The 2011 season began amid an unusual backdrop. Last Saturday, less than an hour before the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the county were set to kick off, media covering the LSU-Oregon game converged around Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "So," Scott joked, "are we here to talk about Oregon's gameplan tonight?" Umm, no.
It was a fascinating first weekend of football, but the game currently taking place off the field is proving equally mesmerizing.
You're not alone, Michael. What's truly bizarre about the latest conference missile crisis is that as best as I can tell, almost no one (with the exception of Texas A&M) actually wants superconferences. Not the great majority of fans. Not the television networks (fewer leagues means more intense bidding wars). Not bowl executives. And while this may sound strange, not even the conferences themselves.
For obvious reasons, most assume Scott is driving the superconference bus. He's the one who first put this chain of events into motion last summer, apparently stamping the number 16 onto every media member's forehead. But I listened carefully to his comments last Saturday, when he repeated his oft-used line that "we will see further consolidation [of conferences]" because of "instability in certain parts of the country." By which he means: Because the Big 12 is such a dysfunctional mess, the rest of us will end up absorbing its parts.
But much has changed since Scott's push for 16 last summer. At that time, Pac-10 expansion was directly tied to the league's impending television negotiations. I'm not sure even Scott would have predicted the league could land a $3 billion deal -- AND start its own network -- after solely adding Colorado and Utah. But now that it has, "We haven't felt one iota of need," Scott said. The league would be just fine staying at 12 teams. Really. Jon Wilner of the
Meanwhile, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany says his league is happy where it is, and I believe him. "It's about quality, not quantity," he told the
If both the SEC and Pac-12 move to 14 or more, then it's every man for himself. The Big East plans to be aggressive and go after most or all of the Big 12's leftovers, largely to protect itself if the SEC or ACC comes raiding. The ACC isn't actively looking to expand but knows the SEC could poach one of its schools to accompany A&M. Essentially, we're watching a big nationwide stare-down, where no one wants to get caught blinking.
Independence is definitely one of the options Texas is pondering, but there's one big problem: Texas fields 17 athletic teams besides football, and they need a conference. Can you imagine trying to put together a 27-game basketball schedule as an independent? Or a 50-something game baseball schedule? That's why Notre Dame is in the Big East for all its other sports, Army and Navy in the Patriot League, BYU in the West Coast Conference. If the Big 12 dissolves, there's no logical landing spot for Texas' other teams. Do you think Rick Barnes wants to compete in the Mountain West? It's the biggest reason why Texas is still fighting to keep the Big 12 intact in some form.
My suggestion: Get the band back together. Re-create the Southwest Conference (mostly). Texas, Texas Tech, Houston, Rice, SMU, Baylor and maybe throw in UTEP and Tulsa. Only this time they'll call it the Longhorn Conference, and all games involving Texas will be shown on The Longhorn Network. The league probably won't get an AQ bid, but Texas won't need one. It will schedule Oklahoma, Notre Dame and BYU out of conference to impress the voters, and get its own qualification provision written into the BCS, a la the Irish. Problem solved.
It's a corny football cliché, but it's the answer to Todd's question: It's not the Xs and Os, it's the Jimmies and Joes. Meyer's and Kelly's offenses have their respective wrinkles (Oregon runs the quarterback less and emphasizes the hurry-up more), but they're based on the same concept: getting playmakers open in space. Here's the difference: When Florida won its 2008 BCS championship, it had future first-round pick Tim Tebow at quarterback, future first-round pick Percy Harvin and NFL starter Louis Murphy as receivers and future first-rounders Mike and Maurkice Pouncey on its offensive line. While we don't yet know the futures of LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, consider that Oregon's go-to receiver last year, Jeff Maehl, went undrafted and recently signed with the Houston Texans' practice squad, and none of its three departed offensive linemen were drafted. At least half the LSU defense that Oregon faced last Saturday will eventually get drafted. Think Kelly might have fared better with Harvin and a Pouncey or two?
