Just For Argument's Sake ...
From whether Auburn, Ohio State or Oregon will grab an at-large BCS berth to Steve Spurrier to academic qualifications to a proper introduction, Ivan Maisel tackles all the hot topics.
Updated: December 1, 2005, 11:40 AM ETBy 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
Before we start, there's no point debating whether Notre Dame deserves an at-large bid. The eighth-ranked Irish will meet the standard -- 9-2 and a top-12 BCS finish -- set for them by the members of the BCS, so they'll get in. If you want to debate whether Notre Dame deserves to get an automatic bid, let's table it for a less nerve-wracking week.
In a sense, the issue is the reason the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl will take the Irish with the first pick. No one is neutral about them. People love them or hate them, just like the Yankees, the Cowboys, or Duke basketball. That's the price the University of Notre Dame pays for its national stature.
But No. 8? A 9-2 record? Victories over only three teams with winning records (Michigan, BYU and Navy, hardly a murderer's row)?
Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker is the best in the business. I have heard him say numerous times that if he doesn't have the championship game, then it doesn't really matter what his teams are ranked.
He wants deserving teams whose fans will travel to the Valley of the Sun and enjoy the week.
He wants teams that will create buzz and attract television viewers. That has been the essence of the bowl business since it began decades ago.
Junker probably would like to have Notre Dame and Penn State, but that's not going to happen. The FedEx Orange Bowl, with the second pick, will take whichever of those two Junker doesn't. That leaves him with No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Oregon or No. 10 Auburn.
Ohio State has two losses, yes, but close ones to two teams ranked above it -- No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Penn State.
The Ducks have been a quiet 10-1. They played only two opponents still ranked, getting a 37-34 victory over Fresno State and, after leading USC at the half, losing to the Trojans, 45-13. Oregon didn't play UCLA, which is a good way to go 10-1 but unfortunate if you're trying to brag on your schedule.
The Tigers would have a high seed in March Madness. After a slow start (a 23-14 loss to Georgia Tech), they finished strong. But that's why the regular season holds the magic it does: There is no playoff.
I think the decision will come down to Ohio State and Oregon. The Fiesta Bowl officials are not comfortable with taking the Buckeyes for the third time in four years. If Junker could sprinkle magic dust that would induce the Orange Bowl to select Ohio State instead of Penn State, he would.
In the end, though, the allure of a Notre Dame-Ohio State matchup, redolent with history and overflowing with television appeal, will be too hard to turn down.
The Fiesta has a contractual relationship with the Pac-10, which will make it uncomfortable not to take the Ducks. Junker takes pains to remind anyone who asks that the Fiesta selected Oregon State as an at-large five years ago (and the Beavers ran over, yep, Notre Dame, 41-9).
Since then, there hasn't been a Pac-10 at-large candidate to pass over. A year ago, No. 5 California didn't make the BCS because No. 4 Texas and No. 6 Utah qualified automatically for the at-large berths. The Pac-10 can make the argument that the Bears didn't deserve to fall to No. 5, but the blame sat with the voters and the computers, not with the bowls.
The Fiesta could pick Ohio State, Oregon or Auburn and be proud of its selection.
Leak arrived at Florida as a prodigy, a quarterback promised a scholarship while in eighth grade. He excelled in his first two seasons at Florida as a slightly undersized passer, throwing for 5,632 yards. He attracted Heisman attention, as any Gator passer did in the Spurrier Era and beyond.
Enter Urban Meyer and his spread option offense, which is most efficient when the quarterback can move around. Mobility and speed are not Leak's strengths, and for half the season, he looked about as comfortable as my mother watching "Old School" (Guess which scene she walked out on?).
Meyer adjusted, bringing in an extra blocker or two, and Leak responded. The Gators, despite the disappointing losses to Alabama and South Carolina, finished 8-3 with victories over their three biggest rivals -- Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State.
Leak finished with good numbers: 2,150 yards, 16 touchdowns, five interceptions. They aren't the eye-popping numbers of his first two seasons, but they are fine.
"He had a decent year," Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "He did some good things. The toughest thing that he had to go through is in three years, he has had three different coaches."
That won't happen next year. Leak can come back for his senior year more secure in the knowledge of the offense. And, frankly, where else would he go? He's not NFL-ready. His only other option would be to transfer, as a senior, to a I-AA program. Although that's not unheard of, it also would mean Leak would start over in yet another offense with yet another coach.
