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03 Jan 2005

Confessions of a Football Junkie: BCS Me ASAP

by Russell Levine

It's a good thing I didn't have a month off to prepare for this column on the college bowl season, or I might have come up with some really bad ideas.

That seems to be an illness that has spread like the flu through the ranks of college coaches, who simply cannot help themselves with all that time off before their bowl games. Its symptoms are many: the opening kickoff reverse attempted by Cal in the Holiday Bowl, the double-pass that Georgia tried against Wisconsin coming out of a timeout with two quarterbacks on the field, the fake punt Louisville's Bobby Petrino called for on his own 19-yard line in the first half of the Liberty Bowl, the shotgun snap to Michigan wide receiver Steve Breaston on a 3rd-and-1 play against Texas in the Rose Bowl. All these plays share two things in common -- they were horrible calls, and that would have been the case whether they worked or not. Which, by the way, they didn't (that's thing No. 2, not to be confused with the Cat in the Hat's diminutive friends).

I saw so many dubious trick plays, and so many failures, that they tend to blend together (which is also an unfortunate consequence of having watched approximately 143 football games over the past seven days). Time and time again this weekend I heard announcers refer to these plays as "things you'd only see in a bowl game." Which begs the question -- if everyone knows that coaches do this when they have too much time on their hands, why doesn't somebody address the problem? These coaches, particularly LSU's, er, I mean the Miami Dolphins' Nick Saban, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, and Michigan's Lloyd Carr, would have been better served by spending some time in clock management class. Saban should also sign up for the "Understanding the Two-Pointer" seminar.

Dolphins fans should be alarmed that for $5 million a year, they're getting a coach (Saban) who in his final college game, the Capital One Bowl against Iowa, called for a two-pointer when trailing 14-12 in the first half, had his QB spike the ball on the go-ahead scoring drive in the final minute, preserving time for an Iowa comeback, then watched as his defense gave up a 56-yard touchdown pass on the final play because of a blown coverage. More alarming was that the defender on the play was in zone coverage and Saban said afterward he should have been in man coverage. Saban is a defensive guru, yet called for man-to-man coverage on the game's final snap when they only thing that could beat his team was a deep pass. All Iowa was trying to do was get into position to throw a Hail Mary. Instead, receiver Warren Holloway found himself running free through the LSU secondary and quarterback Drew Tate delivered a perfect pass to author perhaps the most shocking ending to a bowl game since Jim McMahon was under center for BYU in the early 1980s.

Ferentz, who deserves a tremendous amount of credit for leading his team to 10 wins, a share of the Big Ten title, and a bowl win despite having the worst rushing attack in Division I-A, also had trouble managing the clock in the final minute. Iowa took possession with 46 seconds remaining and two timeouts. In the college game, where the clock stops to reset the chains on a first down, a team in that situation needs to run minimum 10-yard patterns and call timeout on any play that doesn't gain a first down. Yet when Tate hit Scott Chandler for a nine-yard gain, the Hawkeyes hurried to the line to spike the ball rather than call a timeout. By the time they spiked the ball, almost 15 seconds had come off the clock. Worse yet, the offense wasn't set before the snap and the Hawkeyes were penalized for a false start. Tate went to the sidelines to confer with Ferentz, neither realizing that the clock would run once the ball was set. The Hawkeyes should have had time for four plays following the nine-yard completion, but only managed one. Luckily it went for the winning score, the type of result that covers even the ugliest of mistakes.

The worst clock management was practiced by Michigan, which allowed Texas to run the game clock down to two seconds before attempting the game-winning kick despite having two timeouts at its disposal. Carr elected to use both timeouts to "ice" Dusty Mangum rather than use them to give his team a final chance at the ball. Although it should be noted that Michigan was only in position to preserve some time because Texas foolishly called timeout after a first-down run with 37 seconds remaining from the Michigan 20-yard line. Had the Longhorns not stopped the clock there, perhaps Michigan would have used its second timeout, and then its third on third down, meaning Texas still could have let the clock tick down to just a few seconds before kicking. But once Mack Brown called for the timeout before the second-down play, Michigan could have stopped it before third and fourth down and gotten the ball back with around 20-25 seconds left and needing a field goal to win.

