NEW YORK – (December 11, 2013) Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and Auburn cornerback Ryan White, who appear on the national cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (12/16/13), are on a collision course for the BCS championship. The Seminoles and the Tigers will play in the national title game on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and it is the right matchup in every way says SI senior writer Michael Rosenberg. In the final year of the BCS as college football’s top postseason format, the Seminoles (13–0) finished atop the standings for the first time since 1999 and were the only team to get through the regular season unbeaten. Auburn (12–1) won the vaunted Southeastern Conference by running from last place in 2012 to first place with their shoelaces on fire. Writes Rosenberg, “Florida State has been the sport’s dominant team, but Auburn represents the sport’s dominant conference, which has won seven straight national championships and wants you to know it. SEC fans chant ‘S-E-C!’ after every bowl win, and probably after most church functions—an a cappella version of ‘Seven Nation Army,’ the sports background music that most of America wants to turn off but can’t.”(Page 49)
Senior writer Lars Anderson makes the case for Auburn winning their second national championship in four years, writing, “The key player in Auburn’s transformation from a 3–9 team in 2012 to a 12–1 squad has been quarterback Nick Marshall, a 6’ 1”, 210-pound junior who spent last season in the hinterlands of the Kansas prairie at Garden City Community College. Marshall has led fourth-quarter comebacks against Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, and he’s infused the program with confidence. Auburn, remarkably, is peaking when it matters most, which is why this team of magic and joy and video-game fun will keep the national title in the state of Alabama for the fifth straight year.” (Page 51)
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)
In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands now—senior writer Austin Murphy writes about how (and why) the nucleus of the Pac-12 is changing, as No. 2 Oregon (8–0) and fifth-ranked Stanford (7–1) prepare to face off in the Pac 12’s game of the year in Palo Alto on Thursday, Nov. 7.
Historically speaking, the Oregon-Stanford college football rivalry never really registered on anyone’s radar west of the Golden Gate Bridge. It never warranted any cool nicknames like The Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn) or The Red River Rivalry (Texas-Oklahoma) or the simple and direct moniker The Game (Michigan-Ohio State). The Ducks and the Cardinal never had the national spotlight on their intense coaching matchups the way Bo Schembechler versus Woody Paige or Bobby Bowden versus Steve Spurrier did.
It was only over the last few years that the Ducks versus the Cardinal took on any type of significance outside the Pacific time zone. The two schools have been forging a rivalry that has shifted the Pac-12’s power nexus had an annual impact on the national title hunt. Writes Murphy, “Besides, acrimony excepted, this game will have everything. It’s Oregon’s second-ranked offense, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, against Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov and the Cardinal’s 25th-ranked D. It’s a play-in to the Pac-12 title game, and the latest dramatization of the conference’s power shift from Los Angeles. It’s a clash of fashions—the Cardinal’s basic red-and-white versus whatever space-age design the Ducks are rocking—and of philosophies reflected by those unis: Stanford’s old-school, smashmouth power game versus Oregon’s no-huddle, hurry-up Blur attack.” (Page 48)
For more than 60 years, Pac-12 football was dominated by heavyweight contenders UCLA and USC, which have won a combined 18 conference titles and 55 national titles between them and which have produced Hall of Fame players such as the Bruins Jackie Robinson (yes, he played football too), Ken Norton Jr. and Troy Aikman, and the Trojans’ Frank Gifford, Marcus Allen and Lynn Swann. Now all eyes in the West are focused on the Ducks’ Mariota and wide receiver Josh Huff and the Cardinal’s Skov and linebacker AJ Tarpley. Nevertheless, the talent surge at both schools can also be attributed to a surge in resources.
