Tag Archives: Northwestern

Ohio State Growing Pains Are a Reality

If there was any question about the legitimacy of growing pains for the Ohio State Buckeyes, last Saturday’s 24-20 “bounce back” victory over Northwestern proved those pains are as real as they get. Don’t get me wrong. Ohio State did get the win against a decent opponent in Northwestern, which may be the most improved team in the Big Ten since the beginning of the season.

Regardless, you should be able to beat Northwestern by more than four points at home following a loss. The key word is “should,” and let’s be honest, the Buckeyes are simply playing like a slightly above-average team at this stage of the season. Frankly, Ohio State looks like a team many of us thought they would be in September. A little over a month ago, Ohio State was right there with Alabama on top of the college football world after a dominating victory at Oklahoma. The offense was clicking on all cylinders, and it appeared the Buckeyes possessed two legitimate Heisman contenders in quarterback J.T. Barrett and H-back Curtis Samuel.

Now, the offense has regressed and has continued to sputter ever since. It makes you wonder, was it the Ohio State offense executing to near perfection early on or was it the lack of defense the Buckeyes faced with their opposition? For example, in six games (not including Louisiana-Monroe or Kansas), the Oklahoma defense has surrendered 40 points per game. That’s hideous, but it’s the Big 12 in a nutshell.

Remember when Noah Brown hauled in not one, two, three but four touchdown passes from Barrett? It seems like months ago. We all know that aside from Brown, the receivers are gaining absolutely no separation, which is contributing mightily to the lack of a downfield passing game and a lackluster offense as a whole. There is no Devin Smith on this team and there probably isn’t going to be one, at least not this season.

With Nebraska on-deck in the lone night game at the Horseshoe this season, the atmosphere should be just right for Ohio State to once again look the part of a playoff contender. We will know very soon whether these glaring issues are correctable or not. Nebraska is an obvious upgrade from Northwestern all across the board, and the passing game will undoubtedly need to be improved in order to deal the Cornhuskers their second consecutive defeat.

If the Nebraska game was a noon or 3:30pm kickoff, I might be a little worried considering the product we have seen from Ohio State over the last month. But this is a night game in the Horseshoe. Now, it won’t rival a white-out in Happy Valley, but the setting itself will cause havoc for what I would call a slightly overrated Nebraska team.

I fully expect the Buckeyes to play one of their best and most complete games of the season, aside from Oklahoma. While Ohio State isn’t going to rack up 600 yards of total offense, you can expect coach Urban Meyer and Barrett to at least make enough improvements to the offense to come away with a fairly convincing victory in front of a national audience.

It should be mentioned that while the offense has absorbed most of the blame over the course of the last few weeks (and deservedly so), the defense has also taken down its play a notch. Where have the ball-hawking Silver Bullets been that specialized in forcing turnovers through the first three games? The Buckeyes have managed to force just three turnovers over the last five games. While the defense has been fine in general, it is not operating at a championship level and I also expect that to change Saturday night.

The Game is still a month away and that should be very comforting for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are not ready to compete with that team up north just yet, even though the Wolverines have dominated against inferior competition. It seems like everyone wants to compare the 2016 Buckeyes with the 2014 group. In 2014, it was the Michigan State primetime performance in East Lansing that catapulted Ohio State to be mentioned with the nation’s elite and ultimately land a national title. Can the Nebraska game be that defining turning point for Ohio State on Saturday?

I’ll say this, you can expect a lot of “Where has that been all month?” The initial playoff rankings are set to be released tonight and we obviously won’t be seeing Ohio State in the top-four. Championships are not won in November, but they surely can be lost. November is not the time for growing pains, as they should be long gone. And the Nebraska game should certainly tell us if it could be the start of a special month for Ohio State.

E-mail Mark at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @msilverman25.

Photo by Paula R. Lively

Comment on this and every other article by becoming a Campus Pressbox Insider.

Remembering Peyton Manning and the Orange Wave

The world as it existed in 1997 is gone, and it’s not coming back.

This seems like a terrible, and even a wrong-headed, statement to make. The Earth still revolves around the sun, after all. Birds still fly, children still learn how to walk, and people continue to get up in the morning and do whatever it is they do every day. All of this is undeniably true.

But think about the last time the Northwestern Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers played against each other in a college football game, back on New Year’s Day, 1997. The Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida was the venue, and the final score–Tennessee 48, Northwestern 28–doesn’t fully reflect how lopsided the game was. I know, because I was there that day.

I’m willing to stroll down Memory Lane like this for two simple reasons: to introduce myself to the readers of this fine website, and to remind everyone–Cats fans, Vols fans, and everybody else–that it’s not 1997 anymore.

A blowout victory back then doesn’t put a single point on the board for Tennessee in 2016, nor does whatever the betting line on the game is in Vegas right now. I’ve seen many Vols fans on Twitter acting like they have this game in the bag already. Maybe it’s some overblown SEC bravado, or maybe they think the ghost of Peyton Manning will take the field in Tampa on January 1. Whatever the reason, it’s misguided and it needs to stop.

The common link between the 1996 Northwestern team and this year’s edition is Pat Fitzgerald. He was the captain of the defense on the field back then, and today he’s the leader of the team on the sidelines. He, along with Darnell Autry, Steve Schnur, Brian Musso and the others, resurrected Northwestern from a football laughingstock to a national power. And for me and my fellow 1980s Northwestern classmates, that was no small accomplishment.

At old Dyche Stadium, throwing marshmallows at each other in the stands during football games was all we could do to take our minds off what was happening on the field. In 1989, my last year on campus, the team went 0-11. It was the third time in the 1980s that the Wildcats went winless for an entire season, but it hasn’t happened since, and hopefully it won’t ever happen again. As long as Coach Fitz is on the sidelines, I can’t imagine that it will.

The Citrus Bowl was the only bowl game that Fitz the player took part in, since he missed the Rose Bowl against USC with a broken leg. And while the 1996 Wildcats couldn’t possibly touch the 1995 season in terms of their unexpected rise to success, it was the end of the line for the core group that had made it all happen. It was the Juniors who took the Purple to Pasadena, and the Seniors couldn’t match that, especially not after losing their opening game in 1996 to Wake Forest.

After missing out on all the 1995 hoopla, I decided to get season tickets for the Wildcats’ home games in 1996. This was done in order to get bowl tickets, of course, because there was no way that Fitz and Company wouldn’t end up going someplace warm to end their college careers. And following a 9-2 campaign that included an electrifying comeback win over Michigan–a magical game if there ever was one–the Cats found themselves heading to the Florida sunshine for New Year’s day. Life couldn’t have been any sweeter.

The Cats’ 9-2 record in 1996 was something on a letdown after a 10-1 record the previous year, but it’s also an indication of how much has changed since 1997. Teams don’t play 11 games in the regular season anymore, with 12 games now being the norm, and 13 for the teams who play for a conference championship. Conference title games were still a long way away back in the late 20th century, at least for the Big Ten.

FloridaCitrusBowl2Corporate sponsorship of bowl games was still a pretty new concept back in the 1990s, too. In fact, the sponsor of the 1997 Citrus Bowl–Comp USA–doesn’t exist anymore, having closed up in 2012. Their logo lives on in the shirt I bought at the game that day, but after a long stretch as the Capital One Bowl, the game is now known as the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. And nineteen years from now, who knows what it will be called?

I realize that the Cats and the Vols aren’t playing in Orlando on New Year’s day this year. But the differences from then to now are still pretty significant.  Take Tampa and the site of this year’s game, for example. The stadium that hosted the Outback Bowl back in 1997, known then as Houlihan’s Stadium, was torn down less than two years later. The Bowl itself still has the same sponsor as it did 19 years ago, and it still matches an SEC and a Big Ten Team together, but don’t go looking for the physical site of the game back then, because it’s long gone now.

On New Year’s eve that year, I remember being excited that I could go out and about without a hat or a coat or a pair of gloves. December was still the cold season in Chicago back then, and a Florida bowl game meant a bit or sunshine and warm weather to break up winter’s grip. Tomorrow, in early December in Chicago, the high temperature is supposed to reach 59 degrees. What it will be here for New Year’s eve I don’t know, but chances are I won’t need a hat or some gloves, either. There’s another example of just how different the world is from what it was 19 years ago.

Before the game started, the only place that I–and 98% of America–could go to discuss the game was America Online. We laugh about AOL now, like it was some silly fad that we would rather not be reminded of anymore. But that was the Internet for me back in those days. The NU and UT message boards were the place to go to talk some smack about the other team, or express concern at what the ugly purple-and-orange bruise of a stadium was going to look like on New Year’s day. There were no hashtags, no meme generators, and no blogs in those days, either. Like Robinson Caruso, it was primitive as could be back in late 1996.

The game itself was pretty much a blur, except for the otherworldly performance of Peyton Manning. He threw for three touchdowns and ran for another…in the first half. As good as the Wildcat defense was in those days–not quite as dominating as the 1995 team, but still better than most other teams in the country–they were no match for Peyton Manning that day. And that made the scene at the end of the game perfectly understandable.

