SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
10/28/2006 11:45:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part III
All season long, nearly every time we’ve heard Colt McCoy’s name, it’s been accompanied by the words, “he’s not Vince Young, but …” Well, here’s another one: No, he’s not Vince Young (who is?), but McCoy’s performance Saturday night at Texas Tech was positively Vince-esque.
Did anyone else have a serious case of déjà vu watching this game? It seems like every year Texas has at least game –- always at night, and always against Texas Tech or Oklahoma State -– where it falls behind by a huge amount right off the bat, then calmly, gradually rallies to the win. Saturday, the ‘Horns were behind 24-7 midway through the second quarter when their redshirt freshman quarterback went to town: a 28-yard touchdown to Jordan Shipley, a 45-yard touchdown to Limas Sweed, a 28-yard touchdown to Quan Cosby.
But without question, the play of the night involved McCoy’s feet. On third and 5 with 1:31 left and Texas clinging to a 35-31 lead, McCoy took the snap, rolled right, saw nobody open, ran back to the left, turned up field and, in an eyebrow-popping burst of speed, raced straight past at least three Tech defenders for a game-clinching 33-yard gain. Remind you of anybody?
The final stats will show that Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell shredded the ‘Horns’ defense (41-of-61, 512 yards, three TDs, one INT), but the large majority of it came in the first half. Give credit to Texas coordinator Gene Chizik for making the necessary halftime adjustments and McCoy (21-of-31, 330 total yards, four TDs, one INT) for leading the comeback.
∙ Funny how quickly things can change in a week. Last Saturday night, I was singing the praises of Clemson and declaring the Tigers the class of the ACC. A week later, there’s a three-way tie for first in the ACC’s Atlantic Division -- and Clemson, following its Thursday night drubbing by Virginia Tech, isn’t one of the three. They would be Boston College, Wake Forest and Maryland, all 3-1 in the conference.
∙ The Terps (6-2) sure have come a long way since the start of the season. It wasn’t that long ago Ralph Friedgen was expressing some doubts about QB Sam Hollenbach (a seemingly annual tradition in College Park), but the senior threw three touchdowns in Saturday night’s 27-24 win over Florida State. I still wouldn’t put much faith in Friedgen’s team to win the division, but they’re at least going to be playing in a bowl game for the first time in three seasons.
∙ Both quarterbacks were impressive in the Tennessee-South Carolina game. While Syvelle Newton’s three interceptions certainly didn't help the Gamecocks, the only reason they were even in the game was due to Newton’s playmaking ability (230 yards passing, 82 rushing). Erik Ainge, meanwhile, just continues to shine. With almost no help from his running game, Ainge (21-of-29, 255 yards, two TDs, no INTs) picked apart a solid South Carolina defense
∙ The least-publicized 8-1 team in America is Texas A&M, and seeing as the Aggies’ 31-21 win over Baylor wasn’t televised, I have no particular insight to offer you. All I know is the upcoming stretch run in the Big 12 South is going to be awfully tough for everyone, as Texas and Oklahoma both play Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.
∙ Besides Cal, the hottest team in the Pac-10 is Washington State. The Cougars (6-3) followed up their upset of Oregon with a resounding 37-15 win at UCLA. That same Bruins defense that largely stifled Brady Quinn and Notre Dame had no such answers for Wazzu QB Alex Brink, who threw for more than 400 yards.
∙ The Mountain West race is as good as over. BYU’s 33-14 win at Air Force combined with TCU’s 26-3 rout of Wyoming gives the Cougars (6-2, 4-0 MWC) at least a two-game edge over everyone else. I don’t know how John Beck and Co. lost to Arizona in their opener, but they’ve sure been impressive ever since, including taking Boston College to overtime on the road.
∙ Sorry -- I’ve got to go. As I write this, Borat is making a surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live, and this is bound to be the funniest thing this show has seen in years. As he would say: Very nice!
