Around the horn

Charles Babb checks in today with a look around the world of college football, revisiting this past weekend, looking at the OSU offense, and more.

Around the Horn…

Several years ago, I used to write an article every weekend entitled, "Around the Horn." Don't look now, but I think that it is primed for a comeback.

The Undefeated Teams

Mark it down, by November 15 there will be at most four undefeated teams left in the major conferences. Not only do you have the inevitable upsets like what overrated teams such as Pittsburgh and Kansas State experienced, but a number of these teams play each other.

Florida State and Miami face off October 11. Iowa and Ohio State will meet October 18. Tennessee and Miami play on November 8. Missouri travels to face Oklahoma on their homecoming October 18, but the Tigers face Nebraska the week before that October 11. Virginia Tech and Miami meet November 1.

Only USC and Oregon do not meet a currently undefeated team for the rest of the season. In a scheduling quirk, these two Pac Ten powers do not play in 2003.

Division I-A college football has become a single game elimination tournament. The Buckeyes are still in the mix right now, and if they go undefeated again (which I do not expect) then they will play in the national title game.

Chris Rix and the Handicapped parking zone…

The Associated Press is reporting that Seminoles starting quarterback Chris Rix was fined $100 for using a handicapped parking pass. Apparently, Rix parked his SUV in a handicapped slot and was then recognized by fellow students who were not pleased at his sense of entitlement. They called the police, who locked down his vehicle while he was in class.

Whatever else is happening with collegiate athletics, this type of story turns my stomach. This is not about boosters or grade changes. This is about being a member of the human race instead of a selfish swine.

Allow me to digress a bit.

After graduating from high school, I served as a camp counselor several weeks year a summer for various organizations including the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a camp for children in remission from cancer. It broke my heart to see the physical condition of some of these young people, but they lived life with courage and a fierce joy most "normal" (what is normal anyway?) Americans cannot comprehend. At the same time, their obvious physical limitations necessitated walkers and even mechanized wheelchairs. That meant that any trip to the outside world was more complicated. Their disabilities demanded they have access to a handicapped-parking slot either to shorten the trip across the parking lot (sometimes literally for their own safety) or to leave room for a mechanized wheelchair lift to swing out and deposit them onto the blacktop close to the front door.

That any healthy, whole individual would ever park in a handicapped slot is beyond revolting. Were it not so horrible, I could think of no better punishment than to wish on these types of people that they too would suffer with a physical impairment. I wonder what it would be like for them to try and find a parking spot in a driving rainstorm when some self-absorbed, piggish individual has taken the only slot that allows them to use their mechanized wheelchair lift. I wonder what they might feel if it was their little brother or sister who was limited to a wheelchair, and they were searching for a place close to the store so that they were not soaked.

Lest anyone say, "Oh come on! You are just thinking up the worst-case scenario here. Stuff like that rarely happens…" That would be incorrect. It does happen. I distinctly remember occasions when able-bodied people had parked in handicapped slots, and I was forced to either pull a van up in front of the store or stop in the middle of the parking lot to unload an individual with a disability.

This kind of behavior may not be criminal in the legal sense, but it is in a moral and ethical realm. Bowden ought to suspend Rix and then demand that he spend a number of hours volunteering to help those who truly are physically limited instead of merely lazy and selfish like himself. Maybe he could rejoin the human race after learning a little humility.

Of course, I do not look for that to happen given Bowden's history of laxness when it comes to actually punishing players for their egregious offenses.

Great weekend for college football

Though I am certain everyone has heard about enough of it, this past weekend showed why College Football is the greatest sport known to man. Try to predict who will win from week to week. I dare you.

Kansas State lost at home to Marshall, showing that some things never change -- another year, another overrated Wildcats team. Alabama lost at home to Northern Illinois. LSU took Georgia down to the Pit and left them lying there after they thrashed them. Michigan went out west only to discover that a duck is more ferocious in Autzen than a wolverine. Pitt was exposed as another Big East pretender by Toledo. Missouri almost fell to Middle Tennessee State.

Special teams and overtime.

