NCF Nation: Northwestern Wildcats

CHICAGO -- Pat Fitzgerald wants to be your friend again, Nebraska fans.

Fitzgerald, the Northwestern coach, said Monday at Big Ten media days that he made a "bad joke" this month in describing Nebraska as a "pretty boring state" while speaking to boosters at a Chicago golf outing.

As you might expect, the comments provoked a variety of responses from fans of the Huskers, including some not fit for print.

"I've learned a lot of hashtags on Twitter," Fitzgerald said.

The coach apologized and said he would "own" the mistake, but that he meant no harm by it. Fitzgerald said he was trying to compliment Nebraska fans on how well they travel. The visitors overtook a large portion of Ryan Field in 2012 as the Huskers came from behind to beat the Wildcats 29-28.

Nebraska visits Northwestern on Oct. 18.

"Our fans need to step up," Fitzgerald said.

Last year in Lincoln, Nebraska beat Northwestern 27-24 on a Hail Mary pass from Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp as time expired. Asked Monday about how long it took to get over that finish, Fitzgerald quipped: "I have no idea what you're talking about."

The coach said he has spent just two days in the state of Nebraska -- not nearly enough time to form an opinion, though he said his players and staff were treated warmly on trips in 2011 and 2013. Northwestern upset Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in the Huskers' first year of Big Ten play.

Nebraska fans heartily congratulated the Wildcats after their 2011 win, according to Fitzgerald. They did the same last season, said the coach, drawing a laugh.

"It's just a great fan base," Fitzgerald said.
1. Northwestern has become the latest battleground over whether FBS players should be compensated with more than a scholarship. But even as it lost the first of what may be many decisions in the case, the university praised its student-athletes for their participation. That may be smart poker -- if you criticize them, how do you ask them to play hard -- but it also speaks to a bigger picture. The courts will decide if Northwestern is an employer. The university will always strive to be a center for learning and growing.

2. Former Tennessee All-American tailback Hank Lauricella died earlier this week at age 83. Lauricella, a Louisiana native who returned home to a long career in the state legislature, served as a mentor to another Louisianan who played for the Vols, Peyton Manning. Both men became Heisman Trophy runners-up. Former Vols Johnny Majors and Heath Shuler also finished second in the Heisman. Is there any FBS school with the history of a Tennessee that has come so close without winning a Heisman?

3. Even if UMass had made every right decision, the move from FCS to FBS would have been daunting. But the school didn’t make a lot of right decisions. Playing home games at Gillette Stadium, 95 miles away; hiring Charley Molnar as head coach; joining the MAC -- none worked out. So next season the Minutemen will play half their home games on campus. They have replaced Molnar with Mark Whipple, who led UMass to the 1998 I-AA title. And they will leave the MAC after 2015. Talk about your mulligans.

Two-QB system working for Northwestern

October, 3, 2013

Getty Images, USA TODAY SportsKain Colter (left) and Trevor Siemian (right) have split QB duties this season for Northwestern.
There is an old adage in football that when a team has two quarterbacks, it has none. Northwestern might be the exception. The Wildcats are off to a 4-0 start, during which they have utilized two quarterbacks, senior Kain Colter and junior Trevor Siemian.

The Wildcats have a balanced offense, gaining 51.6 percent of their yards on the ground and 48.4 percent through the air. They are the only Big Ten team that averages more than 225 yards passing and rushing.

Yet, Northwestern’s offense is drastically different dependent upon which quarterback is under center.

Colter (140 plays) and Siemian (141 plays) have split the team’s snaps. The Wildcats have run the ball 75 percent of the time with Colter under center, including 82 percent on first down.

With Siemian taking the snap, Northwestern runs on 50 percent of its plays, including 51 percent on first down.

In Northwestern’s season opener against California, Colter was injured after two plays. Since that game, he has taken almost 22 more snaps per game than Siemian.

The Wildcats have 52 offensive drives this season. The two quarterbacks have shared snaps on five. There have been only two drives on which they both took multiple snaps and one was in Week 1 against California when Colter was injured.

Colter is one the best running quarterbacks in the country. Excluding sacks, he averages 8.3 yards per rush, fourth most by any quarterback with at least 25 such attempts.

With him under center, Northwestern uses zone-reads on 60 percent of its running plays, compared to 28 percent with Siemian. The Wildcats average 7.4 yards on such plays with Colter and 5.3 with Siemian.

Siemian excels at the passing game. Colter does have a better completion percentage, but Siemian’s average pass travels 4.4 more yards downfield. Colter has recorded almost 75 percent of his pass yards after the catch, compared to 34 percent for Siemain.

Siemian has completed 50 percent (10-of-20) of his passes thrown 15 yards or longer. Colter has one such completion in eight attempts.

In addition, Siemian has taken one sack in 78 dropbacks, compared to Colter’s six in 51 dropbacks.

