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Archive for December, 2014

The only choice

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
Before the start of a regular season that resulted in a 6-6 record and a game against Iowa in Friday's TaxSlayer Bowl, second-year Tennessee football coach Butch Jones said he was leading an "expansion team.'' The Volunteers were so young, so green, and the building task seemed some ominous. In many respects, Jones believed he was starting from scratch. So how do yet a bunch of 17-year-old kids - Tennessee has played 23 true freshmen this season and has started as many as seven in a single game - to line up against a bunch of 22, 23 year olds in what is regarded as the toughest conference in the country? You give them a choice. The only choice. It's the only way Jones ever knew. Tennessee's second-year coach brings a passion to everything he does. From energy on the practice field to building a mentality that has allowed America's youngest football team to play older than it is, Jones has approached it with passion. "I love the word,'' he said. He embraced the notion as a youth growing up in the resort town of Saugatuck, Mich., one of 62 students in his graduating class in the village that sits on the shores of Lake Michigan. His father was the chief of police. His mother, a hospital administrator. They sent their 14-year-old son out to work a job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. When he didn't like it, they sent their 14-year-old son back out to work a job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. They made him pay his own way through college, where he walked on and then went on to earn two letters in football at Ferris State. He got into coaching after college, working as an intern with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then a graduate assistant at Rutgers. Jones said he finally "found work,'' in 1993, paid $17,000 on a nine-month contract to work as the offensive coordinator at Division III Wilkes University where he also was in charge of intramurals and coached men's tennis. "I knew nothing about coaching men's tennis, but I coached it, and I drove the van,'' Jones said today during a news conference. He returned to his alma mater, then spent eight years coaching at Central Michigan before leaving in 2005 for a two-year stint coaching wide receivers on Rich Rodriguez' staff at West Virginia. In 2007, Central Michigan made him their head coach. He was offered the job in a villa next door to the one at Sawgrass where he is staying this week with his team. "There are a lot of memories coming back here this week, a lot of thoughts about how fortunate I have been and how much work has gone into things,'' Jones said. The work continues for Jones, who coached at Cincinnati before being named the Volunteers head coach in 2013. His first team finished 5-7, and a 24-17 win over Vanderbilt in this year's regular-season finale prevented a repeat of record and gave Tennessee the chance to face Iowa in a bowl this year. "This experience will benefit our program in future years,'' Jones said. "We're not where we want to get to, but we're on the path. We're putting in the work that is making it happen.'' As Jones understands, that is only choice.

A Michigan man

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014
Jim Hackett initially winced at the idea of hiring another "Michigan man'' to lead the Wolverines football program. The interim director of athletics believed the program needed to live for today, not re-live its storied past, but at the end of today Hackett found himself introducing a Michigan man as the program's new coach. In hiring Jim Harbaugh, Hackett did the right thing. For Michigan and for the Big Ten, he did the right thing. If Dave Brandon had done the same four years ago, Hackett may not have been in the position he found himself in. Michigan may have already righted a ship that has gone astray since the retirement of Lloyd Carr. Harbaugh understands the institution, its past and more importantly, its potential. From transforming Stanford from a Pac-10 doormat to an Orange Bowl team to making three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game with the 49ers, Harbaugh is a proven coach. He will learn in upcoming days that the Michigan of old has slipped a bit and is in need of a makeover. Michigan State has emerged under the guidance of Mark Dantonio and with Urban Meyer now running things in Columbus, the landscape has changed. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz watched Harbaugh work and compete as the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens in 1998 while working as an NFL assistant. He said today he gained an appreciation then for the tenacity of the competiveness that is a part of the fiber of Michigan's new football coach. Ferentz suggested it is no accident that success has had a way of following Harbaugh around. The Big Ten is probably better off because Harbaugh opted to prove that you can go home again. The league hasn't been the same in national circles since Michigan's slide started, first with Rich Rodriguez and then under Brady Hoke in recent seasons. It needs its strongest programs to be strong. That forces everyone to elevate their games. The road to Pasadena - or wherever a CFP semifinal is being played - will once again run through Ann Arbor as much as it now runs through Columbus. That's not only healthy for Michigan, that's healthy for the rest of the league and Hackett, by giving the keys to the car to a Michigan man, has given the Wolverines' program a chance to compete. There are no guarantees. This isn't Bo Schembechler's game anymore. But Harbaugh, one of prized pupils of the legendary coach, might just be the guy to bring big games back to the big house.

