Monday December 22nd, 2014

When James Franklin got hired as Penn State's new coach last January, he heard the NCAA might offer some relief from the scholarship sanctions and four-year bowl ban imposed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. But Franklin didn’t bring up the possibility much with players or recruits during most of his first year on the job. “I didn’t want to set myself or my players up for disappointment,” Franklin said. “I didn’t want to ever dangle this carrot and have it not come true.”

When the NCAA lifted the bowl ban in September and restored the lost scholarships starting with the class of 2015, though, Franklin knew he had a golden opportunity. He knew Penn State would still miss on some ’15 recruits who his staff had not offered because it thought it could only sign 15. But he also knew that if his team could win four more games -- it was 2-0 when the announcement came down -- the Nittany Lions would essentially get another spring practice that no one expected. A team that closed the season with about 40 healthy scholarship players and eight true freshmen on the two-deep depth chart would have 15 bonus practices to sharpen fundamentals and prepare for next fall.

“The practices,” Franklin said, “are invaluable.” What else would be invaluable? A win over Boston College in Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. The Lions could use it. So could the Big Ten, which enters this bowl season as the least respected Power Five league but could exit it with an entirely new reputation.

STAFF: SI's experts make their picks for every 2014-15 bowl game

Penn State’s improvement is critical for the Big Ten, which needs all its historically good programs to be good again. The conference has fallen since entering 2006 bowl season amid debate about whether two Big Ten teams should have been scheduled to play a rematch for the BCS title, but recent developments suggest an upswing. If Franklin, who posted consecutive nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt, can work similar magic in Happy Valley, he can bring Penn State back to an elite level. Ohio State is in the College Football Playoff. Michigan State won last season’s Rose Bowl and will face Big 12 champion Baylor in this January’s Cotton Bowl. Michigan is searching for the coach that can carry the Wolverines back to glory.

College football is cyclical, and the Big Ten -- especially in the East Division -- looks poised for an up cycle. But first Big Ten teams have to prove they can beat the best other leagues have to offer. At the moment, few believe they can do that. There are 10 Big Ten teams competing in bowl games. All 10 are underdogs, from Illinois (plus-6) against Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl to Ohio State (plus-9.5) against Alabama in a playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl.

For the Big Ten to earn respect, it must win on the field. Franklin should have Penn State ready to do that soon. If Michigan officials choose a coach correctly, that will help matters. Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has quietly been setting the best example for the rest of the league over the past five seasons. Urban Meyer has Ohio State playing in his third season in Columbus the way he had Florida playing in his second season in Gainesville.

That Florida team remains a sore spot for the Big Ten. Perhaps no group is more responsible for the Big Ten’s current reputation than Meyer’s 2006 Gators, who kicked off the BCS title game on Jan. 8, 2007 against Ohio State as seven-point underdogs and promptly fell into a seven-point hole when Ted Ginn Jr. returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. As soon as Ginn crossed the goal line, however, the Buckeyes fell apart. Ginn was injured celebrating the score, and Florida settled in and rolled to a 41-14 win. Suddenly, the discussion of Michigan and Ohio State playing a rematch of their November classic for the national title seemed quite silly. “Honestly, we’ve played a lot better teams than them,” Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss said that night. “I could name four or five teams in the SEC that could probably compete with them and play the same type of game we did against them.”

On that night in Glendale, Ariz., the SEC became the ESS-EEE-SEE and the Big Ten became a punchline. It didn’t help the next month when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany essentially made the excuse that SEC players were faster because they were dumber. The Big Ten is 19-35 in bowls in seven seasons since, and it's done little to alter the rebranding foisted upon it when Florida pasted Ohio State.

But this bowl season brings the Big Ten’s best chance in years to change all of that. It would certainly help if newcomers Rutgers and Maryland could win games against North Carolina and Stanford. If Franklin’s Nittany Lions could pitch in against the Eagles in the House that Jeter Built, all the better for the league. But the real tests will come in Arlington, Texas, and New Orleans.

