Tag Archives: Marcus Mariota

Who Will be the 2017 National Signing Day Diamonds in the Rough?

It’s all about the stars, baby! It’s all about those 4 and 5-star future All-Americans who will catapult your favorite college football team to a national championship. Collecting a stable of primetime players may be easy for coaches like Urban Meyer and Nick Saban but that kind of success on the recruiting trail just isn’t the reality of the situation for the majority of coaches. If your team isn’t considered to be a football blue-blood, success is going to be a process that is built upon 2 and 3-star recruits who will need time to be developed.

But success can be achieved with these so-called “diamonds in the rough.” It’s not an easy path to success, but it can and has been done. Rivals and 247 don’t have crystal balls that will clue us into who these diamonds in the rough will be. Even the most experienced coaching staffs can’t predict which of their less heralded recruits will lead their teams to divisional and conference championships.

With today being National Signing Day, let’s take a look back and some 2 and 3-star recruits from the past who proved to have significant impacts on the field.

Marcus Mariota was barely recruited before signing with Oregon. He was a 3-star recruit with two scholarship offers. Oregon and Memphis. That was it. All Mariota did was lead Oregon to an appearance in the 2015 National Championship game and he won the 2014 Heisman Trophy. Not bad for a recruit who struggled to receive offers.

I can’t imagine Michigan State fans were waiting with eager anticipation for the day a 2-star running back recruit with offers from Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, and Marshall would step on the field for them. All Le’Veon Bell did in his Spartan career was rush for 3,346 yards and 33 touchdowns. In his junior season, before leaving early for the NFL, Bell rushed for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns. He proved to be more talented than a 2-star recruit with mid-major offers.

Missouri’s Charles Harris makes Bell look like a highly sought after recruit. Harris excelled on the high school basketball court and had barely played any football prior to Missouri offering him a scholarship. His options were Northern Iowa, Missouri Western and Pittsburg State. In his three-year career, Harris recorded 18 sacks, 34.5 tackles-for-loss and forced 5 fumbles.

Jordy Nelson committed to Kansas State as a 2-star safety prospect. His options were Kansas State and Kansas but even those weren’t legitimate options. Neither coaching staff was willing to provide a scholarship offer to Nelson so he attended Kansas State as a walk-on. Nelson holds the Kansas State record for most receiving yards in a single season and is 2nd all-time in career receiving yardage. Not bad for a high school player that nobody wanted.

Gaines Adams was a 3-star tight end recruit who chose Clemson over Michigan State, North Carolina, Virginia, and Virginia Tech. Compared to the others on this list, Adams offer list made him look like a blue-chip recruit. Not only was he not a blue-chip recruit, tight end wasn’t even his ultimate position. Adams became a first team All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2006.

As fans, we like to get all worked up over National Signing Day. How many 4 and 5-star recruits has our team collected? Which kids pulled a signing day surprise and left our team at the alter? Which players did our team’s coaching staff manage to flip? It can be an entertaining soap opera to follow, but none of us have a clue as to how the story will unfold.

My advice to you is this – Have fun with recruiting, but don’t become so invested in it that a signing class ruins your day. None of us will know the verifiable quality of this recruiting class for another few years. Enjoy the ride, because who knows, maybe your team has a diamond-in-the-rough buried in this recruiting class.

E-mail Seth at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SethMerenbloom.

Photo: Flickr.com

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Virginia Fans Get an Education Against Louisville

There they were, gathered on the hill. The uninitiated. The idealists. The dreamers. A thousand students ready to storm the field at Scott Stadium after an unthinkable upset win against the #5 Louisville Cardinals. My guess is they were first year students. I suspected that none of their parents or grandparents brought them to Virginia football games when they were younger. They reminded me of last year’s dreamers who gathered in similar numbers to storm the field, waiting for the final 20 seconds to click off the clock in equally unlikely win against Notre Dame.

Education in life sometimes comes at the most unexpected times and in the most unusual modes.

No one stormed the field on Saturday, just like no one stormed the field last year after the Notre Dame game. If the Virginia athletic department budgeted money for replacement goal posts this season, they can probably redirect those funds to more productive purposes. Just like last year. Virginia lost yet another game giving up a game-winning touchdown with mere seconds left on the clock. It seems Virginia can hang with some of the nation’s best football teams. They just can’t beat them.

I doubt that any of these first-year fans have ever heard of Mercury Hayes or Obed Ariri. For the same reasons that I will never forget those names, I doubt they will ever forget Lamar Jackson.

Virginia’s defense did a better job bottling up Lamar Jackson than both Clemson and Florida State which is to say that Jackson still put up good numbers but had been kept under control…until the last drive of the game.

Unfortunately in football, a very good throw and a very good catch will almost always beat very good defense. Virginia’s Juan Thornhill played defense as well as any coach could ask on Louisville’s winning touchdown pass. The sad reality for veteran Virginia fans who knew this was coming and uninitiated fans who were actually surprised, is that the throw and the catch were just a tad better.

In many ways, Lamar Jackson’s performance Saturday reminded me of Shawn Moore during the glory days of Virginia football…when Virginia won enough games that storming the field was rarely in the cards. Like Moore at his best, Jackson can run, he can thread the needle between defenders, and he has uncanny touch on passes that need a little air under them waiting for receivers compete their routes. Also like Moore, Jackson is a leader. When his team needs a big play or a kick in the rear he delivers. I hate that he single-handedly won the game for Louisville Saturday, but he was impressive to say the least. Moore finished out of the running for the Heisman in 1990. Jackson should win in a landslide in 2016.

Jackson’s performance was probably the best quarterback performance in Scott Stadium since Marcus Mariota led the Oregon Ducks to a win when fans stormed the liquor store rather than the field after the game. Jackson and Louisville won this game. Virginia didn’t lose it. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, and as heartbreaking as it was to lose on Saturday, Jackson is a gamer and his supporting cast is very good. Virginia didn’t give this game to the Cardinals, instead Virginia gave the Cardinals all they could handle.

