NCF Nation: Michigan Wolverines

It's an indelible image in college football history: Desmond Howard striking the Heisman pose after returning a punt for a touchdown in Michigan's 1991 win against Ohio State.

Well, this one wasn't so sweet for Wolverine fans. In Saturday's game at Michigan Stadium, Utah's Kaelin Clay returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown and struck a Heisman pose in almost the exact same spot as Howard 23 years ago.

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Utah matchup special for Michigan's Mone

September, 19, 2014
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There will be several familiar faces in Michigan Stadium Saturday afternoon for freshman defensive tackle Bryan Mone when his Wolverines host Utah. The Salt Lake City product will get a chance to square off with former high school teammates and friends, but he is most looking forward to seeing his parents on their first trip to his new home.

Homesickness is a common ailment among freshmen football players across the country, but it hit Mone harder than most. Making the 1,600-mile move east to Ann Arbor was a difficult decision. Not only was he leaving behind his tight-knit Tongan family, but he was also leaving them with the heavy responsibilities he shouldered for many years.

Since the start of junior high Mone has been largely in charge of caring for his older brother Filimone, who was born in Tonga with health problems that have prevented him from walking, talking or fending for himself. Bryan, seven years his brother’s junior, hustled home from football practice throughout high school to feed Filimone, change his diapers and help move him around the house. The family jokes that Mone’s first foray into weight training was lifting his brother.

[+] EnlargeBryan Mone
Courtesy of IntersportMichigan freshman Bryan Mone on family: "We come from nothing, and they're my motivation."
"I had to grow up faster than other kids," he said. "It's a blessing. I say it's a blessing."

The family moved from Tonga to California to Utah in search of the resources they needed to help Filimone. The silver lining for Mone was finding football. He landed at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, a school that has produced a handful of NFL draft picks including five-time Pro Bowler and fellow Tongan Haloti Ngata. Two other Highland alums -- Utah starting defensive end Nate Orchard and Michigan fullback Sione Houma -- will be on the field Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who coached Ngata during his time with the Baltimore Ravens, tells Mone he sees similarities between the two players. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Mone has played all three games and has made four tackles so far for the Wolverines. He has helped to add a new element of depth to the front lines of a top 10 defense that is allowing an average of 80 rushing yards per game this season.

"The sky is the limit for him," Mattison said. "You don’t think he’s the youngest of all of them. He just got out of high school, and all the sudden he’s here starting or playing a lot for the University of Michigan."

Mone finished his high school career as the top-rated prospect in Utah. He chose to pass up scholarship offers to stay close to Filimone and the rest of his family because he thought Michigan gave him a chance to help them more in the long run.

"We come from nothing, and they're my motivation," Mone said. "At first I was planning to stay home, but I trust the coaches here. Academic-wise, I knew I'd be able to get something."

A promising future didn’t make the transition to life away from home any easier. The self-proclaimed "mama’s boy" enrolled a semester early at Michigan and struggled to deal with the distance at first. He called often to make sure his family was managing to take care of Filimone without him, and so that his brother could hear his voice.

"(Filimone) does understand his surroundings and his atmosphere. He can sense it. It did get him down a little bit," said Latu Lauhingoa, Mone's older sister who has helped pick up some of his caretaking responsibilities. "Every time Bryan calls, he wants to talk where Filimone can hear. We would just put the phone to his ear and, oh my gosh, would he smile."

Mone leaned on Houma, his current and former teammate, for support during the spring semester. He also started to develop close relationships with his fellow defensive linemen. Coaches and veterans of that unit say they have bonded more this year than in any previous seasons. Mone called them his new family. When asked if he had any particular mentors that have helped him get settled on the field, he rattled off the names of 10 fellow linemen before taking a breath.

The defensive line was heralded this offseason as a strength that would need to be an anchor of this Michigan team if it was going to rebound from a 7-6 season a year ago. The final decorating touch to their position group meeting room, which was renovated in the spring along with the rest of Schembechler Hall, is a sign that assistant coach Mark Smith hung this summer. He made all of the players sign it as an oath of sorts when they returned for fall camp in August. It reads: "I am committed to my brothers."

Among a group that universally agrees it has grown closer in the past year, no one understands that concept of commitment quite like Mone.

Butt's return provides options for Michigan

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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Michigan sophomore Jake Butt saw teammate Dennis Norfleet running toward him pointing to the sky and decided to break doctor’s orders. Butt, having just caught his third career touchdown pass last Saturday afternoon, met his fellow receiver in mid-air at the goal line with a flying chest bump. He thought he had earned a brief celebration after all.

"I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but yeah, I did," he said. "It’s not like I have big hops anyways. It was a baby jump."

[+] EnlargeJake Butt
AP Photo/Tony DingJake Butt's touchdown catch Saturday against Miami (Ohio) was the third of his career.
Six and a half months after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee, Butt found himself back in the end zone. His second of three catches so far this season was good for a walk-in 29-yard score against Miami (Ohio). Team doctors told Butt to avoid any unnecessary risks while his joint rounds back into shape, but he couldn’t help but get airborne to enjoy the moment.

