NCF Nation: Sugar Bowl

Sugar Bowl Media Day Live recap

December, 30, 2014
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Alabama and Ohio State met the press Tuesday and our ESPN.com team was out in full force at the Superdome. Scroll through for all of the sights and sounds from New Orleans.

SEC and Big 12 folks have been tweaking the Big Ten and Pac-12's love of the Rose Bowl of late. That made me grin because the primary motivation for those tweaks was jealousy.

Don't buy that assessment? Well, then what do you make of this: The SEC and Big 12 champions, starting in 2014 after the current BCS contract expires and we presumably adopt a four-team playoff, will meet annually in a prime time New Year's Day "bowl" game.

[+] EnlargeMike Silve
Darrell Walker/Icon SMICommissioner Mike Slive and the SEC have a bowl agreement with the Big 12 that is nearly identical to the Rose Bowl model used by the Big Ten and Pac-12.

Unless, of course, the SEC and/or Big 12 champions are selected for the four-team playoff, which one is almost certain to be and both are likely to be.

But, if one or both is selected for the playoff, then, just like the Rose Bowl, a No. 2 team from both or either conference will be selected.

So the SEC and Big 12 have adopted the Rose Bowl model in its entirety. Other than the fact that they can't play in the Rose Bowl stadium as the sun goes down over the San Gabriel Mountains.

The location has not been set. The Sugar Bowl (SEC) and Fiesta Bowl (Big 12) already have a dog in this fight, but expect bids to come from Jerry Jones and his deluxe Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as well as a play from Atlanta.

By the way, the Rose Bowl jealousy stuff is mostly good-natured ribbing while I'm gaping at another sudden shift in college football's tectonic plates.

Folks, this stuff is amazing, and there's a stunning plot twist seemingly on a weekly basis -- Florida State to the Big 12? Notre Dame back in play?

The main take-away: This is a step closer to four power conferences, with the ACC and Big East finding their footing suddenly precarious.

And, if you want to worry, Pac-12 fans, it looks like the SEC and Big 12 are being far more aggressive -- read: expansionist -- as college football remakes itself. Keep in mind that the Pac-12 could have ended the Big 12 last September and become the first 16-team super-conference if Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech had made a jump.

Pac-12 presidents might end up regretting their decision not to expand -- and giving Oklahoma, in particular, the shaft. Newly enriched by a mega-TV deal, they might have lost track of the big picture while they were counting their money.

Commissioner Larry Scott has long held that further consolidation at the top of college football was inevitable. This is another example of him proving right, though this time without a blockbuster deal for Pac-12 folks to celebrate.

This latest news is a reason to get nervous. Or to just marvel at how quickly the game has changed.
Folks like rankings, which is why a lot of you had opinions on both Athlon Sports and our rankings of Pac-12 coaches this week.

There are very few naysayers to the idea that Oregon's Chip Kelly is an obvious No. 1. In fact, I'm not even sure how you gainsay that.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillKyle Whittingham is 7-1 in bowl games, including a BCS victory.
But who's No. 2?

That's the question before your faithful Pac-12 bloggers.

Kevin Gemmell: Since you went first last week, and I used it as an opportunity to take a shot at you about Darron/De'Anthony Thomas Top 25 incident, I'll take the lead this week and suffer whatever ribbing comes from it.

To be honest, I was pretty torn when trying to figure out who I would put at No. 2 in the conference. I think you can easily make an argument for three or four different guys. But I've also seen what Kyle Whittingham has done at Utah from the very beginning when I used to cover the Mountain West Conference.

His résumé is stellar, and his credentials are without question. He has an undefeated season to his credit and two BCS bowl game victories (I believe the NCAA credits him and Urban Meyer both for the Fiesta Bowl win). If I'm wrong on that, he still has a BCS bowl victory at a then mid-major program.

He's 7-1 all-time in bowl games. That means he's a closer. The only bowl loss was in 2010 to Boise State -- the Broncos' second football game following the Nevada field goal debacle. There weren't many that thought Boise would lose that one.

What I think is the most impressive thing about Whittingham, though, is that he's proven to be his own man. He easily could have fallen into the trap that David Shaw now finds himself in at Stanford. Critics will constantly question Shaw about if he can do it outside of Jim Harbaugh's shadow and without Andrew Luck on the roster. Whittingham faced similar charges in the face of Meyer's departure.

In that time, he's gone 66-25 and stewarded the program into the Pac-12, where the Utes went 8-5 last season, including a come-from-behind win over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Sustained success means several things. He can recruit. He can reinvent himself and the team with each new generation of players. And he makes good hires.

We all know one bad recruiting class can set a program back several years. Bad hires can have an even longer impact. Whittingham is not afraid to take gambles -- and the latest one is naming former quarterback-turned quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson his offensive coordinator. At least some see it as a gamble. But Whittingham has given us no reason over his career to think it's not going to be a great hire.