Leak might not be the ideal quarterback for this offense, but he remains the best one Meyer has. Behind him will be Josh Portis, the freshman whose talents are better suited for this offense, and possibly Tim Tebow, the Jacksonville, Fla., high school senior who is deciding between Florida and Alabama. He would be a great mentor for both.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Steve Spurrier guided the Gamecocks to a 7-4 record.
Consider this one, like the technical Oscars, a preview of the main event. ESPN.com will give out its football awards next week. In the meantime, for purposes of clarity, first-year coach means a coach in his first year at a school, not someone in his first year as a head coach.
Among the coaches worth considering: Skip Holtz at East Carolina, who picked up the 2-9 mess he found and created a 5-6 team. More impressive, Bill Cubit at Western Michigan installed the controlled passing game, took the Broncos to the last week of the MAC West race and finished 7-4, six games better than a year ago.
With all credit given to Charlie Weis and 9-2 Notre Dame, the best two performances came out of the SEC. One of the toughest jobs out there is to take a previous coach's recruits and mold them to your system. Although Meyer improved the Gators from 7-5 a year ago to 8-3 this year, the better performance took place at South Carolina.
Yes, Steve Spurrier has beaten Meyer again.
Spurrier plucked quarterback Blake Mitchell out of the heap and created a playmaker. He turned wide receiver Sidney Rice from a promising freshman into one of the best receivers in the SEC. And the Gamecocks rapidly improved on defense once Tyrone Nix took over the play-calling signals at midseason.
South Carolina finished 7-4, got its first victory over Tennessee in 13 years and stunned Florida, as well. Even with all that, as well as Spurrier did, he didn't do the best job of any first-year coach.
Although it's true Les Miles had more talent on his roster than any team in the league, his ability to keep the Tigers focused in spite of the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita is Belichickian.
As a team, LSU had every reason to cave. Against Tennessee, the Tigers did cave. But faced with one must-win game after another, LSU won. No team guts out overtime victories over Auburn and Alabama without the feeling of oneness that good coaching creates.
Not only that, Miles persuaded a team top-heavy with upperclassmen to buy into what he coached. That's no small accomplishment. The road to the BCS is littered with teams that fail to reach their potential. The Tigers are one game away from the Sugar Bowl. They leaned on one another in a difficult season. That sort of leadership begins at the top.
You could see this one coming a mile away.
When the NCAA decided five years ago to allow high schools to determine which classes count as core courses, it ceded control over how high school players meet the academic qualifications to gain a scholarship. Sure enough, as The New York Times' Pete Thamel and Duff Wilson revealed in a story Sunday, when the NCAA stopped guarding the gates, unqualified players found a way inside.
The Times described 14 athletes who qualified for a scholarship by raising their grade-point average for their core curriculum through a high school diploma mill. The quote that stuck with me came from Diane Dickman, the NCAA managing director for membership services, a wonderfully bureaucratic title in college athletics' biggest bureaucracy.
"We're not the educational accreditation police," Dickman told the newspaper.
That is exactly the problem. Neither was anyone else. What that means is that the NCAA expected high schools to adhere to a standard out of the goodness of their heart or because the NCAA expected them to or because it was the right thing to do.
If that's the case, why have enforcement at all? Just tell people what the rules are and get ready for March Madness.
The NCAA is in the enforcement business because it has to be. If you lay down academic standards, you have to enforce them, even if it's cumbersome or expensive. Now that a problem has developed, the NCAA has appointed a committee to study the issue. It seems as if it would have been easier to do that in the first place.
It might stun you to learn that after the High Ankle Sprain from Hell, after 10 yards on three carries against Texas, after minus-4 yards on five carries against Kansas, after not even playing against Baylor, one of the two All-Big 12 running backs is the one and only Adrian Peterson.
The sophomore finished the season with four consecutive 100-yard games. He rushed for 237 yards, 210 of them in the second half, in the 42-14 defeat of cross-state rival Oklahoma State in the Sooners' regular-season finale. That half included touchdown runs of 84 and 71 yards, and propelled him to the top in the Big 12 rushing race (1,024 yards in 10 games).
In retrospect, Peterson had a very good year. He just did it when no one outside the conference was watching.
Peterson has carried 142 fewer times than he did as a freshman, and gained barely half the total of a year ago (1,925). But his 14 touchdowns are only one shy of his freshman total. That's a reflection of the limited options the Sooners' offense had in a season with an inexperienced offensive line and quarterback.
