Posted: Sunday September 18, 2011 7:51PM ; Updated: Monday September 19, 2011 12:30PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>COLLEGE FOOTBALL OVERTIME

Oklahoma proves D is key after all; realignment latest; more Overtime

Story Highlights

Year of the Shootout? Nation's top teams are winning with smothering defense

Texas, Notre Dame back in realignment spotlight in wake of Pitt, Syracuse moves

Plus: Georgia Tech's winning formula, Oregon's savvy move, FIU's streak, more

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A Sooner statement
Source: SI
Road test passed. A smothering defense helped No. 1 Oklahoma prevail over No. 5 Florida State, 23-13, in Tallahassee.

Seeing as the most memorable images from the season's first two weekends were Robert Griffin III shredding TCU's defense and Denard Robinson throwing jump balls against Notre Dame, I led last Wednesday's Mailbag by asking whether this could be the Year of the Shootout. After LSU recorded 15 tackles for loss against Mississippi State the following evening, it quickly became apparent the answer was no.

Plenty of quarterbacks were throwing against air Saturday (see Griffin's 20-of-22 stat line against Stephen F. Austin), but it became clear this weekend that the games that matter most will not be defined by a player like Cam Newton or an offense like Oregon's. If anything, the definitive, albeit gruesome, image from Week 3 was Florida State receiver Kenny Shaw getting leveled by cornerback Javon Harris and linebacker Tom Wort while trying to snag a possible touchdown catch. (Harris was flagged for a personal foul.)

Thankfully, "Kenny is fine," 'Noles coach Jimbo Fisher said after Shaw returned from a local hospital and walked along the sideline. But by game's end, the top-ranked Sooners had delivered both a 23-13 victory over the No. 5 Seminoles and a message that their defense is every bit as scary as Landry Jones and their offense.

Buoyed by the surprise return of star linebacker Travis Lewis, Oklahoma held FSU (which lost quarterback E.J. Manuel to a shoulder injury in the third quarter) to 246 total yards, notched six sacks and forced three turnovers. FSU's touted defense lived up to its billing, too, holding Jones to his lowest passing night (199 yards) in nearly two years. But after the 'Noles tied the game with 9:32 left on a 56-yard Clint Trickett touchdown pass to Rashad Greene -- one of OU's few defensive breakdowns all night -- Jones immediately responded with a 37-yard scoring strike of his own to the acrobatic Kenny Stills, and Harris notched his second pick shortly thereafter.

"We won ugly, but that's OK," said Jones. "That's what No. 1 teams do."

The Sooners weren't alone in winning ugly. No. 2 LSU is turning it into an art. Les Miles' Tigers followed up their impressive defensive showing against then third-ranked Oregon with a terrifyingly dominant performance against normally productive Mississippi State. Five days after rushing for 333 yards against Auburn, the Bulldogs -- who have lost two starting offensive linemen the past two games -- managed just 52 in SI Videoa 19-6 loss to the Bayou Bengals. Quarterback Chris Relf became so sloppy amid the relentless onslaught of LSU defenders like Bennie Logan (3.5 tackles for loss) and Michael Brockers (three TFLs) that coach Dan Mullen eventually pulled him for sophomore Tyler Russell. On Russell's second series, LSU sacked him for a 10-yard loss on first down before Morris Claiborne intercepted him.

Meanwhile, oft-maligned quarterback Jarrett Lee threw one interception but was otherwise solid enough (21-of-27 for 213 yards and a pretty 19-yard touchdown pass to Reuben Randle) given how his defense was dominating. Though according to Brockers, the Tigers weren't dominant enough. "It's scary to think what we could do if we run stuff right and play with better technique," he said -- and it is indeed a frightening possibility.

Elsewhere Saturday, Will Muschamp's Florida Gators showed a national audience that their defense is quickly regaining its swagger in holding Tyler Bray and Tennessee to 279 total yards -- including minus-nine rushing yards -- in SI Videoa 33-23 win. Miami, helped by the return of suspended stars such as linebacker Sean Spence, held Ohio State to four -- yes, four -- completed passes in SI Videoa 24-6 win. And lest you think defensive dominance was limited to the obvious parties, Illinois turned in one of the day's most impressive showings in sacking Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler six times and intercepting him twice in SI Videoa 17-14 win over the No. 22 Sun Devils.

As we turn our attention to Week 4, two intriguing matchups could help settle which team has the best defense in the country.

Right now the popular pick is LSU, and understandably so after the Tigers shut down two potent offenses in the first three weeks. But we've yet to see the first real test for another logical candidate, No. 3 Alabama. (If you thought Penn State was a test, you didn't suffer through the Nittany Lions' 14-10 win over Temple on Saturday.) That changes this weekend when Courtney Upshaw and the Tide host No. 14 Arkansas, which has averaged 517.3 yards per game against three patsies. Meanwhile it's no rest for the Tigers, who visit No. 16 West Virginia. Geno Smith, SI Videowho threw for 388 yards against Maryland on Saturday, may be the best passer LSU faces all season.