Manning still had a year of college eligibility left after that game, but nobody who witnessed what he did against Northwestern could deny that he was ready for the NFL. But Volunteer fans weren’t ready to let him go just yet. When the game ended and the players and coaches started exchanging handshakes on the field, there was an extended cheer–more of a plea in unison–that went up from the Tennessee fans. They wanted him back for one more year, to make a run at a national championship. I thought to myself, “This kid could be crowned the king of Tennessee, and nobody would object to it one bit.” It had to be a pretty heady moment for a guy in his early twenties.

Manning did come back to Tennessee, bypassing the life of an NFL star for one more season in Knoxville. He didn’t win the national championship (although a guy named Tee Martin did lead them there shortly thereafter), but he must have been treated like a god everywhere he went in 1997. And his NFL career hasn’t had too many equals, either. I never again saw Peyton Manning play live after that game, but I’ll never forget his dominance that day in Orlando.

So don’t tell me that playing against Tennessee doesn’t mean something to Pat Fitzgerald, the defensive captain who watched as Peyton Manning made the Citrus Bowl into his own personal video game.  I’m sure he’ll deny any special motivation against Tennessee, not wanting to take anything away from Dan Vitale and Nick VanHoose and all the other seniors who will be ending their college career in the Florida sun, exactly the way he did nineteen years ago. But Tennessee had their way with Fitzgerald’s defense that day, and who knows if he’ll ever have another chance to settle that score?

I say this again, to all Tennessee and Northwestern fans who might be reading this: Peyton Manning will be far away from Tampa on January 1. He’s still trying to keep his NFL career afloat, and holding off Brock Osweiler is where his focus will be. But another meaningful player from Citrus Bowl ’97 will be in the house, and he may be looking for some vindication when that first kick goes sailing through the Tampa sky.

And one more thing: The Wildcats could have a variety of uniforms at their disposal for the Outback Bowl, but I promise you they won’t be wearing black for this romp in the Florida sunshine. That lesson was learned nineteen years ago.

And one last thing: Go Cats!

Before He Was “The Head Ball Coach”

It was Saturday, October 30, 1965. And it was a beautiful day for football! My father, mother and I were on our way from Lower Alabama to the Plains of Auburn for a homecoming game that matched our Tigers with the Florida Gators.IMG_2355

The visitors were a heavy favorite. They were bringing an impressive 4-1 record into the tilt, while the home team, with losses to Baylor, Georgia Tech, and Southern Mississippi, was really struggling that year at 2-3-1.

The contingent from Gainesville, Florida was lead by a brash young kid from Johnson City, Tennessee. His name was Steven Orr Spurrier.

This was the first game ever televised from, what was then, Cliff Hare Stadium. It would later be re-named Jordan-Hare Stadium for, then, legendary head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.

Coach Jordan was given to referring to the Gator quarterback as “Steve Superior”.

“Superior” had led his team to wins over non-conference foes Northwestern and North Carolina State. They sported SEC victories over LSU and Ole Miss. Their lone setback came at the hands of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

When the LeCroy clan finally made it to Auburn, it seemed like it took an eternity to get there, they headed over to the home of Nelle and Bill Mims, my aunt and uncle. Aunt Nelle was my mother’s sister. Uncle Bill was retired from the Georgia-Pacific railroad. They had moved to “the loveliest village” where he now had a job with Buildings and Grounds at Auburn University.

Uncle Bill quipped to my father that he might have to drive the jeep that would carry the ABC television camera up and down the home sideline as this was an altogether new venture for the school.

I thought that would be the greatest thing in the world! Would I be allowed to ride in the jeep? As it turns out, this did not come to pass, but that was okay. There were some big fish to fry later that day.

And what a day it turned out to be!

The visiting Gators led the home underdog Tigers 10-0 at the half.  Junior quarterback, Spurrier, had thrown a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jack Harper and their kicker, Wayne Barfield, booted a 26-yard field goal. The sellout crowd, of 45,000, was dismayed but not daunted.

The Tigers regrouped at the break. And it turned out to be a tough second half for the young quarterback from the mountains of East Tennessee. Auburn middle linebacker, Bill Cody, intercepted a Spurrier pass and returned it for 29 yards and a touchdown. Spurrier also fumbled at the Florida 10, in the fourth quarter, and it rolled into the end zone. Cody was also the recipient of this snafu that gave Auburn an insurmountable lead.IMG_2358

The Tigers scored 28 unanswered points in that second half. Spurrier threw a late TD pass to Charlie Casey, which mattered little, and Auburn upset the Gators, 28-17.

It was a big win for the home team and a hard learning experience for the tough, talented and talkative young Gator QB.

October 29, 1966 was a horse of a different color.

Florida was celebrating homecoming this time around.

60,000 fans had jammed Florida Field, which was later dubbed “The Swamp” by an alumnus who had returned to coach the Gators in 1990 ;).

Florida was undefeated and Steve “Superior” was their senior quarterback. They also had designs on an SEC Championship, a National Championship, and a Heisman Trophy for their team leader.

The game turned out to be a see-saw battle which went down to the wire.

Auburn took the opening kickoff and Larry Ellis returned it 89 yards for a touchdown.

It’s on!!!

Florida retaliated with a 10-yard TD pass from Spurrier to Richard Trapp. They also scored on a 2-yard TD run.

Auburn stunned the old Gator grads with  a 90-yard fumble return and added a 30-yard field goal by Jimmy “Rattlesnake” Jones before halftime. They took a 17-13 lead into the dressing room. The Tigers opened the second half scoring with a 27-yard field goal.

Florida immediately tied it when Larry Smith scored a TD from two-yards out. It was 20-20.

Spurrier put the home team on top with 2-yard sneak, early in the fourth quarter, but Auburn quarterback, Larry Blakeney ran one in from the three after Yearout recovered yet another fumble at the Gator 16.

The game was tied, 27-27.

Spurrier then began to engineer a march toward the Tiger goal line, but the drive was stopped when the Gator field general was called for an intentional grounding penalty.

It was now fourth down with just over two minutes remaining in the game and Florida at the Auburn 26 yard-line.

A field goal attempt would be 40 yards and that was outside the comfort zone of the Gator’s regular placekicker.

Spurrier had kicked 40-yard field goals in practice and begged Florida head coach, Ray Graves, to give him a shot at it.IMG_2359

He did.

You can imagine what happened. It was like something out a sports novel for young kids, or maybe the popular AMC TV show, Friday Night Lights.

Yes, Steve Spurrier nailed the field goal, with 2:12 remaining, Florida captured a very hard-fought 30-27 win and, as most of you know, Spurrier went on to take home the Heisman Trophy.

Those are my first memories of Steve Spurrier, or “Superior”, and his heroics on the gridiron.

You know the rest of the story. I don’t need to recount it for you here, yet again.

Many, many tales of championships he won at Duke and Florida have “swamped” television, newspapers, and social media over the past week. And you know of his unprecedented success at the University of South Carolina, from which he recently resigned. You also know of his failure to generate a winner on the NFL level with the Washington Redskins.

I’ll never forget the great upset wins Auburn had over number one ranked Gator squads in 1993, ’94, and 2001. But those were the ONLY three wins my Tigers were able to generate vs. the “evil genius” during his tenure at Florida. Auburn’s final record stood at 3-10 against Spurrier and the Gators.

OUCH!

IMG_2357

There are many fan bases that “Darth Visor” has rubbed the wrong way over the years. Cough cough… Georgia and Tennessee.

But I have always really liked him and have truly enjoyed following the journey of Steven Orr Spurrier. My son and I have had numerous conversations in “Spurrier Speak”. They would begin something like, “Well, we found out nobody had ever scored fifty points on Georgia in Athens before, so we thought we’d try that!”

Priceless!

I laugh when I think about it and about him.

I know you’ve probably also read many of Spurrier’s famous quotes from over the years. I’ll leave you with, possibly, one of my favorites. It’s from the lips of the only Heisman winner he coached, Danny Wuerffel. This was after Wuerffel had thrown a costly interception. He then apologized for the turnover.

Spurrier replied, “Danny, it’s not your fault, it’s my fault for putting you in the game.”

So here’s to the “Head Ball Coach”!

May he not, “Go gentle into that good night.”

College Football: Week 1 Features Ohio State’s Embarrassment of Riches

It only took five days, but our first weekend of College Football is in the books. We had a lot of chalk and some disappointment, but it was the “Wow!” moments that really jumped off the page. The bar was really set high for the individuals that the consensus expects to be in the running for that big heavy trophy, and for the schools interested in playing in that little tournament, well, they just had to win.

From the home of the Belk Bowl to the campus of the last program to slay the dragon that Urban Meyer built in Central Ohio, it was an extended weekend of debuts, vengeance, and perhaps an introduction to some new contenders. We’ll start in Blacksburg, where the first unanimous Preseason AP #1 team in the country took on Frank Beamer and the Virginia Tech Hokies, seeking their pound of flesh for what took place in Columbus a year ago.

