Sun Devils' sleeper potential, cause for concern in Stillwater; more mail
Every year around this time someone asks the following, admittedly intriguing question, which inevitably sets me up to look like an idiot by midseason. I swear I don't throw darts to come up with the answer -- though that may well be a more accurate method.
First, a disclaimer: To say there have been "several" national title sleepers since 2000 is a bit misleading, because the two John mentioned are the only two that started outside of the top 15 and went on to win it all. So basically, it happens about once a decade, which means I'd bet the house that the 2011 national champion will be Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, Oregon or another team likely to be ranked high this preseason. But if I have to attempt to defy history...
When looking for a team likely to improve by several wins, the single biggest factor generally is finding a squad that performed better last season than its record indicates. Arizona State certainly fits that description. The Sun Devils went 6-6 overall last year and 4-5 in Pac-10 play, but they had only one truly bad loss, a 50-17 defeat at Cal. They lost 20-19 at Wisconsin on a blocked extra point; they lost by a point at USC and held Stanford to a season-low 17; and they played Oregon tough for three quarters before ultimately being done in by a staggering seven turnovers.
Another common thread among sleeper teams is that they're coming off a coaching change that may have required adjustment time. Dennis Erickson has been ASU's head coach since 2007, but last year he brought in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to remold the Sun Devils into a spread passing team. Since leaving the NFL in 2008, Mazzone has immersed himself in the Mike Leach/Dana Holgorsen-style passing attack. As a result, ASU passed a lot last season, but not very efficiently. That is until quarterback Brock Osweiler took over for an injured Steven Threet in the second-to-last game against UCLA and proceeded to throw for 647 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over the Bruins and Arizona.
Threet has given up football due to multiple concussions, but Osweiler is back, along with nearly every other offensive starter from a year ago. Sophomore tailback Deantre Lewis flashed star potential the first half of last season before a shoulder injury slowed him down. He and classmate Kyle Middlebrooks should dramatically improve ASU's running game. And gifted (though absurdly combustible) linebacker Vontaze Burfict returns to lead a potentially dominant rushing defense.
The schedule is very manageable, save for a daunting Oct. 15 trip to Oregon. It may take a colossal upset, or a rematch opportunity in the Pac-12 title game, for ASU to deliver on its sleeper potential. Or, ASU could wilt under the hype, go 5-7, and cost Erickson his job. But hey, John wanted a sleeper, and I assumed Florida State didn't count.
By now it should be obvious that Navy needs to be taken seriously, no matter how many five-star athletes the competition has, or what conference it plays in. The Midshipmen run their unique offense incredibly well, and if a team is not prepared to stop it, Navy will run wild. See last year's Notre Dame game: Navy found a hole inside and just kept pounding away with fullback Alexander Teich, who finished with 210 of the Midshipmen's 367 rushing yards. And that was a Notre Dame defense that went on to dominate its last four opponents.
Navy will have a chance to catch South Carolina off guard, especially with the Gamecocks coming off their always-important clash with Georgia the week before, but two things will be working against the Midshipmen. For one, dynamic quarterback Ricky Dobbs is gone, and while successor Kriss Proctor is not inexperienced (he filled in for Dobbs and ran for 201 yards against Central Michigan), he's not likely to provide the same passing threat as Dobbs, which helped keep foes honest. But more notably, the Navy defense -- which returns just five starters -- is going to have a hard time handling guys like Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. Navy will have to hope the Gamecocks come out flat on both sides of the ball.
I certainly think the Cowboys should be viewed as a potential BCS bowl contender. They weren't that far off the past two years (9-4 and 11-2 seasons, respectively), but season-ending Bedlam losses to Oklahoma kept them just short. And I'm certainly salivating over the possibilities of another year of Weeden-to-Blackmon. Running back Kendall Hunter is gone, but Joseph Randle showed as a freshman that he can be a capable replacement. There's no question this team is stacked offensively.
But I'm more inclined to think the Cowboys hit their ceiling last year. For one, there's no understating the impact Holgorsen had in his lone season as offensive coordinator. Mike Gundy had some highly productive offenses before, but nothing close to last year's unit, which ranked third nationally in total offense (520.3 yards per game), second in passing (345.9) and third in scoring (44.2). SI.com contributor George Schroeder visited Stillwater this spring and told
The Cowboys don't have the same overall talent level as Oklahoma, Texas or even Texas A&M, so they have to try to outscore them. Last year showed they may be able to do that most weeks, but at some point they'll have to stop somebody if they want to go undefeated.
It's never too early to start soliciting nominees for the Eighth Year Senior Team, especially now that longtime captain Mitch Mustain has finally moved on. Garcia, who's had a suspension for each year he's been in school (five), is certainly on the list, though he'll be backing up Houston's Case Keenum (back for a sixth season) at quarterback. I'd also submit for your consideration: Florida running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, USC linebacker Chris Galippo (I believe he was MVP of the 2003 U.S. Army game), Georgia running back Caleb King, Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, Texas running back Fozzy Whitaker and Oregon State receiver James Rodgers.
