NCF Nation: what we learned 14
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
At last, we can all turn our attention to the most anticipated SEC football game since, well ... who knows? In my lifetime, I can't think of one I've looked forward to seeing any more than Alabama vs. Florida this coming Saturday in the SEC Championship Game. It's old school vs. new school, speed vs. power, two coaches among the very best at what they do matching wits against each other and two teams that genuinely believe they are the best team in the country. The winner heads to the BCS National Championship Game. The loser gets the consolation prize of playing in the Sugar Bowl. Here's a look at what else we learned on the final weekend of the regular season in the SEC:
The truth about the SEC: Now that the regular season is in the books, we can go ahead and say it. The SEC was exceptional at the top this season. Case in point: Alabama and Florida. Ole Miss made a nice run and is playing really good football right now. Otherwise, it was a pretty average league. Never was that more apparent than last Saturday with Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt all losing to ACC teams. And, no, we're not talking about basketball, either. Auburn and Tennessee each had losing seasons. The Vols were so bad that the dean of SEC coaches, Phillip Fulmer, got fired. Who knows if Tommy Tuberville is safe? Defending national champion LSU tanked thanks to an underachieving defense and finished with a losing season in the conference. The SEC couldn't even fill all of its bowl tie-ins because not enough teams could get to .500. Outside of Tuscaloosa, Gainesville and Oxford, it's not a season they'll be remembering for years to come.
Bama's brilliance: The more you see Alabama, the more you appreciate how this team has gone about putting together a 12-0 record. I've seen the Crimson Tide in person now five times this season, and it's been like clockwork every time. They're so physical and so disciplined on offense. They wear you down with their bruising running game and go to Julio Jones on the outside any time defenses start to crowd the box. Defensively, nobody is better in the country at changing things up, disguising coverages and coming from different angles than Nick Saban. They're not going to let you run the ball and rarely give up big plays. Senior center Antoine Caldwell isn't going to say he saw 12-0 coming this season, but he had a feeling about this team all along. "We had all the experience and leadership in the right places. We had it on the offensive line. We had it at quarterback. We had it at safety, so I knew we'd have a good football team," Caldwell said.
Another injury for Percy: He may well be college football's most dynamic player, but Percy Harvin is also one of the country's most injury-prone players. From the time he arrived at Florida, it seems as if Harvin has been trying to recover from this or that injury -- a knee, a heal, a back, something. The latest is a sprained ankle he suffered in the second quarter against Florida State. Harvin was in a walking boot and on crutches after the game. He's used to not practicing much in a week and still being able to play. So being sidelined this week in practice shouldn't be a huge deal. But assuming there's no serious damage to his ankle and he is able to play in the SEC Championship Game, he's not going to be 100 percent. Of course, Harvin at 75 percent is pretty good. But it's not what the Gators wanted going into this game.
Talent doesn't always equal results: As proof, I give you the Georgia and LSU defenses. Go back and look at where the guys starting on those two defenses were ranked coming out of high school and how many different offers they had. And, yet, Georgia ended the regular season ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring defense after being fleeced by Georgia Tech's triple-option offense in a 45-42 loss Saturday. Keep in mind the Bulldogs had two weeks to prepare, too, which obviously didn't help their tackling. Yes, tackling = coaching. LSU may have even more future NFL players on its defense than Georgia and wound up ninth in the SEC in total defense. The Tigers managed to give up 30 or more points in their last three games with a defensive line that's brimming with big, talented guys. They sure didn't play that way.
Kiffin time in Tennessee: Lane Kiffin isn't wasting any time. He's already in Knoxville and will meet with the team on Sunday night at the football complex. He will be introduced as the Vols' next head coach during a Monday news conference. Kiffin already has a portion of his staff assembled. His father, Monte Kiffin, is coming with him after an ultra successful run as one of the NFL's best defensive coordinators. The elder Kiffin is currently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It also appears that former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron is coming, as well as South Carolina quarterbacks coach David Reaves, who is Kiffin's brother-in-law. Orgeron is currently the defensive line coach with the New Orleans Saints and would head up the Vols' recruiting. He and Kiffin worked together on the Southern California staff earlier this decade. The jury may be out on Kiffin as a head coach, but it looks like he's putting together one sweet staff.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are some things we learned over the Big 12's final weekend.
