SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
12/02/2006 11:54:00 AM
Saturday Preview: Florida Still Has a Chance
Chris Leak and the Gators hope a win over Arkansas will vault them into the national title game.
ATLANTA -- Everywhere I went last night, I ran into visiting Florida Gators fans. And while they generally seemed happy to be here, in talking to some of them, they seem to have an overwhelming sense of resignation. They feel like no matter what their team does tonight against Arkansas, they’re already effectively shut out of the national championship game. Their fans will be the first to admit Florida hasn’t exactly been pretty lately, but as one of them asked, “Why are we not even part of the discussion?”
I do not have a reasonable answer for that. The Gators remain part of my national-championship discussion, but I could understand why they’d get that impression if they’ve spent any time this week watching ABC or ESPN. If you’ve seen the promos for today’s USC-UCLA game, you’ve heard Brent Musburger say something to the effect of, “Win, and they [the Trojans] are in the national championship game.” While probably true, to state it as fact like that seems awfully presumptuous -- and completely unfair to Florida and Michigan.
But hey, that’s life in a world ruled by television. If Florida-Arkansas was on ABC, I’m sure we’d be seeing similar promos about the Gators. Alas, it’s on CBS, and since I don’t watch CSI or Survivor, I’ve seen no hype whatsoever for this game, even though it’s unquestionably the best matchup of the day.
I’m here, however, to provide a glimmer of hope for those frustrated Florida fans. Yes, USC will likely clinch the title spot with a win today. You can argue it all you want; the reality is pollsters don’t drop the No. 2 team the last week of the season unless they do something to screw it up.
However … mark my words, you heard it here first: If USC loses to UCLA and Florida beats Arkansas, the Gators -- not Michigan -- will head to Glendale. I know that runs contrary to what you’ve heard much of the past two weeks. You’ve heard that Michigan is deserving of a rematch with Ohio State, and that Florida hasn’t looked good in weeks. Neither of those statements are necessarily false.
But like I said a couple weeks back, it’s all about last impressions. There’s no way the Gators can beat Arkansas tonight without looking good. Either their defense is going to have to do something no other SEC foe has accomplished and shut down Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, or Florida’s offense is going to have to explode to keep up with the Hogs in a shootout.
Either way, I believe it would be enough to cause a lot of Harris and coaches voters to reconsider their ballots. They’re going to ask themselves, “Am I really OK with keeping out a 12-1 SEC champion that beat nine bowl teams, including LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas, to let Michigan have another shot at Ohio State.”
Mark my words: In that scenario, the voters will anoint Florida.
ATLANTA -- Lunch hour at the famed Varsity in Atlanta came early Friday -- with a whole lot of Georgia Tech fans eager for free hot dogs. Here I am with a couple of them (as you can probably guess, the Tech people made me wear the wig).
Would you believe the media actually showed up?
And finally, me with all the smiling, happy and well-fed full Jackets fans.
Many thanks to The Varsity and 790 the Zone in Atlanta for helping me to pull it off.
USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin could be an outside candidate for the N.C. State job.
If you happened to watch the Ohio State-North Carolina basketball game last night, you saw sideline reporter Doris Burke interview the newly hired Butch Davis in what could best be described as a free infomercial for the UNC football program.
I said it at the time and I’ll say it again: While firing John Bunting with five games left in his season may have been a bit awkward, it could not have worked out better for the school. Not only was UNC able to get a head start on the competition in locking up Davis (had they waited until the end of the season, Davis would probably have wound up the next coach at Alabama), but while other schools are only now starting up their searches, Davis is already on the job -- and wasting no time getting himself out there.
North Carolina formally introduced the former Miami and Cleveland Browns coach at a news conference Monday, two days after the Heels’ 45-44 win over Duke in Bunting’s last game. When I spoke to Davis that evening, he was already preparing to hit the recruiting trail. “I take the [NCAA] certification test tomorrow,” he said at the time. “I got up real early and started cramming. Hopefully I’ll be able to pass it with flying colors.” He did, making his first official visits Thursday despite having yet to hire his first assistant coach.
Recruiting was obviously Davis’ forte at Miami, where he assembled some of the most impressive collections of talent the sport had seen despite the specter of NCAA sanctions. Asked what the key will be to achieving recruiting success at his new school, Davis said, “It’s going to begin with the fact we have to do a tremendous job with players in the state of North Carolina. Obviously, I think this is a school with a great national reputation, but first and foremost we have to do a really good job of finding players at home.”
Which brings us to another school currently in the midst of a coaching transition: N.C. State. The Tar Heels’ Triangle rival fired seven-year coach Chuck Amato last weekend, and while the Chest certainly left a lot to be desired performance-wise (going 25-31 in ACC competition), one thing he did awfully well was recruit. The Wolf Pack may have landed more Parade All-Americas and “four-star” recruits under Amato then their entire previous history.