For Oregon State coach Mike Riley (left), it doesn't get any bigger than beating Pete Carroll's Trojans.
We'd known for weeks that USC, the supposed No. 3 team in the country, was living on borrowed time. Saturday in Corvallis, Ore., the Trojans were finally unmasked. And yet, if I was a USC fan, I wouldn't feel entirely bad right now.
Realistically speaking, USC was never going to play for the national title this season. Not after losing Leinart/Bush/White, etc., not after suffering as many injuries as they have and certainly not with such an average defense. Did I expect the first to loss to come against a 4-3 Oregon State team playing without its star running back (Yvenson Bernard)? Of course not. But this year’s Trojans have little margin for error, and for nearly three quarters Saturday, they made every error in the book -- three fumbles, an interception, a special teams breakdown. You do that on the road against an emotionally charged underdog, and you’re probably going to pay the price.
And yet, right when it seemed USC was headed for an all-out meltdown, falling behind 33-10 with 4:51 left in the third quarter, John David Booty, Steve Smith and Co. went out and mounted a near-epic, Leinart-caliber comeback. Booty, after struggling much of the game, started hitting everything, Smith gave a performance for the ages (11 catches, 258 yards, two TDs) and the defense finally quieted Beavers QB Matt Moore. Ultimately, they fell two points short, but only after Booty (who threw for 405 yards and three TDs) drove them 80 yards in two minutes to score the potential game-tying touchdown with seven seconds left.
That, more than any of their wins over the past month, tell me the Trojans haven’t completely lost their swagger, and should serve as some solace to all those USC fans out there trying to cope with their first regular-season loss since September 2003. There will likely be at least one more loss before 2006 is over, but I’d be feeling a whole lot better about Booty’s chances of leading a potential title run in ’07. (Granted, I’d feel much better than that if Smith wasn’t graduating.)
Meanwhile, I hope they’re partying like it’s 1999 in Corvallis, (or, more appropriately, like it’s 2000, the year Oregon State went 11-1 and beat USC), because it doesn’t get much bigger for Mike Riley’s program than this. The Beavers looked dead in the water earlier this season after getting stomped by Boise State and Cal and losing at home to Washington State, but Saturday’s win gives them a three-game winning streak and a realistic shot of finishing the regular season with as many as eight or nine wins.
Further proof of just how deep the Pac-10 is this season -- there are eight teams all capable of beating one another on any given Saturday. The chances of seeing one in the national-title game, however, just got a whole lot slimmer. Get your bat, West Virginia: You’re now on deck.
∙ Just when I was ready to finally put my faith in the Big 12 North, the South goes out ... and totally redeems itself. First Oklahoma humbles Missouri, and then unheralded Oklahoma State takes it to No. 20 Nebraska. The Cowboys (5-3), behind ever-improving QB Bobby Reid and stud receivers Adarius Bowman and D’Juan Woods, have been quietly building a dangerous offense all season, and Saturday they exploded for 496 yards against a Huskers defense that apparently stayed behind in Lincoln following the Texas game.
. Missouri and Nebraska will now play for the North title next week, but at this point, who cares? Meanwhile, it’s possible at this point that all six South teams could reach a bowl game.
∙ It’s no secret that Urban Meyer isn’t a big fan of his tailbacks, but Saturday against Georgia, Florida did something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: The Gators went 18 straight running plays – including the entire first half -- before handing it to a tailback for the first time. They gained 99 yards entirely on draws and scrambles by QBs Chris Leak and Tim Tebow and handoffs and reverses to speedy receivers Percy Harvin and Andre Caldwell.
Georgia eventually caught up with the chicanery, however, allowing the Dawgs to nearly rally back from a 21-0 deficit. Florida has a whole lot of speed and a phenomenal defense, but I’m guessing sometime between now and the SEC title game they’re going to face a situation where they need to be able to line up and run the ball at someone (or, for that matter, make a field goal). Meyer doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith they can do it.
