SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
1/05/2007 05:35:00 PM
Media Day Mayhem
Ohio State QB Troy Smith has gotten a bit tired of repeatedly answering certain questions.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- I just arrived back from Ohio State-Florida Media Day at University of Phoenix Stadium, the one event prior to game day that is held in the stadium. It was my first time getting to see the new, state-of-the-art venue, and I can tell you it lives up to the billing. Great site lines, very colorful throughout and easy to navigate. And the grass – which they roll in on a retractable track – is definitely natural.
Speaking of the stadium, the national title game, like the Fiesta Bowl last Monday, will be played with the retractable roof closed. While the original intent of the roof was to protect the participants from the hot Arizona sun, Fiesta Bowl p.r. extraordinaire Shawn Schoeffler said this decision is due more to the fact the temperatures here deviate drastically from sunrise to sunset (highs around 70, lows in the 40s) this time of year. “It’s for the comfort of the fans,” said Schoeffler. “A lot of them will be spending all day here [partying before the game], and we don’t want them to have to pack a parka and gloves for when it gets cold.”
∙ I’ve been to seven of these title-game media days and I’ve never seen a kicker get as much attention as Florida’s Chris Hetland. Unfortunately for him, Hetland has become a story going into this game due to the unsettling possibility that the national championship could come down to a kicker who made just four of 13 field goals this season. Hetland seems to be taking it all in stride. “Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to redeem myself,” he said.
Hetland seems to be taking some confidence from his successful 34-yarder in the SEC championship game. “After I made it, there was quite a celebration for a 34-yard field goal,” he said. “It kind of felt like I’d won the national championship.” He shouldn’t expect too many opportunities Monday night, however. While head coach Urban Meyer insists he’s still confident in the senior, he also said, “Right now I am saying the 20-yard line is the area where we will be satisfied with kicking the ball.” In other words, you could see Florida go for it on 4th and 2 from the 25.
∙ By BCS contract, the teams were required to bring every player on their roster to the event, but an exception was made for Florida safety Reggie Nelson. The All-American’s mother passed away Dec. 21 and, at the request of Nelson, he has been shielded from reporters ever since. Nelson’s no-show caused much grumbling among the Florida beat corps, which has been clamoring to talk to him all week. Call me a softie journalist, but if a 21-year-old kid who lost his mother less than two weeks ago doesn’t feel comfortable being interrogated about it for an hour, I respect his wishes.
∙ Example No. 487 why bowl games are so different from the regular season: The two teams’ coaching staffs had dinner together Thursday night. There’s actually quite a bit of familiarity between the two staffs due to the fact Meyer and so many of his assistants have Ohio and/or Midwest backgrounds and because Buckeyes cornerbacks coach Tim Beckman worked for Meyer at Bowling Green.
∙ You knew someone was going to ask...
An exchange from Jim Tressel’s press conference Friday:
Reporter: How many vests do you have?
Tressel: How many vests? Sweater vests? Gosh, I don’t know.
Tressel: Whatever is in my locker. I don’t know. They put them in and I put them on.
∙ Providing a pleasant diversion from the sight of several hundred, mostly male sportswriters at Friday’s festivities was the presence of the Fiesta Bowl’s Queen and Court. As a diligent journalist, I felt I had no choice but to ask the Queen, University of Arizona senior Stephanie Holland, her prediction for Monday night’s game, but unfortunately she’s gone through too much darn media training. “I think they’re both great teams with great coaches and great players,” she said. I informed her that with answers like that, she’s already well on her way to becoming a head coach.
∙ Heisman winner Troy Smith seems to be holding up well under the media crush that has followed him all week, though I’ve noticed there are certain, frequently repeated questions that irk him a bit. Most notably: The “How will the 51-day layoff affect you guys?” question. “For everyone who thinks it’s a layoff, I wish they could come work with us,” said Smith. “What people don’t realize is that practices are more brutal than the games. We worked right up until Dec. 23 [before breaking for Christmas]. So it definitely wasn’t a 51-day layoff.”
