It seems like the football season just started. Here we are facing the season finale, and there is so much I haven't written about. Instead of giving a bunch of picks this week, especially since I seem to have lost the magic touch of the first two months, I am going to clean out the desk drawer and voice my opinions on several subjects.
The college game is exciting and doesn't need much tweaking, but here are a few ideas I think will help improve it.
1. The pass interference rule: It is ridiculous to make this a maximum 15-yard penalty. This rule needs to go back to the way it used to be. Giving up 15 yards instead of allowing a 50-yard pass to be completed has become standard operating procedure. The long bomb is the most exciting play in football, and the NCAA is severely hampering its chance of its succeeding. Force defenders to play defense; don't give them an easy out.
2. The rule of when an offensive player is down. The NCAA should implement the NFL rule here. A player who is on the ground should not be considered tackled until contact has been made by a defender. A slippery turf shouldn't be allowed to make a great open-field tackle.
3. The first down stoppage of the clock. I never understood why this rule was put in place. It wasn't always there, and games used to be 120 plays instead of 140. Why should the clock stop after a first down? This takes off the emphasis of going for bigger, more exciting plays when the game is on the line late. The clock should only stop on out of bounds plays, incomplete passes, and time outs. If the NCAA wants to implement a 2-minute warning, that's fine. But, the first down clock stoppage just turns a 3-hour game into a 3-1/2 hour game.
4. Spiking the ball to stop the clock. This is just as much intentional grounding as any other type. The quarterback is intentionally grounding the ball to stop the clock instead of avoiding the sack in the regular grounding call. The quarterback should be forced to throw a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage and with an eligible receiver in the vicinity. Spiking the ball is like allowing a basketball timeout when a player is going out of bounds with the ball. It's bush league.
I wrote about this in depth the week a snafu kept it from being published. For the 99% of you who missed it, here is a synopsis of why the current way we select our BCS representatives is insane.
Let's look at the major criteria used to select our top teams. First off is the strength of schedule used by the computers. Cannot everybody realize that the strength of a team's schedule does not in the least indicate how good a team is? To begin with, college football schedules are made years in advance, so it's a crapshoot whether a team's schedule will be tough or weak. Look at the teams who six to eight years ago scheduled Penn State, Syracuse, Kansas State, Washington, Nebraska, Mississippi St., or Arizona for this season. Who would have known in 1998 that these teams would be cream puffs six years later?
Using the NCAA's flawed BCS logic, the Pittsburgh Steelers could play in the Big East and schedule Central Florida, East Carolina, Idaho, and Florida International out of conference; they would have no chance of playing in the Orange Bowl due to strength of schedule, and they could beat Oklahoma, USC, and Auburn combined by 5 touchdowns. On top of that, when one of these powerhouse teams beats an opponent's brains in, the opponent may take weeks to recover or never recover and thus lower the powerhouse's strength of schedule. Beating an opponent by a slim margin might allow the opponent to gain confidence and play above its head, helping the powerhouse's strength of schedule. It's just plain stupid to use SOS in the equation.
We don't want the Associated Press sportswriters selecting the top teams either. If we allowed our nation's press to select our President, George McGovern would be getting ready to start his ninth term in office. Ask one of these sportswriters how to explain blocking rules or a double zone coverage. They cannot recognize the difference between the triple option, regular option, and load play. Why do we let them decide who is the best team, when they are so unqualified to recognize the differences in teams separated by 2,000 miles who have not played each other?
We also don't need the coaches selecting which teams are the best. Can Mike Bellotti gauge how good Auburn is this year, when he doesn't have the time to study anybody but his next opponent at Oregon? What about Bill Callahan after last weekend. Don't you suspect that part of the reason Auburn gained on Oklahoma was because a certain coach may have dropped the Sooners a few notches in his weekly ballot just for spite.
