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BCS Chaos: Cases for Auburn, Missouri, and Ohio State

It’s only fitting that BCS goes out with a bang, or some other big controversy, and thanks to Auburn’s win over Alabama, we’ve got one. Now all the SEC lovers are out there telling us how daunting it is to go through the SEC, how the Big 10 has fallen completely off the map. But in the case of Auburn, I’m not buying it.

Yes, the SEC is still the best conference, although I don’t think they run nearly as deep as they have over the last few years. (Still, they have four BCS-bowl worthy teams.) But if you are going to buck tradition and put an one-loss team in the national title game over a multi-loss team, it better be pretty obvious that the one-loss team is better than the undefeated. And that’s not the case when you comare Auburn and Ohio State.

If we’re going to ask who has Ohio State beaten, just look at Auburn’s best wins: every bowl eligible, major conference team that Auburn has played stayed within one score of the Tigers, including the dregs of Washington State, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, arguably the twelfth best team in the SEC. LSU was up on Auburn 21-0 early in the second quarter, and led them 35-14 in the fourth quarter. And you have the matter of their two miracle wins. If Auburn deserves to be number two in the country, they should have beaten a really good team soundly, and they haven’t.

Having watched both teams, I would say that, if Auburn and Ohio State played on a neutral field on equal rest, the game would be a coin flip, with a slight edge to the Buckeyes because they have the more dynamic quarterback. Granted, Auburn has a very good defensive line, but they lack the down field passing game to press Ohio State to match them score for score. And let’s not forget Auburn’s history: they have not exactly dominated their non-conference matchups and bowl games. Of their last eight bowl games, they have only two wins by multiple scores, and even their national championship team struggled Oregon, Clemson, and from the SEC, Mississippi State. Clemson in fact has beaten Auburn twice in non-conference play, West Virginia once LSU, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina under Steve Spurrier mowed through their bowl games and important non-conference games; Auburn does not.

The lamest case for Auburn is on the SEC’s history. Everyone making that case should be remind of how Notre Dame campaigned on its history a year ago. If you’re going to crack Notre Dame for close home wins against BYU and Pitt, you have to crack Auburn for close home wins against Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Missouri, on the other hand, can be seriously considered for the number two spot over Ohio State. Even though some may make the case that they lack seniority in the SEC, just look at the Tigers’ resume: they have crushed three good SEC teams on the road in Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Mississippi, dominating the Commodores from the first snap of the game. Missouri has beaten ten of twelve teams by at least thirteen points. They only teams that have been closer are Texas A&M and South Carolina. And Missouri led the Gamecocks 17-0 in the fourth quarter before Connor Shaw stage a late comeback and the Tigers lost on a missed field goal in overtime. That is a resume worthy of a National Title Game.

Still, when I watch Missouri, I don’t know that they are vastly better than Ohio State. Earlier this year, I thought they were one of the most compelling football teams I had ever seen on television, the way they just flat out whipped Georgia and Florida. They don’t pass the eye ball test the way that Alabama and LSU do, but they execute like no one’s business.

If I was compelled to vote an SEC team into the National Title Game, I would choose Alabama, because I feel their best is better than anyone else best, except maybe Florida State’s. If they had a few field goals against Auburn, they could have beaten the Tigers going away. They lost to LSU in 2011 for virtually the same reason, and, as the rematch proved, they were clearly the better team. If I were a voter, I don’t know right now who I would choose as my top two, but I would take the week to think about it. The one thing that has changed for me is that I wouldn’t feel as bad voting Ohio State number 2 as I would have three weeks ago.

Huskers Loose, but Get Some Capital

A lot was at stake in the Capital One Bowl for Bo Pelini. Two nationally televised blowout losses going into the off-season make the workouts and film study longer, not to mention a discontent fan base. But, for the fifth time in six tries, Pelini’s Huskers came out of the tunnel and made plays, and even got a little chippy with it, a welcome sight after several despondent post-game pressers. For the first time perhaps since Colorado 2005, the Huskers played to raise their reputation. All that SEC-is-king material made for great bulletin board material.

