Just For Argument's Sake ...
From the ultimate UCLA-USC comparison to coaches who are truly masters to Fisher DeBerry's views to Fran paying off his debt to Bama, Ivan Maisel tackles all the hot topics.
Originally Published: October 26, 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 ... | Introducing
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
Ask the man who knows.
It's hard to believe it took the Trojans and the Bruins seven games to play a common opponent. But three weeks after No. 8 UCLA came back to beat Washington, 21-17, the Huskies fell to No. 1 USC, 51-24. Compare the scores? Too easy. I spoke to Washington defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who is way too smart to actually answer the question about which team is better. But his views on two offenses that can score at the snap of a ball are worth hearing.
"Both offenses are so explosive," Baer said. "They can score so swiftly. You just have got to try to limit their touches. Our score against USC looks crazy. We played pretty well. They had 390 total yards. Their longest run was 14 yards. We turned the ball over so much. We didn't turn the ball over once against UCLA. We limited SC to 6.1 yards per play. That's by far the lowest this season."
The offenses approach the running game differently, Baer said.
"SC's running game is a power game," Baer said. "It's a little different from the UCLA zone scheme. If you get out of a gap, Maurice Drew has an unbelievable knack of finding the one gap to make you pay."
So it's Drew over Reggie Bush? No.
When the Huskies' loss to the Trojans ended Saturday, Baer walked onto the field to speak to Bush. Baer -- who, as a member of Ty Willingham's staff at Notre Dame, made a home visit to Bush in Spring Valley, Calif. -- walked over to the USC junior, gave him a hug and said, "I'm tired of coaching against you."
"He just laughed," Baer said. "I still don't know if there's a better one out there than Reggie. You got a backup [LenDale White] who would start anywhere else. Maurice Drew is a tremendous player. Both he and Bush are dangerous on punt returns. All week long, before both games, we said, 'Do not punt the ball to those backs. Don't worry if you punt out of bounds.' We kicked it once to Maurice. He scored, and they called it back because of a penalty. We kicked it once to Reggie in the middle of the field."
Bush took that one 84 yards for a touchdown.
"Both teams have good tight ends," Baer said. "USC's [Dominique Byrd] is a bigger, physical type. Both can catch and run. [UCLA's] Marcedes Lewis is a tremendous ball-catcher. He's a big receiver, playing tight end.
"When it comes to quarterback, give the edge to Matt Leinart [over Drew Olson] because of what he's been through, the games he has won. They are both good players."
Baer also liked the Trojans' offensive line and receivers more than their Bruins counterparts. But he stressed that both schools' would stress anyone out.
"To prepare for both of them, with Oregon in between," Baer said, "I'm worn out."
The statistics tell a story that can be heard across the nation. Seven SEC schools rank in the top 19 in scoring defense. Six rank in the top 14 of pass efficiency defense. Seven rank in the top 23 in total defense.
Ole Miss, No. 23, would lead the Pacific-10 Conference by 27 yards per game. But what is the story those numbers tell us? It might not be as simple as good ol' Southern defense.
If no one knew it before Saturday, the two-quarterback situation at Tennessee has become painful to watch. Alabama hasn't been the same since wide receiver-kick returner Tyrone Prothro broke his leg against Florida on Oct. 1. The Gators' offense, trying to adjust to Urban Meyer's spread option, is in mid-August form; that is, in dire need of two-a-days.
Ole Miss and South Carolina, like the Gators, are trying to learn new systems, a huddle of square pegs trying to squeeze into round holes. Mississippi State is injury-riddled, the result of playing freshmen on the offensive line. Auburn, after early struggles with inexperience, is just beginning to find itself.
To get a better handle on the quality of the SEC offenses, it would help to look at their nonconference games -- if, that is, any teams in the SEC played nonconference competition that challenged them.
LSU did, and the Tigers put up 35 points and 434 total yards at Arizona State, but no one disputes the belief that LSU has the best talent in the SEC.
Tennessee will play Notre Dame and Memphis next month. Alabama played Southern Mississippi. Auburn played -- and lost to -- Georgia Tech. But those games are the exception. The typical SEC team would rather buy home games than play teams of a stature that would demand home-and-home -- that is, teams that could beat it.
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, in a luncheon speech Monday, blamed the national media in general, and ESPN in particular, for anointing Texas and USC as the chosen ones at the beginning of the season. Blaming the big, bad national media is a tried and true method of rousing the rabble.
