Wednesday October 21st, 2009

I'll admit it. Given the choice, I much prefer to watch a back-and-forth shootout (think Texas-Oklahoma last year) than a defensive stalemate (think Texas-Oklahoma this year). So it's been somewhat unsatisfying that the four games I've covered in person this season have been decided by scores of 19-8 (Boise State-Oregon), 18-15 (USC-Ohio State), 13-3 (Florida-LSU) and 16-13 (Texas-Oklahoma).

By point of comparison, last year I covered nine regular-season games, and in eight the winner scored at least 31 points.

But 2008 was the year of Big 12 shootouts and 4,000-yard passers. For the most part, 2009 has seen far more defensive dominance, at least in big games.

The question is, why?

The spread offense was extremely successful last season, but it seems to have taken a big step backwards this year. Case in point: The score in the Texas-OU game last year was 45-35, but Saturday it was a defensive struggle, 16-13. Have the defenses adjusted already or is the personnel lacking? That is, did all the Chase Daniels of the world graduate and Sam Bradfords get injured? -- Chris Tiroff, Bastrop, Texas

While it's certainly possible defenses are catching up to the spread, it's far too soon to say. We'll have to wait and see whether the trend continues over a multi-year period. As of now, I'd say it's unlikely. More teams are running the spread than ever before, including the current top five in scoring offense (Texas, Texas Tech, Houston, Cincinnati and Kansas).

What you're seeing is more the byproduct of college football's cyclical nature -- some players graduate, others return and teams' identities change accordingly. Looking at the teams currently at or near the top of the rankings, it's no coincidence that most returned more veterans on defense than offense.

Case in point: Texas and Oklahoma. A year ago, the two rivals were known primarily for their breakneck passing attacks. While Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford returned (granted, Bradford got hurt), key members of their supporting casts did not. The teams' defenses, however, are loaded with veterans who, if you look back, started to gel toward the end of last season. Now guys like Sergio Kindle and Earl Thomas (Texas) and Jeremy Beal and Gerald McCoy (Oklahoma) are the dominant figures on their teams. The 'Horns defense is one of the very best in the country, which marks quite an improvement from a year ago.

The same goes for Florida, which returned its entire defensive two-deep but lost a bunch of productive receivers. Last year's high-flying Gators have reinvented themselves as a ball-control team. Alabama also returned more defensive than offensive stars, though its identity hasn't changed that much.

Meanwhile, upstart teams like Iowa, Miami and Oregon all possess top 25 defenses. Contrast that to previous years, when non-traditional teams like West Virginia, Texas Tech and Missouri ascended the polls thanks to prolific offenses.

Two notable exceptions to this trend: USC and Cincinnati, which between them returned all of three defensive starters yet still both sit in the top five. The Trojans have simply reloaded like they often do. The Bearcats, while decent defensively, fit more into the aforementioned mold of recent, non-traditional programs. Defenses certainly haven't caught up to Brian Kelly's spread.

The past few seasons may have been a golden era for offenses, but it's worth noting that for all the Chase Daniels and Graham Harrells that came through the ranks, the teams that ultimately won national championships (Florida in 2006 and '08, LSU in '07) did so with elite defenses. Remember how I covered all those high-scoring games last year? When it came down to the most important one of all -- Florida vs. Oklahoma -- the final score was 24-14.

I know it's cliché, but while offense is entertaining, defense wins championships. With so many high-level defenses this year, we should probably expect a whole lot more 16-13 slugfests on the road to Pasadena.

I'm a Virginia Tech grad stationed here in Arkansas, and while I am upset with the Hokies stumbling in a must-win game last weekend, my fury is nothing compared to the local Razorback fans who are CONVINCED there was a conspiracy to ensure Florida won last week's game in the fourth quarter when the refs blatantly called penalties that never occurred (pass interference and personal foul). They argue that the SEC intentionally sabotaged the game to give us the dream matchup of undefeated Alabama vs. Florida. What's your take on the situation? -- Frank, Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.

Believe me, the conspiracy theories are hardly limited to Arkansas. My inbox has been flooded since Saturday night with indignant e-mails about the officiating in that game. (Apparently nobody read the Mailbag two weeks ago when voiced my general apathy toward fans' officiating gripes.)

You would think it was the only thing that happened in college football all weekend. Even Terrell Owens noticed.

I've watched the videos, and they were obviously bad calls. You know what else they were? The type of bad calls that take place in almost every single football game. As a matter of fact, there were at least two equally questionable personal foul calls against USC in last Saturday's Notre Dame game (Taylor Mays' "late hit" on a player who appeared to still be in bounds and an unsportsmanlike conduct on Everson Griffin for a very innocuous celebration after he made a tackle). I didn't hear much outrage over those.

