Forward Pass: The reality about Big Ten's ugly playoff narrative
Those of you who read my weekly College Football Overtime column at SI.com will notice many similarities in this, the Week 3 edition of Forward Pass. However, as the name implies, this Monday morning feature will not just recap the weekend but instead digest the results and start looking ahead, with particular emphasis on the College Football Playoff race. Enjoy.
Jim Delany started his day Saturday watching games from the Big Ten office’s officiating command center in Chicago, where the nine screens showed Central Michigan routing Purdue, Nebraska going to the wire against McNeese State and Iowa rallying to survive against Ball State. In the late afternoon he drove to South Bend, where he first watched the first half of Michigan State’s eventual 46-27 loss to Oregon on TV before watching Notre Dame throttle Michigan 31-0 with his own eyes. And then he listened to the end of Ohio State’s 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on the drive home.
He knew well what the national reaction would be come Sunday morning – that his conference had fallen on its face yet again, as it has so many times over the last decade. But he bristled at the widespread notion by many – myself included -- that the conference may already have eliminated itself from College Football Playoff contention just two weeks into the season.
“Because we haven’t won a [national] championship in a long time and have struggled in the Rose Bowl, it’s part of the narrative. I get that,” said the Big Ten commissioner in an interview Sunday. “But it’s not part of the 2014 narrative for me. The narrative is that … we’re barely 50 percent into our non-conference games. There’s a reason the [selection] committee doesn’t put much faith in the early polls.”
Delany, who served on the NCAA basketball committee from 1986-91 and helped craft the new playoff selection process, knows better than most the potential consequences of the Big Ten’s oh-fer so far in high-profile non-conference games (including Wisconsin’s Week 1 loss to LSU). Even before last weekend he referred to Saturday’s three primetime games as “disproportionately impactful,” saying “they may be the three most significant data points” of the 112 games his teams will play this season. The committee gets very few opportunities to gauge each conference’s upper-echelon teams against those of the others, which means the league blew its best opportunities to make an impression.
But the damage goes much deeper than that. While a win at Oregon would have been huge for the defending league champion Spartans, a loss by itself hardly ruined their playoff chances. Winning at Autzen Stadium is difficult. The committee knows that.
Far worse for Michigan State – and the rest of the conference as well – were the belly-ups by longtime bellwethers Ohio State and Michigan. Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, respectively, exposed massive cracks in their opponents. Even if the Spartans turn around and go 8-0 in conference play like they did last season, there may be few, if any, chances for them to notch so-called quality wins.
The Buckeyes’ first loss in a home opener since 1978 was unexpected if only because the Hokies were flying so far under the radar, but the way it transpired was not entirely surprising. Urban Meyer’s team lost four starting offensive linemen from last year’s team, then lost its two-time conference player of the year quarterback, Braxton Miller, to a preseason injury. Virginia Tech exploited both deficiencies by ganging up against the run and forcing redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett to pass. He finished a miserable 9-of-29 for 219 yards, tossing three interceptions and enduring seven sacks.
Ohio State’s archrival, on the other hand, appears to only be getting more inept offensively each year under coach Brady Hoke. First-year coordinator Brian VanGorder’s Irish defense forced four Devin Gardner turnovers and limited the Wolverines to 2.9 yards per rushing attempt in dealing them their first shutout since 1984.
The Buckeyes’ problems may be fixable enough to still win most of their games, but the Wolverines are broken. And neither seems a remotely viable playoff contender. The conference’s best remaining hopes are likely Michigan State and Nebraska, the latter’s FCS scare notwithstanding. The problem is, what chances do they have left to truly impress the committee?
The Spartans get Eastern Michigan and Wyoming before facing eight league opponents that have just one power-conference win between them so far (Rutgers’ against Washington State). The Huskers visit 0-2 Fresno State this week before hosting 1-1 Miami and then a similarly uninspiring conference slate. At least they face each other Oct. 4.
But Delany, who describes himself as “not necessarily an optimistic person but a realistic person,” chooses to bank on the fact that wins and losses in early September don’t necessarily look as good or bad in December. No one would have tabbed Auburn a national title contender this time a year ago, and along those lines, our perceptions of most Big Ten opponents so far are still rooted in 2013.
“This is not a conference thing, it is an individual team thing,” said Delany. “It’s true that two-thirds of your schedule is made up of teams from the conference, but maybe Notre Dame runs the table, maybe Oregon runs the table, maybe a loss like our teams suffered won’t stand out like a sore thumb like it did on Sept. 7.”
He may be right. And he can take comfort in the fact that no matter what opinions fans and media have already formed hold no bearing on the actual selection process. In the meantime, “I give myself a day to be disappointed, then go back to work [Monday],” he said. League newcomer Rutgers hosts its conference opener Saturday against Penn State. On to the next narrative.
