Lessons learned from 2014 and a look ahead to 2015; Punt, Pass & Pork
The college football season ended two weeks ago tonight, and even with new episodes of Justified and Game of Thrones to help pass the time, the prospect of eight months of offseason seems positively unbearable. So, before we close the book on the 2014, let’s take one more look back at what we learned from the season that finally introduced us to the playoff. Then, because it’s never too early to start hyping next season -- and because humans can only take so much deflated-ball discourse -- we’ll examine the possibilities for college football in ’15.
What we learned in 2014
• The College Football Playoff was even better than we imagined, and it should change the way we evaluate teams.
Even after approving the playoff in 2012, the Lords of College Football kept telling us the BCS was a necessary step in the evolutionary process. They claimed it almost always got things right, and the move to a four-team playoff was simply to generate more excitement and cash in on a massive media rights deal.
But in 2014 the BCS would have produced an Alabama-Florida State national title game. Most would have assumed these to be the two best teams. Hardly anyone outside Ohio would have felt bad about Ohio State -- which had the same number of losses as Alabama -- being left out of the title game. Excluding Oregon might have produced more angst, but Florida State was undefeated and Alabama was the one-loss champion of the vaunted ESS EEE SEE. Using BCS logic, that’s an unassailable matchup.
Except it would have been wrong. Ohio State proved itself the best team, period. Oregon’s Rose Bowl annihilation of Florida State showed what the selection committee had suggested all along: An undefeated Power Five team isn’t necessarily the best simply because it is the only undefeated Power Five team. With so few data points and so few common opponents, it’s difficult to determine the best college football teams. It’s better to let them play it out on the field.
• The SEC West was not as good as its reputation, but it isn’t as bad as the bowl backlash suggests.
After LSU beat Ole Miss in late October, I wrote it might be dangerous to presume the best team in the SEC West was automatically the best team in college football. The remainder of the season and the bowls proved that to be true. While the division remains fairly stacked, the gap between the West and the rest of the Power Five closed in 2014.
Some of this has to do with the gap between Alabama and everyone else closing. Everything is cyclical, and it was crazy to think the Crimson Tide could continue to stack five-star recruit upon five-star recruit before a few elite high school players began choosing to go elsewhere. When Nick Saban was building his machine in Tuscaloosa, he might have gotten Robert Nkemdiche (from Georgia) and Joey Bosa (from Florida) to sign with Alabama. But once Saban had an entire roster of players with similar recruiting pedigrees, it only became natural for great high school players to begin seeking easier paths into the starting lineup. This year Nkemdiche (Ole Miss) and Bosa (Ohio State) helped their teams beat Alabama.
Meanwhile, LSU couldn’t find an effective quarterback. The aforementioned Rebels weren’t the same after losing receiver Laquon Treadwell in a loss to Auburn. Auburn eventually got caught in the teeth of one of college football’s nastiest schedules. The West was still good, but not prohibitively good the way it had been from 2011-13. The bowl results reinforced that.
That said, if you asked a college coach whether he’d have an easier time winning in the Big Ten East or the SEC West, he’ll still head north. That could change in the next few years, but the division remains hairy in spite of an embarrassing month.
• The end of the SEC’s total domination of the national title race is good for college football.
Florida State ended the SEC’s national championship streak by beating Auburn in the final BCS title game, but it still felt like the SEC had a stranglehold on the path to the title. Now it doesn’t. The SEC remains an obvious contributor of national title contenders, but those contenders don’t feel like they’re more likely to win than the contenders produced by the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.
That’s good for business. The more fans feel their team has a legitimate chance for the title, the more they’re engaged. As we enter the 2015 season, fans of teams from each of the Power Five leagues will have legitimate national title hopes. It’s been a while since we could say that.
Speaking of next season, let’s look at some storylines that could dominate the fall.
What to look for in 2015
• The Big Ten is going to be a lot more exciting.
Ohio State’s national title defense is interesting enough -- especially given the quarterback situation -- but the introduction of Jim Harbaugh to the mix has made the Big Ten East a fascinating division. The Buckeyes and Michigan State will still likely slug it out at the top, but Harbaugh’s reclamation project at Michigan isn’t as difficult as the one he undertook at Stanford in 2007.
Let’s not forget in Harbaugh’s first season on The Farm, his Cardinal beat USC as 41-point underdogs. That alone should give the Buckeyes and Spartans pause.