Northwestern will have a tough task against Ohio State's defense, which is allowing 17 points per game. The Buckeyes have one of the best run defenses, allowing just two rushing touchdowns all season. In addition, the Buckeyes are allowing the eighth-fewest rushing yards per game in the FBS.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
Oregon State QB Sean Mannion threw for 422 yards, and receiver Brandin Cooks had 13 catches for 196 yards in the Beavers' upset loss to Eastern Washington, but you don't get a helmet sticker when your team loses to an FCS foe.

So who does?

Andy Phillips, K, Utah: This might be the best story of the week, as Phillips, a former U.S. alpine skier who had never played competitive football before his kickoff against Utah State, kicked field goals of 45, 19 and 38 yards and was perfect on three extra points in the Utes' 30-26 victory. Oh, and he perfectly executed an onside kick that might have been the biggest play of the game. See this video.

Dion Bailey, S, USC: Bailey's switch back to his native position of safety from linebacker paid off against Hawaii. He led the Trojans' defense with seven tackles, a sack and an interception in their 30-13 victory.

Keith Price, QB, Washington: A poor 2012 season is officially old news for Price. In the Huskies' 38-6 win over No. 19 Boise State, he completed 23 of 31 passes for 324 yards with a pair of touchdowns, which gave him 56 for his career, a new school record, eclipsing Cody Pickett. He also rushed for 25 yards. His efficiency rating of 176.8 would have led the nation in 2012.

Washington's defense: The Huskies held Boise State to their lowest point total since 1997 (a 58-0 loss to Washington State). The Broncos gained only 3.9 yards per play. Their longest running play from scrimmage was 18 yards. The Huskies are paying second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox a lot of money. He is worth it.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: Hundley completed 22 of 33 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Bruins' 58-20 win over Nevada. He also rushed for 63 yards on seven carries with two TDs. The Bruins' offense, guided by Hundley, gained 647 yards.

Chris Harper, WR, California: Harper caught 11 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns in the Bears' 44-30 loss to Northwestern.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Marriota rushed for 113 yards and two TDs on just five carries -- 22.6 per rush -- and passed for 234 yards and a score in the Ducks' 66-3 blowout win over Nicholls State.

Tra'Mayne Bondurant, S, Arizona: Bondurant had two interceptions in the Wildcats' 35-0 won over Northern Arizona, including one he returned 23 yards for a touchdown. He also tied for the team lead with seven tackles, adding one for a loss.

Pac-12 predictions: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
It's prediction time! Wheeee!

Last year, Kevin and Ted tied at the end of the regular season with 66-25 records. Ah, but then came the bowl season, and -- cough, cough -- by virtue of Ted going 5-3 and Kevin going 4-4, the old guy prevailed by a single game.

Let's hear it for the old guys!

And you know who won it for Ted? Texas! How about that fudge?



Kevin Gemmell: First game, and I’m already conflicted. This one is scary with Chuckie Keeton back at QB for Utah State and all five of his linemen back to protect him. I think Utah is going to be better than it was last season, and the Utes will be looking for revenge from last year’s loss. In close games, go with the home team. Utah 21, Utah State 17

Ted Miller: This is an interesting one. Utah State changed coaches but has a lot of guys back. The Utes have preseason injury issues -- paging Brian Blechen; your defense needs you -- and those issues have made coach Kyle Whittingham grumpy. But you know why I'm picking Utah? Because I think the Utes are angry about how folks have written them off, and angry often translates well in football. And I like the MUSS being loud. Utah 24, Utah State 21


Kevin Gemmell: A good chance for both USC quarterbacks to get a lot of work against a nonthreatening opponent. Trojans should roll. USC 35, Hawaii 14

Ted Miller: USC is going to win this game, but it would be good for coach Lane Kiffin if the Trojans looked good doing it. Want to be goofy about your QB situation? Fine. You just better look good on offense. The biggest news in this one is which QB starts and, subsequently, who sets himself up to start against Washington State next week. USC 35, Hawaii 20



Kevin Gemmell: How many Arizona quarterbacks will we see in this game? I’m putting the over/under at three -- and I’m leaning toward the over. Arizona 42, NAU 17

Ted Miller: I actually think B.J. Denker is going to be the man for the Wildcats, even if other guys play. The issue is whether he remains that way. I think the only guy who would unseat him is Jesse Scroggins, and he has struggled to stay healthy. Arizona 40, NAU 14



Kevin Gemmell: The only concern here is that Marcus Mariota tweaks a fingernail pulling off his shoulder pads at halftime. Oregon 48, Nicholls State 7

Ted Miller: I'm actually afraid for Nicholls State. Oregon 101, Nicholls State 3


Kevin Gemmell: Eastern Washington is a pretty good Football Championship Subdivision team. And Oregon State fans know better than to overlook FCS teams. But I see no reason the Beavers don’t roll in this one. Oregon State 35, Eastern Washington 10

