SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/22/2007 11:59:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part II
Matthew Stafford made the big play when he needed to as Georgia beat Alabama in overtime.
It’s Sept. 23, and Kentucky is suddenly no worse than the third-best team in the SEC. Is that a testament to the strength of Andre Woodson and the Wildcats, or a sign that the venerable conference isn’t quite the juggernaut we thought it would be?
You know the conventional line of thinking: The SEC is just so tough and so deep (as I argued as recently as two weeks ago) that the teams end up knocking each other off every week. That’s exactly what happened Saturday when LSU throttled South Carolina, which had previously beaten Georgia, which on Saturday knocked off Alabama, a week after the Tide knocked off Arkansas -- which lost Saturday to Kentucky.
Every one of those teams has been ranked at some point this season -- yet every one of them (with the exception of LSU) has at least one major flaw.
Georgia certainly deserves credit for pulling off an overtime victory at revved-up Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night -- and QB Matthew Stafford wound up the star with his stunning touchdown pass on his first play of overtime. Yet for most of the night, Stafford looked as erratic and unimpressive as he did two weeks earlier against South Carolina (whose offense has its own issues), going 19-of-35 for 221 yards, two TDs and two picks. It looked like the Dawgs might have to win in spite of him.
Meanwhile, the Tide’s last-second win against Arkansas the week before doesn’t seem quite as special now that Kentucky beat the Razorbacks more decisively and on the road. The Wildcats deserve major credit for surviving a potentially lethal momentum swing early in the fourth quarter, when Arkansas notched a safety, then returned the ensuing punt for a touchdown to go up 29-21. They promptly scored three straight touchdowns to close it out.
QB Andre Woodson is sensational, and Kentucky’s overlooked running game (175 yards Saturday night) gives them a truly dangerous balance. That said, nobody would ever mistake UK’s defense for LSU’s. The Wildcats survived against Arkansas thanks in large part to the presence of Razorbacks QB Casey Dick (13-of-28, 157 yards, two interception) – Arkansas’ unquestioned Achilles heel.
My take on the SEC at this point in the season: Two truly elite teams (LSU and Florida) and a whole bunch of good-but-not-great squads (Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee), any of whom could beat the other on any given night but would have a hard time hanging with the Tigers and Gators.
∙ It will be interesting to see where Darren McFadden shows up on the various Heisman Watch lists this week. McFadden’s stock was unaffected, and in fact improved, after last week’s Alabama loss because of his gargantuan effort in the Razorbacks’ near-comeback. McFadden was no less impressive than usual against Kentucky (29 carries, 173 yards), but now that his team is 1-2, McFadden is likely to begin suffering a related consequence. His team is going to fall into obscurity, which means he’s going to be out of the limelight while other candidates like Tim Tebow, Steve Slaton, Ray Rice, Pat White and Sam Bradford gain exposure by playing in some of the biggest games each week.
∙ This is why it’s so hard for Texas Tech quarterbacks to get their due. Red Raiders QB Graham Harrell put up the following stat line Saturday against Oklahoma State: 46-of-67, 646 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Even Colt Brennan would envy that. Only one problem: Harrell’s team lost, 49-45, which also puts a damper on the latest dazzling performance by freshman WR Michael Crabtree. With 14 catches for 237 yards and three TDs, Crabtree is averaging 194 yards per game.
∙ A week after riding its running game to a rout at Nebraska, I had a feeling USC would show off John David Booty this week against Washington State, and he did not disappoint, going 28-of-35 for 280 yards and four touchdowns as the Trojans moved the ball at will all night. The most interesting part was how, for all those touted USC receivers, Booty’s top target was tight end Fred Davis (nine catches, 125 yards, two TDs). It was reminiscent of how Matt Leinart – even with the likes of Steve Smithand Dwayne Jarrett at his disposal -- used to lean heavily at times on less heralded guys like TE Dominique Byrd and fullback David Kirtman.
