April 18, 2008

Some too quick to deride Florida State streak

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
April 11: Product of weakness?
March 28: Party crashers
March 21: Historical trend
March 14: Glory days

We learned in geometry that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And we've learned in college football that too often the quickest way to a top-five finish is a weak schedule.

But what one perceives as weakness isn't always the case.

A week ago, we took the stand that Florida State's streak of 14 top five finishes from 1987 to 2000 was not a matter of playing against weak competition but rather a result of recruiting NFL-caliber players ("Was Florida State the product of a weak ACC?", April 11).

Not surprisingly, not everyone agreed. There was much debate coming from fans of the powerful SEC, who suggested Florida State wouldn't have been as successful if it had played in the powerful SEC.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But consider that when the Seminoles were surging, the SEC wasn't as powerful as it is now. Read on in this week's mailbag for more.

Picking on the weaklings?

I can't agree with your belief that Florida State was not aided by a soft conference schedule during its heyday. I'm obviously prejudiced (Florida fan), but throughout the South, folks knew that FSU was good but that it didn't go up against stout competition week in and week out, as the Seminoles would have had they joined the SEC when given the chance. Had they joined the SEC, I contend, there is absolutely no way they have 14 top-five finishes in a row. But had they joined the SEC and still run off that many great seasons, they would be considered by everyone the greatest football program in the history of the game. They have had some great teams, for sure, but many of those were unchallenged through the regular season.

Doug in Madison, Wis.

The debate on whether Florida State would have notched its streak of 14 top-five finishes had it played in the SEC will go on and on, and we'll never know for sure. But we can consider some interesting statistics to form an opinion.

In that span, the SEC wasn't as powerful as it is now. Tennessee, Alabama and Florida were powerful, but LSU was mediocre (54-58-1 in the '90s) and Georgia inconsistent (six wins or fewer in five seasons). Auburn was solid overall but still had one break-even season and three losing records in the decade. Mississippi and Mississippi State had some solid years, but weren't championship-caliber. Vanderbilt and Kentucky struggled.

Each year in that span, the Seminoles played at least three games and as many as six against opponents that finished the season ranked in the top 25. That is comparable to what the SEC champion did in each of those seasons, although Alabama faced eight top-25 teams in 1999 and Florida played nine in 2000.

Oh, by the way: In that span, Florida State went 17-6-1 against SEC competition.

Richt effect?

I enjoy your weekly football mailbag. It keeps me going during these down months. Do you agree that one reason for Florida State's recent downfall could be the loss of (Georgia coach) Mark Richt as offensive coordinator? They just never have seemed to recover from that.

Jason in Florence, S.C.

Thanks, Jason. It's an excruciating 4 1/2 months until the college football season begins, but if we stick together, we can make it through.

Anyway, let's consider your question. There are several reasons for a successful team to slide: injuries, suspensions, players not fulfilling their potential and, yes, coaching changes.

When Richt served as offensive coordinator at Florida State from 1994 to 2000, the Seminoles ranked among the nation's top 10 in scoring offense six times and never averaged fewer than 30.8 points in that span.

Richt also served as quarterbacks coach from 1990 until 2000 and tutored Heisman-winning quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. Since Richt left, the quarterback position often has been a problem area and the Seminoles haven't ranked higher than 21st nationally in total offense. In the past four seasons, they've ranked 44th or lower and averaged fewer than 29 points each season.

So, yeah, Richt's departure definitely is a factor in Florida State's problems on offense.

Wolverines worries

Does Michigan have any chance of keeping its bowl streak alive this season?

Will in Chicago

The Wolverines have played in a bowl game every year since 1974, a streak of 33 consecutive appearances. The guess here is they will be good enough to make it 34.

Don't expect Michigan to challenge for the Big Ten championship, but six, seven or even eight victories isn't out of the question.

True, West Virginia finished 3-8 in coach Rich Rodriguez's first year there, but he has more to work with at Michigan than when he started in Morgantown.

Detractors will point out that the offensive losses four starting offensive linemen, both starting receivers, quarterback Chad Henne, tailback Mike Hart are eerily similar to the losses Notre Dame suffered before last season's 3-9 debacle. There's no debate here.

