Feature Articles

UCLA’s 1976 Rose Bowl Champs Reunite

For the past fifty years, like clockwork, Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, has honored the two elite college football teams who have earned the right to compete in the annual Rose Bowl Game with a feast fit for royalty known as the Lawry’s Beef Bowl. The Sporting News calls it the “Best Tradition” among all the bowl games.

This summer, the 1976 Rose Bowl Champion UCLA Bruins created their own sort of time machine, turning back the clock 30 years to reunite and raise a toast to each other at Lawry’s in honor of their monumental bowl game upset over Woody Hayes’ top ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

To refresh your memory, the 1976 Rose Bowl Game pitted the 17-point underdog Bruins against an undefeated Buckeye squad that had already whipped UCLA 41-20 earlier in the season. However, behind the combination of Dick Vermeil’s coaching, near-flawless execution of his offensive strategies, and a relentless, opportunistic defense, UCLA prevailed over Ohio State in convincing fashion, 23-10, thus handing the national championship to the Oklahoma Sooners by default.

So, that was the honey-glory that attracted former Bruin players, coaches, pep squad and administrators back to the hive in Westwood where they filled up two buses before heading over to Lawry’s to celebrate the pinnacle achievement of that Cinderella season.  As the buses rolled up to the traditional red carpet “walk of champions” at Lawry’s, they were greeted by present day Bruin cheerleaders and UCLA band members heralding their arrival with the school fight song.

The improbability of that Rose Bowl victory three decades ago cannot help but draw comparisons to the current state of UCLA football. Prior to that magical season, the Bruins had posted respectable win-loss records of 8-3, 9-2, and 6-3-2, over a three-year period. Meanwhile, cross-town rival USC won the Pac-8 title and earned the right to compete in the coveted Rose Bowl Game each of those seasons, with all three games deciding or factoring into the outcome of the national championship.

Contrast that with the past three years, where UCLA fielded competitive teams that made three straight bowl appearances (Silicon Valley Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, and Sun Bowl) while the Trojans dominated the Pac-10, and played for a piece of the national championship all three years, twice in the Rose Bowl and once in the Orange Bowl.

Is it possible for the 2006 version of UCLA Bruins football to pull off the improbable this season by ending USC’s current stranglehold on the conference title and earn an appearance in the Rose Bowl Game?

John Sciarra, former Bruin quarterback and one of the stars of the 1976 Rose Bowl Game, thinks that it’s possible, but more than likely another year away.

“USC is certainly vulnerable on offense with the loss of Bush, White, Leinart, and three linemen, but their defense will be as solid as ever, and that’s one of the three keys to winning championships in football,” says Sciarra. “You have to play great defense, run the ball effectively, and create turnovers with your special teams.”

From his perspective, Sciarra feels USC still holds the edge on paper, with recent recruiting classes keeping them ahead of the pack in overall talent. Still, he doesn’t see the Trojans’ quarterback situation being a difference maker like it has the past few years with Leinart at the helm. If redshirt sophomore Ben Olson can live up to the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders, and the Bruin defense can keep USC’s big play offense off-balance and hungering for possession time, UCLA just might have a shot at the upset.

“That’s what made the difference for us back in 1975,” recalls Sciarra. “Our defense played their best two games of the year against USC and Ohio State. Without those stellar performances from our D, there wouldn’t be a conference championship or a historic Rose Bowl victory, period.”

Sciarra believes this year will be the turning point for the Bruins’ return to glory. Citing their 8-game winning streak at the start of last season, coupled with the lessons they learned in the two blow-out road losses to Arizona and USC last year, he expects a bowl appearance and a shift in the recruiting wars that will start bringing local talent back to Westwood.

“Karl [Dorrell] led UCLA over the edge last year and his players believe they can win now,” says Sciarra. “The team developed a lot of character during the course of winning five come-from-behind games last season. I’m really excited to see how they perform this year with an improved defense and new faces at the skill positions. I think the tide is turning in their favor.”

