SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
10/20/2007 08:06:00 PM
Saturday Observations, Part II
Heisman Trophy candidate Tim Tebow put on quite a show against Kentucky.
You’ve got to hand it to the SEC. For all the hype (including my decreeing this year’s edition to be "the toughest conference in history"), for all the smack talk, for all the bizarre letters it’s elicited from rival commissioners, the conference has already provided more than its share of excitement this season.
That said, there’s now no shortage of doubt as to whether any of the league’s teams this year are truly elite. And don’t even get me started on all those supposedly monstrous defenses.
For the second straight week, Kentucky hosted a basketball-game-on-turf Saturday, running up and down the field with Florida just like it did last week against LSU. Certainly no one who watched would have come away raving about either team’s defense (nor would anyone who watched LSU-Kentucky last week or Tennessee-Alabama earlier today), but you’d have to be pretty jaded not to come away admiring the performances of dueling Heisman candidates Tim Tebow and Andre Woodson.
Tebow, quite simply, delivered his most sensational all-around performance yet, throwing for 256 yards and four touchdowns while running for 78 yards and another score. No play was bigger than his 40-yard bomb to Percy Harvin on the Gators’ final possession. A gutsy call in what was still just a seven-point game in the final two minutes, it took Florida down to the Kentucky 2, where Tebow finished off the Wildcats with his feet.
It turned out Florida needed that touchdown, because Andre Woodson wound up throwing his fifth of the night on the game’s final play (thus the final, 45-37 margin). As impressive as Tebow was, Woodson was arguably even better, going a staggering 35-of-50 for 415 yards, five TDs and no interceptions. Though his team came up short, I would hope he’s not dropping off anyone’s Heisman ballots just yet.
Beyond the individual ramifications, Florida got a much-needed win if it hopes to make it back to Atlanta in December. With Tennessee’s loss Saturday, the Gators now control their own destiny in the East (as does South Carolina, which hosts Florida next month). Georgia can still have a say as well if it beats Florida next week. Kentucky and Tennessee aren’t necessarily out of it, either, though the scenarios are too complex for me to process right now.
• It’s hard to believe that at one point last Saturday, Cal was poised to ascend to No. 1 in the country. Two losses later -- one to an Oregon State team that previously lost 34-3 to Cincinnati, and another to a UCLA team that’s been shellacked by Utah and lost to Notre Dame -- the Bears have been exposed as outright pretenders. Even their seemingly “big” season-opening victory over Tennessee has lost its luster now that the Vols’ defense has been exposed as a sham. And they can’t blame this week's 30-21 loss on Nate Longshore’s absence -- he not only played but threw the fatal, game-sealing interception the Bruins returned for a touchdown.
Hmm. Suddenly I’m not feeling so good about that Oregon national title-game pick, either (especially now that the Ducks are down to about their fifth-string receiver). Meanwhile, the Bruins may be the nation’s biggest enigma. Despite suffering two of the ugliest non-conference losses of any team in the country, UCLA now sits alone in first place at 4-0 in the Pac-10, a half-game above idle Arizona State.
If nothing else, it should be obvious at this point that Patrick Cowan -- not the injured Ben Olson -- is the Bruins’ most effective quarterback. He’s only played in two games this season (Washington and Cal), and both have wound up impressive UCLA victories.
• It was kind of a strange game for Ohio State in its first outing since ascending to No. 1 in the polls. The Buckeyes cruised to a 17-0 first-half lead over Michigan State, then nearly choked it away on consecutive Todd Boeckman turnovers that the Spartans returned for touchdowns. (There very easily could have been a third when Chris Wells fumbled on the ensuing possession, but the Spartans whiffed on the recovery.)
The good news for the Buckeyes (8-0) is that they held on for the 24-17 win, and that the sophomore Wells had a career performance (31 carries, 221 yards). A sloppy performance like that next week at Penn State, however, would be difficult to overcome.
• Moving the Florida State-Miami game back to October didn’t necessarily erase much of the sloppiness that marked teams’ past three Labor Day showdowns (the teams combined for nine turnovers), but this year’s version was still far more exciting. In the end, the ‘Canes delivered first-year coach Randy Shannon a huge, comeback victory -- even after their hopes appeared snuffed by an FSU goal-line stand with 5:29 remaining.
