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05 Jan 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Trojan Curfew

by Russell Levine

What a pigskin pigout the last seven days have been! Starting with Michigan State-Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl on Monday and continuing right through Sunday night's Sugar Bowl, it was pretty much non-stop football. Not even a no-show by my beloved Wolverines in the Rose Bowl could put much of a damper on a week like that.

It was a week that included two teams laying claim to college football's national championship, two other fairly compelling BCS bowls, two outstanding NFL Wild Card games and a host of lesser
bowls which were nonetheless outstanding.

Before I dive into the college games in more detail, I'd like to offer a few words about the pros. And those words would be, "I told you so." Hey, it's not often I that I get to brag about my prognosticating prowess. But in last week's playoff roundtable and fantasy draft, not only did I select Peyton Manning (377 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INT), but I also correctly predicted the outcome of all four Wild Card games. Can we all just agree to forget that the week before I called Denver perhaps the most complete team in the AFC?

My opinion on Denver changed when they rested several starters in their meaningless season finale and were crushed by Green Bay. Strategically, it made sense. The Broncos had nothing to play for. But football isn't always about strategy, it's also about emotion, and the Broncos were completely lacking any against Indianapolis on Sunday. You got the sense that, since they had routed the Colts in Indy two weeks ago, the Broncos felt all they had to do was show up and the same thing would happen. Instead, they were flat and confused.

Denver surrendered all the momentum it had built up over the season's final month when it rolled over against Green Bay and lost its edge. Teams that are sharp don't allow Marvin Harrison to fall to the ground, point fingers at each other while failing to realize he hasn't been touched, and stand around while he runs into the end zone. At that moment, TMQ was probably writing "game over" in his notebook.

Coach Mike Shanahan obviously figured confidence wouldn't be a problem for his team following the Week 16 rout of Indianapolis, but he was wrong. These Broncos don't exactly have a playoff pedigree (the franchise's last playoff win was Super Bowl XXXIII vs. Atlanta), and they would have been better served by playing with some intensity against Green Bay. Perhaps now would be a good time to stop referring to Shanahan as a "genius," as he has yet to win a postseason game in Denver without John Elway under center.

The game of the week was clearly Green Bay-Seattle. I had a feeling that Seattle would play well, having gained all the confidence it needed from its road win at San Francisco last week. Matt Hasselbeck was outstanding until the final snap. Yes, he should have kept his mouth shut on the overtime coin toss, but that can't detract from the game he played. The Seahawks should really build on this performance going into next season. As for the Pack, count me among the bandwagon jumpers who believe they'll keep the magic going at Philadelphia next week.

The weekend's other great game was Tennessee-Baltimore, which was played at a frightening level of intensity. Defensive football isn't always pretty to watch, but it is when the Ravens are playing. It's amazing how Ray Lewis elevates everyone to his level of emotion. Baltimore flies to the ball better than any team in the NFL. But as good as the Raven D was, they couldn't stop Steve McNair, gimpy as always, from doing just enough to win the game. The game was a classic microcosm of McNair's abilities. He doesn't always end up with huge numbers, but you always have confidence he will get the job done. Tennessee-New England should be a great one this weekend.

In the Dallas-Carolina game, I just felt that Quincy Carter couldn't be trusted in a playoff road game. Carter has come a long way this year, but he's still way too inconsistent. He reminds me of Trent Dilfer in 1997, the first year he took the Bucs to the playoffs. The team got there on defense, and you never had confidence that Dilfer could make a big play when they needed him to. The same applies with Carter and the Cowboys -- I will be shocked if he is under center for their first game next year. Carolina's Jake Delhomme, on the other hand, was very impressive in the playoff spotlight. I don't know if he can do the same thing on the road at St. Louis, but he was really a lot better than I thought he'd be. If he plays like that again, the Panthers have a shot to win.

* * *

Getting back to the college game, it was refreshing to wake up Monday morning and realize that, even though we have a split national championship, the sun still rose and the world appears to be functioning normally. Having USC and LSU as co-champs has not led to Armageddon.

