SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
1/05/2008 03:27:00 PM
Media Day Mystery: 'Where's the Hat?'
Les Miles' hat -- or a lack thereof -- was a hot topic Saturday.
NEW ORLEANS -- In nine years of attending BCS title-game Media Days, I've found that 90 percent of the questions fall into one of two categories: The most obvious, beaten-to-death storylines (Saturday morning, I watched Ohio State tackle Kirk Barton answer three different questions about SEC speed -- including a question about whether he was tired of answering such questions –- in a two-minute span) and the type of inane, off-the-wall questions someone would only ask at a Media Day.
For instance, the very first question posed to LSU coach Les Miles on Saturday was: "Where's your hat?"
"It doesn't stay on my head all the time," replied Miles.
Miles, who was in a pretty light-hearted mood throughout his hourlong question, actually spent an inordinate amount of time Saturday discussing his ubiquitous baseball cap, from its origins ("For as long as I've been coaching, I've been wearing a hat," he said. "This is the first time anyone's noticed.") to his penchant for wearing them higher on his head than most ("Hats really have changed. They come down a little flatter in the front," said Miles. "It's kind of important to me that there's a little high-rise on the front end of the hat. I like a traditional cap if you don't mind."
As you can see, we in the media constantly have to find new subjects to amuse us when every possible angle one could ever think of about an upcoming football game has already been covered.
· I've heard a lot about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina during my time here the past week, but nothing as poignant and personal as the tales told Saturday by Ohio State defensive lineman Nader Abdallah, the Buckeyes' lone New Orleans native.
"I knew a couple people from middle school that passed away," said Abdallah, who grew up in the Magnolia Projects in Central City. "They found their bodies floating down the river." Abdallah described how his brother, Salameh, passed out from fumes at his home and eventually swam a mile through the streets to reach safety. His family ran a popular grocery in the neighborhood, LaSalle Street Market, that was completely destroyed by the hurricane. "The store got flooded out, caught on fire and burnt down," said Abdallah. "It was a complete loss."
Abdallah's parents temporarily moved up to Columbus after the hurricane before returning to nearby Palestine, La. Salameh, another brother and sister relocated to Houston. The entire family has returned to New Orleans this week, however, to watch Nader play for the national championship. They also visited the site of the former store this week and "reminisced about old times," said Nader.
· Three years ago, Ryan Perrilloux was a cocky high school senior who proclaimed he was going to beat out future No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell when he signed with LSU. Between sitting behind both Russell and Matt Flynn for three years and a series of off-the-field issues (he was questioned in a federal investigation into a counterfeiting operation and later caught using a fake ID to enter a casino) have left him significant humbled and fortunate to even be on the team (Miles did not officially reinstate him this year until the start of fall practice).
"I messed up, but in order to make things better, I needed to excel in other things around football," said the third-year sophomore. "I went to every class, got excellent grades. Coach Miles took me back on the team because I'm a good person. I wasn't trying to do things that would hurt the team.
I'm extremely thankful to him. "I think all the time how maybe I couldn't have been part of this year."
Perrilloux wound up playing a significant role in LSU reaching this game, serving as a highly effective change-of-pace quarterback to Flynn and filling in for him in the Tigers' SEC championship victory over Tennessee. With Flynn recovered from injury, the athletic Perrilloux will return to his former role for Monday's game.
"I try to amp the team up [when he comes in]," said Perrilloux. "Run the option, try to pick up those 10 to 15 yards. Keep everyone on the offense amped up."
· How's this for a mental image: Jim Tressel on Bourbon Street.
Despite the obvious admission that he's "not a Bourbon Street type of guy," Tressel has in fact strolled the vice-filled street, though not on this trip.
"When the [coaches] convention was here in January 2003, I said, 'I need a hamburger,'" said the Ohio State coach. "We asked a guy, he said, ‘Go north on Bourbon Street, there's the greatest hamburger you'll ever get. And he was right."
First of all, is that not a perfect Tressel story or what? Secondly, my fellow writers and I are 99 percent certain he was referring to the noted burger joint Port of Call, which is in fact a block from Bouron Street.
Meanwhile, Tressel's LSU counterpart, Miles, actually took a half-hour stroll down Bourbon Street last night. "It was a lot of fun," said Miles. "It was cool."
· Media Day protocol is that the head coach and five or six star players sit on risers on the Superdome turf while the rest of the team hangs around in the bleachers. Besides the few notable players (like Perrilloux) who draw a crowd of reporters, most of the players usually sit there in boredom for an hour.