∙ Much to my disappointment, Tim Tebow told me he did not watch the MTV show Two-a-Days (he had seen the advertisements), which means he did not see the famous episode where Hoover (Ala.) plays Tebow’s 2005 Nease (Fla.) team, before which one of the cheerleaders says at the cafeteria, “I heard their quarterback is, like, really good.” Said Tebow: “I heard it’s more about romance than football, anyway.” Indeed -- the same cheerleader and her football-playing boyfriend broke up right after the game.
∙ So what do you do at a bowl site when not interviewing people and writing articles? Mostly, eat. It’s something we writers do well. There is a hospitality lounge at the hotel that is constantly stocked with hot appetizers and, of course, bags of Tostitos. And last night a group of us went to one of those Brazilian steakhouses in Scottsdale. If you’re not familiar with the concept, basically, the waiters keep bringing you meat until you tell them to stop. I felt like I lost a contest or something, because in a group of seven, I got full first -- and some of those guys kept going long after I stopped.
One of them didn’t make it to Media Day this morning. Very mysterious.
∙ Finally, I’ll tell you what feels weird about this game: The fact that there’s basically a weekend off right beforehand. Friday was the last opportunity to interview players. There are no press conferences Saturday and only the head coaches on Sunday. Not that I’m complaining. I can see the pool from my window and I haven’t been yet.
Nobody has been a bigger media darling than Kitty Church, the grandmother of Ohio State's Quinn Pitcock (right).
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Seen and heard around the site of the BCS National Championship Game the past two days ...
∙ First of all, the sheer amount of media that was here as early as six days before the game was mind-boggling. Press conferences the past two days have been split between two ballrooms at the Camelback Inn, and I would estimate somewhere in the vicinity of 200 reporters (with a noticeable increase Thursday from Wednesday) were out and about. The Fiesta Bowl people say they’ve issued more than 1,400 credentials (which includes everyone involved in FOX’s production of the broadcast), an increase from 1,200 the last time they hosted the title game four years ago and about 500 for the actual Fiesta Bowl last Monday.
∙ The surprise star of Ohio State’s media appearance was defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock’s grandmother, Kitty Church, who moved from Ohio to Arizona in 1997 and actually lives in a community right next to the Camelback. A dainty, 5-foot woman, she could not have been more engaging, and by the end of Pitcock’s session, she had more reporters around her than her son. Church, a lifelong football fan and former Piqua (Ohio) High School cheerleader, previously resided in -- get this -- Glendale, Ohio. “Quinn used to say, ‘I’m coming to Glendale, Grandma,’ when he came to visit,” said Church. “It’s meant to be.”
∙ Florida tight end Tate Casey, who suffered a sprained ankle and ligament damage against Arkansas and only got off crutches this week, says he told coach Urban Meyer, “You’ll have to kill me to keep me out of [Monday night’s game].” When I saw him after practice Wednesday, Casey -- one of the Gators’ leaders and the guy who caught Tim Tebow’s memorable jump pass against LSU -- was walking very gingerly, and, in fact, when a Florida staff member told him the bus was about to leave, Casey replied, “Tell him to hold up -- I can’t walk that fast.” Said Meyer: In a limited role, we’re hoping to have him back for that game.”
∙ In an ironic twist, Ohio State’s defensive staff actually visited Gainesville this past spring, spending two days watching practice and exchanging ideas with their Florida counterparts. These offseason visits are fairly typical -- but generally coaches try to avoid meeting with their future opponents. “You’re like, ‘Oh, we’ll never play these guys,” said Gators co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. “Suddenly, we’re playing them for the championship.” Coaches from both sides played down the significance of the meeting, however, saying they would learn far more about each other from watching tape of this season.
∙ Florida receiver Andre Caldwell’s eyes lit up Thursday when asked whether he feels the Gators’ receiving corps, which includes Caldwell, Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius and freshman standout Percy Harvin – is getting overlooked in light of Ohio State stars Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. “We feel overshadowed,” said Caldwell. “We’ve got great receivers. That’s how we got to this game. We’ve got to go play this game and prove to the world that we’ve got better receivers than Ohio State.”