The QB question

Monday, December 29th, 2014
Greg Davis hasn't been surprised by the passion of the season-long debate that has preoccupied many Iowa football fans this season. Jake or C.J.? C.J. or Jake? So in the spirit of the season at TaxSlayer Bowl on Friday, the Hawkeye faithful will have their Jake and C.J., too. Both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard will see time underneath center when Iowa and Tennessee meet on NFL turf in Jacksonville, the end result of the decision coaches made to give both a chance to compete after missed opportunities led the Hawkeyes to an overtime loss to Nebraska in the regular-season finale. Unlike many fans who have picked their favorites for one reason or another, Davis likes both quarterbacks. He believes both can be successful. The trouble is, it can be a challenge to play more than one. "It's not like wide receiver where you can run two or three of them out there at time,'' Davis said. That's quarterback and yes, that's football. Iowa will go against the grain Friday when it attempts to mix and match quarterbacks against the Volunteers. Only a handful of rotating quarterback situations have been successful over the long haul and it takes team-oriented personnel to make it work. Rudock and Beathard both seem to have that approach at the heart of what they want on a weekly basis, something that gives this a chance. Davis said both players know how the rotation will work and it will include snaps for both quarterbacks in each of the game's first two quarters. Beyond that, how things will play out is anybody's guess. The rotation might continue or if one quarterback gets off to a particularly good start, he may become the guy after halftime. And Friday may be just the start of another offseason filled with competition at the position as Rudock prepares for his senior year. Davis said he isn't looking that far into the future just yet. His thoughts are on a plan he believes gives the Hawkeyes "the best chance to win.'' Davis said he understands why fans can make a case for both guys. "But, we're not interested in making a case. We're interested in trying to win another ballgame,'' Davis said. And when it's over, fans will get the chance to debate all over again whether it was the right thing to do.

