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Stewart Mandel The Weekend That Was

Hiring squads

Analyzing personnel moves of Arizona, Nebraska, Auburn and Miss. State

Updated: Monday December 1, 2003 1:42PM
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  Mike Stoops
Mike Stoops wants to bring Arizona's D back to the days of the Desert Storm.
AP

With the exception of one particularly epic game played in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday, the week's most dramatic developments took place off the field.

Arizona: AD Jim Livengood orchestrated a smart, carefully planned coaching search that resulted in as promising a hire as any in Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Not only did the Wildcats land one of the architects of the nation's most dominant defense the past four years, but they got someone with a keen understanding of what it takes to rebuild a program.

Already, Stoops has mimicked at least one of his brother's Oklahoma tricks: assembling a staff with which he's familiar. He hired brother Mark Stoops, whose Miami secondary could be seen Saturday shutting down Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, as a defensive coordinator, and is also expected to add Kansas State co-defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, a friend from their days at Iowa, and current co-worker Kevin Sumlin, the former offensive coordinator at Texas A&M.

No question it will take Stoops time to recruit the kind of athletes who fit into his system, but here's guessing the Wildcats will be competing for the Pac-10 title within a few years.

Nebraska: It's not every day you see a coach fired after going 9-3 and improving dramatically from the previous season. But this is Nebraska, where the program has every reason to expect better. After all, the Huskers have won three national titles in the past decade and played for another just two years ago. First-year AD Steve Pederson's decision may seem a bit premature, but let's face it, the Huskers never were going to return to annual dominance under Frank Solich's watch, and Pederson knew that.

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The question, however, is, whether anyone else really can do better? Fact is, what's made Nebraska what it is the past 40-plus years is its unique system of power football, passed down from Bob Devaney to Tom Osborne to Solich. That identity likely will change with the next leader, but who's to say whether Nebraska can be successful with a different system? So unique is this situation that no logical replacement comes to mind. Initial speculation centered around Pittsburgh's Walt Harris, Pederson's former employee, but can you imagine what a rough transition that would be from a keeper of the option to a passing guru? There are no Rod Rutherfords or Larry Fitzgeralds in Lincoln, nor are there an abundance of future Rutherfords and Fitzgeralds out there looking to come to Nebraska.

Whoever ultimately gets the job will have the benefit of being able to sell a rich tradition and unmatched fan base. But don't think for a second there won't be more 9-3 seasons in the Huskers' immediate future.

Auburn: We knew Auburn doesn't like Alabama getting the upper hand in anything, but who knew it also applied to bad p.r.? Never in a million years would I have guessed that, in the same year the Crimson Tide essentially ran their coach out of town for canoodling with strippers, the Tigers could one-up them in terms of backwardness.

Never mind how ridiculous it would have been in the first place to pay $4 million to fire Tommy Tuberville. The way school officials conducted themselves -- president William Walker, AD David Housel and two trustees secretly flying to meet with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino before the job was ever open -- was so laughable you'd think they were intentionally trying to become a punch line. And to think, they did all that for Bobby Petrino? Huh? A good coach, yes, but hardly a major upgrade.

The only good to come out of the whole mess was that the Auburn community, admittedly split in their opinion of Tuberville beforehand, has rallied behind the coach, and that will be extremely helpful going into recruiting and next season.

Mississippi State: The school made a bold decision to break ground in the SEC by offering its job to Green Bay Packers assistant Sylvester Croom, who would become the first black head coach in the league's history. Many felt Croom, not Mike Shula, should have been offered the Alabama job last summer. Problem is, Croom doesn't seem to be enamored with the Bulldogs. He's yet to accept the offer and reportedly has reservations about whether he'd be able to win there.

One thing's for certain: Whoever gets the job is going to be in for a colossal challenge. The Bulldogs have fallen significantly behind their West division counterparts in recent years, and on top of that could be facing NCAA sanctions in the near future. However, as long as folks in Starkville are able to keep their expectations in check at first, Croom will have no shortage of opportunities to succeed. If he turns it down, MSU could be in trouble, as its other most viable candidate, LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, has removed himself from consideration.

