Well this is my final normal article of the season, as the last truncated regular season week is upon us. Looking back on the regular season of 2006, there were a lot of things to like, such as the crazy upsets and debate over BCS possibilities, but there were a lot of things to dislike, such as bad new clock rules, bad replays, a brawl in Miami, and no real Heisman race. Despite all these downers, I still think 2006 was a good year, mainly due to the unpredictability of the games and conference battles. Ohio and Rice are going to their first bowl games since the 1960’s, Rutgers was a legitimate national title contender and could win the Big East, and Wake Forest and Georgia Tech are changing perceptions of the ACC balance of power.
The one big story this time of year is the unfortunate coaching carousel that must happen as coaches move on to bigger and better opportunities while others are dropped for poor results. I claimed that John L. Smith (Michigan State) and Larry Coker (Miami) were racing to the first pink slips of 2006, but then John Bunting at North Carolina won that race. Coker and Smith were fired though, as well as Mike Shula at Alabama. North Carolina grabbed Butch Davis while Michigan State hired Mark Dantonio already this week. This leaves Alabama, Miami, and Cincinnati as the major job openings left at this point.
While firing coaches mid-season seems to lack a little tact, it does allow the universities to start searching and interviewing for replacements before everyone else. Michigan State and North Carolina grabbed a couple of the best available coaches by doing this, and the pickings seem slim for the remaining openings. You can never predict if guys like Greg Schiano and Rich Rodriguez will be lured away like Dantonio was, and you can also not predict if coaches such as Kirk Ferentz or even Jim Tressel will consider moving onto another challenge at the pro level. Of course more of this will happen after the bowls are done, but I really think we will see schools like Alabama and Miami struggle to fill positions that do not have as much prestige as they used to (look at how long Notre Dame struggled to find the magic again).
Before we look ahead to the bowl season in future articles and this small slate of championship weekend games, it is time to give out awards in each conference for the player of the year, coach of the year, and surprise of the year.
Atlantic Coast Conference
The player of the year is clearly Calvin Johnson, WR at Georgia Tech. Johnson has been perhaps the best wide receiver in football this season and has saved the mediocre QB play of the Yellow Jackets, sending them to a possible conference title. Coach of the year is Jim Grobe at Wake Forest, for taking a Demon Deacon team who was supposed to dwell in the cellar of the division this year, and taking said team to the ACC title game while weathering many important losses to injury. The surprise of the year is undoubtedly the reversal of fortunes in the balance of power, as Virginia Tech, Miami, and Florida State never really had a chance to top Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Maryland, and Boston College. This will be a very interesting bowl season for the conference as it tries to prove it is better than perceptions in 2006.
Big XII Conference
Player of the year honors go to Aaron Ross, CB at Texas. This guy has the complete package of abilities and great statistics (5 INT, 3 Forced Fumbles, 1 TD, and over 40 solo tackles), and he led the best unit in the conference despite being let down by the offense in the final two games of the season. Coach of the year is clearly Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Stoops suspended his starting QB for the season before it began, lost his Heisman candidate running back halfway through the year, and had to recover from controversy stemming from two terribly blown calls in a September loss to Oregon. Stoops showed his championship caliber coaching though, and overcame all these obstacles to win the division for the sixth time in 8 years. Surprise of the year is a tie between the wonderful play of freshman QB Colt McCoy at Texas and the continuing dominance of the South division in inter-division games.
Big East Conference
Player of the year is a tie here between Steve Slaton (RB) and Pat White (QB), both from West Virginia. These two guys ran roughshod over Georgia in last year’s Sugar Bowl and continued to do so against all competition this season. Even with the shocking loss at South Florida last week, these two have together been the most fearsome threats any conference team has to prepare for. Coach of the year goes undoubtedly to Greg Schiano who turned Rutgers into a legitimate national title threat this season. Surprise of the season could have been the surprising good play from South Florida and Cincinnati, but it’s not every year a conference has three undefeated teams in the national title chase in November, and the Big East will look good this bowl season.
Big Ten Conference
Player of the year is Troy Smith, who will win the Heisman and who still stood out on the field with all the backbreaking talent the Buckeye offense has at all the skill positions. While I like what Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel accomplished this season, coach of the year goes to Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern for holding together a team that easily could have quit on the season and fallen apart after losing their literal and spiritual leader in head coach Randy Walker this summer. Honorable mention to the other young gun in the conference Bret Bielema at Wisconsin for an 11-1 season following the departure of the legendary Barry Alvarez. Surprise of the year was how far ahead of the rest of the conference the two traditional power schools were this season with the demise of Iowa and poor play from Penn State against good teams. Look for a struggling bowl season, as every team had to move up a step with the conference getting two BCS bowls.
Player of the year is Kevin Kolb, QB at Houston. The efficiency of Kolb has been staggering as he led the Cougars to a probable conference title and a 9-3 record. Coach of the year is Todd Graham at Rice, who in his first year has continued the improvement at the program and has the Owls in their first bowl game in 45 years. The surprise of the year is undoubtedly the success of Rice and SMU, both earning above-.500 records for the first time in ages. Houston is clearly the class of the conference this season though, and you do not want to miss Kevin Kolb’s last collegiate game in the bowl season.
