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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.
10/06/2007 04:20:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part I

Ron Zook
In his third season at Illinois, Ron Zook has the Illini in the thick of the Big Ten race.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The Blog is coming to you live from Walk On’s Bistreaux and Grill, where Sports Illustrated is holding a huge promotional event for its “75 years of SEC football” special issue. They asked me to make an appearance -- but only after LSU legend Billy Cannon’s of course.

Speaking of SEC football ... you know you’re in an SEC town when three-fourths of the TVs are turned to the Auburn-Vanderbilt game. C’mon, guys. The “No. 5” team in the country is on the ropes.

I use quotation marks because, as we know, Wisconsin has not been a top-five team for some time, and it finally caught up to them Saturday in Champaign, where the resurgent Illini led the whole game. I give the Badgers credit: Despite playing on the road without top receiver Luke Swan, who was injured in the first half, and No. 2 tailback Lance Smith (among others), every time Illinois threatened to pull away, Wisconsin answered. But the Badgers’ defense had no answer for Rashard Mendenhall (19 carries, 160 yards, two touchdowns), who’s quietly putting up some of the best numbers of any running back in the country.

Hats off to Ron Zook, who’s taken a lot of crap (from me included) over the years but now has his 5-1 team in the thick of the Big Ten race. In fact, with Michigan State losing to Northwestern on Saturday, that “race” will likely be down to just three teams by the end of the day: The Illini, tonight’s Ohio State-Purdue winner and Michigan (though the Wolverines’ defense won’t keep them in it for long).

• The Big 12 North gets more interesting by the week. Kansas, previously America’s quietest undefeated team, announced their arrival Saturday with a 30-24 win at Kansas State (itself a week removed from drubbing Texas) to improve to 5-0. Sophomore QB Todd Reesing threw three TDs, including one to SI.com preseason All-American CB and two-way threat Aqib Talib. Now it appears that any of five teams -- KU, K-State, Missouri, Nebraska or Colorado – could win that division.

• Reports of Miami’s resurgence were apparently premature. Since their eye-opening rout of Texas A&M, the ‘Canes beat Duke 24-14 and, on Saturday, went to Chapel Hill and promptly dug themselves a 27-0 hole against former coach Butch Davis’ new team. Miami mounted a nice comeback but couldn’t overcome Kyle Wright’s four interceptions in falling 33-27.

That’s a great win for Davis’ Tar Heels (2-4), who, with the exception of a blowout loss to now top-10 team USF a few weeks ago, have played better than their record all season and have shown off a plethora of young talent, most notably redshirt freshman QB T.J. Yates. With Davis at the helm, don’t be surprised to see UNC contending for the ACC title as soon as next season.

• Maryland’s rise from what seemed like ashes just a couple of weeks ago continued Saturday with a dramatic 28-26 win over Georgia Tech. Who knew the answers to the Terps’ woes had been sitting on the bench this whole time in the form of backup quarterback/son-of-Ratt’s-drummer/Napolean Dynamite look-alike Chris Turner. He went 10-of-17 for 255 yards and a touchdown Saturday.

• Finally, hats off to Michigan’s Mike Hart, who became the school’s all-time leading rusher with his 22-carry, 215-yard, three-touchdown performance Saturday against Eastern Michigan. I’ve admittedly never jumped full-board on the Hart bandwagon -- I hesitate to put him in the same class as the Darren McFaddens and Steve Slatons because he simply doesn’t have breakaway speed. You don’t see too many highlight-reel runs from him.

