Just For Argument's Sake ...
From Les Miles' inability to close out games, to comparing the Vick brothers, to Bama's birthright, to tearing down goalpoasts at UCF, to Heisman hype -- Ivan Maisel tackles all the hot topics.
Originally Published: September 28, 2005By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com
From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles the hottest topics in college football.
3 Nagging Questions | Soapbox Moment | Whatever Happened To ... | Hello, My Name Is ...
Just A Thought | Hidden Stat | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing
Just A Thought | Hidden Stat | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing
You remember The Tortoise and the Hare? In four-plus seasons at Oklahoma State and LSU, Miles has played the hare so often, he ought to join SAG.
Les Miles is catching heat for Tennessee's Rally in the Valley.
Take the 2002 opener against Louisiana Tech. The Cowboys scored a touchdown to extend their lead over the Bulldogs to 36-18 with 2:18 left in the third quarter. Tech junior quarterback Luke McCown, a future fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, threw for his second and third touchdowns of the game, and rushed for a score as well, rallying the Bulldogs to a 39-36 victory.
Or how about the Texas game last year? The Cowboys led 35-7 in the second quarter, only to watch helplessly as Longhorns quarterback Vince Young led Texas to 49 unanswered points.
Miles left Oklahoma State after last season to take over LSU. In the Tigers' second game of the season, they raced to a 21-0 halftime lead against SEC rival Tennessee, only to lose in overtime, 30-27.
By themselves, they are one-of-a-kind losses that could -- and have -- happen to anyone. The biggest lead ever overcome belonged to the coach of a defending national champion. In 1984, Jimmy Johnson's Miami team led Maryland 31-0 in the third quarter. The Terps came back to win 42-40.
Where did Johnson coach the previous year? Oklahoma State. Maybe it's something in the water in Stillwater.
Anyway, it can happen to anyone once. It has happened to Miles three times in five seasons. I called a head coach who has been on the sideline opposite Miles.
"I think Les is one of those guys who maybe gets a little too assuming that he's got things in his control," the coach said. "He gets a lead and thinks, 'This is good.' When things turn, it's too late to re-rally."
After the game, Miles referred to a loss of poise on the part of his offense in the second half. "When you're into your second game, you wish you would have played with the ability to finish, and we didn't," Miles said. "That's why we lost that game."
Plenty of teams have lost their SEC openers and gone on to win their division. Arkansas did so in 2002, and, lo and behold, LSU did it in 2001. In fact, the Tigers lost their first two in conference play. Not only did they go on to the SEC Championship Game, but they upset Tennessee, 31-20, and went on to the win the Sugar Bowl, 47-34, over Illinois.
The good news is, there's precedent for recovery. The bad news is Miles has a precedent of his own.
Marcus Vick may turn out to be even better than his big brother.
He might be better.
And if you judge by which of the two brothers accomplished more four games into his career, there might not be any contest. Marcus has been more polished and more competent than his brother was as a first-year starter in 1999.
To be fair, Marcus had the benefit of being a backup quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 2003, when he played well enough to challenge Bryan Randall for the starting job late in the season. After being suspended from school for the fall semester a year ago, Vick didn't rejoin the team until last January.
Hokie quarterback coach Kevin Rogers raves about Marcus, but Rogers didn't coach Michael. Assistant head coach Billy Hite, who has been in Blacksburg for 28 years, gave Marcus a couple of significant advantages over his brother. Perhaps the biggest, Hite said, is that Marcus had the benefit of being able to learn from his brother.
"Michael was having to learn things on the run," Hite said. "Marcus can sit down in the video room and have Michael talk to him as he watches it."
The result is that Marcus doesn't have to rely on his physical skills nearly as much as Michael did.
"Marcus can handle so much more in the game plan than Michael could, it's unbelievable," Hite said. "Michael would call the wrong front and come out the wrong way and run an 80-yard touchdown. Marcus, in our game against [North Carolina] State, missed one check. He missed one check against Duke. With Michael, we didn't even hear the snap count the first three games. The linemen had to look at the ball. He wasn't loud enough. It was amazing what we went through. Most people don't realize it."
But Hite isn't willing to go all the way and say Marcus is better.