It is refreshing to see excitement and optimism from the Scott Stadium newbies. It is tough to watch their hopes and dreams dashed as they watch Virginia let another big win slip into UVa football lore. They reminded me of Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he discovers his Little Orphan Annie decoder pin is a ruse. A scheme for selling more Ovaltine instead of secret communications for exclusive insiders.

A thousand “Ralphies” got their initiation into the Virginia football family on Saturday. If there is ever a need for a trigger warning, watching idealist fans transform into grizzled realists before your eyes might be a fitting time. Just like Ralphie wasn’t going to waste any more time decoding secret messages that turned out to be “crummy commercials”, when Virginia stages its next big almost-upset, this group of fans now knows that there is no need to be the first in line to rush the field. Not until the clock reads 0.00 and Virginia is still winning. I am not sure that game is coming in 2016, but it’s coming.

E-mail David at david [dot] rayner [at] campuspressbox [dot] com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

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Can the Oregon Ducks Come Out of their Downward Spiral?

Success can be a difficult thing to attain. It can also be a difficult thing to hang onto. If you doubt that, just ask any Oregon Ducks fan right now. There are more Duck fans flying off the bandwagon than there are actual ducks heading south right now. What has happened to the Oregon Ducks?

Depends on who you ask.

I believe it has come down to recruiting and the inability to develop a quarterback, but not Mark Helfrich.

Let’s start with recruiting.

The Ducks don’t recruit the type of player they have in the past. The lack of playmakers on the team is apparent to anybody that watches Oregon games. Players like Marcus Mariota, Ed Dickson, Jonathan Stewart, and Patrick Chung aren’t walking through the doors of the football facilities at Oregon anytime soon.

From 2010-12 the Ducks put together recruiting classes that ranked in the top-15 nationally. Let’s also remember that this was during the Chip Kelly years. The recruiting classes that Kelly put together had an average of 10 players that had a four-star rating attached to their name. Getting that many quality players for three years was bound to make a difference for the Ducks. Here’s the issue though:

Since 2013, the average rank of Oregon’s recruiting classes has been 21st. The amount of four-star players has dipped to seven on average, and the Ducks have only had two five-star players since 2013.

Let’s face the reality that coaches face. Talented players make their coaches look brilliant, but when the talent is running thin, that same coach doesn’t look so amazing anymore.

For the Ducks to get back to what the Ducks were a few seasons ago, they have to hit the recruiting trail harder. Oregon has to sell the University of Oregon much better. The mistake I think the Ducks make is that the their coaches believe that players are just lining up to come to Eugene. They are not lining up anymore. Not that they really were.

Oregon is not Ohio State or Alabama.

Secondly, since Marcus Mariota took his Heisman Trophy playmaking skills to the NFL, the Ducks haven’t had any consistency at the quarterback position. It’s hard to replace a legend at a school, but you need to at least have a plan in place to find someone to fill that role.

The logical choice may have been Jeff Lockie, but he came in and looked like he had never played football before. He was dreadful. Vernon Adams Jr, a graduate transfer, came from Eastern Washington University and played pretty well, but injuries hurt Adam’s overall effectiveness with the Ducks.

You would think the Oregon coaching staff would have a redshirt-freshman who might be able to take over the offense for the next few seasons.

Nope.

Oregon went fishing in the graduate transfer waters again, bringing Dakota Prukop up from the depths of Montana State. What has he provided?

Well, Prukop hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t horrible either. In effect, he has been a game manager. Prukop isn’t throwing for an insane amount of yards per game, but he’s not Jeff Lockie either.

With Oregon’s recent struggles, some have questioned whether or not Prukop can stay in his starting role. Some media types and fans want the Ducks to see what freshman Justin Herbert can do.

The most popular player on the team is always the back-up quarterback. However, Herbert has not taken any meaningful snaps and people want this young kid thrown out onto the field against the Husky defense this weekend? If you do that you risk his confidence being shattered into a thousand pieces. The Washington defense is nothing to take lightly. Put Dakota Prukop out there. It’s the smart move to make, Oregon.

Lastly, the coaching always comes under fire when things don’t go well. Especially considering the fragile mental state of most Oregon fans. The program has not been relevant for long, but the program acts like they have been around forever. This little downturn with their win/loss record is a reminder that you have to work hard to keep the talent coming.

Should Mark Helfrich be fired?

No.

Who do the Ducks think will come to Eugene? Not Les Miles or Tom Herman. Mark Helfrich is not Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, but those type of elite coaches are the exception, not the rule. I don’t see a better candidate available for this program.

The Oregon program has always wanted their football coach to represent the school in a classy way, positively represent the state of Oregon, and to conduct his life with integrity. To anybody outside the state of Oregon that may be hard to understand, but that is how it’s always been. Mark Helfrich does those things.

This is Helfrich’s first season of losing and now people want him gone. You want to fire a coach with a 35-11 record? That translates to a 76% win percentage. Yeah, that makes lousy sense. The tendency to have these knee jerk reactions is a symptom of social media. A quick fix is not going to change anything for Oregon. Helfrich knows the game and he relates to his players well. Helfrich is the guy for this football program.

You know what changes things for football teams? Talent. Recruit playmakers, Oregon. You got great talent to come to the little town of Eugene before. You can do it again.

Image: Courtesy of Mike Wilson

Email Mike at mike (dot) wilson (at) campuspressbox (dot) com or follow Mike on Twitter @pigskinopinion

Pac-12 Links: Ducks, Beavers, Huskies, and Cougars

In this dead time of year for college football programs, the season seems like a distant thought, but as we all know, the season will get here in a blink of an eye. When I take a look at the landscape of the Pac-12 it is apparent to me that there are some anxious fan bases around the conference. Many of those teams are in the Pac-12 North division. Let’s take a look at what I am talking about.

Oregon

Is the Duck run of dominance done? Can the coaching staff develop a quarterback for the long-term?

These are both legitimate questions fans have for their beloved Ducks. Ever since Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota left for the NFL, the Ducks have not come up with a long-term quarterback. When Mariota left I figured the Ducks would turn the keys to the Porsche over to Jeff Lockie who was Mariota’s backup. That was a bad idea. Lockie played like a kid who had never picked up a football. Vernon Adams transferred in from Eastern Washington and played admirably for Oregon, but he was only going to play for a year as a graduate transfer. What now?

