The Rivals, Part I: Full Circle

On December 23, 1963, James Joseph Harbaugh was born at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio. Just 201 days later, Urban Frank Meyer III took his first breath in the same building. Today, they are the head coaches in The Greatest Rivalry in All of Sport, the opposite sides of a coin. Equal, but not the same.

Urban Meyer played defensive back for the University of Cincinnati, although I use the word “played” in the loosest sense. Barely seeing the field as a walk on, Meyer’s entire playing career is contained in a small paragraph in the 1985 Cincy media guide: “A reserve at safety … holder for PAT and FG attempts.” His time on the team wasn’t wasted, however; he used it to observe coaching techniques. (SPOILER ALERT: That comes in handy.)

Jim Harbaugh’s path was different to say the least. A star quarterback at Michigan, he was 24-5-1 as a starter. He finished second in the nation in pass efficiency and third in Heisman trophy voting in 1986. That season, he famously guaranteed a victory over Ohio State and a Rose Bowl appearance, a promise he delivered with a 26-24 win in Columbus.

On the other sideline that day was a young graduate assistant just starting out a coaching career that would take him from Earle Bruce’s Buckeye staff to Illinois State, Colorado State and Notre Dame before landing his first head coaching gig at Bowling Green in 2001.

That year also marked the end of Jim Harbaugh’s NFL career in which he started 140 games for four different teams and threw for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns. During the last eight years of that run, he worked as an unpaid assistant for his father, Jack Harbaugh, at Western Kentucky, where he helped recruit 17 of the players on WKU’s 2002 Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship team. After a couple of years coaching QBs for the Oakland Raiders, Harbaugh snagged the head coaching job at the University of San Diego, where he compiled a three-year record of 29-6.

In the meantime, Urban Meyer had translated his success at Bowling Green and Utah into a top-tier job at Florida. In his second year at the helm, he defied conventional wisdom and destroyed his former employer Ohio State in the 2006 BCS National Championship Game. Two years later, he would add another title to his résumé.

In 2007, Jim Harbaugh took over at Stanford, a program that, despite making some gains under Ty Willingham, had fallen off under the guidance of Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Steadily improving each season, Harbaugh delivered a 12-1 campaign in 2010 with the lone loss coming against an Oregon team that would appear in the national championship game.

2010 would be Urban Meyer’s last at Florida. After taking a leave of absence for health-related issues following the 2009 season, Meyer returned to the team at the request of athletic director Jeremy Foley. The Gators went 7-5, and Meyer resigned for good on December 8, 2010.

A month later, Jim Harbaugh became the head coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and led the team to a 13-3 regular season record and an appearance in the NFC championship game. This success also revitalized the stalled career of quarterback Alex Smith, who had played for Urban Meyer at Utah. The next two years were just as successful, with the team reaching at least the NFC championship game each season, and facing off against the Baltimore Ravens—coached by Jim’s brother John—in Super Bowl XLVII, a game the Niners lost by 3 points.

By then, Meyer had taken over at Ohio State, stabilizing a program reeling from disappointment after an impermissible benefits scandal led to the sudden resignation of coach Jim Tressel and a rocky season under interim coach Luke Fickell, who was nevertheless retained as a defensive coordinator and expert recruiter. Meyer delivered on his reputation as a master motivator by coaxing a 12-0 season out of a team that wasn’t allowed to participate in the post-season. He followed that up with another perfect regular season, before losing both the Big Ten championship game and the Orange Bowl. Last year, Meyer’s Buckeyes overcame long odds and more than their share of adversity to win the first ever College Football Playoff, despite being underdogs in their final three games.

Harbaugh’s Niners went 8-8 last year as his relationship with the team’s front office deteriorated beyond repair. In December, he and the team parted ways, although the amicability of that split depends on who you ask. At the end of the month, after much speculation about his future plans, Harbaugh was introduced as the next head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

The two coaches now head up opposing armies in a war that predates either of them, a sports rivalry that began in the shadows of an actual dispute between the two states over a 468-square-mile strip of land that, yes, included the future site of the very hospital where both men were born. The Great State of Ohio won the land dispute. The winner of the Meyer-Harbaugh War remains to be seen.

