As we move into perhaps the best overall Saturday of college football this season, it is time to take a look back on the opening of the season. While most were preparing for the Ohio State-Texas showdown last week, I was preparing to take a look at how major rule changes are working in college football this season. I can say with definite sureness that the NCAA has had mixed results on rule changes, so perhaps now is a good time to point out what is the good, what is the bad, and what is the ugly going into the big matchups this weekend.
I would like to start on a positive note: instant replay! I happened to see the beginnings of this as the Big Ten experimented with the program in 2003, and it has quickly spread to all of college football now. Every play is reviewed, and quite frankly, I have been a lot less frustrated watching games since now the referees rarely miss a big play. Of course this adds length to the game every time a replay occurs and referee judgment calls on penalties cannot be reviewed, but the system works and it gives the game a more fair and professional feel.
Last week Syracuse and Iowa played an unexpected classic that was not over until Iowa stopped the ‘Cuse eight striaght times in overtime from two yards out. The first score of this game was a beautiful touchdown catch in the corner of the endzone by Taj Smith on a third down and goal. Watching it live, I could tell he clearly got both feet in bounds with possession (a pro level catch since you only need one foot in bounds for college), but the referees apparently did not see this well and called the pass incomplete. A review was called for from the booth, and the play was quickly overturned. Syracuse would not score again until the end of regulation, but without this touchdown, the game probably never makes it to overtime. This is one of many examples of a game getting better thanks to the replay system, so we should keep it around.
One change was made to the replay system this season, and that was allowing for one coach’s challenge during the game. This is much like the pro system where you give up a timeout if you are wrong in a challenge (and lose the right to challenge for the rest of the game), but you still have your challenge until you make a wrong call. Mack Brown received a lot of criticism for “wasting” his challenge in the first half and losing a timeout against the Buckeyes. The play was perhaps the most critical turning point of the game, and I do not know if I disagree with Brown’s decision at the time. But nonetheless, he took a lot of flak for using the current system properly, and that shows why this rule change is really unnecessary.
I still do not like this rule because there seems to be no reason for a coach's challenge when the booth reviews each play, and the booth decides on every play if further review is necessary. The only time it seems like a coach’s challenge would be good is if the other team is rushing the next play because they think the previous play will be overturned against them if review happens (and obviously by rushing the play, they take out the possibility of anything but a quick cursory review by the booth). In reality though, if great coaches like Mack Brown are going to be criticized for using this system “when every play is already reviewed by the booth,” then perhaps it should just be removed as needless extravagance. I understand that coaches want to have control over the replay system, but the college system is inherently different from the pro system and a coach's challenge seems like an opportunity just for wasting timeouts and bringing criticism upon themselves.
Well here we are and I’m sure you know which rule fits into this category: the clock rule changes of 2006. For no reason other than apparently wanting to shorten games or offset the rule changes that have added time to games relatively recently (addition of overtime and instant replay for example), the clock starts more quickly on two occasions: (1) when the ball is kicked on a kickoff as opposed to when it is received, and (2) when the ball is set ready for play after a change of possession. The NCAA also shortened the height of kicking tees to reduce the number of touchbacks, but I think this could be better achieved by moving the kicker back to where the pro kickers tee off from. Nonetheless, the clock rules have been the talk of the town for many reasons.
The justifications the NCAA gave for shortening games drastically were not all that compelling. Is it really a problem for fans that games were averaging three and a half hours? The college game has tried to emulate the pro game in many respects and it does bring good innovations like instant replay, but trying to match the three hour games of the pro leagues is not necessary. While I'm in the stadium, I know I do not mind getting 3.5 hours or more of entertainment when I pay high dollar for tickets, so the only good argument is that the games take up too much TV time. This, in my opinion, is absurd, and statistics show that these minor changes have effectively dropped the number of plays in a game about 15%. Unless teams become much more proficient at rushing the offense out there and getting plays off right away at the beginning of possessions, this will be a detriment to the game in the long run. After we have a full year of statistics to review, it may be time for the fans to cry out for the NCAA to change this rule that currently appears awful.
Don’t get me wrong though, the new clock rules did not make a difference in the outcome of any game, including Texas vs. Ohio State (Mack Brown, I doubt you could have won given another 30 minutes of game time). The rules are what they are, and they do not favor any team, including teams that like to slow the tempo and speed the game up by running the ball a lot. The best teams will still emerge on the field, but I feel robbed of quite a few plays in the name of television and useless post-game shows.
It is funny how sometimes the best games with all of the hype live up to expectations (such as OSU-Texas 2005, USC-Texas 2006, and Boston College winning by one over Clemson last weekend), but other times the biggest games are awful blowouts. The gigantic battle of #1 vs. #2 last week turned out to be one of the most boring big games in a long time. I like good defense as much as the next guy, but the only reason OSU held Texas to 7 is because Texas made mistakes each time they would get into OSU territory. The game could be summed up in three drives: (1) OSU scoring to go up 7-0 after returning a Texas red zone fumble 40 yards, (2) OSU WR Teddy Ginn blows by the Texas coverage at the end of the half to respond to the Texas TD on the last drive 14-7, and (3) OSU LB James Laurinaitis intercepting Texas’s first pass attempt of the second half, leading to a field goal to go up 17-7. The way Texas played the whole game, these three plays put the game out of reach and made for a pretty boring game.
