War of words
Theoretically, you come to the Mailbag each week seeking my "expertise" on college football matters. This week, however, the biggest story in the country involves a subject I feel somewhat unqualified to speak about.
The rise to prominence of Kansas and Missouri snuck up on me just as much as it snuck up on most of you. I must confess: I have never seen a Tigers-Jayhawks football game. My knowledge of Border War lore is significantly lacking. And sadly, I've seen far less of the nation's current No. 2 and 3 teams in action this season than any number of now unranked (Michigan), irrelevant (Alabama) or inconsequential (South Florida) squads.
Fortunately, two of my bosses happen to be noted authorities on the rivalry. I asked Adam Levine, SI.com's executive editor and a proud Missouri alum, and supervising producer/resident Kansas nut Dan George to share some of their wisdom with the rest of us.
Mostly I just wanted to watch them smack-talk each other.
Q: In your expert opinion, tell us why the other school "sucks?"
Adam (Mizzou guy): It's not really a question of why Kansas sucks so much as how badly Kansas sucks. Sure they're undefeated, but the same could be said of 30 other Division I-A teams if they played the weak-sauce schedule the Jayhawks have thus far faced. Mock Crock Cakewalk ends Saturday.
Dan (KU guy): It is in Missouri, which is reason enough for any self-respecting Kansan to loathe it. It's more than the schools -- it's a state thing going back to the Civil War, when William Quantrill's Confederate guerillas burned Lawrence and murdered nearly 200 people. Neither Missouri nor Kansas folks have forgotten it. As the saying goes, the only good thing to come out of Missouri is I-70.
Q: Prior to this season, what would you say was your fondest football memory involving your school?
Adam: When I was in grad school, we tried to sneak then-starting QB Corby Jones onto our J-School intramural team. (He had turned out to support his brother, who was on the team.) Sadly one of the refs recognized him before he could take a snap. Pretty sure that ref was from Kansas.
Dan: KU, with future NFL Pro Bowl safety Nolan Cromwell running the wishbone, stunning No. 1 Oklahoma 23-3 in Norman in 1975, the only loss in the Sooners' 11-1 national championship season. I worked with an OU guy then -- should have seen the look on his face. It's the same one Adam will have late Saturday night.
Q: Who will win Saturday and why?
Adam: KU's defense is solid but there's no way it can hold down QB Chase Daniel, tight ends Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman and redshirt frosh sensation Jeremy Maclin. Maclin will be the difference potentially on a punt or kick return -- or when he steals Mark Mangino's halftime dinner, Hamburglar-style.
Dan: Daniel will get his passing yards, but he is prone to the pick -- and interceptions, too. The Jayhawks lead the nation in turnover margin, not to mention fewest penalties. This team doesn't make mistakes (witness Todd Reesing's 30 TD passes to four INTs).
Q: Complete the following sentence: "If Kansas wins the national title, I will ..."
Adam: Lead a war party down to Lawrence and burn that mother down.
Dan: I'm not going to do anything wacky like add a wing to my house and turn it into some kind of insane Kansas national championship shrine. On the other hand ... I'm not sure my son really needs his own bedroom any more. He and his sisters can double up. That's fair, right?
Q: Complete the following sentence: "If Missouri wins the national title, I will ..."
Adam: Hope Oklahoma takes care of business this week so the Tigers can get revenge in the Big 12 title game for that garbage loss in Norman earlier this season. And then I'm going to sack Lawrence just for good measure.
Dan: Await the end of the world, I guess. If a Mizzou national title isn't a "Sign of the Apocalypse," what is? But who are we kidding? Even if the Tigers beat the Jayhawks, they'll find some way to screw things up down the road. Colorado's infamous fifth-down TD, Matt Davison's miracle TD for Nebraska, Tyus Edney's game-winning drive for UCLA -- glorious losses are a Missouri tradition. It should continue Saturday.
Wow -- look at what we've been missing out on all these years. The animosity between those two schools was best conveyed by former Kansas coach Don Fambrough, who, in expressing his distaste for the game's more politically correct "Border Showdown" rebranding, told my colleague Austin Murphy last week, "It's a goddamn war. And they started it!"
Hopefully it won't be another 116 years before this rivalry merits our attention again.
Did the Oregon coaching staff know that Dennis Dixon had a torn ACL going into the Arizona game? If so, why is there no criticism of the fact that they played a guy knowing that this was a huge risk for his pro career. I know they are playing for a national title, but what about the long-term health and financial ramifications for Dixon? --Cristian, Washington D.C.
It's a good question. When the news first came out over the weekend that Dixon had indeed attempted to play with a torn ACL, my reaction, like a lot peoples, was "Wow ... what a warrior!" As the details surrounding his injury started to emerge, however, I found myself wondering whether Ducks coach Mike Bellotti temporarily lost his mind.
