Punt, Pass & Pork: Could playoff selection committee have style bias? Plus, Week 11 college football analysis.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Maybe Nick Saban was talking to the College Football Playoff selection committee on Saturday night, or maybe he simply voiced the preference of his generation. Or maybe those two things are one and the same.
After Alabama gutted out a 20-13 overtime win against an LSU team that lined up heavy much of the time and ran on 56 of 82 plays, Saban sounded a little nostalgic as he described a football game that, at times, looked like a demolition derby featuring bulldozers. "I love it. I love it," said the 63-year-old coach with a grin, his reading glasses on the table in front of him in case he needed to peruse the stat sheet. "That's a tough physical game. That's old-fashioned ball. That's the kind of football that when I played, you played. Nothing spread about that. You better butt the guy in the throat that's across from you. Both sides. Get your hands inside and control the blocker and get off and get ready to hit a 230-pound [tailback] rolling through there behind a 250-pound [fullback]. We did it all day. Fifty-six times."
That's the football version of the walking-to-school-10-miles-through-the-snow-uphill-both-ways speech. It romanticizes a bygone era that probably wasn't all that much better -- and certainly wasn't more TV friendly -- than the current one. It's understandable that Saban would love it. He grew up with that type of football and played it during his formative years. It's the same reason 20-year-olds feel about Kanye West the way 40-year-olds feel about Pearl Jam and 60-year-olds feel about the Rolling Stones. Nostalgia is a powerful, persuasive force.
This raises an interesting question about the selection committee. Now that the sport has shifted and the bunched-up, two-back offense has fallen out of fashion, will nostalgia and personal experience make the selection committee (median age: 60) either consciously or subconsciously favor the teams that look more like the ones they grew up with (or coached)? If so, that's great news for Alabama and Florida State, which use offensive and defensive personnel that resemble teams committee members remember from their young adulthood. It might be bad news for Oregon, Arizona State, Baylor, TCU and Ohio State, which all favor relatively modern offensive styles that represent the new normal.
"We were really built to beat a team like LSU," Saban said on Saturday. "When we came in the league [in 2007], that's what this league was. It's not that way any more. You need smaller, faster guys to do all the spread stuff. We still have some big guys."
Based on the first two rankings the committee produced, Alabama must have scored well on the eye test, because it ranked the highest of teams without a premium win. Now that the Crimson Tide have one -- and because Auburn took its second loss in a 41-38 defeat to Texas A&M -- Bama will almost certainly vault into the top four this week. The Tide should feel confident they'll be considered the king of the one-loss teams so long as they keep winning. Why? Guess the name of the person who gave the following quote, and you'll have some idea.
"We play football. And I love it."
That quote came from Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez. He said it to Pete Thamel and me after the Badgers’ victory over Ohio State in 2010. Alvarez wanted to distinguish between Wisconsin's smashmouth style and the version of the spread Buckeyes coaches had installed to best utilize quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s talents. What Wisconsin played, Alvarez implied, was real football.
Alvarez is on the committee. So is Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, a former graduate assistant under Bo Schembechler who hired Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin to run a program that is schematically similar to Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville. So is former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who elevated the option to an art form. (Though the option has always been a bit of a rebel offense, so Osborne may be a wild card.) If committee members, most of whom have a generational attachment to the same brand of football Saban loves, consider what Alabama and Florida State do to be real football and what everyone else does to be something else, that would give the Tide and Seminoles an edge as the committee deliberates among teams with very little margin between them.
It’s understandable why the College Football Playoff would assemble a committee full of people who have accrued a lot of valuable life experience. The playoff wants people who have built up some equity, because equity is required for credibility. But having members aged 54 to 77, as this committee does, creates a different kind of diversity vacuum. As members roll off the committee, director Bill Hancock should consider adding some (relative) youth. There have to be a few retired NFL players in their 20s or 30s who pay close attention to college football and didn’t go into college coaching or the media. Those would be the ideal candidates. They would bring fresher experience with the game and a different perspective because they didn’t grow up with the same game the other committee members did.
Of course, a current committee member accused of such a subconscious nostalgia bias could make a salient point using recent history. Four of the past five national champions have utilized an old-school approach. That's three Alabama teams and last year's Florida State squad, but the facts are the facts. That style has been awfully effective at winning national titles.
Also, some committee members may break ranks with their generation. West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck and Clemson AD Dan Radakovich employ football coaches who run up-tempo spread offenses. USC AD Pat Haden fired current Bama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and replaced him with Steve Sarkisian, who favors an up-tempo attack.
