College Football: Oregon, Auburn to Glendale, TCU to Big East and Other Thoughts
Due to the minimal number of meaningful games this weekend, I chose to take the two major off-field stories and include them in this week’s Saturday Thoughts. In addition to my Top 10, I’ve included thoughts on:
The Civil War in Corvallis
Auburn’s woodshedding of South Carolina in Atlanta
Cameron Newton’s eligibility, or lack thereof
TCU’s move to the Big East
Oklahoma and Nebraska’s last dance in Dallas
Virginia Tech’s undefeated run through the ACC
The mess in the Big East
Central Florida’s C-USA Championship
Miami (OH)’s miracle season
On-field success for MWC’s recent additions
1. Oregon Wins Civil War, Headed to Glendale
The Oregon Ducks secured their place in the BCS Championship game with a 37-20 victory over rival Oregon State in Corvallis. Over the second half of its Pac-10 schedule, the Ducks defense has really stepped up.
Oregon held Washington and Cal to 16 and 13 points, respectively. Though the defense had trouble in the first half last week, it stepped up in the second half and held Arizona to 10 points after intermission. The Ducks had another solid showing this week, holding Oregon State to 13 late into the fourth quarter before allowing a late Beavers TD.
If the Ducks are to walk away from Glendale as National Champions, their defense will have to step up again with Cam Newton and the Auburn offense joining them.
2. Auburn Hammers South Carolina
It took until Game 13, but the Auburn Tigers finally have a dominating performance over a quality opponent. South Carolina provided little resistance to an Auburn team on a mission, falling 56-17.
Prior to today, the Tigers survived close calls against Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky, LSU and Alabama. Additionally, Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia played Auburn well early before fading later in the game. This was the first game all season where Auburn showed the world its full potential on both sides of the ball. Assuming Newton is eligible (I’ll get to that later), Auburn should be the favorite come January.
This record-setting loss is yet another black eye for the SEC’s Eastern Division, which is experiencing a down season, to say the least. For the regular season, the division finished with a 36-37 (.493) record. Included in that record was a 3-16 record in matchups against the SEC West (1-15 in games that didn’t include Western cellar-dweller Ole Miss). The East’s season is easily the worst performance by a major conference (or conference division, as is this case) that I have ever seen, including the Big East’s 2004 and 2010 seasons.
3. Cameron Newton’s Status
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last month (or Auburn fans in a severe state of denial), issues have come up to question Auburn QB Cameron Newton’s amateur status. Long story short, multiple sources have reported that Newton and/or his father Cecil solicited money from Mississippi State University during Newton’s recruitment last year.
Recently, the NCAA ruled that Newton’s father did solicit money. However, since there was no proof Newton had any knowledge of his father’s actions, the NCAA ruled him ineligible. The Rev. Cecil Newton did not get off without punishment. The NCAA has severely limited his access to Auburn and its football program. From my understanding, any time a parent says or does anything on behalf of their child, it is as if the student-athlete took said action. I also thought that as soon as money was solicited from any source, the student lost his/her amateur status. Based on these two rules, as well as the facts in the case, it would seem to me that Newton should not have been eligible at any point this season.
Enter the conspiracy theorists. College football message boards have been lighting up all week. Some people have said that the NCAA and SEC commissioner Mike Slive have been conspiring to maintain the conference’s position atop college football (in spite of uncharacteristically bad years from the many SEC schools, particularly in the East). Others have claimed this is a conspiracy to keep TCU out of the title game.
I wouldn’t go that far, but I would not put Newton on my Heisman ballot if I had one. The Heisman is the ultimate individual prize in amateur football. As I understand the rules, Cameron Newton no long qualifies as an amateur.
4. TCU and the Big East
To me, TCU’s marriage to the Big East Conference is a match made in reactionary heaven. It is my belief that when the history of this round of conference expansion is written, neither party will be viewed as a winner (many more will be seen as losers).
With TCU, Boise State, Nevada, Hawaii, et al., the MWC was still on its way to BCS-AQ status (especially if it were to add Kevin Sumlin’s resurgent Houston program). I also think the Big East’s AQ status was never at risk. There are too many people living in the Northeastern United States (especially New York and Philadelphia) for the BCS to risk abandoning those markets. If the MWC were to get AQ status, it would not have been at the Big East’s expense; instead, there would have been a seventh AQ conference.
TCU’s decision moves it to a conference where the closest school is over 600 miles away (the majority of the Big East is 1,000 miles from Fort Worth). Though not a problem for football, this could become an issue for TCU’s non-revenue sports, particularly baseball. Moving TCU’s strong baseball program from the MWC to the Big East is at best a lateral move.