When asked to share some of his favorite gridiron recollections stemming from the 1976 Rose Bowl victory, the former Canadian Football League Rookie of the Year (B.C. Lions, 1976) and six-year NFL vet (Philadelphia Eagles) didn’t hesitate to pull a couple memories out of his bag.

The week after the Rose Bowl Game, John and fellow Bruin Randy Cross were on their way to Hawaii to play in the Hula Bowl.  When they arrived at the airport, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was there to personally greet them, complete with island beauties placing the traditional leis around their necks. Thanks to the windfall national title Oklahoma gained from UCLA’s win over Ohio State, Sciarra and Cross were treated like kings that week by Switzer and his staff.

“To this day, I still have the t-shirt Barry Switzer sent me the week after the Hula Bowl,” says Sciarra. “The note he sent read: ‘As promised, enclosed please find the t-shirt.  Wear it on the beaches of California and you’ll attract all the lovelies.’ The front of the t-shirt says, ‘Oklahoma Sooners, 1975 National Champions,’ and the back reads: ‘Thank you John Sciarra and the UCLA Bruins for making this possible.’”

Another powerful moment that lingers in Sciarra’s memory occurred just before the Philadelphia Eagles’ 1981 Super Bowl clash with the Oakland Raiders. Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil invited a special guest to speak to his players.

“Dick introduced [then retired] coach Woody Hayes to the team and we gave him a standing ovation,” recalls Sciarra. “Woody spoke for about an hour and he managed to toss in a few jokes about the 1976 Rose Bowl Game, too. It was a powerful example to see these two great coaches relating with each other away from the game time pressures under which you would normally see them.”

Q&A: Marvin Philip on Cal and the Jump to the NFL

Marvin Philip was a SuperPrep rated All-County lineman at Oak Ridge High School in Cameron Park, California before heading off to play for the Cal Bears in 2000.  He started several games as a true freshman and then spent the next two years serving an LDS mission in the Midwest region. He regained the starting center position late in his sophomore season (2003) and he was All Pac-10, second team A.P. All-American, and a Rimington Award finalist his junior and senior seasons. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL draft by the reigning Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

CG365:  How would you compare the Steelers’ preseason training camp with what you experienced at Cal?

MP:  It’s much more competitive. Everybody in camp was an All-American or superstar of some sort in college, so the competition level is really high. We’ve got guys here that are ten years older than me (laughs) and I’m the oldest rookie here. You’re not just playing with kids—in the NFL you’re playing with grown men.

CG365:  Did you have to sing your Cal fight song in camp yet?

MP: No, they made me get up and sing, but I chose a song that everybody knew, so it became a sing-along. I sang an R&B song by a guy named Donell Jones.

CG365:  What was the title of it?

MP:  “Knocks Me Off My Feet.”

CG365:  And while you were singing it you were looking directly at that defensive lineman you’ve been going up against in camp, right?

MP:  (laughs)  Oh yeah…

CG365: So who have you connected with in camp so far, is there anyone from Cal on the team?

MP:  Yeah, Chidi Iwuoma (sixth year defensive back).  I played with him my freshman year. Back in 2000, he was a senior and I was a true freshman coming in and I had the opportunity to start, so we got to know each other back then.

CG365:  So, you guys have been able to do a little Cal bonding, huh?

MP:  Oh yeah. We talked a little bit when I came here for mini-camp, and he told me how proud he was that we were able to turn the things around at his alma mater.  Cal’s come a long way from when Chidi and I played together.

CG365:  Yes, it’s been an amazing turnaround from when you were first recruited and now Cal’s a perennial Top 20 preseason pick.

MP:  You know, that was the vision that we had, but it took a new coaching staff to bring that about, and it’s fun to see it now.

CG365:  Back to the preseason training camp for a second.  Which training table food is better, the NFL or college?

MP:  (laughs)  Hands down, the NFL.  They treat us much better here. When you’re only allowed to spend so much money on food [like in college] don’t expect it to be too good.  To be honest, I can’t complain, though.  It wasn’t bad in college.

