Winners & Losers: Championship weekend edition

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As is the case every week, any omission below is not on purpose, it’s merely intentional.

WINNERS

Yes he Cam!
While there may be some doubt as to whether he’ll ultimately be able to keep it, there’s no question where the 2010 Heisman Trophy should start its journey.  Cam Newton is, hands down, the best college football player in the country.  Really, though, there was no doubt heading into the SEC title game that was the case; all his 408-yard, six-touchdown performance did was simply slap a brilliant exclamation point on a for-the-ages season.  I understand that Newton is a polarizing figure off the field, but he’s one of the most brilliant players I’ve ever witnessed on it and had a season you might not see for decades.  You can’t help but respect what he does between the lines, regardless of what may have gone on behind the scenes.

Going… going… Ore-gone’d
How good is Oregon?  They can be off their game, relatively speaking, and still win by 17.  On the road.  In a rivalry game.  They were held to 51 yards under their seasonal average for total offense, and nearly two touchdowns below their points-per-game average.  Whether it was looking ahead to their next game or Oregon State playing above their level,  they played arguably their second-worst game of the season and still won going away.  That is the mark of a team with championship-level talent.  And one that had better be, unlike today, completely focused by the time they take the field against Auburn.

TCU
No, it’s not the national title game they had held out hope for, but wrap your head around the fact that there will be a team of Horned Frogs running around the turf of the historic Rose Bowl come January.  That bowl’s officials will likely recoil in horror privately, but there’s little doubt that TCU deserves a spot at the BcS big boy table; short of a spot in Glendale, being in Pasadena in January is about as good as it gets for a school from a non-automatic qualifying conference.  The fact that it will be forced upon one of the BcS powerbrokers is simply icing on a very sweet cake.

Sooner or later Stoops’ll cut you down…
Down 17-0 early in the second quarter?  Please, is that all you got?  23 points, seven sacks and a stifling defense later, Oklahoma had grabbed their seventh — and last, at least for a while — Big 12 championship game win in eight tries, and did it with the largest comeback in the game’s history.  The Sooners’ defense, after a very sketchy start, held Nebraska to just 5.3 yards per pass attempt and 3.4 per rush while forcing four turnovers in the 23-20 win that sends the Sooners to the Fiesta Bowl.  As a reward for their win, the Sooners will get a vacation masquerading as a postseason match-up with the winner of the Big East.  Woohoo?!?

Big East audition?
For the second time in the school’s brief history, and first since 2007, UCF has taken home the Conference USA title thanks to a 17-7 win over SMU.  It could be one of their last, though, as the Knights have been rumored to be a target of the Big East as that conference expands to 10 football-playing schools.  Regardless, it’s a helluva feather in the cap of George O’ Leary & Company, who are quietly building a tremendous football program as the fifth major college option — for now — in a state loaded with football talent.

Michael Haywood? He’s MAC-tastic!
Last season at this time, Miami of Ohio was licking wounds brought on by an abysmal 1-11 season that led to the firing of their head coach.  12 months later, the RedHawks are sipping the conference champagne.  The biggest difference between this season and last?  Head coach Michael Haywood.  Not only did the RedHawks win eight more games than last season — the biggest turnaround in Div. 1-A this year — but the school took home the MAC title with a stunning, final-minutes win over heavily-favored Northern Illinois Friday night.  I don’t know if Haywood should win coach-of-the-year honors, but I damn well know that he should be in the discussion.

Winter wonderland
30-degree weather and a healthy blanket of snow on the ground, with more coming down throughout the game?  To all y’all Southerners, that is football weather right there.  The only problem with the game was the fact that it was Pittsburgh-Cincinnati.  The Big East has been bad enough this season; they didn’t need weather issues to further highlight their struggles.  There was a Big East bright spot amidst the snow angels, however…

Welcome back Dion
In the first 11 games of the season, Pittsburgh’s talented running back Dion Lewis, after rushing for nearly 1,800 yards as a freshman, had rushed for just 695 yards.  Today, the sophomore ran over, around and through the Bearcats for 261 yards and four touchdowns; both totals were double his previous season highs.  If this Lewis had been around all season long, the Panthers may have just lived up to preseason expectations.  And the calls for the head coach’s head on a football-shaped platter may have been avoided for another season.

Theyyy are the… champions?
Yes, it’s like being the starting center in the Midget Basketball League All-Star game, but give the UConn Huskies their props; in a very, very down year, they are the champions of the Big East and have “earned” the right to represent the conference in their BcS game.  As much as I would like to pee all over UConn’s parade because of the conference they’re coming out of — and I’m having a difficult time holding it in until I make it to the nearest rest stop — how could I?  What a tremendous story coming out of Storrs, especially with the memory of Jasper Howard, the Huskies cornerback murdered so senselessly last season, still fresh in their minds.  Amazing job by Randy Edsall, one of the most underrated head coaches in the country.  But still, let’s be honest: how fitting was it that it took a 52-yard field goal with 17 seconds left to send a four-loss team to the BcS as the Big East representative?  That’s what I thought, too.

