Just so you know, I'm starting this week's column with "I told you so." So I'm gonna shut up and revel in being right, for there's no telling when it'll happen again. On to the weekend ...
I told you so. Thought I was kidding? Just check the first item. Days like Saturday are what people love about college football, meaning a shuffling of the BCS standings should have been expected. And guess what? The only teams in the Top 5 one can truly expect to escape Thanksgiving unscathed are Kansas State and Alabama. One doesn't play and the other has Auburn at home, the sort of contest video gamers simulate to save time.
USC -- more on them later -- still has the best pair of receivers in the country, no matter the quarterback. Georgia's defense isn't good enough to assume they'll stop Georgia Tech's triple option. And Florida's task is scoring on the best (statistically) defense in the country.
We're not dealing with professionals. These players are college students, possibly the most unreliable group of people on the planet. Their focus is notoriously inconsistent. They're the reason we watch the games, and the reason we'll never be able to stop. Anything can happen because there's no telling what they might -- or might not -- do. Which is to say, next week, I might be linking to this item.
The good and bad news about Rob Gronkowski's injury. Obviously, the Patriots would prefer having Gronk to being without him, as they reportedly will the next four to six weeks as he recovers from a broken forearm. He is their only big play threat in the passing game -- Gronkowski leads the team with 13.3 yards per reception -- and he's the only Patriot with more than three touchdown catches. But the biggest factor in whether New England wins or loses is how well it runs the ball.
In their three losses, the Patriots ran for no more than 90 yards. Without Gronk, one would think the Pats would have to lean more on Stevan Ridley, the league's sixth-leading rusher (814 yards). So far this year, that's been a recipe for success. Let's see if that remains the case without Gronkowski and the versatility he gives New England's offense.
This is why we don't trust you. Bob Costas was right when, at halftime of Sunday Night Football, he noted how difficult it is to buy the NFL's two 9-1 teams -- Houston and Atlanta -- as favorites in their respective conferences. This week did nothing to change that, with the Texans taken to overtime by the Jaguars and Atlanta squeaking one out against the Cardinals. Matt Ryan's five interceptions were obviously problematic, but also an aberration. What mattered more was another nonexistent rushing performance from the Falcons, and another game where their run defense was gashed (this time, by the worst rushing attack in the league).
The Texans seem to have less to worry about. They have been great on defense this season -- third in yards allowed, second in points going into Sunday -- but gave up 37 or more points for the second time this season. Their biggest question mark has been whether they're explosive enough on offense to come from behind if necessary. Well, they did that, making up a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter. It may be reaching to find that positive, but it's one many needed to see from this team. That said, seeing how Chad Henne lit them up for 354 yards and four touchdowns, showing a little more wouldn't have hurt.
The Steelers defense isn't doing enough. As unfair as it sounds to say about a unit that held the No. 4 scoring offense in the league to 13 points, Pittsburgh needs more from its defense. With a healthy Byron Leftwich, who hadn't started a game since 2009, the Steelers would need some breaks to beat Baltimore. To win with an obviously injured Leftwich -- or maybe, for the next couple of weeks, Charlie Batch -- they'd need even more. So what can the Steelers defense do to help in that regard?
The question may seem absurd, as Pittsburgh leads the league in total defense, as it did in 2011. But the Steelers were last in the league in takeaways last year. Going into Sunday night, they were 30th, and they didn't force any against Baltimore in a 13-10 loss. Given what we saw the Steelers do against the Ravens' porous defense, how will they score without short fields? The same way Ben Roethlisberger has carried the offense, the defense must now do the same.
Ladies and gentlemen, Erykah Badu. And when I say "ladies and gentlemen," I mean Andy Reid and Ron Rivera.
That's right -- it's time for Tyrone to help them get their shit. If Reid was going to try to save his job by showing what he could do with Nick Foles ... no.
And there was another fourth quarter defensive collapse for the Panthers, surrendering two 80-yard touchdown drives after 1:07 remained in the fourth quarter. The bad news would have come in typical triplicate, but the Cowboys saved Jason Garrett's hide in the second half against the Browns. After this week, the coaching carousel has definitely begun. It's just a matter of when the deposed will be told what everyone can see.
But not Lane Kiffin? Hey, if Pat Haden says Kiffin will be back next year, then -- assuming USC isn't embarrassed horribly by Notre Dame -- that's that. That said, what's Haden waiting on? This isn't a coach he hired, and there isn't anything in Kiffin's past to say he's the right man to get USC through probation. Sure, they're low on depth because of the sanctions, but the guys they have do not look well-coached. Matt Barkley does not look like he's improved since last season, and quarterbacks are supposed to be Kiffin's area of expertise. Penalties persist. And the defense? Well, someone has to answer for hiring Monte Kiffin, no?
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
Most damning to Kiffin's cause was how easy USC's offense made it look when it was rolling Saturday against UCLA. The Trojans had three touchdown drives, all over 55 yards, none taking more than 2:18 off the clock. The caliber of talent in cardinal and gold jumped out ... as they fell to 7-4. If this is all Kiffin can get out of the preseason No. 1, how's he expected to get more out of less, which is what will be left on the roster after this season?