CG365: How about the speed of the game on the playing field—do you notice a huge difference from college?

MP:  Most definitely. I met up with a former teammate of mine from Cal, J.J. Arrington, at our preseason game with the Cardinals and he told me the game is even ten times faster once it hits the regular season. I can’t even imagine that.  I’ve got to get my eyes to move fast enough so I can see all those linebackers.

CG365:  What about those defensive linemen from BYU on the roster—have they been talking any smack with you about how their alma mater should’ve won last year’s Las Vegas Bowl?

MP: Yeah, I talked to Shawn Nua and Chris Hoke about that.  You know they walk around with their BYU shirts, so I have to remind them what happened in last year’s game.

CG365:  And then they pull out their other t-shirts that read “Super Bowl Champions…”  and you’re thinking “You had to wait until you got to the Steelers before you could wear something with “Champion” on it, buddy.”

MP: (laughing) Yep, yep, exactly!

CG365: You know you left behind a pretty loaded Cal team for this year.  Is that sort of bittersweet to you? Do you wish you had another year left?

MP: Well, you know I think I paid my dues there the last two years. Last year we had a great team with a little bit of a quarterback situation. The year before we went 10-1 with the only loss coming to USC, so I played with some good teams there. I think I was ready to move on.  I think they have a chance of playing for the national championship this year. They’re stocked with talent—a lot of youth on that team. Right now, it’s just a matter of getting things to mesh so they can compete on that level.

CG365: Obviously, the first step toward the national championship is winning the Pac-10. What’s it going to take for Cal to dethrone USC?

MP:  I think it’s gonna take a lot of things. They’ve got all the talent in the world to do it, but more than anything else, it’s a matter of getting out on the practice field and finding that chemistry. They’ve got a new offensive line that hasn’t really played with each other and a young quarterback in Nate Longshore, so it’s just a matter of finding that chemistry on that level.

CG365:  So you think Cal’s chances to win the Pac-10 and compete for the national championship really hinges on developing a solid team chemistry this year?

MP: Yes, yes it does.

CG365: Well, it will be interesting to see what happens because the conference appears to be very balanced this year. Marvin, thanks for your time with us. Good luck this year with the Steelers.

MP:  Thank you.

Q&A: QB Paul Peterson on Boston College and BYU

Paul Peterson is currently serving as an offensive intern for the Brigham Young University Cougars football program. During his college playing days, Paul compiled a 12-2 career record as Boston College’s starting quarterback and was the first QB in BC football history to begin his career 6-0. He led the Golden Eagles to two consecutive bowl game victories over Colorado State and North Carolina. He was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Week twice, the MVP of the Continental Tire Bowl, and BC’s team MVP his senior year. He was also a J.C. Grid-Wire All-America Quarterback at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah before attending Boston College. His oldest brother Charlie is a former BYU quarterback.

CG365: What are your thoughts and feelings as you contemplate returning with the BYU football squad to Boston College and the site of many great football memories for you?

PP:  I’m excited. I have a lot of friends out there that I’m anxious to see and the coaches who I played for are still there and I’m excited to see them. On the other side of the ball, I’m part of a new team now, so I want to see BYU have a lot of success and come home with a victory.

CG365:  Tell us a little about your studies at Boston College. What did you major in?

PP:  I majored in business. You know, coming from a junior college, there was a little bit of a curve in adapting, but I had a great academic experience there and the faculty was great.  It’s just an awesome school.

CG365:  Did you find yourself to be quite the anomaly on campus as a returned LDS missionary at a private Catholic university?

PP: You know, the Boston College environment is very tolerant of other religions. There are Muslims and Jewish people, many different faiths are represented—the biggest thing was being married. I was the only married guy on the team, and I think I was the only married guy in the whole undergraduate school, so everyone thought that was kind of different.

CG365:  You probably feel pretty comfortable around the BYU team now, right?

PP:  Oh definitely, definitely. The guys are in the same situation and I can relate to them a bit better.