J.R. Reed, S, South Florida

USF proclaims its senior free safety "the most underrated player in college football." No question the senior has had an accomplished career, intercepting 18 passes, but nothing quite like his performance Saturday in the Bulls' season-ending 21-16 upset of Memphis. With his team trailing 7-0 to start the second half, Reed returned the opening kickoff 96 yards to tie the score. Then later in the third quarter, after Memphis kicked a field goal to go up 10-7, Reed returned a fumble 45 yards for another touchdown to give USF the lead. On top of all that, Reed tied a Conference USA record with three interceptions, the second one setting the Bulls up at the Tigers' 14 to punch in their only offensive touchdown. It was one memorable way to go out in the final collegiate game for Reed (USF finished 7-4 but won't go to a bowl because two of its wins came against I-AA opponents), who likely will be playing on Sundays next fall.

Florida State

Though they had the better record, the chips seemed to be stacked against the 'Noles going into this year's Florida game. The Gators had won five straight, including three over top 10 teams, while FSU was only a few weeks removed from getting crushed by Clemson. They were going to the Swamp. And their quarterback Chris Rix, who already had enough problems to deal with, would be without his go-to receiver Craphonso Thorpe. They put all that aside, however, and got a little help from the refs (more on that later) to gain an impressive 38-34 victory and return to the 10-win perch to which they'd become so accustomed before the past two seasons. Several players stepped up big time, including little-used junior Dominic Robinson, who started at flanker in place of Thorpe and caught five passes for 102 yards and a touchdown. But the hero was unquestionably Rix. One of the most criticized college athletes in recent memory, the junior delivered the best performance of his career by far, completing 14 of 19 throws for 256 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and leading the 'Noles back from three second-half deficits. On the drive that put FSU up 31-27 with 5:01 left, Rix went 4-for-4 for 79 yards and scored on a 1-yard sneak. Then after the Gators reclaimed the lead with just 2:50 remaining, Rix made the two biggest plays of the game, converting a fourth-and-14 with a 24-yard pass to Robinson, then eluding pressure, rolling right and throwing an incredible 52-yard touchdown to P.K. Sam for the win.

Florida State 38, Florida 34

Try Game of the Year. This one had all the ingredients of a vintage '90s FSU-Florida tussle: controversy, big passing plays, a furious back-and-forth tempo and, of course, a midfield melee. Much was made earlier this season when, for the first time in more than 20 years, neither FSU, Florida nor Miami appeared in the nation's top 10. But on the same day the 'Canes reasserted themselves with a dominant performance against Pittsburgh, the 'Noles and Gators played a classic befitting two resurgent national powers. Florida freshman sensation Chris Leak executed Ed Zaunbrecher's offense brilliantly, keeping FSU's defense on its heels with a barrage of screens and play-action passes, and deep throws to TE Ben Troupe, who made a strong case for All-America with four catches for 121 yards and two TDs. On the opening drive of the second half, with Florida trailing 17-6, Leak caught a screen pass on a trick play and ran 30 yards, completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Troupe and dove in for the two-point conversion. He would finish 22-of-36 for 273 yards and two TDs, the second another 25-yarder to Troupe that put the Gators up 34-31 with 2:50 remaining. But for each of Leak's heroics, Rix continually one-upped him, resulting in a back-and-forth shootout reminiscent of the teams' classic 1997 meeting when Florida ultimately won after a long pass to Jacquez Green. And, of course, the game wouldn't have been complete without some extra storylines, mainly several blown calls on fumbles that all went against the Gators, and a postgame brawl that broke out when FSU's players started jumping on Florida's "F" at midfield. Only 365 days 'til next year's meeting.

