With less than a month to go until football season begins, an odds-on look at Week 0 and Week 1

Please note: the information contained in this post is for entertainment purposes only. Use of this information in violation of any city, county, state, federal, international, interplanetary, or interdimensional laws is prohibited.

I’m basically going to do three things in this post: take a look at the sizable number of “lopsided” early-season contests; compare Massey Ratings projected game scores with early lines for various games of interest; and make a list of the best opening weekend (and pre-opening weekend) matchups.

Why am I doing this? Well, why not?

Lines are courtesy of an offshore site to be named later.

There are 136 contests in Weeks 0 and 1 that feature at least one Division I team. Among them are 44 FBS vs. FBS games; of those, 11 are games between Power-5 conference teams, 9 are Group of 5 matchups, and 24 are games in which a P5 team is playing a G5 opponent.

There are also 48 FBS vs. FCS matchups, 26 FCS vs. FCS contests, and 18 games in which FCS teams face non-D1 opposition.

Of those 136 games, 36 have an early-line spread of 30 points or more.

The breakdown of those 36 matchups:

  • FBS vs. FBS: 6
  • FBS vs. FCS: 18
  • FCS vs. FCS: 4
  • FCS vs. non-D1: 8

It’s not great that more than 26% of the D-1 games which take place prior to and through the Labor Day weekend are projected to be that one-sided. Of course, it could be argued that this is the best time for these matchups, given that the general football-loving public is starved for live gridiron action of any kind, no matter the blowout potential.

As of August 1, the largest point spread for any D-1 game in this time period is the Florida A&M-Arkansas contest on August 31, a Thursday night affair in Little Rock. The Razorbacks are favored by 51.5 points. Two games have 51-point spreads, Bethune-Cookman vs. Miami (the homestanding Hurricanes are favored, just to state the obvious) and an all-FCS matchup, Mississippi Valley State vs. North Dakota State (with the host Bison expected to prevail).

The biggest road favorite is Washington, favored by 30.5 points at Rutgers. Stanford plays Rice at a neutral site (Sydney, Australia); the Cardinal are 31.5-point favorites.

The other four FBS vs. FBS matchups with a spread of 30+ points: UTEP-Oklahoma (44 points, the largest spread in an all-FBS game), Kent State-Clemson (38.5 points), Georgia Southern-Auburn (35 points), and Akron-Penn State (33 points). To the surprise of no one, the home teams are all favored.

The other three FCS vs. FCS games with 30+ point spreads: Butler-Illinois State (36 points), Valparaiso-Montana (34 points; apologies to Adam Amin), and Delaware State-Delaware (33 points). Again, home teams are the favorites.

In the table below, I’ve included every FBS/FCS game in Week 0 (eight games played on August 26, and one on August 27), and a sampling of contests from Week 1 (August 31 through September 4). Just to reiterate, not every D-1 game from Week 1 is listed.

The first nine games in the table are from Week 0.

Favorite Underdog Line Massey Differential
Colorado State Oregon State 3.5 34-31 0.5
BYU Portland State 32.5 44-13 1.5
Florida A&M Texas Southern 1.5 26-24 -0.5
Jacksonville State Chattanooga 6.5 28-26 4.5
Cal Poly Colgate 7 35-31 3
USF San Jose State 20 41-31 10
Stanford Rice 31.5 38-7 0.5
Sam Houston State Richmond 6.5 38-34 2.5
Hawai’i Massachusetts 1 33-31 -1
Wake Forest Presbyterian 39 35-0 4
Toledo Elon 37.5 43-7 1.5
Georgia State Tennessee State 18 38-17 -3
Arkansas Florida A&M 51.5 52-3 2.5
Mercer Jacksonville 21 42-21 0
Samford Kennesaw State 7.5 38-30 -0.5
Towson Morgan State 28 35-7 0
Oklahoma State Tulsa 17 42-33 8
Ohio State Indiana 20.5 31-17 6.5
Army Fordham 15.5 40-24 -0.5
Eastern Michigan Charlotte 12.5 35-27 4.5
Navy Florida Atlantic 13.5 42-28 -0.5
Colorado Colorado State 7 35-28 0
Clemson Kent State 38.5 44-3 -2.5
Texas Maryland 16.5 34-27 9.5
Oklahoma UTEP 44 49-13 8
North Carolina California 12.5 42-32 2.5
Villanova Lehigh 6.5 28-22 0.5
Pittsburgh Youngstown State 14 40-24 -2
North Carolina State South Carolina 5.5 28-17 -5.5
Notre Dame Temple 15 28-24 11
Georgia Appalachian State 14.5 21-18 11.5
Michigan Florida 4 24-20 0
Virginia William and Mary 19.5 33-14 0.5
North Dakota State Mississippi Valley State 51 52-0 -1
Texas Tech Eastern Washington 16.5 45-38 9.5
Mississippi State Charleston Southern 18.5 38-21 1.5
The Citadel Newberry 30 37-7 0
Wofford Furman 13.5 26-14 1.5
Gardner-Webb North Carolina A&T 7 28-21 0
Baylor Liberty 30 42-14 2
East Tennessee State Limestone 28.5 35-7 0.5
Auburn Georgia Southern 35 34-13 14
Air Force VMI 31.5 41-10 0.5
Alabama Florida State 7.5 33-21 -4.5
LSU BYU 13 21-7 -1
Southern South Carolina State 2.5 27-24 -0.5
Virginia Tech West Virginia 4 29-26 1
UCLA Texas A&M 3.5 25-28 6.5
Tennessee Georgia Tech 3.5 31-32 4.5

Odds (hey, a pun!) and ends:

  • Not listed: James Madison-East Carolina, which does not have a line at present for some reason. However, Massey projects FCS defending champ JMU to win the game 38-31.
  • Western Carolina’s season opener at Hawai’i also does not have a line (at least, not one that I could find), possibly because the Rainbow Warriors play a game at Massachusetts the week before.
  • The same is true for Coastal Carolina, which opens by hosting the aforementioned Minutemen.
  • Two teams in the table that are favorites (UCLA and Tennessee) are projected to lose by the Massey Ratings.
  • Massey projects several games to be considerably closer than the current lines, notably Appalachian State-Georgia, Maryland-Texas, Eastern Washington-Texas Tech, Temple-Notre Dame, and Tulsa-Oklahoma State.
  • On the other hand, Massey likes North Carolina State and Alabama even more than the offshore folks do.

On his college basketball ratings website, Ken Pomeroy has something called ‘FanMatch’, in which “games are rated for competitiveness and level of play with a lean towards higher-scoring games”. It is a somewhat whimsical way to rate the potential watchability of individual games on a given night.

I’m going to do the same thing here. However, I am purposely not going to rate Newberry-The Citadel, which from my vantage point is the most watchable game of the Labor Day weekend.

Below is a listing of the Week 0/1 games that I consider to be the twenty best in terms of quality/competitiveness. I’ve created a secret formula to produce these game ratings; it is called “Tingle Factor”, or TF. The higher the TF, the better.

Road Team Home Team Gametime (ET) TV/Streaming TF
Alabama Florida State 9/2, 8:00 pm ABC/ESPN3 86.73
North Carolina State South Carolina 9/2, 3:00 pm ESPN 84.20
Tennessee Georgia Tech 9/4, 8:00 pm ESPN 83.90
Virginia Tech West Virginia 9/3, 7:30 pm ABC/ESPN3 83.55
Richmond Sam Houston State 8/27, 7:00 pm ESPNU 80.11
Tulsa Oklahoma State 8/31, 7:30 pm FS1/FS-Go 79.68
Chattanooga Jacksonville State 8/26, 6:30 pm ESPN 75.41
Colorado State Colorado 9/1, 8:00 pm Pac-12 Network 72.15
Oregon State Colorado State 8/26, 2:30 pm CBS Sports Net 72.00
James Madison East Carolina 9/2, 6:00 pm ESPN3 68.44
Temple Notre Dame 9/2, 3:30 pm NBC 67.18
Kennesaw State Samford 8/31, 7:00 pm ESPN3 66.95
Texas A&M UCLA 9/3, 7:30 pm FOX/FS-Go 65.60
Hawai’i Massachusetts 8/26, 6:00 pm TBA 65.47
Maryland Texas 9/2, 12:00 pm FS1/FS-Go 64.19
Eastern Washington Texas Tech 9/2, 4:00 pm FS Nets/FS-Go 64.03
South Carolina St. Southern 9/3, 2:30 pm ESPN2 63.88
Navy Florida Atlantic 9/2, 8:00 pm ESPNU 63.79
Villanova Lehigh 9/2, 12:30 pm Patriot League DN 63.58
Colgate Cal Poly 8/26, 7:00 pm ESPNU 63.56

Notes:

  • Alabama-Florida State will be played in Atlanta, GA
  • Georgia Tech-Tennessee will also be played in Atlanta, GA
  • North Carolina State-South Carolina will be played in Charlotte, NC
  • Colorado State-Colorado will be played in Denver, CO
  • Chattanooga-Jacksonville State will be played in Montgomery, AL
  • Virginia Tech-West Virginia will be played in Landover, MD

The season is getting closer…and closer…

2011 Football, Game 2: The Citadel vs. Furman

The Citadel vs. Furman, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 10.  The game will be televised on WYMA (Asheville, NC), and will be available on ESPN3.com.  There will also be a webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service), and the game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with new “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action.