∙ ABC’s Bob Griese, speaking during the second half of the Miami-Georgia Tech game: “It’s amazing how bad Reggie Ball looks sometimes, and how good Reggie Ball looks sometimes.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. With essentially a two-game lead over both the ‘Canes and Virginia Tech, the Yellow Jackets are almost certainly headed to Jacksonville for the ACC title game despite having a quarterback who, at one point Saturday, had completed just 3 of 16 passes. Fittingly, one of those three completions was a picture-perfect 46-yard touchdown pass to James Johnson.
∙ Well lookey here: Frank Solich suddenly has Ohio in position to win its conference. The Bobcats (6-3, 4-1 MAC) beat Kent State (5-3, 4-1) 17-7 on Saturday to take control of the MAC East. OU, which also has wins over Illinois, Western Michigan (5-3) and Northern Illinois (5-4), hasn’t won a league title since 1968.
∙ Just to appease the Ohio State fans who complained about the “lack of coverage” on here last week: The Buckeyes crushed another opponent Saturday (Minnesota). They’re still No. 1. Troy Smith is still really good.
∙ Finally, major congratulations are in order to the Temple Owls, who broke their 20-game losing streak Saturday with a 28-14 win over Bowling Green. As significant as the win itself is the opponent. While the Falcons are having a down year (4-5), they’ve been one of the best teams in the MAC past five years. Could Al Golden’s team perhaps be competitive earlier than expected when it joins the league next season?
Oklahoma's Paul Thompson has exceeded all expectations with his play behind center this season.
He might not have Troy Smith-type numbers, and his team is out of the national-championship race, but one of the unsung heroes of the 2006 season has to be Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson. Remember all the panic in August when the fifth-year senior had to switch back from receiver and take over the Sooners’ offense? The guy has turned out to be rock solid, and his poise and performance Saturday (12-of-20, 131 yards, two TDs, no INTs and a rushing TD) was the biggest reason OU was able to go into Columbia and pull out a big victory over Missouri.
Don’t get me wrong, RB Allen Patrick (33 carries, 161 yards), the defense (four turnovers) and special teams (blocked punt) all came up huge as well, but with Adrian Peterson on the sideline, Thompson has become the heart-and-soul of the Sooners, who are suddenly looking at the possibility of returning to a New Year’s bowl game.
∙ Ladies and gentlemen, the Indiana Hoosiers are one win away from reaching a bowl game – and could get No. 6 as soon as next week at Minnesota. It’s been 13 long years since the Hoosiers’ last bowl trip, spanning the end of the Bill Mallory era, the arrivals and subsequent dismissals of Cam Cameron and Gerry DiNardo, Antwaan Randle El, Matt LoVechhio, etc. At last, Indiana has a coach, Terry Hoeppner, worthy of its quarterback, Kellen Lewis, who threw for five touchdowns in Saturday’s 46-point explosion against Michigan State.
∙ If only Michigan State’s Drew Stanton were so lucky.
∙ I know it’s tough to win on the road in the SEC, blah, blah, blah, but following Auburn’s less-than-impressive 23-17 win over 2-7 Ole Miss, it’s time to concede that the Tigers’ 2006 offense – the same one that scored one offensive touchdown against Arkansas, none against Florida – isn’t very good this year. As much as I love Kenny Irons, he hasn’t been nearly as productive, whether due to defenses keying on him or the fact that Auburn’s O-line isn’t nearly as dominant as it was the past couple years.
∙ It’s a good thing for Michigan that it was facing Northwestern today, because the Wolverines easily could have lost to a more formidable opponent the way its offense played Saturday. In a sluggish performance in the rain, they practically begged the Wildcats to make a game of it, but that wasn’t going to happen with a quarterback (C.J. Backer) making his second career start against that ridiculous Michigan defense.