Welcome Dakota Prukop to Eugene.

Prukop comes to the Ducks from Montana State as a graduate transfer player. What, another graduate transfer? The transfer thing for many fans is something they like as long as the player plays up to their expectations. This is not a long-term aspect of the Duck program that the fans enjoy much, but they have remained fairly silent on it.

After the spring game for Oregon was in the books last week, it was pretty obvious to observers that the quarterback race is down to two players. One is, obviously, Dakota Prukop, and the other is redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen. According to offensive coordinator Matt Lubick the race is still up in the air.

“Going into fall camp, right now I like both guys.” Lubick stated after the spring game.

I don’t buy that. You don’t bring a guy in as a graduate transfer and have him sit. I thought the same thing with Vernon Adams. All the coach speak going on last season about an open competition is same the coach speak going on now.

The development of the back-up quarterback will be crucial for the program as a whole. The program has to think past the present time and look toward 2017 and the long-term health of the Oregon program.

Oregon State

As much as the Duck program is thriving with plenty of difference makers, the Oregon State program is the antithesis. Beaver believers don’t know what to expect in 2016 because the team is so young and has a new quarterback and defensive coordinator. How will head coach Gary Andersen  get the program going in an upward swing?

Darrell Garretson, the transfer quarterback from Utah State who has two seasons remaining, will be the signal caller for Oregon State. Not until the spring game did the Beaver coaches know who they may name the starter. Garretson had a phenomenal spring game by throwing for 263 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Remember fans, it’s the spring game, not a USC defense coming at him.

What Garretson gives the Beavers is some mobility in the pocket and that means he will be either extending plays, or simply running for his life. Hopefully it’s not the latter. The aspects that fans should like about Garretson are that he has real game experience and that he is also playing for his old coach, Kevin McGiven, now the co-offensive coordinator for Oregon State. He knows the offense, so it should be a smoother transition than it would be for any other player coming into this offense.

New defensive coordinator Kevin Clune has his work cut out for him. Many spots are up for grabs on the defensive side of the ball with many key ingredients gone from last year’s team. Clune is going to have to get something done because Oregon State struggled mightily last season.

The Beaves ranked last in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 37 points a game. They also gave up a conference-leading 481 yards per game. To top it all off, they were also last in rushing defense, giving up 225 yards a game.

Work needs to be done in Corvallis to have any shot at a better season than 2015, but the Beavers can’t be all that much worse than they were last season.

Will Coach Andersen be able to work some miracle this season? Time will tell.

Washington

You don’t hear much talk coming out of Husky Nation these days and that is exactly how head coach Chris Peterson wants it. In fact, whenever Coach Peterson is talking about his program, he is underselling his team to the public. One possible reason for this is that he has a team that could be on the verge of a breakthrough type of season. Peterson is trying to pump the breaks on that thought and take a more realistic look at the 2016 season.

The Washington fans see a dominating defense, a quarterback who broke onto the scene in a big way, and a legit breakout running back all coming back in the fall. The word “optimism” is being whispered up in the trees of Seattle, but like I said, Coach Peterson is doing everything to squash that talk.

Jake Browning, the sophomore quarterback, who came to the Huskies as a true freshman and had a solid season, is looking to improve his deep ball for the Huskies. He doesn’t have a cannon attached to his arm, so to improve the deep ball you need to have better protection from his o-linemen and better timing with his receivers. That’s the way the deep ball gets better. So, for Husky fans, improving on the offensive line and with his receivers will be of upmost importance to threaten defenses down the field.

For the sake of Husky fans, let’s hope that Jake Browning continues his great play in the Pac-12. Seeing the Huskies challenge in the conference would be a great sight to see again.

Washington State

Mike Leach finally has higher expectations placed on him at Washington State after a good season in 2015. He has one of the top two quarterbacks in the entire Pac-12 Conference.

Luke Falk is the guy under center for the Cougars and in control of the Air Raid offense for Washington State. Falk has gained some notoriety because the Cougars won last season and because he put up video game type of numbers. What does this young gun want to work on this offseason? He says it’s about making the more consistent play, finding the open man, his footwork, and getting better every single day at practice.

“Really just doing my job the best that I can do it. Going through my reads, being more efficient on my reads; finding the open guy; footwork-there is a lot I can improve on and work on this summer.” Luke Falk said recently.

Mike Leach, who was rumored to be on the hot seat going into last season, earned a bit of a reprieve thanks to a successful 2015 campaign. However, he knows he can’t rest on his success. All it takes is another bad season and the heat gets turned right back up for him.

Leach needs to keep this Air Raid offense going in upward motion, so he can recruit some more talent out to Washington State. From my perspective this is a critical year for Leach and his football program. Take a step backward, he could be fired. Keep the positive motion going and he gets a contract extension and better talent.

Washington State will be an interesting team to keep an eye on in the Pac-12 this season.

Image: Creative Commons

Pac-12 Football Early Preview: Oregon Ducks

The wins. The uniforms. A Heisman Trophy winner. All great things associated with the University of Oregon football program, but let’s have a rounded view of this program. With all the good, there are questions about what is happening with the Ducks heading into the 2016 football season.

Duck fans, coaches, and players are known for all the flash that they have brought to college football. They have no National Championships. They haven’t found a long term replacement at quarterback. And they had a total collapse in the postseason two years ago to cause fans to wonder if this run of success is over. Is the run over? Good question.

Let’s take a look at 2016 and see what it may hold for the Ducks.

Additions/Losses

Within the coaching staff at Oregon, there have been many changes. Once the total collapse in the Alamo Bowl was complete and fans finally came to grips with their team losing a 31-0 lead, coming back to tie and still losing the game there were changes almost immediately. Don Pellum, long time defensive coach for the Ducks, was demoted to linebackers coach. It took a little while to find a new defensive coordinator, but Head Coach Mark Helfrich finally settled on former Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke to run the Oregon defense. How this will work out is anybody’s guess this early, but we will see how things go through spring practice and with the spring game in late April.