In its 28-14 Big East-clinching win over Pittsburgh, Miami had nine sacks, three interceptions and held Panthers receiver Larry Fitzgerald to three catches for 26 yards, 116 below his average. ... In a 49-14 win over Louisiana Tech, Rice set school records with 89 rushing attempts for 672 yards. ... Texas' Cedric Benson ran for four touchdowns and 283 yards -- 205 in the second half -- on 35 carries as the Longhorns wore down rival Texas A&M. .... ... Notre Dame's Julius Jones notched his fourth 200-yard rushing game of the season with 23 carries for 218 yards in the Irish's 57-7 win at Stanford. ... Virginia QB Matt Schaub went 32-of-46 for 358 yards in a 35-21 win over Virginia Tech. ... Cavaliers TE Heath Miller caught 13 passes for 145 yards. ... Missouri QB Brad Smith ran 17 times for 195 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-7 win over Iowa State. He finished the regular season with 1,310 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. ... The Tigers finished the regular season with eight wins for the first time since 1980. ... Since starting the 2002 season 6-1, Iowa State is 3-16. ...Maryland RB Bruce Perry ran 25 times for 237 yards and three TDs in the Terps' 41-28 win at Wake Forest. ... Demon Deacons counterpart Chris Barclay carried 28 times for 243 yards and three scores. ... LSU's 55-24 win over Arkansas was the most lopsided game between the two teams since 1929. ... Opponents outscored Mississippi State 267-57 in the six games after coach Jackie Sherrill announced his retirement. ... Rutgers held Syracuse to 198 total yards in closing the season with a breakthrough 24-7 victory. ... In his final tune-up before the MAC championship game, Miami of Ohio QB Ben Roethlisberger completed 24 of 29 passes for 327 yards and five touchdowns in a 56-21 win over Central Florida. ... Roethlisberger's title game adversary, Bowling Green's Josh Harris, accounted for 379 of the Falcons' 433 yards in a division-clinching 31-23 win over Toledo. Harris went 21-of-26 for 256 yards and three TDs, ran 18 times for 75 yards and caught a 48-yard touchdown pass. ... Boise State QB Ryan Dinwiddie went 17-of-24 for 375 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two others in a 56-3 win over Nevada. ... North Texas RB Patrick Cobbs will finish the season as the nation's leading rusher after carrying 37 times for 216 yards in a 13-10 win at New Mexico State. ... Replacing an ineffective Timmy Chang (7-of-23 for 38 yards), Hawaii QB Jason Whieldon came off the bench to throw four touchdowns and run for another in a 37-29 win over Alabama.

I've always made fun of the NFL's clunky instant-replay system, which delays the game a good 10 minutes every time a coach decides to throw his silly flag, which most of the time seems to come on a play he's got almost no chance of reversing. Therefore, as you can probably guess, I've always scoffed at the idea of instant replay in college. Let the kids decide the game on the field.

However, the officiating in Saturday's Florida State-Florida game was so overwhelmingly bad, so costly to one of the participants, that I can't help but rethink my stance. Normally bad calls have a way of evening themselves out over the course of a contest, but not this time. Not to take anything away from the Seminoles' effort, especially since Florida still had every opportunity to win the game, but the Gators did get severely screwed right from the opening kickoff, when Florida's Dallas Baker clearly stripped FSU return man Antonio Cromartie, only to have the officials rule Cromartie was down.

If it had stopped there we wouldn't even be having this discussion. But, no, the hits kept coming for poor Florida. Like the 'Noles tying the score late in the third quarter on a 25-yard fumble return that wasn't a fumble because Gators running back Ciatrick Fason had hit the ground about a full second earlier. Or Gators linebacker Channing Crowder emerging from the pile with a Leon Washington fumble, stopping an FSU drive at the Florida 3, only to have the refs credit Washington with retaining it.

All of which likely will lead less rational observers (read: those in Gainesville) to cry conspiracy, considering the game was officiated by an ACC crew. From a more logical standpoint, this was simply an unfortunate occurrence of human error. It just so happens that these human errors all affected the same team. And unlike questionable interference calls or cheap holding penalties, all of the aforementioned mishaps, as much as it pains me to say it, could have been corrected with the aid of instant replay.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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