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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.
11/25/2006 07:38:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part II

Oakland Arena
Boise State's Ian Johnson rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns.
AP
LOS ANGELES -- The day Utah clinched a BCS berth two years ago by beating BYU, the college football media world descended on Salt Lake City. I remember it well. Alex Smith passed for a billion yards. The fans stormed the field. And we went to a press conference afterward and listened to Urban Meyer deny he was headed to Florida. Good times.

Saturday, myself and all those other media types were sitting here in the press box at the Coliseum as Boise State wrapped up its own 12-0 season and Fiesta Bowl berth – and no one around me seemed to care in the slightest. Why is that?

The Broncos’ 38-7 win at 8-3 Nevada may not have been surprising to most (though it did dash yet another one of my ill-fated upset picks), but the performance of Boise State’s defense was nothing short of phenomenal. Jeff Rowe and the Wolf Pack came in averaging nearly 400 yards a game; Boise held them to 133.

It was the crowning performance in an unbelievable season, and yet, the national curiosity factor for Boise State -- which will play either Oklahoma or Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl -- simply isn’t there. I hear no calls for the Broncos to be included in the national-title discussion like there were for those 2004 Utes (people at least wanted to see them face undefeated Auburn), and, if anything, I’ve read and heard a lot of backlash about the top-12 rule that’s allowing them to appear in the BCS at all. Why is that? I have my theories.

1) There’s no novelty factor. Before Utah crashed the BCS, a lot of us wondered whether it would ever happen. A lot of non-BCS teams had come close in the past but ultimately fallen short. The top-six barrier seemed unreachable. But the Utes did it, lessening the shock value of any future party-crashers.

2) The Broncos aren’t as sexy. A lot of the intrigue surrounding Utah was directly tied to Meyer, Smith and that spread-option offense. Boise is just a good, solid team with a tremendous running back (Ian Johnson) and physical defense. Wins games but doesn’t necessarily steal headlines.

3) The Georgia factor. You wouldn’t think that a game played nearly two full years ago would still have relevance, but I think it does in terms of Boise State’s national image. Ever since that opening-week beatdown at Georgia last season, the perception is that Boise State is a good WAC team but can’t hang with the big boys. This year’s 42-14 rout of Oregon State didn’t seem to change that, even though the Beavers went on to beat USC and finish third in the Pac-10.

Whether you believe some of that, any of that or none at all, it doesn’t change the fact that Boise State deserves its props for a 12-0 season. And now, the university presidents that brokered the BCS/non-BCS five-bowl compromise in 2004 can pat themselves on the back for successfully giving “access” to a non-traditional power.

∙ How much would it have stunk to be a Texas Longhorn today? A day after losing to one rival (Texas A&M), you have to sit on the couch and watch while your other rival, Oklahoma, steals away your once-certain Big 12 title-game berth. It gets worse -- the weekend’s events will likely drop the defending national champions all the way to the Alamo Bowl, with the conference champ going to the Fiesta, the loser going to the Holiday and the Aggies to the Cotton.

Meanwhile, I realize Jim Grobe and Greg Schiano likely have a stranglehold on the national coach of the year awards, but Bob Stoops deserves serious consideration. The Sooners overcame all kinds of adversity (losing their starting quarterback at the start of training camp and their star running back halfway through the year, having a big win stolen from them at Oregon) to reach 10 wins and the conference title game.

∙ I hate to be mean, but you have to admit it was fitting that the Georgia-Georgia Tech game ended with Reggie Ball throwing an interception while missing Calvin Johnson. I didn’t think it was possible, but Ball had his worst Georgia game yet on Saturday (6-of-22 for 42 yards and three turnovers), while Dawgs freshman Matthew Stafford led a game-winning TD drive. Somehow, in spite of their quarterback, the Jackets remain a win away from the BCS.

∙ BYU (10-2) ended its four-game losing streak to archrival Utah in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. John Beck scrambled for what seemed like forever before throwing an 11-yard touchdown -- his fourth of the day -- with no time remaining to win 33-31. That guy has had an unbelievable year. Too bad nobody saw it unless they knew to watch Versus.