The fact is, Whittingham wins year after year. Can't ask for much more out of your coach.

Ted Miller: I deserved the snark over the twin No. 12s. That was a moment of clumsy compensation for a boneheaded oversight on my part. Of course, you did steal my No. 2 coach, which I will write off to your savvy and your foreknowledge you got to go first this week.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Courtesy of J&L PhotoRich Rodriguez led West Virginia to two BCS games, but struggled considerably at Michigan.
And it gives me a chance to tout a guy who might shortly challenge for the top-spot on this list: Arizona's Rich Rodriguez. In fact, if we could make Rodriguez's ill-fated, three-year tenure at Michigan magically disappear, and then view Rodriguez as arriving in Tucson after a brilliant run at West Virginia, you would be able to make a case for him against even Kelly.

Before the disaster in Ann Arbor, Rodriguez was widely viewed as among the nation's best coaches. He'd been successful everywhere he went, and was considered one of the nation's truly great offensive minds -- not unlike Kelly. He went 60-26 at West Virginia and, after going 3-8 his first year, never won fewer than eight games. He also won a Sugar Bowl over Georgia, and his team won the Fiesta Bowl over Oklahoma after he bolted for Michigan. The Mountaineers won 33 games his final three seasons. According to this high-powered calculator, that's an average of 11 wins per season.

But what about Michigan? Well, as we've said before and surely will say again, his failure at Michigan was more about Michigan than Rich Rodriguez. It was a bad fit from the get-go in terms of his personality versus the "Michigan way"; Rodriguez wasn't able to hire his defensive coordinator, as he has done at Arizona with Jeff Casteel; he was shamefully betrayed and undermined by a Machiavellian Lloyd Carr; and it's not unreasonable to question the agendas of some of the media coverage he received.

Some Michigan fans take issue with that perspective on Rodriguez's Michigan tenure, much of which is detailed in John Bacon's book "Three and Out." But only because they love the Wolverines more than the truth, at least in this instance.

Rodriguez repeatedly has said he's not a quick-fix guy -- he, by the way, told the folks hiring him at Michigan exactly that -- and that it will take three years for his systems and recruiting to truly take hold. I doubt Wildcats fans are exciting about waiting that long, but the smart money is on Rodriguez finding a way to get it done in Tucson.

And, yeah, that means it's legitimate to dream about a first Rose Bowl within five years.

Wouldn't it be fun if it were against the Wolverines?

Kyle Whittingham goes young for OC

February, 2, 2012
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When Utah coach Kyle Whittingham tapped Norm Chow as his offensive coordinator last year, he got a celebrated, experienced veteran. With Chow off to the islands as Hawaii's new head coach, Whittingham is going with youth, energy and potential this go-around.

Whittingham has promoted has promoted Brian Johnson from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.

Johnson, who will turn 25 on Feb. 16, has been the Utes quarterbacks coach for just a year. He will continue to coach quarterbacks, and it seems likely that the Utes will use more of a spread-option scheme in 2012 as they did before Chow arrived with a pro-style offense.

"After spending the past month conducting a national search for an offensive coordinator, it became very apparent that we had the best candidate for the job right here on our own staff," Whittingham said in a statement. "Brian is a leader and a special coaching talent, just as he was a special player, and he is the right person to lead our offense."

The winningest quarterback in Utah history, going 26-7 as the Utes' starter, Johnson was the MVP of the blowout victory against Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, which capped a 13-0 season.

This is a bold move for Whittingham -- if there are any 24-year-old coordinators with any other AQ team, none come immediately to mind -- and a huge career boost for Johnson. Simply put, if he's successful he will become a head coach before he turns 30.

"I am excited that Coach Whittingham has given me this opportunity and I am prepared for the challenge," Johnson said in a statement. "I'm looking forward to working with a great coaching staff and putting together a productive offense that will help us win a conference championship. I've had many good mentors as a player and a coach, including Dan Mullen, Andy Ludwig, Aaron Roderick and Norm Chow."

Whittingham also announced other staff moves. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake was given the title of assistant head coach. Aaron Roderick, in his eighth year coaching the receivers, will also serve as the passing game coordinator.

Sitake, 36, has become a hot defensive coordinator since being promoted from linebackers coach in 2009. Roderick was the Utes' co-offensive coordinator before Chow arrived, and he applied for the job that went to Johnson.

Dan Finn, a Utah graduate assistant from 2004-06, has been hired to coach the centers and guards. Finn spent last season as the offensive line coach at San Diego State, and the previous four years as the offensive line coach at Idaho (2007-10). Tim Davis, Utah's offensive line coach in 2011, will now concentrate on coaching the tackles and tight ends.

