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Inside College Football
Posted: Tuesday October 27, 1998 03:33 PM
by Ivan Maisel
The once 0-2 Wolverines return from the dead
Stunned by Notre Dame and embarrassed by Syracuse, Michigan began the year as if it couldn't wait to resume its streak of underachieving that was interrupted by last season's co-national championship. After the 38-28 loss to the Orangemen on Sept. 12a game in which Michigan trailed 38-7 in its own stadium after three quartersall appeared lost. "I was sitting at my locker with tears in my eyes," linebacker Sam Sword says, "thinking we had too much talent to be 0-2 and have our season slipping away."
After playing for the Little Brown Jug at Minnesota this week, the Wolverines host Penn State and Wisconsin before heading to Ohio State on Nov. 21. They aren't likely to run the table. Michigan is too good for the Golden Gophers and has the home field advantage over the Nittany Lions and the defensive speed to stop the one-dimensional Badgers, but whatever voodoo it has cast over the Buckeyes won't overcome the Wolverines' offensive shortcomings. Only wide receiver Tai Streets, who caught two touchdown passes against the Hoosiers, has proved he can break a game open. Too often, Michigan stops itself, as in the case of Anthony Thomas's 34-yard touchdown run against Indiana that was called back for holding.
Still, it's hard to believe this is the same team that made a mess of early September and then, in the week after the Syracuse debacle, lost senior free safety and co-captain Marcus Ray, who was suspended for six games for accepting concert tickets and dinner from an agent last summer in Cincinnati. At the first practice after the loss to the Orangemen, Carr told the Wolverines to forget the two losses and that the season started again that week. So it did. The defense that allowed Syracuse's Donovan McNabb (293 yards of total offense, three touchdown passes and one TD rushing against Michigan) to "run the option like he invented it," as Sword says, stuffed the Hoosiers' option-based attack. Antwaan Randle El, Indiana's dazzling freshman quarterback, rushed for 110 yards but completed only seven of 22 passes for 65 yards and threw two interceptions. The biggest reason for Michigan's improvement against the option: Last week speedy freshman defensive back. Julius Curry ran the scout team's offensewith Ray, an erstwhile high school running back, at tailback. "Marcus has a great attitude," says safety Tommy Hendricks. "A lot of guys might have had too much pride and said, 'I'm not going to the demo team.'"
Ray returns to the defense on Nov. 7not that his absence has hurt much. Michigan has given up an average of 8.3 points and 206 yards in its last three wins, against Iowa, Northwestern and the Hoosiers. After starting 0-2, the Wolverines looked as if they would be fortunate to repeat the four-loss seasons endured from 1993 to '96. Now four defeats would be a disappointment.
For the last six years the Bowden family lived in a coaching bubble, not subject to the Newtonian principle that for every winner there's a loser. Father Bobby at Florida State and sons Terry at Auburn and Tommy at Tulane rarely lost and didn't worry about job security. Says Tommy, "People thought we were untouchable."
If that sounds like a fairy tale, it wasand last week the fairy tale ended. Auburn's most powerful alumnus got word to Terry on Oct. 21 that he would be fired at the end of the season; it didn't matter that Bowden had gone 47-17-1 with the Tigers, or that after Auburn won the SEC West last season, his contract had been extended through 2004. Bowden was done, and he knew it, so last Friday he walked away.
The man behind Bowden's ouster is Bobby Lowder, a wealthy Montgomery banker and member of the Auburn board of trustees. How powerful is he? When Governor Fob James declined to reappoint him to the board in 1995, Lowder refused to leave. He marshaled support in the state legislature and took James to court, challenging in a lawsuit the governor's attempt to remove him. Lowder prevailed when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in his favor last year. In December '92 he engineered the hiring of Bowden from I-AA Samford University in Birmingham; Lowder's daughter, Catherine, had worked in Bowden's office there. (She came to Auburn with Bowden but left her job a few years ago.)