Pushing limits helped put Butt on the field sooner than expected, even in a new era of knee rehab that has turned once-dreaded ACL injuries into surmountable obstacles. The 6-foot-6, 249-pound tight end is still working his way to full health, but his return comes at an opportune time for the Wolverines. Without star receiver Devin Funchess, whose status remains a mystery after missing last week with an apparent leg injury, Michigan’s offense is searching for new options in the passing game.

"We may play more tight ends. It just depends on what we want to do," head coach Brady Hoke said when asked about contingency plans if Funchess can’t play in a key non-conference game with Utah this weekend. "... I think again, you go back to the tight end position with getting guys ready for different personnel groups, I think that’s a positive."

Hoke said Butt’s versatility opens parts of the playbook Michigan wouldn’t be able to use if he remained on the sidelines. He expects the sophomore’s impact to grow in the coming weeks as he ramps up to full speed and loses the restrictive play count the Wolverines have set for him.

Butt made the ESPN.com All-Big Ten freshman team last season after catching 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. The coaching staff considered him a big part of the offensive game plan for this season, even after he hurt his knee in early February.

At the time, the Wolverines didn’t expect to have the sophomore in their lineup until the team started Big Ten play in late September. Butt had other ideas. His maternal grandfather, Bob Lally, won two national championships for Notre Dame under Frank Leahy in the 1940s, and Butt was determined to play on the same field as one of his childhood idols before Michigan’s series with the Irish expired. He set a goal the day after he was injured to play in South Bend the second week of the season. Though he took only four snaps in that game, he reached it.

"Jake was committed to getting on that field for his Papa. That was a big deal for him," said Rob Butt, Jake’s father, who attributes the fast recovery to hard work, a positive attitude, and a knack for mending quickly.

Butt broke a bone in his foot in fifth grade and shocked doctors when X-rays showed it was completely healed a little more than two weeks later. That was about the time he started scouring the Internet for ways to become a better receiver. Butt cut tennis balls in half and taped them to his palms to force himself to catch with his fingertips when his dad threw him passes in the backyard. His reputation for working hard followed him through an all-state high school career in Ohio.

The same attitude led Butt to impatiently grind away at whatever the Michigan training staff allowed him to do during the past six months. He set up camp in the trainer’s office, receiving treatment while he ate or studied or did just about anything else. After rehab sessions, he went home and repeated the drills on his own in his apartment.

"When he got hurt he said I’m going to have the quickest ACL recovery in history," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "When you know the kid, nothing would surprise you. Each and every day we’re trying to give him a little bit more. He’s a phenomenal football player."

Butt’s ability to create matchup issues for opposing defenses will make him a key piece in Nussmeier’s offense, especially if Funchess needs more time to return to the lineup. He took a big step forward last weekend with three catches for 59 yards and his touchdown. That return to the box score happened sooner than anticipated for just about everyone except himself.

"I hold myself to a high standard," he said. "Once they called that play, I knew I was going to get into the end zone."

Whittingham, Hoke reunite in Ann Arbor

September, 16, 2014
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During his two-year stint as San Diego State's football coach, Brady Hoke would often make not-so-subtle overtures about his desire to be the head coach at Michigan. On more than one occasion, Hoke said he envisioned his career arc ending in Ann Arbor, where he'd spent eight seasons as an assistant before head coaching stops at Ball State and SDSU. And he made no secret to his employers that if the maize and blue ever called, he'd be gone.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke has been unable to build upon an impressive first year at his dream job.
Following the 2010 season, Michigan called. Hoke answered with vigor.

Around that time, Kyle Whittingham and the Utah Utes were wrapping up their final season as a Mountain West team. Utah, just two years removed from a 13-0 season and No. 2 BCS ranking, was regarded as one of the top non-AQ teams in the country and was headed to the newly-branded Pac-12.

Since leaving their old league in their wake, things haven't exactly gone according to script for these former A-list Mountain West coaches. And when their teams meet Saturday at The Big House, it's possible the outcome could alter the trajectories of their respective careers.

Hoke enjoyed an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory in his first year with the Wolverines but has seen declining returns after an 8-5 record in 2012 and a 7-6 mark last year. He sits on one of the hottest coaching seats in America.

Meanwhile, Whittingham and the Utes have struggled to adapt to Pac-12 football. The Utes are just 9-18 in conference play since joining the league (a vicious strain of yearly quarterback injuries doesn't go unnoticed) and have failed to reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Whittingham's seat isn't as hot as Hoke's, but if the Utes fail to make the postseason for a third straight year, it will be.

"No coach I know of pays any attention to external chatter," Whittingham said. "We're so focused on what we're doing. That's how you have to be. That's how you have to operate. You can't be distracted."

A victory Saturday puts the Utes at 3-0 heading into conference play and gives them a quality road win over a nationally-relevant opponent. A loss sends a signal that the Utes still aren't ready for Power 5 football.

A Michigan win won't make or break Hoke's career. But a loss could re-ignite an already agitated fan base still smarting from a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame in Week 2.

"They all count as one win," Whittingham said. "If the Michigan game counted as two wins, it would be a lot more important. It's not a conference game, so it obviously doesn't impact what happens in our league. But every game is critical and we're not going to approach this one any differently."

