Chuck Barrett, the voice of the Arkansas Razorbacks, stood on a stage in a ballroom at a Holiday Inn in Springdale, Ark., last Friday and introduced the Arkansas athletic director. Barrett made a joke that drew laughs on a sweltering August afternoon. If he says it again come November, it will draw knowing nods. “Everyone in the country is going to know Jeff Long's Twitter account,” Barrett said. “Everyone is going to know his email. Everyone is going to write lobbying for one of those coveted spots. It’s one of those things that sounds good until you’ve got to answer all those messages, which I’m sure he’ll do.”
Jeff Long is going to be famous. Former boss Joe Castiglione, the Oklahoma AD, calls him J-Lo. By December, Long could be more recognizable -- at least among college football fans -- than that other J-Lo. Sure, Long is a household name to Arkansas fans and those who follow the wonkery of major college sports. The casual fan probably remembers him for firing Bobby Petrino after Petrino’s ill-fated motorcycle ride with the mistress who Petrino had slipped onto Long’s payroll. But by November, after Long has explained himself on national television a few times, he’ll be one of the most recognizable people in the sport.
And a lot of you probably will hate him.
You might not really hate him. People tend to reserve true hate for those who have done them personal wrong. Of course, this is college football, and in certain sectors of the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12, some fans do legitimately hate the people they believe have wronged their teams. As the chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee and the guy who will go on television every week to explain the committee’s latest rankings, Long will be the one who draws most of the anger. He’s the face of the operation, so he'll likely have to take the abuse.
Back in his office in Fayetteville, I asked Long if he understands the avalanche that will hit him in October when he begins explaining the committee’s rationale on a weekly basis on Tuesdays on ESPN. “Certainly, I’m not one who seeks the limelight,” Long said. “This was something I was unprepared for in my mind. But I’ll get used to it.”
From 2009-13, I posted my AP Poll ballot on SI.com and wrote explaining why I ranked each team where I did. Needless to say, people disagreed. Some wrote in with impassioned, reasoned, well-researched rebuttals to certain rankings. Even more wrote in to question my lineage, heritage, education, sexuality and mental function. Long is like me. He reads all his email and Twitter mentions. He responds to those who disagree. But even at a big national site such as SI.com, only a few hundred thousand people read those rankings. Counting re-airs and SportsCenter segments, millions will see Long explain the selection committee rankings. And unlike the AP Poll, which hasn’t had anything to do with who actually plays for the national title since ‘04, the committee will decide who gets to play for the national championship. In terms of reach and stakes, the rankings Long explains will be far more infuriating than mine. Which means he’ll get at least 100 times the vitriol.
Since the angry responses are fairly easy to predict, let’s go through the two most common ones and see how Long stacks up.
Angry response No. 1: What do you know about football?
Long has had to evaluate, hire and (very publicly) fire football coaches. But he has a deeper history in the game than many of today’s CEO ADs. After finishing his career as a football and baseball player at Division III Ohio Wesleyan in 1982, Long became a graduate assistant in the football program at Miami (Ohio). “I thought I was going to go there, get my master’s and teach in high school,” Long said. “I heard you got a little more pay in high school with a master's.” So, what happened? “The major college football bug bit me.”
He went from Oxford, Ohio, to Raleigh, N.C., to join Tom Reed’s staff at NC State. “In today’s world, I would have been a quality control coach,” Long said. “But my desire was to get on the field. I kept pushing and pushing.” Unfortunately, the Wolfpack kept losing and losing. Reed’s staff was fired at the end of the 1985 season. Long was still getting paid, so he volunteered to help Steve Sloan’s Duke program during spring practice. A coach left in the summer -- just before Long ran out of money -- and Long worked with the tight ends and tackles for a 4-7 team.
After the 1986 season, Sloan took the athletic director job at Alabama. Duke hired former Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier as Sloan’s replacement. “Coach Spurrier doesn’t remember it, I’m sure,” Long said. “But I worked for him from Thursday to a Sunday. We had a big recruiting weekend. He was hired on a Thursday, and I was told my services were no longer needed that Sunday.”
Long moved on to a graduate assistant job at Michigan. He couldn’t resist a chance to learn from legendary coach Bo Schembechler. In Ann Arbor, Long was assigned to work for the Wolverines’ offensive line coach. “I was Les Miles’ graduate assistant,” Long said. “It was awesome. I learned more football in a short period of time than any place else.” Before each game, Miles would make Long draw up blocking assignments for each Michigan play against every possible front a defense might use -- even if that team had never used a particular front. “I’d give it to Les, and he’d tell me whether I was right or wrong,” Long said. “But we were prepared.”
