SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/16/2006 10:58:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part II
Coach Larry Coker endured another rough day on the Miami sideline.
Brian Tietz/US PRESSWIRE
SOUTH BEND, Ind. –- Where to begin, where to begin ...
∙ First of all, I'm coming to you from a couch in the living room of a house a few minutes from Notre Dame's campus, where I'm watching games with my new friends Chris, Ryan, Gary, Evan, Andrew, Steve, Sean, Lori, Brittany and Sarah, most of whom are members of the Notre Dame band. They have treated me to freshly grilled brats and chicken and given me control of the remote. You've got to love it.
I have to say, these guys are taking their team's debacle today better than I expected. I guess when you've got three whole quarters to come to terms with it, it's easier to accept. They are, however, puzzled as to Brady Quinn's repeated shakiness (they say he didn't look too good against Penn State, either). So am I.
∙ It's going to be quite the challenge filling out that AP ballot later tonight (though hopefully these guys will help me). How far do you jump Michigan? How far do you drop Notre Dame? Who was more impressive, Auburn in a close win over a top-10 team or USC in what is shaping up to be a blowout over Nebraska? There's only one thing I know for certain: Miami, for the first time in the five years I've been doing rankings, will not be among them.
∙ Based on the Blog comments and e-mails so far today, it seems officiating -– specifically replay challenges –- were a major theme today. I have yet to see a replay of the onside kick from the Oregon-Oklahoma game but I did see the LSU-Auburn pass interference call, which seemed like it could have gone either way. It's a shame these things have to overshadow what were otherwise phenomenal games and endings.
∙ Not surprisingly, the most impressive performances today were turned in by defenses. We know what Kenny Irons and JaMarcus Russell can do, but both Auburn's and LSU's defenses dominated. It goes without saying that Michigan's defense was much better than advertised. But arguably the most impressive performance of all was turned in by TCU, which held Texas Tech -– you know, pass-for-500-yards-a-game Texas Tech -– to three points. Three. The defenses that have traditionally fared best against Mike Leach's offense are the ones with a lot of speed. Clearly, the Horned Frogs have major-conference speed.
∙ I can only imagine some of the things that are being said about Larry Coker in South Florida today. If you had told me this morning that Louisville, already without Michael Bush, would lose Brian Brom halfway through the game and rush for only 95 yards, I would have guessed the 'Canes would cruise. That they lost 31-7 tells you everything you need to know about how far that program has fallen.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Greetings, college football enthusiasts. Presumably like you, I woke up in my hotel room this morning grinning from ear to ear. I think there was some fist-pumping involved. What a glorious, glorious day.
And then boom -- the buzzkill. Sitting in construction traffic on the south side of Chicago, a city that doesn't seem to acknowledge college football exists (both major sports stations were discussing the White Sox), the only game I could find on the radio was … Syracuse-Illinois. And it was everything you'd expect of a Syracuse-Illinois game: sacks, fumbles, "Illinois just scored for the first time in two weeks." Give the Orange credit, though -- a week after nearly knocking off one Big Ten team (Iowa), they're crushing this one. Clearly things are getting better in Year Two of the Greg Robinson era. Ron Zook Year Two … not so much.
∙ Iowa isn't exactly looking like gangbusters this week, either, although Iowa State always gives the Hawkeyes problems. The Cyclones have bottled up RB Albert Young. QB Drew Tate, on the other hand, has three touchdown passes.
∙ ESPN extraordinaire Joe Schad, sitting a row in front of me in the press box, points out that Arkansas freshman QB Mitch Mustain is airing it out against Vanderbilt (12-of-17, 210, three TDs through three quarters) while Georgia seems to be keeping the kid gloves on Matthew Stafford (6-of-10, 50 yards).
∙ Rough day for Dave Wannstedt. After getting up 10-0, Pittsburgh has allowed 31 unanswered points to Michigan State. The Spartans had put up 431 yards as of early in the fourth quarter -- which should catch the attention of both teams warming up in front of me as I write this, Notre Dame (which plays MSU next week) and Michigan (Oct. 7).
∙ The Notre Dame press box has got to be the only one in the country where you can find yourself plugging away at your laptop five seats away from a guy in full Irish regalia (jersey and cap). The whole "no cheering in the press box" thing is not strictly enforced here.
