Friday, October 30, 2009

The mystery of the Little Brown Jug

There's only one reason Michigan-Minnesota is any more of a rivalry than, say, Michigan-Wisconsin or Michigan-Indiana (which aren't really rivalries at all): the Little Brown Jug.

Some background: The jug was left behind by Michigan after a 6-6 tie at Minnesota in 1903, and when UM coach Fielding Yost wrote to request its return, he was told that Michigan would "have to win it." They did so six years later, starting a rivalry that still exists today. The unusual thing is that there's no particular animosity or regional tension between the two schools -- the rivalry exists because of the jug, not the other way around.

When Greg at MVictors started putting together a mini-series on the history of the jug, he ran into an unexpected question: Is the jug in use today the same one that was left behind in 1903? According to Lloyd Carr and UM spokesman Bruce Madej, no. According to longtime Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk, yes. I honestly didn't know there was much of a debate; the thing looks old, and it seems like there'd be a great story behind its loss/destruction/replacement if the original was no longer around (although if it was replaced in like 1937, who would ever know the difference?)

But Greg wasn't willing to settle for the old "I guess we'll never know" conclusion, instead embarking on a mission that led him from UM's Bentley Library to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and back to Schembechler Hall for a MysteryQuest-style investigation. I'm talking about serious research here -- the Internet is full of crap, but if there was a Pulitzer Prize for sports trophy investigations, this would win.

So ... has the jug pictured above been around since 1903? Read the story and find out.

Who's it gonna be?

USC at Oregon. It's the only game this week with national title implications (barring a major upset somewhere else, of course), and it's the game everyone will be watching ... unless you're like me and have kids, in which case you'll be walking around in some random neighborhood looking for candy while trying to get quarterly updates on your iPhone or cellular device of choice. Thank God for technology.

Anyway, there's a lot at stake in this one: Whichever team wins will have a clear path to the Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl (possibly more if USC wins and gets some help). Arizona also has only one loss in conference play, but let's take them seriously for about five seconds and look at their schedule. After hosting Washington State this week, UA plays at Cal, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC. Moving on ...

I said at the beginning of the year that Oregon would finish with at least a share of the Pac-10 title, and while I was strongly reconsidering that after the ugly loss to Boise, a win Saturday would make that a reality. I'm not one of those people who's too stubborn to reconsider an opinion that's obviously wrong, but I've been feeling better and better about that pick every week, and here's why:

9/19 No. 18 Utah 2-1 (0-0) W 31-24
9/26 No. 6 California 3-1 (1-0) W 42-3
10/03 Washington State 4-1 (2-0) W 52-6
10/10 @ UCLA 5-1 (3-0) W 24-10
10/24 @ Washington 6-1 (4-0) W 43-19

That's impressive, and keep in mind that QB Jeremiah Masoli missed the UCLA game with a knee injury. It's interesting to note that Oregon went to Seattle and beat Washington (the team that beat USC) by 24, but the game that's actually more relevant to this week's matchup is the one against Cal.

While Matt Barkley's numbers have gotten incrementally better throughout the season, USC's offense is still primarily ground-based. That'll need to continue against Oregon, because Barkley will find out quickly that Autzen isn't exactly Notre Dame Stadium -- just ask Mark Sanchez. He stepped in for an injured John David Booty in 2007 and was a respectable 26-for-41, but his two interceptions were the difference in a 24-17 Oregon win.

That's where Cal comes in. Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford are both very good, but Jahvid Best is by far the best (no pun intended) running back in the country, and Oregon absolutely shut him down in a 42-3 ass-whoopin' of a good Bears team four weeks ago. People don't usually look at Oregon as a stout defensive team, but don't sell them short this year: They're sixth in pass efficiency defense, 41st in rushing defense, 19th in scoring defense and 19th in total defense. I don't know if the Ducks can do to McKnight and Bradford what they did to Best-- USC's offensive line and receiving corps will have something to say about that -- but if the Trojans end up with less than 150 yards on the ground, Oregon wins (probably comfortably).

The other thing that scares me about USC is, surprisingly, the defense. I'm aware that the rush defense is fifth in the country and that Oregon needs to run the ball just as badly as USC does, but watching Oregon State put up 176 rushing yards last week (sacks not included) while throwing for 329 -- this after Notre Dame had 86 rushing yards and 265 through the air (fake field goal not included) -- makes me wonder if the last two weeks are more indicative of USC's defense than the first five. For that matter, even if the Trojans really do have one of the best defenses in the country, will they be able to stop an offense that's put up over 38 points per game since the season-opening loss? I'm not so sure.

I don't think I've picked against USC at any point in the last six years, but I just don't like how this one sets up for the Trojans. Oregon's offense has been firing on all cylinders just as USC's defense has been coming back down to Earth, and I can still picture Jahvid Best being swarmed under by about six Oregon defenders (probably because I watched it happen for three straight hours). When you throw in the fact that Autzen is an absolute nightmare for opposing quarterbacks -- and that USC's is a freshman -- all the signs point to the Ducks getting their biggest win in ... well, maybe ever.

Prediction: Oregon 30, USC 24.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Catching up: Decimation in the Big Ten

* Minnesota receiver Eric Decker, pretty much the lone bright spot in a dismal offensive year for the Gophers, is out for the season with a sprained foot. Minnesota has been downright awful when Decker has missed time each of the last two seasons, mostly because there's nobody else worth much of anything on that side of the ball. Adam Weber is a better QB than his numbers this year have indicated, but he just has no help, especially with Decker out of the picture. The future might be now for athletic freshman QB MarQueis Gray, who ran for 51 yards and a touchdown against Ohio State last week and might be able to provide at least some semblance of a running game for the team that used to churn out 1,000-yard backs with regularity.

* Iowa will be without running back Adam Robinson for the remainder of the year due to a high ankle sprain. Robinson had been splitting carries with freshman Brandon Wegher earlier in the year but had been getting a larger chunk of the carries each week, putting up 91 yards against Wisconsin and 109 against Michigan State. Wegher will now assume the starting duties, and after that ... well, hopefully Wegher produces. Spectacularly named walk-on Paki O'Meara is next on the depth chart (although anyone who's watched him knows he's not a viable option), and after that is 5-foot-8, 230-pound (!!!) freshman Brad Rogers. Yikes. It should also be mentioned that starting guard Dace Richardson will miss the rest of the year with a broken leg, although the offensive line is one area at which the Hawkeyes have the depth to survive that type of injury. Losing Robinson AND Richardson definitely hurts, but let's face it: Iowa's offense has been of little relevance all year and will probably remain that way as long as the defense continues to destroy quarterbacks. The margin for error, though, is slimmer than ever.

* I mentioned this briefly in my earlier post on Michigan-Penn State, but UM center David Molk is out for the year with a torn ACL. The offensive line will likely re-assume its arrangement from when Molk was out with a broken foot: Right guard David Moosman will slide to center, right tackle Mark Huyge will slide to guard and backup Perry Dorrestein will start at right tackle. Molk is good, but Michigan had been playing without him for the previous month anyway and shouldn't suffer a severe drop-off (at least not in the running game). Pass protection will continue to be a problem.

