Just For Argument's Sake
From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, here's a look at the hottest topics in college football.
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The current coaching rumors, along with a yes/no (mostly no, as it turns out) assessment of the likelihood that they will actually happen:
• Butch Davis to North Carolina -- Yes.
Go back to the beginning of the season, when Arkansas coach Houston Nutt needed only one game to pull Robert Johnson out of the starting job and give the offense to freshman Mitch Mustain. He has gone 8-0 as a starter, technically speaking. Nutt needed only one series to pull Mustain Saturday night at South Carolina and give the offense to Casey Dick.
David Kalk/US PRESSWIRE
Casey Dick threw for 228 yards and a touchdown against South Carolina.
Neither decision was as rash as it seemed. Johnson faltered against USC. Nutt felt Mustain, who enrolled this fall, knew enough to do the job. Nutt didn't need Mustain to win games. He needed Mustain not to lose games. He has sophomore tailback Darren McFadden and a big offensive line to power the offense.
Where was Dick? Unavailable. He injured his back in August. Dick started the last four games of last season and finished spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. Once he became healthy this season and scraped off the rust, he became a more-than-viable option for Nutt.
Against the Gamecocks, Dick went 11-for-19 for 228 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Nutt said that he turned to Dick with the pressures of November in mind. And, Nutt added, "I have a quick trigger."
No kidding. Hey, the Razorbacks are 8-1 and leading the SEC West. They have beaten Auburn, so they own that tiebreaker. Dick will start Saturday against No. 13 Tennessee. As hot as Nutt has been this season, hand him the dice and get out of his way.
I know, I know. It sounds like a dumb question. Posluszny is the best linebacker in college football. The 2005 Butkus Award winner has proved it down the homestretch of the season.
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
Will Posluszny's late charge make him a Butkus finalist again?
But. Posluszny, after injuring his knee in the Orange Bowl, barely participated in spring practice. He said his knee didn't feel normal until the summer. The numbers and the naked eye both indicate that the Posluszny of the second half of the season is a different guy from the player who wore No. 31 in the first half of the season.
He is moving faster, which means he is covering more ground. In the first five games of the season, Posluszny made 22 unassisted tackles. In the next five games, he made 35, including two sacks. He didn't even make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage until the fifth game.
In a way, the issue is a microcosm of the annual debates over how poll voters should assess teams. Do victories at the beginning of the season mean as much as victories at the end? If this were basketball, if football had a playoff, the beginning of the season wouldn't mean as much.
The Lombardi Award named Posluszny a finalist for the second consecutive year. The Butkus Award will name its finalists Thursday. My guess is that voters will reward Posluszny for returning to his high level of achievement. He is a brand name in college football, both because of his surname and because he plays linebacker at Penn State. But if Posluszny's season-long performance is measured against the other finalists, it will come up short.
He should hope for short memories.
I wrote a short column in College Football Final on Sunday that I now wish I hadn't written. I tried to make excuses for how flat this season has been. I said it has been flat because a lot of traditional powers are not playing well, and a lot of traditional doormats are playing well.
To sum up, I short-armed the column. I wimped out. I tried to find an excuse for this season, and that's all it was -- an excuse. So here's what I really think:
Jim Tressel's Buckeyes have provided some of the season's few exciting performances.
This season has been flat. Excitement has been low. There hasn't been much there there. Ohio State and Michigan have played well, give or take last Saturday, but the Big Ten has not risen to meet their challenge. The Big Ten goes three deep this season, maybe four.
The Big 12 North is a drag on the Big 12 South. The ACC's highest-ranked team is 18th, three places behind the Big East's third team. The SEC has several princes and no king. Out West, USC is down and its challenger, Cal, has been ignored nationally since its opening-week collapse at Tennessee.
As I said Sunday, I hesitate to even bring this up, because I sound like a whiny sportswriter. Nobody has to tell me how lucky I am to do what I do, and nobody loves this sport more than I do. And here's the thing -- it's not just me. When I have broached this subject with other writers, and even coaches, I haven't found anyone who has disagreed. Even NFL scouts are decrying the lack of talent that will be available next April.
