Monday, September 5, 2011

College Football Opening Weekend Ramblings

The NBA lockout is still here, and that kind of sucks – but at least the next four months will be ever so slightly bearable with college football back. My scrambled thoughts on an exciting as ever opening Saturday, starting with my favorite team to ever lose at home to Sacramento State:

· Oregon State: I don’t think the Everclear is strong enough – pour me a double shot of rubbing alcohol.

· Mississippi: Part of me wants to see Houston Nutt remain gainfully employed just so Boise State can get a free pass in next season’s opener. The coaching matchup will be kind of like seeing Stephen Hawking run circles around a toddler on a Calculus test – comically and entertainingly lopsided, fascinating in a sick and twisted way, yet oh so excruciatingly painful to watch. But if Ole Miss is serious about having a good program I’m not sure how they don’t fire Nutt – even they can do so much better.

· Baylor: Holy shit! The season opener might have produced the most exciting game of the season! I can’t ever remember seeing a Gary Patterson defense being absolutely lit up like that – but then again how many quarterbacks are there like Robert Griffin III? I can’t wait to see dissect more Big 12 defenses.

· Auburn/Utah State: The best game on Saturday – it was really awesome to see Utah State storm into Jordan Hare without fear, take the early lead, and give the Tigers a run for their money. I will never forgive their defensive coordinator for switching to a way-too-soft prevent with two minutes to go, but overall you have to tip your hat to them for playing valiantly in a loss. Can you believe their quarterback is a TRUE FRESHMAN!! Me neither – he’s a keeper for sure. On the flip side, while Auburn had some major holes exposed on defense, you have to give them credit for not giving up on the game down 10 with two minutes to go. This game showed why they are definitely not top 25 material (and just how much we underestimated Nick Fairley’s impact), but for now kudos.

· Notre Dame: I like this new and unimproved Notre Dame – please oh please, don’t ever change!! There’s really no other way to describe it – that was an epic fail of the highest proportions. Literally every single time they were getting something accomplished and putting together a solid drive, they would come up with a costly fumble or interception. Just priceless – and an absolute treat to anyone who (like me) derives sick pleasure in seeing Notre Dame continue to disappoint all it’s na├»ve, brazen, hopelessly optimistic fans who keep thinking “This is the year Notre Dame is FINALLY back for good.” They’re a delightful bunch, aren’t they? Maybe one of these days they won’t look like they’re running in slow motion against elite teams’ athletes. Hell, South Florida isn’t even close to elite and they made Notre Dame look slow, so maybe one day the Irish will just catch up to them. Maybe.

· Oregon/LSU:

o First of all, props to these teams for scheduling boldly (even if this is a pseudo home game for LSU). Everyone loves conference rivalries, but for me the best parts of college football are the intersectional games between highly ranked teams that we only get to see during early season non-conference play and January bowl season. It’s fun for teams from faraway locales and such disparate locations going head to head, representing their conferences and playing for regional pride. Northwest boys vs. Southeast boys for sectional bragging rights – maybe I’m crazy but this stuff gives me the chills. It’s fresh and entertaining for fans of the two teams to get to see teams that they don’t normally see, and for the two fan bases to meet and clash on a neutral site, with all their various traditions and party routines going head to head. I can guarantee you that the back and forth banter between not just Oregon and LSU fans, but between Pac 12 and SEC fans from this week will dwarf that of the OSU/Michigan game, for example, or Auburn/Alabama, Miami/FSU, etc. This is part of why I love the idea of a playoff – more of these matchups, involving the very best of the best teams from all the various regions and conferences – and I wish more teams would follow the lead of programs like USC, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, etc. and aggressively schedule games like this as much as possible.

