I don’t want to look any gift horse in the mouth but if Ohio State is truly going to go to the Arizona desert for the fifth time in seven years, the Buckeyes had better do everything different this time.
No more staying at the palatial Scottsdale Princess hotel. No more practicing at Pinnacle High School in Scottsdale. No more white jerseys – wear the scarlet ones even if it means giving up one team timeout per half. And, please, please, please, no more midnight runs to In-N-Out Burger.
If we’re reading the tea leaves correctly, it appears the Buckeyes are going to make another trek to the Fiesta Bowl this season and will probably play Texas. (That, of course, means everything has to go according to plan this weekend. Should Missouri somehow find a way to upset Oklahoma, all BCS bets are off.)
Pitting Ohio State against Texas would seem to be a dream matchup for the Phoenix-area folks who stage the bowl – two of the winningest programs in college football history meeting for only the third time ever and the first time in a bowl.
If it turns out to be OSU vs. the Longhorns in the Fiesta Bowl, neither team will travel to Phoenix with pleasant memories of their last trip to the desert. UT-Austin has made only one previous appearance in the Fiesta Bowl and that was a 38-15 loss to Penn State in the 1997 game. Ohio State, of course, was skewered to the ugly tune of 41-14 decision by Florida in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game.
There is another reason why the Longhorns may envision a Fiesta Bowl trip as something less than ideal. They probably should be playing the Big 12 championship game this Saturday with an eye toward the national title game, and anything less is likely to be a downer.
As for the Buckeyes, they should be elated about securing a sixth Bowl Championship Series berth in seven seasons. They also should send Oregon a Christmas card to thank the Ducks for knocking off Oregon State last weekend. That bumped the Beavers out of the Rose Bowl picture, supplanted USC in their place and paved the way for Ohio State to move into the big-money BCS mix.
Speaking only for myself, I would prefer a trip to the Orange Bowl. OSU has not played a postseason game in travel-friendly Florida since 2001 and it hasn’t appeared in the Orange Bowl since the 1977 game. (How long ago was that? It was the final bowl victory in Woody Hayes’ career.)
But the way the various BCS games pick their teams is about as convoluted as the way their standings are determined. The Orange seems destined to have Big East champion Cincinnati pitted against the ACC title game winner, leaving the Buckeyes available to be selected by either the Fiesta or Sugar bowl committees. To me, that’s a pick-your-poison scenario.
Not many OSU fans I talked with last year had a very good opinion of New Orleans. I have been to the Crescent City several times – both before Hurricane Katrina and after – and it is pretty much the same kind of touristy destination it has always been. Stay in the French Quarter and you’ll be OK. Venture elsewhere and take your chances.
Having acknowledged that, I would just as soon take a few more years off from going to the Fiesta Bowl. For one thing, it is a much different animal now that the game is played in suburban Glendale as opposed to quaint little Tempe. The game-day atmosphere around Sun Devil Stadium was lively and spirited with plenty of local establishments waiting with open arms to welcome fans of the participating teams. That was most likely because Tempe is a college town and Sun Devil Stadium is a college football venue – in other words, they know how to stage a college football game.
Glendale and its state-of-the-art University of Phoenix Stadium have all the charm of a school bus. Supposedly, there are more eateries and attractions that have been built in proximity to the stadium since last Ohio State and its fans visited for what is universally known as “The Debacle in the Desert.” That would be an improvement since amenities were nearly non-existent last time.
I also wonder just how many OSU fans will return to the desert after last time. There were reports of price-gouging – not only around town but at the sanctioned events and official tailgate parties for the Buckeyes themselves. I guess when you charge $10.50 for a single beer, you’re leaving yourself open for criticism. Of course, you have to pay for a $455 million retractable-roof stadium somehow.
While the amenities and attractions of the host city are important – especially to fans making the trip – the bottom line this year is simple. Pass-happy Texas, BCS buster Utah, defense-minded Alabama, high-scoring Florida and pesky Cincinnati each would bring something unique into a game against the Buckeyes.