"Michael's the best I've ever seen," Hite said. "Marcus can do some things better. He's got a touch on the ball. Michael threw it 80 miles an hour whether the receiver was 10 yards away or 80. Marcus can throw between defenders and put it right on the money Michael was a leader by example. Marcus is a leader by example."
No more so, Hite said, than in the way he has acted since his return from his suspension.
"The best thing Marcus ever did was he went in the weight room this summer and came out a Super Iron Hokie. He is more vocal than Mike. Marcus saw the role Bryan Randall played. He's taken that on. I think he's confident a player. He has set expectations high and he's reaching them."
My SportsCenter colleague Joe Schad and I had this discussion in the news room Tuesday as we juggled teleconferences, going onto the set of the ADT Coaches Spotlight Show, and writing columns. Typical Tuesday.
Joe wondered aloud why the AP poll is important anymore. The new Harris poll is now part of the BCS formula. The AP poll is not. What does it matter?
It's a logical question, and I don't know whether I surprised Joe with the vehemence of my answer, but I surprised me. Here's why the AP poll is more relevant than ever:
(Disclosure: I voted in the AP poll from 1987 until 2002. When I moved to ESPN, the AP gave my vote to someone else, because Chris Fowler was already voting. You could make a case that the sheer volume of ESPN's coverage merits two votes. I did not.)
The AP poll has history. It has been around since 1936. It is a traditional part of a sport that treats its traditions as sacred.
The AP poll has voters who are watching and writing about college football for a living. The sport is our vocation. It is not our avocation. The Harris poll has some writers, and good ones at that, guys who I know work hard and pay attention: Tommy Hicks of the Mobile Register, Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star, Mike Kern of the Philadelphia Daily News, Dave Newhouse of the Oakland Tribune, who I would guess has been to more Cal Bear football games than any 25 Bear alums.
But the Harris poll also has former players and coaches who are voting in their spare time. I would prefer that the sport's champion be decided by guys who aren't hanging out at a tailgate for three hours before they go watch their alma mater play, but that's just me.
I'm not that concerned that 0-4 Idaho got five votes in the inaugural poll, or that 2-2 Illinois received 13 votes in the same week that it lost at home to Michigan State, 61-14. I'm willing to give the Harris voters some slack for a couple of weeks. But I'm not going to pretend to be shocked by those votes.
The AP poll is in its 70th season, and the credibility it has earned through the years didn't evaporate last winter when the AP pulled the poll out of the BCS formula. All that meant is that the poll is no longer part of a formula concocted by a group of administrators who won't take responsibility for selecting the teams that should play in their sport's championship game.
The poll's credibility might not count for much at LSU, snubbed in 2003, or at Georgia Tech, snubbed in favor of Colorado in 1990. But it has been around far longer than the BCS has, and it will be around long after the BCS is dumped for some other system.
It's been really easy to bash the Pac-10 for a number of years, and, by and large, the coaches in the league still treat defense as an inconvenience. But it says here that the Pac-10 is on the upswing. After two mediocre years, UCLA coach Karl Dorrell has built an explosive offense and the best group of linebackers on the West Coast. California, its Holiday Bowl collapse against Texas Tech notwithstanding, won 10 games last season and isn't going anywhere. On Saturday, we find out whether Arizona State is for real. The 14th-ranked Sun Devils will play No. 1 USC, a team that has beaten them the last two seasons by a combined score of 82-24. If the Trojans get a competitive game Saturday, much less get upset by the Sun Devils, the reputation of the league will rise accordingly. There's a lot more at stake in that game than you might think.
You remember Louisville, the team that would defy the dismissive view of the Big East, the team that would come off its 11-1 season in 2004, blow through its 11-game schedule and force the BCS to deliver an invitation to the Rose Bowl.
That would be Louisville, the team that's 0-1 in the Big East, tied for last with Syracuse, and 2-1 and ranked No. 24 in the nation following a 45-14 rout at South Florida.
"I have been trying to convince myself to be real positive and energetic," coach Bobby Petrino said Monday.
He was having trouble, perhaps, because he had watched the video of the game, in which the Cardinals crossed midfield on their first three possessions and ended up losing the ball on downs, missing a field goal, and fumbling.
