Monday, June 29, 2009

Good grief

What percentage of Little League World Series players do you think end up in the major leagues? Probably a pretty low number, right?

That's because there's a TON of development that takes place during the teenage years (pretty much all of it, actually), so trying to project what a kid will look like -- not to mention how good a player he'll be -- in five or six years is an exercise in futility.

That certainly doesn't deter Lane Kiffin, though, who continues to break his own record for most bizarre things done in one offseason:
The entire process has been accelerated. In fact, it's now so fast that one rising star has decided where to play his college football even though he hasn't played a down of high school football. The player is Evan Berry of Fairburn, Ga., the younger brother of Tennessee super safety Eric Berry.
In case you're not sure what that's trying to say, 13-year-old Evan Berry -- who hasn't yet reached high school -- verbally committed Friday to play football at Tennessee. His commitment doesn't mean a whole lot, of course -- even verbals from high schoolers don't mean much at this point -- but the whole thing just seems disturbing.

From Kiffin's point of view, I understand what he's trying to do -- it just seems a little unethical (to say the least). If you lock in a potential star, you don't have to worry much about losing him later on, and a scholarship offer can always be withdrawn if the player fails to meet certain standards.

But the kid has barely hit puberty. I know, I know, it's his decision and his family has a legacy at Tennessee and blah blah blah ... but Kiffin could have done the professional thing and told him to focus on high school first and then, later in the process, make more of an educated decision on where he wants to spend his college years.

This is why I don't want to hear it from coaches who whine about decommitments: As the old saying goes, you reap what you sow.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mellow yellow

The annual unveiling of Oregon's Halloween costumes -- by which I mean uniforms -- took place last week and was a little less horrific than usual.

The minimal use of eye-stabbingly bright yellow along with the implementation of black, silver and a darker shade of green make these new unis surprisingly tolerable. And note that while most teams unveil a home, an away and an alternate, Oregon kept up with its usual standards of variety and has five jerseys and three sets of pants ... oh, and five different helmets.

My only complaint: Good Lord, the shoulder wings have to go. I have a hard time believing that ANYONE thinks those looks good, let alone a majority of the players (who supposedly consult with Nike on the designs). The yellow jersey/silver number/black pants combo is also pretty bad, but no worse than what we've seen in past years.

Overall, it's not a bad set -- especially when you consider that the design process probably consists mostly of prospective Oregon recruits sitting at a table with a bunch of colored highlighters and a uniform template.

Catching up: Transfers abound

* Two pretty talented quarterbacks announced their transfer intentions this week, and both are (unsurprisingly) headed to lower-division schools to play out their eligibility. First, former Indiana QB-turned-receiver Kellen Lewis decided that he'll play next season at Valdosta State, which has been a D-II power for years. Lewis is in his final year of eligibility and said he expects to play quarterback at Valdosta. On the other side of the country, Oregon QB Justin Roper -- a redshirt sophomore who lost a battle with Jeremiah Masoli for the starting job in spring practice - announced Saturday that he'll play next season at Montana, which has a pretty impressive history in its own right at the FCS level.

* Former USC receiver and five-star recruit Vidal Hazelton, who announced in January that he'd transfer to Cincinnati, had his request for immediate eligibility denied by the NCAA. He stated at the time of his transfer that he wanted to be closer to his grandfather, who is battling cancer, so at first glance this might seem like a heartless decision. The problem is that Hazelton's grandfather lives in Georgia ... so yeah, no real argument here. He'll be eligible to play for the Bearcats in 2010.

* Nick Montana (yes, that Montana), long considered by Ohio State fans their post-Terrelle Pryor savior, spurned the Buckeyes and committed to Washington last week. Montana hails from Oaks Christian (Calif.), the same high school that produced Jimmy Clausen, and is rated as a four-star recruit by both Rivals and Scout. His commitment to the Huskies seemed a little shocking at first when compared with the offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, LSU, Georgia and pretty much everyone else, but I guess it shouldn't be that surprising. Keep in mind that Steve Sarkisian was a renowned QB coach who sharpened his recruiting chops at USC, so he ought to be able to pull in some talent (offensively, at least) at U-Dub. Ohio State, on the other hand, still hasn't landed anything more than a roster-filler at QB since Terrelle Pryor's arrival and has to be concerned about where the offense goes if Pryor were to (gasp) suffer an injury or leave school after his junior year in 2010. Jim Tressel has never been overly reliant on his quarterbacks, but I'm fairly certain he doesn't wanna be starting an unheralded true freshman (or worse) in 2011.