∙ Speaking of Gonzalez, the Buckeyes’ junior receiver is a reporter’s dream because he’s so bright, articulate and -- most importantly -- opinionated. Gonzalez sounded off Wednesday on everything from the exploitation of college athletes to his favorite philosopher, Plato. He also revealed his career aspirations after football: To go to law school and, ultimately, become a judge. “They get to be called ‘honorable,’ ” he joked. I can actually picture him with the gavel, the gown and, of course, the shaved head.
∙ I thought about going around the room this morning and asking my fellow national media members if they wanted to join me in apologizing to all of you for falsely hyping up Charlie Weis and Notre Dame these past two years. I was as guilty as anybody. After four straight big-game blowout losses dating to last year’s Fiesta Bowl, I think it’s safe to say his honeymoon is over, especially considering next year figures to be a 6-6 type rebuilding season.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see the national-title talk was premature, but what perplexes me is how the Irish, despite being more experienced, actually regressed on both sides of the ball this year. I thought Wednesday night’s Sugar Bowl was actually their worst defensive performance yet, even more so than the Fiesta Bowl, because they got burned not only through the air but by an LSU running game that wasn’t all that great during the regular season.
∙ Meanwhile, what a phenomenal performance by JaMarcus Russell, though not altogether surprising because he’s been playing at a high level all season. Hard to believe this is the same guy a lot of LSU fans wanted to see benched earlier this year. I’ve got to figure at this point, NFL types are drooling over the prospect of a 6-6 quarterback who can throw a 58-yard touchdown off his back foot, so much so that I’ll predict right now that over the coming months, Russell (who’s as good as gone) will wind up passing Brady Quinn in the draft pecking order. I hated to see Quinn end his career like that, though, with what was probably his worst performance in two years.
Nick Saban will return to the SEC, where he won a national title with LSU in 2003.
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- This may seem hard to believe, but do you realize that as recently as 1999, there were only five college head coaches making $1 million a year? Only one of those, then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier, was making as much as $2 million.
The meteoric marketplace spiral that’s taken place since then reached a new milestone Wednesday. College football now has its first $4 million coach: Nick Saban. That’s what it cost for Alabama, following a decade of coaching tumult -- including a series of high-profile rejections in this most recent coaching search -- to finally land its man.
If you’re one of the many long-suffering faithful of the Crimson Tide, today is unquestionably a day for rejoicing. ‘Bama is about to return to its rightful spot among the nation’s elite. It’s not even a question.
No more playing second fiddle to Auburn, LSU and Arkansas in its own division. No more 6-7 seasons and Independence Bowl losses. With Saban, the Tide will be competing for the SEC title -- and possibly the national title -- within two years. He will do exactly what he did in Baton Rouge: recruit like no other, install an NFL-style defense and instill a no-nonsense attitude throughout the roster. At LSU, Saban took over an inconsistent program and, by his fourth season, turned it into a national championship program with as stout a collection of athletes as any program this side of USC. Imagine what he'll be able to do at a program with one of the richest histories in the country.
Of course, this is all assuming he’s still there in four years. Not exactly a safe assumption when it comes to any Alabama coach, nevertheless Saban.
But while it’s a great day to be Alabama AD Mal Moore, there’s unquestionably some hand-wringing going on at other college administrators’ offices around the country today. The line to renegotiate your contract starts to the left.
In the past, any time there’s been a new milestone in coaching salaries, there’s been a domino effect on the rest of the market. This one could be particularly costly. Only a couple years ago, college football was still barely getting used to the idea of a $2 million coach. Before Wednesday, only USC’s Pete Carroll, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis had cracked the $3 million-a-year barrier.
Saban garnered $4 million based on one national title, two SEC titles and a career .683 winning percentage. With that as the standard, Carroll, who’s won two national titles, five conference titles and owns an .844 winning percentage, must be worth at least $8 million. What kind of raise could Ohio State’s Jim Tressel, whose current salary is a suddenly cheap $2.4 million, fetch himself if he earns his second national title on Monday? Or Florida’s Urban Meyer ($2.6 million) if he delivers the Gators their second-ever championship in just his second season?