What that means is that it might be foolish to begin the 2006 Heisman race as a showdown between senior quarterbacks Vince Young of Texas and Brady Quinn of Notre Dame. The 2004 runner-up will be back. So, too, will the Sooners.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Pat White carried WVU to the Big East title.
It turns out the Big East Conference didn't need Louisville as its savior after all. The champion has been in the league all along.
Despite all the talk that the Cardinals would dominate the Big East in their first season in the league, West Virginia has clinched its first outright championship in the league since 1993. The Mountaineers, who appear headed to the Sugar Bowl, take a two-game lead over South Florida into their game Saturday at Tampa.
The sudden rise to the top of the Big East surprised everyone, up to and including coach Rich Rodriguez. It's not that the fifth-year coach didn't believe the Mountaineers could win. He just understood the perils of inexperience.
As it turned out, the inexperience worked for the team, not against it.
"When the talk was that UConn [a 4-1 start] or South Florida would win the championship, our guys just focused on the next day," Rodriguez said. "With a younger team, they're just worried about getting through the next day. They are learning so much that they have been like sponges. I don't think they worry about the big picture so much."
No one epitomizes the maturation of the Mountaineers more than redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White, who took over at midseason after an injury to Adam Bednarik. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder rushed for 220 yards, a Big East record for a quarterback, and two touchdowns in the 45-13 victory over archrival Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night.
West Virginia plucked White out of Daphne, Ala., beating LSU, which wanted White to play receiver, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, which wanted White to play center field.
Rodriguez loved how White played quarterback at Daphne High, a perennial 6-A power in a football-mad state. Rodriguez liked what he saw and heard about White on the field and off.
"You could see on film that he could move," Rodriguez said. "He could make all the throws. You could see how a guy manages the game. They had a deal on the team that they had to take turns cleaning out the lockers. Pat would not only take his turn, anytime an offensive lineman had a turn, Pat would stay after practice and help him. He was going to go above and beyond just to show that he could lead."
After Bednarik injured his foot against Louisville, White came off the bench to lead West Virginia to a 46-44 triple-overtime victory. He rushed for 69 yards and threw for 49 yards and a touchdown in that game, and he has gotten better every week.
With White and freshman tailback Steve Slaton (838 yards, 13 touchdowns), the future looks bright for West Virginia. Rodriguez also has one more up-and-coming young talent -- his 7-year-old son Rhett.
Rodriguez; his wife, Rita; and Rhett watched the Mountaineers clinch a Big East berth Saturday when UConn upset South Florida, 15-10.
"UConn got the first down and basically sealed the game," Rodriguez said. "Rhett started yelling, 'Just take a knee. Don't hand it off. Just take a knee.' They handed off to a back, and Rhett said, 'What are you doing? Just take a knee!'
"I looked at him and said, 'Man, you are learning, aren't you?'"
Rhett doesn't attend practice much, but he does coach the Mountaineers on PlayStation.
Earlier this season, Rhett bugged his dad to run a halfback toss that had worked well in the living room.
"We have that play. I ran it, and it gained 10 yards," Rodriguez said.
Rhett might have a future as a volunteer assistant, but first things first.
"He has to wait until he's 10 to be a ballboy," Rodriguez said. "He's little enough that he could get hurt."
Expect John Bunting back on the UNC sideline in 2006.
We won't know until the NFL does its hiring and firing how many coaching vacancies there will be, but this might be only the third season since the NCAA began tracking vacancies that there will be fewer than 10. In 1988 and 1996, there were only nine jobs filled.
Six coaches have retired, resigned or been fired so far this season. There might be more, of course, if those jobs are filled by current head coaches (South Florida's Jim Leavitt to Kansas State?). But so many teams came close to succeeding that there is a lot of optimism to build on for next year.
Take John Bunting at North Carolina, who was the subject of firing rumors after the Tar Heels finished 5-6. Web gossip and recruiting gossip to the contrary, Bunting isn't going anywhere. In fact, athletic director Dick Baddour spoke with defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders on Tuesday morning about extending his two-year contract, which expires next summer.
"We heard it from recruits Monday night that we were going to be fired," Sanders said Tuesday. "I've heard some of the same rumors. The athletic director just called me and said he really believed that we had improved defensively. He wants to do what he can to keep the staff intact."