Meanwhile, some adherents to the "real football" philosophy have recently changed their minds. TCU is in the playoff hunt this year because coach Gary Patterson finally broke down and installed an up-tempo spread. Florida coach Will Muschamp moved that direction on offense while trying to save his job. (We still don't know yet if that worked.) Even Saban's team -- under offensive coordinators Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier and now Kiffin -- has proven adept at spreading the field and pushing the tempo on occasion, though Saban continues to recruit around a power offense.
For Alabama and Florida State, continued winning should render any ideological debate moot. "We can't pay attention to that," Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. "All these external factors with the ratings, that's glamour stuff." But should there be a debate about whether the Tide belong in the playoff, the fact that they run the least glamorous schemes could be helpful if those schemes are indeed what most committee members consider to be real football.
However, the debate between the high-scoring spread and the slugfests Saban loves may not break down entirely along generational lines. Kelly is in his early 20s, and he sides with Alvarez and Saban. Or perhaps Kelly just has an old soul. "This is football to me," he said. "I've never been in one of those kind of offenses. This is how I played in high school -- a power offense. This is all the football I've ever known."
Projected College Football Playoff
Once again, the margin between team No. 1 and team No. 8 remains perilously thin. I do not envy the selection committee one bit.
1. Florida State
Quarterback Jameis Winston settled down again after throwing a pair of early interceptions, and the Seminoles rolled to a 34-20 win over Virginia. But Winston knows his team might take a loss if he continues to throw picks. Winston has six interceptions in Florida State's past three games, and opponents have turned those turnovers into five touchdowns. "Make smarter decisions, stop always looking for the big play," Winston told reporters on Saturday. "I stressed about checking the ball down and making smart decisions, and I've got to go back to that. I can't be careless with the ball." With a visit to resurgent Miami next on the schedule, Winston and the Seminoles will absolutely have to be more careful.
2. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs warmed up for Alabama by whipping Tennessee-Martin 45-16 in Starkville. This week they'll fight for their place in the playoff in Tuscaloosa. A loss won't necessarily knock Mississippi State out of the race, but a win would give it the cleanest path of any contender besides Florida State. "This is what you play for," Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen told reporters on Saturday. "We're in the middle of November, competing for first place in the SEC West, which is what it's all about. That's what you come here for. That's what we want our program to be like."
A smart play by the Ducks following a dumb one by Utah (more on that later) kick-started an impressive road win in one of the Pac-12's toughest environments. The Ducks should have little trouble in games against Colorado and Oregon State, but a matchup with the Pac-12 South champ remains on Dec. 5. However, if Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, who went out Saturday with an undisclosed left leg injury, is lost for more than two weeks, the Ducks' offense could suffer. Grasu has been the glue bonding an offensive line ravaged by injuries.
Anyone who witnessed the Crimson Tide's back-from-the-dead victory on Saturday in Baton Rouge would be hard-pressed to bet against Bama from this point forward. Alabama probably won't play a better defense than LSU’s this season, and while the Tide will face better offenses than the Tigers’ unit, they should be able to keep pace thanks to their plethora of offensive weapons. Now that quarterback Blake Sims has learned he can survive Death Valley, he should feel confident he can win anywhere.
A random ranking
We've had some work done on the kitchen recently, which means we watched a lot of HGTV for inspiration. Here are the top five shows on that network.
1. Fixer Upper
It's the best because there is no schticky competition -- just somebody getting a tricked-out house in Waco for about 75 cents. Hosts (and Baylor grads) Chip and Joanna are the Art Briles of home improvement, unapologetically doing it their way.
2. Property Brothers
The brothers always bring the couple to a house matching every nitpicky demand that husband and wife made. The couple is always ready to buy. The looks on their faces when they realize their dream house will cost $500,000 more than they have to spend are never not priceless.
3. House Hunters International
Seemingly every episode ends with my wife ranting about the sanity of people who want to move their toddlers to a remote Central American fishing village. This is more entertaining than the show itself, but it doesn't happen without the show.
4. Flip or Flop
Of course there's a colony of snakes living behind the drywall of that three-bedroom in Tustin, Calif., that Tarek and Christina bought sight unseen.
5. Love It Or List It
This is here because every time David or one of the homeowners says "en suite," I want to petition Congress to send the Army to invade Toronto and force every single person to say "master bathroom" like a God-fearing American would.
