(NEW YORK – December 3, 2013) – Auburn cornerback Chris Davis, who scored the winning touchdown for the Tigers in a barnburner against Alabama in the Iron Bowl, is on the national cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (12/2/13)—on newsstands NOW. In the cover story, senior writer Andy Staples analyzes what was a wild, wacky and sometimes chaotic 2013 college football season. Even before Auburn’s takedown of Alabama there was Johnny Manziel’s half-game suspension, Lane Kiffin’s firing by USC at LAX, Ohio State’s beleaguered perfection, Duke’s emergence (with no assists from Coach K), Missouri’s resurgence and Florida State’s QB controversy. Writes Staples, “Back in August we thought we had all the answers. Johnny Football would challenge to be the second two-time Heisman winner. Oregon would rip through the Pac-12 in spite of a coaching change. And, of course, Alabama would tack on yet another national title. Auburn wasn’t even in the conversation. Well, college football has once again reminded us that each year brings new stars, slumbering giant programs that wake and return to glory, and finishes that make us shut our eyes tight, open them again and scream for a replay to prove we hadn’t dreamed what had just happened. Did an Auburn cornerback return a missed field goal 109 yards to win the Iron Bowl and turn the sport upside-down? Again? ” (Page 40)
Hours before the Iron Bowl’s epic finish, Michigan threatened a shake-up of its own at home before 113, 511 fans at home in Ann Arbor against undefeated Ohio State. The Buckeyes trailed early but got even, trailed and got even again, and so on and so on throughout a game in which, although trailing late, the Wolverines seemed to have all the momentum. Michigan scored a touchdown with 32 seconds left, but missed a two-point conversion, giving the Wolverines a 42-41 victory. Writes Staples, “Ohio State went 12–0 in 2012 but couldn’t play for the national championship because of an NCAA postseason ban. Saturday afternoon, as the buses rolled out of Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes once again stood at 12–0—and once again faced the possibility of being shut out of the BCS title game. Most preseason discussion of the national championship boiled down to one question: Alabama or the field? Not much had changed since August. Because Florida State’s remaining opponents seemed too feeble, the Buckeyes needed someone to take down Bama. Auburn did. As fans poured onto the field 550 miles to the south, the Ohio State players stood in their buses and roared. “It was absolutely nuts for 15 minutes,” coach Urban Meyer says.” (Page 42)
So what’s next? With a host of marquee matchups slated for conference championship weekend, don’t be surprised if college football’s wacky season doesn’t have a few more tricks up its sleeve. |SI Senior Writer, Andy Staples
In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (11/25/13)—on newsstands now— executive editor L. Jon Wertheim writes about Alabama’s big man on campus and he doesn’t mean Nick Saban. No, the Big Mac in Tuscaloosa is quarterback AJ McCarron, Bama’s master of passing efficiency, who is on the brink of leading the Crimson Tide to its third national championship in four years. Writes Wertheim, “McCarron might be almost as well known for his arm candy as his arm strength, his body ink as his body of work. But let’s be clear: He’s not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football. Even if not many think of him that way.” (Page 39)
Despite his 35 wins in Tuscaloosa and two BCS titles, McCarron has never been a Heisman finalist or a first-team All-America. Instead of being considered one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, he’s routinely labeled as a “game manager.” He plays on a team with an old-school philosophy and with a stern disciplinarian and perfectionist as its head coach.. “He has as many national championships as he does defeats,” writes Wertheim. “He holds the Bama record for passing yards (8,184) and touchdowns (70). He has yet to lose a road game. In an offense designed to pick up as much on the ground as in the air, he still tosses for 222.8 yards a game.” (Page 41)
Joe Namath, who won a national championship at Alabama in 1964 under legendary coach Paul (Bear) Bryant and who Bryant referred to as “the greatest athlete I ever coached,” has nothing but high praise and high hopes for McCarron. “Everything AJ has shown has been positive,” Namath says. “He’s productive in the right way. He’s excelled under pressure. He plays well in big games. He’s a leader. He’s carried himself beautifully. He’s going to go into those interviews and wow them. He’ll be successful [in the NFL], and anyone who knows football knows why.” (Page 45)
The Alabama Crimson Tide are expertly coached, stacked with future NFL talent and confident of running the table, but opponents who are smart, willing and armed with the right personnel can take eight simple steps to beat the two-time defending BCS champs, writes Lars Anderson in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones, who scored three touchdowns last Saturday against Virginia Tech, is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI. ***Click here to read the entire story on SI.com.
Anderson spoke with a few rival coaches, ex-Alabama staff members and some former Tide players—who spoke on the condition of anonymity—and many thought Alabama would lose at least once this season. “You have to play a near-perfect game, but they have some vulnerable points,” says a coach. “This giant can be slayed.” (PAGE 34) Based on inside information from these former coaches and players, SI put together an eight-step, how-to guide for any team hoping to keep Nick Saban’s Alabama team out of the national championship.