o As for the game, I have to give credit to my man Aaron Torres – he had LSU all along because he knew this was the worst possible game to be breaking in three new starters along the offensive line. LSU always seems to reload with elite prospects on the defensive line, and that was on full display Saturday night as they constantly harassed Oregon’s running game. We always talk about SEC speed, but Oregon has as much speed as any team on the perimeter and thrives on getting their playmakers out in space. Where SEC teams generally have the advantage is along the offensive and defensive lines – and they shut down Oregon by using that speed and quickness advantage to shut all of the action before it developed, disrupting the timing that is so crucial to Oregon’s read-option attack. There were times when Oregon was able to get some good momentum, especially at the end of the first half when they were able to move the ball at will and was getting LSU to mysteriously come up with a rash of “injuries” (par for the course against Oregon’s no huddle), but they couldn’t sustain it for four quarters. The other big factor was the turnovers and penalties – you simply can’t beat any top five teams when you just give away points like that. Avoid the turnovers, cut down on the penalties, Oregon could definitely beat LSU in a rematch, but still it’s clear that the Tigers have the better overall team. Finally, kudos to Jarrett Lee – I thought LSU had replaced Jordan Jefferson with the one guy who was even more likely to singlehandedly screw up the game, but Lee managed things nicely and didn’t let LSU beat itself. Mad props my man, because with LSU’s defense all you have to do is not be inept and you’ll be ok.

o My outlooks for both teams: I think Oregon will still win the Pac 12 (I think Stanford is overrated when you consider how much they’ve lost on their offensive and defensive lines, as well as one of the best head coaches in the country), but clearly they aren’t national title contenders. As for LSU, I still don’t think they’ll beat Alabama for the SEC west crown, but when you have a defense that good you never know what will happen, and they could absolutely beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But I do expect LSU to end up having an excellent season and getting an at large BCS bid even if they don’t win the SEC.

· Boise State:

o We’ll get this out of the way first: for those of you unfamiliar with me, although I am an Oregon State Beavers fan, I’ve made clear here before that I also strongly support Boise State for many reasons: I love their offensive schemes and creativity, I love that they represent the Northwest (and aren’t Oregon State’s heated civil war rival), I love their uniforms/colors/smurf turf, I love that they are the quintessential BCS-buster and stand in such staunch opposition to the postseason system that I hate so much, and they also fly in the face of all the pretentions big conferences and big conference schools, kicking ass and taking names with half as big of a budget and talent that the recruiting rankings can’t always measure. I guess I’m not a fan as much as I am a Boise State Broncos bandwagoner – but I have no qualms about it because I was on the bandwagon as far back as 2003, well before anybody else from other parts of the country were giving the Broncos the credit they deserved. I don’t pretend to claim any kind of objectively at all, and I don’t intend to do so anytime soon because this team means so much to me as a college football fan.

o At this point it’s time to stop doubting Boise State and pretending games like this one are upsets. Chris Peterson continues to prove that he is the best big game coach in college football, if not the best coach period. I don’t think anybody would deny that Georgia has better raw athletes and has a bigger, faster, stronger team (although it is startling how much the gap has closed physically and athletically between these two teams since the 2005 game), but Boise’s players were always a step ahead, always the aggressors, always the ones gaining rather than giving up ground in the trench battles, always the one delivering the big and timely hits. Boise State’s players might not have more raw talent as their Georgia counterparts, but Chris Peterson prepares his players for the games so well, and the Broncos are so smart, tough, and alert, that they still looked like far and away the better team. When have you ever seen Boise State get completely blown out or outcoached in a game, or think they just weren’t prepared for the other team’s strategies? Keep in mind, Bob Stoops, Frank Beamer, Gary Patterson, Chip Kelley, and Mark Richt aren’t exactly chopped liver coaches but Chris Peterson has owned all of them (and unless he snorts his weight’s worth of cocaine he’ll do the same to Houston Nutt next September). If you still don’t think Boise State can run, hit, and play with anybody then you probably believe that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are off getting drinks with the monster in your closet.