A group of LSU's players, however, led by backup cornerback/resident comedian Jai Eugene, kept both themselves and observers entertained Saturday. First, Eugene "cut a rug" while the players surrounding him provided a beat by banging on chairs. Then, in one of those standard Media Day bits where a TV station hands over the camera to the players, Eugene, with the help of co-host Demetrius Byrd, performed a hilarious "sermon" about making a sandwich.
I didn't quite understand it, but there were a lot of references to Miracle Whip.
· As I write this blog entry from my hotel room, I've got the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on in the background, and I just saw what the Terrelle Pryor hype is all about. The coveted quarterback prospect (and potential future Buckeye) just rolled right, stopped and threw a touchdown pass across his body to the opposite corner of the end zone.
UPDATE: LSU just picked up a commitment from the nation's No. 1 defensive prospect, defensive back Patrick Johnson. Good week to be Les Miles.
· By no means am I a recruiting junkie, by the way, yet this game still seemed a more appealing viewing option than the Rutgers-Ball State International Bowl taking place at the same time. I'll be curious to see which draws a larger viewing audience.
As one of the hardest runners in the nation, LSU's Jacob Hester has averaged five yards a pop this season.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS -- It’s Day Seven for me here in the Big Easy, and I kind of feel like one of these LSU players here talking about how refreshed they feel following such a grueling regular season.
Like them, I was feeling pretty “banged up” there in the days right before and after New Year’s (as a result of some poor “game management” on my part), but following a much-needed good night’s rest, I’m feeling recharged and ready for the stretch run here leading up to Monday night’s game.
• LSU running back Jacob Hester has become something of a cult hero among Tigers followers, revered for his blue-collar mentality and seemingly overachieving production. At Friday’s media event featuring the Tigers’ offense, Hester was by far the most deluged by reporters, finally needing a school escort to whisk him out the door after a sea of television cameras cornered him following his scheduled session.
You can tell offensive coordinator Gary Crowton flat out adores the versatile tailback/fullback, making no bones about the fact he’s the No. 1 priority in LSU’s running game despite the presence of flashier runners like Keiland Williams and Trindon Holliday. “Jacob is going to get his carries, and the others [depend] on how the game develops,” said Crowton.
Wide receiver Early Doucet offered the most succinct explanation, however, for why the 6-foot, 228-pound Hester is so universally beloved by both his team and its fans. “If you looked at him walking down the street, you wouldn’t even think he’s a football player,” said Doucet. “He’s deceptively athletic.”
• Rumors have been circulating this week that Ohio State is planning to utilize mobile backup quarterback Antonio Henton as a “wrinkle” against LSU. Henton, who was suspended for seven games following an arrest for soliciting a prostitute and was not reinstated until the Buckeyes’ regular-season finale against Michigan, attempted just six passes and seven runs all season. But the buzz among those who cover the Buckeyes regularly is that OSU -- perhaps taking a cue from Florida’s use of Tim Tebow in last year’s title game -- has something up its sleeve.
“I'd be surprised if he doesn't play," said receiver Brian Hartline. "He's going to add one of those wrinkles we were talking about. That's something you have to game plan for.”
If it’s true, Buckeyes offensive coordinator Jim Bollman certainly isn’t tipping his hand. “Is it a plan to put him in the third series or something?” said Bollman. “I don’t foresee it.”
• LSU players on Friday recounted the amusing tale of how they found out their once-vanquished title hopes had been resuscitated. On their charter flight back from Atlanta following the Dec. 1 SEC championship game in Atlanta, the pilot relayed updates from the ground regarding the brewing Pittsburgh-West Virginia upset “about 15 times,” said quarterback Matt Flynn.
For the Oklahoma-Missouri game, however, the pilot could only provide the final score, and even then with the caveat that he “wasn’t 100 percent sure this is right.”
“Me and Matt were sitting together, and I said, ‘If he’s [wrong], I’m throwing him off this plane when we land,’ ” said Hester. “It was a little nerve-wracking until my cell phone came on.”
• Tonight will provide a rare opportunity for some of us in the media to interact informally with one of the sport’s reigning coaching darlings -- and the engineer of a huge Orange Bowl victory just 24 hours earlier, no less. The Football Writers Association is holding a reception here to honor Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year recipient Mark Mangino, whose remarkable turnaround job at Kansas reached its crowning moment with Thursday night’s win over Virginia Tech.
