Stanford faces South Carolina in Fresno regional semifinals

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Stanford faces South Carolina in Fresno regional semifinals

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer recalls how during Dawn Staley's college days at Virginia she wore a rubberband on her right wrist and snapped it each time she committed a turnover.

VanDerveer remembers how much she enjoyed coaching the ultra-competitive Staley on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that captured gold in Atlanta. VanDerveer always told it straight, and that's what fueled the tough Staley, who grew up honing her game on the playgrounds of Philadelphia.

"When Tara found out we were playing South Carolina, she was ecstatic," sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike said. "She was like, Yeah, we're playing Dawn Staley's crew!'"

On Saturday night, VanDerveer's top-seeded Cardinal (33-1) will face Staley's No. 5 seed South Carolina team (25-9) in the NCAA tournament's Fresno regional semifinals, with Stanford looking to extend its school-record 30-game winning streak and take another step toward reaching a fifth straight Final Four.

"Coaching Dawn was just awesome. I loved coaching her," VanDerveer said Friday at the Save Mart Center. "She's a competitor more than anything else."

A humble one at that. The Gamecocks played at Stanford last season, and Staley invited VanDerveer to the visiting locker room to give her players a pep talk. And Staley spoke to VanDerveer's players at a 2007 tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands when Staley was still at Temple.

The Cardinal had just whipped South Carolina 70-32 in November 2010 when Staley asked her former coach to spend a few minutes with the Gamecocks players. VanDerveer also coached Staley assistant Nikki McCray.

"You don't really hear a lot of relationships like that when it comes to different coaches," said Stanford leading scorer Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who averages 21.8 points 10.1 rebounds and is eager to get to Denver and the Final Four in her NCAA tournament farewell tour. "It's nice to see those different types of dynamics. It's really cool. They have a lot of history together."

VanDerveer, Stanford's 26th-year coach, took a year away from the school to coach the U.S. Olympians to their gold medal in '96.

"Tara had a way of looking at basketball and seeing it played a certain way," Staley said, saying she learned from VanDerveer "to be more than just a player and build relationships. You learn all those little intangible things ... that made me one of the best point guards to play the game. Definitely Tara was one of those coaches who was really honest - she'll bring you to tears with her honesty. It fueled me."

Stanford and Staley's Virginia team each reached three straight Final Fours from 1990-92, with the Cardinal beating Staley in the NCAA semifinals on the way to its championships in '90 and '92. VanDerveer's Cardinal haven't won it all since then despite becoming a Final Four regular of late.

Current assistant and former Stanford guard Kate Paye guarded Staley in that 1992 game.

"Those are good years, 90 and 92. Hopefully that's a good omen. Dawn hopes it isn't," said VanDerveer, who cherishes a signed photo Staley gave her from when she was the Americans' flag bearer for the 2004 Athens Games.

The winner Saturday will face either No. 2 Duke faces third-seeded St. John's, who play the first game of the night.

VanDerveer, enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year, earned her 797th career victory in that game with South Carolina, then beat former Stanford star and University of San Francisco coach Jennifer Azzi to join the elite 800 wins club shortly thereafter.

Next season, Stanford will travel to South Carolina, where the women's basketball program has become a big hit in Columbia.

"They play much better defense than she did," VanDerveer quipped of these Gamecocks compared to their coach. "Dawn is incredibly competitive, to the point she has amnesia. We used to play chess together and she will say how she beat me, and I'll say, No, Dawn.' Her team is so competitive."

South Carolina has reached its first regional semifinal since 2002, third overall in program history and first under fourth-year coach Staley. The Gamecocks' top three scorers and six players total - including all five current starters - were there that day last season to hear VanDerveer's words.

Not that they remember it much. This group has come so far since then.

"I don't remember much about the game, but we weren't prepared as much as we are now," guard Ieasia Walker said.

Markeshia Grant leads the balanced Gamecocks at 11.0 points, while La'Keisha Sutton averages 10.5 points for a South Carolina team that already pulled off an impressive win over Tennessee.

Staley sported an "I BELIEVE" long sleeve T-shirt on Friday in what has become her team's mantra.

"They've been pretty catchy since we've been having a pretty successful season," Staley said. "We really don't have anything to lose. They're the big dogs, the No. 1 seed. We still have to play the game."

VanDerveer looks at the Gamecocks much like the offensive-oriented Arizona State and California teams the Cardinal face in the Pac-12 Conference.

After traveling East to Norfolk, Va., for the first two rounds of the tournament, the Cardinal are back in familiar territory in California's Central Valley, where they beat Fresno State in this arena on Dec. 4. They're at the same hotel this time.

"This is kind of our second home and we want to come out and play really well here," VanDerveer said. "I think there's a comfort level having been here, been in the locker room, less newness. Whether that translates into wins or translates into more baskets, that's yet to be seen."

