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2012-2013 Bowl Game Awards January 10, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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What, you’d think I’d be lying down on the job just because the regular season is over?

COACHES
Wish I were him:  Charlie Strong, Louisville

Wouldn’t be bad to be him, either:  Nick Saban, Alabama

Glad I’m not him: Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Lucky guy:  Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Poor guy: Patrick Higgins, Purdue (interim coach)
Desperately seeking a clue (long-term, notwithstanding the win):  Mack Brown, Texas
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Bill Blankenship, Tulsa

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Lane Kiffin, USC

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Texas A&M (beat No. 11 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4, 41-13)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Florida (see below)

(Dec. 15-31)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Purdue (see below)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t: Louisville (see below)
(Jan. 1-7)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Alabama

Thought you wouldn’t get your butt kicked, you did: Notre Dame

Dang, they’re good: Alabama (and Texas A&M!)
Dang, they’re bad:  Purdue

They can’t be that good:  Oklahoma State

Dang, they’re overrated:  Notre Dame

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Mississippi State (lost to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, Jan. 1, 34-20)

Did the season start? USC
Can the season end?  West Virginia
Can the season never end?  Louisville (or Clemson, though really, Louisville more so!)

GAMES
Play this again (Jan. 1-7):  Outback Bowl – No. 10 South Carolina 33, No. 18 Michigan 28

(Dec. 15-31)

Play this again:  Peach, I mean, Chick-Fil-A Bowl — No. 14 Clemson 25, No. 8 LSU 24

Also, play this again:  New Mexico Bowl – Arizona 49, Nevada 48
(All Bowls)

Never play this again: Heart of Dallas Bowl – Oklahoma State 58, Purdue 14
Don’t bother with this one again, eitherIdaho Potato Bowl – No. 22 Utah State 41, Toledo 15

What? Chick-Fil-A Bowl — No. 14 Clemson 25, No. 8 LSU 24

HuhHoliday Bowl — Baylor 49, No. 17 UCLA 26

Are you kidding me? Sun Bowl — Georgia Tech 21, USC 7

Oh – my – God: Sugar Bowl – No. 21 Louisville 33, No. 3 Florida 23

Wow, dudeBCS National Championship – erstwhile No. 2 Alabama 42, erstwhile No. 1 Notre Dame 14

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Cal Sport Media / AP Images

That’s why you line them up and play.  My father repeated this mantra to me as I was growing up.  Going in to the BCS National Championship game, it seemed as though Notre Dame and Alabama were rather evenly matched on paper.  The Fighting Irish had some rather impressive wins on their resume this year, far more impressive than the mediocre schedule they had played in recent years.  Beating a tough Stanford squad at home, going on the road to humiliate Oklahoma, and then closing out the regular season on the west coast to beat USC, all in the same year, is no small feat.  With such a record, it looked like Notre Dame was back, ready to butt heads with the big boys for national prominence.

Moreover, it was supposed to be a down year for the SEC, remember?  Michigan played South Carolina down to the wire (though seriously, the overall outcome was as predicted, if not by a slightly truncated margin of error), and an underachieving Nebraska challenged a, well, underachieving Georgia squad.  Mississippi State, for what a great regular season had – by MSU standards, at least – came for naught when they coughed it up to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.  The most striking example of building the case for a SEC down year was the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.  No way, under normal circumstances would LSU lose to Clemson, though to be sure, the ACC team has been known to pull one over on the SEC team in that bowl game (remember the 2001 Peach Bowl between Auburn and North Carolina?).  No. 3 Florida inexplicably losing to No. 21 Louisville can also add fuel to that fire (not that U of L’s win is something to be rued outside of SEC country!).

Forget that the SEC had three losses going into this game.  The conference was 5-3, to be exact; still a winning record.  Look at the Bama team itself.  They had graduated tons of talent to the NFL.  Quarterback A.J. McCarron was not a transcendent player at that position (as one often expects on a team that would be in the running for the national title).  The offensive line was young and inexperienced.  The Crimson Tide’s defense was not overwhelming, either, especially when compared to the smothering D’s of recent champion squads.  When paired up against the other team, one could readily predict some clearly potential mismatches.  After all, Notre Dame’s receiving corps was big and talented, and proved to be a game-winning factor throughout the season, as the Irish’s opponents had no answer for that part of their offense.

