NCF Nation: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Johnson's move good for him, Utah

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
Quickly promoted and then just as quickly twice demoted at Utah, Brian Johnson will once again be viewed as a smart, up-and-coming coach next year at Mississippi State. In fact, he would still be a smart, up-and-coming offensive coordinator at Utah if his quarterback these past two seasons had been Dak Prescott, the dual-threat talent he's inheriting with the Bulldogs.

Heck, reporters would probably be wondering when he'd become the nation's youngest head coach after previously being its youngest offensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeBrian Johnson
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIBrian Johnson has an opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his coaching career after leaving Utah for Mississippi State.
Yes, there are good coaches and bad coaches. We get that. Some coaches fail to do their job well. But it's more than a coincidence that those considered good coaches typically have the best players, often because of dumb luck. Maybe Phil Jackson is an NBA coaching genius, a Zen master enlightening players with daily haikus and self-help books, but his best skill was winding up leading teams with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaq.

The biggest reason the Utes' offense has mostly floundered the past three seasons as a Pac-12 member has been poor and middling play at quarterback, Johnson's responsibility. The biggest reason for poor to middling play at quarterback, however, is the designated preseason starter at the position couldn't stay healthy. Point a finger at a lack of a capable backup at the position if you want. That's fair, though that falls more on recruiting than coaching.

But do you think Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah history, would be in Starkville right now if Jordan Wynn and/or Travis Wilson never missed a snap?

This is not to say Johnson is merely a victim of circumstances. In big-time coaching you are either moving forward or you are failing, and Johnson going from Utah's offensive coordinator in 2012 at age 25, to co-offensive coordinator with Dennis Erickson at age 26, to only QBs coach under new coordinator Dave Christensen at age 27 sure seems like a career tumble. There is no doubt that head coach Kyle Whittingham earnestly wanted Johnson to be successful, both on a personal (he won a Sugar Bowl over Alabama with Johnson as his QB) and professional level.

But Whittingham is feeling a bit of heat in Salt Lake City, whether that is reasonable or not. As members of the Mountain West Conference, his Utes were a Top 25 team, potent on both sides of the ball. In the Pac-12, they have yet to post a winning conference record and their offense has ranked ninth, eighth and eighth in the conference in scoring over the past three seasons.

Whittingham's relentless tinkering with his offensive leadership -- six different play-callers in six years -- might seem impatient, counterproductive or even desperate, but it emerges from his desire to win. His detail-oriented mind sees things he doesn't like -- play calls, overall scheme, practice conduct, leadership style -- and he isn't afraid of making aggressive moves to change things.

What that also does is put the pressure entirely on him. The traffic in and out of the offensive meeting room has been too transient for there to be another scapegoat. Whittingham has been the constant.

Johnson's departure does un-complicate things, if just a bit. Christensen took over an offensive staff featuring three men who'd once sat in and were subsequently removed from his office. Now there's just two: Erickson and receivers coach Aaron Roderick.

There is no question who's in charge of the offense. No co-coordiantor titles to speculate about. Whittingham is all in with Christensen, an offensive line specialist who will call plays. Whittingham hopes Christensen can recreate the magic he had running a potent Missouri offense from 2001 to 2008.

Yet Christensen, even if he's the Garry Kasparov of Xs and Os, won't be successful without a good quarterback. Three years with Chase Daniel starting at Missouri cemented Christensen's reputation. If Travis Wilson's career is indeed over due to preexisting medical condition discovered late in the 2013 season, then the Utes prospects for 2014 are deeply uncertain.

Meanwhile, Johnson reunites with Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen, who recruited and coached him as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator. Further, Johnson also will be familiar with Mississippi State's co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, who also were on Meyer's staff at Utah.

While being an offensive coach in the SEC West isn't the easiest job, particularly in Starkville, Johnson is getting a good opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his coaching career.

Utah moves on with Christensen, one voice speaking for the Utah offense.

And that voice is likely echoing inside his head as you read this, "Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback."
1. Reinforcing my belief that offensive linemen are the best interviews in football, Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews did his best to grab attention away from his more famous quarterback at SEC Media Days. Matthews, with tongue in cheek, thought out loud that he needed a nickname and suggested that it be “Jake Football.” As the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and cousin of Packers star Clay Matthews, someone asked about the First Family of Football. “That’s what we like to tell ourselves,” Jake said.

2. One thing I learned here is that Texas A&M is overrated in the top 10. The losses in the defensive front, both in numbers and experience, are simply too large to overcome. Head coach Kevin Sumlin said one reason the Aggies signed 31 players last February is to create depth. “They are going to be great players,” Sumlin said. “We just need them to be great players here in two months.” You can’t win in the SEC with 18-year-olds playing 21-year-olds on the line of scrimmage.

3. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said Wednesday he would be perfectly happy if college football reverted to the pre-BCS days and allowed for two national champions. He worried that playoffs will take precedence over end-of-season rivalries like the Egg Bowl. “What makes college football great is the passion and the tradition,” Mullen said. The powers that be believe a four-team playoff won’t tamper with the sanctity of the regular season. Hey, go for it. But I hope guys like Mullen keep speaking out.
videoCornerback Mackensie Alexander of Immokalee (Fla.) High School, the No. 2 corner and No. 4 overall prospect in the ESPN 150, selected Clemson on Wednesday in a ceremony at his high school. Alexander, the No. 2-ranked player in Florida, visited Auburn and Mississippi State late but settled on a school to which he made an official visit in November.