On a need to know basis

Saturday, December 27th, 2014
Ten things you need to know about the TaxSlayer Bowl and Jacksonville, the city that is hosting Friday's match-up between Iowa and Tennessee: 1. What the heck is TaxSlayer.com? It is a company that provides tax preparation software that allows people to electronically file their federal and state income taxes. The software has been around since 1998. 2. I thought this thing was called the Gator Bowl. What's the deal? This is actually the 70th bowl that has been hosted by Gator Bowl Sports, the organization that operates the bowl formerly known as the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. Wake Forest defeated South Carolina in the inaugural game on Jan. 1, 1946. Iowa has appeared in the bowl just once, losing to Florida 14-6 in 1983. 3. Wasn't it a little cold when Iowa played there previously? Yes, pipe-bursting, record-setting cold. It got down to 11 degrees one night during bowl week that year. Filed away somewhere at home I have a photo of myself standing on the beach in a winter coat. Life was really a beach that day. No such temperatures in the forecast this time around, mostly upper 60s and a few low 70s is the current call for the upcoming week. 4. Who starred in that Iowa appearance? Beyond Jack Frost, the linemen on both teams dominated and turnovers were plentiful. Owen Gill rushed for 83 yards to lead Iowa while Neal Anderson gained 84 yards for the Gators. Quarterback Chuck Long completed 13-of-29 passes for 167 and was intercepted four times for the Hawkeyes, while Wayne Peace was picked off twice while completing 9-of-22 passes for 92 yards for Florida. 5. I'm confused. How many names has this bowl had? Plenty. It was the Gator Bowl until it became the Mazda Gator Bowl in 1986. In 1982, it became the Outback Gator Bowl and three years later when Outback took its blooming onions to Tampa, it became the Toyota Gator Bowl. In 2008, it became the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl, to be followed in 2011 by the Progressive Gator Bowl and the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl one year later. The "Gator'' came off the nameplate this year. 6. Where is the game played? EverBank Stadium is the home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and currently seats 77,000 fans. It sits on a 10-acre lot east of downtown Jacksonville and underwent a $40 million renovation that was completed 10 years ago. 7. So, what is there to do in Jacksonville? Think beach. Think seafood. There are plenty of both in the area located on the northeast corner of Florida. Atlantic Ocean beaches to the east of Jacksonville include 20 miles of white sand beaches in four distinct areas. Mayport is known for its seafood restaurants and casinos, Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach offer a multitude of nightlife opportunities as does Jacksonville Beach. 8. What else is there to do? Iowa is based at a resort in Amelia Island, Fla., a resort area located 30 minutes north of Jacksonville near the Georgia border. Golf and shopping areas are plentiful both there and to the south near St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city where reminders of its days as a Spanish empire outpost remain among tourist attractions. 9. Does the bowl have any events? Yes, most are centered around New Year's Day in the Jacksonville Landing area of downtown Jacksonville. An Iowa pep rally is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday there and a Tennessee event will follow two hours later. In between is a Bands on Parade event on Coastline Drive in that same area. All are open to the public free of charge. A College Football Playoff Watch Party follows at 5 p.m. on the Landing as well. If you are looking for something a little more active, the VyStar 5K run is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on New Year's Day beginning at the Landing. Registration is still available at taxslayerbowl.com 10. And what about game day? The Hawkeyes and Volunteers kick off at 3:30 p.m. (ET), but the pregame festivities in the parking lots at EverBank Field start at four hours earlier. Tickets for Budweiser Tailgate Party, priced at $10 each and running from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and for the Times-Union Touchdown Party, priced at $50 each and running from noon-3 p.m., are available at the bowl website.

Words on paper

Monday, December 22nd, 2014
Iowa released its depth chart for the TaxSlayer Bowl today. There are no major surprises, mostly a listing of lineup regulars put together two weeks before the Hawkeyes and Tennessee kick things off in Jacksonville. Coach Kirk Ferentz has said and repeated again this afternoon that performance in remaining practices, not words put on paper for distribution today, will likely determine who starts and who gets how many snaps against the Volunteers. He suspects that Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff is a fairly safe in his spot at left tackle on the offensive line. Beyond that, he said time will tell. Ferentz raised an eyebrow or two when he suggested last week during a radio call-in show that back-up quarterback C.J. Beathard "could start'' against Tennessee. Then again, that scratch ticket in the Christmas stocking "could'' lead to riches. Ferentz's point then and again today is that coaches want and are creating a competitive environment in practice, challenging players - starters and reserves - to be ready to perform each and every day. "It's like everything. We're looking at everything,'' Ferentz said. "Practices have been competitive. We're putting guys in tough situations. We'll see where everything unfolds.'' Jake Rudock has started at quarterback in 24 of the 25 games Iowa has played over the past two seasons. Beathard has taken snaps in 13 games, including getting a start at Purdue this season when Rudock was injured. Ferentz said coaches want to provide both with ample opportunity to work and grow as Iowa works through its bowl preparations. "You've got to bring it every day. That's a challenge for Jake, too,'' Ferentz said. "It's that way at every position.'' Beathard and Rudock were not among the three Hawkeyes made available for interviews today, although Beathard, the only Tennessee native on the Iowa roster, did a telephone interview with his hometown paper in Nashville following today's workout. He told The Tennessean he continues to prepare as if he were going to start, something he has done throughout the season, and he welcomes the open competition coaches have provided this month. The sophomore told the publication he has not considered the possibility of transferring, although his father Casey Beathard told The Tennessean that it may be a possibility. "His biggest thing is he just wants to play,'' Casey Beathard said. "He's really hoping he doesn't have to transfer. I said (to C.J.), 'Hopefully it'll be obvious in this game, one way or the other.''' And then, C.J. Beathard said he will ponder his future. "We'll see how the bowl game goes and then go from there,'' he told The Tennessean.

