Reality is often trumped by possibility.
Never has this been more evident in sports than with Lane Kiffin, college football's perennial harbinger of youth and future prosperity. It is Kiffin who has been handed much on the basis of promise — the youngest NFL head coach in the modern era, the keys to an SEC power, the reins to a historic giant — but offered little in return.
College football, especially, is susceptible to such a one-sided arrangement because, with a 30-something head coach, "There's always next year," is not so much a consolation as it is a mantra. Potential stirs the soul.
For his perceived promise, Lane Kiffin was rewarded the keys to Tennessee’s program after posting a 5-15 record with the Oakland Raiders. He is, at least in Los Angeles, forgiven for naming his son after a town he soon bolted from, for being offered a destination job after one 7-6 season.
Parading around like the only child forever entitled to his parent's TV remote, he shoots petulant jabs to opponents. He lies. He backpedals. To his undying credit, his confidence and unrelenting nature wins over recruits and restores annual excitement. But, ultimately, that exuberance is tempered by loss.
After yet another Cardinal clinic last weekend — the third such loss to Stanford under Kiffin — it appears Southern Cal's headman fell victim to overconfidence (gasp) once again. Though he denied it publicly, in his heart of hearts, his feelings were saturated with swagger this preseason. The Trojans were the nation's top team, poised to end the Southeastern Conference's reign of terror—he made such thoughts clear on his Coaches' Poll ballot.
The problem for Kiffin has always been that promises do not keep themselves, they are personally carried through. The potentiality of Next Year does not accommodate for actual wins and losses. Lane the Coach is a separate entity than Lane the Recruiter, and his worth on Saturdays remains unknown.
So another season pushes forward for college football's most despised personality, one who guarantees much and provides little, although the picture is not as fuzzy as it once was. The sports world sees Kiffin clearer than ever, and it will continue tuning in. He is, in terms of achievement, college football's Jay Electronica – lumped in with big names, offering glimpses without a finished product, forever promising and delaying platinum — and we have no choice but to wait and see if there's truth to the rumor.
Viewers love a character to hate, to invest a human emotion into sports apart from ecstasy or nonchalance, to revel in the repeated shortcomings of the overconfident. Kiffin, with his ever-present smarm and possibility of youth, will continue playing that necessary role in college football’s recurring reality show.
STIFF ARM SUSPECTS
The Suspects does not acknowledge name recognition, positional bias, team affiliation or media favorites for its weekly Heisman update. Players earn a spot based on production – and production alone – against quality opponents. This week a Cardinal leads the way, followed by the nation’s top defensive player and a Pac-12 quarterback not playing home games in Los Angeles.
Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville, QB: The best of a rather underwhelming quarterback group, so far, the 6-foot-3 sophomore's efficiency against legitimate competition places him at the top of The Suspects' list. Of all the quarterbacks who have faced at least two teams from BCS automatic qualifying conferences, Bridgewater tops the charts in passer efficiency. He has thrown for 855 yards (13th nationally) and five touchdowns while leading the undefeated Cardinals. A Big East schedule will not offer many marquee matchups, but Louisville has certainly found its quarterback. This week: Florida International
Jarvis Jones, Georgia, LB: Heisman finalists are never decided against Sun Belt featherweights. The Bulldogs' pass-rushing extraordinaire sat out this past week against Florida Atlantic which would have hurt his stock more had it not been for lackluster performances from previously notable Suspects last week (i.e. Matt Barkley). As it stands, Jones’ 3.5 sacks are still tied for sixth-best in the country, but he will need to return with a vengeance this weekend, as other elite players begin playing the meat of their schedules. This week: Vanderbilt
Matt Scott, Arizona, QB: Scott has posted the best numbers of any quarterback who has beaten a ranked opponent in 2012 (a 59-38 throttling of then-No. 18 Oklahoma State), and with new Wildcats' coach Rich Rodriguez at the helm, do not expect his numbers to drop off dramatically. A dual threat that fits Rodriguez's spread system, Scott has accounted for 1,185 yards of offense (third-best nationally) and nine total touchdowns. He could top this list if Arizona can take out the Pac-12 favorite. This week: No. 3 Oregon
Raising Suspicion: Jonathan Franklin (UCLA); Braxton Miller (Ohio State); Damontre Moore (Texas A&M); Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame); Stepfan Taylor (Stanford); DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson); Aaron Murray (Georgia); Marqise Lee (USC)
Sunshine and roses, fellas. All is well in the realm of 3-0 starts and 50-point blowouts, but the path begins to narrow for players, coaches and teams this week. Which dreams will be shattered?
