The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
As Southeastern Conference schools continue to cannibalize each other, their worst nightmare is quickly becoming reality. The early giddy fantasy that three of the four teams in college football’s first-ever playoff would carry the SEC label is gradually disintegrating into a possible SEC Shutout. Disciples of SEC football do not like to consider the possibility that their meat-grinder schedules might work against the best football conference in America and produce exactly zero representatives when the selection committee makes its final decision on December 7.
The irony of SEC hopefuls being sunk on Pearl Harbor Day increased Saturday with Texas A&M’s upset of a formerly invincible but suddenly fumbling, bumbling Auburn, which gave the Tigers two losses. How can it happen, you cry, with No. 1 Mississippi State still undefeated and Alabama slipping back into the top four with its road victory at LSU? Watch closely, grasshopper.
The Bulldogs go to Alabama this weekend, so one of them will lose. If Bama wins, then State drops probably to No. 4, still in the mix. However, the Bulldogs wind up the season at arch-rival Ole Miss, which already has played its way out. If the Rebs win, State has two losses and drops out of the top four. If Bama wins, it still has the Iron Bowl game with Auburn. Worst case: Bama beats State and loses to Auburn then State loses to Ole Miss. Every SEC contender has two losses, which will make it tough for them to overcome the handful of hopeful one-loss teams.
Speaking of whom, the group of non-SEC teams inching toward the top cluster all face favorable schedules. Florida State should waltz home undefeated with games against Miami, Boston College and Florida to take over the top ranking. Oregon would hold onto No. 2 with wins over two average teams, Colorado and Oregon State. Of the others hoping to move into the top cluster, TCU seems to be the pollsters’ darlings and has only Kansas, Texas and Iowa State remaining. The Longhorns could surprise the visiting Frogs, but that’s a longshot. Arizona State inserted itself into the conversation with a resounding win over Notre Dame on Saturday and has two easy home games with Oregon State and Washington State before heading to arch-rival Arizona on Thanksgiving Saturday. Baylor has a bit tougher road with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas State, but it plays the Cowboys and Wildcats at home. Ohio State also is moving up the chart and has only Minnesota on the road before coming home to face pathetic Indiana and even more pathetic Michigan. Sweeps by any of these teams could propel them into the mix if one or more of the aforementioned teams slip up.
That paints a darkened scenario for the SEC, but one that must be measured according to the committee’s published standards. You can read it for yourself on the committee’s website: http://www.collegefootballplayoff.com, but this is what it says: “The committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory) and other relevant factors that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.”
That probably doesn't make anyone between the Ohio River and the Sabine feel any better. For two SEC teams to make the Final Four, the best-case scenario would be for Alabama to beat both Mississippi State and Auburn and for Mississippi State to beat Ole Miss. Only then would the earth’s rotation return to normal in the southern football hemisphere.
Before I left the Athletic Director’s chair at the University of New Orleans in 2009, I submitted a report to the administration on how the university could bring back football, a sport it sponsored between 1965-1971. Of course, it would not be Division I football that enamors the masses, but it would be football and it would create a platform where alums could gather, tailgate on crisp fall afternoons and generate some school spirit that was so mournfully lacking.
I bring this up because a story in a recent Sports Illustrated issue informs us that despite the negative press that college football has generated recently with antitrust lawsuits, efforts to unionize and player misconduct, seven schools from NAIA up to Division II introduced new teams this year. According to the National Football Foundation, the number of football teams across all divisions is 767, an all-time high. The current buzzword behind all this is an effort to increase “co-curricular” activities which means that every activity on campus contributes to the university’s educational mission.
That last statement was one the former UNO administration never could quite understand. My proposal would have created a university-supported club team that could be an attractive outlet for the region’s many student-athletes who are not quite ready for NCAA football but who would be willing to pay for the opportunity to keep playing. The idea would be to recruit about twenty-five local players and a similar number from out of state. Even if half the locals were eligible for scholarships such as the TOPS program, the other dozen or so would pay full in-state price, and the out of staters would, presumably, pay full non-resident prices.
According to the UNO website, those numbers for one academic year are $7,242 for in-state tuition and $20,852 for out of state. As any parent with college students in the house knows, the numbers grow significantly when you add in another $10,000 for room and board, books and fees. So if UNO recruited a dozen local kids at the full price of about $20,000, another 13 at the discounted rate of $13,000, and twenty-five out of staters at about $33,600, you get a grand total of fifty new students and $1,249,000 in revenue that you didn’t have before football.
That does not take into account additional revenue from ticket sales, concessions, souvenir sales or the increased donations that usually follow athletics. Of course, you have expenses, but even factoring in costs of uniforms, travel and medical care would not get close to the potential cumulative revenue. In addition is the argument of “intangible benefit” - school spirit, pride and loyalty - that the previous administration never could understand.
Another report submitted to the administration in those days included a chart showing that free advertising from newspaper stories and media coverage of UNO's existing athletic teams had a market value of roughly $3 million if the school tried to purchase such publicity. And 99% of those stories put the university in a positive light. UNO did sponsor a club team for a couple years, and it achieved some early success, but in typical UNO fashion, the administration was too fixated on what was and could never envision what might be. Trying to make a logical case for football at UNO turned out to be another familiar exercise of howling at the moon.