But there was more.  What gave the Irish the strong look of national viability was that Coach Brian Kelly had done an amazing job of massively upgrading the team’s defense.  At a school this is much more academically rigid as ND, certain recruiting restrictions tend to put the defensive side of the ball at a disadvantage.  One can recruit smart linemen, quarterbacks, tight ends, and receivers, after all, and they are out there.  Defense is another issue.  Never as well-choreographed as offensive, players on that side of the ball tend to be a bit more reckless, and often have to be to make key stops.  Making good grades and doing what defensive players have to do to succeed on the field is oftentimes an incompatibility.  Yet Kelly somehow made it work.

So how did things turn out they did?  Even yours truly predicted a close game, at least until some time in the 3rd quarter.  Turns out, in hindsight, we all made the same mistake we made going into the 2007 BCS game.  That year, Ohio State was the undefeated, No.1  team.  Florida got in the game almost as an afterthought.  Yet despite a touchdown by the Buckeyes on the opening kickoff, the Gators dominated from then on, leaving many viewers in a state of shock and disbelief, and also to ask each other:  how did we not see this coming?

The answer comes in two parts.  The simplest part is, they are SEC teams.  Florida then and Alabama this year played in the most brutal of all college football conferences.  Anybody who emerges as the conference champion is battle-hardened, battle tested, and ready and able to go toe-to-toe with anybody else in the country.  If one does not believe that the SEC, despite its down year this year, is still not the best conference in the country, you are both blind and detached from reality.  For one, SEC teams have won every national title since the 2006-’07 season; that’s seven consecutive years and counting.  But even more to the point, the NFL is the ultimate truth serum when it comes to who produces the best players in college football.  One NFL team general manager once observed that you could field a competitive team in the pros just by drafting players out of the Southeastern Conference.  Lots of money, along with people’s mortgages and livelihoods, rest on making such key decisions – think about that.

So Ohio State then, and Notre Dame this year, were frankly NOT consistently playing the same level of competition that SEC teams face week in and week out.  It’s fine for Notre Dame to beat Oklahoma on the road, but to turn right around the struggle at home to Pittsburgh the next game should have raised a few more eyebrows than it did.

The other part to explain how Bama ended up dominating Notre Dame is that Nick Saban is the best college coach in the business.  He learned his grinder’s work ethic from his father growing up in West Virginia, and learned how to be detail-oriented as an NFL assistant under Bill Belichick.  Being detail-oriented is a transferrable skill that works well at either the college or the pro level.  Saban knows how to prepare.  Alabama might have seemed relatively weak (compared to recent teams) having to go from one tough game to another (LSU then Texas A&M, for example).  But give Saban a full month to prepare, and the team’s true potential shines through.  Pay no attention to the Tide getting humiliated to Utah in the 2008 Sugar Bowl; pay attention to Saban’s, and the team’s, more recent body of work, that being three national titles out of the past four years.  They say that hindsight is 20-20, and in this case, it most certainly is:  Bama played better competition throughout the year, had even better overall athletes, and are guided by the best coach in the business.  Sometimes, you have to line them up and play just to be able to see those things with sufficient clarity.

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Teams that could beat Notre Dame November 22, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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From the latest edition of Sports Illustrated. The Latin phrase at the top translates to “The Miracle of Our Lady 2012”

In case some dear readers have been hanging out in a cave for an extended period of time, Notre Dame is now the no. 1 college football team in the nation for the first time in 19 years to the month.  Given the national following the Fighting Irish have, there has been more than a bit of hoopla over this development.  Without going into obscene details, I can see Regis Philbin and other ND-loving celebrities losing control of themselves right about now.  But just because the Irish are no. 1 by default, does not mean they are invincible?  Of course not.  Yes, they are undefeated; yes, they have beaten some decent teams.  To be fair, Notre Dame is formidable.  Brian Kelly has done an incredible job of bringing in a talented receiving corps for the offense while massively upgrading the team’s talent defensively.  Their front five and front seven are both sufficiently physical to compete with anybody.  But there are teams out there that would give ND fits, if not ruin their season outright if the two played each other.  I therefore submit this list of teams to a candid world:

Practically sure things:

LSU:  Without a doubt, LSU would give Notre Dame all it would want and then some.  Over the past decade, there is no team that has been known to show up in big games and win them like LSU.  Yes, they lost at home to Alabama this year.  Yes, they lost the national championship game to Alabama at the end of last season.  Yet ought these not to be a strong commentary on the Crimson Tide’s prowess rather then to the Bayou Bengals’ detriment?  The Tigers have won two national titles within a decade.  Aside from the BCS game this past season, they have won almost all of their bowl games*.  Stretch the scale of time back to 15 years, and every time the Irish have played the Tigers in a bowl game (the 1997 Independence Bowl, the 2006-’07 Sugar Bowl), LSU has won both games handily.  The odds, talent, and the mindset are all in LSU’s favor.  Notre Dame ought to pray that the two teams do not meet anytime soon.