Ohio State 42 Virginia Tech 24

The story has been told, time and time again. Cardale Jones has never started a game in his own stadium for Ohio State, and on Monday night, he earned his first regular season victory, so it’s long past the time we stop referring to him as the Buckeye’s 3rd-string quarterback. In case you felt his previous three performances were some type of sorcery on the part of Meyer last December and January, the junior from Cleveland showed the magic is still there on Ohio State’s first possession, hitting Curtis Samuel on the money with a throw off of his back foot, good for a 24-yard touchdown. The next time the Buckeyes snapped the ball, Ezekiel Elliott went 80 yards to make it 14-0 in favor of the defending champs, perhaps making fans in Tuscaloosa feel better about things, but likely not.

It appeared the Buckeyes were going to roll, but misfortune, the type that goes beyond taking the field at Lane Stadium without Joey Bosa or Jalin Marshall on the field, struck, and the Hokies ripped off 17 unanswered, taking a 17-14 lead into the break. A missed Ohio State field goal gave the home team some momentum towards the end of the first quarter, but all of the credit in the world goes to Virginia Tech for designing a wheel route to full back Sam Rogers, who was all by himself on the left sideline. The big man had to hustle, but Eli Apple stood between him and the goal line and he shook the Buckeyes’ the third-year corner out of his shoes to cut the early advantage in half. Without the services of Marshall, Meyer had Elliott back returning punts, and call it inexperience or whatever, but the All-World running back struggled to field AJ Hughes second punt of the night, and four plays later, another nicely designed throwback to Ryan Malleck on third down gave the Hokies the lead.

Anyone remember Braxton Miller, the forgotten head on the three-headed monster of Ohio State’s open competition for the starting role last spring? They gave him a new number and a new position, and it only took him about a half of football to get his sea-legs beneath him. He did have a couple of rushing attempts and a nice diving 24-yard catch in the first half, which I think showed us he’s still a legitimate player, even when not behind center. On the third play of the second half, he took a pass from Jones and tip-toed by the Hokie defender, down the right sideline for 54 yards and the score. On the Bucks next offensive play from scrimmage, he gave the Scarlet and Gray their first Wow Moment of the season with a spin move that you can, yeah, only do on video games. From there, the rout was on.

https://vine.co/v/etJnO1lvnKm

Give Beamer and company some credit; they nearly made Mark May look smart. While the final score really was indicative of the game we watched, they did some really good things to take the straight-up running game away from Ohio State, despite big plays from Elliott and Miller, and they found enough vulnerabilities in the defense to put some points on the board and make this prime time affair interesting into the late night hours of Labor Day. The game really didn’t get out of hand until Brenden Motley had to spell starting quarterback Michael Brewer.

Unfortunately for Brewer, we live in a world where what you say with a certain expectation of privacy is subject to “going viral”. He was caught on camera, and yes, it’s likely he knew it was in his face, spouting off some one-liner about how it’s going to take a lot more than a fairly brutal hit he took on the Hokies last drive of the half to knock him out of the game. You can’t blame the kid; he was talking to his teammates in the locker room, more so than the national television audience through the lens of ESPN’s camera, but people are going to talk about karma. To that, I say “whatever”.

It’s widely believed that this is Ohio State’s last real test before Michigan State visits Columbus in November, and it’s hard to disagree. Up next, the Buckeyes get Hawaii, Northern Illinois, and Western Michigan at home, and then a relatively simple conference slate, though I’m not ready to overlook Minnesota’s visit to the ‘Shoe on November 7th. For the Hokies, don’t expect the season to instantly go down the toilet after this acceptable performance. Last year, East Carolina beat Virginia Tech on their home field a week after they stunned Ohio State. Don’t expect Furman to follow suit; in fact, I’d say you can expect the Hokies to get their own pound of flesh from ECU on the road in a couple of weeks, and for them to be competitive in the ACC.

Marshall 41 Purdue 31

It was tough sledding for Darrell Hazell and Purdue in the only game on the slate for this pre-NFL Sunday. If Hazell and his signal-caller Austin Appleby never see Tiquan Lang again, it will be too soon for the both of them. Though, I’m very open to the possibility that Appleby never saw Lang at all, yeilding two pick-sixes to the Thundering Herd’s junior safety, which were good for the first and last scores of the game.

On the game’s very first play from scrimmage, Lang stepped in front of the intended receiver, and went 30 yards untouched to give Marshall the early lead, but there was still a good 59 minutes and change of football to be played. Purdue was able to recover on a DJ Knox touchdown run, on his way too a 100-yard day on the ground, but the game went back and forth all afternoon. The visiting Boilermakers led for most of the first half, until Devon Johnson put Marshall back up 34-31 with a 6-yard score, but Appleby had one more chance. After timeouts by both teams, it appeared the Purdue junior had too much time to think about it once again. And once again, an ill-fated pass attempt fell into the hands of Lang, who had to work harder on his second return, cutting across the field for a 55-yard score to put it to bed.

Given their early success in making the jump from Division I to Division I-AA with Chad Pennington and Randy Moss nearly twenty years ago, it’s difficult to believe Sunday’s win, in front of a home crowd of nearly 39,000 in Huntington, was the school’s first win over a Big Ten program, but the Boilermakers seem to be giving a few mid-Majors that milestone in recent years.

Alabama 35 Wisconsin 17

Hey Badger fans, I think Derrick Henry just scored again! Okay, maybe not, but the Alabama junior running back averaged 11.3 yards per carry, en route to three touchdowns on the ground at “The House That Jerry Built” in North Texas on Saturday. It probably would have been more, but the end zone kept stopping him. If there’s honestly a debate about the quarterback position at Alabama, and I don’t think there is, we gained no clarity about it on Saturday night. My gut tells me Nick Saban will let Jake Coker assume the role, unless his poor play forces his hand or Cooper Bateman takes things to a new level in the time he’s getting.

So, I know Gene Chizik was 5-19 at Iowa State before being awarded the Auburn job, where he landed the services of Cam Newton and won a title in his second season, so maybe I don’t read too much into Paul Chryst’s 19-19 mark at Pittsburgh. Seriously though, in Chryst’s debut with the Badgers, he wasn’t just behind the curve with the X’s and O’s, that Big Ten size and strength, which is supposed to be their finest asset in Madison, it’s not there. I’ve long thought that Barry Alvarez was the reason Gary Andersen chose a new gig in Corvalis over what he’s built in Madison, but he might have just seen the writing on the wall with what he wasn’t able to recruit. Sorry, but 16 yards on 8 carries for Corey Clement just isn’t getting it done; Melvin Gordon III isn’t walking back through that door and head coaches will dare Joel Stave to beat them all season.

Texas A&M 38 Arizona State 17

Is it possible to lose a game by more than just the numbers on the scoreboard? In being picked apart by Scottsdale, Arizona’s Kyle Allen and Christian Kirk, the very successful head coach of the Sun Devils, Todd Graham, was exposed for losses to the state of Texas in the recruiting game. Allen, the sophomore quarterback fighting off highly touted freshman Kyler Murray, threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, but Kirk was the star of the show. You get sick of hearing about video games when you’re discussing actual human athletes, but between his 79-yard punt return that put the Aggies up 14-0 early and his 66-yard touchdown catch and run, that status quo had cheat codes on their mind. I’d reference the Game Genie here, but it would be lost on everyone not born between 1975 and 1985.

After A&M’s season went downhill after their big win in the opener against South Carolina a year ago, Aggie fans can only be cautiously optimistic about Kevin Sumlin’s squad’s chances in the SEC. On the other hand, after watching how hapless the ASU offense was in Houston, there has to be some concern about senior quarterback Mike Berovici, a guy that wasn’t spectacular in his understudy role in 2014, despite the team’s success in games he started.

This neutral site game was the only game of any sort on the 2015 schedule that paired a Pac-12 school against a team from the Southeastern Conference. If you’re an SEC honk, you want the Sun Devils to dominate their conference. If you support a Pac-12 contender that isn’t Arizona State, you’re probably hoping your program isn’t basically a coin flip for that fourth playoff spot with a member of the SEC in December.

Northwestern 16 Stanford 6

We should probably acknowledge this battle of Academia that took place in Evanston, the most watchable matinee of the day on Saturday. Was this more about Kevin Hogan and Stanford being inept on offense, or does Pat Fitzgerald have a great defense at Northwestern? I fear David Shaw may be on the decline, the more we see time separate this program from the days of Jim Harbaugh.

One thing I’m hearing and I don’t agree with is that Stanford is suddenly too slow. Sure Hogan isn’t a runner on the level that Andrew Luck was, and Ty Montgomery is gone from the offense and special teams, but Michael Rector isn’t slow and we should see more of Christian McCaffrey in both the running and passing games. My guess is the offense works it out, but I don’t know if the glass is less than half-full when I look at that defense. The departing talent hasn’t been replaced, or the newbies haven’t been developed, but Northwestern owned the line of scrimmage when they had the ball. That’s going to be a problem for the Cardinal all year.

The victory in the trenches translated to a good game for running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 134 yards. However, it was quarterback Clayton Thorson’s 42 yard run, on what looked like a designed draw play, that represented the only touchdown of the day. The Wildcats will host an FCS team next week, and visit Duke in a few weeks, but expect them to finish non-conference play 4-0, setting up a big match up with Minnesota, on October 2nd at Ryan Field.