If I believed for a minute that what Chris, Kirk, Lee or anyone else said about any school influenced a voter, I'd give Tuberville's theory credence. But I used to be a voter, and most voters I know would vote against something said on GameDay just to prove they aren't controlled by ESPN.
More to the point, Auburn, and the rest of the SEC, would have a better case if it deigned to play teams from other, equal conferences.
Texas proved itself nationally by winning at Ohio State. USC proved itself by winning at Notre Dame. All SEC schools have proved this year is that they don't like to play tough nonconference games.
The defense in the SEC is very good; defense wins championships; etc. But let's not get carried away. The offenses are mediocre.
At the outset of the Master Coaches Survey, the highfalutin name for the old coaches' poll that began this year, I thought, "Whoop-de-do. Another poll." But the more I think about it, and the more I see it, the more I'm buying into it.
The MCS has 16 retired coaches who meet via conference call every Wednesday morning to discuss the best teams in the country. Here's the list: John Cooper, Vince Dooley, Pat Dye, LaVell Edwards, Hayden Fry, Don James, Frank Kush, Dick MacPherson, Bill Mallory, Don Nehlen, John Ralston, John Robinson, Bo Schembechler, R.C. Slocum, Gene Stallings and George Welsh.
Last week, before the BCS, before the majority of the computers, the old guys moved Texas ahead of USC.
The coaches' poll, sponsored by USA Today -- and, for many years, ESPN -- always has left itself open to skepticism. Coaches don't have the time or the inclination to study all the top teams.
But the retired coaches in this survey have the time to study the teams, and they have the inclination. In fact, they love it. At the beginning of each week, the coaches get a DVD with video of the top teams. They divvy the teams up among themselves to study. In that Wednesday conference call, they give their reports, and discuss, argue, laugh and enjoy the fellowship they were too busy and too competitive to enjoy when they coached.
"There is no other group that knows college football like the guys we have," says former Syracuse coach MacPherson, who reported on Florida State this week. "We're not going to go on the call Wednesday morning and not know what we're talking about."
Last week, according to an MCS news release, former Auburn coach Dye predicted Texas would beat Texas Tech because the Longhorns' dominating defensive line would exploit the wide splits in the Red Raiders' offensive line. Texas sacked Cody Hodges six times and cruised to a 52-17 victory.
This week, MacPherson said in a phone interview Monday that Virginia Tech would defeat Boston College. The Eagles have done well in the ACC, coach Mac believes, because the league isn't familiar with their zone blitzes. Virginia Tech's veteran coaching staff has seen Boston College a lot, though, and will know what to do.
MacPherson might be right. He might be wrong. The point is, this is graduate-level discourse on the college football season.
The retired coaches are also smart enough to figure out that their credibility is their biggest selling point. The biggest reason the USA Today coaches' poll suffers from a lack of credibility is the secretive nature of the poll's proceedings. The retired coaches have let the sunshine in, and it's worth listening to them. They'll be on ESPN Classic every Wednesday night. Check them out.
Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry lamented earlier this week that his team lost to TCU, 48-10, on Saturday in part because the Horned Frogs have more black players who run well.
"It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well," DeBerry said to KWGN-TV Tuesday. "That doesn't mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can't run, but it's very obvious to me they run extremely well."
DeBerry said the Academy must recruit more minority players. (This is not what George Wallace meant when he said, after losing a 1958 Alabama gubernatorial primary to segregationist John Patterson, that he would never be out-African-Americaned again. Or something like that.)
Is it me, or is DeBerry sounding more like H. Ross Perot every day? Not the real Perot, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996, but the version Dana Carvey created on "Saturday Night Live."
DeBerry is the same guy who, in the middle of a controversy over religious intolerance on the part of evangelical Christians at the Academy, hung a banner in the locker room that said, "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."
No word on Christ's 40 time.
All right, if you insist, I'll say something serious: DeBerry is a good football coach who, lately, can't open his mouth without putting a size 10 in it. No one could have done more to win games at Air Force, given the academic and service commitment that players must make, than DeBerry has. He's a proven winner, and he plays by the rules. I hope he stays at Air Force for another 20 years because college football is always more fun when the academies are winning.