CG365:  Can you share a thought or two of what was running through your mind as you and your wife were driving in your car from Utah to the East Coast the summer you transferred to Boston College?

PP:  We didn’t know what to expect.  We didn’t know what the culture would be like back East…We didn’t really understand how it would be…we were just excited for the new adventure.  We both had an awesome experience.  My wife, Meghan, was able to find a job on campus and get her school paid for and we both graduated.  I think she misses Boston.  She made some good friends out there as well.

CG365:  Do you miss the culture of a historic and dynamic city like Boston?

PP:  Yeah, it has a cool feel. It takes people a while to warm up to you, but once they do, you’re friends for life. We had such a great experience there. Besides Boston College, you’ve got Boston U., Harvard, MIT, Emerson, Berkley College of Music—it’s just a mecca for education.  There’s a lot of students, so there’s a lot of activities geared toward students … Boston just has its own unique atmosphere that’s different from any other place in the United States.

CG365:  Is your wife going to be able to go back there for the game?

PP:  Well, we have a 2-month old baby, so the timing isn’t quite right for her to make the trip back East this time.

CG365:  Are you hearing any smack talk coming from your old teammates about this week’s game with BYU?

PP: BC’s really the type of team—I don’t think anybody really likes to talk smack over there. I remember every game, the head coach [Tom O’Brien] he would say, “Let’s be about it, not talk about it.”

CG365: Would you say the BYU team has the same type of discipline under Bronco?

PP: Oh exactly.  I think they are very similar in the way they lead their teams with their leadership qualities.

CG365:  What do you recall about when you first got your break to take over at quarterback for BC?

PP:  It was awesome.  When I came in—when I first started—we were like 5 and 5, so we were just trying to make that push to be bowl eligible.  So, to be able to go to a bowl game that year, we were way excited about that.  To play a good team like Colorado State in San Francisco was a fun time.  Being a Division 1 quarterback, that first [junior] year I was still trying to figure it out. Midway through, maybe I started figuring it out a little better and they could see that.  It was fun playing. There’s nothing better than a bowl game and coming out on top.

CG365:  What about your senior year when you were already the established starter?

PP:  The next year was going well until I got injured the second to the last game of the regular season at Temple.  I broke my hand so I had to sit out the Syracuse game and we ended up losing.  We would have played in the Fiesta Bowl if we’d have won that.  But I came back for the bowl game with that broken hand still, and we came out on top of that game, too, against North Carolina.

CG365:  Didn’t you end up breaking your leg in the second half of that game?

PP:  I did—the first part of the fourth quarter. My hand was getting a little weak throughout the game and I had fumbled … when I went to scoop up my fumble, a guy caught me from behind and snapped my leg.

CG365:  Ouch.  I remember seeing photographs of you being wheeled off the field and you were flashing a victory sign to the fans—

PP: No, I think I was pumping my fist.  But, I was watching on the Jumbotron and we had just executed the fake field goal to score a touchdown. I was pretty sure we we’re going to come out on top, after that.

CG365:  Having played at Boston College and knowing the system there, do you think they will take BYU lightly?

PP:  No. The head coach over there, he prepares those guys pretty well.  I don’t think they take any game lightly.

CG365:  Okay, BC played a really tough, double-overtime game last week.

PP:  Yeah, that was a grinder—and good for BC to come out on top of that.

CG365: So, when you’ve played in a highly emotional, physical game like that against a conference foe—you gotta win that game?

PP: Yeah.

CG365:  Is it hard to get back “up” the next week?

PP:  I don’t think so. Well, not for me anyway. When I was playing, I was excited to play every game. It didn’t matter who the opponent was. I don’t think you can take anyone lightly.You’ve seen the Division 1 teams losing to these 1-AA teams who are ready to play, so I don’t think you can really take anyone lightly, and BC definitely won’t be taking BYU lightly after our great victory over Tulsa last week.

