Enthusiastic ref strikes again!

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
Do you remember Ron Cherry? He's the ACC referee who gained quite a bit of Internet fame back in 2007 when he penalized an NC State player because he was "giving him the business."

That's exactly how Cherry phrased it to the audience. It happened, it was glorious, and it is on the Web for the world to see until the end of time.

Luckily, Cherry is still officiating ACC games and is still as charming as ever. Check out his moves as he was confirming a call amid boos at Thursday night's Miami-Virginia Tech game.

Duke now has the ability to sell a winning program and new facilities to recruits, and prospects like what they're seeing. Plus, the nation's top 2016 quarterback was slated to be at Florida State for the Notre Dame game, but he wasn't able to make it and now is looking for a return date.

By the numbers: Is Florida State dominant enough to repeat?

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
Florida State is 7-0, but you might not know it from the national pessimism surrounding the team. With three close games (against three teams currently ranked in the top 26 in the nation, mind you), the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the Seminoles are struggling to get by, and it’s just a matter of time before they’re felled.

In fairness, that’s partially true. The FSU secondary blew the coverage on what could’ve been a game-winning touchdown for Notre Dame, and if a flag hadn’t been thrown in the process, the Seminoles would be in a tough position in the chase for a playoff spot.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jesus Wilson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFlorida State hasn't been as dominant as they were last season when they won the national title.
Part is probably an exaggeration. The close game against Clemson came without Jameis Winston. The comeback win over NC State was actually a 49-17 FSU advantage after the first quarter. The narrow margin against Oklahoma State was a mix of first-game jitters and a failure to put the Cowboys away, rather than any real threat that the Noles might lose that game.

But narrative is important when discussing a subjective playoff system, so it remains a talking point for Florida State. The question is, does a less-than-dominant season necessarily preclude a team from winning a national title?

We figured the best way to determine that was to look back at history — specifically the past 10 national champions — to figure out what level of dominance was most characteristic of a championship team.

First off, it’s worth noting that of the last 10 national champs, half had a loss -- LSU had two of them in 2007 -- so simply being undefeated at this stage of the game is a check mark in FSU’s column. But we’re talking about dominance, so let’s look at margin of victory, too, since that seems to be the biggest evidence against the Seminoles.

Last year’s FSU team set a new standard in that department. Florida State won all its games by an average of 39.5 points. That’s the high-water mark for champs, but it’s not exactly a outlier.

Of the past 10 national champs, seven had an average point differential of 20 points or more. All 10 had at least a two-touchdown advantage over their competition, on average. Great teams win games by solid margins.

Still, Florida State’s margin this season is 16 points per game, which ranks just 19th nationally, but would equal that of the 2006 Florida Gators or the 2010 Auburn Tigers -- both national champs.

So perhaps it’s not the average, but the specific examples. FSU has three games this season decided by seven points or fewer. Is that a lot?

Last year, of course, FSU didn’t have a single game decided by less than 14 until the national championship. The 2005 Texas Longhorns, 2008 Gators and the 2011 Alabama team each had just one game decided by one score en route to their national title appearance, while the 2009 Tide had just two.

That might lead us to believe that Florida State’s lack of dominance does foreshadow a fall somewhere along the line, but that’s not necessarily true either. Two national champs -- ’06 Florida and ’10 Auburn -- had six games decided by a touchdown or less. FSU is still at just half that total, and while the Seminoles have a few tough games remaining (Louisville, Miami, an ACC title game) they’ll likely be favored to win each by more than eight points.

Ah, but there’s that word that also seems to sum up the FSU narrative this year: favored.

Point spreads are largely a function of expectations. Las Vegas adjusts them to even out betting, so the more the public thinks a team will win by, the higher the spread goes. And when we get into those expectations, Florida State falls well short. The Noles are a woeful 1-6 against the spread this year -- tied for the second-worst mark in the nation.

That’s pretty uncommon for a national champion. The ATS record for last 10 title winners leading up to the national championship game was 78-46-1 (a .628 winning percentage). Of those 10 teams, just three had a losing record against the spread. In other words, national champs don’t just meet expectations -- they exceed them. That certainly hasn’t been true of Florida State this season.