∙ Finally, Rice clinched its first bowl berth since 1961 with a 31-27 win over SMU, as touchdown machine Jarrett Dillard caught three more of them to raise his season total to 20.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/25/2006 04:08:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part I

Oakland Arena
Chris Hetland has suffered through a horrendous season as Florida's kicker.
Jason Parkhurst/US PRESSWIRE

LOS ANGELES -- Do you realize what’s hurting Florida the most in its attempt to procure BCS style points? Its kicker!

If you watched the Gators’ game against Florida State on Saturday, you’re aware that Florida absolutely dominated the ‘Noles in the first half, outgaining them 265 yards to 56. And yet, the Gators led just 14-0. Why? Because Chris Hetland missed two more easy field-goal attempts, pushing his season percentage to a ghastly 3-of-12 (with the three he’s made all coming from inside 30 yards). How bad must the backup kickers be that they keep trotting this guy out there? It’s painful.

The point is, perception is reality. A pollster who didn’t get to see the game and sees that 10-1 Florida beat 6-5 Florida 21-14 is inevitably going to downgrade the Gators. But what if it had been 20-0 at halftime instead of 14-0? Seems a little more dominant, doesn’t it? Maybe those two second-half FSU touchdowns don’t matter as much. Maybe you’re more willing to excuse a quiet second half for the Florida offense.

All three of the Gators’ touchdowns came on big plays -- a 66-yard Andre Caldwell catch-and-run, a 41-yard Percy Harvin run and a 25-yard Chris Leak touchdown pass to Dallas Baker after FSU tied it up. Beyond that, Florida’s offense was fairly unimpressive and in fact failed to convert a single point off three third-quarter Drew Weatherford interceptions.

I swear I’ll continue to keep an open mind about the Gators going into the SEC title game, but realistically … it’s not looking good for them.

∙ Speaking of Harvin, here’s hoping he's OK. He got hit awkwardly on a second-quarter crossing pattern and spent about 15 minutes on the turf before being carted off on a stretcher. His feet were moving and he gave the thumbs up sign to the crowd.

∙ Major, major props to South Florida for doing what no defense has been able to in a year-and-a-half: shut down West Virginia’s Steve Slaton and Pat White. A week after WVU's dynamic duo ran for 435 yards against Pittsburgh, USF held Slaton to 43 yards on 18 carries, White to 17 yards on 15 carries.

So much for the argument that West Virginia is the best team in the Big East. The Mountaineers may be the most exciting to watch, but Louisville not only beat them on the field but routed that same USF team last week. Basically, the Cardinals have a defense, West Virginia does not. Now the question becomes, can Rutgers exploit that defense next week? The Scarlet Knights, who routed Syracuse, are now back in the BCS race. If they win next week, they go. If not, and if Louisville wins out, the Cards go.

∙ What a huge win for Steve Spurrier. South Carolina was in danger of slipping to 6-6 in the Ball Coach’s second season, but by upsetting its 8-3 archrival 31-28, the Gamecocks gain some serious momentum. Very quietly, Spurrier has made his impact felt on a previously struggling offense. Against both Florida (on Nov. 11) and the Tigers, South Carolina racked up 400-plus yards (in this case 491) against a top-five defense, even doing so despite three Blake Mitchell interceptions.

The win should bolster South Carolina’s bowl standing. As for Clemson, they were ticketed for the Gator Bowl if they had won Saturday; now, it’s hard to say how far a team that lost three of its last four will fall.

∙ Poor Duke. Poor, poor Duke. The winless Blue Devils scored two touchdowns in the last five minutes to rally to a 45-44 deficit against North Carolina -- only to have
the second extra point blocked. Duke finishes 0-12.

∙ Finally, for anyone who’s ever pined for a holiday trip to Hawaii … read Purdue coach Joe Tiller’s comments in the Indianapolis Star about his team’s game there tonight. You would think he’s being forced to spend 12 hours in Best Buy the day after Thanksgiving.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/25/2006 01:57:00 PM

The Irish Invade L.A.

LOS ANGELES -- I've been here about 24 hours now, and I can tell you -- there are Notre Dame fans everywhere. At the airport. At my hotel. In restaurants. How did they all get tickets??

