Friday, November 25, 2011

Why not LSU-Bama II?

I just watched a Ravens-49ers game that was all it was billed to be -- close, tense, compelling, entertaining.

So why shouldn't the national championship game be a rematch of LSU versus Alabama?

Understand I have no stake in all this. Couldn't care whether the Crimson Tide or Temple shows up at the Superdome to (presumably) face LSU. My point is, as laughably contrived as the BCS system is, there should at least be some effort to put the best two teams on the field.

Until somebody beats LSU (Arkansas?) or until somebody other than the Tigers knock off Bama (Auburn?), these are the teams with the best two resumes. And yet, I keep hearing this bizarre argument that the lack of scoring in their faceoff invalidates a rematch.


Let me get this straight: A 47-45 game is compelling, but a 6-3 game isn't. When was the ability to stop an opponent from scoring any less valid a strategy than the ability to score?

An analogy: Remember when North Carolina ran the Four Corners in that prehistoric time when college basketball had no shot clock? Is someone saying the Tar Heels didn't belong in the NCAA tournament because playing keep-away with a lead wasn't valid? I'm glad the NCAA changed the rule. But that doesn't mean Dean Smith wasn't an innovator for giving his team the best chance to win.

Until there's evidence to the contrary, LSU and Alabama look like the two teams most deserving to play in a national championship game. The idea that they shouldn't be matched because (1.) they play in the same division of the same conference or (2.) they played the equivalent of a masterful pitching duel, is no reason to avoid a rematch.

-- Rick Bonnell

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On Wake's win, Clemson's fall from grace

Two quick thoughts on the week that was in ACC football:

--- Wake Forest's 31-10 blowout of Maryland was important to the Deacons' post-season plans on multiple levels.

Obviously Wake needed to win one more game to get to six wins and be bowl-eligible. They had lost three straight going into the Maryland game, and wanted no part of the stress of knowing they'd have to beat Vanderbilt with the post-season at stake.

There's also a side-benefit to the Deacons clinching a bowl against Maryland. It means the Deacons finish with a 5-3 ACC record, and that means they can't be leap-frogged by North Carolina in the conference's bowl pecking order.

According to Wake sports information director Steve Shutt. the ACC's rules work this way: A team with one fewer ACC victory can go to a more prestigious bowl, but not two fewer.

The Deacons finish with five wins. The Tar Heels are 2-5, so they can finish no better than 3-5 with a victory over Duke.

Considering the comparative size of the fan bases, it was quite possible a bowl would pick the Heels over the Deacons, given that choice.

It would be no shock if Wake ends up playing its bowl game in Charlotte.

-- Now, about those tail-spinning Clemson Tigers....

Think how close the Tigers are to a three-game losing streak, following an 8-0 start. Losses at Georgia Tech and N.C. State surround a three-point home victory over Wake. The Deacons led that game by 14 and it took a last-play field goal for Clemson to avoid overtime.

This reminds me of that famous line by boxer Mike Tyson. Some reporter mentioned a "plan'' Tyson's next opponent was conceiving, and Tyson smugly replied, "Everybody has a plan until they get hit.''

Clemson has been hit, and the plan seems dented. This was always a team carried by its offense. They're no longer playing with the turnover-free/ third-down converting efficiency of those first eight games.

Obviously injuries hurt them against the Wolfpack. They played without their superstar (freshman Sammy Watkins) and the starting left offensive tackle. But the ease with which a shaky N.C. State team pushed them around has to be rattling, entering Saturday's rivalry game at South Carolina, and then the ACC title game Dec. 3 in Charlotte.

Three weeks ago, the Tigers looked like a huge favorite to reach the BCS. Now it's far from so certain.

-- Rick Bonnell

Friday, November 18, 2011

So predictable

I said on ESPN 730 in Charlotte Wednesday that there are two things you can always count on in the ACC:

North Carolina will consistently underachieve, relative to its football talent, and Wake Forest will consistently over-achieve, relative to its football talent.