But there’s another factor to consider there. Current expectations are largely set by past performance, and FSU’s 2013 season set some awfully high expectations. Not surprisingly, one of the champs with a losing ATS record was 2012 Alabama -- a team coming off a national championship, too. Expectations were set high from the previous year, and the Tide struggled to meet them routinely. In fact, if we look at the follow-up seasons for the last 10 national champs, they’re just 55-59-1 against the spread (a .483 mark) and just three had winning records versus the spread. In other words, it’s really hard to follow up greatness with more greatness.

So what does all this mean for Florida State? Probably not much other than what we all already know: Nothing the Seminoles have done thus far eliminates them as a legitimate title contender, but they’re definitely not as good as they were a year ago.

That’s not a bad position to be in, but FSU would still be wise to keep those wins coming. The margin of error -- both in terms of narrative and numbers -- is small.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first Ohio State game plan of the season was light on offensive variety.

It didn’t include many changes in personnel. There weren’t a lot of adjustments that could be made as the Buckeyes focused largely on doing just a few things well instead of risking the possibility of spreading themselves too thin.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY SportsLed by quarterback J.T. Barrett, Ohio State has scored 50 or more points in four straight games.
They were inexperienced at quarterback, starting what amounted to be an entirely rebuilt offensive line and counting on a handful of skill players who had barely been used in meaningful action.

Fast forward half a season and nearly every part of that formula has changed dramatically, most notably starting with the playbook the Buckeyes now have at their disposal that is making it seemingly more difficult to prepare for them every week.

“Just look at the play sheet against Navy compared to now,” coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s 70 percent more there than what it was.

“I think the quarterback, offensive line, the receivers have all opened up the playbook because they're much more mature. They’ve grown up fast.”

That has challenged the coaches to keep pace with the rapid development. And they’ve responded by continually adding new wrinkles, expanding the personnel rotation and then watching as the young Buckeyes soak it all up and wring out an offensive deluge on helpless opponents, scoring 50 points or more in four straight games.

A first-time starter in that disjointed win over Navy and a subsequent loss to Virginia Tech, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is now brushing elbows statistically with the top quarterbacks in the nation. Perhaps most impressively, he’s rewriting the record books that have Braxton Miller’s name all over them and arguably playing at an even higher level than the injured two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year thanks to an accurate arm, good decision-making and underrated athleticism as a rusher.

The offensive line that moved its only returning starter to a new position while breaking in four first-time contributors has now established chemistry and is once again blowing open holes for the spread attack. And behind those blockers, Ohio State is cutting loose a host of speedy threats at running back and wide receiver, trusting them with both the football and new assignments just about every game -- like the sparkling new Wildcat package that Dontre Wilson unveiled in another blowout last weekend against Rutgers.

That may just be the tip of the iceberg on the expanded play sheet, which offensive coordinator Tom Herman isn’t afraid to keep building on as long as the Buckeyes prove they can keep handling it.

“It’s the same offense,” Herman said. “It’s just different adjustments, different usage of personnel and better developed players. We’re better up front, we’re better at quarterback, we’re better at the skill positions. The sign of a good team is continual improvement, and I think we’re on that track right now. To say it’s a different offense, it’s not, but the players are certainly coming into their own.

“We’ll keep growing, obviously. But I think right now we’re in a good place.”

The Buckeyes have certainly come a long way in a hurry since that early loss, and the journey has been so dizzyingly quick, it can be easy to forget that the roster is still young.

That may mean mistakes may inevitably pop back up as the level of competition goes up against better defenses like Penn State’s on Saturday or in the huge showdown at Michigan State on Nov. 8. Of course, it might also suggest that the Buckeyes are only just scratching the surface of what they might be capable of doing offensively.

“As long as you have good checkers, you can keep going and going,” Meyer said. “That's where you just have to keep going.

“The better your checkers, [the options] are endless.”

And that is making the checkerboard increasingly difficult to defend.
OXFORD, Miss. -- The last time Ole Miss went to LSU, in 2012, it had no business being in the game. The Rebels were 5-5, playing on the road against a Top 10 team. But when they took the lead in the fourth quarter, first-year coach Hugh Freeze began thinking to himself about what a win would mean for this team and this program if they could hold on.

“I found myself thinking about a statement that Coach [Johnny] Vaught had made when he was here about beating LSU in Baton Rouge: ‘You’ve never truly really coached the Rebels until you’ve beaten LSU in Baton Rouge,’" Freeze said. "I thought that for a minute and tried to get back in the moment because there was way too much time left.”

Shortly after that thought crossed Freeze’s mind, Odell Beckham Jr. returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. It all changed in the blink of an eye. With less than a minute left, LSU scored another touchdown to win the game.

