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15 Sep 2008

Confessions of a Football Junkie: O-[No!]-H-I-O

by Russell Levine

If Ohio State can find any solace in a 35-3 humiliation at the hands of USC Saturday night, it is this: Jim Tressel's club won't have to worry about being a national punch-line in a third-straight Bowl Championship Series title game.

That's because there will be no third-straight BCS title-game appearance, not after being thoroughly dominated in every phase of the game against Southern Cal. For those keeping score, this is the tally of Ohio State's shame: 114-41, that being the combined score of its last three games against elite competition.

The voters surely are keeping score, and they dropped the Buckeyes nine spots to no. 14 in the latest coaches' poll, which is part of the BCS standings formula.

For all the talk the Ohio State-USC result will generate about the Buckeyes' -- and therefore the entire Big Ten's -- lack of speed and athleticism, those were not the deciding factors. Yes, USC has better athletes, and more of them. But that comparison works in the Trojans' favor against every team in the country, even those from the SEC.

If the NFL draft is the ultimate measure of athleticism, USC is number one and everyone else a distant second. In the past three years, USC has had 17 players taken on the first day of the draft -- as many as LSU (nine), Florida (six), and Georgia (two) combined. That trio of SEC schools includes the last two BCS champions (LSU and Florida, each of which beat Ohio State) and this year's highest-ranked team.

In fact, if there is one school that comes close to matching USC, it is actually Ohio State, the Buckeyes having sent 11 day-one draft picks to the NFL over the same time span.

So what accounts for Ohio State's failings against top competition? One obvious factor is quarterback play. In the 2006 title game against Florida, Troy Smith came in as the Heisman Trophy winner and left with the worst day of his career, while Florida's Chris Leak enjoyed one of his best.

Last year, Todd Boeckman was badly outplayed by LSU's Matt Flynn. Saturday, Boeckman was awful, throwing for just 84 yards on 14-of-21 passing, with two interceptions, one returned 48 yards for a touchdown by Rey Maualuga to put the game all but out of reach at 21-3 just before halftime. Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, was an efficient 17-of-28 for 172 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception.

It would greatly help any Ohio State quarterback's chances if he had time to throw. While the "athleticism" argument tends to focus on the skill positions, that is misguided. The one area where the Buckeyes have simply not been able to match up with Florida, LSU, and now USC, is along the line of scrimmage. In each of the games, the Buckeyes have given up five sacks, while generating only one.


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Ask any coach, at any level, the key to any football game, and you'll hear three factors almost by default: "turnovers," "protect the quarterback," and "pressure their quarterback." Ohio State has failed in all three areas, including a minus-six turnover ratio.

While Ohio State saw its national-championship hopes destroyed, it's hard to imagine the Trojans not making it to the title game in Miami. USC is so deep that its 12 touchdowns this season have been scored by 11 different players. Unless they get hit by an unprecedented string of injuries, the Trojans are likely to be not just favored in every game they play the rest of the way, but heavily so. While USC was making quick work of the Buckeyes, the rest of the Pac-10 was falling on its collective face.

It was a weekend of carnage for the conference, which went 2-7 outside of USC, including 0-4 against the Mountain West. UCLA followed an opening-day win over Tennessee by getting edged at BYU, 59-0. Arizona State prepared for its nationally televised showdown against Georgia by losing at home to UNLV.

The schedule also shapes up nicely for USC, with all its toughest games at home. As it stands, only Oregon, which visits the L.A. Coliseum in three weeks, looks like it could provide even more than a speed bump on USC's path to Miami -- and Oregon might be starting a third-string quarterback in that contest. Notre Dame would need a greater miracle than the six turnovers it got from Michigan Saturday to hang with the Trojans.

Stranger things have happened. Last year, USC lost at home to Stanford in perhaps the biggest point-spread upset in college football history. And as dominant as the Trojans have been under Pete Carroll -- the tally now stands at 72-8 over the last six-plus years -- they tend to have at least one Pac-10 clunker each season. Barring the Trojans beating themselves, it's as safe an assumption as can be made to pencil them in for Miami.

As for Ohio State, Tressel's challenge will be to convince his team they still have something to play for. The Big Ten appears to be a little deeper than most observers thought, with Penn State rolling over everyone and Wisconsin toughing out a win against a good Fresno State team Saturday night. Even Purdue gave Oregon a scare before falling in OT. Tressel should also start giving more playing time to freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the lone bright spot against USC. As for the Buckeye faithful, they can look north at the state of hated Michigan, where the Wolverines will struggle to reach six wins in the midst of a major rebuilding project.