The Tar Heels proved my point, falling behind 24-7 to a Virginia Tech team of comparable ability. Now it's Wake's job to whip up on Maryland at home Saturday and become bowl eligible.

The Tar Heels are 2-5 in the ACC. The Deacons are 4-3 in the ACC. Does anyone think the Deacs have more talent this season than the Heels? Come on. Jim Grobe turns nothing into something and the Heels turn something into nothing.

Clemson's game at Va. Tech seems immaterial

I just covered the UNC-Virginia Tech game, the second time I've been to Blacksburg this fall. I was also there the night Clemson dismantled the Hokies.

I think it's inevitable that there will be a Clemson-Virginia Tech rematch for the ACC title game Dec. 3 in Charlotte. Clemson fans shouldn't put much weight in how easily the Tigers won. 23-3, at Lane Stadium Oct. 1.

Hey, I'm not saying Clemson has lost its mojo or that the Hokies have morphed into some super-team. I am saying that Virginia Tech is clearly better than they showed that night against the Tigers and that Clemson has looked less than dominant of late.

The biggest difference for the Hokies is quarterback Logan Thomas. He looked indecisive, if not intimidated, in that first Clemson game. Now he looks like an upper-level ACC quarterback, and the X-factor is his size (6-6 and 254 pounds). I would never trade Tajh Boyd for Thomas, but to dismiss Thomas as a playmaker if foolish.

I keep hearing people saying Clemson has a cake-walk to the Orange Bowl. I don't buy it. I think Clemson-Va. Tech on a neutral field is a wide-open game, and will be great fun to cover.

-- Rick Bonnell

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Clemson keeps playing with fire

Interesting statistic: Clemson's football team has recovered from a deficit of 14 or more points to win a game nine times in the program's history.

Three of those escapes -- versus Auburn, Maryland and now Wake Forest -- occurred this season.

You can look at this two ways: Either, as the sign in the football complex reads, the Tigers "Never, ever, ever, ever give up.'' Or you might wonder if the Tigers developed a false sense of security about how long they can afford to let opponents hang around.

This is a team with a sometimes-spectacular offense and an often-unreliable defense. They have managed to reach 30 or more points in eight of their 10 games so far.

If I were a Clemson fan contemplating a likely rematch with Virginia Tech in the Dec. 3 ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, here's what would concern me: In the 8-0 start, the Tigers were strikingly efficient in avoiding turnovers and penalties. They had roughly half as many turnovers and penalties as their collective opponent.

That's changed rather starkly of late. They had more turnovers and penalties than Georgia Tech in their one loss. Then the coaches spent the bye week harping on precision and ball-security.

So what happens? They have three turnovers against Wake Forest (to none for the Deacons) and six penalties (to one for the Deacons).

The Tigers really can't afford to put more pressure on the defense by stalling out drives with penalties or by flat-out giving away possessions. You don't want to test that against an always-aggressive Virginia Tech defense with a BCS bowl bid at stake.

-- Rick Bonnell

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Charlotte's ACC football title game sold out

The ACC football championship game, scheduled for Dec. 3 at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, is sold out, The Observer has learned. The league will make an official announcement of the sellout Wednesday afternoon.

It's the third time in the game's seven-year history -- and second consecutive time since it's been in Charlotte -- that the game has sold all its tickets.

The only seats remaining are the 10,000 each allotted to each participating school. Neither the league's Atlantic nor Coastal division championships have been clinched yet, although Clemson can win the Atlantic title with a victory against Wake Forest on Saturday. Coastal leader Virginia Tech plays an important game against Georgia Tech on Thursday.

Last season's championship game, played for the first time in Charlotte, was a sellout between Virginia Tech and Florida State. The game was played in Jacksonville and Tampa from 2005-09, and hadn't sold out since 2005's contest between Florida State and Virginia Tech.