Meanwhile, ‘SC had another strong running night – only with a completely different mix of tailbacks than the week before. This time senior Chauncy Washington was the main guy, while last week’s sensation, Stafon Johnson, and freshman Joe McKnight played second fiddle. Previous starter C.J. Gable got just one carry.
∙ Here’s all you need to know about the state of Big Ten football: The league’s highest ranked team in the coaches poll, Wisconsin, got all it could handle Saturday night in its own stadium against an Iowa team that lost the week before to Iowa State. The Cyclones on Saturday lost to Toledo -- to go with previous losses to Kent State and Northern Iowa.
The Badgers may be 4-0, but it’s pretty clear by now they’re not elite (though I will say Iowa’s defense is pretty impressive, allowing their first two touchdowns of the season Saturday). Neither, as we found out Saturday, is Penn State. Perhaps a currently unranked team like Purdue (4-0) or Illinois (3-1) will ultimately rise to the top, but as of now Ohio State is the only team in the league that should scare people.
∙ To wrap yp, I'd like to thank ESPN's Mike Patrick for providing quite possibly the strangest moment in recent college football broadcast history (and thanks to Allen for sending the link). If by chance the YouTube police have taken it down by the time you read this, Patrick went on an inexplicable tangent about Britney Spears ... right before Georgia's winning touchdown pass in overtime.
Remind me again why Ron Franklin got bumped from that slot?
Mike Williams and the Syracuse offense left the Louisville defenders behind all day.
When Bobby Petrino abruptly departed Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons after last January’s Orange Bowl, AD Tom Jurich took less than a day to bring in his replacement, Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe, a new-age offensive thinker very much in the same mold as Petrino with whom Jurich had first crossed paths with nearly two decades earlier at Northern Arizona. When Kragthorpe, a former NFL quarterbacks coach, promptly convinced Heisman candidate Brian Brohm to return for his senior season, it appeared the Cardinals’ fast-rising program had averted a potential crisis.
The Kragthorpe era is officially off to a nightmare start following Saturday’s stunning 38-35 loss to previously hapless Syracuse. Offensive wizardry – even with a senior quarterback the caliber of Brohm – is only half the battle. Simply put, the Cardinals’ defense is atrocious, which is puzzling considering holdover coordinator Mike Cassity was largely successful under Petrino. The Orange came in with the nation’s 97th-ranked pass offense, but QB Andrew Robinson might has well have been Matt Leinart the way he torched Louisville’s secondary, continually burning them deep en route to a 428-yard, four-touchdown day.
The win couldn’t be any bigger for embattled Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, whose three-year record to date was 5-21 and whose team had not accomplished anything remotely close to Saturday’s victory. Robinson is clearly a star in the making. As for Louisville, the one-time national title aspirant will have its hands full just trying to finish higher than fifth in the offensively loaded Big East. Sadly, Brohm, who turned down a lot of money for one last shot at hometown glory, likely saw his Heisman hopes go up in smoke Saturday (two interceptions) despite throwing for a ridiculous 555 yards.
Speaking of horrendous defenses, top-ranked USC’s “statement” against Nebraska last week suddenly seems far less spectacular considering what Ball State did to the Huskers on Saturday. The Cardinals – whom, you may recall, gave Michigan fits last year – rolled up 606 yards of offense (including 424 passing yards by QB Nate Davis) and came within a long last-second field goal (and dropped last-second touchdown pass) of knocking off the Huskers in Lincoln. Nebraska has allowed 89 points the past two weeks. Best of luck against Missouri’s Chase Daniel in two weeks.
How badly must Penn State fans miss Michael Robinson right about now? Not to mention Tony Hunt? Saturday in Ann Arbor, the Nittany Lions’ offense was ... hmm, what’s the best word here ... impotent? Zero touchdowns and 271 total yards against the same defense Appalachian State and Oregon attacked at will. Michigan’s 14-9 win puts the once-forlorn Wolverines squarely back in the right direction, but with all due respect to Mike Hart (who was his usual splendid self) and Ryan Mallet (who didn’t do much, but more importantly, didn’t do anything particularly badly), this game was as much about what Penn State couldn’t do as it was what Michigan did.