Exactly what you'd expect Whittingham to say. However, after beating up on FCS teams, BYU and Mountain West teams the last three years in nonconference play, this is Utah's biggest non-league test since joining the Pac-12. And it's outside the state of Utah, where the Utes have only won once in the last two seasons.

There really isn't a common denominator for why both coaches have struggled in their new surroundings. Hoke went to an already established Power 5 team, rich in success and tradition. Whittingham was shepherding an entire program into a significantly tougher conference.

Still, Hoke inherited a Rich Rodriguez team that was built for the spread and an odd-front defense. His first three years have been spent trying to install a pro-style attack and an even-front defense.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesKyle Whittingham's Utes have struggled adjusting to life in the Pac-12
"When you're changing from a philosophic/schematic standpoint to a four-down front, recruiting those guys you want to play in there, you have to recruit the genetics," Hoke said. "Recruiting is always going to be part of it. The overall philosophy you have as a coach, how you want to develop your program, that's all part of it."

Both coaches concede the obvious -- that the weekly grind in the Power 5 is significantly harder. In the Mountain West, Utah's season usually came down to one big game against TCU. This year they face a four-game stretch of USC, at ASU, Oregon and at Stanford -- four teams currently ranked in the AP top 20.

"Everyone in the Pac-12 has to deal with that, so it's not unique to us," Whittingham said. "It's a big difference from what we experienced at the non-Power 5 level ... The recruiting is better. It's all about players. Coaches are way overrated. It's all about players and personnel. The personnel in the Pac-12 is markedly better than the personnel in the Mountain West across the board."

In their two Mountain West meetings, Whittingham's Utes beat Hoke's Aztecs both times. But given the coaching and personnel changes, those game films are moot. And while Whittingham is trying to bring his team to the next level, Hoke is scrambling to hold on to the position he called his "dream job" a year before he even had it.

"You have to be comfortable with who you are and who you are representing and I think we've got great leadership on this team," Hoke said of the outside noise calling for his ouster. "... We understand how we need to compete every Saturday and go about our business."

For both coaches, Saturday might be just as much about staying in business.

Injuries, implosion muddle South picture

September, 15, 2014
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Wait. That's been used before. But, with apologies to Dickens, it fits. The Pac-12 weekend was a tale of one division, two teams, two cities, two quarterbacks, and it was a day of thrills and it was a day of misery.

The plot certainly thickened in the Pac-12's South Division on Saturday, but not necessarily in a good way.

A week after posting a gritty upset at Stanford, USC was humiliated at Boston College, while UCLA cobbled together a win over Texas behind scrappy, ebullient backup QB Jerry Neuheisel. Neuheisel's services were required because Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. His status remains uncertain, though there was reasonable hope based on initial reports that his injury wasn't serious.

[+] EnlargeAntwaun Woods
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesUSC's shocking loss to Boston College underscored the vulnerability within the Pac-12 South division.
Our second city is Tempe, Arizona, where UCLA will be on Thursday, Sept. 25, squaring off with defending South Division champion Arizona State, which beat Colorado on Saturday but also lost its star senior quarterback, Taylor Kelly, who beat out Hundley for second-team All-Pac-12 last year. Seeing Kelly on crutches due to a foot injury -- and his body language -- probably won't fuel great expectations that he will be ready for the Bruins.

The UCLA-Arizona State game was one we eyeballed in the preseason as a major measuring stick in the battle for the South. A significant part of the appeal was the quarterback battle. That hasn't changed, only now the intrigue is whether it will be Neuheisel for UCLA and Mike Bercovici for Arizona State. A week ago, that quarterback news would have heavily favored the Sun Devils. While Bercovici isn't the runner Kelly is, he's got one of the best arms in the conference and is well-versed in the Sun Devils offense. He is expected to win the starting job as a fifth-year senior next fall. Neuheisel was widely viewed as a career backup with a well-known father -- former UCLA QB and coach Rick Neuheisel -- but his second-half performance against the Longhorns suggested he can be more than a rudimentary game manager.

Both teams have an off week, when they can either get healthy or retool their plans. The stakes continue to be high, perhaps more so after USC threw up on itself with a wet-noodle performance at Boston College. While a nonconference game doesn't affect the Trojans' Pac-12 standing, it certainly made them look extremely vulnerable heading into a much-needed bye week. Other than USC fans, the most miserable folks watching that game surely root for Stanford, which probably can't believe it lost to the Trojans just a week before.

What this implosion and these injuries reveal in a wider sense is vulnerability in the South. In the preseason, UCLA looked like a decisive South favorite. Then USC made a statement with a win over the Cardinal. Arizona State was lurking with a great offense and a questionable defense. At this point, however, none of these three teams is scaring anyone. And don't look now, but Arizona and Utah remain unbeaten and have shown flashes that suggest they might be factors in a divisional race that previously seemed limited to the aforementioned troika.