∙ I can't say I'm surprised that Ohio State came out flat against Cincinnati the week after its enormous game at Texas. The Buckeyes are running away with it now, though, and RB Antonio Pittman is having a big day.
Anyway, the important stuff's about to get started. I'm going to do my best to keep tabs on the other big games (LSU-Auburn, Louisville-Miami, Oklahoma-Oregon) while covering this one. The next blog entry, however, probably might not come until late tonight, when I will be coming to you from the couch of Notre Dame student Chris Kozelichki, a Mailbag reader who offered to host me for the night games.
Steve Spurrier's grooming of quarterback Blake Mitchell (left) hasn't quite gone as planned this season.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
This isn't the way South Carolina fans envisioned it. When the long-suffering program hired Steve Spurrier as its latest savior in 2004, one could logically picture footballs flying through the air at Williams-Brice Stadium the way they once did at Florida Field. Sure, the personnel on hand wasn't exactly up to Spurrier's Gator-era standard, but he'd worked miracles before, both at Duke and at previously suffering Florida, and, after perhaps a rough first season, he'd surely do the same in Columbia.
It hasn't exactly worked out that way through the season's first two games. South Carolina, despite the return of starting QB Blake Mitchell, All-Freshman WR Sidney Rice and 2004 running-back standout Cory Boyd, ranks 99th nationally in total offense (264.5 yards per game) -- one spot higher than last year's 7-5 team. The Gamecocks' lone touchdown in their opening-night 15-0 win over Mississippi State came on a trick play (former QB-turned-receiver Syvelle Newton threw a 54-yard pass to Boyd). Georgia, meanwhile, held South Carolina scoreless, marking the first shutout of a Spurrier-coached team since his first season at Duke in 1987.
Following the Georgia loss -- in which the Gamecocks at one point had a second and goal at the 2 but failed to score -- Spurrier promised sweeping changes. "We're making some changes in our personnel around here this week," said the Ball Coach. "We don't want to divulge all of our new plans, but we will be a different-looking offense." We'll never know whether part of Spurrier's plans included one of his trademark quarterback switches, but now he has no choice. On Wednesday, Mitchell, a fourth-year junior, was suspended following his arrest for simple assault stemming from a incident at 1:30 a.m. According to a police report, Mitchell punched a man in the eye during a bar fight.
Spurrier said Wednesday night Mitchell likely would have missed Saturday's game against Wofford due to injuries, and regardless it's not like his absence affects their chances of winning the game (or even the following week's game against Florida Atlantic). The question is, what happens if Mitchell's likely replacement, true freshman Chris Smelley (9-of-15 for 112 yards against Georgia), looks good in his absence? On the one hand, it's hard to believe a freshman would be better equipped to run Spurrier's offense than a guy with three years and 13 starts under his belt. On the other hand, Mitchell has never been better than average (58.5 career completion percentage, 2,703 yards, 18 TDs, 16 INTs) and there's a definite ceiling to his potential. Might Spurrier use the next two games to groom Smelley for the Gamecocks' Sept. 28 date with No. 3 Auburn?
And what are the other changes Spurrier has in plan? Most likely they involve a shuffling along the offensive line. South Carolina lost three veteran starters from last year's line, and it has shown. "Most of our problems come down to blocking," said Spurrier. That was never more evident in the Georgia game than when Spurrier's team got a huge interception at its own 2-yard-line late in the second quarter only to have tailback Mike Davis stuffed in the end zone for a safety. "Some dummy coach [Spurrier] called a little sweep and thought some guys could block," explained the dummy coach.
Coming into the season, it looked like South Carolina,with a relatively light SEC schedule, could actually contend in the East. The way Georgia, Florida and Tennessee have looked so far in comparison to the Gamecocks, you'd have to say it doesn't look so likely anymore, but it will be interesting to see whether or not Spurrier can kickstart his woeful offense.
