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SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
7/28/2006 12:44:00 PM

Big East Getting Bowled Over

Oakland Arena
Could Brian Brohm and the Cardinals be relegated to a forgettable bowl game after the 2006 season?
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
At the Big East's preseason media event in Newport, R.I., a couple weeks back, commissioner Mike Tranghese dubbed West Virginia's 38-35 Sugar Bowl win over SEC champ Georgia last January a "watershed moment" for the rebuilt conference. "It wiped out all this negative perception about the league," he said.

Not so, apparently, in the eyes of the nation's bowl execs. If you want a glimpse of just how far the Big East's reputation has slipped in some eyes, take a look at its reconfigured bowl lineup for this season. As you may know, nearly all existing bowl contracts with conferences expired after last season (coinciding with the BCS' contract), creating a free-for-all among both leagues and bowls looking to bolster their stature. It was inevitable that the Big East would take some lumps after losing Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, but after listening to a couple league insiders explain it to me this week, I couldn't help but wince.

First, the Big East is now the only one of the six major conferences without a locked-in "anchor" spot for its champion among the BCS bowls (i.e. the Big Ten and Pac-10 with the Rose, the SEC with the Sugar). Previously, the ACC and Big East shared an anchor spot with the Orange Bowl, but the Orange Bowl has signed an exclusive deal with the ACC for the next four years. Second, the Big East must now share the Gator Bowl, previously the exclusive home of its No. 2 team, with the Big 12. The Gator Bowl will select two teams from each conference over a four-year period. In years when it goes with the Big 12, the Big East's team will go to the Sun Bowl. Keep in mind that Big East partner Notre Dame is eligible for this spot, and all others, as well.

It's after the No. 2 hole, however, that things get particularly ugly. The Big East's No. 3 team is slotted for the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte. However, that game also has a separate deal with Navy for this season that guarantees the Midshipmen a berth if they're eligible. After that, the Big East's partners are two first-year games, the Birmingham and International bowls, and another that presently doesn't have a name (the former Houston Bowl).

If Notre Dame goes to the BCS and Navy isn't eligible, things should work out just fine for the Big East. But check out this hypothetical nightmare. Let's say West Virginia goes 11-1 and wins the league and Louisville finishes second at 10-2. Now let's say Notre Dame goes 9-3, gets crushed in its last game against USC and gets passed over for a BCS berth. The Gator Bowl would likely snatch up the Irish. Let's also say Navy gets its requisite six wins and goes to the Meineke. Unless one of the BCS bowls selects Louisville with an at-large berth, the Cardinals, who may even be ranked in the top 10 at that point, would be doomed to the Houston, Birmingham or International Bowl. You've got to think that would be a bigger insult than any verbal barbs the conference may be getting.
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7/26/2006 12:16:00 PM

The Texas Two-Step

Oakland Arena
Texas running back Selvin Young says that the arm of freshman QB Jevan Snead (above) is something to behold.
Photo by AP
Texas coach Mack Brown and players took their turn at Big 12 media days Tuesday, and, not surprisingly, nearly all the questions centered around a familiar theme: Who's going to replace Vince?

Coming out of spring, the two contenders, redshirt freshman Colt McCoy and true freshman Jevan Snead, remained too close to separate, with Brown acknowledging both will play early on. Not surprisingly, the idea of a quarterback platoon -- particularly that second week against Ohio State -- doesn't sit well with most Longhorns followers after their experience with Chris Simms/Major Applewhite. "We will not worry about public perception at all," Brown said Tuesday. "Our job is to win games. So because people got mad over two before, that will not affect us in any way."

According to the Dallas Morning News, tailback Selvin Young, former roommate of that other Young, has spent much of his free time this summer mentoring the new QBs. Both are considered heady, mobile (though hardly Vince-level) guys. "The one big difference is that Snead has a Brett Favre-like arm," said Selvin Young. "His arm will blow you away."

My guess is that Snead, a U.S. Army All-America selection last year, will eventually win out due to that very reason. The fact is, the defending champs are still loaded with talent at the other skill positions. You know you're deep at tailback when last year's leader in all-purpose yards, Ramonce Taylor, announces he's transferring, and the near-universal reaction is, "Oh well -- more carries for Jamaal Charles."

Therefore, UT offensive coordinator Greg Davis will likely lean heavily on the running game, much like he did during the 'Horns' 11-1 season two years ago, but he's not going to be able to count on the quarterback to make big plays with his feet the way Vince did. Those game-changing moments are going to have to come in the form of deep passes off of play-action. We know the 'Horns have the receivers -- Limas Sweed, Billy Pittman, Quan Cosby -- to do it. It would make sense that the QB with the stronger arm has a better chance of making it happen.
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7/24/2006 07:25:00 PM

Bobby Gets Defensive About Offense

Lorenzo Booker
Lorenzo Booker wasn't happy with Florida State's lack of commitment to the running game last season.
Bob Rosato/SI

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- One of the more popular storylines at this year's ACC Media Days is the fact that, in its first year with a conference title game last season, the league managed to produce an 8-5 champion, Florida State. Miami linebacker Jon Beason raised quite a stir Sunday when he told the Orlando Sentinel's Emily Badger that he feels as if the 'Noles are "wearing my ring." "They're 7-5 [sic] and have a conference championship ring?" said Beason. "... That's unheard of."