He said he connected with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.

“He’s a church guy like me,” Alexander said in an interview on ESPNU. “I trust in them guys. I’m going to be in a great position.”

Has LSU's Mettenberger turned the corner?

November, 9, 2012
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherZach Mettenberger has shown improvement under center lately.
When Zach Mettenberger was named the starting quarterback early in the offseason, LSU fans were hopeful that he would be able to improve a passing game that finished 10th in the SEC in passing in 2011.

However, for most of this season, that hasn’t been the case. While in his first eight games, Mettenberger averaged slightly more yards per game (177.4), he also had more turnovers (7) than Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee had combined last season (6).

Despite those struggles, in the biggest game of his young career last Saturday against Alabama, Mettenberger rose to the occasion.

After completing just 46.2 percent of his passes in his first four SEC games, Mettenberger completed 24 of 35 passes (68.6 percent) for a career-high 298 yards.

He was especially strong in the second half, going 14-of-17 for 206 yards. It had been 31 games since the last time a quarterback threw for 200 yards in a half against Alabama's defense.

The question going forward is whether Mettenberger’s play in the second half is a trend or a fluke. His play on third downs and against the blitz bodes well for future success.

On third downs, Mettenberger converted eight first downs through the air, tying the most allowed by Alabama in the Nick Saban era. Last season, in two meetings, LSU did not convert a single third down through the air against the Crimson Tide, throwing for more interceptions (1) than yards (0).

In Mettenberger’s first four SEC games, he converted just 34.3 percent of his third-down pass attempts into first downs with three turnovers. Against Alabama, he converted 57.1 percent of his passes into first downs, including 85.7 percent in the second half (6-for-7).

Mettenberger also showed marked improvement against the blitz, particularly in the fourth quarter. Mettenberger was 7-of-8 for 118 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Alabama when the Tide sent at least five pass-rushers. That’s more yards than either he had or Alabama had allowed in those situations in a full game until then. Mettenberger also completed three passes of at least 20 yards against the blitz, one more than he had in his previous four SEC games combined.

Downfield passing had been another area in which Mettenberger was expected to improve LSU’s offense. In non-conference games, Mettenberger completed 66.7 percent of his passes that travelled at least 15 yards in the air. However, in conference play, Mettenberger is just 6-of-30 on deep passes (20 percent). But in the fourth quarter against Alabama, Mettenberger was 2-of-3 for 58 yards on deep passes.

While Mettenberger comes in after the best half of his career, this week’s opponent has struggled defensively the last two weeks. Mississippi State has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 77.8 percent of passes the last two weeks without an interception (both losses). During its 7-0 start, Mississippi State intercepted 12 passes, so Saturday’s game is a good litmus test to see if Mettenberger truly has turned the corner.

Video: College Football Final Extra

November, 4, 2012

Jim Basquil and the college football team take you through an important week of college football action.

Consistency separates Oregon from Pac-12

October, 30, 2012
Alabama was up 38-7 over Mississippi State, but coach Nick Saban -- veins bulging, spittle flying and words pummeling -- was giving a backup player his own personal Crimson Tide.

I had three thoughts: 1. That is beautiful; 2. Chip Kelly would approve; 3. The Pac-12 needs more of that.

Saban never stops expecting his players to produce the best football they possibly can. It's about treating every moment as valuable. As boring as it sounds, it's about consistency.

Consistency is what Saban is all about. Same with Kelly. You could also add Kansas State coach Bill Snyder in there, too.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Scott Olmos/US PresswireDuring his run at Oregon, coach Chip Kelly has dodged major upsets.
And that is what, at present, separates Oregon from all the other teams in the Pac-12, as it does Alabama in the SEC.

Saban was blowing a gasket not long after USC had imploded at Arizona, losing 39-36 to a less talented team. How many Arizona players would you pick before his USC counterpart if you were about to play a pickup game? Not many. At least not many before the season began.

But one of Kelly's many, oft-repeated phrases is that the team with the best players doesn't always win. It helps, sure. A lot. But Kelly counters with the three things he, his team and his coaches can control: Attitude, effort and preparation.

You've heard all of the Chipisms: "We have a standard vision of how we should play," "Fast, Hard, Finish," "Win The Day," "Faceless opponent," "Every week is a Super Bowl," etc.

He sometimes uses them opportunistically to stiff arm a question. Now he even anticipates some of the media smirks his redundant answers sometimes inspire.

"You can shrug your shoulders but, I'll tell you what, our formula for success has worked every single time," Kelly said after the Ducks bombed Washington 52-21. "Every single game is the most important game we play."

One of the tweaks against the Ducks under Kelly before the Rose Bowl win last January over Wisconsin was they hadn't won the big game. They'd lost the Rose Bowl after the 2009 season. They'd lost the national title game after the 2010 season. They'd lost to LSU to open the 2011 season.

Fine. But what you don't see is this: A face plant. A major upset. You don't see Oregon going down to a clearly less talented team, just as USC did at Arizona.

