Wednesday October 14th, 2009

Thursday night brings the return of an old tradition that has spent the past couple seasons on the backburner: a must-see Big East game.

Fans of all conferences will presumably tune in Thursday night to watch No. 8 Cincinnati (5-0) visit fellow undefeated South Florida (5-0) in a game with potential BCS implications. Come Friday morning, the inevitable deluge of e-mails will flood my inbox deriding both teams as frauds and demanding the Big East's immediate ousting from the BCS.

Seems like a good time to check in on everyone's favorite conference whipping boy.

Stewart, the Big East has two ranked teams and four among the top 28 in the AP Poll. How important has the conference's strong start been for its image? It's true that the conference doesn't have a true marquee out-of-conference win and it's blown a few big games in the fourth quarter, but do you agree that Big East teams have done almost everything else that Big East fans could have hoped for this year? -- Will, Washington D.C.

The Big East will always have an inherent "image" problem due to its size. The Big 12 can afford to carry four deadweight teams (Iowa State, Kansas State, Colorado and Texas A&M) without the league's overall standing suffering. Once you throw out non-factors Syracuse and Louisville, just six teams remain to carry the Big East.

I agree the league has acquitted itself well in nonconference play this season. Unlike some other conferences, its teams went on the road and played BCS-conference foes -- and did fairly well. Cincinnati won at Oregon State. USF won at Florida State. Connecticut won at Baylor when Robert Griffin was still playing. If West Virginia had held on at Auburn and/or Pittsburgh at NC State, the Big East could have joined the SEC as the only leagues right now with winning records against the Big Six and Notre Dame.

Moving forward, though, Big East perception won't hurt Cincinnati and/or USF as much as their own lack of tradition. West Virginia had no problem inserting itself into the national title race under Rich Rodriguez in large part because the Mountaineers have been there before. Teams like Pitt and Syracuse would presumably enjoy the same advantage. But the only real difference right now between Cincinnati and Boise State is the former is guaranteed a major bowl berth by winning its conference. Should the Bearcats keep winning late into the season, they may run into much the same "ceiling" in the polls based purely on skepticism over whether Cincinnati could really, truly be a national title-caliber team.

Personally, I'm still skeptical myself, which is why I'm surprised the Bearcats have risen so high so fast. A lot of people watched their Labor Day demolition of Rutgers and jumped on the bandwagon, and I don't blame them. Brian Kelly's team boasts both a potential first-round quarterback (Tony Pike) and receiver (Mardy Gilyard). It ended Oregon State's 26-game home winning streak against nonconference foes, and in that game its defense held Jacquizz Rodgers to a season-low 73 rushing yards.

But it's hard to forget how Pike and the Bearcats laid an egg in last year's 20-7 Orange Bowl loss to a four-loss Virginia Tech team, and even harder to forget all the meltdowns USF has suffered the past few years after rising in the polls. Fairly or unfairly, these teams have less margin for error because they don't have nearly the same built-in mileage as an Oklahoma or Texas. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to Thursday night's game. A big night for Pike and Gilyard against a thus-far dominant USF defense should boost Cincy's credibility further, just as the Bulls would raise eyebrows if they manage to shut those two down.

Incidentally, an interesting Big East-related nugget fell into my inbox last week. Many fans and media seem to believe the Mountain West has a chance to "take away" the Big East's automatic BCS berth following the current four-year evaluation period (2008-11). However, an e-mail from a BCS official explaining its selection procedures happened to mention that the review process will "determine if a seventh conference achieves automatic qualification."

So love it or hate it, people, the Big East is here to stay. Enjoy the game Thursday.

Hi Stewart. If Bobby Bowden is just a figurehead for FSU's program now, why is he getting so much heat to retire? Shouldn't more blame be placed on Jimbo Fisher? Isn't he the "real" head coach? -- Patrick Sanders, Hoboken, NJ

No, he is not. A "real" head coach gets to assemble his own coaching staff, which Fisher has not. Bowden hired all of FSU's assistants and, with the exception of offensive line coach Rick Trickett, none have prior ties to Fisher. He obviously has no authority whatsoever over the defense, which Mickey Andrews has overseen since before Fisher graduated from college and which, sadly, has deteriorated into one of the worst in the country (currently ranked 108th in total defense). You can blame Fisher for his play-calling, or for the offense's inconsistency, but the blame for the program's overall state falls squarely on Bowden, who, even if he has little-to-no hands-on involvement at this point, still calls the shots.