Now I know what you’re thinking -- those teams ran spread offenses (the Wolverines’ long-standing Achilles heel), but JoePa was probably too stubborn to do the same, right? Well ... not at first. As you may recall, offensive coordinator Galen Hall ran the shotgun-spread often during Penn State’s 11-1 season two years ago when the athletic Robinson was his QB. At the start of the game, the more statue-like Anthony Morelli did the same thing, lining up in the shotgun in a four-receiver set. Two Wolverines pass rushers blew through, sacked him and he fumbled, setting up Michigan’s first touchdown. That was the end of that.
Penn State is in the unfortunate predicament that they have all kinds of athletic receivers perfect for the spread but no QB capable of running it. Meanwhile, RB Austin Scott (nine carries, 35 yards) may be an even bigger hindrance. The Nittany Lions’ best drive of the day ended on a Scott fumble, his third in two weeks. Penn State’s defense should once again keep it in every game this season, but you can’t reach the BCS with an offense that was mediocre last year and may be even worse this year.
How good is LSU? It was obvious from the beginning that QB Matt Flynn’s ankle was nowhere near healthy. He couldn’t get any push, which meant he couldn’t really throw – so the Tigers didn’t bother. Flynn threw for just 80 yards, but LSU ran for nearly 300 yards using seven different players (including backup QB Ryan Perriloux, who came in exclusively to run the spread-option, carrying eight times for 62 yards) and despite what the 28-16 score might indicate, the Gamecocks were never really in it after the first quarter (LSU led 28-7 until midway through the fourth quarter).
Tennessee and Ole Miss have shown the past two weeks that you can throw the ball on Florida (not exactly surprising considering the young secondary). But it’s going to take one heck of a passer to upstage Tim Tebow, who followed up his huge performance against Tennessee with another masterpiece against the Rebels (20-of-34 for 261 yards and two TDs, 27 carries for 166 yards and two TDs). I know the guy’s not exactly lacking for hype, but that’s just unreal. Going into the season, I thought Heisman talk for the then-unproven sophomore was premature – but not anymore.
Finally, in a classic chess match of renowned coaching wits, Virginia’s Al Groh (2007 Mailbag Worst Coach) appeared set to embarrass Georgia Tech’s Chan Gailey (2005 Worst Coach, 2006 finalist) early, jumping to a 21-7 first-quarter lead, did his best to choke it away (falling behind 23-21 late in the third) only to come through in the end, 28-23. It was a much-needed win for Groh’s Cavs – their third straight since an opening-week debacle at Wyoming and a sure sign that Gailey’s 2-2 team, after winning a division title last season, is headed back toward what Every Day Should Be Saturday once dubbed the "Chan Gailey Equilibrium" (seven wins).
Hurricanes QB Kyle Wright shredded the Aggies on Thursday.
Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, begins at sundown Friday, and in observance of the holiday, I will not be conducting my usual running blog entries Saturday (at least until after sundown). To tide you over until then, here are four questions to ponder heading into week four:
1) Is Miami back on the right track, or is Texas A&M that bad? If you missed Thursday night’s game, you missed an old-fashioned, Hurricane beatdown, the kind that used to be par for the course at the Orange Bowl before Miami began its decline to mediocrity during Larry Coker’s twilight years. It was only two weeks ago that the ‘Canes were on the wrong end of another blowout, at Oklahoma, and it looked then like not much had changed yet under Randy Shannon. But Thursday night, Miami’s defense came out energized and on fire, forcing three first-half turnovers and allowing just 40 yards of offense to race to a 24-0 halftime lead. The truly stunning part, however, was watching long-suffering QB Kyle Wright execute several brilliant play-action fakes and light up the Aggies’ defense for 275 yards on 21-of-26 passing.
It was definitely Miami’s most impressive performance in two years and a huge momentum boost for Shannon, but it also confirmed what I’ve long believed (and why I had yet to insert A&M into my top 25) -- that the Aggies, which needed triple overtime to fend off Fresno State, simply aren’t that good. How can that be? Dennis Franchione has now had five years to mold that program. And yet, based on last night’s performance, you’ve got to wonder how far the Aggies have really come since that 77-0 nightmare at Oklahoma his first season. (I guess we’ll find out Nov. 3 when they return to Norman.)