If we are going to let anybody select the two top teams, there is only one way to do so. Let the wise guys in Vegas tell you who the two best are. That's there job. Of course, it will never happen. The NCAA doesn't believe gambling exists in their sports. Pay no attention to Nebraska's calling for a timeout with one second to go to kick a field goal and lose 30-3 beating the spread.
Of course, the only real way to determine a champion is through a playoff. I'd rather see the No. 17 team complain about being left out of a 16-team playoff than an 11-0 No. 3 team being left out of the Orange Bowl. For those who say it's too many games, then the NCAA better squash the 12-game schedule. When you add a road game at Hawaii, a post-season conference championship game, and a bowl game you have 15 games. With an 11-game schedule, the two finalists would play the same 15 games in a 16-team playoff.
I say either go to a 16-team playoff, or revert back to the old days where all four big bowls could help decide the national championship in the same year and seven different recognized polls crowned a national champ (meaning theoretically there could be seven different national champs). I'd rather see USC play Michigan in the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma play Miami in the Orange Bowl, Utah play Boise St. in the Fiesta Bowl, Auburn play California in the Sugar Bowl, and Texas play Boston College in the Cotton Bowl than have the stupid BCS decide which 11-0 team to shaft while making the Sugar, Rose, and Fiesta Bowls meaningless except to the participants and their fans.
I have talked about this at length on the boards this year, but I have never summed it up. Vanderbilt Football cannot be expected to compete in the SEC against the other 11 schools. It is simply a numbers game. The rules changes between 1960 and 1964 made it virtually impossible for the Commodores to win in the toughest league in college football. Starting in 1960, substitution rules began to change to allow teams to use separate offensive and defensive personnel. By 1964, basically unlimited substitution was allowed. Prior to 1960, Vanderbilt could get by with 20 SEC-caliber players. After that, it took 40 of those players to win in the SEC. By SEC-caliber players, I am talking about men who could start for Alabama, Tennessee, and LSU if they left Vandy (think Chris Donnelly). With redshirts, injuries and other factors, to have 40 SEC-caliber players on the Vandy roster in any particular season (meaning very few freshmen), Vandy must successfully recruit about 15-20 of these players each year. It debatable whether any Vanderbilt coach has ever done this in just one season.
Here is where the numbers game comes into play. Vanderbilt starts out with a much more limited list of qualified SEC-caliber athletes to choose from. The state schools across the nation are not only allowed to recruit the 1400 SAT student-athletes, they get over half of the ones who are also SEC-caliber. They also can recruit the high school kids with 801 SATs. Now of the remaining SEC-caliber athletes left after the majority have chosen big state schools, Vandy must still compete with all the other academics-first schools across the nation. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, the service academies, Rice, and even the Ivy Leagues and I-AA schools like Fordham compete with Vandy for these remaining recruits. Vanderbilt (along with Duke and Rice) has the disadvantage here due to simple geography. A look at where the academically qualified and SEC-caliber student-athletes live puts Vandy behind the 8-ball. The South lags behind the West, Industrial Midwest, and New England. California has dozens of these players. A majority of these athletes live more than 1,000 miles away from Dudley Field. Very few of these recruits have given Vanderbilt a moment's thought prior to contact being initiated by Commodore coaches. Thus, Vandy is rather fortunate to successfully recruit five SEC-caliber student-athletes every year. Playing in pre-1960 rules, those five recruits per year would be sufficient.
I don't want to ever see the 801 SAT kid becoming a Commodore. It will take that to become a serious contender in the SEC. I also don't foresee Vanderbilt leaving the SEC on its own accord. So, Vandy fans must face facts. The Commodores can never be expected to seriously compete in the SEC as long as they have a limited recruiting base when compared to the 11 bullies. Yes, it is possible for there to be one winning season every 10-20 years, but asking for another eight-win season is asking for too much. Remember, when Vandy last had a winning season, the league played only six conference games. Those extra two SEC games also hurt Vandy's chances for winning the out of conference games, due to battle scars and fatigue. It's easier to play Wake Forest after playing VMI than after playing Alabama. Vandy has a better chance of upsetting Florida after playing UT-Chattanooga than after playing Georgia.