There have been individual games that have been exciting. It turns out Separation Saturday -- way back on Sept. 16 -- separated the compelling part of the season from the rest. We spent a lot of energy pumping up the West Virginia-Louisville game, and we got two offenses and no defenses. These are two of the top five teams in the country? I rest my case.
There have been individual performances that have been outstanding. But they've given a Heisman party, and only one player came.
Ohio State has been No. 1 all season. That shouldn't mean a lack of excitement. We've had a lot of wire-to-homestretch No. 1s in recent years -- Florida State, Miami, Oklahoma, USC -- and those seasons provided thrills. The status quo isn't necessarily a villain.
But there's a difference between status quo and stasis. I keep waiting for this season to take off. It's the second week in November, and we're still sitting on the runway. There are four Saturdays left. Here's hoping someone solves the thrill crisis.
the big play at Texas.
It's alive and well through the air. Freshman quarterback Colt McCoy, dared by defenses to beat them, has completed 35 passes of 20 yards or more. But the running backs have only 15 rushes of 20 yards or more.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Jamaal Charles and the Horns haven't broken many long runs.
If you limit the discussion to long touchdown plays, the discrepancy is stark. Texas has thrown 18 touchdown passes of at least 20 yards. But the Longhorns have only one big-play run for a score, a 20-yarder by Jamaal Charles against Rice. That's hardly a ticket to the Doak Walker Award.
Five of the 20-plus rushes came against Rice, including the three longest. Rice is allowing 5.5 yards per rush, which ranks next-to-last to Temple (5.7) in Division I-A.
"We've tried to study why we haven't had longer runs, but I think we're rushing for 180-something yards, which is really good," Texas coach Mack Brown said Monday.
"I'm sure going into the season everybody said, 'Make Colt throw it,' but the receivers are stepping up, the protection has been really good, and we've just got to keep throwing the ball and not get away from our passing game. We keep thinking that somebody is going to back off and we will be able to get that long run. Everything is in place for the 60-yard run, and we haven't had it. We're looking and we've asked them to do it. I figure one's coming."
Charles and Selvin Young have combined for 1,235 yards and nine touchdowns, but it's come in small pieces. If you like tapas instead of big meals, Texas is your kind of running team.
You don't have to be that old to remember when Brigham Young dominated the Western Athletic Conference, and even the nascent years of the Mountain West. Only five years ago, BYU went 13-1 and threatened to gum up the BCS machinery. It's hard to believe, given the Cougars' life as perennial contenders under former coach LaVell Edwards, but the final poll of the 2001 season is the last time that BYU appeared in the AP poll before this week.
John Beck and the Cougars have rebounded in 2006.
The Cougars are 7-2 and ranked 23rd after winning six consecutive games, including five straight in the Mountain West. BYU hasn't trailed in any of those games. Coach Bronco Mendenhall, in his second season, has not only constructed a stout defense, he has restored BYU's traditional passing game. Senior quarterback John Beck has completed more than 70 percent of his passes in the Cougars' last four games.
Beck has toiled in the anonymity of mediocrity for much of his career in Provo. However, with 9,487 passing yards, he needs only 50 yards to surpass Jim McMahon and move into second place behind Ty Detmer on the Cougars' all-time list.
"I think it's phenomenal," Mendenhall said. "What's more impressive is the growth as a player and a person that has happened along the way in the past three years. If you put John Beck the player today on the field and compared him to how he was three years ago, there has been an amazing transformation. It's come step by step by step and has been all hard-earned through diligence. It has been much like the growth of the program and I see a lot parallels between the two. My hope is both components, John and the team, continue to play and improve."
BYU has a two-game lead in the loss column and can clinch a share of the conference championship Thursday night against second-place Wyoming. BYU is back, and all is right again in the Mountain West.
One of the reasons that Florida coach Urban Meyer is successful is the reason that any coach is successful. He knows how to communicate. In Meyer's case, he is wonderfully plainspoken for a football coach. Most college coaches profess to ignore the obvious -- national championship? What national championship? We've got Rhode Island A&M this week.