Step 1: Have a quarterback who can make plays with his feet and complete at least a few intermediate and deep throws
Anderson notes that of the five teams that have beaten Alabama since 2010, four had quarterbacks who were dangerous on the ground as well as through the air: LSU’s Jordan Jefferson in 2010 and ’11; Auburn’s Cam Newton in ’10; and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel last season. “Even when you’ve called the right defense and your defense does everything right, that kind of quarterback can still beat you by improvising,” said Nick Saban in the summer of 2011. “It’s the stuff you can’t really plan for that always brings a high level of concern. I mean, it can drive you crazy as a coach.” (PAGE 34)
Alabama faces Manziel and the Aggies on September 14. Anderson discovered that Saban has continually reminded his players of what Johnny Football did last fall: During the spring and summer a video of the loss played on a loop in the Tide’s weight room. “Coach Saban always got really worked up over those fast, shifty quarterbacks,” says a former Alabama player. “If a guy like Cam Newton got out of the pocket, our linemen would get tired as hell chasing him around, and it basically took away the physical advantage we had over their offensive linemen because we’d get gassed.” (PAGE 34)
Step 2: Challenge the inexperienced defensive backfield
“The weakest position group is going to be the secondary,” says a former Alabama staffer. “It’s imperative that you take advantage of those kids back there. Nick personally coaches the defensive backs and the playbook is incredibly complicated. So I can almost guarantee you that you’ll see a lot of confusion . . . . I’d call at least two, maybe three deep balls a quarter. Let’s see if those kids are ready.” (PAGE 35)
Step 3: Counter Alabama’s D by spreading the field and playing fast
“Instead of having a play come at them every 40 seconds,” says a coach, “you need to snap the ball every 15 to 18 seconds. You gotta get those big boys up front tired.” Anderson adds: “Saban has complained that the hurry-up offense is dangerous—he says it leads to more injuries—but rival coaches believe that argument is a smokescreen aimed at concealing Saban’s real concern: It doesn’t give him time to substitute defenders and call the coverage he wants.” (PAGE 37)
Step 4: Slow Alabama’s rushing attack
Since 2008, the Tide are 53–0 when they rush for more than 150 yards. “The fundamentals of tackling change when you go from trying to tackle a wiggle guy like T.J. Yeldon to a bulldozer like Derrick Henry,” says a coach. “The key is to not let either of them get in the open field, and the best way to do that is bring an extra safety into the box, play eight close to the line and dare them to throw. Because if they get the running game going, the game is over.” (PAGE 37)
Step 5: Contain Amari Cooper
Anderson says that the most explosive player on Alabama’s offense is sophomore wide receiver Amari Cooper. His 11 receiving touchdowns last season broke a school record that had stood since 1950. “I’m going to play umbrella coverage on him,” says a coach. “I’m going to roll up a corner to Cooper at the line of scrimmage and put a safety behind him. On the other side I’m going to take a chance and go man-to-man with no safety help against [wide receiver] Kevin Norwood or whoever is playing there. You just always must know where number 9 [Cooper] is located.” (PAGE 37)
Step 6: Challenge Alabama’s young offensive line and make AJ McCarron beat you when he’s on the run
Last season AJ McCarron became the first quarterback in the BCS era to guide his team to back-to-back titles. And he did so while throwing for 30 touchdowns behind an offensive line that featured three players that are now in the NFL. “I would give them three or four blitzes that I’ve never used in previous games, just to see if they’re ready for something that isn’t in their game plan,” says a coach. (PAGE 38)
Step 7: Force Alabama to kick field goals
Bama kicker Cade Foster, who was 4 of 9 on field goals last season, has connected on only 13 of 27 (48.2%) in his college career. “It’s clear,” says a coach, “that Nick doesn’t have much trust in any of his kickers.” (PAGE 38)
Step 8: Play to make it to the fourth quarter
In 2012, Alabama outscored its opponents 153–26 in the first quarter. “The opening minutes are all about survival,” says a coach. “Get your kids settled down and then, with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, be within a touchdown. That’s when we’ll find out about Alabama’s nerves.” (PAGES 38-39)
Inside this Week’s SI College Football Preview: 28 Pages of Scouting Reports on SI’s Top 25 and Six Regional CoversPosted: August 14, 2013
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s 2013 College Football Preview—on newsstands now—breaks down SI’s Top 25 with 28 pages of scouting reports that include profiles of key players and breakout stars, Q&As with coaches and other vital analysis. The top six teams in SI’s Top 25 are represented on regional covers: The top six teams in SI’s top 25 are represented on regional covers of this week’s issue: No. 1 Alabama (T.J. Yelton, So., RB), No. 2 Stanford (Shayne Skov, Sr., LB), No. 3 Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel, So., QB), No. 4 Ohio State (Braxton Miller, Jr., QB), No. 5 Oregon (Marcus Mariota, So., QB) and No. 6 South Carolina (Jadeveon Clowney, Jr., DE). View all six regional covers here.