But as Freeze looks back on that night, it’s not necessarily a bad memory. In fact, he says it’s one of the more enjoyable games he’s ever coached in.

“We were super competitive, right there in it,” Freeze said. “Had it not been for a punt return, who knows what the outcome would have been. But I had a blast.”

Quarterback Bo Wallace also remembers the game fondly. Despite three interceptions, it was one of his best performances that first season at Ole Miss. The then-sophomore threw for 310 yards, rushed for 54 yards and scored four total touchdowns. His 30-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief was what gave the Rebels the lead in the fourth quarter.

“I remember the atmosphere,” Wallace said. “We were playing really well. We were young and really didn’t realize what we were doing. To us, it was almost like a moral victory that we went into LSU and we played against those guys the way we did with all of the NFL talent they had on their team.”

Wallace wasn’t kidding either. LSU had nine players taken in the NFL draft after that season, including six defensive players selected in the first three rounds.

But that was then. This is now.

This season, the roles have reversed as the teams prepare to play Saturday. Ole Miss is the Top 10 team, ranked No. 3 nationally, and LSU is the young team with nothing to lose. Ole Miss has the nasty defense full of NFL talent, while LSU has an offense that’s still improving with every game.

The mindset has changed, too. The Rebels are no longer interested in moral victories.

“We don’t talk about going to play anybody close right now,” Freeze said. “We want to get a plan together and prepare like we’re going to win. Hopefully we’ll have a chance in the fourth quarter to do so.”

“When we go down there, we’re going to expect to go in and win a football game,” Wallace added. “There aren’t any moral victories or we go down there, play well and feel good about it. We go down there fully expecting to win.”

That’s easier said than done in this rivalry. The Rebels have lost five of their last six games in Baton Rouge, and current LSU coach Les Miles is 45-4 in night games played at Tiger Stadium.

There are also a number of Ole Miss players, including the entire 2013 recruiting class, who have yet to play in Death Valley. They were a part of the thrilling victory in Oxford last year, but they don’t know what it’s like to play the Tigers on the road.

“I heard about stuff being thrown at you, a lot of words coming at you that I can’t repeat,” sophomore tight end Evan Engram said. “With this rivalry and the tradition that this game holds, I know the stands are going to be rocking and there’s going to be some crazy stuff the fans are going to be doing. But it’s going to be fun.”

For Freeze and the players who were there in 2012, the only way this year’s game is going to be fun is if Ole Miss leaves town with a victory.
When you think Bobby Petrino, you immediately think offense.

But that has not been the case for Louisville this season, and that could be a good thing for the Cards as they prepare to host No. 2 Florida State next Thursday night.

Defense has to take priority in this matchup.

Defense is exactly how the Cards have won this season.

Time to embrace that defensive mentality, Louisville fans.

[+] EnlargeGerod Holliman
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsGerod Holliman and the Louisville secondary will face a strong Florida State offense.
Louisville ranks No. 1 in the nation in total defense, but that is not a stat that gets defensive coordinator Todd Grantham going.

What has him most encouraged is the way his defense has limited scoring opportunities. That has jumped out at Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, too. When asked for his first impressions on the Louisville defense, Fisher said, "Not many people get points and not many people get yards."

In the six ACC games Louisville has played, the Cards have held all their opponents to below their scoring average. In all but one game, they have held their opponents below their total offense average.

They are aggressive, they are stingy, and they can easily set the tone against a Florida State offense that has struggled to move the ball at times throughout the course of the season.

"Any time you're in big games, you’ve got to be able to play a balanced game, offensively and defensively, but at the same time, anytime you can be sound on defense and hard to score on, it gives your offense a chance to stay on track and not have to abandon the game plan," Grantham said in a phone interview this week.

"So as long as the score’s in a low number and it’s a one-possession game, then everybody can stay with the game plan. The issue that always occurs is when you get down multiple points and people have to abandon what they do. So our job is to be hard to score on and keep that number to a low number."

Florida State has not faced a scoring defense quite as good as this one. While Clemson and Notre Dame might have presented the strongest challenge to the Seminoles up front, Louisville has the stronger secondary, a group that has thrived playing a pattern-match scheme that is predicated on defensive backs truly understanding receiver routes.