But if he offends someone every time he says or does something, especially at an academy funded by the taxpayers, many of whom are African-American and aren't evangelicals, he won't be there another 20 minutes.
The last time anyone paid any attention to the Cardinal, they lost to Division II UC-Davis, 20-17 on Sept. 17, the most embarrassing football defeat at The Farm since The Play against California in 1982.
(Stanford fans lay blame for this one, as with The Play, at the feet of the officials. A Stanford interception on UC-Davis' final drive went uncalled, and the game wasn't televised, so instant replay couldn't bail out the Cardinal.)
The way Stanford coach Walt Harris discusses the loss to the Aggies, you're unsure whether the Cardinal played UC-Davis or Voldemort State.
"What we went through because of what we did in that game, we try not to talk about," Harris said. The loss grabbed the attention of his senior-laden team in a way Harris and his staff, who arrived at The Farm less than a year ago, had been unable to do.
"We learned a lot," Harris said. "We've made a much better effort. The seniors have stepped up. We made them understand that how they played was not compatible with what we wanted. We're going to expect more out of them. They didn't take the coaching as well as they need to."
The Cardinal had a bye week after the UC-Davis loss. Harris had planned to give his players three days off and start back with a light practice on Wednesday. Instead, he treated the week as a normal practice week, with increased running and conditioning.
After a 44-20 loss to Oregon, the Cardinal have won at Washington State, at Arizona and against Arizona State.
Players read the Internet, so it's possible opponents found it difficult to take Stanford seriously. Now that the Cardinal are 3-1 in the Pac-10, perhaps UCLA will find it easier to do.
Stanford still isn't running the ball well. But junior Trent Edwards has begun to blossom under the tutelage of Harris, a known quarterback maker. The Cardinal are plus-7 in turnover margin, thanks in large part to Edwards' ability to take care of the ball. That turnover margin doesn't include the two punt blocks in the first half against the Sun Devils. The Cardinal raced to a 45-7 lead and coasted to a 45-35 victory.
"A lot of it is just leadership," Harris said, "and some players get more comfortable."
No one is willing yet to say the loss to UC-Davis counts as a blessing in disguise. That might be because Stanford must win two of its last five games to qualify for a bowl. Of those five opponents, four are ranked and the fifth, Oregon State, is hardly a pushover. The math is unavoidable. Barring another upset victory, Stanford's loss to UC-Davis might prevent the Cardinal from going to a bowl game.
As good a teacher as the UC-Davis loss might have been, the price of the tuition might turn out to be steep.
The Horned Frogs are 7-1, and they beat Oklahoma 17-10 in the first week of the season, and Oklahoma has lost only to No. 2 Texas and No. 8 UCLA, yet no one mentions TCU as a candidate to break down the BCS doors. In fact, the Horned Frogs are only 20th in the current AP poll, even though they are blowing through their new conference, the Mountain West, in dominating fashion (last four wins by a total of 94 points).
Why do the Horned Frogs need to be introduced?
Because the week after they beat the Sooners, they lost to SMU 21-10. The Mustangs are 2-6, and their victory over their former rival 30 miles to the west remains the leading alternative to UC-Davis' defeat of Stanford as the Upset of the Year.
Just two seasons ago, TCU won its first 10 games and had the BCS bowls worried sick. Under a blistering national spotlight, and burdened by a lot of injuries, the Horned Frogs lost two of their last three games.
Patterson compares this team more to the 2002 Horned Frogs, who lost their opener in overtime at Cincinnati, then won eight straight before a late-season loss at East Carolina.
"Both were picked sixth in the conference," Patterson said. "We got that chip on our shoulder and it's easy to keep that all season. They read about themselves all summer."
There are other, more substantive, reasons. One is the surprise development of junior quarterback Jeff Ballard, who has come off the bench to replace oft-injured Tye Gunn and played nothing like a substitute. Ballard completed 20 of 28 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a third in the 48-10 rout of Air Force this past Saturday.
The other, according to Patterson, is the development of his freshman class. He has integrated "five to seven" players into the on-field rotation, Patterson said, and the difference in depth has been significant.
Tailback Aaron Brown, fullback Chris Smith, nose tackle Lorenzo Jones, safety Stephen Hodge and corner Rafael Priest all have played. Brown -- who has rushed for 438 yards and a touchdown and caught three scoring passes, as well -- has been the most prominent.
