NCF Nation: what we learned 112909

What we learned in the Big 12, Week 13

November, 29, 2009
Here are some of the things we learned in the Big 12's final week of the regular season:

Texas’ troubling defensive concerns: For as much good that came for Colt McCoy’s Heisman candidacy out of Texas’ 49-39 victory at Texas A&M, the Longhorns’ struggling defense performance has to be an item of concern for Mack Brown and Will Muschamp. The Longhorns allowed more points in regulation and more total yards than any national championship team allowed during the regular season in the BCS era. And the only championship team that allowed more yards at any point of the season than Texas’ 532 yards against the Aggies was the 2005 Texas team, which was gashed for 574 by USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Those concerns might not materialize against Nebraska’s station-to-station offense this week in the Big 12 title game. But it will be a legitimate worry in a national title game -- particularly against a mobile run/pass quarterback like Florida’s Tim Tebow.

Mangino’s confusing late strategy: Kansas’ gutty performance in the Jayhawks’ 41-39 loss to Missouri was everything that Mark Mangino would have wanted to make it difficult for Lew Perkins to send him packing. That is, until the Jayhawks’ final possession of the game. Nursing a three-point lead with the ball deep inside its own territory, Kansas could have bled the clock and forced Missouri to deplete its time outs as it worked on the clock. Instead, Mangino opted for two risky passes that went incomplete. And it got worse when Todd Reesing was tackled for a safety on third down and only 14 seconds had expired on the drive. Missouri had plenty of time for the comeback, capped by Grant Ressel’s field goal with time ticking down. If Kansas had won, it would have been one of Mangino’s most dramatic coaching performances. Instead, his late strategy gave his critics a lot of ammunition to wonder about what could have been.

Bob Stoops’ coaching redemption: Bob Stoops’ “Big Game Bob” reputation has taken a hit the last few years. He got a little of it back Saturday with a determined coaching job that helped lead the Sooners to a 27-0 victory over Oklahoma State, ending the Cowboys’ at-large BCS hopes in the process. The Sooners have overcome misfortune in the most frustrating season in Stoops’ history. Saturday’s strong performance showed why Stoops is still one of the nation’s best coaches. And his upcoming bowl appearance can do even more for his stature. Critics have harped on his inability to win bowl games -- he's lost three straight and five of his last six bowl games. Beating a team like USC in the Sun Bowl would provide a pleasing punctuation mark on the most troubling seasons in Stoops' Oklahoma tenure.

Rex Burkhead’s return makes Nebraska a little tougher to defend: Nebraska offense added another element with the strong running of freshman Rex Burkhead, who had missed five games with a foot injury. Burkhead rushed for 100 yards against Colorado and provides a nice change of pace to go along with Roy Helu Jr. in the Cornhuskers’ backfield. That running game will be important if the Cornhuskers hope for any chance at an upset over Texas and its No. 1 ranked rush defense. The Cornhuskers likely won’t be able to dent the Longhorns’ defensive front. But Burkhead’s running gives Nebraska another weapon.

The scrambled battle for the Big 12’s coach of the year: Oklahoma State’s loss to Oklahoma did more than keep the Cowboys out of the BCS. It also made the toughest Big 12 Coach of the Year ballot in recent memory even more difficult to figure out. If the Cowboys had won and gone into the BCS, Gundy would have been a logical choice -- particularly because of the way he has navigated the Cowboys through a season filled with personnel losses. Now, it opens up to all kinds of candidates. Could it be Mack Brown, who has directed one of his best teams to an undefeated record? Or to Paul Rhoads, who unexpectedly led Iowa State to bowl eligibility? Or to Bill Snyder, who surprisingly directed Kansas State within a game of the Big 12 championship? Or maybe a couple of others. It will be a tough choice for balloters to decide which coach was truly the best in the conference this season.

What we learned from Notre Dame, Week 13

November, 29, 2009
What we learned from Notre Dame's 45-38 loss to Stanford on Saturday:

1. Charlie Weis did not end his tenure in style: Remember after the Navy loss, when Weis stressed that the following week would be all about accountability? Apparently the head coach doesn't need to be accountable after the team's fourth straight loss. Weis declined all on-field interviews with ABC during the game and then didn't bother to show up to his own postgame news conference. No matter. His team's performance did all the talking for him.

2. Greatness, wasted: Weis has said he thinks quarterback Jimmy Clausen is the best player in school history, and Clausen capped a tremendous statistical season with five touchdown passes on Saturday. Receiver Golden Tate wrapped up the best season by a wideout in Irish history with 10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns. There may not be a quarterback-receiver combo as good as those two in South Bend in a long, long time. And now both are almost certainly headed to the NFL as juniors, leaving school without having ever been on a team that finished the regular season with a winning record.