* Michigan also dismissed sophomore cornerback Boubacar Cissoko, a former top recruit whose play never justified the hype. He had been passed on the depth chart by unknown backup J.T. Floyd, and the coaches were so desperate to keep him off the field that they moved free safety Troy Woolfolk to corner (his original position), making walk-on freshman safety Jordan Kovacs a starter by default. Cissoko apparently was having academic problems and wasn't attending practice regularly, which is pretty much a sure-fire way to find yourself looking for a new school.

* Not to be outdone, Michigan State running backs Caulton Ray (the starter at the beginning of the year) and Andre Anderson have been "removed" from the roster. It's unclear exactly why they were dismissed, but the impact on the offense should be minimal: The two have combined for a total of 13 carries in the last six games as freshmen Larry Caper and Edwin Baker and sophomore/convicted felon Glenn Winston have taken over a majority of the rushing attack.

* Texas Tech will start redshirt freshman Seth Doege at quarterback Saturday, according to ESPN. Doege replaces junior Taylor Potts, whose time as starter is probably over; he was hurt during a sloppy win over New Mexico and was quickly surpassed on the depth chart by redshirt junior (and former walk-on) Steven Sheffield, who threw for roughly 8,000 yards and 46 touchdowns against Kansas State and then led the Raiders to an upset of Nebraska before injuring his foot late in the game. Potts didn't exactly seize the opportunity to regain the job last week, throwing two interceptions and fumbling once in a 22-point loss to Texas A&M. Doege will get his shot this week, but Sheffield will likely regain the starting role as soon as he's healthy (probably one more week).

* Losing apparently has no effect whatsoever on Lane Kiffin's cockiness. The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier is reporting that when the coaches met at midfield Saturday for a handshake/verbal war after Alabama escaped with a 12-10 win over Tennessee by blocking a last-second field-goal attempt, Kiffin told Nick Saban, "We'll get you next year." He wasn't joking, and Saban wasn't amused ... and with that, Kiffin's quest to personally piss off every coach in the SEC is complete. At least Nick Saban doesn't hold a grudge or anything, right?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bryant done for the season (and probably forever)

* Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, already suspended by the NCAA for lying to the NCAA about the details of a meeting with Deion Sanders, won't be allowed back this season:
Dez Bryant will remain suspended for the remainder of the football season for lying to NCAA investigators. The NCAA ruled Tuesday that the junior All-American will not be eligible to play until September 2010, possibly bringing his college career to an end if he enters the NFL draft.
Is the NCAA going overboard on this one? Probably. But the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that there's nobody to blame but Bryant. There have been conflicting reports since the beginning as to whether Sanders' former agent, Eugene Parker, was present at the meeting, and if Bryant refused to tell the truth about what happened, what choice did the NCAA have except to assume that something unethical happened? On top of that, if Bryant thought meeting with Sanders would violate an NCAA rule (which he admitted) and he did it anyway, that's not much better than actually breaking a rule. "It's the thought that counts," as your parents always used to tell you on Christmas after you opened a hideous sweater you'd never, ever wear.

Bryant's only a junior, but a source told ESPN that "if he were unable to regain eligibility to play sometime this season, he would enter the NFL draft." In other words, his college career is over. It's too bad it had to come to this point, because we got a total of three games this year from the best receiver in the country -- and we won't get a senior year at all.

The only positive for Oklahoma State is that the offense has had plenty of time to adjust to Bryant's absence, but that probably won't make much of a difference this weekend against Texas. I still think 10-2 is within reach (Oklahoma has plenty of its own problems), but those hopes rest solely on Zac Robinson's shoulders now.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Simply awful

There are terrible offensive performances and then there are TERRIBLE offensive performances, and there's no question that Nebraska's 9-7 loss to Iowa State on Saturday falls into the latter category. It's not that the Huskers couldn't move the ball -- 362 total yards is a fairly average performance -- but when you turn it over a whopping EIGHT times, nothing else matters.

Five fumbles. Three interceptions. Four turnovers inside the Iowa State 5-yard line, including a fumble by Niles Paul that slipped out of his hand as he was cruising into the endzone untouched (one of three turnovers that came after a completed pass). Nebraska had turned the ball over six times all year coming into the game, and that number more than doubled in one afternoon.

I don't know what else to say without digging into my thesaurus to find synonyms for "inexplicable," so just watch the video and be glad your team didn't lose the same way (unless you're a Huskers fan, in which case you should be avoiding all football-related material for at least five more days):

I guess I should have seen that coming

At the beginning of the year, I predicted Michigan would finish 7-5. I adjusted that to 8-4 after the Notre Dame game, but even as the team's weaknesses became more and more apparent, my heart forced me to stay optimistic and hold onto those ridiculous fantasies that involved UM beating Penn State, getting on a roll, knocking off Ohio State and finishing 10-2.

I wrote off some of the inconsistency as growing pains and felt pretty good about the only two losses -- both of which came on the road in games Michigan had a chance to win in the final minute -- but in hindsight, I should have foreseen the possibility of a disaster like Saturday's 35-10 loss to Penn State. The offense is explosive but is still prone to a ton of mistakes, and the defense just lacks talent at too many positions (especially in the secondary) and is in its first year under coordinator Greg Robinson. That's not exactly a recipe for a national title.

That said, my predictions for Michigan on Saturday really weren't that far off (although the QBs definitely played like freshmen); Penn State was just WAY better than I anticipated, and it looked as though they'd been prepping for weeks for Michigan's defense. They exploited UM's biggest weak spot -- the outside linebackers' and safeties' complete ineptitude in coverage -- early and often, running essentially the same play (known as the "smash" concept) for the first three touchdowns and several other big gains before finally going against that tendency and mixing in a post pattern that got Graham Zug his third score of the day. I never thought I'd say this, but Galen Hall's gameplan was a thing of beauty. Daryll Clark looked like the guy who was Big Ten offensive player of the year in 2008, and while Michigan's coverage has been spotty all season, it's clear now that Clark's horrific outing against Iowa had a lot more to do with the awesomeness of the Hawkeyes' pass defense than anything else.

Michigan ran the ball with decent success (even without excellent center David Molk, who tore his ACL on the third freakin' play after returning from a broken foot), but the passing game was an all-out disaster. Don't put too much blame on Tate Forcier, though: I counted at least four costly drops (and that was before the fourth quarter, when I basically stopped paying attention), and pass protection was a problem all day. Denard Robinson also threw a terrible interception when Michigan was down by three in the second quarter and then fumbled deep in UM territory in the third, and between those two turnovers, the shoddy defense and a safety on a bad snap (which came shortly after Molk departed), it went from a close game to a laugher in a hurry.

It was a painful reminder of 2008, but I wouldn't really call it a regression; it was more of a verification that a lot of last year's youth-related problems -- fumbles, dropped passes, lack of depth at certain spots, inexperience, miscommunication, etc. -- still exist. Unfortunately, they all cropped in one game against the best team Michigan has played all year, and the results weren't pretty.

The UM fan base has had one of its typical overreactions (as all fan bases do), but I hope people realize that a 5-3 team -- one that's literally two plays away from being 7-1 and will likely be 7-3 after playing Illinois and Purdue -- is still a vast improvement from a year ago. We all got suckered into the idea that Penn State was overrated and Michigan was on the brink of greatness, but that doesn't mean we need to ignore the results on the field and react like we would if those things were actually true.

