Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Sep 2008

Junkie: Tide Rolls In

by Russell Levine

With so little known about the teams, college football fans tend to lend the events of opening weekend a greater importance than they might actually merit.

Sprinkled among the weekend's expected routs were a handful of upsets that may look at lot more- or less-surprising in another few weeks, when we'll know if the preseason hype accorded certain programs was warranted. Such was the case with Pittsburgh's home loss to Bowling Green, one of the better mid-major conference clubs. Pitt was rated in the preseason polls after a season-ending upset of West Virginia last year and some strong recruiting classes, but the Panthers have yet to post a winning season in Dave Wannstedt's three years. The weekend's biggest upset saw No. 17 Virginia Tech fall to East Carolina. That result may also be viewed differently if Virginia Tech struggles all season while East Carolina competes for a BCS bid out of Conference-USA.

Monday, Rutgers posted another such result, falling to Fresno State, 24-7. This loss might look a lot less shocking as the year wears on; Fresno State is vying to be the third WAC team in three years to garner a BCS berth. In the night game, UCLA rallied from a miserable first half to stun Tennessee in overtime, but at this point we don't know if UCLA has a better chance to contend in the Pac-10 than Tennessee does in the SEC.

Still, one introductory statement was too loud to be ignored: the 34-10 whipping that No. 24 Alabama put on ninth-ranked Clemson. The neutral-site venue, Atlanta's Georgia Dome, assured an evenly split crowd. But even a colorblind observer would have had no trouble distinguishing the orange-clad Clemson backers from the Tide supporters in red -- the Clemson fans were the ones who were silent from the beginning, such was the domination by Alabama.

Clemson's pratfall put the capper on an awful weekend for the ACC. In addition to Virginia Tech's loss, Maryland struggled at home against lower-division Delaware, and North Carolina had to rally to beat another Championship Subdivision school, McNeese State. Virginia proved little more than a speed bump for visiting USC, and North Carolina State was shut out 34-0 by South Carolina to open the season Thursday night.

Yet despite all the evidence suggesting the weakness of the ACC, Alabama's performance was so convincing that the Tide won all the chicken-vs.-egg debates about whether it was Alabama's dominance or Clemson's ineptitude that was most responsible for the one-sided result.

Nick Saban was hailed as a savior when he bolted the Miami Dolphins after just two seasons to take over at Alabama. He brought with him a championship pedigree, having led conference rival LSU to the BCS title in 2003, and the reputation as the type of recruiter that could make Alabama relevant again in the SEC. He also received a precedent-setting contract, one that he was constantly reminded of as the Tide finished just 7-6 in his first season -- including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe.

Many college football observers felt it would take Saban several years to return the Tide to anything approaching their former glory. They had been passed by not only arch-rival Auburn, but also by LSU in the SEC West, to say nothing of Florida and Georgia in the East -- all of which would be competing with Saban over the same fertile recruiting territory.

Saban's recruiting prowess has already been seen. His 2007 and 2008 classes at Alabama have ranked 10th and first, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Recruiting rankings are highly subjective, but anyone who watched Alabama's heralded freshmen and sophomores play critical roles in the destruction of Clemson would be hard-pressed to argue the lofty status awarded the Tide. Freshman running back Mark Ingram -- son of the former Giants Super Bowl hero of the same name -- carried 17 times for 97 yards and a two-point conversion. Alabama's most-hyped recruit of 2008, wideout Julio Jones, also made an immediate impact with four catches for 28 yards and a touchdown.

Even with the impressive performances of the young skill-position players, Alabama won this game by dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage. It was the physical whipping by both sets of linemen that bodes best for Alabama in SEC play. The defense completely contained Clemson's stellar tailback tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, holding them to a combined 20 yards on eight carries. With sacks factored in, Clemson managed exactly zero yards on the ground.

In a college game that is increasingly moving towards the spread offenses like the one Urban Meyer deploys at Florida, Alabama's approach is a throwback. The Tide's offensive linemen average better than 300 pounds, and they deployed plenty of two-tight end, power running formations against Clemson. The results were spectacular: 239 yards rushing and possession for 41:13. Saban is one degree of separation removed from the Bill Parcells coaching tree, having coached under Parcells disciple Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. Even though his current job is to guide the Miami Dolphins out from under the mess Saban left them in, Parcells had to smile at the game plan against Clemson, which mirrored the Giants' successful approach against Buffalo's vaunted "K-Gun" in Super Bowl XXV.

Despite the lopsided win, Saban was trying to dampen the enthusiasm of the Tide's fanatical fans. He knows that Alabama could be vastly improved and still finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC West, where LSU is the defending national champion and where cross-state rival Auburn owns a six-game winning streak over Alabama. Those two schools won their openers by a combined 75-13, though against softer opposition than the presumptive ACC favorite.

As for Clemson, as bad as the Tigers looked, and as many times as they have failed to live up to high expectations in recent seasons, the ACC is likely still theirs for the taking. After all, it's never smart to read too much into opening weekend.