Kelly is 42-6 overall and 30-2 in Pac-12 play. In 2011, he lost to LSU, which finished 13-1 and ranked No. 2, and USC, which finished 10-2 and ranked No. 6. In 2010, he lost to Auburn, which finished 14-0 and ranked No. 1. In 2009, he lost to Boise State, which finished 14-0 and ranked No. 4, and Ohio State, which finished 11-2 and ranked No. 5. He also lost to 8-5 Stanford, his only loss to a team that didn't finish ranked.

Major upsets are a part of college football. But Kelly has practically eliminated them for his team. How many other Pac-12 teams even approach that?

Think of your team. How many times over the past four seasons has it lost to a team it should have beaten?

California has become an NFL pipeline under coach Jeff Tedford, but that now is one of the reasons he's on the hotseat. Why the mediocrity with so many NFL-quality players?

Arizona State lost its final four regular-season games last year. It was more talented than every one of those teams. Other than, perhaps, California.

How often has Utah ranked ahead of UCLA in the recruiting rankings? Never? Well, guess who beat UCLA 31-6 in 2011. A year later under demanding new coach Jim Mora, the Bruins beat the Utes 21-14.

As great as Pete Carroll was at USC, it's notable that most of his losses were major upsets. From 2003 to 2008, Carroll lost six Pac-12 games. None of those teams had fewer than four losses. None ended up ranked in the top 15. Only three ended up ranked at all. Three lost six or more games.

A story I heard from a USC insider: When the Trojans bus pulled up to Reser Stadium at Oregon State in 2008, just about everyone was asleep. That's not how you win the day.

Carroll's USC teams were almost unbeatable in big games, particularly against marquee nonconference foes. But it's clear that they didn't own the vision that every week is a Super Bowl against a nameless, faceless opponent.

Alabama and Oregon share a negative this season: They have yet to play an A-list foe. Both will this weekend, with the Crimson Tide visiting LSU and the Ducks going to USC. But the reason pollsters -- the evaluators with eyeballs -- rank them Nos. 1 & 2 is the way they take care of business: Consistent and efficient domination.

How do you get a team to do that? You take offense at any moment that falls short of a vision of the best possible football.

If a Pac-12 team intends to eclipse Oregon in the near future, it needs to suffuse its program with that same vision.

SEC prime-time primer: Week 4

September, 22, 2012
There's no nice way to say it: that was a boring slate of early games for the SEC in Week 4.

SEC fans had only a pair of shutouts -- Ole Miss' 39-0 win against Tulane and Florida's 38-0 pasting of Kentucky -- to entertain them for the first three hours of the day. No. 7 South Carolina is carrying the banner for the league right now, as the Gamecocks' game against Missouri is the only mid-afternoon kickoff today. And No. 1 Alabama has an overmatched Florida Atlantic in the early evening.

Other than that, it looks like we'll be cramming our SEC action into the prime-time windows this week.

What's coming tonight:

No. 2 LSU at Auburn, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: LSU won this matchup in a 45-10 walk last year in Baton Rouge. Auburn's lopsided loss to No. 23 Mississippi State, along with its overtime escape last weekend against Louisiana-Monroe, indicate that might be the case again in 2012. Auburn has a few factors in its favor, though. The game is in Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Auburn is 5-1 in its past six meetings with LSU. It's also the first road start for untested LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Rutgers at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Whatever hope remains for Arkansas' season hinges on the Hogs' ability to get a win tonight. The Razorbacks have back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Auburn following this nonconference tilt, and a 1-3 start would be less than ideal for their SEC prospects. Rutgers is off to a surprising 3-0 start, highlighted by a conference road win at South Florida.

South Carolina State at Texas A&M, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN Gameplan: The Aggies get one more nonconference tuneup before the SEC slate begins anew next week. Assuming A&M makes easy work of the Bulldogs, this might be the last time the Aggie starters get a break this season. The postponement of the Louisiana Tech game by Hurricane Isaac means no bye week this season.

South Alabama at No. 23 Mississippi State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN Gameplan: The Bulldogs fought off a serious upset bid from Sun Belt heavyweight Troy last weekend -- the result of a possible letdown after the big win against Auburn. The schedule sets up nicely for a 7-0 start, so Mississippi State fans would undoubtedly love to see the Bulldogs flex some muscles against an overmatched opponent.

Akron at Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Gameplan: The Volunteers could use a confidence boost after last weekend's second half collapse against Florida. They'll need it, too. When Tennessee is done with the Zips, it faces four top-25 teams in a row -- three of them on the road.

Vanderbilt at No. 5 Georgia, 7:45 ET, ESPN2: Everyone is sure to keep an eye on this one because of the altercation between Georgia defensive coordinator and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin at the end of last year's Georgia win. That might steal some headlines, but the real story is that Vandy hasn't been an easy out for the Bulldogs recently. The Commodores defeated the Bulldogs in 2006, and they've come as close as three in 2007, 10 in 2008 and five last fall. Of course, tonight's game is in Athens, Ga., and the last time the Bulldogs hosted Vanderbilt they won 43-0.

