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?
19 Nov 2007
by Russell Levine
A year ago, the Big Ten's practice of refusing to play after Thanksgiving contributed to Michigan getting passed over for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
The Wolverines had just lost a nail-biter at Ohio State in the first-ever battle between the traditional rivals as the top two teams in the nation. Michigan held on to the critical second spot in the BCS standings after the loss. Yet the rest of the major conferences had two more weeks of play, during which first USC, and then Florida, passed Michigan. That the Gators (by destroying Ohio State in the title game) and Trojans (by doing the same to Michigan in the Rose Bowl) ultimately validated the BCS did little to dampen the frustration in Ann Arbor.
Fast-forward a year, and what some view as backwards thinking by the Big Ten could end up helping the Buckeyes back to the title game.
The way this season has gone, the only guaranteed safe games ones that aren't played. Ohio State, which appeared to squander any realistic chance at the title game by losing to Illinois just two weeks ago, can sit back and hope the carnage continues.
Following that Illinois loss, the Buckeyes seemed resigned to playing for nothing more than a Rose Bowl bid against Michigan on Saturday. But the scenario began to change before even the Wolverines kicked off. Thursday night, No. 2 Oregon saw its dreams crumble along with quarterback Dennis Dixon's knee in a loss at Arizona. Just hours after Ohio State's 14-3 domination of the Wolverines Saturday, the same fate befell No. 4 Oklahoma: an injury to a star quarterback and a loss to an unranked foe (Texas Tech).
Those results leave the Buckeyes, having completed the regular season at 11-1, ranked fifth in the BCS this week. While that may seem a long way from No. 2 with just two weeks to play, top-five teams have lost to unranked opponents 11 times already this season, so one might argue that the Buckeyes, sitting on their couches, have the easiest path to the title game.
At least one of the teams ahead of Ohio State is guaranteed to lose, as No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Missouri meet Saturday, and the winner faces either Oklahoma or Texas in the Big 12 championship. If Kansas and Missouri each pick up another loss, Ohio State will be neck-and-neck with West Virginia for the second spot in the national-title game.
At least one BCS observer feels that scenario favors Ohio State.
"I believe Ohio State is in a better position than West Virginia to claim No. 2 in the BCS," says Sam Chi, who tracks the standings at his Web site, BCSGuru.com. "The main reason is that Ohio State will be ahead on at least five, maybe all six, computer ratings. Unless West Virginia is the clear No. 2 over Ohio State, then the Buckeyes can make up the difference in the polls."
Even top-ranked LSU, which many felt was the best team in the nation even after it lost to Kentucky in overtime in October, is vulnerable. Saturday, the Tigers' second-ranked defense was shredded by Ole Miss, which ranks 90th in total offense even after putting up 466 yards on LSU. The Tigers' comfortable winning margin might have been different had the Rebels not twice turned the ball over in goal-to-go situations.
Then there is media storm that is about envelop LSU head coach Les Miles now that Michigan coach Lloyd Carr has officially announced his retirement. Miles is a logical top candidate to replace Carr. He both played and coached at Michigan and has a specific buyout clause in his contract should he ever leave LSU to become the coach of the Wolverines.
Whether or not Michigan pursues Miles, the media will ask him at every opportunity about the job opening in Ann Arbor. He faces the prospect of trying to win a national championship at LSU -- a feat that will be accomplished with three more wins -- while fending off questions about his interest in returning to his alma mater. Since no official information is likely to be forthcoming from the notoriously tight-lipped Michigan program, Miles will have to navigate these tricky media waters alone.
Miles might be the first coach to be put in this awkward position while pursuing a national championship, but unfortunate timing is as frequent side effect of college football's "silly season."
Schools desperate to protect incoming recruiting classes are under immense pressure to act quickly in coaching searches. A few years ago, news of Louisville coach John L. Smith's imminent departure for Michigan State broke at halftime of Louisville's bowl game. Last year, Central Michigan coach Brian Kelly departed for Cincinnati -- and actually coached the Bearcats in their bowl game after former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio departed to replace Smith in East Lansing. Elsewhere, Mike Price (at Washington State) and Urban Meyer (at Utah) coached their teams in bowl games after accepting other jobs elsewhere.
Given the LSU fan base's feelings for Nick Saban, who actually did win a national tile for the school before bolting for the NFL, one can only imagine the reaction if an LSU stumble down the stretch is blamed on the distractions coming from Ann Arbor. Miles might well wish the SEC season, too, had ended before Thanksgiving.