The difference is defense.

A year ago, Notre Dame was hoping to count on its defense until the offense came together (which never happened). But that didn't make sense because the Irish defense wasn't that good, having ranked 65th in total defense and 67th in scoring defense in 2006.

Michigan returns all four starting defensive linemen, middle linebacker Obi Ezeh and cornerbacks Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren from a unit that ranked 24th in the nation in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense last season.

As of mid-April, I wouldn't expect Michigan to beat Wisconsin, Illinois or Ohio State and maybe not Utah, which all figure to field strong teams this season. But the Wolverines either will be favored or have a break-even chance against their other eight opponents Miami University, Notre Dame, Toledo, Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern.

Solid defense, the accurate kicking of K.C. Lopata - who converted 11 of 12 field-goal attempts in 2007 - and Rodriguez's track record of producing winners makes me think Michigan can post at least six wins.

And make its 34th consecutive bowl appearance.

A big Thursday

West Virginia plays Auburn this season at home in Morgantown. What will be the outcome, and how do you think it will impact each team's image and their respective conferences? The Big East gets little credit and everyone jumps on the SEC bandwagon. What's your input?

Ty in Morgantown, W.Va.

First off, at this point in college football history, the SEC clearly is the nation's dominant football conference. However, that doesn't mean the Big East isn't a bona-fide league.

After all, last season, USF won at Auburn, West Virginia defeated Mississippi State and Louisville lost on a last-minute touchdown pass to Kentucky. Those SEC teams went to bowls.

As of now, I'd lean toward Auburn winning in Morgantown on Oct. 23. The Tigers' defense should be exceptional, and if quarterback Kodi Burns flourishes in the spread and reports are he got a firm grasp this spring Auburn could have a special team in '08.

West Virginia could, too. Any team with Pat White, a strong Heisman Trophy contender, and Noel Devine is dangerous. But the Mountaineers lost heavily on defense, so there is a degree of uncertainty there.

Of course, I picked Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bow, so what do I know?

New faces

Have any new coaches outside the "Big Six" leagues given you a great impression so far?

James in Gulfport, Miss.

There are seven new coaches at non-"Big Six" conference schools this year, and I've heard good things about all of them.

Personally, I'm intrigued to see what June Jones can do at SMU, which managed only one victory last season but returns a quarterback with the ability to put up big passing numbers. That is, assuming Justin Willis, whom Jones suspended for the spring, returns to the team this fall.

Colorado State's Steve Fairchild, a former player and assistant in Fort Collins, figures to be a good fit there. Also, Kevin Sumlin, who left Oklahoma to replace Art Briles at Houston, strikes me as an exceptional choice.

Of course, Hawaii's Greg McMackin and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo are facing the tough task of following extremely successful coaches. That's never easy. Ask Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe.

But you're a Southern Miss fan, so what you're really asking are my thoughts on Larry Fedora, who proved himself as a sharp offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State.

Yet, it's so hard and unfair to the new coaches to draw conclusions based on their first spring. They're getting used to their inherited personnel, finding out who is on board and who is resistant to change and putting in their systems all in 15 practices. If they look good on offense, does that mean they're struggling on defense? Who knows?

Actually, Fedora made a huge impression in February when he assembled a recruiting class that was ranked 37th in the nation by Rivals.com. That was better than any other non-"Big Six" school and about 20 spots higher than Southern Miss classes have previously been ranked.

Obviously, Fedora already is making a big impression. But I still don't understand why Jeff Bower was pushed out.

Perfection is only way

What are the chances that Fresno State goes to a BCS game? Obviously, they are going to lose a game with their schedule, which includes road trips to Rutgers, UCLA and Toledo and a home game against Wisconsin. But if they lose only one could they still make it?

Robert in Fresno, Calif.

Fresno State projects to be very good in 2008, but history shows if the Bulldogs don't go undefeated, they won't play in a BCS game.

Other than Notre Dame, only three teams that don't play in the "Big Six" conferences have been involved in BCS games Utah in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, Boise State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and Hawaii in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. All were undefeated.

TCU went 11-1 in 2005 and had to settle for a Houston Bowl appearance.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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