"We continue to be encouraged by the enthusiasm that ACC fans have for Charlotte and (Bank of America Stadium)," said ACC commissioner John Swofford. -- David Scott

Monday, November 7, 2011

Clemson OC Morris on ball security

Turnovers had never been a problem for Clemson in winning their first eight games. In fact, they committed about half as many turnovers as their opponents in that span. So there was a clear link between turnovers and a loss when the Tigers gave the ball away four times in a 31-17 fall to Georgia Tech.

A week removed from that loss, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was still frustrated with those turnovers. He wrote off the last of them -- a desperation pass by Tajh Boyd late. But the miscommunication on a pass route by Sammy Watkins and fumbles by young tailbacks D.J. Howard and Mike Bellamy became huge points of emphasis during Clemson's bye week.

"Two young running backs just (each) put a ball in jeopardy,'' Morris said Monday, while preparing for Saturday's home game against Wake Forest. "We often talk about the space between the ball and the body (when a back is being tackled). You do that and the chances are extremely high the ball will pop out.''

Howard and Bellamy were pushed into action by Andre Ellington's left ankle injury. Morris assured that Ellington is "ready to go. I don't anticipate that being a problem at all'' against Wake Forest.

However that doesn't take the pressure off Howard and Bellamy to start securing the ball.

"It's about discipline. At the point of contact, the ball has got to be close to your bodies,'' Morris said.

Fumbling the ball "will either put you on the bench, wondering why you're not playing, or not. It's a trust factor...understanding how important it is to secure the football.''

-- Rick Bonnell

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Prince of a sack for Shembo

A couple of quick post-game notes off Wake Forest's 24-17 loss to Notre Dame.

-- The pass-rush the Fighting Irish applied to Deacons quarterback Tanner Price was a big factor in Wake going scoreless in the second half. Prince Shembo, a sophomore linebacker from Charlotte's Ardrey Kell High, had one of three sacks on Price.

-- The media grilled Wake coach Jim Grobe pretty thoroughly about his decision to play true freshman Orville Reynolds in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame. That sacrificed the option of redshirting Reynolds, as Grobe typically prefers.

Obviously burning a red-shirt nine games into a season is less than ideal. Grobe had hinted Tuesday that he might have no other choice but to play Reynolds if tailback Josh Harris continues to struggle with a strained hamstring. Grobe consulted with Reynolds during the week, and he wanted to play.

Once the trainers shut down Harris for the second half, with Wake down seven points in the fourth quarter, Grobe felt he had little choice but to use Reynolds as a backup to Brandon Pendergrass.

Grobe was emphatic post-game that Reynolds will be used a lot in the Deacons' last three regular-season games. Reynolds is a little guy (5-8 and 175 pounds). He didn't do much against Notre Dame (two carries for five yards and a reception that lost four), but he might be Wake's fastest player.

They'll work him into the offense, and Grobe indicated Tuesday that Reynolds might be a big asset on special teams.

-- Saturday's Wake-Clemson game probably features the ACC's best two wide receivers in the Deacons' Chris Givens and the Tigers' sensational freshman, Sammy Watkins. Both are big-time long ball threats. Watkins is more in-line speed and power. Givens is smaller, but he has great ability to make tacklers miss in the open field.

I plan to write more about these two in this week's Observer, probably on Saturday.

-- Rick Bonnell

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Withers, O'Brien shake hands in pre-game

RALEIGH - After exchanging explosive words earlier this week, N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien and North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers shook hands in what appeared to be a friendly greeting 44 minutes before today's scheduled 12:30 p.m. kickoff at Carter-Finley Stadium.

O'Brien walked to midfield and shook Withers' hand. Surrounded by photographers, the coaches spoke briefly, then parted and went back to coach their teams.

Earlier in the week, Withers infuriated O'Brien by saying in a taped radio interview that UNC is the flagship school in the state and that recruits should compare graduation rates because UNC has a different academic environment from N.C. State's.

O'Brien responded by defending N.C. State's academics and criticizing UNC for the NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits and academic fraud that led to allegations of nine major violations against the Tar Heel football program.