But ultimately, the Huskers fell short, and while there was more buy-in on the field then there has been in years past (maybe more than at any other time under Pelini). They lost respectably to a better SEC, but Pelini still made one really questionable decision.

Tim Beck changed he offense significantly since the Big 10 Title game, adding new formation (dual-protectors lined up directly behind the tackles in a three wide set) and tweaking old plays. The Burkhead-touchdown reception wrinkled Nebraska’s play action game, having running back go to the inside instead of the out. For the first time in a lot of years, the Husker offense seemed like it was more than a collection of random plays that were supposed to work, and the players looked they were executed a plan that made sense to them.

End of the matter?

Burkhead himself made sure that he wouldn’t be forgotten as a Husker. He ran with his trademark passion, but had the advantage of looking the healthiest he had perhaps been since the beginning of his junior year. The offense at times maximized its tempo, and made some lazy Dawgs run a little.

On defense, the passing yards given up weren’t great, but remember that Nebraska’s numbers in the secondary was helped a lot by the Big 10 conference oblivion to the forward pass. (Minnesota, similarly, was ranked in the top 25 nationally in pass defense.) The Blackshirts had good coverage on three of Aaron Murray’s touchdown passes; Murray’s TD at the start of the fourth quarter, a running throw that had to be laid over Will Compton, was a throw some NFL quarterbacks can’t make. Yes, there were mistakes, but there were several big plays that Georgia earned when Nebraska did everything right. Even the defensive line was active behind the line of scrimmage.

Which makes Pelini’s call to blitz Georgia on a third-and-twelve down by a touchdown baffling. A blitz on third-and-long in that situation basically said, if we go down, we go down swinging, not consistent with Pelini’s conservative, make-them-earn-their-chunks defense. While it looks bold, such a call demonstrates insecurity more than bravado. Yes, maybe even get a sack or an interception; backing Georgia up another eight yards would have meant a punt for the endline. But Pelini had already made his point when he blitzed on the first down of that drive; the smart call would have been to blitz one wisely, or drop everyone in coverage.

I’ve seen such insecurity a number of times in Big 10 teams in bowl games. The first time was when Ohio State kept blitzing Colt McCoy at the end of the 2009 Fiesta Bowl. On the play the Longhorns took the lead back, it was obvious that McCoy would find a hot read. Minnesota allowed a touchdown in a similar situation in their bowl game against Texas Tech this year. While it looks like you’re trying hard to stop the opponent, you’re not playing smart.

Thus, let’s count this as our official ingratiation into the Big 10, Husker fans: we’re aggressive on defense out of the fear of being embarrassed.

Nebraska had a real shot to win this game, more so than last year against South Carolina. The Gamecocks played with more intensity in the second half that day than Georgia did today. The Husker maximized more, but they still weren’t able to do enough. Like the rest of the Big 10, Nebraska watches an SEC team give half-effort versus their full-effort and still celebrate a double touchdown win.

So, how should this bowl game be remembered, Husker fans? Another loss, but one with not as many negatives as Nebraska’s bowl losses the last two years. Pelini showed that, with time to prepare, he could deliver a solid effort. But was this win just a product of time to prepare and desperation? Will Pelini, Beck, and the other coaches be changing every week in the Big 10 next season as much as they changed for this bowl game? Or will this just be shades of a B-coach rising for half-a-game when he had to turn down the heat? (Why Pelini isn’t a perfect fit at Nebraska)

Why Pelini’s SEC Interest is Keeping Nebraska Stuck in Neutral. And Why Certain Coaches Stay Under the Radar

Bummed Bo

Another end to a Husker season, another round of Bo Pelini-leaving-Nebraska rumors. This year, the rumor was less reliable than in years past (Football Scoop tweeted Arkansas was on the verge of hiring him), but still, Pelini was again linked to another high profile job. After Nebraska’s meltdown in the Big 10 Title Game, Pelini’s constant flirtations for the SEC causes begs the question if Pelini’s wandering eye is hurting the program. To judge that, one has to ask what Nebraska is and what works there, and what Bo Pelini is, and where he works.