Speaking of Irish fans, this is the 2-month old daughter of my college friends who live in L.A (the mother hails from South Bend). She's ready for the big game tonight ... if they can wake her up in time.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/24/2006 07:20:00 PM

Saturday Observations: Friday Edition

Oakland Arena
LSU had plenty of reason to celebrate and has put itself in position for a possible BCS bowl bid.
AP
LOS ANGELES -- Say what you want about the SEC this year – outstanding or overrated, tough or talked-up -- but there’s no question it’s been entertaining. Friday’s LSU-Arkansas thriller was just the latest in a season full of close, intense games amongst the conference’s upper-echelon.

The problem for the SEC is that all that entertainment is likely going to leave it on the outside of the national championship picture yet again.

Anyone who watched Friday’s game had to appreciate the sheer amount of playmakers on both sides, from Arkansas’ sensational tailback tandem of Darren McFadden (221 total yards) and Felix Jones (219 all-purpose yards) to LSU speed demon Trindon Holliday (92 yard kick return). The game came down to the quarterbacks, however: JaMarcus Russell was his usual clutch self in the final minutes, while Casey Dick completed just three passes the entire game.

But Arkansas’ loss didn’t just end the Razorbacks' hopes of reaching Glendale -- it also hurt Florida tremendously. The Gators really needed Arkansas to come into the SEC title game at 11-1 if they hoped to make a big enough statement to pass Michigan and/or USC in the BCS. Now they’re going to have to do something awfully special, because the whole “making it through the SEC with one loss is so tough” argument, although largely true, isn’t going to be a deciding factor for the pollsters.

LSU’s win was also huge for another reason: It should put the 10-2 Tigers in position for a BCS at-large berth. Any bowl would love a 10-win team coming in on a six-game winning streak. In particular, I think the Tigers move to the top of the Rose Bowl’s list of candidates to replace Ohio State. That, too, doesn’t bode well for the Gators. There had some speculation an 11-2 Florida team could go to the Orange Bowl if it doesn’t win the SEC, but if that happens, the second BCS bid would likely go to LSU.

Elsewhere:

∙ Remember when Mack Brown said after his team’s Oct. 28 win at Nebraska that he expected to see the Huskers again in the Big 12 title game? Well Nebraska’s going to be there –- not so sure about Brown’s team. If Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State tomorrow, the Sooners, 6-1 in the conference, are going to Kansas City instead of Texas, a remarkable accomplishment for a team that lost its heart and soul, Adrian Peterson, six weeks ago. Texas lost Friday because it, too, lost its heart and soul – QB Colt McCoy, who quite clearly hadn’t fully recovered from his shoulder injury and was completely ineffective in a 12-7 loss to Texas A&M.

Meanwhile, it took four years but Dennis Franchione finally has his signature win as an Aggie. Even at 8-3, there had still been much grumbling about Coach Fran in College Station following disappointing losses to Oklahoma and Nebraska. You better believe those complaints will subside after A&M pulled the upset and ended a six-year skid to its arch-rival. And it will be even sweeter for Aggies fans if the win does end up knocking UT from the conference title game.

A&M finishes an impressive 9-3 and will now head to either the Cotton or Holiday bowls.

∙ What a crazy ending to the Oregon-Oregon State game. The Ducks rallied back from a 27-14 deficit to take a 28-27 fourth-quarter lead, only to have the Beavers drive down the field and set up a 40-yard Alexis Serna field goal (he hit from 49 and 50 earlier) to go back up 30-28 with a minute and change left. But after fumbling the ensuing kickoff return, Oregon RB Jonathan Stewart returned it to nearly the Oregon 40, setting up a game-winning field goal attempt by Ducks backup kicker Matt Evensen with 20 seconds left. He shanked it -- Beavers win.

∙ If the USC-Notre Dame game is even half as entertaining as today’s contests, the Coliseum may well explode.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/24/2006 03:55:00 PM

Coker's Firing: Inevitable, But Sad

Oakland Arena
Larry Coker has posted a 59-15 record during his tenure as Miami's head man.
AP
LOS ANGELES – Larry Coker’s firing Friday morning was the furthest thing from surprising news (it was so inevitable, in fact, I told my editor before getting on a 9 a.m. cross-country flight to leave me a message confirming it happened), but that doesn’t make it any less sad.