But Meyer doesn't play that game.
AP Photo/Neil Brake
Urban Meyer's not afraid to talk about the national championship.
"How many opportunities do you get to win a national championship?" Meyer asked Monday. He went 12-0 at Utah in 2004 and never had a chance, so he should know.
"Are we going to talk about that? Sure. We're going to talk about it a little bit today. We're going to throw it right in everyone's face and my face and yeah, let's go get it. You say you want to win? Let's go do everything we can."
He sounded the same way when asked about the return of Steve Spurrier to the Swamp on Saturday. Spurrier, for the first time in a career that includes winning a Heisman at Florida (1966) and coaching his alma mater to a national championship (1996), will be on Florida Field and competing against the Gators.
"I think it is no different than [Bo] Schembechler walking in Michigan or Woody Hayes walking in Ohio State," Meyer said. "I was at Notre Dame and if [Knute] Rockne would have walked in, or [when] Ara Parseghian was there, I saw what happened when he walked in the building and it's all deservedly so. I mean, that's the way it is. Is there a shadow? It's a big one and it should be that way. Does it change the way that we coach or player develop our team? Not in the least. We've got a very big obligation and that's to play our best football this week and make it real clear, this is about beating South Carolina."
Meyer doesn't ignore the elephant in the room. He acknowledges it and goes on about his business. Think about that the next time you hear clichés spouting forth from your favorite coach.
Editor's note: Every week, Ivan Maisel will explain how to perform a task integral to college football. It might happen on the field. It might happen on the sideline. It might have to do with tradition, or preparation, or the band, or the managers. But you'll go inside the sport as you never have before. Here goes:
Andy Altenburger/Icon SMI
Notre Dame's student managers make sure the helmets shine on Saturdays.
There's really no reason to paint football helmets every week. They are made to absorb blows. They are made to collide with other helmets. There's no reason at all -- except pride and one of the great traditions in college football.
Notre Dame senior Matt McQueary is one of three senior managers of the football team. When you list cool campus jobs, include McQueary's. How many other guys do you know who have the keys to The House that Rock Built?
"I have to go to the locker room every day, be on the field for game day," said McQueary, a Science-Business major from Cincinnati. "I haven't been in the stands for a game since I was a sophomore. I haven't really missed it."
He estimates that he spends seven hours a day during the season on his duties as a manager, which he describes as both a full-time job and a joy. But there's only one part of his job that's been glorified on the big screen. There's a helmet-painting scene in "Rudy."
Time and the typical Hollywood flourishes rendered the scene not quite accurate. For one thing, the managers stopped painting the helmets on Friday night several years ago because doing the job on Monday made their lives easier.
"We used to have one helmet for both games and practices," McQueary said. "Now we have a practice helmet as well as a game helmet. We used to have to wait until Thursday or Friday to have game prep because their helmets were being worn for practice, but now that we have two sets, we can do it almost immediately after a game. Also, Mondays are days off for the players, which means no practice. If a helmet doesn't come out right the first time, we have plenty of time to fix it before a game or road trip."
On the Monday after a game, the managers meet at 2 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium. On this Monday, after the Irish's 45-26 home defeat of North Carolina, the 21 junior managers and 65 sophomore managers arrived. They needed that many because home games mean more helmets to paint. The Irish dress 105 players for home games, 70 for away games.
"Two juniors and two sophomores focus on painting," McQueary said, "while the rest are responsible for taping and buffing the helmets."
The managers replace the 10 or so face masks that are too mangled to protect anyone's face any longer. Then they tape over the holes of each helmet and remove the inner padding to make sure that no paint gets inside. They cover the face mask in Saran Wrap and tape over it.
"The wrap makes removing the tape from the face mask much easier and provides a surface [that] paint cannot get through," McQueary said.
The managers remove the chin strap, as well as the American flag sticker and the NCAA sticker from the outer surface.
Then comes buffing, the time-consuming and elbow-grease-requiring portion of the process. Before they paint, the managers use lacquer to try to remove the scuff marks and smooth out the chipped paint from the previous game.