It seems a strange point to be making when your team not only lost to the Seminoles during the season but did not even win its own division. That said, it's not like most FSU fans are puffing their chests these days about that particular ring. An 8-5 season doesn't sit well in Tallahassee, which is why Bobby Bowden's usually jovial media session here Monday seemed more like an interrogation at times.

Specifically, a reporter pointed out to the 'Noles head coach of 31 years that his adversary, Miami's Larry Coker, fired nearly half his staff after last year's 9-3 disappointment; why, then, did Bowden make no changes whatsoever, specifically in regards to his embattled offensive coordinator, son Jeff Bowden. "Because I'm not a change man," said a visibly perturbed Bowden. "I'm not going to start firing people. I believe in loyalty, and I believe if something goes wrong, it's my fault.

"Jeff Bowden does what I tell him to do. I feel like if he wasn't my son, you wouldn’t hear anything about him."

That seems hard to believe, considering how drastically FSU's once-potent attack has slipped in recent years. The 'Noles ranked just 59th nationally in scoring offense last season and 109th in rushing offense. Bowden's explanation, and it's a legitimate one at least to some degree, was the rash of injuries to FSU's offensive line. The 'Noles started 5-0 but quickly went in the tank after starters Cory Niblock, Matt Meinrod and John Frady all suffered season-ending injuries.

"The biggest thing I've learned the last couple years is, if you're going to have injuries, I sure hope it's not on the offensive line," Bowden said. "If a running back or receiver gets hurt, you can just put in another one. But we don't have a lot of offensive linemen right now."

It's interesting to hear the contrast in opinion between Bowden and one of his players, running back Lorenzo Booker, as to the woes of the running game. Booker, as might be expected of a running back, was frustrated last season when the 'Noles abandoned the running game. QB Drew Weatheford averaged a staggeringly high 36.1 pass attempts per game. "Running is all about getting into a rhythm," said Booker. "You can't run the ball only a few times and be as effective as you want to be."

Bowden’s response: "Run-blocking is a whole lot harder than pass-blocking. We [passed more] because that's what we could do. We're not going to keep doing something we can't do. When I hear a running back complaining after a game that we didn't run the ball enough, he's averaging something like 1.1 yards per carry. If he's averaging 5 yards a carry, then yeah, we'll run the ball more."

Whatever the culprit -– the O-line, the running backs, Jeff Bowden's play-calling, the reality is, FSU is running out of excuses. For four years, there was an obvious scapegoat when the 'Noles struggled. His name was Chris Rix. So reviled is Rix to this day that one FSU staff member openly refers to Weatherford as "the anti-Rix."

Quarterback, however, is no longer the problem. Weatherford went through his growing pains as a freshman last season but has come out if it a consistent passer. "A lot of teams would like to have Drew Weatherford as their quarterback," said Bowden. Six new O-linemen will arrive this fall to bolster last year's beleagured unit. Booker and sophomore Antone Smith give the 'Noles an enviable backfield tandem. And the receiving corps, extremely young last year, should be better.

The assumption in Tallahassee is that FSU's defense will reload as always, and that it will be up to the offense if the 'Noles are to return to national prominence this season. Personnel is no longer the issue. If FSU finishes anywhere near 59th in that department this year, the blame is going to fall squarely on a Bowden -- and here's guessing it won't be Bobby.
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7/24/2006 11:59:00 AM

The Wright Stuff

Kyle Wright
Kyle Wright will need to become a much more consistent thrower if he wants to lead Miami back to greatness.
David Bergman/SI

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- First impressions can be admittedly misleading, but I remember mine the first time I dealt with Miami QB Kyle Wright, following the Hurricanes’ 27-7 win over Virginia Tech last season: Man, this kid seems way too passive to be the starting quarterback for Miami. Wright had to grow up in a hurry last season, and the fourth-year junior who attended ACC Media Days here Sunday seemed like a whole new person -- demonstrative, analytical and extremely confident for a guy who, the last time he donned a uniform, was part of a 40-3 Peach Bowl loss to LSU.

“It’s still crazy to me that we lost that game like that,” he said Sunday. “My name is tied to that for the rest of University of Miami history. I don’t want to go down as the quarterback who was part of a 40-3 loss. I want to go down as the quarterback who was part of the 2006 national championship.”

Wright’s first season as starter was a roller coaster. On some occasions -- like the Virginia Tech win and a 47-17 win at Wake Forest the next week when he threw for five touchdowns -- he showed flashes of brilliance, while at other times (a three-INT performance against North Carolina, a 17-14 loss to Georgia Tech) he looked lost. Part of the blame goes to his supporting cast, which wasn’t exactly stellar, and, if you read between the lines of Wright’s comments, the play-calling of former offensive coordinator Dan Werner. “I think we felt held back as an offense at times,” said Wright.