Meanwhile, in the Big Ten West, Mike Riley will take over at Nebraska and Paul Chryst will take over at Wisconsin. Chryst’s hiring means the Badgers will look similar to the teams Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen fielded, but Riley is more of a wild card. The Cornhuskers fired a coach (Bo Pelini) who never won fewer than nine games and hired one who may have been on the hot seat following another bad year at Oregon State. The knock on Pelini was that his Huskers never won the games they weren’t supposed to win. Riley’s Oregon State teams did pull the occasional upset (e.g. a 35-27 victory over Arizona State in 2014), so we’ll see if the hire changes the Huskers’ chances in the Big Ten. They get Wisconsin and Michigan State at home, and the remainder of the schedule is quite manageable.
• The Pac-12 South should be just as exciting.
For a few weeks in 2014, it seemed every game involving a Pac-12 South team was required to end on a successful Hail Mary. From a viewership standpoint, that’s a great reputation to have. But with Oregon trying to replace Marcus Mariota in the Pac-12 North, the South seems like the division that could produce a national title contender in ’15.
The obvious choice is USC, which brings back quarterback Cody Kessler and will finally have access to all 85 of its scholarships following the expiration of NCAA sanctions. But what about Arizona, which won the division in 2014? Or Arizona State, which brings back most of its defense and a quarterback (Mike Bercovici) who saw key playing time in 2014? What about UCLA, which loses quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Eric Kendricks but returns almost everyone else? The Bruins, who have seemed perpetually young, will not be young any more. The quarterback competition this spring between Jerry Neuheisel, Josh Rosen and Asiantii Woulard could determine whether UCLA is prepared to take the next step.
• The playoff race won’t seem as alien.
After seeing the selection committee work through the final six weeks of the season, and after seeing the results of that deliberation play out in the semifinals and the title game, we should have a better understanding of how everything works. In other words, don’t expect anyone to eliminate a conference from the championship race in early September.
• If you want to start making plans, block out four free hours on Black Friday.
That’s when Baylor and TCU will face off in the rematch of the 61-58 thriller the Bears won in Waco on Oct. 11. That game eventually altered the course of the playoff committee’s deliberation and put the lie to the Big 12’s “One True Champion” advertising campaign.
This season the game might once again decide the conference title. (Assuming the league doesn’t decide to just give all 10 teams trophies.) TCU and Baylor bring back huge chunks of the rosters that combined to go 23-3 in 2014. The matchup should test the limits of the Amon G. Carter Stadium scoreboard, and should give selection committee members something to chew on besides leftover turkey.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves salivating over a game in late November? Of course. But what else are we supposed to do between now and September?
A random ranking
I was recently introduced to the How Did This Get Made? podcast, and now I’m burning through the back catalogue. In September 2012 the gang examined Road House. This inspired me to rank the top five quotes from Patrick Swayze’s finest work.
1. “I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” -- Dalton, offering advice we all should follow.
2. “A polar bear fell on me.” -- Tinker
3. “I thought you'd be bigger.” -- Lots of people, but this one came from Double Deuce house band singer Cody, who is blind. (And played by Jeff Healey!)
4. “Calling me ‘sir’ is like putting an elevator in an outhouse. It don’t belong. I’m Emmett.” -- Emmett
5. “This place has a sign hangin' over the urinal that says, ‘Don’t eat the big white mint.’” -- Wade Garrett, referencing a sign that offers advice we all should follow.
1. Ohio State's quarterback situation could remain mysterious through spring practice, but Braxton Miller might have offered one clue at Saturday's national championship celebration in Columbus. Miller, who sat out all of last season with a shoulder injury and who seems the most likely of the three quarterbacks to transfer because he has already graduated, hinted that he might be staying. "Privilege and honor to be part of this team," Miller told a crowd of about 45,000. "Guess what? We've got another year to do it. So go Bucks."
2. His rival has three accomplished quarterbacks and he currently has none, but Michigan’s Harbaugh doesn’t seem worried.
3. The most popular sport in America is football. The second most popular sport, it seems, is suing the NCAA. Michael Hausfeld, who was the lead plaintiffs’ attorney in O’Bannon v. NCAA, is now taking the association to court in North Carolina along with the University of North Carolina in the wake of the bogus class scandal in Chapel Hill.