The Cards also stress having players win one-on-one matchups not only in the secondary but in the front seven as well. They have been able to do so a majority of the time this season. As an example, Louisville has safeties Gerod Holliman and James Sample, along with cornerback Charles Gaines -- in the top 11 in the ACC in passes defended. That’s more than any other team.

Louisville also has three players ranked in the top 11 in the ACC in sacks -- Lorenzo Mauldin, Sheldon Rankins and Keith Kelsey. That’s tied for the most with Virginia.

"I felt we had individuals who could be really good at their positions, so we talk about that as winning your one-on-one matchups," Grantham said. "As you go through the day and you work, try to be the best at your position and if you’re the best at your position, and we can get you in one-on-one situations, you’re going to affect the game, which is good for our team. We’ve been able to get some matchups that are positive for us and those guys have made some plays."

Controlling what happens in the pass game could be critical for Louisville, considering how big a threat Jameis Winston is to take over at any moment. If the Cards can take away options like Rashad Greene and Bobo Wilson, their chances improve greatly.

No team has held Florida State to fewer than 30 points with Winston as the starter; nobody has scored 30 on Louisville this season.

It is obvious that Louisville will have to hold the score down to win. At least the Cards have practice doing that.

Cannot ask much more than that headed into the biggest challenge of the season.
Stanford has lost three games in a regular season for the first time since 2009.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Tony AvelarDavid Shaw and Stanford have their backs against the wall -- again.
 On the way, its offense has dropped to the very bottom of the Pac-12's statistical rankings. Its vaunted defense has suffered a pair of critical injuries at the position where they hurt most -- the defensive line.

And for the first time in 72 weeks (that dates back to early 2010), the two-time defending Pac-12 champion is not ranked in the Top 25.

Are we witnessing the end of this program's magical four year run, a stretch during which Stanford was the only team in the nation to qualify for a BCS bowl in each season?

"The sky is falling every single year," coach David Shaw contends. "Coaches and players don't [buy into that]. Fans can do that. Talking heads can do that. We go back to work and we try to solve our problems."

There are plenty of those on The Farm right now.

Perhaps Stanford can take comfort in its recent history during these trying times: The Cardinal did also hit rocky points on their way to those consecutive Pac-12 titles the past two seasons, after all. The 2012 campaign featured the anemic offensive performances of losses at Washington and Notre Dame, while the 2013 journey saw maddening red-zone struggles deliver gut punches at Utah and USC.

The Cardinal regained their footing both of those times. In 2012, renewed balance came thanks to a quarterback change that introduced Kevin Hogan to the starter's role. In 2013, outside help -- coming in the form of Arizona's upset over Oregon -- was Stanford's saving grace.

In both instances, though, Shaw's team maintained its championship trajectory thanks to a core of fiery veteran players, the experienced bodies who had been staples around The Farm throughout the program's entire resurgence. Shayne Skov's raspy 2012 locker room speeches came when the team's back was against the wall, and they became the stuff of Stanford legend. Ben Gardner became a rallying point for the 2013 squad after a torn pectoral muscle ended his career. Trent Murphy may not have been as outwardly vocal as Skov, but he too had a penchant for inspiring stability and constant work in the locker room.

"Just keep chopping wood," Murphy repeated after the Cardinal's 2013 loss to USC, a setback that looked like it had knocked the team out of Pac-12 title contention. "Good things will happen."

Sure enough, he was right: Good things did happen. Stanford found themselves back in (and dominating) the Pac-12 championship game just three weeks after their moment of greatest despair.

'A fascinating team'

Well, Stanford's annual pilgrimage to the land of adversity is back, 2014 style this time. And the hole to escape certainly seems deeper than the previous two. Three losses saddle the Cardinal this time. A struggling offense is again the culprit, but unlike 2012, there is no shocking salvation-via-quarterback change on the horizon. The fiery veteran leadership of players like Skov, Gardner, Murphy, and Tyler Gaffney has graduated.

 For pundits, those losses were a source of major preseason concern, with potentially trying situations like the current one being the primary source of worry. Shaw, meanwhile, agrees that his team's leadership make-up is different, but he thinks it can still be effective.

"This is a fascinating team," Shaw said. "We don’t really have [fiery players like Skov]. But our guys work like crazy. We may not have the guy who goes up there and does all the speeches and gets everybody all fired up and motivated, but we came out here Monday, Tuesday, and now Wednesday on our goal line day, and guys were hitting hard and hustling. It was as physical as it was in training camp."