Here are my suggestions: Concentrate on trying to recuit as many local players as possible. Some of them have a desire to play for the black and gold and will give everything they've got to do so. Future coaches should be from this area as well. They know the score and have a better chance of figuring out what it would take to win an extra game or two here each year. Look at the two post-WWII coaches to leave here with a winning record. Both Red Sanders and Steve Sloan were native Tennesseans.
The future coach must find an edge that makes preparing for Vanderbilt a headache. That may mean using an unorthodox system, which no other opponent will see all year. I think the best bet is to use the old-fashioned spread formation used by SMU and TCU in the 1940's and 50's. That alignment is similar to the shotgun, but places no other back in the backfield. Then, we should throw the ball 60 times a game and hope for 35 completions and 450 yards through the air. It might induce some future John Elway or Jim Plunkett to forget Stanford and come to Vandy to play in the new aerial circus. Remember, switching to this formation has its effect in the stands and with potential recruits. It will not make a weak team strong. It is strictly for added excitement which may sway a few 5-star athletes to sign here and sell a few thousand additional season tickets to fans who would find a 56-45 loss to an SEC opponent very entertaining.
Does Vanderbilt have a chance to pull off the upset over Tennessee? Of course they do. What must happen? To start, the Vols must all come down with a virus on Friday night. OK, it's not that bleak, but I see little real chance for Vanderbilt to win this game. Tennessee has had an extra week to prepare for this game, and that has allowed the coaches to make the adjustments needed to allow Rick Clausen to play competently. My guess is that Tennessee will play like a team from an earlier time, when most of the passing plays were play-action passes and screen passes. Tennessee will run iso and drive plays at Vandy to set up play-action passes to the hook zone on the same side. The Vols may actually pass a few times to their tight ends. They will exploit the seams in the zones with their quicker receivers.
Vanderbilt hasn't scored on Tennessee since Greg Zolman almost pulled off the upset in 2000 at the Coliseum downtown. In this day and age, it's hard to find any other team that has been shut out at least once in each of the last three seasons; wearing the collar against the same team in the same conference three years in succession is quite a black eye, especially when that team is supposed to be your arch-rival. I look for Tennessee to play it close to the vest and attempt to overpower the Commodores. I don't know how much fight the black and gold has left, so it's hard to predict how long they will make this game interesting. If I had to guess, I'd say 1 1/2 quarters. I believe Tennessee will sew this one up late in the second quarter. Once down, the Commodores will not have anything left in the second half. Then, Tennessee will score a few more times. My prediction: Tennessee 27 Vanderbilt 7.
Three straight two-win seasons haven't been blessed on Vanderbilt since 1976,77, and 78. This year's team has a lot in common with the 1977 team. That team led or was tied in the second half of most of their games before tiring late and losing. Vandy put a major scare in Oklahoma, and followed that up with close ones against Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Ole Miss, a 10-1 Kentucky team, and Air Force. Only two teams blew the Commodores off the field, 3-8 Tulane and 4-7 Tennessee. Vandy eeked out close wins over Wake Forest and Cincinnati. Fred Pancoast just needed 15 more good players. After three consecutive two-win seasons Pancoast and athletic director Clay Stapleton were shown the door. A group calling themselves "Friends of Vanderbilt" launched a huge campaign to oust both the coach and A.D.
Speaking of Clay Stapleton, he was the man in charge of finding a replacement for Steve Sloan after Sloan bolted for Texas Tech in January 1975. Bobby Bowden, then at West Virginia applied for the job and requested an interview. Stapleton interviewed Bowden and didn't take it seriously, thinking Bowden wanted to use the interview to get a raise in Morgantown. As it turned out, Bowden really wanted the Vanderbilt job and would have accepted an offer. OOPS.