Which is why, if you’re N.C. State AD Lee Fowler, you’re facing tremendous pressure with this upcoming hire. Obviously Wolf Pack fans hope their next coach will be a better Xs and Os guy than Amato (particularly in regards to offense), but he also needs to be an awfully good recruiter if he’s going to compete head-to-head with Davis for in-state talent.
The early “favorites,” according to media speculation, were Steelers coach Bill Cowher (who declined interest Wednesday), Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow and Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. Chow, Amato’s first offensive coordinator in 2000, still seems like the no-brainer to me -- just as Davis can flash his Super Bowl ring and Miami clout with recruits, Chow can advertise all the Heisman winners/NFL draft picks he’s mentored. But on Wednesday, Chow and Cutcliffe both said North Carolina State had yet to contact them.
One wild card that’s mentioned who makes more sense than you might think is Chow’s former Trojan understudy -- current USC offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator Lane Kiffin. USC's ace recruiter since Ed Orgeron left, the young, energetic Kiffin is exactly the kind of coach young kids are drawn to. As a bonus, his own father, Monte Kiffin, was once an N.C. State head coach himself.
That said, hiring a 31-year-old head coach would be viewed as a huge risk, particularly for an AD (Fowler) who couldn’t have botched his basketball search last spring any worse. But this is much certain: Whatever other criteria Fowler is following, the ability to counter Butch in recruiting needs to be right at the top of the list.
Mark Dantonio, who had an 18-17 record at Cincinnati, signed a five-year deal with Michigan State that will guarantee him nearly $1.1 million a year.
So many coaching changes, so little time. Where to begin?
∙ Arizona State: While the timing was a little awkward, coming less than 24 hours after a bowl-clinching win over rival Arizona, Dirk Koetter’s fate was sealed the day he abruptly reversed course with his quarterback decision last August. At that point, you knew either Rudy Carpenter was going to have to light the world on fire or Koetter was going to be crucified, because it was just one of several examples over the years of questionable leadership on his part. Koetter consistently led his teams to bowl games, but in six years he failed to even sniff the top of the Pac-10, going 0-10 against USC and Cal and never losing less than three conference games in a season.
AD Lisa Love has an already proven to be a savvy executive willing to make a splash, like she did when she hired away NC State basketball coach Herb Sendek last spring. (Not to mention she cut Koetter loose with three years and nearly $3 million left on his contract). Local buzz centers around former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis, now the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator. Love should also take a hard look at that team’s other coordinator -- one Norm Chow.
∙ N.C. State: No one had more passion and enthusiasm for N.C. State football than Chuck Amato. It’s largely because of him that the Wolfpack moved into the 21st century in terms of their recruiting and facilities. But passion and enthusiasm can’t help you when you go 3-9, ending your season with losses to both North Carolina and East Carolina. I believe if Amato had even come close to going .500 and won a couple more ACC games, he would still have his job, but a season-ending seven-game losing streak -- on top of two fairly disappointing seasons before that -- was simply too much for AD Lee Fowler to bear. Amato lasted seven seasons, and while his tenure got off to a bang with Phillip Rivers, there hadn’t been much cause for excitement of late.
N.C. State is another logical destination for Chow, considering he worked there under Amato back in 2000, but who knows whether he’ll receive consideration. The local dream is that Bill Cowher will come home, but I don’t see how that can work from a timing perspective, considering the school would have to waste a month or more waiting for the Steelers’ season to end just to find out whether Cowher is actually retiring. I would expect N.C. State to go after someone with an offensive mind (the opposite of Amato’s defensive approach), and whoever it hires needs to be a shrewd recruiter, because he’s going to be facing off head-to-head with UNC’s Butch Davis.
∙ Michigan State: Much like its football team, MSU has a history of choking when it comes to its coaching searches, so I was pleasantly surprised they wound up hiring the best guy for the job, Cincinnati’s Mark Dantonio. Dantonio has done a phenomenal job turning the Bearcats into a competitive Big East program in a short amount of time. He has Big Ten experience as an assistant both at MSU and as the defensive coordinator for Jim Tressel’s 2002 Ohio State national title team.
In fact it’s that defensive mentality that I think will help turn the Spartans into a contender relatively quickly. The main reason the Big Ten has retreated back into being the Big Two following nearly a decade of parity is that only four teams -- Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State –- play any defense. If Dantonio can produce a top-flight defense capable of shutting down the high-powered offenses that populate the conference, he could produce a run much like Iowa did earlier this decade.
