A LOOK BACK - OUR EDITOR'S PREDICTIONS FROM THE 2004 SEASON

By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor
..
January 26, 2005

AND FINALLY...

With a few weekends having gone by without college football (save the Hula and Senior Bowls), we can now take a deep breath and look clearly at the hindsights that are now the 2004 college football season. This prognosticator made some pretty bold predictions, so it is about time to see how my guesses played themselves out. We present a link to the initial article for you to see just where I was headed with all of my (then) great ideas. The following is my own, pathetic attempt to grade myself, so bi-polar bear with me while I purge these demons from my person.

My first prediction pertained to the chances of USC making it (back) to the title game. 2004 Heisman-winning QB Matt Leinart led his squad both on the field and off to one of the Trojan's greatest seasons and the national championship, so I started off getting this easy one, huh.

Next, I said Oklahoma would have to make me believe this time, mainly due to the late-season collapses we had witnessed in recent years. Well, this time they didn't show up for their game in Miami, something I didn't think would happen as I espoused in September. Way back then, I truly thought they had the makeup to beat USC. Ass-covering move No.1 - by November, I had changed direction, for I saw Southern Cal's team speed (especially on D) that overall made them quicker than most everyone but Auburn. But, hey, a lot good that will do me in this light.

The predictions then careened toward the Big Ten, as I wondered about newbie OSU QB Justin Zwick and his ability to keep the Buckeyes from sliding during a 'transition' year. Well, Zwick was only one of the characters at QB that kept Columbus jumping. After Zwick played marginally (first he played well, as he won the opening three games, but then poorly when OSU lost three straight), the more dynamic Troy Smith was tapped to start. Smith won all of his games but one (a 24-17 loss to Purdue 11-13-04), shining brightest in the Buckeyes 37-21 mastery of the rival Wolverines. But Smith admittedly accepted money from a Buckeye booster, a fact that came out in December and suddenly made Zwick their QB again. Zwick embraced the chance, leading Ohio State to win the battle of OSUs (better known as the Alamo Bowl, except the Beavers weren't in the mix). I sure didn't see Zwick's much-improved return coming; I thought he would be sucked under by a Cowboy squad that took OU to 38-35 but lost. Zwick's resurgence means Columbus will be making waves way beyond Geiger's tenure.

Just as quickly, Michigan was conjured as I noted their hole at tailback and whether they could again take seemingly little and soar. Well, both a freshman TB and QB later (in Chad Henne and Michael Hart, respectively), we have our answer. I basically insinuated how well Michigan had done before when dealt a similar hand, and they again did not disappoint.

Instant replay was a big question for me and many others, but the Big Ten found a way to keep games flowing as they checked on the close calls. The system employed was much more streamlined than the pro version - coaches could not do the initiating, so the motivating factors are not partisan in nature, so the system just became about fairness and making the right call. When a Big Ten officiating crew was on hand, instant replay was used (even in non-conference games, but not in the bowls). So, to answer my own question - the venture into instant replay was done well enough so that many conferences (as well as the NCAA itself) are now interested in seeing how they can incorporate the omniscient process. Remember, "It ain't what you do; it's how you do it…" (Famous New Orleans saying).

Joe Paterno did it again. He led Penn State to its fourth losing season (4-7) in five years, which all but completely removes the memory of the Nittany Lion's prior 61 years of no losing seasons (except 1988's 5-6 showing). Is Happy Valley now a place that opponents no longer fear? Maybe, but Joe Pa finished with two big wins, the last against a decent Michigan State squad. This just adds to the confusion in trying to know when Paterno bows out during the three remaining years on his contract. I said it could be this off-season, but the late wins mean he got on enough of a roll to save his hide from the Board of Regents for another year. For the school's reputation and the program itself, it may get even worse before it gets any better.