What I Learned From the College Football Playoff

As a longtime playoff proponent/BCS hater, it’s tempting to do a victory lap right now. It would be easy to go through each year of the BCS era and question how often a different team would have won the title in a four-team playoff system. It would be easy to point to the various experts who have confirmed that this year’s BCS match up would have been Alabama vs. Florida State, the two teams who lost in the playoff semi-finals. It would be easy to beat the dead horse of the BCS for every time the system got it wrong, calling every championship won in the era out as questionable.

And if I had written this last week, that’s what I would have done.

But while I still think the BCS was the wrong way to determine a champion and that the current playoff is infinitely better, I hesitate to call the results of the BCS “wrong,” because that would have to mean that there was another, alternate result that was “right.” That mindset–that we can objectively assess which team of any pair is better, without actually seeing them play–is exactly what was wrong with the BCS to begin with.

Half of the BCS title games were won by the #1-ranked team and half by the #2-ranked team. Even though it’s a little surprising that it worked out so perfectly, we should have expected it to be fairly even. After all, the rankings weren’t (nor could they have been) based on anything concrete; they were simply an amalgamation of various opinions (yes, computer rankings are opinions just like human polls are) and opinions are a crap shoot of reliability.

This isn’t intended as a shot against the BCS rankings; they did as well as they probably could have. I expect the playoff to achieve a similar type of balance, with the 3- and 4-seeds winning about as often as the 1’s and 2’s do. I like the committee system’s ability to introduce discussion and divergent thinking into the mix, but at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a bunch of opinions.

And that’s all we’ll ever be talking about, no matter what form the playoff eventually takes. Besides the possibility of automatic bids for conference champions, there will always be some element of subjectivity involved. In fact, the assertion that every conference champion deserves an automatic bid (something I believe) is subjective in itself. The truth is no team deserves a national championship, because that’s not the point.

There is no “best” team. Ever. There is no right answer that the post-season must conclude on so as to be considered legitimate. If Oregon had beaten Ohio State last Monday night, that would have been acceptable; their championship would have been legit. The same is true if Alabama or Florida State had won. Or if Baylor or TCU would have made the playoff in our place and won.

So what I learned from the college football playoff is that the BCS-era titles are no less legitimate or more questionable than titles won going forward. They are nothing more (or less) than the result of the system in place at the time, just like every title has always been and always will be.

MOTSAG TV Guide: Championship Edition

Rankings reflect current College Football Playoff rankings.

Friday, December 5

PAC-12

#7 Arizona vs. #2 Oregon. 9:00p, Fox.

Saturday, December 6

BIG 12

Iowa State @ #3 TCU. Noon, ABC.

#9 Kansas State @ #6 Baylor. 7:45p, ESPN.

SEC

#1 Alabama vs. #16 Missouri. 4:00p, CBS.

ACC

#4 Florida State vs. #11 Georgia Tech. 8:00, ABC.

BIG TEN

#5 Ohio State vs. #13 Wisconsin. 8:15p, Fox.

The Spread, Championship Week

If the world was perfect, we’d be getting ready to watch eight conference championship games and few other games that would have a direct impact on which teams made it to the sixteen-team College Football Playoff. We’d calmly watch Sunday’s Selection Special to see where the teams will be seeded, and which non-champions get at-large nods. Maybe some of those choices would bug us a little, but we would also know that each and every team had the ability to control their own destiny.

Instead, we’re getting the same thing we’ve been getting forever: controversy. TCU is ranked 3 spots ahead of a team that beat them, despite identical records, similar schedules and not really that much difference in terms of on-field performance. Sure, I get it, Baylor hasn’t played Kansas State yet. But if the Bears win big on Saturday, is the committee really going to knock TCU out of the #3 slot? Maybe they will, but it seems hard to believe, considering the Frogs are also in front of undefeated Florida State.

And Seminoles fans should be pretty worried about that too. I see no reason to believe that this committee won’t leave an unbeaten team out of the playoff if they think four other teams are better. If Florida State stumbles around for three quarters before barely beating Georgia Tech (a script the Noles know quite well this year) and Baylor blows Kansas State’s doors off, what’s keeping the committee from putting the Bears in? Some “statement” about non-conference scheduling?

Well, maybe. That would explain why Baylor is so far behind TCU, despite the teams’ similarities and the head-to-head win. And while I agree that a team shouldn’t be rewarded for weak scheduling, and that a 3-point win doesn’t necessarily mean one team is “better” than the other, it is sort of frustrating that a playoff system whose very purpose is to settle things on the field would completely ignore the on-field result of a game between two top teams.

