HIGHS AND LOWS from November 12th weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor

November 15, 2005

Of all the great games that were played last week, we feel the one to start with is the Fresno State-Boise State WAC showdown from Thursday night. Fresno snapped Boise’s 31-game conference winning streak with decisive defense and consistent offense after allowing the Bronco’s Jeff Carpenter a 67-yard TD run in the opening minute, the longest play from scrimmage this season versus the Bulldogs. Boise had been averaging 200+ per game via both ground and air, but Fresno provided balance by holding Boise under 200 in both (104 rushing, 190 passing). In running away 27-7, then-No.20 Fresno held Boise to its lowest point total of the new millennium as well holding the ball more than twice the time as the Broncos. It was a thorough spanking on the national stage, proving that Fresno’s one close loss (37-34 in Eugene, Oregon 9-17-05) is the only thing keeping them from a possible BCS bid. Well, that and the fact that this week they get to go into Los Angeles for a well-anticipated tilt with Southern Cal. For all who think Fresno has no shot against the nation’s No.1, think again. This is, by far, the stoutest defense (FSU is ranked 8th in scoring allowed and 17th overall) and the highest ranked scoring offense (5th) USC faces all year. But, then again, the Trojans are not Utah State or Idaho. Fresno did dismantle a Gradkowski-less Toledo 44-14, but even healthy, Bruce hasn’t had a typical year. USC may look back and wish that they didn’t have to face this upstart so late in the proceedings. But, similarly, Fresno may look back and wish that they had faced the (seemingly) more susceptible Trojans from October. Like the Bulldogs, USC is now hitting on all cylinders, and being away means Fresno has little room for error Saturday night. If you are calculating the two with Oregon as the only constant, noting how USC did the Ducks (45-13 9-24-05) while Fresno fell to them, also use Hawaii to measure them (the Trojans beat the Rainbow Warriors 63-17 while Fresno won 27-13). And if you know that Fresno beat USC the only other time they have faced off (24-7 in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, in Fresno’s first year in the WAC), then you have uncovered all the poop worth knowing for either’s final test. Set your VCRs now unless you want some late-night action (kickoff set for 10:15 pm e.s.t.).

Do you know who is playing for the championship of the Sunshine State? It’s probably not who you may have guessed, for after this past week’s results, neither of the two is even from Florida. With Clemson winning the “Bowden Bowl” in Death Valley and South Carolina the victor in the “Spurrier Bowl”, the Tigers and Gamecocks simultaneously took down two juggernauts as a precursor for this week’s Palmetto State finale. Who would have guessed that both Tommy Bowden and Steve Spurrier would lead their respective squads to wins over Florida State and Florida? But with Miami losing their opener to FSU, Clemson and South Carolina battle this weekend to settle two state’s worth of bragging rights. The braintrust of Bowden & Son (OC Jeff, in this case) were dimension-less, predictable as ever as the Tigers put up 21 unanswered points to break a 14-14 halftime knot. Golden boy Urban Meyer learned his own hard-nose lesson from the “old ball coach” - no matter how many gimmicks you employ, it is defensive speed that keeps even mundane SEC schools from falling prey to “flavor of the year” offenses (the spread option, in this case). Opponents of Florida have proven this, week after week, using top-flight athletes to disprove the ball-moving innovations that had previously greased Meyer’s path from Bowling Green and Utah to this higher tier and fine southern program. In other words, what worked easily against overmatched MAC and MWC foes won’t fly in the nation’s toughest conference. With such a special moniker governing this year’s 100th meeting, the USC-Clemson game will be in the national spotlight like never before.

