Gary Cavalli

College Football Roundup: Watson shines in a classic; Stanford trending up, Cal down

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College Football Roundup: Watson shines in a classic; Stanford trending up, Cal down

Back-to-back classics.

That’s what we’ve witnessed in the National Championship Game the past two seasons. Even in their wildest dreams, the organizers of the College Football Playoff couldn’t have imagined two games of this caliber in successive seasons.

Last year, you’ll recall No. 2 ranked Alabama edged No. 1 ranked Clemson, 45-40. This year, the tables were turned, as No. 2 Clemson edged No. 1 Alabama, 35-31. A year ago, after defense dominated the first three quarters, the teams erupted for 40 points in the fourth quarter. This year’s game followed the same script, with the teams combining for 28 points in the final period (21 by Clemson).

Divine Deshaun: The game confirmed the unparalleled brilliance of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who passed for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the game-winner with one second remaining. In two games against the No. 1 defense in the country, playing for the national championship under the brightest lights and greatest pressure, all Watson did was pass for 825 yards, rush for another 116, and account for eight touchdowns.

Watson’s performance capped a career in which he went 32-3 as a starter, graduated in three years, and finished second and third in the Heisman Trophy balloting (behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey last year, and behind Louisville’s Lamar Jackson this year).

Looking back through the post-season prism, one wonders how Jackson could out-vote Watson. Clemson, after all, beat Louisville 42-36 early in the season. Jackson won despite finishing the season with two straight sub-par performances in upset losses to Houston and Kentucky, then was shut down by LSU in a 29-9 clunker in the Citrus Bowl.

Watson didn’t have quite the same glittering stats, but beat Jackson head to head and won the national title. Like Stanford greats Andrew Luck (who finished second twice), and John Elway (who finished second to Herschel Walker), Watson will go down as one of the best college players never to win the Heisman.

Dykes Dismissed: Earlier this week, Cal fired head coach Sonny Dykes after four seasons at the helm of the Golden Bear program. While the timing was unusual — in that it came six weeks after the end of the season — the decision was not surprising. There were three main issues with the Dykes regime: 1) The inability to develop anything resembling a defense. The Bears ranked near the bottom of NCAA defensive statistics for all four years, and there was no sign of improvement.

2) Dykes publicly pursued other coaching jobs almost from the first moment he arrived in Berkeley, most recently at Houston and Baylor. This was embarrassing to the University and the Old Blues who understandably want a coach who is committed to the school and wants to be in Berkeley.

3) Lagging ticket sales and donor support. Cal had a university-wide debt of $150 million last year, $21 million of it in athletics (largely related to debt service on the stadium renovation). The athletic department needs to fill seats in Memorial Stadium and get the donors excited again.

Like many others, we had recommended then-San Jose State Coach Mike MacIntyre to the Cal athletic department four years ago. One can only wonder where the Bears might be right now if MacIntyre, who has done such an amazing job at Colorado, would’ve been hired instead of Dykes.

Recruiting Trail: Stanford is reportedly on the way to signing one of the nation’s finest recruiting classes. According to Scout.com, coach David Shaw has already garnered commitments from the country’s No. 1 ranked quarterback (Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian School), No. 1 and 2 ranked offensive linemen (Foster Sarell of Graham Kapowsin HS in Graham, Washington, and Walker Little of Episcopal HS in Bellaire, Texas) and No. 1 tight end Colby Parkinson of Oaks Christian HS in Westlake Village). Nationally, Scout rates Sarell the second best player in the country and Mills No. 3.

Speaking of recruiting, Alabama didn’t go home empty-handed this week, as the nation’s top recruit, running back Najee Harris from Antioch HS, decided to go with the Crimson Tide. Harris had verbally committed earlier, then flirted with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh before sticking with Alabama.

Unsung Utah: With his Foster Farms Bowl victory over Indiana, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham now has the best bowl record of any active coach. Since taking over the reins in Salt Lake City, Coach Whit is 10-1 in postseason play.

USC Finishes at No. 3: After its scintillating win in the Rose Bowl, USC climbed to No. 3 in the final AP poll. If star Adoree Jackson opts to come back for another year, the Trojans will contend for the national title next season.

Chargers to LA: San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos announced on Thursday that the Chargers will move to Los Angeles next season. One can only wonder what this means for the future of Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Holiday and Poinsettia Bowls, and San Diego State football?

College football roundup: Young stars electrify all-time classic Rose Bowl

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College football roundup: Young stars electrify all-time classic Rose Bowl

With just the national championship game remaining on the schedule, it’s time to reflect on the highlights of the 2016-17 bowl season.

