SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
11/04/2006 11:52:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part IV
Riley Skinner and the Demon Deacons are 8-1 for the first time since 1944.
James Lang/US PRESSWIRE
We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming -- i.e. Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, USC -- to address a very important topic: Wake Forest, baby!
Ladies and gentlemen, Wake Forest is 8-1. Wake Forest beat Boston College on Saturday night to remain tied for first in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. Wake Forest will be the highest ranked ACC team in my Power Rankings this week.
I feel like the Demon Deacons’ story hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention this year – perhaps because there’s an even bigger Cinderella story brewing in Piscataway, N.J. – but it’s pretty darn unbelievable. Wake Forest has been an ACC afterthought for how long? They were supposed to become an even bigger afterthought when the conference expanded to 12. Certainly the big three in their state –- UNC, N.C. State and Duke -- have been largely buried by it.
But the Demon Deacons have something on their side that those teams don’t: A tremendous coach. Jim Grobe has long been one of the most respected “under the radar” guys in the profession, but he’s not going to under the radar anymore if Wake ends up winning the ACC. The Deacs haven’t done that, by the way, since 1970 – and they went 6-5 that year.
If you saw Saturday night’s game, you saw a big-time defense that relentlessly pressured Eagles QB Matt Ryan, sacking him four times and picking him twice. You saw speedster Kevin Marion dash 81 yards for a touchdown. And you saw Wake win despite getting outgained 430-28 and possessing the ball for only 24:53.
Are the Deacons top-10 good? Not quite. No one in that conference is this year. But honestly, who cares? Wake is quietly becoming one of the best stories of the season.
· The budding “Colt McCoy for Heisman” push gained some serious momentum Saturday night. Against Oklahoma State, the torrid frosh went 23-of-29 for 346 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Those are Brady Quinn numbers. With so many of the other contenders dropping off seemingly by the week (see Steve Slaton), why shouldn’t McCoy be mentioned among the elite? Of course, there’s one pretty significant glitch: In a head-to-head matchup with the Heisman frontrunner, Troy Smith, McCoy got beat.
· Give Bob Stoops some props for a bold call to help seal Oklahoma’s 17-16 win at Texas A&M. Fourth and 1 at his own 29, 1:29 left, Stoops goes for it -- twice. On the other side, Dennis Franchione’s team somehow managed to get flagged for 12 men on the field -- coming off a timeout no less -- on the Sooners’ second try. That’s hard to do.
· Two weeks ago, I would have told you it was a no-brainer that Cal will beat USC on Nov. 18. Now, I’m not so sure. I think the Trojans’ offense found its identity in the second half of the Oregon State game last week (they poured it on hapless Stanford on Saturday), and while there’s not a darn thing wrong with the Bears’ offense, their defense has been strangely inconsistent. Saturday they gave up 516 yards in a 38-24 win over UCLA. Anything could happen at the Coliseum in two weeks.
· That said, Cal WR DeSean Jackson – who had his fourth career punt return for touchdown Saturday night – is really, really good.
· Last week I stated my belief that the Pac-10 is the deepest conference in the country (not the "best," not the “toughest,” but the deepest) because the top eight teams can all beat each other. Well … make that nine. Arizona (4-5) got a big win Saturday, going to Pullman and knocking off a Washington State team that had beaten Oregon and taken USC to the wire. Mike Stoops’ team seems to pull off one of these every year (remember the UCLA game last year?); can they finally string a couple together?
· Georgia Tech’s offense looked as crisp as it has in a long time Saturday night against N.C. State. Of course, that’s to be expected when Reggie Ball finds Calvin Johnson early and often. The stud receiver caught nine balls for 168 yards and two TDs, while Tashard Choice ran 34 times for 164 yards in the 31-23 win.