With the win, the Jayhawks finished their season with an astounding 12-1 record and presented a unique challenge for pollsters like me when it comes time to fill out our final ballots: In what order should one rank 11-3 Oklahoma (which won the Big 12 but got crushed by West Virginia earlier this week), 12-2 Missouri (which crushed Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl but lost twice to the Sooners) and 12-1 Kansas (which lost to the Tigers)?
• Finally, while there are only about 8,000 fine dining establishments here in the Crescent City, I can at least offer a first-hand endorsement to Dick & Jenny’s, a quaint but revered spot in the city’s “Uptown” area where myself, colleagues Austin Murphy and Mark Beech and a couple guests dined last night. The food was phenomenal.
Bill Stewart went 8-25 as the head coach at VMI from 1994-96.
NEW ORLEANS -- I’ll get to Ohio State-LSU (the reason I’m here) in a second, but I have to take a moment to comment on West Virginia’s incredibly bizarre decision to promote interim coach Bill Stewart to head coach based solely on Wednesday night’s Fiesta Bowl rout of Oklahoma. It’s a fitting and, most likely, disastrous end to what had already been one of the most dim-witted coaching searches I’ve ever witnessed.
In the 17 days since Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, the school’s “search committee” first settled on Florida assistant Doc Holliday, only to have state governor/de facto athletic director Joe Manchin nix it. Manchin then put in a call inquiring about childhood friend Nick Saban’s availability, then tried unsuccessfully to work out a deal to pry Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State. Then the school interviewed Central Michigan coach Butch Jones twice, left both him and Terry Bowden hanging in the wind, hired a search firm to help sort out the mess … then, somewhere around the fourth quarter Wednesday night, decided, “Heck … this guy right here seems pretty good.”
I must confess, I know very little about Stewart, who seems like a nice enough -- and certainly enthusiastic -- fellow. But the best coaching hires are made by professionals who remove emotion from the equation -- and the short-sighted decision to hand over a nationally prominent program to a guy who went 8-25 as the head coach at VMI just because he kicked Oklahoma’s butt is the definition of a decision based purely on emotion. (That, or the fact that they got him for the incredibly low, low price of $800,000 a year, cheap even by Conference USA standards.)
Maybe Stewart will turn out to be the next Bill Belichick, but I’d guess he has a much better chance of becoming the next Bill Doba. Promoting an interim coach based on short-term success (Bobby Williams at Michigan State), or promoting an assistant just because he’s popular with the current players (Larry Coker at Miami), doesn’t usually work out in the long run. With Pat White and Noel Devine, it would be hard for any coach to screw up next year’s team, but two to three years down the road, the school will likely rue its hasty decision.
Meanwhile, university president Mike Garrison couldn’t resist taking one last parting shot at Rodriguez, the guy most responsible for the Mountaineers reaching the Fiesta Bowl in the first place, in announcing Stewart’s hiring. “We know we now have a coach who truly values the opportunity to work as the head football coach at West Virginia University,” said Garrison.
I’m sure that will provide great comfort in 2009 when the Mountaineers are fighting for a spot in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
• National-championship week seems like it’s only really beginning here (I could count on one hand the number of Ohio State and LSU fans I saw on the desolate streets here while running errands early this afternoon), but at the Tigers’ first press conference here Thursday, defensive coordinator Bo Pelini referred to how the team’s preparations are already “starting to wind down.”
That’s because LSU is treating Monday’s game as if it were a Saturday, which means it held its regular “Monday” practice before leaving campus Wednesday and its “Tuesday” practice on Thursday. By “Wednesday” of a regular game week (tomorrow), the Tigers start “tapering” the amount of full-scale contact and game action and begin to “polish,” as Les Miles put it.
All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey seemed pretty fired up when talking about the team’s practices so far. “Everybody’s flying around out there,” he said.
• Just how much film study goes into preparing for a bowl game? Pelini said Thursday that he’s watched tape not only of every Ohio State game this season but of every bowl the Buckeyes have played under Jim Tressel. “We’ve done our homework,” he said. You think?
• It’s always good to have Ohio State quote machine Kirk Barton around. At the Buckeyes’ press conference Thursday, the senior tackle said this week’s trip into the heart of LSU country “was kind of like Rocky IV, when he goes to Russia, gets off the plane and the KGB is with him.”
• During LSU’s holiday break, Dorsey served as grand marshal of a Christmas parade in his hometown of Gonzalez, La. “I got to ride around in a car, and they gave me the key to the city,” he recounted excitedly. Did he get to toss candy? “No,” said Dorsey. “No candy.” The image of a 6-foot-2, 303-pound man riding in a parade car is amusing enough -- if he’d been tossing candy, I’d upgrade it to flat-out outstanding.