Or maybe it was the beginning of the second half, when the Bulls' Chad Simpson returned the kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, and two plays later, the Cardinals' Michael Bush fumbled the ball back to South Florida. South Florida converted that turnover into a touchdown, went ahead 38-7, and you had permission to switch channels.
"This was the first game where we did things to beat ourselves," said Petrino, 22-6 as the Cardinals' coach.
So much for the Rose Bowl. Now Petrino is depending on pride to restore the toughness he felt was missing from his team at Raymond James Stadium.
"I don't know if it's a good thing, but it's really to wake everybody up and make sure we understand that you don't just go out win," Petrino said.
The biggest concrete change Petrino announced was that more starters would show up on special teams, especially the kickoff return team. Petrino resisted using them to give them a rest.
"We have no choice," he said.
All of a sudden, the Oct. 15 game at West Virginia just got a lot more interesting.
... Central Florida, winner.
It's been 17 games since UCF fans could celebrate a win.
Central Florida defensive coordinator Lance Thompson came to Orlando from LSU, where he served on the 2003 national championship staff as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. After the Golden Knights broke their 17-game losing streak Saturday with a 23-13 defeat of Marshall, his 5-year-old daughter had a question for him.
"How come they tear down the goalposts every time we win?" Lane Thompson asked.
"What do you mean?" said Lance Thompson.
"They tore them down this time," Lane said, "and they tore them down at the Sugar Bowl."
Lance Thompson laughed.
"Those are the only two games she's been to," he said.
It's been a long time between victories for Thompson and for Central Florida. The Golden Knights beat the Thundering Herd with stout defense. Central Florida limited Marshall to 11 rushing yards and forced four turnovers in getting coach George O'Leary his first victory since Nov. 17, 2001, when his Georgia Tech team beat Wake Forest, 38-33. A few weeks later, O'Leary resigned to take the Notre Dame job, and you know the rest.
In his second season at Central Florida, O'Leary has committed to rebuild from the ground up. He is playing with his recruits and is resigned to live with the best they can do.
Thompson's defense has 13 first- and second-year players and only three seniors. One of the latter, fifth-year end Paul Carrington, had two sacks and, on the Herd's opening possession, forced Marshall quarterback Bernie Morris to fumble at the Marshall 20. Central Florida recovered, scored a touchdown, and never looked back. Carrington is Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week after the Knights' first game in the league.
"They didn't play a perfect game, by far," Thompson said. "They played hard. They made something happen. We need to be a blue-collar, opportunistic team."
Central Florida lost its opener at South Carolina, 24-15, a game in which the Golden Knights fell behind by two early touchdowns and then controlled the line of scrimmage for the last three quarters. Central Florida lost its second game, 31-14, to South Florida, and after what the Bulls did to Louisville, that loss doesn't look so bad, either.
"Maybe we're not as bad as people thought," Thompson said.
Maybe the Golden Knights will win enough that they stop tearing down the goalposts.
In the middle of Georgia's off-week, coach Mark Richt listed all the things he liked about his Bulldogs: their unity, the senior leadership, how hard they have played in getting off to a 4-0 start and, he added, their lack of time in the training room.
The key to Mark Richt's success this season? His team is healthy.
"We're as healthy as we've ever been since I've been here at this point in the season," Richt said.
What's so unusual about that? Just that over the last couple of years, Georgia has had more than its share of injuries. Last season, for example, five different linebackers started in six different combination over the course of the 12-game season.
"You trying to jinx us?" offensive line coach Neil Callaway said. "Don't even talk about it."
Then he talked about it. The biggest reason for the improvement, he said, is depth. He has eight players in his regular O-line rotation.
"At running back, being able to play three guys has helped," Callaway said. "Thomas Brown missed the Louisiana-Monroe game. He could have gone if he had to. We felt comfortable with the other two guys [Danny Ware and Kregg Lumpkin]."
This year, Georgia is healthy, and USC is banged up. The Trojans moved a wide receiver to cornerback last week, and they're starting a third-stringer at one linebacking position. Coach Pete Carroll isn't doing anything different on defense.