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I hate to knock a coach whose team outperformed expectations, but UCLA's Rick Neuheisel made a pair of shaky decisions that nearly cost his club its upset win against Tennessee.

Neuheisel was within 45 seconds of going into halftime with a tie score despite seeing his team vastly outplayed and his quarterback, Kevin Craft, throw three first-half interceptions. Yet with a first down at midfield, Neuheisel called for yet another pass. Craft's fourth interception of the half was returned 60 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

Craft had shown no ability to make good decisions with the ball to that point. Why not try a screen or a draw (UCLA still had two timeouts) to move into field goal range? Throwing downfield was clearly not the right choice.

Yet somehow, Craft turned it completely around in the second half, twice driving UCLA for go-ahead scores in the fourth quarter, the second time with less than 30 seconds to play. But leading by just a field goal, Neuheisel called for a squib kick, and gave Tennessee the ball on its own 43-yard line. The Vols drove for the tying score to force overtime, where UCLA eventually won.

Welcome back to college football, Rick. Enjoy your big win, and your JLS Trophy.

BlogPoll Ballot

This season, I'll again be voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and I may make changes based on comments for next week.

Rank Team Delta
1 Southern Cal 1
2 Florida 2
3 Georgia 2
4 Ohio State 1
5 Auburn --
6 Oklahoma 1
7 Alabama 19
8 LSU --
9 Missouri --
10 West Virginia 4
11 Texas --
12 South Florida 5
13 Oregon 3
14 Wisconsin 1
15 South Carolina 11
16 UCLA 10
17 Kansas 3
18 Texas Tech --
19 Arizona State --
20 Penn State 1
21 East Carolina 5
22 Brigham Young 2
23 Utah 1
24 Fresno State 1
25 Cincinnati 3

Dropped Out: Clemson (#10), Virginia Tech (#12), Tennessee (#15), Illinois (#25).

Rankings that may require further explanation: Look, if your reaction to my ballot is "How can team X drop after beating Directional State by 50!?!?" you don't understand the BlogPoll. The idea was to create a poll with voters who actually re-evaluate their picks each week. The preseason poll is 100 percent guesswork. This week, we're probably down to about 80 to 85 percent. Teams that moved up this week did something to impress me. Teams that moved down didn't necessarily do anything to disappoint, they just didn't stand out. Wild swings should be expected for the season's first several weeks, until we have enough data to put results in better perspective.

Games I watched at least part of: North Carolina State-South Carolina, Oregon State-Stanford, SMU-Rice, Bowling Green-Pitt, Virginia Tech-East Carolina, Utah-Michigan, Alabama-Clemson, Missouri-Illinois, Colorado-Colorado State, Fresno State-Rutgers (attended), Tennessee-UCLA.

Portions of this article appeared in Tuesday's New York Sun.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 02 Sep 2008

20 comments, Last at 04 Sep 2008, 2:20pm by bear goggles

Comments

1
by Dave In Tucson (not verified) :: Tue, 09/02/2008 - 9:23pm

No USC in your top 25?

2
by Greg (not verified) :: Tue, 09/02/2008 - 9:25pm

Not to nitpick, but you say:

"Teams that moved up this week did something to impress me."

And then we look at your poll and we see that Florida and USC moved up and you didn't watch any of their games. How would you know what they did was impressive? Box score warriors untie. imo.

3
by Wikitorix (not verified) :: Tue, 09/02/2008 - 9:31pm

#1, There are two USC's in the top 25. University of Southern California is 1 and University of South Carolina is 15.

4
by BHW (not verified) :: Tue, 09/02/2008 - 9:32pm

I thoroughly disagree with the John L. Smith pick.

UCLA got the ball with 1:14 on the clock, on their 38, and at least one timeout on the board. Tie game.

Karl Dorrell would have taken a knee in this situation, or at best called a couple of dives up the middle. He *never* played to win in this situation, *never* tried to score points.

Neuheisel making an effort there was music to any UCLA fan's ears. So it backfired. So what? For the first time in years, we had a coach playing to win, essentially challenging his players to succeed. And in the end that confidence worked -- the QB was trusted throughout the game and delivered.

I'm a UCLA alum/fan. We could have ended up losing that game 63-7, and I would have considered calling passes near the end of the first half to be a sign that things had improved and that the program was in better shape than it was a year ago.

5
by The Ninjalectual (not verified) :: Tue, 09/02/2008 - 9:39pm

I was at the Colorado/Colorado State game in Denver. It was clear that Colorado has a stronger program at the present time in coach Hawkins' third season; don't be surprised to see them in the top 25 this year. I remain excited that coach Fairchild will get the Colo State Rams into the rankings in the next 3 or 4 years as he gets his recruiting system in place.

What a game though. WHAT A PARTY in the parking lots before the game!!!! I have to say that rivalry is one of my favorite football experiences year after year.

6
by bradluen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/02/2008 - 10:40pm

Just hypothetically, if I were a UCLA fan, and they lost 63-7, I would not take this as a sign that things had improved, no matter the playcalling.