If Ohio State can take care of business in conference play, it'll end the season back in Los Angeles, but at the Rose Bowl instead of the Coliseum, secure in the knowledge that USC won't be waiting on the opposite sideline.

John L. Smith Trophy

Anyone who took part in Saturday's Ohio State-USC liveblog on FO knows where this one is heading. At halftime, we switched over to catch the end of the Auburn-Mississippi State train wreck, which stood at 3-2, Auburn, in the final minutes.

Mississippi State, which has been inept on offense seemingly forever, had pulled within a point by pinning the Tigers deep on a punt, then forcing a holding call in the end zone on third down for a safety.

Mississippi State's next possession resulted in a three-and-out, but the Bulldogs got the ball back on an Auburn fumble at the Tigers' 47-yard line with just under five minutes to play. The Bulldogs quickly went backwards, and three plays later faced a 4th-and-15 from their own 48. But despite having two timeouts and still 3:59 on the clock, MSU coach Sylvester Croom went for it rather than try to pin Auburn deep once again.

The pass, predictably, was nowhere close. To that point in the game, Mississippi State's longest pass play was a pair of 13-yarders, in the first quarter. Its quarterback, Wesley Carroll, would finish 10-of-25 for 78 yards on the game.

Croom's only chance to win the game was on defense and special teams, yet he tossed it away for a prayer. Remarkably, the Bulldogs got another possession on yet another Auburn fumble, but Croom opted to go deep despite having 2:29 to play and needing only a field goal. The pass was intercepted.

Croom has done a great job turning around a moribund Mississippi State program, but he mangled the end of this game, and for that he gets this week's 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 --
2 Oklahoma --
3 Missouri 2
4 Georgia 1
5 Florida 1
6 LSU 2
7 Penn State 5
8 Alabama 3
9 Wisconsin 4
10 Texas 1
11 Oregon 5
12 East Carolina 5
13 South Florida 2
14 Auburn 4
15 Brigham Young 5
16 Texas Tech 3
17 Ohio State 3
18 Utah 3
19 Kansas 3
20 Wake Forest 4
21 Vanderbilt 5
22 Fresno State --
23 TCU 3
24 North Carolina 2
25 Boise State 1

Dropped Out: UCLA (#17), Arizona State (#18), Georgia Tech (#23), California (#25).

Rankings that may require further explanation: This is the week where one-loss teams are no longer automatically disqualified. Kansas and Fresno State lost close games to good teams and Ohio State got killed by a great one -- something a lot of teams in the poll would do. Florida and Georgia slip a bit as I take a slightly harsher view of the entire SEC. I was underwhelmed by Georgia's performance in a seven-point win at South Carolina; Auburn looked hideous on offense at Mississippi State, and the entire conference takes a hit because Tennessee lost to a UCLA team that lost by 59 to BYU in its next outing. Maybe I didn't drop Ohio State far enough, but I still think the Buckeyes would beat everyone below them in the poll. Should BYU be higher? Maybe, but they shouldn't have needed a lucky break to put away Washington either. North Carolina probably doesn't deserve to be ranked, but I needed someone to put in that slot. Nebraska could be next in the poll; we'll finally learn something meaningful about the Huskers when they play Virginia Tech.

Games I watched at least part of: North Carolina-Rutgers, Kansas-South Florida, Maryland-Cal, Michigan-Notre Dame, Georgia-South Carolina, Auburn-Mississippi State, Ohio State-USC, Wisconsin-Fresno State.

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

Posted by: Russell Levine on 15 Sep 2008

29 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2008, 7:09pm by V


by andrew :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 5:38pm

I'm really impressed with how South Florida has come back this year after the disappointing end to last season. They're easily the second best team in the state right now, and look like they might sustain that for awhile (although I do think Miami is on its way back).

I'm always amazed by some of the token "also receiving votes" rankings at the bottom of the AP poll. The Gophers have probably the least impressive 3-0 record in school history and yet somehow they got a total of 4 votes to be mentioned at the bottom of the poll. Not sure which would be worse, four people ranking them #25 or one person ranking them #22.

by Travis :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:09pm

One person voted Minnesota #22: Aditi Kinkhabwala of the Bergen (NJ) Record - http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/external/onlinenews.ap.org/top25/index.php?.... He also has Texas Tech ranked #8, which leads me to believe he hasn't watched either team this year.

by ChrisH :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 5:42pm

I didn't follow the live blog, but I was certain it would go to Auburn for deciding to pitch the ball, instead of handing it off, with around 2 minutes left in the game, which made no sense at all when it happened.

