Commentary

Old-man ball, B1G defense and more

Originally Published: September 11, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

This week's top 20:

20. Heisman Trophy race

Seated in the front row at Best Buy Theater:

• USC quarterback Matt Barkley -- A road win and six touchdown passes on your 22nd birthday is no small thing. But I think even Barkley would tell you he's had better games than Saturday's against Syracuse (187 yards on 23 completions).

• West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith -- He'll put up cartoon numbers this week against Football Championship Subdivision member James Madison. But his make-or-break Heisman game comes Oct. 6 -- at Texas.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Franklin
Cal Sport Media/AP PhotoUCLA running back Johnathan Franklin leads the nation in rushing after two games.

• UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin -- Two games, two UCLA wins and 431 rushing yards to lead the nation. Franklin averages 10.5 yards per carry. Is that any good?

• Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones -- Jones plays "Grown Man Football," not "Old Man Football."

• Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning -- Give me one good reason why not. Has any other quarterback this season led his team to a bigger win than Browning?

• Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- Wait until he really figures out Urban Meyer's offense.

Keep a coat and tie handy:

• South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore -- Steve Spurrier wanted the Gamecocks' passing game to stretch its legs against East Carolina, so Lattimore got only 13 carries (he scored once).

• Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell -- Not a huge day against Central Michigan, but solid enough (70 yards, two TDs). Saturday night's prime-time game at home against Notre Dame is a Heisman candidate's dream.

• Clemson running back Andre Ellington -- Not more than 10,000 angry Clemson fans told me I was an idiot for not including Ellington after the 228 yards he gained against Auburn in the opener. All better now? Ellington had only 41 yards in the latest win, against Ball State, but he scored twice.

Semi-sleepers:

• Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas -- Just plugs along.

• Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas -- Fresno State hadn't seen anything that fast since high-speed Internet. Thomas needed just seven carries to rush for 102 yards (including scoring runs of 39 and 51 yards). He averaged 14.6 yards per carry, which is just 4.4 yards fewer than what Savannah State gained total on the ground against Florida State. And a shoutout to Thomas teammate Kenjon Barner, who had 201 yards and three TDs in the same win against Fresno.

• Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- He played one quarter against Savannah State (long enough to throw for 161 yards and three TDs) before getting the hook.

• Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson -- Had double 200s against Air Force (218 yards rushing, 208 yards passing). Eases the pain of the Bama memory.

Thanks for stopping by the booth:

• Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson -- Whatever chance the battered Wilson had at making a Heisman run was vaporized during the loss to Louisiana-Monroe.

19. Savannah State -- the carnage

If it were up to Savannah State athletic director Sterling Steward Jr., he'd schedule the New England Patriots, provided they offered a big enough guarantee. Steward is all about the money, which is how he justified the preposterous pair of consecutive slaughterhouse road games that SSU lost by a combined score of 139-0.

Sept. 1: Oklahoma State 84, Savannah State 0.

Sept. 8: Florida State 55, Savannah State 0.

The loss at FSU would have been a lot worse had lightning storms not caused officials to call the game with 24 minutes still remaining in the second half. As it was, they were using a running clock for parts of the game.

In short, they imposed the mercy rule.

Anyway, whatever SSU is paying second-year coach Steve Davenport, it's not enough. And the next time Steward schedules one of these laughers, he ought to have to play in it.

"Playing these types of games gives Savannah State University national exposure and propels our name and brand onto the national circuit," Steward said in an email response to a handful of questions.

Your brand? Your brand might have had difficulty beating Florida State's walk-ons. Your brand played hard and honorably, but it had negative integers of a chance to compete against FSU. Your brand became a college football punch line.

18. Savannah State -- Part 2

The Tigers should change their nickname to the Sacrificial Lambs. Steward put Davenport and those 50 scholarship players in an impossible, humiliating situation not once, but twice.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Melina Vastola/US PresswireWeather might be the official cause but Florida State essentially mercy-ruled Savannah State.

"With Florida State located in an area where we recruit heavily, it gives potential student-athletes an opportunity to see that we are not hesitant to play some of the best schools in the country," Steward said. "We are a FCS school that is willing to accept opportunities to play these type of games."

Translation: If your check clears, we'll play you.

