Nick Saban is sour, irascible, glowering—and that's when he agrees with you. Sitting across from the Alabama coach in his office between practices one early-August afternoon, a visitor invited him to participate in SI's quest. America had come to the merciful end of an off-season filled with grim headlines: from the epic corruption of ex--Fiesta Bowl chairman John Junker to the serial lies of ex--Ohio State coach Jim Tressel to the firing of coach Butch Davis at North Carolina (for presiding, albeit unknowingly, over academic fraud, among other sins) to Oregon's $25,000 payment to an alleged "street agent." The cavalcade of bad press had left us to wonder: Where is the good news?
This is an article from the Aug. 22, 2011 issue
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, Saban was told, is to remind readers what is good and fun about college football. His response—you will be stunned to learn—was to become irritated. Not at his visitor, but at the Eeyore Brigade, which, in his view, blows the sport's bad news out of proportion. "It upsets me a little that nobody's interested in good news, and there's a tremendous amount of good news in college football." Because there is "so much more information," thanks to the Internet, Saban believes, "it presents the perception that there's a lot wrong with the sport, and I don't believe that.
"Maybe I'm the eternal optimist"—he's not—"but I see so many guys who would probably never have gone to college [were it not for football]. I've seen them graduate and get great jobs. There are thousands of those stories."
He spoke of "the tremendous job" Alabama players have done in clearing debris and contributing to the rebuilding of houses in the wake of April's tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa and killed 50 people. "But they get no recognition for that."
If that were true, you wouldn't be reading about Barrett Jones, a 4.0 student and two-year starter at right guard who has twice been to Haiti on mercy missions and whose weight training in the aftermath of the tornadoes consisted of wielding a chain saw and lifting downed trees. He's an accounting major who, the day before camp started, finished a two-hour final exam—the last test he needed to pass in order to graduate in three years. "I walked out of the exam, grabbed my bag and moved into camp 35 minutes later. No time to celebrate, no time to call home and say, 'Hey, Mom, I graduated!'"
Jones's smarts and technical proficiency resulted in his being moved to left tackle during spring practice. Unless an understudy unseats him, he will spend this year protecting the blind side of either sophomore A.J. McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, whoever emerges as starting quarterback for SI's preseason No. 1 team. Jones will also open holes for 5'11", 224-pound Trent Richardson, a Heisman Trophy candidate (page 99) who is bigger, faster and stronger than his Heisman-winning predecessor Mark Ingram.
"God gave me a gift," says Richardson, a workout fiend and former Florida state weightlifting champion, "and I just try to meet him halfway with it." That is, he tries to honor the gift by making the most of it. "Whether it's running around somebody or running them over, I try to use it every way I can."
Crimson Tide guys don't bother with small-time, penny-ante goals. They go big or go home. For his part, Richardson wants to be "one of the best college football players that's ever come through the NCAA." He'd like to see his team at least get back to the SEC championship game, after missing last year's. He and his teammates are reminded of the loss that kept them out of the title game every day. A laminated poster of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton celebrating the Tigers' 28--27 comeback victory with fellow first-round pick Nick Fairley hangs in every stall in the 'Bama dressing room this off-season. On each poster is the legend, NEVER AGAIN.
Never's a long time. But the Tide, with far more talent returning, will be favored at this year's Iron Bowl, even though the game is at Auburn. Beyond that, says Richardson, the goal will be to "try to get to New Orleans"—site of the BCS national championship game.
Nobody nurses a grudge like Saban, who made sure when his players showed up for workouts this year that footage of that Iron Bowl loss was playing on the TVs in the weight room. It's heavy-handed, but effective: The last time Saban & Co. spent a year stewing over a loss, Tim Tebow ended up weeping on the sideline at the SEC title game, and the Tide went on to win the 2009 national title.
Despite its pathologies and the god-awful method it uses to determine a national champion, there's nothing like college football. The purpose of SI's recent cross-country sweep was to remind ourselves of what we love most about the game and its traditions. And that we love it even more when those traditions are improved upon. After decades trapped in amber, it seemed, the Pac-10 added two members, welcoming Colorado and Utah. Second-year commissioner Larry Scott, it turned out, was just getting warmed up. He and his staff negotiated a stunning $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox.
