In mid-December, on the first day of bowl practice dedicated completely to Baylor prep, outgoing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi showed his players a list of some of the most high-powered offenses in college football and how much time each took between plays. Baylor likes to snap the ball within 15 seconds of the previous play ending. Most of the time, they land between 10 and 17 seconds. That’s at least five ticks faster than where Narduzzi clocked the likes of Ohio State and Oregon.
“I was just looking at that like, ‘Dang, I thought Oregon was fast,’” said junior linebacker Ed Davis. “When we looked at the game film for Baylor again, we could see the chains weren’t even set up before they were running the next play.”
The chance to slow down Baylor -- the highest scoring team in the country -- in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic this week is a chance at redemption.
“This is the fastest team we’ve seen,” Narduzzi said. “We’re practicing at warp speed right now, even in individual drills, so that our kids will be conditioned for it.”
Narduzzi, who will take over as Pitt’s head coach after Thursday’s game, said he felt bad for his defensive players while walking off the practice the field the first day they prepped for Baylor’s tempo. The players agreed that it was one of the more taxing days they could remember.
The defense learned some lessons about defending at a fast-forward pace during its trip to Oregon in September, but didn’t dramatically change the way it is preparing this time around. The emphasis for most players was on making sure they were in good shape. That included the offense, which had the unwelcome task of mimicking Baylor’s speed during the last couple weeks of practice to get their teammates ready.
“Being fat, it’s not fun,” All-American center Jack Allen said. “I was pretty dehydrated after practice.”
Safety Kurtis Drummond said he could see Baylor’s speed wearing on its past opponents as he watched film. The Bears ran 24 plays this season that went for at least 40 yards. They do it, in part, by setting up their runs to look like passes and passes to look like runs. They also do it, Drummond said, by capitalizing on the mistakes of exhausted opponents.
That’s bad news for the Spartans, who were tripped up by big plays on several occasions this season. They allowed 18 plays of 40-plus yards, which is more than 101 other FBS teams. Drummond said it’s not so much the speed of individual players that makes Baylor dangerous, but the way it tests a defense mentally. The breakneck pace doesn’t allow anyone time to catch his breath.
“If you turn on any film late in the game, or if you turn on the end of a long drive, you see how that defense starts to wear down,” Drummond said about Baylor’s opponents. “People are playing with different techniques and different leverages. It’s obvious when you look at the film.”
Michigan State knows it won’t be able to slow the tempo of the Baylor attack, so its best options are to get ready to run with them and to keep them off the field as much as possible. Defensive players checked in with each other during their week away from practice this month to make sure everyone was running sprints and staying in shape. The other key, Drummond said, is forcing three-and-outs. It’s hard to get tired when you’re only on the field for a few plays before heading to the sideline.
Narduzzi usually prefers to keep his best players on the field as much as possible. Defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush rarely rotated out of the lineup in big games this season. The coach said he would likely have to work in other defensive linemen more frequently against Baylor to make sure his starters stay fresh.
As daunting as the task ahead of them is, and as painful as practice has been this month, the Spartans defense left for Dallas excited for the challenge. Surrendering 46 and 49 points to the Ducks and Buckeyes did not sit will in East Lansing. Most players see this as their chance to prove the defense that propelled them into college football’s elite is capable of hanging with the best.
At first it's easy. You have Alabama-Ohio State and Oregon-Florida State as the headliners, with the playoff semifinal winners advancing to play for the national championship.
You also have a pair of afternoon games that are intriguing because of the matchups.
Michigan State-Baylor pits one of the teams that had a legitimate beef with being left out of the playoff (Baylor) against a defense that should test the Bears' high-scoring offense. And Auburn-Wisconsin should provide an entertaining showcase for numerous offensive players (including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Auburn's Sammie Coates) who will play on Sundays in the near future.
But then there's the game that you might have forgotten about: the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl matchup between No. 16 Missouri and No. 25 Minnesota, which probably qualifies as the least anticipated bowl game between ranked teams.
In some ways, this is a fitting finale for Missouri and Minnesota programs that won consistently throughout the season, but mostly failed to capture the nation's attention. They're playing in an afternoon time slot on New Year's Day -- which is nearly as good as it gets in terms of postseason positioning -- and yet a significant portion of the game will air head-to-head against games (Michigan State-Baylor and Auburn-Wisconsin) that are simply more interesting to most fans.