The only reason the Florida-Arkansas calls have drawn such magnified attention is because the No. 1 team in the country appeared in danger of losing -- and I can only assume nearly every fan outside of Florida was rooting for it to happen. Egregious as they were, those calls did not cost Arkansas the game. They happened with nine minutes left. The Razorbacks still had their chance to kick a go-ahead field goal and/or stop the Gators' own game-winning drive.

You can buy into some kooky SEC conspiracy theory if you'd like, but you'll have to explain to me how exactly it works. Does Mike Slive sit in a control room somewhere and push a button that activates a buzzer in the official's ear whenever he wants a certain call made? Is he funneling some of those CBS/ESPN billions to a secret Swiss bank account from which the refs withdraw their cut? Because I have to tell you, the last people that stand to benefit from a No. 1 vs. No. 2 SEC championship game are the refs. They're independent contractors who work for peanuts.

But there's no question the SEC has a credibility issue right now with its officiating, and it's largely self-inflicted. Because of its teams' national success and exposure, the games are more heavily viewed and scrutinized than other conferences'. And as Dr. Saturday blogger Matt Hinton wrote this week, the league isn't doing itself any favors by publicly throwing its refs under the bus. That only reinforces fans' negative perceptions.

I hate to break it to you, people, but bad calls are like airline delays -- they're going to happen.

Hey Stewart, is it just me or does the Heisman Trophy race this year feel like a race that every contender is doing his best not to win? -- Brian Cowan, Boston

Well I assume they're not doing it on purpose, unless they have some aversion to visiting New York around the holidays. I realize it's very cold here that time of year, but you've still got the the Tree at Rockefeller Center, the toys at FAO Schwartz, ringing the bell on Wall Street ... it's really a very pleasant time to visit.

I would agree, however, that it's been a very strange race so far considering we started the season with three seemingly impregnable candidates -- Tim Tebow, McCoy and Bradford -- who either got injured or haven't done anything to cement their status. Meanwhile, there's been a seemingly endless stream of flavors-of-the week (Jahvid Best, Jacory Harris, Case Keenum, Jimmy Clausen, Ndamukong Suh) whose teams fell just as soon as they started getting ink.

The latest guy to wear that crown is Alabama's Mark Ingram. Remarkably, he rose from being barely mentioned last week to becoming the first player all year to overtake Tebow for No. 1 in this week's poll. Even more interestingly, that poll's top five includes two players, Clausen and Suh, whose teams lost last week, which tells me they may be in it for the long run.

Chris Huston, the Heisman Pundit himself, wrote this week that, "We haven't seen a Heisman race this wide open since 1989 [when Andre Ware won]." If that's the case, expect the race to go right down to the last weekend, with one disclaimer: If Florida finishes the regular season undefeated, it would be a Woodson-over-Manning caliber upset if anyone other than Tebow wins it.

Hey Stewart. What's this I hear about you getting owned in the championship round of a Wii Tennis Tournament by the Gainesville Sun's Edward Aschoff during the 2008 BCS Title Game festivities? -- Brad, Atlanta

How could you possibly have heard about that? Oh, right -- because Edward is advertising it.

First of all, there was no tournament. The Orange Bowl folks had a Wii set up in the media hospitality room, and I'd been dominating everyone I'd played that week. I really am a very good Wii tennis player. My serve is virtually un-returnable, as is my crosscourt forehand. But then along came Edward, whom I'd never met before. The guy is an electronic freak of nature. His reflexes are otherworldly. He can play an entire match without moving his wrist more than an inch in either direction. There's no possible way to get anything by him.

I remain in awe to this day.

The SEC said it told Arkansas "there was no evidence on the video to support the personal foul penalty." It was the same group of officials that called the LSU-Georgia game earlier this month. Will someone investigate this? It's very possible these referees are betting on games and having a hand in their outcomes. -- John, Tuscaloosa

If that's the case, they didn't do a very good job of that, either. Florida was a 25-point favorite. If the refs had money on the Gators, they waited way too long to try and start helping them cover. And if they bet on Arkansas they were throwing flags on the wrong team.

I understand the Big Ten is undervalued right now, but if Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State were 7-0 right now, I guarantee they would be heralded A LOT more than Iowa currently is. Do you agree? -- Robb Rood, Iowa City, Iowa

I do. Iowa already has two quality road wins over 6-1 Penn State and 5-2 Wisconsin, which is more than anyone but USC and Cincinnati can say right now. The Hawkeyes could add another this weekend at 4-3 Michigan State. They even had a nice nonconference win over 4-2 Arizona. But Iowa has multiple factors working against it right now, starting first and foremost with the Big Ten's poor reputation. It's also a blue-collar team lacking in star power. Plus, those puzzling scares from Northern Iowa and Arkansas State didn't help boost public confidence.