∙ Iowa State: Give Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard tons of credit –- not only did he pull off the most secretive coaching search I can ever remember (the school announced it had landed its "No. 1 choice" Sunday afternoon, yet as of Sunday night the media had yet to figure out who it was) but he landed one of the hottest names on the market, Texas co-defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
To be honest, I’m surprised this is where Chizik landed -- I always assumed it would be somewhere a little more prestigious. Either Pollard made a heck of a pitch, or Chizik views Iowa State as a sleeping giant. The dynamic 44-year-old has been a head-coach-in-grooming the past few years working under Tommy Tuberville and Mack Brown who, even as an assistant, had sort of a Bob Stoops/Urban Meyer-type aura to him. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to achieve those guys’ level of success in Ames, but I have no doubt he’ll significantly raise Iowa State’s profile.
∙ Cincinnati: Dantonio's depature is a huge blow to the Bearcats’ program, which was just starting to turn the corner and was banking on gaining some serious traction from that Rutgers upset. AD Mike Thomas will move quickly to ensure the uncertainty doesn’t last long. Thomas came from Akron, where he hired J.D. Brookhart, who last year led the Zips to a surprising MAC title. Don’t be surprised if Thomas and Brookhart reunite. Another possibility is Central Michigan coach Brian Kelly, who was up for both the Michigan State and Iowa State jobs.
Mike Shula was 26-23 in four seasons at Alabama, including a 10-2 record in 2005.
Marvin Gentry/US PRESSWIRE
There have been a flurry of comings and goings in the coaching world since Sunday. There was a point Monday morning when I actually thought to myself, "You know, there isn't a single one of these schools that didn't make a good decision."
And then those doofuses at Alabama fired Mike Shula.
Mal Moore, the college athletic directors' answer to Isiah Thomas, was said to be "evaluating" Shula for more than a week now, but I didn't think he could possibly be short-sighted enough to pull the trigger. I can't believe I underestimated him. He is, after all, the same guy who hired a completely unqualified (at the time) Shula to step into college football's most thankless job in the first place.
It's hard enough to appease a fan base that expects anyone who dons the headsets to be the second coming of Bear Bryant, but Shula had the added obstacle of taking over a program dealing with the aftermath of major NCAA sanctions and the chaos of having four different head coaches in a three-year span. Plus he had to learn how to be a head coach. Crimson Tide fans were reasonable enough not to expect a national championship his first season. Just by his third.
Shula was admittedly in over his head those first couple seasons. The TV cameras would show him on the sideline and you wondered whether he was really the head coach or just a former player in for a visit. But then a strange thing happened last year: Shula learned how to coach. At least I assume he did, because 'Bama managed to start 9-0 and finish 10-2, led by a core of seniors (QB Brodie Croyle, LB DeMeco Ryans, S Roman Harper, et. al.) recruited just before the sanctions hit.
Inevitably, the Tide would take a step back this season after losing such standouts. That was obvious to anyone -- except, apparently, anyone in Alabama. The calls for Shula's head started from the time the Tide lost their first game and grew louder with each subsequent defeat in a disappointing 6-6 season. Despite the fact 'Bama actually exceeded at least one magazine's expectations (SI pegged them for 5-7), Shula was no longer the right man for the job in the ever-demanding court of public opinion. Apparently Moore agreed.
Here's the thing: I don’t necessarily think Shula is the next Vince Lombardi. But I’m not sure Lombardi himself would have fared much better than 26-23 the past four years under the circumstances Shula faced. Only this season did 'Bama finally return to having a full-sized roster -- and even then it was a roster whose upperclassmen couldn't have been the pick-of-the-litter coming out of high school, seeing as they signed on to play for a school that wasn't allowed to go to a bowl game at the time.
But anyone who watched the Tide this season knew their future was bright. Yes, they went 6-6 -- but it's not like they weren't competitive in the SEC. They took 10-2 Arkansas and 9-3 Tennessee to the wire. They played 11-1 Florida, 10-2 LSU and 10-2 Auburn tough. The one bad loss was Mississippi State (that was undoubtedly Shula's undoing). With impressive QB John Parker Wilson returning next season along with the bulk of the defense, there’s no doubt in my mind Shula's team would have contended in the SEC West next season.
Alas, we'll never know. But we do know how this will play out -- because Alabama goes through this every four years or less. A new coach will come in and reap the benefits of Shula's recruiting effots, but due to the inevitable bumps that come with a coaching transition, 'Bama still won't get over the "hump." The new coach will, however, energize recruiting efforts, and start to build up the talent level. Then, one of two things will happen. Either he'll struggle on the field for a couple years and get kicked to the curb a la Shula, or he'll have quick success, a la Dennis Franchione, and leave for greener pastures before the faithful have a chance to turn on him.
And then the cycle will start all over again. Yet again.