I get it: Steward has an athletic department to support. Enrollment at SSU is 4,300. The stadium seats 8,500 but is rarely full. And there are Football Bowl Subdivision schools handing out winning lotto tickets in the form of guaranteed appearance money.

"Our plan is to play two FBS opponents each year," Steward said.

The plan needs some work. Not only did Steward schedule the defending Big 12 champion Cowboys and the now-fifth-ranked Seminoles, but he bungled the money part of it.

Yes, Savannah State got $385,000 from Oklahoma State and $475,000 from Florida State for a gross total of $860,000.

But in order to play FSU, Steward first had to break his contract with FCS opponent Northern Iowa, which was scheduled to play Savannah State on Sept. 8 at Cedar Falls, Iowa. And get this: Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen said he didn't know SSU had backed out until he happened to see a copy of Florida State's 2012 schedule earlier in the year.

UNI was going to pay Savannah State a $150,000 guarantee, but Steward saw he could get a better deal from FSU. Fair enough -- it happens these days. He got more money from Florida State (which was desperate for an opponent after West Virginia backed out of its game against the Seminoles) and saved perhaps as much as $75,000 to $100,000 in flight costs.

But by breaking the contract, Savannah State owed Northern Iowa a $200,000 buyout fee. However, Dannen said, instead of asking Florida State to pay UNI the $200k (which isn't an uncommon request in these sorts of arrangements), Steward said he'd pay the buyout out of SSU's guarantee.

So not only did he subject the football program to a pair of brutal and humiliating losses, but he potentially left that $200,000 on the table by not asking FSU to cover the buyout fee.

Understandably so, Savannah State has become a bit sensitive about the situation. During our recent visit to campus, a representative from the president's office and the university legal counsel monitored the interviews with players and Davenport. And the game analyst for SSU's radio station said he was instructed by the school to cancel a previously scheduled interview with us.

Anyway, we wish the best for Davenport, his staff and his players. They coach hard. They play hard.

Now that the MEAC schedule begins for SSU on Sept. 22 against North Carolina Central, maybe the Tigers will actually have a chance to win a game.

17. Welcome

Former Big 12 members Missouri and Texas A&M made their SEC debuts Saturday and lost. Now TCU, which is sort of the wandering nomad of college football, will make its Big 12 debut.

The Horned Frogs are on their fourth conference since 2000. They've done the WAC thing, the Conference USA thing and the Mountain West thing, and they almost did the Big East thing but decided on the Big 12.

Unlike with Mizzou and A&M, I like their chances to win their conference opener. TCU faces Charlie Weis' Kansas team in Lawrence.

16. BMOP (Big Man On Podium)

"I appreciated that and the 9 million other Bible verses people are sending me."

-- South Carolina backup quarterback Dylan Thompson, on the inspirational Bible verse Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier read to him before the game against East Carolina.

15. BMOP runner-up

"Fans, stay in the ballpark a little longer. The party will wait."

-- Spurrier to South Carolina fans who ditched the stadium early as the Gamecocks pulled away from East Carolina 48-10.

14. Old-man football

[+] EnlargeRicht and Richardson
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonAt least Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson apologized after the game to Mark Richt.

Mizzou defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson will go down in SEC history as the guy who dismissed Georgia's style of play as "old-man football."

Then the geezer Dawgs overcame a Missouri lead and won going away 41-20. Visiting Georgia fans happily chanted, "Old-man football," as UGA exerted control.

In case you're interested, it didn't take long for someone to break out the silk screen for "Old Man Football" T-shirts. In honor of the Bulldogs' performance, I'm ordering one today.

To Richardson's credit, he approached Georgia coach Mark Richt after the game and apologized for the comment. Class move by the kid.

13. Why Vegas sends a limo for me

I'm feeling pretty good about myself after taking UCLA over Nebraska this past week. But I'm humble enough to remember the first-week choice of Auburn over Clemson.

Thought hard about: Stanford over USC. (The game is at The Farm. ... Stanford's players were talking about the USC matchup minutes after the blowout win against Duke. ... USC had to go cross-country for the Syracuse game and now has another road game up the coast. ... The Trojans didn't look great against SU, blah, blah, blah. In the end, I think USC will ignite the afterburners against Stanford.) Even took a look at Ole Miss over Texas (but not for long).

