Sizing up Florida State and Miami's improvement; more mail

Wednesday October 30th, 2013

Jameis Winston and Florida State are more than three touchdown favorites against Miami this weekend.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
ESPN's Joe Tessitore discusses his call of the dramatic South Carolina-Missouri ending and other recent college football kicking fiascos.

One of the first really big games I covered for as a young lad was the Florida State-Miami classic on Oct. 7, 2000. I'd never been to Miami, much less covered a game there, but I got up to speed on what to expect quickly enough. I still remember the suffocating humidity and accompanying stench of the Orange Bowl, as well as the multiple fights that broke out in the stands just outside the press box. More than anything, however, I remember the sheer amount of talent on the field that day, when the seventh-ranked Hurricanes upset the No. 1 Seminoles 27-24. I'd never seen anything like it in person.

On Saturday, the intrastate rivals will meet again against a similar backdrop, and with similar stakes on the line. The rankings are nearly identical (Florida State is No. 3, Miami is No. 7). The Seminoles are again prime national title contenders, and the Hurricanes, coming off of recent struggles in victories over Wake Forest and North Carolina, are hoping for another breakthrough victory. And yet this game feels entirely different from the one in 2000. That game was an upset, but the result wasn't completely surprising. A Miami win this week, on the other hand, would be considered a full-fledged stunner.

Stewart, what do you think is the difference between Jimbo Fisher's squad in 2013 and his previous seasons? Is it simply Jameis Winston? Florida State seems to be destroying the teams it should instead of playing not to lose. The difference between the NC State game this season and last season is the most obvious example.
-- Chris, Dallas

NC State is not the best example, as it is 3-4 and clearly struggling in coach Dave Doeren's debut campaign, whereas last year's Wolfpack had quarterback Mike Glennon and a pulse. But your general assessment is correct. Florida State seemed to play much tighter in Fisher's first three seasons at the helm. It did win 12 games and an ACC title last year with one of the nation's best defenses, but its offense -- despite the presence of a future first-round NFL quarterback in EJ Manuel -- was all over the map. Remember last December's uninspiring 21-15 win over 6-6 Georgia Tech in the ACC title game? Or the fact that Florida State led Northern Illinois just 17-10 heading into the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl? While the 2012 'Noles had their moments, such as their second-half explosion in a 49-37 win over Clemson, neither Fisher nor his offense came off as overly confident.

STAPLES: Florida State sits at No. 3 in latest college football Power Rankings

Obviously, transcendent quarterback Winston is the biggest difference for a squad now averaging 52.6 points per game, and I've previously written about how his swagger has seemingly rubbed off on the entire team. But it's not all Winston. His supporting cast has gotten a lot better, too. Last year, receiver Kelvin Benjamin was a raw redshirt freshman and fellow wideout Kenny Shaw was largely a career underachiever. This fall, along with receiver Rashad Greene, Benjamin and Shaw are making one big play after another. The offensive line, which started four true freshmen in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, remained a work-in-progress last year. Now, it boasts experience across the board, including a couple of guys, tackle Cameron Erving and center Bryan Stork, who are among the best in the country at their respective positions.

Manuel was no slouch last season. He completed 68 percent of his passes, and his average of 8.8 yards per attempt ranked ninth nationally. Winston is completing 69.9 percent of his throws, but his yards per attempt is way up at 11.9, second only to Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty. Part of that stems from Winston's exceptional talent, but part of it also comes from Fisher feeling comfortable enough to make more aggressive play calls and the receivers getting open and blocking downfield. There's always potential for the 'Noles' annual egg-laying game, but it would truly come out of nowhere this season. They're just a much better team.

Just about everyone in college football says Miami should not be ranked No. 7, and they say it with a disdain normally reserved for suggestions that a non-AQ program play for the national title. I understand the 'Canes haven't been dominant like the other undefeated teams, but seriously, no love for The U? What's up with that?
-- Keith, Grand Prairie, Texas

It's hard to view Miami's 7-0 record without a little bit of skepticism, if for no other reason than where the program was prior to this year. Consider that the top-five teams in the latest BCS standings -- Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State and Stanford -- all won at least 12 games last season. Most have been dominant over several recent campaigns. The 'Canes, by comparison, lost at least five games in each of the past three seasons. Even fellow undefeated Baylor has a slightly better recent track record. So while there's no question Miami has significantly improved, it seems implausible that the 'Canes are already back at BCS title-level contention. Close calls against North Carolina and Wake Forest have reinforced that perception.

Also, the undefeated teams ranked above the Hurricanes have set the bar pretty darn high. Florida State beat a top-10 team, Clemson, 51-14 on the road and has won every contest by a minimum of 14 points. Miami's résumé is quite a bit flimsier, with its 21-16 win over Florida now devalued and three of its other victories coming against Florida Atlantic, USF and Savannah State.

I'm not saying Miami shouldn't be ranked seventh. It's pretty meaningless where the 'Canes are ranked right now given how much that number will fluctuate after their next two games against the 'Noles and Virginia Tech. If I had to guess, this will be the last time Miami enjoys a ranking quite this high in the short-term, but there's no reason it can't win 10 or 11 games, capture the ACC Coastal and land back in the top 10 by season's end. No matter what happens this Saturday, Miami could get another crack at Florida State in December, by which point one or both teams could be playing differently.

