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, 2005
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles the hottest topics in college football.

1. So who's better, USC or UCLA?
UCLAUSC 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."

2. Are SEC defenses this good, or are SEC offenses this average?
SEC 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.

3. What is the Masters Coaches Survey, and should we care?
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.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com