SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
11/17/2007 07:57:00 PM
Saturday Observations, Part II
Nick Saban will enter his first Iron Bowl with a three-game losing streak.
Welcome to Iron Bowl week, Nick Saban. Now ... you better win.
The honeymoon is officially over for Alabama’s celebrated first-year coach, whose now 6-5 team suffered an inexplicable 21-14 loss to Louisiana-Monroe -- yes, you’re reading that right -- in what was supposed to be a harmless little pre-Auburn tune-up Saturday. Yet as bad as both that and last week’s Mississippi State loss must seem to Crimson Tide fans right now, the reality is, all will be forgotten if Saban can put an end to ‘Bama’s six-year Iron Bowl drought next week.
While anything is possible, the Tide certainly won’t go into Jordan-Hare Stadium as favorites. For most of the season, Saban seemed to be getting every possible ounce out of what was clearly an overachieving squad, right up until suffering a heartbreaking ending against No. 1 LSU two weeks ago. While no one can say for sure, that setback seemed to take the wind out of the sails, as 'Bama -- in particular QB John Parker Wilson -- hasn't been remotely the same team the past two weeks.
Of course, it won’t take much for Saban to get his troops revved up again in time for next week’s date with the hated Tigers (7-4); whether they’re actually capable of winning is another matter. Saban’s squad was close-but-not-quite against the SEC’s two highest-ranked teams (LSU and Georgia), and its most rousing wins (Arkansas and Tennessee) have come at home. The Tide will be going into the Tigers’ lair next week.
Win, and Saban will earn another year’s worth of devotion from the Tide’s ever-demanding faithful; lose … and he finishes the regular season with the same record Mike Shula did last year.
• Indiana’s 14-year bowl drought is over, while Vanderbilt’s streak looks like it will continue for a 26th straight season -- and a 49-yard field goal was the difference for both. The Hoosiers’ Austin Starr made his with 30 seconds left to stave off a 14-point fourth-quarter rally by rival Purdue and earn a much-needed seventh victory; the Commodores’ Bryant Hahnfeldt missed his with 33 seconds remaining to relegate snake-bitten Vandy to 5-6 after blowing a 24-9 fourth-quarter lead at Tennessee.
Even if the Commodores beat Wake Forest next week, the SEC’s bowl lineup (10 eligible teams already) is likely too bloated to make it at 6-6. The Big Ten’s postseason picture is similarly crowded, particularly with surging Michigan State also reaching the seven-win mark Saturday by upsetting Penn State, but both the Hoosiers and Spartans should be OK, especially with Iowa finishing 6-6 following a devastating 28-19 home loss to 3-7 Western Michigan.
I can’t begin to imagine how much heat Phillip Fulmer would be feeling today if Hahnfeldt’s field goal had gone through. Instead, his team is now a win away from playing for the SEC championship, provided it can score a 23rd straight victory over 7-4 Kentucky next week -- hardly a given. On the other hand, Purdue’s Joe Tiller, whose 7-5 team ends the regular season on a three-game losing skid, and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, whose once-lofty program sunk to its second straight 6-6 regular season, are going to start facing some difficult questions from the locals.
• No. 1 LSU (10-1) continues to bleed confidence amongst its followers while still winning games. The Tigers’ top-ranked defense gave up 478 yards to Ole Miss’ 97th-ranked offense in Saturday’s 41-24 win in Oxford. The most troubling development to Tigers followers, however, is that banged-up star Glenn Dorsey left the game in the fourth quarter. CBS’s Tracy Wolfson reported him as saying, “I’m hurting.”
• Both Missouri’s Chase Daniel (28-of-41 for 284 yards, four TDs, no INTs against Kansas State) and Kansas’ Todd Reesing (21-of-26 for 254 yards, four TDs, no INTs) cruised in their final tune-ups prior to next week’s Border War showdown. Meanwhile, Missouri super frosh Jeremy Maclin set the NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards by a freshman (2,201).
If I’m a Tigers fan, however, I’d be a little concerned about my defense, which has been up-and-down all season. In its past two games, Mizzou (10-1) has allowed a combined 58 points and 786 yards against 6-5 Texas A&M and the 5-6 Wildcats.