Play of the week
A split second of thoughtlessness can undo a week’s worth of preparation. Meanwhile, a well-coached team can turn a gaffe into a season-saver. That’s the takeaway from the strangest play of the year.
Utah receiver Kaelin Clay was gliding toward the end zone on Saturday for what should have been a 79-yard touchdown catch that would have put the Utes up 14-0 on Oregon in the second quarter. Instead, Clay dropped the ball in celebration two yards shy of the end zone and gave the Ducks a way back into the game.
While Clay and his teammates rejoiced in the end zone, stunned Oregon linebacker Erick Dargan looked at a nearby official, seemingly trying to discern whether the ball was still live. Dargan picked it up, and that’s when the only Utah player who understood what was happening showed up. Tight end Westlee Tonga nearly saved Clay and the Utes the embarrassment of the lowlight of the season when he wrestled Dargan for the ball. Dargan dropped it, but Oregon linebacker Joe Walker picked it up.
What happened next is why Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, defensive coordinator Don Pellum and the Ducks should take a bow. With all the wackiness surrounding that play, it would make sense if some of the Ducks had trotted to the sideline or started preparing to defend the PAT. Instead, the Ducks formed a convoy -- insert your own Gordon Bombay Flying V joke here -- and guided Walker 99 yards down the field. The 14-point swing may have changed the outcome of the game. Though Oregon is capable of scoring in bunches, that might have provided the Utes with a momentum advantage that even the Ducks might not have overcome.
As officials reviewed the play, it was heartbreaking to watch Clay star in his own Southwest “Wanna Get Away?” commercial. After the game, he owned his mistake. “I know how important points are, especially against a team like this,” said Clay, who finished with 331 all-purpose yards in the 51-27 loss. “I take full responsibility for what happened tonight. I will take the criticism and the blame. It was just one of those things. I got excited and let the moment just get away from me. Again, I take full responsibility for this.”
Clay probably heard an earful from coaches after he struck a Heisman pose during a win at Michigan earlier this fall, but perhaps he should consider that pose after every touchdown from now on. It would require him to hold onto the ball.
Big Ugly of the week
Though Alabama offensive lineman-turned-tight end Brandon Greene gets an honorable mention for making his first career catch in a huge spot on the first play of overtime at LSU -- and though Tide offensive tackle Cam Robinson also gets an honorable mention for convincingly pretending to be a target on the same play -- this week’s award goes to Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, who wrecked West Virginia’s offense in the Longhorns’ 33-16 win.
Reed made 12 tackles against the Mountaineers: Four went for a loss, and three were sacks. Reed sacked West Virginia’s Clint Trickett for a safety in the fourth quarter, and on the Mountaineers’ next possession, Reed sacked Trickett and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. It was a truly dominant performance for a team that improves with each passing week.
1. So, how should the playoff selection committee consider Ohio State now? Yes, the Buckeyes lost at home to Virginia Tech 35-21 on Sept. 6. And, yes, the Hokies do have five losses with several more losable games left on the schedule. But the Buckeyes beat Michigan State on Saturday just as Oregon beat Michigan State on Sept. 6. More impressively, Ohio State accomplished the feat at Spartan Stadium.
Ohio State is not the same team that lost to the Hokies earlier this fall. Back then, quarterback J.T. Barrett had been thrown into a role he wasn’t expecting following Braxton Miller’s preseason shoulder injury. Barrett, who missed his senior season in high school with an injury, was starting only his second football game since 2011. Two months later he looks like the best quarterback in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. Still, thanks to the weakness of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes will have to play the political game to have a chance to get into the playoff. Based on what we’ve seen from the committee, a one-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champ will be given much heavier consideration than the Buckeyes. So Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a grizzled veteran of postseason politics going back to busting the BCS with Utah in ’04, will have to make his case often during the next few weeks.
He wasn’t quite ready to do that on Saturday when asked if he thought the Buckeyes were a playoff team, but this is exactly the type of stuff Meyer said about his Utes team in 2004 and his Florida team in ’06 in the early stages of stumping for their inclusion in the Fiesta Bowl and the BCS title game, respectively. “I don't know enough,” Meyer told reporters. “I think it is. I love my team. I haven't studied the other teams really. If I have to go fight for this team, what they've done is very impressive. That loss the second game hurts us. I'll take the hit for that, because that was a young team that's playing at an extremely high level right now.”