Your reigning conference champions, the Oregon Ducks, open against LSU in the so-called Willie Lyles Bowl. (Lyles is the controversial "scout"—he's also been called a "street agent"—who has cashed large checks from both Oregon and LSU.)
As long as we're talking about stretching the rules, fairness requires that we give equal time to those notorious reprobates at Boise State, who have had to schlep a bit of baggage to their new conference, the Mountain West. In the spring the Broncos found infractions in their football, track and field and women's tennis programs. Their football crimes? For several years incoming players participating in voluntary summer workouts had knowingly and with malice aforethought ... crashed on the sofas and floors of Broncos players, who often compounded the offense by ... feeding their guests. Hope the mac-and-cheese tasted good, fellas, because such room and board is against NCAA rules.
Boise opens in Atlanta against Georgia, one of the most intriguing nonconference matchups of the season. Six years ago the Bulldogs demolished the Broncos 48--13, letting the upstarts from the WAC know they weren't ready for prime time. Are they ready now? Yes, says Dawgs coach Mark Richt, who told a Georgia radio station that there's "a drastic difference between their personnel today and their personnel in 2005—just the size and the strength and the speed."
The best Bulldog ever, one Herschel Junior Walker, placed second in the Heisman balloting in 1981, then won it in '82. That's the last time a Heisman runner-up won the trophy the following year. Stanford's Andrew Luck, last year's runner-up, is this year's front-runner and the source of plenty of good feeling in Palo Alto.
"He's in a sweet spot," says Chris Huston, a.k.a., the Heisman Pundit. "He's not underexposed, he's not overexposed. Sometimes it feels like the front-runner is obnoxiously foisted upon us—like Tim Tebow the year after he won it—so there ends up being a backlash. Luck doesn't have that problem."
He continues: "He's got great backstory: a once-and-future first-round NFL draft pick who came back to school to get his degree in architectural design. While it's true he's playing for a team that's not a 'traditional power,' it's also true that the quarterbacking job at Stanford is a storied position. He had a great Orange Bowl and is playing for a likely top 10 team. His numbers [3,338 yards, 32 TDs] were great last year, but not so great that they can't be topped."
Cardinal coaches spent the off-season vigilant for signs of complacency. "It's human nature to let your guard down a little bit," says offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. "So what we're emphasizing to these guys—some of whom didn't play a whole bunch last year but are still wearing their Orange Bowl rings—is that this is gonna be the toughest thing they've ever done. This is a new journey."
To smooth it out, Hamilton gave Luck an off-season assignment: to watch every snap of every pass play executed last season by Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers. "Plus a lot of Tom Brady film," adds Hamilton.
Luck was happy to take on the assignment. Really, other than participating in spring drills and taking four courses in his major, what else did he have to do?
If Luck is a Heisman finalist, he'll probably end up spending some quality time in Manhattan with Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. Don't expect them to go clubbing. One is an admitted nerd (Luck), the other an aspiring minister. Jones will excel in that calling if he can sling scripture half as well as he throws a football. His 405 completions led the nation last season; his 4,718 passing yards and 38 touchdown passes were second. And his confidence is high right now, as demonstrated by his June marriage proposal to Oklahoma's star shooting guard, Whitney Hand. While this is clearly his team, Jones and his teammates will be playing this season for the memory of a fallen comrade.
Jones and eight other Sooners were on a mission trip to Haiti in May when news reached them that their teammate Austin Box had died. A savvy linebacker with a history of injuries at Oklahoma, Box died tragically as the result of mixing five painkillers and an antianxiety medication, none of which had been prescribed to him.
He and fellow linebacker Travis Lewis came to Norman on the same recruiting visit, played together and shared the same major, sociology. Lewis gave Box grief for his mullet; Box informed Lewis that a guy with a Mohawk didn't have a lot of room to talk.
As a reward at the end of video sessions, defensive coordinator Brent Venables lets his guys choose a short video to watch. Among their favorites: YouTube snippets of coaches melting down. Box was partial to a 2003 clip of a semicrazed Les Miles, then the headman at Oklahoma State, declaring in the moments before a kickoff, "Let 'er rip!"