The Citadel begins play in the Southern Conference with a game against traditional rival Furman.  It’s only the third time the two schools have ever met in a league opener, but it’s the second consecutive season that has been the case.

I’m not going to rehash the history of the series in terms of the time of year the game has been held; anyone interested can read what I wrote on the subject for last year’s game preview.  Regardless of whether you think the game should be a midseason clash (my preference) or played at the end of the year (a not-insignificant number of fans from both schools), I think everyone can agree that September 10 is too early for this game to be played.

Jeff Hartsell has reported that, per the SoCon office, next year’s meeting will come at the end of the 2012 season, on November 17.  (The conference does not make league schedules beyond one year in advance.)

I’m okay with that, as long as the Clemson-South Carolina game continues to be played the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as is now the case.  I just don’t want The Citadel and Furman to play on the same day as the matchup between the Tigers and Gamecocks.

Furman was 5-6 last season, its first losing campaign since 1998.  Bobby Lamb resigned after nine years in charge and over a quarter-century at the school as a player or coach.  The Paladins had missed the FCS playoffs for four consecutive seasons, which did not go over well among some supporters.  It was time for Furman to make a change.

The question, though, is did Furman really make a change?

The new coach is Bruce Fowler.  Fowler is a 1981 graduate of Furman who played for Dick Sheridan.  Lamb was a 1986 graduate of FU who had played for Sheridan. Fowler spent 18 years at Furman as an assistant coach.  Lamb had been an assistant coach at Furman for 16 seasons.

One difference is that Fowler wasn’t a complete Furman lifer like Lamb had been.  For the past nine years, he had been an assistant at Vanderbilt, where he was defensive coordinator for Bobby Johnson (and Robbie Caldwell in 2010).  Of course, Johnson had been the head coach at Furman before taking the Vandy job, and before that he had been an assistant under Dick Sheridan.

You may have noticed a pattern here.  Dick Sheridan left Furman after the 1985 season to take over at N.C. State, but his presence is still felt in the program.  All four of the men who have held the head coaching position since Sheridan left (including Fowler) were players and/or assistants under him.

If you were going to have your football program maintain what is in effect a 25-year tie to a former coach, you could do much worse than Sheridan, who did nothing but win throughout his coaching career (even as a 28-year-old rookie head coach at an Orangeburg high school).  It’s a type of continuity that may be worth preserving.

On the other hand, there is always the possibility that Furman risks going to the well once too often.  Fowler isn’t exactly a carbon copy of Lamb, though — for one thing, he’s 52 years old, 13 years older than Lamb was when Lamb got the job.  Also, he’s primarily a defensive coach (though he was the receivers coach at FU for seven seasons).  Lamb was mostly an offensive coach (and a former quarterback) during his time with the Paladins.

Usually when a school is in a position to make a coaching change after a run of disappointing seasons, it brings in somebody to shake things up.  That’s certainly not what Furman has done.  Besides Fowler, three of the assistant coaches played for Sheridan; another has been a Paladins assistant for 13 years.

Before I move on to the Paladins of 2011, I should note that Art Baker, who preceded Sheridan as head coach at Furman (eventually leaving to take the job at The Citadel), hired Sheridan, Jimmy Satterfield, and Bobby Johnson as assistant coaches, all of whom would later ascend to the top job at FU.  Baker had a significant impact on Furman’s coaching tree.

Furman lost 30-23 at Coastal Carolina in its opener.  The Paladins never led the contest.  The game had been tied at 16 and 23 before the Chanticleers scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Coastal Carolina gained 231 yards rushing and 195 yards passing against the Furman defense, but perhaps more interesting was that the Chanticleers had 59 rushing attempts for the game.  CCU ran 81 offensive plays from scrimmage for the game, while the Paladins had just 58.

As Bruce Fowler noted in the SoCon teleconference, Furman had trouble getting its defense off the field.  Coastal was 7-16 on 3rd-down conversion attempts and made its only 4th-down try, a major reason the Paladins trailed by over 12 minutes in time of possession.  That continued a trend from last season, when Furman finished last in the SoCon in time of possession.

The Paladins do have two impact players on defense, middle linebacker Kadarron Anderson and cornerback Ryan Steed, both of whom are on the Buck Buchanan Watch List.  Another linebacker, Chris Wiley, had fourteen tackles against Coastal Carolina.  Furman defensive end Josh Lynn is tall (6’5″) and rangy, and may be a key factor in how the Bulldogs’ triple action attack fares on Saturday.  Against Coastal, he had five tackles and a sack.

Furman’s starting quarterback against Coastal Carolina was Chris Forcier, of the Forcier Family of Quarterbacks.  I think it’s fair to say that the Forciers are, as a group, somewhat controversial.  I guess it’s a question of style.  When Chris Forcier decided to transfer from UCLA to Furman, the family issued a press release that wound up being posted on Deadspin.

His brother Tate is a former Michigan quarterback who has now transferred to San Jose State (after originally announcing he was going to Miami).  His oldest brother, Jason, also played quarterback at Michigan before transferring to Stanford.  The brothers also transferred to different high schools at various times.

Against the Chants, Forcier was solid, completing two-thirds of his passes while averaging over seven yards per attempt.  A classic “dual threat” quarterback, Forcier also rushed for 50 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter, apparently suffering from cramps.  Without him, the Furman offense sputtered, not scoring in the fourth quarter.

Assuming he is healthy (and there is no reason to believe otherwise), stopping Forcier will be a difficult task for The Citadel’s defense.

If dealing with Forcier wasn’t enough, the Bulldogs must also contend with Jerodis Williams, who rushed for 142 yards and 3 touchdowns against Coastal (including a 68-yard score).  Williams was the Southern Conference offensive player of the week, and also picked up FCS National Back of the Week honors from something called the “College Football Performance Awards“.

Furman had five different receivers catch passes against the Chanticleers (including Williams).  Tyler Maples had five receptions for 65 yards.  Colin Anderson had four catches, and presumably will have a career day against The Citadel, as has often been the case for Furman tight ends.

Along the offensive line, Furman has experienced and well-regarded tackles (one of whom, Ryan Lee, is moving from guard to tackle) and a veteran center, Daniel Spisak (who is Matt Millen’s nephew).  The guards include a first-year starter who came to Furman as a walk-on, and a sophomore who started three times last season before a season-ending foot injury.

Furman placekicker Ray Early was 11-12 on field goal attempts last season, including a long of 52 yards, and only missed one extra point all year (40-41).  Against Coastal Carolina, however, Early’s first field goal attempt of the season was blocked, and he then missed the PAT after the Paladins’ first touchdown.

After that, Early did not attempt a placekick in the game (although he did kick off), giving way to Furman punter Chas Short.  That may be something to watch on Saturday.

Short, incidentally, had a fine year for Furman in 2010.  The Paladins finished in the top 10 nationally in net punting.

With Furman having allowed a bunch of rushing yards to Coastal Carolina, and having lost the time of possession battle so decisively, there may be some hope among Bulldog fans that the Paladins’ defensive issues could play into The Citadel’s hands on Saturday.  As Jeff Hartsell wrote in The Post and Courier:

…on defense, the Paladins’ 4-3 look was blitzed for 237 rushing yards, including 105 yards and two TDs by CCU quarterbacks Aramis Hillary and Jamie Childers. That might bode well for the Bulldogs’ option attack, as QB Ben Dupree went for 141 yards and two scores in a 31-9 win over Jacksonville. Higgins said Dupree was 23 for 23 on his option reads, and The Citadel rushed for 439 yards, the most since 1994.

