August 20, 2010

WEIS Roundtable: Burning Questions for the 2010 Season (Part 3)

Final installment of the college football preview as we extrapolate on some deep thoughts, that may or may not have been inspired by Jack Handey.

11) Do you think the spread offense is here to stay? What team's offense do you most enjoy watching??

Jeremy: For the foreseeable future anyway. I'm sure guys like Urban, Malzahn, Rodriguez and maybe even Kelly will continue to come up with little tweaks and changes, but the underlying idea - create unfavorable match ups and holes in the defense for the offense to exploit - seems to be here to stay. The more interesting question might be whether spread-type tendencies will continue to find their way into the NFL.

As effective as Florida's offense has been the past few years, I haven't found it too aesthetically pleasing. That might change with the Tebow Child in Denver, but I prefer watching Malzahn's offenses rip off big chunks of yardage in extremely creative ways. Hopefully we can get a few Verne/Gary games with the War Eagle this year.

Matt: I think the spread will continually evolve but I see no reason for it to go anywhere. Urban Meyer will probably tweak it this year to tailor it to the strengths of Brantley, but it will still be some incarnation of the spread. The only development that I can see making the spread go out of style is if these spread QBs keep flopping in the pros. Is Urban going to become known as the guy who gets his QBs to win in college but can't play in the NFL? Because if that's the case, then the talent pool could dry up pretty quickly. And then the spread might become a little bit like the run and shoot that teams like Houston and Texas Tech use to cover up athletic deficiencies. But I think that the good coaches who use the spread will be flexible and, in turn, the definition of the spread may change, but it will still be effective.

Honestly, I enjoyed watching the Charlie Weis offense over the last few years. Maybe it was just appreciating the talent of Floyd, Tate, Rudolph and Clausen, but when they were dialed in, you just had a feeling at times that they were totally dictating the game and had the defense on their heels. Need to see more of that under Kelly and more of an effective and opportunistic running game.

If I had to pick one other team that I enjoyed watching last year, it would surprisingly be...the Pitt Panthers. They had a workhorse back in Dion Lewis, and they just jammed him down people's throats, daring them to stop him. Last year, he got 47 carries against Cincy, 31 against Rutgers, 28 against UNC in the bowl game and 26 against West Virginia. That took the pressure off a tremendously mediocre QB in Bill Stull, who threw for 2600 yards and 21 TDs last year. For some reason, Wanny only fed Lewis the ball 19 times in a terrible loss to NC State. Until I see a more physical front seven for ND, I have to admit I'm a little bit worried about that date against Pitt in South Bend.

Doug: I'd say that the spread is here to stay, mainly because the spread is just a variation of the same college offenses that we've been seeing for 100 years. Get the ball in the hands of your most talented players and give them space to run. Once upon a time, that was the wing T or the option or any other new offense.

Florida's offense is basically the triple option out of the shotgun. They want their QB to carry the ball between the tackles, and pitch/throw it to fast RBs or WRs who can get a wall of blockers. Ditto with Michigan.

The shotgun spreads that you see from Brian Kelly or Mack Brown or other schools are the same thing, only they use the pass to advance the ball. Brian Kelly likes all these underneath routes and bubble screens and middle screens and shovel passes to get the ball to his best playmakers.

Plus, the passing games are so advanced now that no one truly runs a straight spread option the entire game, other than Navy and Georgia Tech. Every team has some sort of pass formations to get the ball down the field. The spread is just a way to have an easy base offense to do what works best in college. Get the ball to your best players.

Are there weaknesses? Yes, Mack Brown has been saying all off-season that he wants to have more of a power running game instead of always running out of the shotgun. I think there's something to be said for that. When you play a really physical team and you need to get 3 yards on 3rd down, it's nice to be able to drive somebody off the ball. The spread isn't conducive to that.

It's amazing how many teams run the spread these days: Florida, Michigan, Texas, even Notre Dame. Pretty much everyone has some form of the spread in their offense nowadays.

Personally, I like watching old school running football though, and that includes the true triple option that Georgia Tech runs. It's fun to watch, but I wouldn't want to watch that all the time. If it's not working, it's probably incredibly frustrating to watch. You have no other answer to move the football.

I'm a "run the football, play action pass" kinda guy in college, so I'm always going to be partial to a team like Alabama that just dominates up front and beats the other team up physically. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is scoring points, so I don't really care what you do as long as you execute well.