The Tar Heels allowed 138.2 rushing yards per game this season, 80 fewer than a year ago. However, with a young offensive line, the Tar Heels rushed for 101.5 yards per game, 76 fewer than in 2004. In other words, other than Roy Williams, Sanders might have done the best coaching on the Chapel Hill campus.
In five seasons, Bunting has a record of 24-36 (.400) and has taken his alma mater to two bowl games. More relevant, the Tar Heels are 11-12 over the last two seasons. North Carolina went 5-6 this season on a schedule that included nine bowl teams.
Many of the hidden stats we've unveiled this season have to do with defining a standard of success. How do coaches measure the numbers to understand what their goals should be?
Most college football fans understand field position, a concept that has been a part of coaching since the dawn of time. But what defines good field position? How do you determine whether an offense or a defense has succeeded in the field-position game?
For the answer, go to one of the legends. In his 1963 book "Darrell Royal Talks Football," the former Texas coach said a defense must force offenses to drive an average of more than 50 yards to score. But he noted that in 1959, 1961 and 1962 -- seasons in which his teams didn't lose more than one game -- the average touchdown drive went 56, 66 and 59 yards, respectively.
That statistic still holds up. We looked at the 20 touchdowns Texas has allowed in its 11 games this season. The average drive went 54 yards.
It doesn't take much to pull that average down. Six of the touchdowns scored on the Longhorns came on drives of fewer than 30 yards.
By comparison, the USC defense has allowed 28 touchdowns in 11 games (that excludes two punt returns and an interception return for touchdowns against the Trojans). The average of those drives is a whopping 62 yards.
The average length of an opponent's touchdown drive is as much a reflection on the offense as on the defense. An average of 62 yards means Matt Leinart and Co. aren't forcing their defense into working with a short field.
1. Reggie Bush, USC, RB: It's his to lose, and he can tee off against the Bruins.
2. Vince Young, Texas, QB: Like Bush, he'll face a vulnerable defense Saturday.
3. Matt Leinart, USC, QB: Two games left in one of the great college careers.
4. Jerome Harrison, Washington State, RB: I don't think he'll get an invitation to New York, but he should.
5. Drew Olson, UCLA, QB: Here's his chance to get the attention that has eluded him all season.
1. USC: The war of attrition continues. After all the defensive injuries, now tailback LenDale White is hurt.
2. Texas: The Longhorns say they are awake. That doesn't bode well for the Buffaloes.
3. LSU: The Tigers say they are awake. Against Georgia, they had better be.
4. Penn State: Six weeks is a long time between games.
5. Ohio State: Ohio State will be the best defense Notre Dame has faced. It might even be the first real one since Michigan. USC isn't where it is because of its defense.
6. Auburn: I like the Tigers, too. But "the best team in the SEC" is a tough sell.
7. Virginia Tech: Do we just write off the Miami game? Pretend it didn't happen?
8. Georgia: Sugar if they win, Peach if they lose. Either way, Dawgs would play their next two in the Georgia Dome.
9. Oregon: The Fiesta Bowl is considering the Ducks seriously. I just don't think the trigger will get pulled.
10. Notre Dame: Good thing the BCS bid will be automatic. Struggling to beat Stanford is not the way to win style points.
No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 USC
It is a rare year when Los Angeles contracts a case of college football fever. This is the year, and the case might never have been more acute than this week. USC and UCLA are a combined 20-1, their best record since that memorable 1988 game when the No. 2 Trojans, behind quarterback Rodney Peete, defeated the No. 6 Bruins and quarterback Troy Aikman, 31-22.
This is only the third time since that game that both teams have been ranked. USC has been No. 1 since the end of the 2003 season, or so long ago that "Entourage" hadn't even begun production. The Trojans have won 33 consecutive games, despite the spotlight, despite the pressure and the bull's-eye that come with that brand of success.
UCLA, after two seasons under coach Karl Dorrell that defined mediocrity, is No. 11 with a 9-1 record. The Bruins have endured the anonymity that would have fallen on any team not the Trojans and have climbed to the top anyway. Their rise this season correlates to the rise of senior quarterback Drew Olson.
He missed spring practice while rehabbing his knee, and he didn't win the starting job until August. Yet Olson leads Division I-A in passing efficiency, highlighted by a remarkable touchdown-interception ratio of 30-to-3. He has even managed to grab attention away from USC quarterback Matt Leinart.
"Matt has done a great job and won the Heisman and is a very good quarterback," Dorrell said in a media conference call Tuesday. "Drew came from nowhere, and now [you're] asking who is the best quarterback in L.A.? That is telling you that he has had a good season. The thing that hurt Drew is that he hasn't backed it up with a season before this season."