• The format of these title-game press conferences is that each team brings its coordinator and five key players from one side of the ball one day, the other side the next. Ohio State’s offense was up Thursday, and in nine years of covering these things, this is the first time I can remember a team not including its quarterback (Todd Boeckman) among its five players.
Meanwhile, here are the five defensive players the Buckeyes are bringing tomorrow: cornerback Kurt Coleman, linebacker Marcus Freeman, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, safety Anderson Russell and defensive lineman Doug Worthington. Notice anyone missing from there?
• Finally, I must say, it was kind of weird seeing the head coach of Nebraska (Pelini) wearing a purple-and-gold pullover. Can you imagine Tom Osborne wearing those colors? Just another awkward moment in the sport’s ever-clunky coaching carousel.
Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday.
NEW ORLEANS -- On the day after what Georgia coach Mark Richt appropriately dubbed “the longest game in the history of college football that didn’t go to overtime,” a changing of the guard was underway here at the Marriott. Moments after bidding adieu to one of Georgia’s beat writers as he toted his luggage to the elevator, I turned a hallway and immediately ran into one of Ohio State’s arriving beat writers.
Most of the Buckeyes themselves arrived here around noon Wednesday (somehow making it here from Columbus five hours before LSU was scheduled to arrive from an hour away), though some who traveled individually from their hometowns rather than on the team charter were delayed by the weather in Chicago and elsewhere. Jim Tressel issued the customary compliments to his hosts at a surprisingly packed press conference at the team’s hotel.
“It is going to be great for our young people to have a chance to experience this and see [New Orleans], the city they’ve read so much about,” said Tressel. “We’re excited to get to work."
This will be a much more condensed bowl week for the Buckeyes than it was in Arizona last year, where they arrived on Dec. 29 for the Jan. 8 game against Florida. This year, both Ohio State and LSU are only scheduled to hold three full practices here prior to Monday’s title game.
• I was curious to see what effect yesterday’s lopsided matchups had on both the Rose and Sugar bowls’ ratings. Sure enough, the overnight Nielsen ratings showed both were down significantly, though not drastically, from last year: The Rose Bowl fell from 14.5 last year (for USC-Michigan) to 12.0; the Sugar from 9.8 (LSU-Notre Dame) to 7.9.
Interestingly, the Michigan-Florida Capital One Bowl skyrocketed from 5.8 (for Wisconsin-Arkansas) to 9.9, an absolutely humongous number for a non-BCS game and higher than not only Georgia-Hawaii but last year’s Oklahoma-Boise State Fiesta Bowl. That says to me the BCS/non-BCS distinction is not necessarily the end-all, be-all it’s often made out to be, and that there’s still a huge premium on “brand-name” teams amongst the viewing public.
• I’m holding out hope that tonight’s Oklahoma-West Virginia Fiesta Bowl will offer a much-needed dose of drama following yesterday’s pair of BCS blowouts … but I’m not too optimistic.
Just as the nation got to see two powerful teams at the top of their game yesterday in USC and Georgia, the Sooners are a pretty darned good team that was playing its best football of the year at the end of the regular season when it trounced then-No. 1 Missouri. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, were last seen laying a gigantic egg against Pittsburgh, and that was before they lost their coach. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m guessing the BCS will be 0-for-3 by the end of the night.
• With all but a handful of teams’ seasons now complete and the coaching carousel winding down, the next big story in college football will be the impending exodus of underclassmen to the NFL. The first big shoe dropped Wednesday with Texas tailback Jamaal Charles declaring himself eligible. I must admit, that one caught me by surprise. There’s no question Charles is supremely talented and had a huge second-half of the season, but Texas players rarely leave early (Vince Young was the first under Mack Brown), and I’m not sure Charles is a first-round lock.
Charles’ decision certainly impacts the Longhorns’ 2008 prospects tremendously. Some young tailback who’s barely seen the field -- maybe coveted recruit Darrell Scott? -- is going to have to step up in a big way next season.
• That’s all for now. I’ll have more to report tomorrow after Ohio State and LSU hold their first full press conferences and practices.
NEW ORLEANS – We’re about a half-hour from kickoff here at the Sugar Bowl, but the Sugardome is already full and loud. Despite the impressive turnout from Hawaii, it’s still an overwhelmingly pro-Georgia crowd and they got mighty loud when the band played the school’s fight song.