No more shadows for Johnthan Banks

March, 22, 2012
As productive as Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks was last season, he was overshadowed by some of the SEC’s other cornerbacks.

That’s going to happen when you play in the same league as Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie, Casey Hayward, Stephon Gilmore and Brandon Boykin.

“I felt like I was right up there with those guys, and this year, I know I’m going to be up there,” said Banks, who decided to return for his senior season after weighing his NFL draft options. “But, really, it doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is how I play and how much I help my team get back to being where we think we should be.”

[+] EnlargeJaruis Wright, Johnthan Banks
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesMississippi State's Johnthan Banks was the only SEC CB last season to record at least 70 tackles and five interceptions.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Banks did his part a year ago and then some. He finished third in the SEC with 14 passes defended and tied for fourth with five interceptions. He also had 71 total tackles, including eight for loss, and led the Bulldogs with three forced fumbles.

He was the only cornerback in the SEC last season with at least 70 tackles and five interceptions.

“Maybe I can do more this year, if that’s what it takes,” said Banks, who was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2011. “But we have a defense coming back that I think can be even better than we were last year. We’ve got just about our whole secondary back, and it hurts to lose Fletcher (Cox). But I’m excited to see what some of these new guys are going to do on the field. From what I’ve seen, I think Quay Evans and Denico Autry are going to live up to the hype.”

Evans, a 6-3, 305-pound tackle, was an ESPNU 150 member and rated as the No. 13 tackle prospect in the country. He enrolled early and will go through spring practice, which was scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon but has been postponed due to weather concerns. The 6-5, 260-pound Autry was rated as one of the top junior college defensive ends in the country.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play football, and that’s one of the reasons I came back,” Banks said. “Some of the redshirt freshmen like (linebacker) Bernardrick McKinney and (cornerback) Taveze Calhoun are going to make an impact on this defense.”

Banks grew up in Maben, Miss., a tiny town about 20 miles west of Starkville. It’s where he learned to ride horses, one of his many interests. He also aspires to be a state highway patrolman once his football career is over, which is appropriate given the way he locks down on receivers.

“Football’s not going to be there forever,” Banks said.

Mississippi State was the only major school to offer him a scholarship. Ole Miss sent him several letters, but Banks is quick to note that the Rebels never offered him a scholarship.

“Mississippi State was the only one, and that means something,” Banks said. “It still does. I want to make sure I give as much back as possible before I leave this place.”

He jokes that the reason no other schools outside the state of Mississippi offered him a scholarship is because nobody could find him. The population of Maben isn’t even 1,000, and Banks played at Class A East Webster High School.

“If you put Maben on a GPS, you still wouldn’t find it,” Banks said. “I didn’t go to a lot of camps, either, so a lot of people just didn’t know about me.”

He was also rail-thin when he came out of high school and looked more like a basketball player than an SEC football player.

But having spent three years now in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, Banks has added weight and strength to his 6-2 frame. His height, not to mention his long arms, comes in handy when he’s shadowing receivers.

Banks also has excellent closing speed and knows what to do with the ball once he gets it in his hands. He’s returned three of his 12 career interceptions for touchdowns. He’s also pretty crafty when it comes to baiting quarterbacks to throw his way.

“I’ve worked hard this offseason to get better at some of the things I wasn’t as good at,” said Banks, who needs five interceptions to pass Walt Harris as Mississippi State’s all-time leader in interceptions. “I still need to be more physical, and I still need to get better at studying tape. I’m going to be a better student of the game.”

Banks also plans on going out the right way.

Even though the Bulldogs won their second straight bowl game a year ago, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, he was far from satisfied with the 7-6 record. The Bulldogs were 9-4 the year before, sending expectations sky-high.

“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Banks said. “Last year was pretty much a disappointment for us and our fans. We just didn’t have that edge for every game.

“We’ve got that dog back in us now, and I think it’s going to show on the field.”

Notre Dame among most overrated in '11

January, 19, 2012
Notre Dame entered 2011 as the Associated Press' preseason No. 16 team, expectations high and a BCS-bowl berth in sight.

Things didn't go according to plan. But were the Irish the biggest disappointment of this past college football season?

Turns out they'll have to settle for No. 2 in that category.'s Brett McMurphy broke down the preseason AP poll, using it as a measuring stick to see whom the voters were right (or close to being right) about while acknowledging those they whiffed on. McMurphy listed the 48 schools that received a vote in the preseason poll and calculated the difference from where they finished in the final poll.

The numbers showed that preseason No. 8 Texas A&M, at minus-41, was the biggest disappointment of 2011, with Notre Dame right behind the Aggies at minus-33. Ohio State (minus-31), Mississippi State (minus-29) and Florida (minus-27) rounded out the top five disappointments. Those five, plus Missouri (preseason No. 21, minus-8) and Auburn (preseason No. 23, minus-4) made up the seven schools that were not ranked in the final poll after being ranked in the preseason.

Preseason unranked Baylor (plus-36) finished as the biggest surprise.

And, in a reassuring sign for sportswriters everywhere, No. 7 Stanford, No. 14 TCU and No. 19 Georgia finished in the exact same spots as their preseason rankings.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-6) vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (6-6)

Dec. 30, 6:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Mississippi State take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: After the 2010 season, in which the Bulldogs had their first nine-win season since 1999, the expectations in Starkville skyrocketed.