Oddly enough, their mutual uninterestingness might be the most compelling thing about this Citrus Bowl. The Tigers and Gophers both face a bit of a perception problem, and this game provides an opportunity to prove which team is more deserving of a Jan. 1 showcase. As of now, they both have holes in their résumés.
Nobody can argue with the results for Missouri (10-3), which won the SEC East title for a second straight season. But it's more than fair to point out that Gary Pinkel's Tigers didn't exactly beat the 1985 Chicago Bears en route to an appearance in the conference's title game.
In fact, the only teams currently reanked on Missouri's schedule -- Georgia and Alabama -- beat the Tigers by a combined 76-13 margin. And while it's impressive to note that Missouri posted a 7-1 record in conference play, it also bears mentioning that the Tigers played the easiest schedule in the SEC (they drew the two worst teams in the SEC West, Arkansas and Texas A&M, in non-division play and otherwise played against teams from the much weaker Eastern Division) and their eight conference opponents posted a collective 48-47 record this season.
However, Missouri at least played nine teams that will appear in bowls this season. Minnesota (8-4) played six, and the Gophers defeated only two teams (7-5 Iowa and 9-3 Nebraska) that even had a winning record entering bowl season.
It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that what made Minnesota most relevant nationally in 2014 was its place in the debate over whether the Big 12's TCU or Baylor deserved a spot in the playoff. TCU's best nonconference win was 30-7 over the Gophers while Baylor ripped apart three bad non-Big-12 teams.
Otherwise, fair or unfair, Minnesota is generally viewed as a better-than-average team in the worst Power 5 conference. Which fits nicely alongside an opponent like Missouri, the most successful program in the SEC division that doesn't matter.
Thursday's loser in Orlando will be met with choruses of “I told you so” since skeptics argued all along that they were never that great. Beating a similar opponent won't entirely eliminate that criticism for the winner, but that team can at least make an argument that it deserved one of the coveted spots in the New Year's Day lineup.
But that might be the case when the No. 10 Arizona Wildcats and the No. 20 Boise State Broncos square off Dec. 31 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Question is, which team is walking into the trap?
“When you win as many games as they do, including some really big games, I don’t know if you can consider them an underdog,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “Heck, we’re probably more of an underdog than they are. When was the last time Arizona was in a Big-Six game? We’re probably more of a surprise than they are.”
“That’s part of our perception,” Harsin says. “We feel it here, that we’re a power program. We put ourselves in a position through winning and our academics and exposure and facilities that we’re a team that’s right there with everyone else when it comes to those things. We’ve worked really hard to get to that point. But at the same time, we have a lot to prove in a lot of people’s eyes. That’s the fun part about it.”
If Fiesta history is any indication, Boise State's fun will come at the Wildcats' expense. The Fiesta Bowl has been the site of two of the greatest Boise State victories -- and one of the most exciting games in college football history. The Broncos knocked off Oklahoma in the 2006 season with a pair of trick plays and then in the 2009 season, they beat previously undefeated TCU to finish 14-0.
Harsin, an offensive coordinator under Chris Petersen at the time, says this one has a different feel now that he’s at the helm.
“The only similarity is the game itself,” he said. “The '06 season and the '09 season were different teams and different circumstances. As the head coach it does feel different going into it … we know how exciting it is to be in this game. But it’s also different from where we are as a program.”
Despite being just one of four teams to never lose a Fiesta Bowl (along with Penn State, Oregon and Oklahoma State), the Broncos are still viewed as the underdogs. And perhaps their mojo is slipping a bit. From 2006-11, Boise State was 8-1 against major conference opponents. But since then, the Broncos are 1-4 -- including a loss to Ole Miss to open the 2014 season.
But recent history might be working against the Wildcats also. The loser of the Pac-12 championship has not had much success in their bowl outing. The Bruins lost in consecutive years to Illinois and Baylor and last year ASU was throttled by Texas Tech. Is that a trend or a coincidence?
“Who cares?” Rodriguez questioned bluntly. “You can’t relate that. That’s in the past.”
But what about a hangover?
“Hell, that’s a month ago,” he said. “If there’s a hangover, it must have been a pretty hard night. Well, it was a hard night for us. But if we have to get motivated for any bowl, any game, let alone a Big Six Bowl game, we’ve got the wrong guys. This is a great game and a great opportunity and a great venue that’s going to have a bunch of Arizona fans. It’s a great situation for us and a great opportunity.”
Arizona safety Jared Tevis isn’t putting much stock into history, either. His older brother, Aaron, used to play for Boise State, and Jared watched him in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl. He understands the makeup of the Boise State program.