3. The postseason, if there is one, will be dreadful: At 6-6, Notre Dame will have to scrounge around for an opening somewhere after every 7-5 team in the land is placed in a bowl game. They could wind up playing in the Little Caesar's Bowl in Detroit or some other low-level game that's almost embarrassing to the school's tradition. With all the turmoil surrounding Weis and Clausen in the last week and the need to focus on the coaching transition, accepting a bowl bid might not even be worth it for the Irish.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 13

November, 29, 2009
We’re down to one game, the game everybody’s been waiting on -- Alabama vs. Florida for the SEC championship and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

The final week of the regular season proved to be the most entertaining yet. Auburn nearly upset Alabama. LSU and Tennessee both won in overtime, and Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina all pulled off upsets of nationally ranked foes.

Here’s a look at what all we learned in the SEC in Week 13:

1. SEC power: It’s a given at this point that the SEC will get a chance to play for its fourth straight national championship and its fifth national title in the last seven years. The winner of the Alabama-Florida matchup in the SEC championship game is assured of a spot in Pasadena. But what Georgia and South Carolina pulled off Saturday also speaks volumes about the strength of this conference. Georgia knocked off No. 7 Georgia Tech 30-24, and South Carolina smacked No. 15 Clemson 34-17. For perspective, Georgia Tech and Clemson are the two teams that will meet this coming weekend in Tampa, Fla., for the ACC championship. Georgia and South Carolina, meanwhile, were just fighting to say above .500 in the SEC. In fact, Georgia was 10th last week in the SEC power rankings and South Carolina was ninth. Not a bad statement for how strong this league is from top to bottom.

2. Gridlock in the middle: Thanks to a couple of upsets Saturday, there are six teams in the SEC (Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee) sporting a 7-5 record. That’s right. Half the league is a game above .500 in terms of overall record. Some have said the SEC was down this season, and a lot of that depends on how you want to look at it. But the teams in this league beat up on each other this season like never before. Take a look at the conference records. Other than Alabama and Florida, both of whom went unbeaten, the only other team to finish with a winning SEC record was LSU, and the Tigers had to rally in overtime against Arkansas on Saturday night to do that. Everybody else had a 4-4 record or worse, and six of the teams finished with losing conference records.

3. McElroy has what it takes: As Alabama and Florida have counted down the days to their big showdown over the last month, the decided advantage for the Gators was clearly at quarterback. If it becomes a fourth-quarter game, and it almost certainly will, who do you like better at quarterback -- Greg McElroy or Tim Tebow? Tebow is Mr. Third Down, especially in clutch situations and is the reason the Gators won last season in Atlanta. McElroy hadn’t had to win a game in the final minutes of the fourth quarter … until last Friday. The way he engineered that 79-yard, 15-play touchdown drive to beat Auburn on the road should serve him well. He knows he can do it in a pressure situation, and just as importantly, all the players around him know he can do it. The best thing McElroy did in that drive was take what the defense gave him. He didn’t try to be a hero or take unnecessary chances. He was smart, efficient and confident, the same combination he’ll need in the Georgia Dome this coming weekend.

4. Richt was right: Mark Richt, facing unprecedented scrutiny at Georgia, told anybody who would listen last week that the Bulldogs weren’t dead yet. Boy, was he right. The only thing that was dead was Georgia Tech’s carcass after the Bulldogs physically dominated the No. 7 Yellow Jackets in a 30-24 win that eases a lot of the pain for Georgia in the kind of season they haven’t been accustomed to in Athens under Richt. With their best player, A.J. Green, nursing a shoulder injury on the sideline, the Bulldogs went old school on the Yellow Jackets and leaned on an offensive line that was supposed to be their strength from the outset. On Saturday, the Bulldogs finally looked like one of the best offensive lines in the league and churned out 339 yards rushing, the most ever under Richt. Make no mistake. Georgia’s a prideful program, a program that’s used to winning 10-plus games and used to competing for and winning championships. That pride returned Saturday in Atlanta … in bruising fashion.

5. The Ole Miss quandary: How do you figure Ole Miss? The Rebels started the season with SEC championship aspirations and ranked in the Top 10. They end the season as the second best team in their state. Let’s be fair. It wasn’t a horrible season for the Rebels. After all, they did win eight games for the second straight season for the first time in 20 years. But based on expectations and the veteran talent on this team, it was an unfulfilling season. And just when you thought the Rebels were going to close the season the right way with four wins in a row, they get whipped by a younger, less talented Mississippi State team. Rivalries are like that sometimes, and the Mississippi State-Ole Miss rivalry is an intense one. Something says it’s about to get a lot more intense. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen grabbed a microphone after the game and told the maroon-clad fans, “This is one program in this state that’s definitely on the rise and heading in the right direction.” That remains to be seen, but judging by Ole Miss’ depth chart, this was the Rebels’ chance to do something big. They started 11 seniors Saturday, and 18 of their 22 starters were juniors or seniors.