Of course, the ADs at all of the aforementioned schools will tell you those coaches are worth every penny. With the amount of revenue raised by most powerhouse football programs -- not to mention their importance to hundreds of thousands of fans -- one can’t possibly place too high a value on having the right coach in place.
Alabama, for the first time in a decade, unquestionably has the right coach in place now.
Troy Smith will attempt to finish up Ohio State's second perfect season of the new millennium.
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- You know that feeling when you skip a party or outing you had the opportunity to attend, only to find out after the fact you missed one of the greatest bashes in human history? That’s what it was like to arrive in Phoenix the day after the Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl.
The victorious Broncos left out of Sky Harbor Airport before I arrived here from L.A. on Tuesday, but they were still quite clearly the talk of the town here. On the drive from the airport to the Camelback Inn (an absolutely beautiful resort the Fiesta Bowl committee was nice enough to chose as media headquarters this week), one caller after another on the local sports-talk stations raved about the game the night before. And the moment I walked in the door here, I immediately ran into three writers who were already here who politely informed me, “You missed a heck of a game last night.”
Oh, I know. Who would have ever imagined a USC-Michigan Rose Bowl could get trumped by a game involving Boise State?
The Florida Gators arrived here Tuesday as well (their national-title foe, Ohio State, has already been here a few days). At his opening press conference, head coach Urban Meyer reluctantly admitted he fell asleep during the Fiesta Bowl. “My wife [Shelly] kept hitting me,” he said. “She said it was the greatest football game she ever saw.” Nevertheless, Meyer knew well the implications of Boise State’s victory. “The separation of BCS and non-BCS – I think that era is over,” said Meyer. “In coaching circles, everybody knew what Oklahoma was getting into. Everybody that knows football knows Boise State is an excellent team.”
Jim Tressel was asked about the Broncos at his press conference as well. Ohio State’s players actually got to attend the game while Tressel and his staff were holed up working. “[Boise’s win] is a tremendous lesson for football, for life and for everything,” said Tressel. “The game is never over, and that’s the way Boise State played. They just kept playing and playing.”
With that, both coaches headed off to practices for that little thing called the BCS National Championship Game. Ohio State is practicing at Pinnacle High School in North Phoenix, Florida at Scottsdale Community College. Starting Wednesday, there will be news conferences every day but Saturday leading up to the game. It will be interesting to see how the later game date will affect coverage around the country. On the one hand, the five-day gap between the last “regular” BCS game (the Sugar Bowl) and the title game assures the entire college football world will be transfixed on this event. On the other hand, the first weekend of the NFL playoffs take the place the two days immediately preceding the game, and I’m guessing most casual college fans will focus more on that before Monday night.
∙ There is of course one other event scheduled for Wednesday: Nick Saban’s 10 a.m. EST “stay or go” decision. Can you believe it’s come to this? One week he’s telling reporters “I’m not going to be the coach at Alabama” and that they can’t ask him about it anymore; the next he’s asking for more time to make up his mind. I honestly have no idea what he’s going to do. The only thing I’m sure of is whether he’s at Alabama or Miami in two years, we'll be going through this again. That guy is terminally discontent wherever he is.
∙ Finally, sorry to go Peter King on you for a second, but I do have an aggravating travel note to pass along. If you’re flying on the newly merged US Air/America West anytime soon, either get to the airport extremely early or don’t check a bag. It took me an hour-and-a-half – involving two different lines -- to check one bag at LAX. I guess making your airline twice as big means the customers have to wait twice as long.
Ian Johnson scored the game-winning two-point conversion on a crafty play.
PASADENA, Calif. -- It takes something pretty special to leave a writer at a loss for words. But when Ian Johnson crossed the goal line on his Fiesta Bowl-winning, Statue of Liberty handoff late Monday night, I stood in front of the television speechless for a good, long minute.
How do you sum up one of the most remarkable endings any of us will ever be fortunate enough to see? How do you sum up one of the most exciting bowl games ever contested?
And how do you sum up what will one day be viewed as one of the most significant moments in the history of college football?
I’m not exaggerating.