Ole Miss 76 Tennessee-Martin 3

Yuck, just yuck. Hugh Freeze, you’re in the SEC, and I know you want the home game at whatever price, but playing FCS foes is totally beneath you. Indiana got lucky doing this, but Wyoming, Washington State, and Kansas were not. Shame on everyone who partakes in this practice, even you Arizona State, where I’ll watch you rebound against cal-Poly, but still, Yuck!

Michigan State 37 Western Michigan 24

Kudos to the AD’s in East Lansing and Kalamazoo for making this happen, with the mid-major hosting the high major. PJ Fleck, your Western Michigan program isn’t quite there yet, but they didn’t look out of their element with a big boy from the Big Ten in town.

Michigan State might want to work on kick coverage this week, while the Broncos shouldn’t change a thing. Row your boat, fellas.

Charlotte 23 Georgia State 20

This game kicked off at 12:30 PM, during my work day on Friday. I caught the end on the ESPN app in my office. It was fourth College Football game I’d watched with some interest in a 24-hour span; yeah, I need help.

For the 49ers, it was their first game as an FBS program, and obviously also their first victory, but the Panthers of Georgia State made it interesting in the end.

TCU 23 Minnesota 17

I don’t know if I just don’t like the idea of B being a Heisman candidate, or if I have the bar set too high for him and, really, the rest of the Horned Frogs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think TCU is phenomenal when they have the ball, and that’s where the expectation comes from, but they just didn’t seem to have it, despite a nice victory over an underlooked Minnesota team on Thursday night at TCF Stadium.

He’s got weapons all around him, most notably Josh Doctson, and 246 passing on a day he rushed for 92 is far from underwhelming, but in real-time, I didn’t think he was anything special. That just tells me we haven’t seen anything yet from the offense. Based on what SMU was able to do to Baylor for 30 minutes on Friday, they might make for an interesting opponent for Gary Patterson’s defense, still a question mark for me after Minnesota had many opportunities Thursday.

Jerry Kill has a nice little team in Minnesota. They hung around the entire game, even if TCU did adjust better at the half. Rodney Smith seems like a good find; the freshman had 88 yards on 16 carries, but a lot of it that offensive line. Junior quarterback Mitch Leidner needs to be more efficient or throw the ball less, but I don’t know how much less he can throw it, considering he was sacked 20 times a year ago.

That Ref Deserves a Hug

Sometimes, I just can’t get over how the universe can even itself out. Two years ago, going left to right across the Big Red “N” at midfield in Lincoln, a backup quarterback heaves up a prayer. You know the rest, Jordan Westerkamp is on the receiving end for the touchdown and the win against Nebraska. Redemption is spelled R-O-N (Kellog).

Fast forward to Saturday, BYU down 28-27, 1 tick on the clock for Tanner Magnum, on in relief of the injured Taysom Hill. Mitch Matthews hauls it in for the win, but #11 Terenn Houk is the star of this Vine.

https://vine.co/v/eTVKrzL5T0E

…and the rest.

These are all of the items that are too short for a capsule of their own.

  • Penn State, I’m glad you went to Philly to play Temple, but how did you lose that game?
  • Michigan, you can’t run the ball and don’t have a real answer at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh isn’t saving you right away.
  • Between the Cactus Bowl and Friday’s somewhat awkward return to Boise for Chris Petersen, I’ve now bailed on Washington at halftime in consecutive games, only to learn the second half was interesting, the next day. Show up in the first half, Huskies.
  • Nicely done, Josh Rosen.   What a performance for the true freshman; he came with a lot of hype, but lived up to it.  UCLA wasn’t playing an FCS school on Saturday, they were hosting a Power 5.  It was Virginia, but still.
  • Northern Illinois, that’s two years in a row that you’ve dominated UNLV, but let them hang around. A MAC rival will take advantage at some point, just watch.
    We’re so spoiled with digital options for viewing, that it was aggravating that CBS Sports didn’t have an option and I’m told didn’t regionally switch to the UNLV-NIU game in DeKalb, while overtime was played in Tulsa.
  • By the way, way to finish your win over Florida Atlantic, Tulsa.
  • So, Auburn is pretty good.  Louisville might be too, but not based on their play Saturday.  Either way, good to see Verne and Gary on CBS in Week 1. (They called Ohio State-Navy for CBS Sports Network to open the 2014 season)
  • Play-by-play announcers and color analysts, it’s okay to punt in College Football. Not every opponent is Oregon, and not every situation near or behind midfield equals four-down territory. Our game is about field position, and you win it by punting when appropriate.
  • Adults that paint their bodies and dedicate their lives to “me time” on camera for their favorite College Football team don’t deserve the air time.
  • I’d rather get neutral site games than no game at all, but there’s something about the games being played on campus. Steve Spurrier, that atmosphere sucked with all of the empty seats in Charlotte. Go to Chapel Hill or have Larry Fedora bring his team to Columbia, and stop trying to do too much.
  • Nice touchdown reception, Robert Nkemdiche.  We’ll talk more about the two-way play of the Ole Miss pass-rusher, when they play an FBS foe.

Lastly, I think I underestimated how cool Scott Van Pelt’s midnight Sportscenter would be, because I was mostly upset about losing his radio show on my mid-day drives. I’d planned on getting straight to my writing room when the game ended, but I stuck around. It’s a shame the technical stuff had to be difficult in Virginia, I really would have loved to see him interview Braxton Miller.

Back on Sunday to discuss Week 2…61 hours until Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky kickoff.

The Crossroads: Will the Real UCLA Please Stand Up?

ESPN Gameday will be at an Ivy League game this weekend.

Despite the fact Harvard is undefeated, that’s a good indication this week’s slate is lacking. It sure doesn’t help that the SEC uses the week before Thanksgiving as a late-season bye and other conferences have followed suit. This feels like the sixth year in a row Ohio State has warmed up for Michigan by pounding on Indiana.

This is college football, so the laws of the sport mandate that Saturdays void of great matchups provide one surprise after another. While we may need to seek out the excitement, there is one game guaranteed to have an impact on, well, everything.

UCLA

Before the season, UCLA was a Pac-12 contender and a playoff dark-horse. After 10 games, UCLA is a Pac-12 contender and a playoff dark-horse. It’s pretty remarkable nothing has changed after their roller-coaster season, which many viewed to be a huge disappointment after the home losses to Utah and Oregon.

Yet with wins over Arizona and Arizona State, UCLA controls its Pac-12 South destiny. Who knows what could happen if they run the table, including a revenge win against Oregon. Still, they need to beat their crosstown rival to make all of that happen. And USC has been looking mighty good offensively this month.

UCLA has been very impressive the past two years against USC – can they make it three in a row? If yes, the sky is the limit for the Bruins. If not, they can make holiday plans for a mid-level bowl game. I would call that a Crossroads game.

Duke’s ACC Title Hopes

Because they finish with a horrible Wake Forest team, Duke is essentially playing for the ACC Coastal crown and a date with Florida State when they host North Carolina on Thursday night. It’s a fascinating game for many reasons.

Duke is coming off of a brutal home loss to Virginia Tech, reducing their margin of error down to nothing. UNC is 5-5 after an awful 2-4 start and is one win away from a much-needed bowl berth to get extra practices. In fact, with NC State next week, UNC could even run itself to 7-5 and play in a decent bowl. It’s a big game for both, yet not even the biggest game of the night.

Kansas State’s Big 12 Title Hopes

You remember Kansas State, right? They’re tied for the Big 12 lead. They’re 7-2. They still play Baylor to end the season. If TCU slips up on Thanksgiving night at Texas, the Wildcats could win out, win the conference, and play in a really big bowl game.

Of course, for that to remain an option, they need to beat West Virginia in Morgantown on Thursday. Ask TCU and Baylor about that. West Virginia should be highly motivated – the last-second loss to TCU begat a poor performance against Texas. They will want to make a statement about their season of improvement. Kansas State will need a Grade A effort to win this one.

Melvin Gordon’s Heisman chances

With the total flameout of Dak Prescott against Mississippi State, the Heisman Trophy race is basically down to Marcus Mariota and Melvin Gordon. I don’t need to rehash how Gordon burst into the race with the single best rushing day in the history of college football. He was incredible.

However, there will be a much brighter spotlight this week when Wisconsin plays at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have only the 46th-best rush defense in the country, surrendering 147.8 yards per game on the ground. Iowa will be focused in on stopping Gordon. Can they? The answer to that question may determine the Heisman front-runner going into the last two weeks of the season.

Nebraska’s run defense

Do I need to write anything here? They gave up a bazillion yards to Melvin Gordon. This week, they host Minnesota and RB David Cobb, who has already rushed for 1,350 yards. It would behoove Nebraska to win this game and, ya know, stop someone. If not…hello, irrelevance.

Kyle Flood

Do you know the last time Rutgers beat a team that finished the season with a winning record? Nope, it’s not anyone they beat this year. Nope, it’s not anyone they beat last year. Yep, you have to go back to Nov. 17, 2012 – more than two years ago – to find Rutgers beating a good team, when they took down 10-3 Cincinnati.