∙ With banged-up running back P.J. Hill limited to 12 carries Saturday, John Stocco’s second-half passing show helped Wisconsin stave off a potential upset at the hands of Illinois. The Illini are quietly becoming more competitive, but the Zooker is still looking for that first signature win.
∙ Finally, I really wish I hadn’t run that “revising the worst coaches list” column a few weeks back, because a couple of the guys whom I gave a reprieve have promptly lived up to their reputation. Congratulations to N.C. State’s Chuck Amato for following up on the momentum of those big wins over Boston College and Florida State with a three-game losing streak, highlighted by Saturday’s embarrassing loss to god-awful Virginia. Meanwhile, I had to scrape my jaw off the floor after watching a decision made by Missouri’s Gary Pinkel. Facing a fourth and goal at the Oklahoma 1 down 23-10, Pinkel lined up QB Chase Daniel in the shotgun like it was any other play and had him throw a jump ball into the end zone. Yeah -- that made sense.
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks face a difficult stretch of games to close the season.
Paul Abell/US PRESSWIRE
The beauty of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is that he's capable of zinging one of his rivals even when he's trying to be modest.
In downplaying the rivalry between himself and Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer during his days at Florida, Spurrier said earlier this week, "There never was a lot of back and forth, there really wasn't. We did all those Gator Clubs and they wanted to hear something funny in the summertime. And if they told jokes about us, it didn't bother me, I can assure you." But then he added: "Of course, the winners are the only ones who can tell the jokes, so maybe they weren't telling too many up there."
We laugh only because it's true. Suffice to say, the Ol' Ball Coach has pretty much owned Fulmer over the years. Spurrier's 16-15 win in Knoxville last season -- his first with the Gamecocks -- raised his all-time record against the Tennessee coach to 8-3, an impressive accomplishment when you consider that Fulmer owns an .814 winning percentage against everyone else he's faced. (Fulmer leads Spurrier in overall career winning percentage, .779 to .758).
If Spurrier were to earn another victory over Fulmer on Saturday, however, it would likely rank as his most impressive yet. The Gators and Vols were fairly evenly matched most years when Spurrier was in Gainesville, and while Spurrier's first South Carolina team last season was far from dominant, going 7-5, Fulmer's team was in the midst of a nightmarish 5-6 campaign. A year later, revitalized Tennessee will head into Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night sporting a 6-1 record and No. 8 AP ranking. South Carolina is 5-2 but unranked, its three SEC wins so far coming against 2-6 Mississippi State, 3-4 Kentucky and 3-5 Vanderbilt.
But South Carolina also came within five yards of taking another top-10 team, Auburn, to overtime, in its last prime-time home game, so it would be unwise to dismiss the Gamecocks' upset chances. Spurrier's team has won four of its past five using much the same formula as last year's overachieving team: a modest yet productive offense and a stifling pass defense. Since taking over the starting quarterback job in Week 3, senior Syvelle Newton has completed 63.2 percent of his passes while running for 241 yards. Running back Cory Boyd has posted consecutive 113-yard rushing performances. And last week, the defense held Vanderbilt to 120 passing yards and just one third-down conversion in a 31-13 win.
Newton's emergence has been particularly surprising considering Spurrier has almost no history with running-style quarterbacks. "I always wanted to have one that could run out of there occasionally," said Spurrier. "We run Syvelle a little more than occasionally because that is what he does best. ... We have only punted eight times in the last five games -- that is because of Syvelle. Our third downs are like 50 percent since he has been in there. We're calling the same plays; we didn't all of a sudden find a bunch that worked."
The Gamecocks will need to play some astounding defense if it hopes to win Saturday night, because the Vols, with QB Erik Ainge and WRs Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain, certainly pack more fire power than their recent opponents. But South Carolina has a pretty valuable weapon of its own in sophomore WR Sidney Rice, who had eight catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns in last year's Tennessee game. The Vols' secondary has stood its ground since loing top cover corner Inky Johnson to injury, but if anyone could exploit them, it's Rice.