· Finally, it was nice to see Miami RB Tyrone Moss healthy and contributing for the first time in eons Saturday night against Virginia Tech. Despite Moss running for 109 yards on 13 carries and the ‘Canes defense holding Hokies star Branden Ore to 80 yards on 30 carries, Miami fell 17-10. Why? QB Kyle Wright: 12-of-26 for 77 yards and two picks. The ‘Canes (5-4) close at Maryland, at Virginia and against Boston College. Will they get bowl eligible? I think so, but it might be at 6-6.
There's been much hemming and hawing since Thursday night about whether undefeated Louisville would deserve a spot in the national title game over any number of one-loss teams from the SEC or elsewhere. I've got news for you, people: There aren't going to be a whole lot of one-loss teams left come Dec. 3.
This happens every year. Everyone starts freaking out about the BCS as soon as the first standings are released -- and then, inevitably, nearly every one of the teams in discussion eventually goes down. One of those contenders, Tennessee, took it on the chin Saturday. True, the Vols had yet to crack the BCS top 10, but you know what? They've looked stronger in recent weeks than most of the other one-loss teams.
If you've been watching football all day today like I have, you've presumably had the same reaction: Nobody out there looks invincible. Ohio State and Michigan went through the motions against inferior opponents. Florida, which seems to be regressing by the week, struggled to put away Vanderbilt. Auburn and Texas have both looked vulnerable in recent weeks. USC and Notre Dame aren't both going to finish with one loss. And so on and so on.
Tennessee's loss was hardly a bad one, especially considering it was playing with a redshirt freshman quarterback. Should it have still won the game? Well, yes. You force four turnovers at home, you should probably get the W. But give Tigers QB JaMarcus Russell credit for leading yet another last-minute rally.
But I think you're going to see several more instances of one-loss teams going down over the last month of the season, for the simple reason that most of these teams are too flawed to make it through without another loss. That's what makes this sport so exciting -- upsets happen. Especially late in the season.
∙ I've stood next to CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. She is quite petite. Therefore, I was briefly worried for her safety during her start-of-the-second half interview with LSU coach Les Miles. A transcript of the exchange:
Wolfson: Coach, 0-2 against top-10 teams on the road ...
Miles (shaking his head, visibly agitated): I'm not worried about 0-2 teams on the road. (now waving his hands in the vicinity of Wolfson's head). I'm worried about finishing this game and finishing it well. Our football team's damn good. We figure to show that in the second half.
Wolfson: How are you going to do that?
Miles (staring straight at Wolfson): Play our asses off!
Wolfson: Thanks a lot, coach.
By the way, if you were watching closely at the end of the game, you could see Miles pointing his finger at Wolfson while shouting something at her. She did not look pleased.
∙ We know Ohio State and Michigan are fierce rivals, and Saturday the two tried to one-up each other as to who could look less inspired. The Buckeyes managed just 25 yards of offense the entire second half in a 17-10 win over Illinois, and Troy Smith finished with just 107 passing yards. Seeing as Ohio State had been rolling all season before that second half, I wouldn't exactly call it cause for concern. One thing that is: Chris Wells' fumbling problem. The freshman bruiser is a valuable weapon, but after coughing it up for the second time in two weeks (this one on a play where he wasn't even touched), Wells stayed on the sideline the entire second half.
∙ I know the saying is "Luck of the Irish," but if you ask me, Notre Dame may be the unluckiest team in the country this year. How else to explain why these mediocre/bad opponents just happen to do things they haven't been able to do all season when they play the Irish? Take North Carolina. The Tar Heels (1-8) hadn't scored more than 20 points against a I-A opponent all year, yet by midway through the third quarter Saturday, they'd scored 26 after QB Joe Dailey (yes, the same Joe Dailey) threw his three touchdown pass of the day against ND's secondary.
Man. Just bad, bad luck.
∙ Stop the presses -- Kentucky is going to a bowl game. True, the Wildcats still only have five wins at this point, but they also have a date with Louisiana-Monroe in a couple weeks. Give credit to oft-maligned UK coach Rich Brooks, who, after a miserable first three seasons, has made the 'Cats competitive enough this season to pounce on a reeling Georgia team Saturday. QB Andre Woodson is highly underrated, but on the game-winning drive, Kentucky basically ran right at Georgia with RB Tony Dixon. We haven't seen Kentucky do that in a long, long time.