Werner was one of four assistants fired after the bowl game (he’s now at Ole Miss). The new coordinator, Rich Olson, brings 29 years of experience (the past 11 of them in the NFL) and has tutored the likes of Daunte Culpepper, Jake Plummer and Warren Moon. In his previous stint at Miami, he helped Gino Torretta win the Heisman Trophy. Wright says Olson has already helped him considerably with his technique. “Coach Olson worked on my drop -- I had a tendency to drop and squat,” said Wright. “He’s got me doing a good job of standing tall in the picket. I’m 6-4, there’s no reason to make myself 6-foot.”

I don’t doubt that Olson will have a positive effect on the offense. And Wright certainly has all the physical tools to be a great quarterback. As stated previously, I remain skeptical the Hurricanes will return to prominence this season because they still lack the type of elite playmakers they’ve had in the past. Receiver Ryan Moore is the best bet, but he’s been highly inconsistent. Ditto Lance Leggett and Darnell Jenkins. If tailback Tyrone Moss can return from his ACL injury by the start of the season, that would certainly help tremendously, but, like predecessor Frank Gore, it may take him a whole season to regain his full speed. And I wasn’t impressed with backup Charlie Jones.

Wright, not surprisingly, is far more optimistic. “I’m more confident going into this season than any year I’ve been here,” he said. “Offensively, we had the best spring we’ve ever had in terms of day-to-day practices. In the past, we’ve never been able to beat our defense in practice. It was almost counter-productive. But this spring we took it to the defense from time to time.

“We’re flying under the radar right now, and that’s perfect. Because we’re going to prove everybody wrong.”
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7/23/2006 06:47:00 PM

Quality Time with Calvin Johnson

Oakland Arena
In his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, Calvin Johnson has 102 catches for 1,725 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Blog is on location Sunday and Monday at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa for ACC Media Days, a two-day golf retreat disguised as work. Unfortunately, I don’t golf, so I guess I’ll blog instead.

Every league does its preseason media junket differently, but I’m particularly partial to the ACC’s because of its highly conducive set-up. There are no mammoth press conferences. Instead, two players from each team (and on Monday, the head coach from each team) sit at tables for two 90-minute sessions (six teams each), providing a more intimate environment for interviews. At one point on Sunday, Florida State running back Lorenzo Booker and linebacker Buster Davis -- quite possibly the most talkative college football player in history -- wound up in a heated debate over which player’s home state produces the best football players, California (Booker) or Florida (Davis). “We’ve got more Heisman winners,” proclaimed Booker. “Ah, that thing’s biased,” replied Davis. “Biased?” laughed Booker. “OK, well how about more Hall of Famers?” “Ah, that thing’s biased too,” said Davis.

Though the big names are often swarmed at first, if you’re willing to wait it out, you usually wind up in a more manageable situation. Such was the case Sunday for me and a couple other reporters with Georgia Tech’s star receiver Calvin Johnson. The 6-foot-4 junior has a knack for acrobatic catches -- check out the ridiculous touchdown grab against N.C. State in this highlight video -- and has appeared on several preseason All-America teams, along with either USC’s Dwayne Jarrett or Notre Dame’s Jeff Samardzija. Johnson is fairly shy and has avoided answering the inevitable and repeated question of whether he’s the best receiver in the country. But that doesn’t mean he’s devoid of that T.O./Keyshawn-type brashness you typically see in elite receivers, either.

When asked who has been his toughest defender thus far, Johnson replies, “Me.” No one else comes close? “Nah,” he says with a chuckle. So is there any defender who can stop you, Calvin? He ponders for a second before responding, “Maybe if you told the guy I was running a go-route, and he stood about 40 yards downfield, then maybe he could stop me.”

At least one guy did stop Johnson last season: Utah’s preseason All-America cornerback Eric Weddle. The Utes held Johnson to only two catches for 19 yards in their 38-10 Emerald Bowl upset of the Yellow Jackets. Asked about that game, Johnson grimaces. “Man, it was a nightmare. The field was in terrible condition. We brought the wrong cleats. I couldn’t run a route without slipping.”

For all his accomplishments his first two seasons -- he has 102 catches for 1,725 yards and 13 touchdowns -- Johnson hasn’t garnered nearly as much national attention as Jarrett or Samardzija, mainly because they play for USC and Notre Dame, respectively, while Johnson plays for Georgia Tech. That could change in a hurry, however, if Johnson has a big game in the Jackets’ nationally televised season opener against, of all people, Samardzija and the Irish. Johnson has been watching Notre Dame tape all offseason, including, of course, its Fiesta Bowl game against Ohio State in which the Buckeyes repeatedly burned the Irish on long passing plays.

“That’s got to make you foam at the mouth watching that,” I said to him. Johnson chuckled. “Yeah, a little bit.”
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