Nebraska is an outlier, both from major cities and major recruiting hotbeds. Major changes in college football have gone against Nebraska: more games being on TV, fewer recruits wanting to come north because of the weather, more committed programs in the middle of college football. But to succeed at an outlier, you need to find a coach who gets the outlier. Consider Tom Osborne and Bill Synder: both grew up in smaller cities in smaller states and went to smaller, non-DI colleges. Both achieved long-term success by molding average players into stars. Who else fits that profile? Chris Petersen, who grew up around Sacramento and went to UC Davis, and Charlie Strong, who went to Central Arkansas, in his native state. Pedersen has stayed at Boise State (in a city that is the exact mirror of Sacramento), and Strong looks like he’s turning down Tennessee to stay at Louisville.

Now look at Pelini. Pelini went to a large Catholic high school in Ohio, then to Ohio State, a major program in a state with lot of FBS-ready talent. He’s friends with Bob Stoops, who turned down his alma mater (Iowa) and instead found longevity at Oklahoma, surrounded by the best high school football talent state in the country, Texas. Pelini worked for Michigan alum Les Miles, who has now twice turned down his alma mater to stay in talent-rich Louisiana. Pelini knows he’s got a rawer deal then Miles and Stoops by the players who sign for him.

Husker fans, why do you think Nebraska’s seniors laden defense got completely worked by Wisconsin on Saturday night? Kansas State’s defensive talent is no better, and the Wildcats were shutting down offensive juggernauts in the Big 12. Reason: Pelini had a fire when he first came to Nebraska, and the players then had the motivation to embrace discipline after the Bill Callahan-debacle. After an initial burst with Callahan’s recruits (and Ndamukong Suh), Pelini was left with a bunch three-to-four star recruits who needed coaching. For stretches in 2009 and 2010, Nebraska had to play perfect on defense just to stay in the games, including two against Oklahoma. After nearly three years of having to win without any mistakes, Pelini was exhausted from coaching up Prince Amukamara and Phillip Dillard, and had no energy to develop Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley.

Consider also how Pelini’s post-game press conference demeanor has changed: in his first few years, there were times after losses he looked like he wanted to fight a reporter. Now, he looks relieved after wins and despondent after losses. Watching this change, I have wondered if he’s the kind of coach who burns bright for a couple of years, but burns out after seven or eight years because he’s all motivation and no innovation. He has innovated: changing Nebraska’s offense after the 2010 season gave the program a huge edge coming into the Big 10. But again, look at the defense, where Pelini puts in most of his time. There isn’t one star, sure-fire high NFL draft pick on that unit.

This leads to the question of whether or not Turner Gill would have been a better hire than Pelini. Indeed, some have written that Gill should have replaced Osborne as head coach in 1997. (Perhaps Osborne forgot how Bob Devaney choose him as Nebraska’s next head coach over many of his veteran assistants). At the time, Pelini was a hotter commodity and Gill had only a 7-17 record at Buffalo, but that wouldn’t have been a determent to a Husker fan base who remembered Gill for his playing days and his work with Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost, and Eric Crouch. As Osborne and Gill were such good friends (Osborne was the best man at Gill’s wedding), it may not have been the ideal situation for Osborne to hire a coach he was so close to. But given Gill’s steady hand, he may have been the better fit long-term.

Pelini’s not headed to the SEC if he continues to have looses like he did on Saturday. But in any case, fans have to wonder if his heart is in his job 100% and how many sorry press conference they may have to endure.

State of Too Much Prosperity: Will Oklahoma be the Epicenter the Next Realignment Earthquake?

It is admirable how they’ve stuck together. Or more precisely, how Oklahoma has stuck next to Oklahoma State. Throughout all the conference realignment poker, the Sooner Schooner and Pistol Pete have endeavored to stay together. Even though Oklahoma probably could have gone to the SEC with Texas A&M, the political leadership in the state of Oklahoma has kept the schools together.

But can the commitment between OU and OSU withstand further realignment storms?