Went with: Arizona State over Missouri.

I know the game is at Mizzou. But they're called "upset picks" for a reason. I'm counting on post-Dawgs syndrome.

12. The picks

Got it right with UCLA over the Bugeaters, Florida over Texas A&M and Georgia over Mizzou. Got kneecapped by Oklahoma State, Vandy, Penn State and Bucky Badger.

This week (and I'm not bothering with the obvious gimmes):

Bama over Arkansas, USC over Stanford, Florida State over Wake Forest, South Carolina over Alabama-Birmingham, Michigan State over Notre Dame, Texas over Ole Miss, Virginia Tech over Pittsburgh, Kansas State over North Texas, TCU over Kansas, Tennessee over Florida, Louisville over North Carolina, Wisconsin over Utah State, UCLA over Houston, Ohio State over Cal, Louisiana-Monroe over Auburn, BYU over Utah, Arizona State over Missouri.

(Last week's record: 11-4. Overall: 32-5.)

11. 250 words or less

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
Rich Barnes/US PresswireSilas Redd's current team, USC, got a win Saturday, but the former Penn State running back feels for his former teammates.

Another week, another loss in which the football gods stuck a pin in the Bill O'Brien voodoo doll.

Nobody deserves this kind of start: a home-opener upset loss to Ohio, followed by a 1-point road loss at Virginia (gruesome details below at BMOC item No. 4).

Meanwhile, at MetLife Stadium this past Saturday, former Penn State running back Silas Redd put together a 15-carry, 107-yard rushing day for his new team, USC.

When I told Redd the Penn State score, he sort of grimaced.

"Tough one," he said. "Tough one for those guys. They're strong guys. They're going to pull through."

Redd, who transferred to USC shortly before season's beginning because of the NCAA-Penn State fallout, is unfailingly polite and wishes the best for the Nittany Lions. But he's a Trojan now.

"On and off the field, I feel a great part of this team," he said. "I'm trying to contribute the best way I can to help my team win."

Redd, who is from Norwalk, Conn., had about 100 family and friends at USC's win against Syracuse. He actually didn't know the Trojans were going east until he was in camp with USC.

10. BMOC player of the week

The finalists: Louisiana-Monroe's Browning, USC wide receiver Robert Woods, Oregon's Barner, Georgia's Jones, Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Ohio State's Miller, Florida running back Mike Gillislee, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, Oregon State's defense, Michigan's Robinson, Notre Dame backup place-kicker Kyle Brindza, Sacramento State place-kicker Edgar Castaneda.

And the winner is ... Had a soft spot for Castaneda, a walk-on whose last-second field goal beat Colorado (and he got a scholarship after the game). But how can you not go with Browning, whose 481 yards of total offense (and 16-yard TD run in overtime) sent Soooie Nation into the fetal position? Answer: You can't.

9. BMOC coach of the week

[+] EnlargeTodd Berry
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesTodd Berry was an easy choice for BMOC's coach of the week award.

The finalists: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly (gutsy call to switch quarterbacks on the final ND drive of the game -- but it worked), Louisiana-Monroe's Todd Berry (hello, Arkansas coaching candidate list?), Georgia's Mark Richt (depleted roster because of suspensions ... tough road environment at Mizzou ... old-man arthritis), Savannah State's Steve Davenport (Mommy, Mommy, please make the bad athletic director stop scheduling these games), Sacramento State's Marshall Sperbeck, Oregon State's Mike Riley (he needed a big win; he got one over Wisconsin), UCLA's Jim Mora (look who's never lost a college game).

And the winner is ... Berry.

The voting wasn't even close. His team trailed 28-7 on the road to Arkansas. He OK'd seven fourth-down tries. (USA TODAY Sports' Mike Lopresti reports that during Berry's first two seasons at Louisiana-Monroe, he went for it on fourth down 60 times and converted nearly 50 percent of the tries.) Berry was fearless, and his team played the same way.

8. Real old-man football

Daniel Rodriguez is a freshman walk-on wide receiver at Clemson. In the Tigers' blowout win against Ball State on Saturday, Rodriguez caught a garbage-time pass for 4 yards.

Big deal, right?