Familiarity will breed competitiveness for the Bruins. Last season, despite being 6-4, UCLA took USC to the final minute before falling, 29-24. That game served as a springboard.
"We're good for that experience last year. It gave the guys a feeling that we're not that far off," Dorrell said.
Olson said he has focused on Notre Dame and Fresno State, two passing teams that spread the field and had success against USC. What he noticed, he said, is that "They played their game. They didn't try to do too much. They ran what they do best."
UCLA also has the advantage of an effective kick-return game, and it hasn't even played USC yet. The Trojans have been abysmal on special teams -- giving up long returns, turning the ball over, you name it.
All of which means UCLA might be able to keep it close. However, USC has the best offense in college football in the last 10 years, and UCLA's defense is begging to be abused. The Bruins have allowed 27 or more points in their last six games. USC has scored 50 or more points in four of its last five.
One key to USC is keeping the offense off the field. If that works for UCLA, it will be only because the Trojans have scored so quickly.
Tailback Reggie Bush laid a cautionary foundation of an argument Tuesday when he said that if the Trojans lose, they should still play for the national championship.
"Look at Oklahoma two years ago," Bush said.
You could make a case for the 11-1 Trojans, but you won't have to. They won't be 11-1.
No. 13 Georgia vs. No. 3 LSU
SEC Championship Game
This reprise of the 2003 championship shapes up to be more competitive than that 34-13 rout, the game that propelled the Tigers into the Sugar Bowl, where they won a share of the 2003 national title.
This LSU team has dispelled doubts about its mental toughness that arose after the collapse against Tennessee. The Tigers have achieved a record (10-1) worthy of their talent. They have won overtime victories against their two toughest West Division foes. They have won when they played well and won when they didn't, as was the case Friday against Arkansas.
In Georgia, however, LSU will find a team every bit as good as Auburn. The Bulldogs have the second-best defense the Tigers will see this season. And unlike Alabama, Georgia has an offense to go with it. As talented as LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell is, Bulldogs senior D.J. Shockley should be the SEC Player of the Year.
For one thing, Shockley leads the conference in passing efficiency (145.1 rating, 147-265-5, 2,199 yards, 19 touchdowns). For another, without Shockley, Georgia's offense looked like Alabama in a brighter shade of red.
The Georgia Dome might help the Dawgs, although it certainly did little for them two years ago. In a year when the conference championship games seem like more of a waste of time than normal, this one is the exception. It might decide only which team gets the honor of playing in the Sugar Bowl with the asterisk (Atlanta, not New Orleans), but it's also for bragging rights.
If there is to be an upset in the one of the championship games, this will be the game. I think LSU will win, but I don't feel confident of the pick.
Army vs. Navy
It is the grandest pageant in college football. The student bodies of the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy will march into Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Saturday and take their places in the stands, concluding weeks of anticipation and beginning one of the great games in the sport.
The Army-Navy rivalry has suffered in recent years. It is played the first Saturday in December, Championship Saturday, an almost cruel reminder of the on-field irrelevance of these one-time national football powers. It also has suffered from a lack of competition, although that might be merely a response to the incredible finishes the rivalry enjoyed in the 1990s.
Navy has won five of the last six, including the last three by an average margin of five touchdowns. The Midshipmen will bus up to Philly with a 6-4 record and a bid to the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, while the Black Knights are 4-6.
Navy is a soft 6-4 -- the Midshipmen played only two teams (Notre Dame, Rutgers) that finished the regular season with a winning record. Navy's six victims combined to win nine games. Air Force had four of the victories.
The schedule came in the ideal year. Navy had only seven starters return from the 10-2 team that won the Emerald Bowl a year ago. Senior quarterback Lamar Owens made a smooth transition from dependable backup to starter. He is the engine that makes coach Paul Johnson's offense go.
Army comes into the game with four consecutive victories, including a 20-0 defeat of Mid-American East champ Akron and a 38-10 rout of Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State. Senior Carlton Jones has rushed for 944 yards and six touchdowns in nine games. He is the first sign of life in an offense that has struggled in Bobby Ross' two seasons.
Ross has accomplished a great deal in his career -- a national championship at Georgia Tech (1990), a Super Bowl berth at San Diego (1994), and four ACC titles from his time at Tech and Maryland. He is missing a victory over Navy. On Saturday, he gets it.