I still expect Michigan to win the next two games (although I'm a little less certain of that than I was a month ago), and I expect them to lose at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State (although I'm actually more optimistic about the OSU game than I was a month ago). The result would be the 7-5 record I predicted in August, which is a little bit of a comedown from earlier in the year but is perfectly acceptable in the grand scheme of things. It's just not realistic to go from 3-9 to 10-2, and Penn State drilled that into my head with authoritah.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

So long, Sam

No more speculation:
Sam Bradford will have season-ending shoulder surgery and expects to enter the NFL draft in April.
I can't say I'm surprised (I basically predicted this last week), but I'm a little disappointed. I was hoping Bradford's desire to have one more shot at a national title would bring him back to Oklahoma for his senior year, but alas.

This isn't all bad for Bob Stoops and the Sooners, though. The offense can no longer sit around wondering when Bradford will come back and rescue them, and the coaching staff can move forward knowing that Landry Jones -- a pretty talented QB -- will be the starter for the next three seasons. Ryan Broyles is having a breakout year as a freshman, DeMarco Murray is only a junior and the offensive line will return mostly intact (Trent Williams is a big loss, but the line as a whole should be fine).

The defense will actually be a little bit more of a rebuilding project after losing Ryan Reynolds, Auston English, Keenan Clayton and Gerald McCoy (a junior who's almost certain to leave as a consensus top-10 pick), but there's plenty of talent on that side of the ball, too. Assuming a reasonable amount of development from Jones over the next five weeks, this team still should be ranked in the preseason top 15 and get about even odds (along with Colt McCoy-less Texas) to win the Big 12 South.

As for Bradford, I'm no doctor, but I can't believe that a sprained joint (and a re-aggravation of an earlier injury) would be enough to remove him from the top of most teams' draft boards. I heard Todd McShay of ESPN say earlier today that the injury would "definitely drop him out of the top 10," to which I say: "Whhaaaaat???"

The only QB in the same stratosphere in terms of talent is Jimmy Clausen (assuming he enters the draft as a junior), and while he's having an outstanding season, I wouldn't take him ahead of Bradford. The difference in accuracy is just a little too much to ignore.

And has McShay actually watched a draft in the last 20 years? Quarterbacks are ALWAYS picked ahead of comparable players at other positions because of their cost/value and their potential impact on a team. With teams like Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Tennessee and Washington in horrific condition and in desperate need of a quarterback, you're telling me all those teams (and about six more) are gonna pass on Sam freakin' Bradford? That seems hard to believe when you're talking about a guy who has been compared to some of the all-time greats and really just needs to learn how to take a hit.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I'm sure I'll be wrong about something

There's no Texas-Oklahoma or Florida-Alabama on today's schedule, but there are some really interesting games this week that will probably fly a little under the radar.

TCU at BYU. Texas at Missouri. Iowa at Michigan State. Oregon State at USC. Penn State at Michigan. Auburn at LSU. The first four of those all have potential national title implications, while the second two are just great matchups.

The game in Provo was chosen by the almighty higher-ups at ESPN as the site of "College Gameday" this week, and while it might end up being a great one, I'm having a hard time ignoring BYU's debacle against Florida State that saw FSU running backs scampering left and right through the BYU secondary to the tune of 313 yards. Oh, and TCU beat BYU last year 32-7. I know that game was in Waco, but a whoopin' like that isn't dependent on location. Max Hall, who was one of the best QBs in the country last year statistically, had his ass kicked in a 22-for-42, 273-yard, two-interception performance. It was ugly.

The scary thing is that TCU is actually better this year; the Frogs are built on an outstanding, versatile running game (11th nationally) and an elite defense that could hold its own against anybody in any conference, particularly because of defensive end Jerry Hughes and his eight sacks (he also had 15 last year, including a ridiculous FOUR against BYU).

I'm struggling to see how BYU can win this one outside of an otherworldly performance from Hall and some turnovers from TCU, and I wouldn't expect either of those things based on past performances. Prediction: TCU 27, BYU 17.

The other game I'm most interested in (obviously) is Michigan-Penn State, which features two teams that are ... well, I'm not really sure. Penn State hasn't played anybody of note except Iowa, and that game featured a hideous three-interception effort from Darryl Clark that made it fairly clear how much the Lions miss Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood from last year's team. The running game has picked things up of late, but only after struggling against such dominating defenses as Akron and Syracuse.

Michigan's defense might not be a whole lot better than Syracuse's, but I will give Greg Robinson some credit: The rush defense has sharply improved as the strategy has focused less on "bend but don't break" and more on "destroy the running back under all circumstances." The pass defense has suffered (I'm having nightmares about Tony Moeaki), but it was already terrible outside of Donovan Warren, and I'm not sure that will have much of an impact against Penn State anyway. The Lions' receivers are ... how do I say this nicely? ... not exactly intimidating, so if Michigan can just put up a solid fight against the Penn State ground game (hold Evan Royster to under 100 yards and maybe one touchdown), I think they'll win this one.

The whole "freshman quarterback grumble mistakes grumble" meme hasn't mattered at Michigan Stadium this year, and I don't think it will in this one either. The weather scares me -- everyone on the team has had fumbling problems at some point, usually at an inopportune time -- but at home, I can't pick against UM (at least not based on what I've seen from Penn State so far). I'll say Michigan 27, Penn State 21.

The Iowa-Michigan State game is a little hard to figure out. Michigan State opened as a favorite in that one, which seemed crazy/bizarre/odd/insane. Iowa isn't dominating (which makes it hard to be entirely convinced that they're a top-10 team), but the defense is very solid and the offense does enough to get by. Iowa actually reminds me a lot of the 2002 Ohio State team that squeaked its way through the regular season and somehow ended up with a national title, although the Hawkeyes would need a lot of help to get that sort of chance.

Here's what I think could eventually kill Iowa: Despite Ricky Stanzi throwing a crapload of interceptions, the Hawkeyes are fourth nationally in turnover margin. That might seem like a good thing, but muffed punts and passes that slip out of a quarterback's hand aren't forced errors; those are just lucky, and that stuff eventually evens out.

I don't think that happens this week, though. Iowa's defense gives up some yardage on the ground, but the going gets tough through the air -- the Hawkeyes are fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense -- and that'll be a problem for MSU. The Spartans' strength is their passing game (mostly because Glenn Winston and Larry Caper are providing very little at running back), so Kirk Cousins will eventually have to make some plays for Michigan State to win this game. In crappy, cold weather against a defense that's shredded Darryl Clark and Tate Forcier already this year, I just don't see it. Prediction: Iowa 23, Michigan State 13.

As for Texas, USC and LSU, I'm not really expecting any upsets, but I also don't think any of those teams is unbeatable this weekend. I've been impressed with Missouri's defense so far this season, and there are enough weaknesses in the Texas offense that an off day from Colt McCoy or the defense could be disastrous. Is Blaine Gabbert good enough (or ready enough) to make that possibility relevant? Probably not, but I think this will be a better game than a lot of people are expecting. I'll say Texas 24, Missouri 21.

