SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
8/04/2006 11:48:00 AM
Get Ready for No. 1 vs. No. 2
Troy Smith and the Ohio State offense may have to put up big numbers, as the defense features nine new starters.
John W. McDonough/SI
The preseason coaches poll is out, and I can't say there were a whole lot of surprises. That the No. 1 team, Ohio State, must replace nine defensive starters, and the No. 2 team, Texas, must replace Vince Young, shows you just how few "sure things" there are in college football this season.
Whether or not you agree with the picks, it's pretty darn cool that we'll now likely be seeing a 1 vs. 2 game the second week of the season in Austin. That hasn't happened in the regular season since Florida-Florida State on Nov. 30, 1996. (Oklahoma and Nebraska met as No. 1 and 2 in the BCS standings in 2000 and '01.)
Some other observations:
∙ Oklahoma came in fifth, but the ballots were due before QB Rhett Bomar's dismissal. The first AP poll doesn't come out until Aug. 19. It will be interesting to see how big a disparity there will be between the Sooners' two rankings. Depending on which poll the TV network uses for, say, OU's Sept. 16 game at Oregon, you could be watching a top-five team or a top-15 team.
∙ The "big three" Florida schools continue to live off their past reputations despite their recent struggles. Florida (No. 8), Florida State (No. 10) and Miami (No. 11) all came in at least seven spots higher than where they finished last season.
∙ A year ago, Michigan began the season ranked fourth, Iowa 10th. Following disappointing 7-5 seasons, the Big Ten pair checks in at a more modest 15th and 17th, respectively. But the ironic thing is, they both have better-looking squads (at least on paper) going into this season than they did last year.
∙ Finally, there aren’t a whole lot of programs that could go 5-6 and still show up in the preseason Top 25 the next year. No. 23 Tennessee, apparently, is one of them.
Paul Posluszny tore knee ligaments in Penn State's 26-23 Orange Bowl win over Florida State.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
CHICAGO -- My initial reaction upon walking up to Paul Posluszny's table at Big Ten media day Wednesday was, "What are you doing here?" Not that I wasn't happy to see him, but it seems almost... I guess the word is "implausible," that such an accomplished player (Butkus and Bednarik winner, consensus All-America) is still in college.
Even if he hadn't suffered a torn knee ligaments in the Orange Bowl, however, the Penn State linebacker said he still probably would not be at an NFL training camp right now. "I was exploring the option [last winter]," said Posluszny, "but I didn't feel comfortable with the idea of being anywhere else but State College."
This was my second straight year interviewing Posluszny at this event. Last August, however, I, like nearly every other reporter in the room, was asking him some variation of the same questions: "Are you guys ever going to be good again? Is this it for Coach Paterno?" Etc., etc. It wasn't the most enjoyable two hours of his life.
A year later, he seemed pretty relaxed, and rightfully so, coming off a season in which he was named the best linebacker in the country and his team finished No. 3 in the country. He was in such a friendly mood, in fact, that when I mentioned all the E-mails I got from furious Ohio State fans when he won the Butkus over A.J. Hawk, Posluszny replied, "I agree with them. If I was voting, I would have voted for A.J. He was the best linebacker in the country last year."
If there was any doubt last year, he can put it to rest with a repeat performance this season. The knee (which did not require surgery but heavy rehabilitation) is 100 percent, though he says he only reached that point about three or four weeks ago. The defense around him has changed dramatically, with seven new starters, which might make for a rough go when the Nittany Lions visit Brady Quinn and Notre Dame the second week of the season. Not that Posluszny is complaining. "Are you kidding me? Playing in South Bend?" said Posluszny. "That's going to be fun."
When healthy, Michigan's Mike Hart is about as good as any other running back in college football.
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
CHICAGO -- A word to my fellow prognosticators headed into the 2006 season: Beware of Mike Hart. Michigan's star tailback says he picked up a couple preseason magazines and quickly realized he wasn't showing up on any of the so-called rankings of the nation's top running backs. "I can't say they forgot about me because I didn't do anything last year," the loquacious junior said at the Big Ten's media festivities Wednesday. "It gives me something to prove this year, to show I'm the same running back I was my freshman year."
That running back, you may recall, ranked among the top 10 rushers in the country as a true freshman in 2004, gaining 1,455 yards and at one point producing three-straight 200-yard games. Last season, however, hamstring and ankle injuries caused him to miss half the season and limited him to just 662 yards. Between that and the Wolverines' slide to 7-5, it seems Hart has fallen off the national radar.
If anything, however, Hart is poised to have a huge year in 2006. Not only is he finally healthy, but so, too, is his top blocker, tackle Jake Long, who missed most of last season. And the 5-foot-9, 200-pound runner, already a punishing back before, has bulked up. He can now do 24 bench reps (225 pounds), up from 16 a year ago. His coach, Lloyd Carr, is effusive in his praise of the player. "He's one of the best football players I've coached," said Carr. "He has no weaknesses." Strong words from a guy who has coached Tom Brady, Charles Woodson, Braylon Edwards, et al.
But in talking to Michigan's representatives here this week, what's most striking is how universally admired he is within the program. In just two years' time, the charismatic Syracuse native has emerged as one of the Wolverines' most revered leaders. "Every run this summer, I see Mike Hart out at the front -- you hear the guy's voice every day," said defensive end LaMarr Woodley. "He's leading this team as a junior." One of Michigan's many time-honored traditions is that only fourth- and fifth-year players are eligible to be named a captain. It will be interesting to see if Hart's unique status will cause Carr -- a traditionalist through and through -- to make an exception.