Prefer high-scoring offenses? I recommend Oklahoma State-Texas A&M. The winner of this week's lone matchup of Top 10 teams will score no fewer than five touchdowns. Prefer bone-crushing sacks and gravity-defying interceptions? The nation's current top three teams will keep delivering plenty of both.

The landscape shifts

Syracuse and Pitt leaving for the ACC could threaten Notre Dame's relationship with the Big East.
Syracuse and Pitt leaving for the ACC could threaten Notre Dame's relationship with what remains of the Big East.
Alan Schwartz/Cal Sport Media

Somewhere out there is a Pitt or Syracuse alum who took a weekend jaunt to Europe, turned off his phone, turned it back on upon returning Sunday night and found out his school was now a member of the ACC.

In sharp contrast to the painfully prolonged SEC-Texas A&M courtship, the ACC's move to 14 happened so quickly and secretly -- Pete Thamel of The New York Times first reported the possibility Friday night, and it was official by Sunday morning -- that it caught the college football world completely off guard. Embarrassingly, Big East commissioner John Marinatto was among those in the dark; he found out Saturday morning that two of his oldest members had applied elsewhere.

In a teleconference Sunday morning, ACC commissioner John Swofford said a committee of league presidents, athletic directors and faculty reps have been "evaluating the landscape" for a year-and-a-half, but decided only last week to pursue expansion. "Up to this point, our conclusions had been to continue to stay at 12," he said. He also claimed the move was not a "reaction" to events elsewhere, but are we really to believe it's a coincidence the conference suddenly decided to add two marginally relevant football programs at the same time its neighbors in the SEC are looking to expand?

In fact, the on-field ramifications of the Pitt and Syracuse moves are so inconsequential to anyone but the Pinstripe Bowl selection committee that it's far more interesting to contemplate the possible effects on two bigger fish: Texas and Notre Dame.

Before this weekend's developments, I was told that Texas to the ACC "was not dead," as AD DeLoss Dodds searched frantically for a post-Big 12 landing spot that would allow his Longhorn Network to continue. When I first heard the Pitt/Syracuse news, I figured it must be part of some bigger package deal to entice UT.

Not so. According to Chip Brown of Orangebloods.com -- the ultimate authority on all things Texas realignment -- the school was as stunned by the news as the rest of us because discussions with the ACC had apparently broken down. Judging by Swofford's apathetic comments Sunday in answering a question about a hypothetical school with its own television network, it seems the ACC balked at a school-sponsored channel, too.

So now it appears Dodds and Co. may reluctantly head west after all, even if it means folding LHN into the Pac-12's regional network model. Assuming Oklahoma's regents decide Monday to green light their own move to the Pac-12 (along with Oklahoma State) as expected, the Pac-16 could come to fruition some 15 months after Larry Scott's dream plan first went public, and the Big 12 will officially cease to be salvageable.

If anything, all signs point to some sort of merger between the Big East and the Big 12 leftovers. And that's where Notre Dame's status becomes a question.

Irish AD Jack Swarbrick has said repeatedly that the school's priority is to remain a football independent, but first conceded in March 2010 that "seismic change" could "force its hand." Translation: The school needs the Big East to remain a viable home for its other sports.

As of today, the Big East does not yet seem in imminent danger. If anything, it now makes more sense than ever for that conference to pursue Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri to replace its two departing basketball powers. The problem is, no one believes the ACC will stay at 14 for long. Maryland AD Kevin Anderson indicated as much in a statement Sunday, saying he "look[s] forward to discussions about the future of the league and would encourage a future expansion." Swofford, meanwhile, said: "We're not philosophically opposed to 16."

Two more Big East schools, Connecticut and Rutgers, now appear to be jockeying for those 15th and 16th ACC spots as that league continues its newfound quest to own the entire Eastern Seaboard. If they leave, too, the questions become: At what point will the Big East no longer be palatable to Notre Dame? And would Swarbrick place his first call to the Big Ten's Jim Delany (the one commissioner who's continually maintained ambivalence about the latest expansion mania and in fact spent Saturday golfing) or to Swofford, whose league quietly held discussions with Notre Dame back in 2003 about the possibility of joining as a partial member.

Anything and everything is possible in this endlessly puzzling game of musical chairs. On Sunday, Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg put on his academic hat and tried to claim the school's ACC move was somehow related to tissue engineering and Alzheimer's research. I'll believe almost anything at this point, but not that.

 
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