“I know how they prepare for big-time games like this so that’s extra motivation for us to make sure we’re prepared and not overlooking them in any way,” he said.
“But we’ve played in a lot of big-time games too. And at the end of the day it’s 11-on-11 on the field. It’s going to come down to who plays with more discipline and physicality and passion. That’s our focus. I don’t think experience will play much of a factor. The last time they were there was 2010. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this position. It’s two different teams and two talented programs.”
Laughs and jokes were exchanged upon the announcement that Texas A&M and West Virginia would meet in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Head coaches Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen and Aggies offensive coordinator Jake Spavital are among those involved who once shared time on the same coaching staff -- relationships that provide an intriguing backdrop for the reunion.
They're part of a group that shared time together five years ago, interestingly, while trying to get to a Liberty Bowl. During the 2009 season at Houston, Sumlin was head coach and Holgorsen was offensive coordinator. Clarence McKinney, Texas A&M's current running backs coach, held the same position with the Cougars at the time. Spavital was a graduate assistant and current Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was the offensive quality control coach.
Making it more interesting was the fact that, at one time, Holgorsen, Kingsbury and Spavital all lived together in an apartment in Houston's Midtown district, a trendy neighborhood with a thriving business scene and nightlife. What could happen with three young, single coaches in close proximity to such an area?
"I'd better not say anything about that," Sumlin said, with laughter. "I didn't go over there at all. Anybody who knows Houston knows that Midtown has a lot of nice restaurants that stay open late at night, I'll just put it that way."
When he took over at Houston in 2008, Sumlin made Holgorsen -- who he describes as "brilliant" -- one of his first hires to install an innovative up-tempo offensive attack.
Holgorsen called Kingsbury, who was still pursuing a pro playing career, that summer. Sumlin agreed to add Kingsbury to the staff while also allowing him time to try out for the NFL.
"He spent more time out there throwing the football and practicing with guys than he did coaching," Sumlin joked. "Over time, thank God he got cut."
In 2009, Spavital's older brother, Houston defensive backs coach Zac Spavital, encouraged Jake to join the Cougars staff. Zac saw promise in Sumlin and Holgorsen and thought Jake could benefit from working with them. After interviewing with Holgorsen, Jake was hired on the spot.
"I loved him," Spavital said of Holgorsen. "He was great to me. He coaches his ass off. He's hard on the kids, he was hard on me. But he would separate work on and off the field. He was hard on me about things and he wanted me to grow as a coach, but then afterwards he was one of my buddies and he treated me that way."
Kingsbury was already living with Holgorsen in that two-bedroom apartment. Spavital would go from couch to couch, from his brother's to Holgorsen's.
"I wanted to be around Dana the whole time, so I'd sleep on his couch a lot," Spavital said. "I'd sleep at the offices, depending on whether Dana had his kids in or anything. I'd just move around because it's a two-bedroom apartment."
The bachelor pad was pretty bare in terms of furnishings.
"We were very minimalist in that household," Kingsbury said. "There wasn't anything to get in your way. ... You know, in Houston there's a lot to do. We would be there to sleep and that was about it."
Added Spavital: "There was no silverware and plates and stuff like that. It was two rooms, two bathrooms and a couch and a TV. We never were there."
McKinney, who joined the staff in 2008, recalls some of the late-night meetings the offensive staff had.
"We spent a lot of time together in meetings after practice," McKinney said. "We'd go from the office to somewhere down the street to grab something to eat, grab some drinks and the meetings would still be going until 2 in the morning."
Certainly it wasn't only football, though, right? When Holgorsen, Spavital and Kingsbury hit the town, there have to be some entertaining stories.
"You can't put that in the paper," Kingsbury said coyly. "It was fun."
Each of them have distinct traits. There's Holgorsen, the casual dresser ("I don't even think Dana owned a suit until he got to Oklahoma State," Spavital said. "He would always say, 'How many games has that suit won?'") and Red Bull devotee ("It's amazing that he's still functioning," Kingsbury said. "I guess his kidneys are pretty strong. He gets after those.").
There's well-dressed Kingsbury, who might still be holding on to NFL dreams. ("If Kliff could play right now, he'd play," Spavital said. "That's why Kliff works out all the time, because I know he believes that he can still do it.")
And there's Spavital, the youngest who deferred to his elders. ("He listens a lot," Kingsbury said. "He's not just going to talk a lot, he likes to listen and soak things up.")