The Ducks lost talented Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost who took the head coaching job at Central Florida. Frost was replaced with Matt Lubik who came to the Ducks three years ago. Will Lubik be able to continue the success in the passing game that came when he joined Oregon? Fans are hoping so, but who is going to be throwing those passes?

With no long term replacement for Marcus Mariota in the system the last couple of years, one has to wonder about the Ducks quarterback development skills. In 2015, the Ducks went with fifth year transfer Vernon Adams. In 2016, the Ducks will turn to another fifth year transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop. Dakota who? Prukop comes from Montana State and unlike Vernon Adams, is already on campus soaking in classes and the playbook. How quickly Prukop will adjust to football in a Power 5 Conference is going to be a key for the Ducks this season because they return most of their skill players. The sooner he becomes comfortable with his running backs and receivers, the better it’ll be for his team.

The question I have is simple. What happens down the road with Oregon at quarterback? Do they have a young player in mind that will be able to step into the position in 2017 or if Prukop gets hurt and is out for an extended period of time?

2016 Schedule

While the Ducks have gone the direction of playing another Power 5 team, like a Michigan State the last couple of years, the preseason schedule still isn’t the toughest. They have played Portland State, Arkansas St, and this year they will be playing the UC Aggies. The tough game on the pre-season schedule is at Nebraska. With Mike Riley having played Oregon numerous times and being familiar with their schemes, this game could be pretty tough for the Ducks.

Looking on the Ducks schedule in terms of importance, you can always go to the Stanford game in Eugene on November 12. This game has turned into a big rivalry game for the two teams and must see television for college football fans. Lately, the game has determined who has won the Pac-12 North Division and got into the conference title game. This is important, but there is a three game stretch where the Ducks play at Washington State, home against Washington, and at California. The Cougars won in Eugene last year, the Huskies gave the Ducks fits last year, and California could be a “trap” game for the Ducks. All three are division games and if the Ducks can sweep these three schools, it sets them up well to get to the conference title game.

Recruiting

The Ducks are unique with recruiting because they are not a perennial top 25 team in the recruiting rankings. The Ducks have a certain type of player they are looking for because they need to make sure the players that come to Oregon fit their style/scheme. Oregon usually looks for speed and length over size, so they are not going to have those huge linemen like an Alabama, Georgia, or even Stanford is going to have. Do they have to modify this approach? Maybe.

Oregon can get away with having this type of thought when it comes to Pac-12 football, but with all the success they have had with it, they have ZERO National Championships. They get to the big games against Stanford, Ohio State, Alabama, or a Michigan State who typically have bigger sized athletes, they get pushed around the field. The Ducks need to get bigger and stronger in my opinion. Who do they have coming into the Duck nest for next year?

The Ducks have a few four and five star guys coming in from high school. One of the highest ranked national players is Tristen Wallace, who is listed as an athlete. He comes in from DeSoto, Texas at 6’3” and 228 pounds. With the early enrollees the Ducks have a receiver named Dillon Mitchell who is 6’0”, 200 pounds and is the 161st ranked receiver.

Recruiting is such a roll of the dice and people don’t usually know how good the player really is until they actually start playing on the college level. Many people usually read a lot into the number of stars a player has next to his name, but stars don’t make the player. The player makes himself the player he wants to be. Just ask Scooby Wright, a two star recruit out of high school.

Final Thought

In the end, the Ducks have questions that need answered at the quarterback position and how these new coaches will mesh with the program. Oregon still has many positives for next year like their returning skill players, but I think the questions that are out there will loom large with the fans. The fans whho are nervous after the Alamo Bowl debacle and are wondering if Oregon can regain its swag and challenge for national championships.

Bold Predictions for Florida State vs Houston

With the Chic-Fil-A Peach Bowl only being a day away, there isn’t a whole lot that hasn’t been said about the matchup between the Houston Cougars and Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles are favored by seven, which most people agree with, giving the benefit of the doubt of a close matchup to the team with a better profile in recent history. Even with that, there isn’t much doubt that this will be a game that goes down to the end.

The Seminoles haven’t been able to put a lot of points on the board against any quality team this season, while Houston scores the 11th-most points per game in the nation. On the other side, Florida State allows the fifth-least points per game to opponents in the country, compared to Houston, who rank 19th in points allowed. Statistics can’t be relied on to predict a winner in this one, this will be your classic; is the national powerhouse team in fact better than a similar team that isn’t in a power five conference?

Having said all of that, here are a few bold predictions for the game:

GREG WARD JR. RUSHES FOR 150 YARDS AND 2 TD’S

This has to be the scariest aspect of the game for Florida State fans; the prospect of a running quarterback. Greg Ward Jr. is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks the Seminoles have faced in the past few years outside of Marcus Mariota, and typically, these types of quarterbacks are able to run free against Seminole defenses. Deshaun Watson and Justin Thomas, of Clemson and Georgia Tech, respectively, each accumulated at least 88 yards rushing against the Seminoles, and both games were losses for the Noles. I don’t see why this game will be any different (save for maybe the loss column.) Ward will be able to do what he wants on the ground, to the tune of over 150 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

SEAN MAGUIRE THROWS FOR 350 YARDS AND 4 TD’S

It's been an interesting year for Sean Maguire, but he'll prove his doubters wrong in this game
It’s been an interesting year for Sean Maguire, but he’ll prove his doubters wrong in this game

It’s been an interesting year behind center for the Seminoles. It began with Everett Golson, developed into a seesaw between him and Maguire, to now, where Maguire has firmly become the quarterback for the Seminoles. This will be the best game of Maguire’s season. Considering Houston’s rush defense (which I’ll get to later,) and their terrible pass defense that has allowed 3,449 yards through the air this season (which ranks them at 121 of 128 teams,) Maguire will have a field day against the Cougar defense, throwing for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns. This will be Maguire’s break out game for the Seminoles, and will begin the big question of whether he should remain the starter for 2016, or if the five-star recruit Malik Henry should be given the reins as a freshman.