Buckeye fans should stop for a moment and say a thank you prayer that they have Mike Nugent and an excellent crew to hit extra points. This facet of the game is often overlooked, but when it comes down to overtime – it can mean the difference between walking away chewing on a win and swallowing a bitter loss.

Middle Tennessee State lost not because they did not score a touchdown in overtime but because they missed their extra point while Missouri hit theirs. Nor is it like the Blue Raiders have a lousy kicker. Brian Kelly is a senior who had hit 27 out of 35 field goals on his career, several of which have been 45 yards or longer.

Pack your bags

It is rapidly becoming clear that at least two BCS conference teams will be shopping for a new head coach at the end of the season.

· John Mackovic should have stayed in the ESPN studios. At the very least, he should have left following his team's mass revolt. By staying, he has only delayed the inevitable. Right now, it appears as if his team has completely quit on he and the coaching staff. They are currently 1-3 and not counting a win over UTEP have been outscored by combined margin of 166-30. Unless the team somehow finds new talent and the coaching staff gives them new life, Mackovic should be talking to his realtor.

· Mississippi State fans and alums are not happy campers. For a while it seemed like Jackie Sherrill could do no wrong in Starkville. Now, not only is the NCAA investigating the program off of the field, opponents are thrashing it on the field. Since their victory over Texas A&M in the 2000 Independence Bowl, the Bulldogs are 6-20. In order to buy himself more time, Sherrill was forced to fire his offensive and defensive coordinators. While they are scoring more points, they are now weak defensively and are losing shooting matches by a touchdown every week.

ND fans should back away from Willingham

Notre Dame fans need to back away and leave Ty Willingham alone.

This is not an elite program right now. The reason for this is not because of their hallowed traditions, their facilities, or their coaches.

Notre Dame lacks talent. That Willingham was able to squeeze a 10-3 mark out of his squad in 2002 should speak glowingly of his abilities, but this year the team has even less talent on offense. That is saying something considering just how poor his team was on that side of the ball last season.

Yes, the critics are likely saying, "Well! He has had a year to get them playing better. What is his problem?"

The problem is that unlike the medieval belief that alchemy could make lead turn to gold; you cannot turn a player into a stud just by strapping a gold helmet on them. Breaking down the Notre Dame roster, I see literally only two players who might start at Ohio State right now – Vontez Duff and Julius Jones. The Irish have only two scholarship quarterbacks on their entire roster, their place kicker was 14 of 25 on field goals last season, they lost four starters from their 2002 offensive line, and their schedule is positively brutal.

While some point to 2004 as the year for the Irish to have their coming out party, I believe it could end up being much longer than that. The talent pool and the program is at its lowest ebb in decades, and there is little Willingham can do to fix that other than recruit better athletes and pray for patience from fans and alumni. Until then, Notre Dame players, fans, and alumni better get used to losing and second-class bowls.

What is wrong with the offense at Ohio State?

With the media and fans placing the blame for the offense's performance and lack of production squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff, I wonder how many have really examined the roster lately.

Following the Fiesta Bowl win, the plan was to have back all 11 starters from 2002 to make a run at a repeat crown in 2003. Maurice Clarett would be running behind a line with five senior starters. Craig Krenzel would be tossing passes to his receivers with Branden Joe buying him extra time with his blocking. Chris Gamble would be grabbing passes right and left, becoming the game breaker at wideout where he showed flashes of brilliance in the previous two seasons.

That is not what has happened.

The offense that takes the field this Saturday will have only six starters from last season. Take a look at the personnel losses since March…

Left Tackle Ivan Douglas. Douglas, a 6-8 behemoth, was ideal for protecting a quarterback's blind side. His wingspan allowed him to get his hands on even the quickest linemen who were trying to go out around him. While he might not have been the most talented left tackle ever, he was the starter, meaning he beat out whoever was second on the Ohio State roster.