It wasn't just tomfoolery; they had significant success. The 2009 Houston team ranked No. 1 nationally in offense (563.4 yards per game; 42.2 points per game), upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater and triumphed over Texas Tech. The 10-4 Cougars came within an incomplete pass of a Conference USA championship and a Liberty Bowl berth.
As each moved on, they kept in touch daily. They've traded game film, though that practice stopped between Holgorsen and Kingsbury once they became opposing Big 12 head coaches. They still talk, but the relationship dynamic is different now.
It didn't change for Spavital and Holgorsen until this year's Liberty Bowl announcement. They still communicate daily, but they obviously weren't trading tape or exchanging ideas in preparation for Monday's game (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"He gave us all his offensive stuff and we didn't give him any of our offensive stuff; I pulled the wool over his eyes in the last couple of weeks," Holgorsen joked. "When it gets competitive and you've got to play a game, you're going to have a good time talking about anything than actual football."
"People are shocked Gary Patterson can have an offensive team," he joked. "'Have you lost your mind? What are you doing?' I like to win. It’s a very simple situation."
His not-so-simple New Year’s resolution to develop a thrilling spread offense set TCU on course for a transformative journey that will end with a New Year’s Eve bowl.
Patterson had exactly nine months to rethink what winning the Big 12 required. After 15 years in Fort Worth -- and two tough ones in the Big 12 -- he had to reimagine TCU football.
He had realized this in November. After a last-second loss to Kansas State guaranteed TCU would not go bowling, Patterson warned his staff that change was imminent.
"But it wasn’t just 'let’s go get an offense,'" Patterson said. "I’m big on chemistry. It was about guys that would fit the staff, guys that could recruit the Metroplex and the state of Texas and were respected."
His search ended up being easy. By Dec. 3, word of Doug Meacham leaving Houston for TCU had already leaked. Before that addition became official on Dec. 12, Patterson met with AD Chris Del Conte and laid out his plan.
"I was probably the most proud of that, because football coaches are creatures of habit," Del Conte said. "He said he had to evolve and change how we go about it. I was like, 'Wow. OK.'"
Meacham told Patterson the man he trusted most to coach quarterbacks was Sonny Cumbie. Until this season their paths had crossed only on the recruiting trail. West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen deserves some credit for the pairing -- he’s the one who first introduced Meacham to Cumbie.
By Dec. 18, Patterson had both on board. By April 5, he was nervous. The Air Raid, while incredibly simple in terms of its playbook, isn’t easily taught in less than a hundred days. TCU’s vanilla spring game hinted at the difficulty.
"We weren’t very good on offense at the end of spring," Patterson says bluntly.
Too many balls on the turf, too many interceptions, too many incorrect routes. Teaching the system is largely a mental challenge that requires constant repetition. Meacham and Cumbie could only teach Trevone Boykin so much in 15 practices. Plus, it didn’t help that TCU's scholarship backs were all banged up.
"Some days, you’d just say, "We’re bad,'" Patterson recalled. "Oh yeah, there was a lot of concern. But you went down a path. This is the path."
Quarterback Matt Joeckel understood the path. Two weeks after TCU’s spring game, the Texas A&M transfer picked the Horned Frogs. His arrival was supposed to spell trouble for Boykin, maybe even prompt a move to receiver. Instead, the two bonded and competed.
Linebacker Marcus Mallet says he saw this team’s rebound coming by June. The buy-in was intense and pervasive. Joeckel was an unsung hero, teaching his new teammates the offensive system in workouts and 7-on-7 at a time when coaches were required to be hands-off.
By August, not even the departure of Devonte Fields could shake TCU players’ faith. Three of their most talented and troubled peers -- Fields, Brandon Carter and LaDarius Brown -- were dismissed during the offseason. Their absence never proved to be an issue.
But the quarterback conundrum remained. TCU’s eventual Heisman Trophy candidate separated himself in scrimmages with his accuracy. Boykin had been a headache to defend in practices for years. He had yet to prove enough on Saturdays. Battling with Joeckel upped his game to another level.
"That’s one of the reasons why Boykin is where he is now," receiver David Porter said. "He had pressure on him, and he had to be on his p's and q's."
By the second scrimmage, Patterson knew. TCU’s offense started shredding his defense in the red zone. The sloppy project was turning into a slick, speedy operation just in time.
"Two weeks into fall camp, oh my god, they got it," Del Conte said. "They looked really good."
How good? Just ask Jason Verrett. TCU’s Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year and first-round pick a year ago watched this season’s Kansas State game in awe from the sideline. He didn’t expect this.