Jimmy: Define stay. Are there traces of the T-formation from the '20s still in today's game? Misdirection, multiple weapons moving around and finding space -- I'd say so. Offenses evolve once defenses catch up to their tendencies. Right now, schools are enjoying way too much success running the spread. Get used to it. And I'd even venture to say it has yet to be "perfected," as good as Tim Tebow and Alex Smith were.

The offense I most enjoy watching has to be any team that saves a page in the playbook for the Fumblerooski. Also, not that I've seen many of their games, but Boise State's offense is pure playground football at its best. The Fiesta Bowl vs. Oklahoma may have been the most entertaining display of offensive creativity in the last 20 years. I'll thoroughly enjoy tuning in to see what they have in store for the Hokies and Beavers.

As for aesthetically-pleasing offenses, I'm a sucker for the triple option attack. Maybe I'm indebted to Bill Walsh College Football for fostering this affinity, but I loved the Tony Rice-led Irish offenses, not to mention the Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch Big Red option machines. I'm glad the attack hasn't gone the way of the dinosaur as Navy and Ga. Tech keep the triple option on the endangered playbook pages list. There's something refreshing about the attitude they trot out with - "We're going to run 95% of the time and you can only hope to contain us." It's retro, daring, full of surprises and actively features the fullback getting meaningful touches.

12) Do you like the neutral site trend in college football??

Jeremy: I suppose it all depends on the teams and the venue. The Kickoff Classic game in Atlanta seems to be taking hold, and that game makes sense. Usually two good opponents and a solid destination. As it pertains to ND, Swarbrick was dealt a loaded hand when he took over. He's done an admirable job thus far in making these neutral site games interesting. If the neutral site game is the only way to get two marquee opponents together, I suppose we'll have to live with it. However, it would be a real shame to miss out on the opportunity for some great road trips to actual college campuses. Hopefully there's some middle ground out there (similar to the Miami series recently brokered with one neutral game followed by a home and home).

Matt: I think they are intriguing, but I like them better as part of a home and home package. I like what ND and Miami did, although to call Chicago "neutral" is a joke. Atlanta or Charlotte may have been a more truly neutral site, but no complaining from an ND fan.

Also, I think we have to accept there are certain match ups that come together late that don't have a chance for a home and home, but are perfectly made for a neutral site. The first one that comes to mind is this game to kick off the season in Atlanta that seems to be gaining stature. This year, it's an intriguing LSU - North Carolina game, and last year it was an even better match up (on paper) of Alabama - Virginia Tech.

However, I don't like the barnstorming concept as it applies to Notre Dame football. If you're going to set up a big game like Alabama in Atlanta or Texas in Cowboys Stadium, that's fine. But don't give me Wazzu in San Antonio or Navy in Orlando. That does nothing for the fans, the program or the broadcast partners. Reserve the neutral site games for battles between heavyweights.

Doug: Ehh. I view it as a means to an end. I'd rather see every team play six home games and six away, but those days are never coming back. If playing neutral site games leads to more games like Alabama-Michigan and Notre Dame-Miami, I can live with it. In fact, I think there should be more effort by the various conferences to set up games like this. Give me an annual ACC-SEC challenge doubleheader every September in Atlanta and maybe a Big 10-Big 12 challenge in st. Louis or Chicago. That would be great.

Still prefer games on college campuses though.

Jimmy: When used intelligently by athletic directors and media partners as a big stage to pit two powerhouses that otherwise wouldn't square off, it's a home run. When used by Kevin White as some ulterior motive to spread the "Notre Dame brand" to select regions, it's a bunt foul pop-up. Match ups should strive for equal standing between the teams, as opposed to glorified home games on on a campus. If the trend adds more marquee non-conference games in the future, sign me up. Maybe a new BCS structure (or playoff system) would create more incentive for schools to schedule heavyweights and not paperweights.

13) Has the live football experience jumped the shark? Do you still like to attend games or do you prefer being in front of a plasma at a bar or at your house? What could make the live experience better??