* More bad news for Ohio State (thus good news for everyone else): Top running back recruit Jamaal Berry, a five-star from Miami, was arrested recently and charged with felony marijuana possession after a traffic stop. It's unclear at this point whether Berry will make it to campus and, if he doesn't, exactly what effect that will have on the offense. Tressel seems to like his running backs big and strong -- Maurice Wells (basically the 2004 version of Berry) barely saw the field during his disappointing career -- but it's hard to say whether that's due to Sweatervest's preference or simply the presence of uber-talents Maurice Clarett and Chris Wells during his tenure.

* I normally stay away from the national websites' team previews -- they're way too general for my taste and often wildly inaccurate because no real research goes into them -- but Rivals' Tom Dienhart has a shockingly coherent and well-informed Michigan preview up, with UM coming in at #46 in the Yahoo/Rivals team-by-team countdown.

* If you're into self-induced depression, check out the Nick Saban salary calculator at It'll provide you with such horrifying information as how much more Saban makes than you per hour and exactly how many lifetimes you would have to work to earn what Saban does in a single year.


I know it's only June, but we have a runaway winner for the Least Surprising Headline of the Year Award:

BCS rejects Mountain West's playoff proposal
Other finalists were: "Kiffin commits recruiting violation" and "Iowa tackle arrested, suspended."

But back to the playoff rejection, I'm pretty sure every logical college football fan thought the same thing when that headline popped up on ESPN: Obviously.

At the time of the Mountain West's proposal, it sounded like Congressional pressure and an actual structured plan might be able to put some pressure on the BCS executives to listen and think about a change -- I didn't expect a playoff, of course, but I thought some of the proposal's pieces might be intriguing enough to create discussion that would eventually lead to something.

Instead, we got more of the same idiotic excuses about why a playoff supposedly isn't plausible, this time from BCS oversight committee chairman David Frohnmayer (also the president at Oregon):
"In the last six years, I've read pundits, heard the pronouncements of broadcasters and collected several cubic feet of e-mail printouts from advocates of an NFL-style playoff system. Even those that go beyond sound bite certitude share two intertwined and fatal deficiencies: They disrespect our academic calendars and they utterly lack a business plan."
I won't bother with links here, but I could provide Frohnmayer with infinite playoff proposals that interfere in no way with "academic calendars" (at least no more than the current setup, in which many teams are on the road for a week or more right at the end of the fall semester). The two most commonly suggested playoffs -- a plus-one and a standard three-week, eight-team tournament -- could both easily be fit into the gap between semesters, and this has been taken into consideration in almost every serious discussion I can recall. The academic argument has been a joke for years, and it irritates me to no end that it continues to be spewed by people in power whose sole purpose is to generate as much money as possible.

As for the "business plan" aspect: How can there be a legitimate business plan included in these proposals? No one can possibly know what the sponsorship offers, TV contracts, etc., would look like under an entirely different system than the one we have now. The only thing you could reasonably compare a hypothetical playoff to would be the Final Four, which seems to be doing OK financially.

The whole concept of a playoff has become essentially a broken record: Every time a new idea comes about, there's a glimmer of hope for change in the system that's inevitably crushed by a guy in a suit telling us why the newest proposal will destroy academia and the traditional postseason format. We all know what happens in the end -- it's only the details that change.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Common sense prevails

With Florida State still in the midst of appealing a penalty that will strip the school of 14 victories, the NCAA has brought down the hammer once again.

