The “This Fall Belongs to Ball” tagline was meant to be promotional.
It was a Heisman-hype ploy by Wisconsin’s athletic department for superstar Montee Ball, a running back breaking names and taking records – even those of past greats like Barry Sanders. He tied Sanders’ 24-year-old NCAA record with 39 total touchdowns in 2011. He was a Heisman finalist, the toast of Madison.
Ball chose to return for his senior year during the offseason, bypassing the NFL Draft to work at his craft and give himself ample time to claim some additional records. His team was set to be a national contender yet again, and he would be its leading actor with Russell Wilson now playing quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks
But then, summer trouble struck. As the season got under way, Wisconsin lost twice, eliminating any shot at a BCS bowl or Ball’s storybook ride into the NFL sunset. To make matters worse, he suffered a concussion and was quiet against lackluster competition – rushing for just 360 yards and three touchdowns through four games – and plummeted out of the September Heisman race.
But this fall might indeed still belong to the Badgers’ scoring machine. In his last three games, he has amassed 456 rushing yards and eight scores against Big 10 opponents. For his efforts, Ball has reaffirmed his position among the elites – he is now third all-time on the NCAA’s all-time touchdowns list. He needs just seven more to pass Travis Prentice and set the national record.
Montee Ball is healthy. His offensive line is much improved under interim position coach Bart Miller. He’s regained his footing. He’s back.
In other words: BALL SO HARD.
STIFF ARM SUSPECTS
Geno Smith, West Virginia, QB: After the panic surrounding West Virginia’s loss subsided, and the bandwagon was evacuated, Smith still wore the top Suspect title belt. Yes, his team lost a road game in ugly fashion. But he’s still accounted for 26 touchdowns in six games. He still has not thrown a pick in his last 312 attempts (and counting). The gap has narrowed, but it was the Grand Canyon just a week ago. Next game: Kansas State
Braxton Miller, Ohio State, QB: Urban Meyer may not be thrilled with his team’s defensive effort, but Miller’s Heisman campaign has been boosted by the Buckeyes’ necessity for points galore. Following a surprise 52-49 nail-biter against Indiana, Miller has now accounted for at least 300 yards of offense in five games this season. Oh yeah, he’s also sixth nationally in rushing (912 yards). Expect more highlights from “The Eraser” against the defenseless Boilermakers. Next game: Purdue
Manti Te’o, Notre Dame, LB: Controversial goal line stand included, Notre Dame’s surefire All-American is the most consistently impactful defensive player in the country. When a flawed yet still undefeated Irish squad needs a play, it always seems to be Te’o hovering in the area. He’s averaging nearly 10 tackles a game. His three interceptions are tied for fourth-most nationally. And he means everything to a team that is starting to taste BCS glory. Next game: BYU
Raising Suspicion: Collin Klein (Kansas State); Damontre Moore (Texas A&M); Kenjon Barner (Oregon); Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M); Stefphon Jefferson (Nevada); Mike Gillisliee (Florida); DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson); Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech); Montee Ball (Wisconsin)
THE FIFTH WATCH
LSU at Texas A&M: With the Aggies’ own compliance department making corn dog jokes at LSU’s expense, this could be the budding of a new SEC rivalry. Texas A&M, a league newcomer, dominated this series in the early ‘90s, but things have changed. LSU plays defense these days – to the tune of 16 forced turnovers, so Johnny Manziel needs to be cautious. He was solid against Florida in the team’s opener, but will this game yield a similar result? Pick: LSU
Kansas State at West Virginia: Optimus Klein vs. Air Geno. This should be a joyride for college football fans, with the vehicle speeding up and slowing down as these offenses alternate possessions. Both teams have played six games, but the Mountaineers have ran nearly 100 more plays than the slow-it-down Wildcats (379, eighth-least nationally). If Klein controls the tempo, Dana Holgorson’s offense will sputter, but expect Smith to get back on track in Morgantown. Pick: West Virginia
South Carolina at Florida: More SoCar action? Sorry folks, but despite a close loss in Death Valley, the Gamecocks still control their own fate in terms of an SEC Championship appearance. The Gators might have something to say about that. Will Muschamp’s Gainesville gobstoppers – allowing just 12.3 points per game, sixth-best nationally – are No. 2 in this week’s BCS standings, and they are just now getting back to full strength. Florida finds a way in The Swamp. Pick: Florida
Florida State at Miami: The BCS computers thought so little of Florida State, the Seminoles did not even register in their top-25. Playing two FCS opponents and losing to N.C. State will have that effect, but a win at Miami (4-3) should help. Defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine will have a field day, and, given the fact that the Hurricanes are pathetic against the run (third-worst nationally), expect Chris Thompson to inch closer to the 1,000-yard mark. Pick: Florida State
ON WATCH: The Florida party continues, as the state’s fourth-most notable program has an opportunity to knock off undefeated Louisville. The 16th-ranked Cardinals have won their past four games by just 26 points combined. If they keep playing with fire, they’ll get burned – or, that other cliché, you mess around with the Bulls you get the Beef’O’Brady’s Bowl. The quarterback faceoff between Teddy Bridgewater and B.J. Daniels is one of the best the Big East has to offer.