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Jackson, Watson headline five 2016 Heisman finalists

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USATSI/AP

Jackson, Watson headline five 2016 Heisman finalists

NEW YORK -- Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a Heisman Trophy finalist for the second consecutive season, joining Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers and Oklahoma teammates Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook.

The finalists were announced Monday on ESPN and the award will be presented Saturday in New York.

Watson finished third in last year's voting, won by Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Just like last year, he heads to New York not as the favorite but as the contender coming on strong at the end. Mayfield finished fourth last season, but did not get an invite to Heisman presentation in New York.

Peppers is the first defensive player to be a Heisman finalists since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo was a distant runner-up to Johnny Manziel in 2012.

Westbrook and Mayfield are the first teammates to be finalists since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart from Southern California finished first and third, respectively in 2005.

Finalists are determined by the margins between vote-getters. The ballots of more than 900 voters, which included former Heisman winners, were due Monday.

Watson entered as the preseason favorite in what looked like a strong field of contenders, but Jackson quickly swept past them all to be front-runner. He was brilliant for the first two months of the season and Louisville was looking like a College Football Playoff contender.

It seemed as if Jackson would be a runaway Heisman winner, but the 15th-ranked Cardinals lost their final two games of the season. He was sacked 11 times in a lopsided loss at Houston and he committed four turnovers in a last-second loss against Kentucky.

Watson, meanwhile, has surged since Clemson's only loss to Pitt in mid-November. He also had the benefit of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game last Saturday and took full advantage of the spotlight. Watson threw three touchdown passes and ran for two scores in a 42-35 victory against Virginia Tech to seal a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The raw numbers still favor Jackson, who is second in the nation in total yards per game (410.7) and has accounted for 51 touchdowns (21 rushing TDs and 30 TD passes) with 13 turnovers (nine INTs and four lost fumbles) in 12 games. Watson averages 341.8 yards per game and has 43 touchdowns (six rushing and 37 passing) with 15 turnovers (all interceptions) in 13 games.

When the two met on Oct. 1 at Clemson in what was one of the season's most entertaining games, Watson threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns, ran for 91 and was picked off three times. Jackson had 295 yards passing, 162 rushing and accounted for three touchdowns with one interception. Clemson won 42-36.

Mayfield and Westbrook have been a dynamic combination, and late in the season No. 7 Oklahoma started a dual campaign to promote both for the Heisman. Mayfield is on pace to break the NCAA record for passer efficiency rating in a season (197.75). Westbrook has 74 catches for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns and has more receptions covering at least 20 yards (26) than any receiver in the country.

Peppers played defense, offense and special teams for Michigan, lining up all over the field.

College football roundup: The case for an eight-team playoff

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USATSI

College football roundup: The case for an eight-team playoff

Would eight be better than four?

That was the obvious question after Sunday’s announcement of the final College Football Playoff rankings, which determined the four teams that will compete for the national championship.

The semi-finals will match No. 1 Alabama, the SEC champion, vs. No. 4 Washington, the Pac-12 champ, in the Peach Bowl, and No. 2 Clemson, the ACC champ, vs. No. 3 Ohio State, the Big Ten East Division runner-up, in the Fiesta Bowl.

On the outside looking in are the Big Ten champion, No. 5 Penn State, and the Big 12 champion, No. 7 Oklahoma, as well as No. 6 Michigan, which beat Penn State by 39 points and lost to Ohio State in double overtime, and No. 8 Wisconsin, the Big Ten West champ. 

As a bowl director, I originally was opposed to the playoff, fearing that it would diminish the bowls (which it did) and the regular season (which it didn’t). The playoff has proven to be a huge success, and a boon to the sport. 

But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. Four teams is better than the old two-team BCS model, but when you have five “power” conferences, one or more champions will be left out of the playoff every year—two were left out this year—and one or more deserving teams won’t get to compete for the title. If you go to an eight-team tourney, each year’s field would feature the five league champs plus the next three highest rated teams. More elite teams would have a chance to grab the brass ring, and there would be less quibbling over who was left out.

Imagine these quarter-final pairings in an eight-team playoff this season:

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 Oklahoma
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Michigan
No. 4 Washington vs. No. 5 Penn State

We’re in the third year of a 12-year playoff agreement between the conferences and ESPN. However, the playoff could easily be expanded to include eight teams before the original contract expires. Why? Because the structure is already in place. At present, two semi-final games rotate through six different bowls (the “New Year’s Six"). These same six bowls could host an eight-team playoff—four for the quarter-finals and two for the semis, with the championship game awarded by bid, as it is now. Is it possible the commissioners had expansion in mind when they set up the original six-bowl format? 