1. However Sunday's BCS announcement plays out, it's clear that the Big 12 should have taken a more active role in promoting transparency for the final BCS vote of the regular season. Obviously, one group of fans will be happy and the other two will be irate when the final decision comes down in a couple of hours about which South Division team will advance to Saturday night's conference championship game. It would have behooved Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe to have pushed to make sure all of the votes of the coaches and pollsters should have become public.
As it stands now, shrouded in secrecy, all kinds of conspiracy theories will be floated after the vote is released. Everybody's vote should have been common knowledge -- just like it will be next week when the BCS bowls will be released. Because playing for a conference championship game will be just as important to those schools as playing in a BCS bowl game.
2. There's a reason why Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds' move of hiring Will Muschamp as the Longhorns' head-coaching designate was so smart. It will be seen in his work next season with his second Texas defense. The Longhorns' defense has been one of their biggest strengths all season. Texas has limited opponents to an average of 11.5 yards rushing per game and 0.5 yards per carry in the last two games, outscoring opponents 84-16. Muschamp will have a chance to build on those concepts in his second season. He'll have to rebuild a defensive front that will lose all of its starters. Texas will return only five defensive starters. But having Muschamp back to direct the team, rather than starting his head coaching career someplace else with somebody else calling defensive signals, clearly benefits the Texas program in the short term.
3. If there was such an award as the Big 12's most improved defense player, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh would win the honor. Before Bo Pelini arrived at Nebraska, Suh had been an underachieving disappointment. But he's blossomed this year into Nebraska's leading tackler -- an extremely rare occurrence for a defensive tackle -- and its top defensive playmaker. The work by Pelini and his brother, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, is seen all over Suh's transformation.
4. The best story of the final weekend in the conference played out in Kansas City, where Kansas former quarterback rivals Todd Reesing and Kerry Meier hooked up for a dramatic comeback victory over Missouri. Reesing might be the most underrated quarterback in college football and Meier persevered despite an injury that made his availability doubtful earlier in the week. Meier produced a career-best 14 receptions, showing the skill at the position that makes most NFL scouts are predict that he'll have a professional career at wide receiver for Meier. Working together, Reesing and Meier helped the Jayhawks to their first back-to-back bowl berths in school history.
5. Texas Tech coach Mike Leach provided an obvious indication Saturday why he deserves to be the Big 12's Coach of the Year this season. His team was clearly flat coming into the Baylor game, a result of their draining and emotional loss to Oklahoma last week. Tech was forced to play without likely All-Big 12 safety Daniel Charbonnet from the start. Michael Crabtree suffered an ankle injury that left him in street clothes along the sidelines for the second half. And Graham Harrell suffered a finger injury to his non-throwing hand that likely will require surgery early this week, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported.
Despite those handicaps and a two-touchdown deficit, Leach kept the Red Raiders focused as they persevered for a gutsy victory over the Bears and claimed a share of their first Big 12 South Division title. It likely won't be enough to get them into a BCS bowl, but still showed why Leach is an underrated motivator to go along with his clear offensive genius.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Revelations from the past weekend's action.
Oregon's offense may have found itself just in time for a Holiday Bowl showdown: Everyone knew Oregon could run the ball, and it certainly did that with 385 yards on the ground in the Ducks' 65-38 win over Oregon State. But the Ducks' new passing threat with sophomore quarterback Jeremiah Masoli might make offensive coordinator -- and hot head-coaching prospect -- Chip Kelly stick around for a couple for more years. Masoli passed for 274 yards and three touchdowns against the Beavers, a week after passing for 298 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona.
Oregon State will wonder what might have been: The Beavers, to a man, were gracious in defeat and didn't make excuses about their dispiriting Civil War defeat that cost them a Rose Bowl berth. But it was clear -- and a few players said so from both locker rooms -- that it would have helped OSU's cause to have tailback Jacquizz Rodgers, the Pac-10's leading rusher, who sat out with a shoulder injury. The Beavers rushed for only 89 yards and Rodgers surely would have improved that total and helped keep the ball away from the Ducks.