Michigan State beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl last season. This season it will face the exact opposite of the Cardinal in the Cotton Bowl. Baylor runs the fastest, most extreme offense of any Power Five school. If the Spartan Dawgs can slow the Bears a year after stopping the Stanford steamroller, they'll prove that Michigan State can stuff any style of offense.

Even more important is Ohio State’s date with Alabama. The subplots are rich. Meyer will face Nick Saban in an actual semifinal after facing him twice in de facto semifinals -- better known as SEC Championship Games -- in 2008 and ’09. The Buckeyes will start third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, whose lone career start is a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

THAMEL: Ohio State finds itself in good hands with QB Cardale Jones

The parallels between Florida in 2006 and Ohio State in ’14 aren’t exact, but they are interesting. Both teams had excellent defensive lines. The ’06 Gators’ offense blossomed thanks to the addition of true freshman Percy Harvin and part-time quarterback Tim Tebow. These Buckeyes have boomed offensively thanks to a group of second-year players such as receiver Jalin Marshall and tailback Ezekiel Elliott. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is also part of that group, but he’ll miss the playoff with a broken ankle. Like Meyer’s ’06 Florida team, this Ohio State squad improved tremendously as the year progressed. “I thought it was a year away,” Meyer said last week of his early assessment of this team.

At Florida, the ultimate trajectory seemed to be a title in 2008 (which happened). At Ohio State, it seemed as if ’15 would be the year (and it still may). But Barrett, Elliott, defensive end Joey Bosa and linebacker Darron Lee developed faster than their coaches had predicted. After a month that includes some time off and some early bowl practices that stress fundamentals, they may be even better.

It’s easy to understand why Alabama is favored in the Sugar Bowl, but writing off Ohio State now feels a little like writing off Florida against Ohio State after the 2006 season. These Buckeyes are talented enough to compete and not old enough to realize they should be nervous. If they can pull the upset, they may change the way we feel about Big Ten football for the foreseeable future.

The league is getting better from State College to Minneapolis, but the big surge still feels a season or more away. Perhaps Ohio State can start the change in perception a year ahead of schedule.

A random ranking

Bowl season is in full swing, which means I’ll spend some of my time trying to figure out exactly what some company is trying to sell me with its sponsorship of a bowl. For example, I learned during Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl that Royal Purple makes motor oil. Here are the top five bowl title sponsors of all time.

1. The Poulan/Weedeater Independence Bowl

Even though the guys from Duck Dynasty have taken over the title sponsorship of this game, it will always be the Weedwacker Bowl to me. This could explain why Poulan pulled its sponsorship after 1996. Sears makes the Weedwacker.

2. The Bacardi Bowl

This might not have even been the name of the game. It was also known as the Cigar Bowl or the Rhumba Bowl. Either of those would have also been good enough for No. 2. What is certain is that it was the final event of the Cuban National Sports Festival and that Auburn and Villanova played to a 7-7 tie on Jan. 1, 1937 in Havana. Plus, the contest wouldn’t have been played had organizers not found a way to slip an image of Cuba’s new dictator into the game program.

3. The OurHouse.com Florida Citrus Bowl

What’s that sound? Is it Plaxico Burress catching another pass? Or is it the dotcom bubble exploding?

4. The Popeyes Bahamas Bowl

This one debuts on Wednesday, and it features Central Michigan against Western Kentucky. The players have already gone swimming with dolphins. It is unclear how much delicious fried chicken they have eaten.

5. The Salad Bowl

This was a postseason game in Phoenix that featured college teams from 1948-53. It was named after salad, which doesn’t taste nearly as good as fried chicken or have nearly the mind-altering effects of Bacardi.