Geno Smith: The fact that Smith tops many early, hypothetical Heisman lists is the ultimate paradox in cupcake scheduling. College football personalities chastise top programs for placing multiple patty-cake opponents on their non-conference slates, then turn around and swoon over the gaudy statistics standout players post in such games. West Virginia's senior quarterback has the numbers (817 total yards and 10 scores in just two games) – if only they didn't come against Marshall and James Madison. Given his ability and offensive system, Smith will likely keep up a similar pace, but at least allow him to do it against a couple AQ teams before naming him the award’s frontrunner.
UCLA: Jim Mora, Jr., has done one hell of a job. The first-year head coach has reinvigorated the Bruins' program, kicking off his tenure with a 3-0 start and claims that Rick Neuheisel could never substantiate. Its win over Nebraska carries significance, but UCLA's Pac-12 schedule kicks off Saturday against an unknown and undefeated Oregon State team. The Beavers have only played one game thus far – an upset over a reeling Wisconsin squad – so no one knows the true capabilities of the Corvallis Crew. If the Bruins improve to 4-0, they have to be considered a viable threat to head to their second consecutive Pac-12 Championship game.
THE FIFTH WATCH
Here’s the weekly slate of top games, plus one highly-ranked team that needs to be put on watch. This week sees Wolverines looking to crash a party, three conference games with national title implications and two sets of Tigers renewing a rivalry.
Michigan at Notre Dame: Denard Robinson and the Wolverines head to South Bend to ruin yet another Fighting Irish "WE'RE BACK" campaign. Notre Dame has lost to either Michigan or Michigan State every season since 2004, but this season has a different feel. The team is winning with defense — allowing just 30 total points against three FBS opponents — and redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson has fans dreaming of Tony Rice and 1988 glory. If the 11th-ranked Golden Domers can contain Robinson, who has decimated Notre Dame in two career starts, they should be able to put up some points. Pick: Notre Dame
Kansas State at Oklahoma: This is one of the best quarterback matchups so far in 2012, with one inflicting his damage on the ground (Collin Klein has 31 rushing touchdowns since the start of the 2011 season) and the other through the air (Landry Jones). The Wildcats are one of the most disciplined teams in the country under coach Bill Snyder, and last season’s 58-17 Oklahoma romp will have little effect on Saturday’s outcome. The score will be much closer than 41 points this time around, but the Sooners’ talent gap will eventually show. Pick: Oklahoma
Clemson at Florida State: The ACC is still considered the ugly cousin of the Big Five conferences; that’s a tough opinion to reverse in three weeks. However, the eyes of the nation will be on Tallahassee to see if either the Seminoles or Tigers can excel against top competition. Clemson welcomed back explosive wideout Sammy Watkins against Furman, and it will be up to him and the Tigers’ other skill players to crack the Da Vinci Code that is Florida State’s defense. Forget its soft schedule, the Seminoles are still allowing just one – ONE – point per game after shutting out Wake Forest. Clemson has owned this series over the past decade. That’s about to change. Pick: Florida State
Arizona at Oregon: Touchdown, commercials, touchdown, commercials. Expectations are low for each teams’ defense in this game, with two masters of the spread offense stalking the sidelines – Rich Rodriguez the innovator, Chip Kelly the perfectionist. Both squads score in bunches, so which defense can muster a few redzone stops? This game could also feature the pacesetter for the early Heisman race, as a big-time performance from Matt Scott or Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner or Marcus Mariota against a ranked opponent will go a long way. Siding with Rodriguez here is tempting, but Oregon remains the class of the Pac-12. Pick: Oregon
ON WATCH: Auburn is an awful bunch. Coach Gene Chizik has never won anything of significance without Heisman winner Cam Newton, and that truth is once again rearing its ugly head this season –he is 22-31 as a head coach without Newton. The second-ranked LSU Tigers, on the other hand, have looked unstoppable. However, Jordan-Hare Stadium has been a danger zone for LSU in past years – Auburn has won five of its past six home games in the series. Les Miles’ group will come out on top, but do not look shocked if a 1-2 Chizik team plays with some intensity (for once) this season.