Both teams certainly made a strong case. USC completely dominated a Michigan team that did not play its best, but that came into the bowl season as hot as any team in the country. The final score of the Rose Bowl, 28-14, did not indicate the true nature of the game. Even though Michigan was able to move the ball throughout the contest, you never once got the feeling that USC was in anything short of complete control.

Whenever they needed a play, they got one. If quarterback Matt Leinert had an open receiver and time to throw, he completed the pass. If Michigan was driving, USC came up with a sack. Michigan had allowed only 15 sacks all season, yet surrendered nine to USC's vaunted defensive line. Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten have come a long way from the days of "three yards and a cloud of dust." The Wolverines had the skill position players to match up with USC, but not the linemen. Michigan's offensive line was dominated throughout the game, and it was the single biggest factor in USC's victory.

In the Sugar Bowl, LSU's defense imposed its will on Oklahoma and made Heisman winner Jason White look like a confused freshman. As it was for USC, it was the defensive line that had the single biggest impact on the game. Oklahoma's offensive line simply could not cope with the speedy Tiger lineman and the endless array of blitzes dialed up by LSU coach Nick Saban. It also didn't help Oklahoma that its receivers couldn't get any separation from the LSU secondary.

On offense, LSU was able to move the ball throughout the first half before Oklahoma's defense awoke after intermission. By then, it was too late, as the damage had been done. On the game's first snap, Oklahoma provided TMQ with some "stop me before I blitz again" fodder, as six gentlemen crossed the line of scrimmage, including the safety, leaving the middle of the field wide open. A quick-hitting running play up the middle went for 66 yards and immediately set the tone for the rest of the contest.

LSU was certainly helped, as was USC, by playing a virtual home game. Who would win on a neutral field? My gut tells me USC, because it has a dominant offense and is excellent against the run on defense. But the Trojans are probably lucky they were bounced from the Sugar Bowl and got to claim a share of the title playing in their backyard in the Rose. It's hard to imagine that any team could have coped with the raucous, pro-LSU crowd in the Superdome.

* * *

In the wake of this year's BCS controversy, everybody has a solution, but the reality of the situation is that the perfect solution to this year's problem is not the perfect solution to the problem in other years. This year, it seems simple enough -- a one-game playoff, following the bowls, that would match LSU and USC for the outright title. But what if you apply that scenario to last season, when Ohio State was the only undefeated team following the bowls? Why should they have to play an additional game to win the title? Who would you pick among the one-loss teams to be their opponent?

The BCS has vowed to make changes for next year, and a one-game playoff is probably closer to reality than ever before. The most prominent idea seems to be to return the four major bowls to their traditional matchups (Big Ten vs. Pac 10 in the Rose, SEC champ to the Sugar, etc.), then use some sort of formula or selection committee to choose the teams for the title game a week later. As I mentioned in a previous column, the bowls involved, particularly the Rose, are not going to serve as national semifinals on some sort of rotating basis. It has become difficult enough to sell tickets and tour packages to the games due to the late date at which the participants are determined. No bowl organizing committee is going to agree to host a semifinal, when many of the paying and traveling customers would be holding out and saving their money for a trip to the finals a week later.

But even with a return to traditional matchups, the problem of choosing two teams following the bowls for a one-game college Super Bowl would remain just as complicated as choosing two teams for the BCS title game now. Sure, it would have cleared up the mess this year, when only two one-loss teams remained after the bowls, but what about a year when only one team remains undefeated? Or when three teams finish with one loss? The one-game playoff would solve absolutely nothing in those scenarios.

So what should the BCS do? I'm in the camp that advocates making small changes instead of blowing up the system. I think the BCS can become very effective with a few small tweaks:

  • First, add a rule that mandates only conference champions can play in the title game. If it had been in place, it would have prevented to the two worst failures of the BCS: allowing non-conference champs Nebraska (2001) and Oklahoma (2003) to play in the title game.
  • Second, eliminate the BCS standings. Instead, create a selection committee, similar to the one that determines the NCAA basketball tournament pairings, to decide who plays in the title game. Let them use whatever criteria they want -- human polls, RPI rankings, strength of schedule, etc. We don't need weekly standings that only serve to open up the system to ridicule.
  • Third, eliminate the rule that mandates the coaches' poll vote for the winner of the BCS title game. That rule was added to give the BCS game legitimacy, but that's no longer necessary. If the coaches want to vote for someone else, so be it -- we'll have a split title. As we saw this year, it's not the end of the world. It only adds to the intrigue.

