SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
12/01/2007 11:22:00 PM
Champ. Saturday Observations, Part IV
Well … we’ve officially seen it all.
The No. 2 ranking truly has been a curse all season. USC. Cal. USF. Boston College. Oregon. All of them lost to unranked teams.
But the No. 2 team losing to Rutgers in mid-October is one thing. No. 2 West Virginia losing at home to 4-7 Pittsburgh the final weekend of the season with a national-championship spot theirs for the taking is only the most baffling result yet in a season already entirely devoid of logic.
Obviously, Ohio State is now in. Considering the course this season has taken, the Buckeyes inadvertently played it smart: They waited until there were no games left to rise back up to No. 2.
If the current Oklahoma-Missouri score holds up (it’s 35-17 Sooners midway through the fourth quarter as I write this), Ohio State will bypass No. 2 altogether.
In which case, the question obviously becomes, “Who should face the Buckeyes?”
That’s the question I’m going to take some time right now to seriously consider before giving any further thoughts. By my count, there are no fewer than seven teams – Georgia, Kansas, Virginia Tech, LSU, USC, Oklahoma and Hawaii -- that can make a case, which is simply staggering.
Luke Winn will be providing a first-hand account of West Virginia’s demise later tonight. You’ll hear from me as well soon enough.
Last week, West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, referring to the implications of Saturday’s Pittsburgh game, remarked, “we’re in the semifinals.”
He wasn’t kidding.
As I write this, it’s halftime of the Mountaineers-Panthers game, middle-second quarter of the Oklahoma-Missouri Big 12 title game -- and it feels like I’m watching two Final Four games at once. I’ve got no vested interest, and even I’m a little nervous, especially now that it’s looking like both games are going to provide us with suspense.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, West Virginia has developed a pretty predictable pattern: Either they come out and torch you right off the bat … or they look completely flat. Tonight, it was the latter, with 4-7 Pittsburgh’s defense holding Pat White and Co. largely in check the first 30 minutes. Making matters even more difficult for the Mountaineers, White went out with a thumb injury late in the second quarter.
Credit backup Jarrett Brown for leading West Virginia to its lone touchdown so far shortly thereafter, and in particular the Mountaineers’ defense for holding down the Panthers so far, but certainly most of us were anticipating the margin would be a lot larger than 7-3 at halftime.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s defense has done a tremendous job against Chase Daniel and the Missouri offense so far, holding the Tigers to a pair of field goals. Daniel had a nice 19-yard run on a third-and-1 draw play, and it looked like Missouri would jump ahead when it got down to the 1-yard line on second down, but the Sooners’ defense stood tall on two straight plays and maintained a 7-6 lead.
So, as of this writing (at 9:30 p.m. EST), both national-title spots are still very much up for grabs. There must be a whole lot of nervous viewers right now in Columbus, Ohio, and Athens, Ga.
Les Miles and star DT Glenn Dorsey celebrate LSU's third conference title since 2001.
After all the pregame theatrics, it would have been pretty embarrassing if college football’s newest (rumored) $3 million man lost the SEC championship game. He can thank outgoing defensive coordinator Bo Pelini for keeping that from happening.
With QB Matt Flynn out and backup Ryan Perrilloux himself playing with an injured finger, LSU’s offense struggled mightily Saturday against Tennessee, managing a sole touchdown. It looked dicey for the Tigers after the Vols went up 14-13 late in the third quarter.
But LSU’s recently maligned defense -- one playing without star Glenn Dorsey, as CBS’ broadcasters reminded us about 70 times -- came up with two huge interceptions, the first Jonathan Zenon’s 18-yard touchdown return to put the Tigers ahead, the second by Darry Beckwith when Erik Ainge had the Vols on the verge of a potential game-tying touchdown.
So Les Miles delivers the SEC title his heavily talented team was predicted to win coming into the season. LSU will head to the Sugar Bowl. I still think, however, this season should be considered a disappointment in Baton Rouge.
As evidenced by those two huge fourth-quarter plays, the Tigers had the talent on defense to win a national championship, and were in position to play for one -- twice. Dorsey’s injury certainly had a huge effect -- he’s that important -- but injuries are a part of the game. At the end of the day, the Tigers were underachievers … but they are SEC champions.