Warriors fans got pretty loud themselves, however, when the Hawaii players did their traditional ha’a war chant just before leaving the field following pre-game warm-ups. It was quite a sight to behold watching an entire college football team perform what is essentially a choreographed dance in front of a packed 80,000-seat dome before the start of a BCS bowl. It was one of those truly, “only in college football moments.”
∙ The grandest college football tradition of all, of course, is usually the Rose Bowl, but to the surprise of absolutely no one, this year’s turned out to be an absolute stinker. In a near carbon copy of last year’s game against Michigan, USC’s offense looked largely stagnant in the first half, but QB John David Booty – with the help of freshman tailback Joe McKnight – began pouring it on after halftime, and Illinois’ repeated turnovers sure did not help the Illini.
What always amazes me about Pete Carroll’s teams is that, like a lot of teams, his was obviously hoping to end the season elsewhere both last season and this one, yet unlike many of those, whose dejection ultimately surfaces in the form of a flat performance, his still come out and dominate like the national championship is indeed on the line. And that’s despite the fact neither last year’s or this year’s Trojans offense was anywhere near the level of their 2002-05 predecessors.
∙ It’s time for me to turn my attention to the game at hand. I have no idea how it’s going to play out. I’m only certain of one thing: With Colt Brennan throwing 40-50 times and FOX cramming in the commercials, don’t expect it to end much before 1 a.m. on the East Coast.
Michigan players carried Lloyd Carr off the field following Michigan's 41-35 upset win over Florida.
NEW ORLEANS -- If ever you wondered just how much the BCS has affected college football, you should have been at the Gordon Biersch down the street from my hotel here during the second half of Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl.
At tables all around me in the restaurant’s packed bar area, I watched full-fledged Georgia fans openly root for purportedly hated rival Florida to beat Michigan. Are you kidding me? This whole conference-supremacy debate has become so consuming that fans will actually root for a team they despise 364 days a year in the interest of (in this case) the SEC’s bowl record.
Of course, when Michigan ultimately stymied Tim Tebow and the Gators for the final time, they immediately turned to taking joy in watching Urban Meyer’s dejected expression. “Start crying, Urban,” yelled one of them.
No matter who you were rooting for, it had to bring a smile to your face to see the rare smile on Lloyd Carr’s face as his players carried him off the field following a surprising and impressive career sendoff victory. For all the hype over Tebow and teammate Percy Harvin -- both of whom were tremendous as always, but unfortunately, accounted for all their team’s offense -- Michigan’s Chad Henne, Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington and Mike Hart proved more powerful.
It had to be a sweet ending what had previously been a highly disappointing season for the 9-4 Wolverines with a win. And it was a bitter defeat for a 9-4 Florida team that was hoping to use this game as a launching pad to another national-title run next season but instead showed their inexperienced defense is still littered with holes.
As for the whole Big Ten-SEC debate (which had already begun in full force under my previous blog entry before I even sat down to start writing this), the fact is, Michigan beating Florida is no more or less an indication of one league’s strength over the other than Tennessee’s win over Wisconsin or whatever happens in Ohio State-LSU. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again: Individual bowl results are indicative of the teams involved, not entire conferences.
That said, I can fully understand why Big Ten fans who’ve endured 12 months of criticism are taking a little bit of delight in seeing the supposedly "slow" Wolverines knock off the supposedly "speedy" defending national champions and their reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
• Impressive comeback victory by Texas Tech against Virginia in the Gator Bowl. The Cavs’ defense had done a nice job keeping the Red Raiders’ normally explosive offense out of the end zone for most of the game, but a Graham Harrell strike to Michael Crabtree with 3:39 left and a costly turnover by Virginia backup QB Peter Lalich turned things in a hurry, ultimately setting up a game-winning field goal.
Tech finished with about the same record (9-4) as they always do, but considering their performance over the last three games of the season -- taking Texas to the wire in Austin, then knocking off Oklahoma and Virginia -- and the fact that Harrell, Crabtree and nearly the entire offense return next season, Mike Leach may finally field a team with legit BCS hopes.
• Finally, I don’t think it truly hit me that Illinois is in the Rose Bowl until I actually saw Ron Zook and Juice Williams standing on that fabled field. With all due respect, they looked about as out of place as I would at a fashion show.
Which is not to say this couldn’t still turn into a good game, but I’ve already observed at least one major mismatch: when ABC’s cameras showed consecutive shots of the USC Song Girls followed by their Illinois counterparts. Umm … yeah.