Unfortunately, after a positive start, the present administration seems to be tracking the path of the old one. Such things as Privateer Awards for top out-of-state students and tuition waivers for graduate assistants have been jettisoned. It just does not appear that UNO is doing anything to attract top out-of-state students looking for an educational bargain in a great city. Enrollment that had hit 17,300 before Katrina, and fell to 12,000 Katrina, now hovers around 8,500, according to my sources. With the twin crises of falling enrollment and decreased state funding taking most of the attention, reviving club football probably is not a consideration. You can’t take something off the table that was never on the table.
The SI story did ask and answer one question that UNO administrators should consider: Q: Why start a football team in 2014? A: To become a “sepia-toned piece of genuine Americana” because for 3,000 or more people to show up at a college activity and almost nobody goes home unhappy is a good thing.
This message is in the public interest to Kentucky football fans who are sharpening the Cutco collection and contemplating personal harm after the team’s three-game losing streak: “Sit down, pour a Makers Mark on the rocks and say a prayer that Joker Phillips is happy in his new life.” And to add this week’s most oft-heard disclaimer, J.W. Miller Sports approves this message.
Full disclosure compels me to admit yet again that I am a huge Wildcat fan, graduate and lifelong acolyte of all things Blue. I am also a reluctant realist. Don’t get me wrong. That perspective did not come from some altruistic “you can’t win them all” claptrap I heard in thirty years of professional and college athletics. I, too, was sitting at home alone on Saturday screaming at the television as Kentucky spent the first 57 minutes of its game at Missouri conducting a Miss Manners seminar on polite submission.
The team that attacked No. 1 Mississippi State the week before with 390 down-the-field passing yards and an offense that snapped at the Bulldogs' heels all night apparently missed the bus in Lexington. In their place was an embarrassing run-run-run-punt effort that didn’t crack glass all day. The team’s most prominent weapon, QB Patrick Towles, completed only two passes the first quarter and could convert only 3-of-21 attempts on third- and fourth-down all day. If it sounds like I am still sharpening the cutlery, forgive me, but I am reflecting the frustration of a fan base that sees a team that looks almost there one week before returning to where they were two seasons ago the next.
(As a footnote, you can blame my angst over the Missouri performance partly on my incessant loathing of offensive coordinators who never fail to outsmart themselves week after week. They stop calling plays that are working on the excuse that the next opponent saw the film and will be trying to stop it. I wonder what Lombardi would have said if his offensive coaches suggested a few less carries for Hornung and Taylor because the Cowboys might be expecting them to run the ball?)
Three straight losses are disappointing after Kentucky started off 5-1, which included their first two SEC victories since Truman was president, and an overtime loss at Florida. Big Blue Nation was giddy, and some doubtless had them penciled in for the Final Four. Now, 5-4 Kentucky has three games remaining, and the reality looks more like 6-6 at best and 5-7 at worst. Their final home game is this weekend against always-tough Georgia followed by a fighting chance at Tennessee. The final game is Double Jeopardy: 1. On the road. 2. At hated rival Louisville, who had No. 2 Florida State on the ropes for a half.
So here is where the doctor prescribes another long sip of Makers and a suggestion to look back at where the Kentucky football program WAS when Joker Phillips, a genuinely nice man, was head coach. In his three years after inheriting a respectable program from Rich Brooks, Phillips’ teams went 6-7, 5-7 and 2-10 overall while going 4-20 in the SEC. Worse than that, as we have written in this space, his recruiting had fallen to the point that the signing of a two- or three-star prospect included the fact that Kentucky had beat out the likes of Tulane, Louisiana Lafayette and East Carolina for the player. Nothing against those fine institutions, but none of them could play in the SEC, and neither could Kentucky.
Now, let’s look to where the Kentucky football program IS in the first week of November, nearly two full years after Mark Stoops was hired on November 27, 2012. His first recruiting class actually included some four-star prospects and was ranked in the top 25 in the country. His second class had even more four-stars and a couple of five-star players and again was ranked in the top 25. Those are the young players who form the core of what could become a very good team next year and even better the following year. A good model for where Stoops’ program may be headed is Mississippi State, who in Coach Dan Mullen’s six years have gone from the bottom cluster with UK, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Arkansas to No. 1 in the world. Mullen’s recruiting classes throughout that period have not been spectacular, but have consistently ranked between No. 20 and No. 40, while his teams hovered around the .500 mark before breaking into the top cluster.
So things don’t look so bad in Lexington. Put away the Cutco and be happy for what you have, which is a football program with a future. It also doesn’t hurt that basketball season is under way. Now, that's reality, Kentucky style!
In response to the question posed here on Monday, yes, last Sunday’s 44-23 win over Green Bay might have represented RB Mark Ingram’s breakout. The fourth-year running back was less flashy and far more methodical Thursday night, but the result was just as comforting. The Saints ended a seven-game regular season road losing streak with a surprisingly easy 28-10 win at Carolina. Ingram’s 30 grinding carries for 100 yards allowed the team to control the game while Rob Ryan’s rejuvenated defense kept QB Cam Newton bottled up for most of the night.