Will the Pokes bolt their in-state rival?

Over the off-season, I’ve been pondering about what could be the catalyst for the next round of conference realignment. In the summer of 2010, it was the threat of Texas taking half the Big 12 west to form the Pac 16, pushing Nebraska and Colorado to bolt for more secure futures. Last year, the shifts that began with Texas A&M going to the SEC again centered around Austin, this time over the reach of the Longhorn Network. While the split between the Aggies and Longhorns may seem more obvious in retrospect, A&M’s bolt wasn’t as easily predicted as Nebraska’s was the year prior. Conference realignment is a huge game of liar’s poker, driven by the fear of successful regional programs being left out of the national mix, as half the Southwest Conference was twenty years ago.

Don’t confuse what I’m saying: I’m glad the Sooners and Cowboys have committed themselves to each other, at least publicly. Both teams  don’t need to go to other conferences. They’re not in danger of being left out of the realignment mix, at least not yet.  The Big 12 appears more stable now that it did at times over the last two years. But even with conferences forming their own networks and earning record numbers from TV, only so much financial growth can be sustained. Eventually, conferences will need to add schools to add revenue.

OK State has followed Oregon’s footsteps from good to great, and maybe the two haven’t seen the last of each other.

Consider that, with footprint in Oklahoma and Texas, Larry Scott can finally get Pac 12 games on TV at noon Eastern Standard Time, opening a new revenue window. Plus, the Pac 12 can finally have a shot in providing signature early game highlights for the rest of the day. What if, after a decade or more goes by, Scott decides not to wait on Texas and Oklahoma anymore and make an offer to Oklahoma State?

The Cowboys themselves could be a more prominent program by then. Like Oregon, OSU is turning to snazzy uniform combos to go with their funky offense. Mike Gundy is the perfect CEO for his Alma mater:  an innovative offensive mind, who, unlike Jimmie Johnson and Les Miles before him, could stay in Stillwater for twenty years. Coming off an outright Big 12 title, how many more will OSU win until they say “We don’t want to play in our little brother’s shadow. We aren’t just the program of Boone Pickens’ millions and Gundy’s post-game rant. We are a big name in our own right.”

New Battle of the Big Reds and Border War? Could the Arkansas River Rivalry come to replace the Red River Rivalry?

That is, after all, the logic which Texas A&M is taking into the SEC, and could be the logic that take either Oklahoma program to the nation’s premiere conference. With the SEC’s stranglehold on the National Title, it’s hard to imagine any other conference winning thee National Title any time soon. As fans keep demanding crystal balls, winning them may require playing an impossible eight conference games every year. If Texas A&M and Missouri eventually starts winning in the SEC (and Arkansas continues to win) and the SEC draw the best players in the state of Texas to their schools, Sooner and Cowboys fans will be tweeting to go the SEC.

Taking down Georgia in 2009 earned Okie State serious credibility; will they join the SEC to get more of it?

As a college football fan, I am sadden to write this, because I hate to see another good rivalry end. And this may be premature: at the moment, the Big 12 maybe in better position than the Big East to survive. But, after these next TV contracts run their course into the 2020’s, the conference realignment winds will swirl and the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State relationship will be challenged. And who knows how much jealousy Oklahoma State’s success could bread.

(More Conference Realignment)

Which one of these men will lead his school on a new path?

SEC’s New Scheduling Model: Dragging its Feet to Change, Par for the Course in the CFB Universe

Last week, the SEC did what the SEC does: put winning ahead of everything else. Ignoring the trend in college football, the SEC kept its eight-game conference schedule, even though it means there will only be one rotating opponent on each team’s schedule every year. So much for being a “conference”, the SEC is now two small conference with a scheduling alliance and a championship, basically what the Mountain West and Conference USA are.
While I won’t consider myself an expert on SEC politics, I understand that of the seven permanent cross-division rivalries, two are historically important: Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia . The newly christened MissouriArkansas border rivalry is also an important game to play every year, even though the two schools don’t have much history. While the four other rivalries are all well matched (Florida-LSU, Texas A&M-South Carolina, Mississippi State-Kentucky, Vanderbilt-Ole Miss), but aren’t as essential to the respective program’s history. Each of these schools could just as well play a two rotating non-division games a year.

