SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
7/20/2007 01:35:00 PM
Missouri: The Makings of a Champ?
Earlier this week, I devoted the lead section of my Mailbag to an examination of Bill Callahan's Nebraska program. Apparently, I was wasting my time, because apparently, the Huskers are not even the best team in their division.
The Big 12 released its Media Preseason Poll, and the overwhelming favorite among conference media to win the North Division was … Missouri. Really. In fact it wasn't even close -- the Tigers received 16 of 24 first-place votes, as many as picked Texas to win the South.
My initial instinct was to chalk up this bizarre occurrence to the preponderance of Missouri journalism grads in the media world (including two of my editors), but upon further research, apparently several prominent preseason magazines (like Phil Steele) have tabbed the Tigers as well.
Still puzzled, I did a little more checking, and sure enough, Gary Pinkel -- 37-35 in his six years in Columbia -- is still Missouri's coach.
Talk about blind optimism.
Don't get me wrong, Missouri on paper has all the makings of a decent football team. Chase Daniel, coming off an impressive debut season in which he threw for 3,527 yards and 28 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, returns to lead the Tigers' shotgun-spread offense, and he'll have 1,063-yard rusher Tony Temple and sure-handed tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker back, too. The defense is less experienced but has been fairly consistent for some time now, ranking in the top 50 nationally the past three seasons.
So why was I so surprised by Thursday's poll results? Because to pick Missouri to win the North one must conveniently overlook the fact they've choked away one opportunity after another over the past several years.
It's no secret the Big 12 North has not exactly been a gauntlet of doom these past few years. With Nebraska undergoing a difficult transition from the option to the West Coast offense, Kansas State slumping during Bill Snyder's final years and Colorado reeling in the aftermath of its ugly recruiting scandals, the division could not have been more ripe for Pinkel's upstart program. Especially once it became apparent the Tigers had a program-changing player in four-year QB Brad Smith.
But Missouri's best showing during Smith's tenure was an 8-5 record in 2003, going 5-6 and 7-5 his last two seasons. Daniel has proven to be a much better fit, and the Missouri stormed to a surprising 6-0 start last year. But in typical fashion, the Tigers dropped four of their next five, including a 21-16 loss to dreadful Iowa State. A telling moment came late in the third quarter of an Oct. 28 game at Oklahoma. Missouri drove the ball all the way to the Sooners' 1-yard line with a chance to take the lead only to run four straight plays out of the shotgun, including having Daniel throw a jump ball into the end zone on fourth and goal. OU wound up winning 26-10.
So tell us, Big 12 media, why is this year Missouri's year? Is it because of the favorable schedule in which Nebraska, Texas A&M and Texas Tech come to Columbia while Texas is off the slate completely? Is it because the Kansas game, which would have been in Lawrence, has been moved to Kansas City? Or is it because Daniel and the offense are just that good?
My advice: If in six years, a coach's team has yet to break .500 in conference play, don't expect things to magically change in Year Seven.
West Virginia's Pat White (left) and Steve Slaton (right) may be the most explosive 1-2 punch in college football.
NEWPORT, R.I. -- West Virginia teammates Pat White and Steve Slaton are competitors. And we’re not even talking about football.
A playful argument broke out Tuesday morning at the Mountaineers’ table at Big East Media Day regarding their respective stats. Not rushing stats, mind you -- “Bubble Breaker” stats. The two have apparently been playing the cell-phone puzzle game a lot lately.
“Steve doesn’t believe me,” said White, pulling out his phone. “My high score is 1,238. What’s yours?”
“1,254,” replied Slaton, showing it up for all to see.
“Yeah, well I’m better,” replied White. “What’s your average?”
At this point, a wide smile broke out on the quarterback’s face as he held up his own phone. “Four ... thirty ... three.”
“That’s because I let my little brother play a few games,” said Slaton. He messed up my stats.”
“Other people have been playing mine, too,” said White.
“Let’s go right now,” said Slaton.
Such repartee is exactly what you might expect from two Mountaineers stars who are entering their third year playing together and, in addition to spending all that time in the backfield together, are now rooming together as well. In addition to Bubble Breaker, their friendly rivalry also extends to Pop-A-Shot (where Slaton apparently wins nine out of 10), video games (though White says he’s only recently picked up that hobby) and certain off-color jokes that unfortunately can’t be reprinted here.
Bring up the subject of the Heisman Trophy, however – the prestigious award which the two would seem to be in direct competition for as well – and suddenly the joking stops.
“Steve and I know that it’s a team award,” said White. “Troy Smith won it and went in what, the fifth round? The national championship is more important.”
That was about the only politically correct answer the surprisingly outgoing White put forth during a brief interview. Asked about the significance of his coach, Rich Rodriguez, turning down Alabama last December to return to Morgantown, the Daphne, Ala., native replied, “We’re West Virginia. Who’s Alabama?”
Asked if the Mountaineers would crave the opportunity to prove themselves nationally against a USC or an LSU, the fleet-footed QB briefly dodged the question before replying, “I see us as the best team [in the country]. I don’t see anyone that’s better -- honestly.”
It turns out Slaton and White are also YouTube fiends, and they’ve seen practically all of the fan-produced highlight reels out there. Asked if he’s seen a certain other YouTube clip – the one of incoming teammate Noel Devine’s high-school exploits – White giddily replies, “Have I?”
The Slaton-White Show is already Must-See TV whenever the Mountaineers appear on the dial. Now they’re keeping people entertained off the field as well.
Louisville QB Brian Brohm makes the rounds on Media Day.