HOUSTON HOLDS DALVIN COOK TO LESS THAN 50 RUSH YARDS

As I was alluding to earlier, Houston’s rush defense is very, very good. The Cougars allow only 3.3 yards per rush attempt, good for 6th in the nation in that category. Obviously they face a tough task in stopping one of the best running backs in the country in Dalvin Cook, but Houston will be up to the task. They’ve had success this season against potent rushing attacks, most noticeably having held Navy – who have the second most rush yards on the season – to only the 3.9 yards per carry in a win. Cook will have his hands full against Houston, and the results will tell the story, Houston will hold Dalvin Cook under 50 rush yards.

DERWIN JAMES HAS TWO INT’S AND TWO SACKS

Derwin James is poised to have a breakout game to finish his freshman campaign
Derwin James is poised to have a breakout game on a national stage to finish his freshman campaign

One of the wild cards of this game that I’ll be very interested to watch will be how the Seminoles utilize freshman safety Derwin James. James has proven to be a jack-of-all-trades for the Seminoles as the season has worn on, as he’s proved to be equally talented in coverage as he is rushing the passer. I think he’ll be put all over the field, at times being in charge of containing Ward, and at times dropping back in coverage. People who have watched James play recently are certainly aware of the talent he possesses and it can be argued that he has already had a couple breakout games. However, this will be the first time since he’s become a vital component on the Nole defense that the nation will be able to watch him play, and the nation will recognize a star in the making after he has two sacks and two interceptions on New Year’s Eve.

FSU vs Houston; ACC Wrap Up

The #8 Florida State Seminoles have landed in the Chic-Fil-A Peach bowl, and will face the #18 Houston Cougars at noon on December 31st. At 10-2, the Seminoles have had a great season if you take into account the type of year that was expected, and the questions they have faced at a couple key positions. The Seminoles are still coming off their biggest win of the season, and head into late December playing the best football they’ve played all year.

Some Seminole fans were a bit disappointed that they didn’t end up playing a more glamorous opponent, but once you look at this Houston team it becomes apparent that they will give the Seminoles a few problems in the game.

The first and most obvious is Houston’s rush defense. With the Seminoles, the buck stops with Dalvin Cook and their running attack. Behind Cook, the Seminoles offense averaged 5.4 yards per carry, which ranks them at 14th in the country in yards per carry. Houston’s defense, ranks 8th in defending that same category, allowing only 3.3 yards per carry to opponents. If Houston wants to win this game they will need to win this matchup, and by win I don’t necessarily mean completely shut down Cook, but Houston will need to bottle him up and limit his effectiveness if they want to be in the game by the end. Fortunately for Houston they have a defense capable of doing this, as they held the #2 rushing offense in the nation, Navy, to only 147 yards on the ground when they averaged 330 yards per game for the season.

Houston’s QB Greg Ward Jr. will also give the Seminole defense their own fair share of problems. Ward at quarterback has completed 68% of his passes this season for 16 TD’s and only 5 INT’s, these are pretty good stats, but when you add in the fact that he is also their leading rusher with 1,041 yards on the season, you start to see why this guy is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country. These are the exact kind of quarterbacks that have given Seminole defenses problems in the past. If you look at just this season, the two games the Seminoles lost have come by the hands of Justin Thomas and Deshaun Watson, but additionally in the past we’ve seen Marcus Mariota, Jacoby Brissett, and even Everett Golson give the ‘Noles problems.

Maguire will be the difference maker against Houston's 111th ranked pass defense
Maguire will be the difference maker against Houston’s 111th-ranked pass defense

With these things in mind, I think it will be a much closer game than many people anticipate. My bold prediction for this game, is that quarterback Sean Maguire for the Seminoles will have a break out game and be the reason why the Seminoles beat Houston. Maguire has been steady in the second half of the season, but he hasn’t put together a performance that has completely erased doubts about who should start at quarterback. I think the Seminoles will be put in a few third and long situations during the game, and Maguire’s play will help table the effectiveness of Houston’s rush defense. Maguire will prove to Seminole fans that he should have been the starter all season long.

Here’s what’s happening in the ACC:

CLEMSON DEFEATS UNC: PLAYOFF BERTH

Clemson defeated North Carolina 45-37 in the ACC Championship Game, to win the ACC and clinch a berth into the 2015 College Playoffs. The game ended with a terrible offside call that eliminated an onside kick recovery by UNC that would have allowed the Tarheels a chance to tie the game. Nonetheless the referees called an invisible offside, and the Tigers were able to wind the clock down. #1 Clemson now will face #4 Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl December 31st at 4pm. This game will put two of the best quarterbacks in the country against each other between potential Heisman winner Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield.

MIAMI HIRES MARK RICHT

After firing Al Golden, Miami had been looking for the best successor, and found exactly that in Mark Richt. Georgia fired Richt after a couple down seasons, and basically by the time the news broke he was hired by Miami. This is a great fit for a couple reasons; Richt played at Miami, and Miami had been looking for a high-profile name to lead their team. It seems as if this is the hire all Miami fans have been waiting for, and they seem poised to return to former glory with a coach like Mark Richt at the helm.

ACC HAS NINE BOWL TEAMS

The ACC has enjoyed a pretty successful season as a whole, culminating in nine teams playing in bowl games this year. Among the teams in bowl games are Miami, Duke, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, NC State, Louisville, Florida State and Clemson. The ACC as a whole is a top-heavy conference, with only three top-25 teams, however all three of them are in the top ten. These three teams, #1 Clemson, #9 Florida State, and #10 UNC will play against #4 Oklahoma, #18 Houston and #17 Baylor, respectively in their bowl games.

Put a Fork in the Pac-12

Coming into the 2015 college football season not many people thought that the Pac-12 would not be in the College Football Playoff. In my own mind, I thought that this was a very real possibility because of not having that one great team like they have had in Oregon that last few seasons and the way the conference “eats its own” by being so balanced from top to bottom. Any team can legitimately beat any team in the conference on any given Saturday and after what happened to Stanford and Utah on Saturday night, that scenario came to fruition. Now it’s time to kick some dirt on the Pac-12 for this year’s playoff possibilities.