Jay Hill, in his eighth season as a full-time assistant, takes over the running backs for Dave Schramm, who was hired as Fresno State's offensive coordinator. Hill has served two different stints as the cornerbacks coach, most recently in 2010 and 2011, and oversaw the tight ends from 2007-09. He remains Utah's special teams coordinator.

Sharrieff Shah, a starting safety for the Utes from 1990-93 and a three-year team captain, returns to his alma mater to coach the cornerbacks. Shah, a Salt Lake City attorney since 2001, was a certified NFL agent from 1996-2002, representing players in the NFL, CFL and NFL-Europe. He received his bachelor's, master's and law degrees from the University of Utah. Shah has also served as the team's sideline reporter for ESPN 700 radio for the past 12 years.

Sports key to New Orleans' resurgence

January, 10, 2012
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With New Orleans hospitals, schools and basic infrastructure in dire need of rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina, many taxpayers wondered aloud why the Federal Emergency Management Agency would allocate $156 million for a renovation of the Superdome.

Sure, the stadium was eligible for FEMA funding because it was state-owned, open to the public, and it sustained damage during Katrina. Yet questions came, anyway.

But for Louisiana, it marked a “If You Build It, They Will Come” idea. Fast-forward six years, and note that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- on the heels of $336 million, multiphase renovation -- is in the midst of playing host to a string of the country’s major sporting events.

[+] EnlargeMercedes-Benz Superdome
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe Mercedes-Benz Superdome before the All-State BCS National Championship Game.
In addition to the annual Sugar and New Orleans bowls, the city that hosted the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Monday night also has Saints playoffs games this winter, the SEC men’s basketball tournament and men’s Final Four this spring, the Super Bowl in February 2013, and the women’s Final Four a few months later.

Landing such events was part of the post-Katrina recovery plan, says Mark Romig, chief executive officer of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., and a member of committees for the Super Bowl and Sugar Bowl. “We knew for us to come back and to lift ourselves up, we had to go through this process.”

Romig says New Orleans annually ranks at or near the top of the list in hospitality jobs nationally, with between 70,000 and 80,000 positions. He says that number is “very close” to pre-Katrina levels and that there are more restaurants in New Orleans than before the hurricane, and hotel numbers are comparable.

John Williams, interim dean for University of New Orleans’ College of Business Administration, attributes much of the city’s jump from $4.3 billion in tourism spending in 2009 to $5.5 billion in 2010 to sports. Business travelers are staying an average of 2.2 days longer than their business plans, he says, often to attend sporting events.

Williams says studies also show fans visiting for sporting events are more likely to patronize local restaurants than other tourist segments, like day visitors or business travelers. It’s why he thinks the city has seen a jump in restaurants from 805 pre-Katrina to 1,230 today. “Sports are really key to that,” he says.

Williams says the city saw a 6.6 percent growth in tourism-related jobs in the first quarter of 2011 alone. While numbers have not yet been vetted for the remainder of 2011, he says the city has been experiencing a snowball effect since hosting Saints playoff games in 2009.

Romig says hosting events like the BCS game Monday essentially provide the city with immeasurable free advertising to help boost tourism unrelated to sporting events. ESPN logged more than 36 hours of programming on sets around New Orleans in the week leading up to the game, not counting the game itself, pre- or post-game shows or halftime shows.

Asked to estimate the value of the advertising New Orleans received around the BCS National Championship game, Malcolm Turner of Wasserman Media Group says, “There’s no question we’re talking in the tens of millions of dollars.”

The projected economic impact from the recent Sugar Bowl and BCS National Championship games was $400 million. The R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl played on Dec. 18 and the Saints playoff game last Saturday were expected to contribute another $45 million. But the Super Bowl is the big revenue generator, with estimates at about $900 million.

Instant analysis: Boise State 56, ASU 24

December, 22, 2011
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Arizona State showed some fight, but that might make the final 56-24 margin in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas smart even more for Boise State.

How the game was won: Boise State dominated on both sides of the ball. It was the better team in every aspect. And let the Pac-12 blog officially voice its opinion -- late to a loud chorus -- that the Broncos in the Las Vegas Bowl instead of a BCS bowl is a travesty. Yes, Allstate Sugar Bowl, we are talking to you. You should be ashamed.

Turning point: Boise State's Doug Martin took the opening kickoff 100 yards for a TD. Other than 0-all just before that, 7-0 would be the closest the Sun Devils got all night. So the turning point was Boise State walking into the stadium.

Stat of the game: Arizona State was outrushed 162 yards to minus-11. Wow. What can you say about that?

Player of the game: Boise State QB Kellen Moore didn't have his best game -- he threw two interceptions -- but his 50th win capped one of the greatest careers in college football history. With him behind center, Boise State became the first Football Bowl Subdivision program to win 50 games in four years. One word from all of college football, Kellen: Thanks.