Center Alex Stepanovich. The Buckeyes have been forced to play the last 2 ½ games without their 6'4", 310 anchor in the middle. A former heavyweight state wrestling champion, this young man understands leverage and blocking. Even if Mangold is performing admirably in his place, Stepanovich's loss cannot be measured. If you want to see what Stepanovich is capable of, look at a tape of the 2002 Michigan game. Fast forward the tape to the 4th and 1 play that Ohio State made in the 4th quarter. Slow it down and watch what Stepanovich does to the poor Michigan defensive lineman in front of him.

Tailback Maurice Clarett.  This young man was the consensus preseason heisman favorite.  With him back, I would put OSU at #1 in the nation right now. I think most pollsters would as well.  Even as much as I respect OU and think they are awesome,
Clarett would have given OSU everything it needed to run the table again. Unfortunately, he is not coming back this year and maybe not ever.

Fullback Branden Joe.  Branden reportedly had a great summer and was coming into fall camp in the best shape of his life. A question mark last year, the fullbacks were both ready to show the world that they could do their jobs. Then Branden Joe tore a pectoral muscle just before camp.  Though the staff hopes to have him by the time they play Wisconsin, they have struggled in his absence.

Quarterback Craig Krenzel.  What can you say here?  The guy is the best signal caller to have in the country.  Nobody is better at managing a game. Nobody.  OSU won without Craig this week, but career numbers for Craig are sick.  He has never once lost a game he has started and finished.  He is 18-0 with two straight wins over Michigan and a national championship.  Right now, OSU is saying he has a hyper-extended elbow.  
Buckeye fans should be concerned here since he has not thrown in over a week.  A simple bruise or strain would not take this long for recovery.  I personally think there are only two possibilities: (1) The coaching and medical staffs are both being cautious. They do not want to rush him and lose him for the Big Ten season. (2) The injury is far worse than the public is being told and OSU will be fortunate to have him back by November.

On top of those five missing offensive starters, there are others who are hurt or have played nicked up. Brandon Schnittker, the second string fullback, has missed parts of several games due to various injuries and spent a good deal of time in fall camp with a yellow jersey. Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross, the second and third string tailbacks, both wore the yellow jersey as much or more than their full contact jersey in fall camp, and Lydell Ross has missed much of the first four games. Starting defensive end Simon Fraser is playing hurt after tweaking his knee. Starting defensive tackle Darrion Scott is doubtful for this week with a high ankle sprain suffered about midway through the Bowling Green contest.

The simple reality is that the coaching staff and players should take a bow for managing to stay undefeated up to this point. They are playing with an offense where, besides Michael Jenkins, nobody else who has played all four games even gained over 500 yards and 4 touchdowns last year.

OSU – American Cancer Society warning.

The American Cancer Society needs to put out a warning regarding the danger of watching an Ohio State game. Leaving the Horseshoe Saturday, I witnessed more people lighting up than I have ever seen. There was so much smoke, I thought I was being initiated into some sort of tribal ritual.

LSU deja vu

In 1959, two undefeated teams met in the Pit in Baton Rouge. LSU, the defending national champion, was trailing a determined Ole Miss squad (that would finish 10-1) late in the game. A defensive struggle, the Rebels were up 3-0. Early in the fourth quarter, LSU star and eventual Heisman winner Billy Cannon grabbed a punt at his own 11 yard line. 89 yards later, he crossed the goal line for the only touchdown in the game. LSU won 7-3, and Cannon's dramatic return became a part of SEC lore. His jersey was immediately retired following his graduation and remains the only one retired by Louisiana State to this day.

LSU fans had to be wondering whether the shoe would be on the other foot Saturday. Trailing 10-3 in the fourth quarter, Georgia quarterback David Greene hit Tyson Browning on a screen pass that would up being a 93-yard touchdown run. With the sands of time ebbing low and an LSU offense that had been only mediocre all evening, it was questionable whether or not the Tigers could score again before the game went into overtime.

However, in a back to the future scenario, LSU fielded the kickoff and returned it to the 48 yard line. This special teams play set up an eventual 34 yard touchdown pass by Matt Mauck to Tiger Skyler Green with just 1:22 remaining.

For the first time since the era of Billy Cannon, LSU might find itself in the thick of the national title race. Given the way that the game ended on Saturday, could it end any other way?

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