What did the Pac-12 in this year?

Well, for one they are a conference is balanced from top to bottom more so than any other conference in the country. Having this strong of a conference is great, but if you don’t have one or two great teams in conference like they have had with the Oregon Ducks the past few years then it’s hard to get to the playoff. Oregon has not been what Oregon has been the past few years, but not having Marcus Mariota played a big part in the “down” season for the Ducks. Even though the Ducks pulled off the win against Stanford, having three losses will keep them out of the playoff for certain.

Secondly, they have had to many out of conferences losses that hurt the Pac-12 brand. Arizona State lost to Texas A&M, Oregon lost to Michigan State, Washington State lost to FCS Portland State, Washington lost to Boise State, Stanford losing to Northwestern, and USC lost to Notre Dame.

Where the pundits fooled by the Pac-12 this year?

Possibly. I certainly was fooled by Arizona State who was garnering a ton of talk about getting to the playoff. The Sun Devil Kool-Aid was handed out in buckets in the Pac-12, especially down here in the desert, and how did the Devils respond to this? They respond by having one of the most underwhelming seasons in recent memory. USC didn’t exactly turn out to be the dominant team that many people thought. They had other issues, like the Steve Sarkisian drama that helped do them in. UCLA has not done what many people thought they could. Losing to Arizona State, Washington State, and Stanford has destroyed them in possibly getting to the playoff.

Stanford and Utah were the conference’s remaining hopes, but dropped their games on Saturday night to ensure the Pac-12 is not going to the playoff. People still talk like they have a shot at it, but total chaos is going to have to happen for that to occur.

Where does the Pac-12 go from here? What do they have to do?

As I stated earlier, the Pac-12 takes tremendous pride on playing an extremely tough conference schedule and that is a true statement. These guys beat up on each other each week and if you take a look at the win-loss record of this conference they have a strong to point to be made. We are half way through the month of November and the conference has played its way out of the playoff because of its nine game conference schedule. People will start talking about the conference going back to an eight game schedule and to that I say, no.

Just because the conference has a year where they don’t make the playoff that doesn’t mean you make things easier for your football teams. I don’t want the Pac-12 to descend into what the Big 12 is, where we don’t play anybody except for a few games. Competition should be the most important thing to any conference, so when you already have great thing going why would you make changes? You don’t make changes. The Pac-12 is considered one of the top, if not the top conference on balance, and its teams have to work harder to get to the playoff. So what?

Does the conference want to descend into a less competitive league? I know Larry Scott, Pac-12 Commissioner, doesn’t want to see that. He sees it as a badge of honor that they play the schedule that they do. The Big 10 is going to a nine game schedule, they see the value in it, so why would the Pac-12 see a lesser value in it because they didn’t make the playoff?

In the end, the Pac-12 is not making the college football playoff this year. Do they change the course that they have chosen? Not at all. The schools, coaches, and players have to work harder to create one of those juggernaut teams that will help the conference get to the playoff. The talent in coaches and players is there for the conference already. The Pac-12 is just fine and will continue to be a great league for college football. They are not making the playoff, relax Pac-12 fans, WE will survive.

More Than A Friday: Kill, Sloppy Football, and Site News

The Golden Gophers have been something of an uncomfortable subject in these parts, at least as a talking point. Understand, this is the Northern Illinois perspective that motivates that feeling of awkward towards the University of Minnesota, and specifically their departing head coach Jerry Kill.

When Kill led our beloved Huskies, he did well. In a classic case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, NIU named Kill to replace the retiring Joe Novak after a disappointing 2007 season. Novak did many good things in Dekalb, but no one was writing home about what they did during that 2-10 season, which featured a 34-31 home loss to another directional Illinois school, Kill’s Salukis of Southern Illinois.

Kill went 23-16 in his three seasons leading the Huskies. He lost the Independence Bowl and the International Bowl in his first two seasons, and led the team to an 8-0 record in conference play before a devastating loss to Miami in the 2010 MAC Championship, which turned out to be his final game in the mid-major ranks. Were the Huskie faithful upset to be abandoned by their leader prior to the Idaho Potato Humanitarian Bowl? Sure.

Should they have been? Yeah, why not? No one, even a small school in rural Illinios wants to hear their program isn’t good enough for a man to finish what he started. Argue the flaws of the system, or the machine that is College Football as a business, if you will, but no matter how much I support the red and black, Minnesota is a better job than Northern Illinois.

NIU won their bowl game with an interim coach and ended up getting a huge win in the human resources department, poaching Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator Dave Doeren to replace Kill. So, it’s been “screw Minnesota” for the last six seasons, but the next guy did them dirtier.

Now, to be fair, Doeren was a staggering 23-4 in his two MAC Championship-winning seasons at NIU. His 2012 squad was and remains the only Mid-American Conference team to crash the high-major party, but that Orange Bowl berth against Florida State would be another contest the student athletes would take on without their full time head coach. Doeren would see plenty of Florida State in his next gig, with a guaranteed matchup against the ‘Noles in the ACC Atlantic Division. To date, he’s had little success with NC State in that regard, where’s he’s 0-for-2, with 2015 contest yet to be played.

As far as Kill is concerned, it was another “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” case with Minnesota, with Tim Brewster’s 2010 squad failing to achieve victory against the Huskies in Week 4 at home. Raise your hand if you recall anyone coaching the Gophers between Glen Mason and Kill1Note: my hand is not raised.. I suppose we can anticipate Kill having a role on the Big Ten Network in the near future.

Kill isn’t walking away because he cannot win, Minnesota is 29-29 with three bowl appearances since he’s taken over. He hasn’t lost his passion for a game that seems to have threatened to take his life, at least from where I sit. He’s choosing his remaining years over the game, and that’s admirable.

Going back to 2005, his heath issues have been among the world’s worst kept secrets. He had a seizure while leading SIU in 2005, and in 2010, he was treated for dehydration after a game at Northern. From 2011 to 2013, Coach Kill had four gameday seizures, promoting a 2-game leave of absence in 2013, but all seemed well when he returned to the Gophers sideline in 2014, where he seemed to have coached without incident.