o I know Kellen Moore was fourth in the Heisman trophy race last year, but I still get the feeling he remains wildly underrated among casual fans. I’ll say it: he’s the best quarterback in the nation. If I need a drive to score, and I can take anyone I’m taking Kellen. Forget Landry Jones, forget Case Keenum, forget even Andrew Luck, I’ll take Kellen Moore as the best passer in the country. People may look at him, 6-1 with a water pistol arm and think he doesn’t look like much of a quarterback – but here’s the thing: he always delivers. Period. He always checks Boise into the right play (a true coach on the field if there ever was one), he always makes the right read, and he always makes the most pinpoint accurate throw possible, where his receiver has the best play on the ball. It doesn’t matter if you blitz and press him, or hit him to death; he won’t lose his composure under any circumstances. Unless you get serious pressure with your front four he’ll find a way to pick you apart. I’m not saying he’s as good as Tom Brady, but he’s kind of similar in that he’ll just keep taking what you give him and checking it down, but the second you make a mistake in your coverage and give up a seam downfield he will make you pay, and not a moment later. You think he’s not that good because you see him throwing short passes and don’t see him zipping fastballs on a rope, but then you look up on the scoreboard and see that he just kicked your butt again. If Greg Maddux was an NCAA quarterback he would wear number 11 and play for the Boise State Broncos. He’s not flashy, but he slices and dices you with the deadly precision of a surgeon.

o Before the game, even though I picked them to beat Georgia, not even I thought Boise merited the number five ranking – lesson learned. I was worried that their inexperienced offensive line might struggle, but they owned the pocket and kept Kellen Moore clean all night. The Defensive line dominated Georgia’s hoses and was making Aaron Murray’s life in the pocket a living hell all night. Georgia had some big plays, but couldn’t sustain any drives until late in the game when they were already down 21 and the game was nearly out of reach. Considering the fact that they left three international players at home due to eligibility reasons – three players expected to be major contributors this season – and when you throw in that this was basically a road game, I could not be more impressed with how the night turned out. Last night left no doubt that Boise is good enough this year to beat anybody, including Oklahoma and Alabama.

o I love how before the game southern fans was talking about how Boise State would be rocked by UGA and couldn’t handle SEC-style speed and physicality – yet now once Boise State crushes Georgia and suddenly Georgia isn’t a good team at all and this win means proves absolutely nothing about Boise State’s worthiness (as if anything needed to be proven, but whatever). Every out of conference win by an SEC team is proof of the league’s complete and utter dominance, but every out of conference loss is just a total fluke. It’s fairly amusing and comical – but at some point the double standard gets grating. Now I’m not saying ALL SEC fans are like this – in fact most of the SEC fans I know on twitter are very rational people who don’t get caught up in this kind of thinking (generally I find that twitter sports fans are smarter than the average sports fan – and I am the exception that proves the rule). But I still have seen a lot of people on blogs, message boards, and comment sections of articles try to piss on Boise’s latest win. Just stop it – give Boise the credit they deserve and move on.