I'd say North Carolina might not be ranked now, but they looked good on the road on Thursday, and with how bad the ACC looks, they might wind up having a really good year. I only wish I had tickets to watch Notre Dame come to town.

by bradluen (not verified) :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 5:54pm

Would you agree to move Wake Forest wayyyy up should they win convincingly at really-not-that-bad FSU this week? That would make three-from-three wins over BCS conference teams, and even the Baylor win can't be dogged that much since (i) it was a road blowout, and (ii) Baylor destroyed Wazzu.

by Russell Levine :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 12:54pm

No promises, but certainly a win for Wake over FSU would greatly improve its resume.

by Anonymous (not verified) :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 6:00pm

I'm a little confused at all the love for North Carolina. I have grown up a Tar Heel, and I follow them as best I can, for I go to a school with no football team. But what have they done to deserve being ranked? I'll admit, I really haven't paid any attention to them, as they're not on TV when I'm actually in my apartment, and my wife isn't into college football at all, so I don't get news from her like I do about pro football, but I think I would have heard if we beat somebody good. As far as I know, we took down McNeese St. and Rutgers. Where's the love coming from?

Once again, I'm glad that they're being perceived as good, but why?

by ChrisH :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 6:06pm

As someone who never cared about UNC, but who now has a wife going there and lives in Chapel Hill, here's some reasons why:

- Despite going 4-8 last year, 4 of those losses were very close (5 points or less I believe), so it was close to a winning year
- Butch Davis now has gotten two recruiting classes into the school
- Lots of the player last year were freshmen and sophomores (some true freshmen), giving them a year to develop and be farther along than they would otherwise
- The ACC is really bad this year, so they don't have to be as soon as they usually would

This year they should still get wins over Notre Dame, Duke, NC State, UConn, and Virginia, and a few other games on the schedule are winnable (GT, Maryland, Miami, BC, VT even). I figured it would take another year for Davis to turn things around, but with how bad the ACC looks this year, it could be a good year for UNC. They also looked good against Rutgers, who I don't think is that bad of a team. Really fast on defense.

by Tom (not verified) :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 6:00pm

One factor in the 'SC victory may have been the lack of game prep by Tressel and his team. On both sides of the ball, USC players repeatedly said that they saw exactly the same thing on film as on the field. Maualuga said he got his interception because he knew from film what was happening. Sanchez said similar things in ESPN interviews. I don't know if 'SC did anything different, or even if programs DO massage their playbooks a bit to give the opponent some differnt looks.

by bradluen :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 8:30pm


They've won three from three, and in at least one of those games (@ Bowling Green), they appeared to be very good. That's more than, say, West Virginia have achieved this season.

(yes, you'd pick West Virginia to beat Minnesota, but that's not *necessarily* the criterion)

Edit: This is not to say you should actually rank Minnesota. Even if you restrict yourself to the 39 undefeated teams, you still have to believe they should be above than 14 of their peers. I could argue this for about two minutes without bursting into laughter, which is 1'59" longer than I could do so for Arkansas.

by footballprofessor :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 6:27pm

Honestly, that 114-41 comment is what I would consider using an arbitrary point in time to only include results that prove your point...

Before their 41-114 streak they were 100-66 against elite teams. How's that for shame?

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:46pm

Before their 41-114 streak they were 100-66 against elite teams.

Uh, what?

Against teams currently in the top 5 (for this year) or who finished in the top 5:

2008: 3-35 (vs USC)
2007: 24-38 (vs LSU-L)
2006: 14-41 (vs Florida-L)
2005: 32-42 (vs Texas-L, Penn State-L)
2004: (none)
2003: (none)
2002: 31-24 (vs Miami-W)

By my count, that's 63-66 against elite teams prior to the 41-114 streak. Ohio State has not beaten an opponent that finished in the top 5 of the AP poll since 2002. If anything, I don't think Russell's point is strong enough. Ohio State played more competitively in 2005, but they still lost to the only elite teams they played.

I don't think my definition of "elite" (top 5) is borderline, either. If you expand it to top 10, you pick up a Washington State win (by 18), a Michigan win (by 5), Michigan loss (by 14), an Iowa win (by 9), an Iowa loss (by 26), a Notre Dame win (by 14), and a Michigan win (by 3). That only puts Ohio State up by 6 points.