Embarrassing the program with his antics is one thing. Underperforming is another. The combination of the two should be fireable, but Haden says it isn't. The best I can figure is agent Jimmy Sexton is even better than we thought (and we know he's pretty damn good).
That's all the NCAA could get on Shabazz Muhammad? Andy Glockner is right: it's absurd, eight months after warning its member schools of eligibility concerns surrounding Muhammad, to go through with everything it did over unofficial visits. With all the smoke surrounding Muhammad -- including an Adidas endorsement deal for his sister, a tennis player, that exceeds what's typical for a player of her ranking -- the biggest fire they could find was $1,600 worth of improper benefits?
Here's what the biggest takeaway should be -- the NCAA affords few, if any, rights to those whom it accuses. Robert Orr, Muhammad's attorney, told me Friday that compliance paperwork for Muhammad's visits were filed before they were taken. All the records, including financial information, the NCAA requested were turned over. But, until a statement was released Nov. 9, Muhammad had no idea he would be made ineligible or, exactly, would make such a decision. Once it was ruled a violation had taken place, only the school -- not the player -- could appeal the accompanying penalty. And that appeal could only take place if Muhammad copped to the violation. Yes, the only route to absolution is to admit guilt, whether it exists or not.
The NCAA has become a white whale for Orr, a former Associate Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Once he looked into the case against his alma mater, UNC, he was shocked by how few rights players had in processes like Muhammad's. He laughs what people think when they see him, a Southern Republican jurist, taking on this cause.
But Orr sees what goes beyond politics and what both permeates and transcends Muhammad's case -- how little athletes can do if the NCAA accuses them of its peculiar notion of impropriety. No matter how much smoke surrounds Muhammad, after all this time, the only fire the NCAA could find was caused by $1,600 spent on unofficial visits the NCAA was perfectly aware of. This is even though, allegedly, the NCAA was sure it could be able to keep him from playing. This isn't just ridiculous. It's flat-out wrong.
Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten? The Big Ten's surprising move to pick up new members seems crazy ... but it might be brilliant. This was a 21st century move made to capitalize on the conference's most underutilized 20th century asset -- its fans in the Northeast. Much of that region grew up watching Big Ten football, a fact accentuated by the heavy proportion of Ohio State fans ‘round those parts. Adding Maryland and Rutgers isn't simply expanding the Big Ten's footprint.
One could argue it's simply strengthening it, bringing many of its fans more chances to see their favorite teams. Oh, and the additional television sets provided by the D.C. and New York metropolitan areas might eventually be enough to bring the Big Ten Network, which may as well print money, to basic cable tiers. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany may be depriving fans of the true playoff they deserve, but he does a helluva job for his own conference. There's risk, certainly, but this is one of the most interesting moves he's ever made, and no one saw it coming. Brilliant? We'll see.
Royce White and the uncomfortable truth. Everyone with a heart wants Royce White to do well. However, no one really cares whether he plays NBA basketball but he and the Rockets. So, when White says he may consider quitting the NBA -- a league in which he has not played a minute -- that may be best for everyone. White, clearly, seems to agree. Certainly, the Rockets should do what is reasonable to create an environment for White's success. But, if he thinks the Rockets are going to put him in the lineup in the name of his mental health, this isn't going to work for him.
My initial thoughts, once White began giving his side of the story on Twitter, was whether he was putting in the work he asks of the Rockets with respect to his mental health. Upon further review, that doesn't matter. White knows what he's willing to do and what he requires of the team he plays for. If they can't find enough common ground, then they can't. The only thing that matters is White's health, a fact he's perfectly aware of. If playing in the NBA isn't healthy for him, then he won't. As long as he can live with the consequences of putting his sanity above a career in professional basketball, there will be no controversy. There won't even be a sad story. It'll just be life. And if White can handle a disappointing ending, so must the Rockets, and so should everyone else.
What do we make of A.J. Barker's letter to Jerry Kill? Barker, Minnesota's leading receiver, was more specific about what he termed "abuse" than Marquess Wilson of Washington State. He spoke of conditions and interactions that few outside of sports and the military would tolerate. The thing is, this is sports, and being a member of a football team is undeniably similar to -- though not nearly as important as -- being a soldier. Right or wrong, things laymen would find fault with are standard operating procedure on a football team.
How do we handle letters like Barker's? There's no defense for a coach calling one of his players a "faggot," especially not as a response to learning his spiritual views. The same goes for the alleged statements about Barker's upbringing, the sort of thing too many coaches use to tweak players. But emotional manipulation has always been most coaches' most effective approach. No less an authority than Jimmy Johnson says fear is the greatest motivator of football players and Johnson, a wildly intelligent psychology major, could manipulate with the best of them. I couldn't imagine putting up with that, but I also couldn't imagine playing football. Most of what Barker describes doesn't sound like abuse. But should "falls short of abuse" be the standard for appropriate behavior?
Whatever is deemed appropriate, we better figure it out soon. As long as college students tend to be emotional and have the tools, notably social media, to express their grievances, issues like this will become public every year. As things stand, it's hard for the uninitiated to determine what is or isn't beyond the pale. Guess we'll only find out when someone gets fired like John Mackovic or Mark Mangino, but that only happens when several kids stand up, not just one.