Our feeling is that the eight-team playoff will become a reality in 2020, after the first six years of the 12-year deal are concluded. 

Blowout epidemic: Washington’s blowout win over Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game is the latest example of a disturbing trend. Consider the scores of the Pac-12 title game since its inception:  2011–Oregon 49, UCLA 31; 2012–Stanford 27, UCLA 24; 2013–Stanford 38, Arizona State 14; 2014–Oregon 51, Arizona 13; 2015– Stanford 41, USC 22; 2016—Washington 41, Colorado 10. Only one close game in the bunch, and an average victory margin of 22 points. CBS’s Jon Solomon did an analysis that showed the Power Five championship games had an average margin of victory of 17.4 points, and that was before last weekend’s games, which averaged 20.75.

Understandably, with the advent of the playoff, championship games have lost much of their luster. Many fans see these games as a stepping-stone to the playoff and stay home rather than having to travel to two—or possibly three—postseason games to follow their team. The blowouts don’t help. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby recently suggested that if the playoff expands, conference championship games might be one of the casualties.

Neutral sites: Friday night’s Washington-Colorado game also marked the end of the Pac-12’s three-year agreement to play the championship game at neutral-site Levi’s Stadium. Our feeling is that these games should be played on campus, on the home field of the highest ranked team. The first three Pac-12 games followed that format. The 2011 game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene was a sellout (59,376) and the 2013 game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe fell just short (69,535). (The 2012 game at Stanford didn’t do well because it was held in a driving rain and the two participants had played each other the week before).

By contrast, the three games at Levi’s have drawn crowds of 45,618, 58,476 and 47,118 in a venue that seats 68,500. The conference likes the certainty of knowing in advance where the game will be played, and that reasoning may work in the football-crazy SEC, but not on the West Coast. Instead of 47,118 in Santa Clara, imagine last Friday’s game being played in an on-campus environment before 70,000 in Seattle. 

Blame Game: Michigan might well be one of the best four teams in the country, and Jim Harbaugh is a great coach, but Harbaugh’s attempt to blame the officiating for his team’s double overtime loss to Ohio State deserved a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. The officials didn’t throw a pick-six or mishandle a snap from center on the one-yard line—the two plays that cost Michigan the game. Yet after Harbaugh’s rant, the officials received numerous death threats from rabid Michigan fans. There’s no excuse for that type of behavior, or for Harbaugh’s sideline antics and post-game diatribe. 

Dr. Pepper: What’s happened to the “Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway” at the various conference championship games? Contestants used to throw the football toward the target like a quarterback attempting a forward pass. Now they all use a chest pass, as in basketball. While this technique might be more accurate from short distances, it makes a mockery of a competition at a football game.

Foster Farms Bowl: The Bay Area’s bowl, now in its 15th year, will be played at Levi’s Stadium on Dec. 28 and match Utah from the Pac-12 against Indiana from the Big Ten. This will be the Hoosiers first appearance in the game. The Utes played in the bowl in 2005 at AT&T Park, when it was known as the Emerald Bowl, and upset Georgia Tech 38-10. 

Stanford to the Sun: Despite the presence of one of the most exciting players in college football, Christian McCaffrey, a higher ranking and a superior record (9-3), No. 18 Stanford was bypassed by both the Holiday Bowl (which selected unranked, 8-4 Washington State) and the hometown Foster Farms Bowl (which took No. 19, 8-4 Utah), and fell to the Sun Bowl in El Paso. The Holiday apparently felt that WSU would bring more fans to San Diego. The folks in Santa Clara went with Utah because Stanford has played in Levi’s Stadium in each of the past two seasons, beating Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl in ’14 and USC for the Pac-12 championship last year. That’s understandable for the bowls, but disappointing for Stanford and its fans, who might choose the family room couch over a vacation in beautiful El Paso.

Rose Bowl criteria: There was some confusion as to why USC was picked over Colorado to be the Pac-12’s representative. If the league champ (in this case Washington) goes to the playoff, then the Rose Bowl takes "the next best team" in the conference. That could be interpreted to mean the next best team in the standings, which would be Colorado, winner of the South Division with one regular-season loss in league play. Or it could mean the highest rated team by the CFP Selection Committee. The Rose Bowl used the later criteria and took USC, rated 9th to Colorado’s 10th. 

Heisman Watch: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the favorite for most of the season, stumbled a bit in his last two games. But Jackson still had the best season of any player in college football, passing for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns, and rushing for 1,538 yards and another 21 scores. No other player came close. Washington quarterback Jake Browning had an outside chance to overtake Jackson with a stellar performance in the Pac-12 championship, but Browning had a subpar outing in a game dominated by the Huskies’ running backs and secondary. In all likelihood, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had a brilliant game in the ACC championship, but was plagued by turnovers early in the season, will be the runner up.