Shaw exuded unbridled optimism at practice Wednesday, the day after he took blame for his team's offensive ineptitude by suggesting he needs to do a better job scheming to put Stanford's dangerous playmakers in a position to succeed.

"I don’t worry about that speech-making and that obvious leadership stuff," he said. "But I love the way that Jordan Richards, A.J. Tarpley and Kevin Hogan get back to work. The players are always more resilient. ... All the fans have seven days to lament. These guys have to work."

The public can begin to judge the fruits of that labor this Saturday, when Stanford has its chance to rebound at home against Oregon State. The Holy Grail -- err, the Oregon game -- awaits at Autzen Stadium the week after that. While the Cardinal's three losses have eliminated the team from College Football Playoff contention, Stanford still controls its own destiny in the Pac-12 title chase. So Shaw's team has the rather odd opportunity of playing spoiler (at least two of its remaining opponents, Oregon and Utah, are very much alive in the Playoff chase) while simultaneously chasing a conference championship.

Given the team's offensive struggles, such success certainly seems like a long shot today. But Stanford's squad is making it no secret that they're still shooting for that Pac-12 three-peat. Fittingly, Usua Amanam, their retired 2012 Rose Bowl champion, swung by Wednesday's practice, preaching the same sense of urgency that his own Stanford team had embraced to rise from the dead two years ago.

"No matter what happens," Amanam told the team. "Don’t waste one day, because at one point, you can't play anymore."

Video: Best Coach in Mississippi?

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23

Who’s the best coach in the Magnolia State? Adam Rittenberg makes his pick between Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen.

Breaking down the Power 5 races

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23

The College Football Playoff selection committee will emphasize conference championships as a factor in selecting its four playoff teams. Eight weeks into the season, what teams are in control of their conference races, and which ones are best positioned to take home a conference title?

In a "man vs computer" breakdown, we will use ESPN's Football Power Index and the takes of various conference reporters to handicap the races in the five power conferences.

To see the breakdown of each conference race, click here Insider.
Christian Hackenberg was the big name as a Big Ten freshman in 2013. Now, that torch has been passed to Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.

The Buckeyes' redshirt freshman appears to be on the rise, while Penn State's sophomore has struggled to repeat the success from his first season. They’ll meet Saturday night in Beaver Stadium. So, in the meantime, here’s a look at both quarterbacks -- the good, the bad and the ugly.


The good: He’s performed so well since Week 3 that he’s started to enter the Heisman conversation. Just take a look at the numbers in his last four games: 86-of-120 (71.7 percent), 1,170 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception. He’s recorded a QBR of at least 75.8 in the last four games, and he posted a 98.8 QBR in his last game, against Rutgers. His improvement has been well-documented, whether it’s in the running game, his poise or his ability through the air. Said Penn State linebacker Mike Hull: “He doesn’t turn the ball over, he makes smart throws, he’s a great runner -- so he really has been the whole package for them so far.”

The bad: Barrett has been praised for his production in the last four games, but his opponents haven’t exactly been challenging. Kent State currently ranks No. 97 in total defense, Cincinnati is No. 120, Maryland is No. 99 and Rutgers is No. 82. The two best defenses he’s played -- Navy (No. 70) and Virginia Tech (No. 20) -- both came in his first two starts when the playbook was limited. And that’s where he fared his worst. So at this point, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument. Barrett is undoubtedly talented, but just how much did his opponents’ bad defenses influence his numbers?

The ugly: There’s very, very little from Barrett that can be classified as “ugly.” Really, only one game -- and that was the loss against the Hokies. Virginia Tech blitzed mercilessly, and Barrett just couldn’t adjust. He finished 9-of-29 with three picks and took seven sacks. Statistically, Barrett will face only one better pass defense this regular season than Virginia Tech: Michigan State.


The good: Going back to last season, Hackenberg has had a penchant for the comeback. In his last 13 games, he’s engineered four last-minute game-tying or game-winning drives: Illinois and Michigan in 2013 and UCF and Rutgers this season. He is widely regarded as a future first-round NFL draft pick -- if not the No. 1 pick overall -- and several Big Ten coaches have sung his praises. Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald both said this season that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “Obviously, we got a lot of respect for that big quarterback, Hackenberg.”

The bad: By any measure, this season has been a disappointment for Hackenberg so far. He’s thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). But a lot of his struggles can be traced back to a patchwork offensive line that features one returning starter and two former defensive tackles at offensive guard. He’s been sacked 20 times so far this season -- the most in the Big Ten -- while he was sacked just 21 times all of last year. He also has little run support, as only seven teams in the nation are averaging fewer rushing yards per game. He’s starting to develop bad habits, and frustration appears to be setting in.