I like the way USC's passing game is coming around, but why the hell are the Trojans 22.5-point favorites over an Oregon State team that's had their number recently? Maybe Jacquizz Rodgers gets shut down and the USC offense stays on a roll, but there's just something about this game that strikes me as being weird. USC is coming off an intense win over Notre Dame while Oregon State is coming off a bye, meaning Mike Riley has had two full weeks to prepare. Expectations have suddenly gone through the roof again for USC, and it just seems like that's always when they have a letdown. My prediction (keep in mind that I never pick against USC under any circumstances): USC 30, Oregon State 22.

I don't really care who wins the LSU-Auburn game, but it'll be awesome to watch Gus Malzahn call plays against the LSU defense. Auburn has slid back to reality after a 5-0 start -- there's still a definite lack of talent/fit at certain spots -- but LSU isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut, so staying in the game shouldn't be difficult unless Chris Todd continues to regress to the 2008 version of himself and throws multiple vomit-inducing interceptions. Unfortunately for Auburn, that's probably more likely than him pulling out of his tailspin against a defense as tough as LSU's. I'm expecting something relatively low-scoring, and if that's the case, LSU probably comes out on top. Prediction: LSU 17, Auburn 13.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bradford picks surgery

Sam Bradford's season is likely over. ESPN is reporting that there's a "very good chance" Bradford will undergo surgery on his injured right shoulder, which would expedite the healing process but would mean that he won't be back for the Sooners this year.

I don't think it matters much to Oklahoma at this point whether he plays again this season -- at 3-3 and with Bradford out temporarily either way, a mediocre bowl game beckons -- but the important question is whether he'll be back next year, when the team will still be loaded enough to make a run at a national title.

Bradford would have been the top pick in last year's draft if he'd chosen to come out, so his status in that regard was never a concern. He came back to try to win a national title and enjoy another year of college football, and he hasn't been able to do either of those things. I hope that inspires him to come back for one more season, but I wouldn't bet on it. After suffering through an injury-filled season, it'd be extremely risky to give it another shot. Bradford is still the top player on Mel Kiper's draft board and a consensus top-five pick, so the damage from his injury hasn't had much effect in that area. But if it happens again and there's permanent shoulder damage (along with the obvious durability concerns), he'd never be able to forgive himself.

The flip side of that argument, of course, is that if he can survive a season-ending injury and still be at the top of most mock drafts, why not give it one more shot? If he doesn't get hurt again -- and football players have to assume that they won't -- there's really nothing to lose, because he'll put up big numbers on an elite team while getting to experience that year of college football he's missing right now.

Whatever he chooses -- and especially if he returns to school -- I just hope Bradford ends up staying healthy. It sucks to see talent like that relegated to the sidelines (unless you're a Texas fan, obviously).

You stay classy, Ohio State fans

I have nothing to add to this:

Catching up: Only in the SEC

* We haven't heard from Lane Kiffin in a while, but Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban have been kind enough to provide us with our weekly SEC coaching bitch-fest. After Spurrier claimed Sunday that Alabama's holder on field goals and extra points had been using tape to spot the ball (which is technically illegal but probably provides minimal benefit), Saban said it wouldn't happen again ... and then he followed up with the always-mature "everybody's doing it" excuse:
"We certainly don't want our players to do anything that's illegal. It is a 5-yard penalty if you do anything to enhance the spot," Saban said. "We've done some research on it, and over half the teams in the league do something with it."
Saban says other teams get away with it because they use grass or mud to mark the spot, adding that "we even saw verification where last year South Carolina's kicker did it." I don't know if this is true or not, but the response is quintessential Saban; he's always able to walk that fine line between respected coach and complete asshole. Whenever he decides to retire from Alabama, he'd be a perfect fit at some big high school in Texas where the coach has way too much power and is a total dick but nobody ever calls on him on it because he's so damn good at winning football games.

* There will be a pregame moment of silence and handshake at the UConn-West Virginia game Saturday in Morgantown in honor of Jasper Howard, the 20-year-old Connecticut cornerback who was fatally stabbed at a school dance early Sunday morning. The Huskies will also wear Howard's initials and will bring his jersey and helmet to all away games for the remainder of the season. I didn't really know much about Howard -- I knew his name because he was a solid starter and a pretty good punt returner, averaging almost 11 yards a return last year and over 9 per return this year -- but regardless of his skills on the football field, this is one of those tragedies that should remind us not that sports are unimportant, but that sports can be an amazing thing for people to rally around. Karma owes UConn a couple big wins, and the Huskies will have their chances: the next four games are at West Virginia, home against Rutgers, at Cincinnati and at Notre Dame.

* Terrelle Pryor's high school coach spoke out Wednesday with some criticism for Jim Tressel, saying Ohio State could be using Pryor more effectively to take advantage of his skills. Response: Duh. To be honest, I'm not sure OSU could be using him much less effectively -- they've basically removed his biggest strength (improvisation) and emphasized his biggest weakness (mid-range passing). Almost all of Pryor's runs are designed, and it's a lot easier to load up and stop those than it is to contain him after he's broken out of the pocket. This quote says it all:
"There is no question that Rich Rodriguez's offense, for example, would be more apt to suit Terrelle's skills," Reitz said. "But Ohio State sold him on the idea that they would prepare him for the NFL and that they don't run 'zone read' in the NFL. Jim Tressel is a great coach. But I can tell you there is more to Terrelle Pryor than what we've been seeing."
Being "prepared" for the NFL is all well and good, but Ohio State's offense will be a joke until either Pryor finds his light switch and his passing skills improve drastically (unlikely) or Tressel starts building his gameplan around Pryor's athleticism (plausible, although as Brian Cook points out, that sort of transition would be pretty difficult for Ohio State's mammoth offensive linemen and would be somewhat counterproductive).

* The SEC has finally had enough with the stupid officiating, as the crew responsible for A.J. Green's controversial celebration penalty in Georgia's loss to LSU and an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Arkansas in Saturday's loss to Florida (which the conference said afterward was incorrect) has been suspended for two weeks. I'm 100% in favor of punishing officials for poor performances: I know they're trying their best, but if someone's not getting the job done, give them some time off and get them properly trained rather than letting them continue to embarrass themselves and the sport on national TV.

* Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is continuing his noble quest to rid the world of the BCS by seeking help from President Obama, who obviously isn't busy with trying to stabilize the economy or rebuild the nation's health care system. I'd love to see the BCS be torn down in favor of a six-team playoff, but I'm not holding out hope and I realize that the people in power have other priorities and better things to do. Good luck with that, Orrin.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Close to chaos

No. 1 Florida survived on a field goal with nine seconds left. No. 2 Texas was thoroughly outplayed by Oklahoma for most of three quarters before eeking out a 16-13 victory (thanks in part to Sam Bradford blowing out his shoulder on the eighth play of the game). No. 6 USC needed a last-minute goal-line stand and some poor clock management (what else is new) by Notre Dame to escape South Bend with a 31-24 win.

We were pretty damn close to having some awesome chaos at the top of the rankings, and I haven't even mentioned No. 4 Virginia Tech and No. 7 Ohio State, both of whom actually did lose.