THIS IS WHY…
Pat Fitzgerald ought to file a grievance.
If Northwestern's fourth-year head coach feels his program has been overlooked, it is not a sentiment born of self-consciousness — disrespect is pelting the Wildcats' Chicago campus like a hailstorm. Northwestern's resume reads unlike any other school in the nation: Three games, three opponents from BCS AQ conferences, three wins. The Wildcats are undefeated, having beaten programs from the SEC, ACC and Big East. West Virginia and Oregon sure as hell cannot make those claims.
And yet, the Wildcats are on the outside looking in. They have not cracked a single top-25 poll in 2012.
"Nobody in the conference has played three BCS teams, and we have. We knew we had to improve up front on both sides of the ball to win these football games and get us to where we needed to go," Fitzgerald told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this week. "I don’t think we’re a finished product by any stretch of the imagination."
The 37-year-old coach is absolutely correct: Few teams in the country have beaten quality opponents week in and week out. Northwestern has just fallen victim to the nature of the beast.
At the end of every football season, as confetti is being swept up from the stands of bowl venues, a fresh top-25 projecting next season’s results is released. Clicks follow in droves. We all hit the button; it is an imperishable human urge to decipher the future. Page views total in the millions, so much so that it has become a requirement for the country's top football writers. As the season draws near, USA Today and the Associated Press release their own rankings before a single game is played. This is how the system profits.
Television promotions and subsequent ratings hinge upon the polls — Rece Davis sounds better annunciating a primetime matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 8 Michigan rather than "two teams who we believe are kinda good square off!" — so do not expect them to disappear. They simply cannot. We are a society of lists.
However, preseason polls load the dice of the BCS race.
Case in point: Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats were not ranked on a single preseason poll. Here it is week No. 4, they are undefeated and unranked. Lovable Boise State is just 1-1 this season, beating MAC opponent Miami (Ohio) to come in as the AP poll's 24th-ranked team. Brady Hoke’s No. 18 Michigan took out UMass and nearly lost to Air Force. Is either resume more impressive on its own merits than Northwestern's? Of course not … yet these two teams were both ranked in the preseason.
The goal of releasing weekly polls is not to grant voters confirmation of football insight, it is to pinpoint and acknowledge the most successful 25 teams in the country. This matters under the current system, too, since two-thirds of the BCS formula — to be dissolved in 2014 — is made up of human polling.
Perhaps this process will receive a respite once the new playoff selection committee is put in place to determine participants. Perhaps teams will be blindly chosen based on performance.
They need to be, because this is why teams in Northwestern's shoes are put at a competitive disadvantage, why voters ought to cast ballots based solely on performance and achievement. This is why heavyweight programs do not feel the need to schedule formidable non-conference foes. What powerhouse would put itself at risk if voters weigh its 63-14 blowout of Tennessee Tech on an even scale with Iowa State's 9-6 win over Iowa?
This is just one reason why the BCS was laughable to begin with, and why a four-team playoff system — flawed as it may be — is better than the present alternative.
This is why college football provides endless controversy. And this, particularly, is why we can't get enough.