Except Rodriguez is 24, served in Afghanistan and Iraq, received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star during his tours of duty, and now attends Clemson courtesy of the GI Bill.

After the game, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney stood in the middle of the locker room and began reciting the accomplishments of several Tigers stars. Then he remembered Rodriguez.

"And it took seven years and two wars, but Daniel Rodriguez finally caught his first ball in college football," Swinney said as Rodriguez's teammates applauded.

Before enrolling at Clemson, Rodriguez last played football in high school in 2005. The third-team receiver is also on Clemson's punt return and kickoff coverage teams.

7. Gator chomp at Rocky Top

As third games go, the Florida-at-Tennessee matchup has some serious Tabasco sauce to it.

Both teams are ranked. Both teams have a noteworthy road win on their résumés (North Carolina State, in Atlanta, for the Vols; Texas A&M for the Gators, although UF had to beat the Aggies at College Station). Both teams need this one. And so do both coaches.

Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp are feeling varying degrees of job heat these days. Dooley has less margin for error than Muschamp, but put it this way: You don't want to be on the losing end of this one.

Tennessee hadn't been in the national rankings since 2008. The Vols would like to stay there, but a loss to Florida likely would end all that.

Florida played so-so in the opener against Bowling Green and appreciably better as the game went on at A&M but now has a second consecutive road toughie. The good news: Muschamp said Monday that he expects Gillislee (groin strain) to start against UT.

Dooley, in his third season at Tennessee, and Muschamp, in his second year at Florida, have heard the chirping from the outside world. They know their seasons will be partly defined by what happens in Knoxville on Saturday night.

Someone asked Muschamp during his Monday news conference about duplicating the A&M performance against the Vols.

Said Muschamp: "I just want to win. If you win, it's well enough."

6. Leaders and Legends

I live in the Chicago area -- headquarters of the Big Ten -- but it's fairly well documented that when in doubt, I always say the SEC is the best college football conference on the planet.

However, the post-weekend bashing of the Big Ten is a tiny bit over the top.

Yes, the Pac-12 went 3-0 against the Big Ten on Saturday (Oregon State over Wisconsin, Arizona State big over Illinois and UCLA over Nebraska). And yes, the Big Ten finished 6-6 for the weekend. And yes, Iowa State held Iowa to just six points in the Cyclones' win.

But to put Saturday in perspective, let's remember that Wisconsin was never a stone-cold lock to win in Corvallis. To the contrary. That was an upset special waiting to happen, what with the trip west, the huge offseason coaching turnover on Bret Bielema's staff, the loss of quarterback Russell Wilson and, to a much lesser extent, the absence of any 2012 Oregon State game tape (the Beavers' opener against Louisiana-based Nicholls State was canceled because of Hurricane Isaac travel concerns). Plus, Oregon State played its beaver tails off.

Illinois had/has quarterback issues.

Nebraska had UCLA issues and was missing starting I-back Rex Burkhead (although the Huskers still rushed for 260 yards against the Bruins).

So it wasn't a great weekend for the Big Ten, but nobody in the league office is pushing to disband the conference. Ohio State had a nice win against Central Florida, Northwestern beat the SEC's Vanderbilt and Purdue played well enough to win at Notre Dame.

Still, at least one head rolled after Saturday. Mike Markuson's career as Wisconsin's O-line coach lasted exactly two games. He was dismissed Sunday by Bielema, who must be steaming when he sees the Badgers ranked 103rd in the nation in rushing.

5. If there were a playoff

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

Shoulder Pad Bracket:

Alabama vs. LSU

This is like one of those bar fights in "Road House." AJ McCarron would play the part of Patrick Swayze.

Chin Strap Bracket:

Georgia vs. USC

I get all goose-bumpy just looking at that matchup.

4. BMOC worst loss of the week

The finalists: Penn State loses to Virginia 17-16 (we might have to retire the award if this keeps happening -- the Nittany Lions were 1-for-5 on field goals, including a missed 42-yarder as time expired, and had a blocked extra point); Arkansas loses to Louisiana-Monroe 34-31; Miami loses to Kansas State 52-13; Wisconsin loses to Oregon State 10-7; Washington loses to LSU 41-3.

And the winner (sort of) is ... Arkansas.

