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SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/15/2007 03:55:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part I

LINCOLN, Neb. -- In lieu of an incredibly uneventful slate of early games playing on the TVs here at Brewsky’s Food and Spirits (which for some reason is showing the Wisconsin-Citadel game on its biggest TV), I think I’m going to start off Saturday’s observations with a lingering thought from Friday night.

All the writers in town for tonight’s USC-Nebraska game are staying in Omaha, about an hour away, and on the recommendation of Omaha World Herald czar Tom Shatel, we dined at Jam’s, a wonderful restaurant unexpectedly tucked away in an industrial strip mall. The Oklahoma State-Troy game was playing on a TV at the bar, and every time I looked up, Troy had scored again.

Larry Blakeney’s Trojans have emerged as the first credible program to come out of the seven-year-old Sun Belt Conference, knocking off Missouri in 2004 and hanging with the likes of Arkansas, but this was their most eye-opening outing to date. Heralded QB Omar Haugabook, whom Florida coach Urban Meyer heaped praise upon following their game last week, torched the Cowboys for 371 yards on 33-of-48 passing in a 41-23 rout. Congratulations to Troy, but I want to focus for a second on Oklahoma State, specifically, how the Cowboys relate to a topic I’ve written quite a bit about lately -- the inherent flaws of preseason and early-season rankings.

As you may recall, Oklahoma State, which finished last season 7-6 following an Independence Bowl win over Alabama, was a trendy “sleeper” team coming into the season, with some even suggesting they might upset Georgia in their season opener in Athens. So when the Bulldogs spanked the Cowboys 35-14, I, like a lot of other pollsters, viewed it as an impressive showing by Georgia and moved up the Dawgs accordingly.

Fast forward to last week. South Carolina goes into Athens and knocks off that same Georgia team, albeit in ugly fashion. Obviously, this was then viewed as a huge win for the Gamecocks, which I moved from unranked up to 18th. In last week’s Power Rankings, I wrote that South Carolina’s win showed that the already touted SEC may be even deeper than imaginable.

Some of you non-SEC fans objected, suggesting I should have taken away a slightly different message: That maybe the esteemed conference isn’t as good as everyone says it is if Georgia is supposedly one of the top teams. My defense to that, at the time, would have been, “Maybe, but I doubt it, considering Georgia clobbered a respectable Big 12 team just the week before.”

Then Oklahoma State goes out and gets shellacked by Troy -- and the whole theory comes crumbling down. Maybe Georgia isn’t that great after all. (That same Troy team that waxed Oklahoma State itself got crushed by Florida and Arkansas). Maybe South Carolina isn’t that much better. Or maybe the Cowboys just had a bad night and it’s not reflective of anything.

Do you see now why trying to rank these teams based off one or two games is about as scientific as throwing darts?

∙ Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville made a point this week of vigorously defending embattled Mississippi State’s Sylvester Croom, who, he insisted, should not be on the hot seat. Perhaps now we know why. Croom’s Bulldogs stunned Tuberville’s Tigers 19-14 on Saturday, a much-needed victory for Croom over a respected SEC foe. At this rate, however, offensively inept Auburn might not be respected much longer -- they fell to 1-2 with the loss and came within a last-minute touchdown against Kansas State of being 0-3.

I had a feeling Tuberville’s recent joyride was on its last legs with Nick Saban’s arrival at Tuscaloosa -- I just didn’t think it would happen this soon.

∙ Pittsburgh fell short at Michigan State on Saturday but unleashed its star running back of the future. Much-touted freshman LeSean McCoy, a former Miami commit who spent a year at prep school, rushed 25 times for 173 yards -- including a brilliant 64-yard scamper -- in the Panthers’ 17-13 loss to the Spartans. Amidst the Big Ten’s other woes (see below), it’s worth noting that Michigan State is off to a 3-0 start under new coach Mark Dantonio.

∙ Do you think Minnesota fans are starting to miss Glen Mason? The guy may have lost his share of heartbreakers to Northwestern and Iowa -- but at least he never lost to Florida Atlantic.

∙ Finally, it’s hard to believe, but it seems fairly obvious that Syracuse has actually managed to get worse under third-year coach Greg Robinson. Illinois and Syracuse were basically in the same place three years ago when Ron Zook took over the Illini and Robinson the Orange. Zook’s progress has been evident both on and off the field, while Robinson’s has been evident apparently only to him, and Saturday Illinois went to the Carrier Dome and spanked Syracuse 41-20.

For the sake of poor, former SI.com intern and Syracuse undergrad Mallory Rubin, let’s hope Robinson either has some miracle up his sleeve, or AD Daryl Gross has some miracle replacement waiting in the wings.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments |

Comments:

Posted: 4:15 PM   by Michael
Illinois does look a lot better, but Zook needs somebody to stand next to him and tell him when he's about to make a dumb decision (see: onside kick to start the 2nd half while up 17-0!).