The NCAA Committee on Infractions announced Thursday that Alabama will be forced to vacate all wins from 2005-07 that involved players found ineligible due to a textbook scandal. According to the university, that will result in the loss of 21 victories. Alabama also had 16 programs placed on probation and will be forced to pay a $43,900 fine -- the approximate value of the textbooks -- for "failure to monitor." For the record, the players who have been named in the investigation are former offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, running back Glen Coffee and defensive backs Marquis Johnson and Chris Rogers.

There are two ways to look at these penalties. On one hand, losing a majority of the records from a three-year period in which the Tide went 23-15 will leave a serious black mark on the program that can never be erased. A stretch that included Nick Saban's first season and Mike Shula's best season -- 2005, when 'Bama went 10-2 -- officially goes into the media guides with the Tide's combined record at 2-38.

But in the grand scheme of things, Alabama came out relatively unharmed. Keep in mind that these NCAA proceedings were nothing new for 'Bama, which already had been involved in two embarrassing scandals (involving former cornerback Antonio Langham in 1995 and recruit Albert Means in 2002) in the past 15 years. The school was placed on probation both times and was stripped of a total of 38 scholarships -- in fact, the most recent probation just ended in 2007, Nick Saban's first year as coach. But this time, with no bowl restrictions or scholarship reductions, there's literally no impact on Saban or any of the Tide players going forward (outside of some negative press for a few weeks before fall practice gets started and people have something else to talk about). That's a fairly fortunate development for a school that has multiple major NCAA violations in its recent past and was approaching the death penalty as recently as seven years ago.

And despite my general opinion of Saban -- I give him an 11 out of 10 on my scumbag scale -- I think the NCAA got this one right. This was no grade-fixing scandal or pay-for-play atrocity; what we're talking about is a handful of players using their scholarship benefits to get textbooks for friends.

Anyone who's gone to college knows what a rip-off it is to pay $120 for each book, then try to sell it back at the end of the semester and receive $20 in return (and then know that it'll be sold the next year for $120 again). If i had stumbled across some loophole that enabled me -- and some friends -- to get a deal on textbooks, you can bet your ass I'd have taken advantage of it. And since textbooks aren't exactly cocaine -- last I checked, it was a good thing to gather educational materials while you're in college -- it'd have been kinda difficult for the NCAA to really come down hard on Alabama in this case.

It's not difficult to distinguish a guy distributing free textbooks from a guy getting paid for a job he doesn't really have or getting his grades adjusted in order to continue playing football. For once, I can honestly say that common sense won out in an NCAA decision.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tackling the issues

There's no worse time of the year to be a college football fan than June. Spring practice is long over, real games are still a good three months away and there is literally nothing interesting happening (except for players continuing to find trouble, which is just depressing).

It should tell you something that I can go 10 days without posting anything -- and not because I was too lazy or too busy, but because there was absolutely nothing worth posting.

So in the complete absence of any real news, I think this is an opportune time to tackle some questions I've been pondering, and I'll start with one that's baffled historians for centuries: Why does the Big Ten suck in bowl games?

This question comes up every year and is extremely annoying to hear (for obvious reasons), especially when compared with most announcers' drooling adoration for all things SEC. The worst part, for me, is the knowledge that the Big Ten is generally just as good as every other BCS conference, but the teams aren't able to show it when it comes to head-to-head play at the end of the season. The conference as a whole hasn't posted a winning bowl record since 2002, and since then its teams are a collective 15-28 (3-8 in BCS games).

There are typically two reasons cited for these failures:
  1. Since nearly every bowl game is placed in the West or South, Big Ten teams are often facing an opponent that essentially has homefield advantage.
  2. The Big Ten ends its season earlier than every other conference, so each team faces a layoff that's about two weeks longer than that of their bowl opponent.
Even as an admitted Big Ten homer, I can't believe that playing in nice weather is truly that much of a disadvantage. Is it stupid to have to play USC in Los Angeles or Florida in Tampa? Yes. But is it any harder for Ohio State to travel to Arizona than it is for Texas? No. The "homefield advantage" argument might be valid on a rare occasion, but it's not the primary reason for the current state of affairs.