That was how Box played. He let 'er rip. "He wasn't the fastest guy—he'd torn up his knee," Lewis recalls. "He wasn't going to blow you away in the weight room. But he had great instincts. He just knew where the ball was going to be. Every team has to have a player like that."
As of mid-August the Sooners were batting around several ideas for honoring Box. One possibility: Every Saturday this season one Oklahoma defender will honor Box by wearing a jersey with his number, 12.
Should the Sooners run the table, should Stoops and his crew make their fifth BCS title game in 12 years, and should they win it all, it will be on account of the 15 returning starters and the dazzling play of Jones. And it will have happened because an already close team drew closer still in its determination to honor the memory of a friend.
Quick, which of the Big Ten's newfangled divisions is your school in? Legends or Leaders?
Marcel Jones, Nebraska's starting right tackle, pauses before answering, "I think we're Legends."
Dude, say it with conviction!
Huskers associate media-relations director Shamus McKnight shares this helpful mnemonic device: "We've got three M's [Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota], two N's [Nebraska, Northwestern] and an I [Iowa]."
So much to learn about their new home. After 102 years in the Big 12 and its antecedent, the Big 8, the Cornhuskers filed for divorce last year. We've grown apart. Besides, you spend so much time catering to the Longhorns, it's like the rest of us don't exist.
Nebraska's exodus means the extinction of some old rivalries and longer road trips for Huskers fans. (Nebraska's closest conference foe is now Iowa, a 4½-hour drive.) But what will it mean for the Cornhuskers on the field? Bo Pelini and his brother Carl, Nebraska's head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, have spent the last three seasons scheming to stop the wide-open spread offenses of the Big 12. Now they find themselves in a conference that is, in general, less pass happy and more reliant on the run. Is this going to be a problem?
It very well could be ... for Big Ten offensive coordinators who must now match wits with the Pelinis, who fielded the No. 2 defense in the Big 12 in each of the last three years.
It's a difficult challenge facing 11 new opponents, concedes Carl, who has two master's degrees and is as voluble and eloquent as Bo is brief and brusque. "But I think we're different enough defensively," Carl says, "that facing us once in a year is going create problems for our new opponents."
Nebraska's defensive coaches have "been playing mad scientist" for the last six months, says Carl. Last season DeJon Gomes and Eric Hague were used as defensive back--linebacker hybrids. If the other team ran, the duo had the freedom to play linebacker. If the offense went to a spread, they became defensive backs.
This season Nebraska will apply that hybrid philosophy to the defensive line as well. The team's most versatile lineman is the guy everyone calls Crick. (His first name, which no one uses, is Jared.) One of the Pelinis' first moves upon arriving in Lincoln was to move the 6'6", 285-pound Crick inside, from defensive end to tackle, where he played beside future first-round pick Ndamukong Suh. While Suh is "just a beast, physically," says Carl, Crick relies more on his "speed, quickness and athleticism. They both have the whole package, but in different ways."
Crick could have entered the most recent NFL draft. One of the things that kept him in school was the opportunity to play a season in the Big Ten. This year Nebraska will venture into such iconic venues as Beaver Stadium, Camp Randall and The Big House. "That should be pretty cool," says Crick, who has 143 tackles and 19 sacks over the past two seasons yet still seems surprised, at times, by the extent of his success.
As late as his junior year at Cozad (Neb.) High, he says, "I didn't expect to play college sports at all." One day his football coach pulled him out of class to tell him that Kansas had offered him a full ride. "I was pretty good at track and field," he recalls, "so I thought maybe they'd offered a track scholarship."
Crick rooms with the laid-back Marcel Jones, a Phoenix native who chose Nebraska because "I'm a calmer, chill type of guy, and the atmosphere here fit my personality."
It did, at least, on the weekend of his official visit. Five years later Jones has yet to get used to the attention paid to him, by some Huskers fans. He seems puzzled why a 6'7", 320-pound black man (he's 6'9", if you measure from the top of his Afro) has been unable to find anonymity in the middle of Nebraska.
The roommates seem a little tired on a Wednesday morning in early August. The truth is, if you play Division I football, "there's no off-season," says Crick. Guys who want to get on the field spend the summer on campus, showing up for workouts at 5:30 a.m. "And everybody's taking a summer class," says Crick, "and a lot of guys have a job. So if you do your homework, that leaves about two hours of free time before you go to bed if you want a decent night's sleep."
