Medical reports will be the telling factor in how 2009 season unfolds
2009 season is familiar to 2007, when top teams were upset on a regular basis
Given the parity of today's game, injuries can quickly level the playing field
South Florida QB B.J. Daniels returns to hometown and helps slay Florida State
Football Insiders: Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
Is it just me, or is this season beginning to feel a whole lot like 2007?
You remember 2007, a.k.a. the "Year of the Upset." The year Appalachian State beat Michigan, Stanford beat USC (though this one doesn't seem so shocking anymore), 10 teams ranked No. 1 or 2 lost over the course of the year and a two-loss team (LSU) won the national title.
In 2009, Nos. 1 and 2 (Florida and Texas) remain unscathed thus far -- but they're the exception. Nine different top 10 teams have lost in the season's first four weeks, including four (Ole Miss, Penn State, Cal and Miami) this past weekend. That's a lot of upheaval.
Consider: A year ago this time, 11 of the top 13 teams in the preseason AP poll were still undefeated. This year, only four are.
The instinctive reaction is to blame the pollsters and their admittedly arbitrary preseason ballots, which unduly lionized a whole bunch of "frauds." Oklahoma. Oklahoma State. Ole Miss. USC. Penn State. Cal. Frauds, all of them.
The truth, though, is they can't all be frauds. As the season plays out, we will find some were unquestionably overrated, but that others were good teams that simply suffered an early loss. As the polls continue to fluctuate, some will eventually find themselves right back where they started. USC and Oklahoma are already back in the top 10, and preseason darling Oregon has literally come full circle, falling from a preseason No. 16 position to unranked following its opening-week train wreck at Boise State, then throttling Cal 42-3 to return to ... No. 16.
As you may recall, that's precisely how the '07 season played out, with LSU bouncing back from not just one, but two defeats to wind up national champion. It turns out there's an explanatory parallel between '07 and this season: a staggering amount of injuries to key players.
With parity what it is today, it only takes a little attrition to level the playing field between two ostensibly disparate opponents. In '07, seemingly half the LSU defense, including star tackle Glenn Dorsey, missed time over the course of the season. USC suffered a rash of injuries to its offensive line, while quarterback John David Booty broke his finger against Stanford. Oklahoma lost Sam Bradford during a late-season loss to unranked Texas Tech. Oregon was cruising until Dennis Dixon tore his ACL. West Virginia lost Pat White during both of its losses.
Fast forward to '09, when the injury bug hit right from the opening Saturday. Reigning Heisman winner Bradford separated his shoulder in Oklahoma's loss to BYU. USC lost quarterback Matt Barkley and safety Taylor Mays the week of its stunning loss to Washington. Oklahoma State running back Kendall Hunter went down during the Cowboys' loss to Houston. Thirty-one Ole Miss players contracted the flu leading up to the Rebels' loss at South Carolina.
Of course, upset victims can't use injuries as an excuse; they're part of the game. But they do remind us what a tight rope even the most talented teams walk in this age of parity.
Saturday night, Florida fans witnessed the injury scare to end all injury scares. For eight months, the Gators had been hailed as the hands-down, no-brainer national title pick, with their loaded defense and their all-everything quarterback. But as Tim Tebow lay motionless on the turf at Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium for those long, agonizing minutes Saturday night following a crushing sack by Wildcats defensive end Taylor Wyndham, nervous Gators fans presumably saw their dream season crashing before them. With all due respect to Tebow's backup, John Brantley, Florida would have gone from BCS favorite to upset-victim-waiting-to-happen with that one gruesome injury.
Thankfully for all involved, Tebow got up, walked off and has since been diagnosed with a concussion. "Tim's taken a lot of hits in his career. He's a tough nut," Gators coach Urban Meyer said after the game. Sunday morning, following the quarterback's release from a Lexington hospital, he confirmed: "Tim is doing fine."
Hopefully he's right, both for Tebow's sake and his own. Sure, the Gators throttled Kentucky 41-7 and have outscored their four opponents by a combined score of 182-29, but right now the once seemingly invincible Gators need Tebow to win.
Florida has taken its own share of hits to the roster, with receivers Andre Debose and Carl Moore likely out for the season and Deonte Thompson hobbled. Meyer admitted last week that the remaining receiving corps is "not at Florida standards."
To compensate for that, it seems the Gators have dusted off an old page from their playbook: "Run, Tebow, Run." Against Kentucky, the senior attempted just 10 passes prior to his third-quarter exit but ran 16 times for 123 yards and two scores. A week earlier against Tennessee, he notched 24 rushing attempts. The 40 combined carries mark his highest two-game total since Sept. '07.
While Tebow is long accustomed to having the ball in his hands, Florida's offense was at its sharpest last season when he spent more time distributing it. There is still plenty of time to develop new weapons, but as of now, Meyer is clearly counting on Tebow to carry the load.
Florida may well be the deepest team in the country, but as we saw Saturday night, even the Gators aren't immune to the injury bug. And as we've seen across the country, medical reports may be a more telling indicator these days than the polls.
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