But during his interview Thursday after practice, O'Brien also called on fans to be civil Saturday. It appeared that the coaches led the way with that this afternoon.

"As far as our crowd should be, there’d better not be anything in the stands," O'Brien said Thursday. "We have a lot of dignity at this school and we’d better show it. And we can’t lower ourselves to retaliations or fights or anything stupid like that. Our people have to be there in spirit of the game and root like crazy and play hard, just as we’re going to play hard in the game. But after the game, hey, the game’s over. Move on."

Ken Tysiac.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Withers focuses on pride in UNC

CHAPEL HILL - Everett Withers now says he was merely trying to express his pride in the University of North Carolina, not insult N.C. State.

After practice today, interim football coach Withers was asked about comments he made that aired Wednesday on 99.9 The Fan. In the Wednesday comments, Withers had compared graduation rates for athletes and football players at the two schools and said there is a different "educational environment" at UNC.

He focused more on praising UNC this afternoon.

"My statement didn’t have anything to do with really North Carolina State’s academics," Withers said. "It’s about my pride in the University of North Carolina what our faculty and our administration have done here, and I have a lot of pride for what this school stands for academically. That’s part of the whole student-athlete experience."

UNC chancellor Holden Thorp has apologized to N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson over the comments, according to UNC spokeswoman Nancy Davis. Withers was asked if he talked with athletic director Dick Baddour about the radio interview.

"We talked a little bit," Withers said, "but I want everybody to know that my intent was pride for the University of North Carolina."

Earlier Thursday, N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien reacted angrily to Withers' comments and referred to an NCAA investigation has UNC facing allegations of nine major violations.

O'Brien said Withers was part of a staff that had achieved a "triple play" in the eyes of the NCAA, with an agent on the staff, players getting paid impermissible benefits and academic fraud.

Withers said he was aware of O'Brien's comments.

"Boy," Withers said, "it must be a rivalry week."

North Carolina (6-3, 2-3 ACC) visits N.C. State (4-4, 1-3) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. 

Ken Tysiac

Thorp, Woodson exchange apologies

Chancellors Holden Thorp of UNC-Chapel Hill and Randy Woodson of N.C. State have exchanged apologies over the verbal sparring that took place in the media between their football coaches.

"Holden and I have a great relationship," Woodson said in a statement e-mailed by N.C. State spokesman Keith Nichols. "We talked this morning, exchanged apologies and we're moving on."

According to UNC spokeswoman Nancy Davis, Thorp called Woodson this morning and left a message. The chancellors spoke later and apologized.

"They had a good conversation," Davis said in an e-mail. "They're good friends, and they respect each other and their institutions."

In a taped interview aired Wednesday on 99.9 The Fan, Withers said recruits need to know that UNC is the flagship school in the state. Withers said there is a difference between the graduation rates of the schools for athletes and football players.

"If you look at the educational environment here, I think you'll see a difference," Withers said.

Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien reacted angrily after practice this morning, saying N.C. State's graduation rates are improving and criticizing UNC for NCAA violations that resulted in a Committee on Infractions hearing Oct. 28 in Indianapolis.

"If that’s what people want in their flagship university in North Carolina," O'Brien said, "then so be it."

Ken Tysiac

Poll finds UNC fans undecided on Withers

A majority of those identifying themselves as North Carolina fans in a recent poll say they haven’t decided whether interim football coach Everett Withers should keep the job on a permanent basis.

Withers is 6-3 overall and 2-3 in the ACC after stepping in following Butch Davis’ firing in July. According to a Public Policy Polling survey of 615 North Carolina voters, including 243 UNC fans, conducted Oct. 27 to Oct. 31, 53 percent of Tar Heel fans haven’t formed an opinion yet on whether Withers should get the coaching job permanently.

Those who have an opinion of Withers have reacted positively. Thirty-nine percent approve of the job he’s doing, while eight percent disapprove, and 34 percent say he should keep the job while 14 percent have decided he should be replaced.

