Sunday Morning QB: Looks Like A Real Fiesta

After all of the handwringing about whether the Fiesta Bowl may pick Ohio State or Oregon, bowl organizers may have no choice. Upset losses by LSU and Virginia Tech could elevate OSU to No. 4 in the final BCS standings and make the Buckeyes an automatic at-large pick. We have notes on that, OSU's MVP choice(s), whether this was a great year and also the contract status of a certain Division I-A head coach. Check it out.

Welcome to Sunday Morning Quarterback, a column I intend to stand each week as a quick read on the news, notes and opinion on Ohio State's weekly game as well as the Big Ten and the college football nation at large.

There was no OSU game this week, but we do have some notes on the Buckeyes nonetheless:

* I am no mathematician, but I do know that if you go into a given weekend as the nation's No. 6-ranked team and Nos. 4 and 5 both lose you are supposed to move into the No. 4 slot.

Since Ohio State defeated Michigan 25-21 on Nov. 19 – OK, that was a gratuitous dropping of the score in The Game – we have felt that the 9-2 Buckeyes were a lock for the Bowl Championship Series.

Their only obstacles seemed to be whether one of the BCS bowls (i.e. the Fiesta) would take a flyer on 10-1 Oregon instead or whether Texas would stumble and need the one remaining BCS at-large bid cleared for itself.

Texas took care of its business with a 40-29 squeaker, of sorts, against rival Texas A&M and then a 70-3 pounding of hapless, pitiful Colorado in the Big 12 title game.

We have made the case on better rankings, more fans, a larger national following and just a general cache factor that Ohio State deserved the last BCS at-large spot over Oregon. I think most rationale thinking adults tend to agree, especially when they realize the BCS was created to foment big money, heavily hyped match-ups. Ohio State-Notre Dame is a marketer's dream. Oregon-Notre Dame? Uh, no, not so much.

Well, we have come to Selection Sunday and the decision, truly, could be out of the bowls' hands. Again, I am not capable of fully crunching all of the numbers. But Ohio State may become a mandatory at-large pick if it ends up No. 4 in the BCS rankings. BCS rules read that any teams that finish third and/or fourth are guaranteed spots in the BCS bowl structure if they fail to qualify as a conference's automatic representative. (Notre Dame has the other spot locked with a 9-2 record and a top-12 finish in the BCS rankings.)

So, given the preponderance of the evidence – and with 99 percent of the precincts responding – we feel we can safely project Ohio State to the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.

Wow, what a match-up that would be if those two teams meet for just the fifth time in history.

This may be, in fact, the best year ever for the BCS at things fell into place – even with a couple of upsets on Saturday.

Unbeatens USC and Texas will tangle in the Rose Bowl to end all Rose Bowls. That much we know.

But we think the Fiesta has a great storyline with OSU-ND and so does the Orange as Florida State upset Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, setting up a match-up between the game's two winningest coaches – FSU's Bobby Bowden and Penn State's Joe Paterno. Oh my.

And then you have the Sugar Bowl, where enthusiastic West Virginia from the Big East meets hometown favorite Georgia.

All four of those games should be sellouts and really, other than WVU-UGa., they should draw above average ratings for ABC in its last year as the host network of the BCS.

Stay tuned to Bucknuts.com. We will have reaction on OSU's bowl assignment later this afternoon and will also have comments from the opposition as well. Plus, we'll share OSU's award winners and also have recruiting coverage.

* The Buckeyes will hold their postseason banquet today. (It's a private affair, by the way.)

At any rate, a lot of years we debate who should win the MVP award. There is no real debate this time around as linebacker A.J. Hawk has to be considered the hands down winner. Hawk led the Buckeyes with 109 tackles and 13 tackles-for-loss. He was only one-half of a sack away from Bobby Carpenter's team-high mark of eight.

Hawk was already named the Big Ten defensive player of the year. It is my contention he should be the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football Award winner as the Big Ten MVP. Plus, he has to be considered the leader for the Butkus Award (top linebacker) and a contender for the Lombardi Award (top lineman or linebacker) as well as the Lott Award (nation's top defender).

