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Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Just For Argument's Sake ...

By Ivan Maisel

From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles the hottest topics in college football.

3 Nagging Questions | Soapbox Moment | Whatever Happened To ... | Hello, My Name Is ...
Just A Thought | Hidden Stat | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing

1. Can Les Miles coach with a big lead?
Les Miles
Les Miles is catching heat for Tennessee's Rally in the Valley.
You remember The Tortoise and the Hare? In four-plus seasons at Oklahoma State and LSU, Miles has played the hare so often, he ought to join SAG.

Take the 2002 opener against Louisiana Tech. The Cowboys scored a touchdown to extend their lead over the Bulldogs to 36-18 with 2:18 left in the third quarter. Tech junior quarterback Luke McCown, a future fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, threw for his second and third touchdowns of the game, and rushed for a score as well, rallying the Bulldogs to a 39-36 victory.

Or how about the Texas game last year? The Cowboys led 35-7 in the second quarter, only to watch helplessly as Longhorns quarterback Vince Young led Texas to 49 unanswered points.

Miles left Oklahoma State after last season to take over LSU. In the Tigers' second game of the season, they raced to a 21-0 halftime lead against SEC rival Tennessee, only to lose in overtime, 30-27.

By themselves, they are one-of-a-kind losses that could -- and have -- happen to anyone. The biggest lead ever overcome belonged to the coach of a defending national champion. In 1984, Jimmy Johnson's Miami team led Maryland 31-0 in the third quarter. The Terps came back to win 42-40.

Where did Johnson coach the previous year? Oklahoma State. Maybe it's something in the water in Stillwater.

Anyway, it can happen to anyone once. It has happened to Miles three times in five seasons. I called a head coach who has been on the sideline opposite Miles.

"I think Les is one of those guys who maybe gets a little too assuming that he's got things in his control," the coach said. "He gets a lead and thinks, 'This is good.' When things turn, it's too late to re-rally."

After the game, Miles referred to a loss of poise on the part of his offense in the second half. "When you're into your second game, you wish you would have played with the ability to finish, and we didn't," Miles said. "That's why we lost that game."

Plenty of teams have lost their SEC openers and gone on to win their division. Arkansas did so in 2002, and, lo and behold, LSU did it in 2001. In fact, the Tigers lost their first two in conference play. Not only did they go on to the SEC Championship Game, but they upset Tennessee, 31-20, and went on to the win the Sugar Bowl, 47-34, over Illinois.

The good news is, there's precedent for recovery. The bad news is Miles has a precedent of his own.

2. Is Marcus Vick the next Michael Vick?
Marcus Vick
Marcus Vick may turn out to be even better than his big brother.

He might be better.

And if you judge by which of the two brothers accomplished more four games into his career, there might not be any contest. Marcus has been more polished and more competent than his brother was as a first-year starter in 1999.

To be fair, Marcus had the benefit of being a backup quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 2003, when he played well enough to challenge Bryan Randall for the starting job late in the season. After being suspended from school for the fall semester a year ago, Vick didn't rejoin the team until last January.

Hokie quarterback coach Kevin Rogers raves about Marcus, but Rogers didn't coach Michael. Assistant head coach Billy Hite, who has been in Blacksburg for 28 years, gave Marcus a couple of significant advantages over his brother. Perhaps the biggest, Hite said, is that Marcus had the benefit of being able to learn from his brother.

"Michael was having to learn things on the run," Hite said. "Marcus can sit down in the video room and have Michael talk to him as he watches it."

The result is that Marcus doesn't have to rely on his physical skills nearly as much as Michael did.

"Marcus can handle so much more in the game plan than Michael could, it's unbelievable," Hite said. "Michael would call the wrong front and come out the wrong way and run an 80-yard touchdown. Marcus, in our game against [North Carolina] State, missed one check. He missed one check against Duke. With Michael, we didn't even hear the snap count the first three games. The linemen had to look at the ball. He wasn't loud enough. It was amazing what we went through. Most people don't realize it."

But Hite isn't willing to go all the way and say Marcus is better.

"Michael's the best I've ever seen," Hite said. "Marcus can do some things better. He's got a touch on the ball. Michael threw it 80 miles an hour whether the receiver was 10 yards away or 80. Marcus can throw between defenders and put it right on the money Michael was a leader by example. Marcus is a leader by example."

No more so, Hite said, than in the way he has acted since his return from his suspension.

"The best thing Marcus ever did was he went in the weight room this summer and came out a Super Iron Hokie. He is more vocal than Mike. Marcus saw the role Bryan Randall played. He's taken that on. I think he's confident a player. He has set expectations high and he's reaching them."

3. Has the Harris Interactive poll made the AP poll irrelevant?
My SportsCenter colleague Joe Schad and I had this discussion in the news room Tuesday as we juggled teleconferences, going onto the set of the ADT Coaches Spotlight Show, and writing columns. Typical Tuesday.

Joe wondered aloud why the AP poll is important anymore. The new Harris poll is now part of the BCS formula. The AP poll is not. What does it matter?

It's a logical question, and I don't know whether I surprised Joe with the vehemence of my answer, but I surprised me. Here's why the AP poll is more relevant than ever:

(Disclosure: I voted in the AP poll from 1987 until 2002. When I moved to ESPN, the AP gave my vote to someone else, because Chris Fowler was already voting. You could make a case that the sheer volume of ESPN's coverage merits two votes. I did not.)

The AP poll has history. It has been around since 1936. It is a traditional part of a sport that treats its traditions as sacred.

The AP poll has voters who are watching and writing about college football for a living. The sport is our vocation. It is not our avocation. The Harris poll has some writers, and good ones at that, guys who I know work hard and pay attention: Tommy Hicks of the Mobile Register, Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star, Mike Kern of the Philadelphia Daily News, Dave Newhouse of the Oakland Tribune, who I would guess has been to more Cal Bear football games than any 25 Bear alums.

But the Harris poll also has former players and coaches who are voting in their spare time. I would prefer that the sport's champion be decided by guys who aren't hanging out at a tailgate for three hours before they go watch their alma mater play, but that's just me.

I'm not that concerned that 0-4 Idaho got five votes in the inaugural poll, or that 2-2 Illinois received 13 votes in the same week that it lost at home to Michigan State, 61-14. I'm willing to give the Harris voters some slack for a couple of weeks. But I'm not going to pretend to be shocked by those votes.

The AP poll is in its 70th season, and the credibility it has earned through the years didn't evaporate last winter when the AP pulled the poll out of the BCS formula. All that meant is that the poll is no longer part of a formula concocted by a group of administrators who won't take responsibility for selecting the teams that should play in their sport's championship game.

The poll's credibility might not count for much at LSU, snubbed in 2003, or at Georgia Tech, snubbed in favor of Colorado in 1990. But it has been around far longer than the BCS has, and it will be around long after the BCS is dumped for some other system.