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One thing you can count on with the Detroit Lions is that they are never, ever boring. Follow the latest news including injuries, roster moves and more here daily from Oakland Press beat writer Paula Pasche. Plus you'll find regular commentary about the team.


Tuesday's basketball bits

Sorry you're weekly Punt, Pass and Kick got shelved Sunday, just got too busy with World Series stuff followed by that god-awful Michigan State-Indiana football game, then the Big Ten basketball media day.

But we're back and we'll stay on schedule the rest of the year (or, with no bowl game to go to, at least until some of that vacation time kicks in). Tuesday's are basketbal-friendly, so let's stick to the format with some random thoughts from Big Ten basketball media day:

Greg Oden was named preseason all-Big Ten. Oden is the first freshman to secure that honor since records were kept in 1994. Everyone who's seen him play says he's a phenomenal athlete for a 7-footer, with great feet and a good left hand. (His right'll be fine, too, once he's recovered from wrist surgery.) I just believe it'll take Oden some time to find a comfort level in Ohio State's offense (and his teammates to learn exactly how much and when to lean on him), and it'll take him a while to get adjusted to the style of play in the Big Ten. Going against quicker, smaller players, it's not hard for me to see him getting in foul trouble often early. And if he doesn't come back until Jan. 1 as expected, he'll be feeling his way around the start of the conference schedule.

Wisconsin to me remains the favorite in the league. They return four starters, including preseason player of the year Alando Tucker, and, not that you can tell from seeing him in business clothes, but Brian Butch looks like he might be able to contribute 12 and 7 this year. If that happens, the Badgers should be a 1 or 2 seed and play their opening-weekend NCAA games in Chicago.

I don't know exactly what can be done, but this process of hiring friends, family members, former AAU coaches, is a plague to college basketball. Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson scored the most recent coup when he hired Travis Steele as his new video coordinator. Steele's association with high school star Eric Gordon helped sway Gordon into a Hoosiers' uniform. Steele coached an Indianapolis AAU team while he was a graduate assistant at Ohio State, a practice now banned by the NCAA. At one time or another, Gordon and top OSU recruits Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook all played for the team.

You hate to see any coach fired, but the one on the biggest hot seat in the Big Ten is Minnesota's Dan Monson, who needs a good season but has one of the worst teams in the league. I continue to believe that, for the sake of the program, coaches in Monson's position should always be offered some sort of contract extension with a university-friendly buyout that at least makes for appearances, i.e., if a coach has two years left at $1 mil per on his contract after this hot-seat season, give him a two-year extension at $1.2 mil, plus a $2-million buyout. The university makes out if things succeed, the coach gets a bit of a reprieve in the public and recruiting eye, and both parties pay/receive exactly what they originally agreed upon if things don't work out.


Rain, rain go away

Figures, Wednesday's Game 4 wash out would throw a wrench in my travel plans. World Series games 4 and 5 will be played Thursday and Friday now, and I'm scheduled to be in Indianapolis Saturday afternoon for the MSU-Indiana football game, then Chicago Sunday morning for the Big Ten basketball conference. Travel is a mess right now, and with more weather in the forecast I don't know what to do (unless you know any MSU boosters in St. Louis for the series who might have a personal jet I can hop aboard?)

Enough with that. You don't care a whole lot about my travel plans. But you might care about The Man getting one over on the people again. It wasn't until several minutes after the announcement came over the press box that Wednesday's game was cancelled, that the PA announcer made the same call over the Busch Stadium loudspeakers. I can't help but think a few beers, brats and burgers were purchased in that time, all at a ballpark markup.

Big Clemson-Virginia Tech game tomorrow I was looking forward to seeing that I'm going to have to have my wife Tivo now. It's at Virginia Tech, and I think the Hokies win.


Blogging from the Series

It has nothing to do with college sports, but I'm at Game 3 of the World Series right and I can't help but blog.

Nate Robertson just worked his way out of serious trouble. He gave up a lead-off rope to Preston WIlson, pitched around Albert Pujols, walked Scott Rolen on four pitches, then got out of his mess by allowing just two runs. Jim Edmonds had the runs-scoring double, then after an intentional walk to Bengie Molina he got So Taguchi to pop out harmlessly to second and pitcher Chris Carpenter to pop out to first. Whew.