Miami QB Kirby Freeman -- Kirby Freeman?! – completed consecutive impressive passes with less than two minutes remaining, the second one a go-ahead 13-yard touchdown to Dedrick Epps, then ‘Canes LB Colin McCarthy sealed it with a 28-yard fumble return off a Teraz McCray sack of Xavier Lee.
Neither team is close to returning to national prominence just yet, but in terms of program building, Shannon couldn’t have asked for a much bigger win than that. The ‘Canes (5-3) snapped a two-game ACC skid while assuring a second straight week of criticism for the rival ‘Noles (4-3).
• Why, I’ve been asked all seasons, do Texas Tech’s players get so little respect when it comes to things like the Heisman? Because of games like Saturday’s at Missouri. For all the gaudy numbers Mike Leach’s quarterbacks and receivers put up year after year, when it comes time to face actual, upper-echelon opponents, the numbers don’t do a whole heck of a lot of good.
Saturday against No. 16 Missouri, Raiders QB Graham Harrell got his 397 yards -- but he also threw four picks -- in a 41-10 Tigers whopping. Missouri QB Chase Daniel had 50 fewer pass attempts but came away with the “W,” a big one for the Tigers, who have presumably set their sights on a Big 12 title-game rematch with Oklahoma (not that it will be a cakewalk with Kansas State, Colorado and Kansas still to play).
• Is your offense getting you down? Have injuries been decimating your roster? What you need is a weekend getaway to South Bend (just beware the turbulence).
Amazing how much more seamlessly Mark Sanchez and the rest of the USC offense were able to operate against Notre Dame on Saturday than they were a week earlier against Arizona. And to think, it was two years ago this week that a far more explosive Trojans team needed every last second -- not to mention a little push at the end -- to survive the Irish.
• Finally, the ugliness at Nebraska just gets ... umm, uglier. Presumably in front of his new boss, Tom Osborne (or “that crusty old f---,” as the current coach reportedly called his distinguished predecessor), Bill Callahan’s clearly deflated team gave up 36 points and 459 yards to the same Texas A&M offense that put up seven on Texas Tech last week. I’m sure it will go into his file.
Vanderbilt's defense stuffed Steve Spurrier's offense all day long.
It’s official. I’ve quite obviously become desensitized to college football upsets, because the No. 6 team in the country, South Carolina, just lost to 17-6 Vanderbilt, yet I can’t seem to elicit even the slightest sense of surprise.
Think about that for a second. In nearly any other season prior to this one, a top-10 team losing to the Commodores might have generated the same, breathless reaction as Douglas beating Tyson or U.S. hockey beating Russia. In this, the eighth week of the 2007 college football season, however, Vandy beating South Carolina seems almost par for the course, no matter the ramifications. In my new-fangled upset classification system, this one falls squarely into the “weird” tier.
Mind you, the Gamecocks hadn’t risen to No. 6 by accident. Sitting at 6-1, South Carolina had won at Georgia and manhandled Kentucky just a week before the Wildcats knocked off No. 1 LSU.
But Steve Spurrier’s team had been winning with defense. From yo-yoing quarterbacks to lamenting his line’s blocking woes, the Head Ball Coach has been frustrated with his offense all season. Saturday, Vandy’s long-underrated defense took advantage, notching five sacks and three interceptions against South Carolina QBs Chris Smelley and Blake Mitchell. Meanwhile, recently elevated Commodores QB Mackenzi Adams -- who came in last week and nearly pulled off an upset of Georgia -- made just enough plays in the first half to stake his team to an insurmountable lead.
Congrats to Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, who earned the most significant victory of his six-year tenure. More importantly, his 4-3 team -- which, despite showing marked improvement the past two seasons has yet to get over the hump necessary to reach a bowl game -- has now put itself in position to do just that if it can beat Miami of Ohio next week and pull off one more “upset” (the ‘Dores close with Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest).
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s loss coupled with Alabama’s rout of the Vols means Kentucky can take over sole possession of first in the SEC East if it beats Florida today. A Gators win would give the nation’s toughest division five teams each with two conferences losses. All five, mind you, were ranked in the Top 25 as of last week. (Tennessee will presumably fall out.)
The real surprise of the day so far took place in Ames, Iowa, where No. 5 Oklahoma had to fight tooth and nail to survive 1-6 Iowa State. There’s truly no logical explanation for this one. Just a week earlier, Texas beat the Cyclones 56-3. Saturday, Iowa State led the Sooners 7-0 at halftime, and trailed 14-7 late when QB Bret Meyer’s pass into the end zone got picked off by Oklahoma’s D.J. Wolfe.