Ted Miller: The Beavers have some nagging injury issues, so they just want to win this one and get out of the game healthy. And they want Sean Mannion to justify his winning a high-profile QB competition. Oregon State 41, Eastern Washington 17


Kevin Gemmell: A good tuneup game for the Bruins against a team that has some bite. I really like what Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo is capable of. But I like Brett Hundley better. Should be a decent game, but ultimately not enough to give UCLA a real scare. UCLA 35, Nevada 17

Ted Miller: Sitting here making this pick, I realize how Jim Mora has changed things at UCLA in just one year. For a decade or so previous to him, this is exactly the sort of game that you'd pause over, going, "Hmm ... UCLA is better but, man, do the Bruins know how to blow it!" Mora inspires confidence in terms of his team coming out in a businesslike fashion and playing like the superior collection of athletes that it is. UCLA 40, Nevada 24


Kevin Gemmell: Should be one of the closest, most competitive games in the country in Week 1. And in close games, sticking with my personal doctrine, I’ll go with the home team. Washington 24, Boise State 21

Ted Miller: These teams were tightly contested in the Las Vegas Bowl, and the Huskies look like a better team than they were last season, while the Broncos have a lot of guys to replace. Still, it comes down to Huskies QB Keith Price. If he's his 2011 self again, Washington will roll. Washington 30, Boise State 21


Kevin Gemmell: I think the Bears will show a little backbone and Jared Goff will gain some confidence. But probably not enough to beat a ranked team in his first career start. However, it’ll be closer than people think. Northwestern 35, California 28

Ted Miller: Hello, Cal fans. It's me again. I've got bad news. I think you're going to win this game. Of course, that probably means you're going to lose, because the Bears never do what I think they'll do. Or was that just a Jeff Tedford thing? I'm so conflicted. Maybe if someone brought me a calabrese from Top Dog I could make sense of it all? California 27, Northwestern 24


Kevin Gemmell: I got burned by the Cougs in the season opener last year when they were two-touchdown dogs on the road, and it haunts me to this day. Lesson learned. Auburn 28, Washington State 21

Ted Miller: Both teams went 3-9 last season, but the Tigers have a lot more size and athletes. I think the Cougars are going to put a scare into Auburn and its fans, but the Tigers' athleticism and, perhaps, the Southeastern humidity will wear WSU down in the fourth quarter. Auburn 33, Washington State 24


Kevin Gemmell: The Rams bring back nine starters on offense. But Paul Richardson is due for a multitouchdown game. Colorado will get a little vengeance from last season. Bring on the Mac attack. Colorado 27, Colorado State 17

Ted Miller: I stared at the Colorado depth chart Tuesday and had an interesting reaction that surprised me: maybe. The Buffs should have won this game last season, and I think they're better than in 2012. Colorado 30, Colorado State 27

Take 2: B1G vs. Pac-12

July, 12, 2013
Your B1G and Pac-12 bloggers have been grinding away on their respective leagues' nonconference primer series. Here's the Big Ten series, and here's the Pac-12 series. Part of the fun is learning about other teams in other conferences and what they bring to the table. The Pac-12 and Big Ten face each other five times during the regular season. The Pac-12 got the better of the matchups last year. Will this year be different? Brian Bennett and Kevin Gemmell decided to talk it over.

Brian Bennett: The first thing I look at for Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups in any given season is where the games are staged. Big Ten teams don’t seem to think the West Coast is the Best Coast; they are just 5-20 in true road games against the Pac-12 since 2000, and that includes an 0-3 mark on the road versus the Pac-12 last year. (The league also has just one win in its past 10 Rose Bowls, but not all of those games came against the Pac-12.)

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaNew coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers will have their hands full at ASU this season.
So it’s not good news for the league that I cover that three of these five matchups are located far left of the Midwest. If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s that the Big Ten teams should be substantial favorites in two of the road games -- Northwestern at Cal in the opener and Ohio State against those same Bears in Week 3. Cal is intriguing because of new coach Sonny Dykes, but Northwestern and Ohio State are both legitimate Top 20 teams with conference-title aspirations; if they can shake off the jet lag and contain the Bears’ passing attack, they should take care of business.

The two most interesting games -- and what look like virtual toss-ups -- are Wisconsin at Arizona State, and UCLA at Nebraska. The Badgers have a lot of returning talent, but a new head coach and different schemes on both sides of the ball. It’s also going to be a clash of styles, with the Badgers’ power running game going up against Arizona State’s spread offense. Will Gary Andersen’s team have its new systems figured out by then, and is Wisconsin’s defense -- particularly its inexperienced secondary -- fast enough to handle the Sun Devils?

