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Stewart Mandel inside.c.football

The Weekend Review

Debate over toughest conference -- SEC or ACC -- has turned into a joke

Posted: Sunday September 19, 2004 9:10PM; Updated: Tuesday September 21, 2004 1:39PM
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Tennessee celebrates
With a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks at the helm, Tennessee pulled off a wild win over Florida Saturday.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
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Date Matchup
Oct. 2 LSU at Georgia
  Auburn at Tennessee
Oct. 9 Tennessee at Georgia
  LSU at Florida
Oct. 30 Florida vs. Georgia
Nov. 13 Georgia at Auburn

The debate stoked by Southern football fans all summer long seems fairly hilarious now. The question -- you remember it -- was, which will be the better conference, the SEC or the new ACC?

Laugh all you want, but some people took it pretty seriously. One major publication, in its season-preview issue, went so far as to rate the Miami/Virginia Tech-injected ACC as the top conference in the country. After all, it's hard to beat a league that boasts two of the most dominant programs of the past couple of decades (Miami and Florida State).

Well, let's take a look at what we've learned about the new ACC these first few weeks. Miami is indeed dominant, particularly on defense, but remains an enigma due to its quarterback. Ditto Florida State. And Virginia could well be an elite team, but hasn't played anyone yet. After that, the conference takes a pretty sizeable step down.

Now, what did we learn about the SEC on Saturday? That there are four potential top-10 teams, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Tennessee, separated by the hair of a missed extra point here, an ill-timed personal foul there. And, oh yeah, Georgia is ranked higher than any of them.

Two fantastic games at Jordan-Hare and Neyland Stadiums showcased a highly competitive league that's going to be a whole lot of fun to watch play out. Would you believe that in just two weeks, Auburn visits Tennessee and Georgia hosts LSU? And that the week after that, the Vols meet Georgia while Florida hosts LSU? How are they going to top the two thrillers that stole the show Saturday?

The first one, LSU-Auburn, played out just as I thought it might, with Auburn's new-and-improved offense battling tooth and nail with LSU's outstanding defense. Not many defenses are going to be able to hold the combination of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, nevertheless an inspired Jason Campbell, to three points through 59 minutes, but that's how good Nick Saban's defense is. Unfortunately, the Bayou Bengals' offense is a bit too young right now -- not just at quarterback but also receiver and a couple of offensive line spots -- to be as complete a team as last year's championship version. They should get better as the year goes along.

Youth, however, doesn't seem to be a hindrance for the Vols, who -- time to swallow some pride -- I was way, way, waaaay wrong about. You would have figured Tennessee's offense, mediocre to begin with the past couple of seasons, would struggle mightily with two freshman QBs at the helm. On the contrary, Phillip Fulmer seems to have more confidence in his offense than he has in years, as evidenced against Florida when he went for it on fourth and 6 from his own 47, down 28-21 with 5:22 remaining. Erik Ainge proceeded to complete a 32-yard pass on the play to Tony Brown, one of several receivers who seem to have improved by leaps and bounds since last season.

If Tennessee has an Achilles' heel, it's their rebuilt secondary, which Florida QB Chris Leak shredded in his finest performance to date. In fact, both the Vols and Gators are a few steps behind Auburn and LSU on the defensive side of the ball. However, they have the potential to be much more explosive on offense, particularly Florida, which has a lethal combination with Leak, who has to be considered one of the top QBs in the country at this point, and running backs Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn. Leak's receivers are still letting him down at times, but they should be OK. The wild card in all this is Georgia. The belief is the Dawgs -- who so far seem intent on replicating Ohio State's win-ugly ways -- haven't shown all their cards yet, but the squad that labored to beat Marshall 13-3 Saturday would have had a hard time beating either Auburn or LSU. That said, we'll find out soon enough about Georgia -- and LSU, and Tennessee, and ...

Player of the Week

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Maurice Drew, RB, UCLA: Overshadowed in his own city until now by USC's Reggie Bush and LenDale White, Drew served a reminder Saturday that the Bruins have a pretty good sophomore running back of their own. The former De La Salle standout carried 26 times for a school-record 322 yards and a Pac-10 record-tying five touchdowns in UCLA's 37-31 win at Washington. The 5-foot-8, 198-pound Drew explodes in the open field -- none of the Huskies' defenders could get a hand on him all day.

"I don't think the defense saw me the whole time, 'cause they were going different ways when I was getting the ball," Drew told reporters afterward. "Then when I think about it, [offensive tackle] Ed Blanton is 6-9 and the rest of the line is 6-6. It's kind of hard to see me because I'm 5-8."