But what’s most frustrating is that these arguments have to happen at all. We can stage a sixteen-team playoff beginning the week after the conference championship games, take a week off for whatever snow-holiday you celebrate, then play the final four and championship games at the exact same time we will anyway. Did some teams “have to” play a couple extra football games? Yeah. Do you really think any of the kids on those teams are going to complain about that?

Every team could enter the season knowing exactly what they need to do to make it to the playoff instead of trying to guess what a roomful of spectators is going to value. Tons of games every single weekend would matter. Nearly a dozen games this weekend would be vital. And then it would all get settled on the field.

At the end of it all, a single champion would remain. Would they be the “best” team according to the “eye test” or some binder full of charts?

Who would even care?

MOTSAG TV Guide

All games Saturday, November 29, unless otherwise noted.
Rankings reflect current College Football Playoff rankings.

THE GAME

That Team Up North (unranked, still sucks) @ #6 Ohio State. Noon, ABC.

A win here will complete Ohio State’s third consecutive perfect Big Ten regular season. Wolverine Destroyer and Heisman trophy winner Troy Smith will be on hand for his number honor ceremony and we expect him to transfer his Wolverine-destroying and Heisman-trophy-winning powers to J.T. Barrett. Much like last week, we should not take a win for granted. After all, Michigan is playing for a chance to be humiliated in some stupid bowl.

OTHER BIG TEN GAMES THAT AREN’T NEARLY AS IMPORTANT

(Friday) Nebraska @ Iowa. Noon, ABC.

Illinois @ Northwestern. Noon, ESPNU.

Purdue @ Indiana. Noon, Big Ten Network.

#18 Minnesota @ #14 Wisconsin. 3:30p, Big Ten Network. Winner plays Ohio State for Big Ten title.

#10 Michigan State @ Penn State. 3:30p, ABC/ESPN2.

Rutgers @ Maryland. 3:30p, ESPNU.

OTHER RIVALRIES THAT WISH THEY WERE OURS

(Friday) #13 Arizona State @ #11 Arizona. 3:30p, Fox.

#16 Georgia Tech @ #9 Georgia. Noon, SEC Network.

South Carolina @ #21 Clemson. Noon, ESPN.

Kentucky @ #22 Louisville. Noon, ESPN2.

Florida @ #3 Florida State. 3:30p, ESPN.

#4 Mississippi State @ #19 Mississippi. 3:30p, CBS.

Notre Dame @ USC. 3:30p, Fox.

Kansas @ #12 Kansas State. 4:00p, FS1.

#15 Auburn @ #1 Alabama. 7:45p, ESPN.

#2 Oregon @ Oregon State. 8:00p, ABC.

Washington @ Washington State. 10:30p, FS1.

The Spread, Hate Week: The Maize Ruiner

On November 3, 1958, Brady Patrick Hoke was born in Dayton, Ohio. In 1977, he left home to attend Ball State University, where he played linebacker. Somewhere in there, he made the fateful decision to be a Michigan fan. This betrayal of his home state (and his father, who played for Woody Hayes at Miami) would doom him to a career of mediocre football–a career that will likely come to an end this Saturday.

Hoke didn’t contribute much in his first two years at Ball State, and the team posted an impressive 19-3 record with Brady riding the bench. In 1979 and 1980, with Hoke on the field, the Cardinals went 6-5 each year. Bringing a team’s success to a screeching halt? Sounds familiar.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In 1983, Hoke became a defensive line coach at Grand Valley State, who had turned in winning seasons every year since 1973, the first year they accomplished the feat. But during Hoke’s only season on the staff, the Lakers went 4-6. His stain would linger even after he left for Western Michigan–GVSU didn’t win a single game the next year, but bounced back in 1985 to go 6-5.

At Western Michigan, Hoke joined Jack Harbaugh’s staff, who had already turned in two winning seasons for the Broncos. During Hoke’s three-year stint, the team went 5-6, 4-6-1, and 3-8. His poisonous presence got Harbaugh fired. It took his replacement just two years to get the team to 9-3.

From there, Hoke went to Toledo to join Dan Simrell’s staff as a linebackers coach. Simrell had gone 7-3 the previous year, but the arrival of Hoke predictably sent the team into a tailspin, finishing the 1987 season 3-7-1. The Rockets would go 6-5 in each of the final two years of Hoke’s tenure and, once again, Simrell was fired. He was replaced by Nick Saban, who promptly went 9-2.