Writes Murphy, “The Ducks have won 12 games in each of the past three seasons; the Cardinal, 12, 11 and 12. The Ducks have been to four straight BCS bowls; the Cardinal, three. Both teams’ ascent to the college football aristocracy has come (relatively) recently—spurred largely by a couple of sugar daddies. Call it the Nouveau Riche Bowl. John Arrillaga (net worth: $1.8 billion), who played basketball at Stanford in the 1950s and developed much of the real estate that is now Silicon Valley, has given at least $251 million to his alma mater, where six buildings bear his name. Nike shogun Phil Knight (net worth: $16.3 billion) has kept his name off the architecture in Eugene, but he’s been even more generous, bestowing at least $300 million.” (Page 48)
While Stanford, known more for its academic achievement than its touchdown prowess, has surprised some with its recent success, it’s the Hatfield Dowlin Foot Performance Center, Oregon’s new state-of-the-art, 145,000 square foot football facility that has gone viral across all recruiting and social media platforms. However, Murphy says Knight plays down the importance of his philanthropy and influence on the football program’s success. “The secret is not the money” Knight says. Even with his gifts, Knight believes, Oregon has less to work with “than any of the traditional powers. The secret is management.” (Page 49)
As the completions and the victories pile up, low-key star Teddy Bridgewater brings Louisville closer to New Year’s Day and himself closer to New York City, writes Pete Thamel in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Playing in the pros will allow Bridgewater to fulfill a promise he made to his mom, Rose Murphy, when he was in the third grade. “When I make it to the pros,” Teddy Bridgewater said, “I’m going to buy you a pink Escalade with pink rims.” (PAGE 39)
From the age of eight, Bridgewater was tabbed as a can’t-miss quarterback. He excelled in the vaunted Optimist youth leagues in Miami and later at Northwestern High. It was there that he became a top college prospect and did so while his mother was battling breast cancer. Now a junior at Louisville, he’s the nation’s third-most efficient passer on the No. 8 team, a Heisman Trophy candidate and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. “His mother’s situation made him a grown man,” says Northwestern coach Billy Rolle, “and I think that helped him out more than any coach could.” (PAGE 40)
Bridgewater worked hard to avoid the stigma that South Florida produces any athlete but quarterback. He wound up a Cardinal after committing to and decommitting from Miami. “He wanted to be a quarterback,” says Louisville coach Charlie Strong, “not an athlete who’s a quarterback.” (PAGE 40)
After working extremely hard with Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Bridgewater led the Cardinals to an 11-2 season and was named Big East Player of the Year last season. He earned a reputation for not only being very accurate but also tough. He played through injuries, and shook off a nasty hit early in Louisville’s Sugar Bowl win over Florida last year. He has become a more willing leader. “This is his football team,” Strong says. “He knows this, his team will only go as far as he takes them.” (PAGE 42)
While Bridgewater has a season of eligibility remaining, he’ll graduate this year. His descision to enter the draft seems like a foregone conclusion. “The reality is that we’re hoping and believing that he has a great season,” says Rose, “and after that he’ll do what he needs to do to prepare to go to the draft.” (PAGE 42)
Thamel finds that Bridgewater is very humble on and off the field. For instance, he asked Louisville not to run a Heisman campaign for him because he doesn’t want special treatment and he still dates his high school sweetheart. “He’s one of those players who wants no credit,” says Strong. “He’d rather sit back and let his work speak for him.” (PAGE 43)
Bridgewater may not get as many Heisman and Twitter mentions as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, the two are “not in the same universe” as NFL prospects, says former Eagles scout John Middlekauff, who adds, “You build a franchise around high-level people as much as high-level players.” (PAGE 50)
Schematic changes in college football have resulted in more hybrid players on both sides of the ball, writes Andy Staples in this week’s SI. “Welcome to the world of the football hybrid, the player who doesn’t fit any of the standard positions that developed after the game transitioned from the age of two-way ironmen to the age of specialization,” says Staples. “Now if a team doesn’t have at least one amorphous, broadly defined position, it’s behind the curve. And the cooler the name, the better.” (PAGE 45)
Staples takes a look at some of college football’s best hybrid players (and their unique position names), including Northwestern’s “Superback” Dan Vitale, Georgia’s “Star” Josh Harvey-Clemons and UCLA’s “Buck” Anthony Barr.
After Northwestern’s Drake Dunsmore saw success as a blocking tight end, a flexed tight end and as a fullback from 2007 through ’11, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t think H- or F-back—the usual designations for a hybrid player—fully described the position. “We were looking for a guy who could do multiple things,” says Fitzgerald. “He wasn’t a tight end. He wasn’t a running back. Who could do everything? Superman. So he’s a Superback.” (PAGE 45)
Current Wildcats sophomore Dan Vitale has expanded the “Superback” role. In his first game this season Vitale led the team with five catches for 101 yards in a 44-30 win over Cal. But Fitzgerald plans to also line him up in the backfield and on the line this season. Vitale is a busy man in practice. “I work with the O-linemen,” Vitale says. “I run routes with the receivers. Then I time up with the quarterbacks and running backs.” (PAGE 46)
Staples says the only way for a defense to counter versatility on offense is to develop hybrids as well. Staples writes, “The proliferation of up-tempo spread offenses has forced defensive coordinators to seek out human Swiss Army knives who can play three positions (cornerback, safety and outside linebacker).” Georgia defensive coordinator calls this position the Star. “Some people call it a Nickel/Sam,” Grantham says. “The Star just means he’s the strongside adjuster. He’s going to adjust to the third receiver.” (PAGE 46) The Bulldogs’ Star is Josh Harvey-Clemons, a 6’ 5”, 212-pound sophomore with great size and speed.
UCLA linebacker or “Buck” Anthony Barr had 11 tackles and three forced fumbles in the Bruins’ 41-21 win at Nebraska last Saturday. Barr plays outside linebacker on standard downs and Buck defensive end on passing downs. “He’s multifaceted,” says UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos. “He can play the run. He can rush the passer. He can cover. That’s what makes him so special.” (PAGE 48)