But whoever the opponent, whatever the destination, after the last two years, there is only one option for Ohio State this time around. SEC redemption? A Big 12 beatdown? Defending the Big Ten’s honor? Who cares? Just win, baby.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** Here are my BCS game predictions: Oklahoma vs. Florida in the championship game, Ohio State vs. Texas in the Fiesta, Alabama vs. Utah in the Sugar, Boston College vs. Cincinnati in the Orange and USC vs. Penn State in the Rose. That’s two spots each for the Big 12, SEC and Big Ten, one each for the ACC, Big East and Pac-10 and one for a so-called BCS buster.
** Did you know that USC and Penn State have not met in the postseason since the 1982 Fiesta Bowl? The then-independent Nittany Lions scored a 26-10 decision over the Trojans and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen.
** I’m flipping the top two on my Heisman Trophy ballot from last week. This week, I moved Texas QB Colt McCoy to the top, leapfrogging Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford? My reasoning is simple (and, no, it is not some sort of protest due to the BCS jumping OU over UT-Austin in its standings). I believe the Sooners would be a comparable team to what they are today without Bradford in the lineup while McCoy is far and away the most valuable player on the Longhorns. There really isn’t a whole lot of difference in the two but I have to break the tie somehow. My third pick will still probably be Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells although I could be persuaded to throw a bone to someone like Ball State QB Nate Davis or Boise State DB Kyle Wilson, who had eight interceptions to go along with three punt returns for touchdowns.
** Anyone who has read any of my stuff since 1990 knows how I feel about former Ohio State running back Robert Smith. However, with regard to Florida QB Tim Tebow and his Heisman candidacy this year, Smith and I agree. Yes, Tebow is the quarterback for a team likely headed to the BCS title game. Yes, he has picked things up down the stretch. But his overall numbers – 2,299 yards and 25 TDs through the air, 507 yards and 12 scores on the ground – are hardly Heisman-worthy.
** Saturday’s SEC championship game between Alabama and Florida will mark the 40th time that the top two teams in the Associated Press poll have met with the top-ranked team holding a 23-15-1 edge. This is, however, the first 1-vs.-2 matchup ever to be waged in a conference championship game.
** Oklahoma has put up some ridiculous offensive numbers this season. To wit: The Sooners have 47 touchdown passes this season; Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan combined for 45. The Sooners are averaging 53.3 points per game this season; Auburn, Tennessee and Mississippi State of the invincible SEC combined to average 49.9. And OU leads the nation with only nine turnovers; at the other end of the spectrum is Washington State, which committed 38.
** When Boston College takes on Virginia Tech this week in the ACC Championship Game, play attention to the Eagles and not just when they have the ball. BC is working on a streak of seven consecutive games in which it has scored a non-offensive touchdown. The streak continued last week in a 28-21 win over Maryland when the Eagles scored on a 9-yard touchdown pass off a fake field goal and a 36-yard interception return. The INT return made it four games in a row that BC has had a pick-six.
** USC will wear its home cardinal red jerseys Saturday in the Rose Bowl when it takes on UCLA. Because that violates an NCAA rule that requires visiting teams to wear white, the infraction will cost the Trojans one timeout per half.
** While offense continues to get the publicity (see above), playing able to play a modicum of defense still determines the difference between winning and losing. Houston quarterback Case Keenum threw for 494 yards and five touchdowns Saturday against crosstown rival Rice. Keenum also completed an NCAA-record 25 straight passes at one juncture. Final score: Rice 56, Houston 42. There were 57 first downs in the game not to mention 1,225 yards of total offense.
** By the way, Keenum is just one game shy of equaling another NCAA record. The 6-1, 210-pound sophomore’s performance against Rice pushed his streak of consecutive 300-yard passing games to 13. The NCAA record-holder with 14 is Tulsa QB Paul Smith, who finished his career last season with 312 yards in the Golden Hurricane’s 63-7 GMAC Bowl romp over Bowling Green. In case you wondered, Smith was signed as an undrafted free agent by Jacksonville is currently on the Jaguars’ practice squad.