Freshman QB Nate Davis threw for 250 yards and a touchdown against Michigan's vaunted defense.
Folks, we have a twist. Yes, we’re still on course for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown on Nov. 18 -- only No. 2 is suddenly playing like No. 22.
I was willing to shrug off Michigan’s low scoring outputs against Penn State, Iowa and Northwestern. No Mario Manningham. No big deal. Just killing time until the Ohio State game.
But then came Saturday’s near-disaster against Ball State. You read that right -- Ball State. With three minutes to go, the Cardinals (3-6), starting a freshman quarterback at the Big House, had the ball at the Wolverines’ 2-yard line, down 34-26, in position to potentially tie the No. 2 team in the country.
You can’t blame this one on Michigan’s struggling offense: the Wolverines put up 507 yards. You can’t blame this one on a slow start, either: Yes, the Maize and Blue did basically hand the Cardinals nine points at the start on Mike Hart’s fumble (his first in 600-something touches) for a safety and Chad Henne’s interception for a touchdown, but they eventually got up 31-12.
Strangely, it was Michigan’s vaunted defense that nearly blew it, allowing Ball State QB Nate Davis to complete a 54-yard touchdown, a 62-yard pass to set up another touchdown and to drive the Cardinals 85 yards in the final minutes before they got flagged for a false start on fourth and goal at the 2 and failed to convert from the 7.
Was it a fluke or the latest sign of a team on the decline? Do the Wolverines now need to be worried when they visit Indiana next weekend or was this wake-up the call they needed? Whatever the case, Michigan probably deserves to be punished in the polls tomorrow, but we pollsters are going to have enough trouble figuring out who should be No. 3 this week, nevertheless No. 2. So I assume the Wolverines will stay where they are -- but they’re not exactly inspiring confidence.
∙ I’ve had some fun at Joe Paterno’s expense at times, but there was nothing funny about the gruesome knee injury Penn State’s venerable coach sustained on the sideline Saturday. I sure hope it’s not as bad as it looked (the fact that he couldn’t move his leg while sitting on the bench certainly isn’t encouraging) and I know we all wish him a speedy recovery.
∙ Alabama’s Mike Shula is going to have a heck of time trying to live down this one. Many of the Tide’s ever-demanding faithful were already starting to come down on their fourth-year coach before 'Bama suffered the worst possible loss imaginable Saturday to Mississippi State. Shula’s team didn’t just lose at home to a 1-7 team -- it lost to a team coached by Sylvester Croom, the revered former ‘Bama player who many felt at the time should have gotten the job instead of Shula.
I knew the Tide (6-4) would take a step back this season after losing so much from last year’s 10-2 team, but the most troubling aspect about ‘Bama this season is the way it so blatantly plays up and down to the level of its competition. The Tide nearly knocked off both Tennessee and Arkansas and played Florida tough in Gainesville, but they also struggled to beat Duke and Ole Miss and now lost to Mississippi State. That’s not good.
∙ From a national perspective, there’s almost no reason at this point for me to continue following the ACC -- and yet, for some reason, I can’t look away. It’s like a soap opera that’s so bad, it’s entertaining. Maryland (7-2), left for dead just a couple weeks ago, established itself as one of just two remaining contenders in the Atlantic Division (the other will be decided by tonight’s BC-Wake game) and accelerated Clemson’s embarrassing fall from grace with a dramatic 13-12 victory at Death Valley.
I’m not sure how good any of these ACC teams are at this point, considering the league’s title front-runner at this point, Georgia Tech, got pounded by that same Clemson (7-3) team two weeks ago, but the Terps have a heck of a defense, and QB Sam Hollenbach showed tremendous pose in leading his team down the field in the final two minutes to set up Dan Ennis’ game-winning field goal.