Jeremy: Doug is begging me to join him on the stadium music-jumbotron bandwagon, but I'm not buying it yet. Sure the ND live experience has grown stale. But it has nothing to do with band music or even the militant ushers. The product on the field has been so consistently mediocre for so long that a trip to South Bend, even from Chicago, seems like a waste of time (when curiously enough, I'm more than happy to make the drive in the summer to play a round at Warren or Blackthorn). But think back to 2005, or even 2006 - the games were exciting and the crowd was in it when the team was competitive. Heck, I even made a random November trip in 2005 for the BYU game because I loved watching that offense go up and down the field. Improve the product on the field, and people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

Matt: Hmmm, interesting and difficult question. Taken from the point of view of someone who was just recently a college student at Wake Forest, the tailgate scene never gets old. I mean, it was nothing compared to game days in South Bend, but for my money, nothing beats getting to the lots early, the big game anticipation, firing up the grill, tossing the football around, the air is a little crisp, you shotgun a beer or two, constantly check your phone for scores from around the country, and basically get to act like a college kid again. Do you miss out on some huge SEC or Big 10 games while sitting in the stadium for ND-Navy (or Wake-NC State)? Sure, but the opportunity to walk the hallowed grounds, see friends from all over the country and have a great time spending a Saturday outside makes it worth it.

The NFL is a totally different ball of wax, and maybe it's because I'm just not as passionate about the Eagles as I am about college football. To me, I love posting up at a sports bar and watching the Ticket, being able to follow all of my fantasy guys, and then I'm home by 5:00 and able to get ready for school or work or whatever other terrible responsibility that you have on Monday morning. But to drive down to a cookie cutter stadium, pay astronomical rates for parking and concessions, watch a game but miss out on all the rest of the days' NFL action, then struggle with parking and get home late on a Sunday night. No thanks. Maybe once a year. Maybe. The rest of the weekends, give me the sports bar or my HDTV flat screen.

I look at it like this. How many people say to themselves or their buddies, "man, I really want to visit at least once Quest Field or Panthers Stadium." There's only one mecca and that is Lambeau Field. Whereas in college, I literally cannot wait to see games at Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin and a ton of other schools. It's the reason why in my travels around the south this summer, I've taken detours off the interstate just to drive by the stadiums at South Carolina and Clemson. it's why I've followed Notre Dame football to their bowl games, to Lincoln and Knoxville and West Lafayette and everywhere else, but have never once had the inclination to road trip for an Eagles game to even Washington or New York.

Doug: For me?? No, I'm going to a million games this fall. ND games, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Bengals, maybe even Kentucky. I don't have any kids and I live in the Midwest. This is what you do in the fall. Tailgate and go to games. I will go to a game every weekend if I can. For me, going to a live college football game is still the ultimate live sports experience (maybe The Memorial is a close second these days). There's just something about being on campus, getting a feel for the energy in the air, soaking it all in, hearing the band, and just seeing the game unfold right in front of you. Every college football game is so important, so you're hanging on every play. I'm addicted to the drama of those fall Saturdays.

Having said all that, ticket demand is down across the country. Tennessee is giving away seats that were once impossible to get. ND couldn't come close to selling out in the lottery.

Part of it are these watered-down home game schedules that have become the standard. It's hard to get fans to justify dropping $75 a game per ticket for an 8 game home schedule to see the likes of Youngstown State, Akron, Toledo and Western Michigan. Fans aren't going to accept that type of product anymore. Int he 80s and 90s, you didn't have this problem. Most schools played 5-6 home games, and 5-6 road games. They played other BCS schools in non-conference play, so every game was big to some degree. You'd routinely see a team like Ohio state playing UCLA, Boston College and Texas A&M in non-conference play, or something like that. It was fantastic.

College athletic departments went too far with this stuff. They went to 12 games, trended toward 7-8 home games and introduced a slew of "buy" games that are glorified exhibitions. Fans have sort of rebelled, and that's why I think you're seeing more efforts to get these big one time showdowns at neutral sites. Those games allow you to split the revenue, get a big TV number and probably a big payday.

Fans also have so many other options. Now that everyone has internet and plasmas and sports bars with college football/NFL packages, isn't it just as much fun to go to a sports bar with your buddies and watch ALL the games? Instead of watching Notre Dame-Western Michigan in person, I'll go to a bar and watch the big SEC, Big Ten AND the ND game. It's just not worth it to go up for that game.

Ultimately, I think that's the biggest issue for college football. Attendance is still great, but it could be better. Get more compelling schedules and college football will remain a lucrative live event.

For the NFL, I think they really do have a problem with attendance. Fantasy football is so huge, and a lot of people genuinely PREFER to sit at home or go to a bar to watch the NFL. The NFL is a hundred times better as a TV sport than a live sport. When you go to a game, you can't follow all your fantasy guys or watch the other games or any of that. You're locked in. Plus, it's Sunday! I can't rally to go down to Cincinnati and tailgate for a 1pm game on a Sunday. I'd truthfully rather just get stuff done around the house, turn on the game and sort of follow it while I'm doing other stuff.