On paper, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl was nothing more than a minor upset -- the No. 9 team beat the No. 7 team. In reality, it was so much more than that. Boise State beating Oklahoma in a New Year’s Day bowl game is college football’s equivalent to George Mason reaching the Final Four, with one extremely significant difference: George Mason had its chance to compete for the national title; Boise State does not. Like it or not, Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 just became the single biggest argument to date for a college football playoff.
You’re going to hear it a lot in the coming weeks. If Boise State can beat Oklahoma, why shouldn’t it get a shot at Ohio State? And while the BCS commissioners can offer any number of general arguments against a playoff, the fact is there is no reasonable answer to that specific question.
No, this was not the greatest of Oklahoma teams the Broncos beat -- but it was a pretty darn good one. Certainly a more worthy adversary than the Pittsburgh team Utah routed in a less memorable Fiesta Bowl two years earlier. Meanwhile, in the Rose Bowl, USC throttled a Michigan team that plenty of people deemed worthy of a national-title shot. The Trojans lost two games this season, one of them to Oregon State. Boise beat those guys 42-14.
I’m sure there will be plenty of people arguing this week that if Florida upsets Ohio State, the Broncos, as the nation’s lone remaining undefeated team, should be voted No. 1. I’m not ready to go that far, but anyone who watched Monday night’s thriller would have a hard time arguing that Boise State isn’t a legitimate, big-time team. We saw a physical Broncos defense bottle up former Heisman runner-up Adrian Peterson and pick off Sooners QB Paul Thompson three times. We saw the ultra-talented Johnson rush for 100 yards.
But the undisputed star of the Fiesta Bowl was a guy who spent the entire game on the sideline: Boise State coach Chris Petersen. Facing off against the nation’s winningest coach this decade, OU’s Bob Stoops, the Broncos’ first-year head coach exhibited some of the boldest, most creative play-calling ever seen in a major bowl game. To think, in the final 18 seconds of regulation and overtime alone, we saw a hook-and-ladder (Jerard Rabb’s game-tying, 50-yard touchdown to send the game to OT), a direct snap to a receiver (Vinny Perretta’s 5-yard touchdown pass in overtime) and the game-winning, soon-to-be-immortal Statue of Liberty two-point conversion in which QB Jared Zabransky faked a screen pass to the right, then handed off to Johnson on a run left.
And that wasn’t even the extent of the late-game drama. Oklahoma’s three two-point conversion attempts to tie. Zabransky’s near-fatal interception that Marcus Walker returned for a touchdown. And of course, Johnson’s nationally televised proposal to his cheerleader girlfriend afterward.
All of it combined to produce an indisputable, all-time classic. But like I said from the beginning, we saw more than just an exciting bowl game Monday night. We saw a potential landmark moment.
That Boise State was even in the Fiesta Bowl to begin with was only made possible just a couple years ago thanks to a major lobbying effort by the non-BCS schools. In the pre-BCS era, the Broncos would never even have merited consideration. Under the old, top-six requirement that was in effect through last season, the Broncos also would not have been chosen. Not only did they get in the game, they made a major statement on behalf of their mid-major brethren that none of us will soon forget.
Bill Callahan questioned his coaching after the Big 12 title game and maybe he should do the same following the Cotton Bowl.
PASADENA, Calif. -- I was having a pretty good bowl prognostication season until today. Darn you, Bill Callahan.
You know, I’ve tried to be patient and give the guy a fair shake considering the unique circumstances of his hiring and transformation of the program. And obviously he deserves credit for leading Nebraska to its first division title in seven years. But it’s become painfully obvious over the course of the season that Callahan is one questionable game-manager -- and never was that more abundant than the final six minutes of Monday’s Cotton Bowl.
Upon recovering a fumble at the Auburn 42 down 17-14, the Huskers never even tried to get down the field for the go-ahead touchdown, opting for five straight running plays and eventually ending up with a 4th and 11 at the 30. Callahan went for it, Zac Taylor’s pass went incomplete. Game over.
Callahan is fairly typical of college head coaches with an NFL background. With the exception of Pete Carroll, most of them (Karl Dorrell, Mike Shula, Chan Gailey, Dave Wannstedt) exercise the same, overly conservative philosophy that predominates the NFL. It’s great if it works, but when it doesn’t, it makes the losses that much more frustrating to fans of those teams.
