NEW YORK -- Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, draped in multiple lei as a nod to his Samoan and Hawaiian heritage, handled his post-Heisman Trophy press conference with as much grace as he handled winning the award. He had drawn tears with an acceptance speech that offered thanks to his Ducks teammates and inspiration to his far-flung home state, but Mariota refused to admit he had spoken as beautifully as he played all season. “My heart was pounding the entire time,” he said. “I really was trying to enjoy it because experiences like this only come once.”
For Mariota this should not have been his first trip to the Heisman ceremony. We, the voters, blew it last year. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was the most outstanding player in 2013, but we should’ve slid Mariota enough second- or third-place votes to get him to New York. We didn’t. Six players were invited, and Mariota wasn’t one of them. In fact, he didn’t even finish among the top 10 as a redshirt sophomore. I’m one of the people to blame. I left him off my ballot. Looking back, I can’t even remember a specific reason why.
No matter the reason, the omission was dumb. As Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost reminded me on Saturday night after Mariota collected his award, the Honolulu native played much of the 2013 campaign with a partially torn medial collateral ligament. If anything, the injury makes his sophomore stats even more impressive than his junior numbers. After Mariota’s landslide victory partially corrected that injustice, I started to wonder who might be in New York next December that probably should have been invited this year.
The 2015 winner will probably be a quarterback, because 13 of the past 15 winners have been quarterbacks. The ’15 winner will probably come from a team that has won at least 10 games, because 12 of the past 14 winners have played on a team that had won at least 10 games at the time of the vote. Looking at the stats from this fall, one player seems to have the best chance to follow up a great season that didn’t end in New York with a better one that ends with him holding the trophy.
To identify him, let’s play the blind résumé game. Here are the numbers for five quarterbacks. Three won the Heisman. Two did not.
Total offense at time of vote: 4,452 yards
Touchdowns accounted for: 53
Record as starter at time of vote: 12-1
Total offense at time of vote: 4,356 yards
Touchdowns accounted for: 39
Record as starter at time of vote: 11-1
Total offense at time of vote: 3,994 yards
Touchdowns accounted for: 39
Record as starter at time of vote: 10-2
Total offense at time of vote: 4,600
Touchdowns accounted for: 43
Record as starter at time of vote: 10-2
Total offense at time of vote: 4,013
Touchdowns accounted for: 42
Record as starter at time of vote: 13-0
With the exception of QB A, who accounted for more than 50 touchdowns, all of the players above have numbers that look fairly similar. QB A was Mariota in 2014. The record should make QB E easy to identify as Winston in ’13, since he was the only member of the group who didn’t pile up his stats in an up-tempo offense. QB D also won the Heisman. That was Johnny Manziel in ’12.
Who were the guys who didn’t win it? QB C was the partially hobbled Mariota, who couldn’t crack the top 10 last season. That means QB B is the mystery candidate for 2015. His name is Trevone Boykin.
Boykin, TCU’s fourth-year junior quarterback, blossomed beneath first-year co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. After two seasons getting thrust into the job following mishaps involving Casey Pachall (one alcohol-related, one injury-related), Boykin beat out Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel this fall and made the job his own. He then nearly led the Horned Frogs to the playoff.
Boykin finished a distant fourth in this year’s voting, so he wasn’t as far out of mind as Mariota was last year. But Boykin stands to make an even more impressive jump than Mariota did from 2013 to ’14. Remember, this was Boykin’s first year in a new offense. He didn’t win the job until preseason camp. Should he decide to return to TCU -- and he probably should -- he will have a full offseason to immerse himself in the finer points of the playbook. TCU could return as many as 10 starters on offense. We don’t know if Meacham will still be on campus, because he’s a hot name and the coaching carousel is still spinning. But now that head coach Gary Patterson has unlocked the secret to winning in the Big 12, he isn’t likely to allow fundamental changes to a scheme that worked so brilliantly in its first season. “I’m just a little, small piece of the puzzle that makes this team go,” Boykin said after his team beat Iowa State 55-3 in the Frogs’ regular-season finale on Dec. 6. Like Mariota, Boykin is exceedingly modest. He was the engine that drove TCU.
You’ve probably noticed that I left off one returning quarterback who had similarly eye-popping stats this season: Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. That’s because it’s unclear whether Barrett (broken ankle) or senior Braxton Miller (shoulder surgery) will start for the Buckeyes next year. And if third-stringer Cardale Jones leads Ohio State to a national title in January? Then what?