** More individual passing records were set last weekend. Eastern Michigan quarterback Andy Schmitt was 58 for 80 for 516 yards and five touchdowns during a 55-52 upset of Central Michigan. The 58 completions were an all-division NCAA record for a single game.
** Texas teams have gotten a lot of ink this season for producing big offensive numbers. But you have to go one state north to find the best offenses in college football. Oklahoma and Tulsa finished one-two in scoring offense this season, combining for 190 touchdowns. The entire SEC West Division – which includes No. 1 Alabama and defending national champion LSU – combined to score only 221 TDs .
** While you ponder all of those dizzying passing stats, here is a stat for you to underline how important running the ball remains in the Big Ten. Of the top 100 quarterbacks in the country, four conference QBs are ranked in the bottom 15 in terms of pass efficiency. They are Brian Hoyer of Michigan State (85th), C.J. Bachér of Northwestern (86th), Kellen Lewis of Indiana (94th) and Steven Threet of Michigan (96th). The highest rated passer in the Big Ten: Daryll Clark of Penn State at No. 22.
** LSU’s fourth-quarter meltdown at seven-loss Arkansas last Saturday gave the Tigers a 7-5 record, the most regular-season defeats for a defending national champion in the AP poll since Ohio State went 3-6 in 1943. At least the Buckeyes had an excuse – their roster from ’42 was decimated by players enlisting in the military to fight in World War II. Les Miles’ excuse this season? Anyone? Anyone at all?
** Congratulations to kicking specialist Louie Sakoda of Utah, the only player in the nation who is a finalist for both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards. Sakoda, who has converted 21 of 23 field-goal tries this season while averaging 41.7 yards per punt, is only the second player in history to be named a finalist for both awards. Travis Dorsch of Purdue was the first – he won the 2001 Guy Award and finished behind Tulane’s Seth Marler for the ’01 Groza Award. Dorsch is currently punting for Winnipeg in the CFL while Marler is kicking for Tampa Bay in the arena league.
** Cal Poly will have a bad taste in its mouth for the entire offseason. The Mustangs missed three PATs in their regular-season finale, allowing Wisconsin to escape with a 36-35 overtime win in Madison. Then, Cal Poly bowed in the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs last weekend by committing five turnovers and losing a 49-35 decision to Weber State. The Mustangs entered the game with only six turnovers all season.
** Speaking of Division I-AA teams, evidently they can throw the ball, too. Appalachian State got a school-record 433 yards from QB Armanti Edwards as the Mountaineers cruised to a 37-21 victory last weekend over South Carolina State.
** Mount Union is on track for another Division III national championship and running back Nate Kmic is a major reason. In last week’s second-round win playoff win over Hobart (N.Y.), Kmic pushed his career rushing total to 7,449 yards and that is a new D-III record. Kmic needs 514 more yards to break the NCAA all-division record, established just last year at 7,962 by Danny Woodhead of Division II Chadron (Neb.) State.
** If the Purple Raiders keep winning, Kmic could have as many as three more games in which to break the record. Mount Union, the No. 1 seed in the D-III playoffs, is seeking its 10th national championship in the last 16 seasons.
** It wasn’t a good weekend to be a top seed in the Division II playoffs. All quarterfinal hosts lost, including top seed Grand Valley State (Mich.). The Lakers, who won the D-II national title four times during a five-year period between 2002 and 2006, lost a 19-13 decision in double overtime to unbeaten Minnesota-Duluth.
** Twenty years ago today, the Heisman Trophy winner was nowhere near New York when he learned he had won college football’s top individual award. On Dec. 4, 1988, Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders was preparing for a game to be played in Tokyo, Japan, when he received the news he had won the ’88 Heisman. Sanders celebrated by rushing 44 times for 332 yards and four TDs as the Cowboys took a 45-42 victory over Texas Tech. Sanders’ performance allowed him to establish a new NCAA single-season rushing record with 2,628 yards in 11 games.
** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Dec. 2, 1972, Army blocked a field goal and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown during a 23-15 win over Navy and won the first-ever Commander-In-Chief Trophy; on Dec. 3, 1999, Marshall QB Chad Pennington threw a touchdown pass on the final play of the game and the Thundering Herd came back to beat Western Michigan, 34-30, in the MAC Championship Game; and on Dec. 6, 1969, top-rated Texas overcame a 14-0 fourth-quarter deficit and rallied for a 15-14 win at No. 2 Arkansas.
** This week also featured one of the early landmark victories in Joe Paterno’s long career. On Dec. 7, 1968, Penn State took a 30-12 win over Syracuse, extending its regular-season winning streak to 18 straight games. The Nittany Lions were led by halfback Bobby Campbell, who rushed 24 times for 239 yards and set a school record with an 87-yard touchdown run. The win also secured Penn State’s first undefeated and untied season since 1947 and the first of five perfect seasons (so far) under Paterno.
** Today also marks a milestone birthday for my wife Lisa. She may be 50 but she looks 30 and makes me feel like I’m 20. Anyone who knows her knows what a lucky guy I am. A very, very happy birthday to my biggest fan.
It wasn’t that difficult to forecast last week’s games as the top teams jockeyed for those BCS style points. Straight up and against the spread, we finished with 6-1 records and that makes us 93-34 SU and 69-54-1 ATS.
With the final week of the college football regular season comes conference championship games and another Saturday filled with good entertainment. Here is what we’ll be watching this weekend:
MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 12 Ball State vs. Buffalo: These teams are enjoying their best seasons in many years. The Cardinals recorded their first perfect regular season since 1949 while the Bulls are bowl-eligible for the first time since moving up to Division I-A in 1999. Ball State QB Nate Davis (3,095 yards, 25 TDs) has been getting most of the publicity this year but Buffalo has a pretty good quarterback, too, in senior Drew Willy (2,885 yards, 22 TDs). The game will also feature two of the nation’s top running backs, both juniors – MiQuale Lewis, who ranks fourth in the nation for the Cardinals with an average of 130.8 yards per game, and James Starks of Buffalo, who ranks sixth at 122.6. The difference in the game will likely be on defense where Ball State is 10th in the country in scoring defense (16.7 points per game) while the Bulls are 77th (27.8). There is also the small fact that Buffalo is 0-8 against ranked teams since joining I-A … Ball State 31, Buffalo 17. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
Army vs. Navy: To be able to call yourself a true fan of college football, you have to watch at least a little of the Army-Navy game each year. If the pageantry of the Cadets and Midshipmen entering the stadium doesn’t give you a chill, check your pulse. This year, the Middies would appear to have the upper hand, especially since they continue to run the same kind of triple-option offense they did under former head coach Paul Johnson. Navy is the No. 1 rushing team in the nation and had four different running backs who gained 480 or more yards this season. That quartet also combined for 24 rushing touchdowns. The Black Knights can run the ball, too, with senior Collin Mooney totaling 1,307 yards. Unfortunately for Army, most of its damage was done between the 20-yard lines – it ranks 114th out of 119 Division I-A teams in scoring … Navy 28, Army 14. (12 noon EST, CBS)
CONFERENCE USA CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP
East Carolina at Tulsa: Be forewarned that we have yet to pick Tulsa correctly this season. Still, how can you go against a team that averaged nearly 50 points per game this year? You may not have heard of Golden Hurricane QB David Johnson, but he is one of the nation’s best pure passers. Johnson tops the nation in pass efficiency, and he has thrown for 3,671 yards and 42 TDs. Where things get dicey for Tulsa is on defense. The Hurricane simply try to outscore the opposition, and they’ve given up 30 or more points in half of their 12 games. It seems difficult to believe the Pirates can keep up, especially since they have scored 30 or more points only twice all season … Tulsa 45, East Carolina 31. (12 noon EST, ESPN2)