UCLA-Nebraska is probably not getting enough attention as a must-watch game this year. Last year’s shootout in Pasadena, Calif., featured nonstop pingpong action, and both teams figure to have topflight offenses again. The Cornhuskers have a perilously young defense, but Bo Pelini’s teams usually defend much better at home than on the road. Quarterback Taylor Martinez -- who grew up a Bruins fan but was recruited by them as a defensive back -- will be highly motivated to beat UCLA his senior year. This is Nebraska’s only major test in the first seven games, and it’s one I think the Huskers have to find a way to win.

Finally, there’s Washington at Illinois. The Illini get the benefit of home turf, sort of, as the game will be played at Soldier Field in Chicago. We’ll see if Tim Beckman’s crew will inspire enough fans to show up by Week 3. While Washington has been mediocre for what seems like forever, I can’t confidently pick Illinois to beat any half-decent power conference opponent at this point.

In the end, I say the Big Ten manages a winning record this time around against the Pac-12, taking the two games in Berkeley, Calif., and the one in Lincoln, Neb. A 3-2 mark sounds about right, though if Wisconsin can pull off the win in the desert, that could be a good sign for both the Badgers and the league as a whole.

Kevin Gemmell: I'm going 3-2 also, but in favor of the Pac-12. After all, if we were in total agreement, it would make for a pretty boring Take 2. So I'll play the contrarian when it comes to UCLA-Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
William Mancebo/Getty ImagesCoach Jim Mora and UCLA allowed just six points in the second half of last year's win against Nebraska.
We agree on the Cal games versus Northwestern and Ohio State -- though I think Cal is going to give both of those teams a better run than they are banking on. I like what Andy Buh is doing with a defense that could be sneaky good. And the Bears have some explosive depth at wide receiver. But ultimately it's a rookie quarterback -- whomever Dykes chooses among Zach Kline, Jared Goff and Austin Hinder -- and a team that will still have some growing pains as new systems are installed on both sides of the ball. Like you with Illinois, I'm not ready to give the Bears the green light yet. However, last year's game in Columbus, a 35-28 win for Ohio State, should serve as a reminder not to take Cal lightly. No doubt, the Buckeyes will remember Brendan Bigelow and his four carries, 160 yards and two touchdowns.

Both halves of the Pac-12 blog have been saying we believe Washington is going to get over that seven-win hump this year after three straight seasons of mediocrity. The Huskies have a lot of pieces in place with a returning quarterback, a 1,400-yard rusher, good receivers, a good line and the top tight end in the country. Their defense made huge strides last season in the first year under Justin Wilcox, and we're expecting another leap forward in 2013. What scares me is Washington's inconsistent play on the road the past few seasons. During the Huskies' trio of 7-6 seasons, they are 14-5 in Seattle (last year they played at CenturyLink Field) and 6-11 on the road. The past two years they are 11-2 at home and 3-8 on the road (0-2 in their bowl games at neutral sites). If the Huskies want to have a breakout year, they are going to have to win away from home. Steve Sarkisian actually talked about this in a Q&A we did back in April. But they certainly have the talent to win this game.

The ASU-Wisconsin game is really a critical one for the Sun Devils. It kicks off a four-game stretch (with no bye weeks) that also includes Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. ASU is another team looking for some national credibility, and this is its first opportunity to get some. You're right to talk about the ASU offense, but that defense -- which ranked first nationally in tackles for a loss and second in sacks last season -- is going to be crazy good with Will Sutton and Carl Bradford leading the attack. I'm banking on a good game, but ultimately one ASU wins at home.

That brings us to UCLA-Nebraska, a game I'm also surprised more people aren't geeked up about outside of the respective fan bases. This should be a fantastic showcase for both leagues. Brett Hundley impressed in his freshman campaign, and I think this game is going to be a spotlight for two of the country's most athletic quarterbacks. I was in Pasadena for the game last season, and what actually stood out to me was UCLA's defense -- particularly in the second half. The Bruins allowed only six points, and kept Martinez to 11 yards rushing and the Huskers to 106 total yards in the final 30 minutes. They should be improved in Year 2 under Jim Mora and Lou Spanos. If the Bruins pull this one off, it's going to be because of what they can do defensively.
All schedules are not created equal. Sometimes it's the luck of the draw and sometimes it's soft -- or hard -- nonconference scheduling.

And sometimes there are less tangible factors, such as bye weeks and fan expectations.

So who's got the toughest go this fall in the Pac-12? Here are two takes.

Kevin Gemmell: If you want to go by just the raw data, then California and Colorado share the "toughest" schedule based on the combined records of last year's opponents. The 2013 schedule for both teams includes teams that had a .588 winning percentage last year (Utah is close behind with its opponents' combined winning percentage at .584). Of course, that's only a starting point and nowhere near empirical.

ASU's early slate is rough and Stanford's late slate is brutal. Team for team, I think Stanford has the toughest go.


I think things might be tougher for Oregon State by virtue of the way the schedule plays out. This is something that is beyond the control of the players -- but the way the schedule sets up, it's going to take a great deal of maturity and level-headedness to navigate the 2013 docket.