What Arizona State learned: Some Sun Devils showed fight -- QB Brock Osweiler and receiver Gerell Robinson being two -- but this is a program that needs to transform itself. Sloppy, me-first play needs to end. Doing the exact wrong thing at critical moments needs to end. New coach Todd Graham has inherited a considerable challenge.

Record performance: Osweiler, after throwing for 395 yards, set a school single-season record for yards this season.

Arizona State: 'It's our time now'

April, 26, 2011
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- One hundred and twenty FBS football teams will head into the summer claiming they're going to be good next year. Most will be wrong, despite their insistence on unparalleled locker room chemistry.

Arizona State is no exception to the universal spring optimism, but there's some momentum behind the good feeling after a strong finish in 2010. Expectations are high in Tempe. How high? Buckle up.

[+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireArizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler has his sights set on the BCS title game.
"A lot of people are talking about the Rose Bowl," quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "But we're talking about the Sugar Bowl. That's how much confidence we have as a team."

Osweiler isn't talking about the Allstate Sugar Bowl, though. He's talking about the BCS title game. Really.

Arizona State hasn't posted a winning season since 2007, when it went 10-3 in Dennis Erickson's debut and inspired false hope that things would be easy under a pedigreed coach. Not so. Over the past few seasons, the Sun Devils have found ways to lose, and they were typically creative in doing so. Missed field goals and extra points, turnovers on the goal line, turnovers in extraordinary bunches, missed tackles, missed throws, missed opportunities. It was sometimes great theater, though redundant tragedy from the Sun Devils perspective.

In 2009, they lost four games by five or fewer points. In 2010, they lost four games by four or fewer points, including squandered opportunities versus Wisconsin and Stanford. They somehow managed to stay within 11 points of Oregon -- one of three teams to do so -- despite seven (seven!) turnovers.

But from that manure pile sprouts the flower of hope. The Sun Devils welcome back 17 starters that includes depth on the offensive line and loads of speed and skill on both sides of the ball. They look like a slight favorite in the first year of the Pac-12 South Division, even though two returning starters, cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson, went down with knee injuries this spring.

"Everybody has to be optimistic before the season starts, but this year it's like everybody just knows," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "It's not like a hope or a feeling. Everybody just knows that if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll get to where we want to be."

That high expectations are the top story is good news for Erickson, who would be the subject of hotseat talk otherwise. His fast start hid some roster shortcomings -- most notably a dearth of offensive linemen -- and fans had started to turn away as the mediocrity piled up. In 2007, the average attendance in Sun Devil Stadium was 62,875. Last fall, it was 47,943.

The players are aware there's pressure to win in 2011.

"It's like some negative energy that we're turning into a positive on the field because nobody wants to see a coaching staff change," cornerback Deveron Carr said.

Beyond returning a majority of starters from 2010, the Sun Devils are a veteran team: They will feature a 30-man "senior" class (players in their final year of eligibility). The offensive line welcomes back all five starters and many of the backups even have starting experience. The top-six rushers from last fall are back, as are four of the top-six receivers. On defense, the top-three tacklers are back as are the three leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss.

And these aren't just hacks. The Sun Devils averaged 32.2 points per game in 2010, which ranked third in the Pac-10, and ranked fifth in total and scoring defense.

"We have some experience coming back and we have a lot of confidence in what we are doing," Erickson said. "Our players have been through a lot the last three years, lost some close games. Now it's their chance to step up and make some plays."

The biggest question: Is Osweiler up to the job? After starter Steven Threet went down with his third concussion against UCLA, Osweiler was brilliant coming off the bench and then overcame a bad first half to beat arch-rival Arizona. It was expected to be a tight quarterback competition this spring, but Osweiler won the job by default when the recurrent concussions forced Threet to retire.

The offense struggled early in spring practices, but Osweiler inspired confidence with five touchdown passes in the spring game as the offense dominated.

"He made some great throws that make you go, 'Wow, that was amazing,'" left tackle Evan Finkenberg said.

While losing Bolden and Simpson was a big blow -- both could return by mid-season -- the pieces still appear to be in place for a run at the first Pac-12 title game. And one of those pieces is confidence.

"I think this team knows it's our time now," Finkenberg said. "We have the pieces in place to have a big season and do the things we want to do."

Oregon impressed by Stanford

January, 5, 2011
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Stanford's 40-12 whipping of Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl was meaningful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it made what happened in Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2 the best victory of the 2011 regular season.

Stanford, which finished 12-1, is almost certain to finish ranked in the top-four in the nation in the final polls. But that day at Oregon, the Cardinal got overwhelmed 52-31, despite taking an early 21-3 lead. Stanford, a big, physical team, couldn't keep up with the Ducks' across-the-board speed and offensive tempo.

