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The College Football Report: God Bless The Genius Coach Myth

Last week, we talked about a phenomenon unique to college football: In contrast to their NFL brethren, who often seem content to call plays "by the book" to keep the game close, college coaches put themselves above the book. Premier NCAA coaches seem to prefer to win or lose the game on a single call rather than play the odds and keep the game within reach. The Genius Coach Myth is so pervasive that few question decisions by the likes of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier.

Why does that happen?

Many fans love the college game for this very reason - teams take risks you would rarely see on most Sundays in the NFL. Fans of professional football revel in precise execution and a finely tuned game, yet the strategists who call the plays don't want to sacrifice a six (or seven) figure salary on, say, a fake field goal. And who can blame them? In a league where even the likes of Dick Jauron can find gainful employment - for years - why would coaches shorten their shelf life?

And who can blame them?

The upside just isn't there - an NFL coach could pull out all the stops every week, but if risky play-calling only adds one or two to the W column, what's the point? In a league with razor-thin margins for error, the occasional risky play may cost NFL coaches more not only on the field but also in the press, on sports radio and so on. Paradoxically, the risk-averse environment in the NFL not only spotlights those few coaches who do take risks but will also push unsuccessful (yet fun to watch) wildcards out in favor of respectable losers like Jauron.

Of course, the entertainment value could depend on your perspective - your team could convert a trick play every game but if they finish the season 3-13, well, I doubt any number of fake punts, onside kicks, flea flickers, dipsy doodles, hook-and-ladders or Statue of Liberty plays will alleviate the pain.

That doesn't mean, however, that we will let the latest evidence of the Coaching Genius issue slide. Witness Steve Spurrier, regularly quoted spouting such coaching truisms like "play smart and not beat ourselves" as key to winning games - and who last Saturday night sacrificed South Carolina's national title hopes on the altar of his own ego.

Carolina entered the game against Kentucky last weekend ranked in the Top Ten. Fresh off the program's first victory ever over a #1 team the week before, Spurrier continually reminded his players about the hangover effect from beating Alabama. And the Gamecocks did seem to look a green around the gills at times, especially QB Stephen Garcia.

Despite throwing for 382 yards, Garcia threw two interceptions. The much maligned signal-caller has had problems with accuracy and execution in the past, but seemed flawless against the Tide. Yet against the Wildcats, Garcia seemed to suffer as much on the field as on the sidelines. ESPN began to cut back to Spurrier on the sidelines on what seemed like every passing down. The Ol' Ballcoach grew increasingly agitated, eventually graduating to a full-on clipboard tossing, headset-flinging hissy fit. If Spurrier was a cat, he would've had kittens.

All this had to be in the back of Garcia's mind as he looked into the endzone for a receiver on what proved to be the last play of the game. The Gamecocks had a first down at the Kentucky 20-yard line, with 11 seconds remaining and no timeouts trailing by a mere three points. Spurrier, in all his wisdom, opted for a pass play rather than kick the game-tying field goal and send the game into overtime. Next play: Garcia's pass intercepted in the end zone, game over.

Pure genius indeed. But then, had Garcia found a man for the touchdown, we can only imagine the reaction from commentators: "What a gutsy call!"

But why wasn't the interception greeted with cries of "What a stupid call!"? Perhaps the most telling words came from the mouth of the coach himself: "I thought we'd play better tonight but we didn't."

Coach, your team didn't play great but they played well enough down the stretch to extend the game and give themselves a chance. You just beat the top team in the country, defending national champion and last year's Heisman winner. Would you really have us believe that you were so skeptical of your chances on the road against an unranked .500 Kentucky team that you had to go for the win in regulation? Really? Who are we kidding here?

And here are the picks for this week - first, the Seal:

Fresno State (-19.5) @ San Jose State (7PM, Saturday)
Birmingham @ Mississippi State (-20, 6PM Saturday)
Ball State @ Toledo (-11.5, 6:30PM Saturday)

And by your genius College Football Report staff:

Syracuse @ #20 West Virginia (-13.5, 11AM Saturday)
#7 Michigan State @ Northwestern (+6, 11AM Saturday)
Colorado State @ #9 Utah (-30.5, 5PM Saturday)

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Mike "Dr. Dude" Luce brings you The College Football Report every week, with the able assistance of the Beachwood Sports Seal. They welcome your comments.

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