∙ Finally, kudos to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who earned his first career Big Ten victory with a surprising 21-7 win at Iowa. Sophomores QB C.J. Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton led the Wildcats’ (3-7) previously anemic offense to 443 yards, but more impressively, Northwestern’s longtime Achilles heel, its defense, managed to hold Drew Tate and the Hawkeyes to 264 yards.
Quarterback Chase Daniel threw two interceptions in Missouri's loss to Nebraska.
Everything was going just dandy Friday night. Upon returning from Louisville around 6 p.m., I took a cab back to may apartment, dropped off my bags, then dashed back out to meet friends and attend an opening-night screening of Borat. I’ve never heard a theater laugh so hard for practically 90 straight minutes. While the movie is entertaining throughout, there are two scenes in particular (I won’t spoil ‘em for you) that are so shocking your jaw would drop if not for the fact you're laughing uncontrollably while watching them.
Anyway, I finally got back to my place around midnight only to find out that sometime while I was out of town, my cable went out. And I mean, it’s out. The whole “reset the box” thing wasn’t doing it. Nor was trying another coax. Nope, this was going to require a technician … so of course the cable folks told me, “Our next available appointment is next Thursday between 2-5 p.m.” I pleaded my case, explaining that my job is entirely dependant on being able to watch television today, but no, the woman at RCN (the low-rent cable company my apartment building uses) would have none of it. Wait in line with everybody else who’s freaking out because they can’t watch CSI.
So today, I have set up shop at my friend Hank’s place. Many, many thanks to him for his hospitality (though he is actually not here, as he and the fiancée had a standing date at the Cheesecake Factory). The good news: He has HDTV. The bad news: I’ve been here an hour and I’ve yet to find an available electrical outlet, which means the clock is ticking on my laptop battery and, in turn, the Blog.
Basically, this is my equivalent of playing on a bad hamstring.
Some quick, early observations:
∙ Major kudos to Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema for finding a loophole in the new clock rules that may just force the NCAA to scrap the darn things. After scoring a touchdown to go up 10-3 against Penn State with 23 seconds left in the first half, the Badgers intentionally lined up offsides on consecutive kickoffs. Because the clock starts at the kick, and because they were technically free plays for the Nittany Lions, Wisconsin was able to whittle the clock down to four seconds before kicking off for real. Needless to say, Joe Paterno was not happy.
∙ The Chase Daniel bandwagon is suddenly a lot less crowded. The ballyhooed Missouri quarterback threw two first-half interceptions as Nebraska rolled to a 27-3 lead over the Tigers. Mizzou’s spread offense is fun to watch when it’s clicking, but when it’s not -- and when the other team can run the ball like Nebraska -- it’s as if the Tigers never have the ball.
∙ Example No. 768 why Vegas is smarter than me: I thought it was a misprint when I saw earlier this week that Minnesota was a six-point favorite over torrid Indiana. Midway through the second quarter: Minnesota 35, Indiana 7.
∙ We can now confirm that Florida RB DeShawn Wynn is indeed alive and still a member of the Gators’ roster. He had six carries in the first 18 minutes of Saturday’s Vanderbilt game -- which is exactly six more than he had in the first half last week.
It seems very likely that Michigan native Steve Mariucci will be strongly considered for the Michigan State job.
Jan-Michael Stump/US PRESSWIRE
That Michigan State has decided to part ways with John L. Smith is no shock. That the school went ahead and pulled the plug now with the Spartans still capable of becoming bowl-eligible is, however, a tad surprising. It shows that administrators -- like MSU fans -- no longer feel confident that Smith is capable of turning the program into a consistent winner, regardless of how the rest of this season plays out. After losing 46-21 to Indiana -- the Spartans’ fifth loss in six games -- it’s hard to argue.
Let me make one thing clear: Smith is a good football coach. That Louisville is in the position to be playing a game the magnitude of tomorrow night’s is a direct result of what Smith accomplished there from 1998-2002. Was he a good Big Ten football coach? Not in the slightest.