After a season spent at Michigan, Long received a call from former NC State co-worker Tyrone Willingham. Willingham was on the staff at Rice, and the Owls needed a football-savvy person to be the assistant athletic director in charge of recruiting for all sports. “I reviewed every student-athlete’s academic credentials,” Long said. “Then any of the kids who were on the border, I would take them to the provost and make the case.”
Long was in Houston only eight months before Schembechler -- who had recently added athletic director to his football coaching duties -- hired Long to be the liaison between Schembechler and associate AD Jack Weidenbach, who ran the department’s day-to-day operations. Long would move through the organizational chart at Michigan before making stops at Virginia Tech (associate AD), Eastern Kentucky (AD), Oklahoma (associate AD), Pittsburgh (AD) and Arkansas.
So, while Long has been a suit for 25 years, he has football knowledge. “I put on a football helmet in fourth grade,” Long said. “I’ve been getting hit in the head since fourth grade. Maybe that’s why I agreed to accept this position.”
Angry response No. 2: You’re biased because -- the angry responder will probably write “Your bias because” -- of [insert former job or known acquaintance].
Look at that list of schools up there. It’s long. Think about the web of people Long knows based on that experience. And that doesn’t even count the major college head coach Long befriended well before either dreamed that Sports Illustrated would write about them. Long was the quarterback at Fairmont East High in Kettering, Ohio. His center? Brady Hoke. “I could throw a baseball two times, and I’d be in their backyard,” Long said of Hoke and his older brother, Jon, who is now the secondary coach for the Chicago Bears.
Long has worked with Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. He has worked with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. You just read about his experience with Spurrier and Miles. (LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was also on that Michigan staff.) We all know Long worked with Petrino. Long was the AD at Eastern Kentucky when Roy Kidd hired a young assistant named Will Muschamp. Long loved the guy.
The list could go on and on. If Long and the committee make a decision that helps a coach or a program Long knows, understand that choice also probably hurts a coach or a program Long knows. The same goes for the other college sports lifers in the room, so it doesn’t make sense for them to play it any way but straight.
Long didn’t go into this job with the expectation that he would tell America where teams are ranked every week. That came later, after College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock and ESPN’s management figured out how to turn the weekly reveal into a made-for-TV event. “You know, I didn’t really know about that. I didn’t sign up for that,” Long said. “But as we went through the process and Bill continued to work with ESPN, they came up with the idea that we would announce on Tuesday evenings.”
Though he won’t know how everything will work until games are played and committee meetings begin in late October, Long has a basic idea of workflow. This is important, since he has a fairly demanding day job. Arkansas’ athletic department reported revenues of $99.8 million last year. In its first season under Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks’ football team went 3-9 (0-8 SEC). Long must manage the department’s 19 sports, and he must keep a watchful eye on its cash hog, which hasn't performed well since Petrino’s firing. Long drew groans across the nation after Arkansas beat writers tweeted out Long’s words to Bielema during the kickoff luncheon. “You’ve made being around football fun again,” Long said.
So, 3-9 is fun? No. Though Long would never say it, it’s fairly easy to translate that statement as, Thanks for not being Bobby Petrino.
Long will be at every Arkansas game this season. That’s his job. But on the bus and on the plane, he’ll be glued to his iPad streaming other contests in progress. When he returns to his house after home games, Long will retreat to his command center. “I’m surrounded by women in my house. Two daughters, a wife, a female dog. I’ve never had a man cave,” Long said. “Or, I should say, a sportsman’s cave. But I used this to convince my wife that I had to have it. Now I have three TVs mounted on one wall, so I can watch three games at once.”
On Sundays, selection committee members will be able to download coaches’ cut-ups of nearly every team’s games from a central server to their tablets and computers. “Sideline [view], end zone [view],” Long said. “Sideline, end zone.” Some committee members have expressed a preference for television broadcast video with commentary, but Long wants the coaches’ tape. “If you look at some of these polls in the past, they couldn’t have possibly watched all these teams,” Long said. “Because they didn’t have the technology to see all these games.”
This committee will. It will also have reams of data crunched by Sports Source Analytics. It will have every possible advantage. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will reach a conclusion that will be agreeable to you.
On six Tuesdays and one Sunday this fall, Jeff Long will deliver the good or bad news. Try to be civil.