o If Boise goes undefeated it’s going to spark the annual “but they don’t play in a real conference debate!” Boise State detractors say that Boise could never survive the week in, week out grind of the SEC – and it is a somewhat valid point. As presently constructed, Boise’s depth would probably be an issue if they went through a full season in, let’s say for argument’s sake, the SEC. Here are my two counters: First, if Boise state didn’t have the non-AQ stigma attached to it, then it wouldn’t have as many recruiting hurdles and would be able to stack their team with better depth. If they were in the SEC they could recruit like an SEC team, something that fans fail to take into account when engaging in this thought exercise. Second, while they may not go undefeated, I think they would do pretty damn well in, let’s say for argument’s sake, the southeastern conference. In fact, let’s go through it team by team. For starters, we KNOW that they would thrash Georgia, the country’s 19th ranked team that was expected to be a good, if not great, team this year and be competitive for a spot in the SEC title game. Boise whipped them, which is what you would expect from a top 10 and well above average SEC team. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that based on how they outplayed Georgia, Boise would completely dismantle the likes of Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Ole Miss team that lost to BYU, the Auburn team that should’ve lost to Utah State (considering what a true freshman did to that defense I shudder to think of what Kellen Moore could accomplish), and Mississippi State. Everyone talks about the grind of going through a full season in the SEC, but really how much of a grind would it be for Boise to go through this slate of clearly inferior teams that would have only a puncher’s chance of winning? Keep in mind Georgia lost fairly convincingly in a de-facto home game, so unless you think any of these teams are significantly better than Georgia, it’s fair to assume that these six teams would also be easy victories – not grind it out games, but easy victories, especially when you remember that some of these would be true home games on the dreaded smurf turf. Are these games really going to wear down Boise so much that they can’t continue competing at a high level? Hell, teams like Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Tennessee (at least this year, although I have the utmost confidence in Derek Dooley to turn it around; he’s hands down my favorite BCS conference coach) are barely even a step up from Boise’s normal WAC competition!! Now South Carolina, the SEC East favorites: They would give Boise more problems than the other teams, but I still think Boise would win because their offensive and defensive lines would be able to control the line of scrimmage against USC-east, and because the quarterback matchup is beyond unfair (Garcia can make some plays but contrast his erratic play and sketchy accuracy to Kellen Moore; it’s no contest). Florida is expected to take a step up this year, but even so I would say Boise has the superior coach, superior quarterback, superior offensive line, and a smart, tough defense led by a physical defensive line that would find a way to pressure John Brantley and disrupt Florida’s offense. The South Carolina and Florida games probably wouldn’t be guaranteed wins, but definitely ones in which Boise would have to at least be favored if not strongly favored. Again, these teams are probably better than Georgia, but ask yourself, are they SIGNIFICANTLY better than Georgia? Because Boise was significantly better than the bulldogs in the Georgia Dome. LSU and Alabama are the two games in which Boise would not be favored, but do I think Boise would be capable of taking at least one of those games, if not both? Absolutely. For these two games Boise would not have the advantage in the trenches, but would still have the superior quarterback, a stingy defense (going against two not-so-explosive offenses), a physical defensive line that would not be overpowered by LSU and Alabama’s fine offensive lines, and a coach who – I can’t stress this enough – never fails to prepare his team adequately for a big game, never gets blown out, and will keep the game competitive. There’s a good chance they would lose both of those, but even so LSU and ‘bama are top five teams, and losing close games to a pair of top five teams isn’t a failure. Personally I would probably pick them to beat LSU and lose to Alabama. All told, if they played the entire SEC (keep in mind they would play half their games at home, a place where no BCS team outside of the state of Oregon has had the courage to play) they would have (in my humble, biased, and uninformed opinion) seven games that they would win fairly easily (and have a very small chance of losing), two games that they would have a very good chance of winning, and two games in which they be favored to lose – but two games that they would still have a decent shot at winning (and a very good chance at winning at least one out of the two). Yes that’s harder than playing in the WAC, but the idea that the SEC is some monster conference in which Boise State would get chewed up and spit out alive is farfetched and not based on actual results. It would be more of a grind, but not something that I think Boise couldn’t handle – there would be only four games that Boise State would have more than a puncher’s chance of losing, not some sort of 12-game gauntlet that SEC fans seem to think their conference is. We could go through this same exercise for any other BCS conference, and the results would not be all that different, probably even better. It’s not like Boise barely beats its WAC competition, it regularly DESTROYS the WAC so even a step up in talent shouldn’t mean they automatically lose all the games they would win. Boise wouldn’t go undefeated year in, year out – but who exactly does go undefeated year in, year out in the SEC? They would still be one of the top teams in the SEC and have a decent chance of flat out winning it if last night’s game was any indication. The bottom line is that their performance against Georgia was something you would expect from a one or at most two-loss SEC team, only it’s because of the name on the uniform that not everybody will acknowledge this.