Smith’s unconventional, free-spirited persona never jibed in East Lansing, and I don’t think he fully grasped that at that level, every little thing a coach does -- like ripping your assistants during a halftime interview or slapping yourself at a postgame press conference -- gets magnified and scrutinized. While players like QB Drew Stanton always spoke highly of him, you never got the sense that they truly believed they could be a great team. At the slightest hint of adversity, the Spartans would collapse (except, of course, for that one glorious, historic comeback a Northwestern). Not exactly a great reflection of the coach.
With Smith’s ouster now official and the spotlight now shifting to Michigan State’s search for a new coach, all eyes will be focused first and foremost on one man: Steve Mariucci. It’s such a logical fit for both parties, it almost seems too easy. He’s a Michigan guy. He’s been a head coach at the highest level. He’s been a head coach at the college level (taking Cal to the Aloha Bowl in his one season there). And his best friend, Tom Izzo, is the Spartans’ basketball coach.
I don’t think it will be that cut and dried, however. With the end of the season still a month away, the school will take its time and conduct a full-scale search. For one thing, there are a couple pretty good mid-major coaches, Western Michigan’s Bill Cubit and Central Michigan’s Brian Kelly, right in their own state. Tulsa’s Steve Kragthorpe figures to be mentioned for every major job that comes open this season, as will major-conference coordinators like Texas’ Gene Chizik and Florida’s Charlie Strong.
In the meantime, don’t shed too many tears for Smith, because I have a feeling he’s not going to be jobless for too long. The Idaho native and former Idaho and Utah State head coach belongs in a conference like the WAC or the Mountain West, where his spread offense can put up 45 points a game and he doesn’t have to worry as much about pesky things like defense and special teams. As soon as one of those schools has an opening, Smith’s name should be at the top of the list.
An ex-Ohio State quarterback, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit feels the Buckeyes will roll over Michigan.
The first shots have been fired in what is sure to be no shortage of buildup to the Nov. 18 Michigan-Ohio State game -- but strangely, they weren't uttered by a player, coach or employee of either school. The source? ESPN GameDay analyst and former Buckeyes quarterback Kirk Herbstreit, who, according to the Detroit News, had some none-too-kind words for the Wolverines on his Columbus radio show Wednesday. A couple highlights:
∙ "I personally don't think [Michigan's] defense, the way Ohio State will spread them out, can just dominate the game and shut Ohio State down."
∙ "If those two teams were to play right now, just the way they're playing, I don't even think it would be close. Ohio State not only wins that game the way they're playing right now, maybe by a few scores."
∙ On Michigan receiver Steve Breaston's role once injured star Mario Manningham returns: "Breaston can go back to whatever he's doing these days, if they could ever find a way to actually apply him in the offense. He's worthless in my mind, outside of returning a few punts."
Care to wager whether some of those comments will be making there way around the Wolverines locker room the next few weeks?
Herbrsteit is the most astute studio analyst on television, bar none. Unlike some of the downright clowns the networks hire to be their talking heads, he actually talks to coaches and players, knows what he's talking about and usually takes a very level-headed approach to his comments -- at least when he's on ESPN.
Unfortunately, he also treads a fine line between his role as an analyst and his status as an OSU icon, particularly in Columbus, where, in addition to hosting a radio show, his voice can be heard on seemingly every other ad on the radio, and where he's lent his name and services to the popular Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA high school football event.
I don't necessarily disagree with most of his comments in that article. Michigan's offense isn't playing very well right now. It's entirely possible the Wolverines' defense won't dominate the Buckeyes' offense. And if he wants to go ahead and predict a Buckeyes blowout, hey, that's his prerogative. His GameDay colleague, Mr. Corso, has certainly made more outrageous picks than that.
But where Herbstreit crossed the line was in calling Breaston "worthless." Don't get me wrong, the Michigan receiver -- who once put up 315 all-purpose yards against Texas in the Rose Bowl -- has been a tremendous disappointment and an apparent non-factor in the Wolverines' offense. But he's also a college athlete. Journalists don't call college athletes "worthless."