It's true the Hawkeyes don't have the same built-in benefit of the doubt as those three aforementioned glamour programs. Just look at Penn State, sitting there in the top 15 despite one win of substance (Minnesota). But let's not forget, we took Iowa plenty seriously earlier this decade, most notably the 2002 season when Brad Banks was a Heisman runner-up and the Hawkeyes rose as high as No. 3 in the polls. Their current status is a direct reflection of how far the Big Ten's reputation has sunk since that time.

If I were the Big 12 commissioner, I'd be looking for a way to have TCU and Texas A&M switch conferences. TCU clearly can play with the big boys; A&M can not. Is there any precedent for such a move and is there any chance it could happen? -- Dave Gannon, San Antonio


First of all, the only recent precedent for a conference expelling a member was the Big East booting Temple, but that had as much to do with the program's disarray and poor attendance as wins and losses. Texas A&M is not Temple. The Aggies play in an 83,000-seat stadium. They have some of the most recognizable traditions in the sport (the 12th Man, the Midnight Yell, etc.). And lest we forget, they're three years removed from a Holiday Bowl appearance and two years removed from a second straight win over Texas. A&M may be down right now -- way, way down -- but it's still one of those programs that will always be one good coaching hire away (read: not Mike Sherman) from righting itself.

That's not the case with TCU. There's no question the Horned Frogs are a highly competitive program. But generally speaking, TCU would not bring value to a conference like the Big 12. It has small fan support (average attendance: 34,512) and it's not going to bring in new television eyeballs (Texas takes care of that). It's unfortunate that the school of Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien got lost in the shuffle when the Southwest Conference crumbled. Geographically speaking, there's no logical reason the Horned Frogs should be in the Mountain West. But from an overall program standpoint, TCU much more closely fits that league's members than the Big 12's.

Why was Florida not penalized in the polls for losing to Arkansas, only to have the referees steal the game for them? -- Tom Hubbard, Palos Verde Estates, Calif.

When the refs start missing field goals, I'm sure teams will be penalized accordingly.

Hey Stewart. After the Notre Dame game, several of the commentators (not just Dr. Lou) were speculating that a 9-3 or 10-2 Notre Dame team would almost certainly get into a BCS game. It doesn't seem plausible that they can get into the top eight for an automatic bid. Even with just one more loss, could they really get into the top 14 to become eligible for an at-large spot? They aren't in either the AP or coaches Top 25 at the moment. -- Tim, Chapel Hill, N.C.

If the Irish win out, they're going to a BCS bowl. They're right on the cusp of the Top 25 as it is, so it's not hard to envision them moving into the top 14, and I doubt there will be an army of other 10-win teams come December.

Just one loss, however, and it's probably Gator Bowl here we come. But that would be true of just about anybody. Illinois in 2007 remains the only three-loss team to receive an at-large berth.

Growing up, I felt Ohio State had a huge advantage being the only major football school in a talent-rich state, but now Cincinnati has changed the equation. To what extent does the Bearcats' emergence explain the Buckeyes' decline? -- Jim Power, Sioux Falls, S.D.

I don't think they're related. Brian Kelly (and Mark Dantonio before him) weren't beating Ohio State for prospects. The Buckeyes still get pretty much whomever they want, as their recruiting rankings show (their past four classes have ranked 12th, 15th, third and fourth nationally according to Heck, their starting quarterback was the top prospect in the country two years ago.

But recruiting rankings are hardly gospel, and it seems Kelly and his staff have done a better job evaluating and developing talent lately than Jim Tressel's crew. I mentioned this Monday, but it's worth repeating: Ohio State's current crop of running backs and receivers is the most mediocre of Tressel's tenure. On paper (technically, "in cyberspace"), they're supposed to be world-beaters. Receiver DeVier Posey (a Cincinnati native) was a five-star recruit. Running backs Brandon Saine and Dan Herron were four-star guys.

But would anyone in their right mind take these guys over Cincy receiver Mardy Gilyard? Of course not. Gilyard was a two-star running back coming out of Florida in 2005.

Just to be clear, Ohio State's roster is still plenty talented top to bottom, and the Buckeyes probably have three times as many NFL prospects as Cincinnati. But right now the Bearcats have a better quarterback (Tony Pike, who himself was barely recruited out of high school), better weapons around him and a system that fits its players. That makes a huge difference.

With all due respect to you Mr. Mandel, Tebow didn't win the game. The refs gave it to Florida. And from here on, when anything happens in life -- anything -- remember, "the refs will give it to Florida." -- Eli, Bronx, N.Y.

I sprained my ankle last week playing softball. It hurts like holy hell. If the refs would like to give my pain to Florida, I would happily oblige.

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