The Wildcats play host to California on Saturday. Lo and behold, the Bears also are unbeaten, and this game suddenly possesses some potential meaning it didn't seem to have in the preseason. If Cal gets the upset, it can fully erase last season's misery and start thinking bowl game. If Arizona gets the win, it will be 4-0 and eyeballing the Top 25 with a visit to No. 2 Oregon looming on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Arizona appears suspect on defense, but the offense, with impressive redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon, a good O-line, deep corps of receivers and breakout freshman running back Nick Wilson, will make the Wildcats a threat to any foe.

Utah visits Michigan on Saturday. While the Wolverines don't look like they'll be hailing in much victory this season, a Utes win would certainly raise more than a few eyebrows. While Utah's trouble hasn't been in nonconference games since joining the Pac-12, a 3-0 start would hint they are not a South afterthought, particularly if the offense continues to shine with QB Travis Wilson.

While Oregon's win over Michigan State coupled with Stanford's loss to USC only boosted the Ducks' status as North Division favorites, the South intrigue has seemingly spiderwebbed since the beginning of the season. The race appears more wide open and complicated. UCLA's visit to Arizona State remains a major measuring stick, but it's just as likely either team would sacrifice that game -- as horrible as that sounds -- to know it will get its starting quarterback back healthy for the rest of the season.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Michigan Wolverines:

2013 overall record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)

Key losses: Jeremy Gallon, WR; Taylor Lewan, OT; Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB; Thomas Gordon, SS; Jibreel Black, DT; Quinton Washington, NT.

Key returnees: Devin Gardner, QB; Devin Funchess, WR; Frank Clark, DE; Jake Ryan, MLB; Blake Countess, CB.

Instant impact newcomer: True freshman Jabrill Peppers, the No. 2-rated prospect in the Class of 2014, has drawn comparisons to Charles Woodson. First, Peppers must work his way into the starting lineup. He’ll get a look this month at nickel cornerback and perhaps safety. Eventually, he figures to fit as a defensive playmaker on the edge, matched against the opposition’s best receiver.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Devin Gardner, Sr., 6-foot-3, 216 pounds; RB: Derrick Green, So., 5-11, 220; WR: Freddy Canteen, Fr., 6-1, 176; WR: Devin Funchess, Jr., 6-5, 230; WR: Dennis Norfleet, Jr., 5-7, 169; TE: A.J. Williams, Jr., 6-6, 260; RT: Ben Braden, So., 6-6, 322; RG: Kyle Kalis, So., 6-5, 298; C: Jack Miller, Jr., 6-4, 299; LG: Kyle Bosch, So., 6-5, 303; LT: Erik Magnuson, So., 6-6, 294.

Defense: DE: Frank Clark, Sr., 6-2, 277; DT: Chris Wormley, So., 6-4, 295; NT: Willie Henry, So., 6-2, 293; DE: Brennen Beyer, Sr., 6-3, 256; WLB: Desmond Morgan, Sr., 6-1, 232; MLB: Jake Ryan, Sr., 6-3, 236; SLB: Royce Jenkins-Stone, Jr., 6-2, 234; CB: Raymon Taylor, Sr., 5-10, 184; CB: Blake Countess, Jr., 5-10, 180; FS: Jarrod Wilson, Jr., 6-2, 205; SS: Dymonte Thomas, So., 6-2, 193.

Specialists: K: Matt Wile, Sr., 6-2, 219; P: Will Hagerup, Sr., 6-4, 225.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesDevin Gardner can't go at it alone offensively if Michigan hopes to contend in the East Division.
Biggest question mark: Can Michigan run the football? If the offense turns one-dimensional, as occurred last November, Gardner likely cannot carry the Wolverines with his arm. A reshaped Green and fellow sophomore back De'Veon Smith form a nice duo, and the line, despite questions, looks like a capable group with decent depth. New coordinator Doug Nussmeier is charged with designing a scheme that utilizes the run game in a fashion similar to his system at Alabama.

Most important game: Dumb question. The Wolverines visit the Horseshoe in Columbus on Nov. 29. In the reconfigured divisional structure of the conference, this is the game that Big Ten purists await, hoping it decides the East title. While Michigan State might spoil those plans, and the 107th battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy on Oct. 25 looms as large, nothing surpasses the Ohio State game for Michigan.

Upset special: It’s impossible to ignore that opener on Aug. 30 against Appalachian State. Remember 2007, when the FCS power beat Michigan 34-32 at the Big House? We’re not expecting it to happen again, but if it did ... let's not go there.

Key stat: Michigan’s net rushing total last year at Michigan State was minus-48 yards. In the series, the team to rush for the most yards has won 41 of the past 44 games.

What they're wearing: The Wolverines got fancy in 2011 and 2012, wearing eight uniform combinations, including alternate jerseys that featured an “M” across the chest for a meeting with Notre Dame. Last year, Michigan stayed traditional. An alternate-uniform game is possible this year, though nothing has been announced.