Stewart: What's with all the love for UCLA these days? It was destroyed by Oregon, trailed the entire game against Stanford and has one good road win at a struggling Nebraska. I find it difficult to see how it's ranked above many one-loss teams, and I am confused about the lack of respect for Michigan State. The Spartans are 7-1 and have the No. 1 defense in the country, yet they barely cracked the polls this week. If they were in the SEC, the media hype machine would easily have this team ranked in the top 15.
-- Chris, Washington, D.C.

UCLA has endured a rough couple of games, but I'm guessing we'd be saying the same thing about almost any team that had to face Stanford and Oregon on the road in consecutive weeks. I covered both games, and I came away with a much different impression of the Bruins than I had going in. For the first season and a half of coach Jim Mora's tenure, we mostly associated UCLA with quarterback Brett Hundley and the offense, which began this year by putting up big numbers. But the truth is UCLA's offense has serious issues: Its young offensive line can't protect Hundley against top-flight defenses, and its running game is limited. However, the Bruins' defense is much better than I realized, particularly Anthony Barr and his fellow linebackers. To say UCLA was "destroyed" by Oregon ignores that the game was tied 14-14 late in the third quarter. Stanford only led UCLA 17-10 until Cardinal tailback Tyler Gaffney scored a touchdown with 1:42 remaining. The Bruins may never have been the ninth-best team in the country, but they're certainly a top-15 or top-20 team.

As for the Spartans, I'm not sure whether they're being overlooked or they're simply too difficult to watch. Their defensive numbers are ridiculous. They rank No. 1 nationally in total defense (215.5 yards per game), allowing nearly 30 yards per game fewer than the next stingiest team (Louisville). They rank No. 1 in rushing defense (54.9 yards per game) by a whopping 25-yard margin. And they're surrendering a national-low 4.7 yards per passing attempt. The next closest team, Florida State, allows 5.2.

That said, Michigan State has not exactly faced a murderer's row of opposing offenses. It is just two games removed from a bizarre 14-0 win over awful Purdue, which has allowed at least 31 points to every other FBS foe. While I don't totally disagree with the SEC hype element to the rankings, the fact is that one-loss Missouri won at then top-10 foe Georgia, and one-loss Auburn won at then top-10 foe Texas A&M. The Spartans have no such quality victory, and they won't get many opportunities, though this week's game against rival Michigan should draw some eyeballs.

Why is Notre Dame failing to get any respect in the polls this year? The Irish are 6-2 and unranked in the AP Top 25. Arizona State, which is 5-2 and lost to Notre Dame, is No. 25. Michigan State, which is 7-1 and lost to Notre Dame, is No. 24. How is a team that went to the national championship last season unranked after starting 6-2 the following year with two wins over ranked opponents? The Irish's two losses also came to ranked foes (Michigan and Oklahoma).
-- Rob, Boston

Your points seem logical enough. But honestly, once I get down into the 20-25 range of the polls, my eyes mostly glaze over. Sure, rank 'em.

STAPLES: Everett Golson admits to cheating at Notre Dame, discusses future

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was criticized again following the Cornhuskers' loss to Minnesota on Saturday.
Doug McSchooler/AP

The big question regarding coach Bo Pelini and Husker Nation is who out there is better? I would like to throw this wrinkle out and see if it sticks. Oregon has a pretty good team and has an assistant coach who has been working up the ranks. If Oregon makes it to the championship game and looks good, would this coach be looked at? Yes, Scott Frost has had a frosty relationship with Husker Nation, but the guy did win Nebraska's last national championship.
-- Collin Lacher, Sioux Falls

Can we start the Scott Frost to Lincoln countdown?
-- Dave, Hangzhou, China

Who out there is better? Gosh, where do I start? I give Nebraska fans credit for continuing to support Pelini for as long as they have, but come on. Enough is enough. This is Pelini's sixth year, not his third. He has done some nice things for the program, but his reputation was built on dominant defenses. Nebraska's defense just keeps getting worse. And the Huskers don't do anything particularly unique on offense. Nebraska is not the plum job it was in 1997, but it's still awfully attractive. There is no shortage of innovative coaches out there who would gladly come to Lincoln.

Which brings us to Frost, Nebraska's national championship quarterback in 1997 and Oregon's first-year play-caller (and fifth-year assistant) in 2013. I've been impressed that the Ducks' offense not only hasn't regressed so far post-Chip Kelly, but the play-calling actually seems more imaginative than ever before. It's logical to make the connection and suggest Frost, 38, could come in and have a Kliff Kingsbury-like effect at Nebraska.

But a head coach is responsible for much more than simply calling plays. Kingsbury's suave personality suits him perfectly in his roles as a media representative and program ambassador. Frost, as Collin aptly put it, is quite frosty. I've noticed that he's getting better with the media this year with his increased visibility, but he clearly remains uncomfortable with that part of the job. Still, that might not be enough to negate his credentials.

