Commentary

Money grabs, playoffs and more

Originally Published: September 4, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

This week's top 20:

20. Cupcake cha-ching

First-year Savannah State athletic director Sterling Steward Jr. ought to be ashamed of himself for scheduling money-grab games against Oklahoma State and Florida State.

Sure, Steward will cash game checks totaling $860,000 -- enough to help fund a nice portion of the Savannah State athletic department budget -- but at what cost? (And not to pile on, but I spoke to a college administrator with extensive experience in scheduling who said Steward should have negotiated for higher paydays, that the total should have been north of $1 million. Messages to Steward were not returned Monday.)

[+] EnlargeSavannah State
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesAre the drubbings on the field worth the money off of it for teams like Savannah State?

Anyway, the school's website might have underplayed the final outcome of Saturday night's game at Oklahoma State just a teensy-weensy bit: Savannah State Falls In Season Opener.

The Tigers "fell," 84-0. And that's the good news.

"Hard to believe," said Savannah State coach Steve Davenport, shortly before Monday's practice, "but it could have gotten a lot worse. [Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy] kind of slowed things down."

Gundy mercifully pulled large numbers of starters from the game and called lots of plays that chewed up the clock. Otherwise, this could have become a triple-digit nightmare.

"Our ones [starters] and twos [second-teamers] are kind of beat up," said Davenport.

Beaten up and semi-humiliated by a decision that valued money over sanity and, without realizing it, perhaps player safety, too.

19. Cha-ching -- Part II

Savannah State is an FCS program with little recent football pedigree. Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe starred at the school in the late 1980s, but the Tigers have won only 12 games during the past seven seasons. Davenport is the fifth different head coach since 2005.

The Tigers had no business signing up for matchups against 2011 Big 12 champion Oklahoma State or against a Florida State team that has been picked by some to reach the BCS Championship Game. Asked if he was consulted about this season's Savannah State schedule, Davenport paused and said, "You have to define, 'consulted.'"

Davenport understands why Steward agreed to these games -- the athletic department needs the money. But with only about 50 scholarship players available (he's funded for 63; compared to 85 for a major FBS program), Savannah State has zero chance to compete against college football sumo wrestlers such as Oklahoma State and Florida State.

"There's a real possibility we're going to face the same thing this week," said Davenport, referring to another 84-0 rout, or worse.

Florida State was originally scheduled to play West Virginia, but then had to go into scramble mode when the Mountaineers kneecapped the agreement at the last minute. FSU eventually settled on Savannah State and a $475,000 payout.

"In retrospect, we probably bit off a bit more than we could chew," said Davenport.

But Savannah State does get that combined $860,000 infusion of cash. And its players (at least, the guys still in one piece after this brutal one-two scheduling punch) can someday tell their kids they faced mighty Oklahoma State and Florida State in consecutive weeks.

So, I asked Davenport, is it worth it?

"No," he said. "I think embarrassment lasts a lot longer than $860,000. I might have said something different a week ago."

The scary part? Steward is interested in similar future arrangements.

18. Heisman Trophy race

Seated in the front row at Best Buy Theater:

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Kirby Lee/US PresswireUSC quarterback Matt Barkley is in the driver's seat for the Heisman.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley -- On the first play of the USC season, Barkley and Marqise Lee connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass. That's how you begin a Heisman campaign. He finished 23-of-38 for 372 yards and four TDs in the convincing win against Hawaii.

Wisconsin running back Montee Ball -- This is why the Badgers' coaching staff had a no-tackle rule when it came to Ball during spring and fall camp: 32 carries, 120 yards, one TD in Saturday's squeaker win against Northern Iowa.

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith -- Last season's game against Marshall was called early in the fourth quarter because of lightning. This season's opener could have been called because of Smith. I know Marshall isn't going to win the BCS championship, but it was a bowl team in 2011. Smith put up killer numbers (32-of-36 for 323 yards and four TDs) against the Thundering Herd. He also had 65 rushing yards and a score.

Keep a coat and tie handy:

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson -- I'm not going to go all wooooooo-pig-sooie just because Wilson put up big stats against Jacksonville State. His Heisman clock officially starts on Sept. 15, when the Razorbacks face Bama.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore -- Ask Vandy's defense if Lattimore's reconstructed ACL is OK.

Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell -- If I'm reading this right -- and I like to think that I am -- Bell had 50 touches in the opening win against Boise State (44 carries, 210 yards, two TDs, six receptions for 55 yards). Plus, he was a Spartan Stadium seat usher before the game.

Semi-sleepers:

Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas -- Whatever it costs for VT season tickets, Thomas is worth it.

Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas -- I'm not ashamed to admit it: I've got a man crush on a Duck.

Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei -- Is he going to win the Heisman? No. Would I want to try to block him? No. In the season opener against admittedly dreadful Northern Colorado (winless in 2011), Utah recorded its first shutout since 2007. Northern Colorado never crossed midfield, except for the pregame handshake.

Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- FSU scored seven rushing touchdowns in the blowout of Murray State, so Manuel didn't have to do much. Too bad his non-interception streak has ended. He threw his first one in 128 passes.

Thanks for stopping by the booth:

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson -- No matter what he does the rest of the season -- and he'll deliver some jaw-dropping performances -- it will be hard to forget what happened Sept. 1 against Alabama. I know: first game ... facing Bama ... no Fitzgerald Toussaint. But it's hard to win Heismans with an 11-of-26-for-200-yards stat line. And he had two interceptions. And just 27 rushing yards. And a belly flop performance on national television. That's not a good combo platter.

Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones -- OU looked sluggish in its opener against UTEP. Jones was OK (21-36-222 yards, two TDs), but for now, he's on Heisman nonfactor alert.

17. 500 words or less

The new playoff system, which becomes operative in 2014, will mark the end (cue the confetti) of a BCS selection process that is almost always good for a laugh. Or a primal scream.

And if we're lucky, it could also mark the beginning of the end of these ridiculously lopsided nonconference matchups.

We've discussed the Savannah State/OSU/FSU scheduling triangle. Or as one conference official put it, "Those aren't games, those are exhibitions."

The new playoff system -- or more specifically, the new playoff selection committee -- could have a significant impact on cupcake scheduling. In a perfect world, the committee's presence would make the heavy-hitter programs think twice about going the FCS scheduling route.

Or to put it in more practical terms:

Let's say Florida State and Notre Dame are battling it out for the fourth and final spot in the playoff bracket. The Seminoles finish the regular season undefeated, but two of their wins are against FCS opponents Murray State and Savannah State. They also go on to win their conference championship game for a 13-0 record.

Notre Dame finishes 11-1 (it loses on the road to No. 1-ranked USC by, say, a late field goal), but it has a more difficult overall schedule (with no FCS opponents). Who gets the final playoff spot?

If the committee has a conscience -- and some stones -- then Notre Dame will be in the playoff and FSU won't.

Strength of schedule used to matter. Or at least it used to matter more than it does today. And quality wins did, too. And quality losses.

But it's time to reward programs (and there are not many of them) that haven't dumbed down their schedules in search of easy wins.

I give huge props to Alabama, Michigan, Auburn, Clemson, Michigan State and Boise State for scheduling a nonconference toughie. The rest of, say, Bama's non-SEC schedule isn't much (Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, FCS-member Western Carolina), but it did take a major risk by playing then-No. 8 Michigan.

It's easy to play easy opponents. It's more revealing of a program's character when the schedule has some pecs and muscle mass.

If you're a team trying to win a national championship, then you should try to play programs with similar aspirations. And if you do, it should be one of the major tiebreakers for a selection committee in charge of finding the four best teams in the country -- and not necessarily four teams with the best records.

The committee isn't here yet, but here's hoping it has the nerve to choose a one-loss team over an unbeaten team if the schedules warrant it. If you want the benefit of the doubt on a playoff selection coin flip, then go out and play somebody.

16. BMOP (Big Man On Podium)

"It's not even registering with us as far as this football team and what we're doing."

-- USC coach Lane Kiffin, during a Sunday teleconference, on the trickle-down effect of a recent Los Angeles Times story alleging extra benefits were provided to former Trojans running back Joe McKnight, as well as to a former USC basketball player.

15. BMOP runner-up

"They hit like it was Sunday, not Saturday."