∙ This is the sixth Rose Bowl I’ve attended – and the most amazing part is just how amazing the weather is every time. Sunny, not a cloud in the sky. The most beautiful setting in football, bar none.
∙ Great win for Penn State in the Outback Bowl, in particular QB Anthony Morelli, who looked sharper than I’ve seen him look all season. This should give both him and the Nittany Lions’ offense a shot of confidence headed into next season, when they figure to back among the nation’s top 20.
The question is, will Joe Paterno be back on the sideline next fall? I wouldn’t dare assume otherwise, but if you watched the game, the now 80-year-old couldn’t have looked much more miserable -- and completely out of the loop -- sitting in that press box.
∙ I just knew -- knew -- Georgia Tech QB Taylor Bennett would come out smoking against West Virginia and prove once and for all what anyone not named Chan Gailey knew a long time ago: Reggie Ball should have been relieved of his duties a long, long time ago. Bennett helped led the Jackets to nearly 500 yards of offense. But give major props to Pat White for leading West Virginia back from a 28-10 halftime deficit. Yes, White can throw. It’s probably long past time he start getting the same kind of recognition as Steve Slaotn.
∙ Speaking of recognition – can well all now agree that Wisconsin was pretty good? The Badgers’ 17-14 win over admittedly fading SEC West champ Arkansas gave Bret Bielema a 12-win debut season. Wisconsin’s defense, which first caught my attention way back when they played Michigan in September, did a great job shutting down the Razorbacks in the second half. Arkansas’ 12 penalties sure helped, too.
∙ I watched the fourth quarter of last night’s Miami-Nevada game with my friend Pete while dining at the world famous (and delicious) Jerry’s Deli, and as he cheered unabashedly for Jeff Rowe to lead the “Cinderella” Wolf Pack to the win at the end, I found myself rooting for Miami. “What are you, a Communist?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “I just can’t stomach the thought of Larry Coker’s career ending with a loss on a blue field in 25 degree weather.” The next play, Miami picked off Rowe to preserve the win.
∙ Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the firing of Minnesota’s Glen Mason – so ludicrous on so many levels. Yes, I made a joke about his coaching abilities just 24 hours earlier. No, I can’t fault Gophers fans for being frustrated with not getting over the hump. But for AD Joel Maturi to say Mason lost his job for blowing the Insight Bowl? Give me a break. You’re telling us you made a major decision about the future of your program based on blowing a big lead in a third-tier bowl game? That’s nuts!
Furthermore, Maturi just gave the guy an extension less than a year earlier. And what kind of season did he really expect after losing a first-round running back (Laurence Maroney) and pair of All-American linemen that were pretty much the centerpiece of your past three teams. You’re Minnesota. You’re going to have down seasons. I wish Maturi luck in the coaching search, but I can’t imagine too many A-list coaches will be lining up for that job.
LOS ANGELES -- I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Most non-BCS bowl games are in no way reflective of a team's season as a whole. The circumstances are just too strange. During the regular season, you don't get a four-week break to reinvent your offense or throw younger players into the rotation. Already this bowl season, we watched Rutgers spring its own Tim Brown, Florida State's Lorenzo Booker morph into the player we'd been waiting to see for five years and some Iowa receiver named Andy Brodell do an uncanny Tim Dwight impression.
Nevertheless, there's no denying one important aspect of these games: The effect they have on a team's ensuing offseason. Winning a bowl game -- particularly one you're not expected to -- can dramatically boost the momentum surrounding a program headed into the following season. Here are five teams whose bowl performances these past couple weeks could be the springboard to even bigger things in 2007:
Georgia (final record: 9-4): The Dawgs, so shaky in the middle of the season, could not have scripted a better ending: A blowout upset of top-10 Auburn, a sixth straight victory over rival Georgia Tech and a phenomenal comeback against Virginia Tech in Saturday night's Chick-fil-A Bowl. When Georgia got down 21-3 against the nation's No. 1 defense, I figured they were dead in the water, but some huge defensive plays and a gutty second-half performance by freshman QB Matthew Stafford led the Dawgs to a 31-24 win.
