Just For Argument's Sake ...
From the best -- and loneliest job -- in the country to Houston Nutt's future to a cautionary tale to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles all the hot topics.
Originally Published: September 21, 2005By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com
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
Just A Thought | Hidden Stat | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing
That's easy. It's not LSU-Tennessee, USC-Oregon or even Notre Dame-Washington. It's the matchup of a pair of preseason All-Americans, sophomore wide receiver Calvin Johnson of No. 15 Georgia Tech vs. senior cornerback Jimmy Williams of No. 4 Virginia Tech.
Johnson burst onto the scene a year ago as a big, sure-handed receiver. At 6-4, 225, has the size to post up cornerbacks. Most college corners, anyway -- at 6-3, 212, Williams has size that only a few NFL corners possess. He is a fixture on the Hokies' boundary corner, which means that most quarterbacks have learned to look toward the field.
Both players, as you can imagine, are looking forward to the challenge of facing each other Saturday.
"It's going to be fun," Johnson said. "It will be good competition. I can't say how much I'll be matched up against him. I'm pretty sure I'll see him a lot."
You think? Williams thinks so, too.
"I watched about an hour of film today," Williams said Monday night. "He has great hands. Most of the passes around him, he catches. They tend to lay it up there and try to have him go get it. He's a great receiver, a great playmaker. It will be a a good opportunity to check him throughout the game."
Both players were vague on what may happen. Williams said he didn't know how much the coaches would want him to man up on Johnson and how much he would stick to the boundary.
Johnson said he had studied video to check out Williams' technique, but was coy about revealing what he learned.
"I'm not going to talk about his technique," Johnson said. "He's a big corner who makes plays. He's in the right place at the right time. It's very unusual to play against a corner that size. Most are 5-10, 5-11. I look forward to playing him. It's going to be tough, but I can do it because I've done that before."
Johnson recalled that he only saw Williams on a couple of plays last year, when Virginia Tech came back in the fourth quarter to win, 34-20. Johnson caught four passes for 51 yards, including a 27-yarder.
Both of them look forward to the typical Lane Stadium craziness on Saturday. It's a major ACC game and a big game for two ranked teams. The Williams vs. Johnson matchup will get their attention, too.
The Razorbacks' coach assessed the damage of the 70-17 loss at No. 1 USC earlier this week.
Houston Nutt's recent flirtations with other schools coupled with a slow start have him on the hot seat.
"Losing creates doubt and that's the toughest thing we have to face," Nutt said. "You've got to get confidence and keep believing in what you're doing. I really believe we still have a good football team."
Arkansas has suffered its toughest back-to-back losses since Nutt's first season, 1998, when an 8-0 start dissolved in a 28-24 loss to No. 1 Tennessee on quarterback Clint Stoerner's hand-of-God fumble late in the game that gave the ball to the Vols. The disheartened Hogs lost the SEC West title the following week in a 22-21 game at Mississippi State.
Disappointment is one thing. Embarrassment is another. First, Vanderbilt won at Razorback Stadium, 28-24, two weeks ago. No matter how good the Commodores turn out to be, the SEC faithful doesn't like losing to them. Remember the apoplexy in the Big Ten in 1995 when Northwestern made its way to the Rose Bowl?
Then came the deluge at Memorial Coliseum. Thousands of Hog fans made their way west. Unfortunately, they may never forget what they saw.
Nutt has gotten his teams to dig themselves out of holes before. In 2001, Arkansas began the season 1-3 and finished it in the Cotton Bowl. In 2003, the Razorbacks began 4-0, lost three straight, and rallied to finish 9-4.
This feels different. Arkansas lost five of its last seven last season, missing a bowl for the first time in Nutt's tenure. Three of the next four games are against ranked opponents: at No. 20 Alabama on Saturday, Auburn on Oct. 15, and at No. 7 Georgia on Oct. 22.
More important, Nutt used up a lot of goodwill over the last two seasons. He flirted with Nebraska in a very public way after the 2003 season before deciding to stay home. He made a brief run at the LSU job a year ago. That proved to be enough for the Hog in Winter, 80-year-old athletic director Frank Broyles, who didn't like Nutt making eyes at others.
And now this. Broyles has never been a patient man with his football coaches. In this day and age, six consecutive bowl games are old news. There's never a good time to have the school's worst loss since World War II. But Nutt has backed himself into a third-and-20. He is one of the most positive, optimistic coaches in the game. He'll have to rely on that in the weeks ahead.