What definition of 'elite' were you using?

by Marcumzilla :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 3:35pm

I'm guessing that includes then-number-two Texas 24-7, which was coming off a national championship and rolling through the Big 12 until Colt McCoy was injured. Their only other two losses were the game they lost McCoy and the next game, where McCoy was very ineffective. They ended the season at #13, but not dropping another game until late in a season due to a key injury tells me the #2 rating wasn't a complete fraud and Texas was an elite team at the time.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 9:09pm

Yeah, Texas in 2006 is probably fair.

But that would only make it 87-73 prior to the National Championship debacle in the 2006 season. Basically even, which doesn't really make Russell's point any different.

I have no idea where to get 100-66 from.

by Kevin Eleven :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:28pm

1. Southern Cal- there's no argument for any other team at this point.
2. Oklahoma
3. Florida- the next "Game of the Century" is Florida vs Georgia.
4. Missouri- Chase Daniel for Heisman?
5. Georgia
6. Penn State- remember back when Penn State vs Syracuse was actually an important game?
7. LSU
8. South Florida
9. Alabama
10. Wisconsin
11. East Carolina
12. Auburn- a 3 - 2 loss is the ultimate Mississippi State game.
13. BYU- they beat UCLA 59 - 0?!?!?!?!?
14. Ohio State- they've done NOTHING this year. This rating is based 100% on potential and 0% on production. As harsh as that sounds, I still expect tOSU to go 11 - 1, but we no longer have to worry about seeing them in the BCS Championship game.
15. Utah- don't be surprised to see Utah, BYU, and TCU cannibalize each other SEC-style.
16. Texas Tech- I know the Big-12 South is brutal, but scheduling UMass? C'mon.
17. Oregon
18. Texas
19. Wake Forest- this really could be the best team in the ACC.
20. Kansas
21. TCU
22. Oklahoma State- good enough to potentially upset Texas or Oklahoma.
23. Virginia Tech
24. Nebraska
25. Fresno State- the close loss to Wisconsin proved they're for real.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:51pm

14. Ohio State- they've done NOTHING this year. This rating is based 100% on potential and 0% on production. As harsh as that sounds, I still expect tOSU to go 11 - 1, but we no longer have to worry about seeing them in the BCS Championship game.

So you expect Ohio State to beat Penn State? Then why are they ranked below Penn State?

FWIW, I think Penn State will beat Ohio State, yes, in Columbus. I think the Penn State defense versus the Ohio State offense is a bigger mismatch than vice-versa. I don't think the game'll be a blowout, though.

by Kevin Eleven :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 8:03pm

Quote: "So you expect Ohio State to beat Penn State? Then why are they ranked below Penn State"?

Yo! I've given Penn State more love than practically anyone! :)

Ohio State got run over, and Penn State has run over everyone. That may not have been the case had the Lions been in the Coliseum last Saturday.

Anyway, I think tOSU is really good, but they have to actually do something before I rank them higher.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 9:13pm

I'm just trying to understand how people rank teams. You seem to think that OSU will beat PSU, but have OSU ranked below them, which means you're presumedly ranking based on resume. Which is fine, but it seems a bit weird given the rest of the rankings.

Personally, I wouldn't favor OSU over Penn State for that game.

by bradluen :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:42pm


They've at least been the most consistent. They haven't yet been seriously tested, and @ New Mex and vs Stanford are solid wins by mid-major standards.

On the other hand, East Carolina, BYU and Utah have been pushed to near-coinflip games by the not-so-great likes of Tulane, Washington and, uh, Michigan. I suppose Tulsa's been consistent too, but winning at UAB and North Texas isn't that impressive even by mid-major standards.

Such is the awesomeness of the Mountain West that 3-0 Air Force and their 30 passing yards per game can't get a column inch.

by Kevin Eleven :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:51pm

Quote: "I'm a little confused at all the love for North Carolina".

Speaking for myself, I had a tough time ranking teams after Oklahoma State. There were literally 20 - 30 teams I could have put in those last three spots (including UNC), since the season is still so young.

Look at it this way- what team(s) that are ranked behind UNC are you CONVINCED should be ranked ahead of them? :)

by bradluen :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:48pm

Rating comments = silly! But give me all your stars anyway!

by Harris :: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 7:50pm

I don't know why Tressel stayed conservative in the second half. Clearly OSU couldn't dazzle them with brilliance so they should have tried baffling them with bullshit. I would have coached with the hovercraft on the sideline, benched the punt team, let Pryor do his thing, blitzed no fewer than seven every down and rushed every punt with 11 men. Rage against the dying of the light, dammit.

