intensely fascinating game to watch.
The final stop in our bowl edition of the Weekly Affirmation is the BCS National Championship Game between Florida and Ohio State. The supreme showcase in college football has too many storylines and angles for one column, so with kickoff still three weeks away, here's a preliminary preview in advance of the game write-ups that will emerge a few days before Gators and Buckeyes get it on in Glendale.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've already been exposed to many of the major themes in this contest, so we'll try to provide a preview that offers appreciably fresh and original insights. One idea you won't hear about anywhere else--and which will indeed play a large role in the January 8 showdown--is the "Mark Bradley moment."
What's a Mark Bradley moment? You only need to recall the 2005 Orange Bowl, the BCS title game contested by Oklahoma and USC. When Sooner punt returner Mark Bradley fumbled a punt inside his own five-yard line, Oklahoma suddenly and shockingly lost its focus. One huge mistake took all the air out of an entire team, noticeably shifting the emotional calculus of a much-hyped and long-awaited contest. Given the over-the-top media pressure and wall-to-wall saturation coverage that currently define BCS title games, the young minds placed in such a white-hot spotlight will do something weird at some point in the proceedings. Last year's Mark Bradley moment was turned in by USC's Reggie Bush, who made an inexplicably stupid and unnecessary lateral attempt that turned into a huge Texas fumble recovery. It was one isolated incident, but the effects were substantial: in just a few seconds, one boneheaded action prevented USC from establishing something of a command position in the first half. After more than a month of preparation, a split-second decision undid so many of Pete Carroll's plans... just as Mark Bradley's brain cramp destroyed Bob Stoops' designs the year before.
This year, then, all of Ohio State's chalkboard advantages could go out the window if one astonishing play turns momentum squarely in Florida's direction. All the ink spilled about this contest will cease to matter if (or when) one huge mistake creates a 180-degree shift in the flow of the action in Glendale. That's the first and most important thing to keep in mind about Gators-Buckeyes.
From a blackboard standpoint, the biggest key to the game will be the approach of Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen, UF's offensive braintrust. Meyer and Mullen have constantly been trying to find the right mix on offense all season long. They've tried to work one-on-one matchups at times, but have then wandered off the path and pursued trick-play touchdowns. Mullen, Florida's offensive coordinator, has tried to give his offense the element of surprise while also seeking to make dropback quarterback Chris Leak more comfortable than he was in 2005, when everyone on the offensive side of the ball in Gainesville had a difficult time learning the Meyer-Mullen system. Mullen's play calling, combined with Meyer's wilingness to give backup quarterback Tim Tebow some snaps as a spread-formation runner, have been designed to keep defenses guessing on each and every play. With Leak, the passer, running some option plays and Tebow, a runner, using a few (very rare) passing plays, Mullen wants to get defenses in situations where it doesn't fully know what each Gator quarterback will do. And with five weeks to prepare for Ohio State, Mullen will have a lot of time in which to teach his players the finer points of some specialty plays and packages. In particular, one should expect Mullen to prepare a few pass plays for Tebow that can get the Buckeye defense on a pendulum.
The big question surrounding this specific issue is as follows: how much will Mullen try to establish receiver Percy Harvin and other speed merchants in individual matchups against OSU's corners, balanced against the need to create confusion throughout the Buckeyes' entire defense? With a month to coach up his talented but young skill position people, Mullen might have reason to expect that the sheer ability possessed by his offensive studs could outweigh the limitations posed by their relative lack of experience. While Ohio State's skill people are seasoned and fully formed, Florida has offensive players who are extremely unpolished at this point. But with a month of preparation, Mullen could well think that he can produce sharper reactions and better habits from his receiving corps... enough to destroy Ohio State's secondary and dramatically reshape the prevailing wisdom in this contest. If Mullen has enough confidence in his players, Florida could run more basic packages in this game and try to beat the Buckeyes straight up. On the other hand, an offensive package loaded with exotics and wrinkles--especially with OSU's defense being rusty after a 50-day layoff--could prove to be the more prudent strategy for Mullen and Meyer as they scheme and strategize in advance of this title tilt. All in all, it will be very interesting--and, moreover, significant--to see what Florida's offensive staff ultimately chooses to do. It will represent the biggest fundamental decision in the entire game. Sure, there will be telling adjustments made by both staffs within the ebb-and-flow of the contest, but it's what Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen decide to do before January 8 that will have the greatest amount of impact on the night's proceedings in Glendale.
A final key element of this game--but which hasn't received all that much (if any) publicity to this point--is Dallas Baker and, more specifically, his size. With Florida's offense facing more than a little pressure to perform with maximum effectiveness against the loaded Buckeyes, it is Baker--more than any other offensive player for the Gators--who could make a huge difference.
If Dan Mullen chooses a simple game plan and places an emphasis on nuts-and-bolts execution to minimize mistakes while trusting the athleticism of his receivers, Baker stands out as a huge key because--unlike Percy Harvin or other speed merchants in the Florida fold--he can win a ball with his size and strength. If the Gators find themselves in a 3rd and medium in the middle of the field, they can use Baker on a sit-down route and have No. 81 box out a defender, basketball-style, with his large frame. Against a well-schooled Ohio State defense, Baker is the kind of player who can make plays for the Gators in the simplest kinds of ways. He doesn't have to blow a corner away with his speed or elude a safety (or linebacker) as the product of clever scheming from Mullen. No, Baker can succeed simply on the basis of his height and strength--not only in that aforementioned third and medium situation, but in a third and goal situation where a fade will enable him to grab a jump ball. Whether he's boxing out a defender in the middle of the field or out-jumping a defender near the sideline on a fade, Dallas Baker can use basketball principles to become a huge X-factor against Ohio State, even without complexity or creativity from Florida's offensive staff. In a game where Florida's offensive answers will determine how competitive this game will in fact be, Dallas Baker is the central focus of many questions that are staring Dan Mullen and Urban Meyer squarely in the face.