No. 18 Boston College vs. Virginia Tech: In nearly every game, there are key matchups to consider. Not here. The winner of this game will be predicated on how many mistakes the other team makes. BC has depended on defensive and special teams touchdowns all season, including a 65-yard punt return for a score in its 28-23 win over the Hokies earlier this year. But the game shouldn’t have been that close – the Eagles committed five turnovers and Tech returned two interceptions for TDs. If its a mistake-free game, Boston College should win this one easily. Trouble is, no one expects a mistake-free game … Boston College 27, Virginia Tech 23. (1 p.m. EST, ABC)
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Florida: If both of these teams bring their “A” games, this contest should be very entertaining. The Tide have stayed undefeated by sticking to a philosophy of ball control and defense. Meanwhile, the Gators have bludgeoned their opponents, winning their last seven games by an average of 40.9 points. As good as it has been on defense, no one believes Alabama will be able to stop Florida’s attack even without receiver Percy Harvin, whose gimpy ankle leaves him questionable for Saturday. Even if the Tide finds a way to slow down the Gators, the UF defense should be able to force a couple of miscues out of Bama QB John Parker Wilson. Look for the Urban Legends to make a second trip in three years to the national championship game … Florida 23, Alabama 17. (4 p.m. EST, CBS)
No. 5 USC at UCLA: Could this be one of those games in which the Trojans completely lose focus? Not very likely. Those kinds of games typically occur in midseason, and Pistol Pete has done a pretty good job lately of keeping his team motivated because of its perceived BCS slight. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that the Bruins are probably no better matchup for USC than Notre Dame was last week. In fact, the Uclans are worse – they rank 107th in the country in scoring offense and 116th in rushing. The Trojans should roll while getting very comfortable with their Rose Bowl surroundings … USC 41, UCLA 3. (4:30 p.m. EST, ABC)
Big 12 CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 19 Missouri at No. 4 Oklahoma: If revenge is truly a dish served better cold, the Tigers had better hope for one of those Alberta clippers to hit Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night. Putting the Sooners in the deep freeze might be the only way Mizzou can get payback for getting knocked out of the national championship game by OU last year. There are tiny cracks in Oklahoma’s armor. QB Sam Bradford has torn ligaments in his non-throwing left hand and the injury led to a couple of bad snaps last week. Also, the Sooners aren’t exactly stellar on defense, ranking only 66th in the country in total defense and 98th in pass defense. Those rankings are better than Missouri, though, which is 91st in total defense and 116th against the pass. If you like your scores big and bad, this game is for you … Oklahoma 56, Missouri 35. (8 p.m. EST, ABC)
No. 13 Cincinnati at Hawaii: On the off-chance that Ohio State falls into the Orange Bowl, it’s worth scoping out the Bearcats as they take a victory lap to the land of balmy breezes and swaying palm trees. UC is led by junior quarterback Tony Pike, who despite playing with a painfully bruised sternum and a broken bone in his non-throwing hand, has managed to throw for 2,060 yards sand 17 TDs. Where Brian Kelly’s team has really distinguished itself, however, is defensively. The Bearcats give up an average of only 19.8 points per game, and that matches up well against a rebuilding Hawaii offense that has turned the ball over 33 times in 12 games … Cincinnati 27, Hawaii 17. (11:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
Here are the spreads for the aforementioned games: Ball State (-13½) vs. Buffalo; Army vs. Navy (-10½); East Carolina at Tulsa (-11); Boston College (-1) vs. Virginia Tech; Alabama (+10) vs. Florida; USC (-27) at UCLA; Missouri at Oklahoma (-14½); Cincinnati (-6½) at Hawaii.
Enjoy the games and we’ll visit again next week.