-- Unnamed Michigan follower after watching Alabama physically dominate the Wolverines, 41-14.

14. We are ...

Now we'll see how strong and supportive the Penn State family really is.

[+] EnlargePenn State
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesWill the Penn State fans continue to show up if the Nittany Lions lose to Virginia?

A Beaver Stadium crowd of 97,186 crowd -- 10,000 below capacity -- showed up for Saturday's game against Ohio. It saw the Nittany Lions blow a 14-3 halftime lead and eventually losing, 24-14.

According to my colleague Ivan Maisel, who spent the entire week embedded in new coach Bill O'Brien's program, the staff was devastated by the defeat. You could see that in O'Brien's face and hear it in his comments after the game.

For a program in dire need of good news, the loss to Ohio was another in a long line of fortune cookies whose message read, "Today will be worse than yesterday."

Penn State didn't beat Ohio because, frankly, Ohio was the better team. O'Brien would be the first to give the Bobcats the necessary credit.

But you can't tell me the cumulative effect of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the lingering emotions surrounding the firing and death of Joe Paterno, the shock and awe of NCAA sanctions and the departures of nine Penn State players via transfer didn't contribute to the loss to Ohio.

If you believe in such things, Penn State is a 10-point underdog at Virginia this Saturday. But if they scuffle again, and even lose to the Cavaliers, then what? A Penn State crowd of 87,000 (and dropping) at Beaver Stadium come Sept. 15 against Navy?

I think the Nittany Lions will beat UVa, then Navy and then Temple before they start Big Ten play. But this will be a long, trying season in the second of many long and trying seasons to come for Penn State.

13. Why Vegas sends a limo for me

Not only did I not have Ohio over Penn State on my short list of possible upset specials last week, but I whiffed (what a shocker) when it came time to make the big pick: Auburn over Clemson.

But I'm here for you this week.

Thought Hard About: Miami over K-State and Duke over Stanford (the Trees looked awful against San Jose State and could be looking ahead to the Sept. 15 USC game).

Went with: UCLA over Nebraska.

This is nothing against Nebraska. I'm sweet on the Huskers this season but remain concerned about the knee injury to I-back Rex Burkhead, the two-time-zone trip to Los Angeles and a better-than-you-think UCLA team that gets a couple of extra days to prepare.

12. The picks

There are so many hideously lopsided matchups (Savannah State at Florida State ... Western Kentucky at Alabama ... Austin Peay at Virginia Tech) that I'm not going to bother with all of the Top 25 teams. Play somebody and then we'll talk. Until then:

Ohio State over Central Florida, Kansas State over Miami, Oklahoma State over Arizona, Stanford over Duke, Vanderbilt over Northwestern, Notre Dame over Purdue, Wisconsin over Oregon State, LSU over Washington, UCLA over Nebraska, Georgia over Missouri, Michigan over Air Force, Florida over Texas A&M, USC over Syracuse, South Carolina over East Carolina, Penn State over Virginia.

(Last week's record: 21-1. Overall: 21-1)

11. 250 words or less

Every so often you see a player whose talent is an instant revelation. May I present to you Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle (pronounced, Core-darryl) Patterson.

[+] EnlargeCordarrelle Patterson
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireTennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson showed his explosiveness Friday night against NC State.

In the Volunteers' 35-21 win last Thursday against North Carolina State, Patterson beat All-American David Amerson on a 41-yard touchdown reception -- and he did it despite running the wrong route.

Later, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Patterson scored on a 67-yard end-around by outrunning Amerson, who initially had a tackling angle.

"I'm not surprised one bit," said Tommy Mangino, the offensive coordinator at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, where Patterson played. "Not one bit."

Patterson is one of the reasons why Tennessee coaches weren't devastated when All-SEC receiver Da'Rick Rogers was recently dismissed from the team (Rogers transferred to Tennessee Tech). After seeing Patterson against NC State, it's obvious why they weren't.

Mangino, the son of former Kansas coach Mark Mangino, said Patterson's skill set is mind-boggling.

"I've been around some football players before," he said. "But I've really never seen anybody like him. He can do everything."