What we learned in the Pac-10: Week 13

November, 29, 2009
What did we learn from Week 13 of Pac-10 action?

1. Toby Gerhart's Heisman Trophy candidacy is legit: Playing against 11 BCS conference teams, including seven that are or have been ranked this season, Toby Gerhart ended up ranked No. 1 in the nation in rushing touchdowns (26) and No. 2 in rushing (144.7 yards per game). His worst game? 82 yards on 17 carries on Sept. 12 at Wake Forest. Unlike other candidates, he always produced big against rivals and ranked teams. In his season-finale against Notre Dame, he hoisted the Cardinal upon his shoulders and rushed for 205 yards and accounted for four touchdowns -- three rushing, one passing -- in a comeback 45-38 victory. It's fair to ask: How can rational minds not judge him to be this season's most outstanding player?

2. Carroll vs. Neuheisel makes USC-UCLA more interesting: USC and UCLA don't like each other. Never have, never will. It appears, however, that Pete Carroll and Rick Neuheisel -- who seemed to get along fine when Neuheisel was first hired to coach the Bruins before the 2008 season -- will make the dislike deeper and more entertaining in coming years. Some folks will think Carroll unnecessarily piled on with that late 48-yard touchdown pass that made the final count 28-7 Saturday. Others will point out that Neuheisel called a useless and annoying time out, which justified the Trojans tacking on an in-your-face TD. The end result is there will be lots to talk about annually, both before and after these coaches and teams tangle. That's cool with me.

3. Washington State has a lot of ground to make up: The Cougars were a much worse team last year, but they still won the Apple Cup with a spirited comeback. This year, the Huskies utterly dominated in a 30-0 win, the first Apple Cup shutout in 45 years. Washington State struggled to find a healthy quarterback during the game, so the offensive futility was understandable, if hard to stomach for fans who are tired not only of losing but doing so badly. New Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian may land a top-25 recruiting class. It appears his program is trending up. Paul Wulff will need to counter, first this winter in recruiting, then next fall. Washington State has fallen way behind in the Pac-10, which may be even tougher and deeper in 2010. Can it get up?

4. Arizona finally got lucky: Arizona, you looked terrible in the second half as Arizona State made its comeback from a 14-point deficit. But you've been through a lot this year, including that dispiriting double-overtime loss to Oregon that ended your Rose Bowl dreams. While Stanford and Oregon State fans likely would remind you that not all your luck has been bad this year, that muffed punt that saved the day against the Sun Devils might have been a kindly gesture from the college football gods. "Here," they said. "Here's a gift for 'ya. Sorry about those deflections."

5. Dennis Erickson needs to win in 2010: Boy, did we see some tough coach walks after games Saturday? Kansas' Mark Mangino, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson. I always look at the coach's face and gait -- the extraordinary effort it takes to simultaneously walk to mid-field and maintain as close to a neutral expression as possible. You can feel how hard each step toward their grinning counterpart must be. I wanted to crawl through the TV and offer a pat on the back to Erickson as much as anyone. He just looked so... pained. But empty seats at Sun Devil Stadium and a second consecutive losing season won't cut it in Tempe for long. With what Erickson has coming back in 2010, there are reasons to believe the program will be on the uptick. But he needs to recruit his butt off this winter and produce a winning season or his seat will get plenty hot in the desert.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 13

November, 29, 2009
FSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher reminded us earlier this week that “ignorance is bliss.” He couldn’t have been more accurate this week in the ACC, as conference fans saw some ugly truths with three of five ranked teams falling. Here’s a look at what we learned in the final week of the regular season:

The ACC’s best isn’t good enough to beat the SEC’s average. Clemson and Georgia Tech -- the two best teams the ACC has to offer this year, both lost to 7-5 SEC teams that don’t have winning records against their conference opponents. Both fan bases scoffed at the notion their teams would look ahead to the ACC championship game because both schools take their respective rivalry games so seriously. Well, if that’s the case, then the only other explanation is simply they weren’t the better teams this past weekend. Three of the ACC’s five ranked teams lost on Saturday, and all of the losses were upsets.

Change is imminent at Florida State. After the embarrassing 37-10 loss to Florida, FSU coach Bobby Bowden said he had to do some soul searching. Although he wants to return for a final year to coach, even Bowden seemed truly defeated for the first time in his career following the loss at Florida.’s Mark Schlabach reported that a decision on Bowden’s future could come as early as Monday or Tuesday. The only question is whether or not he's really the one to make that decision.