The ugly: There’s a lot more to write under this section than for Barrett. For one, Hackenberg’s QBR this season right now sits at 38.0 -- a decrease in 18.6 points from last season, the largest decrease for any Big Ten quarterback. And there have been quite a few other lowlights. Early in the season, Hackenberg's frustrations boiled over on TV and resulted in a gif that made the rounds on sports blogs. As was mentioned before, his offensive line also hasn’t done him any favors, and they made national headlines when one blocker closed his eyes and mistakenly blocked a teammate. And James Franklin can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether to have offensive coordinator John Donovan in the booth or on the field.

Best and worst losses for 1-loss teams 

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
For all of the debate about who should be ranked No. 1 among the three undefeated, power-conference teams, the far greater challenge right now when filling out a ballot is ranking the teams with one loss.

There are 15 once-beaten teams in this week's AP Top 25, and eight or nine of them could probably make a legitimate claim to being No. 4. That number of one-loss teams is sure to dwindle in the next few weeks, but there's still a good chance that the selection committee will face the difficult decision of which two or three of those teams to put into the playoff.

Obviously, there's much more to any team's résumé than a single loss, but if the BCS era is an indicator, the nature of that loss could become a major topic of discussion when distinguishing among the once-beaten teams. Perhaps that's because in a sport where there is so little common ground on which to compare top teams, having exactly one loss is the trait they all share.

So, recognizing that this could be a factor in determining which teams get into the playoff, here are the best and worst losses by current Top 25 teams that have only one defeat. The losses are ranked by Game Score, which is a metric developed by ESPN Stats & Information that takes into account quality of the opponent, location of the game, flow of the game and final score. It's important to note that opponent quality adjusts as more games are played, so these Game Scores will also change from week-to-week. (All Game Scores can be seen by clicking team links on the FPI page.)

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The anticipation builds throughout the week. Students around campus start talking about it. Coaches start preaching about it, busting out some hype videos to truly get the players amped up and ready.

Then Thursday rolls around. The team bus nears Lane Stadium, and players can see the lights already on. Tailgate lots are full. When players walk off the bus, they can feel the buzz in the atmosphere even though Lane Stadium sits mostly empty.

"There's just something about playing underneath the lights and know it's Thursday night," senior Virginia Tech receiver Willie Byrn said. "You feel it in pregame. You feel it on the walk in. It's special. You get riled up for it."

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Ivan Pierre Aguirre/USA TODAY Sports"They're great for your program," coach Frank Beamer said of Thursday night games. "If you can be successful, it's great for recruiting."
Virginia Tech has become synonymous with ESPN Thursday night football, so tonight's game against Miami comes with more anticipation than most. After a one-year hiatus, the Hokies resume their Thursday night home tradition. And as always, the stakes are high.

Both Miami (4-3, 1-2) and Virginia Tech (4-3, 1-2) need a win to stay in the hunt for the Coastal Division title. A loss would not eliminate them from contention, but it would make their efforts to win the division much more difficult.

Since the ACC championship game began in 2005, the Coastal champ has finished 5-3 just twice. Every other season, the division rep had a better record than that.

"I don't think I would pick anyone over Miami to play Thursday night here," Byrn said. "Both teams are in dire need of a win. We did a good job last year. We played them Saturday night at their place. We played pretty well and made them a little mad, so I know they're going to want some payback. We all want to get their best shot and they're going to get ours."

Virginia Tech has more appearances than any ACC team on Thursday night, going 11-4 at home in those games. For 11 straight seasons, the Hokies made it a habit of hosting Thursday night games, but that changed in 2013. Then-athletic director Jim Weaver asked the league not to schedule a home Thursday night game, as a way to help fans who cannot travel to games midweek.

But an outcry ensued, because this was one tradition fans were not willing to give up. Weaver asked the ACC to give Virginia Tech a Thursday night home game this season.

"They're great for your program," coach Frank Beamer said. "If you can be successful, it's great for recruiting. Those recruits are watching, and your fan base, if they're not in the stadium they're watching. We like Thursday night games."

Running backs coach Shane Beamer said Virginia Tech will have a large number of recruits at the game even though it is in the middle of the week because "they want to attend a game in Blacksburg on Thursday night."