Patterson didn't qualify academically out of high school, didn't play in 2009, but eventually signed with Hutchinson and became a two-time juco All-American. Just 4 minutes and 29 seconds into his Tennessee career, he scored a TD. Fun.

"He didn't come from a lot," said Mangino. "His mom and sister have been there for him. No father figure in his life. ... He's a great kid."

10. BMOC player of the week

The finalists: Michigan State's Bell, USC's Lee, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, Tennessee's Patterson, Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib and West Virginia's Smith.

And the winner is ... Lee.

He catches a TD pass on the first play of the game. He scores on a 100-yard kickoff return. He finishes with 10 receptions and 197 yards.

9. BMOC coach of the week

[+] EnlargeFrank Solich
Andrew Weber/US PresswireFrank Solich deserves major kudos for Ohio's monumental win over Penn State.

The finalists: Alabama's Nick Saban, Ohio's Frank Solich, Oklahoma State's Gundy (for humanitarian reasons), Savannah State's Davenport and Youngstown State's Eric Wolford (the FCS program stunned Pitt 31-17 for its first win against an FBS school since 2000).

And the winner is ... Solich.

Say what you will about the state of Penn State football right now, but underdog Ohio won on the road and against a Mt. Rushmore program. It's the biggest win in school history.

8. Ohio upset -- the aftermath

Students on the Athens campus have erected a life-size Lego statue of Solich and there is a movement to rename the stadium in his honor.

No, not really.

But the school did open its ticket offices on Sunday and Monday, all in hopes of getting a post-Penn State-upset sales bump. They got it, too.

The Bobcats, a member of the MAC, have a comfortable but modest football budget. That's why they bussed to State College -- six hours there, six hours back.

Here's guessing the return trip seemed much shorter.

7. The replacements

They say you always want to be the guy following the guy who replaced a legend. Nick Florence might disagree.

Florence, who replaces Heisman winner Robert Griffin III in the Baylor lineup, made his 2012 debut Sunday and finished with 341 passing yards and four touchdowns in the blowout of SMU. Soon he'll be wearing funny-looking socks.

Meanwhile, Stanford's Josh Nunes, who won the Replace Andrew Luck Sweepstakes, struggled in the ugly season-opening win against San Jose State. He was 16-of-26 for 125 yards and one touchdown. The Cardinal were 2-of-13 on third downs.

Case Keenum set about 1,000 NCAA passing records during his career at Houston. His successor, sophomore David Piland, is off to a slightly rougher start. He was 17-of-44 for just 211 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a stunning 30-13 home loss to first-year FBS member Texas State.

6. BMOC bad citizen of the week

There is only one finalist: Notre Dame (for now) radio analyst Allen Pinkett.

You've seen the quotes from his interview with Chicago's WSCR-AM:

"I've always felt like to have a successful team, you've got to have a few bad citizens on the team. That's how Ohio State used to win all the time. They would have two or three guys that were criminals and that just adds to the chemistry of the team. I think Notre Dame is growing because maybe they have some guys that are doing something worthy of a suspension which creates edge on the football team."

And: "You can't have a football team full of choir boys. You get your butt kicked if you've got a team full of choir boys, so you've got to have a little bit of edge."

Pinkett was sent home from Dublin, Ireland, before Notre Dame's season opener against Navy. Let's hope it was a middle seat, in the last row, next to the lavatory. Pinkett was suspended Tuesday for three games.

5. If there were a playoff

(And there will be in two more years ...)

Shoulder Pad Bracket:

Alabama vs. Oregon

The matchup hasn't changed from a week ago because the rankings haven't.

Chin Strap Bracket:

USC vs. Florida State

See above.

4. BMOC worst loss of the week

The finalists: Penn State loses to Ohio, Houston loses to Texas State, Pitt loses to Youngstown, Cal loses to Nevada and William & Mary loses to Maryland (and, yes, I know Bill & Mary is an FCS program playing in Maryland's Snake Pit, but it had the lead with less than 10 minutes left to play).

And the winner (sort of) is ... Houston. So crushing was the defeat to Texas State that Houston's offensive coordinator resigned Monday.

3. Roll Tide

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesT.J. Yeldon is the latest and greatest in the recent line of outstanding Alabama running backs.

