Fans of the Tennessee Volunteers can be forgiven for holding some grudges. There's Lane Kiffin, obviously. The officials in last week's game against LSU who, while penalizing the Vols for having too many men on the field during what would have been the last play of the game, neglected to notice a Tigers offensive tackle emphatically throwing his helmet to the ground, which would have pushed LSU further away from the goal line for that final down. And then, there's Houston Texans running back Arian Foster.
Fantasy football sensation. The best running back, by leaps and bounds, in team history. (Sorry, Stacey Mack.) On pace to shatter the NFL's single-season rushing record through week four, Arian Foster has been the biggest surprise of the 2010 season, averaging over 134 yards and a touchdown per game.
You know who didn't see this coming? Anyone who spent four years following Foster at the University of Tennessee. A backfield staple of disappointing Tennessee offenses anchored by maddeningly inconsistent quarterback Erik Ainge, Foster was anything but eye-opening in Knoxville. Either through injury or poor play, Foster always managed to miss out on the unquestioned starting gig -- to LaMarcus Coker in 2006 and to Montario Hardesty in 2008.
Pro football seems to exist to remind college football fans of the misplaced, wasteful nature of their passion. How can anyone who follows college football explain the success of Foster? NFL scouts, who are paid to do just that, clearly could not -- Foster went undrafted in 2009.
While Foster stars, stewing on the bench is Steve Slaton -- the same back who turned in what ESPN ranked the fifth best ever BCS Bowl performance ever in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, rushed for 1,800 yards despite playing with an injured wrist in 2006, and was a frequent mention on Heisman watch-lists throughout his college career.
Similarly, few quarterbacks have ever dominated their conference as completely as Troy Smith controlled the Big 10 in 2006. Yet Smith has yet to be given a real chance to claim a starting job while the likes of Bruce Gradkowski (a 2006 6th round pick out of Toledo), Max Hall (undrafted out of BYU) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (a 2005 7th rounder out of Harvard) have all vultured their way into starting gigs this season.
Forgetting the obvious busts, what grates the most is the NFL success of players who, Saturday upon Saturday, season upon season, fail to prove themselves worthy of notice yet prove everyone wrong on Sundays. When Marshawn Lynch left the University of California after the 2006 season and went 12th overall in the draft, he took the Golden Bears' record book with him. The transition to former backup Justin Forsett the succeeding year was a clear downgrade.
How to explain, then, the fact that Forsett entered the season with a more secure starting job with the Seattle Seahawks than Lynch enjoyed with the Buffalo Bills? (Coincidentally, Lynch has since been traded to the Seahawks, reuniting him with his former college teammate in a timeshare.)
Again and again, it's proven that success in pro football is more about scheme than anything else. Is Darren McFadden, the consensus top running back in the nation in 2007, really the slouch his NFL statistics suggest him to be? Possibly, but the far more likely answer is that the Oakland Raiders lack the ability to develop talent. Ditto for the Bills, who over the past seven years have failed to exploit the talents of the following first rounders, most of whom have since been relegated to the bench or dumped for pennies on the dollar: receiver Lee Evans, safety Donte Whitner, defensive tackle John McCargo, Lynch, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, end rusher Aaron Maybin and guard Eric Wood. It doesn't take any degree of college football know-how to predict that former Clemson star C.J. Spiller -- 49 yards through four games -- is in for a rough slog.
(And, true to form, the trade of Lynch was quickly followed by Bills Coach Chan Gailey's public anointing of Fred Jackson as the starter, thus continuing the game of blocking his young star.)
Meanwhile, Bill Belichick can insert no-names into the lineup into a weekly basis and make it work, and Peyton Manning can make any undrafted free agent look like a touchdown machine, finding former Michigan State receiver Blair White -- who? -- for a touchdown pass against the Broncos in week 3.
Which is all well and good, but kind of makes me feel foolish for wasting so many of my Saturdays.
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