"Now is when you find out about character and we'll really call on our seniors," Nutt said. "We've got to somehow bury that one and you have to go."
After an unsightly 3-0 start, even coach Bobby Bowden said his No. 6 Seminoles could just as easily be 1-2. But a comment made by Boston College coach Tom O'Brien in the wake of the Eagles' 28-17 loss to the Seminoles on Saturday night is worth dissecting.
"They won the first five and the last five minutes of the game," O'Brien said. "We had the other 50."
O'Brien meant that as a building block for his Eagles, who must rebound from an emotional loss in their first Atlantic Coast Conference home game and play at Clemson, one of the toughest venues in the league. But O'Brien's comment also says that Florida State, as young as it is, won at crunch time. That's a quality that most young players can't even define, much less display.
The Florida State defense won that crunch time. In the opening minutes, linebacker A.J. Nicholson intercepted one pass and returned it for a touchdown, and intercepted a second to set up a second touchdown. In the final minutes, Boston College ran off seven snaps inside the Seminoles 2-yard-line and failed to score.
That's a veteran-like performance by a team using more freshmen than any of Bowden's previous 29 Seminole squads.
"We're trying to get mystique back," Bowden said. "It's what I talked to my kids about. People say -- and rightfully so -- that Florida State has lost their mystique. Whatever that is, I'd like to get it back. It requires winning. So what do these young guys mean? It might mean you're getting that quality back that helped you dominate during the '90s."
Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka might have made a highlight for the ages when he chased down tailback Lorenzo Booker and swatted the ball out of Booker's grasp as he was about to score in the final minute of the third quarter, but the Seminoles persevered. That's another quality for which young players aren't well known.
Quarterback Drew Weatherford, the freshman who looked so out of his element against Miami and in the first half against the Eagles finished 20-of-38 for 243 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
In the fourth quarter, Weatherford completed 10-of-12 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.
It won't be all pretty from here. But it will be prettier.
"[Kenny] O'Neal is one of the most dangerous receivers we've got," Bowden said. "And we threw him about as simple a pass to him as we could throw. He stood there and our quarterback stuck it right in his numbers and he dropped it. That's not like him. He's not supposed to do that. But that's a freshman in a tight ball game. He'll learn from that. That's what happens when you put in all these freshmen. We started rotating them in there the other night and just took a chance that they didn't freeze. Some of them did and some of them didn't."
This is probably as good a week as any for the Seminoles to be off. There's a lot of teaching going on.
"So far so good," Bowden said. "We know we have to get better because the people we are going to play are going to get better."
Allen Barra, like me, grew up in the thrall of the late Alabama coaching legend Paul "Bear" Bryant, and, like me, moved away from Alabama as an adult. Barra has lived in the metropolitan area of New York for most of his adult life.
I bring this up because Barra has just released "The Last Coach" (W.W. Norton, $26.95), the first major biography of Bryant in nine years. "The Last Coach" is as personal a biography as I can remember reading, which is to say, Barra isn't shy about injecting himself into the text. Barra makes his love and respect for Bryant evident without turning the book into hagiography.
For anyone who doesn't remember -- or isn't old enough to realize -- what a colossus Bryant was, "The Last Coach" does a good job of sorting out what he accomplished. I consider myself a shade-tree expert on Bryant. I've written a little about him and read everything I can get my hands on.
The strongest part of the book, which is to say, the portion in which I learned the most, details the truck-farming poverty in which Bryant grew up in Arkansas and his years as a player at Alabama.
The coaching portion of "The Last Coach" breaks little new ground. It would be difficult for any biographer to come up with new angles on Bryant. The book does a serviceable job on his career.
The biggest problem I have with "The Last Coach" is editorial sloppiness. Among the misspellings: Don Schula, which should be easy, given that his son Mike is the current Alabama coach, and Theodore Hessberg, which may be the first time that Father Theodore Hesburgh, the retired president of Notre Dame, has been given a Jewish surname.
There also are a few factual errors that chip away at the book's credibility. Barra refers to Bryant backing a Republican in the 1978 Alabama gubernatorial race in order to avoid supporting former Auburn running back Fob James. The candidate Bryant supported, Bill Baxley, was a Democrat, and remains one. Bryant supported him in the primary. Or take the debut of the wishbone in the 1971 season opener, a 17-10 victory over USC. Barra tells the story at the beginning of Chapter 10, relating a scene from the day before the game, which he refers to as Friday, Sept. 9, 1971. He follows by saying, "The following afternoon on national television, ..." The day before the game was Thursday, Sept. 9. The game was played on Friday night, and it wasn't televised anywhere.