• There’s no understating the significance of what USC accomplished Saturday in clinching an unprecedented sixth straight Pac-10 championship. However, the Trojans’ largely underwhelming performance against UCLA should dispel the recent talk about USC being back in national-championship form.
The Trojans had one extremely dominant and impressive performance against Arizona State -- but that’s all it was: one game. Much like LSU, there’s no question USC had a national championship-caliber defense this season, but the offense -- specifically the passing game, which was once again inconsistent Saturday -- never quite evolved the way you would have liked.
Don’t get me wrong, though: They’re still a force to be reckoned with, and I certainly wouldn’t want to face them in the Rose Bowl. And I wouldn’t want to be Karl Dorrell right now. I’ve got to assume he just coached his last game for the 6-6 Bruins.
• Howard Schnellenberger has done it again.
The team he built from scratch, Florida Atlantic (7-5), knocked off defending champion Troy (8-4) Saturday to capture the Sun Belt title and accompanying berth in the New Orleans Bowl. Not bad for a team playing just its third season in Division I-A.
The result means that there’s now an extra at-large team (Troy) on the bowl market, but the Trojans -- which clobbered Oklahoma State early in the season -- may have trouble finding a home. The Armed Forces Bowl may be the one viable option, but it will likely have a choice between Troy and a surplus Big Ten team like Purdue.
• It’s 8 p.m. here on the East Coast: Time to watch the national championship matchup unfold in front of our eyes.
We here at SI.com present you "team coverage" this Championship Saturday. My colleague Luke Winn is in Morgantown, W. Va., for tonight's West Virginia-Pittsburgh Backyard Brawl. Below are a couple pictures he sent of the pregame scene and some commentary. ...
I spent about 45 minutes roaming around the lots outside Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday. It's miserably cold up here in the Alleghenies -- my hands were numb in about five minutes -- and yet no one seems to care. VERY rowdy here; 60 minutes of football remain between the Mountaineers and the national title game, but the scene already feels celebratory rather than tense.
Above are two of the better WVU fans I encountered during my wanderings. On the left is Ed Crowder, a 1987 graduate of the school who made his signature car flag -- "In Rod We Trust" -- for coach Rich Rodriguez's first season in 2000. Crowder already had plane tickets booked for his family to New Orleans. On the right is Gregory Watterson, a WVU senior who, for the record, is not the school's official mascot. "I sewed this thing myself," he told me; he's been wearing the Mountaineer suit for the past two seasons. Below, the greater lot scene under Crowder's flag ...
It was a wild Saturday for LSU coach Les Miles, even before the SEC title game began.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
The first bombshell of Championship Saturday took place not on a field, but in the bowels of the Georgia Dome. And it’s already sent shockwaves across the sport.
Mere hours after a former Ohio State quarterback attempted to break the scoop about Michigan’s next coach, the man presumed for months to be that coach shot down said news in no uncertain terms.
“I am the head coach at LSU, I’ll be the head coach at LSU and will be next year,” Miles told CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson shortly after holding a pregame news conference at the SEC championship where he criticized the “misinformation on ESPN.”
“You will be the head coach next year?” Wolfson followed up.
“Absolutely,” replied Miles.
I know it’s never wise to trust a coach until he signs on the dotted line. I know coaches have said one thing and done another before (see: Saban, Nick), but folks -- that’s some pretty strong wording.
It looks like Michigan is going to have to find itself a different coach.
In the world of coaching negotiations, it’s usually close to impossible to know who or what to believe. I don’t doubt that at one point (possibly as recently as this morning) Miles was Michigan-bound. But it appears LSU stepped up with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
It had been widely reported that Miles’ agent flew to Baton Rouge this week to discuss a new contract. It had also been reported that Michigan had received permission to meet with Miles after Saturday’s game. Most assumed that Miles would be donning a new baseball cap by Sunday.
Clearly, something changed -- and that something is $$$. LSU -- faced with the prospect of losing not only Miles but his logical replacement, defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who is reportedly headed to Nebraska, all while its team is supposed to be preparing to play for a conference championship -- must have stepped up to the plate in a big, big way.
No confirmed numbers have come out yet, but it’s believed LSU’s offer is in a whole other stratosphere from what Michigan was prepared to pay. We’re talking Charlie Weis/Pete Carroll/Urban Meyer-type money -- which is kind of preposterous when you consider Miles (as of 4:30 p.m. EST), while 32-6 at LSU, has not yet won a championship of any kind.