“I may not read as much on Twitter as I used to,” Long said.
• Texas A&M at South Carolina: Quarterback Kenny Hill gets his first start as Johnny Manziel’s replacement for the Aggies, while Dylan Thompson’s long wait behind Connor Shaw finally comes to an end for the Gamecocks. The bigger questions for both teams lie on defense. South Carolina lost linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton, and coordinator Lorenzo Ward may use more odd fronts because -- in the inverse of 2013 -- he has experienced linebackers and a green line. Meanwhile, Texas A&M will try to better a defense that allowed a whopping 6.36 yards a play and 5.38 yards a carry last fall. Gamecocks tailback Mike Davis, who has recovered from preseason hamstring and rib injuries, will test how much the Aggies’ defense has improved.
• Boise State vs. Ole Miss (in Atlanta): It’s a clash of coaches who spent one year at Arkansas State and then moved on to better jobs. Hugh Freeze did it in 2011. Harsin did it in ‘13. If Gus Malzahn (‘12) could bring up his Auburn team, this would make for one heck of a round robin.
• BYU at Connecticut: The Cougars traveled east to open last season and lost a head-scratcher at Virginia. After two consecutive 8-5 campaigns marred by losses in games BYU was talented enough to win, it’s time to start winning all the games it should. A matchup with Bob Diaco’s rebuilding project at UConn certainly qualifies.
• UNLV at Arizona: Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez announced on Monday that redshirt freshman Anu Solomon will start against the Rebels. But Rodriguez was quick to point out that his decision does not mean the Las Vegas native will play the whole game or whole season. Solomon won a four-man derby, and it sounds as if Rodriguez is reserving the right to see how Jesse Scroggins, Jerrard Randall or Connor Brewer might fare. Solomon will have the benefit of throwing to wide receiver Austin Hill, who will play his first game since 2012. Hill, who tore his ACL during spring practice in ‘13, caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards as a sophomore.
• Penn State vs. UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): The teams are in Ireland, thus eliminating the possibility of the first cancelation of a college football game due to the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. At the moment, both squads are still trying to get over their jetlag. Penn State coach James Franklin had his team take an overnight flight on Tuesday (arriving Wednesday morning). From the airport, the team visited Croke Park Stadium for a tour. Then it had lunch. After lunch, the Nittany Lions practiced. Then, on Wednesday evening, they finally reached their hotel. The Penn State staff hopes the long first day will reset the players’ body clocks so they don’t realize it’s 9:30 a.m. back home when they kick off against the Knights on Saturday.
• Ohio State at Navy: The headlines will understandably focus on how Ohio State redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett handles replacing Braxton Miller. But this game will also feature Keenan Reynolds, who might be the best Navy quarterback since Roger Staubach. Reynolds will be tested as never before when he runs the option against what might be the nation’s best defensive line.
• UCLA at Virginia: This is one of those odd West-Coast-team-kicking-off-early-on-the-East-Coast games, so it’s reasonable to expect UCLA to look sluggish. But the Bruins know they have the chance to be special this season, and they’ve been itching to play again since they left the field at the Sun Bowl.
• Appalachian State at Michigan: It’s not happening again.
• West Virginia vs. Alabama (in Atlanta): Fortunately, Mountaineers quarterback Clint Trickett clarified himself after revealing his first kiss came from Alabama coach Nick Saban’s daughter. Otherwise, we’d be asking you to pray for Trickett.
• Rice at Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have quarterback Everett Golson back after a season away because of academic dishonesty. Yet on Saturday they won’t have receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams or linebacker Kendall Moore because of an investigation into alleged cheating. The good news for Notre Dame? Rice has to replace a lot from the team that won Conference USA in 2013.
• Arkansas at Auburn: This game is happening in August because the SEC wanted to create some pressure points to convince cable and satellite providers to carry the SEC Network upon its launch. It worked. As soon as the schedule was released, fans began pestering their providers to carry the network. While this game has its share of off-field drama -- Malzahn and Bielema fighting about how fast the hurry-up offense should be allowed to go -- it seems fairly lopsided on the field. Auburn will start Jeremy Johnson at quarterback as Nick Marshall serves a suspension for a marijuana possession citation, but Marshall will play at some point. Meanwhile, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen, whose truck was set on fire by a suspected arsonist earlier this week, will try to take advantage of a Tigers’ defense that must play this season without gifted pass rusher Carl Lawson (ACL).
