Since appearing on the NFL Network last week and opining that Ohio State’s chances in the Fiesta Bowl would be greatly enhanced if Texas was distracted in some way, I have acquired a few new pen pals.
To say my new best friends agreed with me would be inaccurate. Likewise, vilification is little too strong. Let’s just say the state of my mental health has been called into question.
I take no delight in feeling the way I do, and I really hope my gut instincts are dead wrong. But after all the big-game collapses of the past couple of years, you’ll have to forgive my scarlet-and-gray tinted glasses for being a little on the foggy side.
Let’s stipulate right now that there aren’t many head coaches in college football I’d rather see at Ohio State than Jim Tressel. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Likewise, you cannot dispute the man’s accomplishments in eight seasons with the Buckeyes – one national championship, one Heisman Trophy winner, two undefeated regular seasons, three trips to the national title game, five Big Ten championships, 24 first-team All-Americans, and perhaps most importantly, an unprecedented 7-1 record against Michigan.
Those who roundly criticize Tressel tend to forget the state of the program when he was hired. There were only five conference championship in the previous 17 seasons, the Wolverines had won 17 of the previous 25 games over the Buckeyes, and a national championship banner hadn’t been raised in Columbus in more than three decades.
Unfortunately for him, Tressel set the bar impossibly high, including wins in eight of his first 10 games against top-10 opponents. Anything less than perfection is seen as something akin to abject failure.
Expecting to win every single game – not to mention looking good in the process – is simply unfair. However, the 2002 national championship game and the euphoria attached to it is now six years in the history books. For some, that’s an eternity. The nature of college football today is what have you done lately, and what Ohio State has done lately is lose whenever a highly ranked team is on the opposite sideline.
That kind of pronouncement always angers the diehard members of the Buckeye Nation. They parade out the old mantra of “In Tress We Trust” and point to the coach’s excellent 32-11 record against ranked opposition. Yet, while Tressel’s mark against elite competition – teams in the top 10 – remains above the breakeven mark at 8-6, he is on a four-game losing streak. The cold, hard truth is that Ohio State has not taken down a top-10 team since that wild 42-39 win over second-ranked Michigan in the 2006 regular-season finale.
That performance was followed a month and a half later by a 41-14 spanking at the hands of Florida in the BCS National Championship Game, a mugging so severe that the argument could be made the Buckeyes as a team and their head coach in particular have never fully recovered for it.
How else can you explain the subsequent games against top-ranked competition? Against LSU in last year’s title game, and this year’s losses to Southern Cal and Penn State, the Buckeyes have played tighter than a new shoe. Obviously, the competition was tough and no team can beat top-ranked opposition with any kind of regularity.
But here are some stats from those three games.
Ohio State converted only 39.5 percent of its third-down situations (17 of 43) while LSU, USC and Penn State combined to convert 52.3 percent (23 of 44). The Buckeyes surrendered 11 sacks while getting to the Tigers, Trojans and Nittany Lions quarterbacks a total of only three times – once in each contest. Furthermore, OSU committed 21 penalties for 209 yards while their opponents were flagged 12 times for 112 yards, and the combined turnover margin was 8-2 against Ohio State.
I don’t know how you would describe those numbers, but the word “alarming” immediately comes to my mind.
And now the Buckeyes wade headlong into another big game on a big stage against a big-time opponent. Based upon their recent performances with those parameters, it’s no wonder they are double-digit underdogs.
Ohio State desperately needs a postseason victory this year and not for the reason you might think. National reputation and what the media thinks be damned. The Buckeyes need a win if only for a bit of their own personal redemption. Playing a team that should be considered one of this season’s best is a tough assignment. Likewise, there aren’t exactly sweet memories for veteran team members from their last trip to the Phoenix area.
A win over Texas won’t be easy but in the words of Woody Hayes, “Nothing worth a damn is ever easy.”
Can the Buckeyes beat the Longhorns? Of course, they can.
Will they? Good question.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** For those of you who can’t wait until the start of the 2009 college football season, the folks over at NationalChamps.net have released their annual “Early Bird Preview.” Their pre-preseason top 10 for ’09: 1. Florida, 2. Alabama, 3. Texas, 4. Oklahoma, 5. USC, 6. Oklahoma State, 7. Ohio State, 8. Georgia Tech, 9. Georgia, 10. Penn State. Two other Big Ten teams made the top 25 – Iowa at No. 15 and Minnesota at No. 18.
** I had him second on my ballot, so I have no problem with Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford winning the Heisman Trophy. Bradford shaded runner-up Colt McCoy of Texas by only 122 points, the tightest margin of victory since 2001. That year, Nebraska quarterback Eric Couch best Florida QB Rex Grossman by a mere 62 votes.