Third-year coach Dan Mullen appeared to have enough returning on offense to continue riding that momentum. Losing a couple of key members to the front seven on defense was worrisome, but the offense was always supposed to lead the way.

After the first two weeks, the Bulldogs were averaging 588 yards and 46.5 points, but a goal-line stop of quarterback Chris Relf might have changed everything for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State came up less than a foot short of going to overtime against Auburn when Relf was stopped as time expired in a 41-34 heartbreaker.

The Bulldogs were never the same after that, as injuries hurt the offensive line and they lost three of their next five.

Mullen entered the season with only two wins against Western Division opponents, with both coming against Ole Miss. Nothing changed in 2011, as the Bulldogs’ only SEC wins came against Kentucky and the Rebels.

While the offense struggled throughout the season, Mississippi’s defense kept the Bulldogs in games for most of the year. By sweeping the nonconference schedule and blowing out Ole Miss at the end of the year, Mississippi State became bowl eligible for the second straight year under Mullen and will look to win its fifth straight bowl game.

Wake Forest take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: The Deacs had a disappointing finish to the season, losing four of their final five games. Considering they made it to the postseason following last season's 3-9 campaign, 2011 was a success.

Wake Forest was a much-improved team, and put itself in position to win the Atlantic Division title. Even more surprising was the fact that it came down to a last-second, game-winning field goal against Clemson, which clinched the division with the 31-28 win over the Deacs on Nov. 12. Wake Forest beat Maryland the following week to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2008, and will be making the program’s fifth bowl appearance in 11 years under coach Jim Grobe.

Much of Wake’s success this year can be attributed to the maturation of quarterback Tanner Price, and the development of several key players around him like receiver Chris Givens. Cornerback Merrill Noel was named the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year and he has 20 passes defended.

The Deacons have compiled a 6-3 (.667) record in their nine previous bowl appearances and are 3-1 in bowl games under Grobe. The Deacs have won five of their last six bowl games. Wake Forest and Mississippi State will be meeting for the first time.

Mike Stoops is out: Why and what's next?

October, 10, 2011
Mike StoopsJim Z. Rider/US PresswireMike Stoops was fired after Arizona lost to winless Oregon State -- the Wildcats' fifth loss in a row.
In the Hemingway novel, "The Sun Also Rises," a character is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies, "Two ways ... gradually and then suddenly."

And so we have the firing of Arizona coach Mike Stoops midway through his eighth season Monday.

On Oct. 30 of last year, Arizona won at UCLA and improved to 7-1 overall. The Wildcats, then ranked 13th in the AP poll, were headed to Stanford for a marquee showdown. The program's first-ever Rose Bowl was in play. Stoops was coming off consecutive eight-win seasons. He appeared to be on the cusp of becoming a hot coaching prospect.

But the Wildcats were slammed 42-17. It would be the first of 10 consecutive losses to FBS teams. As the losses piled up, "hot" became the way to describe Stoops' seat instead of his prospects.

Stoops, 49, inherited a program in the absolute dregs in 2004. The Wildcats hadn't posted a winning season since 1998. After a slow start, he led Arizona to three consecutive bowl games.

But the wheels came off badly this season. After opening with a victory over Northern Arizona, the Wildcats were blown out in four consecutive games. The schedule was brutal. The losing streak included two losses each to Oregon, Stanford, Oklahoma State and USC. But it also included one to archrival Arizona State to end the 2010 regular season. Then on Saturday, the Wildcats lost to then 0-4 Oregon State.

When the Wildcats lost to the beleaguered Beavers, the universal reaction was Stoops was in trouble. But few figured it would end so quickly.

Stoops was told Monday afternoon by athletic director Greg Byrne of the decision to fire him. Defensive coordinator Tim Kish will serve as interim coach.

“It just ended," Stoops said. "That’s his decision as the leader of the program. It is what it is.”

Byrne and school president Eugene Sander told reporters at a news conference announcing the decision that the speculation on Stoops' future was becoming a distraction.

Stoops will get a $1.4 million buyout. When I talked to him Monday, he was more gracious than grim. It's possible that the losing and frustration were wearing him down as much as they were fans and administrators.

Stoops, who leaves Tucson with a 41-50 overall record and a 27-38 mark in conference games, was heavily criticized for his animated sideline persona. He was not a guy who tried to hide his frustrations -- at officials, players or other coaches -- during games. When he won, it was tolerated, even amusing. When he lost, it was seen as a significant negative.

And little went right this year, starting in spring practices, when injuries to several key starters -- most notably safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer -- started a downward spiral.

Two other issues hounded Stoops: (1) He had the best quarterback in program history in Nick Foles (the Wildcats haven't had a quarterback who even approximates Foles); (2) the defense, Stoops' bailiwick, is terrible.

Don't cry too hard for Stoops, though. He'll land on his feet. He's respected and well-connected as a coach -- his brother is Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and he's good friends with Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. He'll get job offers, most likely in the short term as a defensive coordinator. And he's probably learned plenty of lessons during his first tour as a head coach that might help him get a second chance.

So what next for Arizona?