How is that not drudgery? Where is the joy in that? Jones takes a stab at it: "The main joy, to me, is the camaraderie we create. Our workouts are so exhausting, so mentally draining, that there are times when you're thinking, I do not want to do this. But your teammates are going through the struggle too, and you can't let them down. I'm not from here. I've grown up with these guys. They're my brothers. My family."
No quest for the fun in college football can be complete without paying a call on Steve Spurrier, who once referred to FSU as "Free Shoes University" and who famously underlined Tennessee's repeat appearances in a minor bowl by noting, "You can't spell Citrus without UT."
On picture day at Brice-Williams Stadium, we find two generations of Spurriers smiling for the camera. "Hands on knees!" commands the photographer. "Hats off! Sunglasses off!" To avoid squinting, coach Steve Spurrier and assistant coach Steve Spurrier Jr., employ the same trick, closing their eyes as the photog says "One, two, three," opening them just in time for the shutter to click.
How many team pictures has he posed for? Spurrier p√®re can't begin to count.
The Ol' Ball Coach is 66 and doesn't need the money. What he does need is to have his right knee replaced. What's he doing out here, putting in 16-hour days in this heat? "Honestly, I'm driven by the opportunity we have, to achieve some things they've never achieved before. Plus we're starting to get really good players. So we've got a chance."
Five years into his Columbia tenure, Spurrier is on a serious roll. After winning the SEC East last season, a first for the program, South Carolina hauled in another terrific recruiting class, highlighted by Jadeveon Clowney, a 6'6", 254-pound man-child at defensive end who was, according to a consensus of recruiting experts, the No. 1 prospect in the country.
"There's a different feeling around here," says Steve Jr., who is both passing-game and recruiting coordinator. "We have 17 commitments right now. Last year at this time we had six. People want to come here. We've never had that."
There's Clowney. There's tailback Marcus Lattimore, the best freshman in the nation last season. And there's the Gamecocks' quiet star, the humble, soft-spoken Alshon Jeffery, a 6'4", 229-pound wide receiver who grew up in nearby St. Matthews idolizing Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and Dwayne Jarrett. After teasing the Trojans, Jeffery decided, on the eve of signing day in 2009, to play his college ball for the other USC. It was the Trojans' loss. Dude is a human highlight reel. He's not especially fast, but he's never run down from behind. "He doesn't fly by anybody," says the younger Spurrier, who also coaches receivers, "it's just that no one can cover him."
Spurrier Jr. is thinking of a catch Jeffery made in the fourth quarter of South Carolina's 35--21 upset of No. 1 Alabama last fall. With the Gamecocks up 28--21 and 'Bama rallying, he ran a fade route toward the right sideline.
"I got a bad release, then ran a horrible route," recalls Jeffery. The defensive back was all over him, clutching Jeffery's jersey while pinning the receiver's left arm to his body. "There's nothing Alshon can do," says Spurrier Jr., picking up the story, "so he sticks one hand in the air and catches the ball in the crook of his arm. He knocks [the defender] down, goes out at the six. We score three plays later. I'm watching it on tape later, saying, 'That's a minus, that's a minus'—and it's the play that wins the game for us."
Another picture day is in the books. The elder Spurrier is standing outside a meeting room, feeling his years. "We lost Bubba Smith this week," he says of the former Michigan State great. He and Smith played in some college all-star games after the 1966 season. "He was a fun guy."
"When I was in my late fifties," he went on, "I told myself if I was still doing this in my sixties, I'd delegate the play-calling—just kinda 'CEO it,' like all these other head coaches."
One of the canniest, most intuitive play-callers of his generation, Spurrier has made half-hearted attempts in recent seasons to delegate that duty: to his son, to quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus. The job always ends up being ... temporary. "What ends up happening," Spurrier admits, is that after a quarter or so of second-guessing, "I just say, 'Shoot, let me take over.'"
"The only reason I do it," he says, "is that I believe I can do it better." Coach, no need to apologize for your talents. You bring joy to a lot of people.
BEST GAME DAYS
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