Team’s top Twitter follows: Don’t look for coach Brady Hoke on Twitter. None of the handles that bear his name are operated by the 55-year-old coach, who, several years back, famously said -- boasted? -- that he’d never sent an e-mail. Wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski (@jeffhecklinski), Nussmeier (@CoachDNuss), cornerbacks coach Roy Manning (@CoachRoyM) and safeties coach Curt Mallory (@CmalryMallory) stay active. Keep an eye on Derek Satterfield (@dsatt_), the program’s director of public and media relations, and the official handle (@umichfootball). The popular umblog.com (@UMGoBlog) is full of information, and writers Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) of MLive Media Group and Angelique Chengelis (@chengelis) of the Detroit News stay up on news. Heisman winner Desmond Howard (@DesmondHoward) and ex-quarterback Denard Robinson (@DenardX) offer interesting perspectives. Team leaders Gardner (@DevG98), Ryan (@JakeRyan_47) and Funchess (@D_FUNCH) provide insight. Younger players Jake Butt (JBooty_88) and Taco Charlton (@TheSupremeTaco) have catchy handles.

They said it: “What Doug has done is, I think, when you watch the practice in the spring, you watch the tempo of the offense, you watch the physicalness every day that guys are playing with, I think that's where it starts.” -- Hoke, on Nussmeier’s impact on the offense.

Stats & Info projections: 8.87 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Eight wins. The schedule sets up for the Wolverines to start well. If Michigan beats Notre Dame in the last scheduled game of the storied rivalry, it could be 7-0 with an open date before the Oct. 25 trip to Spartan Stadium. Don’t count on such a sprint from the gates -- not with Butt out during nonconference play and situations unsettled on both lines. Michigan needs time to get comfortable in Nussmeier’s offense, and the back half of the schedule is rough, with trips to Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State.
1. Anyone else find it interesting that the NCAA agreed to pay $20 million in the EA Sports case to current and former Division I student-athletes on the day before USC comes off probation? The cases are indicative of how the world of intercollegiate athletics has shifted since the Trojans went on probation four years ago. The enforcement process has lost what respect it had. The NCAA model is being forced to remodel because members and the Indianapolis bureaucracy weren’t smart enough to do it on their own.

2. A few days after I wrote about the Curse of Bo (Michigan is 50-41 since Schembechler died in Nov. 2006), author John U. Bacon wrote about a more serious picture of the Wolverines' athletic department. Bacon wrote that pro-style marketing bent on maximizing revenue has cost Michigan at the ticket window with students and long-time ticket holders. Bacon made a compelling point:Treat college fans like customers, they’ll start acting like customers instead of people with emotional ties to the product.

3. The Pac-12 might be the next "it" conference on the field, but the conference doesn’t carry the emotional resonance with its fans that the Big Ten and the SEC do with theirs. The latest example: the Big Ten’s announcement that the league championship will remain in Indianapolis through 2021. That’s an NFL town in a state where football is second, yet the game is a success. The Pac-12 is trying the neutral-site championship this season at the 49ers' new stadium. I am skeptical that league fans will fill it up.

The new College Football Playoff is supposed to encourage schools to schedule better nonconference games, as teams try to beef up their schedule strength to earn one of the playoff’s coveted four spots at season’s end.

On Thursday, Texas A&M and UCLA announced that they’ll play each other during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Other schools have announced future marquee nonconference opponents, including Texas A&M vs. USC, Notre Dame vs. Texas, Alabama vs. Michigan State and LSU vs. Oklahoma.

Here are five other nonconference games I’d like to see in the future:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Urban Meyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and Nick Saban have faced off for SEC titles, but their current teams, Ohio State and Alabama, have played only three times in history.
1. Alabama vs. Ohio State: Alabama’s Nick Saban and OSU’s Urban Meyer dominated the SEC when Meyer was coaching at Florida, combining to win five BCS national championships from 2006 to 2012.

When Meyer was still coaching at Florida, the Crimson Tide and Gators played in two of the most anticipated SEC championship games. The No. 2 Gators beat the No. 1 Tide 31-20 in 2008, and then the Tide turned the tables on No. 1 UF with a 32-13 win in 2009.

Alabama and Ohio State have played only three times in history, with the Tide winning each time, most recently in a 24-17 victory in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.

2. Texas vs. Texas A&M: Perhaps the biggest casualty in conference realignment, Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played each other since the Aggies bolted the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Sadly, there are no plans for the in-state rivals to play again in future regular seasons.

The Aggies and Longhorns played each other 118 times from 1894 to 2011, with their annual meeting traditionally being played on Thanksgiving Day. UT won nearly twice as many games as the Aggies (76-37-5), including nine of the last 12 meetings.

With former Louisville coach Charlie Strong taking over at Texas, and Kevin Sumlin building the Aggies into an SEC powerhouse, the game would also pit two of the sport’s best African-American coaches against each other.

3. Oregon vs. Baylor: Two of the game’s most explosive offenses -- and two of its best-dressed teams -- would undoubtedly light up the scoreboard if they ever played. In fact, the contest would probably look more like a track meet.

Under coach Art Briles, the Bears have become the Ducks of the Southwest, with their hurry-up, spread offense and myriad flashy uniforms closely resembling what Chip Kelly and then Mark Helfrich built at Oregon. The Bears and Ducks follow the same blueprint on offense: play fast and score fast.

We hoped to see this matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season, but alas, it didn’t happen. Oregon and Baylor have never met on the gridiron.

4. Michigan vs. USC: Two of the sport’s traditional heavyweights have faced each other eight times in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, but only twice during the regular season -- in 1957 and 1958.