Oklahoma has become a trendy pick lately to work its way back into the national-title picture, but Saturday’s game, coupled with the Sooners' puzzling loss at Colorado, don’t exactly inspire confidence. QB Sam Bradford, so efficient most of the season, has been rendered a non-factor in both of the Sooners’ Big 12 road games. RB Chris Brown, the star of last week’s Missouri loss, ultimately bailed out sloppy Oklahoma (three turnovers), which was extremely fortunate Iowa State failed to score on three drives inside the Sooners’ 20 (missing a field goal, failing to convert a fourth-and-one and that final interception).
Then again, this season, it’s hard to complain about any victory. After all, you be Minnesota, which lost 27-21 to Division II North Dakota State. And even this wasn’t surprising, considering the Gophers are 1-7, while the Bison are 7-0, ranked No. 1 in the Division Formerly Known as I-AA and came within a point of Minnesota a year ago.
That’s right folks, we’ve reached the point where a team that's only in I-AA, but not even a full-fledged member yet (the Bison are in the last year of their transition from Division II and therefore not yet eligible for the playoffs) is better than the worst team in the Big Ten.
After Tennessee throttled Georgia two weeks ago, I warned against putting too much stock in the Vols’ purported resurgence. After all, no team that loses a game 59-20 (as Tennessee did against Florida earlier in the season) is going to win any championships. Sure enough, Alabama spanked the Vols in similar fashion, Saturday, with QB John Parker Wilson shredding Tennessee’s defense to the tune of 346 yards and three touchdowns.
Whatever you do, don’t go trying to connect the dots when it comes to the SEC this season. Alabama routed Tennessee, which routed Georgia -- but the Dawgs beat the Crimson Tide. Georgia also beat Vanderbilt, which itself just beat South Carolina -- which itself beat the Dawgs. Dizzy yet?
Finally, Cincinnati’s 6-0 start suddenly seems like a distant memory. The Bearcats have now lost in consecutive weeks to 4-4 Louisville (which you might have seen losing at Connecticut on Friday night) and 3-4 Pittsburgh, which gave coach Dave Wannstedt a much-needed, stop-the-bleeding victory Saturday. And they even did it the Wannstedt way, gashing the Bearcats for 265 rushing yards.
Rutgers RB Ray Rice has rushed for at least 175 yards in three games this season.
Yet again, it seems ESPN and the Big East were privy to some sort of psychic information when they made out the schedule for this season. Just four days after upstart South Florida debuted at No. 2 in the BCS standings, the 6-0 Bulls visit 4-2 Rutgers tonight in one of those must-see Thursday night showcases that are quickly becoming annual occurrences for that conference.
The question is, will this one, as was the case with Louisville-West Virginia and Rutgers-Louisville a year ago, spell doom for the undefeated road team?
While USF has been busy exceeding anyone's wildest expectations this season -- winning at Auburn, knocking off No. 5 West Virginia, thrashing purported "rival" UCF 64-12 -- preseason No. 16 Rutgers recently dropped consecutive home games to Maryland and Cincinnati to fall out of the rankings completely.
So, No. 2 USF should steamroll unranked Rutgers, correct? Sure … just like last week's No. 2 Cal should have had no problem with 3-3 Oregon State. Upsets happen. Here's why this one could.
It's no secret that Jim Leavitt's Bulls have made their mark with a speedy, swarming defense, one that currently ranks 11th in the country at 284.3 yards per game allowed. Even more impressively, USF has gone 14 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, a stretch that includes two meetings with West Virginia star Steve Slaton (who averaged 47.5 yards in those games) and last week's date with the nation's current No. 3 rusher, UCF's Kevin Smith (18 carries, 55 yards).
So, who was the last running back that did hit triple-digits against the Bulls? That would be the guy they're facing Thursday night, Rutgers star Ray Rice.In a 22-20 Scarlet Knights win in Tampa on Sept. 29, 2006, Rice wore down USF with 35 carries for 202 yards and two touchdowns. This on the heels of a 158-yard night as a true freshman a year earlier (though the Bulls won that one 45-31).
"He is tremendous," USF coach Leavitt said of Rice, who is currently fifth nationally in rushing (136.3 yards per game). "He can bounce outside, inside, he is strong and they have awfully good blocking. It is going to be a really tough challenge for us."