That does seem promising from The Citadel’s perspective.  I would make this observation, though:

The Bulldogs ran the ball well on Furman last year, dominated time of possession, and lost 31-14.  The Citadel gained 294 net yards rushing on 60 attempts, held the ball for over 36 minutes — and did not score until the fourth quarter.

Actually, The Citadel’s 359 total yards against Furman in 2010 was the most yardage gained by the Bulldogs in any Southern Conference game for the entire season.  The problem?  Three turnovers, a missed field goal, and a failed fourth-down try inside the Furman 25.  Another issue was that The Citadel started very slowly on offense, gaining only 64 total yards on its first five possessions.

Conversely, Furman got out of the blocks fast on offense in each half, scoring touchdowns on its initial drive in both the first and third quarters.  Of the Paladins’ other three scores against The Citadel, two came on drives starting in Bulldog territory after an interception and a failed onside kick.

Kevin Higgins has said in the past that sometimes it takes a triple option team a possession or two to figure out how the defense is playing.  That makes sense.  You could see it in last week’s game against Jacksonville, as the game was well into the second quarter until Triple O’Higgins got fully warmed up.

Against a SoCon opponent, though, it needs to warm up faster.  The Bulldogs can’t go an entire quarter with no offensive production, especially as running the offense generally means there are fewer possessions in the game.  Also, while obvious, The Citadel must control its fumbling problems, which cropped up against Jacksonville (albeit with only one coming on an exchange) and stay “on schedule”.

The other thing that can’t happen Saturday if The Citadel has any chance of winning is for the defense to concede relatively easy touchdown drives right out of the dressing room.  Last season, Furman’s TD drives in each half were for a total of 123 yards and featured only two third-down plays.

What the defense really needs is to force some turnovers.  Last year against Furman, the Bulldogs forced no turnovers and also did not record a sack.

The Bulldogs must also contain Forcier, who is capable of making big plays with his arm or his feet, and prevent Williams from breaking long runs, such as the one he had against Coastal Carolina.  (Also, the defense must watch the tight end.  He’ll be catching the ball over the middle for 15 yards before you know it.  Two or three times.)

I thought Ben Dupree played well against Jacksonville.  What he proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that he has the ability to make big plays.  While the triple option is mostly about moving the chains, it’s important to have a breakaway aspect to the offense, and Dupree can provide that with his running ability.  He is still a work in progress as a passer.  If he continues to improve that part of his game, he will be a very dangerous weapon indeed.

Terrell Dallas’ injury against the Dolphins was not serious, thankfully, but it appears he may not play on Saturday.  That will be a loss, but Darien Robinson showed he is quite capable of handling the fullback position.

I thought the defense really came to play against Jacksonville.  Now it faces another challenge.  It won’t have the size and depth advantage against Furman that it had against the Dolphins.

Odds and ends:

— Check out the game notes to see all the different helmet logos The Citadel has had over the years (page 5).  There have been no fewer than 25 different designs since 1952 (and I think it’s likely there have been a few more that went unrecorded).

Those artist renderings/photos in the game notes came from the Helmet Archive, a good site if you want to peruse helmet histories of other teams as well.

— Has anyone else noticed that there are a lot of entities giving out “player of the week” awards these days?  It’s hard to figure out which ones to take seriously.  I can’t decide if the plethora of “recognition sites” is a boon or a curse for athletic media relations departments.

— The Summerall Guards are performing at halftime, but not at Johnson Hagood Stadium.  The Guards will be in Death Valley for the Wofford-Clemson game (it is Military Appreciation Day at Clemson).  It strikes me as a little odd that they would perform at another stadium on the same day as a home football game, but no big deal.

I’m looking forward to the game.  I am hopeful that the success of the home opener, along with Saturday’s opponent, results in a nice crowd at JHS.  As for the on-field action, I’m not quite sure what to expect.  I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw against Jacksonville.  I would like to be pleasantly surprised again.

2011 Football, Game 1: The Citadel vs. Jacksonville

The Citadel vs. Jacksonville, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 3.  The game will not be televised, although it will be webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service) and can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with new “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action.

It’s that time of year! College football has arrived and not a moment too soon.  I’m tired of reading about the Summer of Ponzi and all the other scandals that have beset the sport in the off-season, and while I enjoy discussing realignment as much as anybody, the Texas A&M two-step with the SEC is starting to get old.  I’m ready to see some activity on the playing field.

This is an important season for The Citadel’s football program.  I wrote about the program’s status last November; nothing has happened since then to make me think that the 2011 campaign will be anything other than a defining one for Kevin Higgins and his coaching staff.  I’m far from the only person who thinks that success of some sort this season is paramount.   The intensity in the crowd at the recent open scrimmage was palpable.

One thing is certain:  if there ever were a year for the football team to “sneak up” on people, this is the one.  Southern Conference media members picked The Citadel to finish last.  Only one player (Tolu Akindele) made either the preseason all-conference first or second teams.  The SoCon coaches’ vote had The Citadel in next-to-last place, ahead of only Western Carolina; that’s the same verdict rendered by The Sports Network.

Last season, the Bulldogs played three non-conference games before beginning league play.  This year, though, The Citadel will play six of its first seven games against SoCon opposition.  The Bulldogs will have a good idea of where they stand before the fall harvest.

The only non-league game in that group of seven contests is the first one, and it is far from the “gimme game” that the home opener has been in recent years.  Instead of scheduling a glorified scrimmage against the likes of Webber International or Chowan, The Citadel is playing Jacksonville, which went 10-1 last season and shared the Pioneer League title (with Dayton).  The Dolphins, favored to win the PL again, will be a formidable challenge.

Jacksonville University is not to be confused with Jacksonville State University, which is located in Alabama and has a football team coached by Jack Crowe, the man who was on the wrong side of one of The Citadel’s more notable gridiron triumphs. Jacksonville University is located in Jacksonville, Florida, and its football team is coached by Kerwin Bell.  (More on him later.)

Jacksonville began in 1934 as a junior college named “William J. Porter University” after its founder; in 1958 it became a four-year school after merging with the Jacksonville School of Music.  As of today it’s a private, liberal-arts university with roughly 3,500 undergraduate students (60% of whom are women).

JU’s “Timeline” feature on its website includes a lot of concerts in the 1970s and early 1980s, perhaps an indication of the importance of the music school in relation to the rest of the university at that time.  Performers who made their way to Swisher Gym included Dionne Warwick, Neil Diamond, Duke Ellington, John Denver, and Billy Joel; K.C. and the Sunshine Band recorded a live album there.

Jacksonville awarded honorary doctorates to Bob Hope and Jack Benny on the same day in 1972.  Another same-day honorary doctorate duo for JU:  Charlton Heston and Ann Landers (who received hers less than a year after writing that Jacksonville U. was one of “the four top colleges in the nation”).

It’s also worth noting that Jacksonville University has the second-largest NROTC program in the country.

Jacksonville has twenty-one varsity sports.  Its nickname, the Dolphins, came to be in 1947 following a student contest (the original contest winner was “Green Dolphins”; another possibility had been the “Juggernauts”).  The official school mascot is an actual dolphin — 58-year-old Nellie, a Marineland mainstay.

The most famous of all JU athletes is, without a doubt, basketball Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore.  Second place on the school’s famous athlete list is probably occupied by Donnie Hammond.  (Like I said, there is no doubt about #1.)

Gilmore played two seasons at Jacksonville (he started his career at Gardner-Webb, then a junior college) and averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game, which I think can be best described as “awesome”.  In his junior season, he led the Dolphins to the NCAA title game.

Yes, you read that right.  Jacksonville played in the Final Four in 1970, just twelve years after becoming a four-year school.  We’re not talking Division II, either.  The high-scoring Dolphins beat Western Kentucky, Iowa, and No. 1 Kentucky to win the Mideast Regional.  Jacksonville averaged over 106 points per game in those three contests.