Carpenter's dealing right now, but this thing is far from over. If Robertson can get through the fifth - the top of the Cards' order is coming up - the Tigers still have a chance.

College basketball creeping up

I'm sitting in my hotel room in St. Louis right now, getting ready to cover Game 3 of the World Series tonight and planning out my next two weeks of college sports coverage, and it just dawned on me that the college basketball season tips off next week.

MSU begins exhibition play next Wednesday with a game in Grand Rapids against Grand Valley State. Michigan starts a day later at home against Wayne State. Both teams open the regular season the following week. MSU plays in the Coaches 2K Cancer Classic Nov. 8 and 9, and the Wolverines host Central Connecticut State Nov. 10.

"I'm amazed," MSU coach Tom Izzo said last week. "We used to have five weeks of practice by the first exhibition, then it went to four. Now all of a sudden it's two. And this is not a good year for that to happen since we have so many (new) kids."

He's telling me. I love college basketball as much anyone and more than most, but this season has snuck up on me. Unfortunately, the sport doesn't allow for the buildup that college football does, and that's especially true in Michigan this year. The Wolverines are national championship contenders on the gridiron and there's still a little baseball being played.

But college basketball provides us with tons of early marquee games, and this year will be no exception. MSU's schedule is dumbed down a little, but the Spartans still play Texas and possibly Maryland before Thanksgiving. Yikes. Michigan has typically gone the Charmin route, but the Wolverines have two huge December games at UCLA and home against Georgetown. And nationally, Indiana-Duke, Kentucky-North Carolina and Kansas-Florida all make their way onto our TV sets before Christmas.

There aren't many sports that rival college hoops for its pageantry, excitement and history. Unfortunately, there aren't many sports may can stay under the radar this close to the season, either.

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Sunday walk-through: Time for Confession

Sports reporters generally sneer at fans and their fickle ways, but we're pretty whimsical ourselves. Take Michigan State's record-setting 41-38 come-from-behind win over Northwestern Saturday. I sat in the press box like dozens of other scribes, writing off MSU's season and signing John L. Smith's death certificate as Spartan coach, only to witness a resurrection that would make the Nazarenes blush. My original game story - the one I halfway finished early in the third quarter after MSU fell behind 38-3 - talked about the nine MSU fans who drove to Chicago to watch the game and wear T-shirts that spelled out: F-I-R-E-J-O-H-N-L. I concluded that action was all but inevitable as I watched MSU athletics director Ron Mason fidget in his chair at what appeared to be an out-of-control season. I barely flinched when Drew Stanton led a nine-play, 65-yard drive that trimmed the score to 38-10. After Northwestern went three-and-out and MSU scored again (after an intentional-grounding call on Stanton that normally would have been drive-killer), another reporter and I joked about the possibility of a comeback and how I shouldn't have cancelled my Orlando/Champs Sports Bowl hotel reservations at halftime. Then Stanton got hurt and his replacement Brian Hoyer threw an interception, and it appeared my original game story could stand, albeit with a little minor tweaking to account for MSU actually putting up a fight in the second half. Then Devin Thomas blocked a Northwestern punt and Ashton Henderson returned it for a touchdown and the joke was back on: Was MSU really going to do what had been done to it so many times before? Sure enough, another three-and-out by Northwestern left MSU with plenty of time to score, and when Drew Stanton strapped his helmet back on, everyone in the press box knew what was coming. The Spartans scored again to pull within a touchdown, then tied the game with 3:43 to play. Uncle Mo' was on the Spartans side now, and reporters raced for the elevator to get a field-view look at what was about to become the greatest comeback in NCAA history. Where do I think the Spartans go from here? Reputation would suggest MSU, coming off such an emotional high, would lose at Indiana next week. But I don't see that happening. Confidence means a lot in college football, and the Spartans have it. They also have the makings of a bowl team, but after Saturday I think I'll wait a few more weeks before passing judgment. Punt, pass and kick Punt: Minnesota gets punted for the second time in three weeks. The Gophers were brutal Saturday in a 10-9 win over North Dakota State. They needed a late Amir Pinnix touchdown and a blocked field goal on the final play of the game to survive the Division I-AA Bison. Pass: Wisconsin scored its first win of the season over a semi-decent opponent Saturday, beating Purdue, 24-3, at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Badgers (7-1) have played just one other Division I team with a winning record (Michigan) this year, but are ranked in the top 20. A home game with Penn State in two weeks and a Nov. 11 trip to Iowa are the only things standing between Wisconsin and 11 victories. Kick: Might as well fast-forward the Big Ten season to Nov. 18, when No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan will meet for a spot in the BCS Championship. Neither team plays an above-.500 opponent in the next three weeks.