Barring injury, Boykin is probably the safest bet to win an award that hardly ever goes to the guy who seems like the favorite to win it heading into a season. In 2014 a preseason frontrunner improved on his ’13 performance, carried his team to the playoff and won the Heisman going away. If anyone can come close to duplicating Mariota’s feat in ’15, it’s Boykin.
A random ranking
The producers of the James Bond series announced the cast and title for the next Bond film this week. Since it will be called Spectre, we can pretty much assume whom the Big Bad will be, as well as the actor who will play him (Christoph Waltz). In honor of this news, here are the top 10 Bond villains.
1. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (and his cat)
3. Auric Goldfinger
5. May Day
6. Max Zorin
7. Nick Nack
8. Francisco Scaramanga
9. Mr. Big
10. Hugo Drax
1. Wisconsin can’t hire a head coach until Wednesday because of a state law, but the smart money remains on Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst, who played for the Badgers and served as offensive coordinator under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema.
At this point it would be easy to joke that no matter what position Alvarez holds, he is still the true offensive coordinator in Madison. Gary Andersen’s offense at Utah State didn’t look anything close to the one he ran as the Badgers coach. Alvarez’s insistence on a downhill, power-running offense has been labeled as a criticism, but it’s difficult to disagree with his stance. It works. It allows a team in a state that produces few blue-chip skill players to have an effective, easily identifiable brand that helps win a lot of games. It also helps draw a certain kind of offensive lineman. That branding helps overcome Wisconsin’s natural geographic disadvantage, so Alvarez is quite wise to insist that his coach remain faithful to some core offensive principles. That wouldn’t be an issue with Chryst, who ran the scheme quite well at Wisconsin from 2005-11.
What will remain an issue if it doesn’t change is Alvarez’s reluctance to give his coach a competitive budget with which to hire and keep assistants. While it is admirable that Alvarez hasn’t given in to the urge to blow seven-figure salaries on coordinators who may not be much better than guys who make roughly half as much, Wisconsin -- which is already quite competitive in the Big Ten -- could be even better if the next head coach is afforded an assistant salary pool in the top half of the conference. According to USA Today’s most recent assistant coach salary survey, the Badgers ($2.37 million) currently lag behind Ohio State ($3.59 million), Michigan ($3.5 million), Michigan State ($3.21 million), Iowa ($2.77 million), Minnesota ($2.76 million), Nebraska ($2.71 million), Maryland ($2.59 million) and Rutgers ($2.45 million). Alvarez doesn’t need to start shelling out cash like an SEC AD with his president’s black AMEX -- fiscal responsibility is, after all, a good thing -- but all that Big Ten Network money means he can probably pay more than he does now without turning Coach Poor.
2. We haven’t heard much from Lane Kiffin this year because of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s ban on assistants giving interviews, but Kiffin hasn’t lost his ability to crack wise with a hot microphone in front of him. Fortunately, the finalists for the Broyles Award -- presented annually to the nation’s top assistant -- give speeches that are lovingly recorded. Scroll to the three-minute mark below to learn what Saban says as he follows Kiffin along the sideline while the Tide are on offense.
3. TCU co-offensive coordinator Meacham is another coach we haven’t heard much from this season because of a head coach’s interview policy, but he should get plenty of attention for being the architect of a scheme that harnessed Boykin’s considerable skill set and made the Frogs one of the best teams in the country.
TCU already played great defense thanks to head coach Gary Patterson and coordinator Dick Bumpas, but Patterson was reluctant to step on the gas pedal on offense out of fear it would put his defense at a disadvantage. He had seen that happen at many Big 12 schools, and he entered the league convinced the Frogs could win by shutting down opponents and running a balanced, methodical attack. After two years in the league, Patterson realized that plan wouldn’t work. So he recruited Meacham from Houston -- and Oklahoma State before that -- to team with former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie and run an offense that looked similar to others in the Big 12. Meacham designed the scheme and called the plays, while Cumbie turned Boykin into one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks. But Meacham was admittedly surprised when Patterson called to discuss the job. So surprised, in fact, that he felt the need to warn Patterson that he wouldn’t slow down for anyone. “Now, you know what I am,” Meacham recalled with a laugh during his Broyles Award speech. “You know we throw the football. This is what we’re going to do.”