Having six weeks off also doesn't seem that problematic (relatively speaking). Far too often I've seen a Big Ten team look completely different in its bowl game -- think Ohio State against Florida in 2006 -- than it did in the regular season, and there's no doubt in my mind that having so much time off between games is a contributing factor. That said, I just don't see that much of a difference between six weeks off (what Penn State had last season) and four weeks off (what USC had). No team gets to play continuously, of course, and when everyone's facing a relatively long layoff, I think it's hard to argue that an extra two weeks creates that much of a disadvantage.

So what does that leave us with? Well, I think there's one problem -- a self-inflicted disadvantage, but one the conference would never want to lose -- that often goes unnoticed but creates a very difficult situation for nearly every bowl-eligible Big Ten team: Because of the Big Ten's prime bowl slots, it often has middle-of-the-pack teams pulled into games against slightly better opponents from other conferences.

Let's look at the current bowl alignments:
  • Rose: Big Ten champion vs. Pac-10 champion (USC pretty much every year)
  • Capital One: Big Ten #2 vs. SEC #2
  • Outback: Big Ten #3 vs. SEC #3
  • Champs Sports: Big Ten #4/5 vs. ACC #4
  • Alamo: Big Ten #4/5 vs. Big 12 #5
  • Insight: Big Ten #6 vs. Big 12 #6
  • Motor City: Big Ten #7 vs. MAC #2/3
Those don't seem unreasonable at first glance. The problem that the Big Ten has run into is that in each of the past four seasons -- and in eight of the 11 seasons the BCS has existed -- the conference has sent two teams to BCS games (deserving or not), and this has ratcheted up the difficulty level for each of the teams below those two in the pecking order.

2007 was a prime example. Because Ohio State finished No. 1 and played LSU for the national title, the Rose Bowl had an at-large pick available and selected Illinois to play USC (to retain the Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup). I can assure you that at no point during the season did I feel, as a regular Big Ten observer, that the Illini were worthy of a BCS bid, especially when compared with a team like Missouri (which was No. 1 as late as early November but got left out of the BCS). But tradition trumps all at the Rose Bowl, so we got to watch USC drag Illinois behind the woodshed in a completely predictable ass-whooping.

Why is this such a negative for the conference as a whole? Because when the conference has an additional team pulled into the BCS, the team that finished third is pulled up to the No. 2 spot for bowl slotting (and the team that finished fourth gets pulled up to third, etc.). The effect is that a large majority of the Big Ten's bowl games over the last decade have included a team that finished lower in its conference than the opposition.

Look at last season's bowls ...
  • USC vs. Penn State
  • Texas vs. Ohio State
  • Georgia vs. Michigan State
  • Iowa vs. South Carolina (the Big Ten's only win)
  • Missouri vs. Northwestern
  • Kansas vs. Minnesota
  • Florida State vs. Wisconsin
... and compare them with what we would have seen had Texas Tech been selected to the BCS ahead of Ohio State (I know this is an impossible scenario because of the two-teams-per-conference rule, but I'm playing devil's advocate):
  • USC vs. Penn State
  • Ohio State vs. Georgia
  • Michigan State vs. South Carolina
  • Iowa vs. Missouri
  • Northwestern vs. Kansas
  • Minnesota vs. Florida State
  • Wisconsin vs. Central Michigan (Motor City Bowl tie-in)
I'm not saying that the Big Ten would have gone undefeated by any means, but it wouldn't have finished anywhere near 1-6 either. In my opinion, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all would have won in the modified alignment, while Northwestern-Kansas and Minnesota-Florida State would have been toss-ups. Missouri and USC still would have won, obviously. Again, it might not have been a HUGE difference, but a record somewhere between 3-4 and 5-2 looks a lot better than 1-6.

This doesn't excuse the conference's poor bowl record entirely, of course. I can't argue with anyone who says the Big Ten hasn't been particularly strong in the middle. For the most part, there's been one very good team every year (usually Ohio State), one other team of similar quality (usually Penn State or Michigan) and then a fairly significant drop-off to teams such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State. The Big Ten hasn't been able to match the depth of the Big 12 (which has seen strong play from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State for most of the past several years) or the SEC (Florida, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Auburn) -- and coincidentally, those are the two conferences the Big Ten faces in four of its seven bowl games. That's obviously bad when it comes to those noteworthy non-BCS bowls such as the Capital One, the Outback and the Alamo.