All parties apparently knew the extent of Dixon's injury shortly after it occurred late in the Nov. 3 Arizona State game. After consulting with two doctors, Dixon opted to delay surgery and attempt to keep playing and asked the school not to publicly disclose the ACL diagnosis. I don't blame a 22-year-old athlete in the thick of both national title and Heisman contention for wanting to continue competing, but Bellotti is a 56-year-old adult charged with protecting his players' welfare. You would think he would have interceded. Instead, Bellotti told reporters after the fact, "I took myself out of it. That was Dennis' decision, and the doctors clearing him."
You did what? You're the head coach and you "took yourself out of" the most important decision of your season? I have no medical training, so it's not for me to surmise whether the doctors should or should not have cleared Dixon to play, but it does seem puzzling that team doctor Robert Crist told The Oregonian after the fact that Dixon could have sustained damage to other ligaments and if so, "could never completely recover from the injury."
Presumably, Bellotti was made aware of that risk, yet opted not only to allow Dixon to play but then actively engaged in a public cover-up of the injury, even after the QB went down against Arizona. As a writer who was there that night told me, Bellotti -- knowing full well the severity of what had just happened -- told reporters with a straight face: "I don't know the degree [of the injury]. I haven't talked to [the doctors] completely."
Dixon's injury was obviously extremely unfortunate both for him and the many fans around the country who'd come to enjoy watching him. The handling of it was truly bizarre.
Stewart, in this country we believe that every individual, including sports writers and college football coaches, ought to have the opportunity to better themselves financially and to work at a place (company or school) that they really enjoy, i.e. the pursuit of happiness. In view of the situation, what should be the proper protocol if Les Miles really does want to coach at Michigan next year? --John Barger, Wake Forest, N.C.
There's no way to handle these situations that isn't highly awkward, but if there is a proper protocol, it's exactly the way Miles has handled it so far: Refuse to discuss the subject. If and when Michigan calls, tell them you'd be very interested in discussing the job ... after the season. If Michigan says it can't wait that long, and if you're truly serious about wanting to lead your current team to a national title, politely withdraw from consideration and tell them to keep in touch. If becoming the next coach of Michigan is more important to you than the possibility of an LSU title, then give the Tigers the respect of leaving immediately so they can benefit from the leadership of an interim coach whose focus is 100 percent on them.
Whatever you do, do not utter the words, "I am not going to be the coach at Michigan" ... and then become the coach at Michigan. People don't seem to take too kindly to that.
If in fact Les Miles does bolt for Michigan, Bo Pelini is the one of the favorites to replace Miles at LSU. If it comes down to Nebraska and LSU offering their top spot to Pelini, which one do you think he would choose? --Al, Lincoln, Neb.
I would be highly surprised if it comes down to that. I know Pelini remains a popular figure at both places, but we're still talking about someone who's been a career assistant to this point (with the exception of one bowl game as interim coach at Nebraska). While Pelini is highly respected in the coaching community, there must be reason why he's not yet been a serious contender for any head-coaching job (too "rough around the edges," is the vague critique I've heard most often), so it seems unlikely that two of the most prestigious programs in the country would suddenly come calling.
Of the two, the LSU possibility seems more realistic. The way that program is rolling right now, I could understand AD Skip Bertman not wanting to "start over" with a new regime for what would be the second time in three years. Pelini would be the most viable in-house candidate. While I have no insight into Tom Osborne's current thought process, my guess is Nebraska will be seeking someone with head-coaching experience.
If the Huskers do offer Pelini, and if Miles bolts around the same time, and if LSU offers him its job as well ... with all due respect to Al and his people, it seems like a no-brainer to me. Ready-made national title contender or massive rebuilding job? Unless Pelini has had some bad experience in Baton Rouge (maybe he doesn't like gumbo), or unless Nebraska offers significantly more money, I can't imagine him passing up the opportunity to take over the Tigers.
Stewart -- in your esteemed opinion, which team is the biggest disappointment in college football this season? Is a loaded Cal team that has quit on its coach more disappointing than a team like Notre Dame that was never any good to begin with? --David, Santa Monica, Calif.
Cal would definitely be pretty high on the list. I wasn't quite as sold on them as some people in the preseason -- as I wrote back then, Jeff Tedford's program seemed to have gained a loftier reputation than its actual on-field results would merit -- but I certainly thought they'd be better than 6-5 at this point, especially once we saw what they were capable of against Tennessee. Nate Longshore's injury contributed heavily to the first few of those losses, but we're way beyond that point. Besides some obvious deficiencies defensively, it seems the Bears also lack one of the most key ingredients to success: chemistry. DeSean Jackson in particular has showed himself to be the type of me-first guy who causes far more detriment with his attitude than he does benefits from his talent.