It's no accident why Rice, rather than Slaton or Smith, has been the Bulls' kryptonite. As noted, USF's forte is speed -- scary, home-grown Florida speed like we saw on national champion Florida's defense last year. (On one play last week, Bulls DE George Selvie, the nation's sack leader with 11.5, stormed through the line to strip UCF's quarterback … on a handoff.) It's that speed that's allowed them to counter guys like Slaton and Pat White, who make their living by making guys miss.
Rice, on the other hand, exemplifies old-school power football. It's not that the junior isn't fast, but that Rutgers utilizes him in much the same manner as Michigan does Mike Hart. He's a workhorse, carrying the ball at least 34 times on three occasions already this season, including a 36-carry, 199-yard, three-TD outing in last week's 38-14 win at Syracuse. Slowing him down (as Cincinnati did two weeks ago) requires stamina more than speed.
"You’re not going to stop him, he is too good," said Leavitt, "but hopefully we can corral him a little bit."
If they can do that, the Bulls should be in decent shape. Rutgers QB Mike Teel, though ranked fifth nationally in pass effiency, remains prone to mistakes, throwing five interceptions in his past three games, and will likely face heavy pressure from Selvie and Co. Meanwhile, USF dual-threat QB Matt Grothe and RB Mike Ford could present problems for Rutgers' defense.
Of course, they may not see the field much if Rice and the Knights manage to eat up chunks of clock and yardage the way they did last year (37:16 to 22:44). The coaches and Harris poll voters may be the ones weighing the Bulls down in the standings, but in reality, Rice -- not to mention a short travel week and a sure-to-be electric Rutgers Stadium crowd -- may be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of USF's path to New Orleans.
Bill Callahan (right) figures to follow Steve Pederson out the door soon enough.
The first hammer in football's annual coaching carousel dropped Monday -- only the casualty wasn't actually a coach. It was an athletic director whose botched coaching change four years ago has helped turn one of college football's proudest programs into a laughingstock, one that will likely be looking for a new coach again very soon.
In the wake of Nebraska's third lopsided defeat of the season -- this one the Huskers' worst home loss in nearly 50 years, 45-14 to Oklahoma State (on the same day they honored their 1997 national title team, no less) -- the university's chancellor, Harvey Perlman, wisely axed the man most responsible for the mess: athletic director Steve Pederson.
Technically, the blame for 4-3 Nebraska's on-field woes falls at the feet of fourth-year coach Bill Callahan and his defensive coordinator, Kevin Cosgrove. (Don't worry, they'll both be gone soon, too.) However, it was Pederson who, upon arriving from Pittsburgh, made the puzzling decision in November 2003 to not only fire then-head coach Frank Solich (less than two years removed from a BCS title game appearance) but, after being rejected by Arkansas' Houston Nutt and several other desired candidates, somehow deemed it a good idea to bring in an ex-NFL coach whose preferred style of offense would require undoing an entire 40-plus-year culture of power football at Nebraska, not to mention overhauling its entire roster.
At the time, axing Solich, while viewed as somewhat inhumane, didn't seem all that preposterous. Nebraska had just endured an uncharacteristic 7-7 season the year before and, though its record improved to 9-3, had still been blown off the field by teams like Texas and Kansas State. That decision only looked worse with time, however, once Callahan was hired.
The ex-Raiders Super Bowl coach proved a bad fit from the get-go, alienating the locals both by going 5-6 in his first season (Nebraska's first losing campaign since 1961) and abandoning the program's traditional emphasis on in-state recruiting. As he gradually brought in the necessary athletes to run his preferred West Coast offense, the Huskers gradually got a little better, improving to 8-4 in 2005 and 9-5 (including a Big 12 North title) last season.
But in this, the year when many expected Callahan to finally return Nebraska to national prominence (now that he had a roster full of his own recruits), the Huskers have instead regressed dramatically, particularly on defense. Losing 49-31 to top-ranked USC was one thing, but when Cosgrove's defense followed up that poor showing by allowing 601 yards to Ball State in a 41-40 escape, it was clear something was awry. Consecutive blowout defeats to Missouri (41-6) and Oklahoma State confirmed things to be even worse than imagined.
