HIGHS AND LOWS from November 26th weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor

November 30, 2005

How badly is Florida State hurting? Can they even compete with Virginia Tech in this week’s first-ever ACC championship game? Will Bobby Bowden ever figure out that it is his son who is the albatross around the Noles’ collective offensive neck? Much evidence as to what will happen against Tech Saturday was served up by a Florida Gator team still searching for its own identity. In front of giblet-stuffed America, the Gators looked like they had FSU’s playbook as they dismantled the Noles 34-7. But in reality, FSU has had so many injuries that many of the players that did play were just flat-out inferior compared to the prime players Florida had to offer. Tie in an FSU offense that still does have many of its top weapons available yet remains ineffective due to marginal coaching and you see why Nole fans might as well be rooting for a mid-major instead of their quality team that finished in the top five for 14 straight years (from 1987 through 2000). Florida just blew FSU out of the water, especially in both trenches. Injuries aside (of which FSU has too many to mention), play development took too long as Gators were everywhere, seemingly knowing what FSU would do (run or pass) initially from just seeing who was lining up and the given formation called. And for anyone who thought the Nole ship can be righted, things seem to get confusing within their offensive braintrust. Bobby Bowden, the winningest I-A coach ever, doesn’t seem to know what his team is doing or where they are heading. With the Nole’s web site not even issuing post-game notes, we cannot verify from FSU sources the following Bowden quote found on the Gator’s site – “If you looked at the stats, you’d think we tied…They had 111 rushing yards, we had 89…”. Official stats, though, say different – UF had 73 rushing yards on 33 tries, while FSU earned 49 yards on 28 carries. Which game was Papa Bowden at? By the way his offense had to call two timeouts in the first series, no one on the garnet-and-gold offense was really there after two weeks of preparations. Especially son Jeff, the Nole’s offensive coordinator since Mark Richt left in early 2001 to be head man at UGA. Did you do the math and figure out how FSU lost its team prowess soon after Jeff took the reigns of this (once) offensive powerhouse? The younger Bowden’s only other coaching experience was under his brother Terry at Salem College. Factor in that his father was/is the only other person who would hire Jeff and you see what Bobby can’t – that this son is not qualified to head a crop of lettuce, let alone his once-vaunted offense. State tallied but 87 yards in the first half, and knowing that something had to change or else FSU would have been shutout for the first time since the Canes blanked them 31-0 in 1988, opening up the playbook only exposed how empty those pages truly are. FSU looked more like a Division II or a prep-level team as it struggled, which only makes us give it to the Gators for showing up ready for 60 full minutes. Once young Jeff had played everything his hand held by the first quarter and UF had the answer every time (Noles had 63 yards and five first-downs in the first half), FSU had nothing left. Once the Gators went into the locker room and powwowed, their coaches easily adjusted to what FSU was doing defensively. Many will see Nole game totals of 334 yards and 19 first-downs and wonder what we are talking about. But 171 of their yards and nine first-downs came on their last two drives, after UF was already up 34-0 and began coasting. The elder Bowden blames players and their ineptness for last week’s problems, not his son in any capacity, “It seemed like turnovers were our downfall.” Well, when you have been ill-prepared to go up against an SEC powerhouse and you are forced to take risks that the other team knows are coming, it is the offensive coaches who have failed the team most. The defense did its best and performed well, but the Nole stoppers were just asked to do too much. We told you in mid-season, when FSU was undefeated after week five, that of all the lossless squads then still left, FSU was the weakest. How else can anyone explain State now falling to 7-4? Hobbling into the title game Saturday against VT, FSU looks like Pitt did last year when they went to the Fiesta Bowl to play then-Utah coach Urban Meyer and the modest-but-powerful Utes. Whereas many teams can still look decent even with injury rashes, FSU’s offensive strategists give their players no chance to win with their efforts. If FSU does well, just like last week, it will be because of those on the field, not those in power. For UF, Meyer needs to reevaluate his approach to playing those big, fast SEC foes with his subtle-yet-still-vulnerable spread option. Beating FSU isn’t even close to that SEC level, so discount this Gator win for that reason. Even though Meyer becomes the first Gator coach to beat Tennessee, Georgia and FSU in his first season (fourth time ever), only the win over UGA (without D.J. Shockley) has any bite. UF, though, never trailed in any of the three, another school first. Florida will be better next campaign, which will be Meyer’s second in command, the same year he truly took off at both Utah and Bowling Green. And once he gets his own recruits for his zany schemes…

With the Cyclones losing in their last regular-season game for the second-straight year to narrowly miss the Big XII championship game, Iowa State is still kicking itself for again not finishing the job. It was a 17-14 loss to Mizzu that held them back in ’04, and losing to Kansas 24-21 in OT last Saturday only makes mumbles of “coulda-woulda-shoulda” ring throughout the Ames campus. But KU has defeated ISU seven of the last eight times in Lawrence, so State had even more demons than many knew coming in. Kansas won it on the ground, out-gaining the Cyclones by more than a two-to-one margin (123 to 56) on only two more total carries. Even though up 14-3 at the break, Iowa State only has itself to blame for leaving three first-half INTs on the field, converting for no points on any of them. With three OT games lost by a total of 13 points, Iowa State winds up losing their four by 23 total points. Yet even more haunting is how ISU mirrored last year’s results over their final nine ’05 contest – in both campaigns, three mid-season losses were answered by four-consecutive wins, only to then have a division foe beat them as they were one crucial win away from that fleeting birth in the conference title contest. It is even tougher knowing that they beat Colorado, the team that will represent the North division half, 30-16 the prior week. If a chip like this doesn’t get knocked off their collective shoulders by the end of next season, it could be a while until coach Dan McCarney has his boys in position to again reach the Big XII top. Ten starters return to Ames on offense, so McCarney & Co. can actually make a larger splash nationally in the ‘06 campaign. But we recommend his team take it one step at a time and see if they can finally get to Houston. Then, if they can compete with or win against a strong team from the South division in the title game, larger aspirations can be the aim in Ames.

