Wednesday December 2nd, 2009

So, anything going on this week we should discuss? I can't recall a more news-heavy week in 10 years on this beat.

Hey Stewart, don't you think Bobby Bowden should have gone off into the sunset 10 years ago when you first covered him? He was 70 at the time. By 70 most people have already been retired for 10-15 years. I do cherish Bowden and what he has meant for the betterment of college football, but he should not have endured the last 10 years. -- Hilario Gonzalez, San Benito, Texas

I'll get into Bowden specifically in a second, but in general, football coaches tend to be wired a little differently than the rest of us. Coaching isn't just their vocation; it's their life. They don't work 9-5. They rarely take vacations. They don't worry about hitting a certain age and cashing in on their 401Ks. Fired coaches often put on the sunny spin that now they'll get to spend more time with their families, but by the start of the next season, they're itching to get back on a field. The only reason more 70-year-old coaches aren't roaming the sidelines is because few ever reach that level of job security.

Only Bowden can say what exactly kept bringing him back every year, but much of it probably falls along the lines of what I wrote above. If you're an 80-year-old football coach who's spent every autumn of your adult life on a sideline somewhere, I'd imagine it's almost impossible to envision doing anything else. This is particularly true for Bowden, who, as disturbing as this is to even broach, has openly admitted he worries for his own mortality. He watched his idol, Bear Bryant, pass away within months of retiring. His father, a banker, died from a heart attack less than a year after retiring. "After you retire, there's only one big event left," he's joked on numerous occasions. Now it doesn't sound quite so funny.

We all wish Bowden could have gone out on a better note, but I don't know when the right time would have been. Ten years ago, Bowden had no reason to retire. He had the cushiest gig in the country. His program was trucking along, yet he no longer had to do much of the heavy lifting. He was healthy, energetic and had no reason to believe things would change anytime soon. When the first cracks started to show during the Chris Rix era, Bowden, like the rest of us, assumed the 'Noles had merely hit a hiccup and would get things rolling again soon enough. Should he have heeded the signs and called it quits in, say, 2002? 2006? Who's to say?

Like Joe Paterno, Bowden never wavered in his belief that things would turn around. Unfortunately, they didn't. He wanted to go out on top, no matter how long it took to get back there. You can't fault him that desire. You could argue FSU should have let him make that decision, but the school also stood by him well past the point when things began deteriorating. You also can't fault FSU its desire to begin the next chapter.

Hi Stewart, one of the things I love about your columns is that you tell readers, especially those who root for "down" programs, to always remember that college football is cyclical. Yet, you seem to think it's impossible for Notre Dame to ever be "on top" again. Why are the Irish exempt from the cyclical nature of the sport? -- Dan, Toronto

Regarding the Notre Dame program: Isn't the problem just that it has hired a bunch of mediocre coaches of late? It's not like Bob Davie or Tyrone Willingham left ND to have greater success elsewhere. Doesn't the fall and resurrection of schools like Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas and USC show that, with the right leadership, programs once left for dead can spring back to life? -- Tom Geraghty, Charleston, W.Va.

I understand the comparison between Notre Dame and Alabama/Oklahoma/Texas/USC. They share similarly rich histories and national recognition. However, that's where the commonalities end. Notre Dame operates differently than all other former and current powerhouses, and while the school's commitment to maintaining its unique status is certainly admirable, it puts it at a significant disadvantage to those other schools. The sport has changed drastically over the past 20 years, but Notre Dame hasn't changed with it. That's where its "cycle" breaks.

Twenty years ago, the Irish were not alone among major independents, but by 1993, Florida State, Miami and Penn State had all joined conferences. Is it a coincidence that 1993 was also the last time Notre Dame came close to a national title? As I wrote Monday, today's blue-chip football prospects grow up watching certain conferences. Kids in Georgia and Louisiana dream of playing in the SEC. Kids in Texas dream of playing in the Big 12. Besides the South Side of Chicago and certain Midwestern Catholic conclaves, not a lot of kids today grow up specifically watching Notre Dame. So not only does the school have to recruit nationally, it has to sell prospects on why playing for Notre Dame is better than playing in a certain conference. Weis was able to sell Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd, et. al., on his pedigree as an NFL offensive Yoda, but I'm not sure what incentive he could offer to comparable defenders.

Fifteen years ago, Notre Dame's NBC deal truly was unique. It solidified the Irish as a true national program. But guess what? Today, pretty much every Florida/LSU/Ohio State/USC game is on national television, too. Heck, all but one Northwestern game this season was available in my New York City living room if I so desired. Chuck that one-time advantage out the window, too.