• One of the more stunning collapses this season has been that of formerly second-ranked Cal (6-5), which lost for the fifth time in six games Saturday, this time 37-23 at 3-7 Washington. Some of the Bears’ earlier problems could be attributed to the poor health of Nate Longshore, but the QB wasn’t responsible for allowing a Huskies offense playing without its own injured QB, Jake Locker, to rack up 334 rushing yards. This a week after USC tailback Chauncey Washington sliced Cal’s defense for 220 yards himself.
∙ I haven’t heard word much about Duke coach Ted Roof’s job status, but if by chance he does get the axe this week … would he be the first coach in history to be fired for “losing to lowly Notre Dame?”
• Finally, one outstanding player who I’ve admittedly been lax on giving pub to is the nation’s leading rusher, Tulane’s Matt Forte. The senior racked up another 194 yards and five touchdowns in the Green Wave’s 45-31 win over Rice, sending him over the 2,000-yard mark with another game still to play.
Ohio State sophomore RB Chris Wells broke a 62-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
An 11-1 record and a trip to the Rose Bowl? Not bad for a supposed “rebuilding” season.
Ohio State’s fourth straight victory over archrival Michigan clinched the program’s third straight Big Ten title, further solidifying coach Jim Tressel’s recent superiority over both Lloyd Carr’s Wolverines and the conference in general. For Michigan, the rain-drenched 14-3 defeat played out much like its 2007 season: ugly, unimpressive and affected by injuries.
The Buckeyes showed little carryover from last week’s loss to Illinois. The same defense that struggled so mightily against Illini runners Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall returned to its season-long dominating form, silencing Mike Hart’s early yapping with some suffocating tackling and overpowering Michigan’s offensive line to pressure Chad Henne, whose lingering shoulder injury visibly affected him as well.
With OSU's standout DE Vernon Gholston continually blowing up blockers (including, at one point, Michigan’s All-America left tackle Jake Long) and defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and Kurt Coleman blanketing Michigan's star receiver Mario Manningham, Ohio State held the Wolverines to a staggering 91 total yards on offense -- including just one first down the entire second half.
And while Buckeyes QB Todd Boeckman struggled with the conditions, RB Chris “Beanie” Wells assured his spot among the pantheon of memorable performers in this rivalry. A year after exploding onto the scene with 52-yard touchdown run in Ohio State’s 42-39 victory in Columbus, the sophomore took over Troy Smith’s old role as OSU’s latest Wolverines killer, rumbling for 222 yards on 39 carries, including another long touchdown (62 yards) on the game’s defining play.
If this was indeed Carr’s last game at Michigan Stadium (when asked that very thing afterward, the coach responded tellingly, "There will be a day to discuss that, and this isn't it"), it certainly wasn’t the way he wanted to go out. Nor was it the finest of hours for outgoing seniors Henne (11-of-34 for 68 yards), Hart (18 carries for 44 yards) and Long (first sack allowed this season), all of whom won a Big Ten crown as freshmen in 2004 but will finish their career having never returned to that perch -- and having never beaten Ohio State.
Making matters worse for Wolverines fans is that there’s no near end in sight to the disparity; while the Buckeyes could return as many as 20 starters next season and will once again be among the nation’s most loaded squads, the Wolverines will largely be starting over -- including, it appears, at head coach.
As I wrote yesterday, Carr badly needed a victory Saturday to bolster his legacy. As Saturday’s game was winding down, announcers Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit shared some kind words about the classy, if curmudgeonly Carr, and ABC flashed a graphic noting his career accomplishments. But with the most notable of those feats -- his 1997 national title -- now a distant memory and his record against Tressel (1-6) now more lopsided than his own one-time dominance of previous OSU counterpart John Cooper (5-1), Michigan fans have every right to be relieved about an imminent changing of the guard.
It’s got to be particularly galling that archnemesis Tressel continues to solidify himself as one of the finest coaches in the country. The man in the sweater vest (one that was covered Saturday by a spiffy Nike baseball jacket) is about to take his program to its fifth BCS bowl in six seasons. Most likely, it will be to Pasadena, the Buckeyes’ first such trip in 11 years, though a return to the BCS Championship Game is not yet out of the question. OSU will sit no lower than sixth when Sunday’s standings are released, with at least two of the three Big 12 teams above them guaranteed to lose another game.