With other big 10 teams getting scares (and losses) from the likes of UNLV and FAU, U of I has a good chance of making a bowl this season.
Posted: 5:22 PM   by Linus
I honestly don't know how Zook manages to recruit so well. Voodoo, I guess.

He didn't recruit Tebow, did he? Because Timmy sure looks like the real deal today, huh?
Spelled Lincoln wrong.
Posted: 5:56 PM   by georgejohn
As soon as the Trojans dump a big L on the Huskers, Lincon can have its L back.
perhaps because OSU in both basketball and football have been led by pot smokers or pot dealers who who were both rejected by UNC, there may be charactor issues that crop up
Posted: 6:52 AM   by rhymeister
Yeah, my alma mater, Oklahoma State, are pretenders yet again. Sorry for the that, one of these years they'll become competitive again...but I think Georgia is still a team on the rise but the SEC is tough!!!
I say, wait a few weeks and then rank 'em. It's the only honest way ...

If you read or listened to the media, you would think that USC was the clear choice for the #1 team in the land. These Trojan guys must be plowing through
the opposition in ways untouched by other human hands. But an easy-to-do search through the latest national statistics paints a picture that clearly shows that USC is NOT the best team in the land.

Take a look for yourself @ http://sports.yahoo.com/ncaaf/stats.

After researching the four teams most media types currently grant the right to sit at the feet of the Princes of Troy -- Florida, LSU, Oklahoma and West Virginia -- one thing becomes crystal (excuse the pun) clear: one of the four "challengers" should now be #1, not USC. And it ain't even close !!!

In offensive statistics, USC stands out only in rushing yards/game (6th nationally behind #2 WVU). In all other categories, the Trojans are last of the five teams, #18 in ppg, #33 in total offense, #95 in passing offense and #21 in 3rd down %. In defensive statistics, it gets worse: USC is last in all categories (except one, its second to last): #46 in points allowed/game, #42 in total defense, #100 (!!) in passing defense, #9 in rushing defense (behind the other four teams save WVU), #67 in interceptions/game. In special teams, USC is second of the crowd of five in avg. punting, LSU being #18 in the nation (44.5) and USC #53 at 41.7. (See all of the actual stats below.)

And these stats reflect the numbers after each team (maybe save WVU) has played "statement" games.

Makes you wonder about guys like Tom Dienhart of the Sporting News, gushing the following after USC's victory over Nebraska: “The dominating victory rang even louder, resonating across the nation and making it known that this is the best team in the nation. Yes, even better than LSU, the team everyone in America had a crush on for two weeks.” (Tom, you sound a bit bitter for an "impartial" journalist ...)

On what does Dienhart base that quivering gospel? It must be something other than the stats, because, as showed above, on that front USC is running #5. Naming an actual #1 right now would be a tough debate -- probably Florida, LSU or Oklahoma -- but it CLEARLY ain't USC. So what is it that causes folks like Dienhart and all of the guys at SI, collegefootballnews, Sporting News, etc., to bow prostrate before the feet of Pete Carroll?

Hey! Maybe it is last year's muscle transposed onto this season -- due to returning starters and the like. Well, let's examine last year's USC: lost to two unranked teams. Scored single digits against UCLA, a mediocre Pac-10 team at best but one that discovered the SEC way of smothering passing games (for reference, see BCS title games in 2003, LSU v. OU, which was the best offense in the land that season, or 2006, UF v. Ohio State, the previously unstoppable Buckeye offense -- both losers were led by Heisman Trophy winning QBs). The Bruins blitzrieged JDBooty and the Trojans went nowhere fast.

What about statistically, how did USC do last year? Must have been pretty good, eh? The Troyboys finished 11-2, and as Stewart Mandel wrote in his Early Look at '07, "All but one starter return from an already dominant defense, and Booty will have a new set of stud receivers, Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton, at his disposal."

Dominant defense? USC finished #12 in the nation, allowing 14.9 ppg. LSU finished #4 (12.5 ppg), Virginia Tech (remember them, they returned 9 starters this year) finished #1 (9.3 ppg). How about total defense? Hmmm ... that would be USC at #23 (293.8 ypg allowed). LSU? #2 at 238.8 ypg. Oh yeah, Virginia Tech was #1 with 221.1 ypg allowed. How about interceptions? Nope, USC ended up stuck way down in a cluster of teams with 11 for the year, LSU had 16, Virginia Tech 17, OU 18, Florida #6 with 21. Maybe those "scary good" USC defenders were the sack-meisters of 2006, right? Nope, USC finished way down the list with 25, Florida had 36, LSU had 30 (and the Tigers brought most of those bad boys back for another season).

