Pack must win Mountain West outright
December 29, 2016
Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .
The Mountain West, as usual, isn't doing the Nevada Wolf Pack basketball team any favors so far this season. The Wolf Pack, at 12-2 overall, is the unquestioned top team in the Mountain West so far. But that honor and $5 will only get you a Venti Cinnamon Dolce Latte at Starbucks. The Wolf Pack cannot count on a fancy regular season record to get them to the NCAA Tournament. It better win the conference tournament to make sure. The Mountain West sent just one team to the NCAAs last year when Fresno State upset regular season champ San Diego State in the conference tournament championship. San Diego State was considered the best team in the conference going into this season but has since lost to Grand Canyon and Loyola Chicago. That hurts everyone in the conference. San Diego State finished at 42 in Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) last year and didn't get an at-large bid to the NCAAs. The Wolf Pack right now is ranked 39 in RPI, by far the best in the Mountain West (Wyoming is second at 66). The Pack, though, has yet to beat anybody in the RPI top 100. That's why the Pack can't take any chances this year. It must treat every single game as if it is the first round of the NCAA tournament.
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The Wolf Pack, though, just might be two more victories away from being ranked in the Top 25 of both national polls. The Pack, which has won seven in a row and 12 of its last 13, has yet to receive any votes in the Associated Press poll. But it did receive three votes in the USA Today Coaches' Poll this week. A win at Fresno State on Saturday and another win over San Diego State on Wednesday at home could be enough to get the Pack in the Top 25. The game against San Diego State is arguably the most important regular season game for the Wolf Pack since Eric Musselman took over as head coach. The Pack has lost seven games in a row to San Diego State and hasn't beaten the Aztecs since Nov. 14, 1998. A Wolf Pack win next Wednesday will send a message not only throughout the Mountain West but to the entire country that one of the best 25 teams in the nation calls northern Nevada home.
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It seems that some Group of Five athletic directors are in favor of creating their own playoff system. The Group of Five, which consists of teams from the American Athletic Conference, Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt, have grown tired of never being able to take part in the four-team playoff system that rewards the big-money Power Five Conferences. A playoff for the Group of Five is an awful idea and needs to be forgotten immediately. The last thing Group of Five schools need is some inferior championship that means nothing and reminds everyone that they can't compete with the big boys. Would it really be so great to be called the champ of the Mountain West, American, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA? It would be like winning a junior varsity title.
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Western Michigan went 13-0 out of the MAC this year and its reward was a spot in the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin. Playing in the Cotton Bowl, a tradition-rich bowl, against a good Big Ten team is much more prestigious and meaningful than playing in a contrived Group of Five playoff. Instead of creating a Group of Five playoff, the current four-team playoff system should be expanded to eight teams and be forced to include a team like Western Michigan, which is unbeaten and has already beaten two Big Ten teams. It would give the college football playoff system a Cinderella quality that makes the NCAA basketball tournament so special every March.
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Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said recently that "if you call a bowl meaningless then you've never played or coached in one." Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said that there is "no such thing as a meaningless bowl game." Fitzgerald and Fisher are right. If you are a player or coach, there is no such thing as a meaningless football game, be it a bowl or a September non-conference game. But both Fisher and Fitzgerald are completely missing the point. The vast majority of bowl games are completely meaningless to the average fan. And it's not only the fans who don't care. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and LSU's Leonard Fournette are sitting out their bowls just so they won't risk an injury leading into the NFL draft. There are also head coaches (Houston's Tom Herman, for example) who spend the time after the regular season ends to go get another job instead of focusing on the bowl game. It is not surprising that coaches like Fitzgerald and Fisher don't care what fans think. All they care about is getting another contract bonus and rewarding their players with free meals, expensive gifts from bowl sponsors and a week in a fancy hotel. And that is all well and good for them. But for the rest of us, these games are painful to watch.
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The Idaho Vandals better not rethink their decision to drop down to the Football Championship Subdivision after the 2017 season. The Vandals went 9-4 this past season in the Sun Belt and beat Colorado State 61-50 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. Idaho also beat UNLV this year to go 2-0 against Mountain West teams. Head coach Paul Petrino should have been named the national Coach of the Year this year for what he did in Idaho this year. Idaho doesn't get to many bowls, but when they do go to a bowl (three) they know how to put on a show. Chris Tormey's Vandals beat Southern Miss in the 1998 Humanitarian Bowl and Robb Akey's Vandals beat Bowling Green in a thrilling Humanitarian Bowl in 2009. The FCS, though, is where the Vandals belong. When the Vandals don't go to a bowl, which is the vast majority of the time, they are usually one of the worst teams in the FBS. Heading back to the FCS, where they can compete for a true national title, is clearly the smart decision to make in the long run.
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Oakland Raiders fans should not give up on their Super Bowl dreams this year just yet. Yes, starting quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg last week and is going to miss the postseason. And, yes, Matt McGloin, he of the one career victory as a starter, is the new quarterback. But a backup quarterback has led a team to a Super Bowl title before. New England's Tom Brady in 2001, the New York Giants' Jeff Hostetler in 1990, Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw in 1974, Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams in 1999 and Trent Dilfer of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens come to mind. Earl Morrall got the 1972 Miami Dolphins through the playoffs before Bob Griese came back in the Super Bowl to cap off a perfect season. And have Raider fans already forgotten what Jim Plunkett did for the 1980 Raiders? McGloin, who played at Penn State, is not Brady, Bradshaw, Warner or Plunkett. But he can be Dilfer or Hostetler, who began his college career at Penn State before transferring to West Virginia, and also later played for the Raiders in the NFL. The Raiders, though, might want to play Whitey Houston's rendition of the national anthem, which was played before Hostetler's Super Bowl win, before every playoff game.