– Tangent #1:  What a weird Final Four that was.  There was nothing strange about UCLA being there (and the Bruins would beat Jacksonville in the final, 80-69), but the other three teams were Jacksonville, St. Bonaventure, and New Mexico State.  The Dolphins and the Bonnies were at the time the two smallest schools to ever make it that far, and they played each other in the semifinals.  Alas, it was a mismatch, as St. Bonaventure star Bob Lanier had injured his knee in the regional final and could not play in the Final Four.  Thus, the spectators at Cole Field House were denied the opportunity to watch two future Hall of Fame centers face each other.

After that season, Dolphins coach Joe Williams left JU and took the job at Furman.

– Tangent #2:  Artis Gilmore and his wife have been married for 39 years.  Her name is Enola Gay.  I thought that was worth mentioning.

Okay, it’s time to talk about JU football…

Jacksonville started its football program in 1998, winning its first-ever game 19-14 over Davidson.  The school’s media guide also lists Davidson as being the first ranked team (at No. 3!) the Dolphins ever played, in a 2001 contest won 45-3 by JU, but I have to seriously question that.  What poll would this have been?  Maybe it was a poll only including Southern Conference schools that don’t play scholarship football.

JU plays its home games at Milne Field, a 5,000-seat facility built specifically for the football program, which averaged 3,761 fans per game last season.  The Dolphins have won nine straight home games, but the real eye-popping numbers are from their road games — not necessarily the results on the field, but the travel involved. Jacksonville has six road games this year.  JU will bus to The Citadel for Saturday’s game.  Later in the year the Dolphins will also take the bus to Campbell, assuming the bus driver can find his way to Buies Creek.

However, the Dolphins will make four road trips by air, flying to the University of San Diego, Drake (which is in Iowa), Marist (New York), and Western Illinois (travelling to WIU on the day of the game).  That is a total of 5,575 miles in the air.

Having multiple long airplane flights is a consequence of playing in the Pioneer League, a non-scholarship FCS conference with ten members.  Jacksonville is the southernmost school in the league, which has three members in the southeast (JU, Davidson, Campbell), five in or around the midwest (Drake, Valparaiso, Dayton, Butler, Morehead State), one west coast entry (USD) and one northeastern school (Marist).

One reason for having such a far-flung league is that all of those schools choose to play football at the non-scholarship level while maintaining a NCAA Division I athletics program.  Since 1993, institutions have had to play football at the same level as their other sports, which affected schools like Dayton (a D-3 power in football during the 1980s) in particular.  There aren’t a lot of D-1 schools that offer non-scholarship football but provide schollies in other sports (which distinguishes these institutions from those in the Ivy League, for example).

Jacksonville is not likely to become a scholarship football program in the near future. That possibility was suggested to the president of the university, who responded:

[It] costs too much for us to do it right now. For us to move into scholarship football because of the rules for gender equity, we would not only have to be able to fund the scholarship program year in and year out, we would also have to fund a similar amount for women’s athletics.

And we simply can’t afford it right now. If we had some major donors that came forward and helped us, then something like that could be possible. It’s simply economics. We need a stadium, our stadium is quaint. We would need a stadium where the fan base would generate revenue.

The revenue we get right now is diminutive. With a stadium, you could start getting money back into the program. There are some positives to it, but it’s simply too expensive right now.

In 2013, two new football programs will join the Pioneer League — Stetson and Mercer.  That should help alleviate Jacksonville’s travel burden to a certain extent.

Kerwin Bell played his high school ball in the small town of Mayo, Florida, where he was known as “The Throwin’ Mayoan”.  Arriving at the University of Florida as a walk-on, in one year he managed to climb the ladder from eighth-string to starter.  In 1984, Bell and the Gators would win the SEC title, winning eight straight games to close out the season.  The SEC title was short-lived, however, as the conference rescinded it the following year due to UF being on probation.  In 1985 Florida would go 9-1-1 for a second straight season, and again was not awarded the league crown (and again could not go to a bowl game) because of NCAA violations.

Two years later Bell began his pro career, which featured multiple stops in the CFL (including a stint in the Canadian outpost of Sacramento), a tour of duty with the Orlando Thunder of the Arena Football League, and a two-year stay with the Indianapolis Colts.  Bell got into one game with the Colts, mopping up in a 1996 contest against the Philadelphia Eagles.  In that game, he threw five passes, completing all five for 75 yards and a touchdown (to Marvin Harrison).  Bell finished with a perfect 158.3 passer rating.  Contained within his Wikipedia entry is this astute observation:

[Kerwin Bell] has the highest career passer rating of any quarterback in NFL history, higher than current and future Hall of Fame members Joe Namath, Steve Young, Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Brett Favre.

Bell’s coaching career actually started in 1990.  While recovering from an ACL injury he worked for one year as a graduate assistant coach for Steve Spurrier, who had taken over the Florida program.  His next coaching job came with the Toronto Argonauts in 2000, where he served as offensive coordinator (while still playing quarterback).

He then spent six years as head coach of a new football program at Trinity High School in Ocala, Florida.   He has been the head coach at JU for the last four seasons (with the upcoming campaign being his fifth).  Bell is 29-17 overall at Jacksonville, with records of 3-8, 9-4, 7-4, and 10-1. In two of the last three campaigns JU has won outright or shared the Pioneer League title, with the 2008 season documented by a “JUDolphins.com best seller”.

It seems reasonable to speculate about whether Bell is striving to follow a career path similar to that of Jim Harbaugh, who started his head coaching career at a Pioneer League school (San Diego) before moving up to Stanford, and who now is in charge of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.  Bell said last season that he is not “the kind of guy who needs to be on TV“, but if he continues his successful run at JU, he is likely going to get an opportunity to take a higher-profile job.

Bell’s staff at Jacksonville includes three assistant coaches who played in the NFL. Ernie Logan spent nine seasons in the league as a defensive lineman.  Not surprisingly, he is the Dolphins’ DL coach.

Ernie Mills was a wide receiver who also spent nine years in the NFL, mostly with Pittsburgh.  He caught eight TD passes in 1995, a year in which the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl.

Jerry Crafts (aka “The Condo”) appeared in two Super Bowls for the Buffalo Bills, one of five NFL teams for which he played, along with three CFL teams, four AFL outfits, two WLAF franchises, and (inevitably) one XFL team (the Los Angeles Xtreme).  He also made an appearance on Howard Stern’s radio program.

Like Bell, Mills also played his college ball at Florida, with their careers in Gainesville overlapping slightly, along with that of Dolphins defensive coordinator Jerry Odom, the only coach the JU athletics website lists as being on Twitter.  He doesn’t appear to take full advantage of the service.

Staff meetings at JU must get confusing at times, what with two coaches named “Ernie”, two named “Jerry”, another named “Kerry” (running backs coach Kerry Webb), and a head coach called “Kerwin”.

The Dolphins have 100 players listed on their active roster.  All but six of them are from Florida.  A couple of notable names on the list who may or may not see action against The Citadel are freshman quarterback Kade Bell, son of the head coach, and freshman WR/TE Andrew Robustelli.  If Robustelli’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because his grandfather was a Hall of Fame defensive end for the New York Giants in the 1950s.

Jacksonville runs a pro-style offense, and while the Dolphins like to pass, the offense is reasonably balanced.  Last season JU rushed 387 times while throwing 348 passes.  I would still describe it as a “pass-first” setup, mainly because I’m guessing a lot of the rushing attempts came at the end of blowouts.

Ah yes, blowouts.  The Dolphins had a lot of those in 2010, with an 86-7 demolition of poor Valparaiso being the biggest (check out that 38-point second quarter).  JU also pummeled Webber International (41-0), Marist (56-14), Davidson (42-15), and Morehead State (61-17).

As you can see, JU likes to put up crooked numbers.  The Dolphins lit up the scoreboard to the tune of 42.2 points per game, just one of several gaudy team offensive statistics.  Jacksonville averaged 486 yards of total offense per game (7.3 yards per play).  JU also averaged an outstanding 9.3 yards per pass attempt, with 35 of its 217 completed throws going for touchdowns (against only seven interceptions).

Leading that offense this year, as he has for the previous three, is 6’2″, 210-lb. senior quarterback Josh McGregor, who has more career passing yards than any returning QB in the nation (8,186).  He has thrown 87 touchdown passes in his 35-game run as the JU signal-caller.  McGregor threw for 300 yards or more seven times last season and is on the Payton Watch List.  A highlight package featuring some of McGregor’s 2010 exploits has been uploaded to YouTube.