NEWPORT, R.I. -- The first official games are still nearly seven weeks away, but for those of us who cover this sport for a living, the 2007 season might as well have commenced Monday night -- in the most unlikely college football setting imaginable.
On the eve of the Big East's preseason Media Day, coaches, players and media members mingled on the lawn of the historic Eisenhower House here in this posh New England vacation spot. Rare are the opportunities anymore for the writers to interact socially (and completely off the record) with some of the sport's participants. But on this night, scribes from across the country sat under a tent enjoying a lobster dinner with the likes of Brian Brohm, Ray Rice and Rich Rodriguez.
As the sun set along the coastline, I turned to a writer friend and said, "Under ordinary circumstances, this has to be one of the top 10 places you'd least likely expect to run into Dave Wannstedt."
Tuesday morning, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese stood in front of a packed ballroom at the Hotel Viking and noted, "Three years ago, there weren't nearly as many people sitting here." Indeed, while I've made numerous trips to other conferences' preseason events in recent years, I was among several national writers here attending his first Big East function since its Miami/Virginia Tech days.
Over several hours, however, we would have the opportunity to interview at least four players -- Brohm, Rice, Pat White and Steve Slaton -- who appear on every preseason Heisman list in the country. Not to mention two rising coaching stars -- Rodriguez and Rutgers' Greg Schiano -- who were courted by the likes of Alabama and Miami.
How could I not come here?
(Even though getting here did involve a $95 cab ride from Providence, a half hour away, because apparently downtown rental-car offices close at the stroke of 6).
Signs of the Big East's rapid transformation from afterthought to national storyline were everywhere here, from the five 2006-07 bowl trophies prominently displayed on the front table (league officials like to remind you every half hour or so about last year's 5-0 bowl record) to the presence of high-level ESPN programming execs as well as Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan -- whose committee just happens to host this year's national title game.
"I've watched more Big East football over the last two years than any other conference," said new Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe, formerly of Tulsa. "I like watching those Thursday night and Friday night games."
Outside this shiny, happy bubble, it's no secret much of the country remains skeptical of the conference's strength. Though last November's West Virginia-Louisville and Louisville-Rutgers showdowns -- both pitting two undefeated teams -- drew huge ratings for ESPN, they were also followed by endless message-board and talk-radio rants about whether such teams deserved to play for the national title. Such talk will likely continue again this year what with the league's premier teams playing laughable non-conference schedules.
Scheduling was a frequent topic among coaches and athletic directors here, all of whom have been trying frantically to upgrade their future schedules but are meeting significant resistance. Louisville AD Tom Jurich called it the hardest part of his job. Over the next few years, the Mountaineers will play home-and-homes with Auburn, Colorado and Florida State, and the Cardinals are looking to schedule similar matchups.
It's just too bad they couldn't have happened this year. Who knows when the Big East will have this much star power -- both in the backfield and on the sidelines -- again.
Check back for more stories from Big East Media Days in the coming days.
An interesting development for college football took place last week, but you wouldn't have heard about it from reading the sports page: The Ohio State University named its new president. Why this is noteworthy: Because the president in question is none other than the well-traveled Dr. Gordon Gee, formerly Ohio State's president from 1990-97 and, most recently, the chancellor of Vanderbilt.
Gee, a jovial, unabashed sports fan (in a bow tie, no less) who used to visit tailgates and exchange cheers with the "Block O" student section during his first tenure in Columbus, has since become one of the nation's most outspoken critics on college athletics reform. He's gone on record with his staunch opposition to a Division I-A playoff, going so far as to suggest football should return to its pre-BCS days of bowls with no title game. He's said teams with less than a 50 percent graduation rate should be ineligible for postseason competition. And he raised eyebrows across the country four years ago with his decision to formally eliminate Vanderbilt's athletic department (the school's sports teams were folded into the Division of Student Life).
That's right, folks: The same man who once eliminated an entire athletic department is now overseeing the school with the most bulbous athletic operation in the country (the Buckeyes field a staggering 36 varsity teams with a reported $101.8 million budget).
At his introductory press conference last week, Gee, 63, assured Buckeye faithful he would attempt no such a makeover at Ohio State and praised the school for the way it reorganized its athletic department in the wake of the Maurice Clarett and Jim O'Brien scandals a few years back. But he also promised a "zero tolerance" policy for player misbehavior, reemphasized his stance on graduation rates (the football Buckeyes came in just above Gee's threshold at 55 percent in the most recent NCAA report) and made it clear he'll be taking an active role in athletics. "Winning starts with me," said Gee. "Winning doesn't start with the coaches or the players. It starts with the president of the university."
Most of all, Gee said he plans to use his pulpit as the president of the nation's largest university to espouse his agenda for academic reform nationally. It's one thing to scream about playoffs and graduation rates when you're that kooky chancellor down at harmless little Vanderbilt; it's quite another for the president of Ohio State to go on the offensive. Which is why Gee's hiring has piqued the curiosity -– positively and negatively -– of observers around the country.
Dave Ridpath, executive director of the Drake Group (dedicated to "defending academic integrity in the face of commercialized college sports"), told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "I think Gordon Gee can be positive. He's in a position to affect college sports as a whole." Mike Cleary, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors, has a slightly different view. "When it comes to intercollegiate athletics," Cleary told the paper, "Dr. Gee's just a loose cannon."
So what do you think? Will Gee have a tangible effect on either Ohio State's program or the national collegiate landscape? Or are both enterprises already too far off the tracks for one person -- even in such a position of power -- to rein in?