It's mind-boggling that Carr allowed the clock to run considering the fact that his kick returner, Breaston, had taken four kicks back to at or near midfield in the game, and his top receiver, Braylon Edwards, had been unstoppable with 10 catches and three touchdowns. If Edwards managed a decent return, all Michigan might have needed to attempt the game-winning kick was one medium-range completion. Alas, we'll never know. I am and will continue to be a big supporter of Carr, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to award him the Mike Martz Award for his gaffe.

Had Carr not bailed him out, the honor might have gone to I-guess-he's-still-the-Louisville-coach Petrino for his first half fake punt call against Boise State. Already trailing by a field goal, Petrino called for a punt fake from his own 19-yard line with two minutes to go in the half. He had his best tailback, Michael Bush, in as an upback on the play, which contributed to the fact that it fooled nobody on the Boise defense and was stuffed for no gain. Boise quickly converted the mistake into a touchdown and a 10-point halftime lead.

Luckily for Petrino, whose best career move right about now would be to hire an image consultant, the Cardinals rallied in the second half for a 44-40 win. Petrino, who interviewed for the LSU opening less than a week after signing a new deal at Louisville, is quickly falling out of favor with Cardinals fans despite his on-field success. Congratulations to those fans for realizing that while Petrino may be a great football coach, he's not worth what he's put the university through. This is a school that has bent over backwards to increase his compensation even as he has looked for other jobs. It put up with his infamous "tarmac interview" for the Auburn job last season, which violated college hiring protocol in every way imaginable. Not only was the Auburn job not yet open, but Petrino neglected to inform his Louisville boss, athletic director Tom Jurich, that he was meeting with the group from Auburn.

I wrote at the time, and I still believe, that what Petrino deserved for his shameful conduct in that episode was a pink slip. Instead, he got a contract extension. This year, with his agent calling around about every job opening, he got another one. Then, five days later, he meets with LSU about its opening. Because of the public discord over Petrino's wandering eye, Jurich has the unique opportunity to make a stand on principle and still keep the majority of his fans happy. He should fire Petrino immediately, based on the fact that it's obvious Petrino does not want to be at Louisville for the long term.

It won't happen, in part because Petrino's new deal would make the buyout too expensive, but in a just world Petrino, who has stepped on everyone who has helped him achieve his success, would be out on the street.

* * *

Hi, my name is Russ, and I'm OK with the BCS.

We're halfway through the BCS, and already we've had a non-BCS school (Utah) destroy an overmatched team from a watered-down BCS league (Pittsburgh) and Big Ten-Big XII matchup in the Rose Bowl instead of the traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-10 showdown. And yet, as it did after last year's split national title, the world as we know it continues to exist. Just as it will if Auburn finishes 12-0 and ranked second.

The BCS faces plenty of issues -- coordinator Kevin Weiberg is busy trying to figure out how to choose next year's participants without the AP poll -- but it's survival is not at stake as some in the media have suggested. With a new TV deal in hand, the BCS is not going anywhere until 2010 at the earliest. There will be a selection committee, or a new formula, or both, and there will be more controversy. But there will also be a BCS.

And you know what? I'm OK with that. I became a college football fan in an era when most years a #1 vs. #2 game wasn't possible because of bowl tie-ins. For all its flaws, the BCS is a big improvement on that. A playoff, if done properly, would be an even greater improvement, but it's simply not a reality, not in the near future and probably not in the distant one, either.

Sure, an eight-team playoff would provide three weekends of incredible drama, but the current format certainly isn't lacking in that department. I even watched plenty of the second-tier bowl games that supposedly nobody cares about, and plenty of them were entertaining. And I'm clearly not the only one watching, since bowl week is ESPN's highest-rated week of the entire year.

The system, for all its flaws, works OK. By focusing on those flaws, people tend to get away from focusing on the product, and that is in pretty good shape. Two of the six New Year's Day games came down to the final play. The New Year's Eve Liberty Bowl was a classic, and the best could still be to come with the Orange Bowl set for Tuesday night.

I know I'll be watching, and I'm sure most of the people that hate the BCS will be, too.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 03 Jan 2005

1 comment, Last at 05 Dec 2006, 3:38pm by Cat In The Hat


by Cat In The Hat (not verified) :: Tue, 12/05/2006 - 3:38pm


It was quite useful reading, found some interesting details about this topic. Thanks.