CG365:  What was it like being a quarterback at Boston College—did you feel like you were playing in the shadow of Doug Flutie back there?

PP:  There were a lot of comparisons with Flutie, and I was always worried that he’d get offended because I wasn’t half the quarterback that he was … but, I mean, he’s a living legend for BC … I was just really excited to be able to play and be a part of that team, coming from where I’d came from, and the chances that I didn’t have before, to be able to have that chance to play … I was ecstatic just to be the starting quarterback, and to be compared to him was a huge compliment.

CG365: Did you ever meet Flutie?

PP:  Yeah I did, a bunch of times. Actually, he would come during the summertime and we got to throw and work out a couple times together. He’s a great guy.

CG365:  What did you learn from him in those workouts?

PP:  I asked him some questions regarding the similar height disadvantage that we shared, particularly about a couple strategic things he would do to try and take advantage of pass plays, or situations, or finding certain reads, when really, you can’t see and you’ve got 6’8” tackles in your way.

CG365:  I was reading where Steve Young said he had to learn to have faith where his receivers were going to be when he couldn’t see them, and just let the ball fly—

PP:  Exactly.  You’ve got all those repetitions and practice and stuff, so you know where your guy’s gonna be…you just gotta make the right decision…it’s not that difficult.  You definitely have to move around a little bit if you don’t know what’s going on behind the other side of the line and try to find the lanes where you can throw.

CG365:  Are you interested in coaching as a career?

PP:  Yes, definitely. That’s why I’m here.  I’m trying to get into coaching.

CG365:  Would you want to go back to BC to coach?

PP:  Oh, I’d go back there to coach in a second.

CG365:  How do you feel your business degree will help you in coaching?

PP:  (laughs).  I don’t know if it will. No, seriously, I took a lot of management classes and I think that’s what you are as a coach, you’re trying to manage your players in the positions that you’re coaching to be successful and have the same output. The main goal is wins, and in business it’s similar, where you’re trying to win business, earn money, be successful. I think there’s that type of connection I can make with my background.

RF365:  Okay. What’s your favorite non-football memory at Boston College?

PP:  There might be more than one! The basketball team had won about 21 games in a row and was playing Pittsburgh at home, so it was a big game.

CG365:  This is your senior year?

PP:  Right, my senior year, after the bowl game I had just gotten off crutches, and I’m hobbling onto the basketball court. Coach O’Brien presented the team MVP award to me and there was a standing ovation for quite a while, so that was a pretty cool experience.

CG365:  What’s your favorite food in Boston?

PP:  My favorite place to eat would probably be Anna’s Taquarilla.  They have cheap burritos and they’re good!

CG365:  What about your favorite tourist site?

PP:  Believe it or not, I love the Museum of Fine Arts.

CG365:  If you have the choice between a Patriot game and a Celtic game, which do you go to?

PP:  Oh, you gotta go to a Pats game.  They’re sold out for twenty years, I think.

CG365:  I’m sure your answer would probably be different if we were back in the Sixties.

PP:  Exactly.

CG365:  Any special message you would like to share with BYU fans?

PP:  I want to make sure that Cougar fans know that I’m part of a new team. Although I have good friends back there and those connections, I’m part of a new team and we are going to do our best to bring a victory back here this weekend.

CG365:  When you were playing at Boston College and having success, BYU was going through a really dark period in the program with consecutive losing seasons and some serious off-the-field problems with a handful of players … from what you read or heard about the program during that time period, how would you describe the program as you see it today?

PP:  You know, I think this team has some great, great players, and our coaches do an awesome job here of getting production out of those players. Our team as a whole—there’s a different feeling here at BYU. There’s obviously a different atmosphere here than in the past, and a different tradition that Coach Mendenhall is trying to instill in the players. The guys want to be successful and I think they are doing everything they possibly can to do that. The program is definitely headed in a great direction.

CG365:  I don’t think Arizona was better than BYU in that first game. The team beat themselves with penalties and other mistakes.

PP:  I definitely agree.