I don’t have a single bad thing to say about Larry Coker, the person. He was without question the most cordial and friendly coach I’ve covered, and he remained that way right up to the very bitter end of a nightmarish season. Even when the hammer finally fell Friday, he declined to take even the slightest parting shot at the many detractors that helped turn the end of his tenure into an almost thankless ordeal. Even Coker’s harshest critics couldn’t help but admire the way his team kept fighting even when its season was clearly lost and after enduring both the backlash from the Orange Bowl brawl with Florida International and the tragic loss of teammate Bryan Pata. I covered countless dramatic Miami comebacks at the Orange Bowl under Coker, so it’s only fitting his last game there involved backup QB Kirby Freeman rallying his team to an upset win over Boston College.

But Miami administrators had no choice but to make a change. The program had been in steady decline for the past four years; it went from being the most dominant team in the country from 2000-02, to mortal but still BCS-level in ’03 to increasingly ordinary in ’04 and ’05 to flat-out mediocre in ’06. It’s no coincidence the ‘Canes decline began right around the same time they lost a rash of underclassmen to the NFL, but still, it’s the head coach’s responsibility to plan for such contingencies and restock the talent, and there’s no question Miami’s recruiting tailed off considerably under Coker. A team whose offense used to be littered with future pros now has barely enough skill players to be competitive in the ACC.

Normally, a coach who won a national title and nearly 80 percent of his games, including his first 24 straight, might be given the benefit of the doubt and a chance to right the ship, but Coker never came close to earning the traction of a Phillip Fulmer or Lloyd Carr. In fact, to listen to some Miami backers, you’d think the ‘Canes won those first 24 in spite of Coker. With Butch Davis’ recruits and Ken Dorsey under center, Coker just had to tell the guys when to show up for the games, right? And that had a lot to do with Coker’s undoing -- he never established any discernible identity for his program like Pete Carroll has at USC or Bob Stoops has at Oklahoma. Players came to Coral Gables to play for “The U,” not for Coker, who was viewed more as a steward than a leader. Ironically, it wasn’t until the FIU fight and Pata’s death that we really saw Coker step forward and become the face of the program, but by then, he’d lost too many games to save himself.

With that in mind, Miami will now look to hire someone with a more majestic presence, someone who will command instant respect from both the Miami community and prospective players. The question is, does such a coach want to be at Miami? As prestigious as the program is, there are many reasons the job will not automatically be compelling to high-profile candidates, not the least of which are the insane expectations (national championship or bust) that helped do in Coker. In addition, the facilities aren’t great and you have to fight for attention in your own city (did you notice Thursday night’s game drew a MAC-like 23,308 spectators?).

Most of all, however, it’s questionable whether Miami will be able to pay the type of dollars ($2-2.5 million annually) it takes to lure a top-dollar coach. Not exactly a rich athletic department to begin with (as happens when you draw about 80,000 less to a home game than does Ohio State), Miami already had to pay several million dollars over the past few years both to leave the Big East and join the ACC as well as pay off former basketball coach Perry Clark. Now it has to pay nearly $3 million to buy out Coker. How much will be left for the next football coach and his staff?

The school figures to go after Rutgers coach Greg Schiano first, but I personally doubt he’ll leave the Scarlet Knights. As strange as it may sound, he’s got a better job where he is, having built a top-20 program in his own home state that will have its own opportunity to go to BCS bowls in the next few years. Many figure Miami president Donna Shalala will once again pursue close friend Barry Alvarez, now the athletic director at Wisconsin, but it seems like a strange career move for a guy who’s already considered a living legend.

Miami’s best bet is to pursue a hot mid-major head coach (Tulsa’s Steve Kragthorpe, TCU’s Gary Patterson) or an NFL coordinator/former head coach. Remember, Jimmy Johnson came from Oklahoma State, Dennis Erickson came from Washington State and Butch Davis came from the Cowboys. The one potential wild-card: West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez. Yes, he’s a West Virginia guy who’s got a pretty good thing going, but he’s also severely underpaid (about $1 million a year, less than half that of Big East counterpart Bobby Petrino) and was curiously evasive when asked about the North Carolina job a few weeks back. I think he may be more open to other opportunities than many believe, and Miami would be a pretty darn good opportunity.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/22/2006 12:49:00 PM

As Big a Game as Any

Oakland Arena
Nobody has played a bigger role in SMU's resurgence than redshirt freshman QB Justin Willis.
AP
We love our feel-good stories in college football -- Rutgers, Wake Forest, Tulane, Ray Ray McElrathbey. Saturday in Houston, two feel-good stories will collide in a game that you only wish there was a way both teams could win.