In calling out first-year Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan, we queried about his ability to apply players recruited by former big cheese Frank Solich and still win enough to keep his job. Callahan lost more than he won by a close margin (5-6), but the Cornhuskers lost the last three to skew it such. So, it may seem like Callahan did adequate in his first campaign, given the circumstance. But this is under-the-microscope stuff in Lincoln - freakin' NU football! And if they fired Solich just one season earlier for going 10-3…(fill in the pause yourself.) Any program needs to give new developments - especially new coach re-vampings - five years to come to fruition, yet in this age of "what have you done for me lately", coaches are flipped more often than short stacks at an IHOP. You get what you give, so give Callahan a chance and he just might produce.

The weather played a foreseeable role in the outcome of the BCS, as predicted. The Cal-USM reschedule (due to hurricane) was a focus for many of us who knew (ok, maybe just had a strong feeling) - an adequate Southern Miss squad is nothing nice to see for anyone's end game. After losing three of their previous four, the Golden Eagles showed up enough in the 26-16 make-up loss such that Cal's lack of dominance ostensibly kept them out of (and earned Texas a spot in) the BCS. Cal was then demoralized enough to tank 45-31 to the extremely offensive Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Holiday Bowl, whereas Southern Miss sling-shotted their respectable showing to a 31-10 (home?) win versus North Texas in the New Orleans Bowl. And the fortuitous Longhorns took their opportunity to the bank with a 38-37 Rose Bowl win. Remember, if the weather can mess something up, it eventually will. Oh Frances…

Predicting that the Miami-FSU tilt would again NOT produce one of the national championship finalists was pretty much a gimme. So was calling out the Pac-Ten, Big XII and SEC as the conferences that will provide the final two combatants. And it was a clean sweep (with hindsight) that each of those three conferences actually produced an undefeated squad, with Auburn the odd team out, so to speak. Few years work out as well so that the thoroughness of the predictions comes so true, but 2004 was a year to remember, huh.

Utah…as we pointed out, 104th-rated schedule means a good likelihood of running the table for any talented tribe. Well, after the Ute's undefeated run and an amazing swansong later, Urban Meyer heads to Gainesville possibly the most accomplished four-year head man ever. But Utah also loses its dually-capacitated QB Alex Smith, so expect much change in the 2005 Ute approach. Hey, these BCS-busters are possibly one of the best undefeated groups to never have its own share of a national title. Store this memory away about Utah, and you can say you remember it well, when…

The question we posed about the polls being more heavily weighted (in the BCS scheme) and whether that would help clear any year-end quagmire(s) played itself out accordingly. And appropriately, the AP poll has stated that in 2005 it will pull itself out of participating as a component in the BCS formula. The BCS asked for this kind of exit, by one of (if not) the most venerable ranking system, when they changed (quite a few times over just a few years) just how they evaluated the landscape for their final rankings. Teams from (or those looking back on) prior years - who may have been able to go if the formula had stayed the same - have a legitimate gripe as to the fairness of the whole sequence. And now, if we can just get the ESPN, ABC, and CBS guys to harp on how easily student-athletes in Divisions I-AA, II, and III schools (which are usually much harder learning institutions) have enough time to study for finals AND participate in a national playoff (instead of them talking up the flavors of the week, which was Adrian Peterson most of the time in 2004), we may just generate enough hype to overcome this fallacy for why I-A school presidents balk at a playoff scenario. Phew.

By Colorado head coach Gary Barnett winning a vote of his Big XII peers to earn the conference's Coach of the Year award, we see that the 'good ole boy' networks hold just as much water at this level as they do amongst the school presidents (see story directly above this one). By being a school that puts its won-loss records (and therefore money via year-end bowls) above lessons of morality for its student, such a school obviously becomes an ugly part of college football that ultimately spawns attitudes of players and coaches thinking they are bigger than the game. Really, since the players are being exploited this way for financial gain, just quit the charade and pay them part of the billions of dollars generated by exploiting the students and the sport at this level. If this is the case, just call I-A ball the minor leagues and let real student-athletes have the honor of getting an education while they happen to be playing a sport they love (yes, the order of saying that is important). In evaluating the humanity of the game, the horse and cart have been switched and it is the players who ultimately get the short end of things.