CG365:  When it comes to practice, is it really possible to see improvement in a team on a daily basis, or is that just another coach-speak platitude?

PP:  I think you can. There’s kind of this little cycle that happens … after the game, usually Mondays and Tuesdays are not the best practices … you get a lot accomplished.  You’re going over new material, so there might be some slow parts, or some things we’re trying to pick up, going from one defense to a different defense, to different personnel, and there’s a learning curve those first couple of days. And then, after that, it’s expected to get better, to get crisper, know the game plan … I think you peak toward the end of the week … and that game, obviously, is where you’re going to have the most experience and gain the most.

CG365: As the season wears on, do you feel it’s important to lay off the heavy hitting in practice and save it for the game?

PP: Yeah, we did that at BC. You have to. Physically, to be able to grind it out in full pads throughout the week, it’s just too hard on the players … they’re still trying to recover on Monday and Tuesday. You gotta get their legs so they’re fresh—so they can be 100 percent for the game. It’s a total disadvantage if you’ve got guys banged up for your game. It’s not smart management of your assets.

CG365:  Have you been helping to pattern the BYU scout team so they run their offense the way Boston College runs it?

PP:  One of my responsibilities is that I get to write down the plays in practice that we run and load them into the computer—

CG365:  But aren’t the coaches trying to utilize your knowledge, pick your brain about BC—

PP:  Sure, during the day when they’re watching film, I definitely answer any questions they have for me. I think I’ve been able to help the team prepare in that regard.

CG365:  So, what kind of memories came back to you when you were watching the film of BC with the Cougar coaches—were you able to immediately, instinctively pick out things that you would notice from being the QB in their offense?

PP:  Yeah, exactly, because their offensive coordinator has been there forever, Coach Dana Bible. I love the guy. He does some great things with the offense, and watching it, you know—most of the guys that are playing there now were there when I was, so I get to see my buddies playing on film.

CG365:  Who are some of your best buddies that are still playing at BC right now?

PP:  Matt Ryan and I were pretty good buddies. He came in with me, and we spent a lot of time in meetings cracking jokes and poking each other in the ribs, trying to stay focused in the meetings we were having … some of the offensive linemen are still there, the running backs … Josh Beekman, the guard, and James Martin, the tackle, are still good, good buddies of mine.

CG365:  Okay, a couple more question. Recruiting. What’s more important, a top rated package of physical skills or heart?

PP:  That’s a good question. You’re obviously going to try and find the athletes that have both of those. That’s your main goal. But, I feel like I was a guy that was mostly heart. I didn’t have a lot of talent, or certain physical attributes that separated me from other people. So, if you find an athlete that’s lacking some of the physical attributes you’re looking for, you hope the heart can make up for it. As a coach, your job is on the line, and you gotta be able to find those players that have both as much as possible.

CG365:  How about this BYU team–do you think they have heart?

PP:  Definitely. They definitely have heart. They have great athletes, but they have a huge heart. They are going to do whatever it takes to get that victory.

Davey O’Brien Award Preview

The three finalists for the 2006 Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award presented annually to the nation’s best college quarterback are Colt Brennan of Hawaii, Brady Quinn of Notre Dame and Troy Smith of Ohio State.

All three finalists come from winning teams this season. This is a pretty solid trio, but two different Cougars, John Beck of BYU and Kevin Kolb of Houston, could have easily replaced Brennan on this list. Both seniors led their teams to conference championships and posted among the most successful stats across the board.

Brennan compiled the most phenomenal statistics for the entire season (373 of 517, 4,990 yards, 53 TDs, 11 picks) but his final regular-season performance against Oregon State was essentially a bust. He tossed two interceptions and misfired during a failed game-winning drive attempt in the last few minutes of the contest. It was Brennan’s first national exposure of the season with ESPN carrying the game on the West Coast in the late evening hours, and it turned out that the most impressive elements in the Hawaii offense were a couple players by the names of Nate Ilaoa and Davone Bess.