"If we had this offense last year, I don’t think a team would’ve beaten us," Verrett said. "That’s just the truth."
Chucky Hunter warned him, though. Verrett didn’t believe the Frogs' defensive tackle when he called during two-a-days in August.
"All he kept saying was, 'Bro, our offense is real as s---.'"
Hunter called Verrett again the week of the Oklahoma game and predicted a Big 12 title. Patterson wasn’t thinking nearly that big. Heck, he just wanted to win six. An eight- or nine-win season to set up a 2015 breakthrough? Even better.
On Wednesday in Atlanta, TCU plays for its 12th win. On Jan. 1, another offseason begins in Fort Worth. This one should be a bit easier.
"We’re built for success now," Del Conte said. "It’s fantastic. It’s no flash in the pan. We’re in this for the long haul."
Rolle, who coached Cooper at Miami [Fla.] Northwestern High School, thought he’d send his budding receiver 1,000 miles north to learn under Charlie Strong, then the head coach of the Cardinals. There, he would rejoin former prep teammates Teddy Bridgewater, Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers.
“But Amari didn’t want to follow a bunch of guys he’d already been playing with. He kind of wanted to make a name for himself.”
Such is the way of Amari Cooper: quiet, confident and supremely determined. It’s what led him to Alabama and later to the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City. He didn’t win the famous bronze statue earlier this month, but he did walk away with the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s most outstanding receiver.
“It’s the typical story, five or six brothers in a two-bedroom home in a projects situation,” said Rolle, who is distant cousins with Cooper’s mother. “He grew up in Coconut Grove, and we have a few project homes in the Grove and he grew up in one of them.”
But maybe more important than how he lived was where he was situated. Rolle estimated that Cooper’s neighborhood park was roughly 100 yards from his front door -- a football field away.
You couldn't drag Cooper to the mall or to the pool, Rolle said, but you had no trouble getting him to practice.
"He's just determined," he said.
At the park and in his backyard, Cooper would hone his craft, developing the sneaky-fast speed and precise route-running he has become known for.
His teammates at Alabama would later marvel at his skills, saying how it was impossible to look at his feet and know where he was going. It was too “confusing,” said safety Landon Collins, an All-American in his own right.
“That’s an instinct now,” Cooper said, recalling the beginnings of his nifty footwork on the playground. “That’s where I picked up good footwork and that ability to read defenders’ leverage to know which way to go.”
Many thought he’d go to Louisville or nearby Miami, but Cooper went another direction, to the SEC and powerhouse Alabama. He ignored suggestions that the Tide's run-first mentality would bury his talents. Now he’s a sure-fire bet to enter the NFL draft as a junior where he's projected to go in the first half of the first round.
Three years, 29 touchdowns and 3,392 yards later, he could cap off his career with another national championship, starting on Jan. 1 when he and the Crimson Tide face Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal.
“I’ve always kept in mind, team first,” Cooper said upon arrival in New Orleans this past weekend. “You have one goal, and you want to win a national championship.”
It feels like it's in his bones, that wonderfully old-school matchup of former Southwest Conference rivals.
"How much better can you get than that?" he said. "A little Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles and voices from the past."
Bielema is smitten. The big, burly head coach of the Razorbacks has an equal in Texas coach Charlie Strong. Standing side-by-side, the two embody the kind of physical, smash-mouth football they've built their careers on. Their broad shoulders could span continents. Their sheer mass could halt elevators.
But let's face it, that's just window dressing. It makes for a great AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl and it should draw a large audience, but the impact of the game goes well beyond that.
Just read what Bielema said of his priorities for the bowl season.
"We have three goals," he said. "We want to develop our younger players in these practices that are going to return, the guys that are going to be the meat and potatoes of what we are next year; we have to put in a great game plan and execute it on the 29th against Texas; and hopefully from that game the third thing is to carry great momentum into 2015 and continue to build our brand."
Tucked in between thoughts of next year is the idea of winning the only football game remaining in 2014.
"It's a fine line," Bielema said of the difference between finishing 7-6 or 6-7, "but it's one that we hope to cross."
Rather than focusing solely on the outcome, what's important to Arkansas is its continued ascent in the SEC. After going winless in conference play for two years, the program broke through with wins against Ole Miss and LSU. Now it's about continuing to get better.
A week after its berth in the Texas Bowl was announced, Bielema gathered coaches together to lay out the schedule of bowl practices. In it, he said he targeted "22 players that are going to be returning on this year's roster that haven't been huge influences in the games yet."