Withers has three games left in the regular season, beginning with Saturday’s visit to rival N.C. State, to make his case for the permanent job.

UNC fans are divided on the decision to fire Davis and chancellor Holden Thorp’s handling of the football program. Thirty-two percent agree with his firing, while 26 percent dissented. Meanwhile, 26 percent approved of Thorp’s handling of the football program and 26 percent disapproved.

Twenty-seven percent of UNC fans approve of Thorp’s overall work as chancellor, while 19 percent disapprove. And 19 percent of UNC fans polled say he should be fired, down from 23 percent in August.

Ken Tysiac

O'Brien responds angrily to Withers' comments

RALEIGH - A visibly furious N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien reacted angrily this morning to comments made about N.C. State by North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers.

During a taped segment with Joe Ovies on 99.9 The Fan that aired Wednesday, Withers took jabs at N.C. State’s academics and said recruits in the state need to know that UNC is the flagship university.

O’Brien responded by referring to UNC officials’ trip to Indianapolis last Friday to appear in front of the Committee on Infractions to answer charges of nine major violations in an ongoing NCAA investigation of impermissible benefits and academic fraud

“Here is a guy that’s on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis,” O’Brien said at his regularly scheduled post-practice media availability. “. . .If you take three things that you can’t do in college football, you have an agent on your staff. You’re paying your players. And you have academic fraud. That’s a triple play as far as the NCAA goes. So I don’t know that he has anything to talk about or they have anything to talk about. If that’s what people want in their flagship university in North Carolina, then so be it.”

He was asked what he meant by “paying your players.” He indicated that he was referring to the impermissible benefits players received.

“They had players accepting money from somebody,” O’Brien said. “I mean, money is being given from someone to somebody, that’s been documented, right? I don’t know how it got there. Maybe I’m wrong saying that. But those are no-nos as far as the NCAA goes.”

Withers had said recruits need to look at North Carolina’s graduation rates for football players compared to N.C. State’s.

“You’ll see a difference,” Withers said. “. . .If you look at the educational environment here, I think you’ll see a difference.”

According to data provided by the NCAA, North Carolina’s football team had a graduation success rate of 75 percent for the freshman class of 2004, compared to 56 percent for N.C. State.

North Carolina’s federal graduation rate, which does not count transfers or players who left early, was 58 percent compared to 50 percent for N.C. State.

O’Brien said N.C. State’s graduation rate is improving and applauded the school’s academic support program for athletes getting certified in 2010 by the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.

“At our school, A number one, all classes have a syllabus,” O’Brien said. “Our guys go to school. They’re not given grades, and they graduate. It’s a little tougher here, if you have to go to school and you’re expected to have a syllabus and go to class. So I think all our guys earn everything they get here. Certainly our graduates earn everything at this university.”

Ken Tysiac

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

ACC championship game nearing a sell-out

Fewer than 700 tickets remain on public sale as of Tuesday afternoon for the ACC football championship game Dec. 3 at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium.

About 53,000 tickets have been sold for the game in the 73,778-seat stadium. The ACC holds out 20,000 tickets for the participating schools.

The remaining seats are good ones: Most of them go for $40 and are in the first 15 rows of the upper deck.

Information: or -- David Scott

Wake freshman Reynolds might play Saturday

A shortage of healthy running backs might force Wake Forest to use freshman Orville Reynolds Saturday against Notre Dame. That would kill the plan to redshirt Reymolds, a top prospect from Coral Springs, Fla.

If the Deacons do use Reynolds against the Fighting Irish, it would be in reaction to Josh Harris' hamstring injury. Harris has been limited by that injury for several weeks. He was sent for a magnetic resonance imaging Monday to detect whether the injury is worse than originally diagnosed.

Coach Jim Grobe said Tuesday he's reluctant to sacrifice Reynolds' redshirt status, since only four regular-season games remain in the season. But he consulted with Reynolds, who said he wants to play if the Deacons need him now.

-- Rick Bonnell