Last year, Rutgers lost to all the bowl-bound teams it faced. This year, it’s only hope to notch a win over a bowl bound team is for Navy or Michigan to climb to six wins. Both teams are currently 5-5 and not exactly world-beaters.

Is this what the Big Ten wanted from Rutgers? Is this what Rutgers wanted from the Big Ten? Their last two road games have been no contest beatdowns from Ohio State and Nebraska. This week, they play at Michigan State. Can they keep it close? If they don’t, I think Rutgers needs to seriously evaluate whether Kyle Flood is the guy. Or if they want to accept 6-6 records every year.

Ole Miss & Arizona’s dream seasons

The two best wins this season are Arizona’s triumph over Oregon and Ole Miss taking down Alabama. Both teams are alive for conference titles and in the thick of the New Year’s Six bowl hunt. Both teams play in-state rivals in mega games over Thanksgiving weekend. Both teams have incredibly tough road tests on Saturday.

Ole Miss plays at Arkansas. Arizona plays at Utah. If they win these games, they will have everything to play for next weekend. If they lose, they will regret it for years to come.

Notre Dame’s defense

Lost in the Everett Golson’s turnover party and Brian Kelly’s idiotic game management has been the truly putrid performance by the Notre Dame defense. The loss to Florida State was excused; rightly so, because Jameis Winston is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and played out of his mind in the second half of that game.

But against Arizona State, the Irish put up little resistance to Arizona State, especially after turnovers. Last week, the team embarrassed itself by giving up 43 points to a bad Northwestern team. The final drive by Northwestern to tie up the game was so easy that the Wildcats would’ve scored a touchdown if given 15 more seconds.

This week, Notre Dame hosts Louisville. They need to win this game and the defense needs to figure it out in a hurry with USC looming or a possible playoff season is going to end in total disaster.

Northwestern & Illinois

With both sitting at 4-6, only one can make a bowl game since they play next Saturday. Could it be the ultra-rare bowl game playoff? Personally, I’m rooting for a matchup of 5-6 teams going toe-to-toe for a Quick Lane Bowl berth. To make that happen, Northwestern has to win at Purdue (reasonable) and Illinois has to win at home versus Penn State (reasonable).

Tennessee’s renaissance

It’s been a dark few years – heck, a dark decade – for the Tennessee Volunteers. As a child of the 1990’s, Tennessee was one of the elite programs, mentioned in the same breath as Nebraska and Miami as….holy cow, how long ago was the 1990s?

Regardless, it feels like Tennessee has finally turned the corner. Tough losses to Georgia and Florida, along with respectable performances against Oklahoma and Alabama, showed the young Vols were getting closer. Enter Joshua Dobbs, a stirring comeback against South Carolina, an absolute thrashing of Kentucky and suddenly, Tennessee is hot again.

Will it last? Vegas believes – the Volunteers are favored at home against a Missouri team that needs to win out for the SEC East title. If Tennessee comes through, they will likely be 7-5 and one of the most sought-after bowl teams. If they don’t, they will likely end up 6-6 and be a good story.

In short, the prism through which we viewed the Vols’ season will be determined by its result Saturday. That, my friends, is the definition of the Crossroads.

Big Ten Power Rankings

The College Football Playoff rankings are officially out for the first time and what was once seen as a potential lifesaver for the Big Ten has done the conference no favors. The playoff was supposed to create three more opportunities at the title but at this juncture in time, not even six spots would be enough for the conference to qualify as MSU checks in at No. 8 in the initial rankings and in a mild but completely understandable surprise, Nebraska is 15th just ahead of Ohio State.
 
It is clear that the Buckeyes massive defeats were overshadowed by their blemishes including a double overtime scare from Penn State and a Week 2 home loss to an unranked 4-4 Virginia Tech team, even though it was before J.T. Barrett truly blossomed. Yes, I know there is a ton of football yet to be played and everything could become gobbledygook near the top but these early rankings are far from encouraging for the Big Ten. And just for argument’s sake even if the Spartans were ranked higher than they are now, they would need other leagues to stumble. Thursday night’s matchup between Florida State and Louisville would’ve been huge for the conference if Louisville hung on to win but the Seminoles came back and it’s hard to fathom them losing again this year, guaranteeing them a spot. And it’s all but certain given the strength of the SEC West, two SEC teams get in, leaving one spot left. The Big Ten would be in a competition with the Big 12 champ, Pac-12 champ, and Notre Dame for that final spot and based on what has transpired this season, I would say the Big Ten will be left out even if MSU, OSU or even Nebraska wins the rest of the way.
If there is any silver lining, last year at this time with the BCS, MSU was No. 22 and six weeks later would’ve qualified for a playoff spot so it remains to be seen what happens but early signs aren’t great for the Big Ten. All the conference can do is continue having its top tier teams win out and hope for the best, which brings us back to an updated power rankings lineup.
1. Michigan State Spartans
Record: 7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 1.
The Spartans have now won 14 consecutive Big Ten games but unlike seasons past, their defense has been more vulnerable to the big play. Fortunately, after throttling Michigan again, MSU has earned a nice bye week to recuperate and work out the kinks in preparation for the biggest game of the year.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Record: 7-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 3
Nebraska set the tone early as Ameer Abdullah continued his dazzling season by churning out a school record for total yardage in a single game with 341 yards in a victory over Rutgers. It was the fourth time this season he has gone over 200 yards.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 7-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 2
The Buckeyes barely hung on to defeat Penn State as J.T. Barrett rose to the occasion in overtime and Joey Bosa was a one man wrecking crew. The Buckeyes can let out a collective sigh of relief as they face Illinois in a nice tune-up game before the grand showdown with MSU next weekend.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
Record: 5-2 overall, 2-1 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 9
In their most complete and balanced performance of the season, the Badgers shined with stout defense (held Terps to 175 yards), efficient passing from QB Joel Stave and of course, Melvin Gordon running over everything in his path. Rutgers, who was singlehandedly demolished by Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah could be in for another long day with Gordon hitting his stride.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Record: 6-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 4
The Illinois defense forced three costly turnovers including the game-changing fumble in the fourth quarter and though David Cobb finished with118 yards, he was held to 34 yards for nearly three quarters. If they can’t get passed Illinois, they definitely are in trouble four top-tier teams are coming up in the future: Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
6. Maryland Terrapins
Record: 5-3 overall, 2-2 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 10
A week following a jovial win over Iowa, the Terrapins were decimated by Wisconsin 52-7 in their worst loss of the year and it remains to be seen if they can rebound from such a crushing defeat especially with a tough schedule ahead. The Terps aren’t ready to take on the B1Gs elite.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
Record: 5-2 overall, 2-1 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 6
The Hawkeyes are still in the thick of the West division title race and control their own destiny even with a troubling loss to Maryland last week. However, if they want to rise to the top, there needs to be much improvement especially on defense and offensive line.
8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Record: 5-3 overall, 1-3 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 8
Rutgers attempted to drive down the field in the final minute of the second quarter only to have QB Gary Nova suffer a leg injury and it proved to be costly, as the Scarlet Knights were handed their second straight loss after an encouraging six game start.
9. Northwestern Wildcats
Record: 3-4 overall, 2-2 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 5
Even with a 3-4 overall record, there is still plenty to play for in the coming weeks and we have seen spurts of brilliance from this team but if it is going to be a successful season, it has to start this week at Iowa. It also must win three of its final five games to become bowl eligible
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 4-3 overall, 1-3 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 7
Even in an overtime loss to Ohio State, Penn State delivered a valiant effort to comeback after a 17-0 deficit at halftime against the second best team in the conference. If only their offense was not so stagnant and had an offensive line that could adequately block to compliment a strong defense.
11. Purdue Boilermakers
Record: 3-5 overall, 1-3 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 12
Purdue was off last weekend in their quest for constant improvement following two competitive outings and a breakthrough win against Illinois. Now comes the hardest part of the schedule with Nebraska and Wisconsin next on tap.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
Record: 4-4 overall, 1-3 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 14
A poised effort from QB Reilly O’Toole coupled with decisive defense and solid coaching helped the Illini put away Minnesota in their first Big Ten win since 2011. They will need their defense to play like it did against Minnesota if they are to win two more games and make a bowl.
13. Michigan Wolverines
Record: 3-5 overall, 1-3 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 13
Even with two weeks to prepare for MSU, the Wolverines looked dazed and confused especially on offense in another lackadaisical outing and need to win out the rest of the season just to finish above .500.
14. Indiana Hoosiers
Record: 3-4 overall, 0-3 Big Ten
Previous ranking: 11
It is hard to imagine how far this team has fallen ever since their signature win over Missouri, arguably the best nonconference victory of the Big Ten. Yet, without injured QB Nate Sudfeld, the Hoosiers are a one-man show with Tevin Coleman and he can’t do everything by himself.