A Michigan-Ohio State rematch? It's possible

Just wanted to chime in on an interesting debate I heard on the Sports Inferno radio show yesterday on my way down to Comerica Park: If Michigan and Ohio State are the only unbeatens heading into their Nov. 18 game, do they deserve to meet again for the national championship?

The short answer is, not necessarily. I'm of the opinion right now that Ohio State and Michigan are the two best teams in the nation, in that order. That's how I have them in my rankings, and I can't see that changing, barring an upset, before Week 12.

But I don't think the gap between those two and everyone else is so wide that it precludes another team from jumping into the title mix. The SEC has three pretty good one-loss teams in Florida, Auburn and Tennessee. If any of those teams wins out (including the SEC championship game), it'd be hard to keep them of out of the BCS picture. Compare the resumes side-by-side. Tennessee has a win over Cal, Florida a win over Tennessee, and Auburn beat both Florida and LSU. If the Wolverines lose at Ohio State, their only top-15 win will be at Notre Dame. If OSU loses at home, they'll have a victory at Texas to fall back on. You split hairs when you pick who's best between Texas, Notre Dame and Cal, but the overall strength of the SEC plus a big non-conference win by either Tennessee or Florida (the Gators still go to Florida State at the end of the year) would be enough to win me over.

I'd give the Michigan-Ohio State loser the nod over a one-loss USC team, but you could make the same schedule argument for the Trojans that you can for the SEC teams. USC has two good non-conference wins � at Arkansas and home against Nebraska � and still plays Notre Dame plus Cal and Oregon in the Pac-10. That's a tougher schedule than either Michigan or Ohio State, whose computer number will inch down now that they play a run of bad Big Ten teams.

Texas won't have enough quality wins to play for the title, and neither will West Virginia or Louisville, but I don't believe either of those teams can be ignored if they go undefeated. West Virginia has a phenomenal offense, but not much of a passing game and an untested defense. Louisville keeps winning despite injuries to its top quarterback and running back. They play Nov. 2 in Kentucky, and all eyes will be tuned in to see just how good they are.

If I had to make a best-guess right now what the championship game will be, I'd say Ohio State plays Florida for the title, with the Buckeyes beating Michigan in Columbus and the Gators beating Auburn in their SEC championship game rematch. Louisville knocks off West Virginia, then loses to Rutgers or Pitt, and USC stumbles somewhere along the way. There'll be a lot of unhappy people in Ann Arbor (and elsewhere) that will join me in once again calling for a playoff system to determine a true national champion.

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A Tuesday helping of hoops

Three servings today:

1. Michigan State is going to have trouble scoring this year. The Spartans don't have many offensive playmakers other than Drew Neitzel, and the junior point guard still has to prove he can score at the Big Ten level. He shot a robust 40 percent from 3-point land last year - better than Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown - but had the benefit of a lot of catch-and-shoot opportunities. Neitzel will play off the ball plenty this year, but will be asked to create in halfcourt sets and late-clock situations. MSU coach Tom Izzo is confident he can do it, and while I think Neitzel's a good bet to average 16-plus points per game, I'm not sold he can get his own shot against the top defenders in the Big Ten. I'm not sold anyone else on the team can consistently make 3-pointers, either.

Aside from Neitzel, freshman wing Raymar Morgan and junior forward Drew Naymick are the only other Spartans I can see averaging double digits this year. Morgan will be a fine player in time, but early on he'll do most of his damage on putbacks and getting to the paint. Naymick is deadly with the 15-foot jumper, but those aren't exactly easy to come by in the Big Ten.

Expect MSU to play a lot of 56-52-type games this year, but their schedule - a relatively soft non-conference slate - still sets up for 20 wins.

2. No one was surprised to see Eric Gordon pull his verbal from Illinois and commit to Indiana last week, and no one should expect anything other than a one-and-done career from Gordon with the Hoosiers.