If N.C. State continues to stumble, Chuck Amato could very well be done after this season.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Among the many titles N.C. State coach Chuck Amato has earned over the past several years -- snazzy dresser, king of the chests, worst head coach in the country -- we can now add a new one: Sore loser. In a press conference Monday following the Wolfpack's embarrassing loss to Akron, Amato, in one of the strangest excuses for a loss I think I've ever heard, began inexplicably ranting about a perceived unfair advantage the Zips had over his program.
"They [the Zips] are in a conference that allows non-qualifiers in school," Amato told reporters. "Non-qualifiers. Do y'all need to look that one up to write your stories? You know what kind of players non-qualifiers are usually? They're inversely proportional to what their grade-point average is. They can make a big difference."
Rrrrright. For the record, Akron has three former non-qualifiers on its roster. Would Chuck really have us believe that the advantage the Zips gained from these three players overrides the immense disparity in resources and exposure between N.C. State, which plays in a BCS-funded conference, goes to bowl games almost every year and averaged nearly 53,000 in attendance last season, and Akron, which plays in the MAC, just earned its first-ever bowl bid last season and played in front of 10,893 fans a game in '05? As if that wasn't enough, Amato, according to the Durham Herald-Sun, went on to throw Fresno State (which hasn't accepted a non-qualifier since 2002), Boise State (has never had one on scholarship) and Louisville (has two) into his rant as well. And oh, by the way, Akron had a higher Graduation Success Rate than Chuck's team in the NCAA's most recent report.
And now you know why Amato is such an unpopular figure in Raleigh. The last thing fans want to hear when you're struggling (the Wolfpack are 13-12 since 2004 after going 34-17 during Amato's first four seasons) are excuses, particularly ones as asinine as that. In fact, one could argue that Amato's penchant for condescension has been his biggest downfall, because while criticism of coaches is hardly unique to Amato, rarely will you find such outward animosity. The N.C. State alum was booed in his own stadium last year when his picture showed up on the JumboTron. Amato is even the subject of an elaborate and hysterical cartoon parody on the Raleigh News and Observer's Web site (and no, I did not link to this because of my own brief cameo -- it's just really funny).
The thing is, under normal circumstances, losing to Akron at the last second isn't nearly as galling as it might seem. The Zips won the MAC last year, have a solid, veteran QB in Luke Getsy and are perfectly capable of knocking off a mid-level ACC team that happens to be in a transition year. But with the current climate around Amato's program, this was about the worst thing that could have happened -- and he only made it worse with his comments. Personally, the only way I see Chesty Chuck surviving beyond this season is if the Wolfpack win at least eight games and at least come close to winning their division. With a black hole at quarterback and a whole lot of young defenders, it’s tough to see that happening.
In his first two games, Florida's Percy Harvin has compiled 132 yards receiving and a touchdown as well as 69 yards rushing.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
The first two weeks of the season have seen no shortage of highly touted true freshmen making their mark. Arkansas QB Mitch Mustain and Georgia QB Matthew Stafford are already starters. Ohio State RB Chris Wells and Clemson RB C.J. Spiller have both gotten significant carries. None, however, have come in and instantly electrified their team quite like Florida receiver Percy Harvin.
On Signing Day last February, Florida coach Urban Meyer said of Harvin: "You flip on the tape and watch three plays and go on to the next one thinking he's as good of a football player and athlete as there is in America." Meyer, of course, was talking in terms of high-school players, but anyone who's seen the highlights from Harvin's performances against Southern Miss and UCF knows there's a good chance we'll soon be saying the same thing about him in college.
Don't believe me? Check him out for yourself here or here. As you'll quickly see, Harvin is that rare player whose speed and explosiveness are on a whole other level. "Sizzle," as they call it. Think of the first time you saw Ted Ginn Jr. blow past a defender or Reggie Bush cut back in traffic -- that's the same type of flare Harvin brings to the table. And much like those two, Florida is already working to get him the ball as many different ways as possible -- option pitches, shovel passes, reverses and, of course, downfield passes. Against Southern Miss, he ran four times for 58 yards while catching three passes for 33. Against UCF, he caught four passes for 99 yards.
"He has a little extra something to him," said Gators safety Tony Joiner. "One of the first things he did that caught my attention was that he caught a slant pass in practice and almost took it to the house. He has unbelievable speed."