The Trojans won the last three meetings in the Rose Bowl, 32-18 in 2007, 28-14 in 2004 and 17-10 in 1990. USC has won six of the past seven meetings overall and holds a 6-4 advantage all-time.

We might have seen this matchup during the regular season if a Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership hadn’t fallen apart in 2012.

5. Georgia vs. Florida State: UGA coach Mark Richt was a longtime assistant under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden before taking over the Bulldogs, and he recently poached defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt off the Seminoles’ staff.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles go head-to-head for a lot of recruits every year, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher upgraded his roster by effectively recruiting South Georgia and Atlanta.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles have played 11 times and only once since 1984 -- UGA defeated FSU 26-13 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Georgia leads the all-time series, 6-4-1.

3-point stance: Fresno State lurking

November, 4, 2013
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1. It’s not smart to delve deeply into BCS what-ifs. The season has five remaining weeks -- a full third of the schedule. Besides, the top of the BCS standings will sort itself out. It has every year since the FBS went to a 12-game schedule. But the race at the other end of the BCS is worth keeping an eye on. Fresno State has reached No. 16, the minimum threshold a BCS buster needs to secure a bid as long as it’s ahead of an AQ champion. Louisville and UCF of the American are No. 20 and No. 21, respectively.

2. No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Oregon turn their heads toward their biggest conference nemeses. Nick Saban is only 4-3 against No. 13 LSU while since taking over as coach of Alabama. He’s 72-10 against everyone else. No. 5 Stanford is the only team to beat Chip Kelly’s Ducks twice in his four seasons. Last season’s 17-14 overtime loss cost Oregon a berth in the BCS Championship Game. Suffice to say it left a mark. Expect coach Mark Helfrich to have something in his game plan this week. The Ducks kept it pretty vanilla last year, and it cost them.

3. When Michigan State defeated Michigan four consecutive times from 2008-11, it didn’t quite feel as if the Spartans owned the rivalry. This wasn’t the real Michigan -- coach Rich Rodriguez didn’t fit the Wolverine mold. Michigan State took advantage of Michigan, but so did a lot of teams. That’s not the case any longer. Michigan has its own (Brady Hoke) running the program. He is in Year Three. Yet Michigan State just beat Michigan 29-6, the Spartans’ biggest margin in their 5-1 run against the Wolverines. The rivalry belongs to Sparty as securely as it did in the mid-1960s run of Duffy Daugherty.
1. Michigan’s feuds with Ohio State and Notre Dame always drew more attention than its games with Michigan State. But that has changed, and not, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said Wednesday on the ESPNU College Football Podcast, because the Spartans won four in a row from 2008-11. “I think some of the changes with the divisional races puts a little more emphasis on this football game,” Hoke said. “But from a passion standpoint … it’s always been a very physical game. It’s always a game that been played through the whistle. The intensity of the rivalry is there. It’s real.”

2. Florida Atlantic head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned, a source told my colleague Brett McMurphy, because they attended a party where people used marijuana. I guess the coaches picked the wrong state in which to attend the party. According to Governing magazine, 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of marijuana usage. No, Florida is not one of them. But still this story, in 2013, is a stunner. Maybe FAU wanted Pelini (5-15 in two seasons) out?

3. Stanford senior defensive end and team captain Ben Gardner's season-ending pectoral injury means that the Cardinal will have started only two games with their preseason starting defensive line. Senior Henry Anderson hurt his knee in the second game against Army. That the line has remained a strength for the Cardinal is a credit to fifth-year senior Josh Mauro, who pretty much turned Anderson into Wally Pipp. But it’s a shame that the three seniors will have played together so little in their final season.
1. Michigan fans couldn’t get Rich Rodriguez out of town fast enough. But it’s worth noting that Brady Hoke’s best offensive players are fifth-year seniors recruited by Rodriguez. That includes Saturday’s record-setters, quarterback Devin Gardner (503 passing yards, 584 yards of total offense) and receiver Jeremy Gallon (369 receiving yards), as well as Fitzgerald Toussaint (four rushing scores Saturday) and starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Then again, offense wasn’t RichRod’s problem at Michigan.

2. There’s the speculation at the top of the BCS standings, where No. 2 Florida State and No. 3 Oregon may leapfrog one another the next three weeks as their schedules ebb and flow. Then there’s the battle at the other end, where No. 17 Fresno State and No. 18 Northern Illinois are jockeying with one another and both trying to stay in front of No. 20 Louisville and No. 23 UCF from the AAC. If one of the former finishes ahead of one of the latter, that will guarantee a BCS bid. The BCS ratings always provide fodder.

3. Senior quarterback Clint Trickett left Florida State after spring ball when he realized that he wouldn’t beat out redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. On Saturday, Winston threw for 444 yards at Clemson and became a Heisman frontrunner. Trickett started at West Virginia and threw for 254 yards and a touchdown against Texas Tech. But the Red Raiders outscored the Mountaineers 21-0 in the last 20 minutes to win, 37-27. Over the last five possessions, Trickett completed 6 of 11 passes for 19 yards. The offense made one first down.

