Alabama-Notre Dame: some storylines

14 Comments

If you were a Hollywood script writer looking to pitch a movie based on a college football championship being played in a land far, far away, it would be hard to come up with a better pair of protagonists than Alabama and Notre Dame.

For any director, it’s a cinematic smörgåsbord replete with plotlines as far as the stomach can see.  The North vs. the South on a gridiron battlefield.  Two of the winningest programs in FBS history, with the Irish tied for second all-time with Texas and the Tide seventh.  Mystique for miles, from Knute to Bear, from the Gipper to Broadway Joe before the bright lights and big city, from 14 claimed national championships for the Tuscaloosa school to 11 claimed by the one from South Bend.

And, it just so happens, the two best teams after the dust had settled and the curtain had fallen on the 2012 regular season.

Simply put, it’s already the most highly anticipated title game of the BCS era… and we’re still weeks away from the Jan. 7 showdown in Miami.  Suffice to say, myriad words will be dumped onto a computer screen to feed the hype machine over the next five weeks, with storylines far surpassing even the schools’ healthy win totals.  Here are but a few of those that may or may not have an impact on which team hoists the crystal into the South Beach sky at game’s end.

Are you experienced?
In a lot of ways, Alabama and Notre Dame are as evenly matched as any two teams that have faced each other on this stage recently.  One area where the Tide has a decided and lopsided advantage?  Big-game experience.  The No. 2 Tide (12-1) will be gunning for an unprecedented third BCS title in four years while the Irish’s biggest game under Brian Kelly prior to this year was, what, the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State after last season?  From handling the weeks-long layoff to dealing with the media circus to a 60-minute game of this magnitude and carrying such immense ramifications, Nick Saban has been there, done that while Kelly is just getting there and has never done that.

Waking the slumbering echoes
In the 14-year history of the BCS, No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) has appeared in just three of the marquee bowl games, with the last coming after the 2006 regular season.  Their national championship drought stretches back even further; the last time the Irish finished a season on top, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, a gallon of gas would set you back $1.08 and Lou Holtz was shtomping acrosh the Irish shidelines.  Since then, “Flounder Like an Irrelevant Program Today” has marked the once-proud program’s trudge through more than two decades of mediocrity.  Following a 16-win run to end the last three years of the Charlie Weis era, though, the tide, so to speak, began to turn for the Irish.  In the two years after Kelly was hired in December of 2009, the Irish posted back-to-back eight-win seasons.  In the third year under Kelly — the same year four other Irish coaches won their first/only national championships at the school, incidentally — the Irish have made a resounding move back onto the national stage.  And relevance in the way that matters most.

Exorcising historical ghosts
While they’ve met but a handful of times through the years, Notre Dame has had Alabama’s number when they have taken the field.  In six meetings, the Irish own a decided 5-1 advantage.  Included in that total?  A perfect 4-0 record against Tide teams coached by the legendary Bear Bryant.  The two teams first met in 1973, with the last coming in 1987.  The first two meetings came in the Sugar and Orange Bowls in back-to-back years, with the Irish winning both games by a combined three points over Tide teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, at the time.  Alabama’s only win came during the 1986 regular season, a 28-10 decision in Birmingham.  Of course, the last time the two teams met with this much on the line, Saban was a graduate assistant at his alma mater Kent State while Kelly had yet to enter high school, so the historical angle will be gummed to death in the coming weeks due to lack of teeth.

Chasing the Bear
More than three decades after his death, there’s still nothing that epitomizes and encapsulates the Alabama football program more than Paul William Bryant.  In his 25 years as the Tide’s head coach, the Bear won a school-record 232 games and staked his claim to five* national titles.  While Saban can inch up on but never truly surpass Coach Bryant in the hearts and minds of Tuscaloosans, he can take a step closer to the coaching immortal’s accomplishments; with a win over Notre Dame, Saban would have four national championships on his résumé — one at LSU, three in the Bear’s den.