Just for a second, let's go into the alternate universe where all those teams lost. Alabama would obviously be No. 1, but after that ... ummm ... Cincinnati, Boise State and Iowa (not necessarily in that order) would be next. Sports radio hosts everywhere would be preparing their monotribes against non-BCS schools as we speak.

Back in reality, though, the team that must really be kicking itself right now is Ohio State. For some pure, unfiltered hilarity, visit any OSU message board right now. I'm not sure which is more amusing, the calls for Joe Bauserman to take over as starting quarterback or the debate over whether Urban Meyer (lol) or Brian Kelly should take over for Jim Tressel after this year.

As ridiculous as the overreaction has been, it's also somewhat understandable given Saturday's performance. Purdue isn't as bad as their 2-5 record indicates -- four of their five losses were by a touchdown or less -- but Ohio State should NOT be struggling on offense against a team that came into the game 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense. Purdue hadn't given up fewer than 24 points this year while dropping games to Northern Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota, yet the Buckeyes couldn't do better than 18 points and 287 total yards. Their insistence on turning Pryor into a pocket passer despite the lack of a strong running game is baffling, and it's clear even against the bad teams that the offense just doesn't have anything consistent to fall back on. I wouldn't be surprised at all if OSU ends up with four regular-season losses.

The two games I wrote about Saturday morning -- Texas-Oklahoma and USC-Notre Dame -- were just as close as I anticipated, but I couldn't have been any more wrong about the way the games were played. Texas' offense was completely shut down in every aspect outside of a couple big runs by Foswhitt Whitaker in the third quarter, and if Bradford hadn't gotten hurt less than four minutes into the game (and Oklahoma hadn't lost three crucial fumbles), the Sooners would have won that game comfortably. They just couldn't put the ball in the end zone, though, and once Texas got the go-ahead field goal, you just never got the feeling that Landry Jones could bring Oklahoma back.

You certainly can't put that loss on Bob Stoops (Oklahoma out-gameplanned Texas on both sides of the ball), but there will surely be more criticism now that Oklahoma is 3-3 and looking at playing the rest of the year without Bradford. As for Texas, I obviously underestimated the rush defense -- holding DeMarco Murry and Chris Brown to a total of 20 yards is impressive -- but the offense was far worse than I expected, because there's just no deep threat and no consistent running game. It's kind of unfortunate that the 'Horns are probably going unbeaten (I don't see them losing to Missouri or Oklahoma State), because I'm even less impressed with this team than I was before Saturday's win. Colt McCoy is extremely good, but he has little help; defenses are taking away the short pass and respecting nothing else, and Texas doesn't have an answer.

Up in South Bend, my "lower-scoring game than most people are anticipating" prediction was thrown out the window as soon as USC realized that their play-action passes were as good as gold against the Notre Dame secondary. Damian Williams, Anthony McCoy ... Matt Barkley regularly had his choice of open receivers 20 yards downfield, and he didn't miss: 380 yards on 13.1 yards per attempt tells the story.

I will say this: Notre Dame's offensive gameplan was the most impressive I've seen from Charlie Weis. Robby Paris made several clutch catches underneath while Golden Tate was running wild in the secondary, and despite five sacks, Clausen usually hung in long enough to find someone open. The fake field goal in the first half was brilliant, as it tied the score at 7-7 and made Notre Dame's late comeback relevant.

My only criticism is that Notre Dame didn't manage its time better on the final drive. After Clausen threw a laser to Robby Paris on fourth-and-10 for a first down at the USC 16-yard line with 36 seconds on the clock, the next snap didn't come until 18 seconds were left. Notre Dame could have called a timeout -- although they took a timeout before the fourth-down play, so they should have had a couple plays called in advance -- but instead, 21 seconds were lost. After a roughing penalty gave ND a first-and-goal at the USC 4-yard line, the Irish got off only three snaps (and it would have been only two if not for the officials correctly putting a second back on the clock at the end). One extra play might not have made a difference, but I'm sure Notre Dame would have liked to find out. (Quick tangent: How about calling a QB draw for Clausen on first or second down, maybe with a running back providing a Bush Push for karma's sake?)

Another team that has to be questioning its late-game performance: Arkansas. It's hard to be upset when you're a 24-point underdog playing on the road against the defending national champions and you only lose by three, but Arkansas should have won that game except for some poor special-teams play and missed opportunities. Their defensive line controlled the game, holding Florida's running backs to 61 yards on the ground and sacking Tebow five times, but then Bobby Petrino went with an awfully conservative set of plays on the final series to set up a field goal only to have Alex Tejeda miss for the second time in the final 19 minutes. In a situation like that -- ESPECIALLY with Tim Tebow standing on the opposing sideline -- you've gotta play to win.

You could feel the momentum turn when Tejeda's kick sailed wide left, because there was little doubt at that point that Tebow would do his thing and find a way to get Florida the victory. And he did, accounting for 57 yards on the 69-yard drive and completing an absolutely huge thread-the-needle pass to a falling-down Riley Cooper at the Arkansas 28-yard line on third-and-10. An incompletion there probably results in overtime; instead, Florida is 6-0 and still on a collision course with Alabama for a spot in the national title game (although I obviously spoke too soon when I said earlier this week that they wouldn't be seriously challenged until the SEC championship game).

'Bama is the one team that hasn't been living dangerously of late, and the Tide were rewarded in Sunday's poll, taking Florida's spot at the top while the Gators slipped to No. 2. It doesn't matter which of those two is No. 1 right now, obviously, but what's really interesting is that Cincinnati is now No. 5 (ahead of Boise State) and Iowa has jumped all the way to No. 7. If -- and this is a big if -- only one of the three teams at the top ends up undefeated, the voters could end up with a verrry tough choice for the second spot in the BCS title game: Pick a clearly flawed one-loss team (USC? Miami?), pit Alabama and Florida against each other for the second straight game or choose from the Cincinnati/Boise/Iowa group, which I assume would create a media disaster despite the fact that those teams have demonstrated on the field that they're better than everyone ranked behind them.

My current top 10 (as always, this is based on which teams I think are the best right now, not a prediction of where they'll finish or a ranking of which teams have the strongest resumes):

1. Alabama
2. Florida
3. Texas
4. USC
5. Cincinnati
6. Boise State
7. Iowa
8. Miami
9. LSU
10. Oregon

The No. 10 spot could easily go to Virginia Tech (the Hokies might be 6-0 if not for a particularly difficult schedule) or TCU, but Oregon seems to have solved its early-season problems and looks really dangerous right now. If the Ducks knock off USC in two weeks -- and I think they will, just because the game's at Autzen -- there's a good chance they'll run the table.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Things aren't always as they appear

There are two classic rivalry games today (although USC-Notre Dame has been a little overshadowed), and at first glance, the outcomes seem fairly predictable. Texas and USC shouldn't have much trouble, right?

As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Starting at the Cotton Bowl, people seem to have forgotten that Oklahoma was a preseason top-five team that's lost two games -- both without Sam Bradford (although he played the first half against BYU before hurting his shoulder) -- and that while Texas has been good, the 'Horns are far from unbeatable. Wyoming, Texas Tech and Colorado all have had no problem hanging with Texas for about 2 1/2 quarters, and Oklahoma has more talent than all those teams combined.