Mike Hart and the Wolverines were heavy underdogs coming into the Capital One Bowl.
NEW ORLEANS -- Well, this has been an unusual -- and pleasant -- New Year’s Day for me so far.
Most years, I’m covering the Rose Bowl, which requires leaving the hotel about five hours early and is not exactly conducive to watching the early games. This year, it’s the Sugar Bowl, where kickoff is not until 7:47 p.m. local time and the Superdome is literally right down the street. It’s going to be a late, late night, but in the meantime, I get to lounge around and watch football like the rest of America.
• I’m always leery of commenting on games while still in progress, but as of halftime of the Capital One Bowl, I could not be more impressed with the way Michigan’s offense is playing. We’re seeing what might have been had Chad Henne and Mike Hart ever been healthy simultaneously, and if Lloyd Carr had not waited until the last game of his career to open up his playbook.
• Props to Wisconsin QB Tyler Donovan for a gutsy performance in which he was basically under constant duress the entire first half and briefly got knocked out, but Tennessee prevailed thanks to a defensive front that had its ups and downs all year but ended with two pretty solid performances. Bret Bielema’s puzzling decision not to kick the easy field goal, down 21-17 with nearly six minutes remaining, certainly contributed as well.
• Raise your hand if you figured the 282-yard rusher in the Cotton Bowl would come from … Missouri. Or that the Chase Daniel would throw for 137 yards and the Tigers would still crush Arkansas 38-7. Hats off to Tony Temple on his epic rushing performance. Not that the outcome would have been different, but I’m thinking the Razorbacks were a tad distracted this week.
• When’s the last time you saw a team score two safeties in the same half? That’s what Virginia did in the Gator Bowl thanks to two intentional groundings in the end zone by Texas Tech.
• I’m about to go out and grab lunch, but I can tell you from last night that the Hawaii “sea of green” from earlier in the week has since been enveloped by a small army of red-clad Georgia fans, many of whom presumably made the eight-hour drive the day before the game.
And they, like me, can’t wait to see Hawaii perform its pregame war chant/dance tonight.
Thomas Brown will be the Bulldogs' starting tailback in the Sugar Bowl.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS -- The Sugar Bowl head coaches held their final pregame press conferences here Monday afternoon, and Georgia’s Mark Richt raised a couple of eyebrows with a bit of “news” regarding redshirt freshman sensation Knowshon Moreno.
While answering a largely innocuous question about Moreno’s workload this season, Richt seemed to go out of his way to praise fellow tailback Thomas Brown, the senior whom Moreno supplanted around midseason when Brown missed three games with a shoulder injury. He pointed out that Brown, who’s run for 706 yards and nine touchdowns, actually has a slightly higher per-carry average (5.5) than Moreno (5.3), who has 1,273 yards and 12 TDs, and that the two essentially split carries in the Bulldogs’ last two games.
“As exciting as Knowshown has been for us, Thomas has been equally impressive,” said Richt, before adding, jokingly: “Maybe it’s just the name – ‘Knowshon!’”
But then came this subtle tidbit: “Thomas Brown will start [against Hawaii].”
This elicited a follow-up from one of Georgia’s beat writers about the state of Moreno’s ankle, which he sprained in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech.
“He didn’t practice at full speed for most of bowl practice,” said Richt. “But the last couple days he’s looked pretty good. Knowshon will be ready to play.”
Maybe it’s much ado about nothing, but Moreno’s health could certainly play a huge factor in the outcome of the game. It’s long been believed that Georgia will attempt to counter the Warriors’ high-tempo passing offense by pounding Hawaii’s perceived less-physical defense over and over with Moreno and Brown. Among those who expect that very approach: Warriors coach June Jones, who’s been effusive in his praise of Moreno this week.
“I am sure they will look to do that, and they aren’t smart if they don’t try to do that,” Jones said earlier this week. “They have a Barry Sanders-type running back and he is only 18 years old.”
On Monday, Jones said of the challenge Moreno presents for his defense: “We do have a front seven that’s pretty good. My biggest concern is when he breaks through that front seven, are we physical enough on the back end to bring him down?”
That, as much as Georgia’s ability to slow down Colt Brennan, will go a long way toward determining the outcome.
∙ Richt also revealed Monday that the Dawgs will don their much-hyped black jerseys -- which they first donned in a 45-20 win over Auburn -- in the Sugar Bowl. They took their first-ever team picture wearing them Monday morning.
