SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/02/2006 11:58:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part V: Closing Thoughts
Notre Dame's defense gave up an early touchdown before locking down the Yellow Jackets.
The most unexpected development on opening Saturday was how the overwhelming majority of the top teams played almost exactly as expected. With the exception of Cal, no real paper tigers have been exposed yet.
∙ Notre Dame's oft-maligned defense answered a lot of questions Saturday night, completely shutting down Georgia Tech in the second half, and yet, for the umpteenth time during Chan Gailey's tenure I'm left wondering how things might have been different if the Jackets weren't led by the nation's most reactionary coach. Even the commentators were baffled as to why Tech wasn't trying harder to get the ball to Calvin Johnson.
Meanwhile, Charlie Weis definitely has some big ones. That QB draw call with Brady Quinn right before the half could have been a complete disaster if Quinn hadn't scored. Instead, after looking out of sorts most of the first half, you could tell as soon as Quinn crossed the goal line that the worst was behind him.
∙ It's safe to say USC's rebuilt offense isn't going to scare anybody just yet, but I bet it will soon enough. Against Arkansas, QB John David Booty looked more and more comfortable as the game went along and the young running backs can only get better. Meanwhile, the Trojans' defense was far more dominant than at any point last season.
∙ Man, Auburn's offense is going to be tough to stop. Not only can Kenny Irons run on you all night and Brandon Cox can beat you deep, but you've also got to worry about Irons and Brad Lester catching passes out of the backfield. You could tell against Washington State that offensive coordinator Al Borges is modeling this year's unit a lot like that of the great 2004 team.
∙ The fear after Oklahoma lost Rhett Bomar was that the Sooners would become too one-dimensional. I'd say those fears are legitimate after a shaky 24-17 win over UAB in which Paul Thompson threw two picks and got nearly a third of his passing yards on one 69-yard screen to Adrian Peterson.
∙ Fantastic debut for UCLA QB Ben Olson: 25-of-33 for 318 yards, three touchdowns and no picks in a 31-10 beatdown of Utah. It's as if the other Olson never left. I thought the Bruins' offense would suffer without the presence of star TE Marcedes Lewis, but Logan Paulsen stepped right in with five catches for 90 yards.
∙ Though I have a feeling Virginia is going to be really, really bad this season, beating the Cavs 38-13 was still an encouraging outcome for second-year Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt coming off a 5-6 debut. Senior QB Tyler Palko, after struggling much of last season, was 17-of-22 for 286 yards and three touchdowns.
∙ Finally, it's over. Twelve straight hours of football is a lot, even for me. I'm beat, and all I did was sit here. The afternoon games were kind of blasé, but it was all worth it when Notre Dame, USC and Oklahoma were all involved in dog fights at the same time around 9 p.m. EST. Time to catch some shut-eye before jetting to Miami tomorrow. Enjoy Louisville-Kentucky.
Saturday's win should help Phillip Fulmer and the Vols forget about last season's struggles.
Remember that Boise State-Georgia opener last year? How Boise State, the trendy upset pick, went to Athens and promptly laid about a six-pound egg? Yep ... that’s Cal-Tennessee this year.
I figured it wouldn’t take long for one of my preseason darlings to go belly up, but never did I imagine it would be this ugly. The Bears may well rebound and have a decent season, but they’re certainly not the elite, top-10 type squad many of us projected them to be (I’m just glad I didn’t pick them to win the national title like a certain pencil-pointing TV analyst). Cal’s offensive line, which lost three standouts from last season, got absolutely manhandled by Tennessee’s defensive front, leaving star running back Marshawn Lynch with nowhere to run. And the defense just looked plain lost.
On the flip side, Phillip Fulmer couldn’t have asked for a better way to bury the memory of last year’s 5-6 debacle. QB Erik Ainge looks a whole lot more comfortable (though he certainly shouldn’t count on his receivers running so wide open against Georgia or Alabama). And obviously, the Vols’ swagger is back. They have to be considered a factor in the SEC now.