Bradford's rustiness last week against Baylor was concerning -- he'll have to be sharper this week, obviously -- but Texas hasn't faced a team that can run the ball with any sort of competency (seriously, look at the schedule), so I wouldn't be surprised at all if Oklahoma hangs in, puts up 30-plus points and pulls off the upset.

Texas also hasn't been as offensively dominant as last year: The running game is more of a threat with Vondrell McGee and Tre Newton, but Colt McCoy is averaging under 8 yards per attempt and has thrown almost as many interceptions (six) as he did all of last year (eight).

So do I have the guts to pick Oklahoma? Ehhh ... I was still leaning toward Texas when I started writing this, but the more I look at it, the more I think the Sooners can win. As long as Bradford and Ryan Broyles are really healthy enough to play like their usual selves, Oklahoma will be able to move the ball on the ground AND through the air, and I just don't know how good Texas' offense really is -- there have been some concerning struggles against an array of horrific defenses.

I'm probably dooming the Sooners to a series of epic disasters starting at 11:01 a.m., but let's do it: Oklahoma 31, Texas 27.

As for that other game -- the one nobody cares about in South Bend -- haven't we established that this isn't your typical USC juggernaut (offensively, anyway)? Since the opening blowout against San Jose State, Matt Barkley has completed just over 50% of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The running game is pretty good, even without Stafon Johnson, but this isn't your Carson Palmer/Matt Leinart/Mark Sanchez-led USC offense.

Jimmy Clausen, meanwhile, is leading the nation in pass efficiency. I thought Notre Dame would struggle without Michael Floyd just due to the nature of their offense, but the drop-off hasn't been as severe as I anticipated (having Golden Tate doesn't hurt). And don't discount the desperation factor: Notre Dame has been in must-win mode for the last three weeks, with Charlie Weis' career hanging in the balance the entire time. A blowout loss to USC probably gets him fired, while a win would be the biggest of his tenure. I think it's safe to say that he'll be pulling out all the stops for this one.

Here's the problem for the Irish: USC is fifth nationally in rush defense, 25th in pass defense, sixth in total defense and fifth in scoring defense. As good as Clausen has been this year, he still panics under pressure, and USC will get plenty.

This will be a lower-scoring game than most people are anticipating. USC just doesn't have the offense to blow out a good Notre Dame team on the road, and the Irish will do everything in their power to keep this close. Do I think they can? Sure. Do I think they can win? Probably not. Unlike Texas, USC has a dominant defense to fall back on, and I think that'll be the difference.

My prediction: USC 24, Notre Dame 20.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Another reason to root for Cincinnati

I've followed Brian Kelly's career arc ever since I was a student at Grand Valley State and he was in the process of turning the school's football team into a Division II juggernaut that would win back-to-back national titles in his final two years, so I've enjoyed watching him take Cincinnati to unprecedented heights.

But that pales in comparison with what the family of 12-year-old Mitch Stone must feel. Mitch has brain cancer, and the New York Times explains exactly why he's now a Bearcats fan:
Cincinnati became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to “adopt” a child through Friends of Jaclyn, which matches pediatric brain tumor patients with sports teams, mostly from colleges.

Dee Stone said her family — which includes her husband, Anthony, and daughters Paisley, 15, and Piper, 13 — did not know what to expect in July when they arrived at the Cincinnati football complex. She said she thought only a few players and coaches would be involved. Instead, the 105-member team, and all the coaches and support staffers, gave Mitch a standing ovation.
It gets better: When Mitch was hospitalized, the players left so many voicemails and sent so many text messages to his mom that they ended up buying him his own cell phone to make things easier. Mitch sends the players Bible verses that they write on their arms before games, and they wear "Mitch's Mission" wristbands to remind themselves of his plight.

There's a lot more to the article, but I don't want to steal everything; just read it. You've probably heard dozens of similar feel-good stories, but stuff like this never fails to give me goosebumps.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dez Bryant is in a strange situation

Dez Bryant is currently on an indefinite suspension from Oklahoma State due to a meeting last summer with Deion Sanders. There are a lot of ambiguous entries in the NCAA compliance manual, but the odd thing about Bryant's case is that nothing he did appears to have violated any rules; instead, he was suspended because he lied to an NCAA investigator when asked whether he went to Deion's home in Texas.

I said this a week ago ...
The only reason you would lie, of course, is if you have something to hide, so I have a feeling we've seen the last of Bryant in a Cowboys uniform.
... and I still think there might be more to this story than meets the eye, but only those in attendance know exactly what went down that day. Sanders has come out with a public statement claiming that he really just loves everybody and that the fateful meeting did not involve agent Eugene Parker in any way, and Bryant has since admitted that he only lied about the visit because he thought going to Deion's house was a violation, which it's not (this raises the question as to why he went through with it if he thought it was a violation, but that's a discussion for another time).

Bryant posted this update on Facebook late last week:
"This is why I’m suspended.....I went to Deion sanders house ....and the NCAA found out.....they ask me if I been to his house I told them no...I thought it was a violation...but it wasn’t... so I told them I went to his house... I lied to ...them and I shouldn’t have....and I’m not suspended for the rest of the season....I’m sorry osu!!"
If this is truly the only violation Bryant committed, the NCAA needs to step in and end his suspension ASAP. The Associated Press dug up this point of reference from Oklahoma State compliance officer Scott Williams:

Williams notes that "the threshold penalty for a violation of this nature is 50 percent withholding," apparently referring to a standard punishment that Bryant would be forced to miss half of the No. 15 Cowboys' games for his rules violation.

Bryant has already missed two games, and a six-game suspension would bring him back for the Cowboys' final three contests (Texas Tech, Colorado, at Oklahoma). That seems like excessive punishment for lying about something you wouldn't even get in trouble for, but if that's the rule, so be it. At least he'd be back for a significant portion of the season.

If there's more to the allegations, the NCAA needs to make that known. But his current suspension is based on a violation of NCAA Bylaw 10.1(d), which relates to an athlete "knowingly furnishing the NCAA or the individual's institution false or misleading information concerning the individual's involvement in or knowledge of matters relevant to a possible violation of an NCAA regulation." In other words, he has only been penalized for lying (so far, anyway).

Bryant has admitted his mistake and publicly apologized; the NCAA now needs to do its part and either spell out any additional allegations or set an end date -- preferably at some point in the next three weeks -- for his suspension.

The pointless debate

I've never had particularly strong feelings either way about Florida State, but I can understand the fans' frustration with Bobby Bowden. The 'Noles have been mired in mediocrity for about the last five years, and it's pretty clear that Bowden won't be pulling them out of this tailspin.

Bowden has also been Florida State's coach for 33 years and is coming off one of the most ridiculously dominant stretches in modern college football history: From 1987-2000, FSU had an overall record of 152-18, lost a grand total of two conference games (they joined the ACC in 1991, so that's 10 years of conference play) and finished in the AP top five for 14 consecutive years. That's freakin' remarkable.

Does this give him some sort of entitlement? I don't know, probably not. Nobody's really entitled to anything in coaching anymore. But this whole "Is Bobby Bowden on the hot seat?" debate is stupid.