Week 4: Wake-up calls

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
11:00
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Byron JonesDavid Hahn/Icon SMIMichigan survived a nail-biting game against what was supposed to be a pushover team.
For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.


"WELL, it was a win ... that’s about all I’ve got."

You can't blame Michigan coach Brady Hoke for being speechless at his postgame news conference, as if he’d just gotten off a roller coaster. UConn certainly wasn't billed as the Top Thrill Dragster, but the Huskies shook up the Wolverines like an old, half-broken down ride that isn’t supposed to knock the breath out of you -- except that it does.

It didn't help that Hoke had to survive a nail-biter over what should have been a pushover opponent just one week earlier. On Sept. 14, Michigan needed a stop on the game’s final play to hold off lowly Akron 28-24. Then college football’s winningest program barely made it out of East Hartford alive, edging the Huskies 24-21. Yes, the same UConn that opened the season with a loss to Towson, an FCS opponent, by 15.

“You can’t give the ball away,” Hoke said, speaking of his team’s eight turnovers in two weeks. “We’ve got a major league problem and we’ve got to fix it, because that’s not going to win you championships.”

Ah yes, championships. By the time an overwhelmingly underwhelming fourth stanza of the 2013 season had finished late Saturday night, no fewer than three would-be BCS contenders nearly had their championship dreams crushed.

How close did they come?

Three yards, one finger and one toe.


  • At jam-packed Rentschler Field, where UConn welcomed Ray Allen and Derek Jeter and had to bring in more than 2,000 temporary seats to meet ticket demand, the Huskies hassled Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner all night. He threw two interceptions (one tipped) and fumbled away a snap. During one ridiculous five-minute stretch that ended the first quarter and started the second, UConn tied the score 7-7, recovered a botched punt that hit the leg of a member of Michigan’s return team, took the lead at 14-7 and then took the Gardner fumble 34 yards for a TD that made it 21-7.



  • The Wolverines clawed back to take the lead 24-21, but in the closing two minutes, UConn still had a chance to set up overtime or win in regulation. On fourth-and-29 from the Huskies' 33, quarterback Chandler Whitmer had receiver Deshon Fox tracked. The up-and-down Whitmer flicked a beautiful pass and hit Fox in the middle of tight coverage with a safety sliding over in a hurry. That safety, Jarrod Wilson, provided just enough help to drop Fox less than 3 yards short of a first down, which would have put UConn at Michigan's 41 with 1:43 remaining.

    Three plays prior to that pass, UConn already had been across midfield, but a pass for minus-2 yards, a false start penalty and a sack for a 12-yard loss had driven Whitmer back into his own territory. Reverse any of those plays, and that fourth down becomes a first down.

    “We’ve got an off week to work this out,” Hoke said as he departed for the bus and then the airport. “We’ll take 4-0. But we can’t keep counting on the breaks to go our way.”

  • Hoke didn’t know it, but he looked and sounded an awful lot like Georgia coach Mark Richt had earlier in the day, lumbering into a postgame presser as though he had sandpaper in his pants.


  • Anyone who has made a trip to Denton, Texas, recently knows that the North Texas football program has all the potential in the world. It's in a recruit-rich area with sparkling new facilities. But even the staunchest supporter of the Mean Green will tell you that coach Dan McCarney’s players still have a lot of work to do to meet that potential.

    Yet there they were, between the hedges, tied 21-21 with the No. 9 Bulldogs in the middle of the third quarter. The rain was beginning to pour. The Mean Green was a team ready to believe and the Dawgs appeared to be a team ready to go home. Then quarterback Aaron Murray led his team on an eight-play, 53-yard drive that he capped with a keeper for the go-ahead score.

    “Hey, we’re fine,” he told his teammates. “Just play ball and have fun.”

    And they did. In fact, the next drive (12 plays for 95 yards) was even prettier. But it nearly ended in disaster. On second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, receiver Chris Conley ran a picture-perfect, inside-to-outside route and was headed to the right-front pylon as Murray turned and flicked the ball toward the corner. North Texas’s Zac Whittlefield is a great athlete, a converted running back who is now an All-Conference USA candidate at cornerback. He hadn’t bit on Conley’s fake. In fact, he’d used it to set up a great inside move that put him on the goal line between Murray and his target.

    Whittlefield had a read on the ball floating toward him and actually appeared to take a quick glance downfield to see the open lane for what could be a 100-yard pick-six. He timed his leap and extended his left arm upward. He swiped and made contact. It wasn’t going to be a pick, but it was definitely going to be batted down. The pass hit three of Whittlefield's fingers -- he needed it to hit one more.

    Instead of being slapped to the turf, the ball dropped straight down … and into Conley’s hands. Whittlefield, assuming he'd broken up the pass, was stunned when the Georgia crowd erupted and he turned to see Conley celebrating. Down two scores, the wind out of its sails, the Mean Green lost 45-21 and Georgia’s one-loss title hopes kept floating.

  • Two nights prior, the coach who pinned that loss on Georgia, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, had also arrived to his postgame Q&A looking as worn out as Hoke and Richt. The Tigers had just survived an unquestionably ugly, 26-14 Thursday night win at NC State.