Player of the year is Garrett Wolfe, RB at Northern Illinois. For the second straight season, Wolfe led the nation is rushing, including exploding for more than 200 yards in the opener at Ohio State (who, by the way, went on to some success). The only thing keeping Wolfe from Heisman contention is the disappointing year Northern Illinois had, despite qualifying for a bowl. Coach of the year is Frank Solich at Ohio, who overcame personal drinking problems in the off-season and continued the turnaround of the Bobcats, who will play in their first bowl since 1968 on January 7. The surprise of the season is definitely the Ohio-Central Michigan conference title game on Thursday following seasons of dominance by the likes of Toledo, Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, and Miami.
Mountain West Conference
Player of the year is John Beck, QB at BYU. Beck has also been a figure of consistency this year, leading BYU to eight straight victories and many blowouts on the way to a conference title. Coach of the year for the same reasons is Bronco Mendenhall at BYU, who is now 12-1 at BYU in non-overtime contests (0-2 in OT). Surprise of the year is how the traditional powers in this conference, Air Force and Colorado State, have had losing seasons and not played up to their potential at all.
Pacific 10 Conference
There are plenty of candidates for player of the year, but my choice is Dwayne Jarrett, WR at USC. USC has played the toughest schedule they could find out-of-conference, and will probably play for a national title due in part to Jarrett’s leadership on offense. He has just as many circus catches and good statistics as Calvin Johnson at Georgia Tech, and USC would probably have multiple losses without his ability to step up and find the open seams in any defense. Seeing him work against Ohio State will be fantastic. Coach of the year is Pete Carroll at USC, who keeps replacing a lot of NFL talent and winning his fifth straight conference title. USC has finished in the top 3 nationally each of the past four years, and Carroll is the genius who looks to make that happen a fifth straight time this year also. Surprise of the year was the great season Oregon State had, highlighted of course by the only loss handed to USC.
Player of the year is Darren McFadden, RB at Arkansas. McFadden has come out of nowhere to show off his outstanding speed and tackle-breaking abilities while leading Arkansas to the SEC championship game. Coach of the year is Urban Meyer at Florida, who knows how to coach a team well enough to win many close games. If it were not for Notre Dame (Michigan and USC have way more credibility thanks to their wins over the overrated Irish squad), Florida may be playing for a spot in the national title game. Surprise of the year is Auburn not running away with the conference as expected, as the Tigers did not even win their division.
Sun Belt Conference
Player of the year goes back to the defensive side of the ball to J.K. Sabb, LB at Middle Tennessee State. MTSU has rolled to a league title, the defense has been the main reason for their undefeated run in conference play, and Sabb is the true leader of that unit. Another rookie head coach Rick Stockstill (MTSU) wins coach of the year honors for taking the Blue Raiders to their first conference title and bowl berth. Surprise of the year is how a good Florida International team went 0-11, but perhaps the midseason brawl at Miami and the subsequent suspensions ended any hope for them.
Western Athletic Conference
The player of the year is Colt Brennan, QB at Hawaii. Despite having no national spotlight at all with most home games starting around midnight eastern time, Brennan still has grabbed the attention of the college football world with nearly 5000 passing yards and over 50 touchdowns. Coach of the year is Chris Peterson at Boise State, who is also a rookie coach this season and continued the trend of taking the program to a new level, this year an undefeated record and a BCS Bowl. Surprise of the year is also Boise State making what appears to be the Fiesta Bowl, and wouldn’t it be great if the Broncos scored a huge upset in their BCS outing?
Moving now to the final week of games, the first game of the week is Rutgers at West Virginia. RU can cap a surprising season and a conference title with a victory in Morgantown, while WVU is playing spoiler after losing to South Florida last weekend. Louisville will certainly be pulling for the Mountaineers in this one, and the key battle will be the Rutgers' defense against the WVU offense. Pat White and Steve Slaton have run over everyone they played this season (a few turnovers decided the offensive showdown loss at Louisville), and Rutgers has looked shaky at times against Louisville and Cincinnati. The Scarlet Knights usually win when they are not expected to this season, but I think WVU will rebound and defend the home turf in this one. Mountaineers score a few too many for Rutgers’ anemic offense to keep up, so WVU by 17.
The second game of the week is Nebraska and Oklahoma splitting the difference of distance to meet in Kansas City for the Big XII title. Oklahoma has slowly taken care of business after the Texas loss, and the Sooners are on such a roll that it is hard to imagine the breaks they received from the Longhorns will be wasted. Nebraska is not your normal North pushover though, and Oklahoma will probably end up having to slug it out on the ground against the Husker defense. With a couple of turnovers, Nebraska could steal this one, but I think Oklahoma would be a serious national title contender if not for the stolen game at Oregon. Oklahoma wins by 6.
The game of the week is the SEC Title Game, Arkansas and Florida in Jacksonville. Arkansas finally took a loss in SEC play last week against LSU, but this is not all that surprising given how tough the 10-2 LSU Tigers have been this year. Arkansas has blown away many opponents who could not step up and stop RB Darren McFadden, but unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the Gators have a defense. Florida has not won games pretty this season, but in the clutch, the Gators have almost always prevailed by coming up with a clutch turnover or a big play at the right time. Urban Meyer’s offense has sputtered as of late, and this is a big concern coming into December. Nevertheless, Florida has a good enough defense to stop McFadden from breaking the big plays. UF takes this one by 3.
GOTW 2006 Record to Date: 27-12
Fitzy’s Top 10 – Week 14
Enjoy the final slate of regular season games! I know I am excited to see how the bowl picture shakes out this weekend and will look forward to analyzing the bowl matchups in future articles. As always, have a good week!