** The closest finish in Heisman history occurred in 1985. Auburn running back Bo Jackson beat Iowa quarterback Chuck Long by only 45 votes. BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco was a distant third, finishing 1,005 votes behind Long.
** Florida quarterback Tim Tebow became the first player since 1956 to finish in third place in the Heisman voting despite being named on more first-place ballots than anyone else. This year, Tebow was named on 750 total ballots while Bradford was on 811. McCoy’s name appeared on 784 ballots.
** The player who finished third in 1956 despite garnering the most first-place votes was Oklahoma halfback Tommy McDonald. He earned 205 first-place votes to 197 for winner Paul Hornung of Notre Dame. Second-place finisher Johnny Majors of Tennessee – yes, that Johnny Majors – had 172.
** McDonald’s other claim to fame? At just 5-9 and 176 pounds, he is the smallest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
** Third place in the Heisman voting hasn’t been a bad place to be in recent years. Some of the third-place finishers over the past decade: Brady Quinn of Notre Dame, Eli Manning of Ole Miss, Larry Johnson of Penn State, Drew Brees of Purdue and Leinart.
** Note to Bradford and his Oklahoma teammates. The last three Heisman Trophy winners have the bowl game immediately after their selections. USC quarterback Matt Leinert, the 2004 winner, led his team to a 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl.
** Of the last 10 Heisman winners before Bradford, only four won their bowl games – Ricky Williams of Texas, Ron Dayne of Wisconsin, Carson Palmer of USC and Leinart.
** In case you couldn’t keep track of all the postseason individual awards, here are the winners: Heisman, Davey O’Brien – Sam Bradford, Oklahoma; Maxwell – Tim Tebow, Florida; Walter Camp National Player of the Year – Colt McCoy, Texas; Bednarik – Rey Maualuga, Southern California; Biletnikoff – Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech; Groza – Graham Gano, Florida State; Ray Guy – Matt Fodge, Oklahoma State; Outland – Andre Smith, Alabama; Thorpe – Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State; Doak Walker – Shonn Greene, Iowa; Lott – James Laurinaitis, Ohio State; Rimington – A.Q. Shipley, Penn State; Nagurski and Lombardi – Brian Orakpo, Texas; Butkus – Aaron Curry, Wake Forest; Johnny Unitas Golden Arm – Graham Harrell, Texas Tech; Mackey – Chase Coffman, Missouri.
** Senior center Alex Mack of California took home the Draddy Award, known as the academic Heisman. Mack has already graduated magna cum laude from Cal with a 3.61 grade-point average and a degree in legal studies. He is a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, a two-time Rimington Trophy finalist and a four-team Academic All-Pac-10 honoree. Oh, yeah … he is also projected as a first-round pick in next April’s NFL draft.
** Speaking of the draft, here’s wondering if there will be room in it for running back Bernard Scott of Abilene Christian. After finishing second last year, Scott was named winner of the Harlon Hill Trophy, symbolic of the Division II player of the year. The 5-11, 200-pounder rushed for 2,156 yards and 28 touchdowns this past season and added 48 receptions for 826 yards and six scores.
** Bowling Green, San Jose State, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Remember those schools and dazzle your friends with trivia at your holiday party. That foursome were the only Division I-A bowl-eligible teams in 2008 who did not get a postseason invitation. A record 68 other teams filled the 34 postseason spots.
** Since we’re on the subject of trivia, here are a couple of BCS tidbits. USC will play in a record seventh consecutive BCS game while Cincinnati is the only school making its first BCS appearance this year. The Bearcats are the 43rd different team to play in a BCS game.
** So much for the argument that Utah doesn’t have a fan base willing to travel. Demand from Utah for online ticket purchases for the Sugar Bowl was so heavy last week that the server had to be closed down for part of last Friday. Orders were taken by phone and in person.
** There is no doubt that Turner Gill and his Buffalo team are a feel-good story. Gill led the Bulls to a victory over Ball State in the MAC championship game and has gotten his program well on the way to respectability. But one winning season does not a Vince Lombardi make. Gill’s three-year record at Buffalo is still only 15-22 and he has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator at any level. If he keeps the Bulls in the MAC title hunt for the next couple of years, then he might be ready for a step up to the likes of Iowa State or maybe even Auburn. Not yet, though.
** The first axe has fallen at Michigan and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer’s head was the one on the chopping block. Shafer resigned Tuesday after only one season on the job, a season that saw the once-proud Wolverines rank 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense. “I take full responsibility for the demise of where Michigan’s program is at this time,” the assistant coach told the Detroit Free-Press. While that was admirable from someone who just lost his job, it wasn’t exactly on the mark. Shafer didn’t have anything to do with the Michigan offense, which ranked dead last in the conference in total yardage and scoring.