Here is SI’s preseason top 10:
3. Texas A&M
4. Ohio State
6. South Carolina
8. Notre Dame
Find the entire SI Top 25, expanded scouting reports, video breakdowns, conference analyses, a media roundtable and SI’s All-America team at SI.com/cfb
SI Top 25 Notes: *If Johnny Manziel is ruled ineligible before the season, SI moves the Aggies to No. 15; Alabama tops the SI preseason Top 25 for the fourth consecutive season; Stanford’s No. 2 ranking is the highest SI preseason ranking for the Cardinal.
Also inside SI: Heisman Trophy dark horses (see below); a look at No. 2 Stanford’s Shayne Skov and other “nerds” at good academic schools (No. 22 Northwestern, No. 23 Vanderbilt and Duke) who will make a difference on the field this year (click here); the influx of hurry-up offenses and why it still isn’t for everyone (click here); and how the 1942 Rose Bowl between Oregon State and Duke rallied a nation (click here).
Before last season started, few outside of College Station knew about the soon-to-be Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. So while everyone knows the Heisman favorites, SI’s Zac Ellis looks at some players (with odds) who could match Manziel’s epic rise and make an out-of-nowhere run at the trophy in 2013 (PAGE 59):
• Jameis Winston, Florida State, QB, Freshman (25 to 1)
• Chuckie Keeton, Utah State, QB, Junior (100 to 1)
• Duke Johnson, Miami, RB, Sophomore (50 to 1)
• Derek Carr, Fresno State, QB, Senior (100 to 1)
• Dri Archer, Kent State, RB, Senior (75 to 1)
• Stefon Diggs, Maryland, WR, Sophomore (75 to 1)
• Kyle Van Noy, BYU, LB, Senior, (150 to 1)
Scan the channels on any given Saturday, and you’ll see coaches everywhere ditching the huddle in favor of a field-stretching speed game—except for the guys wearing the national championship rings, writes Andy Staples in this week’s SI.
Up-tempo, no-huddle offenses are on the rise (the average number of offensive plays in a game jumped to 71.5 in 2012 (in 2008 the FBS average was 67.7), and nearly every team on the top of the NCAA total offense stats in 2012 uses this type of offense. Staples notes that Clemson, Oklahoma State and Oregon—teams with offenses that never stop moving—each averaged more than 512 yards per game last season. And more teams this year will look to speed up their tempo, including Texas, Kentucky and Auburn.
Why use the no-huddle offense? Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who won the Big 12 and came within a field goal of playing for the national title in 2011 using the hurry-up style, has two reasons. “We think we can stretch a defense,” Gundy says. The other reason is more practical. In a section of the country where hurry-up spread schemes reign at the high school level, Gundy believes the best players want to play in an up-tempo offense. “We feel that young men who are in high school who have an opportunity to touch the football, have an opportunity to be part of an offense, want to play in that style,” Gundy says. “They look forward to it. We thought years ago, when we made a change, that there was a benefit in recruiting in this part of the country.” (PAGES 71-72)
However, while more teams are attempting to speed up their offense with a no-huddle, none of them have won a recent championship. Staples says, “On the flip side Florida won national titles in ’06 and ’08 by milking the play clock . . . . The ’08 Gators should have been called the Tortoises; they averaged 62.4 plays, 5.3 below the national average. Meanwhile, Alabama has won three of the past four BCS titles by huddling most of the time and averaging 64 to 68 plays.” (PAGE 72) Alabama coach Nick Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema have even argued that hurry-up offenses represent a safety hazard since more plays create more potential hits and more fatigue, which lead to injuries.
Another potential problem with a no-huddle offense is that most people think it can adversely affect a team’s defense. Staples notes that the defenses playing for the top 10 teams in total offense in 2012 allowed an average of 447.4 yards a game. But since the defense on a team that uses an up-tempo offense usually faces more plays a game on defense, Staples says we must throw out old numbers when looking at the statistics of the defense of a no-huddle team. Using advanced statistics developed by Bill Connelly that provide more accurate comparisons of teams running disparate schemes, Staples finds that the Oklahoma State defense that ranked 80th in total defense last year should have been ranked No. 12 and Oregon’s defense, which ranked 44th in yards allowed last year should have been No. 2.
So which style is the way to go? “In the end, varying tempo may be the best method,” says Staples. “The kind of no-huddle that bothers me,” TCU coach Gary Patterson says, “is the one that doesn’t do it every snap . . . . It’s still about finding a way to score one more point. . . . The thing that people need to realize is that you’ve got to find some way to do something no one else knows how to do. Or if they do know, you’re just doing it better.” (PAGE 75)