Then, this week, he retired, citing health reasons. And, it was admirable. Poof; the animosity from NIU was gone. They felt bad for the guy. You might even say they were grateful for what he did for the Huskie football program and maybe even his mark on the game of College Football. This led me to wonder if we might want to let the Doeren thing become water under the bridge, but no such thing was happening.

“Oh no. NC State can still suck it!” And there you have it.

Whatever I Watched Last Night, It Wasn’t Good Football

I honestly don’t know how, in a vaccuum, I could watch a 3 OT College Football game with a dog in the fight, and come away unentertained or unimpressed, but Oregon and Arizona State did just that on Thursday night in Tempe. The Sun Devils ran 100+ plays on offense, but ignored their bread and butter for the most part, running the football. The ground game is also Oregon’s go-to, but they got away with not going to that well tonight, with a 61-55 road victory.

I prefer physical football, and I think we got that from Oregon’s Royce Freeman and ASU’s Kalen Ballage, who exploited your garden variety poor tackling we’ve become accustomed to in Pac-12 Country. The visiting Ducks didn’t seem to need physical as much, as they relied on explosive plays and defensive breakdowns, and the Sun Devils were happy to yield the latter of just enough occasions to prevent the Ducks from flying back to Eugene with a 4-4 record in a disappointing season.

Oregon’s problems aren’t new. Through this dominant run that seems to have come an end this season, they’ve never been fantastic on defense. It just hasn’t shown because the offense scoring 60 points per game2That’s a perception stat, not a researched one., which masks a lot of defensive deficiencies. The code seems to have been cracked; pick them apart and don’t let them off the field on third down.

Another thing, Vernon Adams, for all he gives you, just isn’t Marcus Mariota. Say what you want about system quarterbacks, but Mariota would thrive in whatever system he played in. Ditto for Mark Helfrich. He isn’t Chip Kelly, and when the Ducks find their backs against the wall, they don’t have that guy on the sideline with the confidence to know they’ll overcome the adversity. It didn’t show so much in Year 1 with Helfrich, but it was there.

As for the Sun Devils, they have turned the corner as a program, but they’re not ready for prime time on a consistent basis. Give it up for Todd Graham, building this program into something better than anyone I’ve ever witnessed, a team that plays with pride and counts on its defense to win, but they’re missing too many pieces to get it done in 2015. It doesn’t mean he should be on a hot seat3Obviously, no hot seat for Helfich either., but he has to keep the Arizona high school talent in state and in Tempe. There are plenty of good quarterbacks in this state, and he’s still still going with Mike Bercovici.

Don’t get me wrong, Berco plays with the heart of a lion, and we saw plenty of that on Thursday night, but they can’t take the next step without more talent at the most important position on the field. Now, we just have to see if this 4-4 start is a slide back to mediocrity or simply a down year for Graham and the program. For a great program, these should be the worst of times, but if we’re back to business as usual at ASU, those three consecutive 10-win seasons we saw from Graham to start his tenure with the Devils will soon be easily forgotten.

MTAF News

I want to take a minute to introduce some additions to our More Than A Fan family. B. George Young, Chase Holik, and Nick Brzezinski joined our staff this month. BG will offer a little bit of local flavor to people in my neck of the woods, as our Arizona columnist, so stay tuned to what’s happening in the World of Sports, here in the desert from Mr. Young. Chase joins us from Austin, Texas, where College Football is kind of a big deal; he’ll opine on what’s happening in the state of Texas and the Big 12. Nick’s column will debut next week, with a zany breakdown on everything from the weekend, and I sincerely hope you look forward to that at least half as much as I do.

Josh Flagner is a familiar name around here, or at least he should be, he launched the site and handed me the keys last month. He’s been around with his football picks, and he’ll continue to do that for rising TV star Jeff Nomina’s NFL Pick ‘Em Contest, but I’ve given Josh a new role. It will be similar to what BG is doing for my local market, but back in Cleveland. Yes, we do have a fantastic regional site for Cleveland sports at MTAF Cleveland, but I felt it was unfair to neglect my native land on an all-sports site, like our publication’s main page is.

That’s all for this week; I wish you all the best for a great weekend, as my two worlds collide at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland on Sunday, where the Cardinals visit the Browns for the first time since 2003.

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1. Note: my hand is not raised.
2. That’s a perception stat, not a researched one.
3. Obviously, no hot seat for Helfich either.

Browns Bring Home A Complete Victory

Well, that one certainly went better than expected.

Not many people expected the Cleveland Browns to win Sunday’s home opener against the Tennessee Titans. There were a few you didn’t expect the Browns to even be COMPETITIVE, especially when starting quarterback Josh McCown wasn’t cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol by Friday.

That meant that beleaguered second-year quarterback Johnny Manziel – he of the dismal two starts as a rookie and the stay in substance-abuse rehab this past winter and the tendonitis in his throwing elbow that had him splitting first-team reps in practice this week – was going to make his first start of the regular season. And, after an up-and-down performance in relief during the Browns’ season-opening 31-10 loss to the New York Jets last Sunday, you really didn’t know what you were going to get.

With fellow Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who threw four touchdown passes in his first half of NFL football (which was three more than Manziel had thrown in his entire NFL career) and compiled a perfect passer rating last Sunday, coming to town with the 1-0 Tennessee Titans, the story line looked to be how much better one Heisman winner would be than the other.

Well, not many people – except maybe the most diehard of “Johnny Football Fan” – expected that the Heisman Trophy winner who would be better – albeit not by much – was Manziel, and that Manziel’s team would wind up higher on the scoreboard than Mariota’s. But that’s what happened.