The decision to expand in the name of football has the potential to lead to a split of the Big East to two (or three) conferences. Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim was the first to express his displeasure. This decision would likely be enough to drive Syracuse to the Big Ten, should the conference choose to expand again.
There are multiple rumors about what the next move will be for the Big East’s non-football members. The first option is the formation of an eight-team basketball conference. The other popular option is slightly more convoluted: Marquette and DePaul (possibly Notre Dame, too) have discussed the idea of working with Dayton, Xavier, St. Louis and the private schools of the Horizon League to form a new conference of Midwestern private schools with an emphasis on basketball.
Essentially, the Big East sacrificed its status as the nation’s best basketball conference to slightly upgrade its football status.
5. Sooners Send Huskers to Big Ten With a Loss
Earlier this week, I wrote an article claiming that the Okahoma-Nebraska Big 12 title game would be the most entertaining of the five conference championship games. I caught quite a bit of flack from members of SEC fanbases. The primetime performance of these great rivals certainly vindicated me.
Nebraska jumped out to a 17-0 lead early on, but was unable to hold off OU. The Huskers were unable to move the ball effectively in the second half as Oklahoma’s defense proved too strong and too fast for NU. Very rarely in a Nebraska game does the other team’s defense outplay the Blackshirts, but that was clearly the case Saturday night.
Barring a bowl matchup, tonight’s game was the last chapter that will be written in this once-great rivalry for the near future. The earliest these two programs will be able to resume their rivalry will be in 2020 and 2021. Negotiations are already in progress. Hopefully an annual OOC game can eventually find its way onto the schedule. However, even if it does, I fear the rivalry will never be the same. We may have just witnessed the last great Oklahoma-Nebraska game.
6. Virginia Tech Runs Table in ACC
When James Madison embarrassed Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium, many experts left VT for dead. The Hokies responded with the heart of a champion, rolling off 11 consecutive wins. Only Georgia Tech and North Carolina State provided a significant challenge to VT. The Hokies beat GT 28-21 in Blacksburg and won 41-30 at NC State. No other team managed to get within two touchdowns of Virginia Tech for the rest of the regular season. Atlantic Division champion Florida State didn’t put up much of a fight, losing the highest-scoring ACC Championship game in history, 44-33.
The Orange Bowl committee must be disappointed. In Florida State, the Orange Bowl (played in Miami) would have had a school with a strong local following as an anchor. Virginia Tech travels well, but won’t be able to sell as many tickets in South Florida as the ‘Noles. With only UConn and Stanford to choose from, the Orange Bowl is destined to be the biggest loser when BCS pairings are announced.
As far as the ACC is concerned, this game was a huge success. The ACC Championship game has been plagued by less-than-desirable matchups the last few years. Due to this, it has been difficult for the ACC to sell tickets for the game (previously held in Tampa and Jacksonville). The matchup, combined with the game’s new location in Charlotte, give the league its best title game to date.
7. Three-Way Tie Atop Big East, UConn to BCS
This has been a rough season for Big East football, clearly its worst since 2004. The conference tallied a net record of 52-44 (.541). Two-time defending champion Cincinnati finished a disappointing 4-8 (including a 2-3 OOC mark). Greg Schiano’s Rutgers team matched Cincy’s record.
In an attempt to find the silver lining, all was not lost this season in the Northeast. Syracuse alumus Doug Marrone led the Orange to its first bowl since 2004, and is clearly the favorite for conference (and possibly national) Coach of the Year. South Florida was solid, if not spectacular, in Skip Holtz’s first season (including a win at Miami). Charlie Strong appears to have the Louisville program back on track. West Virginia had a typical season and just missed another Orange Bowl bid.
Congratulations to the University of Connecticut on clinching its first-ever BCS bid (either Orange or Fiesta). The Huskies won an incredibly ugly game in Tampa Saturday night, scoring no offensive touchdowns in their 19-16 victory. Unlike his Boise State counterpart, Huskies kicker Dave Teggart calmly sent his 52-yard FG attempt through the uprights to give his team the lead with less than 20 seconds remaining.
Listening to the game, you could tell that ESPN is worried about the ratings that Connecticut will be able to earn in its BCS game. The announcing crew spent most of the second half trying to sell viewers on the legitimacy of the UConn team.
This was clearly the biggest win in the history of Connecticut’s football program. The Orange Bowl will have an interesting decision to make Sunday: It has to choose between 8-4 UConn and an 11-1 Stanford team that doesn’t travel well.
