Strength in Numbers
With scholarship limits having increased parity, what separates the contenders from the pretenders is depth
In this strange new world of college football, in which Northern Illinois can beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Bowling Green can upend Purdue in West Lafayette and UNLV can whip Wisconsin in Madison, the line between the six BCS conferences and the five others clearly has been blurred. The NCAA's 1992 ruling that reduced the number of scholarships from 95 to 85 per team has resulted in a wider distribution of talent across all conferences, and that, combined with better coaching at the mid-major level, has led to more parity. But one thing still separates the Miamis from the Miami of Ohios: depth.
"There are still clearly five to 10 teams that are head and shoulders above all others," says Boston College coach Tom O'Brien. "Talent is the most important thing, then quality depth."
Superior depth is a major reason why second-ranked Miami was able to extend its regular-season winning streak to 38 games with a 22-14 win over No. 5 Florida State in Tallahassee last Saturday. The Hurricanes appeared to be in trouble without two key starters, running back Frank Gore (out for the season with a torn left ACL) and strong safety Maurice Sikes (strained right knee). But as it has done so many times, Miami replaced them with more than capable reserves. Running back Jarrett Pay-ton carried 26 times for 97 yards and added a 14-yard TD catch, while Sikes's replacement Greg Threat had a game-high seven tackles. "You're going to have bumps, bruises and injuries," says Miami coach Larry Coker. "And in our case we've had a lot of underclassman leaving for the NFL. With [the 85-scholarship limit], you've got to have depth, and we're glad we do."
The wannabes have impressive starters—at week's end, seven of the nine top-rated passers in the nation were from non-BCS conferences—but the perennial title contenders still hold a huge edge in the middle of the depth chart. "The ones are very similar; it's the twos that are better," says Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. "When there is fatigue, injury or a suspension, the next guy goes in there and he can play. At Florida State the first 11 are pretty good, but so is the next group. The third-team tailback, Leon Washington, was the [best high school player] in the state of Florida."
Even while the mid-majors argue for entry into the BCS, coaches for non-BCS teams concede that they are more vulnerable to late-season slides because they're not as deep. "We can't afford the injuries that [bigger programs] can," says Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak, whose team has beaten Maryland and Iowa State in addition to Alabama. Adds UNLV coach John Robinson, who spent 12 years at USC, "The Mountain West and MAC are not that far away, but where they would fall apart is if they had to play those BCS conference teams every week."
Consider the way some recently successful mid-major teams have fallen due to late-season personnel losses. After opening the 2001 season with wins over Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin, Fresno State lost some key defensive players and finished 11-3. That same year BYU won its first 12 games but then lost star running back Luke Staley and dropped its final two, to Hawaii and to Louisville in the Liberty Bowl.
Building quality second and third teams will be an uphill battle for smaller programs. As long as those schools continue to have subpar attendance numbers—the MAC, this season's biggest Goliath-slayer, is averaging just 19,504 fans per game—the mid-major conferences will likely be shunned by the BCS. And without the financial advantages of playing in BCS bowls, they'll continue to have smaller recruiting budgets and less television exposure. Unless the system is modified (the BCS will renegotiate its contracts in 2005) coaches at non-BCS schools will still flinch when a player gets into trouble off the field or is injured on it.
Missouri Tiger on the Loose
Unchained QB Takes a Bite Out of Nebraska
Two days after Missouri's head-scratching 35-14 loss to Kansas on Sept. 27, coach Gary Pinkel took sophomore quarterback Brad Smith aside for a pep talk. Pinkel was concerned that his star was trying too hard not to make any mistakes. "I told Brad just to turn it loose," says Pinkel. "If you feel like you're on eggshells, you have to watch yourself on everything you do. Then you can't use your athleticism."