Not only will Bowden be 80 in three weeks, but he also has a contract that expires at the end of 2010, meaning his tenure will last no more than another 14 months (and maybe only two months). And as everyone knows, FSU has already agreed to a coach-in-waiting deal with offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher that requires Fisher to be paid $5 meeellion dollars if he hasn't taken over by January 2011, so there's no question as to who will be in charge when Bowden finally decides to step down.

With those things already decided, what would be the benefit of firing Bowden right now? Fisher wouldn't be able to hire any new coaches (currently employed ones, anyway) or recruit any new players in October -- this isn't the NFL, where he could just start wheeling and dealing to rebuild deficient areas -- so it'd basically just create an awkward situation for everybody and force Fisher into an extremely difficult scenario in which he'd have to win four of his first six games in order to get FSU into a bowl. This seems less than ideal.

FSU President T.K. Wetherell might be extremely biased -- he played under Bowden in the '60s (lol) and is an admitted friend -- but I think he had the right idea when he made this statement a week ago:
"FSU does not make coaching changes in the middle of the season," Wetherell said. "What message would it send to anyone -- friend or foe -- to do that at this time?"
Yes, it sucks to be 2-4 and already out of the conference race by the middle of October. But regardless of who's in charge, nothing can be done to save this season -- it would take a miracle at this point just to get to a bowl game.

I understand the concern that if the university doesn't act now, Bowden might decide to stick around for another year and delay the coaching transition, but so what? You know who's next in line and you know Bowden's tenure will be over after this season or next, so what's the point of making everything more uncomfortable than it needs to be?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Florida has become a machine

He came, he played, he conquered. He did what he does.

Tim Tebow really didn't look that great Saturday, but it didn't matter. When he took the field, the outcome was decided. I don't mean that entirely in a confidence sense, but partially in a logistical sense -- LSU's only chance of winning that game was getting a score on defense or getting a huge turnover that set up the offense for an easy touchdown, and that just wasn't gonna happen with Tebow at QB.

As good as Florida's defense was -- and it was really good -- it didn't hurt that Florida milked the clock to such a ridiculous extent that LSU had a total of FOUR drives in the second half. It's pretty hard for an offense to get in rhythm when it's not on the field, and it showed: the Tigers had negative second-half yardage until their final possession, and they finished with 29 yards over the final 30 minutes.

I think the drive following LSU's game-tying field goal in the second quarter says a lot about Florida's offense. OK, you put some points on the board and got the crowd back in the game? No problem:
Florida at 5:16
  • 1st and 10 at FLA 20 - Tim Tebow rush for 8 yards to the Fla 28.
  • 2nd and 2 at FLA 28 - Emmanuel Moody rush for 4 yards to the Fla 32.
  • 1st and 10 at FLA 32 - Tim Tebow pass to Brandon James for 20 yards to the LSU 48.
  • 1st and 10 at LSU 48 - Jeffery Demps rush for 13 yards to the LSU 35.
  • 1st and 10 at LSU 35 - Emmanuel Moody rush for 6 yards to the LSU 29.
  • 2nd and 4 at LSU 29 - Tim Tebow rush for 2 yards to the LSU 27.
  • 3rd and 2 at LSU 27 - Tim Tebow rush for 3 yards to the LSU 24 for a 1ST down.
  • 1st and 10 at LSU 24 - Timeout LSU, clock 00:57.
  • 1st and 10 at LSU 24 - Tim Tebow pass to Riley Cooper for 24 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.
  • Caleb Sturgis extra point GOOD.
Florida 10, LSU 3
Tebow took over, running three times (once for a first down on third-and-2) and throwing twice (once for a 24-yard touchdown) on an eight-play, five-minute, 80-yard drive that basically ended the game. LSU didn't get past midfield again.

That's the scary thing about this Florida team: Their Heisman Trophy-winning QB is third in the country in pass efficiency and can take over a game whenever necessary (usually with his legs), but the offense at its core is built around a power running attack that's good enough to grind out 200 yards against one of the best teams in the SEC and completely control the flow of the game. Oh, and their defense might be the best in the country. I know LSU's offense isn't what it used to be, but when you're playing at home and you can't get past midfield for an entire half, that's a dominating defensive effort.

Florida doesn't have a clear weakness right now -- the passing game is still somewhat of an unknown, but you can't call it a weakness until someone shows that it doesn't work (which might never happen). Consider this: Florida is third in pass efficiency, second in rushing, sixth in total offense, seventh in scoring offense, first in scoring defense, first in total defense, first in pass defense and 11th in rushing defense.

I repeat: Florida doesn't have a clear weakness right now.

Does that mean they're unbeatable? No. In fact, I'm not even 100% sure that they're the best team in the country -- Alabama has looked just as good in nearly every aspect while playing better competition. I hate to look ahead so far ahead, but I don't think I'm really going out on a limb when I say that the game of the year will be played on December 6, with either Alabama or Florida wrapping up a 13-0 regular season and clinching a spot in the BCS title game.

Until then, the only real question for the Gators is if anyone (Colt McCoy, specifically) can put up the mind-boggling numbers required to stop Tebow from winning his second Heisman. Considering that Tebow's legend has already reached epic proportions and that Florida should be 12-0 when most of the votes are turned in, my guess is no.

Monday, October 12, 2009

This makes more sense

There might have been another reason Denard Robinson was in at the end of the game:
Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday that Tate Forcier still had a headache from the concussion, sustained in Saturday's 30-28 loss to Iowa. Rodriguez wasn't aware of the concussion until after the game, and Forcier's health didn't factor into the decision to play Denard Robinson down the stretch against the Hawkeyes.
For the record, I don't believe Rodriguez that it had no bearing on his decision to play Robinson -- I think he's just trying to avoid throwing Robinson under the bus by making it sound like putting him on the field was the only choice.

I actually heard from someone last night who was on the sideline and said Forcier looked really out of it after the next-to-last drive, either from complete confusion (doubtful) or getting knocked woozy (more likely). I wasn't sure how much stock to put into that at the time, but I guess it all makes sense now. Whether RichRod knew he had a concussion or not, that nobody's-home-behind-the-eyes look is usually pretty obvious. He knew something was wrong.

I retract my previous criticism.

Fortunately for UM, it sounds like it was a very minor concussion: Rodriguez said Forcier will start Saturday against Delaware State if he's healthy. There's some debate on the message boards as to whether he should sit out even if he is completely recovered -- the general sentiment is that a functional bye week offers Robinson the chance to get some work and Forcier a chance to rest -- but I don't agree.

If he's still showing symptoms, he should obviously sit. There's no debate about that. But keep in mind that Forcier has played a total of six career games, and he barely participated in one of those (Eastern Michigan) due to Michigan racking up about 5,000 rushing yards. Robinson needs snaps, but Forcier needs them too -- again, he's the starter, and with Penn State coming up in two weeks, I don't want him rusty. Get him in the game early and give him a few drives (hopefully successful ones) to get in rhythm and regain some confidence, and if Michigan can build an early two- or three-score lead, then you pull him and let Robinson develop.

But you have to win the game first -- after Appalachian State, nothing is taken for granted -- and you have to remember that developing your starter is more important than developing your backup.

