Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Closing the Book on the 2013 College Football Season

A remarkable season ended fittingly, as Florida State edged Auburn in a remarkable title game.
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

The last year of the BCS era has come and gone, and what a season it was.

We saw a redshirt freshman named Jameis capture America's eye, then potentially face rape charges, win the Heisman Trophy and, eventually, the national championship. We saw Urban Meyer eat pizza like a big ole saddie. We saw Johnny Manziel humbled, but not really. We saw smart schools like Vanderbilt and Duke join Stanford in the "we win the right way club."

We saw UCF become the final "BCS buster" to score a program defining win, and we saw Auburn qualify for the last BCS National Championship Game ever with a fluke Hail Mary pass, a field goal returned for a touchdown and three-point shootout win, all in the span of three weeks.

Yeah, it was a "what the hell just happened" kind of year. So join me, if you will, as I recap some of the biggest developments from 2013, and look ahead to 2014.

A Title Game for the Ages

I don't think I need to re-hash for you just how epic Monday's BCS championship game between Florida State and Auburn was. The game ended a seven-year championship streak for the SEC (And four-year streak for the state of Alabama), and marked a return to the top of the mountain for the Seminoles.

But what this title game really showed us is what we sorta knew all along: There was no dominant team this year.

Florida State barely beat Auburn. So what? If not for total fluke plays, a beaten up Georgia team would have already done that, and so would Alabama. Missouri was only three points away from beating Auburn in the SEC title game as well. Heck, LSU beat them by 14 in late September.

This game just showed me that all these teams are at right about the same level, and you can throw South Carolina, Oklahoma (Who beat Alabama), Michigan State, Stanford and Oregon into that mix.

Don't take anything away from Florida State. They were dominant throughout the season (I maintain that their demolition of Clemson was the year's most impressive win), and overcame some early game miscues to beat one of the best teams in the country. But the point is that parity is very real in college football, at least at the top… And at least in years where Nick Saban has to rebuild his defense.

Underdogs Take BCS Bowls

My Bowl Pick'em strategy of simply selecting all Vegas favorites and ranking them by the size of the line was working splendidly. Until the BCS bowls began.

That's because all four underdogs won, and you got the feeling that they were all just better. Michigan State beat Stanford at its own physical game in the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma shell shocked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, UCF surprised everyone by slowing down explosive Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and Clemson won a thriller against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.

The darlings of the BCS had to be the UCF Knights, who finished the season 12-1 and in the Top-10 for the first time in school history. Looking back on it, the Knights had some close calls against lesser competition (USF, anyone?) but they're only loss was by a field goal to now-No.4 South Carolina.

With wins at Louisville, at Penn State and against Baylor, I think we can safely say this team was for real. They were the second-best team in the state of Florida.

Bowl Pick'Em Results

If you're curious, the BCS underdogs didn't sink my strategy entirely. I was still able to correctly pick 23 of 35 bowls for 394 confidence points, far better than my 18 out of 35 picks when I "went with my gut" last year.

Editor Jeremy Conlin used the Simple Rating System (SRS) to create a rudimentary point spread for each bowl game, and was also able to pick 23 games correctly, but lost on confidence points (382). My wife Caity struggled, only picking 16 of 35 games correctly. She was "going with her gut," and I think we've found out that doesn't work all that well.

The Coaching Carousel

Charlie Strong to Texas

Texas made about as good of a hire as they could in grabbing Louisville's Charlie Strong to be the new boss in Austin. It didn't come without controversy, probably because he's a black coach in Texas, as billionaire booster Red McCombs (Co-founder of Clear Channel and former owner of several sports franchises, including the Minnesota Vikings) called the hiring a "kick in the face." McCombs was good friends with Mack Brown, and reportedly wanted the Longhorns to hire Jon Gruden.

Never mind the fact that Gruden didn't want to return to coaching this year, this was a kick in the face!