Carr's retirement after 13 years as head coach -- and 28 overall -- at the University of Michigan marks the end of an era at college football's all-time winningest program.
Since 1969, Michigan has been coached by Bo Schembechler or one of his former assistants. Even if athletic director Bill Martin opts for someone with school ties like Miles, the presumed front-runner, the winds of change are blowing in Ann Arbor.
Despite playing on TV more than any other school not named "Notre Dame" and filling the largest stadium in America, Michigan has trailed some of its college football contemporaries in the race to turn the sport into an ever-bigger business.
The massive stadium contains no advertising. While the school was among the first to sign an apparel deal with Nike, it also had the sports clothing giant de-emphasize the omnipresent "swoosh" in a subsequent uniform design. Carr is well compensated, but much less so than some of his peers with far-thinner resumes.
Those who would assume Carr was asked to retire or nudged aside in the wake of his sixth loss in seven tries against Ohio State don't understand the dynamics of the Michigan program. Had Carr insisted on returning next season, he would have. Martin has made it quite clear that only Carr would determine his fate. Furthermore, Carr's decision has been in the works for some time -- he altered his contract last offseason in a way that strongly suggested this would be his last year on the sidelines.
Among major programs, Michigan has always been tortoise rather than the hare, and in doing so has avoided the boom-and-bust cycle that has beset nearly all the others. Michigan has not had a losing season since 1967 and has played in a bowl every year since 1975 -- also the last year the Wolverines had a home crowd of fewer than 100,000.
Carr is a big part of that success; he won or shared five Big Ten titles and took Michigan to four Rose Bowls and an Orange Bowl. He retires with a .722 winning percentage, seventh among active coaches, and the school's only national title in the last six decades. More importantly to Martin, Carr's teams have never been touched by scandal -- which carries considerable weight at a school whose high profile basketball program was laid low by "Fab Five" era misconduct.
Still, Martin is a businessman. Under his stewardship, Michigan's athletic department has embarked on aggressive revenue-growth initiatives. He is about to oversee an estimated $250 million renovation of the stadium that will accent the classic bowl with premium seating. He knows he cannot afford to see the program sink like traditional powers Nebraska and Notre Dame have. As a result, every top coach in America will be on Martin's list.
Jobs the caliber of Michigan don't often come open. In the insular world of big-time college football, Carr's retirement is likely to set dominoes tumbling, perhaps all the way to Louisiana -- where Miles will be under a media siege until he is either hired by Michigan or officially no longer a candidate.
This was another easy call. Ed Orgeron of Ole Miss picks up his second JLS of the year for some bizarre personnel decisions in the Rebels' closer-than-the-final-score loss to LSU.
Late in the first half and trailing by a touchdown, Orgeron watched as Brent Schaeffer, finally playing up to the hype that made him a top recruit five years ago at Tennessee, drove the Rebels inside the red zone. At that point, Orgeron inexplicably replaced Schaeffer, a scrambler with an erratic arm, with Seth Adams, an inaccurate drop-back passer who had started the game.
Adams promptly threw an interception to kill the drive and any momentum Ole Miss had at the half.
This is Coach O's second JLS of the year. He may be a master recruiter, and it's clear Ole Miss has upgraded its talent under his watch, but he leaves much to be desired as a gameday coach.
Rankings that may require further explanation: I'm still confounded by LSU. The body of work makes them a fairly obvious No. 1, but I've watched the Tigers play probably five games this year and very little they do -- outside of bold/crazy coaching decisions -- has made me go "wow." Take this week's game. You never felt the game was in doubt, because LSU seemed to be able to deliver a play whenever it needed one, yet Ole Miss went up and down the field on offense and if not for a few bad decisions could have made it a much more interesting game. LSU is obviously tested more than the Big 12 teams and West Virginia, but they still seem be lacking something. That said, they'll probably win the SEC championship game by three touchdowns (if they beat Arkansas this week).
If the Kansas-Missouri winner goes on to win the Big 12, it will be a deserving No. 2. If not, look out. West Virginia/Arizona State/Ohio State is a toss-up. Georgia might be better than all three, but has no shot at the title. Some would say that's why we need a playoff; I would argue that's why you shouldn't get destroyed at Tennessee and lose at home to South Carolina.
The rest is, meh, confused. The teams from about spots six through 20 are largely interchangeable.
Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: Oregon-Arizona, Hawaii-Nevada, Ohio State-Michigan, LSU-Ole Miss, Boston College-Clemson, West Virginia-Cincinnati, Oklahoma-Texas Tech.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
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