That's what makes this situation so sad and, for many without a vested interest in the program, so difficult to understand. If you're a general fan of college football but don't follow the Seminoles that closely, you might find it puzzling, if not downright disturbing, that anyone would try to force out a living legend. But Florida State fans are frustrated not just by the losing, but also the fact that Bowden's continued involvement is preventing the program from moving forward. The school has anointed its next coach (Fisher), but he's powerless to affect any real change. Meanwhile, FSU's recruits are signing on specifically to play for Fisher, yet don't know when that will happen.

Some may point out Penn State went through much the same thing with Joe Paterno. School officials urged him to retire after the nightmarish 2000-04 stretch of four losing seasons in five years, but JoePa ignored them and promptly led the Nittany Lions to an 11-1 season in 2005 and another such season last year. But that turnaround didn't just happen. Behind the scenes, Paterno made some important changes -- hiring Galen Hall as offensive coordinator, sending his staff to study Texas' shotgun-spread offense, shuffling recruiting assignments. Bowden did much the same thing in 2007, when he brought in Fisher, Trickett and Chuck Amato, but so far the 'Noles aren't any better for it.

That's why the only remaining solution at this point is to hand the reins over to Fisher, as he's been guaranteed, which is why the school is working on a revised contract for next season which will reportedly give all tangible head-coaching duties to Fisher (who will presumably clean house). Bowden will apparently still be welcome to return, but we can only hope for his own dignity's sake that he'll do the right thing for the program and officially pass the torch.

Stewart: Considering that Florida and Alabama are now Nos. 1 and 2 in the polls, is it possible that the loser of the SEC championship game between those two would get a rematch in the BCS title game if the teams below them lose? -- Rich, Nashville

I've been getting that question a lot this week and the answer is no, I cannot see it happening. We went through this before in 2006 with Ohio State and Michigan, when the voters put the kibosh on their potential rematch by moving Florida ahead of the Wolverines in the final polls. Obviously, it's a good thing they did. Given their opportunity, the Gators showed that the Buckeyes weren't the end-all, be-all team many of us made them out to be.

The voters would presumably do the same thing if faced with the aforementioned SEC scenario. Even if the Gators and Tide entered that game as the only undefeated teams in the country, even if they staged a triple-overtime thriller, who are the voters to assume they're still the top two teams in the country? They'd want to give someone else a crack at the winner to be certain.

However, there is one scenario where things could get messy. What if Alabama loses the game, and what if the team right behind the Crimson Tide is current No. 4 Virginia Tech -- whom the Tide previously beat? And what if the Hokies are the only other one-loss team out there? Would they still get the nod, or would Alabama stay above them? Every year presents a new headache-inducing BCS riddle. That one sounds about perfect.

Are we to take this Nobel Peace Prize thing seriously? First they gave one to Yasser Arafat but not Gandhi. Now they give one to Obama but not Tebow! What exactly are these Norwegians watching? -- Stephen, Pensecola, Fla.

I know. It's getting out of hand. I heard the president was also recently named to the Outland Trophy Watch list, is a Biletnikoff semifinalist and was last week's Davey O'Brien quarterback of the week.

What are your thoughts on Rich Rodriguez not putting Tate Forcier in for the final drive of the Iowa game? Rodriguez admitted he did not know Forcier had a concussion. Doesn't it show a lack of confidence in his starter? My concern is Forcier will start second-guessing himself and not be able to make the big plays he is starting to become know for. -- Rick Roach, Simi Valley, Calif.

Well first of all, now that we know Forcier suffered a concussion, it turned out to be a blessing Rodriguez took him out. I can only assume Tom Rinaldi will now be camped out at the Wolverines' hotel this weekend.

But I would definitely be concerned about Forcier's confidence, for several reasons. For one, it seems that since his torrid start to the season, the freshman has hit a wall, which isn't altogether surprising. It just serves as a reminder that he is in fact a freshman, all those last-minute touchdown drives notwithstanding. It also sounds like his shoulder injury has played a part in that, though Rodriguez continues to downplay it. Whatever the case, it would be easy for Forcier to be down on himself right now after getting pulled from a game against Iowa in which he struggled badly (8-of-19 for 94 yards and an interception).

I don't have a problem with Rodriguez playing Robinson. It would be a waste of a very talented player if he didn't. But it's one thing to use the speedster in situational plays or packages (as he did in Michigan's first five games). It's another to hand over the offense to Robinson with the game on the line when he's thus far demonstrated little ability to be a passing threat. By all indications, Forcier remains Michigan's guy, but Rodriguez best be sure both are comfortable with their potential roles. Michigan doesn't want a back-and-forth shuffle all season. It never works.