USC's defense is officially a finalist for "best-ever:" After turning in one of the most dominating defensive performances in recent memory in its 38-3 win over Notre Dame, USC proved its defense is not only the best in the nation this season, it's one of the best ever put together in college football history. And it's not an arguable point, based on a combination of statistics and the future prospects of the gathered talent. The Trojans held a competent Notre Dame offense to 91 yards and four first downs -- no firsts until late in the third when the result was already determined. Teams get four first downs and 91 yards by accident and random chance.
Arizona State's best offense is its defense: The Sun Devils scored four defensive touchdowns in their 34-9 win over UCLA on Friday: A 17-yard fumble return and interception returns of 38, 100 and 45 yards. The defense finished with 200 yards and 28 points, the offense produced 122 yards and two field goals. The win kept their bowl hopes alive, but they will probably won't get the same gifts from Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama with ASU's bowl hopes on the line this weekend.
UCLA's best chance might be to never pass: It's hard not to feel for UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft -- the guy is doing his best with a supporting cast severely lacking talent. The Bruins' offensive woes are far from his fault exclusively. But football statistics are what they are and Craft has thrown 12 interceptions in his last four games with no touchdowns. Coach Rick Neuheisel has gotten some grief for verbally working over Craft on the sidelines -- most recently from Craft's father Tom -- but it's hard not to feel sympathy for Neuheisel, too, witnessing Craft repeat the same mistakes over and over.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Well, the regular season is over and it took all 14 weeks to figure a few things out. Here's what Saturday revealed in the ACC:
Virginia Tech and Boston College will play for the ACC title. Again. Both teams took care of business at home on Saturday. The Hokies clinched the Coastal with their win over rival Virginia and BC won the Atlantic Division with little threat from Maryland. It's the second straight season they'll face each other in the ACC Championship Game, but both teams are vastly different from last year's. They are both young on offense and heavily dependent upon their defenses, but earned their way to the title game by beating the teams they had to. BC closed its regular season with four straight wins while the Hokies won three of their last four.
For the first time in ACC history, more than eight teams qualified for bowl eligibility. With NC State and Clemson both winning this weekend, that makes 10 bowl-eligible teams from the ACC fighting it out for nine guaranteed spots. The inaugural Eagle Bank Bowl is guaranteed one of those teams, and the Wolfpack would make sense there, but would also be a good fit for the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte. Clemson will be an attractive team to several bowls, and that will likely bump a few others like Maryland and perhaps even North Carolina down in the pecking order. It's also possible a 10th team can be picked up by another bowl looking to fill a spot like the Independence Bowl. I'll do a more extensive breakdown of the bowl scenarios tomorrow.
The gap between Florida State and Florida looms large, but the gap between Georgia Tech and Georgia was erased. To be fair, Florida is in a class all by itself, and could very well be the best team in the country. But coach Bobby Bowden wanted to know how much the Noles had closed the gap from last year's drubbing and now he has his answer -- they didn't. At Georgia Tech, though, Paul Johnson did something in his first season that hasn't been done in the previous seven. Not only did he beat a ranked rival from the SEC, but he did it on the road with an old-school offense and 26 points in the third quarter.
Boston College backup quarterback Dominique Davis is efficient enough to win the ACC title. Davis proved in his first start he is capable of managing the offense without turning the ball over. He completed 12 of 24 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He's not as mobile as Chris Crane, but he might be more accurate. Offensive coordinator Steve Logan did a good job of putting Davis in a position to succeed, and he was clearly more comfortable after having a week to prepare. As long as the staff doesn't ask him to do too much, they get another good running game out of freshman Montel Harris and the defense continues to dominate, Davis is capable of winning another game as their starter.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney legitimized himself as a candidate for the head job. Swinney did exactly what he was hired to do on an interim basis -- win and get the team bowl eligible. His 31-14 drubbing of rival South Carolina punctuated a turnaround few could have possibly imagined at midseason. According to the Columbia State, Swinney is expected to meet with athletic director Terry Don Phillips this afternoon, and a team meeting has been scheduled for 3 p.m.