That the possibility is even a subject of discussion seemed implausible last January when a slew of stars from last year’s national runner-up exited Columbus. This was supposed to be a transitional year for a young team that figured to endure at least a few growing pains.
As it turns out, 2007 was a transitional year for the entire Big Ten. Michigan took the most obvious lumps, but budding programs Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State also struggled early only to come on late and offer a glimpse of what will likely be a more formidable conference beginning next year.
Unfortunately for those teams, they were all left looking up at the Buckeyes for another season -- and there’s certainly no sign Ohio State's slowing down.
It really looks like this could be the last showdown between Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel.
Though I may have poked a little fun at a pair of overzealous Ohio State and Michigan fans in this week's Mailbag, the truth is, I, like many people, consider theirs the greatest rivalry in college football. (If you haven't yet, by all means check out HBO's fantastic special running this week).
I measure this not by the intensity of passion or contempt between sides -- the fact is, every rivalry, from Alabama-Auburn to Washington-Washington State to Lehigh-Lafayette, is intense for the people involved in it -- but by the fact that no rivalry more consistently carries such significant conference and/or national stakes for at least one if not both participants. This year's game is obviously no exception -- for the 10th time in 12 years, a Big Ten title is up for grabs.
I have covered three such Wolverines-Buckeyes clashes (2002, '03 and '06), but unfortunately will not be in attendance for this one. I was planning to at this time a week ago (the credential even arrived in the mail earlier this week), but after both teams lost last week and Ohio State fell from No. 1 to No. 7 in the BCS standings, I decided it would not be in my best interest. Why? Because I feared missing out on more dramatic national-title developments elsewhere.
It's been my hunch for several weeks that this had the potential to be an upset-ridden weekend in the BCS title chase. The first domino, No. 2 Oregon, already fell Thursday night. BCS No. 4 Oklahoma (at 7-4 Texas Tech) and No. 6 West Virginia (at 8-2 Cincinnati) both face daunting road challenges much like the Ducks did Friday night. Fellow travelers No. 1 LSU (at 3-7 Ole Miss) and No. 5 Missouri (at 5-5 Kansas State) may face less scary opponents, but the way this season has gone, I wouldn't take anything for granted.
The ironic thing, in light of bailing on OSU-Michigan because of its sudden irrelevance to the title race, is that one of the prime beneficiaries of Oregon's loss Thursday night and any potential further upsets this weekend could be … the Buckeyes. Less than a week after its national championship dreams appeared to be dashed, Ohio State, if it wins Saturday, will for all practical purposes rise to no lower than fourth in the revised BCS pecking order. That's because two of the three Big 12 teams ahead of them (Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri) are guaranteed to lose to one of the others either in the Nov. 24 Jayhawks-Tigers game or the Dec. 1 Big 12 championship.
That possibility, however, is still fairly remote. More realistically, both the Buckeyes and Wolverines -- just as they have so many times before over the past 60 years -- will be playing for the Rose Bowl on Saturday. And whichever team wins, one postgame storyline will tower over all others: Lloyd Carr.
Like most of my colleagues in the media, I have no definitive proof that Carr is about to retire, but I've heard enough believable scuttlebutt from enough different places to surmise that it's likely going to happen, possibly as soon as Monday. Considering what a divisive figure he's been among Wolverines faithful -- some of whom genuinely appreciate both his considerable character and his accomplishments (a national title and four Rose Bowls), others of whom despise his conservative play-calling and lament his recent failures against both the Buckeyes and bowl opponents -- Saturday's game could go a long way toward defining Carr's legacy.
Win, and he finishes above .500 (7-6) against Ohio State and gets to add another Big Ten championship to his resume. Lose, and his parting image will be that of a largely forgettable 8-4 season (one that began with a loss to a I-AA team) and yet another loss to Jim Tressel.
Yet again, both sides clearly have a lot to play for this Saturday. Nationally, however, there's a lot else going on as well. It should make for no shortage of good blog material.
Quarterback Dennis Dixon re-aggravated his knee injury midway through the first quarter.
We knew there would be more twists to both the BCS and Heisman races before this season was over. How unfortunate that the first one came on a twisted knee.