Honor roll

Arizona State QB Andrew Walter (31-of-43, 428 yards, five touchdowns, one interception) vs. Iowa; Kansas State RB Darren Sproles (38 carries, 292 yards, one TD) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette; South Carolina WR Troy Williamson (five catches, 210 yards, touchdowns of 55, 56 and 73 yards) vs. South Florida; West Virginia CB Adam "Pac Man" Jones (two INTs, two kick returns for 64 yards) vs. Maryland; Houston RB Anthony Evans (34 carries, 282 yards, two TDs) vs. Army; Miami PR Devin Hester (two punt returns for touchdowns of 51 and 92 yards) vs. Louisiana Tech.

Team of the week

Auburn: In his press conference following Saturday's 10-9 win over LSU, Tommy Tuberville looked like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. To say the man has been put through the wringer over the past year is an understatement. In November, his bosses secretly flew to Louisville to interview a potential replacement, and while they, not Tuberville, would wind up stepping down, the noose around his neck was hardly loosened. Asked about Tuberville's job security last week, new school president Ed Richardson told an interviewer, "'Secure' is premature." Saturday's game will get the critics off Tuberville's back -- at least until the first time he messes up -- but it shows just how tenuous a line some coaches walk. His "breakthrough" was basically defined by a missed LSU extra point and a cryptic penalty. But did Auburn play any or better or worse than, say, it did in the Georgia game two years ago, when the Dawgs won on a miraculous fourth-and-16 conversion, or the Ole Miss game last year, when receiver Ben Obomanu dropped a potential game-winning touchdown? "Finally," Campbell said, "Auburn gets a break."

Gratuitous props to ...

Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit for delivering the ultimate redemption, making a game-winning, 50-yard field goal just moments after missing the tying extra point; North Texas freshman running back Jamario Thomas, who, in his first start in place of the injured Patrick Cobbs, last year's NCAA rushing leader, gained 247 yards against Colorado; Maine, which, in its first game against a I-A opponent in 13 years, knocked off Mississippi State 9-7; and Oklahoma freshman RB Adrian Peterson, who is managing to live up to every bit of the hype, rushing for 183 yards on 24 carries against Oregon for his third straight 100-yard game.

Hello, world

Erik Ainge, QB, Tennessee: In a game that's seen such quarterbacks as Peyton Manning, Danny Wuerffel and Heath Shuler, Ainge delivered as memorable a performance as any in the Vols' dramatic 30-28 win over Florida -- and he was playing in just his second collegiate game. After rotating for three quarters with classmate Brent Schaeffer, the freshman from Portland, Ore., took over in the fourth quarter, leading three scoring drives to finish 16-of-24 passing for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Ainge showed incredible poise and precision, his 23-yard touchdown pass to Bret Smith early in the fourth quarter thrown into the only crevice where it wouldn't have been picked off. Though not as physically gifted as Florida counterpart Chris Leak, who himself had a tremendous game, nor as flashy as Schaeffer, Ainge has the moxie, and appears to be a perfect fit for the Vols' system.

Radar watch

A quick look at a few teams no one seems to be talking about but probably should be:

Arizona State (3-0): After a year-plus absence, Dirk Koetter's high-tech offense returned to the scene in dramatic form Saturday, with Walter leading a 44-7 rout of an Iowa team that came in with a renowned defense and had beaten the Sun Devils 21-2 last year.

Oklahoma State (3-0): How did the Cowboys go about replacing the dynamic passing tandem of Josh Fields and Rashaun Woods? By becoming an absolutely dominant running team. Led by Vernand Morency, OSU is averaging 333.7 yards per game on the ground.

Colorado (3-0): You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but instead, the Buffs keep winning. Though their defense was torched yet again against North Texas, the offense came alive, with QB Joel Klatt throwing for 371 yards in a 52-24 victory.

Virginia Tech (2-1): Expected to struggle in their first year in the ACC, the young Hokies are quietly making a statement, having followed up their close season-opening loss to No. 1 USC with merciless whitewashings of Western Michigan (63-0) and Duke (41-17).

Blame it on the video games

You've got to give it to Bobby Bowden. Even at 74, the man still manages to have his finger on the pulse of society when it comes to behavioral trends. Expressing his feelings about the home crowd booing star-crossed quarterback Chris Rix when he came on the field for the first time in Saturday's 34-7 win over UAB, Bowden told the Tallahassee Democrat: "That's them dadgum playmaker experts or whatever they are ... what's that game everybody plays? ... PlayStation. They're PlayStation All-Americans up there. They think they know football because they happen to see [it on a video] game. ... It'd be like me watching Dr. Kildare and thinking I can operate on a brain."