(*I don’t acknowledge 1973, much like the coaches didn’t acknowledge the postseason)

Record eyeballs glued to boob tube?
The highest-rated game in BCS history was the USC-Texas Rose Bowl affair following the 2005 season, which drew a 21.7 Nielsen rating.  Notre Dame drew a 10.3 rating for its “meaningless” regular season game against USC this year that was roughly half of that record, and equal to the 2012 SEC title game.  Alabama plus Notre Dame plus five weeks of hype?  Records will be shattered.

AP tiebreaker
Depending on which way the polling winds blow, and if it’s favorable in their direction, Alabama claims (I think) 14 national championships.  Notre Dame claims 11, with both teams using various polls to dignify their historical national championship status.  The one certainty in all of the title claiming?  There are two teams that have each won a record eight Associated Press titles — Alabama and Notre Dame, of course.  Jan. 7 in Miami, as it turns out, will turn into a tiebreaker for the ages that no one ever anticipated.

Degenerates speak
In the week leading up to the SEC championship game, Alabama had been listed as a 9.5 favorite over Notre Dame should the two teams ultimately meet in the BCS title game.  With the game officially set?  The odds range from 8.5 to 10, depending on the book.  Notre Dame may be undefeated, but they’ll go into the title game as decided underdogs in the eyes of both the sports books in general and the betting/viewing public in particular.

Jim McElwain hints at playing three quarterbacks vs. Michigan

Getty Images
6 Comments

Considering his opponent won’t so much as release a simple roster, there’s no reason whatsoever for Florida head coach Jim McElwain to say anything of consequence.

Still, it sounds as if No. 17 Florida may play all three of its quarterbacks next Saturday against No. 11 Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

“You’re going to see a bunch of them in there playing. The three guys have done a really good job. Not naming a starter right now,” McElwain said. “I think that there’s some things that they all bring to the table that are really good. Now the key to us is putting them in those positions that play to their strengths.

“Will all of them play? I don’t know yet. Will a couple of them play? I don’t know yet. I know we will have somebody at the position. This is not — don’t read into this that we’re not happy where they’re at. It’s really more so the competition has really brought out some good things. It’s going to be … ultimately the guy the team moves with the best, the guys that create positive plays on third down and get the ball in the end zone [that we go with].”

The three of them, by the way, are graduate transfer Malik Zaire, junior Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. In a world governed by the truism of “If you have two quarterbacks you don’t have any,” it’s not exactly a good sign that none of Zaire, Del Rio or Franks have separated themselves from the others.

Zaire showed flashes but was eventually benched at Notre Dame and just arrived on campus this summer. Del Rio, a 2-time transfer before arriving at Florida, was the Gators’ starter coming out of training camp last season but fought through injuries throughout the season. And Franks is a 6-foot-5 former 5-star recruit that many thought would have grabbed the job by the horns by now.

While every team turns over from one season to the next, Florida finished 105th nationally in yards per play last season while Michigan’s defense placed second. With top playmaker Antonio Callaway serving a suspension, Florida will look to put the ball in the hands of whomever can move it, even if three of them happen to play quarterback.

Tracy Claeys discusses protests that led to his firing from Minnesota

Getty Images
2 Comments

Chances are you haven’t heard Tracy Claeys‘s name mentioned in a while. The former Minnesota interim-turned-full time head coach was let go in January and has not been picked up by a new staff in the months since.

But Minnesota released an outside report last week that defended the school’s decision to suspend 10 players amid a sexual assault investigation and pinned the subsequent team-wide threatened boycott of the Holiday Bowl on “weak leadership” of the coaching staff. The Gophers played and won that Holiday Bowl, but it wasn’t enough to save Claeys’s job.

On Wednesday, Claeys penned an essay in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that both defended his tenure as the Golden Gophers’ head coach and admitted mistakes in a saga that would have swallowed many a head coach’s career.