"The helmets from the offensive and defensive lines can get really beat up," McQueary said. "After the Navy game, we had to spend about an hour on them. We use the lacquer to make sure the paint will go on smooth. You take a rag and put a little lacquer on it. We buff off the ragged spots."
The painters apply a base coat of a color which McQueary referred to as "Real ND Gold." It is, alas, "very dull" according to McQueary. Then comes the magic. The managers apply a coat of gloss to the helmets. It comes to them clear. But like a southern chef making a pot of gumbo, the managers add something special: gold dust. And not just any dust.
Every 15 to 20 years, the golden dome atop the administration building -- yes, the golden dome -- is re-gilded. The gold dust that is stripped off the dome is collected and delivered to the football managers.
"We store it in a 5-gallon bucket," McQueary said. "We store it in the stadium. We keep it hidden away. We take a vat of regular gloss and mix in the gold dust. We use four level spoonfuls of gold dust."
Therein lies the magic.
"On the first play of the game, you get a cloud of gold dust," McQueary said. "Joe Montana is famous talking about it. The magic of Notre Dame is embodied in that dust."
1. Troy Smith, Ohio State, QB: All he needs to do now to win is keep from getting hit by a truck.
2. Brady Quinn, Notre Dame QB: In the Heisman war of attrition, Quinn has moved up in the race just by staying healthy.
3. Darren McFadden, Arkansas, RB: As the season gets longer, the Hogs' sophomore gets stronger.
4. Colt Brennan, Hawaii, QB: He's setting school records at a school known for its passing offense.
5. John Beck, BYU, QB: He has placed his name on the long list of great Cougars quarterbacks.
1. Ohio State (1 last week): Don't let the 17-10 final score fool you. When did the Buckeyes not have control over Illinois?
2. Michigan (3): There's no fooling about this one, though. The Wolverines had a trap game -- Ball State in November -- and they fell right into it.
3. Texas (4): I like how the Longhorns' defense stepped up after a bad game at Texas Tech and shut down Bobby Reid and Oklahoma State.
4. Louisville (5): The Cardinals' defense didn't do much to make me think this is a team that should play for the national championship.
5. Arkansas (7): The Razorbacks' inability to move higher in the polls is the great mystery of the 2006 season.
6. Auburn (9): Tennessee's loss put the Tigers at the front of a line for a BCS at-large bid.
7. Florida (12): Coach Urban Meyer threw defensive tackle Marcus Thomas off the team. Will this defense be the same?
8. Cal (8): The defense sprouted a leak or two against UCLA. This is not the time of season to be doing that.
9. USC (11): The Trojans bounced back to dominate Stanford. Whatever that's worth.
10. West Virginia (2): The Mountaineers had no margin for error in their BCS quest. They made a bunch of them. Might the Gator Bowl take them instead of its first Big Eight team?
11. Notre Dame (13): It's funny how in most years, the Irish have been overscheduled. This year, a lot of the teams on their schedule didn't measure up.
12. LSU (12): It may have been ugly, but the Tigers got a win that they -- and coach Les Miles -- desperately needed.
13. Tennessee (6): As beat up as the Vols are, the last thing they needed was three players arrested at a bar at 3 a.m.
14. Wisconsin (14): The Badgers could have used the game they didn't play against Ohio State. Their schedule held them back.
15. Boise State (15): Upset alert -- the Broncos still have to play San Jose State and Nevada.
16. Rutgers (15): How far will the Scarlet Knights rise if they win at home over Louisville? Talk about throwing the BCS sweepstakes into disarray.
Let's be honest. It is a struggle finding three games worth TiVo-ing this Saturday. You remember Separation Saturday. This is Desperation Saturday. But let's be serious. You're going to be raking leaves at some point, so you might as well be able to get caught up on something when you get back in the house.