He looked at those on the outside looking in: Special teams players, guys buried on the two-deep depth chart, players who had been redshirted and "have gotten comfortable and just passed time."
"If I can get those 22 guys to understand the urgency of our preparation, we'll make a huge stride there and that will give coaches a better understanding in the spring of what we need to do," he said.
Curious who those 22 are? Bielema elaborated.
On defense, he mentioned Armon Watts, Jake Hall, Tevin Beanum, Anthony Brown, Dwayne Eugene, Henre' Toliver, Santos Ramirez and Cornelius Floyd.
On offense, he wanted to see Brian Wallace, a "tremendous talent" who had been the No. 2 right tackle all season. He spotlighted tight end Jack Kraus and said he had "tremendous upside." Jared Cornelius, Kendrick Edwards, Juan Day and Tyler Colquitt were also under the microscope.
A handful of practices were dedicated to that next generation of players where juniors and seniors didn't even have to dress out.
"We just never got our throwing game where we needed it to," Bielema said, reflecting on the state of the offense this season. "Our tight ends made a nice jump, but we need to continue to build our wide receiver corps, whether it be through recruiting -- we're trying to add a couple of guys who can make difference, a couple of in-state prospects we're going well on that can help us immediately -- and then the development of our current roster. Those guys are going to be a big, big part of our offense making the next jump."
Ultimately, whether its the seniors ending their careers or the youngsters just beginning theirs, both are served best by a win against Texas.
But, in fact, the momentum is already there for Arkansas.
Just look at the impact on the recruiting trail, where the Razorbacks are ranked No. 21 in ESPN's current class rankings compared to its finish of No. 30 overall in their last signing class.
"It's blown me away," Bielema said of the change in Arkansas' perception from six months ago. "It's not just local. Texas, Louisiana, Florida, we've gone into Indianapolis, we've gone into Utah, we've gone into California. We'll always base our recruiting efforts on Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, dabble into Missouri a little bit and get into Florida, but our national presence is felt."
It's an old-school, regional game, Texas versus Arkansas. But for both programs the hope is to expand beyond that.
The difference between finishing above .500 and below it is one thing. Taking the next step and pushing into the realm of contending for championships is another.
It wasn’t the players' size, either, although Alabama’s starters along the front line average 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds per man. Nor was it the depth within a group that runs 10 deep.
What made Ohio State’s offensive coordinator shake his head while reviewing Alabama film was how much Alabama had of all three attributes.
That’s hardly a surprise for a program that has earned a reputation as the most effective recruiting machine in college football. In its past three recruiting classes, Alabama has signed 13 defensive linemen whom ESPN’s recruiting analysts awarded with either a four-star or five-star grade.
That volume of talent up front has helped the Crimson Tide typically shut down opposing offenses – they rank 11th nationally in total defense (312.4 yards per game) – with sheer brute force.
“We've had some of this kind of depth before, but we usually lose a guy in the season, have a guy hurt,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “… Lost guys on the defensive line in years past. This year, haven't really lost guys. Been able to rotate guys and play a lot of guys. That helps us.
“Anytime you've got depth at that position, allows you to play more guys. That's what we like to do is play a bunch of guys.”
They’ve certainly done that. Defensive end Jonathan Allen was a first-team All-SEC pick after registering 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Fellow end Jarran Reed and nose guard A’Shawn Robinson each earned honorable mention. But every player on the line’s two-deep depth chart – a group that also includes ends Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway and nose Brandon Ivory – has double-digit tackles, and most have multiple sacks and tackles for loss.
“They’re really, really big up front. I mean really big,” Herman said. “They’ve got defensive ends who are 280, 290 pounds. They’ve got defensive tackles that are 320, 330 pounds and they don’t just have one group of them. They play about nine or 10 defensive linemen in what you would call competitive situations.”
That will certainly create a challenge for Ohio State’s youthful offensive line that has improved since Virginia Tech’s defense embarrassed the group in a 35-21 loss on Sept. 6. Herman said Alabama’s defense is somewhat reminiscent of the Michigan State defense the Buckeyes faced in a 49-37 victory on Nov. 8, but it’s safe to say Herman’s team hasn’t faced anything quite like what it will see on New Year’s Day.
Then again, the Buckeyes have come so far up front since the Virginia Tech game that it’s hard to even compare the line’s current state to where it was in the second game of the season.
“I watched a little bit of film earlier in the season, but that’s not who they are now. So we really can’t focus on who they were back then,” Allen said. “We’re going to look in terms of the most recent games and, like I said, they’re a good group, a lot of experience. They work well together.”