Well, no matter how much you hear the media globjaws slather on about USC's defense, we all know it is the ghosts of Leinart and Bush (and O.J. !!!) who carry the Trojan Tradition. The Trojan offensive conquests of 2006 yore must have been considerable, right? Nope !!! In points per game, USC came in #20 at 30.3 ppg (WVU finished #4 at 38.9 and LSU was #10 with 33.1, and WVU brought back its offensive studs for 2007 and LSU's retooled offense -- after handing three first-rounders to the big leagues -- I think has answered the question about whether Matt Flynn/Early Doucet and company can pick up where JaMarcus left off). What about total offense last year? USC was #26 at 387.9 ypg. LSU (#18) and Florida (#21) finished better.

Well, what about that whippersnapper Heisman shoo-in, JDBooty? The Troypassinggame must have shined bright in 2006 !!! Nope. Finished #17 (253.3 ypg), just ahead of LSU and Florida. Then it must have been that Tailback U thing, right? Nope ... in rushing, USC finished #60 (a measly 134.7 ypg). WVU's returning
White/Slaton horses excelled at that at #2 with 302.3 ypg.).

So what exactly is the reason USC was preseason picked #1 (for the sixth time) and is still being apologized away as the best team in the land (for the 85th time)? It's the personnel and the perception the media has of them. In its story announcing the preseason poll, AP wrote:

"These Trojans have another star quarterback in John David Booty, who could become the third USC passer to win the Heisman Trophy in the past six seasons, joining predecessors Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart."

"'He's a natural-born quarterback,'" Carroll said. "'He's got five years of experience. He's been through everything you need to be good.'"

"Booty should have plenty of options, with about a half-dozen high school all-American running backs on the roster and a slew of fast and talented receivers."

You see, it's all hat (expectation) and no cattle. Does anybody still expect Booty to make the top Heisman five? And it gets worse ...

The AP continues: "But it's the defense that makes this USC team special. The Trojans have potential All-Americans all over the field, and perhaps the nation's best linebackers in Brian Cushing, Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga."

"'They're big and fast and smart and they know what they're doing and they love to play the game,'" Carroll said.

"Up front, defensive end Lawrence Jackson and tackle Sedrick Ellis are the stars. In the secondary, Terrell Thomas is a lock-down cornerback and sophomore Taylor Mays has drawn comparisons to such great USC safeties of the past as Dennis Smith and Troy Polamalu."

"How good can this defense be? Just ask Michigan, which had its vaunted offense smothered in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1."

NONE of that pablum has come true thus far. It's all BELIEF, expectation, goo goo starry-eyes. Some of it is just plain incorrect. Yes, USC returned 15 starters, 10 on defense. But look at the stats from 2006. What did those guys do THEN to earn this kind of respect NOW.

Yeah, they beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, the same Michigan offense (almost to the man) who couldn't outscore App St.! The same Michigan that at the end of the season was arguably about even with Ohio State, the best team in the land until Florida exposed them for the fraud they were.

You would think that some kind of objective criteria would govern how these media types work. Good last year or good so far this year or SOMETHING!!!

I think the real culprit is the preseason polls -- totally subjective and frankly bogus. And once the media lays their egg, they just keep trying to hatch it. I say let 'em play 3, 4 or maybe 5 games, then rank 'em. But do it honestly, look at the numbers, not the supposed pedigree.

National Statistics as of Sept. 16, 2007

Offense
Pts/Game
1 OU - 61.3
2 UF - 55.7
9 WVU - 47.0
14 LSU - 45.7
18 USC - 43.5

Total Offense (ypg)
3 OU - 565.3
12 UF - 521.3
16 WVU - 500.3
18 LSU - 483.3
33 USC - 438.5

Passing (ypg)
12 OU - 324.0
24 UF - 286.7
43 LSU - 252.3
95 USC - 175.0
103 WVU - 156.7

Rushing (ypg)
2 WVU 343.7
6 USC 263.5
13 OU 241.3
15 UF 234.7
17 LSU 231.0

3rd Down %
4 LSU - 56.1
10 WVU - 53.1
16 UF - 50.0
20 OU - 48.6
21 USC - 48.1


Defense
Pts Allowed/Game
1 LSU 2.3
6 OU 8.7
26 UF 18.0
45 WVU 20.3
46 USC 20.5

Total Defense (ypg)
1 LSU 128.3
2 OU 179.7
20 UF 279.3
34 WVU 311.0
42 USC 336.5

Passing Defense (ypg)
2 LSU 98.3
14 OU 135.3
69 WVU 230.3
72 UF 233.3
100 USC 272.0

Rushing Defense (ypg)
3 LSU 30.0
5 OU 44.3
6 UF 46.0
9 USC 64.5
19 WVU 80.7

Interceptions/Game
4 LSU 2.3
8 WVU 2.0
13 OU 1.8
37 WVU 1.3
67 USC 1.0


Special Teams
Punting (ypk)
18 LSU 44.5
53 USC 41.7
72 OU 40.1
97 UF 36.1
99 WVU 35.5

Numbers don't lie.
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