Is it as simple as luck? The NCAA keeps injury statistics and has taken steps, such as limiting practice time and the amount of contact, to keep injuries at a minimum. The game hasn't suffered. But at some point, it appears as though it doesn't matter what a coach does. Players either get hurt or they don't. You just have to put them on the field and cross your fingers.
Broken Tackles vs. Missed Tackles
Alabama coach Mike Shula watches, for lack of a better term, missed-tackles margin. "We want more broken tackles than our defense misses," Shula said.
The result usually translates into victory. For instance, in the Crimson Tide's 37-14 victory at South Carolina, Alabama finished plus-eight.
"Our backs and receivers and quarterbacks made guys miss 18 times," Shula said. "We missed 10 tackles. That's a good number."
All of which, by Shula's standard, made the 24-13 victory over Arkansas on Saturday a surprise. Arkansas, with its big tailbacks, broke 15 tackles, the most noticeable being the stiff-arm that Darren McFadden delivered to Alabama free safety Roman Harper on a 70-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The Crimson Tide broke only 10 tackles.
"To be in the negative and win is the exception," Shula said.
1. Matt Leinart, USC, QB: Leinart is sprinting out more now than he did under Norm Chow. He's pretty good at it, too.
2. Vince Young, Texas, QB: The road trip to Missouri a week before the Red River Shootout is a good test of Young's leadership. I bet he passes.
3. Reggie Bush, USC, RB: Someone asked me in a chat whether I'd rather have Leinart or Bush. I finally said Leinart, because he touches the ball every play. But I had to think about it.
4. Laurence Maroney, Minnesota, RB: Forty-six carries against Purdue, with Penn State and Michigan coming up. How long can one man stay in a whirlpool?
5. Drew Stanton, Michigan State, QB: Now I know why his teammates play so hard for him. I saw Stanton sprint downfield and throw a block for a running block. Good block, too.
1. USC: Of the 25 consecutive wins, 19 have been by at least 20 points.
2. Texas: The Longhorns' 10-game winning streak -- and the rise of Vince Young -- began a year ago against Missouri, this week's opponent.
3. Virginia Tech: Forget Marcus Vick. The Hokies are second in the nation in scoring defense (5.8 points per game).
4. Florida: The Gators have won their last three games at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Their last loss there, in 1978, came against Bryant himself.
5. Ohio State: Buckeyes' offensive brain trust after last week: Hey, that No. 7 is pretty good. We should get him the ball more!
6. Georgia: Georgia has Saturday off before its showdown against Tennessee, which plays its second game in six days on Saturday. Hmmm ...
7. Florida State: This is the week that tailbacks Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington get to rejoin the offensive party.
8. Miami: Suddenly, South Florida doesn't look like the nonconference breather it appeared to be when scheduled.
9. Tennessee: So, do you think Erik Ainge will have the patience and maturity to wait until next year?
10. UCLA: The Bruins can't look past Washington toward next week's game against Cal -- but we can.
No. 5 Florida at No. 15 Alabama
The Crimson Tide fans have waited a long time for this. Three years without relevance might seem like nothing to you. Nine years between 4-0 starts isn't an eternity.
Unless you bleed Crimson and White, that is. Alabama fans, in all their antiquated thinking, believe that their team's rightful place is in the national championship hunt.
Rightful is the key word there. No school owns anything anymore. Oklahoma isn't in the top 25. Neither is Michigan. Nebraska -- remember Nebraska? -- needs a win Saturday against Iowa State to make its fans believe in the Huskers' chances to win the Big 12 North. Iowa State!
So is Alabama for real? The Crimson Tide is ranked No. 15. The defense, as it did last season, refuses to give up big plays. Defensive end Mark Anderson said Monday that being in the same scheme for three seasons has made all the difference.
"We got older guys who know the scheme," Anderson said. "We're helping the younger guys."
Alabama can relate to the problems that Florida is having on offense. The Gators are still trying to absorb coach Urban Meyer's spread option offense. That means thinking instead of reacting. Though it's true that Florida scored 49 points in the first half at Kentucky last week, the athletes the Gators match up against Saturday will be apples vs. apples.
Alabama's biggest problems on defense come from mobile quarterbacks. Florida quarterback Chris Leak is a lot of things, but mobile isn't high on the list. The question becomes whether the Tide's young offensive line can open anything for tailback Ken Darby, and whether the young receivers can shed the nerves that have caused a lot of early-season drops.