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First-and-10

1. The verdict in Jameis Winston’s student conduct hearing came down on Sunday, and the Florida State quarterback was found not responsible for violating the university’s student conduct code during a 2012 sexual encounter. Major Harding, the retired Florida Supreme Court chief justice who was assigned to preside over the hearing, wrote a ruling that was obtained by SI.com's Michael McCann. In it, Harding wrote, “the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for any of the charge violations of the Code. Namely, I find that the evidence before me is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof.”

One passage from Harding’s decision, which was also obtained by USA Today, sounded similar to some of the quotes from the press conference Willie Meggs, the state attorney for Florida’s second judicial circuit, gave in December 2013 when he announced that Winston would not face any criminal charge based on the rape accusation brought forth by a woman who was a Florida State student at the time of the encounter. Basically, Meggs and Harding both seemed to think the stories of Winston and the woman were diametrically opposed, and there wasn’t enough convincing physical evidence or testimony to tip the scale in either direction. So, the burden of proof for a charge (in Meggs’ case) or a finding of a student code of conduct violation (in Harding’s case) -- both of which are far lower than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard for a criminal trial verdict -- could not be met. Harding didn’t seem to believe either party completely. “… the evidence regarding the events that unfolded between you and [the woman] once in your room is irreconcilable," Harding wrote. “In light of all the circumstances, I do not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses. I cannot find with any confidence that the events as set forth by you, [the woman], or a particular combination thereof is more probable than not as required to find you responsible for a violation of the Code.”

The woman’s attorneys released a statement on Sunday to USA Today. It included this: "We are stunned and dismayed by the order,” John Clune and Baine Kerr wrote. “It’s not a ‘decision’ at all but a statement that the judge couldn’t decide.”

I realize this is simply an instance of lawyers being lawyers, but this statement seems a bit silly. Harding has the power to hand down a punishment. He also has a duty to treat all parties fairly. He examined the evidence and could not decide who was telling the truth. What was Harding supposed to do? Punish Winston even though he wasn’t convinced by the accuser’s story? How would that be justice in any way, shape or form?

A great many will remain convinced this was all a cover-up. The initial handling of the case by the Tallahassee Police Department doesn’t help either the accuser or Winston in that regard. Had this case been handled properly from the beginning, maybe something resembling the truth would have emerged. But the only two people who know the truth were in that room that night, and they’re still telling two very different stories.

The woman has until mid-January to appeal this decision, though her attorneys’ statement seems to suggest they feel they have no chance to obtain the verdict they desire. Beyond that, her last remaining avenue would be a civil suit against Winston. The pre-hearing rhetoric of Winston’s attorney, David Cornwell, suggested this was leading to a civil suit. Winston will likely finish his Florida State career in the first College Football Playoff before moving to the NFL. Depending on what the woman decides, the case may follow him there.

MCCANN: After being cleared, what comes next for Jameis Winston?

2. Tim Jansen, the Tallahassee attorney who defended Winston during the police department’s and state attorney’s office investigations into the accusation, now has a second job: agent. The NFL Players Association certified Jansen as a contract advisor, and he has registered as an athlete agent with the state of Florida.

Jansen already has two clients: Former Florida A&M cornerback Terry Johnson and former Texas A&M and Florida A&M linebacker Shaun Ward. In an interview last week with WCTV, Jansen said recent developments involving NFL discipline have made his skill set particularly useful for players. “The NFL is changing with the current disciplinary policy by the commissioner,” Jansen told the station. “Your agent now really needs to be able to not only negotiate a contract, but also defend you against false allegations.”

3. Texas A&M’s expansion of Kyle Field will continue this offseason with a complete rebuild of the west side of the stadium. But before the Aggies begin that, they had to knock down the old structure. That happened on Sunday. If you ever wanted to see Kyle Field implode -- insert your own Mike Sherman 2011 second-half joke here -- watch the video below.

4. Chad Kelly, the quarterback who was booted from Clemson after 2014 spring practice and who signed with Ole Miss this month following a season at a Mississippi junior college, is facing charges in his home state of New York.