As did many schools under revised NCAA regulations, TCU brought freshmen in over the summer to get them acclimated academically and physically to what awaited them this fall.
"Usually, after five days of fall practice, freshmen are ready to quit," Patterson said. "They've never been through that." This year, after a summer of running and lifting, they held their own.
Patterson also did something else with the freshmen that he thinks really helped them. He kept them away from the upperclassmen for the first month the freshmen spent on campus.
"They lifted and ran together," Patterson said. "I didn't think we'd have any older guys intimidating them. In July, we dispersed them. It really helped them during two-a-days. You found them a lot more comfortable. You could see them growing up."
The Horned Frogs, 5-0 in the Mountain West, will have to beat Colorado State (4-3, 3-1) on Nov. 5 to win the conference championship in their first year in the league. There won't be any more attention than that.
"It's our own fault we slipped up," Patterson said. "We learned a lesson."
'Tis the season to extrapolate the craziest possible scenarios in the BCS. Here's one that, after the injury to Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley, is not so outlandish.
There is one way Dennis Franchione can finally make up to Crimson Tide fans.
With apologies to LSU, Auburn, and Georgia, you have to assume Alabama will finish the regular season 11-0.
With apologies to Virginia Tech, which must face No. 13 Boston College and No. 6 Miami in the next 10 days and has highly ranked Florida State on the horizon in the ACC Championship Game, you have to assume the Hokies will fall out of contention for the Rose Bowl.
So here's the scenario: Alabama is 11-0 on Thanksgiving weekend and looking for USC or Texas to fall into a manhole. If the Trojans lose to UCLA on Dec. 3, the Bruins might leapfrog everyone. That's not much for the Tide to wish for. The safer bet would be to have Texas lose. And which team do the Horns play on Thanksgiving weekend?
Texas A&M, coached by Franchione, the man who recruited the Alabama senior class, the man who walked out on his Tide players three years ago without so much as a good-bye.
Fran owes them one. An upset of the Horns by the Aggies on Nov. 25 might be just the ledger entry to mark Fran's debt paid in full.
That's what Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges calls them. They are plays when the defense has nothing to do with a play failing to work. It might be a dropped pass, an errant throw, a back falling down unaided by a tackler.
"Nothing on a wasted snap is stopped by virtue of a good defense," Borges said. "If a quarterback is harassed, I don't count it. But if he takes a three-step drop, throws a slant, hits the receiver in the hands, and the ball is dropped, that's a wasted snap."
His rule: His offense must have fewer than five wasted snaps per game.
"It goes back to when I was coaching baseball," he said. "Always make the routine plays automatically. The great players will make the great plays."
Last year, with three first-round draft choices in the backfield, on the way to a 13-0 record, Auburn "seldom had more than two or three" wasted snaps. The most? Six, in the second game of the season, a 43-14 victory over Mississippi State.
Saturday night at LSU, the Tigers gained 451 yards of total offense. They committed no turnovers. And they lost, 20-17 in overtime, when John Vaughn made his fifth errant field-goal kick of the night.
"We had nine wasted snaps," Borges said. "We dropped seven balls. Had we made the routine plays, we would have had 500 yards and not been kicking field goals."
1. Reggie Bush, USC, RB: OK, check punt return for a touchdown off the list.
2. Vince Young, Texas, QB: Remember when no one thought he could pass?
3. Matt Leinart, USC, QB: Bounces back from off game against Notre Dame with four touchdown passes vs. Huskies.
4. DeAngelo Williams, Memphis, RB: Wind him up and he gains 200 yards.
5. Maurice Drew, UCLA, RB: Is it possible the USC-UCLA game could decide the Heisman and the Rose Bowl?
Knocking on the Door: Laurence Maroney of Minnesota, Brett Basanez of Northwestern, Brodie Croyle of Alabama
Headed out the Door: Kellen Clemens of Oregon (injury)
1. USC: The Trojans have won 29 straight. Only 11 teams have ever won 30.
2. Texas: The Horns humiliated Texas Tech, but the Red Raiders didn't do much for Big 12 street cred.
3. Virginia Tech: BC and Miami are as tough a two-game stretch as anyone has left.
4. Alabama: Defense wins championships -- the Crimson Tide had better hope so.
5. Georgia: Joe Tereshinski, former long-snapper, gets his first college start at QB against the Dawgs' archrival.
6. Miami: What one hurricane will do for another: Wilma gives quarterback Kyle Wright an extra week to heal his thumb.
7. UCLA: Stanford is the only team with a winning record standing between the Bruins and a 10-0 record going into the USC game.
