MSU linebacker about to grab spotlight

Here are my four thoughts for the upcoming college football weekend.

1. Saturday’s 103rd Michigan-Michigan State game will be Greg Jones’ national coming out party.

Through five games, Denard Robinson is having the best season by a Michigan quarterback in the program’s illustrious 131-year history. In four years as a starter, Chad Henne never got off to a start like this. Neither did Tom Brady. Nor did Elvis Grbac, Brian Griese, Jim Harbaugh, or Drew Henson. If Robinson didn’t take another snap this season, his numbers would still be worthy of Heisman consideration. The back of his playing card is already jaw-dropping: 1,009 passing yards, 905 rushing yards, 382.5 total yards per game, eight rushing touchdowns, seven touchdown passes, two game-winning drives in nationally televised games at Notre Dame and Indiana. He’s the nation’s leading rusher and the fourth rated passing quarterback.

If stats don’t do it for you, accolades and national press might. “Shoelaces” currently leads USA Today’s “Heisman Watch”, is atop the National Football Post’s Heisman Watch, and has been ranked No. 1 on Chris Huston’s respected HeismanPundit.com poll since early September.

And yet, there’s a very good chance that Robinson won’t be the best player on the field Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor. Michigan State senior linebacker Greg Jones, a four-year starter for the Spartans, is the anchor of one of the nation’s best run defenses. Though the NFL draftniks (he’s a projected top 10 pick) and Big Ten die-hards know his name already, the rest of the nation will become familiar with No. 53 this weekend.

I think he’s going to bottle up "Shoelaces" and lead MSU to a victory on the road.

In last Saturday’s 34-24 conquest of Wisconsin, Jones had his best game of the year, making eight tackles, with three coming for a loss. He keyed on another Heisman front-runner — Wisconsin running back John Clay — and helped the Spartans limit the big back to just 80 rushing yards.

Clay is a smashmouth power back, though. Robinson? Well, he’s an entirely different ballgame. Jones, a 2009 All-American, knows it won’t be easy containing the man who’s willed Michigan to a 5-0 start.

“He obviously makes a lot of plays," Jones said this week. "The best thing to do is try to corner him and try to give him only a tight space to try to run, and then go after him when he tries to throw the ball."

"Usually, guys go around the edge and keep going, but he cuts back and he’s a tough guy for doing that," Jones added. "He gets back up and does it again."

Spartans freshman wide receiver Tony Lippett, a star dual-threat quarterback at Detroit Crockett High School in Michigan, has spent the entire week of practice playing the role of Robinson.

"He was a spread-type quarterback in high school," coach Mark Dantonio said. "He’s extremely quick, good burst, those types of things."

But Lippett isn’t Robinson. Dantonio knows that.

Greg Jones does too.

In recent years, Jones has been the man asked to contain and chase down running quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Juice Williams. Robinson will be his biggest test yet.

The Spartans haven’t started a season with a 5-0 record since 1999, when a guy named Nick Saban was their coach. MSU improved its record to 6-0 that year with a 34-31 win over Tom Brady and Michigan.

That early October meeting was the last time the two schools met as undefeated teams.

In Denard Robinson and Greg Jones, two of the nation’s top players will be showcasing their skills.

Don’t be shocked when the latter has America walking away more impressed on Saturday.

2. Blaine Gabbert’s been the best of the Big 12 quarterbacks thus far.

Big 12 powerhouses Oklahoma and Nebraska are in the thick of the BCS National Championship Game conversation, but Missouri is quietly lurking in the background with a 4-0 record and a No. 24 ranking. And whereas more decorated and media-hyped Big 12 quarterbacks Landry Jones, Jerrod Johnson, Garrett Gilbert and Robert Griffin III have struggled in big spots this season, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert has quietly been the steadiest of the bunch.

Gabbert, who spent the ’08 season learning from Heisman finalist Chase Daniel and the ’09 campaign being thrown into the fire, has flourished in his junior season. Undefeated thus far, the Tigers have their first conference test this weekend vs. Colorado.

“We have a bunch of guys returning now who are juniors and sophomores, and they got a bunch of experience last year,” Gabbert said this week. “We’re going into conference play knowing what to expect. I think I have a better idea how competitive it is week-in and week-out.”

“I think he’s doing really, really well,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told reporters at his weekly press conference. “He’s had a little adversity, and then he’s come back and made plays, which says a lot for him.”

Adversity? That’s an understatement. The offense was expected to take a major step back when running back Derrick Washington was kicked off the team the week before the start of the season after being arrested on a sexual assault charge. Instead, it’s gotten better. A platoon of running backs — Henry Jones, De’Vion Moore and Kendial Lawrence — picked up the slack out of the backfield, while sophomore receiver T.J. Moe is leading the nation in receptions per game. Tight end Michael Egnew has 300 receiving yards in four games, including a 13-catch day against San Diego State.

In addition to Washington’s suspension, there have been DWIs and countless other disciplinary actions, and the team’s top receiver from last season graduated and went on to the NFL. Instead of crumbling under the pressure and letting obstacles derail their season (see: Georgia, North Carolina), Gabbert and the Tigers have persevered and flourished.

The knock on Mizzou thus far? Well, they haven’t really played anybody yet. Their toughest test has been a pesky San Diego State squad that nearly knocked them off a few weeks back. Missouri escaped with a 27-24 victory.

Colorado is hardly Alabama or Ohio State. But the Buffs are coming off their best win in two years — a last-second victory over Georgia last weekend. Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the famous fifth-down game between the two schools, but will also mark Gabbert’s first nationally televised game of the season.