The No. 2 player in the senior class according to, Gordon will star for Kelvin Sampson's Hoosiers the minute he steps on campus. He's a 6-foot-3 playmaker who can score from anywhere on the court, and he told The Chicago Tribune that playing at Indiana will be a dream come true. So why did he commit to Bruce Weber's Illini in the first place? If you believe Gordon, the uncertainty surrounding former Hoosier coach Mike Davis was too much to take.

As true as that might be, Sampson is a heck of a recruiter who started working Gordon the moment he stepped on campus. That won't earn him any invites to Christmas dinner at the Webers, but it does ingratiate him to the legions of Indiana basketball fans who were skeptical of his hire. Better yet, it might help him land Gordon's AAU teammate Derrick Rose, one of the top point guards in the Class of '07.

3. If reports are true that Ohio State will be without stud freshman Greg Oden until January, the Buckeyes will have a hard time beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. Oden is a supreme talent - he 7-footer would have been the top pick in June's NBA draft had he been eligible - but it will take time for him and his teammates to mesh, and OSU opens conference play with a tough three-game stretch against Indiana and at Illinois and Wisconsin.

Oden will dominate once he gets into playing shape, but by that time it may be too late for Ohio State to make a run at a Big Ten title and coveted No. 1 seed.


Sunday walk-through: Hoosier hysteria

Writers learn early on about the dangers of using superlatives like "always" and "never," but when it came to Indiana football it was always fine to say the Hoosiers would never make a bowl game. Until now.

Indiana (4-3) took control of its own postseason destiny Saturday with a 31-28 upset of Iowa. The Hoosiers need two more wins in their final five games to reach their first bowl since 1993, and with games remaining against Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue, there's at least an outside chance they get there.

"Our football program is a shooting rocket," scratchy-voiced Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner said after of the win.

While that may be overstating it - Indiana's consecutive conference victories are its first since 2001 - there's no denying the air of excitement suddenly surrounding Hoosier football. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kellen Lewis is Indiana's most compelling player since Antwaan Randle El, receiver James Hardy, now that he's back from a two-game suspension, is a beast, and Hoeppner is as congenial a coach as there in the Big Ten.

The Hoosiers still have plenty of hurdles to overcome in order to make the postseason. They're one of the thinnest teams in the Big Ten, and of the three winnable games left on their schedule (they also play No. 1 Ohio State next week and host No. 2 Michigan Nov. 11) only MSU is at home. But at least Indiana football is relevant again. And with college basketball just around the corner, that's saying something.

Punt, pass and kick

Punt: The Ron Zook watch is under way in Champaign. Zook, a noted recruiter famous for doing less with more talent than any coach in America, lost his second straight home game Saturday, this time to Ohio of the Mid-American Conference. Just a hunch, but the powers that be at Illinois give Zook one more year to stock some talent in the cupboards down there than cut their ties and find someone who can actually coach.

Pass: Wisconsin crept into my top-25 vote for the first time this year after dominating Minnesota Saturday. The Badgers look like they're headed towards a 10-2 season. It'll be a Charmin-soft record, but also good enough to earn a Jan. 1 bowl trip.

Kick: There can't be many people looking forward to next week's Michigan State-Northwestern game, but it's the biggest game of the year for the 3-4 Spartans. A win and MSU is right back in the bowl hunt. A loss and you can start the search for a new coach.


Punch drunk (and three other thoughts)

It's good to see Michigan State football players have a little fight left in them (ba-bump-ba). No, in all seriousness, MSU coach John L. Smith made the prudent decision to suspend the four Spartans alleged to have taken part in an off-campus fight early early last Friday morning. With so much scrutiny on him and the program right now, he didn't have much choice. But we've seen past players (Cole Corey) be accused of more serious offenses (rape) and remain on the team. (Corey's charges, it should be noted, stemmed from a high school incident.)

We should know by Friday what charges if any the players will face, and it'll be interesting to see what Smith does then. If no charges are filed, are the players welcomed back with open arms? If they're rung up on misdemeanor battery charges, is that still enough to kick them off the team? I don't anticipate any of the four will be back this year, but this is a slippery slope because of the precedent it could set for the rest of Smith's tenure in East Lansing. The next time a player is a accused of similar crime, we'll expect a similar punishment.