It’s hard to blame Hoke for Oregon State’s woes during his five-year run on the staff there, but it’s still worth noting that the Beavers only managed 11 wins in the time span. They were bad both before and after Hoke was there, but they were particularly bad while he was on campus.

In 1995, new Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr brought Brady on board to help build what Hoke would eventually tear down. The Wolverines had a good run with Hoke around, winning a lot of games and even a national title until he finally left in 2002. This may seem like an aberration in the pattern, but we know now that it was just the universe setting Hoke up for the final punchline. His presence on a successful staff was necessary to entice Michigan to hire him later.

In 2003, Ball State gave Hoke his first head coaching job. He took a mediocre team that had hovered around .500 for a few years and turned it into a crappy team that lost at least 7 games in each of his first four years. But the Cardinals kept him around for some reason and somehow managed to taste success, going 7-6 and 12-1 in Hoke’s final two years.

The Ball State success coupled with Hoke’s two years at San Diego State (during which the Aztecs improved from 2-10 before his arrival to 9-4 in his second year) were enough for Michigan to take a chance on him after being turned down by the guys they actually wanted (or whatever Wolverine-fan alternate reality version you choose to believe.)

With Hoke finally installed in Ann Arbor, it was time for the universe to begin dismantling him under the unflinching lights of big-time college football. The first order of business was to give him an unrealistically remarkable season in the form of 2011’s 11-2 Sugar Bowl winning campaign. The machinations of making this happen despite Hoke’s woeful incompetence were so complex that they included orchestrating a silly scandal that would cost Buckeye coach Jim Tressel his job, just to keep him from beating Hoke mercilessly just as he did Rich Rodriguez.

Once the absurdly high expectations for Hoke at Michigan were set, all that was left to do was step back and let him bumble around and wreck stuff like a really hungry Tasmanian devil. The team got worse and worse and it all culminated in the hilarious clown show that has been the 2014 season.

There’s just one more piece of business to attend to.

MOTSAG TV Guide

All games Saturday, November 22, unless otherwise noted.
Rankings reflect current College Football Playoff rankings.

BUCKEYES

Indiana @ #6 Ohio State. Noon, Big Ten Network.

This is it. The last game before The Game, and Ohio State can clinch the East division with a win against the Hoosiers. Never take anything for granted.

UPCOMING OPPONENT

Maryland @ Michigan. 3:30p, Big Ten Network.

OTHER BIG TEN TEAMS

#25 Minnesota @ #23 Nebraska. Noon, ESPN.

Northwestern @ Purdue. Noon, ESPNU.

Penn State @ Illinois. Noon, ESPN2.

Rutgers @ #11 Michigan State. Noon, Big Ten Network.

#16 Wisconsin @ Iowa. 3:30p, ABC/ESPN2.

OTHER TOP NATIONAL GAMES

(11/20) #12 Kansas State @ West Virginia. 7:00p, FS1.

#15 Arizona @ #17 Utah. 3:30p, ESPN.

USC @ #9 UCLA. 8:00p, ABC.

MACTION!!

Tuesday, November 25.

Akron @ Kent State. 7:00p, ESPN2 (or ESPN3).
Ohio @ Miami (OH). 7:00p, ESPN2 (or ESPN3).

The Spread, Week Thirteen: Fraud Teams Revisited

Time for more personal accountability. This week I’ll review my annual fraud team list. You may remember that I started my list early this year due to an abnormally small number of undefeated teams in Week 5. But I promise not to use that as an excuse.

1. Oregon State. The Beavers are the perfect fraud team this year. Not only have they already crashed their 3-0 start into a 5-5 record, but they also went ahead and hilariously beat #6 Arizona State to help out the Buckeyes in the playoff race.

2. Washington. I usually hesitate to put two teams from the same conference at the top of the list, because it’s unlikely that they’ll both tank. But sure enough, the Huskies have gone from 4-0 to 6-5 and the season’s not even over yet. The Fraud List is lookin’ good…

3. TCU. Oh.

Hey, the nature of the list pretty much guarantees some actually good teams will end up on it, and TCU is one of those this year. Congrats, Frogs.

4. N.C. State. Back in business! The Wolfpack started 4-0, then lost their next four games. They are currently 6-5, another fraud smoked out!