While Notre Dame-USC and LSU-Arkansas will surely dominate the headlines this weekend, Saturday’s SMU-Rice game carries its own significance for the participants, both of whom are 6-5. The winner will be assured a postseason berth, and it’s hard to say which will appreciate it more: The Owls, who haven’t been to a bowl game since 1961, or the Mustangs, who haven’t been since 1984 and have suffered through nearly two decades of post-NCAA death penalty misery.

But the game is about more than just bowl droughts. Rice, you may recall, suffered a tragedy earlier this season when freshman defensive back Dale Lloyd collapsed and died following a workout. His death occurred just days before the Owls, 0-4 at the time, played a game at Army. The Owls won that game 48-14, the first of six wins over their past seven games, including three straight in which they've won on the last offensive play of the game against a trio of opponents (UTEP, Tulsa and East Carolina) that came in with better records.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that went 1-10 last year and which, under new coach Todd Graham, a former Tulsa assistant, completely overhauled its offense from former coach Ken Hatfield’s wishbone to a spread-passing attack. Sophomore receiver Jarrett Dillard has caught a national-best and Conference USA record 17 touchdowns, including at least one in 13 straight games, the second-longest streak in Division I-A history (Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald went 18 straight).

“I think it’s a great story, the adversity of this team starting 1-5 and being able to overcome that,” said Graham. “It’s been [45] years since we went to a bowl game. It’s a great testament to these kids to be able to turn it around.”

SMU’s turnaround under fifth-year coach Phil Bennett has been more gradual but no less impressive. In 16 seasons spanning from 1989 (the year SMU returned to competition after shutting down the program for two seasons due to the NCAA’s death sentence) to 2004, the Mustangs compiled a 46-130-3 record. Once, in 1997, they went 6-5. Every other year was sub.-.500, including four one-win seasons, four two- or three-win seasons and, in 2003, Bennett’s second year at the school, an 0-12 debacle. After going 6-29 his first three seasons, many SMU fans has already chalked up Bennett, the former Kansas State defensive coordinator, as yet another failure.

But last year, the Mustangs sprang to life with a 21-10 upset of No. 22 TCU -- which itself had just knocked off Oklahoma -- the second week of the season and wound up finishing 5-6, including a three-game winning streak to end the season. That they’ve been able to take the next step this season has a lot to do with heralded redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Willis, the nation’s seventh-ranked passer, who’s completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 25 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Last Saturday against 7-3 Tulsa, Willis accounted for 283 yards and three TDs to lead his team back from a 24-7 halftime deficit and win 34-24.

That comeback, along with Rice’s last-second, 18-17 win over East Carolina, sets up the most significant meeting in many, many years between two old Southwest Conference rivals who have played each other 83 times.

“Who would have thought at beginning of year this game would be so meaningful to both teams?” said Bennett.

Conference USA has partnerships with five bowl games and could have as many as eight eligible teams, but NCAA rules state a bowl cannot pass up an eligible 7-5 team for a 6-6 team. Since only four other league teams are capable of reaching seven wins (Houston, Tulsa and Southern Miss already have and East Carolina is 6-5 headed to N.C. State), the winner of Saturday’s game is assured a berth, most likely to the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.

While that might not sound like a very exotic destination to fans of most other schools, for Rice or SMU, it will be a dream come true.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/20/2006 12:36:00 PM

You May Have Missed ...

Brian Brohm
Brian Brohm and Louisville are thinking BCS again thanks to Rutgers' loss.
Al Tielemans/SI
With one overwhelming storyline dominating college football over the weekend, a lot of smaller but still significant developments got completely overshadowed. I hit on some of them in Five Things We Learned, but here are a few others:

∙ Louisville went from a likely trip to the Sun Bowl to sitting in the driver's seat for the Big East's automatic BCS berth. Had the Cardinals, West Virginia and Rutgers all finished with one loss and having gone 1-1 against each other, the Mountaineers likely would have won the tiebreaker based on highest ranking, and the Cinderella Scarlet Knights would have been the more attractive choice for either an at-large berth or for the Gator Bowl, which hosted Louisville last year and also has the option of taking a Big 12 team.