The first question: How much is Arizona willing to pay? Stoops' $1.4 million annual salary sounds great for most of us, but is fairly middling among marquee coaches. And beyond Stoops' replacement, you have to pay a coaching staff. Salaries for assistant coaches have gone way up, well beyond what Stoops' staff was paid.

Top name you will hear: Boise State's Chris Petersen. Three words: Huge long shot.

Second name: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. Three words: Huge long shot.

Just because Byrne knows Petersen and Mullen doesn't mean either is eager to bolt to an uncertain situation.

Other names: Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach and former All-American Ricky Hunley.

All three of those guys would raise enthusiastic eyebrows. Each has plenty to offer.

The Wildcats are off until playing host to UCLA on Oct. 20, a Thursday night game. It will be interesting to see how the players react. Part of the reasoning to dump Stoops now was to make it easier for players to focus.

If the Wildcats were to end their losing streak, that reasoning would make sense.

And, of course, Arizona fans can always start thinking about basketball season.

College GameDay Live

September, 8, 2011

SEC should expand conference play

August, 4, 2011
The good news is a third automatic qualifying conference is going to a nine-game conference schedule, joining the Pac-12 and Big 12. The bad news is the Big Ten won't adopt the change until 2017.

Still, one of the controversial aspects of the Pac-10 and now the Pac-12 -- a nine-game conference schedule hurts a conference in the computer and human polls and makes for fewer bowl-eligible teams -- is becoming more the standard, not the exception.

The big question: Will the SEC follow suit?

Answer: Don't hold your breath. Not if the conference isn't forced to by the other automatic qualifying conferences making up the BCS, which should do exactly that in order to standardize scheduling. Otherwise, the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 are competing on a more challenging playing field than the SEC and ACC, which also plays eight conference games.

Why would the SEC resist a nine-game schedule? Lots of reasons.

For one, it doesn't need a ninth conference game, like Pac-12 athletic directors would have you believe they do. SEC fans are so dedicated to their teams, they will sell out their home stadiums even to see a directional school. So why would SEC teams potentially give up an easy home win for a potential road loss?

SEC athletic directors are well aware that when their teams go West, they more often than not get stomped -- just ask Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi State (tip of the cap to LSU for traveling and winning, by the way).

Some SEC folks will get all magnanimous and tell you that playing East Patsy State helps the Fighting Petunias financially. So its about noblesse oblige.


What it's really about is making life easier for the SEC. The top teams get an extra easy win, and the extra patsy means the bottom SEC teams can schedule four wins annually. That means the SEC bottom-feeders can schedule all the way to two games short of bowl eligibility.

Then, when eight or so teams are bowl eligible, pundits will be wowed by the depth of the SEC.

Further, the top-line SEC teams strength of schedule will be boosted by beating conference teams that schedule their way to a winning record or at least four wins.

Finally, eight conference games helps get teams preseason rankings, which is invaluable to the perception of a conference as well as the fortunes of its individual teams.

For example, take Mississippi State. Here's what they did last year. The Bulldogs have improved under Dan Mullen, but they would have been a middle-of-the-road team in the Pac-10 in 2010. They didn't beat any good teams, but they ended up 9-4 due to scheduling and finished ranked a wildly-inflated 15th.

And that earned them a No. 20 preseason ranking in the coaches poll, which the Bulldogs figure to maintain because they've scheduled four easy nonconference victories again: Memphis, Louisiana Tech, UAB and Tennessee-Martin.

No offense Mississippi State, but we'd love to see you schedule a game out West. You might enjoy a trip away from Starkville.

While we tweak in jest -- we're all friends here, right? -- this is a substantive issue.

Starting in 2017, you will have three conferences playing by one set of rules. And two others playing by another. That isn't good for college football.

Pac-10: Who needs to win their bowl game?

December, 23, 2010
Bowl games are rewards for successful seasons. At least that's the theory.

But what if you lose your bowl game? What does that say about that so-called successful season?

It's hard to call a bowl game a "must-win" because it's really not -- rarely does a bowl, for example, determine a coach's fate. But it seems reasonable to measure the four Pac-10 bowl games in terms of "need to win."

This is the fourth and final entry in our series rating how much each of the conference bowl teams needs to win its bowl game. You can review the first entry here, the second one here and No. 3 here.

Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 10, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Auburn Tigers (13-0) versus Oregon Ducks (12-0)

The set up: Two unbeaten teams. The SEC versus the Pac-10. The SEC going for a fifth consecutive national title. Oregon trying to win its first ever and establish itself as the preeminent power on the West Coast. Two Heisman Trophy finalist, with the winner, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, squaring off with the nation's leading rusher, the Ducks LaMichael James. Newton is a monster -- he's 6-foot-5, 250 pounds -- and has passed for 28 touchdowns and ran for 20 touchdowns, but the Ducks enter the game with the nation's most potent offense. Both teams have owned the fourth quarter, so no lead is safe. Only one team came within 10 points of the Ducks: California. Auburn beat six teams by eight or fewer points. Is Auburn more battle tested? Tigers fans think Auburn played a much tougher schedule. Pac-10 fans think Arizona State would have won the SEC East and Mississippi State would have finished ninth in the Pac-10, so the Ducks schedule was just as tough.