Patterson knew exactly what Meacham was. The result was a jump in record from 4-8 to 11-1.
4. I spoke to a Power Five athletic director at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum last week. He said, at some point soon, a number of ADs will simply refuse to keep escalating the pay scale for coaches and start bargain shopping. (Alvarez may have already done this and is simply ahead of the curve.) The AD argued that market forces aren’t totally to blame for the salary surge, as even the recent TV windfall in most leagues isn’t enough to explain how quickly salaries have jumped.
Consider this: When Ed Orgeron was fired as the Ole Miss head coach in 2007, he made $900,000 a year. Seven years later current Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze just agreed to a new deal that will pay him $4.3 million in ’15.
The somewhat frugal AD, who has had the same football coach for a while and pays that coach and his assistants fairly competitive salaries, isn’t sure that even Power Five schools will want to keep competing in this market, and believes they could start trying to lower the salary scale by hiring younger, up-and-coming coaches. Basically, this AD is suggesting schools will start buying fully loaded Chevy Tahoes instead of Range Rovers.
5. A few days after my conversation with the above AD, Auburn hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator for what AL.com reported will be at least $1.6 million a year. Muschamp’s Florida contract didn’t include any mitigation, meaning his Auburn salary will not be subtracted from the $6.3 million the Gators owe him. This means two things:
• Jimmy Sexton is better at his job than most of us are at ours.
• That AD from No. 4 might be a lone wolf, because the salaries keep soaring.
6. If I had to guess at structural changes to come for the playoff selection process, the one that seems most obvious is a less rigorous meeting schedule. While the weekly rankings seem here to stay unless conference commissioners want to arm-wrestle ESPN executives over the issue, there is no reason to force all 13 committee members -- Archie Manning begged off this year after a surgery and wasn’t replaced -- to come to Grapevine, Texas, every week. Committee members are familiar with one another by now, and videoconferencing software is reliable enough. They could rank the teams from home most weeks and meet only for the first and final rankings.
7. Sure, it’s odd that Alvarez is coaching in a bowl game after helping choose who would make the playoff and the big-money bowls, but it’s not conspiratorial. When committee members voted on the teams last Sunday, Alvarez had no idea his coach was about to bolt. Now, if Alvarez decided to name himself as Andersen’s successor, then he’d obviously have to quit the committee. But coaching against Auburn in the Outback Bowl won’t alter Alvarez’s ability to rank teams next season. If anything, it will give him an up-close look -- and likely a better understanding -- of an offensive scheme that schools across the country are trying to copy.
8. The NCAA has granted Georgia offensive tackle Kolton Houston a sixth year of eligibility. This is great news, as Houston was unfairly suspended from 2010-12 because a steroid injection he received following a surgery his junior year of high school had settled in fatty tissue and kept triggering positive drug tests. Even though the NCAA was provided the correct medical explanation for the situation, and even though numbers from the drug tests confirmed that Houston and Georgia officials were telling the truth, Houston stayed suspended until the steroid levels dissipated enough to come in under the testing threshold.
Fortunately, NCAA staffers aren’t as heartless as we usually make them out to be. Houston has started all 12 games for the Bulldogs this year, and his return will help anchor a line that gets to block for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel next season.
9. Wyoming tight end Eric Nzeocha made the biggest catch of his life -- and someone else’s -- last Wednesday night. Nzeocha noticed that roommate and teammate Xavier Lewis was having trouble speaking and recognized the difficulty as a symptom of a stroke. “Not only did he notice what was wrong, he knew what to ask him,” Lewis’ father, Quentin Lewis, told Mike Vorel of the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune. “He asked him to talk. He asked him to try to write something down. He couldn’t do it. He took him to the hospital. He took him himself.”
Nzeocha drove Lewis to a hospital in Laramie, Wyo. After doctors diagnosed the stroke, Lewis was flown in a helicopter to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colo. He is expected to make a full recovery, but that might not have been the case if Nzeocha hadn’t acted so swiftly.
10. The NCAA rule against athletes -- or basically anyone other than the schools -- profiting off the name, image and likeness rights of athletes is helping pump some cash into Mississippi’s legal industry. Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is suing a T-shirt maker in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court for selling “Dak Attack” and “Dak Dynasty” shirts. Prescott is allowed under NCAA rules to defend his likeness rights. In fact, he and his school are required to.