Hausfeld has former Tar Heels football player Devon Ramsay and former North Carolina women’s basketball player Rashanda McCants as the named plaintiffs, and the suit alleges the NCAA did nothing to keep North Carolina athletes steered into the scheme from getting a sham education. Why is the NCAA a co-defendant when this was North Carolina’s doing? One reason could be that the NCAA investigated North Carolina in 2010 and either completely missed the systematic, faculty-driven academic fraud designed to keep athletes eligible or found out about it and did nothing. In the O’Bannon case, the NCAA’s attorneys tried valiantly to assert that many of the NCAA’s rules that prevent athletes from getting more money because of their athletic notoriety exist to ensure athletes’ academic experiences are similar to the academic experiences of members of the general student body. The NCAA, according to its attorneys, is a valiant defender of academic integrity.
Except that, in practice, the NCAA is no such thing. Since it could get awfully messy if the NCAA started passing judgment on classes offered by accredited, state-run universities, the NCAA has sometimes avoided penalizing schools that offered bogus classes in the past -- even if those classes seemed to be designed to keep athletes eligible. Remember Chair Stacking 101 at Tennessee in the 1990s? How about the “Directed Reading” classes at Auburn in the early 2000s? Even though the NCAA has rules against academic fraud, those instances drew no penalties. Why? It’s a slippery slope for the NCAA. Schools, which make the NCAA’s rules, don’t want to give up any sort of academic sovereignty.
But now that the NCAA has staked its legal future on its position as a guardian of the classroom, evidence of the association not performing this duty could be quite damaging in future cases. If this case reaches the discovery phase, Hausfeld could get all the internal NCAA communication from the 2010 investigation of North Carolina. If that shows NCAA officials had any idea of the scope of the fraud and still did nothing, it will help every attorney currently suing the NCAA and every one who will sue the NCAA in the future. Hausfeld’s complaint asks that the court order the formation of “an independent commission to review, audit, assess, and report on academic integrity in NCAA-member athletic programs and certify member-school curricula as providing comparable educations and educational opportunities to athletes and non-athletes alike.” But while this case may claim to be about forming an accrediting body to examine the classes athletes take, it could also be an attempt to help attorneys such as Hausfeld in other cases by obliterating the most important portion of the NCAA’s defense.
4. If Kyler Murray really isn't rethinking his college options, the Allen (Texas) High quarterback is doing his best to fan the flames of a rivalry that doesn't appear to be destined for the field any time soon. Last Wednesday, Murray, who has been committed to Texas A&M since May, took an unofficial visit to Texas and tweeted a photo of a No. 1 Longhorns' jersey.
The 2014 Gatorade National Player of the Year wore No. 1 at Allen, so naturally this caused a massive stir in the Lone Star State. A day later, Murray told The Dallas Morning News he remained committed to Texas A&M. He did this while wearing an orange tie, which he told the paper he wore since "it goes with brown."
5. Ed Orgeron is on the recruiting trail for new employer LSU. This audio clip from Scott Roussel of FootballScoop.com and 104.5 ESPN Radio in Baton Rouge contains Orgeron’s outgoing voicemail message. Coach O sings, if only for a moment. Of course you want to click.
6. Orgeron was a head coach who now serves as an assistant because Ole Miss fired him in 2007. Dan Enos, meanwhile, left a mid-major FBS head coaching job last week to join a Power Five program as an assistant. Why leave the top job at Central Michigan to be the offensive coordinator at Arkansas? Read the column Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal wrote on the topic, and the move makes more sense. Enos, who followed Brian Kelly and Butch Jones at Central Michigan, was sitting on a 26-36 record after five years. Head coaches at mid-major schools either succeed and move out or they languish. Enos eventually would have lost enough to get fired. Now, he can reboot his career at an SEC program that based on last season appears to be on the rise. If the Razorbacks can somehow win the SEC West while Enos is there, a Power Five head coaching job might be a possibility. That probably wasn’t a possibility any more had he stayed at Central Michigan.
7. When he coached at Florida, Steve Spurrier joked about "the big schools" with indoor practice facilities. What made the joke funny at the time was the fact that the Gators were stacking up SEC titles with facilities that lagged behind league rivals. Of course, Spurrier and successors Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp weren't in joking moods when frequent August and September lightning forced their teams off the practice field. First-year coach Jim McElwain, who was hired because the Gators are not competing for SEC titles at the moment, will not know the joy of game preparation on the floor of the O'Connell Center, which serves as the basketball arena, gymnastics studio and indoor pool. Florida announced plans last week for a $15 million indoor facility that should be ready by early September. McElwain's team won't have to wait out lighting in the parking garage, but this also takes away a built-in excuse Florida coaches have fallen back on for more than 20 years.