  • The initial volley of questions didn’t center on Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd’s accuracy issues (his season-best 64.9% completion rate looked good on paper but not in person) or even the importance of earning the team’s first ACC win and avoiding, for a week anyway, talk of "pulling a Clemson." Instead, reporters immediately asked about one specific play.

    Down 13-7, Wolfpack receiver Brian Underwood electrified Carter-Finley Stadium with an 83-yard touchdown reception, setting up a chance to lead the third-ranked Tigers by a point (or more) with 7:31 remaining in the third. But line judge Richard Misner ruled that Underwood had stepped out of bounds at the Clemson 47-yard line. When the whistle was blown, the play was instantly dead, meaning that it couldn’t be reviewed from the replay booth.

    Within minutes, ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads had vanished from the NC State press box. He was off to the instant replay booth so he could see all angles of the play. The former back judge knew that, regardless of whether the play could be officially reviewed, he needed to know exactly what it looked like, especially as the ESPN TV booth continued to question the call and NC State fans kept booing every scoreboard replay.

    It was a rare instance when freeze frames and replays contradicted one another. Multiple shots seemed to prove that Underwood had stayed in bounds. But at least one appeared to show the right side of his foot barely over the line. In the end, Rhoads explained, even if the whistle hadn’t blown, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to overturn the on-field ruling.



    Just three plays later, NC State quarterback Pete Thomas fumbled. Five plays later, Clemson went up 20-7. The Pack never recovered, physically or mentally.

    As Swinney took his seat in the press room, he unknowingly spoke for many of his fellow coaches, not to mention thousands of fans, when it came to summing up a gross, sloppy Week 4 filled with mismatches, miscues and malaise from coast to coast. Yes, in the end nearly all of the teams that were supposed to win did. But like Clemson, most of them seemed uneasy, unsatisfied and anxious for Week 5.

    “Glad to get that one over," Swinney said. "We can’t load up the buses soon enough.”

    ESPN The Magazine
    1. My buddy Mark Schlabach picked the best game of each weekend in a column published Monday and went chronologically. If you go by quality, then Nov. 7-9 has the two best games of the year. On Thursday night, Oregon is at Stanford. On Saturday, LSU is at Alabama. Granted, it's still only the preseason. But you’ve got four top-10 teams playing in rivalries that have heated up over the last five years. What more can we ask for? Just that the four teams get to November with their reputations intact.

    2. Author John U. Bacon is that rare combination of bulldog reporter and sympathetic ear. He wrote the penetrating “Three and Out” about Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. Bacon spent last season as a fly on the wall of four Big Ten teams that had big stories: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern. His new book, “Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football,” will be out soon. Buy it. His description of the NCAA’s handling of Penn State in the opening pages is priceless.

    3. All the major college football awards -- and most of the minor ones, too -- unveiled their “watch lists.” I don’t believe in watch lists. The lists serve only as public relations tools for the awards and for the programs whose players are named. But the standards to make the list are virtually non-existent. Besides, in this day and age, performance on the field is the most important element. Johnny Manziel, unknown before last September, proved that once and for all.

    Haney: How Bridgewater, others get better

    July, 2, 2013
    7/02/13
    12:09
    PM ET
    Travis Haney checks in with personal quarterbacks coach George Whitfield to discuss the development of three QBs the coach has spent time with this offseason: Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Michigan’s Devin Gardner. Here's an excerpt:
    When you're in the most in-demand independent quarterback instructor going, it makes for a busy summer. The offseason is your season. But George Whitfield isn't complaining, even on the heels of a two-week trek that took the Californian to Georgia, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame -- and I might have accidentally omitted one or two stops.

    Whitfield has most recently been in Oregon working with the Elite 11 camp, where some of his college pupils are working as counselors for the next crop of, as he calls them, "dragon-slayers" or "surgeons."

    I caught up with Whitfield on three of the QBs he's spent time with this offseason -- Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- and got his take on each player's development, and what he's expecting to see out of them this season.


    Read more from Haney Insider.
    1. Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury brought Matt Wallerstedt with him as co-defensive coordinator because of how the Air Force defenses that Wallerstedt coached stopped the Houston offenses that Kingsbury coordinated. “We had some of the worst games we’d ever seen going against them,” Kingsbury told me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast on Monday, “so I knew if I was ever in this position, I’d want a similar scheme.” When a coach goes to work, he just never knows who’s watching.

    2. Of the 13 headlines on ESPN.com’s college football page Monday evening, six involved players who have been arrested, kicked off a team or are seeking another chance after getting booted. Nature and websites abhor a vacuum, but that can’t be the only reason that this is the time of year when these stories congregate. It’s a good thing that these incidents no longer get “handled” quietly. Student-athletes must understand there are consequences when they use violence outside the sidelines.

    3. Michigan will apply dynamic pricing to single-game tickets this season, as Michael Rothstein wrote on WolverineNation. Think of airfares -- the scarcer the seat, the higher the cost. Prices range from a low of $65 for Akron to $110 for Nebraska to a high of $195 for Notre Dame. There’s a crowdsourcing poll in there somewhere. Michigan ticket buyers think more of the Irish than of Ohio State ($175).

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