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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

A disappointing list

At midseason, here are college football's top 10 underachieving teams

Posted: Tuesday October 19, 2004 1:23PM; Updated: Wednesday October 20, 2004 10:59AM
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  Charlie Whitehurst
Charlie Whitehurt and the Tigers, once nationally ranked, are now just fighting to salvage a winning season.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

With the release of the first BCS standings on Monday, the great collegiate debate over who is best qualified to play for the national championship has begun. But a lot can change between now and December, so rather than weigh the virtues of Miami vs. Oklahoma, let's turn the spotlight on those underachievers who already are out of the national title race.

Here are my top 10 unpleasant surprises of the midseason, in alphabetical order. These aren't the dregs of I-A, but rather teams slipping a notch or two, like recent national champs LSU and Ohio State. Or a free-falling Penn State. Or maybe a school in which the coach has a fresh, fat, contract but his team's expectations were higher than the middle of the pack.

Central Florida (0-6): After giving $700,000-a-year deal to new coach George O'Leary, no one envisioned a perfect season, but hanging out in the MAC cellar before heading off to the Conference USA wasn't supposed to be in the cards. That's not to say O'Leary won't eventually take the program to the big-time. And it was OK to be blown out by Wisconsin and West Virginia, but the real stinker was a 48-20 loss against Buffalo.

Clemson (2-4): They wanted Tommy Bowden to return his playbook and country club membership last fall before the Tigers saved his job and landed him a new contract with a few big, late-season wins. Now you wonder what the faithful are thinking. Bowden's Tigers are 1-3 in the ACC with games left against Miami and N.C. State. And quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who last season resembled a pro in the making, has thrown six TD passes against 13 INTs.

Kansas State (2-4): In the days before Bill Snyder hunkered down in Manhattan, Kan., a couple of wins by mid-season -- even against cupcakes like Western Kentucky and Louisiana Lafayette -- would be reason to celebrate. It was bad enough that the Wildcats were manhandled by Fresno State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma this season, but losing to Kansas was too much like old times. And wasn't diminutive RB Darren Sproles a Heisman Trophy favorite during August two-a-days?

LSU (4-2): This isn't an ugly outfit, but the expectations were high coming off a national championship and with Nick "$1 more'' Saban becoming the highest-paid coach in the college game. The Tigers' winning record is probably a blessing. Some late-game heroics earned them a win against Florida (24-21), and Oregon State (22-21 in OT) handed them a gift by missing three extra points, including the decisive shank in OT.

"I think the quarterback issue [Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell splitting the gig] is a little bit more of a problem than they thought it was going to be,'' said CBS college football analyst Todd Blackledge. "And also the guys that they lost off of last year's defensive team were quality players and real leaders. It's just not the same looking team as it was a year ago.''

Marshall (3-3): This is another case in which the expectations exceed the talent level, especially with no Chad Pennington or Randy Moss on board. Give the Herd credit for keeping it close against Ohio State (24-21) and Georgia (13-3), but an upset loss to Troy (17-15) hurt. And while the three conference Ws are nice, they haven't been blowouts, either.

Maryland (3-3): Before his alma mater took a chance on him, Ralph Friedgen was lucky if he could line up a job interview. Now, his contract has been upgraded to $1.5 million a year and he's doing a national TV spots for Under Armour. But while his reputation and bank account soar, his inexperienced team is struggling in the improved ACC. The Terps' quarterback play is spotty, at best. And their three Ws have come against the likes of Northern Illinois, Temple and Duke.

Nebraska (4-2): Ex-NFL boss Bill Callahan trucked the West Coast offense to the Heartland, but no one in Big Red Country can explain the 70-10 thrashing by Texas Tech (which is actually nice to see after years of the Huskers mercilessly running up the score). Would Southern Miss have strolled out of Lincoln with a W if Tom Osborne were still in charge? Or even Frank Solich? None of Nebraska's wins have come against a ranked opponent, and it has a tough road ahead with Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas State and Colorado still to play.

Ohio State (3-3): The expression goes that it's better to be lucky than good, and the Buckeyes have been both under Jim Tressel. But after pulling out some tough non-conference wins over Marshall and N.C. State, Ohio State is 0-3 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1988.

Penn State (2-4): Pointing a finger at Joe Paterno isn't easy, but even after some down years, Nittany Lions fan expected better. Their two wins are almost meaningless, coming against Akron (3-4) and Central Florida (0-6). To the Lions' credit, their four losses came in hard-fought games against solid competition -- Boston College (21-7), Wisconsin (16-3), Minnesota (16-7) and Purdue (20-13) -- but Iowa is on tap this Saturday, and you wonder if Penn State is capable of mustering any offense.

"I really thought that they would rebound this year,'' said Blackledge, a former star Penn State quarterback. "It looks like defensively they are playing pretty well, but they are struggling on offense. It is disappointing to me to look at the Big Ten standings and see them at the bottom.''

Washington (1-5): Who thought the Huskies could sink so far, so fast? A few years ago this was a prominent national program but now it occupies the Pac-10 outhouse, and the stench will only get worse after a trek south this weekend to play USC. A telling stat is that the Huskies' trio of quarterbacks has thrown 11 INTs but just five TDs. It seems as if every beleaguered program crying for a W has drilled UW, ranging from Notre Dame (38-3), to Stanford (27-13) to Oregon State (29-14).

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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