*LSU’s only bowl losses were to a tough Texas team in the 2003 Cotton Bowl, and inexplicable losses in the Capital One Bowl to both Iowa (30-20 on Jan. 1, 2005), and Penn State (19-17 on Jan. 1, 2010).

Stanford:  Don’t laugh.  Yes, they already lost to Notre Dame this year, but by that same token, let us put things into perspective.  A), the game was in South Bend, B) the weather was horrible, C) what did the Cardinal in was two consecutive horrible play calls on the goal line in overtime.  Now imagine the two teams playing each other again, this time on a neutral field, and reasonable weather.  Stanford has the personnel to fight the Irish effectively on the line on both sides of the ball.  They sport a very physical front seven, and their offense is ground-and-pound.  This approach was two horribly-called plays shy of working under very adverse circumstances on the road.  Imagine how well it would work in, say, Glendale, Ariz., or Pasadena.

Texas A&M:  The Aggies have proven that they can move the ball on tough defenses.  Quarterback Johnny Manziel has gotten better and better as the season has progressed.  They moved the ball effectively on Alabama, after all.  Moreover, Coach Kevin Sumlin has proven to be an excellent motivator in getting his men ready for big games.  Some of their margins of victory are impressive.  For example, they beat a respected Mississippi State squad 38-13, and then turned around the following week and beat then-no. 1 Alabama.  What this tells me is that you can count on consistent play from A&M at this stage of the season.  That, plus quick defense and superior quarterback play add up to being too much for the Irish to handle.

Ohio State:  Yes, Brian Kelly has proven to be one of the best coaches in the college game.  But so has Urban Meyer, and his resume of winning big games with more teams, one could argue, trumps Kelly’s.  Never count out Meyer in big games.  Moreover, once he brings in more of his own style of players, they will execute his spread offense all the more effectively.  True, the Buckeyes were playing some teams too closely for comfort earlier in the year.  After all, they only scored 29 points on abysmal UAB, of all teams!  But lately the offense runs like a well-oiled machine.  During their last games, they have averaged scoring 49 points each.  Their lower scores during that span were 29 points (where Purdue’s defense actually showed up) and 21 points against Wisconsin’s traditionally stout ‘D.’  Notre Dame has not encountered anything like Ohio State’s offense throughout this memorable season of theirs.

Questionable teams:

Florida:  Yes, their defense is practically impregnable.  Good luck moving the ball on the Gators.  The problem is on the offensive side of the ball.  Jeff Driskel is a mediocre quarterback at best, and Notre Dame’s defense will not play dead simply because they are facing such a vaunted program.  The game would be very low-scoring, with the outcome depending on how well Driskell executes, which is a crap-shoot.

South Carolina:  On paper, this team should be a very formidable foe for the Irish.  A strong running game, one of the best QB’s in college football in Connor Shaw, and defense with potential NFL talent, anchored by Jadeveon Clowney.  The problem lies in consistency.  The Gamecocks blew out a tough Georgia team earlier in the year, only to embarrass themselves at Florida a few weeks later.  After that, they played an awful Tennessee much more closely than the game should have been, again, on paper (they won that game only 38-35).  The Ol’ Ball Coach triumphing over the hot-headed Irish Coach will depend on the team that gave Georgia its only loss of the year to show up.

Georgia:  The Bulldogs have an incredibly talented offense led by experienced, highly-rated quarterback Aaron Murray.  On paper, the offense would give Notre Dame’s talented defense all they could handle.  Defensively, Georgia sports a typical talented, ultra-quick SEC defense.  The problem, like that of South Carolina, is consistency.  Yes, they could theoretically take Notre Dame, but it all comes down to which team shows up against them:  the team that beat Florida handily on an ostensibly neutral field, or the team that lost badly earlier on to South Carolina?

Alabama:  Easily the least-questionable team within this category.  The only reason they are in said category as opposed to the above one is that Texas A&M exposed a chink or two in their impressive armor.  Their defense is talented, but young, and their offense is not the most imaginative of teams at their level.  But let us say that the two – Bama and ND – end up playing each other in the BCS national championship game.  Give Nick Saban a month to prepare – a luxury no team has had thus far, to be sure – and he is practically unstoppable.  Advantage, Crimson Tide.

If any dear readers think other teams merit being added to the list, I would be more than happy to entertain suggestions!  (P.S.: Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!)