Following Randy Walker's death, Minnesota coach Glen Mason decided to take better care of himself.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
CHICAGO -- Attend enough of these conference media events and you quickly become accustomed to one coach after another discussing the "health" of his team. Either he's excited because the team came out of spring practice "healthy" or he's nervous because the squad is "banged up" at certain key positions.
One of the main topics of discussion at Tuesday's Big Ten coaches press conferences, however, was the health of the actual coaches, in light of Northwestern coach Randy Walker's sudden passing from a heart attack at the age of 52. Mortality is on the minds of many around the conference these days. In addition to the Walker tragedy, two Ohio State assistants, Jim Bollman and Joe Daniels, were hospitalized with heart ailments this summer, and Daniels has since begun chemotherapy treatments for an undisclosed form of cancer. Meanwhile, Indiana head coach Terry Hoeppner sports a large scar on the side of his head where doctors surgically removed a brain tumor last winter.
Amazingly, despite leading some of the most stressful lifestyles imaginable, several of the coaches who spoke Tuesday admitted to being lax when it comes to their health. "I'm a poor eater," said Minnesota coach Glen Mason. "I mean, I'm a good eater -- but I eat poor things." Despite constant hounding from Gophers team doctor Pat Smith, Mason said he put off getting a physical until this year ("I was afraid they'd tell me there's something wrong with me," he joked). Eerily, he scheduled the appointment just a week before Walker died. "I'm going to get one every year from now on," he said.
If there's one positive to come from Walker's death, hopefully it's that other members of the coaching fraternity will, like Mason, see it as a wake-up call. Football coaches work ridiculous hours, travel endlessly and often eat horrendously during the season and in peak recruiting periods. While they're not likely to start putting in fewer hours anytime soon, there are other factors within their control -- like getting regular check-ups.
Then again, the man who defies all scientific logic, 79-year-old Joe Paterno, was also at the dais Tuesday, where he revealed he gets a physical "every eight to 10 years," and that his only nick of late was an inflammation in his legs. He discovered this only after climbing Mount Nittany with his grandchildren during a family reunion. Clearly, the guy is bionic.
Starting receiver Ryan Moore is suspended for the first two games of the season.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
CHICAGO -- The plan was to blog about Big Ten media festivities today, but I can assure you that nothing from Tuesday's press-conference marathon -- besides Joe Paterno revealing he recently had a prostate exam -- was nearly as newsworthy as the events transpiring at Miami. Four Hurricanes players, including running back Tyrone Moss and receiver Ryan Moore, have been suspended from the Sept. 4 opener against Florida State for their roles in an undisclosed "incident." Reason No. 273 the two teams' coaches don't like playing each other in the first game.
Moore, it should be noted, was already under suspension by head coach Larry Coker stemming back to last year's Peach Bowl, and he will actually sit out the following week's game against Florida A&M as well. Moss, meanwhile, is recovering from an ACL injury sustained during last season's Virginia Tech game, and it's unclear whether he would have been able to play against the Seminoles in the first place. Therefore, the significance of Tuesday's news isn't the fact that the 'Canes are going to be short-handed against FSU (that likely would have been the case anyway) but what it means to Coker and his program. Simply put, it's the last thing he needed to have happen right now.
It's no secret that Coker, entering his sixth season, is on the proverbial "hot seat" following consecutive three-loss seasons, last December's 40-3 Peach Bowl debacle and the firing of four assistant coaches. I watched him field one question after another about his job security at last week's ACC media days. Off the field, Miami's program had been virtually trouble-free during Coker's first five seasons; inevitably, this incident is going to cause the already skeptical legions to question whether he's losing control of the program. The FSU game was already going to be critically important in setting the tone for the season, but now even more so. Lose, especially badly, and the noise around the program is going to grow even louder. Win and you can assume this "incident" will quickly be forgotten.
Darren McFadden rushed 13 times for 88 yards in last year's 70-17 loss to USC.
In the storied annals of stupid behavior by college athletes, the story of Arkansas running back Darren McFadden's bar-fight toe injury over the weekend may just rank in the top 10 percentile.
In case you missed it, McFadden, the standout Razorbacks running back who earned All-SEC honors as a freshman last season by running for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns, is doubtful for Arkansas' much-anticipated opener against USC after undergoing surgery Saturday to repair a dislocated toe. How did he obtain said toe injury? According to a police report, McFadden was involved in a fight in the parking lot outside a Little Rock club at 4:20 a.m. Saturday. A security guard told the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette that McFadden was kicking at a combatant who allegedly tried to steal his stepbrother's car (someone in the fight apparently left it running) and "his shoe came off and his foot hit the pavement." Adding insult to injury -- literally -- someone else managed to make off with the car.
It's moments like these that make college coaches tear their hair out. Presumably, Houston Nutt has at some point lectured his players on the importance of staying out of trouble. He, like the rest of us, is probably reasonable enough not to demand that his star running back spend his Friday nights cooped up in his dorm room reading Socrates. He does, however, probably say something to the effect of, "You're a public figure, people are going to try to mess with you. If you find yourself in a volatile situation ... WALK AWAY." (And don't stay out until 4 in the morning. As Steve Rushin recently wrote, nearly all of sports' blotter items seem to take place in the wee hours of the morning).
Not only did McFadden violate this golden rule, but he did so with the one part of his body a running back needs most -- his foot! Not only that, he's now jeopardized his chances of playing in one of the biggest games in his school's recent history. It's one thing when a guy gets suspended for an opener against Middle Tennessee State; McFadden might have to miss USC. Even if he heals in time, one can only hope Nutt would keep him out anyway as punishment for his stupidity.
And with that, I'm off to catch a flight to Chicago for Big Ten Media Days on Tuesday and Wednesday. I'll be posting Blog reports from there both days