It can’t get any worse for Al Groh and Ralph Friedgen. Both were emotional in their postgame news conferences following their respective losses. For the Terps, it was their seventh straight loss and a school-record 10 defeats, but Friedgen said he didn’t want to quit on his players. Groh doesn’t seem to have that choice, and considering he read a poem, “The Guy in the Glass,” to the media and his players following the loss, he seems to know it. It was Virginia’s first nine-loss season since 1982.

Tom O’Brien > Butch Davis in rivalry. It doesn’t matter that UNC is going bowling and NC State is not -- not in this rivalry game, where the only thing that matters is the final score, and for the third straight year, the Wolfpack came out on top. It was only NC State’s second conference victory of the season, and it came against a nationally ranked Carolina team with a much better defense. O'Brien, though, without his offensive coordinator and good friend Dana Bible, found a way to get it done and UNC helped with its mistakes.

The ACC championship is truly anyone’s game. After the subpar performances by both Clemson and Georgia Tech on Saturday, both programs have room for improvement heading into Saturday’s title game. Clemson’s offense was stagnant against South Carolina, and Georgia Tech’s defense rolled out the red carpet for Georgia’s running game. Neither team looked as if it was the clear frontrunner for this year’s ACC title.

What we learned from the non-AQs

November, 29, 2009
History made: TCU made school history with a 12-0 regular season record, the first undefeated season since 1938, and the Horned Frogs first BCS bowl berth. The Horned Frogs have been the undisputed best nonautomatic qualifying team this season. They will stay No. 4 in the country, but could move up after the conference championships are played next week. TCU will have to wait until Dec. 6 to learn where they will play this postseason.

Waiting game: Oklahoma’s 27-0 win over Oklahoma State might have put Boise State in its first BCS bowl since 2006. The Broncos, who still have a game against New Mexico State remaining, are a win away from their second consecutive undefeated regular season. The only thing that could derail Boise State’s trip is the Big 12 championship game. If Nebraska wins that game, then Texas will earn the at-large bid over the Broncos.

Rematch of 2006: Ohio’s win over Temple sets up a rematch of the 2006 Mid-American Conference championship game against Central Michigan. Central Michigan won that game 31-10 and could have a similar effort considering the way it’s been playing this MAC season. The Chippewas rolled through MAC play effortlessly and undefeated. Ohio has played better in its last two games, but it will need a perfect effort to top CMU.

Offensive sensation: Houston made sure Rice wasn’t going to cost the Cougars the Conference USA East title for the second consecutive season. The Cougars jumped on Rice 59-0 by halftime and finished the Owls off with a 73-14 win to not only regain the Bayou Bucket, but also notch a berth in the Conference USA title game against East Carolina. The Pirates are the defending champs, but Houston won the last meeting between the teams last season.

Coaches are still in jeopardy: Akron coach J.D. Brookhart was relieved of his duties Saturday and at least one more coach could be out the door soon. North Texas coach Todd Dodge finished this season 2-11 and he is now 5-32 in his three seasons as head coach. It looked like the program was going to make progress under him this season, but that wasn’t the case and he is in jeopardy. Marshall coach Mark Snyder might be in some trouble, too. Although it looks like his team will go to a bowl game, he’ll have to win it to stay in Huntington.
Just a few lessons to take away from Week 13.

1. The Big Ten should once again send multiple teams to BCS bowls: Oklahoma State represented the Big Ten's biggest obstacle in the at-large race, and the Cowboys are out of the running after a disastrous performance at Oklahoma. While Nebraska could shock Texas in the Big 12 championship game, I wouldn't bet against Colt McCoy and the Longhorns at Jerry World. It would be hard to see the BCS bowls passing up Iowa or Penn State at this point, which would give the Big Ten multiple BCS teams for the fifth consecutive season. Those demanding a Big Ten championship should take notice of the streak, because the more money that comes the league's way, the less it will be pushed to expand.

2. Juice Williams can still light it up: Williams' senior season has been a major struggle, but the Illinois quarterback had a strong performance against No. 5 Cincinnati. He became the sixth player in Big Ten history to eclipse 10,000 career yards as he threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns and added 67 rush yards and a score. Williams could have done even more damage but missed a few big-play opportunities. The senior spread the ball well to his receivers and displayed plenty of toughness as his ankle didn't look fully healed. If he got any help from Illinois' defense or special teams, Williams might have notched another win against a top 5 team.

3. Illinois has a lot to fix in the offseason: Ron Zook is still expected back for a sixth season as Illinois head coach, but he'll face some major challenges in the offseason. The Cincinnati game exposed many of the problems that have dogged Illinois all season long, from poor special teams play to missed assignments on defense to a lack of discipline in avoiding the yellow flag. Illinois also lost a key commit (C.J. Fiedorowicz) to Iowa this week, so Zook will need to once again work his magic on the recruiting trail, where he has done his best work. This program is certainly at a crossroads again, and Zook needs to get things right by next fall.