Here's why Alabama has the best chance to win a second consecutive national championship and a third in four years: roster depth with lots of future pros.

Bama has them, most others don't.

For example, Bama's recent family tree of running backs has gone from Mark Ingram to Trent Richardson to Eddie Lacy. Except that Lacy was dinged up entering the Michigan game, so he played sparingly (nine carries, 35 yards).

No problem. Saban simply opened up a can of freshman T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 111 yards and one TD on just 11 carries. And just for fun, Yeldon caught a pass for 26 yards.

Said Bama All-American center Barrett Jones: "I think he might be the next one in a great line of backs." And: "We have a chance to have a really, really explosive offensive."

Scary.

2.Two-liners

I mean this in the nicest possible way, but Northwestern's new jerseys look like something the Wildcats got cheap at Play It Again Sports. One writer said they resembled the Montreal Canadiens unis. ... USC's Barkley and Lee chirped at each other during the Hawaii blowout. Trojans coach Lane Kiffin told reporters to move along, nothing to see here. ... Is it just me or did Syracuse and Vanderbilt get jobbed by questionable late calls and non-calls. A missed pass interference call against South Carolina will give Vandy coach James Franklin nightmares for weeks, months, years to come. ... I'm sure Penn State is going to be thrilled that Nittany Lion transfer Silas Redd had a combined 97 rushing/receiving yards and a TD in USC's win against Hawaii. Penn State could have used him against Ohio.

1. The BMOC top 10

No. 10: Georgia (1-0)
If you're going to schedule Buffalo (the Bulls have averaged three wins over the past three seasons), then you had better be impressive in the win. The Bulldogs led by only eight at half and gave up 199 rushing yards.

No. 9: Oklahoma (1-0)
I want to believe in the Sooners, I really do. But the performance against 30-point underdog UTEP tests my commitment. Tied, 7-7, at halftime and ahead by only three going into the fourth quarter? Gave up 177 rushing yards to sophomore Nathan Jeffery, who was making only his second career start? OU has some work to do.

No. 8: Nebraska (1-0)
Senior I-back Rex Burkhead's knee injury (sprained MCL) is a downer, but Taylor Martinez's five touchdown passes and career-high 354 yards should force critics to hit the mute button -- for now. Martinez's 76.5 completion percentage (26 of 34) against Southern Miss is 20 percentage points higher than his 2011 completion rate.

No. 7: Ohio State (1-0)
Urban Meyer says Braxton Miller is "arguably" the most athletic quarterback he's ever coached. If Miller takes advantage of Meyer's spread offense, there won't be any argument. But memo to Buckeyes: don't sleep on Saturday's opponent, Central Florida.

[+] EnlargeClemson Tigers
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireClemson earned bonus points for taking on and beating a quality team in Week 1.
No. 6: Clemson (1-0)
Hey, a team that actually beat someone with a pulse! Even without star wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Clemson squeezed by Auburn in a town (Atlanta) where it usually stinks it up.

No. 5: LSU (1-0)
New starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger did OK in his debut (192 yards, one TD pass, one goal line interception). But his life was made easier by Tigers' running game (316 yards in 27-point win against North Texas).

No. 4: Oregon (1-0)
The Ducks led Arkansas State 50-3 by the pregame meal. (OK, by near the end of the first half.)

No. 3: Florida State (1-0)
Starting quarterback EJ Manuel was on the bench by the midway point of the third quarter in a rout of Murray State. And just for fun, keep count of FSU's sack total this season. The Seminoles already have six. But the loss of defensive end Brandon Jenkins is going to be felt.

No. 2: USC (1-0)
The L.A. Times scored more often against USC in its recent story on alleged 2009 NCAA violations than Hawaii did.

No. 1: Alabama (1-0)
You should have seen Michigan's players as they walked down the stadium corridor and toward their locker room after the 41-14 loss to Bama. The Wolverines had blank, vacant faces, as if they had just been told they were relocating to Columbus. I know it was just the first game, but the Tide treated Michigan like a Cocker Spaniel puppy ("Sit. Stay. Roll over.") Bama was scary-focused.

(Five on the fringe: Michigan State, West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee.)

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter