In retrospect ...
Duped by White, OU, time to revise some '03 misperceptions
Posted: Tuesday January 6, 2004 12:19PM; Updated: Tuesday January 6, 2004 12:37PM
Waiting at the New Orleans airport for my flight home Monday morning after getting about two hours' sleep, there was very little at that moment that could have made me chuckle.
That is, until I looked up at the Oklahoma fan sitting across from me and noticed the title of the book he was reading: Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling.
While the Sooners' unraveling may have been the most stunning development of the season, it's no big secret how we supposed "experts" got duped.
It started back in the preseason media circuit when Bob Stoops broke from conventional coachspeak mold and kept talking up how great his team was going to be. We being gullible dopes figured, "Geez, if he says so, it must be true." And so as the season progressed and the Sooners kept bulldozing one Big 12 team after another, we figured surely this wasn't merely a football team but a collection of superhumans.
In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. As the bowl season exposed, who in the Big 12 this season played any defense? Nebraska, which the Sooners never faced, and Kansas State, which crushed them.
Statistically, the best defense Oklahoma faced before the Big 12 championship game was UCLA, which the Sooners beat 59-24, thanks in part to three Antonio Perkins punt returns and an Eric Bassey interception return. None of us bothered to notice this at the time, but Oklahoma was held about 100 yards below its season average. Jason White was sacked twice by Bruins All-American Dave Ball and threw two interceptions.
And that was just UCLA. This was LSU.
I will never believe that White was himself in the Sugar Bowl -- there have been rumors that he had a stomach flu or that his hand was bothering him. But it's also safe to say that the Sooners' first 12 games managed to mask some inherent weaknesses. Put into a situation against Kansas State and LSU in which his protection wasn't fool-proof and his receivers weren't running uncontested, and suddenly those beautiful deep balls didn't come so naturally.
To contradict several thousand words I wrote a month earlier, no, he was not the best player in college football this season.
So in this, the final Mailbag of the season, I feel the need to play some revisionist history.
Ladies and gentlemen, the revised 2003 Heisman Trophy winner: USC quarterback Matt Leinart.
The East Coast media bias must be alive and well, considering this kid didn't even get invited to New York. All he did over the last nine games of the season was complete 66 percent of his passes, throw for 30 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Against a Michigan team that ranked in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, he went 23-of-34 for 327 yards and three TDs.
All that from a sophomore in his first year playing college football. Incredible.
Similarly, if we could give out a revised Lombardi Award for college's top lineman, it would go not to OU's Tommie Harris but to LSU's Chad Lavalais, who mysteriously was not even one of the four finalists.
Finally, a few other myths that got debunked during the bowl season: That the Pac-10 was a weak conference, that Tennessee was "back," that Larry Fitzgerald can't be stopped and that Ron Zook is turning the corner.
This concludes the look-back-at-2003 portion of the Mailbag. Ready to look ahead to '04? Keep reading. ...
USC's offense vs. LSU's defense is a wash. USC wins the game because its defense is better than LSU's offense. Do you agree?
It's probably oversimplifying things, but you're not far off. Look, it's not like Oklahoma played poorly on defense in the Sugar Bowl. LSU did just enough on offense to win. The Tigers probably wouldn't be able to run the ball as well against USC as they did against Oklahoma, but by the same token they might have more success through the air.
As you said, the game would come down to how USC's explosive offense would fare against LSU's phenomenal defense. Believe me, in going back and forth as to whom to rank No. 1, I definitely considered the possibility that the Tigers would do the same thing to USC that they did to Oklahoma -- lock down the receivers and mix up coverages to confuse Matt Leinart, basically rendering their passing game impotent.
Nothing at all against LSU, I just think the depth and balance of USC's offensive personnel would defy even the most stringent defense. If the Tigers were to take Mike Williams out of the game, there's always Keary Colbert. And if they started getting to Leinart on the blitz, the Trojans would just start using Reggie Bush more on screens and draws. USC would not come close to its usual production, but it would be better suited to combat the Tigers' defensive philosophy than was Oklahoma.
Wouldn't you agree that LSU played a much tougher schedule than USC, and thus deserves the No. 1 nod? How can you compare wins in the Pac-10 to victories in the SEC?
I always get a kick out of the perpetual disdain with which SEC fans view the Pac-10. Never mind that of the last seven head-to-head meetings between the conferences, the Pac-10 has won six.
There are any number of reasons why it's next to impossible to make an accurate comparison between USC and LSU because they don't play the same opponents. Computers may tell us that one conference is stronger than another, but after watching the bowl games, do you really believe them? For example, using the BCS formula, the No. 2 conference in the country this season behind the SEC was the Big 12 -- which went 2-6 in bowl games.
Looking at Pete Carroll and Nick Saban, it appears that both coaches have been able to turn their respective teams around very quickly. Is it all about recruiting and keeping the in-state prospects in their respective states, or is it their NFL experience?
It's both -- and they're directly related to each other. While the NFL prevents high school players from jumping directly to the pros, that doesn't mean your typical 18-year-old football prodigy isn't just as consumed by the pros. We'd like to be idealistic and think that players pick their college based on academics, conference affiliation, rivalries, etc., but for the truly elite players nowadays it's all about which program will most help them become a high draft pick. Carroll and Saban bring instant credibility in that regard with their NFL ties. It's not the only reason, but it's helped them become dominant recruiting forces.