∙ Did you catch Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe’s numbers from the Ohio State game? In addition to running for 172 yards on 26 carries he caught five passes for another 115. I’m thinking Texas just found its blueprint for next week.
∙ New UCLA QB Ben Olson couldn’t have looked better early on against Utah, completing his first nine passes (and the 10th was a dropped touchdown pass).
If Cal-Tennessee is the “ESPN Primetime” game, the Bears in the first half were the “Not Ready for Primetime Players.” Jeff Tedford’s team hasn’t handled its trip to SEC country well at all, committing a couple false-start penalties due to the crowd noise, dropping catches, etc. The Bears should consider themselves extremely fortunate to only be down 14-0 at halftime.
Meanwhile, Vols offensive coordinator/knight-in-shining-armor David Cutcliffe has been noticeably superb with his play-calling -- much more variety than we’re used to seeing from Tennessee -- and receiver Robert Meachem is absolutely torching Cal’s redshirt freshman cornerback, Syd’Quan Thompson, the apparently overmatched fill-in for standout Tim Mixon, who tore his ACL in the preseason.
Update: Meachem just obliterated this poor Thompson kid again for an 80-yard touchdown! That's just inhumane.
∙ If you didn’t already know about Rutgers tailback Ray Rice, last year’s freshman standout, you should now. He just finished with 201 yards in a 21-16 win over North Carolina. And that’s not the only sign this really is a new era for Rutgers football. The Scarlet Knights looked like they were about to deliver one of their infamous choke jobs (they were up 21-10 in the fourth quarter) but got a huge game-saving interception in the final minutes.
∙ Another sophomore tailback who more than lived up to his billing: Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart, who shredded Stanford for 168 yards on 22 carries in a 48-10 rout. The Ducks’ offense looked unusually crisp for an opening game against a conference opponent, broaching 500 yards.
∙ The Dan Hawkins honeymoon at Colorado came to an abrupt end Saturday -- the two-time defending Big 12 North champions lost 19-10 to I-AA Montana State in Hawkins' debut. Ouch.
∙ Nebraska coach Bill Callahan promised a more balanced attack this year, and the Huskers didn’t disappoint against Louisiana Tech -- tailbacks Cody Glenn and Marlon Lucky combined for 165 yards on 26 carries.
Ted Ginn, Jr. and the Buckeyes look as good as advertised.
You know that rare feeling when you go see a movie that's been endlessly hyped for months, you figure there's no way it could possibly be as good as advertised, and you're mildly shocked when it actually is? No. 1 Ohio State is pulling off the football equivalent of that right now.
Summary of the first quarter-plus of the Buckeyes' game against Northern Illinois: Troy Smith throws a touchdown. Smith throws a touchdown bomb to Ted Ginn Jr. Smith throws another touchdown. Much-touted juco linebacker Larry Grant intercepts a pass and runs it back 48 yards. And even-more-touted freshman running back Chris Wells runs for a touchdown to go up 28-0. So much for looking ahead to Texas.
A couple other quick notes:
∙ My Purdue note a little earlier turned out to be premature. The Boilers ended up laying 60 on the Sycamores.
∙ I was a little thrown off to see No. 12 in a Penn State jersey racing 42 yards down the sideline. I thought Michael Robinson graduated. Turns out, it's freshman receiver A.J. Wallace, the latest speed demon to matriculate in Happy Valley. Man, have the Nittany Lions come a long way from the not-so-long-ago days of Gerald Smith and Isaac Smolko.
∙ Finally, am I the only one who considers it dangerous for nearly 80-year-old Joe Paterno to stand outside in a heavy downpour for three-and-a-half hours? Can someone at least get him a better poncho?
Colt McCoy had an impressive debut against overmatched North Texas.
Holy moly. These new clock rules may be clunky but they’re sure accomplishing their goal. The Vanderbilt-Michigan game kicked off at noon sharp. It’s not even 3 p.m. yet as I write this and there’s only a minute left. It could have gone to double overtime and been over by 3:30.