From the moment Oregon QB Dennis Dixon's leg gruesomely buckled in the first quarter of Thursday night's game against Arizona, you could almost see the Ducks' national-title hopes crumple to the ground with him. For the 19 plays Dixon was a part of Thursday night, Oregon's offense operated like the fine-tuned machine it has been all season, averaging nearly 10 yards a play. Only a bobbled Derrick Jones touchdown pass-turned-interception prevented them from going up 15-0 against the upset-minded Arizona Wildcats.
Instead, Oregon led just 8-7 when Dixon went down, kicking a field goal shortly thereafter to go up for the last time, 11-7. With their leader relegated to the sideline and replacement Brady Leaf (22-of-46, 147 yards, two interceptions) so visibly in over his head, the Ducks played like a devastated team.
Without Dixon, their offense went from previously limitless to highly limited, with RB Jonathan Stewart (28 carries, 129 yards) their lone real threat. One of Leaf's errant passes got picked by Wildcats All-American Antoine Cason and returned for the first of three straight second-quarter Arizona touchdowns (including a dazzling Cason punt return as well) to put the nation's newest (and, accordingly, cursed) No. 2 team in a 20-point hole.
At the same time all this was going on, ESPN's Erin Andrews kept us abreast of the budding drama on the Ducks' sideline. Dixon was ruled out for the night almost immediately. Oregon's trainer, she told us, had tears in his eyes. Dixon's father was summoned from the stands and stood by his side as the senior gingerly walked to the locker room for further evaluation.
Save for a couple long first-half completions by Arizona QB Willie Tuitama, the Ducks' defense played admirably, even shutting out the Wildcats for most of the second half. Oregon’s offense, after struggling for most of the second and third quarters, finally grinded out a 17-play touchdown drive to get back within a 31-24 margin midway through the fourth quarter. But the Wildcats drove just far enough to kick the game-sealing 46-yard field goal with 3:20 left, as a throng of jubilant Arizona students began lining the sideline for what would be a massive field-storming.
Thus, Mike Stoops' surging team (5-6) pulled off its fourth straight November upset of a ranked Pac-10 opponent, while putting itself in position to reach its first bowl game since 1998 -- if the Wildcats can knock off rival Arizona State on Dec. 1. Suddenly Oregon (8-2) has been bounced from its driver's seat for not only the BCS title game but the Rose Bowl as well. (The 9-1 Sun Devils, despite losing 35-23 to Oregon on Nov. 3, moved back into first place in the Pac-10 with the Ducks' loss). Suddenly 10-0 Kansas is in position to rise to No. 2 in the BCS standings.
And suddenly, Dixon, who entered the night no worse than co-leader with Florida's Tim Tebow in the Heisman chase, may be out of contention entirely. Both his and the Ducks' fortunes will be determined in large part by the severity of Dixon's injury. If he can return in time for next week's game at UCLA, both the Rose Bowl and the Heisman could still be salvaged.
If not, Oregon will be hard-pressed just to win its remaining games. For all his spread-option mastery and numerous highlight-reel plays, Dixon's injury showed just how valuable he really is.
In addition to throwing four TD passes, Illini QB Juice Williams rushed for 70 yards on 16 carries against Ohio State.
1) That the Big Ten isn't the "Big Two" after all. It may sound contradictory, considering one of its teams, Ohio State, may have just blown its national title hopes, but the Big Ten took a big step toward restoring its damaged reputation Saturday. If you trace the anatomy of the stigma that league has endured this season, it derives from the fact that the Buckeyes and Michigan embarrassed themselves in last year's bowl season -- with the Wolverines digging a further hole the first two games of this season -- yet seemed to remain a step above their conference peers through the first six games of league play. Obviously, it did not speak well for the rest of the league that nobody could beat the team that lost to Appalachian State or that nobody but Florida could hold a candle to Ohio State the past two years.
Saturday, however, "nobody" became somebody in dramatic fashion. By becoming the first team in 29 regular-season games to knock off the Buckeyes -- and to do so in Columbus, in such impressive fashion, no less -- 8-3 Illinois legitimized itself in a big way. While it was obvious for some time that Ron Zook had the Illini, 2-10 a year ago, headed in the right direction, Juice Williams and Co. delivered a message that they're going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. They've most likely already wrapped up a New Year's bowl berth and, with a win over Northwestern next week, will finish the season tied for the second in the conference, having beaten Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin and lost a close shootout to now-9-1 Missouri.
Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, the Badgers have looked much more like the team that went 12-1 last year than the imposters that struggled to stay afloat from mid-September through mid-October. Certainly, the Badgers benefited from facing a Michigan team sans Chad Henne and Mike Hart, but don't underestimate Wisconsin's own injury issues throughout the season. Star CB Jack Ikegwuonu, finally back at full strength, made the key play of Saturday's Michigan win when, with Wisconsin clinging to a 23-21 lead, he jumped a slant route by Mario Manningham to pick off Wolverines QB Ryan Mallett with 4:37 left. Two weeks earlier, he helped hold Indiana star James Hardy to four catches for 17 yards.
It will still be somewhat embarrassing for the conference should the same Michigan team that got so thoroughly outclassed by current Pac-10 front-runner Oregon wind up representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. More important, however, is that someone from the conference finally stood up to an Ohio State team in admitted rebuilding mode. The backlash that would have engulfed the Buckeyes were they to suffer another national title beatdown would have been both undeserved (it's not the Buckeyes' fault their conference is down) and unimaginable; now they have a chance to both achieve a goal (the Rose Bowl) above and beyond their preseason expectations while laying the groundwork for a more feasible title run in 2008. Remember, Jim Tressel's team did win four straight bowl games before last season.
2) That it's definitely not Tyrone Willingham's fault. Remember when Willingham was the convenient scapegoat for Notre Dame's early-season woes? You know the drill. He couldn't recruit, he left Charlie Weis with a lack of talented upperclassmen, blah, blah, blah. Even if we were to accept that excuse as 100 percent true, the ship sailed somewhere around mid-October. The Irish can no longer claim they're losing to more talented opponents, because there are no four- or five-star recruits on the rosters at Navy and Air Force.
Notre Dame has at least two classes worth of such purported future stars, all of whom have now had at least 10 games' experience. Yet not only do the Irish (1-9) keep losing, they keep losing the same exact way. Watching Air Force's pass rushers routinely smother Jimmy Clausen in the first half of Saturday's 41-24 rout, eventually finishing with six sacks, you'd think you were watching a loop of the Georgia Tech or Penn State games from the beginning of the year. Watching Falcons QB Shaun Carney (who I'm convinced, by the way, has been playing for Air Force since at least 1989) sling touchdown passes to one wide-open receiver after another, you'd think you were watching ... well, just about any Notre Dame game from the past three years.
Weis may well be the masterful game-planner he professes to be (he certainly did not win 19 games the past two years by blind luck), but that doesn't do a whole lot of good if the players aren't capable of executing. The inexperience card may have held water early in the season, but at some point, it falls on the coach to make sure his youngsters are actually learning from their mistakes, which these Irish quite clearly are not. "If you're going to play a bunch of young players, they need to understand that being young is no reason or no excuse not to be on the same page as the older guys," Weis said Saturday. "Somewhere along the line, you have to find that blend, that mesh, that gets your team to play a hungry, aggressive style of football with a lot more efficiency than what we're playing right now." Translation: I've never really had to coach 18- and 19-year-olds before, and I'm still trying to figure it out myself."
3) That Georgia could be the national title "X-factor.". It's not often a team completely reinvents itself mid-season, but the Dawgs appear to have done just that -- right down to their uniform colors. Following consecutive SEC smackdowns of both Florida (42-30) and Auburn (45-20), you'd never know this was the same Georgia team that was overly grateful just to win at Vanderbilt a month ago. The truth is, it's not the same team. Since that Vandy game, the Dawgs have found themselves both a swagger (thanks in large part to the previously laid-back Mark Richt's celebration challenge against the Gators) and an identity -- which is, to ride freshman RB Knowshown Moreno (160.5 yards per game and eight TDs over the past four games) and force turnovers (12 in four games).