Boom, goes the dynamite on the Razorbacks' season and probably any tiny hopes John L. Smith had of making this 10-month interim gig into a full-time promotion.

3. For what it's worth

ESPN's researchers reminded us that the last time Notre Dame played at Michigan State, two strange things happened: The Spartans won in overtime on a fake field goal that turned into a touchdown, and MSU coach Mark Dantonio later suffered a heart attack.

Nothing funny about heart attacks, but these games between Sparty and the Fighting Irish do tend to cause stress. Nine of the past 12 games have been decided by seven points or fewer.

Notre Dame won last year's meeting in South Bend 31-13.

2. Two-liners

Star wide receiver Sammy Watkins returns to the Clemson lineup after serving a two-game suspension -- not that the Tigers missed him. They only averaged 527 yards per game without him, and beat Auburn and Ball State. ... I don't know how many games Syracuse is going to win this season (the Orange are 0-2), but senior quarterback Ryan Nassib is as good as any passer you'll see in 2012. There isn't a throw he can't make. ... Really, Brian Kelly? Only two Notre Dame players were made available to the general media after the thrilling win against Purdue, and neither was named Tommy Rees or Kyle Brindza? ... All those folks who bet on the Savannah State-Florida State game (the spread was in the 70-point vicinity, depending on the sports book) got their money back. That's what happens when a game is called early enough. ... Didn't see this one coming: Penn State is 0-2 for the first time since 2001. The Nittany Lions finished 5-6 that season under Joe Paterno (and lost at Virginia). ... Houston lost its opener to Texas State and its offensive coordinator after one game, and then lost Saturday to Louisiana Tech 56-49. What a waste of a perfectly good performance by Cougars quarterback David Piland (580 passing yards, four touchdowns).

1. The BMOC Top 10

No. 10: Ohio State (2-0)
Next: California.
That was an underrated (but sometimes sloppy) win against Central Florida.

No. 9: Oklahoma (2-0)
Next: Kansas State, Sept. 22.
The Sooners basically got two bye weeks in a row: Florida A&M last week, open week this Saturday.

No. 8: South Carolina (2-0)
Next: Alabama-Birmingham.
The Head Ball Coach is feeling better about his passing game after the Gamecocks pitched it and caught it against East Carolina. Backup QB Thompson is the starter until Connor Shaw returns from a shoulder injury.

No. 7: Florida State (2-0)
Next: Wake Forest.
Now that the Seminoles' exhibition schedule is complete, FSU plays an actual FBS program. In the Seminoles' defense, they were supposed to play West Virginia this past week, but the Mountaineers canceled the contract.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell has carried Sparty to the BMOC's Top 10.

No. 6: Michigan State (2-0)
Next: Notre Dame.
Do I really think Sparty is better than the University of Jimbo? Not really. But I'm giving Michigan State BMOC points for beating somebody (Boise State in the opener).

No. 5: Oregon (2-0)
Next: Tennessee Tech.
Pacing itself until its Pac-12 opener against Arizona.

No. 4: LSU (2-0)
Next: Idaho.
Even the "Honey Badger," who sat in the stands, had to like the defensive effort in LSU's wipeout win of Washington.

No. 3: USC (2-0)
Next: at Stanford.
I was a little tough on the Trojans after the 42-29 win against Syracuse, but only because I care so much. They'll be a bit more engaged this week against the Cardinal. They've lost three in a row to Stanford, four of the past five. USC has never lost four consecutive games to Stanford -- and this series has been going on since 1905.

No. 2: Georgia (2-0)
Next: Florida Atlantic.
Came from behind on the road, with half the state of Missouri crammed into Faurot Field -- and did it without key defensive starters. What, you think we wouldn't notice? Huge quality win.

No. 1: Alabama (2-0)
Next: at Arkansas.
The Razorbacks might have been looking ahead to this game against Bama -- and ignored Louisiana-Monroe. The Crimson Tide won't be looking ahead to next week's Florida Atlantic matchup. Nick Saban probably has Bama convinced that Arkansas is the best squad since "Madden Ultimate Team."

(Five on the fringe: Louisiana-Monroe -- yeah, you read it right; West Virginia; Texas; Kansas State; Florida.)

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter