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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.
9/08/2007 09:30:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part III

Jimmy Clausen
Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen could not get the Irish into the end zone.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- By now, it’s fairly obvious that it doesn’t matter whether Notre Dame starts Jimmy Clausen or Joe Montana under center – its offense is going nowhere fast. The Irish managed just 144 yards against Penn State (though they did cut their number of sacks in half from last week). Give Clausen credit, though: For a true freshman playing on the road, with no protection or running game to help him, he largely avoided mistakes, throwing his only interception late in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, one of my main concerns about Penn State coming into the season appears to be valid. Austin Scott is a very average running back, and it showed as he pounded out a respectable but hardly overwhelming 116 yards against the same Irish defense that allowed 265 rushing yards to Georgia Tech last week. The Nittany Lions, just like last year, will have to ride their defense to most victories.

∙ Another week, another scary performance by Florida QB Tim Tebow, who completed 18 of 21 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns in staking the Gators to a 49-7 halftime lead over Troy. He also ran for another 83 yards and two touchdowns on the night.

∙ This is why you should never read too much into one game: Georgia’s offense, so crisp last week against Oklahoma State, was highly erratic against South Carolina, save for RB Knowshow Moreno (14 carries, 104 yards). QB Matthew Stafford (19-for-44, 213 yards, one INT) wasn’t helped any by his receivers, however, who returned to their 2006 habit of dropping open touchdowns. But give credit to Steve Spurrier: He used to drive Georgia bonkers with his Fun ‘n’ Gun offense; now he’s doing it with his defense.

∙ I don’t know if Texas QB Colt McCoy is suffering from a sophomore slump, or he just doesn’t have the same quality supporting cast, but he certainly doesn’t look like the highly efficient quarterback of last year in throwing two first-half interceptions against TCU as the ‘Horns fell behind 10-0.

∙ LSU and Virginia Tech have just kicked off below me – no more blogging on other games until Five Things We Learned tomorrow.
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9/08/2007 07:13:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part II

Derrick Jones
Oregon players ran circles around Michigan's sluggish defense all day.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- As you ponder the stunning, season-opening implosion of the Michigan football program –- one that now includes consecutive home losses to start a season for the first time since 1959 –- know this: The downfall began long before last week’s loss to Appalachian State.

Masked by three Rose Bowl appearances over the past four years and largely undetectable to the outside observer, a crisis was brewing within the Wolverines’ program, one that’s become painfully obvious over Michigan’s current four-game losing streak to Ohio State (42-39), USC (32-18), Appalachian State (34-32) and now, in the most humiliating edition yet, Oregon (39-7).

I don’t know exactly how it happened because I’m not privy to the Michigan coaching staff’s meeting rooms or recruiting sessions, but somehow, one of the nation’s most prestigious programs failed to adjust to the prevailing trends in college football -- mainly speed and spread -- and is now paying the price for it in embarrassing fashion. Whether it’s a matter of misfiring in recruiting, stubbornly clinging to outdated schemes, or both, the fact is the Wolverines’ defense has now been severely outclassed in four consecutive outings by four opponents who possessed one common characteristic: offensive playmakers.

From Troy Smith lining up in the shotgun and picking his choice of open receivers to USC wideouts Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett teeing off on the Wolverines’ cornerbacks to Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards-Dexter Jackson tandem shredding them down the middle to Oregon’s Dennis Dixon finding one receiver after another wide open downfield, it’s like having the same nightmare every night if you’re a Michigan fan. And this isn’t exactly a new development. Michigan exhibited similar defensive problems as far back as 2003, when the Wolverines lost at Oregon and suffered the first of two Rose Bowl blowouts to USC. Then there was Vince Young in the following year’s Rose Bowl. And Troy Smith, Troy Smith, Troy Smith.

Obviously, however, it’s never been as bad as it is now. In fact Michigan fielded one of the most dominant defenses in the country through 11 games last season, largely on the strength of its overpowering front four. But the key cogs of that line (LaMarr Woodley and Alan Branch) are now gone, as is star cornerback Leon Hall and several other veterans, and so far, their replacements have simply looked lost. Saturday, they allowed 630 yards to Dixon, Jonathan Stewart and the Ducks. Michigan’s misery was further compounded by injuries to QB Chad Henne and RB Mike Hart in what had to be the longest three hours of Wolverines fans' lives since ... well, last week.

This astonishing turn of events will serve as an almost certain precursor to a regime change in Ann Arbor by the end of the season. It happens in college football all the time -- just not usually at Michigan. The most obvious parallel is Nebraska’s fall from grace circa 2001, when the Huskers won their first 11 games, then got crushed by Colorado and Miami to end the season, fell to an unthinkable 7-7 the next year and replaced Frank Solich a year after that. Like Michigan, Nebraska’s slide did not happen overnight; it was the culmination of years of recruiting mistakes. Ditto Miami’s tumble under Larry Coker (with the 40-3 Peach Bowl loss serving as its “Appalachian State”).

The sad part of Michigan’s crisis is that a great group of seniors (Hart, Henne, Jake Long) got caught in it. It will be interesting to see how they handle the rest of what is quickly turning into an unsalvageable season.

∙ Speaking of regime changes (sort of), Florida State is currently providing further confirmation that its issues are a little too deep-rooted for Jimbo Fisher to quickly fix. UAB took a 17-10 lead to the locker room against the ‘Noles, due in large part to two FSU turnovers.

∙ So much for USC’s “soft” Pac-10 schedule. No conference in the country has done more to help its credibility so far (Oregon State notwithstanding), thanks not only to Cal’s win over Tennessee and Oregon’s impressive display in Ann Arbor but Washington’s 24-10 victory over Boise State on Saturday, snapping the Broncos’ 14-game winning streak. Redshirt freshman QB Jake Locker put on another impressive display, throwing for 194 yards and rushing for another 84. If Tyrone Willingham’s team doesn’t crack the Top 25, it certainly will if it pulls off another upset next week against Ohio State.
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9/08/2007 04:00:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part I

Oakland Arena
Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford has thrown eight touchdown passes in his first two weeks behind center.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Count me a Sooner believer. Specifically, a Sam Bradford believer.

While I figured Oklahoma would handle Miami, I assumed it would be a low-scoring affair, and I assumed the ‘Canes defense would fluster the Sooners’ redshirt freshman quarterback. Instead, Bradford looked like a savvy veteran in OU’s stunning 51-13 blowout, recognizing man coverage against stud receiver Malcolm Kelly and hitting him in stride on two first-quarter touchdowns, then pouring it on from there. Bradford finished 19-of-25 for 205 yards, five TDs and zero interceptions, looking a lot like vintage Jason White the way he stood in the pocket, patiently went through his progressions and found the open receiver almost every single time.

Bob Stoops is known primarily as a defensive coach, but you’ve got to give a lot of credit to his offensive staff (current coordinator Kevin Wilson has been there since 2002). No matter who they put back there -- from Josh Heupel to Nate Hybl to White to Paul Thompson and now Bradford -- the guy is always productive, and the offense is always molded to his strengths. I don’t know if Bradford (who went 21-of-23 for 363 yards last week against North Texas) is going to stay this hot forever, but in light of the Sooners’ overall dominance against Miami -- holding the offensively challenged ‘Canes to 139 total yards -- this is a team that has to be taken very seriously in the national-title picture.

* Meanwhile, another Big 12 quarterback with four years of experience on Bradford, Nebraska’s Sam Keller, was not nearly as impressive in his first big test Saturday at Wake Forest. The guy certainly has a cannon for an arm, but unfortunately that arm spent much of the day overthrowing open receivers and forcing things when under duress (two interceptions). His biggest mistake was an easily preventable fumble at his own 10, up just three with 7:33 left, that could have been devastating had Huskers CB Zack Bowman not saved things with an interception in the end zone on Wake’s next possession.

Even though Nebraska barely escaped 20-17, there’s reason for encouragement heading into next week’s showdown with No. 1 USC. A week after running the ball down Nevada’s throat, Bill Callahan’s offense showed it can be productive either way (Keller threw for 249 yards on 42 attempts and RB Marlon Lucky followed up last week’s big performance with 90 yards on 24 carries). While the defense struggled at times, it came up with two big stops at the end with the game on the line. Keller just needs to calm down and get in better synch with his receivers.

* It’s been a strange week already for the Big East. Unheralded Cincinnati stunned Oregon State 34-3, while supposed top-10 Louisville pulled an even bigger stunner by allowing 42 points and 500-plus yards to Middle Tennessee State. Then Marshall went out Saturday and gave No. 3 West Virginia a huge scare for three quarters, bottling up Steve Slaton for much of the contest. But the difference between West Virginia last year and West Virginia this year is if you somehow shut down its running game, Pat White (13-of-18, 149 yards, two TDs; 24 carries, 146 yards, another two TDs) and WR Darius Reynard (nine catches, 134 yards, two TDs) will burn you in the passing game.

Slaton eventually got hot (24 carries, 146 yards, two TDs), and the Mountaineers eventually ran away with it 48-23, but not before Marshall rolled up nearly 400 yards of offense. What we’re learning so far is that Louisville and West Virginia, as expected, are going to score a lot of points this season, but neither has the defense to win a national title. Don’t look now, but Rutgers -- which held Navy to 289 total yards Friday night -- may be the conference’s most viable BCS contender.

* You wouldn’t think beating Vanderbilt would be a feat of note for the Alabama football coach, but make no mistake, the Crimson Tide's 24-10 win on Saturday was an impressive accomplishment for Nick Saban’s first team. ‘Bama’s defense -- considered its bigger question mark coming in -- held preseason All-SEC quarterback Chris Nickson to 5-of-18 for 67 yards (though Nickson was suffering from a sore hamstring) and stud receiver Earl Bennett to four catches for 61 yards. That’s going to raise some eyebrows in SEC coaches' offices this week.

* Finally, it’s been another banner day for the Big Ten, with Ohio State mustering three first-half points against Akron (the Buckeyes eventually racked up 20), Northwestern staving off Nevada on a last-second touchdown and, just before I posted this, Oregon picking off a Chad Henne pass in the end zone on Michigan’s first possession and Miami of Ohio taking Minnesota into overtime.

Last week, Kirk Herbstreit made the once-unthinkable statement on air during the Cal-Tennessee game that the Big Ten may now be "sixth out of six" among the BCS conferences. I’d say the ACC still has a more convincing argument -- but so far the Big Ten is a lot closer to sixth than it is to fourth.
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9/07/2007 06:04:00 PM

Welcome to Baton Rouge

BATON ROUGE, La. -- I’ve covered enough top-10 showdowns in my time to know that college-town traffic comes with the territory -- but usually not 30 hours before kickoff.

The interstate and streets in and around LSU’s campus were pure gridlock Friday afternoon as revelers began gearing up for Saturday night’s showdown with LSU and Virginia Tech – the first true marquee matchup of the 2007 college football season. Baton Rouge has seen an influx of transplants from New Orleans in the two years since Hurricane Katrina, so the city was already well over capacity even before football fans from around the state and the country began pouring in this weekend.

Perhaps its Louisianans’ own recent experience with tragedy that has turned LSU fans into the most hospitable home team I think I’ve ever seen. From the time you land at the airport, there are signs welcoming Virginia Tech (and believe me, there were no shortage of orange-clad Hokies visitors walking along Chimes Street on Friday). The marquee on a church adjacent to campus reads: “Welcome, Virginia Tech: Our Thoughts and Prayers Are Still With You.”

It seems Tigers fans are saving their venom for a different enemy. It’s been eight months now since former LSU coach Nick Saban made the traitorous decision to become the new coach at rival Alabama, yet the top-selling item at an LSU merchandise tent on the corner of Perkins and Arcadia are a set of bright-yellow “Nick Satan” T-shirts. “They’re very popular,” the proprietor told me as I plunked down my $10 (to give to an LSU fan I know back in New York; relax) before heading next door for delicious lunch at Parrain’s Seafood. (Order the crawfish etouffee if you’re ever in town.)

Upon sitting down at the bar, I was surprised to be immediately recognized by a loyal Mailbag reader named Bruce. From Bruce and his friends -- not to mention a traffic jam’s worth of callers on a local sports-talk radio show -- I learned that Tigers fans aren’t particularly worried about Virginia Tech. Like the rest of us, they saw the way the Hokies’ offense struggled mightily last week against East Carolina. Bruce himself thinks the double-digit spread (rare for a matchup of two top-10 teams) is a bit too high, but some of those callers didn’t seem to share in his skepticism. “We’re going to put up 45 points on your poor guys just like we did to Mississippi State,” screamed one caller.

I don’t know about that, but I do know there are going to be a whole lot of ticked off Cajuns late Saturday night if the Tigers don’t take care of business against the Hokies. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single purple-and-gold clad soul here who doesn’t believe Les Miles’ team is on a path to the Superdome for the January 7 national title game (and they’d sure as heck like to see Pete Carroll’s Trojans on the other sideline). As you saw from my prediction, I agree Frank Beamer’s team is facing a daunting challenge -- not just from LSU’s suffocating defense but from what will undoubtedly be a deafening Tiger Stadium. (One of the loudest roars I’ve ever heard in person came here in 2003 when Skyler Green broke a long touchdown to put away Georgia en route to the Tigers’ eventual national championship.)

Before you go chalking this one up as a snoozer, however, and decide to blow it off to head to the movies Saturday night, there are three potential wild-cards to keep in mind.

One: Virginia Tech is one of the best teams in the country at producing defensive touchdowns (like Macho Harris’ interception return last week against ECU). I’m not saying Tigers QB Matt Flynn is prone to interceptions – we haven’t seen enough of him to know – but one complaint about his performance last week was that he seemed to lock in too much on go-to guy Early Doucet. You don’t want to do that against Virginia Tech’s secondary.

Two: I know you don’t need to be reminded, but just in case: special teams.

Three: This one is completely out there, but boy would it be intriguing. During a visit to Hokies practice in early August, I got to see impressive freshman QB Tyrod Taylor in person. He’s a tremendous athlete who can scramble and throw on the run. During the course of fall camp, he managed to pass up two upperclassmen to rise to No. 2 on the Hokies’ depth chart.

If starting QB Sean Glennon struggles early against the Tigers and if it becomes clear the Hokies’ protection isn’t going to hold up and if Virginia Tech’s coaching staff feels he’s ready, they could potentially put Taylor out there and see if he can at least use his mobility and athleticism to keep LSU’s defense off balance. It’s a remote possibility, but something to keep an eye on.

Well ... I’ve got another 26 hours to kill until kickoff. In this town, I don’t think that will be a problem. Enjoy the games.
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9/04/2007 01:54:00 PM

Vegas Still High on Wolverines

Oakland Arena
Will Michigan be able to contain dual-threat QB Dennis Dixon and the Ducks on Saturday?
In those first few, painful hours after his beloved Wolverines fell to Appalachian State on Saturday, my Maize-and-Blue-bleeding editor immediately began turning his attention to Michigan’s next opponent: Oregon. “Can you imagine what [Ducks QB] Dennis Dixon is going to do to that [expletive deleted] defense? He could throw for 200 yards and run for 200 yards.”

Indeed, the Wolverines’ performance against a I-AA foe’s athletic, spread offense wouldn’t seem to bode well as they prepare to face an actual Pac-10 team with an athletic, spread offense. But at least one set of people hasn’t lost confidence in Lloyd Carr’s team: Professional gamblers.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the oddsmakers who help set the initial betting lines on sporting events for major casinos, installed Michigan as a six-point favorite Monday. Seemed reasonable to me. When I spoke Tuesday with Mike Seba, LSVC’s senior oddsmaker, he admitted it was “a tough line to make. Just like any other team, we evaluate their performance [the previous week] and adjust their power rating. The question is, how much do you adjust [Michigan’s] rating based on that game?”

Seba’s preseason “power rating” for the Wolverines was 67 (average is about 50). He ultimately decided to move them down seven points to 60. “That’s a huge adjustment,” he said. “Usually, you adjust these teams a point, point-and-a-half at most. It’s not like [the Wolverines] are a terrible team, although they obviously have some defensive problems. But adjustments need to be made.”

LSVC’s point-spreads are literally the difference between the two teams’ power ratings. So if Michigan had beaten the Mountaineers as expected, the spread for the Oregon game would have likely been a full touchdown higher. (The Ducks played about as Seba expected in their 48-27 win over defending C-USA champ Houston.) He said a similarly large adjustment was made to this week’s Notre Dame-Penn State game (the Nittany Lions are currently about a 16-point favorite) following the Irish’s 33-3 opening loss to Georgia Tech.

But here’s the part that threw me for a loop. You would think the general public would be down on Michigan right now and that bettors would be all over the Ducks. So far, it’s been the exact opposite. In the 24 hours or so since LSVC sent out its six-point line, the Vegas casinos (which aren’t necessarily obligated to copy LSVC’s number) have set their spreads as high as nine-and-a-half points in the Wolverines’ favor. In other words: The early bettors consider Michigan a mortal lock to win by six or seven.

“Most of the early money that is bet is the ‘sharp money’ from professional bettors. Your novices -- they’re going to bet later in the week,” said Seba. “The professionals realize Michigan was embarrassed, and a lot of them are playing the ‘Michigan will bounce back’ angle.”

Who are we to question the professionals?
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9/02/2007 04:51:00 PM

Five Things We Learned This Weekend

Lloyd Carr
In addition to the historic loss to Appalachian State, Lloyd Carr's Michigan teams have lost five of their last six games to Big Ten rival Ohio State and have dropped four straight bowl games.
1. That property values are rising in that (NCAA Football Championship) Subdivision down the street. In the days to come, I’m guessing Appalachian State will get the full-on Good Morning America/Tonight Show treatment, and deservedly so. But to treat the Mountaineers’ historic win Saturday as some sort of Hoosiers-type miracle would be to severely discredit ASU’s program and its players as well as the Division Formerly Known As I-AA in general. I’m not saying Appy State 34, Michigan 32 wasn’t a gigantic shocker. It was. I’m not saying such events are going to start becoming regular occurrences. I’m not even saying it would happen again if the two teams met again next week.

But Saturday’s result did not transpire out of thin air. It was simply the most dramatic milestone to date in a movement that began nearly 20 years ago and has seen the dispersal of talent throughout the sport, from the rise of programs like Kansas State and Wisconsin to Northwestern’s improbable Rose Bowl run in 1995 (the same year the NCAA instituted the 85-scholarship lmit) to the likes of Louisville, Rutgers, Boise State and Utah becoming nationally competitive. Now, evidently, it extends to the upper realms of I-AA. This wasn’t Butler running some frustrating, slow-down offense to upset a Maryland in the NCAA basketball tournament. And it certainly wasn’t a case of Michigan fumbling eight times or some other freak occurrence. Appalachian State simply beat the Wolverines with some seriously talented athletes.

I can think of a half-dozen BCS conference teams off the top of my head -– Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina and Baylor –- that would be instantly better with Armanti Edwards as their quarterback or Dexter Jackson as a receiver, and there are probably far more than that. It’s still going to take the perfect confluence of events for a future I-AA team to beat a future Michigan, but it’s going to happen again sooner than later.

2. That this will be Lloyd Carr’s final year as Michigan's coach. What was previously just a widespread hunch is now a foregone conclusion. Carr has a better chance of watching the Wolverines’ 2008 season opener from a broadcast booth (as Larry Coker so awkwardly did for the Miami-Marshall game Saturday) than he does of coaching it from the sideline. Personally, I’ve always been on the fence regarding the criticism surrounding Carr. While I’ve long believed Michigan to be either perpetually overrated (both in the polls and the recruiting rankings) or, more realistically, a chronic underachiever, it’s not in my nature to come down on a guy that goes to three Rose Bowls in four years. So much for that.

I don’t doubt Mike Hart and Co. will rebound to have a decent season, but the fact is, Michigan, for all its national prestige, hasn’t as much as sniffed a national title since 1997, and Saturday’s debacle was definitive proof that the Wolverines never will without some sort of regime change. Carr won’t be fired, mind you. But he loves Michigan football more than anyone on the planet, and as such he will do what’s best for the program and gracefully step aside.

3. That we’re no closer to knowing the true national title favorite. On paper, the three most popular preseason picks -- No. 1 USC, No. 2 LSU and No. 3 West Virginia -- dispatched their opening-week opponents by a combined score of 145-38, but none did much of anything to dispel the primary questions surrounding them.

The Trojans’ work-in-progress offense was, like most of last season, efficient but hardly explosive in a 38-10 win over Idaho. USC mostly played it close to the vest, handing off over and over again to a never-ending rotation of talented but unproven running backs -- seven in total -- who combined to break off just two runs of 20 yards or longer. Man-of-the-hour Matt Flynn didn’t show a whole lot in his second career start for the Tigers, but he didn’t really have to what with the Tigers’ defense completely suffocating Mississippi State in a 45-0 whitewashing. And while West Virginia, as it’s expected to do all season, ran all over Western Michigan in a 62-24 win, the Mountaineers’ oft-scrutinized defense did not exactly inspire confidence by allowing the Broncos to complete 60 percent of their passes and make 42 percent of their third downs.

4. That Texas needs to get its cards in order. It was an unusually tumultuous offseason for Mack Brown’s normally fine-tuned program, what with an alarming number of police-blotter items, culminating in WR Billy Pittman’s bizarre three-game suspension Friday for violating NCAA rules by borrowing a friend’s car. Then in their opener, the Longhorns went out and played like a team possibly weighed down by distractions in a sluggish 24-13 win over Arkansas State. QB Colt McCoy, last year’s freshman sensation, was especially unimpressive, throwing two interceptions and, according to the AP account, three others that were dropped by Indians defenders. Perhaps Texas just needed a good kick in the rear and we shouldn’t draw too much from the result. But it’s worth noting that while McCoy earned the lion’s share of credit for last year’s 10-win season, this is Texas’ first year playing without a whole bunch of veteran leaders -- Justin Blalock, Tim Crowder, Selvin Young, Kasey Studdard, et. al. -- from the 2005 title team. The ‘Horns better get their ducks in a row quickly -- No. 22 TCU comes to town next week.

5. That Dennis Erickson’s impact at Arizona State is already being felt. There was no ugly, still-feeling-things-out opener for the Sun Devils, who went out and whipped San Jose State 45-3 on Saturday. Now before you go knocking San Jose State (in light of Appalachian State, are we really allowed to knock anyone’s opposition anymore?), keep in mind Dick Tomey’s Spartans were a bowl team last season that gave 13-0 Boise State its biggest scare of the season (23-20) and whose defense includes one of the nation’s top cornerbacks, Dwight Lowery. The Sun Devils nonetheless went out and racked up 520 yards of offense -- 250 rushing, 270 passing -- with QB Rudy Carpenter (14-of-20, 197 yards, two TDs, no INTs) looking much more like the confident freshman we saw two years ago. Erickson himself called it, "one of the most efficient performances for a first game I've ever had." Think these guys won’t be a factor soon?

One other note: You probably did not see it unless you’re a USC fan or happened to be watching Fox Sports Net late Saturday night, but in a touching moment, the Trojans lined up for their first extra-point attempt against Idaho without a kicker, intentionally accepting the delay of game penalty in honor of Mario Danelo, USC’s much-beloved kicker the past two seasons, who died last January when he fell from a cliff near his hometown in San Pedro, Calif. The crowd at the Coliseum at first seemed confused but then began cheering when they figured out what had happened.
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