Close encounters: This has been the most competitive and exciting post-season in recent memory. Over half the games had a one-score margin of victory and were decided in the last minute or overtime.

Best Game: The Rose Bowl, our choice for the best matchup in the post-season lineup, certainly lived up to the hype. USC beat Penn State, 52-49, on a 46-yard field goal as time expired. The game showcased two of the brightest stars in college football, the Trojans’ redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and Penn State’s sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. Darnold passed for five TDs and 453 yards; Barkley rushed for 194 yards, including a spectacular 79-yard TD jaunt that was one of the niftiest runs you’ll ever see. With these two around, the game is in good hands for the next couple of years.

Semi-finals: Sadly, both College Football Playoff semi-final games were one-sided affairs. No. 1 Alabama outclassed No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl, 24-7, and No. 2 Clemson destroyed No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-0.

‘Bama’s win was no surprise. Washington’s high-scoring offense was simply no match for the Crimson Tide defense. Husky quarterback Jake Browning looked rattled most of the day. His pick-six gave Alabama a 17-7 lead that sealed Washington’s doom. However, even those of us who predicted a Clemson win over Ohio State never imagined a 31-0 beat-down. It was the first time in 194 games that an Urban Meyer coached team was shut out. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, despite his customary two turnovers, played brilliantly, and his receivers made the all-world Buckeye secondary look quite human. 

So the championship game will be a rematch of last year’s classic 45-40 Alabama win. Alabama is the early favorite, but we like Clemson in this one. The game may hinge on whether Watson and company can keep the Alabama defense out of the end zone.

Foster Farms Bowl—Utah 26, Indiana 24: It was a great game, decided by a Utah field goal in the final minute and highlighted by the 222-yard rushing performance of "unretired" Utah running back Joe Williams. It’s just a shame there wasn't much of a crowd on hand to see it...27,000 tickets “distributed,” 15,000 fans in the house. Fox did an excellent job on the broadcast (other than the introduction of Foster Farms’ CEO as “Mr.” Laura Flanagan during the trophy presentation), with its No. 1 announce team and studio crew.

Unfortunately, Foster Farms was swamped in the TV ratings by the competing bowls on ESPN—Russell Athletic and Texas. The Pac-12 and 49ers believed that being the only bowl game on Fox would translate into a big viewing audience. But over the years, it’s been proven time and time again that the built-in audience and constant promotion on ESPN—the undisputed home of college football and the place where most post-season games reside—delivers higher ratings than being the lone wolf on an over-the-air network like Fox.

Sun Bowl—Stanford 25, North Carolina 23: Another great game, with almost the identical score as the Foster Farms Bowl. With Christian McCaffrey sitting out and Keller Christ felled by a knee injury, Stanford’s defense and special teams saved the day. Defensive end Solomon Thomas and safety Dallas Lloyd were brilliant, with Thomas harassing Tar Heel QB Mitch Trubisky throughout and making the game-deciding play, and Lloyd intercepting two passes, returning one for a score. Running back Bryce Love did his best McCaffrey impersonation with a 49-yard TD reception and 59-yard run from scrimmage. 

Cardinal kicker Conrad Ukropina (try saying that quickly five times in a row!) scored more than half of Stanford’s points with four field goals and an extra point. The lone miss clanged off the left upright, something that Ukropina did four times this year. The odds on that happening must be a billion to one. For the season, Conrad hit 22 of 27 field goal attempts. If those goal post shots had caromed through the uprights instead of bouncing out, he’d have converted 26 of 27 on the year.

Note to those who think bowl games are “meaningless exhibitions:” Check out the sideline and on-field celebrations by Stanford players when they stopped North Carolina’s two-point conversion attempt to win the game.

Shaw Superlatives: There were some who questioned former Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby (now Big 12 Conference Commissioner) in January of 2011 when he hired David Shaw to replace Jim Harbaugh as head football coach. Shaw has not only proven the naysayers wrong, he’s become the one of the most successful coaches in Stanford history. In six years, Shaw has posted a 64-17 record, won four Pac-12 Conference Championships, gone to the Rose Bowl three times (winning two), won 10 or more games five times, and finished in the top 10 nationally four times. Next year, in all likelihood, he will pass the legendary Pop Warner (71-17-8) as the winningest Stanford coach of all time. Heady stuff.