Despite going just 8 of 15 for 157 yards, two long touchdown passes to Travis Benjamin, a defense that

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 20: Wide receiver Travis Benjamin #11 of the Cleveland Browns catches a touchdown reception during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.The Browns defeated the Titans 28-14. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH – SEPTEMBER 20: Wide receiver Travis Benjamin #11 of the Cleveland Browns catches a touchdown reception during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.The Browns defeated the Titans 28-14. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

sacked Mariota seven times, and a running attack that carried the ball 30 times for 116 yards was enough for Manziel and the Browns to defeat the Titans, 28-14. It was the Browns’ second-straight win in a home opener, marking the first time that had happened since 1989-90.

What happened? Well, here are a few thoughts and observations from a guy who obsesses over everything Cleveland Browns:

1.       Travis Benjamin was ‘The Man’: Benjamin came into this season with his spot on the Browns firmly on the bubble. Coming back from a torn ACL, he lost his punt returning job last season due to muffed kicks, fumbles and poor decisions. But he made enough plays during training camp and the preseason to keep his job, and, through two games, he’s made that decision a wise one. He made a great fingertip catch on the Browns’ second play from scrimmage for a 60-yard touchdown, ripped off a 78-yard punt return touchdown during the second quarter that also involved him hurdling the Titans’ punter, and improvised on a route that led to a game-clinching 50-yard touchdown catch with just under three minute remaining. Benjamin has scored four of the Browns’ five touchdowns this season and has caught every single one of Manziel’s TD passes – of 54, 60 and 50 yards, respectively. If Benjamin isn’t the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week at the very least, it’s a crime. On a team desperately seeking a playmaker, Benjamin has emerged as one through two games.

2.       Manziel looked better, but had his moments: Forgive me if I’m not one of the several in the local media who are now clamoring for the Browns to turn the quarterback job over to Manziel. While it was clearly the best game of Manziel’s young career – and a victory, to boot – it wasn’t “outstanding.” Like the Jets game and the Bills game when he made his first rookie relief appearance, Manziel came out of the gate looking great. He hit Benjamin in stride for a 60-yard touchdown pass on the second play from scrimmage, but then looked mortal. He had trouble sustaining any semblance of a long drive all game. His fumbling problems continued, putting two more on the ground that, fortunately, his linemen were able to recover. The offensive gameplan seemed very conservative – calling twice as many run plays as passes. He failed to pick up a foot on a fourth-and-short inside the red zone during the second quarter that could have put the Browns up by three scores. And, after Mariota led a fourth-quarter scoring drive that cut the deficit to seven, things didn’t look good. But Manziel ended the game like he began it, hitting Benjamin for a long touchdown pass that seemed to catch the Titans off guard. His quarterback rating of 133.9 was the highest for a Browns quarterback since Derek Anderson on Oct. 28, 2007 (140.3). The bottom line is he won, which he did for the first time in his NFL career.  But keep in mind that fans wanted the team to “Fail for Cardale” just days before this game.

3.       Mariota looked better: Mariota struggled in his second pro start. The Browns put pressure on him all game, sacking him seven times and hurrying a lot of throws. He made some head-scratching decisions at times. However, in the second half, Mariota looked like the better quarterback. He led two long touchdown drives that turned a 21-0 halftime deficit into a 21-14 deficit. And, many fans feared that Mariota would gash the suddenly tired Browns defense for a third scoring drive if Manziel couldn’t get anything going. Fortunately, Manziel and Benjamin came through, preventing the unthinkable from happening. Mariota wound up 21 of 37 for 257 yards and two touchdowns. But he tasted defeat for the first time in his young career. He’s now lost to both Ohio State and the Browns in the same calendar year, just sayin’.

4.       THAT’S our defense: The Browns came into this season expecting to be one of the NFL’s best defenses. After the hapless Jets tore them apart last week, many believed that the unit was overrated. However, for the most part Sunday, the Browns’ defense looked better than Dick LeBeau’s Titans defense. The Browns forced three turnovers and held Mariota scoreless in the first half a week after he erupted for four first-half touchdowns against the Buccaneers. They put the rookie on the ground seven times for sacks, harassed him into several hurried throws and into some mistakes that looked, dare I say it, Manziel-like. They were running out of gas in the second half, and Joe Haden was burned for a big touchdown by a rookie receiver late in the game, which was concerning. And, Dexter McCluster gashed the team for 98 rushing yards on just 10 carries. But it was a marked improvement from a week before.

5.       West isn’t the best: Terrence West was literally given away to the Titans just days after the NFL’s final cut day due to what have been called attitude problems when he was with the Browns. Everyone knew that the Browns’ leading rusher from a year ago would be licking his chops at his first crack at his former team, and would nothing more than to do well against Mike Pettine and the team’s other decision makers who cast him aside so quickly. But it turned into a forgettable game for the Towson product. West fumbled on his first carry of the game, which led to the Browns’ second touchdown (scored by Isiah Crowell, to add insult to injury), and he finished with just three carries for 10 yards. Vindication, thy name is Pettine.

6.       The kicking game looked awesome … again: Andy Lee may be one of the highest-paid punters in the NFL, and he deserves every single penny. Lee punted six times for a 53.2-yard average and put two inside the 20. He kept field position tipped in the Browns’ favor most of the day. Travis Coons didn’t attempt any field goals, but converted all three of his 33-yard extra points. And, Benjamin’s punt-return touchdown and 154 return yards certainly didn’t help a banner day for the special teams.

7.       Feed The Crow: There were questions about Crowell heading into the season, and the second-year man out of Alabama State did little to answer those questions last Sunday. However, against the Titans, Crowell gained a team-best 72 yards on 15 carries (4.8 average) with a touchdown. His 15-yard run from the 20 on the first play following the Titans’ fourth quarter touchdown may have helped set up the big 50-yard touchdown pass six plays later.

It always feels good to be a fan after a victory Sunday. All of those “Fail for Cardale” cries and the fears of an 0-16 season are a distant memory. A lot of what was concerning last week was rectified this week. With an Oakland Raiders team coming to town riding high on their upset of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, next Sunday’s game won’t be easy. Expect a week full of quarterback questions – with McCown expected to come off the NFL’s concussion protocol, the annual Browns QB controversy is about to return. Does McCown get his job back, or do the Browns give Manziel another look? We’ll see, but you already feel more optimistic about our chances next week no matter what the answer is.