Reasons to embrace college football in 2011 (cont.)
Forgive Utah receiver Reggie Dunn if he's a little amped up before the Utes' first Pac-12 game Sept. 10 at USC. "I'm not lying, I get the chills every time I see it on the schedule," said Dunn, a Los Angeles native whose South Central high school sits less than 10 miles from the L.A. Coliseum. "I hope [the game] will last forever." Dunn is one of nearly 30 native Californians who came to Salt Lake assuming they'd be spending their careers in the lesser-regarded Mountain West. Many went unrecruited by major-conference schools; others, like Dunn, may have wound up in the Pac-12 under different circumstances (he committed to Oregon State out of high school before enrolling in junior college). Now they're getting their shot.
"It's a culmination of a lot of hard work," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, a staff member since 1994, when the school was in the WAC. Two BCS bowl victories later, Whittingham's program has achieved a dream many would have deemed unfathomable before Urban Meyer and Alex Smith arrived on the scene a few years back. College football's subjective method for determining its champion does not allow for a whole lot of Butler or George Mason-type moments. Boise State's dramatic Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma five years ago was as close as it gets. Fans embrace the occasional Appalachian State-model Cinderella, but not if Cinderella actually poses a threat to the ever-territorial BCS race, as Boise State found out last year amid a flurry of backlash.
Now, Utah can pursue all the same goals as an Alabama or a Texas free from the artificial ceiling and dismissive arguments that hover over teams outside the six BCS conferences. On behalf of Boise State, TCU (which joins the Big East next season), et. al., this is the definitive chance to win over the doubters. "To me, we're underdogs," said Dunn. "For a school like us, moving to a [major] conference, we have to prove ourselves. Hopefully it will give other schools like us a chance."
Don't get us wrong. Nick Saban is a wonderful coach. His success is undeniable, and because of this success, Saban's coaching spawn will someday overrun college football. Sportswriters will devise a shortcut key to type the word "process." That's all well and good, but the game is more fun when the coach looks as if he's also having fun.
Enter Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia. How did the Mike Leach acolyte celebrate his ascension to head coach after the Bill Stewart/Deep Throat affair? He went sky diving. Earlier, Holgorsen made headlines for his ejection from a casino. That's not so good, but it suggests Holgorsen will be interesting at a time when head coaches go out of their way to be boring.
Holgorsen, who always looks like he's headed to a party, should be quite intriguing on the field. He inherited quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon last year at Oklahoma State and cranked up the Cowboys' offense into a juggernaut that ranked third in the nation in total offense (520.2 yards per game) and scoring offense (44.2 points per game). This year, he inherits quarterback Geno Smith and a stable of good receivers. If Holgorsen works the same magic he worked as a coordinator at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers should torch the rest of the Big East.
On Nov. 18, 2006, No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan 42-39 in a game that drew as much national attention as any in that fabled rivalry's century-plus history. Since then the rivalry has pretty much fallen off the map. Jim Tressel's Buckeyes beat the Wolverines seven straight times, including three straight blowouts during the short-lived tenure of maligned Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.
Enter Brady Hoke. The 52-year-old former defensive line coach (including on Michigan's 1997 national championship team) takes the rivalry with his home-state school (he's from Dayton) pretty seriously. He never calls Ohio State by its full name, referring to it only as "Ohio." He's long refused to wear red, even while leading two teams (Ball State and San Diego State) with red as their primary color, instead opting for black. He's also the kind of guy who says, "This might sound arrogant, and if it is, it is. We're Michigan."
Think this guy might get under some peoples' skin?
Hoke's arrival in Ann Arbor happens to coincide with Tressel's abrupt demise in Columbus. The man who owned Michigan for a decade is no more. It's far too early to say whether Hoke will fare better against Luke Fickell than Lloyd Carr and Rodriguez did against Tressel. The talent gap between the two teams on display last November (a 37-7 Ohio State victory) will presumably take more than one recruiting calendar to change. But whatever the case, one of college football's most cherished rivalries just got a lot more interesting -- and that's a good thing no matter which color you wear.
Auburn has to replace a lot from the team that won last year's national title, but the Tigers have plenty of young talent. So every time they win, Auburn fans, go to the corner of College and Magnolia and hurl your Charmin like it's the last time you'll ever get to do it. Because this could be the final season for a tradition in its sixth decade.
Someone poisoned the trees in December, and an Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke is scheduled to stand trial for the crime in October. Don't worry about Updyke. Worry about football and toilet paper. After determining the trees can't get much sicker, Auburn officials decided to allow fans to roll the trees this season. The horticulture experts on campus still hold out hope of saving the trees, but they aren't optimistic. By spring 2012, they should know the ultimate fate of the trees.
Auburn officials have solicited ideas for ways to preserve the tradition even if the trees die, but the trees are the tradition. Fathers have rolled with sons and grandsons. Something new will come along, and fans eventually will embrace it, but a true, organic tradition can't be replaced with a concept formulated by a steering committee.
So head to the store, Auburn fans, and empty the shelves of quilted Northern. Warm up your arms. When the Tigers win, throw. Throw for all the memories made under those branches, and throw for all the people who might never know the joy of rolling Toomer's Corner.
We watch sports to be entertained, but also for those moments of utter amazement. For earlier generations, that meant watching Red Grange score four touchdowns in 12 minutes against Michigan or Jim Brown leaving defenders in his dust. More than a half-century later we still get to witness new, jaw-dropping feats, be it Vince Young's one-man Rose Bowl domination, Tim Tebow's jump passes or Cam Newton's machine-gun sprint through the LSU defense. As players' athleticism continually increases, so too does the realm of possibilities.
In today's increasingly pass-heavy game, some of the most gifted athletes on the field are the guys catching the ball, and this season's position group looks to be particularly rich. Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, the 2010 Biletnikoff winner, and Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles both posted staggering numbers last season: Blackmon made 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns while Broyles caught 131 balls for 1,622 yards and 14 scores. Both could have easily gone pro, but returned for another season to grace us with highlights like this and this.
Elite receivers are hardly limited to the state of Oklahoma, though. They can also be found in Tucson, Ariz. (Arizona's Juron Criner), Los Angeles (USC's Robert Woods) and College Station, Texas (A&M's Jeff Fuller).
Then there's South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, the 6-4, 229-pound NFL prototype who may well be the best of the bunch. As a sophomore, he had 88 catches for 1,517 yards, including a 192-yard day against eventual BCS champion Auburn. He can also do this. "He just has a dominant presence about him," his position coach, Steve Spurrier Jr., told SI.com. "He has natural coordination and skill, and when the ball is in the air, no one can get around him to make a play." The size, the vision and the footwork are attributes most of us can only dream of. And that's precisely why we watch.
This section might have said something different, but on the day before this piece was scheduled to run, news broke that Penn State coach Joe Paterno had been injured at practice Sunday when he was blindsided by a receiver. Immediately, the masses wondered, "Is this it for JoePa?" A day later, Paterno ran his coaches meeting via speakerphone from the hospital. Paterno also provided this gem to spokesman Jeff Nelson: "I expect to be back at practice soon," Paterno said. "I'm doing fine; tell everyone not to worry about me."
Paterno turns 85 on Dec. 21. His contract expires after this season. At Big Ten media day, he said this. "Right now, I'm looking at four or five years," Paterno said. "That may be optimistic. I don't know."
The man wants to coach until he's 90. If we're lucky, he will.
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