Sean Payton’s sudden discovery of a running game does not suggest the coach is going all William F. Buckley on us, however. He ordered a fourth-and-one dive over the pile for QB Drew Brees that was more a brushing-than-breaking of the goal line plane and an 80-yard scoring drive that took up the final 1:40 of the first half for a 14-0 lead.
And, suddenly, things don’t look so bad halfway through the season. The last two games have taken Who Dat Nation out of its doldrums just in time for Halloween, which promises to be another great excuse to party hardy. Looking ahead, the second half of the season looks even more encouraging. The Saints are on top of what, from a record standpoint, is the easiest division in the league, and three of their four losses came by a total of six points (no matter how badly they looked at times). Their upcoming opponents have a cumulative 27-33 record before this weekend’s games, which ranks as the fifth easiest schedule in the league. If Payton continues his equal opportunity offense, setting up Brees’ play-action and quick strikes with a solid running game, then 10 or 11 wins and the playoffs are realistic.
But before we talk about playoffs – “PLAYOFFS? PLAYOFFS?” – let’s look a bit further into what Ingram's sudden success might mean. In a decision that was eminently understandable at the time, the Saints declined Ingram’s fifth-year option when they could have tied him up one more year. Ingram clearly had underperformed his first-round draft position and before last week, he had rushed for more than 100 yards only once in his first 40 games.
But what the Saints did was inadvertently invoke one of the maxims of NFL Moneyball: “A player’s performance will increase during a contract year in direct proportion to a corresponding decline in the first year after he signs a free agent contract.” In other words, chasing big money is a great motivator, a fact that Ingram's camp has figured out. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Thursday that Ingram will likely test the free-agent market in March. A scout who has studied Ingram believes the former Alabama star is finally realizing his substantial talent due to increased confidence and the late 2013 shift to an inside/outside blocking scheme that emphasizes his strengths.
Hey, timing is everything! If Ingram continues to channel Deuce McAllister, it could put the team into a bit of a pickle. Already up against the salary cap, GM Mickey Loomis might have to consider the franchise or transition tag if Ingram continues to flirt with 100 yards per game. But watching the current administration operate over the years, I’m suspecting Loomis is hoping for such a dilemma. If the offense brings out the best in Ingram the rest of the season, then good things have happened for the team. The postseason looks more likely, and the Saints might not be so eager to see him test the open market. But let's get there first!
Well, my weekend was 1-1, but I’m not complaining. The Saints finally looked like the team we expected, and Kentucky played tough against No. 1 Mississippi State. I’ll write more on my Wildcats another day because the Saints’ 44-23 blowout of Green Bay deserves some pats and a little head-scratching.
Rob Ryan’s defense continues to improve and made some big plays, but the Saints’ offense took center stage Sunday night. Drew Brees made the Green Bay defensive backs look like a practice squad as he picked them apart with bombs to Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks and darts to Jimmy Graham. And the reason he could do that with such success was a little equal opportunity execution. The Saints displayed a suddenly potent running game that seemed to show the Packers a bit of their own history. Teams playing Vince Lombardi’s Packers knew Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor were going to run the ball, but with a rock solid offensive line led by guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston, they could not do much about it.
Sunday night, Mark Ingram did a pretty good 1965 impersonation as he set a career high with 172 rushing yards on 24 carries behind some consistently good blocking. I’ve been on a long rant about the Saints’ inability, or refusal, to run the ball and their preference to throw when common sense suggests they should run. I said then, and I repeat now, if they had given the ball to Ingram three times last week to protect a lead instead of throwing the ball in the final minutes, they would have beaten Detroit. Ingram’s performance against the Pack tells me that their lack of a running game has been more a choice than inability. But is Ingram the guy to do it?
It is interesting that Ingram’s only other 100-yard game was also on Sunday night TV. Remember last season’s blowout of Dallas when Ingram rushed for 145 yards in only 14 carries? I remember writing that it could be Ingram’s “breakout” game when Who Dat Nation would finally see the player the Saints traded up into the first round to obtain. But it never happened. Over the next seven regular season games, Ingram faded back into the pass-first offense, only once gaining over 32 yards. In three of those games, he carried the ball three times or less. He flashes, then disappears, whether it’s due to nagging injuries or Sean Payton’s pass-happy schemes.
So that raises the question: Is Ingram a prime-time phenom or has he finally moved up to the next level? We’ll find out soon enough, but let's go to the blackboard for a moment. When the Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season, their pass-run mix was 53.8 pass against 46.2 percent run. A fairly balanced scheme makes it more difficult for the defense to concentrate on stopping on phase. Accordingly, the play mix against the Packers was 32 passes and 31 runs, a 50.8 percent vs. 49.2 percent, darned near even.
However, in the Saints’ first six games, in which their record was a disturbing 2-4, they threw 295 passes and ran the ball 181 times, a disparity of 63.4 percent vs. 36.3%. I rest my case. Run the damned ball more and see if Ingram deserves the carries!