8. Central Florida Wins C-USA, Improves Bid for Big East Membership
Saturday afternoon’s Conference-USA Championship game was clearly the best of the noon kickoff games. UCF was just too talented for SMU to handle this afternoon as the Knights won 17-7. This win certainly helps UCF’s case as it seeks an invitation to join the Big East.
Credit June Jones for building this SMU program, though. When he took over three years ago, SMU was one of the most pathetic programs in the entire Bowl Subdivision. After a 1-11 first season, Jones has won 15 games over the last two seasons, taking the team to its first two bowls since the NCAA Death Penalty in the mid-80s. SMU has shared the C-USA West title each of the past two seasons, but this year marked the program’s first visit to the Championship game. No matter where SMU ends up after realignment, Jones will have them contending for conference titles.
Both programs have been subject to expansion rumors over the past several months. UCF has been widely touted as a potential 10th member of the Big East (joining in 2012 with TCU). SMU has come up in some conversations as an expansion candidate for the Mountain West. It’s pretty clear to me that both programs have their best days in front of them.
9. Miami (OH) Completes Turnaround Season with MAC Title
Last season, the Miami University RedHawks struggled to a 1-11 (1-7) record under first-year coach Michael Haywood. Most picked them to finish last in the MAC East again this season.
Out of nowhere, Miami finished the regular season 8-4 (7-1), surprising even its coach. The RedHawks needed some help from Kent State in the final weekend to secure their place in Detroit. Kent knocked Ohio University last weekend to give Miami sole possession of first in the MAC East. Miami came in to Friday night’s game a heavy underdog to West Division Champion Northern Illinois (I believe I had them losing by 20 in an article from last week…oops). Miami hung tough for the entire game and put themselves in a position to take the lead late. A poor decision by an NIU defensive back on 4th-and-long gave Miami one last breath. The RedHawks capitalized, found the end zone and won the game, 26-21.
Believe it or not, the MAC Championship game was one of this weekend’s best games.
10. Good Week on the Field for MWC’s Newest Members
The last week must have been difficult for Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. Since realignment got rolling this summer, the MWC has lost all three of its “anchor” programs (Utah, BYU and now TCU). Beginning in 2012, the Mountain West will look to Boise State and its fellow newcomers from the WAC (Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada) to bring some stability back to the conference.
On the field, all four programs had impressive weekends. Boise, Nevada, and Hawaii had throwaway games against bottom-feeders from the WAC and MWC. The schools beat Utah State, Louisiana Tech and UNLV by a combined score of 144-52.
Fresno State had the biggest game of the four teams. The Bulldogs welcomed a second opponent from a BCS-AQ conference to Fresno this season. For the second time, the Bulldogs walked away with a win. Illinois put up much more of a fight than Cincinnati earlier in the season, falling 25-23.
If Thompson can find two more solid programs, the MWC may still have an outside chance at BCS-AQ status, but I highly doubt it. If nothing else, the conference is far and away the strongest non-AQ league, and any unbeaten team should have no trouble locking up a BCS berth (a trip to the Championship game isn’t likely, though).
Top 10 (Last Week)
1. Oregon (1)
2. Auburn (2)
3. Wisconsin (3)
4. TCU (4)
5. Stanford (5)
6. Ohio State (6)
7. Michigan State (7)
8. Arkansas (8)
9. Texas A&M (9)
10. Oklahoma (NR)
The Next Five: Missouri, LSU, Nevada, Boise State, Virginia Tech
Bonus Thought: My Heisman Ballot
Obviously, I don’t have a Heisman vote. If I did, here is what I would submit. Keep in mind that with Cameron Newton’s amateur status in question, I chose to leave him off my ballot.
1. Andrew Luck—QB, Stanford: Over the course of this season, Andrew Luck established himself as the best pure passer in college football. He led Stanford’s pro-style offense to a top 15 ranking this year. I’m sure the Bills can’t wait to get their hands on this kid. Luck finished the regular season with 3,051 yards passing, 28 TDs to seven INTs and three rushing TDs.
2. LaMichael James—RB, Oregon: The sophomore running back was the straw that stirred the drink in Chip Kelly’s option-based offense. He ran for 1,548 yards (6.1 per carry) and scored 20 total TDs (19 rushing, one receiving) while leading the Ducks to Glendale.
3. Colin Kaepernick—QB, Nevada: The best dual-threat quarterback who I feel is eligible for the award this year. Over the last four years, he ran Chris Ault’s pistol-based option attack to perfection. Last week he led the Wolf Pack in a furious comeback to finally knock off the Boise State Broncos. Kaepernick passed for 2,830 yards, 20 TDs and seven INTs. He also rushed for 1,184 yards and 20 more TDs.