As for the BCS ugliness, I honestly think the Big Ten's recent struggles are just part of the cyclical nature of sports. The conference's record all-time in BCS games is now 8-11, and that includes a disastrous 0-6 mark over the last three seasons, meaning the Big Ten was 8-5 in BCS games as recently as 2005. Three of those six losses were to USC (by Michigan, Illinois and Penn State) -- I have a feeling that any conference would have a pretty poor record in BCS games if it had to face USC on an annual basis -- and the other three all belong to Ohio State.

So I'm blaming Ohio State, right? Typical Michigan fan ....

No. In fact (although it pains me to say it), I think OSU has gotten a bit of a bad rap over its BCS failures. Of the losses in the last three years -- to Florida, LSU and Texas -- only the Florida game was truly a blowout, and that was a game that saw nearly everything go wrong for the Buckeyes. LSU won pretty comfortably, but only because of a 21-point run in the second quarter. And Texas was fortunate to escape the most recent Fiesta Bowl on a last-minute TD pass to Quan Cosby.

What I'm saying here is that the Big Ten's failures in BCS games have been somewhat blown out of proportion by Ohio State struggling in the conference's two biggest showcase games and USC dominating basically every bowl opponent. I found it somewhat ironic that Ohio State's loss to LSU after the '07 season jump-started the SEC blowhards and Big Ten critics while, just days earlier, Michigan's win over defending champion (and the next year's champion) Florida in Orlando went unmentioned. If that had been a BCS game -- which it easily could have, considering the teams -- the Big Ten might be facing a little less heat over its showing in "big games."

I've gotten a bit long-winded here, so before I write another 1,500 words, let me summarize the best I can:
  • The Big Ten's recent BCS failures have been overstated, because they are based primarily on two disappointing showings in the national championship game and have come directly after an extended successful period (8-5 over the first eight years of the BCS).
  • Half of the conference's current 0-6 skid is owed directly to a dominant USC program that nobody has had success against.
  • The Rose Bowl's sometimes annoying desire to involve the Big Ten and Pac-10 at all costs has hurt the conference throughout the bowl lineup, as having a second (usually undeserving) team in the BCS has distorted the matchups in the Big Ten's other bowl games.
  • Admittedly, the conference's middle tier hasn't kept up with the Big 12 and SEC, and that has further exacerbated the conference's poor bowl showing over the past few seasons.
  • Despite popular belief, the location of the bowls and the lengthy layoff beforehand have probably had little impact on the results.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Frank Spaziani is pulling his mustache hair out

While Pitt seems to be running away with the 2009 edition of the Worst Offseason Award, Boston College is quietly putting together an impressive run of its own.

Besides losing two first-day draft picks on the defensive line (B.J. Raji and Ron Brace), the Eagles have seen a potentially devastating amount of unforeseeable attrition. Let's take a look:
  • Impressive young coach Jeff Jagodzinski? Fired for interviewing with the New York Jets.
  • Offensive coordinator Steve Logan? Resigned after Jagodzinski's departure.
  • Star outside linebacker and ACC defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich? Out indefinitely while battling cancer.

And if those three departures weren't damaging enough, it was announced last week that projected starting quarterback Dominique Davis -- the only QB on the roster with game experience -- will transfer after being suspended for academic reasons.

Davis had some ups and downs when he finally got on the field late last season -- he completed less than 50% of his passes while throwing six TD passes to only four interceptions -- but to say he was atop the depth chart would be an understatement. Redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle appears to be next in line, but apparently he didn't play well enough in the spring to pull away from Codi Boek, a former transfer from American River Junior College (seriously) who played fullback last year. I don't have any particular insight about either of these guys, but that can't be a good sign for your offense.

I mentioned several months ago that I wasn't a big fan of promoting longtime defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani to head coach, but given the events of this offseason, it could be even worse than I anticipated at BC this fall.