Dr. Kildare, for those from the uninformed PlayStation generation (myself included), was a TV series in the 1960s.

Memphis miracle

By just looking at the box score, you'd see that 25th-ranked Memphis beat Arkansas State 47-35 and think nothing of it. In reality, it took an improbable, last-minute comeback for the BCS-aspiring Tigers to avoid losing to a Sun Belt team that was routed 53-3 the week before by LSU. Playing in front of a packed house of 30,427 in Jonesboro, Ark., Memphis trailed 35-26 when it took over on its own 29 with 3:56 left in the game. First, QB Danny Wimprine led the Tigers on an eight-play drive, culminating in a nine-yard touchdown pass to Tavares Gideon, in a little more than a minute. Then, on a third and five with 2:30 left, Scott Vogel sacked Indians QB Danny Noce, causing him to fumble. Linebacker Tim Goodwell recovered it and ran 10 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Finally, for the icing on the cake, Vogel intercepted Noce -- who had thrown for 418 yards on the day -- two plays later and, four DeAngelo Williams runs after that, the Tigers had their third touchdown in a 1:45 span.

''That was a good win for us,'' Memphis coach Tommy West said. ''I'm not going to apologize for winning."

Five wide

1. The biggest shocker of the week may have come before the games were even played, when Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops booted All-Big 12 defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek off the team following an incident that left his former high school teammate in intensive care for five days. A pattern of violent behavior, which came to light just last Thursday due to the Daily Oklahoman's reporting, caused Stoops to beef up what had initially been a suspension.

The stepfather of two young men the 6-3, 300-pound Dvoracek allegedly beat up in a 2002 dispute over a keg of beer told the paper, "My kids are scared of Dvoracek, I'll tell you that right now. They don't want to be beaten up by him again."

With a makeshift rotation of Carl Pendleton, Lynn McGruder and Remi Ayodele playing in Dvoracek's absence, the Sooners' defensive front played fine against Oregon, but watch out down the road.

2. Considering the seemingly unprecedented rash of missed extra points and other seismic choke-jobs by kickers, there may not be a more valuable player in the country than Ohio State's Mike Nugent. A week after hitting the game-winning, 55-yard field goal to beat Marshall, Nugent went 5-for-5 (from 50, 47, 46, 33 and 30 yards) on a soaking-wet field in the Buckeyes' 22-14 win over N.C. State. Nugent has been doing this for three years now, earning All-America honors in 2002 when he hit 25 of 28 attempts and following it up with a 16-of-19 junior season and 8 of 9 so far this year (the only miss coming from 50 yards). Is it any coincidence that during the same time span Ohio State, despite often struggling terribly on offense (it managed just 137 yards against the Wolfpack), is 28-2?

3. The Tommy Bowden resurrection has ground to a halt. The sixth-year Clemson coach, who escaped near-certain termination last year with a triumphant late-season run (crushing Florida State, South Carolina and Tennessee), is likely feeling the heat again after his team lost 27-6 at Texas A&M to drop to 1-2 -- this on the heels of a heartbreaking last-second loss to Georgia Tech. Making matters worse, the next two weeks bring trips to both Florida State and Virginia, with a visit to Miami later on. It's probably going to get worse before it gets better. For his part, Bowden signed an offseason extension through 2010, with a $4 million buyout, but at a school that practically invented the fat-cat booster, it's hardly iron-clad security.

4. Is there a more wildly up-and-down team in the country than Georgia Tech? A week after pulling out a dramatic win at then 20th-ranked Clemson, in which QB Reggie Ball showed the beginnings of something special, the Jackets were waxed by previously dreadful North Carolina, 34-13. A Tar Heels defense that had allowed 94 points and nearly 1,000 yards in their first two games picked off Ball three times -- their first interceptions in 11 games -- and held him to 12-of-29 passing for 164 yards. The performance echoes a trend dating back to last year, when Chan Gailey's team beat the likes of Auburn, N.C. State and Maryland and nearly upset Florida State, while also managing to lose 41-17 to Duke, 39-3 to Clemson and 24-13 to BYU.

5. Poor Brodie Croyle. Things just have not worked out as planned for the former all-everything recruit. The son of former Alabama defensive end John Croyle, Brodie grew up dreaming of leading the Tide to glory. Instead, he has weathered three coaching transitions, a two-year, NCAA-sanctioned bowl ban, a shoulder injury that limited his effectiveness last year and now an ACL injury that ended what was shaping up to be a promising junior season (a 66.7 completion percentage, six TDs, no INTs) after just three games. Miami transfer Marc Guillon will take over in Croyle's absence.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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