Florida is going to need every bit of Harvin's speed Saturday when it visits Tennessee. Highlighted by the steady play of senior QB Chris Leak, the Gators' offense, at least so far, appears to be showing the same kind of dramatic, second-year improvement as Meyer's teams at Bowling Green and Utah. Against the Golden Knights last Saturday, Florida posted its highest offensive output (637 yards) since Steve Spurrier's last season in 2001. It's clear the coaches have tailored the offense to Leak's strengths (i.e. no running), and in fact the QB helps formulate the gameplan each week during a Thursday meeting with the staff.
However, Florida's running game -- a source of much consternation since Meyer's arrival -- remains a huge concern. While the coach is finally directing some praise at tailbacks DeShawn Wynn and Kestahn Moore, the Gators' leading rushers in the first two games were Harvin and backup QB Tim Tebow. It also remains to be seen how well UF's inexperienced offensive line can protect Leak against a legit SEC defense, which was a major problem last season. The Tennessee game will be a huge measuring stick for how much progress Meyer's offense has truly made in Year Two. If the Gators do have success, here's guessing Harvin will play a major role in it.
The Longhorns' coaching staff didn't expect Troy Smith would beat them with his arm.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
AUSTIN, Texas -- On the morning after, three feelings stand out about Saturday night’s Ohio State-Texas game: 1) Awe over just how polished and poised the Buckeyes performed in such a challenging environment. 2) Disappointment that such an anticipated game was, in the end, largely anticlimactic. And 3) Bewilderment over Texas’ defensive strategy.
While it’s hard to be critical of a defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik, who just lost his first game in nearly three years, the postgame comments of both he and Mack Brown made me wonder whether the 'Horns scouted the wrong team. Brown said they, "didn’t expect Troy [Smith] to pass this much." Chizik also indicated that Texas spent more time focused on Smith's feet than his arm. If you watched the Buckeyes (which I'm sure they did) over the second half of last season and in last week's opener against Northern Illinois, you know that designed QB runs have largely vanished from the OSU playbook, and that the Buckeyes' preferred weapon of choice is quite clearly the deep ball. And while it's not inconceivable they would have broken it back out for this one, I’m sure Chizik realized OSU was going to try and exploit the absence of starting CB Tarell Brown. And yet, the 'Horns' secondary looked lost in the first half. As I noted in my column from the game, Buckeyes receiver Anthony Gonzalez even acknowledged afterward that he was basically left uncovered by Texas’ safeties. Strange.
∙ Even as the No. 1 and 2 teams played on the field below me, it was hard not to keep one eye on the fourth quarter of the Florida State-Troy game last night, as the ‘Noles needed a Drew Weatherford touchdown with 2:05 remaining to break open a 17-17 struggle. As they drove down the field at the end, do you think Weatherford turned to his teammates in the huddle and said, "OK guys, let’s punch this in" or "Guys, if we don't score here we’re going to be the laughingstocks of the country."
∙ Why, oh why, do I continue to underestimate Georgia’s ability to reload each season. Despite three interceptions from freshman QB Matthew Stafford (who conveniently got his big break when Joe Tereshinski injured his ankle), the Dawgs still shut out South Carolina on the road. Of course, that also begs the obvious question: What has happened to Steve Spurrier's offensive wizardry? The Gamecocks were also unproductive against Mississippi State in their opener.
∙ I made mention of the Big Ten’s horrific performance earlier. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable weekend for the Pac-10, either. Though Cal got back on the right track against Minnesota, Oregon State got pummeled by Boise State on Thursday night, Stanford lost to San Jose State and purportedly-improved Arizona looked completely outclassed at LSU. The one team that does continue to impress (besides USC) is Oregon, which pulled out a hard-fought win at Fresno State last night thanks to another solid effort from QB Dennis Dixon.
∙ As I read the recaps of yesterday’s games, it’s amazing how many were decided by kicking snafus. In the ACC alone, Clemson had an extra point blocked in its overtime loss to Boston College, Wake Forest blocked Duke’s 27-yard field goal try on the final play to preserve a 14-13 win and Wyoming missed an extra point on the final play of overtime to give Virginia a particularly ugly 13-12 win. UTEP also missed three extra points in its overtime loss to Texas Tech.