While I understand your frustration, you might want to rethink your analogy. The NCAA, which you're saying is too harsh on individual players who violate rules, did not decide the Fiesta Bowl's BCS fate; the BCS did. Meanwhile, the individuals involved in the Fiesta Bowl malfeasance
What you're calling for is a more severe punishment against the Fiesta Bowl as an
I know this is a compliment of my vocabulary disguised as a complaint ... but I'll take it, considering all the complaints I normally receive about mixing up "nevertheless" and "much less," using "flaunt" when I mean "flout" and generally bungling the English language.
Well first, remember that there was no guarantee the Utah-BYU series would continue once the two went their separate ways last summer. Utah had to scramble and break one of its existing nonconference contracts for this year (a game against Boise State), and it had to find a date that wouldn't conflict with the Pac-12's as-yet-unannounced schedule. Therefore, it scheduled this and next year's games for mid-September.
Larry Scott has made it a point that going forward he wants the stretch run of the season to be reserved primarily for conference games, as a buildup to the championship. In fact, the newly announced deal with ESPN and Fox explicitly restricts nonconference games to the first three weeks of the season, unless all 12 athletic directors grant a waiver. USC and Stanford have already received said waiver for their rotating year-end games with Notre Dame. Presumably Utah could ask for one going forward, but it wasn't likely to push for one as the new kid on the block. In the meantime, it only makes sense that Utah and Colorado (which itself lost its annual Thanksgiving weekend date with Nebraska) fill the mutual void on their schedules.
The upshot is that this year's Holy War will be played in prime time on Sept. 17 on ESPN2 -- as a BYU independent home game, mind you, not a Pac-12 game -- marking the first time in seven years most people outside of Utah will see it. It's at 9:15 p.m. ET, so I'm guessing a lot of folks will flip over in the third quarter after the Oklahoma-Florida State and Ohio State-Miami games end.
I sometimes get the feeling people would love nothing more than for me to fill an entire Mailbag with those e-mails and my snarky retorts. But that would delve from amusing to mean, and I'd hate to be known as a party-pooper.
But I don't want to be a party-pooper! Oh, if you insist...
INDIANAPOLIS (Jan. 4, 2024) -- Texas defeated Stony Brook last night in the thrilling iPad 17.0 NCAA Championship Game presented by Five Guys, ending the 13th-seeded Sea Wolves' quest for a Cinderella trophy. The game capped yet another thrilling edition of "December Madness," the 16-team college playoff that's captivated America in the 10 years since a grueling Department of Justice investigation prompted leaders of the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series to finally throw up their hands in defeat and turn over control of the postseason to the folks in Indianapolis.
The 2023-24 tourney set yet another ratings record for ESPNU27, which has helped turn the college postseason into the most popular sporting event outside of the Super Bowl, drawing even more viewers than the 73rd season of
"These are the greatest four weeks in sports," said Texas head coach Major Applewhite. "We're just so fortunate that our third-string quarterback stepped up after the first two went down earlier in the tournament, and that half our freshman class allowed us to pull their redshirt in the semis. They really sacrificed for the team, just like all those guys in casts back in our locker room."
While Monday night's game served as a memorable finale, the season leading up to it was mostly forgettable. Regular-season attendance was down across the country for the ninth straight year, as fans at Penn State, Nebraska and other schools with large stadiums stopped turning out once their teams were eliminated from playoff contention. This year's Alabama-Auburn game, once the sport's fiercest rivalry, was played in front of 20,000 empty seats, as both teams entered the game just 5-6.
Once upon a time those teams would still have gone into their season finale with bowl berths on the line. However, 28 of the 35 bowl games played in 2010 went out of business within three years of the playoff's inception, as ESPN realized it could get higher ratings airing weeknight shows previewing the following weekend's playoff action than it could showing the Alamo Bowl. The Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls continue, but, much like basketball's NIT, they've become known mostly as scores that run across the ticker during playoff games.
Meanwhile, in the month since the regular season ended, Ohio State, Florida, Iowa and 17 other schools fired coaches who failed to reach the playoffs. All had been on the job no more than three years, now the average tenure for most head coaches.
In other news, Illinois captured the first-ever Limbo League championship last weekend. Upon seeing a drastic decline in fan interest among teams that rarely win their conference (and thus rarely reach the playoff), about half of schools formerly in conferences like the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC could no longer afford to fund their programs and decided to drop down to a newly created NCAA level somewhere between FBS and FCS. The Illini emerged from a field that also included Oregon State, Baylor and N.C. State. Only the SEC remained fully intact, with Ole Miss still dogged in its belief that it will one day climb the mountaintop. It has gone through eight coaches in 10 years.
There are still 64 FBS teams, the symmetry of which has led to an emergency meeting of the NCAA's board of directors next month. There, they will discuss the ongoing debate to expand the tournament to 32 teams.
"It's the right thing to do," said Virginia Tech coach Stan Greenberg, whose team was denied an at-large berth for the seventh straight year. "The system we have now is a joke."