New found rivals

I’m not saying that the Third Saturday in October and the Deep South’s Oldest rivalry shouldn’t be played every year.  I’m not saying that Arkansas and Missouri can’t start up a good border war. The team of my heart, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, had their top rivalry ripped away by Big 12-Texas politics, so I’m sympathetic to their plight. What I am saying is let’s not have Mississippi State and Kentucky play every year just because four other schools have to have cross-division rivals (When I googled “mississippi state kentucky” I got one football image in the first two pages).

Vital that these two teams play every year?

Not as vital as keeping these rivals together

To be a real conference, the SEC needs to play a nine game conference schedule, like the ACC will when they go to fourteen. The Big 12 and the Pac 12 already play twelve, and the Big 10 and Big East will likely both go to nine soon. (Of course, part of the motivation for the ACC, Big 10, and Big East to play nine conference games is to get Notre Dame to join a conference.) If you are only going to have one rotating opponent every year on the schedule, you are no longer a conference. The possibility now exists for a massive imbalance between the divisions of the SEC.

The SEC gave the typical reasons for not wanting more than eight conference games: Florida and Georgia, who play at a neutral site, would be disadvantaged because they would only have three home games every other year (which already happens). Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina want to keep their in-state rivalries together. But I hear the bragging by SEC fans: our conference is so tough, we only need eight conference games a year. To that I say, if your conference is so tough, why are you always teasing Texas for being too soft to play in it?

But I get it in this regard: the SEC is about winning championships, not just conference but national. While I’m not a fan of this decision as a whole, I do respect the drive to win, which is hard enough to do in college football as it is. The SEC is so great as a conference, they can only play eight conference games a year, and yet, it still gives fans quality games at home. Hopefully, the SEC will get so add two more teams and establish four four team divisions, so scheduling can be a little easier.

Bowling Issues and Cold Field Advantages: Missouri in the SEC, continued

Yesterday, I shared my initial thoughts on Missouri’s move to the SEC and why the move didn’t make sense to me. Today, I want to tackle two specific issues in the Tigers’ conference switch. First, I want to speak directly to Missouri fan on the bowl selection process, and second, I want to address the potential home field Missouri would have in the SEC.

During Missouri’s initial process of leaving the Big 12, they questioned the league on the bowl selection process which often rendered the Tigers a lesser choice in bowl games. The process always seems to work Missouri’s media; the day after Iowa State upset Oklahoma State to become bowl eligible, the Columbia Daily Tribune published an article that was already bemoaning Missouri’s bowl prospects three weeks before the selections were made. I know that it’s not fair, Missouri fan, but you have to get over be relegated to bad bowls. It’s not about your season, it’s about your fan base. And it’s not going to get better in the SEC.

For starters, the bowl selection process isn’t like the NCAA tournament selection, so don’t make that comparison. the NCAA tournament picks teams based on merit, and even that process is subjective and gets tweaked every year. That is a process to select teams to play in a national championship tournament, so complaining about seeding, while petty, is reasonably fair. The bowl selection process, while it considers records and tries to reward the teams with the best season, values your fan base and whether or not they can be counted on to travel and spend their tourist dollars in the city where the bowl is being played. Missouri has a poor record for doing that.

I know Missouri list of bowl disappointments: getting passed down to the Independence Bowl multiple times; the Insight Bowl picking Iowa State over Missouri in 2009, when Missouri had two more wins and beat Iowa State; and last year getting passed on by the Cotton Bowl when Missouri had dominated Cotton Bowl-invitee Texas A&M in College Station. Complain if you will, but the reason the Tigers are in these games is the 2008 Alamo. The year before, Missouri fans had traveled en masse to the Cotton Bowl after their team had gone 11-2 in the regular season and watched the Tigers crush border-rival Arkansas; the attendance even surpassed that of the previous’ years Nebraska-Auburn game (attended by yours truly). This was a great opportunity for Missouri to build on momentum, but David Ubben pointed this out in his Big 12 blog for ESPN following Missouri’s drop to the Texas Bowl in 2009: the 2008 Alamo Bowl had the worst Alamo Bowl attendance in five years by 10,000. Yes, the other team was Northwestern, whose alumni are less passionate about football than Missouri’s, but come on. The Alamo Bowl is in one of America’s best recreational cities, not Shreveport, Louisiana.