The biggest disappointment of the season, however, has to be Louisville. It seems like a million years ago now that the Cardinals were coming off a 12-1 season, returning top-tier Heisman candidate Brian Brohm and eliciting national-title talk. Sure, they'd just lost their coach, Bobby Petrino, but this new guy, Steve Kragthorpe, came highly regarded following his impressive turnaround job at Tulsa, and people within the program spoke excitedly about the changeover. Six losses later -- including what remains one of the most stunning results of the season, a home loss to now 2-9 Syracuse -- the Cardinals need a win over Rutgers next Thursday just to finish .500, a bowl invite seems unlikely and supporters of that once-torrid program are left scratching their heads wondering what the future holds. Brohm & Co. put up an admirable fight at West Virginia a couple of weeks ago but looked like a team that's thrown in the towel in last week's 55-17 debacle at USF.
Other obvious disappointments: Nebraska (5-6 in what was anticipated to be a breakthrough season in the Huskers' fourth year of the soon-to-be-mercifully-ended Bill Callahan era), Miami (5-6 in Randy Shannon's first season, capped by consecutive ACC blowouts the past two weeks), UCLA (5-5, including embarrassing losses to Utah and Notre Dame, after showing signs of a breakthrough at the end of last season) and Alabama (6-5 under Nick Saban and losers of three straight, including last week's debacle against Louisiana-Monroe). I can't say Notre Dame's season, albeit horrendous, falls on quite the same level as those since most people (myself included) felt they'd be fortunate to finish .500 this year.
In the Cal-Washington game last week, the Bears kicked off to start the game, then kicked off again after halftime. How is this possible? --Teddy, Los Angeles
I guess when it rains, it pours in Berkeley. As befitting their recent play, Cal's captains managed to mess up the coin toss.
Washington won the toss and elected to defer to the second half. College teams tend to do defer the overwhelming majority of the time. It doesn't automatically mean that you kick off first, however; it means you're "deferring your choice" of whether to kick or receive to the second half and allowing your opponent to choose first. Presumably, the opponent -- knowing it won't have first choice after halftime -- will elect to receive, but in this case, according to reports, Bears captain Thomas DeCoud mistakenly elected to kick. "I just had a brain fart," DeCoud told reporters.
Is Tommy Bowden Clemson's version of Mack Brown? Will Tigers fans' patience ever be rewarded? Clemson does return a loaded roster next year. --Cameron Whitworth, Charleston, S.C.
Longtime readers of this column know well I'm a proponent of patience and perspective when it comes to judging coaches and often chide fan bases that hold unrealistic expectations of their coach. That said, I think it's beyond reasonable for Tigers fans to have expected Bowden to produce at least one ACC title by this, his ninth season at the school. Following last week's home loss to Boston College, that's not going to happen.
Certainly, there are plenty of programs far worse off than Clemson's, which has finished .500 or better every year under Bowden and remains in contention for another decent bowl (either the Chick-fil-A or Gator) this season. At some point, however, you have to stop and ask yourself, Is this as good as it's ever going to get with this guy? And if so, is it time to try someone else? I think that school will face a difficult decision in the coming weeks, particularly if the Tigers beat South Carolina this weekend to finish 9-3, a successful season by any reasonable measure.
As Cameron mentioned, the Tigers could potentially field their most talented team yet under Bowden next season, with QB Cullen Harper, RB C.J. Spiller, WR Aaron Kelly and nearly the entire starting defense set to return. If they beat the Gamecocks, they'll go into the offseason with plenty of momentum. But at the same time, it seems to me that Bowden blew his best window of opportunity the past two seasons. If he couldn't win the ACC with Florida State and Miami at their lowest points in 25 years, Virginia Tech fielding good-but-not-great squads and Wake Forest among the upper-half of the contenders, how's he going to do it when the competition inevitably gets stronger over the coming years? The sensible move is probably to give Bowden one more season ... but I can understand if Clemson followers are tired of hearing "one more season" after hearing it so many times.
What do you think of Charlie Weis planning to go back to the Patriots' coaching staff for help in fixing what is wrong with the Irish? --Edward, Whittier, Calif.
It certainly can't hurt. Weis could use all the help he can get right now. But as I wrote last week, Weis' continued adherence to an "NFL approach" is hurting the Irish immensely. Bill Belichick certainly offers no shortage of potential wisdom about motivating and preparing professional athletes, but I'm not sure how much of that, if any, translates to motivating and preparing college athletes.
If Weis is seeking advice, perhaps he ought to speak with Lou Holtz or Bob Davie, two guys who know plenty about the intricacies of coaching at Notre Dame and who still follow the college game closely due to their television jobs. It would be even more helpful to speak with some active college coaches, most of whom regularly visit other campuses and exchange ideas with each other every spring. Georgia's Mark Richt, who orchestrated a radical mid-season makeover of his team's psyche this season, would be a good start. From what I've heard, however, Weis hasn't exactly gone out of his way to endear himself to his college colleagues, in which case, there may be another, more practical reason he's seeking counsel from the Patriots' staff: He has no other options.