In the 48 hours since the Oklahoma State game, a full-on revolt had begun across the state, from the message boards to the newspapers to a group of disgusted former players reportedly planning a meeting for later this week to vent its frustration. Perlman had to do something to stop the bleeding. That he did it just three months after extending Pederson's contract through 2013 (Pederson in turn had the gall to extend Callahan's contract shortly before the USC game) shows you just how desperate the situation has become.
Pederson may have sealed his own fate way back on the day he fired Solich, uttering the now-infamous proclamation that "I refuse to let this program [9-3 at the time] gravitate to mediocrity." In fact, that's exactly what he did -- though "mediocre" may be putting it too kindly.
Perlman said Monday that he would soon appoint an interim athletic director with "full authority to assess the state of the athletic department and its athletic programs and to make any decision necessary to advance those programs." Translation: The guy can fire coaches -- and, barring a dramatic turnaround, he will.
As a result, Perlman is facing an unusually important "interim AD selection" -- because the identity of that person could go a long way in determining the identity of Nebraska's next football coach. The popular rumor du jour is that of Huskers legend/Congressman Tom Osborne temporarily taking the reins and bringing back favorite son Turner Gill, who, in his second season at Buffalo, has the long-inept Bulls sitting a half-game out of first in the MAC's East Division with a 3-1 conference record.
As appealing as that must sound to suffering Huskers fans, the fact is it's only Oct. 15, and there's no need to rush into a decision on either front. It's hard enough to rebuild a program, let alone one that's just been set back four years by one of the most ill-conceived "experiments" in college football history. As Nebraska found out the hard way, it's best to be absolutely sure you're hiring the best man for the job -- not just making the biggest splash.
Matt Grothe and the Bulls debuted at No. 2 in the BCS Standings.
Normally, the release of the season's first BCS standings officially establishes the first set of "favorites" to reach the national title game. The way this season has transpired so far, however, all Sunday's release probably did was help ensure that No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 South Florida will be the next titans to fall.
Normally, this is the time when we start crunching numbers and cursing computers, playing out all the possible nightmare scenarios that could emerge as this year's Florida State/Miami/Washington (2000) or USC/Oklahoma/Auburn (2004). Don't even bother this year. Not after six top-five teams and 11 top-10 teams have lost in the past three weeks alone.
With so much volatility already, it would be foolish to assume that the standings come Dec. 2 will remotely resemble those from Oct. 14. Heck, at the current place, there will probably be a radical makeover as soon as next Sunday.
Even after voting USF No. 1 myself, I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised if the Bulls' run ends as soon as Thursday night at Rutgers. And while there's no obvious equal to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten (which barely even entered a second team -- No. 25 Michigan -- in Sunday's standings), that doesn't mean Ohio State won't eventually suffer its own Oklahoma-Colorado or Cal-Oregon State moment.
Remember when a mediocre Michigan State team stunned the then-No. 1 Buckeyes in Columbus in the BCS' first season (1998)? Guess who comes to town Saturday? (And these Spartans are actually 5-2).
Not that I'm predicting a Michigan State upset. Personally, I'd like to avoid predicting much of anything from here on out because it's become an inherently futile endeavor -- but unfortunately, my bosses won't let me get away with it. Just this afternoon, I was charged with the task of projecting the five BCS bowl matchups for this week's Sports Illustrated. A dart board would have come in handy.
In doing so, I operated under the assumption that there will be no undefeated teams by the end of the regular season (besides perhaps Hawaii). Not only will USF and Ohio State lose at least once, but so, too, will BCS No. 3 Boston College (most likely more than once). No. 8 Arizona State (which hosts both Cal and USC) and No. 13 Kansas (which misses Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech, at least until the Big 12 title game) have as good a chance of running the table as any of the higher-ranked undefeated teams, but my faith in them is no stronger than it is the others.
In other words, I'm guessing the two eventual titles participants will be the ones that A) Have already suffered a defeat and B) Are most poised to run the table from here. Who are those teams?
While no season in the BCS era has featured near as many stunning results as this one, I do remember one that played out somewhat similarly: 2003.
The first BCS standings that year came out Oct. 18. Much like this season, only the top three (Oklahoma, Miami and Virginia Tech) and a couple outliers (No. 10 Northern Illinois and No. 14 TCU) remained undefeated. And the two teams that would wind up splitting the national championship, USC and LSU, had already suffered losses and found themselves ranked seventh and 12th, respectively. The Trojans' loss had come Sept. 27 against Cal (in triple overtime), while the Tigers had fallen at home to 3-3 Florida on Oct. 11.