On Oct. 19, two days after the Tigers fell to 1-5 with a 24-3 loss at Florida, The Huntsville Times quoted a source as saying that if Bowden didn't win four of his last five games, he'd be gone. Two days later the coach met with athletic director David Housel, who said that Lowder had been the source of the story. "He told me that there's nothing you can do to save your job," Terry said Sunday. "He said, 'You can fight this and hope [Lowder] doesn't have enough votes [on the board].'" Both Housel and university president William Muse insist the door was never closed on Bowden.
Bowden knew Lowder had the power to make any ultimatum stick. After all, Lowder had hired Bowden without waiting for the approval of Auburn's other trustees, its president or its then athletic director, Mike Lude.
Bowden shepherded the Tigers through probation and won his first 20 games at Auburn, but that seems like long ago. On the field, the trouble for the Tigers, who went 10-3 in 1997, began last spring, when star receiver Robert Baker was sentenced to 15 years in prison for cocaine trafficking. Two returning starters on the offensive line quit over the summer. Against Florida, Auburn played its sixth-string center and a freshman quarterback.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time it's wins and losses," Tommy Bowden says. "This wasn't wins and losses. That's what makes it hard. It's not like Terry was a drug addict or carrying a gun through the airport or cheating. They brought him in to clean the program up, which he did. I just hope I live long enough to see Florida State play Auburn in Tallahassee."
That game is scheduled for Sept. 2, 1999.
Bill Oliver, who replaced Terry Bowden as coach at Auburn on an interim basis, played and coached for Bear Bryant at Alabama. Oliver made his reputation when he returned to the Crimson Tide in 1990 under Gene Stallings and helped forge the defensive unit that led 'Bama to the 1992 national championship. Athletic director Hootie Ingram had promised Oliver he would succeed Stallings, but Ingram lost his job in 1995 because of 'Bama's NCAA violations. Oliver went cross-state after the '95 season to run Bowden's defense.
During the Tigers' 32-17 win over Louisiana Tech last Saturday, Oliverknown to one and all as Brothercoached from his customary seat in the press box. That left the two Alabama state troopers assigned to guard him on the sideline with nothing to do. When the game ended and photographers rushed to midfield to record the customary handshake between coaches, Oliver wasn't there.
Like Michigan, Arizona State started the season in the Top 10 but lost its first two games. Unlike the Wolverines, the Sun Devils continue to search for answers. It has come to this: Arizona State (3-4) took solace in a come-from-behind, 44-38 overtime win over lowly Stanford last Thursday. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Kealy, who had been benched in favor of freshman Chad Elliott, came in on the last play of the third quarter, twice rallied the Sun Devils from a seven-point deficit and threw for two touchdowns.
"I'm wondering why in the hell it has taken so long," Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder said last Friday. He's still searching for a leader in what appears to be an excellent group of followers. "Take the high expectations. You get in a trap as a coach. You can't tell the players, 'You're not that good.' If they think they're good, they might be. In 1996 and '97, we were dominated by strong players: Pat Tillman, Jake Plummer, Damien Richardson. Maybe because that group was so dominant, the guys now stepping up don't have the same strength. But they expect success."
Before the season, talk in Tempe was of Arizona State's playing for the national championship in its own stadium, the site of the Fiesta Bowl. Now the Sun Devils are hoping for a berth in any bowl. To qualify, they must win three of their remaining four, against Washington State, Cal, Oregon and Arizona. Says Snyder, reflecting on the comeback against Stanford, "I'm hopeful as hell that we started to grow up in the fourth quarter."