THESE ARE DIFFERENT TROJANS
USC coach Steve Sarkisian says he’d never previously seen another coach summon his athletic director down to the field to intervene with the officials. He made a “spur of the moment” decision to have someone text his boss, Pat Haden, late in the third quarter of Saturday’s game at Stanford, in what led to one of the stranger moments you’ll see in a televised game broadcast, and 24 hours later he would have liked to rethink it.
“Looking back at it now I regret putting Pat in that situation,” Sarkisian told reporters Sunday. “…. It’s my job to manage the game, and Pat’s job is not to manage the game and manage the officials.”
Haden issued an apology for his actions late Sunday night.
Two games into Sarkisian’s USC tenure there’s already one noticeable difference from the disastrous Lane Kiffin era. Under Kiffin, the USC program was a never-ending soap opera that seemed certain to end badly. So far under Sark, Trojans football is a never-ending soap opera that manages to inspire confidence.
When Trojans linebacker J.R. Tavai sacked Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and forced a fumble with 19 seconds remaining Saturday, USC sealed a hard-earned 13-10 road win over the two-time defending conference champs. The image of Haden animatedly waving his arms at the refs a quarter earlier made the lead of every highlight show Saturday night, but the image of quarterback Cody Kessler celebrating with the USC band better summed up the Trojans’ afternoon.
You’d never know this was the same team less than two weeks removed from the Josh Shaw-saving-his-nephew fabrication saga.
All kidding aside, there’s one particularly noticeable difference between Sarkisian’s team and Kiffin’s 2012 and ’13 teams – these Trojans have a plan. Sure, they want to go fast, like they did in the opener against Fresno State, but when Stanford’s formidable defense made that close to impossible Saturday, Sarkisian patiently rode his defense and a grind-it-out rushing attack led by Javorious Allen (154 yards). The Cardinal had an inordinate amount of self-inflicted mistakes, but USC did plenty itself to hold its opponent to 10 points on nine trips inside the Trojans’ 32-yard-line.
“I’m fired up about the win,” said Sarkisian. “I couldn’t be more proud of our defense, the red zone defense we showed.”
So far USC has shown no noticeable consequence of starting two true freshman offensive linemen or losing top cornerback Shaw just before the season. The Trojans have the talent to contend in the Pac-12, but they’ll have to manage the season with tenuously thin depth. So far they’ve proven quite resilient.
TEXAS’ FULL-ON UPHEAVAL
When BYU stampeded visiting Texas 40-21 on Sept. 7, 2013, it marked the beginning of the end for 16-year coach Mack Brown. When Taysom Hill and the Cougars made their return trip to Austin a year later, they showed just how deep a rebuilding job Charlie Strong has ahead of him.
The Longhorns’ new coach minced no words following his team’s 41-7 debacle Saturday night. “It is an embarrassment," said Strong. "It is an embarrassment to this program and an embarrassment to the university."
Texas has had a lot of those the past few years, but they came with the silver lining of imminent change and the optimism that comes with it. Surely mighty Texas would not be down for long.
But change in Austin has taken the form of full-on upheaval, with Strong dismissing or suspending a dozen players since his arrival. Last week’s suspensions of starting tackles Kennedy Estelle and Desmond Harrison, combined with fourth-year starting center Dominic Espinosa’s season-ending ankle injury and the return of quarterback David Ash’s concussion problems, left the ‘Horns with a patchwork offense that expectedly struggled in sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes’ first start.
But more troubling was the fact that Hill, BYU’s dual-threat sensation and now world-class hurdler, gashed Texas’ defense for a second straight year, albeit not quite as glaringly. "We gave up 28 points in the [third] quarter," said Strong. "You can't do that if you think you're going to play great defense."
To this point Texas backers have viewed Strong’s massive house cleaning as a good thing, a much-needed influx of discipline in a program that many believe became a pseudo-country club in Brown’s latter years. The question is how long they’ll remain patient if the ‘Horns get considerably worse before they get better – and just how far down rock bottom may be.
THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST
Each week, I'll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week's games.
Peach: Michigan State (Big Ten champ) vs. East Carolina (Group of 5)
Fiesta: Baylor (at-large) vs. USC (at-large)
Orange: Virginia Tech (ACC) vs. Alabama (B1G/SEC/ND)
Cotton: Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) vs. Texas A&M (at-large)
Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Georgia
Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 Oregon
Two weeks in and the Pac-12 has me thoroughly confused. Specifically, UCLA and Washington, who I removed from the lineup this week. Both are 2-0 but could not have inspired less confidence in doing so. The Bruins, which fended off Memphis 42-35 on Saturday, have now allowed eight sacks in two games, and their talented defense inexplicably couldn’t handle the Tigers’ offense.