In this situation Mississippi State officials must demonstrate they attempted to stop sale of the shirts when they became aware of them, and Prescott is also supposed to have attempted to stop the sale. Fortunately, Prescott -- who is expected to return to Starkville for his senior season -- doesn’t have to pay his attorney out of his own pocket. His legal fees are being paid through the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund. Last week in New York, NCAA president Mark Emmert bragged about the nine-figure fund, which allows schools to finance everything from athletes’ flights home to visit sick relatives to premiums for loss-of-value insurance policies. The particular irony of Prescott’s case is that the NCAA only loosened the rules regarding use of the fund as part of a 2008 settlement in a federal antitrust case against the NCAA. Money essentially won in a lawsuit filed against the NCAA is now being used to pay more lawyers to enforce an NCAA rule that itself is the target of yet another federal antitrust lawsuit. May the circle remain unbroken.
What’s eating Andy?
According to the packet of voting information handed out at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, 174 voters cast their ballots before the final week of games. These 174 people should stop voting, because they likely aren't paying very close attention. What if Mariota had thrown seven interceptions against Arizona? What if Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon had run for 500 yards against Ohio State? While that sort of performance is highly unlikely, what is the downside to waiting until all the (non-Army-Navy) games are played and the résumés are complete before casting a ballot?
What’s Andy eating?
After seven days of trying to eat everything in New York, I’m probably going to need salads for every meal from now until Christmas to get back to normal. So, I’m going to split my Big Apple dining adventures over this column and next week’s.
Those of us who don’t live in New York but regularly come to the city for work find ourselves in a quandary. The island of Manhattan is a culinary playground, but the particular area of Manhattan (Midtown) that houses most corporate headquarters and centralized, event-hosting hotels is chock-a-block with either pricy steakhouses or the same chains we have at home. (Or the same pricy steakhouse chains we have at home.) That’s why a group of us sportswriters were thrilled last year when, while looking for something within walking distance of the Waldorf Astoria (where coaches and ADs congregate for National Football Foundation festivities), we stumbled upon The Smith. The Smith is a mini-chain -- it also has locations in the East Village and Lincoln Center -- but for about the same price as some of the more boring outposts in the land of tourists and business travelers, it has much better food. That’s why we made a return visit last week.
Start with the bacon-wrapped apricots, which combine savory, sweet and tart into an explosive, bite-sized package. Also, make sure to go on Monday. Monday is lamb shank day, and little excites the id more than a giant hunk of juicy, tender meat on the bone. For those who enjoy such things, The Smith also makes the tastiest Manhattan I’ve had in Manhattan.
On Wednesday night I finally got the chance to venture south of the Empire State Building. We wanted Italian, but not the stodgy appetizer-pasta-main course dinner that takes three hours and usually costs a small fortune. So, we found our way to Parm in SoHo. Parm specializes in chicken parm and eggplant parm sandwiches. It has a few other excellent menu items, but it doesn’t stretch itself too far. It makes its featured dish perfectly and hopes that will keep diners coming back. And it will.
The calamari is excellent, but not always available. Yet even if you’re denied squid, you can whet your appetite with a three-item flight of veggies. Like everything else in the place, the Buffalo cucumbers have a self-explanatory name. They’re crisp, fresh cucumbers kissed with Buffalo wing sauce. The charred broccoli is crispy and has the almost meaty quality that so many grilled vegetables take on. The Brussels sprouts also come charred, but they’re covered in shaved parmesan cheese. This noble vegetable was the butt of jokes for decades because cooks failed to use their imaginations. Thanks to places such as Parm, sprouts finally get the praise they deserve.
However, the reason people go to Parm is right in the name. I ordered a chicken parm sandwich on a sweet semolina roll and a meatball hero on Italian bread. The meatball sandwich was good, but The Meatball Shop -- another NYC mini-chain -- makes a better one. Afterward, I wished I’d ordered two chicken parm sandwiches. Lightly breaded, expertly fried and thick enough for a serious bite, the chicken is smothered in mozzarella and sits atop a dollop of simple, glorious red sauce. To tweak it a little, order a side of meat gravy (similar to Bolognese sauce) and either dip the sandwich or sprinkle on the gravy before each bite. But the sandwich needs no help. It stands on its own as the centerpiece of a great meal.