His top target is senior wideout Josh Philpart, who has 29 career touchdown receptions.  Philpart averaged 16.7 yards per catch last year.  Another receiver, Larry Thompson, was only a half-step behind Philpart in most statistical categories, other than TDs.  Jacksonville likes to spread things around, as six different players caught at least 18 passes last season (including two running backs).

Incidentally, Philpart did not have a reception in the game last season against Appalachian State.  I’m guessing that the Dolphins will try to get him involved in the game early against The Citadel in order to avoid having him become a non-factor.

Jacksonville’s all-time rushing leader, Rudell Small, has graduated, but the Dolphins have a more than adequate replacement in J.J. Laster, who rushed for 830 yards last season in backup duty (8.5 yards per carry).  Laster rushed for 177 yards in the game against Marist.

JU lost both its starting left tackle and left guard off the offensive line.  Last year’s right tackle, Chad Cypher, is moving to left tackle to protect McGregor’s “blind side”; at 6’6″, 310 lbs., Cypher at least looks the part.  He has drawn some pre-season accolades.

Kevin Higgins briefly discussed Jacksonville’s offense with Jeff Hartsell after a weeknight practice:

They have a multiple offense, a little bit like we were the first couple of years. They will spread you out, the QB is a really smart player who can check at the line of scrimmage. They try to create space on the field, and the QB is experienced and one of the tops in I-AA. And the line is very experienced as well.

As for the Dolphins’ defense, Higgins stated he had no idea how Jacksonville would line up against The Citadel, as JU didn’t face an option team last season (the Dolphins normally feature a 4-3 scheme).

Jacksonville’s defensive line is relatively experienced.  It is also small.  Nose tackle Mike Mayoral weighs 210 pounds.  Defensive end Rolando Fines is a little bigger (245 lbs.) and is expected to lead the group.

As far as JU’s linebacking corps is concerned, Kerwin Bell is quoted in JU’s media guide as saying that “we’re sort of iffy there.”  Layne McCombs is a senior who would be Jacksonville’s top defensive player, except he has a knee problem (torn ACL from last season).  Whether he plays or not is apparently open to question.  The Dolphins are probably going to play some of their younger players in this unit and hope for the best.

Jacksonville is in better shape in the defensive secondary, with three starters returning and a decent amount of depth.  One concern for JU is that none of its DBs are particularly tall.

Jacksonville had an excellent punt return squad last season, averaging a sizzling 11.1 yards per return in 2010, but its top return man graduated.  Its kick return numbers were mediocre at best.  JU did a fairly good job holding down its opponents’ return yardage.

The Dolphins will have a new punter and a new placekicker this season, which could be problematic in a season opener.

The Citadel’s total offense numbers in the eight Southern Conference games in 2010 were as follows:  359, 304, 263, 197, 160, 143, 300, 203.  Those are listed in order of the games as they were played — in other words, the 359 total yards of offense came in the Bulldogs’ first league game (against Furman).  The offense continued to put up fewer yards of offense each week until “breaking through” with 300 yards against a less-than-stellar Elon defense, and then regressed back to 203 yards against a solid Samford D in the season’s final game (which The Citadel managed to win anyway).

On the bright side, the offense only committed one turnover in the final two games (combined), which was obviously a vast improvement from, say, the Georgia Southern debacle (nine turnovers).  The Citadel turned the ball over 32 times in all, which included 23 lost fumbles.  The Bulldogs actually had 44 total fumbles in eleven games, and also had an inordinate number of ball-possession miscues that did not quite result in fumbles but had the effect of ending a play before it really got started.

The lack of yardage can be directly tied to The Citadel’s ball-control woes.  Those issues must be fixed if the Bulldogs are to have a respectable 2011 campaign.  The offense’s ineptitude also had a negative impact on the defense, which had to defend a short field too many times.  Kevin Higgins admitted as much during his radio interview with Phil Kornblut on August 25 (Kornblut also talked to Tolu Akindele and Terrell Dallas).  The head coach didn’t mince words:

We really played, I think, much better defense than people give us credit for, and the reason is because our offense was so bad, the defense was on the field so much, that there was a lot of pressure on them…it was the first year with the option, the ball was on the ground…I remember going home at this time last year and going, ooh.

Fans going home after watching the Bulldogs offense struggle didn’t all say “ooh”…more like “ugh” (or perhaps something unprintable).

There is optimism among those following the team that the second year in the offense will result in significant improvement.  I sure wouldn’t mind winning four more games this season than last, like the Bulldogs did in 1987-88 running Charlie Taaffe‘s wishbone (going from 4-7 to 8-4).

There are also whispers about a special “edge” the Bulldogs now possess.  This edge is reportedly known in certain circles as The Candeto Factor.  It’s all hush-hush.

Sophomore Ben Dupree will be the starter at quarterback (and a team captain as well, which I thought was interesting), after beginning last season as the starter, moving to second string, then third string, making a cameo appearance as a running back, and then returning to the starting lineup as the quarterback for the final two games of the season.  If making the right reads, Dupree, who has shown signs of being an elusive runner, could be a big-play threat.  He is a bit on the small side and needs to improve his passing.

Dupree will be backed up by Matt Thompson and freshman Aaron Miller, who looked good (at least to me) in the Bulldogs’ last open scrimmage.  There is depth at running back, with at least four different players hoping to make an impact, including the Lazarus of the backfield, Rickey Anderson.  Terrell Dallas is the fullback, and he’s a good one.  Against Jacksonville’s smallish defensive line, he may be called upon to do some power running.  His understudy is Darien Robinson, who isn’t afraid to move a pile either.

Mike Sellers, thrown into the line of fire as the starting center as a freshman, is bigger and better.  That should be the case for the offensive line in general (including the imposing Neal Strange), although injured guard Jameson Bryant will not play in the opener.  Keith Carter moves from defense to offense to add athleticism to the o-line.  (I keep wanting to call him Kenny Carter.  Getting old is tough.)

While most triple option offenses don’t throw the ball too often, this isn’t any ordinary triple option offense — it’s the Triple O’Higgins!  Higgins told Kornblut that the ideal number of passes in the TO’H is 10-12 per game.

Several of those pass attempts will undoubtedly be thrown in the general direction of Domonic Jones, the Bulldogs’ leading receiver last season.  At 6’5″, he could prove to be a tough matchup for the short Jacksonville defensive backs.  Actually, he should prove to be a tough matchup for almost any defensive secondary he faces.  One of The Citadel’s other receivers, Luke Caldwell, may be the best passer on the team, if the Samford game last season and the recent scrimmage are any indication.

As mentioned above, the Bulldog D was solid in 2010 for the most part.  I think the only time I was really disappointed in the unit’s play was against Elon.  The defense had trouble getting off the field in that game, and also fared poorly in the “red zone”. Stopping opponents from scoring when inside the 20 should be a point of emphasis this year, as that is an area in which the Bulldogs need to do better (allowing a 64% TD rate last season).

Against Jacksonville, which converted on third down 49% of the time in 2010, it will be even more important to prevent long drives and turn the ball back over to the offense. To do that, The Citadel needs to improve incrementally in defensive statistical categories such as average per pass attempt (7.6 last year) and average per rush (4.3).

The Bulldogs also need to grab more than their fair share of turnovers.  The Citadel finished last in the Southern Conference in interceptions in 2010.  The squad needs to grab a few more and also force more fumbles.

To paraphrase Akindele in his interview with Phil Kornblut, the Bulldogs D needs its playmakers to make more big plays.  Akindele himself is one of those playmakers, having led the team in tackles last season.

He’s joined by a solid group of linemen and linebackers, including Derek Douglas, Chris Billingslea, and Rod Harland, who judging from the recent scrimmage has been ready to lace ’em up again since last season ended.  He was bringing the heat, as the kids say.  (They do say that, right?)

The defense as a whole has a lot of depth (a priority for the coaches), particularly on the line, but also in the secondary, making it easier to absorb the loss of Cortez Allen, now of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Bulldogs seem to be in solid shape at cornerback, which is a good thing, as Jacksonville’s group of talented receivers will provide a stern test.

Cass Couey returns for the third straight year as the Bulldogs’ dependable punter. The Citadel in general was okay in most phases of the return game.  Keith Gamble, besides starting at cornerback, is a threat to go the distance as a kick returner (he had an 87-yarder against Elon last year).  He averaged 25 yards per return in 2010.