Hi Stewart! Longtime reader, first-time e-mailer. Do you think we'll ever again see the day where a defensive player wins the Heisman trophy? With most of the "obvious" candidates this year having some major stumbles, will someone like James Laurinaitis get some votes? I know he shot himself in the foot against Illinois. --Laura, Dayton, Ohio
The only true defensive player ever to win the Heisman, Michigan's Charles Woodson, did so playing for an undefeated team and with a series of certifiable "highlight" plays (interception and punt returns for touchdowns) that made it easy for voters to see his impact. Laurinaitis is a great player, but he would have had to do something truly spectacular, and, as you said, his team couldn't afford to get run over by Illinois, to receive the same kind of treatment. (It should be noted the Buckeyes' defense did do something truly spectacular against Michigan, holding the Wolverines to 91 total yards, but Laurinaitis did not stand out nearly as much as DE Vernon Gholston.)
The one defensive guy who does seem to be getting some legitimate Heisman recognition, even at the largely anonymous defensive tackle position, is LSU's Glenn Dorsey, and the way the race has unfolded, this would indeed be the perfect year for someone like him to win it. Unfortunately, he's been hurt the second half of the year, as was particularly evident against Ole Miss, and the Tigers' defense is suffering because of it. Though it will be extremely difficult for anyone to catch Tim Tebow at this point, Dorsey could possibly earn a trip to New York if his team shuts down Darren McFadden and Felix Jones this week, with Dorsey making some visible plays in the backfield.
Then again, McFadden could run wild against Dorsey and the rest of the Tigers' banged-up defense and earn that invite for himself.
I am sure you are tired of hearing questions about the Texas A&M coaching situation, but I heard Steve Spurrier mentioned as a possible candidate. Do you think the Aggies will actually consider him, and if so, how do you think he would compete against Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech in recruiting? --Matt, Corpus Christi, Texas
At some point, I'd like to take a visit to whatever planet it is Aggies fans come from. Would A&M "consider" Spurrier? Sure. They've already set their sights on Tommy Tuberville, and Dennis Erickson is apparently on their "Plan B" list. Why not throw Spurrier into the mix as long as we're playing Monopoly?
Now, will Spurrier "consider" the Aggies? Sure ... for about as long as it takes to read this sentence.
The guy specifically chose South Carolina because at this point in his career, he wanted a low-pressure environment where the expectations are manageable. Texas A&M -- where they expect the coach to compete at the same level as Texas, despite an all-time record of 35-73-5 against the 'Horns -- does not fit that description.
Any chance the bowl gods would match up Illinois and Florida in a bowl this year? What a fun story that would be. --Jerry Burke, Columbia, Ill.
Actually, it's quite possible that's exactly the matchup we'll see in the Capital One Bowl. Both teams still remain possibilities for BCS at-large berths -- as I wrote this week, 9-3 Illinois might sneak in if the Pac-10 only produces one eligible team, and while I'm currently projecting an anticipated 10-2 Georgia team in the Sugar Bowl, a 9-3 Florida team would probably be the choice if the Dawgs reach the SEC title game but lose. If neither garner BCS invites, however, the folks in Orlando would snap up both teams in a heartbeat.
That said, while I don't doubt Illinois coach Ron Zook would welcome the opportunity to gain a little redemption against the school that fired him, I can't imagine Urban Meyer would be too thrilled about the matchup. Besides the obvious awkwardness, it's your classic setup where one team (the Illini) is far more jacked up to be there than the other (the Gators). Presumably Meyer would stress the importance to his players of getting a "head start" on an anticipated championship run next season -- though Zook could certainly say the same thing to his troops. Personally, I just want to watch Tebow and Percy Harvin go against Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn.
Stewart, is there any way you can continue the Mailbag year round? It's only November and already I'm thinking about how I'm going to get my weekly fix of college football. The mailbag is my main connection now and I'll be lost without it in the offseason. --James, Austin, Texas
That's very nice of you to say, James, but I have to confess: This season has been unusually exhausting to cover and I'm already kind of limping to the finish line. I'll have to take a break at some point. Perhaps we can institute reruns?
Do know, however, that it brings a smile to my face whenever my readers show their appreciation like you did.
I have gone over this in my mind more times than is healthy, and I just can't figure it out. How do you earn a living without having: 1. A command of the English language. 2. The ability to mentally spar and win over anyone but some moronic e-mailer. 3. Any kind of coherent metaphor. 4. Wit. 5. Common sense. 6. Basic college football knowledge. --Chris, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Your write -- I kneed to werk on mi Inglish.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!