2. Of course, Meyer won’t have to politick if his team doesn’t get past Minnesota next week. The Golden Gophers, the Big Ten’s surprise team of 2014, ran their record to 7-2 with a 51-14 annihilation of Iowa on Saturday. Then Minnesota coach Jerry Kill danced. Imagine the moves he’ll bust if the Gophers beat the Buckeyes.
3. TCU’s 41-20 win over Kansas State on Saturday means everyone in the Big 12 has at least one conference loss. Meanwhile, Baylor’s 48-14 win over Oklahoma in Norman was the Bears’ first against a ranked opponent on the road since 1991. With that particular monkey off their backs, the Bears can focus on controlling their destiny in the Big 12 title race. For some reason, Baylor was six spots behind TCU in the committee’s rankings last week. The Bears need to be one spot ahead of the Horned Frogs. Each team has a loss, but TCU’s loss happens to be to Baylor. If Baylor wins the rest of its games and TCU wins the rest of its games, Baylor wins the Big 12. (They would be considered co-champions, but everyone would know Baylor was the real champion because the Bears won on the field.)
If the committee isn’t going to use head-to-head results to break ties between otherwise similar teams, then schools need to stop playing games altogether and just simulate them on an Xbox. Baylor probably deserves to be punished for playing a pitiful nonconference slate, but not at the expense of head-to-head results. TCU’s best out-of-conference foe is Minnesota, which lost to Illinois. That’s not enough to trump Baylor’s win over TCU.
4. Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight tweeted on Sunday that he received “good results” on medical tests following an apparent head injury suffered on Saturday against Baylor. Whether Knight can play at Texas Tech is unclear.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who prayed for me! Thankful for good results and a God who is completely in control!— Trevor Knight (@trevor_knight9) November 9, 2014
The Oklahoma fans who booed their team on Saturday probably aren’t interested in the result anyway. After the Sooners’ third loss, they already know this season will fall well short of expectations. Now we know the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama was just one good game and not a precursor of a return to national title contention.
5. Arizona State coach Todd Graham wasted little time trying to bring his team back to earth after its 55-31 win over Notre Dame. “We have not accomplished any of our goals yet,” he told his team on Saturday. While most coaches give players 24 hours to celebrate, Graham gave his team until the end of the fight song.
6. Meanwhile, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin let his team savor the moment a little longer after shocking Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
7. Sumlin wasn’t the only Lone Star State coach at the center of a raucous celebration. Texas coach Charlie Strong got a lift from players who seem to realize how much better Strong is making the program. Strong was willing to take a lot of losses this season to strip the Longhorns of the unearned arrogance that plagued the team in the waning years of Mack Brown’s tenure. The humbling came quickly, and the building up has begun earlier than expected. Saturday’s 33-16 win over West Virginia is proof that Texas is coming back fast. Strong needs a quarterback, but the attitude is there. If the Longhorns win one of their final two games (at Oklahoma State, against TCU on Thanksgiving), they’ll be guaranteed to finish above .500 in Big 12 play and will become bowl eligible. That would give Strong and his staff a 15-practice head start on 2015.
A video posted by Ephraim (@coachbanda) on
8. Speaking of people thinking about 2015, Florida coach Muschamp’s handling of the Leon Orr situation was not the act of a coach who expects to be out of a job in month. Muschamp was as good as gone before the Gators beat Georgia 38-20 on Nov. 1, but now that he has a chance to win his way into a longer stay in Gainesville, Muschamp is acting like he plans to stick around.
Orr, a senior defensive tackle, got angry after Friday’s walkthrough at Vanderbilt because he wasn’t slated to start. He was in the defensive line rotation and would have played significant snaps, but coaches felt Darious Cummings and Jonathan Bullard had earned the right to go out on the first series. Orr expressed his concern to Muschamp and Muschamp gave him the choice to play as a backup or go home. Orr opted for the latter, and Muschamp had a staffer escort Orr to the bus station and send him back to Gainesville.
After Florida’s 34-10 win over the Commodores, Muschamp said Orr was dismissed from the team because he chose to leave. That move was a message to other players who didn’t want to embrace the team concept, and it’s probably not one Muschamp would bother to send if he didn’t plan to be at Florida long after Orr. Whether Muschamp remains at Florida still likely depends on the Gators’ performance the rest of the season. Beating South Carolina on Saturday would go a long way toward solidifying Muschamp’s status.
Meanwhile, Orr live-tweeted his bus trip back to Gainesville.
Upon his return, he seemed to regret his decision.