Nothing too eventful to report from the early games, but I shall blog nonetheless …
Dennis Erickson is working his magic again. I can’t say I saw Idaho play last season, but I do know the Vandals went 2-9. If their performance against Michigan State is any indication, they’re going to be a whole lot more competitive this year. The Spartans didn’t play badly -- QB Drew Stanton was steady if unspectacular and the defense didn’t appear to make a lot of mistakes -- yet Idaho was in it practically to the end. QB Steven Wichman threw a beautiful fade pass for a touchdown to cut it to 24-17 halfway through the fourth quarter, and the Vandals then stopped MSU on fourth and 1 on the ensuing series but couldn’t convert from there.
In what is becoming a recurring theme, Michigan’s offense was pretty sloppy against Vanderbilt (though RB Mike Hart looked good), but I liked the way the Wolverines’ defense played under new coordinator Ron English. It’s been awhile since you count on Michigan’s D to stay aggressive throughout -- hence why they blew some fourth-quarter leads last year -- but they never let up against the Commodores, allowing just 171 total yards.
Nice debut for Texas QB Colt McCoy, albeit against North Texas: 12-of-19 for 177 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Even more impressively, the Longhorns’ defense held the not-so-Mean Green to 96 total yards.
As I write this, Purdue is engaged in a dogfight (up 33-28 late in the third quarter) with a I-AA foe, Indiana State, that went 0-11 last year. That’s ... not a good sign.
It’s game-weekend, which means the Blog is getting ready to go into overdrive. My itinerary for this weekend involves a full day and night in front of the tube Saturday before traveling to Miami for Monday night’s Florida State game. This is my first season doing this, so you’ll have to bear with me as I figure out my new game-day routine, but the plan for now is to post several short, quick takes throughout the day Saturday with observations from the key games.
Speaking of which … some observations from opening night (though admittedly, I didn’t actually see most of these):
∙ With the whirlwind of criticism surrounding Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter the past couple weeks, his team opened its season in about the worst way imaginable Thursday night, struggling for three quarters with I-AA Northern Arizona (the game was tied 14-14 going into the fourth) before winning 35-14. QB Rudy Carpenter was unimpressive, the running game non-existent and the defense allowed two long touchdown passes. Most incriminating, however, was this quote afterward from Carpenter:
“NAU has a different style of defense that we never really see," Carpenter said. "… It was really confusing to us. We didn't know who to block, who to throw to." Jeez. You only had eight months to prepare for it.
∙ We almost had the first semi-major upset, as Toledo took Iowa State to three overtimes. The 45-43 loss had to be pretty encouraging for the Rockets -- whose QB, Clint Cochran (39-of-49, 367 yards three TDs, one INT), picked up right where accomplished predecessor Bruce Gradkowski left off -- and somewhat disturbing for the Cyclones, a supposed Big 12 North contender whose defense clearly has some issues.
∙ The running back factory at Minnesota rolled out its latest prodigy Thursday, this one its most unlikely yet. Sophomore Alex Daniels, who moved from linebacker to running back just weeks ago to boost the Gophers’ ultra-thin backfield, ran for 155 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-0 win over Kent State.
∙ Not sure what to make of South Carolina’s 15-0 win over Mississippi State. Apparently Sylvester Croom’s Bulldogs have taken a big step up on defense, which makes sense seeing as they’re extremely experienced. But is the Gamecocks’ defense even better or is MSU’s offense that bad?
∙ Finally, in the Randy Walker Memorial Bowl, Northwestern’s defense looked much improved in head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s debut, a 21-3 win over Walker’s alma mater, Miami (Ohio), but the offense looks like it will be a work in progress behind young, but promising, QB Mike Kafka.
Nate Longshore played all of 28 minutes last year before a season-ending knee injury.
If you believe the pundits (myself included), the Cal Bears are a top-10 team that is going to give USC a run for its money in the Pac-10 this season. First, however, they must travel across three time zones and walk into 104,000-seat Neyland Stadium, where they will attempt to beat a respected SEC program, Tennessee, with a first-time starting quarterback under center.