When you look at their first seven games, they only face one FBS team that had a winning record last year -- and that's San Diego State at Qualcomm. The Aztecs have gone on a nice little run the past few years -- qualifying for three straight bowl games for the first time in school history -- so they might push back. Still, the Beavers should win against Eastern Washington, Hawaii, Utah, Colorado, Washington State and Cal. None of those are guaranteed wins, but you have to figure the Beavers will be the favorite in all seven.

Then things switch into a whole other gear down the stretch. They host Stanford and USC in consecutive weeks, then a bye, and two of their final three are on the road at Arizona State, home to Washington and then at Oregon to close out the season. The Beavers went 1-3 against those teams last year, with the only win coming against Arizona State (they didn't play USC). They go from facing five or six teams that will be hovering sub .500 to five straight against the top teams in the league.

If ever there was a time to harness the clichéd one-game-at-a-time-mentality, this is it. Oregon State will likely start in the preseason Top 25. Let's say anywhere from 15-20. As they keep winning, they will climb as others around them lose games. By the time they reach Stanford on Oct. 26, it's likely they'll be a top-10 team if they take care of business. Will they truly be one of the best 10 teams in the country though? We really won't know.

The saving grace of this stretch is they get Stanford, USC and Washington all at home. Though Oregon State is only 5-12 all-time against USC in Corvallis, they've won the past three at home against USC and the Huskies. Stanford topped OSU at Reser in 2011. They last won in Tempe in 2009 and Eugene in 2007.

The biggest issue for the Beavers is understanding that -- if they do jump out to a 7-0 start -- that record won't have the same gusto as it did last year when they beat Wisconsin at home and won on the road at UCLA, Arizona and BYU. I believe the Beavers to be a very good team. But if they buy too much into the early hype, 7-0 could quickly end up 7-5.

Ted Miller: I really like Kevin's nuanced response on this. Oregon State doesn't have the Pac-12's toughest schedule, but the combination of how it's put together as well as the Beavers expectations for the season -- a Top 25 finish -- make it dangerous. There will be no way for fans to feel good if the Beavers start 7-0 and then go, say, 1-4 down the stretch, even if 8-4 is a respectable finish.

As for which Pac-12 team has the toughest schedule, there's an easy answer: California. The Bears play three teams that will be ranked in the preseason top 10 -- probably the top five -- in Ohio State, Oregon and Stanford. They also play five other teams that will be widely viewed as having Top 25 potential: Northwestern, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and USC.

Yet, I'm going with Stanford because I want to embrace nuance!

Stanford's schedule is rugged, particularly at the end, when the Cardinal play Oregon, USC, rival California and Notre Dame over the final four weeks. But it's more than that.

Stanford coach David Shaw -- wisely -- says that the Cardinal have the same goal every year: Win the conference, go to the Rose Bowl. "Because that's the only thing we can control," he says. What he's intimating is the process of picking the teams to play for the national title -- at present and in the future four-team playoff -- includes a subjective element.

But, really, Stanford's goal this season is simple: Perfection. And, falling short of that, the Cardinal would settle for a national title.

This team has the talent to not only play for the final BCS title, but to beat the SEC -- let's be certain that's half of the championship tilt -- at its own game: Defense.

Yet the challenges are abundant. For one, there's seven teams with Top 25 potential. Second, there's that useless Week 1 bye. Third, Stanford plays Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Utah in South Division cross-over games, missing Arizona and Colorado. That's hardly ideal. North Division rival Oregon misses Arizona State and USC. That is ideal.

(I won't even mention the seeming obsession of some vocal Stanford fans for their "weekenders" against the Southern California teams, which thereby gives the Northwest schools an automatic advantage in the division race. Folks, you should ask your coach what he thinks about Stanford playing USC and UCLA every year).

Stanford's foes, according to Kevin's data, had a .575 winning percentage in 2012. That's slightly below the numbers for Cal, Colorado and Utah, but those three teams have a far bigger margin for error. They each just want to get back to a bowl game.

Stanford is only playing for THE BOWL GAME.

Pac-12 coaches not among the elite?

April, 10, 2013
Everybody loves rankings lists, and college football fans -- by necessity -- seem to like lists even more than average folk.

So we have Athlon making another list. First it ranked Pac-12 coaches. Now it ranks all 125 coaches for FBS programs.

Obviously, any ranking like this is highly subjective, as Kevin noted with his notes on the Pac-12 coach rankings.

I really like Athlon's top three. That would be mine. If Chip Kelly were still at Oregon, I'd rank him third, but he is not.

After that? Well, there were some head-scratchers.

LSU's Les Miles way down at No. 24? New Arkansas and former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema buried at No. 25? Vanderbilt's second-year coach James Franklin way up at 17? Three words: No, No, No.