Either way, this is a great hire for a few reasons, the most important being Strong's defensive background. During Brown's final years, the Longhorns consistently recruited the best athletes in the country, yet still couldn't keep up with the high-powered offenses across the Big 12. So, after Baylor coach Art Briles turned Texas down (UT was going for a "can't beat'em, join'em approach), they decided to go get one of the best defensive minds in the country.

Strong was the only member of Ron Zook's Florida staff to remain when Urban Meyer took over the Gator program, and Meyer kept him on as defensive coordinator. It would turn out to be a great move, as Strong's defenses were consistently among the nation's best, and helped Florida win a pair of national titles.

Strong grabbed the job in Louisville and began building another speed-based defense, but also happened to have stud quarterback Teddy Bridgewater fall in his lap when Miami fired coach Randy Shannon. Strong rode Bridgewater and an underrated defense to a Sugar Bowl win over Florida in 2011 and a Russell Athletic Bowl win over Miami in 2012.

He jumped at the right time. Bridgewater is leaving for the NFL, and chances are his stock will never be higher. It doesn't hurt that Texas is easily one of the five best coaching jobs in America, but I will say I'm a bit surprised. I thought Strong would wait one more season until the potential firing of Will Muschamp at Florida, so that he could return to Gainesville and recruit the state he knows best.

Strong is a great recruiter, but nearly all of his contacts are in Florida. His Louisville teams featured more Florida players than any team in the country outside of the Sunshine State, and he knows his way around Broward and Dade County. In a perfect world, Strong gets all the highly regarded prospects in Texas simply because he's the coach at UT, but has the moxie to snatch up a few studs from Florida, making Texas an unbeatable juggernaut.

But, things could easily go the other way, with suddenly red-hot A&M and Oklahoma recruiting the Lone Star state with greater success, and up-and-coming Baylor/TCU getting into the fray as well.

Only time will tell.

Meanwhile back in Louisville, the Cardinals have reportedly interviewed former coach and wild man Bobby Petrino. Just my advice, hire Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi or Stanford offensive coordinator Derek Mason and save yourself the headaches.

Al Golden Staying in Miami

The other day I wrote a Tweet about Golden listening to the Nittany Lions while still employed by the Hurricanes. It went a little something like this:

"Al Golden listening to PSU, because coaching a program that harbored a child rapist is way better than coaching one that gave players money."

Well, I got more than a few responses from people (All with Pennsylvania themed sports handles/pictures) saying that I should remove the Tweet and check my facts. First of all, are people really trying to defend what happened at Penn State, or are they simply in denial? I had no idea this was still a hot-button issue, but apparently it is up there, so I will be complimentary when I say that Penn State is still an attractive coaching job… But Al Golden would have been insane to leave Miami for it.

Even without the sanctions that came with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Miami is still the better job. The one thing that could have swayed Golden is the fact that he is a PSU alum, but at this point, he has done such a nice job of getting Miami back to respectability, both on and off the field, that it would be ludicrous to leave for another scandal laden program.

With several great recruiting classes in his rear view mirror, and a Top-10 class coming in this spring, Golden knows he's close to bringing the U all the way back, maybe to where hated rival Florida State is right now.

Penn State's Coaching Search

The job Golden turned down has to be one of the more interesting gigs in the country. On one hand, you have relatively fertile recruiting grounds, a huge stadium, great facilities, a rabid fan base and willing boosters, along with rich history. On the other hand, you have the stain of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions/scholarship reductions hanging over everything you do.

Bill O'Brien, who just left Happy Valley for the NFL's Houston Texans, took the talent in place and exceeded expectations, both on the field and on the recruiting trail. Whomever takes over this job will have the talent to win, especially with soon-to-be-sophomore Christian Hackenberg at quarterback, but they won't be able to go to a bowl until 2016.

Still, if you want to use this job as a springboard, like O'Brien did, or if you're in it for the long haul, two years of missing the Outback Bowl aren't going to kill you. With Golden passing on the job, Vanderbilt's James Franklin appears to be the obvious choice.