But Cincinnati's upset over Rutgers changes that. Now, if West Virginia hands Rutgers its second conference loss and Louisville wins out, there's a two-way tie between the Mountaineers and Cardinals, which Louisville would win head-to-head. I've got to think a one-loss, top-five West Virginia team would receive a BCS at-large berth. A 10-2 Rutgers team, on the other hand, would likely fall to El Paso.

∙ Remember when Oregon was a top-15 team and Arizona was a complete afterthought? On Saturday, the torrid Wildcats went into Autzen Stadium and routed the Ducks 37-10. It's been a huge November for Mike Stoops' team, which, if it beats rival Arizona State this weekend, will finish the season on a four-game winning streak and third or fourth place in the Pac-10 at 5-4.

∙ In one of the all-time backfires, Missouri gave coach Gary Pinkel a three-year extension on Friday. The next day, the Tigers lost 21-16 to Iowa State, which entered the game 0-7 in the Big 12. Suffice to say, the buzz from Missouri's 6-0 start is officially shot. The Tigers have lost four of their last five and need to beat rival Kansas this week to avoid being sent to the back of the Big 12's bowl pecking order.

Garrett Wolfe returned from his recent hibernation to run for 203 yards and three touchdowns in Northern Illinois' 31-10 upset of Central Michigan, which had yet to lose a MAC game. It was a big win for the Huskies, which now have a chance to earn the MAC's third bowl berth. The other two will likely go to Central and Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats, which wrapped up their first-ever division title last Thursday.

∙ Rice beat East Carolina and SMU knocked off Tulsa. Why is that significant? Because both teams are now bowl-eligible, and whichever wins their matchup Saturday will be assured a berth. It would be the Owls' first since 1961, the Mustangs' first since receiving the NCAA death penalty in 1987.

∙ Finally, Bo Schembechler's passing was not the only sad news in college football last Friday. Marcus Cassell, 23, a starting cornerback for UCLA in 2004 and '05 (you may remember him as the guy Reggie Bush hurdled on one of his touchdown runs in last year's SC-UCLA game), died from injuries sustained in a car accident. Our condolences to Cassell's family as well as his former coaches and teammates in Westwood.
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11/19/2006 02:11:00 PM

Five Things We Learned This Weekend

Oakland Arena
John David Booty completed 13 of 19 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of USC's win over Cal.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I think I’ve said more than enough about Ohio State-Michigan at this point, so this week’s segment will focus on everyone else.

1) That USC is officially the Florida State of the ‘00s. Remember when the ‘Noles won the ACC every single year from 1992-2000? The Trojans are in the midst of a similarly staggering run, clinching their fifth straight Pac-10 title Saturday night against Cal and keeping themselves in contention for what would be a third straight trip to the national title game, a feat also last accomplished by FSU (1998-2000). Saturday night’s game was the best USC has looked since Arkansas. The Trojans’ defense is finally playing at the level it was expected, John David Booty had a solid performance, but the most noteworthy development of all was the way USC got its running game going in the second half behind freshman C.J. Gable.

2) That West Virginia is the best team that won’t play for the national title. If Steve Slaton doesn’t fumble twice against Louisville, we probably wouldn’t be having this OSU-Michigan rematch conversation right now, and to be honest, I would have loved to have seen a Buckeyes-Mountaineers title game -- you would have been guaranteed to have about 1,200 yards of offense. Just as Troy Smith and Co. proved Saturday to be immune to even the stingiest of defenses, I feel the same way about Slaton and Pat White, especially after watching them hold another track-meet-on-grass Thursday night against Pittsburgh (White ran for 220 yards, Slaton 215). As entertaining as OSU-West Virginia would be, however, the Mountaineers don’t hold much water in the one-loss derby due to their non-conference schedule.

3) That Virginia Tech is on fire. This has been a pretty horrific year for me in the predictions department (see Michigan 17, Ohio State 14), and another one I got wrong was saying in our Midseason Crystal Ball that the Hokies would be the season’s second-half flop. It certainly appeared that way after Frank Beamer’s team got smoked by B.C. in a Thursday night game on Oct. 12, but Tech hasn’t lost since, and Saturday night in Winston-Salem they managed to do what no other team has done this season: Dominate Wake Forest. And they did it despite losing star RB Branden Ore to an ankle injury early in the game. If the Hokies beat rival Virginia next week, they’ll finish 10-2 and likely head to the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- not bad for a “rebuilding season.”