"I know as soon as the schedule came out, there was a lot of excitement around Virginia Tech and Hokie Nation about this game, so the atmosphere will be awesome," Shane Beamer said.

Byrn said there was excitement from the players, too, when the schedule came out in January. Though Virginia Tech is young this season, with freshmen contributing the majority of the scoring on offense, Byrn can share his Thursday night home experiences with his teammates.

During his redshirt freshman season in 2010, Byrn was on the sideline when David Wilson returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown with 2:23 remaining to give the Hokies a 28-21 win.

"The place went absolutely haywire. It was ridiculous," Byrn said. "Then they played 'Enter Sandman' and 'Zombie Nation' and everyone was rocking. I was freaking out. I was going nuts celebrating with my teammates. It was pretty insane, probably top three loudest I've ever heard it."

Virginia Tech must be hoping to top that later Thursday night.

Kickoff Show (1 ET)

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
Join ESPN.com reporters Edward Aschoff, Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and host Chantel Jennings as the discuss who should be in the top four when the College Football Playoff committee's first rankings come out next week. They will also preview Week 9's best games and take your questions.

FORT WORTH, Texas -- A high-five, a glove, a photo, a hug, whatever. If TCU’s youngest fans want something from Horned Frogs receiver Josh Doctson, he can’t say no.

He knows what those moments mean. Ten years ago, Doctson was one of them.

He and his brother Jeremiah were proud members of the Bleacher Creatures club back then, just two of the hundreds of kids who ran onto the Amon G. Carter Stadium field each week before kickoff. For three or four years, the Doctson brothers made that dash and watched from the stands and dreamed.

"I can recall it vividly," Doctson said. "Getting on the field. The horn blowing. Sprinting as fast as we can to the other goal line. We looked forward to every Saturday. We were here every Saturday. I’m at a loss for words now when I see those kids running on the field or hanging over the railing after the game. I was in their shoes."

[+] EnlargeJosh Doctson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsHorned Frogs receiver Josh Doctson had 225 receiving yards, including TD receptions of 77 and 84 yards, against Oklahoma State.
You better believe all those dashes crossed his mind last Saturday. He ran wild like 11-year-old Josh against Oklahoma State, sprinting untouched for 77- and 84-yard touchdowns on the first two receptions of a career-best day in No. 10 TCU’s 42-9 blowout of the Cowboys.

Doctson surpassed 100 yards for the first time in his TCU career. Then he went over 200. He finished with 225 -- just 1 yard shy of the best pass-catching performance in school history. After coming home in 2012, Doctson is doing things today his younger self never could have imagined.

"I texted my brother after the game and was just like, 'Wow, I don’t even know where that came from today,'" Doctson said. "My mother was in shock. It’s really unreal. I sit back and I don’t even know where all this came from."

This all started with Tracy Syler-Jones, an unemployed single mother of two who moved with her boys from Birmingham, Alabama, to Texas in 1999 despite no promise of a job. TCU took a chance on her -- as an assistant communications director -- when her family sorely needed a chance.

Doctson didn’t know just how much his mother had sacrificed and survived when he and Jeremiah were young. But he knew nobody worked harder. Tracy taught her sons to never be satisfied. Today she’s TCU’s vice chancellor of marketing and communications, and her sons’ constant inspiration.

"She’s the only reason I am where I’m at," Doctson said.

But Doctson didn’t start at TCU. He played his freshman season at Wyoming. His first TD? A 7-yard reception against, yep, TCU. He even beat former Horned Frogs cornerback Jason Verrett to make that play, one of his 35 catches as a true freshman. Dream come true, he thought at the time.

But by the end of his first semester, Doctson needed to get back home. His grandfather, who has since died, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Living 750 miles away, knowing he couldn’t help, was too unbearable for Doctson.

"We were going through a lot as a family, myself especially," Doctson said. "I was really hard on myself and just a little bit distracted. That’s really what brought me back to Texas. Family was the No. 1 thing in my life. I couldn’t see myself spending four years apart from my brother and mom."

TCU took a chance on him, too. The 6-foot-4, 190-pounder has rewarded head coach Gary Patterson’s faith ever since.

"Josh is one of those guys that is very mature for his age," Patterson said. "Ever since he got here he’s run great routes, he’s blocked, he’s tenacious. Team is very important to him. He’s not going to be a guy who’s a true burner, but he has enough speed, he’s deceptive and he can go up and get the ball."