Starting next week, I switch to basketball stories. During basketball season, I will be covering themes rather than just one game. First up is a look at five special season opening games in Commodore history. If you guessed that the 1981-82 season opener will be one of them, you are correct. Other topics that will be covered include: the great 10-0 start of the 1963-64 team; the best week in Vanderbilt sports history (December 9-16, 1967); the last second heroics of Barry Goheen, Roger Schurig, and a few other guys; the high-scoring games from the Roy Skinner era; the climb to number two in both polls at the start of the 1965-66 season with that great game against Syracuse and all-universe Dave Bing; the 1974 series against Alabama; big wins over Kentucky; the Al Rochelle/Babe Taylor years under Bob Polk; the fantastic rivalry and annual season finales between Vandy and Georgia Tech, combined with the domination over Tulane; big wins over Tennessee; wins over top-ranked teams; wins at Auburn starting with the biggest one of all in 1965; the great offensive scoring surge at the end of the 1971-72 season; Vandy's six games against Pistol Pete Maravich; Vandy's 1951 SEC tournament run; and Vandy's NCAA tournament successes in 1965/1988/1993 or NIT championship run of 1990 (depending on which tournament the 2004-05 plays in).
This is one tough opening game. The Rockets have the talent to ruin Vandy's opening night. This Toledo team might give last year's Commodores a run for their money. Now, I think we can and will win this game. Mario Moore has to take control of this team and become the leader. He is just a junior, but he is dynamic and can instill the winning attitude in the underclassmen. By the end of last year, he was the co-primary weapon on the team. Julian Terrell must dominate on the boards and avoid foul-trouble. As good as Dawid Przybyszewski is from the perimeter, he just hasn't shown he is ready to play football under the rims in the SEC. If Davis Nwankwo redshirts, then Ted Skuchas is going to have to show more of his early season prowess from last year. Skuchas has the potential to play like Will Perdue. Remember, Perdue spent three years developing before he emerged as a star in year four. This is Ted's third season in the program.
I still believe this team will play at its peak when they play at a quicker pace. I love Coach John Wooden's saying, "Be quick, but don't hurry." That should be Vandy's motto for the season. The quicker the Commodores can play without playing out of control will determine how successful this team can be. I don't believe this year's edition can play strictly half-court ball and win consistently. The talent is there for this team to surprise a bunch of folks if they can find a way to pick up 10 cheap points per game.
Here's how I see the season: In the 14-game out-of-conference schedule, there are two very tough games (at Cincinnati and vs. Oregon in Portland); five games where a good effort will be required to win (Toledo, Southern Illinois, Arizona State or UTEP, Dayton, and Louisiana-Lafayette); and seven games against teams that are clearly weaker (Tennessee St., Cal St. Northridge, Austin Peay, TCU, Central Michigan, Appy St., and UT-Pan Am). Let's hope for 11-3 and still be satisfied with 10-4. 12-2 or better would be unbelievable.
In conference play, the odd-numbered years bring Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss to Memorial Gym. Vandy needs to sweep these three teams. Mississippi State, LSU, and Auburn are road games. Vandy needs to get one win here, probably at Auburn. In the East, I look for a balanced season with all six teams bunched together, possibly with 4 games separating the top from the bottom. I think Vandy's East record will be 5-5, 4-6, or 3-7. That means a conference record of 9-7, 8-8, or 7-9. Combine that with 10-4 or 11-3 out of conference, and you get a range of 17-13 to 20-10 prior to the SEC Tournament.
This team may be strong enough at the end of the year to do some damage in the conference tourney if they are healthy. Thus I think the NIT is a given and the NCAA tourney is possible, especially if the black and gold can be playing in the SEC Tournament on Saturday once again. Vanderbilt is the only team not to play in the SEC championship game since the tournament was re-born in 1979.