Kelly faces misdemeanor charges of assault, harassment, menacing, trespass, resisting arrest, criminal mischief and obstructing governmental administration following a fight at a Buffalo bar on Sunday morning. According to a police report obtained by The Buffalo News, Kelly is accused of punching a bouncer and telling bouncers he would “go to my car and get my AK-47 and spray this place.” Later, Kelly was accused of swinging and kicking at police who attempted to remove him from a truck in which he was a passenger.

5. Bowl trips are typically leisurely affairs that don’t involve early wake-up calls. However, when television dictates that kickoff is at 10 a.m. local time, the team with the most morning people wins. The New Orleans Bowl kicked off Saturday at an hour at which much of that city is either just rising or possibly staggering into bed. But Louisiana-Lafayette players didn’t let pre-dawn meeting times slow them in a 16-3 win over Nevada. “It looked like people were partying in the meeting rooms,” said quarterback Terrance Broadway, who was named the game’s MVP. “The music was blasting. It looked like it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It didn’t look like it was 5:45 a.m. Our team was ready.”

Broadway received this trophy for his effort.

6. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook reiterated last week that he intends to return for his senior season in East Lansing. But will he return with a new look? He seemed inspired while watching the Tennessee Titans’ game on Thursday.

Given Cook’s current conservative coiffure, that might not be possible without some hair-enhancing drugs -- which are probably banned by the NCAA.

7. When Todd Graham left Pittsburgh for Arizona State in 2011, he sent Panthers players a statement via text message through the school’s director of football operations. Paul Chryst was apparently much more upfront when he left Pitt for what was actually his dream job at Wisconsin. “Coach Chryst met with us almost every day just keeping us informed about what was going on,” safety Reggie Mitchell told Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The fact that he was talking to us and communicating every day kind of dulled down the stress with the whole situation. I think the team was prepared for the change.”

8. Chryst will be the third head coach for Wisconsin’s older players, who signed to play for Bret Bielema, played for Gary Andersen and now will finish their careers under Chryst. Chryst can certainly empathize. While playing for Wisconsin in the 1980s, he played for head coaches Dave McClain, Jim Hilles and Don Morton.

“I think I have an idea and understanding of what they might be thinking, and it's natural. How is this going to affect me? I think one part of the recruiting process that is good is that you get to outline the things and the values of the program,” Chryst said in his introductory press conference last week. “So I think that you then need to do a good job of just communicating to them what are the things that we’re going to value in this program.”

The good news for Chryst and the older players is that he was involved in recruiting a lot of them as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator under Bielema. Most likely have an idea of what to expect from Chryst.

9. Coaching can be dangerous. South Alabama’s Joey Jones learned that in a fairly painful way during the Jaguars’ Camellia Bowl loss to Bowling Green.

10. Merry Christmas from Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who recently rocked a sweater inspired by the film I tabbed two weeks ago as the greatest threequel of all time.

What’s eating Andy?

I recently received an email from a store declaring that Sunday was the “last day for guaranteed holiday delivery.” Oh, really? Which holiday? Because I’m pretty sure that if I place my order on Dec. 24, you can guarantee delivery by Presidents Day. Or Arbor Day. Or National Trail Mix Day. If you mean Christmas, just say Christmas. If you mean Hanukkah, say Hanukkah. If you mean Boxing Day, say Boxing Day. We’re so worried about hurting someone’s feelings that we have people running around telling acquaintances to “Have a great holiday” without identifying which actual holiday is supposed to be so great. Some of us crave specificity. So just say the holiday you mean. And make sure you still have time to get your items delivered. After all, there are only 251 more shopping days until National Trail Mix Day.

What’s Andy eating?

For part two of the New York review, I’ll focus on just one place. That place serves pizza. One of the people I dined with is Dan Rubenstein, who works for SB Nation, lives in New York and eats on camera while picking college football games terribly. Dan said Motorino’s East Village location might serve the best pizza in Manhattan.