It's not fair to criticize a writer for the book he didn't write. I want someone to write a book that fully captures the personal side of Bryant. Barra refers to the charitable side of Bryant, but has no examples, because so much of it Bryant did anonymously. There are references to Bryant's offseason struggles with alcohol, and to womanizing, but Barra doesn't elaborate. Bryant's devoted following might be reluctant to discuss anything that would reflect poorly on him, and surely some of his flock doesn't want to read about it.
But plenty of larger-than-life men have had their human sides exposed without diminishing their legend. If the reputations of Franklin Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., can survive the examination of their human flaws, I think Bryant could stand it, too. That is a book I look forward to reading.
Meet Mr. End-of-the-NBA-Bench, the 10th alternate at a PGA Tour event. USC punter Tom Malone, a senior, can't get in the game.
USC's Tom Malone may be the loneliest player in college football.
"Good thing I'm a holder," Malone said after practice Monday night. "That's the only way I get on the field."
Lonely people in college football: the man in charge of the Kent State national championship parade, the Stanford ticket scalper, the USC punter.
Perhaps you remember Malone, a senior, a 2003 All-American, a two-time all-conference punter and a starter the last three years. When he began the season, one of every three of his 153 career punts went at least 50 yards.
USC has played two games. Malone didn't punt until about five minutes remained in the second one, the 70-17 victory over Arkansas. To be fair, a hip-flexor problem kept him out of the opener, but it's not as if USC needed him in that one, either, a 63-17 victory at Hawaii.
In 25 possessions this season, the Trojans have scored 19 touchdowns. The other six? One ended because of the half, one missed field goal, one turnover, one on downs and two punts.
Malone is teased by his teammates, who pester him about moving to tailback so he can play. But the question, sarcastic as it may sound, must be asked.
What does the punter do all game when the offense always scores?
"That's been the hardest thing since I've gotten here," Malone said. "It's easy to go in in the first quarter under pressure. The thing I've struggled with is being up by 60 points with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. The mental part, I've worked on. It is hard. It would be easy to watch the game as a fan. I have to stay in focus "
You know the tension that arises on third down? That's when a punter begins to channel his thoughts toward his ball drop and his leg swing. Hell, Malone barely got to do that Saturday night. USC only had eight third downs. The last couple of years, the second team struggled enough that Malone would get a good fourth-quarter workout in routs. This year, the backups have scored six touchdowns.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter of the Arkansas game, USC coach Pete Carroll asked Malone if he wanted to punt, or give the rest of the game to his backup, Taylor Odegard.
"I wanted to get in and see how I felt," Malone said. The punt went 31 yards. "I didn't hit it as well as I could have. The biggest problem is that at the beginning of the game, my leg gets loose. You can only kick into the net so much. I ride the bike, too."
Who is he kidding?
"It's a wonderful problem to have," Malone said.
... Keegan Herring.
Keegan Herring's emergence has been a boost for the Arizona State offense.
He might have a name like the anchor on the Harvard crew team. But the 5-10, 179-pound Arizona State freshman has gone from nowhere on the depth chart when August began to second in the Pac-10 in rushing (367 yards, three touchdowns, 9.2 yards per carry), thanks to his 197-yard, two-touchdown performance Saturday against Northwestern.
Herring is splitting duties with sophomore Rudy Burgess. But Herring looks so promising that coach Dirk Koetter believes that Burgess might return to his native position at wide receiver.
"Keegan Herring has been a huge lift to our football team," Koetter said. "His style of running is exactly what we needed. Rudy played 23 plays at tailback [against Northwestern] and had 11 touches, which is suited for his style. ... On paper, they are similar in size. Keegan has been a running back his whole life and is used to taking hits. They are both very talented."
Herring, a graduate of Peoria (Az.) High, earned the state player of the year award as a junior, and was a state sprint champion as a sophomore. An ankle injury knocked him out of four games as a senior. That didn't stop him or Arizona State from committing to each other early last fall. It looks as if both of them made the right decision.
The head coach returned to campus after a long career as an NFL assistant and head coach. He came back to bring together a divided fandom. And with great expectations, he lost a shocker to a much smaller school that made for embarrassing headlines. And he lost two other games to big-name opponents. All that fanfare, and the head coach was 0-3. Talk about being upset.