8. LSU: The Tigers play North Texas and I-AA Appalachian State before they go to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 12.
9. Penn State: So, what, exactly, has gotten into Michael Robinson? Experience, I would guess.
10. Notre Dame: Michigan State isn't doing the Irish's computer ranking any favors.
No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 16 Florida
The personality of this game changed when Dawgs quarterback D.J. Shockley limped off the field against Arkansas last week. Without Shockley, Georgia becomes a different, less potent offense.
But not necessarily a weak one. For Georgia to win, backup quarterback Joe Tereshinski's job is simple. Don't lose the game.
The Dawgs, as beat up as they are physically, have running backs who can carry an offense. They have an offensive line with 143 career starts that mauled the Tennessee defensive front, considered the best in the Southeastern Conference. They have one of the best tight ends in the nation: Leonard Pope.
Simply put, if Tereshinski can distribute the ball, Georgia can win the game. The Florida offense remains a work in progress, although there's no telling how great a benefit having two weeks to prepare for Georgia is, both as added learning time for the Florida offensive line and as a period of rest for quarterback Chris Leak's shoulder.
With a victory, Georgia will clinch its third SEC East championship in the last four seasons. With a loss, the Dawgs will still have a one-game lead over the Gators. But the chance to clinch against an archrival, and the pride and relief that would come from doing so before Halloween, is a powerful incentive for Georgia. Too powerful, I think, for the Gators.
No. 25 Michigan at No. 21 Northwestern
Yeah, that's right. The Wildcats are ranked higher than the Wolverines, and no one has been able to slow down senior quarterback Brett Basanez. He has come a long way from the pencil-necked redshirt freshman coach Randy Walker threw out there as a starter three years ago.
"He has become a better physical specimen," Walker said on the ADT Coaches' Spotlight Show on Tuesday. "I let him wear short-sleeved shirts. It used to be turtlenecks and long-sleeved shirts. I told him, 'Eat a sandwich and get in the weight room.'"
The Wildcats have come a long way from the team Michigan has dominated the last two seasons. Basanez and freshman tailback Tyrell Sutton are a potent mix for any defense to confront.
Whether Michigan tests the Northwestern defense will depend on the fragile health of tailback Mike Hart. A hamstring got him early in the season. An ankle sprain knocked him out last week at Iowa. Unlike early in the season, the Michigan offense rallied that second time. Sophomore quarterback Chad Henne has begun to look more like the smooth passer of a year ago, and junior Jerome Jackson had some big carries late in the overtime victory against the Hawkeyes.
Northwestern would be a great story. Seeing the eggheads win always is. Michigan has begun to gather itself after a first half filled with starts and very painful stops. The Wolverines are playing better. But me, I always root for the better story.
Oklahoma vs. Nebraska
Well, it's not what it used to be, but what is?
The fact is, in a season of withering comeuppances for the Sooners, this game could serve as a threshold to better things. The fact is, despite the near-weekly humiliations, Oklahoma is 4-3 and has lost to three ranked teams with a combined record of 20-1. If tailback Adrian Peterson were healthy, the Sooners wouldn't be 4-3, and if he is healthy this week, the Sooners won't be 4-4, either.
As always, Peterson's condition remains the big question mark. But Oklahoma is slowly forging an identity without him. Freshman quarterback Rhett Bomar is making progress. He actually threw a textbook fade for a touchdown in the 37-30 overtime victory over Baylor last week.
Oklahoma is on the rise, and Nebraska is coming off a disappointing second-half collapse in a 41-24 loss to Missouri. The defeat left the Huskers in need of a lot of help to win the Big 12 North slot in the league championship game. A victory at home -- at home, where Nebraska has suffered just three narrow defeats in Bill Callahan's two seasons -- would preserve the Huskers' shot at a 9-2 season and leave 8-3 as more than attainable.
Nebraska's defense had looked very good before last week. The Sooners don't have Missouri quarterback Brad Smith, or, in Bomar, a quarterback who can scare anyone with his feet. Expect this to be low-scoring, and expect it to be close. And tell me how much Peterson can contribute if you expect me to point toward one team or the other as a winner.