Ron Zook's fate was pretty easily deciphered. Losing to a struggling Mississippi State squad 38-31 was the final straw, with Zook's dismissal coming just two days later (one day if you break down how Sunday's announcements, following Saturday's game, cued Monday as www.fireronzook.com day). What many didn't expect was when former-Mr. Gator himself, Steve Spurrier, balked at the eager alumnus clamoring for his second tenure. Spurrier instead went to Augusta-accessible South Carolina (yes, Steve likes golf a lot). Mark those calendars - November 12th, 2005 - the day newbie skipper Urban Meyer takes the Gators into Williams-Brice Stadium to see the former Heisman winner and his new squad. Zook heads to Illinois, where he takes over a 3-8 group that only managed to beat teams with a compiled 7-26 record between them. The Gators may be the best of the three for now, but do not count the Illini or the Gamecocks out of any conference title runs, except for in this inaugural year for each coach.

Colorado State did have a losing season after 10 straight winning efforts. The play of both QBs was marginal, but wasn't the Ram's downfall as predicted. The defense, especially the line and run-stopping, was abysmal. Allowing 5.1 per carry and only earning 16 sacks won't get any foe off the field. Similarly, State needs to revamp its own rushing attack and revitalize the ground earning potential the Rams had when Cecil "the Diesel" Sapp was there. Lubick has built too much for his tenure to take a meaningful downswing due to two years of losing.

In the case of LSU and its QB(s), they had enough quality play such that the Baton Rouge faithful cannot blame that position for their 2004 demise. Sure, Mauck was a leader seldom seen, a motivator and a consistent deliverer of great plays. But neither of his replacements - Marcus Randall or JaMarcus Russell - were much less, though neither was the entire package Mauck proved to be. With LSU's hindsight, no way were the Tigers better than Auburn and Georgia, though 10-9 loss at Auburn could obviously have gone the other way. With the loss of Nick Saban, the Tiger's ship heads into the night with no real knowledge of how or where their coaching rudder will steer them. LSU has earned a place amongst the top schools in both the SEC and the nation, so any move would be a step down unless they uphold the high football tenets Saban instilled. That could easily happen, so keep an eye on this prize during the off season.

WVU was headed to the BCS with just two games left, but their undoing became two tough conference foes - Pitt and Boston College. With consistent play from Rasheed Marshall all year, the Mountaineer's QB tanked in the last two games, making marginal mistakes enough of the time to cost his team those games. To be fair, the whole team did poorly against two seemingly inferior squads, so blaming Marshall wouldn't be the best tact here. But he was why they did so well the first nine games - especially in the Maryland revenge victory, and he arguably played worse in the two losses than he had all season up til then. We originally referenced Maryland's disappointments versus FSU to parallel how WVU fans felt in losing to the Terps twice in 2003, so it was ironic when Maryland did the Noles in for their first win over Florida State after losing to them while undefeated so many times. Lucky guess, really…

Speaking of the Big East, Pittsburgh surprised many by making the run they did. I initially mentioned losing Fitz and Rutherford, but new QB Tyler Palko and WR Andy Lee made many wonder where both have been all their lives. Palko's pensions for getting the Panthers back from disastrous brinks (three OT wins and seven games decided by 31 total points) made this season one Kennywood ride to remember. Making the BCS was such a luck of the draw that Palko may have used all the good karma he will ever get in college. Naw, he will be a scrapper his entire career (he has two years of eligibility left). Watch as new head man Dave Wannstedt builds a winner around this proven passer/runner and see how Pitt keeps the winning experience (from Walt Harris' legacy) alive for at least two more years here in the steel city. What a football town…

Georgia was the best SEC team next to Auburn, making it hard to deny their 7th-place finish in the AP poll. After they lost to Tennessee at home, no one talked about Georgia as much as they talked about QB David Greene breaking Peyton Manning's record for wins by a QB. Too bad, their No.8 total defense was special with David Pollack making every opponent constantly pay in so many ways (17.5 TFLs, 12.5 sacks, 32! QB-hurries, three forced fumbles, two recoveries and two blocked kicks). Watch out for them as the Dawgs return most of their defense as upperclassmen, keep a strong line intact, and need only replace Greene, Pollack, and the receiving corps to be viable - a rather easy proposition with the talent they have.