Oh yes he can. Against Minnesota this season, Doctson leaped so high for a one-handed touchdown catch, his right knee nearly brushed the poor defensive back's facemask. Thanks to this new high-flying offense, the Horned Frogs’ leading receiver already has more yards in six games than he put up in 11 games a year ago. The highlight reel got a bit longer Saturday.

Nobody told Doctson he was a yard short of the record until the final seconds of the win. He would be lying if he said he didn’t want one more catch. But days later, he still can’t believe what he did.

Knowing where he started, he says, makes all this -- the big plays, TCU's top-10 ranking, the opportunity this team has -- seem a little too unthinkable. The kid from the Bleacher Creatures still can’t believe he gets to play with the big boys now.

"I look at those plays now and it’s just like, 'Wow, I don’t even know who that is. That wasn’t me,'" Doctson said. "I’m just so happy to be out here and see where this team is heading and be a part of this. There’s an amazing vibe in the locker room, on campus, everywhere. I’m living in this moment right now."
Enough, already.

It’s been more than four years now. Move on.

To those at Tennessee still clinging to their hatred of Lane Kiffin, get over it. Blaming him for years of mediocrity is foolish. It’s operating on the lowest common denominator, and you’re better than that.

Put it on Phillip Fulmer for leaving the cupboard bare. Put it on Derek Dooley for limping to a 15-21 mark. Put it on Butch Jones for not laying his coveted bricks fast enough, if you’re that impatient.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin is still a lightning rod in Tennessee four-plus years after leaving the Vols to take over for Pete Carroll at USC.
You can blame Kiffin for his one season there and for leaving early, but understand you’re talking about 13.5 months in the span of nearly a decade in which the Vols haven’t been competitive in the SEC -- or nationally for that matter.

We get it, he done you wrong. But don’t be that guy. Don’t be head over heels for your significant other one minute, only to be broken up with and make an about-face the next. Don’t completely rewrite the history of your relationship. You loved Kiffin’s antics. He was foolish, brash and incompetent at times -- but you didn’t see it that way. You saw him as affable, your rogue coach fighting fire with fire.

You cheered him on when he accused Urban Meyer of recruiting violations.

You practiced singing "Rocky Top" all night long when he all but guaranteed a win over Florida.

You snickered and laughed with approval when you heard he told Alshon Jeffery that he’d end up pumping gas if he went to South Carolina.

He was wrong on all three counts. The rest of the SEC loathed him, but golly he was your man. He went 7-6, reached a bowl game and nearly beat eventual champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He had Tennessee headed in the right direction, you said. You didn’t care if he ruffled a few feathers so long as he won football games.

Until he left.

Then everything changed. Then he became the villain and you repainted The Rock from "Hail Kiffin" to something less salutatory.

But you should have known better. When the USC job came open, it was obvious he might go. It was home. He didn’t surprise you or anyone else when he eventually confirmed the news. Though his final news conference didn’t go well, at least he stuck around to try to explain himself.

In fact, if anyone has room to hate Kiffin, it’s Southern Cal. He was crushed under Hollywood-sized expectations, in spite of limited scholarships, and ended up the scapegoat of the post-Pete Carroll era. Under Kiffin's watch, USC's aura of dominance fell hard. But at Tennessee, he was only trying to help resurrect a once proud program. While it's true he left abruptly, the flames from those riots on Jan. 12, 2010, should be long extinguished by now. But judging by the vitriol this week, it doesn't appear that anyone's moved on.

When Kiffin returns to Neyland Stadium on Saturday as offensive coordinator of No. 4-ranked Alabama, don’t hold back. You can boo and heckle him all you want, but have some perspective. Tennessee has gone 24-32 since he left. The Vols were 5-7 the season before he arrived.

Taunt him because he’s wearing crimson. Jeer him because he failed at USC. Wave $14 at him for an unpaid haircut because it would be too funny not to.

Just don’t waste your energy hating someone who left more than four years ago, was fired from his last job unceremoniously and was rescued from the trash heap only to go back to being an assistant.

Think about it: knowing what we know now, where do you think the program would be had he stayed? He might have done everyone in Knoxville a favor by eventually paving the way for Butch Jones, who seems to be building a solid foundation for the future.

Saturday’s game shouldn’t be about Tennessee beating Kiffin. It should be about trying to beat Alabama. It should be about where Tennessee is heading now, not where it’s been in the past.