Colin What’s-His-Name: Mr. 20/20, the Three-quel
Today, Cam Newton became the second player in college football history to pass for at least 20 touchdowns and rush for at least 20 more in the same season.  The Auburn quarterback wasn’t the only one to join that exclusive 20/20 club Saturday, however, as Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick became its third member in the Wolf Pack’s season finale.  Kaepernick also tied the NCAA record for touchdowns rushing by a quarterback with 59, matching the mark set by Nebraska’s Eric Crouch.  The senior doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he is truly one of the most outstanding quarterbacks and all-around football players at the collegiate level.

Getting Polk’d up the Wazzu
For the first time in eight years, and thanks in no small part to Chris Polk, the Washington Huskies are bowl eligible.  All the running back did was rush for a career-high 289 yards on 29 carries and score two touchdowns in the Huskies’ Apple Cup win over Washington State.   Congrats to head coach Steve Sarkisian for coming in and turning a winless football program into a bowl-eligible one in just two years.

LOSERS

The Rose Bowl
As much as TCU was pulling for an upset of either Oregon or Auburn, the Granddaddy of Them All very likely trumped them by getting on bended knee and praying to a Higher Football Power for Oregon State to dash Oregon’s title hopes.  As that didn’t happen, by rule, the Rose Bowl will be forced to take the Horned Frogs in a match-up that will pit the school from a non-automatic qualifying conference against the Big Ten’s Wisconsin (more than likely).  While that development will not please the Pasadena higher-ups and likely induce night terrors for the next month or so, anything that causes angst amongst the powerbrokers in the BcS brings a very big smile to my face.

Nebraska, why I oughta…
The one and only reason the Cornhuskers are in this part of the piece, besides the obvious?  Because they blew a 17-point lead and denied me the opportunity to see the smugness wiped off the face of commissioner Dan Beebe as he handed the Big 12 title trophy to Tom Osborne, that’s why.  Hell, I had visions of Osborne on the podium playing the role of Nolan Ryan to Beebe’s Robin Ventura.  Thank you very much, dream killers.  Damn you, Nebraska.  Damn you.  Oh, and welcome to the Big Ten.

Oh, man, not again…
We really hate putting this kid here, but what the hell, it’s Christmas.  Boise State’s Kyle Brotzman, the goat of the Broncos’ lone loss of the season that knocked them out of the BcS mix, made six extra points in BSU’s easy win over Utah State but missed his lone field goal attempt; if he would’ve made that 40-yarder, he would’ve set the NCAA’s all-time scoring record for a kicker.  Again, we hate putting Brotzman here after the social media hell he’s endured, but c’mon man.

The Pitts
Entering the 2010 season, Pittsburgh was a near-unanimous pick to win the Big East and represent the conference in the BcS.  Yes, the Panthers won a share of the Big East title, but it was a disappointing — and potentially job-ending — season on nearly every level.  Not only were the Panthers unable to secure an outright league crown and its requisite BcS berth, but they also lost five of the 12 games played.  That should be especially disconcerting to Dave Wannstedt‘s bosses when you consider he was coming off a ten-win season and had what some thought to be an outside shot at being in the championship mix given the lack of quality in the conference.  Instead, Pittsburgh ends the regular season with more question marks that at any point during Wannstedt’s tenure; that’s not a good sign when you’re exiting Year Six of said tenure.

Tipsy Beavers
It was going to take a perfect or near-perfect effort from Oregon State to topple hated rival Oregon.  Four interceptions and a staggering 12 passes either batted down at the line of scrimmage or by the cover man later, the Beavers were on the receiving end of a 37-20 spanking by the Ducks that was far worse than what it looks like on paper.  Speaking of paper, the Beavers were expected to be much improved in 2010 and possibly challenge for the Pac-10 title; instead, at 5-7, OSU is ineligible for a postseason berth and own their worst record since 2005.  Losses to non-AQ powerhouses TCU and Boise State didn’t help their cause, but neither did their uneven play throughout most of the season.  For the love of God, they lost to Washington Freaking State.  That’s about all you need to know about the Beavers in 2010.

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Stat of the Day: Cam Newton was 2-for-2 passing for 74 yards and a TD on the opening drive. For the season, he is now 19-for-19 passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns on Auburn’s opening drives.

Performance of the Day, Non-Cam Newton Division: Auburn wide receiver Darvin Adams set an SEC title game record with 217 yards receiving; he didn’t have a catch in the second half.

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

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President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

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Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”