As for the unexpected, we warned you about it. What kind of weird things governed this 2004 season? We would have to give the BCS Buster Award to the year's most disrespected team, the Utah Utes. Finally, a non-BCS aligned school made it. Funny how Cal and Texas were both ahead of Utah in the 'official' BCS rankings, but how the Utes were secured a spot while the Golden Bears and Longhorns had to battle it out for the last wildcard. The pressures of the non-aligned conferences had to be relieved. Hope can now be offered to all those smaller schools who have now seen one of their own get to one of the bigger Bowl game. But why didn't they play Auburn?...Auburn is actually better off in the face of history not playing in the big game, They can always argue that they woulda-coulda-shoulda, and no one can refute such claims. They had the best scoring defense and the second best pass efficiency defense in the nation. So, along with their SEC schedule, they go into the history books undefeated and worthy of a 1A sub-ranking right under USC…And what about the true freshmen who took over the national running scene? Jamario Thomas of North Texas (nation's top runner), Michael Hart from Michigan (ranked No.10), and of course Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma (No.6) represent one of the best initiation classes of RBs ever…Just as weird is how the top four punt returners were all freshmen, too…Boise State cannot go unmentioned. After losing Dinwiddie, a QB that left scorch marks on the blue turf, Jared Zabransky actually proved to be a more valuable leader as the Broncos balanced their offensive attack better than ever in '04 - with the running game actually ranking higher than the aerial attack! That was good enough for an improvement over last year's one-loss season. Unblemished, BSU fought valiantly against maybe the only mid-major that could actually beat this Bronco team, and Louisville thusly prevailed in the 44-40 Liberty Bowl battle, one of the season's best games. Whereas some smaller schools have a good year or two, BSU seems to be going on a run like Colorado State (90s) or BYU (80s) has…But my biggest surprise had to be the firing of Ty Willingham from Notre Dame's top spot. Sure, the writing seemed to be on the wall. But ND also seemed to be a pinnacle of administrative integrity - the school had honored the initial contract of each of its past coaches. But not Ty's. Willingham finds himself now perched atop the Washington Huskie's program, ready to instill his academic approach to the game there in Seattle. The Irish have turned now to New England Patriot offensive coordinator Charlie Weis for guidance, giving this class of '78 graduate the keys to the country's most popular program. With only two head coaches in the I-A ranks being African-American, one can only wonder how much race played into making ND's administrative decision. I would not think it to be very much, but in setting the bar seemingly that much higher for Willingham (other ND coaches have lost worse and stayed longer), ND officials send a disparaging message to all of their future head coaches who take the team to similar mediocrity (21-16 record). The mystique of a power like Notre Dame is no longer enough to elevate their recruiting classes to the country's best. Parity and research means players from the east now regularly go to schools in the west, as do players from all corners of the nation go to schools wherever their talents are needed. Notre Dame cannot bank on garnering the best, and treating its coach the way it did, great players (of all races) will think twice about just what is being offered in a scholarship to South Bend. Pulling the rug out too quickly never sends a good message, especially to those who get few chances in life.

It is always fun to predict and then look back to see how far my head made it into my large intestine. It wasn't as far this year as others, but getting it right isn't always the best measure of how well one sees the football landscape. This past season's crop of players tried as hard and played as tough as any have, ever. They need little incentive to do this, and we need not push them any harder (to win) for our own amusement because that is not the main lesson needing to be taught - these kids inherently fight their asses off, week in, week out. Let these kids go to school and play in a sport that can teach as much about life as any class ever can, but only if football isn't the most important thing in life. If everything is going wonderfully, football can be a major focus. But when life presents challenges, football is put into perspective and humanity (often taught by the game through sensitivity) dwarfs winning and losing on the field. Let's help to make men out of boys, like our fathers and grandfathers became, and winners that can even still come out of losing efforts. And I digress from my pigskin pulpit until we publish our previews for the upcoming 2005 season.