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Thursday, September 9, 2004
Updated: September 21, 4:46 PM ET
For Argument's Sake

From upset specials to the latest rumors to dark-horse national title contenders, Ivan Maisel and Gene Wojciechowski resume their weekly arguments and go head-to-head to talk about the hottest topics in college football.

3 Nagging Questions | Myles Brand For A Day | Rumor Of The Week | Soapbox Moment | Just A Thought Whatever Happened To. . . | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing

LSU's Nick Saban has to choose between redshirt freshman quarterback JaMarcus Russell or senior Marcus Randall. Who should he stick with?
Those of us who had midseason in the JaMarcus Coming Out Party pool thought our tickets were no good when the redshirt freshman started the second half against Oregon State. Russell's ability to lead the Tigers could be seen between his so-so numbers (9-26-0, 145 yards, two touchdowns). He led LSU back from a 15-7 deficit, and the temptation to give the 6-foot-5, 236-pound Russell the team is too enticing for some Tiger fans to resist.

Still, what's the rush? Randall is not a bum, despite his numbers (7-18-1, 66 yards). Drawing conclusions from one game is for the knee-jerk fan. It may just be that Oregon State is pretty good. It may just be that Randall is the perfect vehicle to bring Russell along at an unhurried pace. Coach Nick Saban said Monday that the Tigers are a two-quarterback team for now. He knows what Randall can do, and he knows what Russell will do someday.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley was chatting with Saban on the field before the game. Riley said he pointed out Randall and said, "Your new quarterback is athletic."

"Yeah," Saban replied, "but the guy over here," pointing out Russell. "He's not ready yet, but he's gonna be a good one."

"Wow," Riley recalled, "what a body. He played with a lot of poise and did a good job. I've never seen a guy that big be as nimble."

Russell has the tools. Let him learn without forcing it down his throat.

At the Tigers' football offices a receptionist greets callers with, "National champions LSU, how can I help you?" If they want any chance of repeating the phrase in 2005, I'd start Russell.

This isn't anything personal against Randall, it's business. Randall, who won the job fair and square after spring and fall workouts, started last Saturday evening's game against Oregon State and completed 7-of-18 passes for 66 yards and one interception in the rain slop. He was pulled for Russell, who threw two touchdown passes, ran in a two-pointer, but only completed 9-of-26 for 145 yards, but no picks. When he got dinged up late in the game, Randall is the one who put LSU ahead with a 5-yard TD run in overtime.

But if not for three missed extra points by Oregon State's Alexis Serna, LSU's hopes of a two-peat might already be in the dumper. Saban knows his team gritted it out against OSU. He also knows it lucked out too.

If I were Saban (which means I'd have a full head of hair and some serious coin in my bank account), I'd give most of my practice reps and Saturday's start against Arkansas State to Russell. But Saban, who called in both quarterbacks to his office Sunday, has already decided to split the reps and make a decision on a starter later in the week.

I understand Saban's dilemma. Randall is a senior, and there's a certain loyalty owed to an upperclassman. Plus, Randall's experience might allow the Tigers to use more of their offensive scheme. Was Russell appreciably better than Randall in the near loss? Nope, but that's not the point. The question should always be: Who gives you the best chance of winning? In this case, short term and long term, the answer is Russell.

Look at the schedule. Arkansas State, fresh from a 32-point loss at Missouri, comes to Death Valley. This is the perfect opportunity for Saban to give Russell lots of quality time, in a home environment, against a lesser team. Consider it an investment because the following week the Tigers travel to Auburn, then two weeks later go to Georgia, and then Florida after that. Somehow survive that Shawshank Redemption crawl through the sewer pipe and now you've got a seasoned quarterback ready for a much friendlier stretch run against Troy, Vandy, Alabama and Ole Miss (all four games at Baton Rouge), and a regular season finale at Arkansas. And if Russell gags against Arkansas State, or struggles at Auburn, then you still have Randall as a safety net.

Russell is the equivalent of a 'Vette with a coat of Turtle Wax on him. He just needs to be polished up a bit. Hard to get buffed up on the bench.
You're a Notre Dame fan and you've got a ticket to Saturday's game against Michigan. Do you go, or stay home and chew glass?
Notre Dame went to great lengths to rearrange its schedule at the 11th hour in order to move its Brigham Young game to Sept. 4, so that the Irish would have a game before Michigan comes to South Bend this week. Be careful of what you wish for.

Notre Dame's running game disintegrated in the mountain air, gaining 11 yards in 21 carries. Take out the sacks, and the true numbers, 32 yards in 18 carries, aren't much better. Admittedly, BYU's 3-3-5 defense is built to sow confusion among the offensive linemen. Notre Dame's veteran blockers looked lost Saturday night. There wouldn't have been holes there even if Irish starting tailback Ryan Grant had played.

Cougars defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall pointed out that BYU finished 14th in the nation in total defense last year, even as the team went 4-8, and that they had 10 months to prepare for the Irish, who beat the Cougars last year, 33-14.

"They (the Irish) are talented," Mendenhall said. "That night our kids played with physical and emotional output that exceeded what their guys had. The difference in the game is effort. Our defense is high risk. Our risk management is conditioning. To be a pressure team and not be in shape is a liability. Our players were trying as hard as they could for a longer time. That made us seem faster. We're really not that fast."