Believe me, I understand Alabama's desire to return to glory. I understand 6-6 seasons are hard to stomach at a place where national championships used to be routine. But this isn't 1979. The SEC is a whole lot tougher, and the Bear's not coming back. 'Bama has been stuck in a state of uncertainty for nearly a decade now, and that's simply not a recipe for success.
But it shouldn't be entirely surprising when you consider who's running the ship. In an age when college athletic departments are nothing if not a big business, the most successful ones are run by shrewd businessmen. Guys like Florida's Jeremy Foley, Oklahoma's Joe Castiglione and Louisville's Tom Jurich worked their way up the administrative ranks. Moore is an ex-Bear assistant whose sole qualification is that he’s a "'Bama guy." Such ex-coaches used to be par for the course as ADs, but at this point they're a dying breed, found almost exclusively in the South. The smart business decision would have been to keep Shula at least another season, but I'm not sure Moore or any of the other power-brokers in Tuscaloosa are capable of making a decision based on anything other that emotion.
One of these days, they're going to have to show someone some patience. Who will be that someone? Whoever’s naïve enough to think they’ll treat him any differently.
Now that that's out of the way … my thoughts on some athletic departments that actually know what they're doing will follow in the next Blog entry. …
Dwayne Jarrett, whose 61-yard reception on a fourth-and-9 play helped the Trojans beat Notre Dame last season, caught scoring passes of 9, 5 and 43 yards Saturday from John David Booty.
1) That Florida getting shafted would be the best thing to happen to college football: Before you jump all over me, Gators fans, I’m not saying it’s right, but a 12-1 Florida team that gets left out of the national championship game for USC or Michigan may be the BCS victim that finally causes change to the system. Why? Because SEC commissioner Mike Slive happens to be both the current BCS coordinator and the most outspoken proponent of a plus-one game. This would be twice in three years one of his teams gets left out. Second, Florida happens to be one of those glamour programs (no offense, Auburn) that people pay attention to, and they’ve got a high-profile coach and athletic director who will be screaming bloody murder. But most of all, the timing is right. At the time of the 2003/04 controversies, the BCS had more pressing issues on its plate, like a potential antitrust lawsuit and an expiring TV contract. With FOX in place and the championship game now a week later, the structure is in place to seamlessly add at least a plus-one.
2) That Dwayne Jarrett is the nation’s best receiver. The NFL people will tell you it’s Calvin Johnson, but I can no longer stand by a guy who continually disappears in his team’s biggest games (even if it’s not entirely his fault). Jarrett has been shining in big games for three years now, and Saturday night’s performance against Notre Dame may have been his finest yet. John David Booty threw it to him seven times -- and Jarrett caught it seven times, including a one-handed sideline grab, a leaping catch between two defenders and three touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said afterward the New Jersey native is playing with a chip on his now-healthy shoulder: He’s miffed about being left off the list of Biltenikoff finalists. "He thinks he’s the best receiver in the country," said Kiffin. No argument here.
3) That Jim Grobe can coach some football: It’s just as we always expected, folks: Wake Forest is 10-2 and headed to the ACC championship game. Wait ... what? Take your pick as to which is the most telling sign of a well-coached team: Somebody different steps up for Wake’s offense seemingly every week -- Saturday night against Maryland it was RB Kenneth Moore, whose 165 yards doubled his best previous output. Their defensive players are always in the right place: The Deacons now have 20 interceptions. But perhaps most impressively, with the Maryland win, Wake became the first team in ACC history to go 6-0 on the road. "These guys have even exceeded my expectations," said Grobe. "They've done some cool stuff."
4) That Colt Brennan is no WAC fluke: Purdue, an 8-4 Big Ten team, went to the Island on Saturday and found out first hand what it’s like to face the nation’s No. 1 passer. Down 35-27 with five minutes to go, Brennan rallied his team to a 42-35 victory by throwing a touchdown, converting a two-point conversion and throwing another TD. He finished 33-of-48 for 434 yards and three TDs, raising his season total to 51. And his quest for legitimacy continues next week against 8-4 Oregon State (i.e. the team that beat USC). Barring a total collapse in that game, Brennan will be making it onto my Heisman ballot; I sure hope enough other voters concur to send him to New York.
5) That Bill Callahan isn’t afraid to get tricky: The Nebraska coach ran six trick plays against Colorado, from a fake field goal that started with a swinging-gate formation to a halfback pass to a fourth-and-1 in which QB Zac Taylor, after failing to draw the Buffs offsides, walked toward the sideline as if he was giving up on the play, only to have Nebraska snap it to Tierre Greene, who gained the first down. It was fun to watch, but it begs the question: Why wait for a game against a 2-9 team to pull out all the stops? One theory: This was offensive coordinator Jay Norvell’s way of impressing the folks at Iowa State, where he has interviewed for the head-coaching job.