Auburn has played a tougher overall schedule than Oregon, but the Tigers haven't beaten a team that will finish ranked as highly as Stanford will, particularly after Arkansas was exposed by Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. No Tigers foe will finish with fewer than two defeats.

And, yes, the Ducks were watching the Orange Bowl. And, yes, they were rooting hard for their Pac-10 rival.

"I was a Cardinal that night," linebacker Spencer Paysinger said.

Paysinger said his sentiments had added depth because he's friends with Stanford O-linemen Derek Hall and Johnathan Martin.

"For them to go all the way to Florida and rep the Pac-10 like that speaks volumes for them," Paysinger said.

In fact, there was no gloating from Oregon players about beating Stanford in Oct. 2. Instead, there seemed to be a lot of respect.

"Stanford, they have been playing as good as anyone lately," linebacker Casey Matthews said. "I mean, obviously people are going to say we beat them by 21, [but] it doesn't really carry over into other games. It's all about matchups and how teams perform and just their simple fundamentals. Last year, [Ohio State, which beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl] lost to USC and Purdue and we beat both of them. We can't really compare scores. Obviously seeing Stanford be that dominant is definitely exciting to see and for the Pac-10 as well. Hopefully we get a little more respect."

Stanford: 'Woo Pig Sooie'

November, 27, 2010
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Stanford: You probably aren't going to the Rose Bowl.

The most likely scenario is (at present): Oregon-Auburn in the national title game and TCU in the Rose Bowl opposite the Big Ten champion.

That's what happened when Auburn rallied for a win at Alabama and Boise State lost to Nevada, which actually helps your BCS bowl cause, just not so much for the Rose Bowl.

The only way Stanford goes to the Rose Bowl is if Oregon and TCU play for the national title. That would require Auburn losing in the SEC title game. And if Oregon falls at Oregon State next weekend, then the Ducks go to the Rose Bowl.

But there is still hope for a BCS bowl game. All the Cardinal need is to push into the top 4 of the final BCS standings. That would guarantee it an automatic berth, per BCS rules.

With Boise State's loss, the Cardinal figure to move up from No. 6 in the standings to No. 5. At least. Because if Arkansas beats No. 5 LSU today, the Cardinal likely would move into the top 4. And that would mean either the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl would have to take the Cardinal.

What about Wisconsin? Well, it wouldn't hurt for the No. 7 Badgers to lose to Northwestern. Wisconsin is likely headed to the Rose Bowl, but if it eclipses Stanford in the BCS standings and moves into the No. 4 spot, it would likely kill the Cardinal's BCS bowl chances.

So, Stanford fans should spend Saturday: 1. Rooting for the Cardinal against Oregon State; 2. Rooting against every one-loss team (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, Oklahoma State).

Wulff leads Cougars out of abyss

November, 15, 2010
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Washington State's 31-14 win at Oregon State was impressive and significant in many ways, not the least of which was it ending a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak.

But let's face it: Planets often align in strange ways in the college football universe. Just in the past few years we've seen FCS teams win at powers such as Michigan and Virginia Tech. We saw Stanford, as a 41-point underdog, win at USC with its backup quarterback. We saw Alabama get physically manhandled by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeWashington State
AP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensWashington State's win against Oregon State may finally be a sign that the program is headed in the right direction.
This year, we've see Kansas lose to South Dakota State in its opener, beat then-No. 15 Georgia Tech in Week 2, then lose to Baylor and Kansas State by a combined count of 114 to 14 on consecutive weekends, then score 35 consecutive fourth-quarter points to beat Colorado 52-45.

So freaky, unpredictable stuff happens all the time.

But nothing about the Cougars win feels "freaky." And this victory -- their first on the road since 2007 -- is about more than a long-awaited payoff for the Cougars. They have repeatedly played well into the second half and even the fourth quarter this season.

To me, the most significant reference point that highlights their improvement is the 42-0 loss at Arizona State on Oct. 30. That's the point in which many, including me, thought the Cougars were waving the white flag over coach Paul Wulff's tenure.

That game seemed to indicate exhaustion and malaise had set in. It seemed to say that Wulff's players had lost their faith and, subsequently, their will. On the Tuesday Pac-10 coaches conference call after that dreadful performance, Wulff said a number of things that could have been used to make a case against him.

Said Wulff, "It felt like we played with a tank that was empty with emotion."

Said Wulff, "We just didn't get a response."

Said Wulff, "That ultimately comes back on me. I've got to get us ready emotionally."

Said Wulff, "I try not to gauge the state of the program on one game."

Said Wulff, "I'm not really worried about retaining for next year. We're in year three of a major rebuilding project. I don't know if I'd state it we have to win these games. Were playing in a lot of ways to our potential and what we are capable of doing. We're close."