Perhaps Matt Hayes of The Sporting News summed up Brennan the best: “…in three games against BCS teams, the Rainbows were 1-2 and Brennan had seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Against the remainder of a dog-filled schedule — and I’m throwing Boise State among the dogs, too — he had 46 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s Timmy Chang, everyone. He’s not a Heisman Trophy candidate.”

To that, we might add, he’s also not the nation’s best college quarterback, as represented by the Davey O’Brien Award criteria.

Brady Quinn will graduate with most of Notre Dame’s passing records safe and secure in his personal accomplishments file. He has been the cherubic poster boy face of the Fighting Irish for the past four years, guiding the Golden Domers to a 30-17 record during his signal-calling tenure. Perhaps the most glaring weaknesses on Quinn’s resume are his 0-4 record against vaunted rival USC, and a winless record in two blowout bowl games versus Oregon State and Ohio State.

Still, it’s difficult to argue with the numbers he has posted against a more difficult schedule than Brennan has faced this year (274 of 432, 3,278 yards, 35 TDs, five INTs). The merits of his career record should also be considered since the sum of his collegiate experience factors into the field general that he is today (914 of 1,567 for 11,614 yards, 93 TDs, 37 INTs).

Troy Smith is the most likely of the three finalists to win the O’Brien honors. He soundly outplayed Quinn on a national stage in last year’s Fiesta Bowl–an indelible image not lost on the award’s voters. Smith has been nothing but money in every big game he’s played in since last year’s loss at Penn State, helping the Buckeyes compile a nation-leading 19-game winning streak heading into the Tostitos BCS National Championship game.

Perhaps the most impressive factor in Smith’s favor, and certainly more important than his stats (199 of 297 for 2,507 yards, 30 TDs, five INTs) is that he managed to convert himself from a run-first-type quarterback (136 carries, 611 yards rushing) last year to a poised pocket passer (62 carries, 233 yards rushing) this season. His field vision improved dramatically in the process, enabling him to utilize the vast array of offensive assets at his disposal in the heat of the battle.

Remarkably, Smith’s completion percentage also improved from 62.9 to 67 percent, and his sack count actually dropped by one from last year. Still a dual-threat to tuck the rock in and run, if need be, Smith forces opposing defenses to account for his mobility as well as his accurate arm. His improvisational playmaking abilities are reminiscent of the great Cornelius Greene, the Buckeye QB in the mid-1970s who would have won the Heisman Trophy had it not been for a teammate by the name of Archie Griffin.

Doak Walker Award Preview

If you were a defensive coordinator, any one of the three 2006 Doak Walker Award finalists would give you a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to stop them. Mike Hart of Michigan, Darren McFadden of Arkansas and Steve Slaton of West Virginia are the finalists in consideration for this prestigious award.

Mike Hart was a semifinalist for the award in 2005. The junior running back compiled 1,515 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns in 12 games this season, and ranks fourth nationally in total rushing yards. He has averaged more rushing yards per game (122.6) than any back in University of Michigan history.

Hart’s signature game came against arch-rival Ohio State on Nov. 18. He picked up 142 yards on 23 carries (6.2 average) and three touchdowns. In his 32-game career at Michigan, Hart has rushed for 3,632 yards and 27 TDs, and he has 57 receptions for 518 yards and two touchdowns.

Darren McFadden has rushed for 1,558 yards and 14 TDs on 265 carries in 13 games this season. The strong, blazing-fast sophomore running back leads the SEC in total rushing yards and yards per game and has scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and passing in 2006. McFadden is just the third back in Arkansas history to have consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

McFadden rushed for a personal-best 219 yards and two TDs on 25 carries (8.8 average) in a Razorback win at South Carolina on Nov. 4. His other signature game this year came on Nov. 24 against the stingy LSU Tigers defense when he amassed 182 yards on 21 rushes (8.7 average) and two TDs.