** Ole Miss is playing in its final Cotton Bowl since 1956, and the Rebels will help Texas Tech close down the old facility on the Texas State Fairgrounds. Next year, the Cotton Bowl moves to the new $1 billion Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington.
** HD is great, but 3-D? A California-based company said earlier this week that it had won the contract to shoot the BCS National Championship game in 3-D. The game between Florida and Oklahoma will be broadcast live in 3-D to 80 to 100 movie theaters in about 30 U.S. cities with tickets expected to cost $18 to $22. My question: Would you pay money to go to a theater and watch what you can watch at home for free?
** This item was buried in the national news sections, far away from the sports page. Now that O.J. Simpson is a convicted felon, the College Football Hall of Fame plans to review his status. National Football Foundation president Steve Hatchell has said that while Simpson’s status will be reviewed, there are no plans to remove him from the hall.
** Congratulations to Minnesota-Duluth, which completed a perfect 15-0 season last weekend to capture the Division II national championship. The Bulldogs capped one of the biggest one-season turnarounds in NCAA history after posting a 4-6 record a year ago. They finished off the turnaround with a 21-14 victory in the title game of Northwest Missouri State, which lost in the final for the fourth consecutive year. Those four defeats have come by a combined total of 19 points.
** Richmond will make its first appearance in the Division I-AA championship game after knocking off Northern Iowa last weekend. The Spiders scored with just 14 seconds remaining to pull out a 21-20 win, and will take on Montana in the championship game, set for Friday in Chattanooga, Tenn. Montana, the 2001 national champs and 2004 runners-up, got to this year’s title contest thanks to last Friday night’s 35-27 upset over top-seeded James Madison.
** It’s a clash of titans for the Division III championship. Defending title-holder Wisconsin-Whitewater meets nine-time champion Mount Union on Saturday in Salem, Va. The two teams are meeting in the D-III title game for the fourth straight year – Wisconsin-Whitewater won last season after Mount Union had beaten the Warhawks in 2005 and ’06.
** Mount Union running back Nate Kmic rushed for 310 yards last week in his team’s semifinal win over Wheaton (Ill.) and became the all-time, all-division career rushing leader in NCAA history. Kmic now has 7,986 yards, eclipsing the mark of 7,962 set between 2004 and ’07 by Danny Woodhead of Division II Chadron (Neb.) State.
** Today marks the 27th anniversary of a remarkable Holiday Bowl victory by BYU. On Dec. 18, 1981, the Cougars jumped out to a 31-7 advantage in the third quarter and then weathered a Washington State storm, hanging on for a wild 38-36 win. BYU quarterback Jim McMahon, the nation’s leading passer and winner of the inaugural Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, threw for 368 yards and three touchdowns to help keep the Cougars in front.
** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Dec. 15, 1962, Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker accounted for the game’s only points on a record 99-yard run in Oregon State’s 6-0 Liberty Bowl win over Villanova; on Dec. 19, 2001, Marshall engineers the biggest comeback in bowl history, wiping out a 30-point deficit before claiming a 64-61 double overtime win over East Carolina in the GMAC Bowl; and on Dec. 21, 1946, North Texas scored with nine seconds remaining to steal a 14-13 decision away from the University of Pacific in the first and only Optimist Bowl. The contest was the final game in the fabled career of legendary head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, who piled up 314 victories over a 57-year career with Springfield College, Chicago and Pacific.
** This week also featured a significant milestone in the career of Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. On Dec. 17, 1994, Tressel captured his second consecutive Division I-AA national championship as Youngstown State took a 28-14 victory over Boise State. The Penguins successfully defended their 1993 national title, and also took home championships under Tressel in 1991 and 1997.
As a rule, we tend to stay away from bowl games. It’s simply impossible to gauge how teams will play when they face opponents they’ve never faced before. Add in the myriad of other factors such as coaching changes, whether or not a particular team feels slighted about playing in what they perceive as a lesser bowl, and the emotion of senior players playing the final game of their college careers, and you never know what you’re going to get.
That said, we wade into the first week of action armed with regular-season records of 98-37 straight up and 70-60-1 against the spread.