Notre Dame also came out on the losing end of the special-teams battle, although props must be given to the Cougars' punter and placekicker, Matt Payne, who made field goals of 44 and 53 yards and dropped six punts inside the Irish 20.

Michigan stifled a Miami (Ohio) team with relative ease, and it's hard to imagine that any Wolverine team would take an Irish team for granted. Notre Dame is looking an 0-2 start square in the face.
No, you stay home and piece together jigsaw puzzles of Joe Montana and Ara Parseghian.

What? Of course, you go to the game.

You go because there are few, if any, better places to watch a game than Notre Dame Stadim.

You go because eight of the last 13 games between ND and Michigan have been decided by five points or less.

You go because the average margin of victory in the series since 1978 (not counting last season's Michigan blowout at the Big House) is 6.6 points.

You go because you can't swing Chris Fowler without hitting an ESPN Classic-caliber moment in this series.

You go because Notre Dame's 20-17 loss at BYU and Michigan's 43-10 win at home against Miami (Ohio) are both deceiving.

You go because Irish tailback Ryan Grant, who missed the BYU game because of a hamstring injury, is expected to return.

You go because ND sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn completed 26-of-47 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown, despite little or no pass protection. Just think if the Irish O-line actually figures it out.

You go because Miami (Ohio) trailed by only 14 early in the fourth quarter and were driving for another score when free safety Ernest Shazor returned a gimme interception for a Michigan TD.

You go because David Underwood is no Chris Perry, because Michigan averaged less 3.0 yards per carry against the RedHawks, and because Notre Dame has given up 100 rushing yards just 11 times in the last 26 games.

You go because ND is 6-4-1 against Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium.

You go because Touchdown Jesus will know if you scalp the ticket.

You go because what happens if the Irish pull off the upset?
Which one of these 0-1 teams (Washington, Texas A&M, Syracuse, Hawaii, or Michigan State) will recover in time to salvage its season?
First of all, none of these teams came into the season burdened by expectations of contending for their respective conference championships.

OK, enough with the disclaimer.

The Spartans are the only team that had a winning record last season, and graduation losses left coach John L. Smith with a lot of rebuilding to do, so cut them some slack. It's too early to say whether this is the year that Rutgers gets over its decade-plus hump. But it's possible, which means this loss may not be as embarrassing as it first appeared.

As for the others, it wasn't the losses so much as the margins that surprised. Fresno State and Utah are the top two contenders to gain a BCS bid from whatever we're calling the don't-call-us-non-BCS conferences. Offseason enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Huskies and the Aggies have some rebuilding to do, and have begun to do it.

The Syracuse staff came into this season having barely escaped being fired after last season's 6-6 record. Athletic director Jake Crouthamel did his best Atticus Finch imitation after last season when he told the fans who wanted coach Paul Pasqualoni's head to turn around and go home. Crouthamel directed Pasqualoni to make some staff changes.

One game is not a fair measure. Syracuse has always been a slow-starting team. But even Pasqualoni said after the game that the Orange, in his hip-to-be-square words, had laid an egg. Pasqualoni threw in his lot with freshman quarterback Joe Fields, who looked a lot better than the Syracuse defense, which made Boilermaker quarterback Kyle Orton look like John Elway.

The Orange's schedule is not that daunting -- for every Virginia and Florida State, there's a Buffalo and a Temple -- but that leaves Pasqualoni with no excuse. Syracuse is clearly the team in the most trouble, and the clock is ticking on getting it fixed.
Does none count as an answer?

Yikes. U-Dub gets dissected by Frenso State at home like a lab frog. Texas A&M's defense can't stop Reveille from scoring a touchdown these days. Syracuse has locomotive marks from Purdue's 51-0 victory. Hawaii lost in overtime at home to a Florida Atlantic team that isn't even a full-fledged D-IA program (FAU was I-AA in 2003, a transitional member in 2004). And Michigan State played so poorly against Rutgers that MSU coach John L. Smith might scale Mt. Kilimanjaro again -- and jump.

But if I have to pick one team with the best chance of finishing .500 or better I'll go with the Spartans, though my heart isn't really in it.

Look, Smith didn't win the Big Ten Coach of the Year honors by accident. He knows what he's doing. But going on the road with a young team, with a new quarterback, against improved and psyched-up Rutgers was a Julia Childs recipe for a loss.

This isn't the first time Michigan State has stumbled early against a lesser-regarded opponent. The Spartans lost to Louisiana Tech in Game 3 last season and then won five straight. Given MSU's schedule in the coming weeks (Central Michigan, Notre Dame, at Indiana, at Iowa, Illinois), a 3-2/4-1 stretch isn't out of the question.

Right now, three quarterbacks are listed atop the depth chart -- fifth-year senior Damon Dowdell, sophomore Drew Stanton and redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves. If the more talented Stanton can overcome a nagging knee injury, he'll be the guy. And Reaves certainly has the arm and pedigree (he's the son of former Florida All-American John Reaves) to run Smith's pass-happy system.

There are other issues, including a lingering knee injury to linebacker Seth Mitchell (he missed the Rutgers game). But the Spartans still have a boffo receiving corps and an impressive special teams game.

Will it be enough? Just barely.