Dave Wannstedt at Pitt in 2005? Could be. It also could be Gene Stallings at Alabama. The former Crimson Tide assistant returned to Tuscaloosa after coaching the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. Alabama opened with a shocking 27-24 loss to to Southern Mississippi, which had a quarterback by the name of Brett Favre. Then Florida came to Tuscaloosa and won 17-13. The following week, the Tide blew a late lead and lost at Georgia, 17-16.
After that 0-3 start, Alabama won seven of its next eight and went to the Fiesta Bowl. From 1991-93, Alabama won 28 consecutive games, including the 1992 national championship.
Does that mean Pittsburgh will win it all in 2007? Probably not. But there's precedent that says the Panthers can turn it around. An overtime loss at Ohio and a one-point loss at Nebraska mean that Pitt is two plays away from being 2-1. Don't be too quick to write Pittsburgh off.
Washington's Kent Baer has been a defensive coordinator for nearly 20 years, and his favorite hidden stat is three-and-outs, that is, forcing a punt without allowing a first down.
"If you get a three-and-out 40 percent of the time, you're probably going to win. It's amazingly accurate," Baer said. "It could be less, one-and-out or two-and-out with a turnover. If we had had one more three-and-out against Air Force, we would have been over 40 percent. That means just one more stop."
That would have done it in a 20-17 loss to the Falcons on Sept. 3. Air Force, with its ball-control offense, had only seven possessions and Washington forced two three-and-outs (29 percent). The Huskies held Cal to 4-of-12 three-and-outs (33 percent), which, by Baer's standard, indicates a closer score than the 56-17 final. But the Bears scored touchdowns on seven of those other eight possessions.
Against Idaho last Saturday, the Huskies stopped the Vandals without a first down on six of 13 possessions (46 percent). That's how you win, 34-6.
Matt Leinart, USC: He played eight possessions and drove the Trojans to seven touchdowns. The other one? Three plays before the half.
Vince Young, Texas: Could have mentally taken the Rice game off and he didn't. Have to like that.
Reggie Bush, USC -- First two times he touched the ball: 76-yard touchdown run, 29-yard touchdown catch.
Laurence Maroney, Minnesota: After three-game exhibition season, Maroney gets first test against Purdue.
Drew Stanton, Michigan State: Can't figure out why he's not better known. Games like Saturday against Notre Dame might take care of that.
1. USC: The Trojans put on one of the great offensive shows of all time.
2. Texas: Here's how you know the Horns are for real: they came off the emotional Ohio State victory and took care of bidness against Rice.
3. Virginia Tech: Hokies have two shutouts, and extended their streak of seasons with at least one shutout to 11.
5. Ohio State: San Diego State gets 80-yard touchdown on first snap, 99 yards the rest of the game.
6. LSU: The Tigers have to relish seeing the Vols' offense struggle in The Swamp.
7. Georgia: Did the Dawgs take such a toll on South Carolina that the Gamecocks weren't ready for Alabama? Or are the Dawgs destined to struggle?
8. Florida State: Seminoles hope that Drew Weatherford came of age in the fourth quarter at Boston College.
9. Miami: All the Hurricanes did with that triple-overtime win at Clemson is save their season. Can you imagine them being 0-2 in the ACC?
10. Tennessee: Vol fans want to know: where was the power running game Saturday night?
No. 11 Purdue at Minnesota
The winner gets an inside lane in the Big Ten race. The loser uses up its margin of error. There's a lot at stake. The Boilermakers (2-0) began the season as the smart guy's pick in the conference. But their first two victories have been a bigger struggle than expected. Both Akron and Arizona, two teams that shouldn't be able to mess with a Big Ten contender, scored 24 points against a team with every defensive starter back.
No one, of course, takes the Golden Gophers (3-0) seriously as a contender. They have started each of the last three seasons with a 4-0 record, only to fizzle at a critical point, usually involving the Michigan Wolverines. Winning this game might not rev anyone's motor. But it would be significant for a couple of reasons.
First of all, Minnesota can't beat Purdue without defense, something the Gophs haven't had in recent years. The Boilers have a two-pronged attack. Quarterback Brandon Kirsch can throw, and last week, tailback Jerod Void showcased a rushing game good for 239 yards.