Why Oregon needs to win: You don't get many chances to win national championships. A perfect season is a rare thing in college football. When you have a chance to finish No. 1, No. 2 is the worst thing in the world. Further, the entire nation is rooting for the Ducks (other than Washington and Oregon State fans). The rest of college football wants to see the SEC humbled. The rest of college football -- including many SEC adherents -- have issues with the controversy that surrounds Newton. It's fair to say that the Ducks are wearing the white hats (and, by the way, will wear angelic white uniforms). It also would mean a lot for a second Pac-10 team to win a BCS national title, particularly with the conference becoming the Pac-12 in 2011 and negotiating a new TV deal. Finally, while Auburn is a slight favorite, a lot of "football people" think the Ducks are going to win and that they are a more complete team. It's probably an exaggeration to say Oregon "should" win. But they should.

Why just getting there is enough: Oregon has never won a national championship, so just getting to the Big Game is enough. After all, how many 12-1 seasons has Oregon had? The Ducks are a program on a steady climb, winning the national title would be great, but it would be pure gravy for a team with just one top-five ranking (2001, No. 2) in the final AP poll, one that has won its second consecutive outright Pac-10 title for the first time. And have you seen Newton and Auburn DT Nick Fairley? They are huge and they may be cannibals. Those guys are likely to eat Chip Kelly during a pregame function! Then what will those itty bitty Ducks do? No more gimmicks or sleight of hand or Autzen Advantage. Finally, Oregon is playing an SEC team. Eeeeek! Poor ole Oregon has no chance.

Conclusion: These are two very good, evenly matched teams. Newton is the best player in the nation -- perhaps the best college football player of the past decade. And Oregon has had a great season, win or lose. But this is the biggest stage in college football. Oregon can't waste this opportunity. Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted. One moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip? Oregon, this is your moment. Win the day.

Needs to win meter (scale of 1 to 10, "10" being a must-win): 8

Press Coverage: Oregon vs. Auburn

November, 10, 2010
It's time for a blogger debate! And it doesn't get much better than when we match the SEC and Pac-10.

Our topic: No. 1 Oregon and No. 2 Auburn. Who's better and why?

Both are unbeaten, and if the season ended today, they'd play for the national title.

We've got lots of football left, and probably many more plot twists in the hunt for the national title, but there's no reason we can't engage in a hypothetical, is there?

So the Pac-10 blog -- Ted Miller -- and the SEC blog -- Chris Low -- have decided to meet for some civilized debate on Auburn versus Oregon.

Ted Miller: Chris, since things are so quiet in the sleepy SEC, I think we should spice things up with a Pac-10-SEC blogger debate! It seems like a long time since we last had a debate between our two conferences. How’d that one go? Let’s see I championed Taylor Mays and you celebrated Eric Berry. Wait. Why did I bring that up?

Anyway, our topic is Oregon and Auburn: Who’s better and why.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
John Reed/US PresswireGene Chizik has silenced those critical of his hiring last year but getting Auburn off to a 10-0 start this season.
This is a potential national title game between the No. 1 Ducks and No. 2 Tigers, who are both unbeaten and feature Heisman Trophy candidates leading high-powered offenses.

You get first blood. Tell me about Auburn. It seems like it wasn’t too long ago that Jay Jacobs was getting hounded for hiring Gene Chizik. Guessing that’s died down a wee-bit.

Chris Low: No doubt, Ted. I wonder where that obnoxious guy is now, the one yelling at Jacobs as he was leaving the airport after finalizing the deal with Chizik? Maybe Jacobs knew what he was doing after all. The guy with the 5-19 record at Iowa State has done all right by himself on the Plains. He has a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback and the SEC's leading rusher in Cam Newton, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound freak of nature who runs like Bo Jackson and also has an NFL arm. Keep your eyes, too, on freshman running back Mike Dyer, who they haven't had to lean on much this season, but is oozing with talent and has fresh legs for this stretch run. The Tigers' defensive numbers are nothing to write home about, but they do have the kind of dominant interior defensive lineman, Nick Fairley, who can take over games. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Fairley's the closest thing he's seen to Warren Sapp. Auburn's calling card defensively has been making plays at key times in the fourth quarter. The Tigers have been a serviceable defense through three quarters this season, but they've been a championship-caliber defense in the fourth quarter -- which is why they're 10-0.

So tell me about Oregon?

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireSophomore Darron Thomas was thrust into the starting quarterback job and has performed admirably.
Ted Miller: Speaking of coaches: How about Oregon’s Chip Kelly? How could he possibly expect to top winning the Pac-10 and playing in the Rose Bowl his first season? How about contending for a national title in his second? The Ducks, however, expected to be here when the 2009 season ended because just about everybody was coming back from the Pac-10 champions. That is until a guy you are now familiar with -- quarterback Jeremiah Masoli -- got caught up in some off-field issues and eventual got himself booted from the team. That seemingly left a void behind center, but sophomore Darron Thomas has not only filled Masoli’s shoes, he’s gone up a few sizes: He’s 15th in the nation in passing efficiency and 21st in the nation in total yardage. Meanwhile, speedy running back LaMichael James is the top Heisman alternative to your guy, Newton. As for the defense, it’s like the offense: Extremely fast. It ranks 13th in the nation in scoring defense and it has forced 28 turnovers, second-most in the nation. Folks often underestimate the Ducks' defense because it gives up some yards -- it ranks 29th in the nation in total defense -- but that’s because the offense scores so quickly: The nation’s No. 1 offense ranks 115th in the nation in time of possession. But the Ducks only give up 4.45 yards per play. Our factoid of the day is that number would rank No. 1 in ... wait for it ... the SEC!