The two teams I pegged for Sports Illustrated fit nearly identical profiles. One is LSU, which, like that year's Tigers, suffered its first loss during the second week of October, and which, like that year's USC team, did so in triple overtime. In a field of flawed contenders, the Tigers are the one team that still inspires the most confidence. I see them catching fire and winning the rest of their regular-season games, starting this week against Auburn. Obviously, whichever East division foe they draw in the SEC title game will be a bear, but LSU ran into a similar scenario in '03, drawing an Atlanta rematch with a 10-2 Georgia team it had beaten in dramatic fashion in Baton Rouge. The Tigers won 34-13.
Meanwhile, my projected opponent for LSU is, like the Tigers themselves that year, a less obvious choice at this stage in the game: No. 10 Oregon. Just like 2003 USC, the Ducks' sole setback thus far came against Cal, also in dramatic fashion, also on the last weekend of September. Just like those Trojans, Oregon features an explosive offense led by a potential Heisman QB (Dennis Dixon) and future pro running back (Jonathan Stewart). Most importantly, its remaining schedule lines up favorably: Limping USC (Oct. 27), torrid but still-unproven ASU (Nov. 3) and resurgent rival Oregon State (Dec. 1) all have to come to Eugene.
As for whether those two will be obvious choices, or whether their selection will come at the expense of a jilted third team -- a la 2003 -- I can't even begin to predict. Maybe it will be an exact Sugar Bowl rematch: LSU-Oklahoma (though I'm pegging the Sooners to lose once more, either at Texas Tech or against sneaky-good Kansas in the Big 12 title game).
Don't bother sending me your doomsday scenarios just yet. If ever there was a season to "wait and see how things play out," this is most definitely it.
1) That Les Miles’ luck finally ran out -- but not his class. A week after needing every one of five fourth-down conversions to survive Florida -- and after going 9-for-9 on fourth downs for the season -- LSU lost the No. 1 ranking on ... a 4th-and-2 running play. This time, Miles didn’t have a choice in his decision (Kentucky had scored a touchdown at the start of triple overtime), and this time he didn’t have battering ram Jacob Hester at his disposal. The tailback/fullback had limped off the field following the play before. The Tigers handed off to Charles Scott, who didn’t make it.
Miles will undoubtedly face an avalanche of questions in the aftermath of the 43-37 defeat (like where was QB Ryan Perrilloux down the stretch? Considering how badly Matt Flynn struggled, Perrilloux’s disappearance was puzzling, not to mention he could have given LSU another option on that final 4th-and-2). But I find myself struck by something else about the Tigers’ leader. It would have been very convenient -- and understandable -- for Miles to blame the defeat on fatigue. The fact is, his team is in the midst of an absolutely brutal stretch, having to follow last week’s draining Florida game with a trip to face Andre Woodson and Co., followed by a date next week with Auburn’s physical defense. If any team could use a bye week right about now, it’s the Tigers.
But Miles refused to take the bait Saturday night, telling the New York Times, "If I thought there were tired or showed lack of effort, or if in any way there was a hangover, I would have told you, O.K. I don’t believe that. I believe that we played our tails off. Kentucky played awfully well." In the same article, the Times described how Miles made a point of arranging for him and Rich Brooks to meet on the field for an hour-delayed postgame handshake after Wildcats fans’ field-storming prevented it from happening the first time. "I hope that you win the rest of them," Miles said to Brooks before parting. Even if his team wasn’t its most impressive Saturday ... that was.
2) That DeSean Jackson is (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap) "over-rated". If "big-time players make big-time plays," as Santana Moss famously proclaimed, how do you explain Cal’s purported Heisman candidate producing a whopping four catches for 5 yards and one 12-yard punt return in the Bears’ crushing 31-28 loss to Oregon State? I realize Cal was playing with a backup quarterback, that receivers only get so many touches per game, that the Beavers were obviously loaded up to stop Jackson (hence, fellow receiver LaVelle Hawkins wound up with nine catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns) and that you can always punt away from him. But this wasn’t a one-time thing for Cal’s smack-talking superstar. His highlights this season have consisted of one big punt return (a 77-yard touchdown against Tennessee; he has a total of 30 return yards in his other five games) and one big receiving game (his 161 yards on 11 catches against Oregon exceeds his combined yardage of 156 in the other five games).