A photo posted by Leon Orr (@lafielthagod) on
9. Auburn losing its comeback chance against Texas A&M on a premature snap was gut wrenching, but Connecticut players took an equally tough stomach punch on Saturday. The Huskies trailed Army by a touchdown at Yankee Stadium, but they had the ball on the Black Knights’ six-yard line with less than a minute left. UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer threw into the end zone, but his pass was picked off by Chris Carnegie and returned the length of the field for a touchdown.
10. While Iowa’s FBS teams suffered mightily on Saturday -- Minnesota thrashed Iowa and Kansas routed Iowa State 34-14 -- the state’s best FCS program pulled a major upset. Northern Iowa broke North Dakota State’s FCS-record 33-game win streak with a 23-3 victory over the Bison in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Former Nebraska quarterback Brion Carnes only passed for 93 yards for Northern Iowa, but David Johnson ran for 143 yards and the Panthers’ defense held North Dakota State to a miserable 3.3 yards a play.
What’s eating Andy?
You're about to find out. Continue to the culinary portion of the festivities.
What’s Andy eating?
I was in Louisiana, so of course I learned to make gumbo. And 64-ounce bone-in ribeyes were available at Ruffino's in Baton Rouge, so of course I ate one. But you've already read about my adventures with the tomahawk steak I devoured at Ruffino's two years ago. Let's discuss a barbecue joint I tried so you don't have to.
I've seen The Shed in Ocean Springs, Miss., featured a lot on television. It pops up on all those barbecue and travel shows, and the food usually looks fantastic. So, when I landed in Gulfport on Thursday, I headed east to, as they say, get fed at The Shed. The place seemed like it could handle 500 diners simultaneously exiting Interstate 10. It's a huge row of buildings set along a picturesque creek. The staff was friendly, and the beer selection looked superb. The Shed has a lot of detritus on the walls, but unlike the detritus on the wall at your average T.G.I McScratchy's, this flair appears to have actually been owned by someone, not manufactured for the specific purpose of creating a "concept."
The Shed’s menu, however, is quite concept-y. It calls chicken wings "wangs" and replaces "s" with "z" on several occasions. The proprietors are local, so I can't fathom why the menu would read like some New Jersey marketing executive's vision of a barbecue restaurant. It also includes two glaring warning signs.
First, it claims the house specialty is babyback ribs. Babybacks are a high-degree-of-difficulty item, meaning it would take some truly special cooks to make them good given the kind of volume a place like The Shed probably serves on a daily basis. The more ominous sign was a promise of "fall off the bone goodness."
Anyone who knows barbecue knows ribs should not fall off the bone. Meat cooked in a Crock-Pot falls off the bone. Properly smoked rib meat pulls clean off the bone with a gentle tug. This slight difference in removal effort produces a massive difference in taste. Despite these red flags, I ordered a two-meat platter with babybacks and spare ribs for $17.
The menu did not lie. Some of the rib meat fell off the bone. Between the mealy, overcooked spare rib meat, the tough, overcooked babyback meat and the generous, unrequested helping of a sauce so sweet it should be a dessert topping, I would have had a better carnivorous experience buying beef jerky at a gas station. The place's attempt to recreate what comes out of a Kraft mac and cheese packet didn't help, either, but at least the collard greens were tasty.
I don't doubt that The Shed's cooks make delicious barbecue when they go on TV or participate in contests, but the mark of any restaurant is what it serves a random customer who walks in for lunch. People wait four hours at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, because Aaron Franklin serves every customer the same quality brisket he'd serve to Anthony Bourdain. They've been lining up for decades at Archibald's in Northport, Ala., because the ribs are perfect every time. The Shed would do better to feed its customers the same food that wins contests and satiates television hosts. Maybe I caught the place on a bad day, but the best barbecue joints are great because they don't have bad days.
In fact, The Shed could take some lessons from Pimanyoli's Sidewalk Cafe in Baton Rouge. Pimanyoli's doesn't make the world's greatest barbecue. It's good, but not Joe Flacco-on-sports talk-radio elite. Still, Pimanyoli's makes up for it by combining the barbecue with traditional Louisiana accoutrements and nearly flawless mac and cheese.
While the brisket isn't perfect, it approaches perfection when smothered in Monterey Jack cheese and Louisiana Gold hot sauce and served Po Boy style on soft French bread. Add a side of the mac and cheese -- thick with tangy cheese and tender pasta -- and a half-dozen beef and pork tamales, and I was full and happy for less than I paid to be disappointed by The Shed.