Expect a low-scoring game, with the Gators' overcoming a very fired-up crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama will play enough to keep hope alive in Tuscaloosa.
No. 1 USC at No. 14 Arizona State
No, not this week.
You want more analysis?
The No. 14 Sun Devils (3-1, 1-0) have at least as much offensive firepower as Oregon, but have more defense. Arizona State will also have the home field, which might be an even greater advantage now that ABC has moved the game to 12:30 p.m., local time. We're talking desert heat. There's a reason, after all, that the hosts are known as the Sun Devils.
But USC (3-0, 1-0) learned a lot in the 45-13 victory at Oregon. The Trojans learned why it's important not to panic. They learned again, as LenDale White, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and coach Pete Carroll all said after the game Saturday night, that a game is won over four quarters, not two.
And they learned that their defense might not be as average as was feared. Oregon scored no points and gained only 104 yards in the second half.
USC watchers -- and I'm one of them -- circled these consecutive road games as an early-season test for the Trojans. Autzen Stadium is the toughest road venue in the Pacific-10 Conference. White, after rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, said it took the Trojans most of the first half to get used to the noise.
But the point is, they did adjust, and out went the Ducks' advantage. Insert obligatory caveat here. No winning streak is forever. Someday, someone will trip up the Trojans. But the Trojans learned from Oregon on Saturday. The Trojans handled falling behind with no trouble. They'll handle whatever Sun Devils quarterback Sam Keller throws at them Saturday. And even if the Trojans don't, it's hard to imagine that the Arizona State can slow down Leinart and all his ball-handling teammates.
Michigan at No. 11 Michigan State
Here's a sentence I didn't expect to write at any time this season, much less September: I'm not willing to write off the Wolverines (2-2, 0-1) yet.
At first glance, No. 18 Minnesota's visit to Penn State, in a battle of 4-0 teams, has more effect on the Big Ten race than this game. But look again. Maybe it's mere respect for the back-to-back Big Ten championships. If Michigan tailback Mike Hart returns after missing nearly three games because of a hamstring problem, some of the Wolverines' problems may be solved.
Hart's replacements, sophomore Max Martin and true freshman Kevin Grady, haven't been able to gain the tough yards. In the 17-10 loss to Notre Dame and the 23-20 loss at Wisconsin, the Wolverines got to the opponents' 1-yard-line and failed to score (the Wolverines got inside the Irish 10 three times and had no points to show for it). That points to a lack of toughness, and a lack of confidence, two qualities Michigan rarely lacks.
"I think the measure of any team is how it responds when things don't go the way they want them to," coach Lloyd Carr said Monday. A few minutes later, he added, "Nobody has to do anything extraordinary. We just have to play better together and stop making the mistakes. It begins with turnovers and penalties."
Michigan's task is formidable. The No. 11 Spartans (4-0, 2-0) have been the most explosive offense east of USC. Quarterback Drew Stanton is on record-setting pace for passing efficiency. Four games in, his rating of 201.1 far surpasses the Division I-A season record of 183.3. Stanton has thrown 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions while completing 73.1 percent (79-of-108) of his passes.
"Right now, he's playing at such a high level," quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier said Tuesday. "He sees the field better than anybody I've ever been around. His vision is unbelievable. That gives him a distinct advantage in how he prepares."
Not only that, Stanton occasionally lets out his inner headhunter. That was him downfield knocking down an Illinois defensive back on Javon Ringer's 22-yard rush in the first quarter of the 61-14 victory Saturday.
"He plays with everything he has," Nussmeier said. "It doesn't surprise me. At times, you try to rein him in. We've talked about it. Instead of trying to drive through the guy's chest, he'll cut him. With five defenders around him downfield, he'll go into a headfirst dive."
The Spartans have lost three straight to the Wolverines. Michigan State has emerged as the biggest challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten. Michigan's last chance to stay in the race is Saturday. That's a lot of import for a game on Oct. 1. The Spartans have the momentum. They have the home field. And they have Stanton. That's a lot for Michigan to overcome.
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