All of that could could easily fall into a column about why Wulff shouldn't be back in Year 4. Wulff was being himself -- an honest, stand-up guy -- but it wasn't hard to construe "ultimate defeat" from his words.

But, instead, this is a column about why the only sensible decision is to retain Wulff.

In a nutshell, he got the feckless team that lost 42-zip at Arizona State to become the team that won at Oregon State 31-14 two weeks later. One word: leadership. Wulff got his players, who had fought hard all year -- until the Arizona State game -- to reinvest after they'd hit an emotional nadir. If you've ever been in charge of a group of people, you know how hard that is. Wulff could offer them little incentive; a bowl game wasn't a possibility. His players probably were aware his job status was shaky, so if they quit on him, they'd get a fresh start in 2011 with a new coach.

[+] EnlargeWashington State
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PresswireWashington State's defense limited the Beavers to just 261 yards of total offense.
All Wulff could say was, "We're in this together. Let's show some pride and compete." And guess what happened? The message stuck and then resonated in what was produced in Reser Stadium.

According to the Sagarin Ratings, Washington State has played the second-toughest schedule in the nation, one that has included No. 1 Oregon, No. 6 Stanford, No. 10 Oklahoma State, No. 20 USC (AP) and No. 22 Arizona. Moreover, they've played 11 consecutive weeks without a bye.

That's at tough road, period. But the Cougars have done it playing a bevy of young players. Of the 60 Cougars who played at Oklahoma State in the season-opener, 24 were making their college football debuts. The Cougars have played 10 true freshman this season. Of the 113 players on the Cougar roster, only 17 have been in the program more than three years, or prior to head coach Wulff’s arrival in December of 2007. On defense alone, 14 of the 22 players on the current depth chart are freshmen or sophomores.

Oh, and that defense, which is statistically terrible based on the entire season, held Oregon, Arizona and Stanford below their season averages for both points and yards. It held California to just 20 points. And it completely stuffed Oregon State.

In other words, maybe we should have seen the Corvallis Cougars Crusade coming.

Wulff inherited a disaster -- things were much worse than the average fan realized -- and his first two seasons ended up exactly that way. But the black smoke is clearing, and a program appears to be reemerging.

Every coach in the Pac-10 has remarked that the Cougars are different this year -- faster, more physical and less sloppy. The list of young talent coming back in 2011 is impressive: quarterback Jeff Tuel, wide receiver Marquess Wilson, Safety Deone Bucannon, defensive end Travis Long, defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, linebacker C.J. Mizell, etc.

We're not ready to proclaim a return to the run from 2001-2003 when Washington State finished ranked in the the final top-10 three consecutive seasons. The Cougars in a bowl game in 2011, in fact, probably will be seen as a longshot.

But you saw what just happened, didn't you? We just typed "Cougars" and "bowl game" in the same sentence and you read it without flinching or doubling over in laughter.
Ranking the BCS conferences: It's an exercise that guarantees at least one constituency will think you're a genius and another will think you're an idiot.

It's easy to dump the Big East into sixth place: Eight teams, not enough elite teams, not enough depth. After that, the margin of separation between the other five seem thin and wildly subjective.

Of course, SEC adherents will start to fulminate if they are not given a free pass into the top spot. Something about four consecutive national championships (it's an annoying point because it's hard to counter).

But let's look at the SEC for a moment. Here's a ranking of the SEC quarterbacks. It's basically Ryan Mallett of Arkansas and a bunch of nobodies and question marks. It's fair to say nine teams have serious issues at the position. At the end of the season, when we're talking about dominant SEC defenses, let's remember this cast of "Whos?"

Further, you could make a case that the SEC heading into 2010 is Alabama and Florida and a bunch of maybes. And the Crimson Tide must replace eight starters off their dominant defense, while Florida lost nine guys to the NFL draft. Lots of questions there.

In fact, just for fun. Match the SEC and the Pac-10, but do it from the bottom up. Here's Chris Low's post-spring power rankings. And here's mine for the Pac-10.

Vanderbilt beats Washington State, Arizona State beats Kentucky, UCLA beats Tennessee, Arizona beats Mississippi State, Washington beats Ole Miss, California beats South Carolina, Stanford beats Georgia, Oregon State beats Auburn, Oregon beats LSU and USC beats Arkansas.

Of course, you can't just drop Alabama and Florida, two of the nation's top-three programs (Texas is the third).

Which is why we're still ranking the SEC No. 1.

The larger point is the difference between BCS conferences is marginal, despite the huffing and puffing you heard to the contrary. When I began, I considered ranking the Big Ten No. 1 based on the Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin triumvirate, but then it seemed like the Big Ten has less depth than the Pac-10, ACC and Big 12. Then I thought the Big 12 looked good with Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Missouri. Then the ACC looked underrated.

Then I just needed to get on with it.