Recent history is on his side. Missouri is 4-0 vs. Colorado since 2006, and has won those games by a combined score of 177-40. Missouri beat the Buffaloes 58-0 the last time Colorado visited Columbia. "It’s like our kryptonite or something," Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen said. "They have our number. I don’t know what it is."

If Gabbert is “lights out” in another Missouri win on Saturday, eyebrows will certainly be raised.

There were a host of other Big 12 quarterbacks expected to have big seasons this year. One by one, they’ve faltered. Gabbert’s on the rise. More than just a big arm and a great college football name (Blaine Gabbert? There are no accountants named Blaine Gabbert), he’s got the intangibles thing going on.

Blaine Gabbert for Heisman? Hey, why not?

3. Montana athletic director Jim O’Day’s shed some very interesting light on the much-praised FCS playoff system this week.

Too often we hear about big schools’ internal matters from wonky Internet message board posters or bloggers just grasping at straws. We get half the story or none of it at all. That wasn’t the case at the University of Montana this week.

With rumors swirling that the Grizzlies were being considered for membership in the WAC, Montana AD Jim O’Day stepped up to the plate and wrote a meticulously detailed email addressing any and all such talks. His email was sent to fans and was eventually posted to the popular fan message board eGriz.com.

His revelations on the much-praised FCS playoff system were very interesting.

O’Day stated that the NCAA lost $500,000 in last year’s FCS playoffs. Montana, O’Day noted in the email, “produced $1.1 million of last year’s budget of $2.5 million. The other 11 games produced less than $1 million TOTAL.”

O’Day also explained the poor planning of this coming year’s FCS playoff schedule, writing, “It won’t help to move the championship back three weeks into January – let alone that it will be taking place 40 minutes away from the Cotton Bowl, which has also been moved to that night. So much for FCS exposure on national television. Just to keep the student-athletes on campus during Christmas will also cost the two schools in the championship an additional $100,000 – none of which is budgeted. And to put in perspective, we LOST $150,000 each of the past two years going to the championship game. Had we won, the incentives for coaches would have put the losses over $200,000 each time. We get no additional revenue for any of this.”

For followers of FBS football, it’s easy to just kick and scream about a playoff and point to the FCS as “getting it right” year after year. I won’t lie. In the past, I’ve often said “If they can do it and it works, why shouldn’t Division 1-A?!” But, from what O’Day’s saying, it hasn’t been working at all. Those playoffs that you see on ESPN and ESPN 2 on the Saturdays in between FBS regular season and the bowl schedule? They’re apparently bleeding both the NCAA and the schools dry.

 

You’d like to assume it would be a whole other ballgame if the FBS had a playoff system. You want to dismiss this as comparing apples and oranges. But is it really? If fans aren’t coming out in droves to see four rounds of football at the FCS level, why are we so sure they would at the FBS level? How many people do you know that are able to trot around the country four straight weeks in January to see their team play in new locales each and every weekend? Would there really be all that much more merchandise sold during four rounds of playoff football than at the various bowl host cities in the weeks leading up to games now?

Apples and oranges or not, it’s pretty eye-opening stuff from O’Day.

4. The SEC best and the SEC least

For the first 18 years of the two-division format in the SEC, the East has long been considered the big bully to the West. Whether it was Steve Spurrier and his Gators in the mid-1990s, Phil Fullmer and his Vols in the late ‘90s, or Mark Richt and Urban Meyer this decade, the SEC East seemed to always have the cream of the crop, while the more balanced SEC West had a revolving door of division winners.

Well, it’s a brave new world in 2010, as the West not only has the best teams in the conference, but it also has the better depth. I can’t remember a season when the two divisions were so far apart.

Out of the SEC West, Alabama is No. 1 in the nation, Auburn is No. 8, Arkansas is No. 11, and LSU is knocking on the door at No. 12. Both Mississippi State and Ole Miss can beat any of those four on any given Saturday. The six West schools are 24-5 overall and an eye-popping 7-1 against the East. The only loss for the West vs. the East came in an upset win for Vanderbilt over Ole Miss in Oxford a few weeks back. The West appears loaded from top to bottom.

The East? Well, let’s just call this a “transition” year.

No. 14 Florida’s been shaky in the first year “A.T.” (After Tebow) and showed its inability to keep up with a top-flight team like Alabama last weekend. The only other Top 25 team in the division is South Carolina, which could very well get its doors blown off at home vs. ‘Bama this weekend. Georgia’s a joke, Tennessee’s perhaps even funnier, Vanderbilt’s Vanderbilt, and Kentucky’s going through some growing pains in its first year under Joker Phillips.

Tennessee-Georgia once meant something. The teams are a combined 0-3 vs. SEC West opponents this year. Neither squad has a winning record this season. Can you honestly say you’re excited for Florida-Georgia this year? There’s usually an SEC Championship Game berth on the line. This year? Who knows?

If Auburn beats Kentucky, Alabama beats South Carolina, and LSU takes down the Gators in the swamp, it’ll be 10-1 in favor of the SEC West.

“No question the West appears better than the East right now,” Spurrier said this week.

No question at all.

Schrager BCS Bowl Projections Through Week 5

BCS National Championship Game: Alabama vs. Oregon

Rose Bowl: Iowa vs. Boise State

Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Nebraska

Sugar Bowl: Auburn vs. Oklahoma

Orange Bowl: West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech

Schrager Heisman Ballot Through Week 5

1. Denard Robinson, quarterback, Michigan

2. Mark Ingram, running back, Alabama

3. Kellen Moore, quarterback, Boise State