2) Is Alabama for real? Or, for that matter, is Georgia? CBS may be giving top billing Saturday to LSU-South Carolina, but the most intriguing game to be will be the one in Tuscaloosa. The Tide’s 41-38 victory over Arkansas last weekend was impressive and dramatic, but it also wasn’t entirely unexpected. Beating a second straight ranked foe this week would be a big eyebrow-raiser for Nick Saban’s team, particularly because it will probably require QB John Parker Wilson and RB Terry Grant shining against a much stiffer Georgia defense than any they’ve faced so far.
That being said, the Dawgs haven’t exactly capitalized on the momentum of last season’s strong finish as of yet, and the South Carolina game raised questions about whether QB Matthew Stafford may be underachieving (possibly by no fault of his own; his receivers leave a lot to be desired). Alabama’s defense is good but not great and provides him another showcase opportunity.
3) Is Boston College the most overlooked team in America right now? The Eagles are already 3-0 in the ACC. They’ve already beaten both of last year’s divisional champions (Georgia Tech and Wake Forest), with QB Matt Ryan -- “Mattie Heisman” as he’s becoming known in Chestnut Hill -- throwing for more than 400 yards against both. Yet as New York Times blogger Pete Thamel points out in this Q&A with the quarterback, his team, as always, is no better than the third-biggest sports story in its own city right now, behind the Patriots’ spy scandal and the Red Sox’s budding choke job. The Kevin Garnett/Celtics era is also right around the corner.
BC will likely fall even further under the national radar over the next month due to a bizarre schedule in which the Eagles now take a break from conference play for a string of snoozers against Army, UMass, Bowling Green and, yes, Notre Dame. By the time Ryan and the Eagles reemerge for their Oct. 25 showdown with Virginia Tech, they could potentially rise well into the Top 10 -- if the pollsters remember to include them on their ballot.
4) How many points will Hawaii score on Charleston Southern? If Colt Brennan’s ankle heals in time (and possibly even if it doesn’t), this has the potential to be one of the uglier scores in recent memory. The Warriors beat Northern Colorado 63-6 in their home opener (with Brennan playing only the first half). Charleston Southern, which currently checks in four spots below Northern Colorado at No. 208 in Jeff Sagarin’s Division I power ratings (Hawaii is 36th), gave up 52 in a recent loss to Wofford. Hide the women and children.
Having watched their team outscore their first three opponents by a combined score of 184-26 and rise all the way to No. 4 in the rankings, Oklahoma fans are setting their sights on the crystal football, and why not? Arch-rival Texas is struggling. Nebraska is not on the schedule. Missouri comes to Norman. And the rest of the Big 12 isn’t exactly intimidating.
But what if the Sooners’ national title hopes were to be prematurely derailed this Friday night? In a 40,000-seat stadium? Against a Conference USA opponent?
If that happens – and it’s entirely possible -- Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione knows he’ll be hearing the same question over and over again afterward: What was Oklahoma thinking playing a game AT Tulsa?
“It’s a catch 22,” said Castiglione. “Are we saying we’re only supposed to schedule teams we know we can beat? Then you’d be writing an article about, why won’t Oklahoma schedule anyone? We’re one of the universities that still believes non-conference strength of schedule means something.”
To that end, you would think OU already filled its quotient by facing Miami a couple weeks back. (The Sooners return the trip to Miami in 2009 and have future-home-and-homes scheduled with Florida State, Notre Dame and Tennessee.) The Sooners would surely have been excused for tacking on a I-AA opponent to round out an early-season slate that also included Utah State and North Texas.