So while Gavin's Kelly-Rodriguez comparison was obviously a dig, it should probably be a compliment. With decent but hardly elite talent, Kelly has managed to go 22-5 as a head coach and, lest we forget, lost last year's national championship game on a last-second field goal. Last Saturday's game was a blowout on the scoreboard, but the Ducks actually outgained LSU and, if not for a true freshman's pair of fumbles, may well have taken the game to the wire. But clearly, these nonconference games have exposed the limitations of the Ducks' offense. Quirky play cards and a frenetic tempo only get a team so far against superior talent. The good news is, Oregon is now able to recruit more of those elite players (like De'Anthony Thomas) thanks to its newfound national stature. Now it needs some dominant o-linemen. But until the Ducks actually win one of these high-profile nonconference games or BCS bowls, the public and the pollsters are going to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Here's the funny thing about Boise: It's the anti-Oregon. (I swear I'm not trying to rag on Oregon, it's just an apt comparison.) The Broncos continually legitimize themselves in big nonconference games. They've beaten Oregon head-to-head twice since 2008, and when all is said and done, they will likely have several more players drafted from their 2010 and '11 teams than will the Ducks (especially from that defensive line). Yet we're so conditioned to the AQ/non-AQ distinction that we never heard a peep last year about whether Oregon "belonged" in the title game, whereas that's
In fairness, it seems like Boise earned a whole lot of respect Saturday. I'm not hearing nearly the same backlash yet, except of course from...
Funny, I didn't hear any complaints about Georgia's ranking until
What, you weren't impressed with Auburn's dramatic rally against Utah State? Or Ole Miss' first three quarters against BYU? Or Kentucky's ... never mind. No, it was not a great opening week for the SEC, either, though with the exception of Georgia, the teams that struggled or lost were the teams picked to finish at or near the bottom of their divisions. LSU got a marquee win and Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Florida all rolled. It may be that the league isn't as deep as in past years. We'll find out more soon enough. And we'll find out a lot more about Alabama when it visits Penn State on Saturday.
My point in the column is that no team in the Pac-12 -- with the possible exception of Stanford -- seems to be playing much defense lately. I have no such concerns about the SEC's top teams. But the Pac-12 has two great chances to prove me wrong this week when Arizona visits Oklahoma State and Arizona State hosts Missouri.
I'd say USC's. Auburn fans knew this year was going to be rough. Maybe not need-a-perfect-onside-kick-to-survive-Utah State rough, but quite possibly 6-6 rough. You don't lose Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and 14 other starters and expect a smooth transition. But there's still plenty of cause for long-term optimism, because Gene Chizik has recruited extremely well since he's been there, and many of those blue-chippers he brought in saw their first action Saturday. (Auburn played 13 true freshmen, second-most nationally behind Texas' 18.) They're only going to get better, though they'll certainly take some lumps this season.
For USC, however, the window for success is closing. The scholarship reductions start kicking in next year and continue through 2014. If Lane Kiffin's program wants to make significant strides, this is the year to do it, what with a talented, veteran quarterback (Matt Barkley), an elite receiver (Robert Woods) and several big-time defensive players. But Kiffin bolstered nobody's confidence with Saturday's game. USC has its holes, but it's talented enough to have crushed Minnesota. It was very reminiscent of last year's Hawaii opener, when we got a glimpse of just how undermanned the USC defense was -- a recurring theme throughout the season. And just like in that game, Kiffin outsmarted himself by going for two after the Trojans' first two touchdowns -- only this time it only burned him at the end. People there aren't going to be too pleased with another eight-win season, but that's about what the Trojans looked capable of, if that.
My take is that's all well and good until the first time some school tries to ride it out, a fan dies and the entire country goes apoplectic about how that school could be so negligent as to let this happen. It was an odd weekend, that's for sure, but those schools absolutely did the right thing.
I certainly hope so. Paul Johnson may run the triple option, but it's always more effective when the quarterback is an actual threat to pass. When the Jackets won the ACC title in 2009, Josh Nesbitt (with the help of big-time receiver Demaryius Thomas) had a 148.7 efficiency rating, which would have ranked 14th nationally if he had enough attempts to qualify, and averaged an insane 10.5 yards per attempt. Last year, with Thomas gone and Nesbitt hurt for part of the season, the Jackets' pass efficiency dropped to 102.0, their yards per attempt to 6.5 -- and their record to 6-7.
So it was certainly encouraging for Tech fans to see Johnson air it out last week against Western Carolina, with Tevin Washington completing 8-of-13 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. That's 20.8 yards per attempt. That's absurd. But ... it was also Western Carolina. Let's see how he does over the next few weeks.
Thanks. And thanks for sending this at 7:56 a.m. on Saturday before you had a chance to see me blow the weekend's two biggest games.
One or two games, huh? Does that mean Utah State would go .500?