DEC. 20 GAMES
Wake Forest vs. Navy: Hard to believe anyone was clamoring for a rematch of these two teams, but the first game of the 2008 postseason is exactly that. The Midshipmen took a 24-17 victory over the Demon Deacons back on Sept. 27, an outcome that was considered an upset at the time. Since then, Navy has become the best rushing team in college football while Wake has struggled with its consistency on offense. The Deacons won seven games this year, but were held to 17 points or less on six occasions. It all would seem to point to a win for the Middies, especially since their win earlier this season broke a four-game losing streak in the series. We might as well get the Upset Specials started early … Navy 24, Wake Forest 20. (11 a.m. EST, ESPN)
New Mexico Bowl
Colorado State vs. Fresno State: It has been an excellent year Steve Fairchild, who became the first coach in Colorado State history to get to the postseason in his first season. Meanwhile, longtime Bulldogs boss Pat Hill, fresh off a brief dalliance with Washington about its head coaching position, will seek a fifth victory in six bowl games since 2002. The Rams won their last two games to secure bowl eligibility, and those victories came at the expense of New Mexico and Wyoming, teams that combined to go 8-16 this season. There is also the small matter of Colorado State not having won a bowl game since 2001 … Fresno State 30, Colorado State 27. (2:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)
St. Petersburg Bowl
Memphis vs. South Florida: After a 5-0 start, USF fell off the radar and lost four of its last five games. What happened to the Bulls’ vaunted defense, their opportunistic offense and head coach Jim Leavitt’s genius? And how will their psyche be affected by playing a bowl game only about 30 miles away from campus? They have never seemed overly motivated in bowl games, losing two of their last three including last year’s lopsided 56-21 decision to Oregon in the Sun Bowl. Meanwhile, Memphis has a pretty good offense that averages better than 430 yards per game. Trouble is, the Tigers don’t do much in the way of defense and their six victories this year came against teams with a combined record of 19-47. Look for plenty of points in a game that should be dictated by the USF defense. But will it? … South Florida 27, Memphis 20. (4:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
Las Vegas Bowl
BYU vs. Arizona: Three things are given in life – death, taxes and BYU playing in the Las Vegas Bowl. This marks the fourth straight year for the Cougars in Sin City, but they don’t seem to mind. After losing to Cal in 2005, they beat Oregon in 2006 and UCLA last year. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are limping into their first postseason berth since 1998. They did beat instate rival Arizona State in the regular season finale, but had lost three of four games before that. Arizona has trouble stopping the run, and may have no answer for BYU sophomore Harvey Unga, a 239-pound bully who rushed for 1,061 yards and 10 TDs. The Wildcats can score pretty handily themselves, averaging 37.0 points per game. But a lot of that production came against lesser opponents – Zona played only four teams with winning records this season and lost three of the four … BYU 34, Arizona 31. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)
DEC. 21 GAME
New Orleans Bowl
Southern Mississippi vs. Troy: Maybe you didn’t know that Southern Miss is playing in its seventh straight bowl game. Maybe you didn’t know the Golden Eagles had to win their last four games to qualify for the postseason. Maybe you didn’t know they have the best freshman receiver in the nation in DeAndre Brown (92.3 yards per game). Maybe you didn’t know any of those things but rest assured Troy and longtime head coach Larry Blakeney are well-acquainted with Southern Miss. They are also aware that Louisiana has not exactly been kind to their team this year – excruciating losses at Louisiana-Monroe and LSU, the latter a 40-31 defeat after leading the defending national champs 31-7 late in the third quarter. What do they say about the third time being the charm? … Troy 27, Southern Miss 24. (8:15 p.m. EST, ESPN)
DEC. 23 GAMES
Boise State vs. TCU: This is the best matchup on the early portion of the bowl-game schedule and it isn’t even close. The Horned Frogs, who get absolutely no respect despite a 40-10 record over the past four seasons, present an extremely tough out for the undefeated Broncos. TCU plays defense with the best of them, ranking No. 2 nationally in both total and scoring defense, allowing only 215.1 yards and 10.9 yards per game. Anyone familiar with Boise and its high-wire offensive act knows that trick plays are possible at any juncture. What you may not know is that the Broncos have a pretty fair defense as well, ranking third nationally in scoring and 16th in total defense. This should be a pretty good game with turnovers making the difference … TCU 23, Boise State 21. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)
DEC. 24 GAMES
Hawaii vs. Notre Dame: Most people believe the Irish’s nine-game losing streak in bowl games – the longest in NCAA history – will reach 10 this year. That’s probably because while Charlie Weis and his team stumbled down the stretch of the 2008 season, the Rainbows quietly won four of their last six, and one of the losses during that stretch was a 29-24 defeat to Orange Bowl-bound Cincinnati. Notre Dame lost four of its last five games, but to give the Irish their due, the defeats came against teams that combined to go 32-17 this year. Still, it’s difficult to see how such a shaky offense can navigate the sometimes-tricky Aloha Stadium winds. Plus, there is the small fact that the Rainbows are extremely tough at home – 45 wins in 55 games dating back to 2002 … Hawaii 27, Notre Dame 23. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)
Here are the spreads for the aforementioned games: Wake Forest vs. Navy (+3); Colorado State vs. Fresno State (+2½); Memphis (+12½) vs. South Florida; BYU (+3) vs. Arizona; Southern Miss (+4) vs. Troy; Boise State (+2½) vs. TCU; and Hawaii (-1½) vs. Notre Dame.
Enjoy the start of bowl week everyone and we’ll visit again next week.