If there is a classier guy in college football than Barry Alvarez, I’d like to meet him. If you follow my writing, you will know that I do not hand out many personal judgments about folks…hey, football is football – who knows what people are really like when out from under the helmet or behind a clipboard. But every once in a while, character has a moment when it supercedes the game, and Alvarez leaving head coaching causes such. When Alvarez was brought on board at Wisconsin in 1990, the Badgers had gone 9-36 the previous four years. Attendance has gone from averaging around 42,000 before he arrived to 75,000 per home game for 11 straight years now. Today, you cannot even buy a non-allotted ticket unless you are in “the know”, for there were no extras this year to be found (60,000+ season ticket holders). Alvarez’ three Rose Bowl wins rank him only with Woody Hayes, and his overall 7-3 bowl mark easily makes Barry the school’s all-time winningest post-season coach. Barry grew up in “God’s football country”, the hills of western Pennsylvania, where the Latin teen idolized Pittsburgh’s biggest Hispanic sports product, Roberto Clemente. After graduating from Nebraska (1965-67), where LB Alvarez led a defense in tackles that set the school’s record for causing turnovers (40), Barry set his life’s goal – to be a head college football coach by the age of 42. Alvarez then traipsed through most of the 70s in the high school ranks before Hayden Fry hired him at Iowa (1979), where he stayed for six bowls (two Rose Bowl wins) in eight years before Lou Holtz brought him on as LB coach at Notre Dame after the 1986 season. Alvarez quickly rose to being coordinator for the entire D, pacing the 1988 national champs to a 12-0 mark, the only undefeated Irish finish in the past 32 years. Then, three days after his 42nd birthday, he was hired as head guy in Madison. Like other places Alvarez went, success soon followed. The Badgers won a then-school record 10 games and his first Rose Bowl in 1993, a year in which he also grabbed Coach of the Year honors (Dodd, AFCA). Barry’s 1998 squad then won 11 while leading the nation in scoring allowed (fifth in total defense), the start of back-to-back Rose Bowl-winning campaigns. Due to those, Alvarez sits a perfect 2-0 in BCS games, making UW one of four undefeateds in the present system. Boasting teams predicated on defense, Alvarez perfected the Badger’s running attack and produced a conference record 10-straight 1,000-yard rushers (1993-2002), none greater than 1999 Heisman winner Ron Dayne. Now at 116-73-4, Alvarez moves from being one of two I-A AD-head coach combinations to just UW’s AD, as second year DC Bret Bielema is still being meticulously groomed (by Alvarez) to take over. With Barry as pigskin mentor and head of the entire athletic department, you can put good savings on the Badger program continuing its current success. With “Berry” Alvarez as inspiration for the school’s famed dairy program, you can put good savings into a raspberry-strawberry-blueberry pint of ice cream, one of Babcock Hall’s most popular flavors since its 1994 inception. But the biggest reason Alvarez is who he is has to be his person, how he poignantly revolves around his players and vice-versa. Tom Lemming said it best, “Alvarez is the nation’s No.1 recruiter. He is a truly honest, sincere, and personable coach with a great rapport. Recruits take to him immediately, and so do their parents.” Why? Because he makes it about each kid learning first – whether it be about football or otherwise – so they can then fulfill their collective destinies as men. Alvarez proves that well-taught individuals make superior football players, that stereotypes surrounding the gridiron dissolve in his old-school approach, and that the principles of a team’s head coach as seen in his players’/team’s style can reflect a paramount respect for the game that transcends individual accomplishment. The ultimate example of all of this came as Alvarez was interviewed just after UW’s 20-10 home-loss to Iowa in Barry’s final Camp Randall game as head guy. With a national audience (ESPN) that had just heard three-plus hours of (side) story after story of how great Alvarez’ career has been, Barry was then asked how he felt about the day and his final game. In his answer, he spoke of how he was worried about his happenings possibly overshadowing those of the seniors playing their final home game, and how he had to try so as to be sure it was about them and their collegiate experience, not his legendary career. Alvarez’ selfless tact shows the ultimate sacrifice in the ultimate team sport, a lesson not lost on his players and one we can all take to heed – if we each give more to the group than we do to ourselves, success as a team (and therefore for each member) usually follows soon after. Now, if Alvarez was only running for a high political office…

This last major listing is devoted to those two great SEC matchups that highlighted the best competition of last week’s tilts.