"A little celery is always nice after a good pee."

by BadgerT1000 :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 9:38am

Penn State looks to be getting really good play from the offensive line. Folks always expect a veteran unit to play well but when it's kids you never know. Good job by the coaching staff in making this happen.

by Yinka Double Dare :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 12:24pm

Penn State has looked good, but I'm waiting for them to play a team with a credible defense first. They put up points in their first three games last year too and won all three handily. Then they faced a decent (but not spectacular) Michigan defense that had 2 lousy games out of the three they had played and Penn State put up a whopping 9 points.

Now, the eradication of the Morelli factor from the offense might really help that much, but I'd still like to see them do it against a team that isn't a) a 1-AA team, b) a team that had lost to Stanford the previous week, or c) a team that's been bad for 5 years now. This year I don't know if they'll see a decent defense until they head to Madison in several weeks.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 9:29pm

Penn State has looked good, but I'm waiting for them to play a team with a credible defense first. They put up points in their first three games last year too and won all three handily.

Not... quite. The offense in the Notre Dame game went: INT, fumble, punt, punt, TD, punt, FG, punt, TD, punt, TD, punt. They put up points because the game was incredibly long, plus there was a special teams TD. The offense flat out sucked that game - it wasn't until late in the second quarter when Penn State took the lead (The game vs Buffalo was similar, although the competitive period was much shorter - only really the first quarter).

That's a far cry from, say, the Oregon State game this year, where they went TD, TD, punt, TD, TD, TD, FG miss, fumble, TD, FG, punt, punt, downs.

Note the big difference between the two, of course, is that in the Notre Dame game, Penn State struggled early, for no particularly good reason. In the Oregon State game, Penn State stopped scoring late, because, of course, they didn't care and wanted the game over.

Not saying you're not right - of course, their competition has been juuuust a bit bad - but last year they showed seeds of incompetence early, too.

by kyclef :: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 2:33pm

i'm just glad you don't have FSU ranked. if they win this weekend, then we'll talk.

that VT/NU game in two weeks is going to be a great springboard opportunity for one of those teams to establish a little credibility, but unfortunately i think NU is screwed; no sooner will they be in the national spotlight then they'll have to play Mizzou at home and Texas Tech in Lubbock in back-to-back weeks. pretty brutal 3-wk stretch.

by zlionsfan :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 8:35am

Field goals. ugh. At least now I'm beginning to see why I struggle sometimes at NCAA 09 (aside from the bugs and poor AI, that is) ... I'm afraid the end of the Tiller Era is playing out like the end of the Keady Era.

That Michigan-Purdue game is looking less and less appealing now. I'm not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to go to it. At least the Western Michigan-Illinois game should be entertaining. (I have a friend who's a WMU alumna, and we're both Michigan natives, so we're going up for both games.)

It was very awkward rooting for USC. I miss the days of ties for games like that.

I think I did watch some interesting football on Saturday, but all I seem to remember is this black cloud of doom.

And I'm not at all a Charlie Weis fan, but ouch. During the postgame press conference, he looked like he had been making a list of places he'd rather be than sitting (standing? hunching over?) at that table, and he was somewhere in the 500s.

by horn (not verified) :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 3:07pm

The biggest ATS upset ever was 1979, Miami at Penn State:

PSU was 22-2 past 2 years, having lost title game to 'Bama 14-7.

Miami, the worst team of the 1970s, had a losing record and would finish with one, while PSU won their bowl game.

Miami was giving a frosh QB his first start ever, at Happy Valley.

13-10 at halftime, but Jim Kelly led the Canes to a 26-10 victory that shocked the nation.

According to sources at the time the point spread was 49 points.

by Marcumzilla :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 3:44pm

I just saw this on ESPN about the overturned catch-fumble in the Wisconsin - Fresno State game. I thought it was a pretty bad overturning when I saw it, and am glad to see it's getting some press. Here is the link. Sounds like they aren't reviewing this specifically, just looking at all the plays.

by V (not verified) :: Wed, 09/17/2008 - 7:09pm

You're wrong about the JLS award. I agree that it's a punt, only because this is the most extreme of cases, where both offenses were really terrible that day-Miss State was much less likely than average to convert 4th and 15, Auburn much more likely to go 3 and out on its possession. However, punting in this situation is usually horrible. If you get the ball back at all, it's usually with no time-outs and very little time. And you must force 3 and out or the game is over-it isn't as likely as you'd think. Almost everyone punts in this spot, and in pretty much every case but this one, it is wrong. Despite that, I applaud Croom's ballsiness and denounce your promotion of wussy football decisions.