THIS IS WHY…
Tyrann Mathieu’s issues are deeply personal, not another source of NCAA judgment.
In the first national feature on Mathieu, the 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist who was kicked off the LSU football team (due to marijuana use), Sports Illustrated detailed life away from the spotlight for the artist still known as the Honey Badger.
It was a picture of hardship, stress, family issues, emotional baggage, clingers posing as friends and the possibility that he will become a father in January. Being Tyrann Mathieu is not a cakewalk; instead, it seems to mimic the reckless abandon he plays with. There was good news and bad news in the feature, but a cloud hung over everything, something dark that follows his story. Perhaps it’s his father serving life in prison. Perhaps it’s the pressure of becoming a national spectacle overnight.
And yes, it would not be a complete downpour in collegiate athletics without NCAA violations rumbling in the distance.
SI found that Mathieu might have committed multiple violations, some while still on the Tigers’ roster, by allowing the use of his image for promotional flyers, videos and even (gasp) illicit benefits that included being afforded free entry into a club’s VIP sections. Largely, those allegations stem from the sources of SI writers Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans, both of whom have already received pushback for their story.
But if there’s something wafting in the air, the NCAA will undoubtedly sniff around, especially if a high-profile athlete dared to allow anyone else consent to use his own image.
Here is the apparent issue: According to an NCAA bylaw, any player who "accepts any remuneration or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind" shall be declared ineligible. So when the 5-foot-9 corner was taped recommending the club’s chicken wings and fries: GOTCHA, HONEY BADGER.
Mathieu declined comment for the article, but the club’s owner, Torrey Lewis, has subsequently stated Mathieu was unaware of any use of his image for promotional use. That’s for SI and Lewis to go back and forth over, but the real question is if the NCAA should be allowed to control athletes’ images in such dictatorial fashion in the first place. The institution’s conversation should center on providing better educational opportunities for “student-athletes” and how such individual commercial opportunities can set up post-graduation funds, not how the NCAA’s free labor is taking advantage of the system.
So what if Mathieu allows himself to be video-taped on stage at a club? So what if a friend of his Photoshops his image onto a flyer, with or without his consent? And as far as impermissible benefits are concerned, Thamel and Evans write that sources told them Mathieu was admitted into clubs and VIP sections for free, a phenomenon that only takes place in every college town in the history of modern sports. Who honestly cares…other than the NCAA?
This is why the NCAA continues to stretch its authority into issues that it should have far less jurisdiction. A young football player’s tale of personal demons somehow gets shifted into whether or not he violated rule 126.96.36.199 in a rulebook that outlines the charade of amateurism, ignoring the fact that Mathieu alone generated large amounts of revenue for that rulebook’s institution just last season.
This is why Mathieu’s story cannot be viewed through the lens of that outdated rulebook, or someone’s stretched interpretation of it. We’re all promoting something – it just so happens that people listen to talented, young athletes. And this is why, especially in Tyrann Mathieu’s case, we all need to listen a little more.