Tulsa, on the other hand, is quickly becoming one of the scariest mid-majors in the country -- a possible Boise State in the making. After going to three bowl games in four years and winning a conference title under former coach Steve Kragthorpe’s wide-open offense, the Golden Hurricane decided to go even higher-octane when Kragthorpe left for Louisville. The school hired former Kragthorpe assistant Todd Graham, who in one year at Rice transformed the Owls from a horrendous wishbone team to a spread-passing team that earned its first bowl berth in 45 years. He then brought in Gus Malzahn, the former Arkansas high-school hurry-up guru who bolted Fayetteville after butting heads with head coach Houston Nutt.
The results have been immediate and somewhat jaw-dropping. Last week, quarterback Paul Smith threw for 454 yards and the Hurricane racked up 595 total yards in a 55-47 win over BYU. Keep in mind, in their first two games against Arizona and UCLA, that same Cougars defense allowed 491 yards – combined. “They are a great team” said OU linebacker Ryan Reynolds. “Talent wise, [Smith] is probably one of the best we will see all year.”
Give Oklahoma major credit. This is exactly the kind of game -- a road game against a formidable, in-state school that everyone still expects you to beat -- that most powerhouses avoid like the plague. For instance, there are six I-A schools in the state of Ohio besides Ohio State -- and the Buckeyes have not visited one of their stadiums since 1900. Michigan has never faced Central, Eastern or Western Michigan outside of Ann Arbor.
The Sooners, on the other hand, visited Tulsa as recently as 2002, also on a Friday night (Castiglione said OU is generally opposed to Friday night games but made an exception at Tulsa’s and ESPN’s request since it came in nearly a year in advance), and faced Smith and the revitalized Hurricane as recently as two years ago (a 31-15 win in Norman). So it’s not like they didn’t know what they were getting into when they agreed to a new two-for-one a couple years back.
Obviously, there are benefits for OU, which has a huge alumni base in Tulsa, but let’s be realistic: The Hurricane have a lot more to gain from the game than the Sooners. A nationally televised upset, or even a near-upset, of the nation’s No. 4 team would do wonders for Tulsa’s profile. An OU win, on the other hand, would be ... normal.
“I think it’s good for our state,” said Castiglione. “It might be helping them, but it’s helping us in a lot of ways too. We’re just trying to be a good partner.”
It all sounds great and philanthropic -- the question is, will Sooners fans be quite so understanding if Tulsa somehow puts up 54 on them?
Percy Harvin and Florida showed they are capable of repeating as champions.
1) That Florida will not give up its crown without a fight. My take on the Gators coming into the season was that they’d still be very good, but lost too many key defensive players to contend for a second straight title. But you don't necessarily need a dominant defense when you've got an offense like this one. Dear lord. QB Tim Tebow exceeded even the most delusional expectations in his first SEC start, torching Tennessee for 360 total yards, and Percy Harvin turned in his most electrifying night yet (195 rushing/receiving yards). Meanwhile, Florida’s defense held the Vols below 300 yards in an even bigger rout (59-20) than the ones Steve Spurrier used to lay on his home-state team.
Admittedly, Tennessee’s defense is subpar this year -– but it’s not chopped liver, either. There’s only one other SEC team that has the overall speed to shut down the Tebow/Harvin show, and that’s LSU. The Tigers still look like the more complete team to me, and will be favored when the teams meet in Baton Rouge on Oct. 6. But even if LSU wins that game, Florida could still work its way into a December rematch in Atlanta -- and by then, all bets are off.
2) That Nebraska’s still got a long ways to go. For the most part, my first trip to Lincoln in six years was highly enjoyable, but it also left me a tad bit sad. After a weekend of talking to Huskers fans (especially "DarthHusker" and the others who came out for my book signing Saturday morning) and listening to them on sports radio, it’s amazing how Bill Callahan has managed to singlehandedly lower the expectations of one of the proudest fan bases in the country. Hardly a single one believed Nebraska could upset USC, with many just hoping the home team would keep it close. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And while I’ve gone on record numerous times as to how impractical it is for a college program to run a full-blown, NFL West Coast offense, that wasn’t the Huskers’ problem Saturday night. The problem was the Trojans walked on to their home field and absolutely manhandled their defense. It was reminiscent of Nebraska’s infamous 62-36 loss to Colorado in 2001, with the obvious caveat that No. 1 USC was a more formidable opponent.