Three other thoughts halfway through the college football season:

1. Michigan will miss Mario Manningham dearly. Manningham is the best receiver in the Big Ten right now. Better than Ted Ginn, better than Derrick Williams. I know the Wolverines still have Mike Hart and Chad Henne and that great defense, but this is a tough two-game stretch (at Penn State, home against Iowa) to be entering without your No. 1 deep threat. If nothing else, talented freshman Greg Mathews should get a chance to shine.

2. Minnesota coach Glen Mason has to be thanking his lucky stars for the contract extension he signed in the offseason. In his 10th year with the Gophers, Mason could be on his way to his worst record as Minnesota head coach. The Gophers (2-4) need four more wins to reach the postseason and I only see two (North Dakota State next week and Indiana Nov. 4).

3. My midseason awards? Big Ten Player of the Year: Troy Smith, Ohio State (who else?). Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Spencer, Purdue. You could make a case for Penn State's Dan Connor, Ohio State's James Laurinaitis or a number of Michigan players, but Spencer is a force at defensive end. Coach of the Year: Michigan's Lloyd Carr. Bret Bielema's done a fine job in his first year at Wisconsin, too, but the Badgers haven't beaten anyone of note yet.


A quick fix for all you basketball junkies

It's the midpoint of the college football season, I know, but I've got basketball on the brain today because a) I've got a big rec league game tonight, and b) I just filled out my Big Ten basketball media day form complete with league predictions I'm about to share with you.

My preseason league favorite? Who else but Wisconsin. The Badgers have my preseason player of the year in forward Alando Tucker, the league's top returning scorer (19.0 ppg) and No. 4 rebounder (5.7 rpg), a deadly 3-point shooter in Chris Rock look-alike Kammron Taylor, and an abundance of size inside in Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma and Marcus Landry, to name a few. The Big Ten is a tad down this year - as bad as the conference was in March last year, it had a pretty good regular season overall - but Wisconsin is one of the few teams with legitimate Final Four dreams.

Media members only vote on the top three teams in the preseason, and I put Ohio State second and Illinois third. The Buckeyes are real young, but loaded with talent. Incoming freshman Greg Oden is a monster, and classmates Mike Conley and Daequan Cook will be stars before their careers are over. As for the Illini, well, they were a default pick more than anything. I know Dee Brown is gone, but Illinois plays defense, and I like Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt. Really though, the Big Ten is pretty even after the top two. Purdue and Penn State (surprise, surprise) will be good. Indiana has a new coach (Kelvin Sampson) and a healthy star (D.J. White), and Michigan and Michigan State could both make the tournament this year. I'll rank these teams from top to bottom later on this fall.

As for my preseason all-conference team, Tucker and White are no-brainers, and I put Michigan's Lester Abram, Penn State's Geary Claxton and Iowa's Adam Haluska on my top five as well. Don't be surprised if Haluska leads the Big Ten in scoring and if Claxton and sidekick Jamelle Cornley lead Penn State to the dance. As for Abram, he's the biggest wildcard maybe in the nation this year. Injuries have cost him most of the last two seasons, but he can do so many things for a Michigan team with pretty decent talent (Courtney Sims, Dion Harris, etc.). If he stays healthy, there's no excuse for the Wolverines not to make the tournament for the first time since 1998.

Finally, I can't leave without mentioning Michigan State. The Spartans severely underachieved with their first-round NCAA knockout last year, and they'll overachieve this year. I'm not predicting a surprise Final Four run, but I firmly believe MSU, even with all the talent it lost, will be back in the tournament come March. Tom Izzo did the smart thing to dumb down his regular season schedule. That should lead to 20 wins and a 10th straight NCAA bid. Oh, and Raymar Morgan will challenge Oden for Big Ten freshman of the year.


Sunday walk-through: Midseason bowl predictions

Michigan and Ohio State became the first Big Ten teams to gain their bowl eligibility Saturday with wins over Michigan State and Bowling Green. If both end up with BCS bids - a distinct possibility if Michigan wins at Penn State next week - the Big Ten will not have enough teams to fill its postseason allotment for the third straight year.

Iowa and Wisconsin, both 5-1, should reach the requisite six-win mark next week when they play Indiana and Minnesota, respectively. Penn State, with home games against Illinois and Temple still upcoming, is the only other conference team guaranteed a spot in the postseason.

After that, it gets tricky. Purdue (4-2) should reach a bowl game for the ninth time in Joe Tiller's 10 years, but the Boilermakers need seven wins because they play a 13th game at Hawaii.