Deja vu

I intended to write something insightful here about Michigan's loss to Iowa, but at some point I came to the realization that I'd just be repeating myself -- Saturday's game was almost identical to last week's loss, with the ending leaving me incredibly disappointed yet not that upset.

Once again, UM had absolutely no business being in the game. The running game was far better than against Michigan State and the defense played reasonably well, but you can't commit FIVE game-changing, momentum-shifting turnovers and have any realistic hope of beating anyone, let alone a top-15 team on the road.

Yet there they were with 1:30 left in the game, taking over at their own 17 and needing only a field goal to win. I felt good -- which seemed reasonable since Tate Forcier had four career go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter coming in -- but when the offense went out and Forcier wasn't on the field, I knew in my heart that it was over. The last-minute interception was the single most predictable thing all night.

I suppose that the difference between this game and the loss to Michigan State was a feeling of frustration. As painful as the turnovers were, I'm willing to accept those when guys are fighting for extra yardage or whatever. Forcier's absence on the final drive, though, really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Denard Robinson is a fantastic athlete, but when you need 50-plus yards in a minute (in other words, when you need to throw the ball), he's not the guy you want on the field. He just doesn't have a consistently accurate arm or a solid grasp of reading defenses, which are pretty important when you're putting the ball in the air.

Rich Rodriguez said this after the game:
"Tate made some plays that he'd probably like to have back, but we made a change to get a little spark," Rodriguez said. "Denard gave us a little spark at the end, we just didn't finish it off."
"A spark" is great, but that's not what you need with a minute left when you're down by two. You need the guy on the field who gives you the best chance to win, and in this case, Tate Forcier was that guy.

One unmentioned factor here is Forcier's shoulder, which has been banged up for the past three weeks and was clearly bothering him Saturday night (he was shown shaking his right arm on multiple occasions late in the game). If Rodriguez considered this a significant hindrance, I can sort of understand pulling him there ... but I still wouldn't have done it. The kid has led three fourth-quarter TD drives in the last two weeks alone -- all after suffering the aforementioned shoulder injury -- so it's not like that's had a significant effect on his late-game performance.

What I'm trying to say is that Forcier has established himself as the starter and, more importantly, the finisher. I don't care if he was hurt or if he didn't play that well for the first three quarters; he should have been in the game.

Other than that, there's not a whole lot I can be upset about. Change any one of a dozen plays -- the muffed punt by Greg Mathews that gave Iowa the ball at the UM 16-yard line late in the third quarter, the fumble by Brandon Minor at the Iowa 39, the early interception that gifted Iowa seven points, the Robinson interception at the end -- and Michigan is 5-1. I could extend that even further and look at how painfully close this team is to 6-0, but I won't bother. The fact is that Michigan is a far, far better team than I ever expected them to be at this point, and knowing that they can beat anyone (and yes, I do mean anyone) on the rest of the schedule gives me a lot of hope.

The hard part will be maintaining that hope when Michigan loses another game in devastating fashion, which is almost guaranteed -- a mistake-prone team with a mediocre defense isn't likely to win a lot of games in comfortable fashion. I guess all I can do is see about getting some blood pressure medication and hope UM comes out on the winning end more often than not.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Can I bet on Tebow playing?

I'll be focused on the Michigan-Iowa game Saturday night, but apparently there's another game taking place at the same time, and some guy might not play or something. I don't know, I haven't heard much about it (your sarcasm meter should be off the charts by now).

Urban Meyer says it'll likely be a game-time decision as to whether Tim Tebow can play against LSU, but with Tebow participating in practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with no complications, it's pretty clear that my initial assessment still holds true: The medical staff might put him in a straitjacket if his mental health is in danger, but if playing is an option, he'll be in the game.

Is there a possibility that we'll see more of John Brantley than usual? Yes, absolutely. I think he'll get in and be put to immediate use throwing the ball downfield, if for no other reason than to give Tebow a breather. It also wouldn't hurt to loosen up the LSU defense a bit, especially after Tennessee demonstrated some pretty effective methods of containing the Gators' running game. And don't be surprised to see a healthy dose of the Wildcat (or, as Orson at EDSBS demands that we call it, the Midgetwing or the Vanilla Pilla Killa), with Brandon James, Chris Rainey or Jeffery Demps taking the snaps.

If the doctors step in and Tebow can't play at all (or if he plays like he still has a concussion), I don't see Florida scoring much on offense -- the defense and special teams might be able to chip in, but Brantley just doesn't have the experience or the rapport with his receivers to ask him to step in and win a game like this one in Death Valley. He could, but I wouldn't bet on it. I know a lot of people think LSU is overrated -- at No. 4, that's probably true -- but I'll be shocked if it isn't a close game.

What'll be really interesting is what happens if Tebow plays some but is ineffective, either due to the concussion or just rustiness. There was already a bit of voter backlash after the uninspiring win over Tennessee, so what happens if the offense continues to struggle and it actually results in a loss?

On the flip side, how much would Florida be penalized for a Tebow-less loss on the road to a top-five team? I can't imagine that they'd drop very far in the polls -- probably not behind Virginia Tech or Boise State -- and as long as they're still in the top four, the Gators would control their own destiny (LSU and Alabama play each other, so a 12-1 Florida team would have beaten the winner of that game in the SEC championship and would be ranked ahead of everyone except Texas, assuming the Longhorns go unbeaten).

That creates sort of an interesting dilemma: Florida might actually be better off giving Tebow a week to fully recover and playing Brantley, because the penalty for a loss would be less severe than if Tebow plays but doesn't perform like his usual self. I'm sure Urban Meyer has taken that into consideration, but trying to reconcile that idea with this guy ...

... and his incredible need to win probably isn't possible.

Tebow will find a way to get on the field, even if he has to wear a gigantic foam helmet to do so. His mission to end disease, preach Christianity, date the hottest girl on Earth, win a gazillion national championships and generally be better at everything than everyone just wouldn't be complete without personally fixing Urban Meyer's 0-2 mark in Baton Rouge.

Bryant ruled ineligible

This could be a problem for Oklahoma State:

Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant has been ruled ineligible for violating an NCAA bylaw, the school announced Wednesday.

Bryant was ruled ineligible by the school because he lied to the NCAA when he was asked if he had visited Deion Sanders' home and had worked out with him.

Bryant is the best receiver in the country, bar none. He didn't play last week against Grambling because of a sore calf, but he still has 17 catches for 323 yards and four touchdowns this year after posting 87 catches for 1,480 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. It would be a major blow to the Cowboys' offense if he can't play again this year, although it appears Okie State is doing everything possible to get him back -- the school has already applied to the NCAA for his reinstatement.

The strange thing is that Bryant isn't in trouble for his relationship with Deion Sanders; he's in trouble for lying about it to the NCAA. The only reason you would lie, of course, is if you have something to hide, so I have a feeling we've seen the last of Bryant in a Cowboys uniform.

Things haven't exactly gone according to plan for Oklahoma State since the season-opening win over Georgia -- the loss to Houston was exacerbated by an unspecified ankle injury to star running back Kendall Hunter, who hasn't played since -- but the possibility of a 10-win season was still out there, and I was looking forward to watching one of the country's best offenses go up against Texas and Oklahoma. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we're gonna get that chance.