USA Today’s Paul Myerberg

If you’re a multiyear follower of LTP, then you know about today’s guest, Paul Myerberg. He puts together the best damn CFB countdown blog in the land. Any one who can write a better preseason post on Northwestern football than I can gets my ultimate devotion. Well, many others have seen the light and now Paul Myerberg is a college football writer for USA Today. He joins us today to talk about the importance of the upcoming ‘Cats bowl game and the potential ripple effect it can have for next year. Let’s get in to it.

LTP: First off, let’s talk about you. You went from the object of LTP’s countdown desire with the incomparable Pre-Snap Read to a college football writer for USA Today. Tell us about the “new” gig and what is in store from you after bowl season and for 2013 (will we see the USA Today version of the countdown?).

PM: The new gig has a similar feel to the old one, but there have been some changes. There’s less of the minutiae-driven coverage I used to do over on Pre-Snap Read, like doing 750 words on how San Jose State’s running game is clicking, but there’s greater opportunity for larger pieces, like one I did this week on Northern Illinois. There’s also a greater emphasis on posts and stories that speak to a larger audience, which has been a change.

It’s a great place to be. USA TODAY has a great staff of college football people, from the editors to colleagues like George Schroeder and Dan Wolken, so we’ve got things covered from a number of different angles. And we’re getting better and better as we get more comfortable in our new roles.

Not to say that I don’t miss the posts on New Mexico State, San Jose State and the Sun Belt, however. Hopefully, we crank out similar Countdown-style coverage over the summer like I did at Pre-Snap Read. Can’t say yet if that’s in the cards, but I hope so. I have so much knowledge about Texas State’s upcoming quarterback competition that must be shared.

LTP: As the definitive countdown master, I thought you could either validate or repudiate my theory on end of season finishes and impact on next year’s polls. My theory is that should Northwestern beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, we’ll be top 15 in both polls (10-3) and therefore be on everyone’s 2013 Top 25 list for several reasons. First, I’d argue, lazy folks like myself look at the following metrics to help rank teams that are completely different beasts: 1)previous year finish 2)returning starters with a particular over-emphasis on skill positions and 3)a cursory glance at the schedule. Validate or debunk for us.

PM: There’s no doubt that you’ve nailed the typical preseason-ranking criteria: how you did last year, whether your big names return (at the major positions) and what schedule you play this year. That’s really all most people focus on when filling out an early poll.

Now, about Northwestern. The Wildcats are currently No. 17 in the Coaches Poll. A win over Mississippi State would make NU 10-3. There’s every reason to think that a win over MSU would move NU up at least two spots, seeing that at least two teams in the 10-16 range will lose during bowl play. But getting ahead of No. 15 will be tough, unless teams like Clemson and Oklahoma get their doors blown off. At the very worst, NU wins and stays in the 15-17 range.

Based on what we were talking about above, a team that wins 10 games, finishes in the top 17 or so, returns a number of “name players” and has a winnable 2013 schedule should definitely be in the top 25 conversation heading into the spring and summer.

(I hesitate to say “everyone’s top 25,” because you know there are people that are going to over-rank power programs at the expense of more deserving teams.)

LTP: How much lift do you believe a full 9 months of Top 25ish perception would do for Northwestern as it relates to the fact so many CFB writers are now year-round guys. Have you ever looked in to what this does for the non-traditional teams?

PM: I can say that for non-BCS conference teams, heading into the spring and summer with some “juice” among national writers can be huge. Think about Louisiana Tech from this past offseason. The Bulldogs closed strong in 2011 and had some momentum heading into the year. Being on the tips of writers’ tongues was what allowed Tech to make such a quick move into the BCS conversation. They weren’t starting from scratch, in other words.

And as we all know, it’s virtually impossible to make a run to the BCS when coming out of left field. So for a team like Northwestern – or any team with big-time goals – it’s vital to be in the conversation before the season rolls around.

NU would be in that boat. Start in the 20-25 area, beat California, Western Michigan and Syracuse early and make a move into the big leagues before kicking off Big Ten play against Ohio State.

LTP: How much have you seen of either Northwestern or Mississippi State this season? Assuming you’ve seen more of the Bulldogs than I have, can you offer any insights not easily gleaned from their pillow soft schedule or the NCAA stats?

 PM: To me, the first thing that stands out about NU in 2012 is the explosiveness on offense, especially in the running game. The 2011 team just couldn’t rip off long runs on the ground; outside of Nebraska and Braxton Miller-led Ohio State, I don’t think any team in the Big Ten did so better than the Wildcats this fall.

But the big story was the defense. Was this the best defense of Fitzgerald’s tenure? It’s right up there with 2008, and given how NU played three of the Big Ten’s top four offenses during the regular season, you could probably make the case that it was his best thus far. A younger group that really came together – something for the staff to be proud of.

Not that anyone is, but it wouldn’t pay to sleep on Mississippi State. Easy schedule, collapse down the stretch? No question. But the Bulldogs are going to rebound over these 15 December practices, I assure you. There are few teams hungrier than the Bulldogs to get back on the field.

The key to stopping MSU is pretty simple. The offense is extremely dangerous when it does enough on the ground to open up the passing game on untraditional downs – like when it can throw on first down or second-and-short. But as good as quarterback Tyler Russell is, the offense struggles when put into have-to-pass situations. Stop Perkins on first down, force Russell into third-and-long, success.