State of the Big Ten

What a difference several weeks can make especially in the cyclical, turbulent world of college football. Following a historically horrific first three weeks (1-10 against Power 5 opponents), the Big Ten looked dead in the water and was on the chopping block for elimination from the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The Source: US PRESSWIRE
The Source: US PRESSWIRE

Fast forward seven weeks later and much of that negativity is ancient history. More importantly, the Big Ten is right back in the thick of the playoff discussion and with the exception of Florida State, looks arguably in better shape than the ACC with three teams ranked in the top 16 in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls.
Now if you’re not down with the Big Ten, take a look around the rest of the nation. The other power five conferences aren’t exactly shaping up like we expected just a few short weeks ago.
SEC fans will argue that the SEC beats itself up, and to a certain extent, that’s true. But with highly ranked SEC teams falling each week like dominoes and so many big games left before the playoff is set, it makes sense to believe that any Big Ten team has a reasonable chance to fit into the playoff picture at 12-1.
As far as the conference is concerned, comparing the East and West is almost night and day. It is no secret that the most likely Big Ten champion is coming from the East and will be between powerhouses Michigan State or Ohio State. If they both continue to pummel their competition as they have in the past few weeks, both teams early season losses do not look so bad if the committee takes into account both losses occurred when the season just started. Admittedly, though, if Ohio State wins the all-important November 8 matchup against MSU it maybe a harder argument to consider them seeing their lone loss was against an unranked Virginia Tech team. On the flipside, the committee may take into account it was before the true blossoming of J.T. Barrett.
In the muddled, wild West, five teams all have legitimate shots to win the division and no one knows who the champion will be although in recent weeks, Nebraska has appeared to be the most talented and balanced team.
Minnesota, which was firing on all cylinders having won three games in a row, remained hot with a come-from-behind home win against Purdue, whose defense surrendered 194 rushing yards to Golden Gophers running back, David Cobb. 6-1 Minnesota is all alone atop the West with a victory over Northwestern as their signature win and can’t be excluded from the division championship race even though their remaining schedule is brutal. At 3-0, it controls its destiny as the lone unbeaten team within Big 10 play.
Right behind Minnesota is Nebraska and Iowa.
Nebraska beat Northwestern at home this week for one of their top victories this year and gave MSU all it could handle and more as it rallied back from a 24 point deficit only to fall short in East Lansing in Week 7.
Iowa on the other hand, has an ugly early season loss to a struggling Iowa State team and was incredibly ineffective on offense against Maryland this past weekend, which resulted in a 38-31 loss.
Iowa is a team that is the definition of inconsistency and is facing an identity crisis at the quarterback position. Yet, Iowa still is in the Big Ten race as many pundits picked them to win the West due to their favorable schedule, but dreams of a truly special season for Kirk Ferentz’s squad are now much tougher to make reality.
Behind them, Northwestern started out strong with two solid conference wins over Penn State and Wisconsin only to drop their next two games to Minnesota and Nebraska for a 3-4, 2-2 record. The Wildcats offense sputtered against the Huskers as none of their passes went longer than 23 yards. The offensive limitations stem from the fact they lack explosive receivers, who can’t stretch the field and a quarterback who doesn’t possess a strong arm. They also lost their star tailback Venric Mark and potential downfield threat, Christian Jones.
Bringing up the rear is Wisconsin at 5-2, 1-1. If Wisconsin doesn’t have a passing game, the offense is in trouble and Wisconsin doesn’t have a passing game. The Badgers passers have been downright dreadful at times and are unreliable. The Badgers still have talented running backs in Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement; however, the offensive line has struggled to control the line of scrimmage especially in their two loses.
When the Wisconsin offense struggles, the No. 1 defense in the Big Ten comes to clean the mess up though they have given up big plays marked by poor coverage, especially in the secondary. It is hard to write off Wisconsin in the West race, especially when you think back to 2012 and the Badgers won the Big Ten title with a 4-4 conference record.
The Big Ten is in a slightly favorable position right now but the pendulum has swung back and forth between relevancy and irrelevancy all year long. It is tough to say what exactly the state of the conference truly is but it is remarkably better than when the season started and I, as a big ten fan, feel much more confident in the conference’s chances to actually field a playoff team especially with other conferences beating each other up in conference play.

Shades of Gary

On September 15, 2012, the stars aligned and Wisconsin got its first look at the man who the Badgers would call their coach three months later when the Badgers met Utah State in an unexpectedly tense showdown at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. As Andersen would later state in an interview after being named the head coach for the Badgers, “it all came together” on that fateful Saturday.
Wisconsin’s 2012 season was full of disappointment and struggles. The Badgers began the season with high expectations after getting a second high profile quarterback transfer in Danny O’Brien and coming out with an offense with better balance. Unfortunately, O’Brien never lived up to expectations and was woefully ineffective, eventually leading to his benching and later his departure from the school. Coming into the Utah State game, Wisconsin had won a close game against Northern Iowa, lost a controversial close game against Oregon State, and was looking at Utah State as a “get right” type of matchup. It never happened and Wisconsin entered the second half down 14-3. Montee Ball ran into the line over and over again for seemingly no yards, but ended the day with a surprising 139 yards. Both punters were kept busy with Utah State punting 11 times and Wisconsin punting 9.
Josh Thompson is a man who no one knows and who no one is expected to know. However, thousands of Wisconsin football fans know him for doing one thing. Josh Thompson was the kicker for Utah State who missed a potential game winning 37-yard field goal that allowed the Badgers to escape the game with a 16-14 victory. In many ways, Thompson’s missed field goal could have provided an extra push during Wisconsin’s courtship of Gary Andersen. The athletic department, players, and fans all knew that Gary Andersen had outcoached, outexecuted, and outschemed Wisconsin for the entire game only to be let down by a kicker who was attempting his first field goal of a still very new season.
The movement of college coaches is a brutal business. Bret Bielema angered fans as he sprinted to Arkansas days after winning the Big Ten championship against Nebraska. Wisconsin’s football program responded by returning the favor and prying Gary Andersen away from a Utah State program that he built from the ground up approximately two weeks later. If the premise that the Badgers had no idea that Bielema wanted to leave is to be believed, the Wisconsin athletic department operated with incredible celerity in assembling a list of viable candidates, interviewing them, and then offering a position to a new head coach. Considering the hurry, it isn’t inconceivable that Wisconsin, in a moment of conceit and elitism, decided that if Gary Andersen was nearly good enough to topple a Big Ten power with his Utah State players, then he must be an extraordinary coach who, when given Wisconsin’s superior resources and player talent, would bring the program to national prominence. The extremely limited timetable for the hiring process coupled with competition for Andersen’s services might be coming back to haunt the Badgers this season.
Wisconsin was not the only school which pursued Andersen. He was a hot coaching candidate because he took Utah State, a school which had to deal with the reputation of not even being the best in its own state, and turned it into a ranked team. Kentucky, Colorado, and California were reportedly in pursuit of Andersen’s services before the Badgers called. Like the game against Utah State earlier in the year, this scenario created a perfect environment for making a quick, hasty decision. Wisconsin needed a coach, they found someone who had impressed them early in the season, Andersen was willing to come to Madison, and everything looked good. It was the type of decision that everyone involved hoped would work so critics would never analyze the move closely. However, in the same way that “winning cures all,” losing bring scrutiny. And Gary Andersen has been involved in some head scratching situations this season.
The start of the 2014 season against LSU unearthed an injury “controversy” when Melvin Gordon was conspicuously absent from the second half of the game. There was a “miscommunication” between the two about hip injury that was not mentioned in any of the postgame activities or interviews, but surfaced a day later, enough time for everyone involved to get their stories straight. How a coach and his best offensive weapon can manage to avoid one another for an entire half and “miscommunicate” is a mystery that Andersen managed to fall into. As a stand alone, one-off situation, Melvin Gordon injury-gate could have been written off as a fluke. Yet only a few weeks later, Andersen managed to raise the stakes and embroil himself and his players in another sticky situation.
A sure-fire way to split a fan base is to add fuel to an already brewing quarterback controversy. Gary Andersen began the season with a surprise move when he named Tanner McEvoy the starter. McEvoy had a bad passing game against LSU, but there were many excuses for his poor play: it was the first game of the season, he was a first time starter playing on a national stage, he was under pressure. Underlying all those excuses, the question of “Could Joel Stave have done better?” lingered in the minds of fans. However, Stave supposedly had the yips, a mental block that causes throwers to inexplicably lose the ability to throw accurately, and was in no condition to start for the Badgers. McEvoy’s job was safe.
In their game against Northwestern, the most glaring example of an untrustworthy and shady Gary Andersen surfaced. Joel Stave replaced Tanner McEvoy late in the first half and stayed in to complete the game. While Tanner McEvoy has struggled throughout the season and been inconsistent throwing the ball, the way Stave was brought back into quarterback mix was perplexing. For someone who supposedly had the yips, Stave miraculously got his moxie back in the week of practice prior to the Northwestern game. This scenario seems unlikely, if not impossible, as baseball players such as Chuck Knoblauch and Rick Ankiel, athletes with considerably greater arm talent than Stave, got hit with the yips and were never the same for the remainder of their careers. Both even changed positions with Ankiel making the more dramatic change by converting from a pitcher to an outfielder. Either Joel Stave has superhuman mental healing powers and has defied the odds by eliminating the yips in a week, or Gary Andersen and his coaching staff are trying to control the narrative and engage in damage control after the man they named the starter at the beginning of the year has failed to produce at acceptable levels. Were Stave’s struggles real? Did Andersen or his staff mark Stave with the yips moniker to give him a few more weeks to heal, and if so, why would they have used the yips as an excuse instead of simply pointing at his injury and saying there was a set back?
If the Northwestern loss and the uninspired 97-yard passing performance against Illinois is any indication, poor quarterback play will be an unfortunate, but constant, theme of Wisconsin’s 2014 season. For now, Wisconsin seems poised to proceed with a two quarterback system, presumably with Stave being put in for passing downs and McEvoy being used as a dual threat option. Based on how the season has progressed so far, Gary Andersen seems bound to do something else that is perplexing, mystifying, and maybe even shady.