And as a Nebraska fan, let me point something out to you: this system has worked in your favor, and you didn’t complain about it. Last year, when Nebraska was the school leaving the Big 12, the Insight Bowl took you over them, because it already had Iowa, who they knew would sell tickets. Nebraska crushed you and won your division, reasons you were pointing that you should gotten to the Insight bowl in 2009 over Iowa State. Now, to your credit, the Insight Bowl did have record attendance that year, more than Iowa State-Minnesota did the year before. But when the system works in your favor, don’t complain when it doesn’t. And by the way: you have only yourself to blame when a regional school in a small state gets picked over you to go to a bowl game.

By the way, how in the world do you expect the bowl selection process to be any better in the SEC? As I’ve said yesterday, every fan base in the SEC (even Mississippi and Mississippi State) care more passionately about their teams, and pretty much all of them have travel advantages over you to most of the bowls in Florida. If you do manage to make it to a bowl game most years, get ready for a lot of trips to Nashville, Memphis, and yes, Birmingham, Alabama’s falling-down Legion Field, what Pat Forde considers the worst bowl site in all college football. At least the two of the Big 12’s worst bowls are played in Houston’s Reliant Stadium and New Yankee Stadium.

One of the obvious things that may benefit Missouri football in the SEC is weather. With its northern locale that gets nippy in November, Missouri may benefit from getting Florida, Georgia, or Texas A&M up on their tundra in 40 degrees and a blustery wind. Look at Oklahoma State’s game at Iowa State: the Cowboys play in Ames on a short week, at night in the wind, and looked like they didn’t want to be there. During Nebraska’s famous game in the rain at Missouri in 2009, Jayson Whitlock speculated to Lincoln Journal-Star reporters that players were too used to practicing in nice indoor practice facilities, and even a little bad weather gets them off-target.

But Missouri’s November home field advantage in the SEC may not be the boon that Iowa State’s has the potential to be in the Big 12, or that what Missouri’s was in Big 12 for that matter, when the Tigers beat Texas and Texas Tech in their final two home games. First, the Big 12 is more a finesse, timing league that can be easily upset by conditions. The SEC is a league built on toughness, defense, and straight-ahead running, all things that travel to cold weather well. In an snow-game in November, Georgia or South Carolina could come into Columbia and run 50 times, while Missouri struggles to run its spread, the definition of getting embarrassed in your own house.

And unlike Iowa State, Missouri isn’t well-suited to play an underdog, fly-in-the-oinment roll in the SEC. Paul Rhoads can rant and rave to his Iowa State team about how all the down-south Texas and Oklahoma schools overlook them, and how they have they have the backing of an entire fan base. Pinkel could do the same with Missouri, but they barely have the backing of their state, who’d rather go to Cardinals game in September than drive to Columbia to watch the Tigers play a cupcake.

But the weather in Columbia is what it is, and Missouri will have to maximize every advantage it has in its new, super competitive league.

The Kansas City Star has been largely neutral on Missouri’s move and more concerned about keeping their precious basketball tournament in town. (Shades of Omaha getting paranoid over loosing the College World Series, Ugh.) The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has at least seemed reasonably honest about the challenges Missouri will face in the SEC and leaves the impression that the Tigers will have to step their game up in the new league.

Finally, I have to commend Missouri for at least talking about keeping their rivalry with Kansas intact. Even though the Jayhawks are angered by Missouri’s move and want to end their long series (even in basketball), Missouri seems to be making the initiative to keep the series together, as they should. Missouri and Kansas share a city together, and it would be too bad to see another longtime rivalry go by the wayside as Missouri moves on.

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