8. Stanford offensive tackle Nick Davidson will take part in a different brand of offseason conditioning as a member of the Cardinal basketball team. The 6-foot-7, 288-pounder was added to the hoops roster as the Cardinal deal with injury issues in the frontcourt. Davidson is helping mainly at practice -- he didn’t play in recent games against Arizona and Arizona State -- but may see some action. “Well, you never know with us,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins told The Associated Press.
9. It really is the Greatest Show on Earth.
A video posted by Allan Woodall (@allandoodles) on
10. Eastern Washington's blood-red field could soon have competition as the most garish imitation of Boise State's Smurf Turf. Coastal Carolina announced plans this week to install teal turf at Brooks Stadium. The stadium's address is in Conway, S.C., but the teal turf will make sure it fits in with the rest of Myrtle Beach.
What’s eating Andy?
When college football has a deflated-ball scandal, it makes a few jokes and then moves along. There is no wall-to-wall coverage. OK, maybe it does call back to those jokes when the coach involved in said scandal gets fired. But that’s it.
Somewhere in Los Angeles, Lane Kiffin is sitting alone, deflating a pile of footballs in silence.— Omar Shamout (@omarshamout) September 29, 2013
What’s Andy eating?
The Brick Pit in Mobile, Ala., has appeared on The Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food. It was featured on a Food Network show about tailgating. Maxim, in between lingerie shots of C-list celebrities, named the place’s ribs the best wet ribs in America. Yet last week, as owner Bill Armbrecht stood beneath the low-hanging trees that shade the restaurant he has run for 21 years, none of that notoriety could change the fact that it was noon on a Monday and the dining room was half-empty. “I’d rather be rich than famous,” Armbrecht cracked.
Armbrecht worries for the future of The Brick Pit, which serves pulled pork that is smoked for up to 30 hours (no, really) and ribs smoked up to 12. This may sound gimmicky, but thanks to Armbrecht’s choice of raw material, it produces juicy, bark-covered pork and giant, moist ribs that the barbecue-eaters of coastal Alabama should be lining up to eat. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Armbrecht and pitmaster Jerry Edwards lamented the slowdown in business while pork butts destined to become the next day’s lunch lounged in their custom wood-fired smoker. Those butts, which have an extra thick fat cap on top because Armbrecht orders them that way from his supplier, become near-perfect pulled pork because the extended time in the smoker allows all that fat to render through the meat. It’s a self-basting prophecy, and it produces meat that doesn’t get interrupted by gobs of fat. (Even if it did, the hand-pulling process would eliminate nearly all of the fat and leave just the meat.) The ribs are bigger than the ones served at most places for the same reason. Babybacks wouldn’t survive this process, but the ribs Armbrecht orders -- which appear to come from elephant-sized pigs -- are suited for the task.
This is why Armbrecht seemed shocked when I ordered a pulled pork plate with a half rack of ribs on the side. “You going to eat all that?” he asked. Of course I was. It was only a half rack, after all. But when I saw the half rack, I remembered that a half rack of Brick Pit ribs contains as much meat as a full rack at a lot of places. Unlike the ones I ate on my visit last year, these ribs were delicious even without The Brick Pit’s excellent hot sauce. The pork, just as before, needed nothing extra.
Unfortunately, The Brick Pit needs something extra to keep making that glorious pulled pork. It needs more people to venture out to the location near the University of South Alabama and commit to eating quality barbecue. Location could be part of the problem, though. If The Brick Pit were just off Interstate 10 on either end of Mobile, it might draw more tourist traffic. The Gulf Coast doesn’t have a ton of great barbecue options near its main drags. There’s Lillie’s Q, a wonderful little shack on the side of U.S. Highway 98 in Miramar Beach, Fla. There’s The Joint in New Orleans. There isn’t much worth eating in between.
But even if The Brick Pit, which has already gotten plenty of publicity, doesn’t become a tourist haunt, maybe some locals will return, order pulled pork plates and fall in love all over again. Barbecue that good deserves saving.