(By the way, here's a good place to see how many returning starters each team has).

1. SEC: While I have a hunch the SEC won't be on top at season's end, the impressive track record earns the conference the top spot.

2. Big 12: Five legitimate Top 25 teams and respectable at the bottom.

3. Big Ten: Top-heavy, but very good at the top.

4. Pac-10: The apparent lack of a national title contender hurts, but the conference has nine teams that could win at least six games.

5. ACC: The conference has big upside -- it might end up No. 1 at season's end -- but its track record is disappointment (see Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl). The SEC gets the benefit of the doubt. The ACC still has to prove itself.

6. Big East: Only obvious preseason Top 25 team is Pittsburgh. Based on the Sugar Bowl, we're in wait-and-see-mode with a Brian Kelly-less Cincinnati.
1. Urban Meyer went to Florida’s Sugar Bowl practice Sunday and had a change of heart? What happened to his health? What happened to his daughter hugging him because she had her daddy back? I don’t mean to second-guess his decision to switch from a resignation to a leave of absence. But a “spirited practice” made all of those personal and family concerns secondary? I just don’t believe this story is over yet.

2. If Meyer isn’t the most interesting story when the 2010 season opens, then USC will be. What the Trojans did against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl is what they failed to accomplish for most of the second half of the season. They took care of business. Yes, a schedule top-heavy with road games wrung out USC this season. Yes, they had a freshman quarterback and a lack of leadership on defense. Those excuses won’t be around in 2010.

3. It must be tough to be a Clemson fan. The Tigers showed so much talent against Kentucky on Sunday night. But here it is the end of the season, and the defense continued to make mental errors that cost Clemson field position and, eventually, points. First-year coach Dabo Swinney infused the Tigers with heart that they didn’t have the last couple of years. Getting them to play smart has to be a goal for 2010.

Gators' James to miss Sugar Bowl

December, 21, 2009
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After a glorious run that lasted 22 straight games and included a national championship, it seems like Florida hasn't been able to catch a break these last three weeks.

The latest blow is that senior receiver/return specialist Brandon James won't be able to play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati after having surgery on his foot. Florida coach Urban Meyer made the announcement Monday.

Meyer announced last weekend that junior defensive end Carlos Dunlap has been reinstated and will play in the Sugar Bowl.

Dunlap's DUI arrest and suspension for the SEC championship game was the start of a bad run for the Gators, who were blown out by Alabama in Atlanta and have also had to deal with everything from staff turnover, Meyer checking himself into the hospital briefly the next day with chest pains and dehydration and a number of juniors pondering their NFL future.

Pac-10 vs. MWC: Who wants it more?

December, 18, 2009
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Don't expect either Jeff Tedford or Mike Riley to suggest that Utah or BYU would be "mid-level" Pac-10 teams over the next few days.

That assessment about BYU made by then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti in 2006 came back to bite the Ducks and the Pac-10 when the Cougars rolled to a 38-8 Las Vegas Bowl victory.

Utah fans probably don't spend much time fretting perceived slights lobbed at rival BYU, but conference pride is an issue anytime the Pac-10 and Mountain West square off, as they will twice early next week when Oregon State faces BYU in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl on Tuesday and Tedford's Bears take on Utah in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl on Wednesday.

The Pac-10 is a BCS conference. The MWC is the best of the non-AQ conferences. That means one conference wants to prove it belongs at the expense of one that already does.

Tedford obviously has no interest in fanning any perceived rivalry flames.

"The Mountain West is as strong as there is. I have a lot of respect for everybody in their conference," he said. "We have a lot of respect for them. I don't know if we look at it like a rivalry-type thing."

As for Riley, controversial comments really aren't his style, not to mention that BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is a former Beavers player and coach and he and Riley have become friendly through the years.

"I have a lot of respect for him," Riley said.

Notice the respect theme?

Still, things have been fairly spirited between the Pac-10 and MWC since the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl. Much was made of the MWC going 6-1 vs. the Pac-10 during the 2008 regular season. Less has been made of the Pac-10 running off four consecutive victories since then. The Pac-10 went 6-3 vs. the MWC in 2007.

No. 23 Utah and No. 14 BYU are ranked ahead of their Pac-10 foes, unranked Cal and No. 18 Oregon State. But the Bears and Beavers are both slight favorites to win.

The conference rivalry, however, is mostly an issue among fans. Motivation and attitude will be bigger issues for the players.

Three of the teams are coming off season-ending defeats and none of the four teams are thrilled about their bowl destination.

BYU had hopes for a BCS bowl berth when it opened with a victory over Oklahoma. Those fizzled after blowout defeats to Florida State and TCU.

Instead of a BCS bowl, the Cougars are playing in their fifth consecutive Las Vegas Bowl. Feel free to consider the humor of BYU being redundantly sent to Sin City.