There is no conceivable way to rank Franklin ahead of Miles, WHO HAS WON A NATIONAL TITLE!, nor is it reasonable to rate Franklin over Stanford's David Shaw, WHO HAS WON A ROSE BOWL, nor Bielema who owns THREE BIG TEN TITLES and won 68 games in seven years at Wisconsin.

Franklin? He's done some nice things at Vandy, making a terrible program respectable, but please identify for me a signature win from 2012? Or 2011. I'll wait here.

Yep. Nada.

Just last season, Shaw, who is No. 1 in the Pac-12 but only 20th in the nation, beat Oregon, which finished ranked No. 2, and WON THE ROSE BOWL. He's a muffed field goal away from winning consecutive BCS bowl games.

Vanderbilt, winners of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl over the doughty NC State a year after losing to Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, took advantage of a weakened SEC East, and it's notable that the one adventurous nonconference tilt ended up a double-digit loss at Northwestern. You know: The so-called slow Big Ten.

And I think Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is a bit high at No. 12, too.

(Deep breath) OK ... I'm OK.

Anyway: Here's how Athlon ranked the Pac-12 coaches in the nation (national rank).
  1. David Shaw, Stanford (20)
  2. Mike Riley, Oregon State (21)
  3. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona (22)
  4. Todd Graham, Arizona State (29)
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State (31)
  6. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado (44)
  7. Steve Sarkisian, Washington (45)
  8. Jim Mora, UCLA (54)
  9. Kyle Whittingham, Utah (55)
  10. Sonny Dykes, California (56)
  11. Lane Kiffin, USC (57)
  12. Mark Helfrich, Oregon (73)
Are eight wins enough at Mississippi State?

Obviously not, because it’s hard to find anyone in the Land of Cowbells who feels especially good right now about Mississippi State’s 8-5 finish this season.

That includes coach Dan Mullen, who despite what anybody says, has done a solid job with that program when you consider what had transpired in Starkville prior to his arrival. The Bulldogs, ravaged by NCAA sanctions, managed just one winning season from 2001-08.

Mullen, after taking over in 2009, has guided the Bulldogs to three straight winning seasons.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State
AP Photo/Stephen MortonMississippi State's disappointing season was capped with a loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
But that seems like a hollow accomplishment given the way it all unraveled at the end of this season. After starting out 7-0 and climbing to No. 11 in the BCS standings, Mississippi State lost five of its last six games, a collapse that was punctuated by a 34-20 loss to Northwestern on Tuesday in the Gator Bowl.

Mullen didn’t hold back when asked how disappointing it was to lose five of the last six games.

“Excuse my language, but it sucks,” Mullen said. “Nobody likes to lose. Our kids put in … everybody puts in a lot of work to win football games. It was great to win a lot early. It sucks to lose late, to be honest with you.”

Trying to find a silver lining, Mullen pointed out that eight-win seasons were starting to become disappointing at Mississippi State, and he added, “That is the direction you want the program headed in.”

He’s right in theory, but a closer look at who the Bulldogs have beaten and who they haven’t beaten during Mullen’s tenure paints a very different picture.

Mullen is now 7-21 at Mississippi State against teams that finished the season with a winning record. It will be 7-22 if Ole Miss wins its bowl game.

The Bulldogs haven’t beaten an SEC team that finished the season with a winning record since their 10-7 win at Florida in 2010. They’ve now lost 11 straight games to nationally ranked opponents and are just 2-17 against ranked foes under Mullen.

In their four losses to ranked teams this season, they were outscored 147-57 and gave up 34 or more points in all four games.

It’s probably telling that Mullen switched it up and had co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins call the plays in the bowl game. Changes are almost certainly coming. The Bulldogs were already looking for a cornerbacks coach after losing Melvin Smith to Auburn.

It’s also hard to feel good about what the offense did in the final part of the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell threw four interceptions against the Wildcats. One was returned 29 yards for a touchdown to open the game. Another set up the clinching touchdown after Nick VanHoose returned Russell's final pick 39 yards to the Mississippi State 5.

In the end, this will be a season that’s remembered more for how soft the Bulldogs’ schedule was to start the season than how well they performed on the field.

That doesn’t diminish the gains the program has made under Mullen, and it doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is finished climbing.

What it does mean is that eight wins aren’t enough, particularly when the seven wins against FBS competition come against teams that finished the season with a combined 29-56 record.
1. While it may sound familiar that the Big Ten went 1-4 on New Year’s Day, the fact that Northwestern got the victory made it feel a lot better. The Wildcats found a lot of painful ways to lose bowl games -- by a lot, by a little, in overtime -- before beating Mississippi State, 34-20, in the Gator Bowl. Northwestern gets Pat Fitzgerald's first 10-win season. Fitzgerald has 50 wins and two seasons to go before he turns 40. That could be the foundation of a long, legendary career.