But apparently LSU decided the potential consequences of a still somewhat-fragile program (it’s still relatively new to the national stage) losing both its head coach and defensive coordinator to more “glamorous” locales would be too crippling. What we don’t know is whether that offer came before or after ESPN aired its report, thus necessitating such frantic spin control from LSU.
What does it all mean? It means that any remaining Tigers fans who have not yet embraced the “Mad Hatter” need to jump on board, because LSU just gave several million indications that Miles is the man for the long haul.
It also means Michigan might be able to hire a better coach.
That’s right. No need to view this as a nightmare, Wolverines fans. For all the hype, Miles is not the sole man in America capable of leading your football team, and in fact I’ve felt all along that Michigan was focused on the wrong guy. If AD Bill Martin is smart, he will place his next call to Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, a guy who could ultimately become Michigan’s version of Jim Tressel if given the chance.
Still, this has certainly been one of the strangest courtships in recent memory. The only thing that would make it stranger … is if Miles does a 180 tomorrow and takes the Michigan job.
Congratulations to Virginia Tech on capturing its second ACC title in its four years in the conference. It’s particularly impressive when you consider the road the Hokies took to get there -- from spending their entire preseason answering questions about the tragic shooting on their campus to a disastrous performance at LSU the second week to the last-second collapse against Matt Ryan and Boston College in late October.
But quarterbacks Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor -- the subjects of so many questions earlier in the season -- both turned it on over the final month of the season, and both played big roles in an impressive offensive showing Saturday to get revenge on the Eagles, 30-16.
UCF running back Kevin Smith continued his phenomenal junior season, running 39 times for 284 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Knights to a 44-25 Conference USA championship victory over Tulsa. Smith now has 2,448 yards on the season. If he can get 181 in UCF’s bowl game, he’ll break Barry Sanders’ Division I-A single season record.
Meanwhile, Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan’s equivalent to Tim Tebow, threw for 185 yards and a touchdown and ran for 170 yards and two scores to lead the Chippewas to their second straight MAC title with a 35-10 win over Miami (OH).
Colt Brennan and unbeaten Hawaii will hold the BCS hostage until the conclusion of their game against Washington, which kicks off at 11:30 p.m. EST.
Jordan Murph/Icon SMI
In only nine years’ time, this new-age college football “event” has become synonymous with suspense and controversy. Surely there will be more by the time this Saturday is through.
What will it be this year? Ohio State sliding into the national title game? UCLA pulling out an improbable Rose Bowl berth? Hawaii going into quadruple overtime and making us stay up until sunrise to find out if they’re going to the BCS?
I can’t wait to find out. In the meantime, a quick look back at the four most chaotic Championship Saturdays to date:
1) Dec. 5, 1998: It was the first year of the BCS, and no one knew what exactly to expect with three teams -- Tennessee, UCLA and Kansas State -- all entering the day undefeated. But first Miami stunned the 10-0 Bruins in a game rescheduled by Hurricane Georges, then Texas A&M shocked 11-0 K-State in the Big 12 title game, allowing 11-1 Florida State -- its season completed two weeks earlier -- to rise up to No. 2 and a Fiesta Bowl date with the SEC champion Vols.
2) Dec. 1, 2001: A string of upsets that a week earlier claimed No. 1 Nebraska (to Colorado) and No. 3 Oklahoma (to Oklahoma State) continued when first No. 2 Florida fell at home to Tennessee, then No. 3 Texas suffered the infamous “Chris Simms meltdown” against Colorado in the Big 12 title game. Miami wrapped up one spot in the Rose Bowl with a win over Virginia Tech, while Nebraska rose back up to claim the other a week later when the No. 2 Vols slipped up against LSU in the 9/11-delayed SEC title game.
3) Dec. 6, 2003: The day began with No. 2 USC (10-1) wondering whether it could fend off No. 3 LSU (11-1) for a Sugar Bowl date against unstoppable No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0). But then the craziest thing happened: While the Trojans cruised past Oregon State and the Tigers handled Georgia in the SEC title game, Kansas State inexplicably stomped the Sooners 35-7 in Kansas City. USC rose to No. 1 in the AP and coaches polls, but Oklahoma-LSU wound up 1-2 in the BCS standings, paving the way for a split title.