Utah, meanwhile, has played three ranked teams this year and lost to all three, most painfully to BYU, 26-23, in the season-finale. The Poinsettia Bowl won't feel much like last year's Sugar Bowl berth opposite Alabama, a victory that capped an unbeaten season.

Cal once was ranked sixth in the country, but it was thoroughly drubbed in each of its four losses, including a stunningly poor performance in the season finale at Washington that ended a late-season surge with a thud.

Oregon State also lost its season-finale to rival Oregon. That only cost the Beavers a berth in the Rose Bowl.

So which teams will overcome disappointment, be focused in practice and play with a sense of urgency come game time?

The teams that end up winning.

"It's one of those life lessons for everybody," Riley said. "Disappointment is not a bad thing."

Riley said it's all about how a team responds to adversity. He said his team appears to be responding well and will not use disappointment as an excuse.

Said Tedford, "There's been a lot of excitement... I sense an eagerness to have another opportunity to play."

What are the stakes then upon which that excitement is based?

None of the four want to be perceived as a mid-level Pac-10 team.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

This team talked trash, appeared on magazine covers and then got humbled on Sept. 3.

And then it got good. Real good.

Trying to recall a team that looked as bad as Oregon did to open a season, and then transformed into one that looked as good as anyone in the nation, wasn't easy.

 
  Steve Dykes/Getty Images
  Oregon’s Jeremiah Masoli and the Ducks bring back memories of the FSU team of 1988.
But one squad seemed to perfectly fit the bill.

Florida State in 1988.

The Seminoles were loaded with talent (you may remember one of their cornerbacks). They were the preseason No. 1. They cut a video, "The Seminole Rap," in which they rapped (very, very poorly) about knowing how good they were. They talked about getting revenge on Miami, their opening opponent, for a nailbiting loss the previous season.

Then the Hurricanes slapped them silly 31-0.

Think Oregon got hit hard for its performance at Boise State (whoops, poor choice of words)? Then read Rick Telander story on the FSU-Miami 1988 in Sports Illustrated. Telander pulls no, er, kicks.

Oh, boy, though, did the Seminoles bounce back. They outscored their remaining 11 opponents 455-141 and beat SEC champion Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. They finished ranked third behind unbeaten Notre Dame, which beat Miami in the famous "Catholics vs. Convicts" game, and the No. 2 Hurricanes.

So it's not unprecedented for a team to look so bad and then so good in one season.

Of course, Oregon is not there yet. It's still got plenty of work ahead to complete the FSU reversal.

Start with Saturday's visit to Stanford. The Cardinal rank 20th in the nation in total offense and 16th in rushing. Just like last season, they feature a physical running game with Toby Gerhart and a smart, tough offensive line. Only this season they also have a quarterback who can make plays downfield in Andrew Luck.

Stanford ranks 13th in the nation in time of possession (32:16). Oregon coach Chip Kelly notoriously scoffs at time of possession -- his no-huddle attack ranks 109th in the nation in the stat -- but the Cardinal is capable of playing keep-away if the Ducks offense isn't clicking like it was against USC.

Stanford's defense doesn't have the speed to keep up with the Ducks. But a few turnovers here, a few penalties there, could give Stanford the stops it needs to win a potential shootout.

Oh, by the way, the Cardinal have won eight of their last nine home games, the only loss coming to USC last year.

After Stanford, Arizona State comes to Eugene. The Sun Devils are struggling, but they have a defense that might challenge the Ducks.

Then the Ducks head to Arizona. Hmm. What happened the last time a highly rated, one-loss Oregon team headed to Tucson? Not a good memory for Ducks fans.

Arizona, in fact, has won two of three vs. Oregon and gave the Ducks a heck of a game in Eugene last year before falling 55-45. In that one, the Wildcats roared back from a 48-17 halftime deficit to trail just 48-45 before a 40-yard TD run from LeGarrette Blount with 3:38 left iced things.

Considering the Wildcats presently have only one conference loss, that game could be for the Pac-10 title.

Finally, Oregon finishes its season with the Civil War against a rising Oregon State team.

You might recall the Ducks put a big webbed footprint on the Beavers Rose Bowl hopes last year, so payback could be the name of the game in Corvallis.

In other words, the Pac-10 is too deep this season for Oregon to think it can flick on the cruise control and take a Sunday drive to the Rose Bowl.

The advantage it does have is that it has at least a two-game cushion on every team other than Arizona, which still has to play USC.

But to complete the FSU turnaround and post a truly special season, the Ducks need to run the table.

And, just maybe, unlike those rapping Seminoles, the Ducks might slide into an opportunity to play for the national title.

That's a longshot, of course.

But no longer than that team that trudged out of Boise to hand USC the worst defeat of the Pete Carroll Era.

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