2. Big Ten champion Wisconsin played the best of the four losing Big Ten teams, fighting Stanford to the final 2:30 even as the Badgers failed to penetrate beyond the Cardinal 46-yard-line in the second half. The ticking clock and a 20-14 deficit forced fifth-year quarterback Curt Phillips to emerge from his comfort zone and start passing. Phillips threw a sloppy pass over the middle, and defensive back Usua Amanam picked it off. In the second half, Phillips completed 3 of 8 passes for 15 yards and that pick.

3. It is inconceivable that Nebraska went 10-4 and scored a minimum of 30 points in each of those four losses. It is unfathomable that the school that made black shirts famous gave up five touchdown passes to Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. It is mind-boggling that the Huskers gave up 70 points to Wisconsin and 63 to Ohio State. It’s also pretty easy to figure out Job No. 1 for head coach Bo Pelini over the next eight months. If he can fix his defense, Nebraska -- and maybe the Big Ten -- will return to power.

Mississippi State keys for Gator Bowl

December, 31, 2012
Here’s a look at three keys for Mississippi State in Tuesday’s matchup with Northwestern in the Gator Bowl:

1. Setting the tone early: It’s been a while since Mississippi State last won a football game. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas 45-14 back on Nov. 17 and lost four of their last five games to end the regular season. They need to have some success early in this game and regain their edge. That means moving the ball on offense and establishing themselves on defense. In three of their four losses, they trailed by 10 points or more at halftime and don’t want to have to play from behind against a Northwestern team that likes to play up-tempo on offense and is very good at keeping the chains moving with its zone-option game. Moreover, the Bulldogs have proven to be money when they have the lead late. They’re 28-0 under Dan Mullen when leading after three quarters.

2. Finding some balance on offense: Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell was one of the more improved quarterbacks in the country this season and put up excellent numbers. Senior receiver Chad Bumphis also had his best season, with an SEC-leading 12 touchdown catches. But when things went bad for the Bulldogs toward the end of the season, their running game went into the tank. Against SEC competition, they were 13th in the league in rushing offense with an average of 111.2 yards per game and were held under 50 yards rushing in three of their four losses. They need to get running back LaDarius Perkins going in this game. He needs just 60 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, and being able to generate a running game will keep the Wildcats from loading up and coming after Russell.

3. Secondary revival: At one point this season, Mississippi State would have rated right up there as one of the top defensive backfields in the country, and the Bulldogs are still plenty talented back there. Senior cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back. The problem was that the Bulldogs didn’t play like one of the top defensive backfields to close the season. They had several communication breakdowns and gave up an average of 273.4 passing yards and 12 touchdowns in their last five games. They were burned for five touchdown passes in the 41-24 loss to Ole Miss to end the regular season. Establishing a stronger pass rush will help, but Mississippi State also needs to get back to playing to its talent level in the secondary and not allow Northwestern any big plays in the passing game. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC this season with 30 interceptions, but only picked off four passes in their last five games. Gator Bowl

December, 2, 2012
Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (9-3)

Jan. 1, noon ET, Jacksonville, Fla. (ESPN2)

Mississippi State take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: What started as a possible dream season for the Bulldogs, quickly turned ugly when the month of November rolled around.

The Bulldogs started off the season 7-0 and rose as high as 11 in the BCS rankings. While the early part of the schedule was very favorable to Mississippi State, this team showed a ton of promise with how balanced it was on offense and how much its secondary frustrated opposing offenses.

Through the first seven games of the season, the Bulldogs allowed an average of 327 yards. The 95 points allowed by their defense was the lowest total through the first seven contests for the Bulldogs since the 1999 team held opponents to 74 points.

Quarterback Tyler Russell was also one of the nation’s most efficient passers and was one of just three quarterbacks with 15-plus touchdowns and just one interception through seven games.

But after being blown out by 31 against Alabama and setting foot in November, the Bulldogs fell apart. The lack of a consistent pass rush and execution issues on offense set the Bulldogs back, as they went 1-4 in their past five games and were outscored by 93 in the process.

The season ended with a 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss in Oxford. It was the Bulldogs’ first loss to the Rebels since 2008.

Even though the regular season ended in a very unflattering way, the Bulldogs could still finish the year with nine wins for the second time in four years.

Northwestern take from Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern not only reversed the recent trend of declining wins totals this season, but it left its fans wanting more. The Wildcats went 9-3 to match their best regular-season record under seventh-year coach Pat Fitzgerald, and they were a play or two away from winning the Legends Division. If they had held onto late leads against both Nebraska and Michigan, the purple could be heading back to Pasadena.

Although finishing games was a struggle at times, Northwestern exceeded almost all expectations with a young roster. After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing during Fitzgerald’s first six years, the Wildcats’ ground game surged this season (14th nationally, third in the Big Ten). Junior running back Venric Mark blossomed in his first season as the starter, and, along with quarterback Kain Colter, formed one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous backfield tandems. Northwestern used both Colter and sophomore Trevor Siemian at quarterback and went from a pass-first offense to a run-driven attack, as Mark earned second-team All-Big Ten honors and finished ninth nationally in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg).