Scherff takes center stage

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
Brandon Scherff is admittedly more comfortable in camouflage than a suit, but the Iowa offensive tackle will find himself on center stage Thursday night when the winner of the Outland Trophy is announced in Florida. Scherff and Hawkeye offensive line coach Brian Ferentz will be in attendance when the recipient of the award presented to college football's top interior lineman is announced during the Home Depot College Football Awards Show in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound left tackle who once played quarterback in high school at Denison, Iowa, joins Malcolm Brown of Texas and Reese Dismukes of Auburn as finalists for the award. Scherff - per usual - is taking it all in stride. "It's nice, but all those accolades, they wouldn't happen if it wasn't for the team,'' Scherff said Sunday. Three Hawkeyes have won the Outland Trophy, Cal Jones in 1955, Alex Karras in 1957 and Robert Gallery in 2003. Gallery was among the first to call Scherff when he was named a finalist for the award. "He said 'Congratulations,' and told me to keep working,'' Scherff said. That's never been an issue for a player who opted to return to Iowa for his senior season in order to raise the level of the consistency in his game. He feels he has accomplished what he set out to do, improving NFL draft stock to the point where he is regarded as a likely first-round selection. Coach Kirk Ferentz compares him favorably to other Hawkeyes who have developed into consistent and dominant linemen in the NFL. "He's a special player,'' Ferentz said. Special, in part, because his game extends beyond the technical aspects of the position and stretches to an understanding of the cohesion that is truly required to make it all work. "To become one of the best offensive linemen in the nation was one of my goals when I came back,'' Scherff said. "It comes through a lot of hard work and if it wasn't for my teammates pushing me, I wouldn't be up there. They have as much to do with it as I do.''

Legwork leads Iowa to the beaches

Monday, December 8th, 2014
If Rick Catlett would have agreed to Gary Barta's suggestion a little over three months ago, Sunday's announcement that Iowa was headed to the TaxSlayer Bowl could have been old news. "We've had our eyes on Iowa since around the first of September,'' said Catlett, the president and CEO of the Jan. 2 bowl in Jacksonville which will pair the Hawkeyes and Tennessee. He recalled a conversation with the Iowa director of athletics, telling Barta that his bowl was interested in the Hawkeyes if it selected a Big Ten team this year. Barta remembers the conversation, too. "I jokingly said then, where can I sign up?'' Barta recalled Sunday night after the bowl turned that September conversation into reality. This has been a year of change for both bowl operators and the administrators of collegiate athletic programs. The slotting of teams based solely on conference standings has been replaced by a flexibility designed to create intriguing match-ups and in the future avoid repeat appearances in bowls by the same teams over a short period of time. Catlett was as curious as anyone to see how it would all play out Sunday. He said conference commissioners and staff members in both the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference did a good job of communicating and working with bowls to put the pieces of the puzzle together in an efficient manner. "It made it work a little easier,'' Catlett said. From his perspective, Barta found the experience to be a bit of a throwback. "Going to a bowl used to be about constant conversations all year and then finding the best match up,'' Barta said. "That's sort of what it reverted to this year.'' Barta said he spent time during the past three weeks talking with any bowl he felt Iowa had a chance to be invited to this year. Over the past week, he pared down the list based on the conversations he was having and concentrated on the bowls where he felt were the most likely landing spots for the Hawkeyes. That proved to be the beaches of Jacksonville, where Iowa will play for the first time since 1983 in what was then known as the Gator Bowl. Barta said Catlett proved to be true to his word as well. "About two weeks ago and from that day forward, Rick Catlett was consistent in saying he wanted the University of Iowa. He loves our tradition, our fan base and the track record of Kirk (Ferentz) at bowls,'' Barta said. "From day one he said he wanted Iowa. And fortunately, we got that invitation.'' Barta said he continued to talk with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner in the days leading up to Sunday and by early in the morning he believed he had it narrowed down to two possibilities. "I felt confident if other bowls selected the way they said they were going to select, that we would end up going to the TaxSlayer Bowl,'' Barta said. "It was sort of like days past where there would be all these conversations, the bowls would select and you would accept.''