Last September, I suspended five players for a reported sexual assault. When law enforcement authorities the following month declined to file any charges, the university reinstated those players. At the time, I was congratulated by our athletic director for my handling of this issue and promised that I would remain the head football coach in 2017.

But university officials soon conducted their own inquiry and in December resuspended the five players and suspended five more — again, even though prosecutors had determined there was no basis for formal charges.

Members of our Football Leadership Group and others on the team felt strongly that administration officials had overstepped their authority and that the accused players were treated unfairly and denied protection under due process. To amplify their argument and shine light on what players felt was a flawed and unjust process by the university, the team voted to boycott the Holiday Bowl.

It was a decision that moved us directly into the national spotlight. Unfortunately, some misunderstood or misinterpreted the players’ decision to boycott the Holiday Bowl. They felt that our team and coaches were condoning or downplaying sexual misconduct or assault. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

In light of this new report, are there things I would have done differently? Certainly. First and foremost, I would have remained on campus with my team and coaches rather than attend a Holiday Bowl news conference in San Diego. I’m confident that my presence would have better directed the conversation with our players and that I could have steered them toward something other than a decision to boycott the game.

 I also would have refrained from using social media to state my support of the team’s decision. This was too complex and important an issue to address in a 140-character message. It generated more questions than it answered and likely created more problems than it solved.
Claeys was 11-8 in his one and a half seasons as Minnesota’s head coach, his first head coaching job. Assuming he does not get hired in the next week and a half, the 2017 season will be Claeys’s first out of the game since launching his career as a student trainer at Kansas in the early ’90’s.

Kirk Ferentz and wife donate $1 million to Iowa children’s hospital

Getty Images
3 Comments

Kirk Ferentz may be the but of a bunch of contract-related jokes, but no one jokes about the man’s character.

And for good reason.

The University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital announced Wednesday that Kirk and his wife Mary have donated $1 million to create the Savvy Ferentz Program in Neonatal Research, which will aim to improve the survival rate for premature babies. The Ferentzes made the donation in honor of their granddaughter Savvy, who was born in 2014 at 22 weeks gestation.

“We knew Savvy was born too early,” Mary said in a statement. “We also knew they do extraordinary things at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital that would give her a fighting chance. We were thankful we had that.”

The Stead Family Children’s Hospital claims higher survival rates for infants born at 24- and 25-weeks than the average U.S. hospital, and the Ferentzes hope their donation will further increase those rates.

“The University of Iowa has long been a leader in neonatal research and in providing high-level patient care, particularly to this most vulnerable population,” Iowa pediatrics professor Dr. Jeffrey L. Segar said. “This gift from the Ferentzes will help us capitalize on our strengths, advance our research, and, most important, make an impact on the lives of many Iowa children and their families, now and far into the future. We are deeply grateful for their support.”

Kirk Ferentz will begin his 19th season as Iowa’s head coach next Saturday against Wyoming (noon ET, BTN).

Texas TE Andrew Beck now out for entire 2017 season

Getty Images
Leave a comment

As it turns out, it’s much worse than originally thought for one playing member of the Texas football program.

Nearly a week ago, Andrew Beck went down during practice with what was later diagnosed to be a broken foot.  At the time, it was thought that the tight end would miss anywhere from 6-8 weeks, which would’ve put him back, at the latest, early October.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, however, and the Longhorns announced that Beck will be sidelined for the entire 2017 season because of the injury.  The senior will undergo surgery at some point this week to repair the damage.  He’s already undergone two previous foot surgeries and sat out the spring because of issues in that area.

The good news is that Beck has yet to use his redshirt season, which means he could return in 2018 as a fifth-year senior.

Beck started 13 games the past two seasons, including three in 2016.  Last season, he caught four passes for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  Entering summer camp, he had been expected to be the Longhorns’ starter.

With Beck out, that onus will likely fall on Kendall Moore, a graduate transfer from Syracuse.