4) Dec. 2, 2006: No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) had wrapped up one half of the BCS Championship Game two weeks earlier against Michigan, and USC (10-1) figured to join the Buckeyes with a win over 6-5 UCLA. But the Bruins stunned the Trojans 13-9 in a game that ended around halftime of the SEC championship game between No. 4 Florida (11-1) and Arkansas. The Gators wound up running away from the Razorbacks 38-28 and passed the Wolverines for No. 2 in the final standings the following day.
If all goes to form this Championship Saturday, we’ll wind up with a Missouri-West Virginia clash in New Orleans on Jan. 7. If it winds up anywhere near as tumultuous as those four … maybe not.
Chase Daniel threw for 361 yards and three touchdows in the Tigers' win over previously unbeaten Kansas.
G. Newman Lowrence/Getty Images
1) That these are heady times for the spread offense. About three series into Saturday night's Kansas-Missouri game, I found that I was having trouble keeping up. The ball would be snapped and I'd still be writing down the results of the last play. That's when it occurred to me: This was the first game I'd ever covered where both teams ran a no-huddle, shotgun-spread. That's right: The one-time "gimmicky" invention has become such a fixture of the sport that both teams in the season's biggest game to date run it. If both the Tigers and West Virginia win next week, we'll be looking at the first national title game pitting two purely spread teams. If Dennis Dixon never got hurt, we might have had another such team, Oregon, in the game. And of course, last year's national champion, Florida, ran it as well.
Note that not all versions of the spread are the same. What the Mountaineers, Gators and Ducks run is the new-fangled "spread option," centered around a mobile quarterback making the "zone read" on running plays and deciding whether to hand off or run it himself. Watching Missouri's prolific attack Saturday night, it reminded me more of Purdue's old teams with Drew Brees, only with much better skill players. The Tigers don't often call designed runs for Chase Daniel, but his ability to scramble, buy time and throw on the run is very reminiscent of Brees. On Missouri's 11-yard touchdown to go up 14-0 Saturday night, Daniel rolled right and held on to the ball for about 10 seconds before throwing a dart to receiver Danario Alexander just in front of the end zone.
They say everything in football is cyclical, yet this spread craze has continued to grow for the past seven or eight years now with seemingly no end in sight. Presumably, at some point, defenses will come up with their own wrinkle (right now, the only sure-fire way to defend a good spread team is to disrupt the timing with blitzes or particularly fast pass-rushers), but in the meantime, I would think the copy-cats will only continue to grow. "The old theory was you couldn't win a championship with the spread offense," said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. "I think that's been dispelled."
2) That even Notre Dame could beat Stanford. Yes, the Irish ended their season on a certifiable tear, beating the 3-8 Cardinal 21-14 to avoid the indignity of a 10-loss season. But this item isn't about Notre Dame -- it's about USC.
Ever since the Trojans' Thanksgiving-night smackdown of then seventh-ranked Arizona State, it seems USC fans have reemerged from their two-month hibernation to resume thumping their chests. The general message (at least in my in-box and on my blog comments) is that the Trojans, finally at full strength, are back to their rightful place as the behemoths of college football and should be respected accordingly. I even heard an ESPN talking head proclaim that "no team in the country would be favored right now against USC on a neutral field." You know what? That may well be true. As Trojans LB Brian Cushing said after the Arizona State game, "We're starting to play like the team people thought we'd be." But they still shouldn't have lost to Stanford.
With the nation down to just four teams with one or no losses in this incredibly turbulent season, and with the possibility of a Missouri-West Virginia or West Virginia-Ohio State title game looming, I've noticed a bothersome trend surrounding much of the current banter. That is, many fans are starting to adopt the NFL mentality of placing undue emphasis on "who's playing the best right now." With all due respect to the aforementioned teams, it may well be that the two best teams in the country right now are USC and Georgia … but so what? If the Trojans wanted to play for the championship, they shouldn't have lost to arguably the worst team in their conference, just as the Dawgs shouldn't have gotten destroyed by Tennessee.
If and when we get to the point where we're rewarding teams that spent half the year mired in mediocrity, then finally kicked it into gear at the end, the long-held notion that "every week matters" goes sailing out the window.