Maybe I downgrade the game when the biggest stories coming out of the game are terrible and unrelated to actual football on the field entirely: (1) Mack Brown complaining about the clock rules, (2) Jim Tressel misquoting his USA Coaches Poll vote, which apparently he does not send in himself, and (3) how foolish Matthew McConaughey looked on national TV doing jumping jacks on the Texas sideline like their own personal cheerleader. Do you realize McConaughey doesn’t believe in wearing deodorant? This guy lives in Texas and does jumping jacks, and I feel bad for the poor Texas players who had to smell that on Saturday. Of course I feel worse when I watch “A Time To Kill” and see McConaughey working up a great sweat as a lawyer in Mississippi within inches of poor Sandra Bullock for what must have been weeks of filming. Well I’ll digress from this point, but it is just one more reason to laugh at how big the hype was for this game in hindsight.
Of course the other huge battles of the day had Georgia shutout South Carolina on their home turf 18-0 and Notre Dame smashing through Penn State 41-17. If you had the pleasure of being in the Midwest or New York area, you had a chance through regional coverage to see one of the true best games of the day in Iowa at Syracuse. The game had few points like the UT-OSU game, but it was always closer and you could really feel the Carrier Dome pulling for the victory Syracuse has not found in many months. The previously mentioned BC-Clemson game was also exciting throughout. My conclusion: despite this being “Showdown Saturday” or “Separation Saturday” because of all the big games, do not forget that sometimes the best games are those just off the radar.
There are arguably seven to eight games of the week possible for my review on what should be a interesting college football Saturday. The eyes of the college football world will certainly gravitate to the SEC starting to have more league play, as this conference always beats up on each other and is very competitive every year. You can take nothing for granted in these games, and all should be good to watch. I did not include Florida-Tennessee in my top three because there are slightly more compelling storylines in the other games, and I did not include Louisville-Miami because Miami lost already this year. Both those games, however, are not to be missed.
My first game of the week is Oklahoma at Oregon. This matchup might involve two teams not currently ranked in the Fab 15, but both teams are one big game (for Oregon it is USC; for Oklahoma it is Texas) from being legitimate national title contenders this season. These teams played two years ago in Norman and last year in the Holiday Bowl, and Oregon will be looking to exact revenge for those two OU wins. Oklahoma has not been impressive on paper or on the field in their two wins this season, but they do have the best running back in the country, Adrian Peterson, going against a weak rushing defense. Oregon is battle tested after going into the lions den at Fresno State and escaping with a victory late last Saturday. This is a chance for Oregon to get national attention and exposure, and I think Ducks RB Jonathan Stewart will have a big week trying to match Peterson’s game. Normally I would take the team with a great rushing and clock management attack, but I cannot help but feel Oregon’s experience from last week’s close call will help them to finally overcome the Sooners. I take UO (meaning the Ducks) by 4.
My second game of the week is (10) Michigan at (3) Notre Dame. The Irish are currently in the annual stretch of games against Big Ten foes (this year PSU, UM, MSU) that usually gives them their first loss. Michigan never plays well in Notre Dame stadium, and this Irish team is a lot better than the past 10 years. Brady Quinn will continue the perfect Heisman campaign (big games almost every week, national TV every week, and a huge national fan following) against a UM squad with potential superstars QB Chad Henne and RB Mike Hart. Hart should have a huge day against the questionable ND defense, and the key will be if the Big Blue defense can pressure and get to Quinn on a regular basis. If Quinn has enough time, he will pick apart the UM defense much like OSU QB Troy Smith has the past two seasons. I think UM is sick of the talk questioning their coach and their team, and they are primed to make a huge national upset on the road in this game. Wolverines by 7.
The best game of the week, of course, comes from the SEC, and that would be (5) LSU visiting (6) Auburn. The Tigers (meaning Auburn) are the trendy pick for an SEC team if any of them make the national title game, and they must win this game to have a realistic chance at that goal. An early loss usually does not hurt, but falling essentially two games behind the next best team in the SEC West (one game and another for head-to-head advantage) would all but kill their hopes to make the SEC title game, which I consider a prerequisite to making the BCS title game. LSU has blown out their first two opponents by identical 45-3 scores, while Auburn has been good at shutting down opponents. LSU QB Jamarcus Russell could go crazy in this game, but I think the Auburn defense will reign him in better than expected. The key will be for Auburn QB Brandon Cox and PK John Vaughn to not make mistakes like last year when Vaughn missed five field goals in a three-point loss. I hate picking against the Bayou Bengals, but I think this is the only game they will lose just based on the intangibles (and assuming Auburn does not make mistakes). Tigers (of Auburn) by 3.
GOTW Record 2006 to Date: 3-3
Fitzy’s Top 10 – Week 3
Have a great week everybody, and we’ll see you back here after we figure out the SEC in some regard!