SportsPulse: Our college football experts debate who’s going to come out on top of this huge early season SEC clash.
Twice this month, Herm Edwards has entered the Arizona State locker room after victories, plopped down on a table and just spent a few minutes watching the celebration.
“This,” he tells himself, “is what I missed about football.”
Arizona State is 2-0. And especially after a 16-13 win last Saturday against Michigan State, it’s time to ask: What have we missed about Herm Edwards?
From the moment he arrived in Tempe last December, the hiring was almost universally panned around college football. We chuckled at the idea that a 63-year-old (he turned 64 in April) who’d been out of coaching for almost 10 years and away from college football for almost 30 years was the right choice for Arizona State. We laughed at the university’s 2,600-word press release announcing not only his hire, but seemingly a complete reinvention of how to run a football program with a “New Leadership Model.”
And by we, I mean me.
Back in May, I spent almost an hour in Edwards’ office, listening to his vision for the Sun Devils’ football program. And for football. And for life.
At times the conversation seemed more like a lifehack than an interview; many of Edwards’ words were directed toward my teenage son, who accompanied me on the visit. When we left, my son was pumped. The feeling, we both agreed, was that we would run through a wall for Herm.
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But I couldn’t help but wonder: At impact, would the wall give way?
Edwards laughed the other day when I told him about that reaction. During a week when mea culpas have flowed from the keyboards and microphones of college football media from just about everywhere, Edwards has been as gracious as he was during the offseason when the unkind takes were flowing.
“I understand,” he said. “This (hire) is something outside of the box. People don’t generally do things this way. … We all understood when this took place, there were gonna be some people who didn’t agree – and that’s OK. This is America. We can have differences of opinions.
“But we sailed on our journey. We’re trying to build something. And it’s still a work in progress.”
And last Saturday, a well-drilled bunch upset Michigan State. A defense that has been routinely porous over the last few years was instead smothering. And in the final moments, the Sun Devils worked the clock perfectly to set up the winning field goal as time expired. Earlier this week, Edwards said offensive coordinator Rob Likens suggested several plays to run near the goal line, but the head coach had other ideas.
“I said, ‘No, no,’” Edwards told reporters. “‘You know what the best play is? Victory.’”
He meant having quarterback Manny Wilkins take the snap and kneel, bleeding the clock so Michigan State wouldn’t get the ball back. But maybe there’s an additional layer. Victory is a great play.
And from Edwards’ perspective, what happens immediately afterward, those five minutes he spends watching his team, is even better.
“The joy they have,” he said. “The voices, them hugging, guys screaming. I don’t say a word. I just sit there. I’m like a little kid. I just take it all in. … That’s the joy for me.”
Some of the doubt came from that bloated and clunky initial press release, dressed up in corporate-style jargon. It promised to bring the “NFL approach” to college football. In practice, it’s not all that different than the structure used by other Power Five programs with resources, including the most successful. But it read like a mission critical idea shower out of the home office.
It also stressed retaining the assistant coaches and providing the coordinators with more autonomy – which is why concern grew when both coordinators soon left the program. (It’s apparent now that Edwards’ responses, promoting Likens to offensive coordinator and especially hiring Danny Gonzales as defensive coordinator, were very good moves.)
But most of the skepticism centered on Edwards, who’d been out of coaching for so long, and away from the college game for so much longer. Back in May, when he told me that during his extended time away from coaching, he was “still coaching, believe it or not. You’re just coaching America” – well, it was a terrific soundbite, but it seemed slightly unmoored from reality.
But Edwards is clearly a motivator. It’s not hard to imagine him as a tremendous recruiter, especially filling the traditional head coach’s role as a closer in an in-home visit. He’s also a detail-oriented football guy. Maybe when he watched those games in ESPN’s green room, he really was – as he told us all during the offseason – picking up on nuances and filing away new thoughts that helped prepare him for a return to coaching.
“I’m too old now to even worry about any of that stuff,” said Edwards of the doubt and criticism. “I kind of know who I am as a man. There’s a value system I believe in. I don’t need validation from people at all. I’ve never had (to have) that. I don’t believe in that. I believe you bet on yourself and you commit to something and you give all your energy and effort to it, and that’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
It’s way too early to predict whether Arizona State will grow into a Pac-12 and national power, which is the school’s stated goal – or even if the Sun Devils will beat a tough San Diego State team on Saturday, which is Edwards’ current focus. But the predictions of comic doom for the program suddenly seem, well, comical.