Indiana and Michigan State are the only other Big Ten teams currently with three wins, and both would be considered postseason longshots. The Hoosiers don't have another guaranteed W on their schedule (their home games are Iowa, MSU and Michigan), and MSU is in the midst of a three-game slide that's destined to reach four this Saturday against OSU.

Illinois likely blew its chance at six wins with last week's loss to Indiana, Minnesota won get there unless it wins at Wisconsin this week, and Northwestern is far and away the worst team in the Big Ten.

About the only good news for whichever bottom-tier Big Ten teams falls into six wins is a trip to Tempe, Ariz., for the Insight Bowl (not Detroit and the Motor City Bowl) appears in the works.

As of Oct. 8, here's how I see the Big Ten's bowl allotment playing out:

BCS title game: Ohio State (12-0) Rose bowl: Michigan (11-1) Capital One: Iowa (10-2) Outback: Wisconsin (9-3) Alamo: Penn State (8-4) Champs Sports; Purdue (8-4) Insight: Michigan State (6-6) Motor City: No one from the Big Ten, but organizers have to be thrilled that Brian Kelly's Central Michigan team has a shot.

Punt, pass and kick Punt: Extra points have never been Jason Giannini's strong suit. The Minnesota kicker missed an amazing eight of the kicks last year, and he missed his second of this season Saturday (the first was blocked). Unfortunately for Giannini, that ended up being the deciding factor in Penn State's 28-27 overtime win.

Pass: Damian Sims ran for a career-best 155 yards on 20 carries in Iowa's 47-17 win over Purdue Saturday. Albert Young, who missed the game with a leg strain, is still the starter, but Sims (and sophomore Shonn Greene) give Iowa one of the deepest backfields in the Big Ten.

Kick: Michigan's best remaining chance at a loss before the Nov. 18 showdown with Ohio State comes next week at Penn State. Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the 8 p.m. kick, and the Nittany Lions have revenge on their minds after Michigan spoiled their season last year.


Solving the playoff debate

Lloyd Carr (for it), Joe Tiller (against it), Steve Spurrier (for it) and Tommy Tuberville (for it) shared their thoughts on a college football playoff system this week, here's mine:

A 16-team playoff is the only fair way to determine a national champion. Give automatic bids to the winners of the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC), then fill out the rest of the field with at-large selections, including the top-ranked mid-major team, using an NCAA Tournament-like selection committee.

First-round games would be played at home sites of the higher-seeded team the second week of December. Second-round games would be played the following Saturday at rotating regional sites that are current bowl destinations. One year it could be San Diego, Detroit, Charlotte and Orlando, the next San Antonio, Nashville, Tempe and Tampa Bay.

The semifinals will always be played Jan. 1, and a national championship game will follow the next that's Saturday seven or more days later. The final three games will rotate between the current BCS bowls, the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange, with the previous year's national championship site sitting out one season.

To accommodate the (slightly) longer season, the regular season would start the last week of August, include a bye, and require conference championship games to be played the weekend after Thanksgiving.

The Birkett Plan is designed to limit class time missed to little more than it is now; allow for proper media build-up and travel-making time for the fan; and incorporate some of college football's long-standing traditions (Jan. 1, the bowl games).

Tiller, the Purdue coach, wouldn't approve of the plan because it excludes too many bowl-eligible teams. He said on the Big Ten coaches teleconference Tuesday that he likes the current bowl system because of the opportunity (32 bowl games) it provides. If unimportant games are that important to the powers that be, they can still be played the week between Christmas and New Year's leading up to the semifinals. No one but the gamblers and the alumni care about those games anyway, and that wouldn't change under The Birkett Plan.

What would is how a national champion is determined. Take the responsibility away from the pollsters, the coaches and the computers and let the players hash it out. Sixteen teams is enough to include everyone that proved itself worthy over a 12-game schedule (and it can always be expanded), and it's enough so one loss suffered in a tough road environment won't ruin a season.


New Gophers stadium good for the Big Ten

I don't know that Minnesota will ever compete for Big Ten championships on a regular basis, but Sunday's groundbreaking of a new on-campus stadium at least gives Gopher fans hope of ending their title drought that's 39 years and counting.