“The players wanted them as a bowl gift,” said Richt. “We’re the home team, so we’re wearing black.”
∙ Jones expressed a bit of awe over the sea of green that has enveloped the streets of New Orleans this week, acknowledging the great distance and costs many Hawaii fans endured to make it to the game. It’s also created a unique set of distractions for the Warriors.
“It’s like a Super Bowl atmosphere to us,” said Jones. “It’s a Sugar Bowl atmosphere to Georgia.”
∙ Richt admits that, “I really don’t have a good feel for how [the game] is going to go,” due to his team’s unfamiliarity with Hawaii’s unique offense. He was then asked how that might compare to Georgia’s Sugar Bowl loss to West Virginia two years ago, when the Mountaineers’ fast-paced spread-option attack seemed to catch the Dawgs flat-footed in racing to an early 28-0 lead.
“I didn’t do a very good job [prior to that game] of making sure our team was in condition,” said Richt. “When we came back from Christmas, had our first practice at the bowl site, I looked at the team and said, 'We're out of shape.'"
To avoid a repeat of that mistake, he said the Dawgs emphasized more running in their December practices on campus this year and did not take as much time off between the end of those practices and the start of practices in New Orleans.
∙ As if Hawaii wasn't already unique enough, the New York Times' Pete Thamel chronicles the amazing story of Brian Kajiyama, a graduate assistant for the Warriors who was born with cerebral palsy and whose wheelchair and lack of speech does not prevent him from working with Hawaii's defensive staff.
∙ One trend among the first 15 or so bowl games this season was a notable lack of surprising outcomes (falling in direct contrast to the regular season), but Oregon’s Sun Bowl rout of South Florida on Monday definitely qualifies as such. Considering how badly the Ducks’ offense struggled during their three-game losing streak following Dennis Dixon’s injury, the last thing I expected was to see Oregon come out and torch the Bulls’ normally solid defense.
It’s got be encouraging to Ducks fans to see the emergence of redshirt freshman QB Justin Roper, the former fifth-stringer who showed signs of promise in Oregon’s overtime loss to Oregon State in the Dec. 1 Civil War, and followed it up with a sensational performance Monday, throwing for four touchdowns. It seems the Ducks may have found their quarterback of the future.
Meanwhile, Cal may have launched itself a certifiable quarterback controversy for 2008 after Kevin Riley replaced Nate Longshore early against Air Force and proceeded to deliver the kind of sizzling performance (16-of-19, 269 yards, three touchdowns) largely lacking from Cal’s offense during their implosion over the second half of the season, leading the Bears back from an early 21-0 deficit to win 42-36. Both QBs will be back next season.
∙ Finally, back here in New Orleans, a group of my fellow sportswriters and I did our part to contribute to the local economy Sunday night with a “tour” of Bourbon Street. My own personal highlight: Doing my part to help enforce the law.
Watching below from the balcony of Pat O’Briens as part of a private media reception, a few of us noticed an intoxicated bully forcefully shoving a seemingly defenseless man right in the middle of the street. Noticing a pair of cops standing about 40 feet away, I somehow caught their attention, pointed to the offending party and watched as one of them darted to the scene and pinned the bully against a wall in a scene straight out of “COPS.”
I’m not going to lie: It was awesome.
I can also report seeing a significant number of Georgia players -- including a couple prominent starters who will go unnamed – enjoying the scene two nights before kickoff. To their credit, however, they had a midnight curfew, and at about 11:50, they made an astonishingly quick exit.
This is my sixth time in New Orleans, however, and for the most part, the night was an unfortunate reality check that the novelty of Bourbon Street wore off somewhere between the ages of 27 (when I made my last visit here) and 31. My goal for the duration of the trip is to avoid it as much as possible, and I appreciate those of you in the comments section who have already offered suggestions for alternative dining and entertainment options.
Enjoy New Year’s Eve. The big games start tomorrow.
I come to you from the New Orleans Marriott/Convention Center, media headquarters for Tuesday's Sugar Bowl and next Monday's BCS Championship game -- and, in turn, my home for the next 10 days.
My connecting flight from Houston on Saturday night was packed with giddy, green-clad Hawaii fans. Initial concerns from BCS folks about Warriors fans' willingness to make the long trip have turned out to be way, way off base. The school sold out its original allotment of 13,500 tickets to season-ticket holders and had to request an additional 1,000. Rumors are circulating that tens of thousands more (many of them island transplants who now live on the West Coast) have procured tickets through other means, with reports of some natives taking out loans or second mortgages on their homes just to make the trip.