The ride continues

Sunday, December 7th, 2014
They aren't the sexiest car in the lot, but Florida State just finds a way to get to where it wants to go. The Seminoles finished off an unbeaten pre-bowl season in typical fashion on Saturday. They wheezed at times. They sputtered at others. Then, they won. Just as they have the last 29 times they stepped onto the field, the Seminoles earned every bit of a two-point win over Georgia Tech in the ACC title game. It was every bit the head scratcher as many of the games that came before it during a 13-0 season, but they haven't been knocked off the pedestal yet. That day may come. That's one of the great byproducts of the new College Football Playoff, given its inherent flaw of having room for only four of the five major-conference champs in its set-up. But for now, the Seminoles will remain in the same place on my weekly ballot for the Associated Press college football poll that they were when the season started. They're at No. 1 and this week, the team right behind them is the same No. 2 team I listed on my preseason ballot, Alabama. I continue to list Oregon - which was fourth on my preseason ballot - in the third spot with the fourth through eighth spots unchanged from a week ago with Baylor, Ohio State, TCU, Michigan State and Mississippi. With most of the conference title games and final regular-season games holding true to form, five teams I had in the eighth through 14th positions a week ago lost. I'm listing Mississippi State at nine followed by Georgia Tech at 10 this week, with Wisconsin dropping from 10th to 18th following the pounding it took in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State. The only newcomer on my ballot this week is Marshall, which moved back in at 25th after winning the Conference USA title game. I gave Northern Illinois consideration for the final spot as well, and the Huskies impressed in a lopsided win over an average Bowling Green team in the MAC final. They'll be on the radar for my final ballot, as will a handful of other teams on the outside looking in, listed in no particular order, Oklahoma, Duke, USC, UCF, LSU, Colorado State, Utah and Memphis. Enjoy the bowl season. Here is a look at my AP top 25 ballot for this week: 1. Florida State 2. Alabama 3. Oregon 4. Baylor 5. Ohio State 6. TCU 7. Michigan State 8. Mississippi 9. Mississippi State 10. Georgia Tech 11. Georgia 12. UCLA 13. Kansas State 14. Arizona 15. Arizona State 16. Louisville 17. Auburn 18. Wisconsin 19. Missouri 20. Clemson 21. Boise State 22. Nebraska 23. Air Force 24. Minnesota 25. Marshall

Decision day

Saturday, December 6th, 2014
As decision day approaches for bowl organizers, Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta believes the field of postseason possibilities for the Hawkeyes has realistically been narrowed to three games. He told reporters prior to today's Iowa basketball game that he believes when invitations are issued Sunday that the Hawkeyes will be headed to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl in Nashville on Dec. 30, the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., on Dec. 30 or the Taxslayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 2. He indicated the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 27 remains a possibility, but only if the Big Ten places three teams in the "New Year's Six,'' the collection of six bowls which will have match-ups determined by the College Football Playoffs committee. That would like require a Wisconsin win over Ohio State tonight in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Barta said there are things to like about each of the bowls that still includes Iowa as a possibility. The Music City and Taxslayer games include Southeastern Conference teams as an opponent and an assignment to the Foster Farms game would be a match-up against a Pac-12 team. He labeled the options "attractive.'' Iowa has not played in California since playing BYU to a 13-13 tie in the Holiday Bowl in 1991 and the Hawkeyes last played in Jacksonville on a frigid December night in 1983, losing a 14-6 Gator Bowl game against Florida. Iowa has never played a football game in the state of Tennessee. Iowa is already preparing for its bowl game. The Hawkeyes practiced on Friday in Iowa City, resuming workouts prior to what it is expected to be Iowa's 12th bowl berth in 14 years. The additional practices are among the benefits of being a bowl team. "The practices are as important as anything. The rich get richer,'' Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said before his team lost out on a berth for the second straight year with a loss to Illinois in its regular-season finale.