And then there are the academic restrictions. My friend John Walters, a Notre Dame alum, pointed out this week that the potential Heisman Trophy winner, Toby Gerhart, plays for Stanford. That's true. But Gerhart also plays for an 8-4 team. As I wrote earlier this season, today's Notre Dame's program is a lot closer to Stanford's than Southern Cal's. In fact, the Irish played about as well as they have all season against the Cardinal, and it was an evenly matched game. Notre Dame had too much talent to go 6-6 this season, and the blame for that falls squarely on Weis and his staff. But 8-4 was probably its logical ceiling. And 8-4 isn't good enough for most Irish fans.

Has Notre Dame flubbed its last three coaching hires? Absolutely. Notre Dame should never go 16-19 over a three-year period as it has under Weis. It needn't suffer regular five-win seasons like it did under Davie and Willingham. With the right coach, there's no reason the Irish can't win seven or eight games annually, and rise up to the 10-win, BCS-bowl level every three or four years. But it's unrealistic to think the Irish will stockpile elite players and finish in the top 10 every year like they did once upon a time.

In his article, Walters cites Alabama's long spat of mediocrity before hiring its home-run coach, Nick Saban, as a comparison to Notre Dame. But unlike Saban, Notre Dame's next coach can't sign 30-plus players knowing some won't qualify. He won't be able to land 95 percent of his roster from within the Southeast. That's why Alabama (and Florida, and Texas) will never stay down for long, and that's why coaches like Saban, Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops don't view the Notre Dame job with as much allure as its history would seem to warrant.

What does the BCS bowl picture look like if Texas loses to Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game? -- Gar Herring, Dallas

You mean what happens if the Huskers finally earn vengeance for the sins of James Brown? For you younger readers, Brown was the Texas quarterback who boldly proclaimed his 7-4 Longhorns team would upset 10-1 Nebraska in the 1996 Big 12 title game, then backed it up with a stunning 61-yard pass on fourth-and-inches late in the game to help end the Huskers' national title hopes. The parallel to this year's scenario is remarkable, though if 9-3 Nebraska knocks off 12-0 Texas, the score will more likely be 7-3 than 37-27.

If Ndamukong Suh and the boys pull it off, there will be complete chaos late Saturday night as the voters decide whether to elevate TCU or Cincinnati (provided it beats Pittsburgh) to No. 2. I have no idea how that would play out. (And no, I do not believe there would be an SEC title rematch). The Horned Frogs are ahead today, but the Bearcats may sway some people with a big win at Heinz Field (though Pitt's loss to West Virginia last week didn't help that cause).

Whatever the case, Nebraska would automatically go to the Fiesta Bowl as the Big 12 champ. Because neither TCU nor Cincinnati has an anchor bowl, the only game that would have to replace a team is the Sugar, which will take the Florida-Alabama loser. The Orange Bowl then has first pick of at-large teams, and I assume it would take Texas, leaving Penn State or Iowa for the Fiesta and TCU or Cincy for the Sugar. This is the one remaining scenario where Boise State gets left out.

With Little Caesars taking over the Motor City Bowl, and Papa John's having its own bowl, does this show the balance of power shifting from Pizza Hut and Domino's to smaller programs at Little Caesars and Papa John's? Is this a sign of parity in the pizza world? Do you see Little Caesars and Papa John's recruiting better delivery drivers than Pizza Hut or Domino's, two programs which traditionally have higher academic standards for their drivers? -- Jeff Pretzel, Houston

Good question. It seems to me Pizza Hut and Domino's have gotten a little complacent. They think they can just roll out a new bread bowl or calzone-type thing every couple of years and assume the fans will still flock to them. Papa John's takes a Boise State-type approach. Nobody can figure out exactly how it got where it is (is it the dipping sauce? the whole wheat crust?) but somehow it's right up there duking it out with the big boys. It doesn't have blue turf, but it does have its own little bowl game in Birmingham featuring a team from the mighty SEC. As for Little Caesars, it's kind of like Temple. Prior to this year's breakout season, few people even remembered the Owls still had a football team, and quite frankly, prior to the Detroit bowl naming, I couldn't have told you Little Caesars was still in business.

Why is everybody assuming Oregon will just run over Oregon State in the Civil War? OSU is at full strength and playing great right now. People will point to last year's game [a 65-38 Ducks victory], but both Rodgers brothers were out. Oregon's defense looked suspect to me against Arizona, and I think the Beavers will be able to exploit some things. -- PJ, Hillsborough, N.J.

You've got me. Vegas lists the Ducks as 10-point favorites, which seems awfully high for two rivals separated by a game in the standings. Normally I don't question the folks who set those lines, seeing as they're right about these things far more often than I, but we happen to be coming off a weekend loaded with rivalry upsets, including several (Georgia-Georgia Tech, N.C. State-North Carolina, Mississippi State-Ole Miss) involving far more disparate teams than the Civil War participants. Obviously, Oregon benefits from a huge advantage playing at Autzen, but football-wise, I feel the two teams are fairly similar.