I'm a Florida fan, but I'm also a realist. We really haven't played ANYBODY (including LSU) who has a bona fide offense. Arkansas is coming into the Swamp this week with what seems to be a pretty darn good quarterback (Ryan Mallett) and a team poised to pull an upset. You would think an Urban Meyer-coached team can avoid a letdown after an incredible build-up type game, but I'm nervous. What's your opinion? -- Bill Abrahams, Lake Mary, Fla.

You should be nervous. This one has TRAP GAME written all over it. As I wrote Monday, this may well be the toughest remaining game on the Gators' schedule. Throw in the fact Florida has lost to at least one SEC West opponent each of the past 10 seasons (including last year's Ole Miss loss under similar circumstances) and I'd be sweating bullets right now if I were a Gator fan.

But here's why I, a nonpartisan observer, don't think it will happen. Regardless of whom Florida has faced so far, we know how good this defense is because these are the same exact players from last season. And while I have the highest respect for Bobby Petrino's offense, the Razorbacks have already faced one elite defense (Alabama) and proved quite mortal. Mallett completed just 12-of-35 passes for 160 yards and the Tide won 35-7. I expect Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham to tee off on the stationery Mallett, and for Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins to blanket his receivers. I'd be more concerned about Arkansas tailback Michael Smith, who's capable of busting a big play at any moment, though Smith tweaked his hamstring last week against Auburn.

And here's another suspicion I have about this game: I think you'll see Urban Meyer use the opportunity to open up his offense. The Gators have been admittedly conservative to date, spending most of the LSU game running it up the gut. Arkansas' defense is suspect, however, and Meyer will probably feel more confident running the option plays, reverses and, yes, downfield passes we've grown accustomed to seeing in the past. In fact, if that doesn't happen, it will be time to get truly concerned about Florida's offense.

Stewart, if you happen to show up at the Cotton Bowl this weekend for the Texas-Oklahoma game, you've got to check out the heart-stopping fried food at the Texas State Fair just outside the stadium. My lunch at the fair today included a fried corn dog, fried Oreo, fried butter, fried yam, fried pickles, fried pork chips, fried ribs, fried cheesecake, fried shrimp, fried alligator, and the boring fried potato. Be a man, do the right thing. -- Murphy, Houston

I will be there, and I always love to take in the sights and sounds of the State Fair. But as tempting as all that sounds, I'd like to come back to New York with my colon intact.

About a decade ago, Gonzaga's basketball team shot into the national consciousness with a magical run in the NCAA tourney. Soon thereafter, its coach, Dan Monson, bolted for the "greener pastures" of Minnesota only to find failure. Meanwhile, Mark Few took the Zags from flash-in-the-pan material to a respected and perhaps even feared program. Here's the football angle: Look at the Dan Hawkins-to-Colorado situation. Is this a cautionary tale about loyalty? -- Kyle Barhamand, Chicago

It's a fair parallel between Monson and Few at Gonzaga and Hawkins and Chris Petersen at Boise State. In both cases, the first guy put the program on the map while the successor -- who had already played a key role as an assistant -- took it to the next level. However, the subsequent downfalls of Monson and Hawkins probably have less to do with loyalty than fit.

Let's face it, jumping from one job to the next is part of the sport. Urban Meyer suffered no such comeuppance for jumping from Utah to Florida. Obviously, his skills translated just fine to the next level. Hawkins' have not. And I don't think it's a coincidence that Meyer, at the time, was universally regarded as a home-run hire by Florida whereas Colorado's choice of Hawkins raised doubts from the get-go.

Meyer was groomed by coaches like Earle Bruce and Lou Holtz and had experience recruiting players to major programs. Hawkins spent his entire previous career at outposts like Sonoma State and Willamette, where his unconventional ways obviously played well and where he worked with the type of "hidden gem" players with which he built the Broncos. When Colorado hired him, the single biggest question was whether he'd be able to recruit at the highest level. It's pretty clear he hasn't been able to do so. Colorado's talent level is abysmal.

That doesn't mean Hawkins can't coach. I just think he's better suited to a small-school environment. And that may help explain why Petersen has remained at Boise (despite interest from UCLA, among others) and Few at Gonzaga. They know where they're most comfortable.

Stewart, why can't we have college football year-round? Being in the middle of the season, life and football are good. There is no better time in life and it would save us all the meaninglessness that is the offseason. -- Chris King, Little Rock, Ark.

We can only dream. In the meantime ... maybe start watching Lost?

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