However, there’s something to be said for having the durability and both the mental and physical strength to pound out tough runs carry after carry, break tackles and, most importantly, put his team on his shoulders, as he’s done every week since the Wolverines’ 0-2 start. He may not go on to NFL riches, but he’s certainly the epitome of a great college player.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments |


Posted: 4:59 PM   by SOS
Stewart is right on the money. Michigan plays five of the Big Ten's top six teams during the final month and a half of the season. These five teams, Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State are all better than Michigan this year. It will be surprising if Michigan can win four of these games to finish at .500 and have to opportunity to play in a bowl game to extend the streak.
Posted: 5:26 PM   by droogan1
I wondered how long it would be before you, and other so-called "experts" would take a break from bashing the ACC long enough to recognize that UNC has a lot of great YOUNG talent. I hate UNC, but you ACC bashers, (i.e. Mark May) don't want to talk about the fact that some of these teams are very young because it interferes with your opprotunity to bash the ACC. Don't start now, just look for every thing you can find that is wrong with the ACC, and don't be a "fair weather" reporter.
The Fighting Illini will not take care of business when they face a team that takes care of the football. Their last two wins came against QB's who gifted them significant touchdowns which had nothing to do with good secondary play.
edit: The Illini secondary have been gifted significant interceptions.

At least Ron Zook has gone with Mendenhall to win games and given less emphasis to Juice Williams.
Posted: 6:02 PM   by Charles
Kansas has been unranked because of their weak schedule yet Hawaii ranked high on as weak or weaker a schedule. Kansas is apparently being judged as a small frog in a big pond, while Hawaii is a big frog in a small pond and gets sympathy votes. Can anyone offer a reasonable explanation for the voting?
Posted: 6:07 PM   by Omagus
Droogan, the ACC is the worst BCS conference this year. Just because the reason that it is bad is because of youth doesn't mean that it can't be discussed.
Posted: 7:29 PM   by robmills1976
How about Tennessee today? They dominated Georgia and look like they might have a say in who wins the SEC East this year.
Posted: 9:14 PM   by John
ACC = Worst BCS conference? Not quite- Duke beat Northwestern AT Northwestern. The Big Ten must be the worst BCS conference. Same Northwestern team that took Michigan the whole game to beat and just beat Michigan State.
Posted: 9:53 PM   by chetbodet05
Glad to see Mike Hart get some respect. He is what college football should be all about. In a world of whining coaches (Urban Meyer Mack Brown) athelets getting in trouble with the law (about 1/2 of Florida or Ohio States football players) Mike Hart provides a welcome relief. Here is a guy who plays hard on every single play, whether he is running catching or blocking. He is a class act who has Even though he doesn't break as many long runs as some other backs, I would rather take Mike, a guy who almost never takes negative yards, NEVER fumbles, and will always lay himeself on the line to block for his QB. In my opinion he is one of the best college players to ever put on a uniform.
Posted: 11:42 PM   by bpwjdw
Stewart, I would just like to point out that the 5 turnover games will secure losses from top teams. The no. 1 team in the nation can lose to Temple with 5 turnovers. Examples this season:

Auburn loss to South Florida
Auburn loss to Miss. State
USC loss to Stanford.

Looks like Auburn found it's offense but it is hard to judge whether Auburn's offense will have any relapse of fumblitis or quarterback color blindness. With poor offensive performance including 3-and-outs and turnovers, the defense is on the field too long and is worn down as well. For this reason, all three of the previous losses came down to giving up yards and points at the end of the game.
Posted: 7:15 AM   by SOS
So what excuse is Stewey going to have for keeping Penn State out of the top 25 this week?
Thanks for the lighter note about UNC. Again, I'm not asking anyone to call the team "good," but recognizing what T.J. Yates is doing, and the fact that the team has been competitive is more like it.

(And no, I refuse to say the words "no respect." Care to do a synopsis on that phrase like you did with "idiot?")
Posted: 1:46 PM   by Andrew
serious pet peeve: PLEASE do not refer to the class of "darren mcfaddenS and steve slatonS..." this is just stupid and, unfortunately, a trend i see all too often in the world of sports reporting. there is only one of each. say it's the class of mcfadden, slaton, and others of their ilk. call it the class of players like mcfadden and slaton. or simply call it the class of mcfadden and slaton. or is there more than one darren mcfadden running around somewhere that we just haven't noticed? seriously.
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