4) That N.C. State coach Chuck Amato is on extremely thin ice. AD Lee Fowler has continually voiced his support for the embattled seventh-year coach -- but Amato just made it that much harder to justify his retention. N.C. State fans don’t take well to losing to the hated Tar Heels, nevertheless 23-9 to a 1-9 UNC team playing for a lame-duck coach. The loss dropped the once-promising Wolfpack to 3-8, and dropped Amato’s post-Philip Rivers records to 15-19 overall and 8-16 in the ACC. Interestingly, even with the success under Rivers, Amato’s seven-year ACC record is now 25-31 -- one game worse than predecessor Mike O’Cain. That can’t be good.

5) That there was more than one heroic Ohio quarterback Saturday. Smith deserves all the accolades on the planet right now, but Cincinnati’s Nick Davila deserves a moment in the sun. Making his first career start in place of injured Dustin Grutza, Davila went 11-of-15 for 277 yards, threw an 83-yard touchdown and ran 1 yard for another in the Bearcats’ 30-11 upset of 9-0 Rutgers. The Bearcats might not be going to the national-title game like their neighbors up I-71, but for a program that has spent much of its history as a local afterthought and was still trying to justify its place in the Big East, beating a top-10 team at home on national TV to secure a bowl berth was probably every bit as gratifying.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/19/2006 01:10:00 AM

Ohio State-Michigan: The Aftermath

Oakland Arena
No one has played Alex Boone (75), Brian Robiskie (80) and the Buckeyes tougher than Morgan Trent and Michigan.
Al Tielemans/SI

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Today was without question the most draining experience I’ve had covering a game. There was just so much that transpired and so much to process over the course of that game, there was no way to even start writing about it until after we’d finished with postgame interviews and then, even after I’d filed my story, there was still so much to think about in terms of the ramifications.

Going into the game, I was pretty adamantly opposed to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan national championship rematch. Needless to say, I’m softening to it. If you know of another team out there that would have played the Buckeyes any tougher than the Wolverines did today, please, I’m all ears. While I will certainly go into the final two weeks of the season with an open mind, at this point, I still believe they’re the two best teams.

USC and/or SEC backers will undoubtedly try to deride Michigan’s defense, but to me that’s ridiculous. If the Wolverines truly had even a mediocre defense, it would have been exposed before its 12th game. While the Wolverines’ D certainly could have played better, the Buckeyes’ high score and yardage was much more a byproduct of Troy Smith and the rest of OSU’s offensive weapons than any defensive inadequacies by Michigan.

Now, does that mean Michigan should go to Glendale? That’s a different issue altogether. As I said in the Power Rankings last week, the team I think is the best (or in this case second-best) and the team who’s most deserving aren’t necessarily the same. While I do think OSU and Michigan are Nos. 1 and 2, the fact is this: if USC finishes the season 11-1 with wins over SEC West champion Arkansas, Big 12 North champion Nebraska, 10-1 Notre Dame and 8-3 Cal, the Trojans would be more deserving of the title spot than Michigan, which beat Notre Dame, Wisconsin and …. You could make a similarly reasonable case for either Florida or Arkansas if they were to finish 12-1.

Which is why the pollsters who actually have a say in the BCS (coaches and Harris) have a very tough decision ahead of them. Do they keep Michigan No. 2 if in fact they believe the Wolverines are the second-best team? That would basically mean they’d be manipulating the system in a way that’s never done before (throughout history, when a team loses, no matter to who, they drop). But then again, if they know their vote is helping to determine the national-title matchup, and they’re sure those are the two best teams, then it’s fully within their right.

My point all along – and it didn’t change with Saturday’s outcome – is that we don’t really know Ohio State and Michigan are the two best teams. It’s just an opinion. The only way to find out for sure would be to let someone else take a shot at the Buckeyes. Get ready for a long two weeks of debate.

I do have thoughts about Saturday’s other action, but I’ve got to be honest, it’s 1 a.m. and I’m completely fried. I’ll save that for tomorrow.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
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