He is also among five finalists for the Walter Camp Award, which is similar to the Heisman Trophy. The other finalists? USC's Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, Texas' Vince Young and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn.

Hawk was the heart and soul of Ohio State's signature defense, a unit that gave up just 275 yards and 15 points a game this season.

This is not to say, however, that there are not any other worthy candidates on the OSU team this year. In just about any other year, I think you could make a serious case for, in this order, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, Carpenter and quarterback Troy Smith.

Holmes was, by far, the most consistent player on the OSU offense. He ended up with 48 catches for 853 yards (17.8 average) and 10 touchdowns. There has been a lot of debate that Holmes will end his OSU career and not come back for a chance to be a fifth-year senior. That seems to be the prevailing wisdom. But Holmes has a lot of Mike Doss in him.

Doss' identity was built, in many ways, around being a great Ohio State Buckeye. I think Holmes sees himself in the same vein. He wanted a national championship in the worst way this year. There is a chance he feels he has some unfinished business. You have to think that Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. will lobby to see if Holmes will come back and join them in 2006. Extra hands make the load much lighter, they always say.

But we also know that Holmes has two young children and, if the draft scouts deem him to be a first-round pick, the financial security for his family may be too much to pass up.

Carpenter's move to rush end during nickel situations was a stroke of brilliance by Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell. It energized the pass rush and gave the Buckeyes a new look that opposing offense struggled mightily to counter. Carpenter suffered a broken leg on the first play of the Michigan game. The Buckeyes still managed to win that one without him, but he would be sorely missed if he is unable to go in the bowl game – particularly if it's against a veteran passer like Notre Dame's Brady Quinn.

Carpenter is the ultimate gamer. If he can play, he will be there. But, like Holmes, he also has to think about his future and what he needs to do to prepare for the draft workouts. I am sure he will make the best decision he can make – if he is ruled healthy enough to go.

And I think you also have to consider Smith. Some people would say his self-inflicted absence early in the season took Ohio State out of the national championship picture. That may be. But he put it together during OSU's six-game winning streak to end the year, capped by one more command performance against Michigan. (Can you hardly wait to see what he will do if he is full-go from day one in 2006?)

OSU usually presents a full complement of awards. Two of them go to the top first-year players on each side of the ball. These seem to be no-brainers.

Alex Boone filled in for Kirk Barton at right tackle. He started four games and OSU won them all. He has the look of a real keeper. My guess is that Doug Datish will slide inside to guard or center so Boone and Barton can man the tackle spots in 2006.

On defense, the pick would be freshman cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. He started five games in 2006 and worked well in coverage as well as in run support. What a great find this underpublicized recruit from New Jersey turned out to be. OSU loses Tyler Everett at corner and Ashton Youboty is also contemplating a jump to the pros. But Jenkins' emergence should make the defensive coaches sleep a little better at night.

* At the end of every Ohio State football season, we have that debate: Was this a great year?

We typically define a great year as nine wins (in an 11-game schedule, this moves to 10 wins in a 12-game slate next year) and/or a win over Michigan.

In Jim Tressel's debut season in 2001, the Buckeyes were just 7-5. They even lost their bowl game. But there is that little provision in there about Michigan. The Buckeyes won 26-20 at The Big House – in almost a called shot by the new head coach – and so, yes, that was a great year.

In 2002, of course, OSU had the greatest season in Division I-A college football history … OK, the Buckeyes won more games in a single season than any school ever had with their 14-0 national championship campaign. Great year No. 2 for Tressel.

The 2003 season ended up 11-2. Yes, the Buckeyes lost at Michigan. But they went to Ann Arbor playing for the Big Ten crown and a spot in the national championship game. You can't go that deep into the discussion and not have a great year. Plus, they thumped Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Great year No. 3 for Tressel.

Last year was somewhat of a transition year with so many starters from the national championship team on their way to the NFL. OSU opened the year 3-3 and things looked bleak. But the Buckeyes rallied for an 8-4 finish, including a 37-21 thrashing of Big Ten co-champion Michigan. That one game, of course, is all you really need, so you have great year No. 4 for Tressel.