That is clearly the case, since Ohio State ranks fifth nationally in scoring at 45.2 points per game despite having to play three different quarterbacks because of injuries. But the Buckeyes are going to have difficulty getting anywhere near those kind of numbers on Thursday if they have difficulty moving Alabama’s oversized line out of the way.
“We have an idea of what they’re going to do,” Allen said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve been doing all year. It’s a little bit challenging because we didn’t have a lot of film on them, but I think we’ll be able to handle it.”
2. Florida State co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, on Jameis Winston and the team going hot and cold: “The thing that separates Jameis from a lot of guys is [he is] unbelievably competitive. The tougher the situation, the more competitive the game, the better he plays. We’ve talked all year about starting fast and finishing strong. That proves the team has half-listened to us because we’ve finished strong. We haven’t always started fast. We’ve been in the situation where we’ve had to come back … and the guy always plays well.” And then he said, “It scares you to death as a coach to live that way.”
3. Kentucky went 2-10 in 2012 and fired its coaching staff, including Sanders. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher hired him. Sanders hasn’t lost a game since. “Sometimes, the best thing in the world to happen to you is to get fired,” Sanders said. “I had a great time at Kentucky. I told my wife several times, 'It’s time to move. It’s time to go.' I knew it was. But yet I had daughters in high school. It’s hard to leave. ... Sometimes God has to step in and say, ‘OK, you won’t go? I’m going to make you go.’ … The fact that I ended up at Florida State and won 27 straight games, getting to coach Jameis, proves that there was a higher power in control of this thing than me.”
As Herman helps the No. 4 Buckeyes prepare for Thursday night’s matchup against No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he’s pulling double duty as much as he can.
Herman, who won the Broyles Award as the country’s top assistant coach, was named Houston’s new head coach on Dec. 16. But as Herman assembles a coaching staff and lays out a recruiting plan for the Cougars, he’s mostly focused on helping the Buckeyes beat the Crimson Tide. A victory would put them in the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game Presented by AT&T on Jan. 12.
Herman seems so focused on the task at hand that he cut short any questions about his next job during media availability on Sunday.
“And if it's no disrespect, I’d rather stick to those questions regarding this game and our guys that have earned an opportunity to be here.”
During his introductory news conference at Houston earlier this month, Herman joked that Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer gave him a “month’s supply of No-Doz and Red Bull.”
It’s not the first time Meyer has dealt with staff changes going into a national championship game. In 2008, Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen was named Mississippi State’s coach more than a month before the Gators played Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship. Mullen was absent for about three weeks before returning to Florida after Christmas to help the Gators prepare for the Sooners.
With Mullen calling plays, the Gators defeated the Sooners 24-14 in Miami, giving Meyer his second BCS national title at Florida.
Of course, the Gators were able to rely heavily on quarterback Tim Tebow, who threw 30 passes and ran a season-high 22 times against Oklahoma.
Alabama has been down this road before, too. Former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain took the Colorado State job after the 2011 regular season, but returned to Alabama to call plays in 21-0 victory over LSU in the BCS title game.
Other coaches have pulled double duty while helping prepare their teams for national championship games in the past and had mixed results:
" Georgia hired Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt as its new head coach after the 2000 regular season, but he stayed at FSU to call plays against Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl. The Seminoles managed only 301 yards of offense – 248 below their average – in an ugly, 13-2 loss.
" Nebraska hired LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini as its new coach in December 2007, and he coached the Tigers’ defense in a 38-24 win over Ohio State in the 2008 BCS National Championship in New Orleans. The Buckeyes went 3-for-13 on third down and turned the ball over three times.
" Florida State offensive coordinator Brad Scott was named South Carolina’s new coach in December 1993, but stuck around long enough to help the Seminoles win coach Bobby Bowden his first national championship with an 18-16 victory over Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl.
Herman, who is in his third season as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, is working with his third quarterback this season. After losing Braxton Miller because of a shoulder injury in the preseason, the Buckeyes lost Heisman Trophy candidate J.T. Barrett to a fractured right ankle in a 42-28 victory over Michigan in the regular-season finale.
Herman had a week to get backup Cardale Jones ready to play Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6. Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns in a 59-0 rout of the Badgers.
Now, Herman has to get Jones ready to face one of the country’s best defenses on Thursday night.
Jones hasn’t noticed much of a change, other than a few Ohio State players playfully growling like a Cougar when passing Herman in the hallways.
