The Playoff Field We've Been Waiting For
I typically loathe comparisons between the college football and college basketball postseasons, probably because for years the lords of the BCS used the NCAA tournament's effect on the regular season as a (flawed) argument against a football playoff. But just this once, it feels appropriate.
Sunday felt like one of those days in late March when the Elite Eight produces the Final Four everyone wanted when the tournament began. Sure, there may have been some crazy upsets early, but the chalk won out as the tournament went on and the most deserving teams made the final weekend. If you love college football, you can't look at the semifinal matchups and not get excited about New Year's Eve. (Though the chance to watch football instead of Ryan Seacrest should have made you excited, anyway.)
Clemson and Oklahoma will return to Florida to play in a rematch of last year's Russell Athletic Bowl. That may sound funny, but that game played in Orlando last December helped set both teams on the path to the Orange Bowl. Clemson showed in that contest it was more than just Deshaun Watson, as backup Cole Stoudt quarterbacked the Tigers to a 40–6 win while Watson recuperated from knee surgery. With Stoudt graduated and Watson healed, Clemson went 13–0 this season.
A big reason for that record was the reloading job done by defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who worked under Bob Stoops for three seasons at Kansas State and for 13 seasons at Oklahoma. Venables coached one of the nation's best defenses in 2014, but with players like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony headed to the NFL, it seemed the defense would take a huge step back. Thanks to Venables, defensive end Shaq Lawson, safety Jayron Kearse and a host of others, it did not.
Meanwhile, that humiliating beating crystallized a decision Oklahoma coach Stoops had been mulling. He needed to do something about his offense, or his epic run in Norman might come to an end sooner than he wanted. So, he chose to fire co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell and hire Lincoln Riley from East Carolina. Riley learned the Air Raid at the foot of the pirate himself, and it just so happened that Oklahoma had a walk-on transfer quarterback who had played as a freshman for a coach who also learned the Air Raid from Mike Leach. Baker Mayfield started for Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech in 2013, so Mayfield's learning curve in '15 was tiny as a coach from the same branch of the Leach tree installed an offense nearly identical to the one he'd already run.
The Sooners who played in last year's game in Orlando should have extra motivation to beat the Tigers after being humbled so thoroughly. We know at least one let that beating drive him through the off-season. Center Ty Darlington, an Apopka, Fla., native who got whipped basically in his hometown, set the 40–6 score as the background on his phone this past summer.
In the Cotton Bowl, the pupil will take on the mentor in a matchup that might look like it's broadcast from 1987. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are the most successful members of the Nick Saban coaching tree. Dantonio worked under Saban at Michigan State from 1995-99, and he had the unenviable task of coaching the secondary, the position group Alabama coach Saban works with most closely to this day. Dantonio has built a program in East Lansing that plays and acts an awful lot like Saban's program at Alabama. While the Crimson Tide have been able to sign higher-rated recruits because of the program's cachet—and that issue has been mitigated more with each passing year since Michigan State began its recent run of success in 2010—Spartans and Tide coaches use many of the same sets of "critical factors" to evaluate players. Those factors, which Saban originally borrowed from legendary Kent State and Washington coach Don James, have helped Dantonio's staff become perhaps the best group of talent evaluators in the country.
Because Michigan State has an excellent quarterback in Connor Cook and a beastly offensive line, the Spartans can still run an offense that looks like the one Saban's teams ran while winning three national titles between 2009 and '12. The 22-play, 84-yard drive Michigan State used to beat Iowa 16–13 on Saturday—which spanned nine minutes and four seconds—looked like something Saban might have written down in a dream journal. Meanwhile, Shillique Calhoun, Malik McDowell and the rest of Michigan's State's defensive line pressure the quarterback as well as Alabama's nine-deep stable of hand-in-the-dirt monsters.
Even though the Tide have sped up and spread out the offense—per Saban's orders—under coordinator Lane Kiffin, they have returned to their previous form down the stretch as necessity has forced them to place much of the offense on the broad shoulders of 6' 3", 242-pound tailback Derrick Henry. Henry has carried at least 38 times in three of Alabama's last five games, and because Michigan State should be able to pressure Tide quarterback Jake Coker, it's likely Henry will have to carry the load again in the Cotton Bowl.
And when the semifinals are done, we will get a clash of styles in the national title game. Clemson and Oklahoma run up-tempo spread offenses. Alabama and Michigan State run pro-style schemes. The progressives and the purists will get a chance to hash things out on the field for all the marbles, which is definitely going to be fun.