Also hypothetically, if UCLA (and Craft in particular) can continue to play like they did in the second half, they should be higher than 16th. This is not the game, however, to prove that the team's tendency to be bewilderingly flaky has changed. It'll be interesting to see if there's any outrage when they lose a game they should win: quite probably the BYU rubber match in two weeks' time.

7
by Marko (not verified) :: Tue, 09/02/2008 - 10:55pm

4: What about the squib kick with 27 seconds left in regulation? I didn't start watching the game until there were about 5 minutes left, but the squib kick nearly cost UCLA the game. When you score to go ahead by 3 with 27 seconds left, the game should not go to overtime if you just kick it deep (unless the opponent has someone like a Devin Hester, which I admittedly don't know if Tennessee has).

8
by bradluen (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 12:04am

I agree the squib was the wrong call, but to play devil's advocate, Gerald Jones had made a bunch of big returns for Tennessee that night.

9
by Kevin Pelton (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 12:55am

I went and looked up Jones' returns and was surprised they weren't better, because that's what I remembered. In order, they were to:

Tenn 29
Tenn 20 (after penalty; wasn't watching then and not sure from the PxP where it would have been without the penalty)
Tenn 47
Tenn 33

So yeah, to give them the ball on the 43 was pretty bad.

To be technical, wasn't it a popup kick more than a squib kick? The latter might actually have been more effective.

10
by Jon (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 1:04am

Why is Fresno State over Rutgers an upset?

It was a troubling loss, since Rutgers definitely could have won the game, but I don't see it as a stomach punch like Pitt's loss was.

11
by kibbles (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 4:12am

5 SEC teams in top 8. That's gotta be some kind of record.

12
by kibbles (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 4:13am

And, of course, UGA has to play them all this year (although luckily they'll only have to face Georgia in scrimmages). That's rough.

13
by Kubi (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 8:21am

For all the (deserved) scorn thrown the ACC's way, I am suprised more hasn't been thrown toward the Big East, who had a simple awful week. How bad was it? Let's just say the conference is still looking for its first win against 1-A competition. In fact, none of the four teams that played a 1-A team even managed to stay within single digits of their opponents. And Fresno State, Bowling Green, Northwestern, and Kentucky isn't exactly a murderer's row.

14
by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 8:45am

Re squib/short kick: maybe Neuheisel watched film of the CU/CSU game. :) That had NCAA 09 written all over it ...

I'm not wild about polls in general (although honestly I think I put more stock in the BlogPoll than in the two "official" polls), but during this part of the season, as Russell suggests, they're not much better than throwing darts. I'd be tempted to take the top 25 or so and just list them in two groups, "better bets" and "reasonable bets" or something like that. Anything more than that, well ...

I'm glad football is back. :)

15
by Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 8:52am

UCLA's comeback shouldn't have been such a huge surprise. They moved the ball well all night when Craft wasn't targeting defenders. With Tennessee playing a soft zone on defense (did they really think the Bruins could beat them deep?) and refusing to move the pocket on offense to avoid a furious pass rush, the Vols made things a lot easier for the Bruins.

16
by DMP (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 3:00pm

The more-than-10-seconds-on-the-clock squib kick is a JLS Trophy favorite. As soon as I saw that I thought "Russell awars the JLS right here."

It's fun to have the season back on.

17
by Kevin 11 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 3:45pm

MY MEANINGLESS PRE-SEASON TOP 25:

1. Ohio State

2. Florida

3. Oklahoma

4. Southern Cal

5. Missouri

6. Georgia

7. Auburn

8. Penn State

9. LSU

10. Wisconsin

11. West Virginia

12. Alabama

13. Utah

14. Texas Tech

15. South Florida

16. Oregon

17. Texas

18. UCLA

19. BYU

20. California

21. South Carolina

22. Arizona State

23. Kansas

24. Wake Forest

25. Oklahoma State

There’s a huge gap between numbers six and seven.

18
by Kevin 11 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/03/2008 - 3:49pm

Whoops, that's Week 2, not pre-season.

19
by BHW (not verified) :: Thu, 09/04/2008 - 4:12am

The pooch kick ... I wasn't big on that, but UT had gotten off some returns, so I do understand it.

As for that playcalling, you can't imagine how frustrating it is to go five seasons without trying to score at the end of the first half. I'm not exaggerating when I say that throwing the ball downfield there means almost as much to me as the win, because it symbolizes *why* the team won.

20
by bear goggles (not verified) :: Thu, 09/04/2008 - 2:20pm

I hate UCLA, but Neuheisel only did the squib wrong. I agree that you can't fault a coach for trying to score with reasonable field position and time left. The play calling may have been questionable, but that's quibbling relatively.

OTOH, Fulmer should have won the trophy. That was horrible game-planning, without regard for the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. Swing passes to the RB's were successful, but abandoned. On defense, I hate it when coaches let a mistake prone QB get comfortable by allowing them to complete lots of short passes. As per #15, UCLA has no deep threats!