• Clemson at Georgia: This doesn’t have the juice of last year’s opener in Death Valley, but that’s probably because we haven’t seen much of the new starting quarterbacks. Last year everyone who loves college football knew Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd. Hutson Mason and Cole Stoudt will have to blaze their own paths -- though Mason should get plenty of help from a stable of tailbacks that might be the deepest in the nation. Time to take the plunge for another season, Mark Richt.
• Fresno State at USC: The Trojans were having a nice, quiet preseason until senior cornerback Josh Shaw showed up with two sprained ankles and a fabricated story about how he got them. Fortunately for USC, redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins already proved he was ready for extended playing time while Shaw was out during the spring. Who will throw the passes that Hawkins will defend remains a subject of debate. Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter has not named a permanent replacement for quarterback Derek Carr. Brian Burrell and Duke transfer Brandon Connette -- who split time last year with Anthony Boone -- remain in contention for the job.
• Florida State vs. Oklahoma State in (Arlington, Texas): Cowboys coach Mike Gundy still hasn’t given J.W. Walsh his full vote of confidence at quarterback, but uncertainty at the position hasn’t harmed Oklahoma State much in the past. Backup Daxx Garman hasn’t played in a game since his junior season at Jones (Okla.) High in 2009 -- eligibility issues forced him to sit out as a senior at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High in ‘10 -- but his arm allows the Cowboys to throw a different look at defenses. In last year’s season opener against Mississippi State, Clint Chelf started, but the offense didn’t begin moving with regularity until Walsh entered the game. Walsh and Chelf traded the job twice more, but it seemed this offseason that Walsh had nailed down the position. We’ll see if that’s the case on Saturday. Meanwhile, there is no question who will play quarterback for Florida State. Defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston will give the three new starters in the Cowboys’ secondary their biggest challenge right out of the gate.
• North Texas at Texas: The Charlie Strong era begins when North Texas rolls down Interstate 35 with a group that should look quite different than the one that closed last season by winning eight of its final nine games. The Longhorns hope they look different, too. The last time they played, they would have lost to Oregon even if the Ducks’ offense had never taken the field.
• Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston): LSU coach Miles has managed to keep the mystery surrounding the Tigers’ quarterback situation alive -- probably because he hasn’t been able to decide the identity of his No. 1 guy. Miles said this week that freshman Brandon Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings will both play against the Badgers. Meanwhile, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen has failed to maintain that same element of surprise. While Andersen declined to confirm reports that Tanner McEvoy had beaten out Joel Stave, Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon did. Of course, a back who averaged 7.8 yards a carry last season is allowed to say pretty much whatever he wants.
• SMU at Baylor: The Bears open their new stadium against the Mustangs. What’s in the concession stands? Fried pickles and bacon-wrapped onion rings.
• Utah State at Tennessee: Quarterback Chuckie Keeton returns after missing the second half of last season with a knee injury. Keeton nearly led Utah State to a win at Auburn in 2011. He almost led the Aggies to a win at Wisconsin in ‘12. He nearly led them to a win at USC in ‘13. This is Keeton’s last chance to win one of these against a power-conference foe. With Tennessee replacing its entire starting offensive and defensive lines, it might be his best opportunity.
• Miami at Louisville: An acting gig Miami freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya’s mom had before he was even born will provide the nation’s most succinct heckling this year. If Kaaya throws an interception against the Cardinals, expect the entire stadium to salute with, “Bye, Felicia.”
Throwback video of the week
Long before the SEC Network was a gleam in commissioner Mike Slive’s eye, the league occasionally scheduled conference games on opening weekend. One of the best came in 1985, when Alabama traveled to Athens to face Georgia on Labor Day. It appeared the Bulldogs had won when they recovered a blocked punt in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Bama quarterback Mike Shula got the ball back with 50 seconds remaining and no timeouts and led a comeback drive for the ages. Let Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles explain …
On the menu
I’ll hit three games this weekend, so culinary opportunities will be abundant. In Columbia, S.C., I’ll have to choose between stalwart Hudson’s Smokehouse and new kid The Southern Belly BBQ, which I have not visited but have received rave reviews about. On Saturday, I’ll be in the Metroplex for Florida State-Oklahoma State. Pecan Lodge will receive a visit at some point. The question is how many people will it take to devour a Trough (brisket, pork spare ribs, a beef rib, pulled pork and sausage). If I’m one of them, I’m guessing three. On Sunday, I’ll be in Waco for SMU-Baylor. I might have to try one of those bacon-wrapped onion rings at McLane Stadium.