To this point, it's strange but true that no major program has hired away one of Kelly's former assistants to install the wildly successful Oregon system at another school. That seems like a no-brainer. At Nebraska, where it can be sometimes be difficult to recruit, that offense could be just what the program needs. Heck, it's like a second cousin to Tom Osborne's triple-option.

MURPHY: Polar opposites off the field, Oregon and Stanford becoming fierce rivals on it

New head coaches sometimes struggle in year one due to a combination of the cupboard being bare and the time it takes to install a new system. The other explanation for a bad first year is that a new head coach is a product of the Peter Principle, which suggests that the year one performance is indicative of the next two to three years before he is inevitably fired. Which explanation do you think fits best for the following coaches: Dave Doeren (NC State), Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Darrell Hazell (Purdue) and Sonny Dykes (Cal)?
-- Mark, Raleigh, N.C.

I was not the most attentive or retentive student in college, so I can probably count on one hand the number of tidbits I remember from any of my non-journalism classes. But the Peter Principle (Sociology 101) -- which states that workers eventually get promoted one step beyond their level of ability -- stuck right away. And it is so, so true. In college football, this should probably be renamed the Zook Postulate.

It's too soon to rule definitively about any of those guys, though I'd be the most confident weighing in on Dykes. I find it hard to believe that a guy who produced the top offense in the country at Louisiana Tech can't eventually find success in the Pac-12. Right now, he's remaking what had become a somewhat toxic culture (as evidenced by Cal's recently released FBS-low graduation rate) under Jeff Tedford. The Bears actually looked better than expected early in 2013 before suffering a rash of injuries.

Of the group, the guy most likely to be a product of the Peter Principle is Hazell, who Purdue hired based off one great season at Kent State. While mediocre for some time, the Boilers at least went to bowl games in the past two seasons. This year's team is terrible. But sometimes restart years like this are necessary to change a culture, so I'm far from ready to write off Hazell or anyone else on this list.

Hey Stewart, Michigan State and Arizona State haven't really beaten anybody. Granted, Notre Dame hasn't either, but it has beaten the Spartans and the Sun Devils. All three human polls have Michigan State ahead of Notre Dame, and two of the three have Arizona State ahead of the Irish. With the Oklahoma loss not looking so bad now, is the human bias against Notre Dame still backlash from last year's title game? Or is it just plain bias?
-- Matt C, Columbus, Ohio

Really, two questions about this? Which would be more palatable: Human bias or just plain bias? Since those are the only reasonable explanations.

Why are both the Baylor-Oklahoma and Oregon-Stanford games being played on a Thursday night (Nov. 7)? I can't imagine either conference is thrilled that their marquee game of the year is going against the other one AND an NFL game. Is this just a byproduct of Fox Sports 1 trying to establish itself against ESPN? Or should we get used to seeing counter-programming like this for the foreseeable future?
-- Dan Lawler, Houston

The main reason is this year's advent of Fox Sports 1, which has aired a Thursday night game all but two weeks so far, though none nearly of the magnitude of Baylor-Oklahoma. But remember, these games were picked before the season began. In August, how many people would have guessed that Baylor-Oklahoma would pit two potential top-10 teams? It should be a boon for FS1, especially given the earlier start time (7:30 p.m. ET) and the national curiosity surrounding Baylor in its first high-profile game.

ELLIS: Where does Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty fall in the Heisman Watch?

As for Oregon-Stanford, that's a Larry Scott special. Obviously, the conference knew full well this could be a red-letter game, but its TV-minded commissioner doesn't mind moving a big game to Thursday night if it brings additional exposure. As it is, the Pac-12 has not been happy with some of the networks' programming decisions this year. Last week's UCLA-Oregon game was the Ducks' first East Coast primetime game of the season. Stanford had one back on Sept. 21 against Arizona State (on FOX). This one will likely draw a far bigger audience than usual, even with the Baylor-Oklahoma overlap, so the league is likely thrilled with its slot, despite its inconvenience for the locals. (Take it from one of them: There will be far more people stuck in traffic on El Camino Real at 6 p.m. on a Thursday than will be in Stanford Stadium at kickoff.)

I'll be interested to see the respective ratings. For the most part, ESPN has dialed down its Thursday lineup since the NFL went to a full-season Thursday schedule, and it will probably continue to pick its spots. But perhaps Fox will become more aggressive next season if it sees a big return here.

Notre Dame remains unranked in the AP Top 25. This poll includes the two teams to defeat the Irish (No. 13 Oklahoma and No. 23 Michigan), as well as two teams that Notre Dame has defeated (No. 24 Michigan State and No. 25 Arizona State). The Irish have played some close games against some bad teams, but has the Notre Dame hate in this country finally permeated the Associated Press?
-- Ryan, Lidenhurst, Ill.

OK, you've worn me down. Yes, the AP Poll electorate consists of a bunch of biased, venom-spewing anti-Notre Dame heathens. What other explanation could there possibly be as to how Alabama passed Notre Dame last year for the most AP national titles?

... Oh. Right.

4:36 | College Football
Staples' Midweek Update: Week 10

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.