That's the biggest problem going forward for the NFL. They need to find a way to make the live experience more interactive for fans to incorporate Direct TV and fantasy and all that.

Jimmy: Two words. Pomp. Circumstance. That's what attracts me to the college game. Sure, all the money that's involved with the game clouding many of the behind-the-scene decisions makes you want to puke. But you forget all of that when you pull into a lot on a beautiful campus, mingle with opposing fans, toss some bags, enjoy some cold refreshments and tasty treats, and attend a game inside one of MANY cathedrals of the college game. The bands and student bodies provide the perfect backdrop to the experience. Traditions abound nearly everywhere you go. My list only grows longer with campuses, stadiums and rivalry games I can't wait to soak up at some point down the road. I'm a college fan through and through.

The NFL, on the other hand, has me only for fantasy purposes and the playoffs. It's become much more of a made for TV event than a moving live experience. I've been to a handful of games over the years and each time there's an emptiness involved. Don't get me wrong, the product on the field is impressive. But the NFL, like the NBA, tries too hard to sensationalize everything while
blatantly commercializing every aspect of the game. Frankly, it lacks the mystique and aura of the college game. I don't see that changing, and consequently, will never plan my falls around the NFL schedule.

14) Boise State is #2 in many preseason polls. If Boise St. runs the table this year with wins over Va. Tech and Oregon St., do you think they should play in the national championship game??

Jeremy: Long story (very) short -- sure. They deserve the lofty preseason ranking, and if they run the table with a HUGE win over what should be a solid Hokie squad, I'll back 'em. Especially if there's only one other undefeated team in the country. They'll get left out (deservedly so) if Ohio State and an SEC team run the table, which would be a real shame. I'm rooting for the Broncos to get their shot this year. They've certainly earned it.

Matt: Here comes my classic business school answer again: It Depends. It depends on what goes on around them. If Alabama, Texas and Ohio State are all undefeated, then no, Boise St is not going to the championship game. And if they are the only undefeated team, but VT and Oregon State have subpar seasons, then again, I don't see them making it to the championship. But, IF they go undefeated, and IF Virigina Tech and Oregon State go on to have good seasons (which I predict they will), and IF there are none or one other undefeated team, then I think they deserve to go and will go to Phoenix.

In the long term, Boise State really got hurt by Utah moving up to the Pac 10. Suddenly, the Mountain West was starting to resemble a real conference, with TCU, Utah, Boise, BYU (Ed. Note: not so fast my friend) and Air Force. Not great, but respectable and almost certainly likely to pick up an automatic BCS bid in the next couple of years. Now, without Utah (and BYU), there is going to be a lot of pressure on TCU and Boise to maintain their lofty standing, all the while Boise is playing much tougher competition than they faced in the WAC.

Doug: No -- This is not meant as a knock on Boise State. I have a ton of respect for what they have done. How could you not?? Boise has become a legitimately excellent college football program. They beat BCS schools regularly, crank out NFL talent and continue to win bowl games. If you have Boise State on your schedule, it's going to be a legitimately tough game no matter where you play the game. I really don't have any problem with them being ranked very high this year. They had a great year last year and return almost their entire team. Even their schedule is the most conducive "national championship caliber" schedule Boise has had. Playing Virginia Tech in a big showdown in the opener and Oregon state in week 3 is as good a non-conference schedule as any in the nation. The problem is the rest of their schedule. Brutal.

O2 @ New Mexico State
O9 Toledo
O16 @ San Jose State
O26 Louisiana Tech
N6 Hawaii
N12 @ Idaho
N19 Fresno State
N26 @ Nevada
D4 Utah State

Talk about a pupu platter. I'd say their toughest game in that stretch is Nevada, and we all saw Nevada last year. They couldln't have looked less like a high quality team.

I don't care if they go undefeated. You can't play in the championship game with that schedule. You just can't. If Alabama has one loss but wins the SEC and Boise goes undefeated, I want Bama in the title game. Same with Texas or Ohio State or any other heavy hitter. Those schools are all playing 3-4 heavyweight games a year plus several quality mid-level games. For example, Ohio State plays Miami, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa this year. And even bottom feeder schools like Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota are a different caliber than someone like La. Tech or San Jose State.

Boise doesn't have enough physical tests against deep rosters with big 300 lb. linemen and 240 lb. linebackers. We played Nevada last year, and their defensive ends were like 200 pounds. It was like playing Navy. maybe they had some good players, but the overall depth and quality of personnel isn't there.