Steve Slaton is another sophomore speed back who creates fits for anyone trying to defense him. He has hauled the rock 245 times this season, accumulating 1,733 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also has 25 receptions good for 340 yards and two TDs and leads the nation with 187 all-purpose yards per game. Slaton has rushed for over 100 yards in 14 of his 17 career starts.

Slaton’s signature game this season came in a Mountaineer win at Pitt on Nov. 16. He rushed 23 times for 215 yards (9.3 average) and two TDs, and caught six passes for 130 yards (21.7 average) and two more TDs.

This year’s Doak Walker Award is truly up for grabs. The voters really can’t go wrong casting their ballot for any one of these three finalists.

The Doak Walker Award recognizes the nation’s premier running back for accomplishments on the field, achievement in the classroom and citizenship in the community. The Doak is now in its 17th year and it is the only major collegiate football award that requires all candidates to be in good academic standing and on schedule to graduate. The most recent honorees include Reggie Bush, Cedric Benson, Chris Perry, Larry Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Luke Staley.

The winner of the Doak Walker Award will be announced on ESPN’s Home Depot College Football Awards Show on Thursday, Dec. 7.

Biletnikoff Award Preview

The Biletnikoff Award is presented annually to the nation’s outstanding receiver. The three finalists for the 2006 award include Jarett Dillard of Rice University, Calvin Johnson of Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame’s Jeff Samardzija.

Of course, this award is just as subjective as all the other honors being handed out this time of year, so you shouldn’t be shocked that marquee names like USC’s Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, Ohio State’s Ted Ginn, Jr., or DeSean Jackson of Cal didn’t make the finalist cut.

Perhaps what perplexes fans the most is the lack of distinct criteria for determining the award winner. If the most important receiving stat is total receptions, total yards or yards per game average, then where is the national leader in all three categories–Chris Williams of New Mexico State–with 92 catches, 1,425 yards and 118.7 yards per game?

If the key benchmarking category for receivers is yards per catch, then what about Mississippi State’s Tony Burks with a whopping 24.3 yards per catch average? Interestingly, Jarrett Dillard’s nation-leading 20 touchdown receptions render him the only Biletnikoff finalist to lead the NCAA in a receiving statistical category.

Well, it is what it is, so let’s take a look at the three finalists and see what “it is” that separates them from the rest of the pack, and from each other.

Both Calvin Johnson (6-foot-5, 235-pound junior) and Jeff Samardzija (6-5, 218-pound senior) have the prototypical big receiver physical attributes that pro scouts drool over. Johnson’s line for the regular season reads 59 receptions, 899 yards (15.2-yard average) and 13 TDs. Samardzija has 70 grabs, 958 yards (13.7 average) and 11 TDs.

Samardzija has benefited from playing on national TV every week for one of the nation’s most recognized college football programs, as well as profiting from the attention lapped upon his Heisman candidate teammate, Brady Quinn. His signature moment this year came against UCLA game when he caught a pass from Quinn with 40 seconds left and outmaneuvered several Bruin defenders for an improbable 45-yard, game-winning touchdown.

Johnson has been making circus catches for three years now, and he’s regularly featured on ESPN’s “top ten plays of the day” throughout the college football season. He’s been compared to the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, and would have accumulated far more impressive statistics if he had the fortune of being paired with a better passing quarterback than Reggie Ball. Most analysts expect Johnson to turn pro after this season rather than sticking around to break in a new Tech QB.

In stark contrast, Jarrett Dillard is just a sophomore and one of the smallest receivers in Division 1-A football at 5-11 and 160 pounds. But good things often come in small packages, and Dillard is no exception. His 82 receptions, 1,176 yards (14.3 average) and 20 TDs stand the tallest among the three finalists, particularly when you consider that Dillard has played with two different quarterbacks this year in a revamped Rice offense that was anchored to the ground game for years under former head coach Ken Hatfield.

Will Rice’s shifty sophomore receiver walk away with this prestigious honor over Notre Dame’s Samardzija and Georgia Tech’s Johnson?

The Biletnikoff Award will be presented on the ESPN College Awards Show on Dec. 7.