No. 13 Tennessee at No. 11 Arkansas
Saturday, 7 p.m ET, ESPN2
You can't explain why the Razorbacks have yet to crack the top 10. Virtually another Arkansas team lost the opener to USC, 50-14. Since then, tailback Darren McFadden has gotten healthy and reestablished himself as one of the top running backs in the nation. Coach Houston Nutt has proven deft -- or lucky -- at deciding when to play freshman Mitch Mustain or sophomore Casey Dick at quarterback.
Dick will start Saturday against a defense that will surely prove difficult for him to solve. That's what longtime Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis does best. Expect the Vols to try to clamp down on McFadden and make Dick beat them. That didn't work for SEC defenses against Mustain, mainly because no one has been able to slow down McFadden.
That's the only chance Tennessee has. The Volunteers' defense will have to keep Tennessee in this game, because the offense is a mess. Quarterback Erik Ainge has a lame ankle. His backup, Jonathan Crompton, came in against LSU and acquitted himself well (11-of-24, 183 yards, two touchdowns, 1 INT) last Saturday. But playing at home is a lot easier than playing on the road in the loud, emotional Southeastern Conference.
What's at stake? Strangely, not much. Tennessee is closed out of the SEC East race, which Florida clinched last week. Arkansas has a two-game lead on LSU and a virtual two-game lead over Auburn (one-game lead plus a victory over the Tigers) in the West. But the Razorbacks have momentum in the form of an eight-game winning streak and old-school physical dominance that looks unusual in these spread-crazy days.
Arkansas is the better team. The Hogs will climb one win away from clinching the SEC West.
No. 21 Oregon at No. 7 USC
Saturday, 10:15 p.m. ET
The Trojans begin their stretch run against four opponents that will test them and, should they win all four, send them to the Rose Bowl. What's more, USC is 17-0 in November under coach Pete Carroll.
USC (7-1, 5-1) recovered its equilibrium after its surprising loss at Oregon State, winning at Stanford, 42-0. What that proves is in question, because the Cardinal may be the worst team to play in the Pac-10 Conference in many years.
The focus of this game will be Oregon's ability to run the ball. The Ducks are the only team in the Pac-10 to average more than 206.3 rushing yards per game. The Trojans lead the league in rushing defense (90.0 yards per game), and the teams are 1-2 in the league in total defense as well.
But here's the strange part: Oregon is only seventh in the league in scoring defense, allowing 22.8 points per game. Part of that is due to the way that Cal perfect-stormed the Ducks last month, dominating a 45-24 victory. USC has shown some signs of that sort of run-pass balance, but not against a team as talented as Oregon.
Neither team has been very good in the kicking game, which means that both are vulnerable. Still, USC has a 30-game winning streak in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum intact. Oregon doesn't have enough to prevent the streak from getting to 31.
No. 18 Wake Forest at Florida State
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Florida State has the better athletes. Florida State has the better stats. In a "tale of the tape" comparison, the Seminoles rank higher than the Demon Deacons in seven of nine statistical categories.
But Wake Forest (8-1, 4-1) has a better team and record than Florida State (5-4, 3-4). The 18th-ranked Deacs do a great job of beating -- and beating up -- the other team instead of beating themselves. Wake Forest controls its own destiny in the ACC Atlantic. It will be a challenging trip (Virginia Tech, at Maryland to follow).
The Florida State offense has shown signs of life in the last two weeks behind sophomore Xavier Lee, who has started in the place of injured sophomore Drew Weatherford. Lee has gained 570 yards of total offense and accounted for three touchdowns without a turnover. That last stat will be critical Saturday night. Wake is plus-six in turnover margin. Florida State is minus-four.
Bobby Bowden is 14-0 against Wake Forest since Florida State joined the Atlantic Coast Conference. In 12 of those games, the Seminoles came into the game -- and left -- ranked in the top five. This year, Wake is ranked and Florida State is not. And yet the Seminoles are eight-point favorites. That is fine with Deacs senior end Jyles Tucker.
"It doesn't matter what people say anymore," Tucker said Saturday night, after Wake's 21-14 victory over Boston College. "Our freshmen said today that Kirk [Herbstreit] and Lee [Corso] were dissing [us]. We like to prove people wrong. Continue to make us the underdog. Please."