But in beating the three typically weak nonconference teams on the Minnesota schedule, the Gophs actually played some defense. The improvement can be traced to the Music City Bowl, when coach Glen Mason promoted secondary coach David Lockwood to defensive coordinator. Lockwood simplified the schemes and moved some players around.
Last spring, he took linebacker Brandon Owens and moved him to strong safety. The result has galvanized the defense. Owens is second on the team in tackles with 19, has an interception and a forced fumble. After both the Tulsa and the Colorado State, opposing coaches came up to Glen Mason and said, "Where'd you get No. 20?"
Second, a Minnesota victory would mean that tailback Laurence Maroney, the second-leading rusher (160.33 yards per game) in Division I-A, had a big game. Maroney is running behind an offensive line featuring two of the best offensive linemen in the nation, center Greg Eslinger and guard Mark Setterstrom.
"I know there may be a better running back out there," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said this week. "I don't know where he would be. They have an excellent offensive line, too."
This is a bigger game than anyone suspected. It may turn out to be the Boilers' toughest road conference game. That's how big a Purdue victory would be.
No. 1 USC at No. 24 Oregon
Nick Aliotti has been a defensive coordinator in the Pac-10 for 10 seasons, the last seven at Oregon. He's been an assistant coach for 30 years. He's a lifer. And he's never seen anything like he has to scheme against Saturday.
"Just got the monsters coming to town," Aliotti said Tuesday afternoon. "I thought in '94, when we were getting ready to play Penn State in the Rose Bowl when they had Kerry Collins, Kyle Brady, Ki-Jana Carter and a receiver named [Freddie] Scott, that was the absolute best team. But this is better. This is the best football team I've seen collectively in a long time. Ever."
Aliotti said he discussed with Ducks head coach Mike Bellotti the prospect of tricking up the defense for the Trojans but the risks involved would be significant.
"We can hopefully slow it down and keep everything in front of us and try to make them drive the field," Aliotti said.
That means zones and three-deep coverage and hope the Trojans, who needed only eight plays to score four touchdowns against Arkansas, get impatient. There's one issue with that. Aliotti described defending tailback Reggie Bush and his ability to line up at several positions as "Where's Waldo?"
"They move him around and try to get a linebacker on him," Aliotti said. "If I get a mistake on him, it's Katy Bar the Door."
Fresno State quarterback Paul Pinegar completed 33-of-43 for 413 yards in the Bulldogs' 37-34 loss to the Ducks last Saturday, which doesn't bode well for the arrival of Bush and his Heisman buddy, Matt Leinart. Oregon might be bolstered by the return of its best pass rusher, end Devan Long, from a knee sprain. Long and tackle Haloti Ngata make one of the best defensive-line tandems in the Pac-10.
But one issue that the Bulldogs exploited is the size of the Ducks' corners. Aaron Gipson is 5-9 and Justin Phinisee is 5-11. Trojan sophomore Dwayne Jarrett is 6-5.
That the Ducks beat Pinegar anyway indicates how good their offense, led by quarterback Kellen Clemens, has become. USC is down two starters this week, including corner Terrell Thomas in an already-thin secondary. Aliotti believes that sound, patient defense and one of the toughest home crowds in the Pac-10 will help.
"As a coach, they are just unbelievable," he said of the Trojans. "They can do it all, and they're good at it."
No. 10 Tennessee at No. 3 LSU
If you can figure out how to assess this one, please do. LSU has had two weeks to digest its emotional "home" victory at Arizona State, and two weeks to continue to adjust to the new normal in swelled-up Baton Rouge. The potential for everyone, players and fans, to get to Tiger Stadium and unleash a month of pent-up emotion is huge. Finally, they'll find a place that reminds them of the way life is supposed to be.
The Vols must be kicking themselves this week for losing a game at Florida that they could have won. Kicking-game mistakes and an ineffective offense did Tennessee in. The former are correctable. The latter will change when quarterback Erik Ainge matures (later) or coach Phil Fulmer relies more on his power running game (sooner). That's an advantage Fulmer didn't exploit Saturday night, and it cost him his greatest advantage against the Gators.
The matchup when LSU has the ball will be great fun to watch. The Tigers can move the ball on the ground and in the air, while the Volunteers' defensive line is big enough to pull a shift before the game as a temporary levee. Tennessee needs a win to keep from starting the SEC 0-2, which would make it difficult to repeat as Eastern Division champs. LSU needs a win for the psyche of the team, the university and a beleaguered, bedraggled state. Sounds the Tigers have more motivation.