“We’re not the team we aspire to be, by any stretch of the imagination,” Edwards said. “But our effort, how we play, is what I like most right now. We still make some errors, but when you play with effort and passion, you’re gonna be in football games. You’re gonna have a chance. That’s all you ever ask for is a chance.”
It’s time we consider what we might have missed in Arizona State’s bet on Edwards. Two games into his tenure, it seems there’s a real chance it might pay off.
Expanding the season would add flexibility
The anticipated impact of Hurricane Florence on the mid-Atlantic region has forced the relocation, postponement or cancellation of multiple games this weekend (along with earlier kickoffs, in some cases). Regardless of whether the storm ends up the monster that meteorologists fear it could become, college officials who altered their schedules made the right call in choosing caution over competition. But it has reignited what has become an annual question:
Why can’t the college football season be extended by one week, thus building in room for a second bye and providing more flexibility for rescheduling possibilities when weather intervenes?
The idea has been kicked around by the NCAA in the past, but never gained traction. It would require starting the season a week earlier, and it might mean preseason practices would begin some years in July – though it preseason practices could instead be shortened.
“The proposal was really directed for health and safety,” Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips told my USA TODAY Sports colleague Dan Wolken a year ago. “But after witnessing how Mother Nature can really cause issues – lightning strikes, hurricanes, travel issues – an additional week might take some pressure off and give flexibility for these types of occurrences.”
One additional benefit: We’d all get another full weekend of the best regular season in sports.
Mean Green in search of more than just green in Arkansas
North Texas at Arkansas looks like a rent-a-win for the Razorbacks, a $1 million payday for the Group of Five opponent to visit Fayetteville, lose a football game and go home.
But this is an Arkansas team in transition under first-year coach Chad Morris. The Hogs had an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter last Saturday, only to lose at Colorado State.
And this is a North Texas team with 17 returning starters from a nine-win team. The Mean Green has a high-octane offense – the kind of offense Morris has been hired to bring to Arkansas – led by the kind of quarterback Morris would love to have at Arkansas.
Junior quarterback Mason Fine, a third-year starter, was the Conference USA offensive player of the year in 2017, when he threw for more than 4,000 yards and led North Texas to the C-USA championship game. At the very least, Fine will get a chance to showcase his abilities.
“I would be lying to say it wouldn’t be a big game for him, or for any of us,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “It’s an opportunity to play an SEC team, a quality opponent. … Anytime you get to go play an opponent like that, it’s a special day.”
There’s a little more, though. Fine is from Peggs, Okla., which is only 72 miles from Fayetteville, Ark.. He wasn’t offered a scholarship by Arkansas. Morris wasn’t the coach then, and Arkansas wasn’t running the spread offense – but no one should blame Bret Bielema’s staff, either.
Although Fine was a prolific passer at Locust Grove High School, his size – he’s listed at 5-11, 185, but might be closer to 5-10 – scared college coaches away. North Texas was the only FBS school to offer Fine. And Littrell did it only because he knew and trusted Fine’s high school coach. Now, Littrell figures Fine would start at 85 percent of FBS schools.
“I don’t think I got a steal,” Littrell said. “I know I got a steal. He’s very special. He’s one of those guys, you’re not gonna get ‘em very often. I’ve been around some special guys, and he’s as special as any of ‘em.”
Big day for interim coach Day against TCU
Ohio State vs. TCU is compelling for a variety of reasons: Can TCU make its case as a legitimate playoff contender? Can new Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins continue his torrid start and vault into serious Heisman contention?
But at least as fascinating is the opportunity for Buckeyes interim coach Ryan Day, who could showcase his abilities to athletic directors around the country who might soon be searching for a new coach.
Urban Meyer returned to overseeing game-planning and practices on Sept. 2, after the season opener. He will resume full coaching duties after Saturday.
But with Day at the helm on game days, the results so far have been spectacular: The Buckeyes beat Oregon State 77-31 and Rutgers 52-3. Considering those programs’ struggles, though, the degree of difficulty was pretty low. No. 14 TCU presents a bigger challenge, which makes it a big opportunity for Day.
If Ohio State wins and is anything close to as impressive as it was in the first two games, the 39-year-old’s profile will shoot even higher.