5. Mississippi State. At least now they’ve finally lost one, so this pick doesn’t look completely ridiculous. Good job, Bulldogs, you avoided a dire fate.

So there you have it. I said I would consider the list a success if at least one team lost five games and no one did better than 8-4. Two teams are definitely going to do better than 8-4, but I think nailing three frauds (including my top two) before the season is even over is still pretty good.

MOTSAG TV Guide

All games Saturday, November 15, unless otherwise noted.
Rankings reflect current College Football Playoff rankings.

BUCKEYES

#8 Ohio State @ #25 Minnesota. Noon, ABC.

The Gophers give Ohio State a chance at a second consecutive win over a ranked team, except if we beat them, they probably won’t be ranked anymore. Which I guess means it’s not impressive?

UPCOMING OPPONENTS

Indiana @ Rutgers. 3:30p, Big Ten Network.

Michigan: no game

OTHER BIG TEN TEAMS

Temple @ Penn State. Noon, ESPN2.

Iowa @ Illinois. Noon, Big Ten Network.

#16 Nebraska @ #20 Wisconsin. 3:30p, ABC.

Northwestern @ #18 Notre Dame. 3:30p, NBC.

#12 Michigan State @ Maryland. 8:00p, Big Ten Network.

OTHER TOP NATIONAL GAMES

#19 Clemson @ #22 Georgia Tech. Noon, ESPN.

#1 Mississippi State @ #5 Alabama. 3:30p, CBS.

#9 Auburn @ #15 Georgia. 7:15p, ESPN.

#3 Florida State @ Miami. 8:00p, ABC.

MACTION!!

Tueday, November 18.

Northern Illinois @ Ohio. 8:00p, ESPNU (or ESPN3).
UMass @ Akron. 8:00p, ESPNU (or ESPN3).

Wednesday, November 19.

Bowling Green @ Toledo. 8:00p, ESPN2 (or ESPNU).
Kent State @ Buffalo. 8:00p, ESPN2 (or ESPNU).

The Spread, Week Twelve: B1G Coaches Revisited

Every once in a while I use my space here to predict things, and I am a firm believer in holding myself accountable. Unlike the televised talking heads who count up wins and sweep losses under the rug, I’m willing to admit when I get something wrong.

So here we go.

In my post about B1G coaches, I made some projections about how each of them (sans our own Urban and a few others on solid footing) might hold on to their jobs for another year. While we don’t know for sure yet how things will end up, I’ll look at how each is progressing and where I think they’re headed.

Kirk Ferentz. I predicted Ferentz would need to win at least nine games to stick around due to his ridiculously weak conference schedule. I also thought he would pull this off easily and probably snag another undeserved B1G Coach of the Year trophy in the process.

Nine is now the most games Iowa can win this year, and they still have to play Wisconsin and Nebraska. I still have my doubts about the Hawkeyes ever letting Ferentz go, but if they’re going to do it, immediately following losses to the only two good teams they played all year would be the time.

James Franklin. While not in danger of getting fired, I did guess that Franklin would need to go over .500 to keep off the hot seat next year. That looks achievable, with games against Temple and Illinois upcoming before a probable loss to Michigan State to close out the year. Taking the Buckeyes to double overtime will help his case as well.

Jerry Kill. Kill was one of my coaches showing promise for this year, and he’s done well thus far, posting a 7-2 record. His Gophers have a crazy gauntlet coming up with Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin looming, but don’t be surprised if he manages to pull out a win in one of those.

Randy Edsall. My other promising coach has also had a decent first year so far, guiding Maryland to a 6-3 record. He’s got a date with a fired-up Spartan squad this week, but closes out with Michigan and Rutgers, so he’ll probably land on his feet.

Kevin Wilson. I put Wilson on the hot seat, noting that it’s time for the head Hoosier to make a bowl game or get out of town. Despite a bizarre win over Missouri, it still looks like he won’t pull it off with only three wins and games against Rutgers, Ohio State and Purdue upcoming.

Brady Hoke. Yeah, I saved the best for last. Hoke is getting fired this year, and that’s all there is to it. His AD is already gone, and the coach came off like a complete buffoon in the aftermaths of incidents both serious (the Shane Morris concussion) and trivial (the Michigan State sideline stake). Not to mention the continued dismal on-field performance of his team.