A much-maligned defense had some hiccups along the way but made obvious strides, too. Linebacker David Nwabuisi saved his best season for last, and younger players like safety Ibraheim Campbell, cornerback Nick VanHoose and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo stepped up.

The next step is obvious: winning a bowl game for the first time since the 1949 Rose. Although Northwestern moved down a few spots in the selection order after being pegged for Capital One on Saturday night, the Wildcats have a winnable game against struggling Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

3-point stance: Can Dooley sell tickets?

November, 16, 2012
1. The first rule of running an athletic department is: Sell the football tickets. That money funds everything else. That may be Derek Dooley’s biggest obstacle as he fights to remain head coach at Tennessee. Even if the Vols close out with two wins and get to a bowl, it will be tough to get fans excited about Dooley in 2013. Athletic director Dave Hart took over a cash-strapped department. Buying out Dooley would be difficult. But Hart must decide if he can afford to keep him.

2. Speaking of selling tickets, anyone for a Florida State-Georgia Tech ACC Championship Game in Charlotte? If Miami (5-5) wins its sixth game, there is talk that the university may self-impose a postseason ban in the Nevin Shapiro case. That means the winner of Duke (6-4, 3-3) and Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3) could play for the ACC title, while No. 11 Clemson (9-1, 6-1) would not. Maybe the conferences with championship games should consider a rule that an unranked division champion with three conference losses must step aside for a top-15 runner-up in the other division.

3. In 1994 at Michigan, Colorado wide receiver Blake Anderson tipped a 64-yard Hail Mary pass that quarterback Kordell Stewart threw as time expired. Michael Westbrook caught the deflection, and Colorado won, 27-26. Anderson didn’t return to Michigan until last week, when he saw his godson, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, play in the Big House. Michigan completed a 53-yard Hail Mary to set up a game-tying field goal with :02 left. The Wolverines won in overtime, 38-31. “I guess it was karma,” Anderson said. You think?
1. I noted a couple of days ago that Dri Archer of Kent State, all 5-foot-8 of him, led the FBS in all-purpose rushing. Little did I know, pun intended. Five of the top seven players in this category are 5-9 or shorter: Archer, Tavon Austin of West Virginia (third), Venric Mark of Northwestern (fourth), Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska (fifth) and Bernard Reedy of Toledo (seventh). With the advent of the spread, more players who depend on quickness in space will succeed. And yes, I know. Some of them can run between the tackles, too.

2. Tulane first-year head coach Curtis Johnson said this week that he teared up as the Green Wave defeated SMU, 27-26, for his first victory. He wants his team to invest itself like that, too, and cited the baseball playoffs as an example. “I just watched those millionaires -- the Yankees, the A’s, Detroit, Oakland -- and you just watch their emotion. I felt the one thing our team needs to learn is emotion. ... We have to learn that when we make a big play, it’s a big deal.”

3. Maryland coach Randy Edsall has taken a lot of grief in his season-and-a-half. The Terps offense starts freshmen at tackle, guard, quarterback and wide receiver and the team’s leading rusher is a freshman, too. Maryland ranks in the bottom 10 in the FBS in rushing, total offense, sacks allowed and turnover margin. Yet the Terps are 4-2 overall, 2-0 and leading in the ACC Atlantic. In truth, the schedule is backloaded. Toss out Boston College and the rest of Maryland’s remaining schedule is 22-10. But what Edsall has done so far is either coaching or alchemy.
1. Yes, the Big Ten is taking a beating. But let’s point out that Minnesota and Northwestern are both 4-0 and could be undefeated for their Oct. 13 game in Minneapolis. The last time they both started? All the way back in … 2008. More to the spirit of the point, you have to go back to 1940, when both teams came into their game 4-0, to find a year when both started undefeated and played each other. The No. 4 Gophers edged the No. 8 Wildcats, 13-12, and went on to win the national championship.

2. As LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger discovered at Auburn, conference road games can test the inexperienced player. Texas Tech, trounced the last two years by Iowa State (52-38 and 41-7), takes a 3-0 record to Ames this week. The scores have been posted in the Red Raider locker room since the beginning of the season. “We mentioned to the young guys,” senior quarterback Seth Doege said, “that it’s going to be different … . It's going to be a four quarter game and they are a very physical team. It's going to be loud.”

3. Blackout I: Oregon fans wore black to Autzen Stadium Saturday night. Blackout II: given the 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff the Ducks probably played unseen by many fans east of the Mississippi. No one in Eugene, including Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens and head coach Chip Kelly, is happy with a 7:30 p.m. local kickoff. Mullens said at least 40 percent of Duck ticket buyers drive two hours or more to Autzen. By the way, Oregon’s next home game, against rival Washington on Oct. 6, will kick off at 7:30 p.m. local.