Suddenly, 8-2 Georgia is the SEC's hottest team and could well spoil No. 1 LSU's national title hopes, and possibly even boost their own (they're already up to No. 8 in the polls with three more weeks of potential top-10 upsets ahead), were the two to meet in Atlanta on Dec. 1. However, the Dawgs, at 5-2 in the SEC, don't control their own destiny. They need Tennessee to lose a game to make that LSU matchup happen, because the Vols (7-3, 4-2 SEC), lest we forget, whipped Georgia 35-14 on Oct. 6. Never in a million years would one have guessed at the time that, a little more than a month later, the Dawgs would be 11 spots ahead of Tennessee in the rankings. Actually, come to think of it, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but neither has much of anything else this season.
4) That Hawaii's had a nice little run ... that's about to end.Colt Brennan and Co. were enjoying another banner night for most of Saturday's game against Fresno State. The senior quarterback had completed 28-of-39 passes for 396 yards and tied the NCAA career-touchdown record (121), while the Warriors had raced to leads of 31-7 and 37-16, when Hawaii's worst nightmare came to fruition. The stadium went silent when, while scrambling on a third-down play with 10:16 remaining, Brennan took a shot from Bulldogs LB Marcus Riley. He left the game with a concussion. With Brennan sidelined, Hawaii's offense, not surprisingly, went quiet, and Fresno State tacked on two touchdowns to make the final margin a more respectable 37-30.
Afterward, coach June Jones said his star quarterback was fine and would be ready to go Friday night when Hawaii visits 5-4 Nevada, but truthfully, it might not matter. For one thing, even if Brennan plays, it's unlikely he won't be at least somewhat affected by the injury, and Hawaii becomes a shell of itself on the rare occasions Brennan struggles or does not play. Even then, the simple fact is, the 2007 Warriors simply aren't as dominant as their 2006 predecessors. They're not putting up 60-plus points every week like they were this time a year ago, and when they go on the road, they flat-out struggle. They needed overtime to win at both 4-6 Louisiana Tech and 4-6 San Jose State. Against the Wolf Pack, they'll face a far more potent foe, one that took Boise State to quadruple-overtime at Boise and has averaged 540 yards in the five games since sophomore Colin Kaepernick (13 TDs, two INTs) took over at quarterback, not to mention Nevada will be playing with an extra eight days' rest. Johnny Cash once watched a man die in Reno; something tells me we're going to watch 9-0 Hawaii's BCS hopes suffer the same fate.
5) That we (the pollsters) have no idea who's No. 1 this year. Granted, that's been apparent for quite some time now, but perhaps the greatest testament yet to this season's mass feeling of uncertainty is the fact that on Nov. 11, five different teams received No. 1 votes in the AP and coaches polls. Last week, 60 of 65 AP voters had Ohio State No. 1, the other five had LSU. This week, those 60 Ohio State votes got split among LSU (35), Oregon (22), Oklahoma (1), Kansas (1) and West Virginia (1), and I believe you could make a legitimate argument for all but the Mountaineers. (Clearly, that person watched a different Louisville game than I did last Thursday.)
Furthermore, all five could conceivably lose another game. Would anyone be all that surprised at this point to see 3-7 Ole Miss take down 9-1 LSU in Oxford next week? (The Rebels took the Tigers to overtime in Baton Rouge this week a year ago.) The Ducks face potential road traps the next two weeks at Arizona and UCLA. The Sooners, who have been a completely different team the road (where that loss at 5-6 Colorado is looking worse every week) than at home, could easily fall in Lubbock this week; the Jayhawks face 9-1 Missouri in two weeks; and the up-and-down Mountaineers visit 8-2 Cincinnati this weekend.
I may be no Mark May -- who not only predicted on air Friday that Illinois would beat Ohio State but described the exact fashion in which they wound up doing it -- but back on Oct. 14, the day after then-No. 1 LSU lost at Kentucky and then-No. 2 Cal lost to Oregon State, I was asked by Sports Illustrated to "predict" the five BCS bowl matchups for its midseason package. Absent a dartboard, I leafed through the various contenders' remaining schedules and settled on a title-game matchup of ... LSU and Oregon. Just four Saturdays later, the pair have in fact worked their way up to No. 1 and 2 ... and yet, I kind of feel like I just scored the go-ahead touchdown but may have left too much time on the clock for the other team.