These matchups are excellent, but they haven't changed my mind that eight would be the proper number of teams for the playoff. (With quarterfinals and semifinals on campus—which would make being in the top four critically important—and the final at a neutral site.) I'd love to see Stanford, Iowa, Ohio State and Notre Dame get a crack at these teams in a playoff. While the four that made the field are definitely the most deserving based on their résumés, they aren't so much better than the others mentioned. An eight-teamer this year would produce some fascinating showdowns.
But we can't have everything we want. This set of matchups represents the peak of what the four-team format promises, and after 15 seasons in the BCS wilderness and decades in the poll-era stone age, that's reason enough to ring in the new year with extra gusto.
A random ranking
This is the first of two rankings in this column. It will be short and sweet, but it will almost certainly be controversial. Here is the definitive ranking of the protein options available at Chipotle.
Big Ugly of the Week
I never quite know how to handle linebacker/rush end hybrids who play in 3-4 defenses when it comes to this honor. Most of them have six packs, and abdominal definition should probably disqualify a player for this award. But when a player terrorizes a quarterback the way Alabama Jack linebacker Tim Williams did on Saturday, he deserves recognition even if he doesn't have a keg strapped to his midsection.
Williams had two sacks in the Tide's 29–15 win over Florida in the SEC Championship Game and generally made the life of Treon Harris miserable. Afterward, Saban was quick to praise the junior from Baton Rouge. "I'm really kind of proud of Tim Williams," Saban said. "He's had some struggles in his career. He's battled hard to overcome them. And he's doing better in school as well as has really got pass rush ability, and we've been able to use him in that role this year, and he has created a lot of pressure for us playing on third down and done a really good job of affecting the quarterback."
1. The New Year's Six bowls are set, and the matchups should be plenty intriguing. ESPN and Fiesta Bowl executives probably did a few backflips over the Ohio State-Notre Dame pairing. That duo is ratings gold. Plus, it should produce an excellent game between a special group of Ohio State players playing its last game and a Notre Dame team that might be something close to healthy. I know we already offered up a random ranking, but here's a bonus ranking of the 10 most intriguing (non-playoff) matchups of bowl season.
1. Fiesta (Ohio State-Notre Dame)
2. Rose (Iowa-Stanford)
3. Russell Athletic (North Carolina-Baylor)
4. Alamo (TCU-Oregon)
5. Sugar (Ole Miss-Oklahoma State)
6. Peach (Houston-Florida State)
7. Outback (Northwestern-Tennessee)
8. Pinstripe (Duke-Indiana)
9. Miami Beach (South Florida-Western Kentucky)
10. Las Vegas (BYU-Utah)
2. Even though the playoff and bowl matchups sucked most of the oxygen from other college football conversations, the NCAA Football Oversight Committee needs to address the bogus offsides call that went against North Carolina on the first onside kick at the end of the ACC championship. Yes, officials make mistakes. But this one should have been easily fixed. Offsides should be reviewable. It would have taken about 15 seconds for a replay official—O.K., maybe a bit longer for an ACC replay official—to correct the call and give North Carolina the ball with a chance to tie the score. The game has some difficult problems. This isn't one of them. Fix things that are easily fixable.
3. Congratulations to Kirby Smart, who was officially named Georgia's new head coach Sunday at pretty much the precise moment the selection committee began announcing the playoff matchups. Smart, a 39-year-old who played safety for the Bulldogs from 1995-98 and has served as Alabama's defensive coordinator for the past eight years, signed a memorandum of understanding that promises a six-year contract that will pay Smart about $3.75 million a year.
4. While we're on the subject of former Georgia defensive backs getting SEC head coaching jobs, Will Muschamp is the new coach at South Carolina.
It will be interesting to see how Muschamp, who spent the past season as Auburn's defensive coordinator, handles hiring his staff. He got fired at Florida last year after going 28–21 over four seasons. Muschamp's original sin was hiring Charlie Weis to run the offense in his first year at the helm, and he compounded that by insisting on a slow, methodical offense for the next two. Muschamp always had good defenses. If he can make an inspired hire on offense, his second go-around may be the charm.
5. Speaking of the Gamecocks, Steve Spurrier wrote a letter to the editor to The State newspaper explaining why he quit midseason. The gist? He thought the Gamecocks were better without him.
6. Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson was livid that two teams from his league (Colorado State and Nevada) will meet in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson on Dec. 29. Three 5–7 teams were placed into bowls so the games could fill the 80 available spots, but instead of going to the back of the line, those 5–7 teams were placed in bowls ahead of teams with .500 or better records. And that's how two teams from the same conference ended up slated to play each other in a bowl.
"It is a travesty the Mountain West has been forced into this situation," Thompson wrote in his statement. "Clearly, the system is broken. There is an excess of bowl games due in part to a disparate allocation of openings vs. conference bowl histories. The result is teams with sub-.500 records participating in bowl games. There is consensus change is needed and this year's outcome must not be repeated."
7. The rent-a-cops hired by Houston to patrol the field during Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game got a little drunk with power when some Houston students tried to storm the field following the Cougars' 24–13 win over Temple.
Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek said in a statement released to USA Today that the school and Houston police would review the footage to determine if any further action is required. Yurachek said the school might terminate its contract with the security company.
8. Baylor and Texas got in a fight Saturday during the Longhorns' 23–17 victory in Waco.
Bears coach Art Briles was not impressed.
Briles on the fight: "That's nothing. That was a fight in a mall, I've been in an alley."— Shehan Jeyarajah (@ShehanJeyarajah) December 5, 2015
9. Congratulations to Georgia State, which has made an unbelievable turnaround under third-year coach Trent Miles. On Saturday, the Panthers shocked Georgia Southern 34–7 in Statesboro to become bowl eligible. (In the process, they knocked 5–7 Illinois from a bowl spot.) Georgia State will face San Jose State in the Cure Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 19.
10. Sports. And Verne.
What's eating Andy?
It feels like this season passed by faster than any before it. That probably just means I'm getting old. So, can we still get together on Tuesday nights and talk about MACtion even if there aren't any games on?
What's Andy eating?
The first section of last Sunday's Punt, Pass & Pork was all about what happens when you strike at the king. Late last week, I came across an upstart that took a swipe at a restaurant industry titan.
Boxcar Betty's sells $7 chicken sandwiches to the citizens of Charleston, S.C. It takes serious stones to open a chicken sandwich shop in the heart of the Chick-fil-A Belt and then charge twice what the (dwarf) house Truett Cathy built charges for a chicken sandwich. The price point alone would make it a daring proposition even if Chick-fil-A hadn't demonstrated the ability to take over a town's fast-food landscape with only hunks of fried chicken breast, buns and pickles. This had better be an amazing chicken sandwich for Boxcar Betty's to survive.
"It's the best chicken you ever had in your life," the lady behind the counter told the people in line ahead of me at lunchtime on Friday at the original location on U.S. Highway 17. I scoffed at this. I've devoured an entire family meal from the original Gus's Fried Chicken location in Mason, Tenn. I've already eaten the best chicken I will taste in my life. When my turn came, I ordered a Chicken "Not So Waffle" (fried boneless chicken breast, bacon jam, pimento cheese and tomato) without the tomato. I also ordered a side of hand-cut fries, which I worried couldn't possibly match the near-perfect waffle fries Chick-fil-A has figured out how to mass produce.
I tried the fries first. They were excellent, as fresh-cut fries tend to be. This was a promising sign. Then I bit into the sandwich.
The lady behind the counter wasn't too far off. It takes a deep-fried miracle to top Gus's chicken, but if there is a boneless division, Boxcar Betty's might take the top spot. The batter fries up crispy and light and leaves perfect, juicy meat underneath. The breast is about twice the size of the breast in a Chick-fil-A sandwich, justifying the higher price. The trio of bacon jam, maple syrup and pimento cheese waltzes across the salty, sweet and savory receptors on the tongue. Betty had struck at the king, and she had not missed.
Just to be sure, I stopped by the just opened Summerville, S.C., location on Friday night. I decided to build my own sandwich with a chicken breast, Kentucky beer cheese and spicy mustard. My creation didn't compete with the inspired bacon jam-and-pimento cheese concoction, but it still ranked among the best chicken sandwiches I'd ever eaten.
Boxcar Betty's isn't going to dethrone Chick-fil-A because the behemoth will always have an appeal based on the quality offered at that price point. But for those who love the chicken sandwich and know it can handle more than a pickle and Polynesian sauce, here's hoping Betty keeps taking on the king inside and outside the Low Country.