Shaw’s name is routinely mentioned as a candidate for every NFL job that pops up, because of a stellar resume that includes pro coaching experience prior to his Stanford tenure. So far, he’s resisted the urge and the promise of more money. Why? He’s a Stanford alum who truly believes in the university’s mission to win the right way, and his family loves the environment on campus and in Palo Alto. Stanford has had a long line of coaches who’ve left soon after achieving success on the Farm—John Ralston (Denver Broncos), Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers), Denny Green (Minnesota Vikings), and Tyrone Willingham (Notre Dame). Shaw just may be the one who sticks around.

Memory lane: We spotted Sun Bowl officials Jimmy Rogers and John Folmer on the dais for the trophy presentation to David Shaw. Rogers and Folmer were the two bowl representatives who invited Stanford to the Sun Bowl back in 1977, when I was Sports Information Director and Bill Walsh was the head coach. After Stanford's 21-3 win over Cal in the Big Game, I walked Jimmy and John down to the Stanford locker room, where they extended the official Sun Bowl invitation to Bill as he emerged from the shower, draped only in a white towel. His best friend, Cal coach Mike White, was standing right next to him.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkles was suspended from the Belk Bowl for shoplifting…at the Belk department store, the game’s title sponsor.

College football roundup: Time for the real bowl games to start

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USATSI

College football roundup: Time for the real bowl games to start

Bowl season is in full swing, with the usual assemblage of blowouts, thrillers, and last-second heroics. Of the first 17 games, 10 have been decided in the last minute.

Now it’s time for the games that really matter, locally and nationally.

Foster Farms Bowl, Dec. 28, Levi’s Stadium—Indiana vs. Utah

Both teams have something to prove. Indiana’s new coach, Tom Allen, wants to establish himself as the head man and unify his team after the abrupt departure of Kevin Wilson under a cloud of player mistreatment rumors. Based on early impressions, Allen seems to have the command and big-picture ability to succeed. Utah, which finished on a downer (three losses in its last four games), wants to end the year on an up-note and springboard into 2017. Utah is a seven-point favorite, but we think the Hoosiers may surprise.

Sun Bowl, Dec. 30, El Paso—Stanford vs. North Carolina

The big story, as articulated here last week, was Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey’s decision to skip the game and prepare for the NFL Draft. Translation: “Let’s not risk an injury in a non-playoff bowl.” But McCaffrey’s absence provides a great opportunity for sophomore Bryce Love to establish himself as The Man. Love gained 664 yards this year as a backup and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. He’s the real deal, and North Carolina’s porous defense will afford him plenty of space to maneuver. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, a top pro prospect, will keep the Tar Heels in the game for awhile, but the Cardinal should win this one easily.

College Football Playoffs—the Coaches

Though we would have preferred an eight-team field including Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State and USC, four teams is still better than the old BCS two-team arrangement. One distinction this year is the quality of the four head coaches. If you were to rank the best coaches in college football, certainly Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer would be at the very top of the list. All Saban has done is win four national championships in the last seven years at Alabama; he previously won one at LSU. Meyer has also captured national titles at two different schools—Florida and Ohio State.

In our book, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Washington’s Chris Peterson would also rank among the top dozen coaches nationally along with Saban, Meyer, Stanford’s David Shaw, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, San Diego State’s Rocky Long, Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Miami’s Mark Richt. Swinney took over a program that had a reputation for choking in big games and built a powerhouse. In the last five years, his Tigers have posted a 58-9 record, won three ACC titles, and lost a heart-breaker to Alabama in last year’s national championship game. Peterson produced miracles at Boise State, including the famous Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007, and has the Huskies in the playoffs in only his third year in Seattle. He and Shaw will have some great battles going forward.

Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, Atlanta—No. 4 Washington vs. No. 1 Alabama

The Crimson Tide are heavy favorites to trounce the Huskies in the first semi-final game in Atlanta, and deservedly so. They dispatched 13 straight opponents this year, often without breaking a sweat. Their defense and special teams outscored many of the offenses in college football. Washington has an excellent, under-appreciated quarterback in Jake Browning, a great receiver in John Ross Jr., and a solid running game with All Pac-12 back Myles Gaskin. On defense, their secondary is among the nation’s best. But this game will be won and lost in the trenches, where Alabama is as talented as some NFL teams. Look for ‘Bama to wear down the Huskies in a closer-than-anticipated win for Saban’s crew.

Fiesta Bowl, Dec. 31, Glendale, AZ—No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson

The second semi-final features two very evenly matched teams. Ohio State is favored largely on the basis of Meyer’s pedigree. He’s more experienced in these types of games than Swinney, and that gives the Buckeyes a slight edge. Both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks —Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Watson is more accurate than Barrett and has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder after finishing third in the Heisman balloting a year ago and second this season. If Watson can avoid a costly turnover, the Tigers will win this one.