Playoff Positioning: Conference Edition

At the beginning of the year everyone had their own picks for what teams would make this year’s playoff. No matter the teams, most people had the same general feel for what conferences would get in. Florida State from the ACC, the SEC champ, the Pac-12 champ (mostly Oregon or UCLA) would get bids, and the remaining spot would go to the Big 12 or Big 10 champ. We figured there would be a little debate over that final spot considering there would be five major conference champions and only four playoff spots.
Six weeks into the season and things are even more of a crap shoot than I and most others anticipated. Three of the most popular pre-season picks already have a loss with Alabama, Oregon, and Oklahoma going down this past weekend. One weekend dramatically increased the number of teams who now have realistic shots at making the playoff. But where do conferences stand as a whole? Certain conferences are now more at risk than before the season of not getting a team in the playoff. There were already only four spots for five major conferences, and three of those conference’s major contenders already have losses. Throw in Notre Dame who is undefeated and ranked in the Top 10 and that makes five conferences plus Notre Dame and only four spots. And this assumes only one team per conference. The possibility of crazy scenarios is slim, but would we be that shocked if two 1-loss SEC west teams made the playoff over a conference champion with multiple losses? I certainly wouldn’t.
So which conferences are in the most trouble currently? Here’s a conference shakedown about which ones should be most concerned at this stage. We’ll have a better idea of where conferences stand in a few weeks when the playoff committee releases their initial standings but one thing is clear about this college football season: Expect insanity.
SEC
The SEC is the conference that should be least concerned and is surprising to absolutely no one. Some may think the conference is even better this year because of Ole Miss and Mississippi State’s play and subsequent rise in the rankings, but I think the conference is just as good as it has been (not too shabby). LSU is down as well as the whole SEC East so that offsets the SEC West gauntlet, but the conference is still the best in the country. The Auburn/Mississippi State winner will be the leader in the clubhouse but even a two loss SEC champ from the West would be worthy with multiple wins over the Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M group.
Notre Dame
I think Notre Dame is actually the team in the best spot at this point. They do have a few tough games remaining, but they don’t have to face brutal Pac-12/SEC schedules the rest of the way and don’t have being in a weak conference hanging over their head like the Big 10 and ACC winners will. Notre Dame’s biggest test comes next week when they play at Florida State. After that the schedule consists of Navy, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville, and USC. Playing at the Sun Devils will be tough, but I think Notre Dame’s defense can stop Arizona State’s offense more than the other way around. The Irish’s season will come down to that game at USC, and we have all seen how inconsistent the Trojans are this year. The Irish don’t even have to win at Florida State. If they go 11-1 with their only loss in Tallahassee against the defending champs, it’s going to be nearly impossible to leave them out of the playoff.
ACC
The ACC is the simplest of conferences to assess. If Florida State loses a couple of times the ACC isn’t getting anyone in the playoff. That seems unlikely since outside of Notre Dame the Seminoles’ toughest games are on the road against Louisville, Miami (Fl.), and Syracuse. Not exactly the SEC West. Chances are Florida State will go undefeated. Even if they lose to Notre Dame, if they go 12-1 and win the ACC a single loss to an 11-1/12-0 Irish team won’t be enough to keep them out.
Big 12
The Big 12 is in a better position now than it was heading into the season. The Pac-12’s struggles obviously help. And even though front-runner Oklahoma lost, TCU’s win will help the conference as a whole. Going into the year Baylor and Oklahoma had a small margin for error since it was viewed as just them and a bunch of decent not great teams. TCU’s play gives the conference another really good team and another chance at a high quality win. If either of those three go 11-1, their resume will look pretty good with at least one win over a team from that trio. If a team outside of them somehow wins the conference, they would obviously have a great shot having had to beat at least two teams out of Baylor, Oklahoma, and TCU. There’s one thing that could be fun for college football fans and terrifying for the selection committee. What if that trio of teams all goes 11-1 only losing to each other? How do you leave one, let alone two of those teams out?
Big 10 and Pac 12
That leaves the two conferences that are in the most trouble right now. The Big 10 is obviously down. Even if Michigan State wins out, their best wins would be over Nebraska twice and Ohio State. That in and of itself wouldn’t be the worst, but now their one loss to Oregon looks like it might not end up being as great of a loss as we thought at the time. Even if Oregon wins out, they’d make the playoff over the Spartans so Michigan State needs a lot of teams to start losing. They definitely need Notre Dame to because if the Irish make the playoff it will be hard for the Spartans to make it over two conference champions.
Things look bleak for the Pac-12 as well. It’s never a good weekend when your top two contenders both go down at home. Oregon and UCLA have shown some weaknesses in the past couple of weeks and right now it is hard to see either team winning out. They play this Saturday and the loser’s playoff chances are likely toast. Arizona has the best win so far but it is still unclear if they are more for real or if Oregon was overrated. The best chance for the Pac-12 (short of Arizona going undefeated) is for Oregon to win out and avenge their loss to Arizona in the conference championship game.
The 2014 season has already been full of excitement, and it is anyone’s guess who will escape the upsets and survive until the playoff. One thing is clear, the committee is going to have an impossible task, and I look forward to the heat they’ll inevitably take from crazed fan bases.

Big Ten Week 6 Sampler

Best of the Best
Rutgers QB Gary Nova: Nova threw four touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-6 win over Tulane, hitting 9 of 9 throws for 195 yards and three scores in the first half alone. As a result, he became the school leader in passing touchdowns with 61 in 38 games.
Maryland LB Cole Farrand: He recorded 19 tackles, the highest single-game tackle total in the Big Ten this season, including 1.5 tackles for loss, to lead Maryland over Indiana.
Minnesota RB David Cobb: He ran for 183 yards on 32 carries and had three catches for 50 yards as Minnesota retook the Little Brown Jug. Cobb outgained the Wolverines’ entire offense (171 yards) all by himself.
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett The redshirt freshman is quickly becoming the Buckeyes’ leader. In Ohio State’s 50-28 over Cincinnati, Barrett completed 26-of-36 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also ran for 79 yards on 14 carries.
Worst of the Worst
Michigan QB Shane Morris: He was supposed to jumpstart and energize the offense as he started for the maligned Devin Gardner but was completely ineffective as he was just 7 for 19 for 49 yards and turned the ball over twice including a pick six by De’Vondre Campbell. Minnesota held the Michigan offense to a grand total of 171 yards.
Penn State Offensive Line: The Nittany Lions have problems on their offensive line and, consequently, in the running game. Northwestern exploited that in as Penn State ran for only 50 total yards, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times while also throwing a pick six that broke the game wide open in the fourth.
Illinois Rush Defense: The Illinois Fighting Illini were pretty much doomed from the start. By halftime, Heisman Trophy candidate Ameer Abdullah had rushed for 196 of his 208 yards and scored three touchdowns. In fact, Nebraska churned out a staggering 458 rushing yards out of 624 total yards in the game. The Illini have now lost 16 out of their last 17 Big Ten games.
 