Obviously, we're talking about two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn.

Chris Low: Ted, I think what separates Auburn is Newton. Nobody has been able to stop him. If you commit to taking away the run, he's proved he can beat people throwing the ball. And if you come after him and/or don't have enough people in the box, he's been magic running the ball. Keep in mind, too, that we're not talking about a 220-pound guy running the ball. We're talking about a 250-pound guy who's physical, tough and doesn't run out of bounds. In the red zone, he's the great equalizer, because he gains 3 yards when he falls forward and has the size and the strength to push the pile. On top of it all, he's always a threat to throw the ball. Similar to Oregon, Auburn doesn't flinch if somebody puts 30-plus points on the board, because the Tigers' mentality is that they're going to score 50. Their offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, will make you defend everything -- reverses, throwback passes, passes to the backs, even passes to Newton. He caught a touchdown pass two weeks ago against Ole Miss. The Tigers also play at a tempo on offense that has opposing defenses gasping for air in the fourth quarter. But when they have to, they can put teams away and finish games by running the ball. They're fourth nationally (one spot ahead of Oregon) this week in rushing offense with an average of 307.2 yards per game. Auburn's top four rushers -- Newton, Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin -- are all averaging at least 6.4 yards per carry. Do the Ducks have any answers for that running game?

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Paul Abell/US PresswireAuburn's Cam Newton is just as dangerous with his arm as he is on his feet.
Ted Miller: That’s what’s so interesting about this as a potential national title game match -- there’s an odd familiarity that both teams will have with each other despite never crossing paths. My guess is Malzahn and Kelly already have studied each other, just in terms of mutual admiration. And both defenses will be familiar with up-tempo, no-huddle, spread-option offenses that can power you and finesse you and throw downfield. Further, the Ducks have played against a number of big, fast, capable quarterbacks with NFL futures: Washington’s Jake Locker, Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Stanford’s Andrew Luck. The results have been mixed. Last year, Luck and Pryor got them. Luck beat the Ducks with uncanny downfield accuracy, which is why he’ll go No. 1 in this spring’s NFL draft. Pryor shocked them with the best passing game of his career in the Rose Bowl. Locker missed this year’s game, but he’s never had much luck against Oregon. In general, Oregon has a good run defense: Opponents are averaging 3.38 yards per rush. But the Ducks are undersized. A physical Stanford team had some success, rushing for 177 yards. But one thing about Oregon on both sides of the ball: It is masterful with halftime adjustments. They shutout Stanford, owners of the nation’s No. 5 scoring offense, in the second half, and have given up just 48 points in the second half this year -- just seven in the fourth quarter!

Obviously, two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn if it played Oregon in the national title game. How do you see it going?

Chris Low: Well, if that happens, the first thing we all better make sure we have is a calculator. That and make sure there's no danger of a power surge to the scoreboard. You're right about Oregon. Nobody in the country has been better in the second half. The Ducks' ability to score points in bunches is amazing, but the Tigers are equally adept at going on head-spinning scoring sprees. Just ask Arkansas, which saw Auburn roll up 28 points in the fourth quarter in Xbox-like fashion. I have no doubt that an Auburn-Oregon matchup would be played in the 40s. I think the difference, though, would be Auburn's ability to put the breaks on the track meet and run the football in the fourth quarter, especially with Newton being so good at converting on third down. So I'm going Auburn 45, Oregon 41 in a game that rates up there with the Texas-USC classic to decide the 2005 national title.

Ted Miller: That's clearly something we can all agree on: This likely would be a highly entertaining, offensively driven national title game if these two teams manage to get themselves there. Further, I think, after never getting a USC-SEC title game, folks on both coasts would enjoy an SEC-Pac-10 matchup. No trash-talking there, right? And I do see a clear advantage for Auburn: It has been tested. It's played five games decided by eight points or fewer, and three decided by a field goal. The Ducks closest game? An 11-point win at Arizona State. But that's also why I'd pick Oregon in this one. Oregon beat the No. 6 team in the nation, Stanford, by 21 points. It shut Andrew Luck out in the second half. And I look at all of Auburn's close games: Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky and LSU, and think: None of them would be within 10 points of the Ducks. Maybe LSU, because any game Les Miles touches is surprising. And I think Vegas would agree with me. So if we ended up with an Oregon-Auburn national title game, my guess is the Tigers would go TD for TD with the Ducks in the first half, then the Ducks would pour it on late for a 50-35 win. But I reserve the right to change my mind, particularly because I think the Tigers' toughest test -- Alabama -- is ahead.

Moreover, both teams should be advised: You probably should get to the Jan. 10 date in Glendale before you start trash-talking each other. At least before you use your best stuff.