OK, technically sophomore Nate Longshore is not a first-time starter. He played the first 28 minutes of last season’s opener against I-AA Sacramento State, completing 8-of-11 attempts for 131 yards and a touchdown before suffering a season-ending leg injury. It was apparently enough for Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer to watch the tape and conclude of Longshore, "He’s a big, strong guy that throws the ball well." But c’mon – that was Sacramento State; this is Tennessee.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford did not officially name Longshore as his starter until this past Tuesday, partially because the third-year sophomore had been slowed recently by a back injury but mostly because senior Joe Ayoob, who had been largely dismissed following his disastrous 14-interception campaign last season, was surprisingly competitive throughout camp. "I'm really proud of Joe's perseverance, how he's bounced back," Tedford said this week, adding both QBs might play Saturday. "Both of them have tremendous focus with what's going on with the game plan, both very smart. They're both throwing the ball well right now."
Obviously, Cal’s question marks headed into Saturday’s contest pale in comparison to those of the Vols, who are coming off a 5-6 debacle in which they ranked 90th nationally in total offense. Many curious viewers will be tuning in Saturday to see what kind of impact new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has had on QB Erik Ainge and Co., and rightfully so, but I'm equally interested to find out how Longshore handles the pressure of a hostile atmosphere and how exactly Tedford makes use of the spread-offense components installed by new coordinator Mike Dunbar(formerly of Northwestern).
If I’m Tedford, however, I’d play things pretty close to the vest in this one. While the fifth-year head coach is known as a quarterback guru, the Bears’ running game has actually been their biggest strength the past couple seasons. Since Tennessee, even with an improved offense, is unlikely to score in bunches, I’d hand it off to Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett early and often while limiting the amount of high-pressure throws Longhsore is asked to make. With nearly all the other pieces in place, the quarterback is going to be the key to whether Cal goes 11-1 or 7-5. It’s important he get off to a good start.
Ryan Smith will start at CB for Florida after losing his starting job at Utah.
You may recall hearing over the summer about an obscure new NCAA bylaw that allows a player who's completed his undergraduate degree to transfer to another school and play right away, bypassing the usual one-year waiting period. The rule caused some grumbling around the sport -- predictably, most coaches, despite the fact they themselves don't have to sit out a year if they take another job, don't like it -- but it does make sense academically. Regular students are free to go wherever they want for graduate school; why should athletes be penalized for doing the same thing?
The first high-profile player to take advantage of this new loophole was Arizona quarterback Richard Kovalcheck, who, having lost his starting job last season to hot-shot freshman Willie Tuitama, transferred to Vanderbilt in hopes of succeeding departed star Jay Cutler. As of Wednesday, however, Commodores coach Bobby Johnson had yet to name him the starter for Saturday's opener at Michigan. It appears the bigger beneficiary of the new rule plays elsewhere in the SEC.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, former Utah cornerback Ryan Smith, who completed his degree over the summer and showed up on the Florida campus just as the Gators were opening fall camp, will start Saturday against Southern Miss. Smith, a former Utes starter who coach Kyle Whittingham said "fell out of favor" last season, has been reunited with both his former head coach (Urban Meyer) and position coach (Chuck Heater), and his emergence couldn't have come at a better time for the Gators. Both of last year's starting corners, Vernell Brown and Dee Webb, are gone, and their top projected returnee, Avery Atkins, left the program in July following an alleged domestic battery incident. With Smith starting at corner, standout Reggie Nelson can remain at his natural safety position.
"We're real glad he's here," Heater told the Sentinel "It's a free-agent signing. A heck of a deal."
And that's exactly what Smith is -- a free-agent pick-up. A ringer, if you will. It's kind of like your company softball team suddenly picking up a former Double-A baseball prospect from the mail room right before the playoffs. Which is why, if Smith does indeed have a big impact for the Gators, it's almost inevitable you'll hear certain opposing SEC coaches (most likely candidate: the guy in orange; second most-likely: the guy in the visor) questioning the "fairness" of the rule.
In my mind, however, the truly unfair thing is players having to sit out a year in the first place. True, if you were to get rid of the rule, it would make the sport extremely chaotic (think of just how many more disgruntled quarterbacks would transfer as soon as the realize they won't be starting). But coaches don't have to sit out a year when they change jobs. College baseball players don't have to sit out a year. Why do football and basketball players?