And now we come to 2005. The Buckeyes lost early season games to Texas (now No. 2) and Penn State (now No. 3). Those defeats took Ohio State out of the national title picture, although there was no real disgrace in either loss. They were great, tight games that could have gone either way. OSU could have fallen apart, but Tressel and his seniors would not allow it. They reeled off six straight wins to get a piece of the Big Ten title and finish at 9-2. That included a thrilling 25-21 decision at Michigan, and, voila!, you have great year No. 5 for Tressel.

Tressel is on his way toward having not a good but a great tenure as the head coach at Ohio State. By any meaningful criteria, he has had five great years. He's 4-1 against Michigan with a national title, two Big Ten titles and what should be a third BCS bid.

I'd say he and his staff are getting it done.

* That brings us to what may become a touchy subject in these parts over the next several months.

According to my research, Tressel is nearing a window where he and the university can mutually agree on a three-year contract extension.

In the wake of the national championship season, Tressel received a lucrative extension that goes through the 2008 season. That seemed like a long time into the future when it was unveiled in the spring of 2003.

But three years have slipped by since then and "just" three years remain on the contract. I think the university has been hesitant to do anything the last couple of years as the scandals surrounding Maurice Clarett and Troy Smith percolated. Now that those storm clouds have lifted and, as we pointed out above, the coach just delivered a fifth straight great year, I just wonder if one of the items on Gene Smith's to-do list is "take care of Jim Tressel."

At roughly $1.5 million a year, Tressel is a bargain right now – especially if the reported $4 million a year deal for Charlie Weis is true. He is certainly a better bargain than John L. Smith, whom Michigan State paid $1.65 million this year and last year to miss postseason play both times.

The contract extension Tressel signed states that the contract can be extended for three more years – through 2011 – if the sides agree by March 1, 2006, which is roughly three months from now.

From Tressel's standpoint, I am sure this contract is low on his to-do list. I imagine recruiting, bowl preparation and seeing his players through fall quarter exams this week are three of his biggest things right now. But don't be surprised if sometime between now and March 1 the university quietly announces an extension for Tressel. It seems to be the only sensible thing to do.

If March 1 passes without an announcement, I imagine we can assume one of two things – the sides just haven't had a chance to hammer out the final details but they pledge to do so or they have had time to hammer out the details but haven't reached an agreement on term and salary.

Stay tuned, I guess.

And a glance at headlines nationally:

* Top-ranked USC moved a step closer to its third straight national title with a resounding 66-19 pounding of crosstown rival and No. 11-ranked UCLA.

Reggie Bush rushed for 260 yards and two touchdowns as USC claimed its 34th straight win, including 16 against ranked teams.

It was a rousing sendoff for quarterback Matt Leinart and the rest of the USC seniors, who will go for an unprecedented third straight title against Texas in the Rose Bowl. The win was USC's seventh straight over UCLA.

* At the same time, No. 2 Texas was just as dominant in its 70-3 decimation of outclassed, outmatched Colorado in the Big 12 title game. Texas claimed its first Big 12 title since 1996 and it was the first conference crown of any kind for coach Mack Brown, long lampooned for his inability to win the big games.

Quarterback Vince Young was 14-for-17 for 193 yards with three touchdown passes and also rushed for a score in just two-plus quarters of work.

* The shocker of Championship Saturday came in Jacksonville, site of the first-ever ACC championship game. It was fitting that Florida State, losers of three straight, knocked off Virginia Tech 27-22 to claim the school's 12th conference title in 14 years.

The three-game losing streak was the program's first since 1983. Tech coach Frank Beamer fell to 0-7 all-time against FSU.

The Seminoles earned the right to serve as the host team in the Orange Bowl, a game that will match coaches with a combined 712 wins with Bowden (359) and Paterno (353). Paterno has the edge between them with a 5-1 mark in head-to-head match-ups.

"Does it look like that?" Bowden asked when told an FSU-PSU match-up was in the cards. "I might not show up."

* No. 13 Georgia was a slight underdog as it faced LSU, ranked third in the AP poll and fourth in the BCS standings, in the SEC title game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

But the Bulldogs rode the hometown crowd to a quick 14-0 lead and went on to post a 34-14 win.