Ryan Sellers will be the starting placekicker for The Citadel this season.  The kickoff specialist shared PK duties last year, making five of nine, including a 47-yarder against Chattanooga, the season long for a Bulldog kicker by eight yards.  As you would expect of a kicker, he wears a kicker’s number — #99.

The matchup between the Bulldogs and the Dolphins will be a big one for both teams, even though it is only the first game of the season.  In the long run, it may actually mean more to Jacksonville than it does to The Citadel, though.

JU missed out on a bid to the FCS playoffs by a narrow margin last season.  While the Dolphins were 10-1, the schedule strength just wasn’t there to justify Jacksonville receiving a berth in the postseason.  Jacksonville only played two scholarship programs, one of which (Old Dominion) had only re-started its football program the year before.  The other, of course, was Appalachian State, which throttled the Dolphins (not that there was any shame in that).

In fact, Jacksonville has only defeated three scholarship programs in its history — Old Dominion last season, Coastal Carolina (in the Chanticleers’ first season of football in 2003), and Savannah State (in 2008).  In 2011, the Dolphins will have three opportunities to beat scholarship programs, as JU will open the season against The Citadel, Western Illinois, and Charleston Southern (with the CSU game played at Milne Field).

To make its case for an at-large bid (the Pioneer League is not an automatic qualifying conference), Jacksonville needs to win at least two (if not all three) of those games.  Beating up Valparaiso and Marist isn’t going to be enough.  Moreover, if JU cannot beat a team picked to finish last in the SoCon, its case for a bid may completely dissolve.

For The Citadel, getting off to a good start this season is critically important.  The Bulldogs badly need to gain confidence in their offensive system and establish some momentum prior to a run of six consecutive Southern Conference games.  It’s also a home game, and the team must show its supporters that there is reason to believe in the upcoming campaign.

Fans gave the team some leeway last season as the new offense was installed.  It was understood that there would be trying times on occasion in 2010, although some of those times were more trying than anyone would have liked.  Now there has been a year for the coaches and players to get comfortable with the system.  There won’t be any more metaphorical mulligans handed out.

The Citadel has only had one winning season since 1997.  The game against Jacksonville could go a long way in determining whether that trend will continue, or if the Bulldogs can begin to dream of success — for this season, and for future seasons as well.

I’m looking forward to late Saturday afternoon at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Why exactly is The Citadel playing Arizona in the first place?

I didn’t touch on this in my preview of the game between The Citadel and Arizona, but I figured I could make a quick post out of the question:  why exactly is The Citadel playing Arizona in football in the first place?  I’m sure fans of both schools are a little curious about that.

Well, for money, of course.  The Citadel has to play at least one football “guarantee” game every season to balance (or attempt to balance) its budget for athletics.  On the other hand, surely The Citadel could find an FBS opponent a little closer to home, an ACC or SEC team, or even a Big East squad.  After all, the Bulldogs have played teams from all those leagues in the last few seasons, along with a Big XII team (Texas A&M), a Big 10 outfit (Wisconsin)…oh, wait a second.  I see a pattern — a pattern created by none other than Les Robinson.

That’s right, The Citadel’s national tour of BCS conferences is a result of one of former AD Les Robinson’s grand ideas.  You can read about it here:  Link

The game against the Pac-10’s Arizona is the last of the “BCS series” for The Citadel, which in the past five years has traveled to play against the aforementioned Texas A&M and Wisconsin, along with Pittsburgh of the Big East, Florida of the SEC, and North Carolina and Clemson of the ACC.

Just prior to that five-year run the Bulldogs traveled to Oxford to play Mississippi and Tallahassee to tangle with Florida State.  The coach for all these games has been Kevin Higgins, so keep that in mind when evaluating his 25-32 record at The Citadel. I think there is a good chance Higgins is the only head coach in the country to have played teams from all six BCS conferences in the last five seasons.

After this game the Bulldogs will have completed the Robinson Quest, having played teams from all six BCS leagues.  Robinson even set up a “bonus” two-game series with Princeton of the Ivy League.  I am not sure current AD Larry Leckonby is crazy about scheduling the likes of Arizona or (to a lesser extent) Wisconsin, as the travel for those games eats into the guarantee.  It was also a significant issue for the game at Princeton.

I can certainly understand that, and in the future I expect most, if not all, of The Citadel’s football guarantee games to come against SEC/ACC schools.  However, I don’t think it hurts the school to travel out of its home region on occasion.  I agree with the comment Robinson made in the linked article about such games providing needed national exposure.  Another thing they provide is an opportunity for alums living outside the southeast to attend a game.

The Citadel brought a very good crowd to the Princeton game last year.  I can attest to the number of PA/NJ/NY alums in attendance, most of whom showed up with their families, and some with friends too.  We need to play games like that once in a while, if only for those fans.

The game against Arizona will give some of our alums on the west coast a chance to see their team in action.  Admittedly, a game against UCLA or Stanford might have been a better bet in terms of Bulldog supporters showing up — I’m not sure how many alums live in Arizona — but still, it’s in the general area.

Anyway, I hope the following gives a little insight into how this game came to be.  I don’t think we’ll be seeing any other matchups on the gridiron between The Citadel and Pac-10 teams in the near future, but you never know.

Football, Game 2: The Citadel vs. Arizona

Gametime:  10 pm ET, September 11.

Telecast:  KWBA, local channel 58 in Tucson, and on Fox College Sports Pacific (FCS-Pacific), joined in progress; announcers are Dave Sitton, John Fina, and sideline reporter Glenn Howell

There won’t be many schools this season who will face in consecutive weeks opponents as different as Chowan and Arizona.  Chowan is a small Division II school in North Carolina.  Arizona is a large Division I (FBS) school, the flagship university of a populous western state.  Chowan has about 1,100 undergraduate students. Arizona has 30,000.  Indeed, Arizona has more undergraduate and graduate students than The Citadel has living alumni.

The difference is reflected in the football teams as well, of course, and thus The Citadel’s football team has its work cut out for it this week as it ventures to Tucson, the longest trip in program history.  Since The Citadel has never played Arizona (or any Pac-10 school) before, let’s take a brief look at the history of the University of Arizona’s football team.

The Wildcats (originally just known as the “Varsity”) started playing football in 1899, 14 years after the school’s founding.  Keep in mind that Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912 (it was the 48th and last of the contiguous states).  It had been a recognized U.S. territory since 1862.

The first official coach of the football team was “Pop” McKale, for whom the McKale Center (UA’s basketball arena) is named.  McHale also coached the basketball team for a time and was the school’s longtime director of athletics.

McHale was also a central figure in the story of Arizona’s great tradition, its motto “Bear Down”.  In 1926, Arizona quarterback and student body president John “Button” Salmon was critically injured in a car accident after the first game of that season. McHale regularly visited Salmon in the hospital until Salmon’s death on October 18.

During the coach’s final visit, Salmon told McHale to “tell them…tell the team to bear down.”  McHale reportedly told the team just that, repeating Salmon’s words during a game against New Mexico State which the Wildcats managed to win, 7-0.  It’s a tale not unlike Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech for Notre Dame.

Ever since, “Bear Down” has been the official slogan for all of the university’s athletic teams.

Salmon is one of two players to have his jersey retired at Arizona.  The other, running back Art Luppino, led the nation in rushing twice in 1954 and 1955.

Arizona first joined a conference in 1931, becoming a charter member of the Border Conference, and remaining in that league until it disbanded in 1961.  Other schools in the league included Texas Tech, UTEP, New Mexico, New Mexico State, and Arizona State.  They were joined at various times by Hardin-Simmons, Northern Arizona, and West Texas A&M.  The Wildcats won three league titles while in the Border Conference and played in one bowl game during that time, losing the 1949 Salad Bowl (yes, Salad Bowl) to Drake (yes, Drake).

Arizona then became a founding member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). That league was basically a merger of the Border and Skyline Conferences, except not every school in those leagues was invited (New Mexico State, for example).  Also in the original WAC:  Arizona State, BYU, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.  Arizona won two league titles in the WAC and played in one bowl game, the 1968 Sun Bowl (losing to Auburn).

Arizona and Arizona State gradually outgrew the WAC, mostly because the state of Arizona was outgrowing (by percentage) most of the other states in and around the mountain time zone.  The development of air conditioning helped produce a population boom in the state, and the increase in population/resources trickled down to the state universities.  The two schools joined the Pac-8 (renamed the Pac-10) in 1978, and have remained in that conference since then.