The bad news for Georgia in '07 is the Dawgs lose most of their biggest defensive stars (LB Tony Taylor, S Tra Battle, DE Quentin Moses). The good news is, they never seem to have a problem reloading on defense, and Stafford and his receivers should only get better.
Kentucky (8-5): If you didn't know about Wildcats QB Andre Woodson before the Music City Bowl, you do now. The junior was phenomenal in Kentucky's 28-20 upset of Clemson, going 20-of-28 for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Not only will he be an All-America contender next season, but suddenly Rich Brooks, who most figured would be run out of town by now, has given long-suffering Kentucky fans something to be excited about.
South Florida (9-4): Arguably the most impressive defensive performance of the season by any team was USF’s upset of West Virginia on Nov. 25. The Bulls crushed East Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl thanks to more of that tremendous defensive speed. It’s time to start taking these guys seriously, folks. With 16 starters returning next season, including Big East freshman of the year QB Matt Grothe and standout LB Ben Moffit, USF should be in conference contention with the Mountaineers, Louisville and Rutgers.
South Carolina (8-5): Steve Spurrier's influence on the Gamecocks became increasingly apparent toward the end of the season, as QB Blake Mitchell took his game to another level in the near-upset of Florida, a 31-28 win over Clemson and a 44-36 Liberty Bowl shootout over Houston. The SEC East isn't getting any easier, but next year could be Steve Spurrier's year to make a move -- if, and it's a big if, stud WR Sidney Rice comes back.
Oklahoma State (7-6): I really like the direction the Cowboys took this season under second-year coach Mike Gundy. Their spread offense, behind QB Bobby Reid, WR Adarius Bowman and RB Dantrell Savage, was extremely explosive in an upset of Nebraska and in last week's Independence Bowl win over Alabama. Next year they could be even scarier.
· Even though it had one of the most impressive wins of the entire bowl season, I did not include Florida State in the above list because I honestly have no idea what to expect of the 'Noles next season. Bobby Bowden is going to be bringing in an entirely new offensive staff (expected to be led by LSU coordinator Jimbo Fisher), and there's no telling what they'll do. One thing that was apparent in the Emerald Bowl, however, is that the talent is definitely still there.
· Pete Carroll was asked at this morning's final Rose Bowl press conference to compare this year's Michigan team to the one the Trojans beat three years ago. If you remember that game, Matt Leinart pretty much had his way with Michigan's defense, while the Trojans sacked Wolverines QB John Navarre nine times. "Their front seven is a whole lot better," said Carroll. "They had one of the conference's leading defenses when we played them last time, but this one just has more firepower, more star power. [Shawn] Crable and [LaMarr] Woodley are ridiculously talented football players."
· Don't bother suggesting to Lloyd Carr that the Rose Bowl has been at all diminished in importance by the BCS. "I’ve watched every Rose Bowl game since the early 1950s," said Carr. "“I know from a recruiting standpoint that every kid, certainly in the Midwest and probably the country, wants to watch this game. So there's certainly something special about the Rose Bowl."
I sure hope he's right. While my patience with the current bowl system diminishes more with each year, the one game I absolutely cannot fathom ever losing is the Rose Bowl. Perhaps because I was once one of those Midwest kids myself.
· Well, I'm going to take a little detour from football here in a couple hours to attend the UCLA-Washington basketball game. Speaking of which, the next time you hear a college athletic director or administrator complain about the escalating costs in their industry and how hard it is to manage their budget, I want you to remember this.
In Pac-10 basketball, teams go on Thursday-Saturday or Thursday-Sunday road trips where they play two games in the same city or area, so the Huskies were here in L.A. for four days this week. They are staying at my hotel, the Beverly Hilton. I don't know what kind of rate they got, but figure minimum $200 a night, for four nights, for about 25 people (players, coaches, trainers, etc.). For two regular season college basketball games. I'm not saying they should be slumming it at a Motel 6, but it does seem a bit extravagant, does it not?