On the tunnel from the visitor’s locker room to the playing field at Memorial Stadium, one walks over "stars" (like the Hollywood Walk of Fame) commemorating the Huskers’ five national titles. Those glory years are starting to become more and more of a distant memory -- just as the possibility of a sixth under Callahan now seems ever-more distant.
3) That Darren McFadden remains very much the Heisman front-runner. It’s long been assumed that the biggest thing working against McFadden’s candidacy was the fact that his team might not be all that great this season. Well, the Razorbacks lost their first game Saturday night against Alabama -- and McFadden came out of it looking more impressive than ever. The junior running back put his team on his back and delivered a warrior-like effort (33 carries, 195 yards, two touchdowns) to rally from two 21-point deficits and eventually take the lead before losing on John Parker Wilson’s last-second touchdown pass. (Wilson, by the way, should begin entering every discussion of the nation’s top quarterbacks.)
Arkansas may have lost the game, but if any Heisman voter docks McFadden because of it, they ought to have their ballot revoked.
4) That Noel Devine is all that. It’s always interesting how some freshmen take longer than others to adjust to college. Among the nation’s elite recruits last February, USC signee Joe McKnight was the one expected to have the most immediate impact. Trojans practice observers are convinced McKnight will eventually deliver on his Reggie Bush-like promise, but so far he’s off to a rough start, injuring a knee ligament in preseason camp and mostly struggling in his limited on-field appearances so far. (Saturday night against Nebraska he had one carry for 5 yards and dropped an easy catch.) Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said afterward McKnight’s freshman season hasn’t been all that different so far from Bush’s, who didn’t truly begin making an impact until later in the year. “We need to do a better job of giving him more easy opportunities,” said Sarksian.
West Virginia’s Devine, on the other hand, has wasted no time making his presence felt. After using him sparingly in the Mountaineers’ first two games, coach Rich Rodriguez unleashed the former YouTube sensation in Thursday night’s nationally televised 31-14 win over Maryland, and while the Terps’ defense did an admirable job against WVU stars Pat White and Steve Slaton (holding them to a combined 159 yards on 37 attempts), they had no answer for the electrifying freshman Devine, who burst for runs of 76 and 31 yards and finished with 136 yards on just five carries. Devine’s recruiting stock slipped last winter because so many schools backed off him due to his academic and character concerns. I have not the foggiest idea how he’s doing in Morgantown academically and socially; football-wise, however, he’s already well ahead of the curve.
5) That some records apparently aren’t meant to be broken. Thanks to my alma mater’s distinguished journalism school, there are a boatload of Northwestern grads in the sportswriting profession, and it’s always bugged me how the ones who attended the school in an earlier era treat the NCAA-record 34-game losing streak they witnessed from 1979-82 with much the same fondness as a Nebraska grad who happened to attend the school from 1994 to ’97. Shouldn’t you be a little more embarrassed by that dubious distinction, Wildcats fans? Wouldn’t you want someone else to come along and break it as soon as humanly possible? Have a little pride, man.
Well -- maybe it’s just in the cards for Northwestern. Duke entered Saturday night’s game in Evanston sporting an increasingly unbearable 22-game losing streak (the last win coming against VMI nearly two years ago) and facing a schedule that seemed to hold all the makings of another oh-fer, which would have left the Blue Devils at a dangerously close 32 straight by the end of the year. So wouldn’t you know it, the Wildcats themselves wound up being the ones to end the misery for Ted Roof’s team, falling 20-14 when Wildcats QB C.J. Bacher failed to complete four straight passes from inside the Duke 7 at the end of the game. His Duke counterpart, Thaddeus Lewis, enjoyed a fabulous game, going 19-for-23 for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
So Northwestern’s record stays in tact for the foreseeable future, and, as recent SI.com intern and current Duke senior Greg Beaton points out, there’s at least one more winnable game on the Blue Devils’ schedule: They visit 0-3 Notre Dame on Nov. 17.