I think I can say with absolute certainty that Herbstreit never would have uttered that phrase were he talking about Breaston on GameDay or any other ESPN program. But on a Columbus radio station, with an audience comprised almost entirely of OSU diehards, the Scarlet-and-Gray Herbstreit couldn't help but come out. And now he's going to be in an awkward position for the next three weeks.
If OSU and Michigan do indeed meet as the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country, it will be the biggest regular-season game college football has seen in a decade. As ESPN's top college football analyst, he will undoubtedly be asked on numerous occasions to provide his analysis about the contest. I'm sure he will take careful measures, as he always does, to present himself in an objective manner at all times. But after that rant, how could anyone possibly buy it?
1. That USC is human -- barely: The amazing thing about USC’s 33-31 loss to Oregon State on Saturday wasn’t that the Trojans lost -- it was that the game was even close. Think about it: USC turned the ball over four times while failing to force even one Beavers miscue. Just how contradictory is that to Trojans’ teams past? From 2002-05, Pete Carroll’s teams finished their seasons with turnover margins of plus-18 (No. 5 nationally), plus-20 (No. 2), plus-19 (No. 1) and plus-21 (No. 2). So far this year: minus-one (No. 71). "I don't remember the last time we turned the ball over four times,” said Carroll. “Probably the  Cal game." That is correct. And what a coincidence -- that was the last time the Trojans lost a regular-season game.
2. That Thursday night ACC road games are murder: Clemson is the latest team to find out that lesson the hard way. The Tigers couldn’t have looked more powerful in their 31-7 home win over Georgia Tech last Saturday night -- and they couldn’t have looked more meager in their 24-7 loss at Virginia Tech five nights later. And yet, with that kind of turnaround, should we really be surprised? ACC road teams have lost their last six Thursday night games. Four of those, like Clemson, were doing a five-day turnaround. I know the ACC loves the exposure, but the league might want to at least reexamine its scheduling philosophy, because what it’s asking of some of these teams is pretty darn brutal.
3. That the Biletnikoff people missed a couple names: The folks who hand out the award for the nation’s top receiver announced 14 semifinalists last week. You would think that’d be a wide enough net to avoid any glaring omissions. Not quite. If you watched the USC-Oregon State game, you surely noticed Beavers WR Sammie Stroughter. He had 223 yards in a game against Washington earlier this year and, in addition to his punt-return touchdown, had eight catches for 127 yards against the Trojans. Not on the list. Neither is Indiana sophomore James Hardy, who, after catching four touchdowns against Michigan State, now has 18 scores in 17 career games. Give ‘em credit for this, though: USC’s Steve Smith, usually overshadowed by teammate Dwayne Jarrett, made the list before his 258-yard day against Oregon State.
4. That reports of John L. Smith’s and Chuck Amato’s salvation were premature: Silly me. I really thought the Spartans were going to build on the momentum of the biggest comeback in I-A history last week. Whoops. Instead, they lost 46-21 to upstart Indiana. “That was an ass-kicking,” said Smith. You think? Smith’s 4-5 team has now been outscored 105-13 in the first halves of its Big Ten games. Amato’s team, meanwhile, fell to 3-5 with an uninspired 14-7 loss at Virginia and will likely need to upset Georgia Tech next week (which is completely plausible with those two teams) to have a chance at a bowl. “We’ve not been real good at the end of a game,” observed Amato. Kind of the most important part, don’t you think?
5. That reports of Nebraska’s return to prominence were also premature: I’ve always admired the way Cornhuskers fans are about as perpetually optimistic as any you’ll find, so I won’t fault them for having visions of grandeur following last week’s near-upset of Texas. But like I’ve said all along, even as Bill Callahan’s team rolled to a 6-1 start, I still smelled something fishy, and Saturday’s Oklahoma State game confirmed my suspicions. While Mike Gundy’s Cowboys are no pushovers, there’s still no excuse for allowing 28 unanswered points in a 41-29 loss. The Huskers can still win their first North title in seven years, which would be a nice landmark in Callahan’s rebuilding efforts, but can we cut the nonsense about Nebraska being “back?”