Gauging Spurrier's progress so far at South Carolina has been difficult seeing as the Gamecocks play such a drastically different style than his vintage Gator teams. Lacking a quarterback or the receiving corps to uncork his preferred Fun 'n' Gun offense, Spurrier has leaned heavily on ball control and defense -- with the occasional deep ball to Rice mixed in -- and the result has been a commendable 12-7 record with wins last season over both Tennessee and Florida.
However, both those squads, as well as arch-rival Clemson, boast top-10 outfits this season, and South Carolina will face all three -- as well as No. 13 Arkansas -- between now and the end of the season. "Who knows what's going to happen?" said Spurrier. "I really believe we have a better team than last year. Now, what needs to happen, the other guy doesn't need to play well." If the Gamecocks can beat one or two of those foes, we'll know for certain Spurrier has them on the right track.
Butch Davis has been out of coaching since being fired by the Browns in 2004.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
In a move that came as a surprise to almost no one, North Carolina announced the firing Sunday night of sixth-year coach John Bunting, whose team fell to 1-6 following a 23-0 loss to Virginia on Thursday. It may seem like UNC pulled the plug unusually early, but when a coaching change is as inevitable as this one, there's not much point in leaving either the coach or program hanging.
More importantly, however, Tar Heels AD Dick Baddour just gained a gigantic head start if he intends to partake in the Great Butch Davis Derby of 2006.
Before I continue, let me make it perfectly clear: I have no inside information as to who UNC, or anyone else, is looking to hire this offseason -- nor does anyone else. A general rule of thumb when reading stories about coaching searches: Ninety-nine percent of it is pure speculation. Athletic directors don't share their intentions with reporters, and while many of us do have "plugged-in" sources at various schools, believe me, unless they've actually seen the candidate step off the private plane with their own eyes, they're just throwing out gossip like the rest of us. A competent coaching search is conducted with only slightly less secrecy than a covert spy operation.
Presumably, however, UNC would not have fired its coach with six weeks remaining in the regular season if it didn't plan to do something productive during those six weeks. You can't be sure of anything involving Baddour, the former UNC admissions dean-turned athletic administrator who hired both a one-year head coaching veteran (Matt Doherty) and an unknown NFL assistant (Bunting) on the sole basis of their UNC diplomas and found a way to fire football coach Carl Torbush two seasons in a row. But I'm willing to give Baddour the benefit of the doubt that he's aware Davis, the former Miami and Cleveland Browns head coach, is currently available, and that due to Davis' free-agent status, he's free to start discussing/interviewing/negotiating at any time. Shoot, Carolina could hire him tomorrow if it was so inclined.
Obviously, Davis is hardly the nation's only desirable coaching candidate, and it's entirely possible Davis has no desire to coach in Chapel Hill. There's a lot of reasons, however, why this would be a good match. UNC needs to raise its recruiting profile in a hurry if it hopes to be competitive in the beefed-up ACC; Davis was a masterful recruiter at Miami. The Tar Heels' new coach is going to need the stomach to withstand an unpleasant rebuilding period; Davis endured the depths of probation at Miami and came out the other end having built a national-title contender. And if Davis indeed desires to return to college coaching, chances are he's going to have to do it at a mid-level BCS program. UNC is one of the few schools of that ilk that also happens to be rolling in money, which is good, because Davis could potentially fetch a $2 million-plus salary.
The whole situation reminds me of two years ago, when Steve Spurrier was sitting around waiting for a call. In a recent Orlando Sentinel article, South Carolina AD Mike McGee disclosed that he first offered Spurrier the Gamecocks' job halfway through the 2004 season. That same article discussed how Florida AD Jeremy Foley's controversial decision to can Ron Zook in late October of that season was instrumental in his ability to beat out Notre Dame for Urban Meyer.