Once again, everyone picked Kansas State over Ohio State. Are you ready to admit you blew it and that Coach Tressel is one of the best coaches in the country? He knows how to get his team up for the big game, agreed?
Just out of curiosity, was his fabulous coaching the reason the other team's star quarterback got in trouble the day before the game and came out playing like crap?
Then there is the question that both LSU and USC basically played homefield advantage games ... how would USC have done playing the bowl in Michigan in January, or Oklahoma fared against LSU in, say, Tulsa?
It's a theory that comes up every year at this time but one in which I don't put much stock. The Superdome was definitely dominated by LSU colors at that game, but in terms of home-field advantage it's no Tiger Stadium. A) It's a sterile dome. B) There were still at least 20,000 Oklahoma fans there. There's a stronger argument for the advantage USC had playing in the Rose Bowl, not because of anything on gameday but because the Trojans got to practice on their own campus in the weeks leading up to the game, whereas Michigan spent nearly two weeks in unfamiliar territory. That said, Big Ten teams have been doing the same thing for nearly 60 years and have a pretty favorable record to show for it.
If Mack Brown does not beat Oklahoma and/or win the Big 12 title in 2004, are his days in Austin over (especially with Steve Spurrier available as a free agent)?
While I'm sure there's plenty of frustration in Austin, Mack's job is a lot safer than some people make it out to be. Remember the uproar by many after Nebraska fired Frank Solich despite winning 75 percent of his games? At least he had a 7-7 blip on his radar. What kind of message would it send to the coaching profession if Texas fired a coach who's won at least 10 games each of the past three years and who on top of that is a nice guy who runs a clean program? Who would possibly want that job if that happened?
As for the old Ball Coach, you heard it here first (OK, OK, I'm sure it's been said elsewhere): If he indeed decides to return to coaching in 2005, it will be as the next head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Kirk Ferentz is becoming one of the best college coaches out there, and he has led Iowa to a rebirth and return to national prominence that Hawkeye fans have long waited for. Look through the top 10 and it's mostly full of the usual football powers. Will Iowa one day become one of those powers?
Mr. Hayes: First of all, thank you so much for the hours and hours of laughter you've contributed to my life through your work as the lead in Airplane. "Over Macho Grande?" "No, I don't think I'll ever get over Macho Grande." Classic.
As for the Hawkeyes, while I'll admit I wrote them off on many occasions this year, as long as Ferentz is there I will always consider them an annual contender in the Big Ten. The question is, how long will he be there? You ask whether Iowa can become a regular staple on the national scene? Yes, but only if there's continuity. The difference between programs like Ohio State and Michigan versus an Iowa or Purdue is that the former are considered pinnacles in the coaching profession whereas the latter are often viewed as springboards. If Ferentz feels he has the resources to compete for national championships at Iowa and is enticed to take up roots there, there's no reason why the program can't become an annual power. If as many speculate, however, he's lured to the NFL or a more established program, Iowa may be resigned to having to live for occasional spurts like the last couple years.
With Florida State losing much of its defense, Maryland having to replace its quarterback and top receiver and N.C. State -- well, you know what they have to replace -- is Clemson a potential "Division A" ACC winner next year since they return nearly everybody from a team that basically killed two top 10 teams (Florida State and Tennessee) in their last four games of the season?
There's no question one of the biggest surprises down the stretch this season was the Tigers, who won their last four to finish 9-4. Charlie Whitehurst is one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks and Tommy Bowden, finally putting the job security questions to rest, has things headed in the right direction.
As for next year, the ACC's divisional format is really only for scheduling purposes next season as the league can't have a championship game until Boston College joins. Miami will obviously enter the conference as the team to beat, and Maryland, Virginia and N.C. State aren't going downhill anytime soon, but for the first time in a few years it doesn't feel like Clemson is looking up at those teams.
Geez, that was fun doing some early speculating about next season. I wonder if anyone's going to ask ...
Now that this season is over, who do you think looks best coming back next year?
I must admit, one of my guilty pleasures is ridiculous early preseason polls. I started working on mine in November. They're completely inaccurate, entirely meaningless, but, when you've got eight months to kill between seasons, they sure do help pass the time.
To close things out, here's an early, early, early 2004 top 10:
1. USC: The Trojans will have the nation's two best returning players in Leinart and Williams, and whenever he finally becomes a feature back, Bush could end up eclipsing both.
2. LSU: Depending on NFL defections, the Tigers could return nearly their entire starting defense, and the offense should be even better if Matt Mauck stays another year.
3. Georgia: Hard as it is to believe, David Greene and David Pollack both have another year, as do nearly the entire starting offense and linebacking corps.
4. Oklahoma: White will have to prove himself again, but the Sooners' offense should be powerful, especially if stud RB recruit Adrian Peterson contributes.
5. Miami: If he keeps his job, Brock Berlin should benefit from a more experienced O-line, Tyrone Moss' increased role and the return of Frank Gore.
6. Texas: It's Vince Young's team now, so Brown better not screw him up.
7. Ohio State: OSU has young talent galore, including incoming CB Ted Ginn.
8. Florida State: It will be now or never for Chris Rix while the 'Noles reload on D.
9. Kansas State: The Wildcats will ride Darren Sproles while they try to find a new QB.
10. Cal: No, not a typo. QB Aaron Rodgers will be one of the nation's best next year.
And with that, the time has come to bid adieu.
I've had tons of fun doing the 'Bag this season. Thanks to everyone who's ever written in -- even the Ohio State fans.
What do you say we do this again in the spring?
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.