Recently, hurricane season has had a huge impact on the Miami-Florida State rivalry.
It wouldn't be a Miami-Florida State week without news of an impending hurricane threatening to wreak havoc on the contest. With Tropical Storm Ernesto bearing down on South Florida, the University of Miami shut itself down Tuesday and Wednesday in anticipation of the storm's arrival, and Athletic Director Paul Dee said he is looking into contingency plans for Monday night's game should the Orange Bowl be too damaged to play. According to reports, the possibilities include moving the game to Jacksonville, Orlando or Tampa.
"We feel comfortable that things are going to be OK, but you always have to look at contingencies," Dee told the Palm Beach Post. "There has been no decision to move the game. But doing our due diligence, we want to be prepared to take the first steps to make contacts and to see about availability."
This marks the third straight year weather has played a factor in the nationally televised rivalry game. Two years ago, the game was moved from its scheduled Labor Day slot to the following Friday night due to Hurricane Frances. Sadly, two of the storm's casualties included a grandson and former son-in-law of FSU coach Bobby Bowden. The game went on as scheduled last year, but Miami's practices that week were disrupted by Hurricane Katrina (the 'Canes were affected more directly by Hurricane Rita several weeks later), and, in an unfortunate subplot, several hundred Katrina refugees were displaced from their Tallahassee hotel rooms prior to the game.
If Monday night's game is in fact affected, it will draw attention to one of the overlooked hazards of the new 12-game regular season. At a time when hurricanes are becoming more prevalent, and often striking in September, the games are now harder than ever to reschedule. Because of the ACC's conference title game, league teams have just 13 weeks to play 12 games, so the chances of two schools having a shared bye week are slim to none. The conference instituted a policy this year that requires home teams to move affected games to another venue -- even if it means losing a home date.
In the case of Miami and Florida State, this means that a game with potential conference and/or national title implications could be determined in part by circumstances having nothing to do with football. There's no question in my mind that the often wretched play in the past two Miami-FSU games was at least in part related to the logistical and emotional impacts of the hurricanes. Look at LSU's second-half collapse against Tennessee in their thrice-delayed home opener against Tennessee last year. You think those guys weren't spent by Katrina? When it comes to the 12th game, the best interest of the athletes has fallen by the wayside in schools' eternal quest for more dollars.
Why should Zac Taylor be smiling? Because he appears to be a "virtual" lock to play for the national title.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Pretty much every possible prognosticator has now weighed in with his picks for the 2006 season, including Kirk Herbstreit's bold if bizarre prediction over the weekend that Miami will win the national championship. (One of Kirk's exact quotes was, "I love their offense." He declined to specify which he loved more, the suspended star receiver or the tailback coming off ACL surgery.) But one of the most important voices had yet to chime in until now. That would be my PlayStation.
Ever since my PlayStation became quite possibly the only entity in the country to predict a USC-Auburn national-title game before the 2004 season (no, that matchup didn't actually happen, but it probably should have), I've learned to take its computerized projections with extreme seriousness, no matter how far-fetched they may seem. So here now is your likely matchup for Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.:
Nebraska vs. Virginia Tech.
Suddenly, I'm both very excited and very nervous. If the Huskers (who went 13-0, beating Texas twice) do in fact reach the championship, it would validate the Wide Open feature we did a few weeks back. On the flip side, the Hokies weren't even on our list of 16 contenders, and if you can't get the national champion right when you have 16 guesses, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Other developments of note in the simulated season: West Virginia and Louisville were Nos. 1 and 2 when they met in their Thursday-night game on Nov. 2 (though the Cardinals wound up falling out of the Top 25 altogether after that), Michigan rebounded from last season's disappointment to go 11-1 and win the Big Ten, and Notre Dame receiver Jeff Samardzija captured the Heisman Trophy (this one I wouldn't put too much stock in -- four of the five finalists were wide receivers).
Bad omen, by the way, for real-life preseason No. 1 Ohio State: The Buckeyes finished 7-5.