The Huskies have now had close calls against both Hawaii (17-16) and Eastern Washington (59-52), though theirs is not the first Pac-12 defense to struggle against star Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. The FCS All-American followed up a 411-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year’s win at Oregon State with a career-high 475 yards and seven TDs against the Huskies.
Needless to say, I no longer view Washington or UCLA as Top 10-caliber teams. Oregon, on the other hand, made quite the statement with its 46-point output against Michigan State’s stout defense. I still have concerns about the Ducks’ defense, but then I could say that about half the conference right now. One of the exceptions: USC, which has shown it could be a factor if depth issues don’t eventually rear their head.
I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …
* Pittsburgh. The Panthers could be a factor in the ACC Coastal thanks to the type of powerful rushing attack coach Paul Chryst annually presided over as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator. Star sophomore James Conner racked up 214 yards on 36 carries in last Friday’s 30-20 win at Boston College. Mind you, Pitt doesn’t play Florida State, Clemson or Louisville.
* Missouri. I had a feeling the Tigers wouldn’t go slinking away after last year’s SEC East championship season. Quarterback Maty Mauk threw five touchdowns in a 49-24 win at Toledo, a game in which some pundits had put Mizzou on upset alert. Gary Pinkel’s team hosts UCF this week.
* Washington State coach Mike Leach. Wazzu is off to an 0-2 start following losses to Rutgers and Nevada. I certainly expected better of the Cougars in Year 3 under their eccentric but respected coach. Leach’s success is always tied to the play of his quarterback, and Connor Halliday remains wildly inconsistent.
* Baylor receiver KD Cannon. The Bears’ highly touted true freshman caught a 46-yard touchdown in the opener against SMU, then shredded Northwestern State for 223 yards and three scores on just six catches. “"He just knows how to get open,” said Bears quarterback Seth Russell, who filled in for the injured Bryce Petty on Saturday.
* Alabama receiver Amari Cooper. Two games into the season and the Crimson Tide star already has a national-high 25 catches for 319 yards. That’s more than half the 45 receptions Cooper had his sophomore season, despite playing with a pair of new quarterbacks. Not shabby.
THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE
Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer (with an assist from defensive coordinator Bud Foster). It’d been a while since Beamer’s once-rock solid program notched a marquee victory, and in fact Saturdays’ 35-21 win at Ohio State was the Hokies’ first-ever road win over an AP Top 8 opponent. “This is a big, big win for our program, for the status of our program,” Beamer said afterward.
THIS WEEK’S COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Michigan’s Brady Hoke. The “blame RichRod” excuse no longer falls within a statute of limitations. Hoke has no one to blame but himself for an offensive line that has apparently only gotten worse and the continued struggles of quarterback Devin Gardner, who apparently remains his best option. It’s going to take quite the turnaround the rest of the way for Wolverines’ fans to forgive 31-0.
ON TO NEXT WEEKEND
Three games we’re most excited for:
* Georgia at South Carolina (Saturday, 3:30 ET). Steve Spurrier admits the 2014 Gamecocks are “not quite as talented as some of our teams in the past,” but still, this division duel is always a tough hurdle for the Dawgs.
* UCLA vs. Texas (Saturday, 8 ET). It’s not as exciting as it looked before the season, but there’s still a morbid curiosity factor. UCLA might run Texas out of Jerry World, but then, UCLA might not be so great itself.
* Tennessee at Oklahoma (Saturday, 8 ET). The freshman-heavy Vols have acquitted themselves well against Utah State and Arkansas State, but Trevor Knight, Sterling Shepard and the Sooners look like a machine.
Three games you shouldn’t miss:
Honestly, there aren’t any, but I’ll try anyway …
* Iowa State at Iowa (Saturday, 3:30 ET). It’s Cy-Hawk time. The Hawkeyes are 2-0 but with single-digit wins over Northern Iowa and Ball State. The Cyclones are 0-2 but showed pluck in a close loss to K-State.
* Penn State at Rutgers (Saturday, 8 ET). It’s really here – Rutgers’ first Big Ten game, against the one school it would love most to become its rival. The Nittany Lions’ defense has been solid, allowing just 13.5 points so far.
* USC at Boston College (Saturday, 8 ET). Yeah … it’s not a great week.
One under-the-radar gem:
* Nebraska at Fresno State (Saturday, 10:30 ET). The Bulldogs’ first two opponents, USC and Utah, outscored them 111-40, but something about Bo Pelini playing in the middle of the night back home screams potential wackiness.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.