The hallmark of the program in that time, much to the frustration of  Arizona’s fans, has been its inability to make a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Its rival, Arizona State, has been to the big game twice (winning once), but the Wildcats have never been.  Arizona has come close on two occasions, both times under the direction of Dick Tomey.

In 1993, Arizona shared the Pac-10 title with UCLA and Southern California, but lost a tiebreaker to UCLA for the Rose Bowl berth.  This is the only time the Wildcats have claimed even a piece of the Pac-10 crown.  Arizona had lost earlier in the season to UCLA, but as late as November 14 still had a shot at Pasadena after a UCLA loss. However, the Wildcats blew a 20-point lead and lost to California, 24-20, eliminating them from Rose Bowl consideration.

The Wildcats did rebound from that disappointment, beating their rivals in Tempe and then dominating Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish the season 10-2, with the bowl game arguably being the pinnacle of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” defense, which was the national identity of the program in the mid-1990s (and personified by Tedy Bruschi).

The Fiesta Bowl victory was a major reason why Sports Illustrated ranked Arizona No. 1 in its 1994 preseason issue, but after starting the campaign 4-0 the Wildcats were upset at home by Colorado State.  Arizona also suffered road losses to Oregon and Southern California and finished with a Freedom Bowl loss to Utah and a disappointing 8-4 season.

In 1998, Arizona finished 12-1, losing only to UCLA (albeit at home by four touchdowns).  However, the Wildcats were looking good for a Rose Bowl appearance anyway, as the Bruins completed their Pac-10 schedule undefeated and were poised to play for the mythical national title at the Fiesta Bowl.  That would have sent Arizona to the Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately for Arizona (and the Bruins, as it turned out), UCLA had to play a December game originally delayed by a hurricane against the Hurricanes — and lost to Miami, 49-45.  That result meant the Bruins took the berth in the Rose and the Wildcats had to settle for the Holiday Bowl (which they won, beating Nebraska).

When I was looking at Arizona’s football history, and wondering what was preventing Arizona, a big school in a BCS conference with success in a lot of sports other than football, from grabbing the brass ring, one thing stood out.  It must have stood out to Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore too, because while calling the Wildcats’ 41-2 dismantling of Toledo last Friday on ESPN, they mentioned (and marvelled at) the following factoid:

Arizona hasn’t had a quarterback drafted by the NFL since 1985.

Think about that.  There can’t be that many BCS programs who have gone that long between QB draft picks.  In fact, that QB (10th-round pick John Conner, who did not throw a pass in the NFL) is the only quarterback out of Arizona drafted since 1972 (when another Wildcat signal-caller who never played in the league, Brian Linstrom, was selected in the 16th round).  It’s not like Arizona’s been running the wishbone all this time, either.

Arizona’s football program has had three different quarterbacks make a total of 29 starts in the NFL, none since 1974.  So in all the time UA has been in the Pac-10, it’s never developed an NFL quarterback.

It’s hard to win big games, or even get to big games, without a pro-caliber quarterback.  Since 1975, only one Arizona alum has thrown a TD pass in the NFL — a punter, Josh Miller, who did it for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003 (an 81-yard pass play, incidentally).  Here is a little chart comparing alums from Arizona, The Citadel, and a mystery school:

TD passes thrown in the NFL since 1975

Arizona — 1

The Citadel — 1

Mystery School — 0

If you’re wondering, the graduate of The Citadel with a touchdown pass is Stump Mitchell.  Now, that mystery school that hasn’t had a grad with a TD toss in the NFL in the last 35 years?  Well, it’s a school that has quite a bit in common with Arizona on the athletics front.  It’s a “basketball school” that has won multiple titles in other sports, but hasn’t been able to parlay its success in those sports into a nationally prominent football program.

Like Arizona, a good argument can be made that the reason for that has a lot to do with never having an “NFL ready” quarterback.  What school is that?  Why, it’s the BCS school The Citadel played last season.

North Carolina.

I wrote about UNC’s football history in my preview of The Citadel’s game against the Heels last year.  At the time, I noted that the overall QB rating for players from The Citadel to have thrown a pass in the NFL (which would be just two, Mitchell and Paul Maguire) was exactly 100 points better than their UNC counterparts (119.6-19.6). Arizona is a little better than North Carolina in this respect (47.7), but again the mighty Bulldogs prevail.

What will this mean on Saturday?  Not much, since it’s probable the Wildcats have finally found themselves an NFL prospect at QB in Nick Foles.  Foles is a native of Austin (went to the same high school as Drew Brees) who began his collegiate career at Michigan State before transferring to Arizona after one season.

He has NFL size (6’5″, 245 lbs.) and a good arm.  Last season he completed 63% of his passes for 19 TDs (9 interceptions).  His yards per attempt was not that high (just over 6 yards), but he was only sacked 13 times all season (so not a lot of negative plays).  His three 300-yard games included a 4-TD effort against league champion Oregon.

Foles isn’t the only impressive skill-position player on the Wildcat offense.  Nic Grigsby, when healthy, is an outstanding running back.  Grigsby averaged over seven yards per carry last season.  His problem was a bad shoulder that cost him three games and limited him in several others.  He appears to be healthy now.  Then there is Juron Criner, a rangy 6’4″ wideout who hauled in nine touchdowns last season.

Criner had a ridiculous game against Toledo on Friday, catching eleven passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.  Forty-five of those reception yards came on a one-handed, falling-down circus catch in the third quarter.  His TD grab was almost as good.

Arizona had to replace seven defensive starters from last season, but you would have never known it against Toledo, which did not score on the Wildcat defense (the Rockets’ only two points came on a safety called for offensive holding in the end zone).

Arizona is as good a bet as any team to make a run at the Pac-10 title.  Oregon, the defending champ (and coming off a 72-0 demolition of hapless New Mexico), probably has to be the favorite, but if the Ducks slip it’s possible the Wildcats could be the team to make the move to the top and claim the school’s first Rose Bowl trip.

Arizona was picked in the middle of the conference pack in most preseason polls, likely thanks to getting manhandled 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl by a certain Mr. Suh and Nebraska.  Its most recent impression among those who vote in pre-season polls was not a good one.  Otherwise, I think a team with the talent (particularly on offense) that Arizona has might have been nationally ranked to start the season.

Arizona’s coach is Mike Stoops, also known as “Bob Stoops’ brother”.  He has very slowly built the program since arriving in 2004 (wins per year:  3, 3, 6, 5, 8, 8).  Some Arizona supporters have become a bit impatient.  He needs to have a good year this year.  He’s probably going to have one, so I wouldn’t assign him “hot seat” status, but if the Wildcats were to tank this season, I think he would be out the door.

It could be a long night for The Citadel.  In fact, it would be surprising if it weren’t.  The problem is that the defense is going to have some matchup problems (particularly with Criner), and will not be likely to get much help from the offense.

Last season against BCS foe North Carolina the defense got no help from the offense either, but the UNC offense wasn’t dynamic enough to take full advantage of its field position and time of possession.  As a result, the Bulldogs lost, but only by a 40-6 score.  Arizona may not have as good a defense as UNC did, but The Citadel’s offense will be worse (as it is still in its embryonic stage in the triple option) and the Wildcat offense is considerably more talented than the Heels’ O was.

I wrote about some on-field things that concerned me in my review of the Chowan game.  I am hoping that the blocking improves, that the quarterbacks get more comfortable taking the snap and making the proper reads, and that the defense does a better job in assignments and tackling.   Against Arizona, I don’t really expect to see much visible progress from the offense, although I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

I do think that the one player who might not be physically out of place in the game for The Citadel’s offense is Domonic Jones.  I could see him making a play or two.  First, of course, the QB has to get him the ball, or at least give him a chance to get the ball.

On the other hand, I do expect the defense, even against a squad as talented as the Wildcats, to avoid multiple mental errors and not miss tackles.  That should happen. If it doesn’t, things could get ugly.

I’ll be watching anyway…

Reviewing the NCAA baseball tournament selection committee’s work

The verdict:  well, it wasn’t awful.

I realize that other observers have been more positive.  Kendall Rogers of Yahoo! Sports stated that the committee made “few puzzling decisions”.  Aaron Fitt of Baseball America thought that the committee “did better this year than it has in years.”