Not Finishing the Job – Part II

It also seemed appropriate for South Florida to blow its chance to reach the BCS as the Bulls played like most Florida teams do when suddenly thrust into wintry conditions. This was not the same USF that beat Louisville 45-14 (9/24/05), but was the same one that let a big win go to their collective heads and then lost to Pitt 31-17 in their very next Big East tilt. After the Panther humbling, the Bulls reeled off three straight conference wins and controlled their own destiny with UConn and WVU the only teams in their way for a BCS birth in this, their very first year within reach of an automatic birth via conference title. The game was a good one, with USF whiffing four separate times once in UConn territory due to TOs (three INTs, one fumble) caused by a stifling Huskie D. USF only allowed one offensive TD, on UConn’s initial drive, and then the Bull D did its job well by holding UConn to but 172 total yards. Other Huskie points came from a KO return for TD and a safety, so all USF had to do was take advantage of their consistently good field position (average start was their own 42). The hindsight that really stings is how USF got a huge 37-yard punt runback to the UConn eight-yard line with 7:40 left, trailing by what was to be the final score 15-10. When it got to third-and-goal at the one, USF jumped the gun (false start), then threw an incomplete pass, and then tried an ill-advised flea-flicker on fourth-down that failed miserably. Hint to any aspiring offensive coordinators – when the field is condensed in the red zone and DBs are only a few yards deep as they crowd the proceedings, DO NOT call any slowly-developing types of plays that invite disruption, ESPECIALLY on fourth-down late in the fourth quarter of a title-hunt game. Instead of making this week’s home finale with West Virginia the Big East’s by-default title game, USF slinks in with nothing to play for (since they already are bowl eligible). USF lost the opener to No.4 Penn State 23-13 and looked competitive versus Miami in losing 27-7. Both road trips prove USF is a force with their tough D and effective runners, but also still hasn’t learned what it takes to make to any next level(s).

Not Finishing the Job – Part III

In the Conference USA West Division, UTEP was also in control of its own destiny, having only to win its final contest with (then 4-6) SMU to secure a spot in their league’s first-ever title game. The Miners had just lost their home closer to UAB 35-23, but were still in position to earn a ticket to Orlando to face UCF (division-winner with best record is home site for championship). Four INTs and 24-unanswered second-half points later, a 40-27 result and 8-3 (5-3 CUSA) record is all Mike Price’s guys have to show. Tulsa, who UTEP had just beat three weeks earlier, instead winds up with a trip to see Mickey through wins over East Carolina (45-13) and Tulane (38-14 this past weekend) following the 41-38 loss to the Miners. SMU, of course, was the early spoiler of TCU’s chances at a BCS birth. After the Horned Frogs shocked the world in week one by beating Oklahoma in Norman 14-10, the Mustangs cleaned TCU’s clock 21-10. This time, the Dallas Disappointers kept a Miner squad that had reached as far as No.24 in the AP poll (week 12) from getting its due. Eight of the 12 CUSA teams finished between 3-5 and 5-3, making competitive mediocrity what this league offers most. There are some decent teams to be found, but with TCU now in the Mountain West, no squad looks to be a “BCS buster” anytime soon. Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, the Miners felt a self-inflicted bullet go deep in their chest…

Anyone looking for tips in this weekend’s regular season enders is SOL. In the SEC title game, Georgia and LSU square off for the 26th time (LSU leads 14-10-1). Though the last two times the current-No.13 Bulldawgs played the No.3 Tigers were both blowouts (each won one), the two tilts before were each one-point affairs. Ranked fourth (LSU allows 13.5 per game) and fifth (UGA 14.6) for scoring D, these two are likewise separated by one point in their scoring offenses (LSU 29.9 and UGA 28.6). TO-margin is one degree of separation (LSU loses almost one more than they gain per game, while UGA inversely earns one more than they lose), but common opponents tell little. Georgia lost to Florida (14-10) and at home to Auburn (31-30) in consecutive weeks, both teams that were beaten by LSU (beat UF 21-17 and AU 20-17 in OT, also in back-to-back weeks). Conversely, LSU fell to Tennessee 30-27 in OT in week four, a 5-6 team that UGA easily handled two weeks later 27-14. Florida and Auburn trump the ’05 Vols in quality foe(s), but the TO difference always comes into play in tight, low-scoring SEC affairs, especially those for a league title and an automatic BCS birth. In the MAC title, Northern Illinois goes into Detroit Thursday night to face Akron, a team they lost to in OT 48-42 in late September. NIU has gone 6-1 since, all in-league tilts. The Zips have posted a .500 mark since then, going 4-4 but winning their last two big. One of those wins was versus Kent State 35-3 (without looking, can you come up with their team’s name?), a team the Huskies beat 34-3, while both lost to Ball State. NIU beat Miami(OH) at home, and Akron lost to them on the road. NIU has the better offense but pales on D to Akron. Current trends make us feel like Northern Illinois has the advantage, but in the MAC, nothing is certain until the final gun sounds. If you cannot figure out who will win the Big XII and ACC titles, you need to go back to College Football 101.

Kent State is known as the Golden Flashes…

The Lagniappe will return next week.