Week 6 Game Previews
Wisconsin vs NW
The Badgers have had considerably sluggish starts in two of their victories, leading Western Illinois just 9-3 at halftime before a 37-3 win and being tied with South Florida 3-3 at halftime before a 27-10 win. A similar start could be hard to overcome since Northwestern (2-2, 1-0) has allowed 13 points, forced six turnovers and recorded eight sacks over the past two weeks. Plus, even though Wisconsin leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 359.7, the Wildcats have held opponents to 2.9 yards per carry after holding Penn State to 50 yards on 25 carries.
Fortunately, the Badgers’ defense, which allows a conference-low 14.5 points per game, has helped them overcome their slow starts. Wisconsin has allowed an average of 226.0 yards in its three victories and has let its four opponents convert just 26.9 percent of their third downs. In last seasons game, the Badger defense came up huge as Wildcats QB Trevor Siemian was sacked five times while converting 13 of 34 passes for 163 yards. Wisconsin is the only FBS squad yet to give up a red zone touchdown this season.
Nebraska vs MSU
In a potential preview of the Big Ten title game, Michigan State, widely considered as the best team in the conference, will take on rival Nebraska, the last remaining undefeated team. Both teams have high-octane offenses. The Spartans are No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring (50.2 ppg); the Cornhuskers are No. 2 (45.4 ppg). Nebraska is No. 1 in total offense (572.6 ypg); Michigan State is No. 3 (515.0 ypg). It will come down to who commits less turnovers. Last November in Lincoln, Michigan State beat the Cornhuskers 41-28 as Bo Pelini’s team committed five turnovers, leading to 24 Spartans points. I expect the game plan for Saturday to include a heavy dose of senior Ameer Abdullah. In the last four years, Nebraska is 18-3 when Abdullah runs for at least 100 yards, and Michigan State is 6-5 during that time when allowing a player to rush for 100. If Michigan State wins, there are no more doubts about the Spartans being the best Big Ten team. If Nebraska comes away with the victory, it should vault itself into the College Football Playoff debate.
Michigan vs Rutgers
Unless Michigan somehow wins the rest of its games, it is pretty much set in stone, at least in my opinion, that Brady Hoke is gone – the only question is when – and is almost laughable that he still thinks this team is capable of winning the Big Ten title. Heading into this weekend, Michigan is a four-point underdog to Rutgers and the Scarlet Knights are playing well, their lone loss coming by three points, 40-37 against West Virginia. A Wolverines’ attack that is last in the Big Ten in scoring (22.0 ppg), 11th in total offense (357.6 ypg) and 12th in passing (172.2 ypg) may find it tough to gain any traction going against a solid RU defensive seven in front of an electric crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium. If Rutgers wants to reach a bowl, it likely will need to win this game with a such a hard schedule coming up. The Scarlet Knights are off after this weekend then play at Ohio State and at Nebraska before coming home to play Wisconsin. Absolutely Brutal.
Ohio State vs Maryland Maryland’s offense is firing on all cylinders, displaying explosive playmaking on both sides of the ball and ranking fifth in the conference in scoring (36.8 ppg). And even though its defense stepped up in last week’s win at Indiana by yielding only 332 yards and 15 points (one TD), the Terps are No. 13 in the league in defense (434.8 ypg) The Buckeyes’ attack also is playing well, ranking No. 3 in the Big Ten in scoring (42.8 ppg) and finished with 710 yards and a school record 45 (!) first downs in a victory over Cincy. But like Maryland, the OSU defense remains suspect. The Buckeyes allowed 422 yards overall and 352 in the air vs. Cincinnati. This could turn into a good old shootout. Maryland could have a big say in the East and if they can somehow knock off Ohio State, it instantly goes from a darkhorse in the Big Ten title race to a legitimate contender. Meanwhile, Ohio State has bounced back nicely after struggling early with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line.
Illinois vs. Purdue
In 2013, the only Big Ten win for the Fighting Illini was an ugly 20-16 win with four turnovers at Purdue to make Tim Beckman 1-16 in conference play. Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell is still searching for his first Big Ten victory, holding an 0-9 mark and still doesn’t know who to start at quarterback. Purdue needs to revv up its offense (last in the league, 312.0 ypg) while Illinois needs to buckle down on defense (last in the league, 468.6 ypg) especially against the run, giving up 229.6 yards per game. They have given up 1,304 yards and 10 TDs on the ground in the first five games. Only Fresno State and Bowling Green are worse. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt missed last week with an injury, but he is expected to return this week. He has completed two thirds of his passes and is already well over 1,200 yards. Illinois hasn’t won the Cannon trophy in consecutive seasons since 2002 and Purdue leads the series by a 32-27-2 mark. This Saturday’s meeting will be the 90th meeting between the Illini and the Boilermakers.
North Texas vs. Indiana
The 2-2 North Texas Mean Green of the MAC, coached by Dan McCarney could be a formidable challenge for the Hoosiers as they try to get to 3-2 through five games for the first time since 1995. Indiana’s running back Tevin Coleman, who leads the conference in rushing at 172.8 yards per game and has rushed for over 200 yards in every game this year, takes on a defense that has held three consecutive opponents under 100 yards rushing. Indiana will look to key in on redshirt freshman QB Dajon Williams who completed 11 out of 14 passes for 176 yards with three touchdowns and also ran in two scores. In fact, North Texas is one of only seven FBS teams to score on every trip inside the 20 this season, with 11 touchdowns and two field goals. Indiana lost at North Texas in 2011, the only meeting between the schools.
Power Rankings
1. Michigan State Spartans (3-1, 0-0)
Previous Ranking: 1
No change here as the Spartans ate another nonconference cupcake, taking out Wyoming quickly and decisively in another blowout. MSU is in for a big home test against Nebraska in what could be a preview for the Big Ten title game and prove if the Spartans are the cream of the crop.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-0, 1-0)
Previous Ranking: 2
Ameer Abdullah pummeled the Fighting Illini for 208 total yards and raised his Heisman Trophy campaign while Nebraska remained unbeaten with a blowout over Illinois. If the Huskers can pull off the upset versus MSU, they will not only be the Big Ten’s leading playoff candidate but also a player in the national title hunt.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (3-1, 0-0)
Previous Ranking: 4
With a 50-28 victory over Cincinatti, the OSU Buckeyes looked like an Urban Meyer team as redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett played like a seasoned veteran and Ezekial Elliott gained 182 yards on the ground. The pass defense is still highly susceptible and needs to be fixed but everything else is running fairly smoothly.
4. Wisconsin Badgers (3-1, 0-0)
Previous Ranking: 5
It remains to be seen who the Badgers really are. Their defense has played solid and kept them in games and while their offense is one of the best running attacks, it has also been inconsistent and lost for periods of time. Fortunately, Wisconsin heads into Saturday with some momentum as Melvin Gordon scored two touchdowns and racked up 131 yards in the second half.
5. Maryland Terrapins (4-1, 1-0)
Previous Ranking: 6
Many scoffed when Maryland was invited to come to the Big Ten saying they would be a doormat but low and behold, this team is showing it is definitely worthy and is achieving more than what might have been expected. Maryland is poised to become an undisputed contender in the East Division with a signature victory over Ohio State this weekend.
6. Minnesota (4-1, 1-0)
Previous Ranking: 10
The Gophers could be – no check that – are a team that will have an impact on the West Division if they continue to play relentless, solid defense and utilize their reliable rushing attack that has stymied opponents. Minnesota definitely earned the Little Brown Jug, holding Michigan to just 171 total yards offensively and pounding the rock with David Cobb for 183 yards.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-0)
Previous Ranking:8
The Hawkeyes are fortunate they head into a bye week after a sloppy, forgettable performance against Purdue, where they were down 10-0 before rallying for a 24 point turnaround. This team likes to live on the edge as that was the third come-from-behind victory of the young season and one of these times, being down late in the fourth quarter will come back to haunt them.
8. Penn State Nittany Lions (4-1, 1-1)
Previous Ranking: 3
Even though they won their first four games, Christian Hackenberg has struggled at times and their offensive line has been exploited by opposing defenses. In fact, Northwestern held PSU to just 50 yards on 25 carries Saturday. The Lions are just two victories away from being bowl eligible, something almost inconceivable before the season began yet need more consistency for that to be a reality.
9. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (4-1, 0-1)
Previous Ranking: 7
Even without their starting running back Paul James, backups Desmon Peoples and Justin Goodwin played just fine, combining for 165 yards, while Gary Nova had his best outing of the season, throwing for four touchdowns. Now more than ever, Rutgers has a chance to claim its first conference victory over a disjointed, struggling Michigan team.
10. Indiana Hoosiers (2-2, 0-1)
Previous Ranking: 9
Just when the Hoosiers appeared to turn the page with an upset over Missouri, they reverted back to their old selves, getting humiliated by the Terrapins at home. The defense didnt even show up and cant be trusted while the high-octane, high-scoring offense was held in check to only a single touchdown.
11. Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 1-0)
Previous Ranking: 14
The Wildcats were all but written off at 1-2 and stuck in the basement of the Big Ten until they decided to actually play against Penn State, which resulted in a stunning upset on the road. They completely shut down the Nittany Lion’s run game and if they can do that this weekend against Wisconsin, things could get really interesting down in Evanston.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini (3-2, 0-1)
Previous Ranking: 12
In spite of the shortcomings of the porous Illini defense, Wes Lunt’s arm has made them an offensive threat and an intriguing team to watch. However, Illinois had no shot at beating the Cornhuskers on the road with him on the sideline. Fortunately, they should get back on track this weekend when they take on a reeling Purdue team.
13. Michigan Wolverines (2-3, 0-1)
Previous Ranking: 11
It continues to blow my mind how low Michigan continues to plummet week after week and just when you think it couldn’t get possibly any worse, it does. Starting Shane Morris at quarterback did nothing to jumpstart and energize an offense but was completely ineffective as he was just 7 for 19 for 49 yards and turned the ball over twice including a pick six by De’Vondre Campbell.
14. Purdue (2-3, 0-1)
Previous Ranking: 13
Another weekend, same result. The Purdue Boilermakers came out strong against the Hawkeyes and the defense played ok for several stretches but in the end, they predictably fell apart as they accumulated just 72 yards in the air. It remains to be seen who will be the quarterback this weekend as both Danny Etling and Austin Appleby threw interceptions.