There is undoubtedly a segment of Miami fans hoping the school will try to lure Davis back if and when it parts ways with Larry Coker, but that's not likely to happen. Either way, however, Baddour has an opportunity here to beat the Hurricanes to the punch. Or, he can drag his feet, wait for some of the big-name active coaches' seasons to end and hope one of them picks the UNC job over the many others expected to be open by then. It's a viable option, particularly if he's not particularly keen on Davis. It's also a good way to end up with another Bunting.
1) That the changing of the guard in the ACC is upon us. If you watched both Clemson’s 31-7 dismantling of Georgia Tech and Boston College’s 24-19 win at Florida State, you saw the unofficial dawning of a new era, because let me tell you, this isn’t a one-year thing. Those Clemson tailbacks you saw running wild Saturday night? They’re only a freshman and a sophomore. That B.C. team you saw win in Tallahassee? It’s actually fairly young. And the rash of problems you’re seeing in Florida State’s program? They’re not going to get fixed in a year. Which means the ACC -- long the sole domain of the Seminoles -- will likely be up for grabs for the foreseeable future, with Clemson and B.C. (along with Virginia Tech, assuming this year is an aberration for the Hokies) leading the charge.
2) That Notre Dame’s offensive line is a mess. Make no mistake, the Brady Quinn-to-Jeff Samardzija game-winning touchdown pass Saturday was a stroke of brilliance. But how, you might ask, did the Irish get themselves in the predicament in the first place of needing a last-second miracle to beat a mediocre UCLA team playing with its backup quarterback? Because for all the star power on the Irish offense, they continue to be plagued by an overmatched offensive line. Saturday, the Bruins had five sacks and held ND to 41 yards rushing, and the Irish now rank 99th in the country in rushing offense (97.4 yards per game). Charlie Weis’ team has won every game since its Sept. 16 debacle against Michigan, but I’m not sure it’s gotten any better.
3) That there’s going to be a free-agent quarterback on the market this winter. No, I’m no talking about the NFL. I’m talking about the University of Texas, where, if I’m true freshman Jevan Snead -- one of the top QBs in the country in last year’s recruiting class -- I’d be starting to look around for a new lineup to crack. That's because, barring injury, Colt McCoy is going to be the Longhorns’ starting quarterback for a long, long time. After walking into Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium and leading a last-minute comeback in the snow, the boyish redshirt freshman season stat line now reads: 67.7 percent completions, 20 touchdowns, three interceptions. That’s incredible.
4) That Rutgers could be 11-0 headed into the last week of the season. I have no idea whether West Virginia’s defense will be able to contain Louisville’s offense in their Nov. 2 showdown -- but the Scarlet Knights certainly could a week later. Rutgers followed up its eye-opening defensive performance against Navy (holding the nation’s leading rushing team to 113 yards on the ground) by going on the road and holding 6-1 Pittsburgh -- with its top-rated passer, Tyler Palko -- to 10 points and 236 total yards. It’s becoming more and more apparent by the week that Louisville isn’t as explosive as it has been in years past, and that Rutgers defense is awfully good. The Mountaineers host Rutgers the last day of the season, Dec. 2. Could it be a matchup of two 11-0 teams.
5) That conservatism should be left to politicians. With 2:09 remaining and Notre Dame out of timeouts, UCLA needed just one first down to seal a victory, but Bruins coach Karl Dorrell opted for a handoff on third-and-7. You know what happened from there. Given a chance to seize momentum late in the first half of a 3-3 deadlock on the road against the No. 7 team in the country, Alabama coach Mike Shula opted for a field goal on fourth and goal from the 1. This did not sit particularly well with his players. “For [Shula] not to have the confidence to go [for it] at their place and get a yard,” fullback Tim Castille told reporters, “that's tough.” It’s one thing to play it safe when the national championship is on the line. But when your middle-of-the-pack team has a chance to pull off a monumental upset on the road, please, coaches, I beg of you -- GO FOR THE WIN.