Alabama and LSU held the party line, for defensive speed was what ruled in Tuscaloosa this past Saturday afternoon. The Crimson Tide, coming in ranked 3rd, and the Bayou Bengals at No.5 meant that, for the first time since 1982 (for ‘Bama) and 1959 (for LSU), either was in a regular-season game featuring two current top five programs. Just as exemplary as this combined status was the 16-13 OT result, because the usual creed of a superior defense trumping a superior offense wasn’t followed. Instead, LSU, which came in highly ranked defensively themselves at No.9 (just not as highly as the Tide’s D at No.2), won this “tale of two halves”, easily surging after the break for 178 of their (game-total) 275 offensive yards, compared to only 74 in the last 30 minutes for ‘Bama. Something had to give, as LSU was totally humbled in all aspects before Les Miles coached his guys up at halftime with just the right touch. If the Crimson Tide players didn’t realize the turnaround right as the second half began, they definitely realized the changes in the quality of their opponent’s play by 5:46 of the third, when they were receiving the kickoff after 10 unanswered LSU points had knotted the game. Even with their trusted QB Brodie Croyle managing the game, Alabama lost for the first time this year, clearing the waters for the anticipated BCS finale between USC and Texas in Pasadena. New Tiger coach Miles becomes the first LSU coach ever to beat Alabama, Auburn, and Florida in the same season, with five of the last six versus the Tide (and three straight at Bryant-Denny) all victories.

Georgia shared ‘Bama’s same home plight, narrowly losing to Auburn in one of the best night games all year. Like LSU-UA, the highest quality of play was seen evenly from both before the Bulldawgs succumbed in the last minute 31-30. But, unlike that last game, these two then-top 15 defenses weren’t the centerpiece(s). The Tigers came in leading (as they still do) the SEC in total offense and scoring, with UGA second overall and in passing (Auburn was/is fourth in SEC passing). Equal on the field in most of these areas, one pivotal stat became rushing defense - Georgia gave up 227 ground yards compared to the 142 Auburn let them earn, and, therefore, the Tigers held the lead throughout most of the second half. The other pivotal number(s) are contained in LB Dede Karibi’s stat line, though, mainly his two fumble recoveries, and especially the 15-yarder in the fourth that went for Auburn’s go-ahead score. Behind 28-27, Georgia got the ball back with just under six minutes left at the Tiger’s 40. But instead of Georgia being able to methodically run (hypothetically, the Dawgs would only have to have gone about 30 or 40 yards for a winning FGA while taking up most of the clock), Auburn held their foes to 15 yards on five dicey plays, forcing the Dawgs to kick a field goal and therefore give the ball back with over three minutes left. This was plenty of time for the Tigers to be more thorough in returning the favor - they consumed the rest of the clock while getting in position for PK John Vaughn’s 20-yard chip-shot to win it with :05 seconds left. That last score meant there were a total of nine lead changes, a classic thriller for your Saturday late-night enjoyment. The 109th meeting between these two (Auburn leads 53-48-8) ended with the Tigers appropriately leading in the all-time aggregate score 1,650-1,648. Auburn has now won 10 of its last 12 in Athens and is 18-9 overall at the Bulldawg’s current digs (Sanford Stadium), and, since 2000, the “other” Alabama school is 35-12 in-conference, the SEC’s best record and one game better than Georgia during that span. Under head coach Tommy Tuberville, the Tigers are 37-0 when scoring 30 or more (42-0 including pre-TT games), so you know it’s about defense if you are going to beat Auburn. With Florida’s failure to squelch the Gamecocks, Georgia controls its own destiny in the SEC East race – a win over Kentucky puts them in Atlanta for the league championship (December 3rd). A win also ends their first two-game skid since 2001, when UGA also lost to both Florida and Auburn (there was even a week off between the two games that year, so no excuses Dawg fans, please). The SEC West became much clearer, too, for all LSU has to do is win at Mississippi and at home against rival Arkansas to secure their Atlanta invite. Six SEC squads are in the top 25, and (a different) six rank in the top 21 for team defense, so it is no wonder why this conference produces the highest quality college football year in and year out.