3) That UCLA could reach the BCS. I'm sorry … what? Yes, it's true. Of all the strange postseason scenarios still floating around, I don't think you possibly find one any more bizarre than the fact that the Bruins, who just reached bowl eligibility this weekend, are still technically alive for the Rose Bowl.
Here's the deal: USC (9-2, 6-2 Pac-10) and Arizona State (9-2, 6-2) are currently tied for first in the Pac-10 standings, with the Trojans holding the tiebreaker following last Thursday's win. Oregon (8-3, 5-3) and UCLA (6-5, 5-3) sit a game behind following the Bruins' 16-0 win over the quarterback-depleted Ducks. If surging Arizona (5-6) upends the Sun Devils (not implausible) and KarlDorrell's Bruins pull another crosstown upset of the Trojans (highly unlikely), it would create either a three-way tie for first between USC, ASU and UCLA, all of which went 1-1 against each other, or a four-way tie with Oregon. In either case, the Bruins win the tiebreaker due to their victory over the Ducks. (If you dare to figure out how that is, read this).
The craziest part of all is, just as easily as the 6-5 Bruins could go to the Rose Bowl, they could also go to no bowl at all if they lose. If Arizona does beat ASU, it would give the Pac-10 seven bowl-eligible teams for six spots and almost assuredly restrict them to one BCS berth. Guess which would be the odd team out in that scenario? Yep -- the same team that's playing for a Rose Bowl berth next week.
4) That playing quarterback in the Pac-10 is a risky proposition. A little more detail on that 16-0 UCLA win over Oregon: The Bruins netted a grand total of 220 yards of offense, the Ducks 148. The only touchdown of the game came with 4:29 remaining. This was not the result of two epic defenses so much as it was that both teams are one more injury away from having to hold open tryouts at quarterback.
UCLA started the game with third-string, former receiver Omar Rasshan under center. After he failed to complete a pass the entire first half, the Bruins brought in still-hobbled Ben Olson for his first action since Oct. 6. He finished 4-of-10 for 64 yards. Meanwhile, a week after losing star Dixon for the rest of the season, Oregon watched replacement Brady Leaf go down in the first quarter, forcing it to use redshirt freshmen Cody Kempt and Justin Roper the rest of the way. They finished a combined 7-of-28 for 60 yards and three interceptions.
I weep for anyone who had to watch this game.
Even so, the injury trend has hardly been limited to the Bruins and Ducks. USC (John David Booty), Cal (Nate Longshore) and Washington (Jake Locker) have all had to play games without their top signal-callers as well, which helps explain how the conference race got so jumbled. It also helps explain why USC is in position to win an unprecedented sixth straight conference title next weekend: When Booty went down, the Trojans had the luxury of another former top-rated quarterback recruit, Mark Sanchez, waiting in the wings. Oregon's options after Dixon were apparently not quite as appealing; Saturday, they got shut out for the first time since 1985.
5) That Erik Ainge is the nation's most underappreciated quarterback. When Tennessee defenders brought down Kentucky's Andre Woodson short of the goal line to stop the Wildcats' two-point conversion attempt in quadruple overtime to earn a division-clinching 52-50 win Saturday, you could hear the groans all the way from Nashville to Athens, Ga., to Gainesville, Fla. Those lucky SOBs, the Vols, had done it again, this time advancing to the SEC title game. It marked their third win this season (the others: South Carolina and Vanderbilt) in which they needed a failed field-goal attempt from the opposition to survive (Kentucky's came in the second overtime).
Lost in all of Tennessee's bizarre heroics, however, have been some phenomenally clutch performances from the Vols' senior quarterback. No, he doesn't produce eye-popping numbers like Tim Tebow or Daniel, nor do you hear him mentioned alongside Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm or Colt Brennan when discussing the nation's top passers. But Ainge has had an indisputably solid season, completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,908 yards, 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He saved two of his biggest performances for the past two games, going 29-of-43 for 245 yards and three touchdowns in leading Tennessee back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit against Vanderbilt, then throwing for 397 yards and seven touchdowns in Saturday's marathon victory.
I have to think even the blindest of Vols fans would acknowledge it took some extremely fortuitous circumstances for their team to make it to Atlanta (especially considering their two conference losses came by an average margin of 32 points), but imagine where they'd be without Ainge? Probably preparing for the Independence Bowl right now rather than the SEC championship game.