D.J. Shockley threw a pair of touchdown passes to Sean Bailey and ran for another score to claim game MVP honors. The Bulldogs, who improved to 10-2, were playing in Atlanta for the second week in a row, coming off a win over rival Georgia Tech. Now, they'll have to make the 75-mile trip from their Athens campus a third straight time -- for the Sugar Bowl, which was moved from New Orleans due to damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Georgia avenged a 34-13 loss to LSU in the SEC title game two years ago and claimed the SEC title for the second time in five years under Mark Richt.

* Tulsa outlasted host Central Florida 44-27 to win the first-ever Conference USA title game and the school's first league title of any kind in 20 years. Tarrion Adams had three touchdowns, two of them rushing, and Tulsa's defense shut UCF out in the second half.

Tulsa meets Fresno State in the Liberty Bowl.

* Navy claimed its fourth straight win over rival Army, this one 42-23 in Philadelphia. Adam Ballard ran for 192 yards and two touchdowns as the Midshipmen won the 106th meeting between the service academies.

* On Thursday night in Detroit, Akron made history with a stunning come-from-behind 31-30 win over heavily favored Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game.

Luke Getsy threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 10 seconds left to lift the Zips to the win. That victory gave Akron its first conference title ever (the Zips first joined a league in 1915, when they entered the Ohio Athletic Conference). And Akron will play in its first bowl game ever in the Motor City Bowl.

"This is a huge moment, not just for our football program, but for our athletic department and our university," Zips coach J.D. Brookhart said. "This was the best three-hour advertisement you could ask for, because we are still in the building phase of this program."

* Heisman Watch: After touting Matt Leinart all season, he will not be on my ballot when I submit it this week. Reggie Bush's latest explosion cemented it. For Vince Young, it was too much, too little, too late. But he is my No. 2. And I'm going off the board for No. 3. I'm putting A.J. Hawk on my ballot. Call me a homer, call me an idiot, but I thought he had a great year. So there you go: Bush, Young, Hawk.

* My new top 15: The end of the regular season and just a few tweaks: USC, Texas, Penn State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon, Auburn, Georgia, Miami (Fla.), LSU, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Louisville, TCU, Alabama.

* My new bowl projections: Obviously, Florida State subs in for Virginia Tech and Georgia moves in for LSU, but I think we had the conference positions nailed. Rose, USC-Texas; Orange, Florida State-Penn State; Sugar, Georgia-West Virginia; Fiesta, Ohio State-Notre Dame; Capital One, Wisconsin-Auburn; Outback, Michigan-Florida; Alamo, Iowa-Nebraska; Sun, Minnesota-UCLA; Music City, Northwestern-Georgia Tech.

We will wrap up each week with a look at how OSU's opponents fared and check out who they face next week.

Date (Time, TV), Opponent (Record), This Week's Result, Next Week's Game

Sept. 3, Miami (Ohio) (7-4), regular season complete.

Sept. 10, Texas (12-0), beat Colorado 70-3 in Big 12 title game; vs. USC (Rose Bowl), Jan. 4.

Sept. 17, San Diego State (5-7), lost to Hawaii 49-38.

Sept. 24, Iowa (7-4), regular season complete.

Oct. 8, Penn State (10-1), regular season complete.

Oct. 15, Michigan State (5-6), regular season complete.

Oct. 22, at Indiana (4-7), regular season complete.

Oct. 29, at Minnesota (7-4), regular season complete.

Nov. 5, Illinois (2-9), regular season complete.

Nov. 12, Northwestern (7-4), regular season complete.

Nov. 19, Michigan (7-4), regular season complete.

Note: OSU's opponents combined to post a record of 73-50 this year (including, of course, 2-9 against Ohio State).

Big Ten Standings

Team (Overall, Big Ten)

Penn State* (10-1, 7-1)

Ohio State* (10-2, 7-1)

Wisconsin (9-3, 5-3)

Michigan (7-4, 5-3)

Northwestern (7-4, 5-3)

Iowa (7-4, 5-3)

Minnesota (7-4, 4-4)

Purdue (5-6, 3-5)

Michigan State (5-6, 2-6)

Indiana (4-7, 1-7)

Illinois (2-9, 0-8)

*-Shared Big Ten championship.


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