Look in a mirror

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014
Boxes are being packed at the Hayden Fry Football Complex in Iowa City this week, but the only place Iowa players and coaches are heading is across the parking lot. The Hawkeyes are finally moving into new locker room facilities in Iowa's new football complex and coaches will follow as their recruiting schedules permit in upcoming days and weeks. Once expected before the start of fall camp and then planned for in-season bye weeks, the move has been delayed as crews worked to complete the facility. Coach Kirk Ferentz opted to postpone the planned move in October rather than have construction crews completing the project as the team was using the facility to prepare for games. The move comes as Big Ten teams from Nebraska to New Jersey reflect on the regular season. Nebraska's Bo Pelini and Michigan's Brady Hoke have been shown the door, while Illinois' Tim Beckman and Indiana's Kevin Wilson have been told they will return for more. The decisions are reflective of both the expectations of those programs in the reality of where they are at today. Pelini's seven straight nine-win seasons weren't enough for him remain employed at Nebraska, where a lack of success in "games that mattered'' has AD Shawn Eichorst searching for a new coach. Michigan's season-long struggles led to Hoke's ouster today, leaving two of the most tradition-rich programs in the Big Ten among those shopping for a new head coach. You can argue that the expectations at both institutions are out of whack - and to a degree they are unrealistic in a change-filled era in college football - but change in Lincoln and Ann Arbor if nothing else is designed to give fans hope. They are designed to restore programs to levels of success from a bygone era amidst the changing landscape of college football. As Nebraska fans discovered when Frank Solich was fired following a nine-win season and as Michigan faithful discovered first with Rich Rodriguez and now with Hoke, there are no guarantees when a change is made. It is a high-stakes gamble that administrators at both places are willing take. That isn't the case at Illinois or Indiana, where tradition lives on the hardwood much more so than on the football field. The Illini are bowl-eligible for the first time in four seasons and with an improved win total in each of his first three seasons, Beckman was given the chance to build on that in 2015. Wilson dealt with quarterback health issues that ruined an Indiana season which included a road win over SEC division champ Missouri and he too will be given another opportunity to build on the foundation he has built. It's as much of a gamble for administrators as the ones being taken at Nebraska and Michigan, a show of faith and an understanding of the realities of the where the program is at. Expectations accompany decisions on both levels, just as expectations live in Iowa City. There, Hawkeye players, coaches and fans continue to look in a mirror at what did and what did not take place during a 7-5 regular season. They are digesting the aftermath of difficult losses in the final two weeks of the regular season. From a rally that came up short against Wisconsin to blowing a lead and losing in overtime against Nebraska, the sum of the Hawkeyes work frustrates those inside and outside of the program. Rather than living off of the heat of the moment, Ferentz prefers to step back from the week-to-week highs and lows of what has been a very inconsistent season for the Hawkeyes. It hasn't been the type of year Iowa players or coaches envisioned, a reality somewhere between the tar-and-feather nature of message boards and an equally absurd Pollyannaish notion that all is well. Ferentz said minutes after Friday's overtime loss to Nebraska that Iowa's goals have remained unchanged since 2001. "For the most part, we're going to have an opportunity to compete for the championship. That's our goal. We're not going to back down from that. That would be ridiculous,'' Ferentz said. He's also realistic enough to understand that things play out differently in reality from the notions that are formed before the first snap of fall camp takes place. As he put it Friday, "You never know what's going to happen, you take it a week at a time. Circumstances change, your team changes, injuries, all those things that can take place.'' Ferentz said that makes each year "interesting,'' a term few fans would use to describe what transpired for the Hawkeyes this season. He expects to evaluate his program once Iowa plays its bowl game, formulating his opinion based on the entire body of work rather than on the shortcomings of one game or the successes of another. He also understands the expectations, saying that growth can only occur when players move on from the bad and good of what has transpired. "At some point, you have got to move forward,'' Ferentz said. "We've got another opportunity, one more game to get our eighth win, and that's what we'll focus on when we get back together.'' After that, the time for reflection and dissection will arrive as Iowa positions itself for future seasons.