There is no way Boise would go undefeated in a quality league. They just don't have the personnel to grind through a 12-game season like that. For that reason, I can't support them in a national championship game. A national champion should be tested physically throughout the year. A team like Boise only has to get up for a couple games.

If they beat Virginia Tech, good for them. It's a sign that they have an excellent team and should play in a very good bowl game.

Jimmy: I understand all the reasons against letting Boise State contend for the crystal ball given their second fiddle BCS status. But, if they run the table again with 2 huge non-conference victories in their belt and a 26 game winning streak, they absolutely should be given a slot in the National Championship game. If there are three undefeated teams when the dust settles at the end of the year, it would be a shame to deny the Broncos their shot at immortality.

I actually could see the weight of this scenario weigh on Boise St heavily if they get through the first stretch of the schedule unscathed. They close with 3 of their last 4 games against Idaho (bitter interstate rival competing for the Governor's Trophy), Fresno State (the Battle of the Milk Can - bet you didn't know there's a standing trophy at stake in this budding rivalry) and Nevada. 2 rivalry games and the 2nd best team in your conference. These are still college kids and emotions play a huge part in high stakes games. I predict they lose one of those three games IF they beat Oregon State and Virginia Tech. A little reverse psychology, I guess.

15) Conference Winners

ACC - Virginia Tech
Big Ten - Ohio State
Big 12 - Oklahoma
Big East - South Florida (The Fighting Skippers!)
Pac 10 - Oregon
SEC - Alabama

National Title - Ohio State vs. Alabama
Winner - Buckeyes

Matt: OK, projection time. Let's go rapid fire on these.
ACC - Virginia Tech. Too much running game, an experienced QB in Tyrod Taylor and, of course, those Beamer special teams. FSU may be one year away from returning to national prominence, although I could definitely see them making some hay under Jimbo Fisher with Christian Ponder under center. As for my second alma mater, Wake Forest, expect things to get ug ly in year one of the post-Riley Skinner era. That Orange Bowl four years back will surely be the high water mark of the Jim Grobe era and I think we'll look back in 20 years and wonder how in the hell a school like Wake Forest ever won the ACC.

Big Ten - Ohio State. I think this is the year Terrelle Pryor makes the leap, now that Tressel finally realized how to properly utilize him during the second half of the season last year. Also in contention: Wisconsin.

Big 12 - Texas. They have to go to Lubbock early, and a road trip to Lincoln is on the docket, and of course the Red River Shootout. But other than that it looks like smooth sailing for Mack Brown as he breaks in highly talented Garrett Gilbert at QB. The guy looked pretty comfortable on the big stage last year after Colt's injury, and I don't really foresee too much drop-off this year.

Big East - Pitt Panthers. The Big East is always a tough race to handicap, maybe because of the mediocrity of the whole conference, or just the general competitiveness and the true round robin format of the league. As talked about above, I wouldn't be shocked if South Florida had a surprisingly good year, and they do get the Panthers in Tampa, but I'll go with the Panthers behind Dion Lewis.

MAC - Temple. Just had to get that one in there again.

Pac 10 - If there was ever a year when a team reached out and took the reins from USC, this would be it. A team in transition with no postseason to play for. Meanwhile, Oregon has a bit of a mess with the whole Jeremiah Masoli situation, and Washington might be a year or two away from being a serious contender. So I'm going to go out on a limb and pick Oregon State to win the conference this year. They USC, Oregon and Cal at home. And while I could see them losing two games out of conference (at TCU, at, ambitious), I think they pull through in what should be another wide open year out west.

SEC - Alabama. Never doubt a Nick Saban coached team. There may be a little drop-off on the defense, but McElroy, Ingram and Jones are back to form another formidable offense.

National Championship - Alabama over Boise State. Dynasty?

ACC - Florida State
Big Ten - Ohio State
Big 12 - Texas
Big East - Cincinnati
Pac 10 - Oregon
SEC - Georgia in the East, Bama in the West -- Bama

National Champs - Ohio State

ACC - North Carolina. Call it a misguided hunch.
Big Ten - Wisconsin. I'm riding Big John Clay like a thoroughbred down the stretch for my inaugural college fantasy league. Like the Badgers prospects.
Big 12 - Oklahoma. People are kinda sleeping on how potent the Sooners offense could be.
Big East - Pitt
Pac 10 - Stanford. Harbaugh rallies the Cardinal before breaking their hearts and jumping for the best available offer.
SEC - Auburn

National Champs - Boise State. A man can dream.

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