* * *

Other notes and observations from the bowl season:

The thing I hate most about the BCS championship game is the insistence on trying to turn it into the Super Bowl. Hence, you have the starting lineups for each team introduced individually. College teams take the field as one! Let the pros get singled out. And while you're at it, please put the smoke machines and pyrotechnics away.

Also, please spare me the celebrity anthem singers. The anthem at a bowl game should be played by the school marching bands, not sung (if you could call it that) by Ms. Jessica "Chicken of the Sea, is that chicken or tuna?" Simpson.

It's hard to have sympathy for a man pulling down a million-dollar salary, but I really wouldn't want to be in Florida coach Ron Zook's shoes. Just when it seems he had this season headed in the right direction with a young, talented squad (his team handed LSU its only loss), he gets routed, 37-17, by Iowa in the Outback Bowl the same week Gator legend Steve Spurrier quits the Washington Redskins. It was bad enough that Florida fans have called for his head after every loss when they didn't have a replacement in mind, but now that Spurrier is unemployed, they'll be sure to ratchet up the pressure even more.

Speaking of coaches, we're bound to hear lots of speculation over the next week about whether Saban is going to bolt LSU for the NFL. In my opinion, he'd be crazy to. He just earned himself a million-dollar raise to around $2.5 million per year, and he's the de facto coach/team president/GM/CEO of the LSU program. The school has tremendous facilities, and doesn't really have to compete against any other schools for Louisiana high school talent, which is among the most fertile recruiting areas in the country. Bob Stoops has a similar situation at Oklahoma and would also be nuts to bolt, although his recruiting is bit more contested.

Nebraska is still without a coach after the school failed in its attempt to lure Houston Nutt away from Arkansas for a reported $2 million a year. Did I miss something? Nutt's Arkansas teams have never won a conference title or played in a BCS game. I'm sure he's an excellent coach, but $2 million? That would probably put him in the top-five college coaching salaries and I don't think anybody's ready to put him in that group of coaches.

Speaking of overpaid coaches, how is it that Texas' Mack Brown is mentioned for NFL jobs? He's the most overrated college coach in America. He has top-tier talent and a program with unbelievable financial backing. Texas is as good a recruiting state as any. And yet, he can't stay within four touchdowns of Oklahoma on a good day (this year's score was 65-13), and he can't win the second-tier bowl game his team is relegated to after they failed to gain a BCS bid. The Longhorns were under whelming in a 28-20 loss to Washington State in this year's Holiday Bowl.

Florida State and Miami actually managed to play a fairly exciting -- and clean -- game in the Orange Bowl. As I wrote last week, the Orange was the one matchup nobody wanted, yet the game was played at a high level of intensity and produced a 16-14 Miami win. It's hard for me to root for anyone on Miami, but it was nice to see Jarrett Payton, son of Walter, end his college career with one of his best games, as he rushed for 131 yards.

Tennessee, on the other hand, earned the memorial Miami sportsmanship award, as the Volunteers picked up eight personal fouls, including two on a single play while the game was still competitive in the fourth quarter, in a 27-14 Peach Bowl loss to Clemson.

Finally, I have to echo the sentiments of Peter King in MMQB, who took Texas Tech to task for a classless touchdown celebration as they were closing out a Houston Bowl win against Navy. I also enjoyed the irony of listening to ESPN announcers Craig James (backfield partner with Eric Dickerson at perhaps the most corrupt college program in NCAA history, the early-80's SMU Mustangs) and Andre Ware (starting QB for Houston in a 95-21 win over post-death penalty SMU). Way to call 'em like you see 'em boys.

You can read an archive of Russell's columns from earlier in the season, before he joined us
at Football Outsiders, here.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 05 Jan 2004

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