Both boast extremely dangerous tailbacks. Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers (119.4) and Oregon's LaMichael James (119.1) sport almost identical rushing averages. James makes more big plays (6.9 yards per carry to Rodgers' 5.5); Rodgers scores more touchdowns (19 to 11). The Ducks' Jeremiah Masoli is obviously a far more dangerous runner than Beavers counterpart Sean Canfield, but Canfield (70.3 completion percentage, 2,797 yards, 19 touchdowns) has been a much more productive passer than Masoli (58.3, 1,865 yards, 14 TDs). Defensively, I'd put both teams in the "good but not great" department. Oregon's pass-rush could cause problems for Canfield, but Oregon State's 12th-ranked rushing defense will be the best the Ducks have seen all season.

Last year Oregon dashed the Beavers' Rose Bowl hopes in this game. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if Mike Riley's team gets revenge. But I just can't bring myself to pick against the Ducks at home. Oregon has scored at least 42 points in seven of its past eight games, the lone exception coming when Masoli was hurt. It's awfully hard to slow down that offense. The Ducks might not "run over" the Beavers, but they should win in a shootout.

Stewart, everyone seems to be talking about parity in this age of football. And the emergence of teams like Boise State, TCU, and Cincinnati seems to bear this notion out. But how do you reconcile the notion of parity with the fact that we still have six undefeated teams at almost the end of the season? If parity really had taken hold, wouldn't you expect the number of undefeated teams to be going down, not up? -- Dave Meyer, Corpus Christi, Texas

I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. As I wrote Sunday night, this has definitely not been a season of parity. We have six undefeated teams but not a single one-loss team. We have SEC and Big 12 teams winning their divisions by three or more games. As someone pointed out to me this week, the final nine-team Mountain West standings went in exact, descending order, from 8-0 to 0-8, with each team beating all the teams below it and losing to all the teams above it. Technically, not a single surprising result took place in that conference the entire season.

If every season for the next three or four years plays out in the exact same fashion, you'd be right to say, "Whoa, parity is dead." But like Dave said, just the mere presence of TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati in the top six shows how drastically the landscape has changed in recent years. Remember, we're only two years removed from Appalachian State-Michigan, Stanford-USC (when it was still considered a humongous upset) and a two-loss national champ. Time will tell whether that particularly turbulent season was a blip on the radar, but my guess is top-heavy seasons like this one will continue to be the rarity.

Missouri's Danario Alexander is ranked first in the country in total receiving yards and yards per game. He is second in receptions and had at least 200 yards in three of his past four games. How is he not a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award? -- Jordan, St. Louis

First of all, I'd just like to say I spent a delightful Thanksgiving in suburban St. Louis this past week visiting my girlfriend's family. You can't beat toasted ravioli and turkey within a 48-hour span. My hats off to the chefs at Café Napoli, and, of course, my lovely hosts in Creve Coeur.

There's a very simple, albeit stupid explanation for why Alexander got snubbed: He wasn't a semifinalist, which made it almost impossible for him to become a finalist. I don't vote on that particular award, but I do on a couple others like it. I'm probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but the voting procedures are pretty archaic.

In an effort both to get their names out as much as possible, and to "honor" as many different players as possible, most of these awards first put out a preseason "Watch" list. The Biletnikoff (run by the Tallahassee Quarterback Club) puts its out in August. There were 37 names on it. Alexander's was not one of them. Strike one. The first cut came back on Oct. 26, when Alexander had not yet gone on his hot streak. Voters were asked to select 10 semifinalists; he was not one of them. Finally, voters picked three finalists on Nov. 22. Theoretically, voters were free to list Alexander as a write-in candidate, and I know that several did, but apparently not enough.

Snubs like this happen every year in the Butkus/Lombardi/O'Brien, etc. awards and could easily be avoided if, like the Heisman, their handlers simply waited until the end of the season to start eliminating contenders.

Does the media really not see Tim Tebow for what he is? He is the most arrogant, egotistical figure in the history of sports. In classic "look at me, I'm Tim Tebow" fashion, he went out on Senior Day with another screaming fit that was complete nonsense. Everyone in America is so thankful that his time of basking in the spotlight is almost over. He will do absolutely nothing in the NFL and we will never have to hear about him ever again. It can't get here soon enough!! -- Brad, Dallas

Andy Staples had a line in his column from Saturday's game that exactly mirrors my thoughts whenever I read comments like this one:

"Whether you consider him genuine or fake, Tebow, at the end of the day, is a Heisman Trophy-, SEC- and BCS-title winning quarterback who goes to class, goes to church and circumcises people less fortunate than him. More people should be so intolerable."

While I certainly understand why non-Florida fans are "tired" of Tebow hype, the fact that so many people are actively hoping for the kid to fail is a really sad commentary on society. Fortunately, there's no shortage of money-driven/steroid-abusing/wife-cheating superstars they can root for in the pros who don't have the audacity to quote bible scripture or high-five their fans.

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