I won’t argue with that — after all, the committee did do the most important thing right, which is get the correct teams in the tournament.  This isn’t like last year, when Tim Weiser (the Kansas State AD) and his crew handed out bids to every Big XII outfit it could, only failing to pick Iowa State and Colorado because those two schools no longer field baseball teams.  No, it’s a justifiable field.  I actually correctly predicted the 64 teams in my previous post.  Maybe I wouldn’t have taken these exact 64 teams myself, but there were no shocks, no outrages.

However, I get the sense that everyone is so relieved the committee didn’t completely screw up that they are overlooking the errors that were actually made.  Let me list a few:

— Naturally, I’m going to complain about the ludicrous decision to slot The Citadel as a 3 seed in Columbia, while giving the College of Charleston a 2 seed and sending the Cougars to Myrtle Beach.  The two schools had similar RPI numbers (32 for The Citadel, 26 for the CofC).   More to the point, The Citadel won the regular season AND tournament titles in the Southern Conference.  The Cougars finished second (by two games) in the regular season and went 1-2 in the tournament.  Fitt did mention this anomaly in his BA post.

I am now not completely sure that The Citadel would have received an at-large bid had it failed to win the SoCon tourney.  Maybe it would have, but I’m not too confident, and just that sense of the unknown completely justifies Fred Jordan’s decision to start ace pitcher Asher Wojciechowski in the championship game on Sunday.  Imagine if Wojo had not pitched, The Citadel had lost, and then the Bulldogs had not received a bid.  Jordan would have second-guessed himself for the rest of his life.

Also, while we all have to accept the geographic constraints the committee has when setting up regionals, it would have been nice to send the Bulldogs somewhere other than Columbia, which is starting to get very old (and I say that as someone who lives in Columbia).  Why not flip The Citadel with Elon or Oregon State?  There wouldn’t be any more trips by airplane that would have had to be made.  Another option would have been to flip the 2-3 seeds in the Columbia and Myrtle Beach regionals.

—  California is a 2 seed.  Now, I think Cal belonged in the tournament, but as a 2? Also, the Golden Bears will play North Carolina in the first round, another bubble team, so Oklahoma, one of the weaker 1 seeds, gets the weakest 2 (in my opinion) and one of the weaker 3s.

I’m guessing the committee couldn’t quite figure out how to slot Cal as a 3 seed without causing another 3 seed travel issues, and so bumped the Bears up to a 2.  It still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The committee could have made Oregon a 2 and Cal the 3 in the Norwich regional, which would have been at least marginally better, but maybe the Ducks are going to wear some crazy new Nike duds when they travel to Connecticut and the committee wanted more buzz in its northeastern regional.  I don’t know.

— The geographical decisions really cause some inequities in the matchups.  Georgia Tech is a national seed, but gets Alabama as its 2 seed; just to give you an idea, GT had an RPI of 11, ‘Bama 12 (and the Tide had a strong finish to its season).  TCU isn’t a national seed, but gets Baylor (35 RPI) as a 2 seed and Arizona (one of the last teams in the field) as a 3.

I already mentioned Cal in the Oklahoma regional; Arizona is similar in that I don’t think the committee could figure out where to stick the Wildcats, and so sending them to Ft. Worth became a default selection.  Maybe they were just trying to cut TCU a break for slotting the Horned Frogs (potentially) against Texas in a super-regional.

Of course, RPI isn’t necessarily indicative of quality (and I should mention Arizona actually had an RPI of 24), but it’s used as a crutch so often by the committee that when it isn’t, its absence is glaring.

— I don’t get the geographic thing for super-regional matchups.  You aren’t talking about that many more airplane flights even if the expected matchups actually occur, and sometimes they don’t anyway.  Why make TCU (a contender for the last national seed) have to play a super-regional at national 2 seed Texas?  Another team that had an argument for a national seed was Cal State Fullerton; at least with UCLA as the #6 national seed, that potential matchup is more fair (if also more convenient).

Really, though, if South Carolina (the other team in the national seed mix) is close to being #8, it shouldn’t be in a bracket opposite #4 Coastal Carolina.  It should be in the bracket opposite Georgia Tech (the team that did get the final national seed).  Would setting Oklahoma up to play Coastal Carolina be so terrible?  TCU-Louisville?  Florida State-Texas?

I think it’s time for the top teams to be seeded 1-16.

Well, that’s enough carping.  I’m just ready for the regionals to begin.

Breaking down the broken: Pac-10 basketball

You’ve probably read or heard that Pac-10 basketball is not exactly top-of-the-line this season.  I was looking through some stats this morning and was struck by just how poor the league has really been on the hardwood.  It’s too much information for a Tweet, obviously, or even a regular post on a message board, so I figured I would stick it on the blog…

Last season the Pac-10 was 102-37 in non-conference play, a solid record of success that led to the conference receiving six bids to the NCAA tournament.  This season, however, the Pac-10 is only 75-44 out of conference (through 1/10/10), which is a very mediocre record for a power league. 

In fact, the Pac-10’s winning percentage out of league play is exceeded by both the Missouri Valley (71-32) and the Mountain West (79-38) and is roughly the same as that of the Atlantic 10 (113-70).  Indeed, the Pac-10 is currently 8th in conference RPI, behind the MWC and A-10 and just ahead of the MVC.

As a comparison, the cumulative records of the other BCS conferences:

ACC:  129-30
Big East:  152-37
Big 10:  94-38
Big XII:  136-30
SEC:  123-46

Incidentally, when the SEC was widely (and justifiably) mocked last year for not having the usual number of NCAA-quality teams for a major conference, its non-league record was 131-51.

The Pac-10 was 16-23 last season against the other power leagues, not great but not embarrassing.  This season, the league is 9-24, with none of those nine victories occurring in a “true” road game.  Only one school in the conference, Arizona, has more than one win against BCS opponents.

The Wildcats have two, a neutral-site win over habitual Big XII cellar-dweller Colorado (by four points) and a home victory over ACC bottom-feeder North Carolina State (by two).   Arizona has not been as successful against Mountain West squads, as it is 0-3 versus teams in that league, including a 17-point loss to San Diego State and a 30-point beatdown by BYU that was played at the McHale Center (as was a defeat at the hands of UNLV).

Losing at home by 30 is embarrassing for a proud program like Arizona, but it’s far from the worst loss this season by a Pac-10 club.  That honor probably has to go to Oregon State, which last week lost 99-48 to Seattle – and that game was played in Corvallis.  The Beavers have also lost to TAMU-Corpus Christi by 24 points and dropped a home game to Sacramento State.  All three of those opponents, by the way, have losing records.

Oregon State followed up that hideous loss to Seattle by beating Oregon – in Eugene, no less.  Oregon was 2-0 in the league following a road sweep of the Washington schools, but nobody should have been too shocked to see the Ducks blow their home opener in the league, since they had already lost at home to Montana (and have also lost to solid WCC outfits Portland and St. Mary’s, the latter setback yet another loss at McArthur Court).

Meanwhile, UCLA did the heretofore unthinkable, losing to Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State in the same season (neither Big West club currently has a winning record).  Those two games were played in Anaheim, as was the Bruins’ 27-point loss to Portland.

Southern California may be the Pac-10 school that acquitted itself the best in non-conference play, having beaten Tennessee by 22 and winning a tournament in Hawaii (which included wins over St. Mary’s and UNLV).  In keeping with the rest of its conference brethren, the Trojans did manage to lose at home to Loyola-Marymount. 

Alas, the Trojans are now ineligible for postseason play thanks to the O.J. Mayo/Tim Floyd follies.

With all that, the Pac-10 will struggle to be a three-bid league.  It doesn’t help that the league appears on its way to not having a “tiered” group of contenders and non-contenders.  Despite no team playing more than three games so far in league play, every school has at least one win and won loss in conference action.  There could be a lot of 8-10, 9-9, 10-8 conference records, and that (along with Southern Cal’s self-imposed probation) could lead to the league’s worst-case scenario. 

Could the Pac-10 only have one team advance to the NCAA Tournament?  I doubt it, but it’s certainly not out of the question.  What isn’t out of the question is that leagues like the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 (and possibly the Missouri Valley) will expect – not hope, but expect — to receive more NCAA tourney bids than the Pac-10, and deservedly so.