Franklin won and recruited well at Vanderbilt, a feat far more difficult than recruiting to a sanctioned PSU, and injected the program with an energy and optimism it had probably never had. Franklin is a Pennsylvania native, having grown up outside of Philadelphia, and would seem to be a perfect fit for a less than perfect job.

Hot Seats for Next Season 

It's win or leave town time for Florida coach Will Muschamp, after the Gators suffered their first losing season since the late 70s. Muschamp won 11 games and made a BCS bowl appearance in his second season in Gainesville, but a loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, and a disaster of a year in 2013 have him already feeling the heat.

Many in Gator Nation were calling for his head this season, proving that when you're coaching a national power, it truly is a "what have you done for me lately" business. Getting back to a bowl is obviously a must, but to keep his job, the Gainesville native will probably have to rack up eight wins and avoid blowout losses. After an injury ravaged 2013, Muschamp will hope that simply staying healthy will put the Gators back in the mix nationally.

Another national power that may be looking for a new coach in 2015 is Michigan. Brady Hoke got off to about as good a start in Ann Arbor as anybody could have hoped. The coach preached mental toughness and defense, but didn't totally abandon the spread option scheme that former coach Rich Rodriguez installed.

Using several star recruits from the Rodriguez era, most notably quarterback Denard Robinson, Hoke had a dream Michigan debut in 2011, going 11-2 with a victory over rival Ohio State and Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech. It was the program's first 10-win season since 2006.

But things have gone decidedly backwards since then. An 8-4 regular season in 2011 led to a loss in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina (A game remembered for Jadeveon Clowney's decapitation of Michigan running back Vincent Smith), and this season Michigan hit relative rock bottom.

I say relative, because they weren't as bad as Rodriguez' teams, but 7-5 in a weak Big Ten, and finishing 5th in the six-team "Legends Division" is certainly not what fans of the Maize and Blue are looking for. Especially when the school's biggest rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State, played for the Big Ten championship and each appeared in the BCS, with Michigan's perceived "little brother" winning the Rose Bowl.

Sunshine State Rules BCS Era

Much will be made of the SEC's dominance in the now finished BCS era. The conference won nine of 16 BCS championships, including seven in a row from 2006 to 2012, a streak that was nearly pushed to eight Monday night before a late Florida State touchdown sank Auburn.

But the Seminoles gave the Sunshine State its fifth national championship of the BCS era, edging the state of Alabama, which had won the last four. Lost in the "SEC dominance" storyline was the fact that Monday's title game decided which individual state owned this period in college football history.

The Noles won their second BCS title in their fourth title game appearance, tied with Oklahoma for the most all time. Across I-10, the Florida Gators have a pair of BCS crystal footballs to their program's name, on two title game appearances, and down south the Miami Hurricanes have one championship in two appearances.

Add in the fact that Central Florida now has a BCS bowl win, and you have four programs with a combined 19 BCS bowl appearances and 11 victories.

Not too shabby Florida. Now go back to proving how crazy you are to the rest of the country.

The SEC: Still Pretty Good

Don't let a close loss in the championship game by Auburn and no-show by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl fool you: The SEC was still the best conference in college football by a sizable margin.

The conference went 7-1 in its other eight bowl games, with only beaten and battered Georgia losing to Nebraska. South Carolina scored great wins for the conference against UCF (The Knights' only loss), Clemson and Wisconsin during bowl season, while Missouri edged Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl and LSU laid down the law on red-hot Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

Heck, even Vanderbilt won nine games this year, though that does mean that coach James Franklin is unlikely to return to Nashville. Both Mississippi schools scored bowl wins and, while they came up short of expectations, the fighting Johnny Footballs of A&M rallied to knock off ranked Duke to close out the year.

The only teams that can really be said to have "disappointed" were Florida (dumpster fire) and Georgia, who was ravaged by injury. Arkansas and Kentucky stunk, but we all knew that was coming, and it looks like Tennessee might be ready to finally return to respectability under Butch Jones.

No conference is perfect, and the SEC was slightly down by its own absurd standards, but they still don't play football better anywhere else in America.

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