Forget the talk of No. 1 Ohio State being knocked out of the Fiesta Bowl even if the Buckeyes remain undefeated. The first Bowl Championship Series ratings, which came out on Monday, had UCLA first, at 3.04; Ohio State second, at 4.31; and Tennessee third, at 6.50. Those tallies made it clear that Ohio State's standing atop both the AP and the USA Today/ESPN polls would offset the Buckeyes' being rated second or third in the three computer ratings and relatively low in strength of schedule. It's also evident that Kansas State (fourth at 8.79) must hope two of the three teams ahead of it lose a game. The Wildcats rank 49th in schedule strength. UCLA is first, Tennessee second and Ohio State 16th in that category.... Virginia free safety Anthony Poindexter will most likely be out of action for the rest of the season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in the Cavaliers' 23-13 defeat of North Carolina State. Nevertheless, he deserves the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back.... The Tulane alums on the Sugar Bowl Committee dream of an undefeated Green Wave team's playing in the Superdome on Jan. 1. But they're also businessmen. Unless Tulane rises much higher than its current ranking of 19th, the Sugar Bowl will pick another team out of the BCS pool.
BYU. The Cougars' guide devotes two pages to praising the 16-team WAC as the nation's largest and most far-flung conference. BYU is one of eight teams bailing out of the conference at the end of the season.
Colorado. In the bio section of the Buffaloes' guide, 170-pound placekicker Jeremy Aldrich responds to the question, "What rules would you like to see implemented in college football?" with, "No fat guys." Who's going to block for you, Jeremy?
Florida. The Gators' 320-page tome contains 36 pictures of Steve Spurrier.
Miami. On page 7 of the Hurricanes' guide, before the bios of the president, athletic director and coach, is a list of distinguished alumni. The roll of honor includes former ESPN2 and current Fox Sports anchor Suzy Kolber.
North Carolina. The three things Tar Heels reserve quarterback Kevin Carty says he would want with him on a desert isle: the Bible, Jenny McCarthy and the Led Zeppelin box set.
Northwestern. Asked to name the most influential person in American history, Wildcats junior linebacker Conrad Emmerich nominates Dick Butkus.
Ohio State. Buckeyes sophomore defensive end Rodney Bailey lists his hobbies as music, dancing and watching NFL defensive tackles.
Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights' guide devotes two pages to details of the new Bowl Championship Series. Rutgers has gone to one bowl in its historythe 1978 Garden State Bowland is 5-24 over the last three years.
South Florida. Page 1 of the Bulls' guide is titled "Tradition." South Florida's football program is in its second season.
Texas. The Longhorns' 446-page volume weighs in at five pounds. Texas printed 15,000 copies.
Texas (5-2) at Nebraska (7-1)
In past years the Huskers have depended on the kindness of spoilers. En route to the 1995 national title, for example, they didn't take a firm grip on the No. 1 spot in the polls until Virginia shocked Florida State in the first week of November. Now Nebraska has a chance to be the spoiler. A growing number of Heisman voters believe that Ricky Williams, the Longhorns' senior tailback, is a lock for the award, having rushed for 24 touchdowns and 1,484 yards in seven games. But he left room for doubt when he gained only 43 yards on 25 carries against Kansas State on Sept. 19. He'll be tested by a Huskers defense that is holding opponents to 106.5 yards per game on the ground and 2.9 yards per rush.
Williams doesn't have to match his average to keep his Heisman hopes alive. Let's face it: The race has stirred as much excitement as any of this year's elections, which is to say very little. If Williams doesn't deserve the trophy, who does?
Oregon (6-1) at Arizona (7-1)
All four teams are ranked and have one loss in their respective conferences, so whichever two lose will see their league aspirations end. If the games come down to defense, look for Arizona and Florida to win. The Wildcats have another edge: They're coming off routs of Oregon State and Northeast Louisiana, while the Ducks had exhausting battles with UCLA and USC. In Jacksonville, what used to be known as the World's Largest Cocktail Party has become as tidy as a luxury box, of which the refurbished Gator Bowl has plenty. Florida, which lost to the Dawgs 37-17 last season, is out for revenge. That, and a superior D, ought to be enough.
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