Based on that last sentence, you’re probably expecting a Hot Pizza Take here. But you’re not going to get one. If someone tells me a place serves the best brisket in Texas or the best pulled pork sandwich in Georgia, I’m going in expecting to have highly flammable opinions when I finish eating. That simply isn’t the case for me with pizza. My palate isn’t refined enough.

I ate chain pizza for all of my childhood. Then, in college, I ate a lot of truly awful, cardboard-and-cheese pizza because I could get a large delivered for $4 including tip. (If I was feeling particularly flush, I sprung for pepperoni.) So, my pizza education was lacking. That’s why I typically refrain from best-pizza arguments.

I also refrain from best-pizza-style arguments. I don’t care where you grew up. New York-style pizza is delicious. Chicago-style pizza is delicious. There can be no argument between these two types of pizza because they are not even the same food item. One is thin, floppy and foldable, while the other requires roughly seven pounds of butter and an hour to cook. Both are exquisite for entirely different reasons. A pie from John’s and a pie from Lou Malnati’s have nothing in common but a flour-based carbohydrate base, melted cheese, tomato sauce and meat and/or vegetables. You know what else combines a flour-based carbohydrate base, melted cheese, tomato sauce and meat and/or vegetables? A quesadilla. So quit arguing and eat your pizza.

While I’ll avoid any definitive proclamations with regard to Motorino, I can attest that it is some of the tastiest pizza I have eaten. The dough is tad chewier than most of what I’ve had in New York in the past, but there is an excellent reason for this. Motorino’s oven gets hotter than the blazes of hell. The dough needs to be a little thicker so it doesn’t get burned to a crisp. What arrives at the table is a slightly heftier pie with a touch of char on the outside and a pillowy inside.

It is upon this canvas that Motorino applies some inspired topping combinations. At this moment, I would like to thank SI.com college football editor Ben Glicksman for his horrible timing and the MTA for an unfortunate, terribly inconvenient shutdown that allowed me to decide which topping combination was my favorite.

How did this happen? It began in SI’s offices at about 4 p.m. on Dec. 11. Ben and I were singing the praises of the model of relative efficiency that is the New York City subway system. This, of course, was a terrible mistake. We should not have mocked the subway gods.

We agreed that Ben, who still had work to do because all he does is work, would meet up with us at Motorino at 6:30. The appointed time came and went. No Ben. No text. No call. No nothing. At about 6:45 the waiter began to get antsy, so we ordered. I chose the Soppressata Piccante, which features spicy soppressata, garlic, chili flakes and pecorino. So did everyone at the table. The soppressata packed a huge wallop, but the tomato sauce, garlic and chewy crust took off the edge and left an ideal mix of sweet, spicy and carbalicious in each bite. This seemed tough to top. When we finished, we realized we had more time because Ben still hadn’t shown. Finally, my phone rang. Ben had just emerged like a mole person somewhere in lower Manhattan. He would explain fully when he arrived.

So we ordered Ben a soppresseta pie and figured, since we were going to hang around a few more minutes, we should split another variety. Though our seven-year-old selves would probably have wretched at the thought, we landed on the Brussels sprouts pie. As I wrote last week, sprouts have come a long way since they were a sitcom writer’s idea of a hilariously disgusting food. Soak them in oil and mix them in with some fatty meat, and they’re darn near perfect. At Motorino, they are soaked in extra virgin olive oil, mixed with smoked pancetta and strewn about that heavenly crust. The soppressata was great. This was even better.

Finally, as the last bits of sprout disappeared, Ben arrived to a steaming pie of his own. He had been trapped in a subway car for 90 minutes thanks to a Murphy’s Law evening for the MTA. Fortunately, he had that crust and soppressata waiting at the end of the tunnel. Within 30 seconds, he was smiling. While I’m not prepared to declare Motorino the best pizza in Manhattan, I am fully prepared to declare it worth spending an hour and a half trapped underground for -- and that ain’t bad.

Andy Staples

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