Since earlier this season, when we were comparing-contrasting Syracuse and Pittsburgh due to both having new leadership, these two Big East programs have taken drastically different turns. After both went out 1-4, the Orangemen have tanked, going 0-4 since and losing by an average of 18 per tilt. The Panthers, 4-1 since while winning by an average of 18, blanked UConn 24-0 while Syracuse was shut out at home last week by South Florida 27-0, their first time being blanked at home since Miami did them 26-0 in 2000…How does Texas Tech, a ball-moving buzz-saw ranked third offensively, lose 24-17 to Big XII South then-basement-dweller Oklahoma State (3-5, 0-5 coming in) with its 92nd-ranked total defense? The Cowboys, who had just blown a 28-12 halftime lead to Texas the prior game, held the Red Raiders to 0-for-10 on third-down conversions, barely 308 passing (averaged over 430) and 30 rushing yards…How does Kansas, which was leading the nation in defensive rushing, allow Texas to burn them for 336 ground yards and five ground scores? The Jayhawks were determined to not let junior dual-threat Heisman candidate Vince Young beat them, and they held the phenom to just -4 yards on six tries. But, like all great teams, the Longhorns compensated to eventually win 66-14. Texas evenly distributed the other 49 carries amongst eight RBs, so the usually-stout KU front line couldn’t tell where (or from whom) the next punch was coming. Kansas, which was the only team to hold foes both under two yards per carry and to only one rushing TD, really shows us the power of the Longhorn’s rushing attack…Another team which has fallen off the map is Wyoming. After a 4-1 start (with their only loss to the Gators in Gainesville), the Cowboys have dropped five-straight MWC games, losing the last two (at Utah, BYU) by an average of 22…Oklahoma RB sensation Adrian Peterson had only five catches all of 2004, a stat that, if improved, might have made him the first-ever freshman to win the Heisman. This year, he had tallied eight snarls in the first three games, and with his 220 yard performance against Tulsa, many thought last year’s second-place finish meant that sending out invitations (to the Downtown Club) this year was a mere formality. Since then, “AD” has had an ankle injury, no catches and umpteen stacked boxes to secure his sophomore slump…Maybe Michigan State, which started off 4-0 and is 1-5 since, wins any award given for the biggest “tank job”…Southern Cal became the first team to ever boast two 1,000-yard rushers (LenDale White’s 1,003 yards, Reggie Bush’s 1,104) and a QB with 3000 passing yards (Leinart’s 3,017) in the same year…With Iowa State’s 30-16 win over Colorado, the Cyclones beat the Buffaloes at home for the first time since 1983’s 22-10 victory and for only the second win in the series since then (35-27 win was a Y2K glitch). If ISU beats Kansas and CU falls to Nebraska (Buffaloes have won three of last four after losing 10 straight to NU), the Cyclones roar into Houston…Over his last six games, UCLA QB Drew Olsen has thrown 22 TDs and just one INT, but we think he would trade in a few of those scores if the Bruins could have shown up against Arizona two weeks ago…Tennessee, losing 16-14 after three quarters to in-state nemesis Memphis, pulled it off 20-16 Saturday night to avoid being 4-6 for the first time since pre-Fulmer 1988. It was the closest the Tigers have come to their second win ever against the Vols since 2000’s 19-17 nail-biter in the State’s BBQ-blues capitol. Their only win over UT was 21-17 in 1996 against a future-NFL first pick named Peyton…Speaking of bottom dwellers (above) - Vanderbilt, Indiana and Baylor were each 4-1 after five games, and all have gone belly up (0-5) since. Inversely, Rutgers kicked off 3-2 and has the same mark in their last five, making the Scarlet Knights 6-4 and bowl-eligible while the others, at 4-6, have lost any post-season life…Bringing it all home – if the Commodores win their finale against Tennessee, it will be only the fifth time since 1955 that Vandy has won their regular season finale (ALSO WON IN 1959, '64, '75, 'AND '82 TO UT)…For the Ohio State-Michigan tilt, the Buckeyes come in with a better record (8-2, 6-1 compared to 7-3, 5-2), better offense and defense, a better third-down conversion rate (48% to 43%), better time of possession (by about :30 seconds), better sack stats and a better ranking (9th and 17th). But with Michigan ahead all-time 57-38-6 and this game having a pension for the underdog, nothing is settled til the final gun sounds. The Wolverines can secure a spot in the BCS with a win and a Michigan State upset of Penn State, so much is on the board within these two regular season finales. Michigan started the series of 13-0-2, but since 1951, the series is deadlocked 26-26-1. Seventy percent of all households will receive the game via ABC’s network broadcast while the other 30% get it on ESPN…Stat of the week (pertaining to the imminent Texas-USC Rose Bowl clash): Texas allows only a 29% conversion rate to foes on third downs (9th ranked), while USC ranks 72nd and allows 39.9% of opponent’s third-downs to be converted…