MSU is a very solid team. Not a great team, but definitely a tough opponent for Northwestern. What do they have over NU? I hate to reinforce this generalization, but the Bulldogs are a faster team. What NU has in its corner is a firm knowledge of what it wants to do on both sides of the ball. MSU is still searching for some answers. One thing the Wildcats should not do (keep note, quarterbacks): don’t throw at cornerback Johnathan Banks.

LTP: The bowl losing streak. Legit concern for media perception or overblown by the oversensitive purple folk like myself?

PM: Nine in a row means nothing to me at all. I don’t focus on that, nor discuss it, and I know the current team and staff doesn’t think of either. (Though I’m sure Fitzgerald still thinks about the Rose Bowl.) What matters to me is 0-4, which is Fitzgerald’s bowl record since taking over in 2006.

That’s a streak that needs to end – if not for the current players, than for this current staff and program. We’re not at Cubs-World-Series-streak level here, but the Wildcats do need to win a bowl game. Heading into the offseason on a high note could work wonders for this team.

LTP: As you look at 2013, what do you see for Northwestern? ‘Cats fans see the loss of the left side of the OL and a whole lot of optimism with potential Heisman candidate Venric Mark, and a much improved defense with young talent pushing at every major position. ‘Cats fans are looking for falling skies, though, as we’ve been miserable sans 1996 when it comes to seasons with any hint of major expectations (see: 2001, 2011)?

PM:  I feel a high degree of anticipation tempered by the idea that yes, Northwestern did really fall short of my expectations the last time I thought this team would do something special, back in 2011. Why should next season be any different?

Well, I think a hurdle has been passed on offense, especially in the running game. Few teams have one player like Mark, let alone a player like Mark to go with one like Kain Colter. I think the offensive line exceeded my expectations in 2012. Whether that group takes another step forward next season hinges on the development of those young guys. Is someone like Paul Jorgensen going to move into a starting role next year? Either way, the underclassmen need to be ready to go come spring ball.

And I mentioned the defense, which had a nice year by almost any measurement. The Wildcats need a shutdown cornerback, for sure. But if NU replaces those seniors along the front seven there’s no reason why this defense can’t be better in 2013. The defense as a whole pretty much fits what I thought about NU heading into the year: I thought they’d be better in 2013. The group was a bit ahead of schedule, even if there are some areas the staff needs to address.

A couple of things Northwestern needs to continue to do well: win the turnover battle, play well on the road, win on special teams (including the kicking game) and converting on third down. (Obviously, keeping Mark and Colter healthy is another major priority.)

A couple of areas where Northwestern needs to do improve: playing in October, getting the ball downfield in the passing game, running between the tackles, getting off the field on third down and getting to the quarterback.

LTP: We recently posted the coaching carousel impact on NU from both an opponent factor and potential recruiting challenge perspective.  What’s your handicap of the best and worst coaching moves so far?

PM: Does Barry Alvarez count? Because that’s the best “hire” in the Big Ten so far. The strangest is a tie between Bret Bielema to Arkansas and Bobby Petrino to Western Kentucky – though both guys are winners, so you can’t fault either school for reaching out.

Seriously, I think the best hire is Trent Miles at Georgia State. He’s going to do an amazing job. In terms of more major jobs, I think the best hire is former Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart at South Florida. He fits the bill across the board.

No hire is bad until the coach walks out and goes 2-10, so we’re safe for a bit. If there’s one that makes me scratch my head, however, it’s Sean Kugler at UTEP. Nothing against Kugler, who worked with Chris Petersen at Boise State and graduated from UTEP. But I thought UTEP should have gone with a coach with stronger experience, whether it be Dan Hawkins or Mark Mangino. Now watch Kugler win 10 games right off the bat.

LTP: Paul, we really appreciate the insights and national perspective. We look forward to checking back with you after bowl season and seeing how some of these points play out.

  • “No hire is bad until the coach walks out and goes 2-10, so we’re safe for a bit.”

    Thanks, Paul, for the subtle Beckman/Illini dig at the end of your Q&A.

  • FloridAlum

    I loved reading PreSnapRead, and, as usual, I always enjoy Mr. Myerberg’s comments about college football.

  • Ron

    Yes, will definitely miss PreSnapRead, but he has brought a new reader to USA Today. Hope they allow him to continue what he does best. Thanks for the post, LTP.

  • Stuff

    Loved your presnapread Paul, but can you talk to the US Today layout people? It is really tough to follow the format and it is pretty difficult to follow you specifically at US Today. Tend to just use google to find your articles.

  • CM

    Great piece, Paul and LTP! One of the best writers in the business!

  • Daniel

    I dont want to be a uniform nerd but that picture is confusing me. From what I remember the ‘Cats wore their black jerseys twice the season- Nebraska and Illinois, and both times they wore the black ‘Cat’ helmets as well. In the picture they are wearing black unis with the regular purple helmets. Am i missing something?

    • From Nebraska game

      • Daniel

        ok thanks

    • Wildcats99

      I think they wore regular helmets in the pre-game warm up for the Nebraska game and then switched to the black helmets for the actual game

  • KY Wildcat

    Great post LTP! Biggest coaching worry is at Western…praying for a real repentance, but heard lots of lies earlier at U of L…