“There’s no difference at all,” Jones said. “He’s still preparing for the game like he’s going to be here next year.”
That doesn’t mean the past two weeks haven’t taken a toll on Herman. He didn’t miss any of the Buckeyes’ practices before they took a break for the Christmas holidays. The Cougars officially hired him as their new coach on Dec. 16, and he oversaw an Ohio State practice two days later before flying to Houston that night.
Herman met with Houston’s players and coaches on Dec. 19 and watched them practice after his introductory news conference. He flew back to Columbus, Ohio, that night and was at Ohio State’s practice the next morning.
“It looks like someone hit him with a bat when he’s walking around here,” Meyer said earlier this month. “A good bat, though. There are bad bats, and a lot goes on with college football and bad bats. … He’s handling it well. He loves Ohio State and he’s appreciative of Ohio State.”
And the Buckeyes seem genuinely appreciative that he’s here. Under Herman’s direction, Ohio State’s offense ranked fifth nationally in scoring (45.2 points), 10th in rushing (260.8 yards) and eighth in total offense (502.6 yards).
“Coach Meyer made a great hire and the guy does an unbelievable job,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “As good a job as anybody I’ve seen in all my years of being a coordinator of mixing it up, changing it up and keeping you off balance. No real tendencies, outstanding coach. Houston got them a good one.”
Herman admits the past couple of weeks haven’t been easy. And if the Buckeyes are fortunate enough to upset the Crimson Tide, he’ll have to do it again before the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
“It’s why you’re in this business,” Herman said. “Bankers don’t get to do this. For all the hours, the late nights, lack of sleep and hours of pulling your hair out from dealing with 18- and 19-year-old kids, it’s a pretty cool job.”
A year later, he and the Buckeyes will get a chance to prove that they can actually “wipe the floor” with the top-ranked Crimson Tide -- and they might even get a shot at both of them.
“I was confident in my team then and confident in them now, and I’m really glad that we get to play them,” said Spencer, whose team will face Alabama on Jan. 1 in a College Football Playoff semifinal. “Obviously being a competitor and the type of guy that I am, I want to play the best team in the country, I want to play the best athletes in the country and I want to play the best-coached teams in the country.
“And the fact that we’re in the playoffs gave me a chance to play, hypothetically, the best teams in the country. Every athlete, that’s all they can wish for. I’m confident in my guys and I think that we’ll do well.”
Spencer was joking with reporters when he made those comments last November, but the situation blew up in his face a bit. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer publicly rebuked the receiver and temporarily banned him from speaking to the media.
Spencer later tweeted an apology for showing what Meyer deemed a lack of sportsmanship.
I did not mean to disrespect any FB team today. I am confident in my team, and as is evident in the video, I was having fun ...— Evan Spencer (@E_Spencer6) November 12, 2013
...with the media answering their questions. I should have chosen my words more wisely. There was no intent to disrespect any other team.— Evan Spencer (@E_Spencer6) November 12, 2013
“I just felt that it was necessary,” Spencer said Sunday. “Maybe some people were taking it differently than the intentions that I meant it. I solely meant it in the purpose of just showing my confidence in the guys that we had and none other than that.”
Spencer said he thought back on the controversy over his comments when he learned that the Buckeyes would face Alabama in the playoff. But he has bigger concerns than validating his comments from a year ago -- namely getting a win on New Year’s Day in order to play the Florida State-Oregon winner on Jan. 12 with a national title at stake.
“[I thought about it] little bit, but I was more thinking about the fact that we get to play the No. 1 team in the country and we get to show how good a team when we are,” Spencer said.
Of course, the Buckeyes never got a shot at Alabama or Florida State last season. They were undefeated at the time of Spencer’s comments and riding a winning streak that would stretch to a school-record 24 games before Michigan State upset them in the Big Ten championship game.
Auburn, which knocked Alabama out of the mix with its own upset win, went on to play Florida State in the BCS title game instead. The Buckeyes would close the season with another loss, this time to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and Spencer learned a valuable lesson in humility.
“We did a lot of great things in that season,” Spencer said. “Granted, we didn’t finish it the way we needed to and wanted to, but I felt that last year was definitely a really great learning experience for me personally and us as a team.”
Having already taken a visit to Florida State and scheduled visits to Ohio State on Jan. 23 and Missouri Jan. 30, Beckner says he will likely take a visit to either Auburn or Oregon on Jan. 16.
The top-ranked prospect knows he is under the microscope, but doesn’t let that impact his process or decision.