Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
12 Nov 2007
by Russell Levine
Patience, a principle too-seldom exercised in the cutthroat world of college football, is proving its worth in this enigmatic season.
A quick glance at the Bowl Championship Series rankings -- which now feature LSU and Oregon in the top positions after Illinois stunned previous No. 1 Ohio State Saturday -- lists several programs that might not be enjoying their current success had they listened to the whims of fans and alumni, and cut the cords on previously struggling coaches.
Sitting at No. 3 in the BCS is the year's most surprising team, Kansas. The Jayhawks -- who could still play their way into the national championship game -- are led by sixth-year coach Mark Mangino. His previous five seasons in Lawrence produced a 25â€“35 record, including a 1â€“8 mark against ranked teams and a 4â€“21 road record. The high-water mark of his tenure before this season was a 7â€“5 campaign in 2005 -- a year the Jayhawks lost to eventual national champion Texas by a 66â€“14 count. There was scant little evidence that Mangino could build a football power, or even a Big 12 North contender, at his basketball-mad school.
Perhaps because football plays second-fiddle at Kansas, Mangino was given time to completely rebuild a program that had some success in the mid-1990s under Glen Mason, before slipping badly under the direction of Mangino's predecessor, Terry Allen.
With 14 starters and 53 upper-class letter-winners returning (plus a schedule that skipped Texas and Oklahoma), this appeared to be the year that Mangino could get to eight or nine wins. But nobody expected this: a 10â€“0 start that includes road wins at Kansas State, Colorado (where Oklahoma suffered its only loss), Texas A&M, and now Oklahoma State.
Assuming the Jayhawks get past 3â€“8 Iowa State next week, they will face another surprising team, Missouri, to determine the Big 12 North title. The winner is likely to face Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship for the conference's automatic BCS berth. Because both Oklahoma and Missouri are highly rated (nos. 4 and 5, respectively, in the BCS) two wins should be enough to lift Kansas into the top two and toward an invitation to the national championship game.
Missouri, too, is being rewarded for sticking with head coach Gary Pinkel, whose first six seasons at Missouri produced a 37â€“35 record. Even last year, in his best season, Pinkel was under fire for finishing 8â€“5 after a 6â€“0 start.
It wasn't Pinkel's only late-season collapse. There were high expectations for his 2004 team, coming off a bowl season in 2003. But the Tigers lost at Troy early in the season and later endured a five-game losing streak. The school stuck with Pinkel rather than electing to rebuild with a new coach, and this season is reaping the benefits of that decision. Missouri is 9â€“1, and saw its largest average home attendance since 1981. The Tigers' only loss came at Oklahoma in a game Missouri led at the start of the fourth quarter.
His team may not be at the top of the BCS standings, but Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom should likewise get a few votes for coach of the year honors -- and that school should win plaudits for sticking with him after his first three seasons netted just nine wins.
After beating Alabama Saturday, Croom has the Bulldogs bowl-eligible at 6â€“4. This season, which has also included wins at Auburn and Kentucky, is a remarkable turnaround for a program that won just four conference games the past three seasons. Saturday's win (Croom's second straight over his alma mater) should earn the Bulldogs their first bowl invite since the 2000 season. Croom, who is the first African-American coach in the history of SEC football, was a finalist for the Alabama job in 2003, which went instead to Mike Shula. A year later, he finally got his head-coaching shot -- but it came at Mississippi State, which is the Days Inn compared to Alabama's Four Seasons.
Such restraint with coaching decisions is not always the norm. Notre Dame famously fired Tyrone Willingham after three seasons because athletic director Kevin White wasn't happy with the direction of the program. His decision was validated by the immediate success of Charlie Weis, who took the Irish to BCS games his first two seasons. The 19 wins were nice -- but they covered up that Weis's teams were almost always outclassed by top competition.
Still, Weis is a recruiting machine, and he landed the top prep player in the nation, quarterback Jimmy Clausen, to soften the blow of 13 lost starters this season. Given the roster turnover and a much tougher schedule, few observers felt Notre Dame could approach the success of the last two seasons. But no one expected an unmitigated disaster of a campaign that currently stands at 1â€“9 and sets new records weekly for futility.