Minnesota won't open the 50,000-seat, $248-million TCF Bank Stadium until 2009, but already coach Glen Mason has seen the facility impact his recruiting. The Gophers have received verbal commitments from 10 of the 11 in-state players they've offered this year - only top prospect Broderick Binns is a holdout - and Mason said the stadium is a big reason why.

For years, Minnesota was the only school to play its games at an off-campus venue. While there were positives to that - the Metrodome is a pro facility, used by the Vikings and Twins, and it gave the Gophers a distinct homefield advantage - opponents also found it easy to recruit against the university's perceived lack of commitment to its football program.

Using the Metrodome hindered Minnesota in other ways. Mason said there were times he wanted to show recruits the stadium they'd call home, only to realize it was being used for a tractor pull or some other non-football related activity. And of course, a handful of games had to be changed or postponed over the years due to the Metrodome's other uses.

Fittingly, Sunday's groundbreaking ceremony came on the same day the Twins clinched the A.L. Central title, which meant this week's Minnesota-Penn State would go on as scheduled. Had the Tigers won the division, the football game would have been postponed til the end of the year.

Mason said an on-campus stadium was "not a want for Minnesota, it was a need." Many others would agree, including Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, who attended Sunday's ceremony.

"I can't believe this is a reality now," Mason said. "I never thought it would happen during my tenure. I spoke about it. I was trying to set the stage for the guy after me and the guy after him."


Sunday walk-through: Smith, Spartans not a done deal yet

Don't sign the death certificate on John L. Smith's career as Michigan State coach just yet.

Sure, the Spartans appear to be coming apart at the seams after consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Illinois, but MSU still has a very real chance at a bowl game that could save Smith's job. And here's the kicker: It might not take wins over Michigan and Ohio State to get the job done.

Fans that live and die by Spartan football have been in message board meltdown mode for the past 24 hours. Analysts that dissect the team for a living have followed suit, compiling their own private list of potential coaching candidates. But if the Spartans get to eight wins - not probable but definitely still possible - Smith still is in line for a contract extension.

The key is surviving these next two weeks and games against top-six teams Michigan and Ohio State. A win in either would put the schizophrenic Spartans back to where most expected they'd be seven games into the season: 4-3.

Do I think they'll win either game? No. But even two losses isn't a death knell.

Look, MSU was terrible against Illinois. Flat-out rotten. Starting tailback Javon Ringer is injured and doesn't look to be coming back anytime soon, the offensive line is in shambles, and quarterback Drew Stanton has been beat to a pulp the last two weeks.

But after Michigan and Ohio State, MSU will be favored to beat every team on its schedule accept Penn State. That doesn't always mean much with the Spartans, 27-point favorites against the Illini Saturday, but they do have a chance to get to get better with late-October trips to Northwestern and Indiana.

Mediocre Purdue and Minnesota squads come to East Lansing after that, then MSU closes the season at Penn State. As vulnerable as the Nittany Lions look at times, let's assume that's a loss. Still, if MSU finishes 7-5 and wins four of its final five regular-season games, that should earn the Spartans a trip to Tempe, Ariz., for the Insight Bowl (especially if two Big Ten teams get BCS bids). Beat a decent Big 12 team there and you all of a sudden have an eight-win MSU team that ends the season on a nice win streak.

I know, that's the best-case scenario and the Spartans are an emotional and physical wreck right now. But after talking a few of my MSU friends off the ledge last night, looking for a way out of the morass is the least I can do.

Punt, pass and kick

Punt: Remember Alex Daniels, the converted linebacker who ran for 155 yards and three touchdowns in Minnesota's season-opening win over Kent State? The Gophers don't. Daniels has just 10 carries the past two weeks for 24 yards. Amir Pinnix is a better running back, but whatever happened to Glen Mason's theory of sharing the load?

Pass: John Stocco and Wisconsin spoiled Terry Hoeppner's return from brain surgery with a 52-17 thrashing of Indiana. Stocco was a remarkable 15 of 17 passing for 304 yards. Running back P.J. Hill (23 carries, 129 yards, 3 TDs) is pretty good, too.

Kick: Two teams coming off their first loss of the season, Purdue and Iowa, meet in the conference's most important game next week. Curtis Painter and Purdue's offense looked pretty good against Notre Dame, but the Boilermakers haven't traveled outside the state of Indiana yet. Playing the Hawkeyes on homecoming will be a test.