When asked this morning whether the Sugar Bowl was the biggest sporting event in the state's history, a longtime Hawaii reporter replied, "By far."
Preparations for the game were already winding down by the time I arrived, with the teams staging their final full-scale practices Sunday morning and holding closed walk-throughs at the Superdome on Monday. (Though Colt Brennan was very adamant that Sunday was "not our last practice -- our walk-throughs, offensively, are a full-on practice").
Georgia has been practicing at the Superdome this week, Hawaii at the Saints' indoor facility, where I visited Sunday morning to conduct a few interviews. The Warriors' beat writers and TV reporters seemed very interested in discussing whether Hawaii's lack of familiarity with the dome (Monday will be its only pregame visit there) might put it at a disadvantage. The players largely shrugged it off. Hawaii actually had the option to practice there, but coach June Jones purposely chose the Saints' facility so that the NFL team's coaches and front-office personnel could scout Warriors players. (And indeed, Saints head coach Sean Payton watched at least one practice.)
I did not venture out into the streets my first night here (my mantra the next 10 days -- where the French Quarter is a literally around the corner -- is "pace yourself"), but there's a media outing at Bourbon Street's legendary Pat O'Brien's on Sunday night and I'll be very curious to see the highly unusual party mix of Georgia and Hawaii fans first hand.
· I don't know about you, but I've found many of the early bowls so far to be surprisingly compelling. From BYU's game-saving blocked kick to East Carolina running back Chris Johnson's one-man show against Boise State to the Purdue-Central Michigan basketball-game-disguised-as-a-bowl-game to the Mack Brown-stepson Holiday Bowl, it made for some entertaining viewing during my mini-holiday vacation this past week.
· I spent part of that mini-vacation in sunny, albeit unseasonably brisk Scottsdale, Ariz., where I visited with some folks from Oklahoma upon their arrival for the Fiesta Bowl. It's interesting just how much earlier and earlier the talk begins these days about the following season's preseason polls. The Sooners seem keenly aware that an impressive win over West Virginia could earn them a spot at or near the top heading into 2008. Georgia's coaches and players have discussed the same thing this week.
· One of the more underrated bowl-game traditions is the inevitable smack talk. Already this season we've seen over-cocky Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter manage to incite the entire Texas defense and a Texas A&M yell leader temporarily lose his mind.
· My reaction to Rick Neuheisel-to-UCLA: What took them so long? Yes, the guy has an undeniably shady past, but he's also a pretty smart cookie. He waited more than four years for his chance at redemption (and it wound up coming at his alma mater, no less). He knows full well he can't afford to screw this one up.
Meanwhile, the Bruins got themselves a career 66-30 coach who's produced three top-10 teams and who knows the Pac-10 well -- and they got him for the unbelievably cheap price of $1.25 million a year. (Duke is paying new coach David Cutcliffe more than that.)
Expect the USC-UCLA rivalry to get a whole lot more interesting in the next few years.
· Meanwhile, SMU has now gone more than two months without a coach, and all indications are the long-suffering Dallas school is waiting for the opportunity to woo Hawaii's Jones, who himself has done little to dismiss the possibility, mostly brushing off such questions. It's definitely a hovering issue, as I heard one of those Warriors fans on my flight tell another, "I just hope we keep our coach."
SMU's interest in Jones makes perfect sense. His run-and-shoot offense helped Hawaii make a dramatic turnaround as soon as he arrived in 1999 (jumping from 0-12 to 9-4) and would almost certainly lift the Mustangs to their first bowl game since 1984 (pre-death penalty). I'm sure the school has some deep-pocketed boosters that could float him a sweetheart deal.
I just don't understand why Jones would want to go there. Not only is he at home, he's a guaranteed hero there for as long as he coaches. I could see him leaving to take another stab at the NFL, but not to take over a struggling Conference USA program. Maybe I'm being naïve.
· Finally, I got a huge kick out of this quote from Hawaii's Brennan about his culinary experiences in New Orleans this week. "The food has been unbelievable," said the Heisman finalist, who's been to staples Mulate's and Dickie Brennan's. "It's by far the best we've ever had on a road trip."
You're kidding me. Better than Ruston, La.? San Jose? Reno? Stop the presses, people.
That's all for now, folks. You can expect a new Blog entry from me every day from now through Jan. 8, as well as pre- and postgame columns from both games and, later this week, an opus about the "Future of the BCS" that I've been working on for much of the past month.