The irony is that Notre Dame's early exuberance with Weis -- he was given a 10-year contract extension after nearly upsetting top-ranked USC in his sixth game -- means the school has no choice but to be patient with him. Weis has eight years and $25 million remaining on his contract following this season. That figure is more than triple the largest buyout ever paid in college coaching history -- $7 million to former Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum -- according to CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell.
So even Notre Dame, which has no shortage of wealthy boosters, will stick with its head man, and perhaps it will be a blessing. Weis continues to land highly regarded recruiting classes, and as Kansas, Missouri, and Mississippi State have shown this season, patience can be a virtue -- even at the highest levels of college football.
I've been waiting for years to have the opportunity to award the JLS Trophy to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, and for a fleeting moment on Saturday, I finally had my chance. He had called a timeout while Illinois was in punt formation with just under seven minutes to play and the Buckeyes trailing by seven points. During the stoppage, Illinois coach Ron Zook was talked into going for the first down on fourth-and-inches. The Illini made the conversion and went on bleed the rest of the clock on an epic, game-killing drive.
But alas, Tressel called time because Illinois had rushed the punt team onto the field and he was worried about getting caught with too many men and handing the Illini a first down on the penalty. So the Senator from Ohio skates this week -- despite his defense seemingly being unaware that Illinois intended to run the ball every play on that drive. Hopefully Tressel will give me a reason next week.
Speaking of next week, another coach who won't win the award is Michigan's Lloyd Carr. With his Wolverines trailing Wisconsin by 16 points early in the fourth quarter, Michigan scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to 10, yet Carr elected to kick the extra point to cut it to nine, rather than go for two and make it a one-possession game.
In his column about the game, ESPN.com's Pat Forde suggested that Carr was all but throwing the game. Now, I'm typically a fan of Forde's work, but he could not be more wrong here. There were several factors that pointed to it being the correct decision by Carr. First, there was plenty of time left in the game (13:31) for two more possessions. In fact, Michigan would get the ball five more times. Second, Michigan's defense was getting shredded, and the likelihood of giving up another score seemed high. Miss a two-pointer and give up a touchdown, and now you're down three scores. Kick the extra point and give up a touchdown and it's still a two possession game at 16 points. Third, Michigan couldn't run the ball without Mike Hart (who missed the game with an ankle injury) and backup quarterback Ryan Mallett is a highly erratic passer -- he finished 11-of-26, but for 245 yards. Both would suggest that a two-point try would be a far-more difficult proposition than normal for the Wolverines.
Instead, the JLS Trophy goes meekly this week to Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy. He's a man. He's 40. He can take it.
I did not like the way Gundy handled his first possession as a home underdog against Kansas. Having forced a three-and-out following the opening kickoff, the Cowboys got the ball at their own 44-yard line, then promptly gained nine yards on first down. Yet Gundy opted to throw on second down, and the pass was incomplete. On third down, he had his quarterback run the option, which was stuffed for a loss of one. I don't mind the option, but only for teams that actually run it as a regular part of their offense, which Oklahoma State does not. On fourth-and-2 from the Kansas 48, Gundy called for a fake punt that fooled nobody. The play gained one yard and Kansas took possession on downs.
To me, that series sent a message from Gundy to his team: He did not believe they could win the game without resorting to trickery. Fake punts and surprise play calls have their place in football, just not here. Gundy immediately surrendered the momentum to the visitors, who went on to score first (although not on their next possession) and win the game.
Rankings that may require further explanation: I'm still trying to rank on the entire body of work, with things skewed towards most recent results. Thus I have no problem putting Georgia, which lost handily at Tennessee, well above the Vols because Georgia is playing as well as anyone in the country right now.
I still like Oregon and LSU at the top, but Kansas has every opportunity to play its way into the top two spots. Oklahoma, likewise, can move it up if it crushes Kansas or Missouri in the Big 12 title game. No conference has improved its rep more than the Big 12 this season.
It's tough to know what to make of Ohio State, but tenth seems about right. Illinois gets a nod above Wisconsin and Michigan for having the biggest win of the three.
Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: Louisville-West Virginia, Rutgers-Army (attended), Michigan-Wisconsin, Illinois-Ohio State, Kansas-Oklahoma State, USC-Cal, Fresno State-Hawaii.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
98 comments, Last at 15 Nov 2007, 10:05pm by DoubleB