Only two games in the Big East this weekend, so our education hasn't substantially improved. But here are a couple of things we learned:
1. Cincinnati will be a formidable BCS opponent for somebody: The Bearcats likely will end up in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech or Boston College, but there's also a chance they could go to the Sugar Bowl. Wherever they end up, they will be tough to beat. Cincinnati's defense has been terrific the past five games, allowing an average of just 16.8 points. And its offense keeps getting better under the controls of Tony Pike. On Saturday, Syracuse tried to keep everything in front of the secondary with a soft zone, and Pike picked it apart on two consecutive 14-play drives. The Bearcats also have the ability to burn tight coverage with their speedy receiver duo of Dominick Goodman and Mardy Gilyard, and they run the ball just enough to be dangerous. That's why Cincinnati won the Big East and why it will be tough to beat in a BCS game.
2. West Virginia needs an offensive overhaul: Eleven games into the season, it's still hard to tell what the Mountaineers' identity is. One week, they let quarterback Pat White run for 200 yards at Louisville. On Friday at Pittsburgh, they got away from that and tried to throw more, even in the red zone. The offense has been wildly inconsistent all year, especially in some of West Virginia's biggest games. A major revamp needs to happen after the season when White graduates, and the program will need to figure out what type of offense it wants to run in the future.
3. LeSean McCoy may be the Big East's MVP: When Pittsburgh decides to force feed the ball to McCoy, good things usually happen. He ran for 183 yards against West Virginia and controlled the fourth quarter as Pitt rallied back for the win. McCoy has surpassed 1,300 yards for the season and leads the conference (and the nation) in scoring with 20 touchdowns. His main competition for Big East offensive player of the year is Donald Brown of Connecticut. The two will square off this Saturday in East Hartford.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
The BCS isn't working: A few years ago, the BCS started rewarding non-BCS teams for undefeated seasons, basically stating that that was the way a non-BCS team could face the big boys in the bowls. But now, the BCS is kind of going back on its word. Three non-BCS teams completed undefeated regular seasons and it looks like just one will receive a BCS berth. Boise State, which is ranked within the provisions of an automatic bid, will likely be left out in favor of Ohio State even though it has two losses.
We all knew the system was broken, but that has been evident this year not only in the non-BCS, but also with various teams in the BCS. Even Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who is a fan of the BCS, said a playoff is coming.
What happened to Notre Dame? The Irish went from being decent to being unfocused to being unable to finish to being downright uncompetitive in their final game of the regular season. No one had allusions that Notre Dame would roll into Los Angeles and beat USC, but I think most thought they'd put up a fight.
But the Irish were manhandled and embarrassed.
The Irish had 91 yards of total offense and didn't get a first down until the very end of the third quarter. The Irish were actually more competitive in the 38-0 loss last season. At least they had 165 yards of total offense then.
This isn't a "Fire Charlie" observation, but it's obvious that something needs to be done to inspire this team.
Leaving on a high note: Both Eastern Michigan and Utah State sent their respective coaches off on a high note this week with big wins to end the season. Both Utah State coach Brent Guy and Eastern Michigan coach Jeff Genyk were fired prior to their final games because of a failure to make their programs competitive. Both teams finished 3-9 this season, but that third win was a beauty as Eastern Michigan set several FBS records in a 56-52 win over rival Central Michigan, and Utah State limited New Mexico State to minus-7 rushing yards in a 47-2 win. The wins are a testament to how those players felt about their coaches.
Missouri coaches in non-BCS demand: Several Wyoming papers are reporting that Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Christensen is having his second interview on Sunday by Wyoming to be its new football coach, and the Toledo Blade is reporting that Missouri defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was flying in today to interview for the Toledo position.
According to several papers, Christensen arrived in Laramie late after Saturday's loss to Kansas. He was interviewing Sunday morning before flying back to Missouri for a senior function.
According to the Toledo Blade, Eberflus was supposed to meet with Toledo officials Sunday as well. No word on what time.
Missouri's assistants have been coveted by the non-BCS before, especially since both started their career at Toledo with head coach Gary Pinkel.
Sun Belt still undecided: While all the other conferences have either decided champions or are preparing for championship games, the Sun Belt is still up in the air. Troy has the advantage now, but Arkansas State's win over North Texas on Saturday puts the Red Wolves a win away from the Sun Belt title. That win has to come over Troy next week.
The Red Wolves and Trojans meet on Saturday in a regular-season game in what will ultimately decide which team goes to the New Orleans Bowl. If Troy wins, it wins the conference title outright. If Arkansas State wins, it ties Troy for the conference title, but gets the berth in the New Orleans Bowl because of the head-to-head matchup.