Jackson’s speed and playmaking ability is indisputable, but how much good is it really doing the Bears? A true, elite difference-maker finds a way to make an impact every week, not every third week. Perhaps Jackson only "gets up" for the big games (his two best performances have come against Cal’s two best opponents), but I doubt that’s the whole story. While Jackson loves to run in open space, watching him Saturday night it looked at times like he was trying to avoid contact like the plague. While the game will be remembered most for QB Kevin Riley’s ill-fated tuck-and-run with 14 seconds left, that play was set up by a pass-interference call Jackson garnered on third and long. If you watched the replay, you saw that Jackson was barely touched, but that didn’t stop him from sprawling on to the field like he’d just been struck by lightning and staying there for an extended period. Despite the defeat, Cal still controls its own destiny in its pursuit of that elusive Rose Bowl bid, but the Bears need Jackson on his feet, moving his feet, far more often than he has so far.
3) That the Big Ten may come down to Ohio State-Michigan ... again. Appalachian State and Oregon be damned -- the script is starting to play out like it has so many times before. The Illinois bandwagon filled up prematurely. Wisconsin is heading south faster than a Long Island retiree. Look at the top of the Big Ten standings this week and you’ll see two familiar names tied for first at 3-0 in league play: Ohio State and Michigan.
The new No. 1 team in the land has been cruising for some time now, and the question isn’t whether the Buckeyes will be playing for the Big Ten title when it visits Ann Arbor on Nov. 17, but whether the national title will be in play as well. Only one game -- Oct. 27 at Penn State -- stands as a potential obstacle to an 11-0 start for James Laurinaitis and Co. OSU has had all sorts of troubles in Happy Valley over the years, even when the Nittany Lions weren’t very good. Such appeared to be the case just a few weeks ago when Penn State lost consecutive road games to Michigan and Illinois, but they’ve looked much better in lopsided home wins over Iowa and the Badgers.
Meanwhile, another team left for dead just a few weeks ago, 5-2 Michigan, finally perked up with Saturday’s 48-21 rout of Purdue. The Wolverines’ offense finally looked like the star-studded unit they are, even with Mike Hart sitting out the second half. Michigan’s biggest remaining test figured to be next week in Champaign, where mobile QB Juice Williams would look to do his best Armanti Edwards/Dennis Dixon slice-job on Michigan’s oft-maligned defense, but a struggling Williams found himself benched for impressive backup Eddie McGee at one point in Saturday’s 10-6 loss to Iowa, causing an unneeded, midseason quarterback controversy for the Illini. If the now 24th-ranked Wolverines survive that one ... it may soon be as if Appalachian State/Oregon never happened.
4)That Hawaii better be darn glad it gets Boise State at home. Watching the Warriors’ high-octane offense bog down in the rain and mud for the majority of Friday night’s game at San Jose State (Colt Brennan threw four interceptions before rallying his now 7-0 team to a 42-35 overtime victory over the now 3-4 Spartans), I developed a new theory as to why Hawaii is so drastically more imposing at home than on the road (where it also needed OT to survive 2-4 Louisiana Tech). Most people assume it’s the long travel Hawaii has to endure every time it leaves the island, but I don’t buy completely buy that. It’s not the Warriors are the only team in the country that has to fly places, not to mentioned highly trained young athletes are far less susceptible to jet leg than, say, out-of-shape sportswriters like myself. June Jones’ Run 'n' Shoot offense -– which Hawaii spends the large majority of time practicing or playing in ideal conditions -- is heavily dependent on precision and timing and therefore far more likely to be disrupted by variables like weather or unfriendly crowds.
Hawaii’s ridiculous home/road discrepancy (its average margin-of-victory at home is 42.7, on the road, 17.8), plus a schedule-strength rating worse than many I-AA teams), makes it difficult to truly gauge where the Warriors should be ranked, if at all. At home, I think Hawaii is fully capable of beating half the teams in the top 25; on the road, they’re fortunate just to beat mid-level WAC foes. The good news for Brennan and Co., however, is that four of their last five games are at home – including their season-ending dates with Boise State and Washington. And if Hawaii does manage to finish in the top 12 and reach the BCS, it will most likely be in the Sugar Bowl – where the game is contested in the sterile confines of the Superdome.
5) That Vanderbilt is officially snake-bitten. I predicted before the season that, even in the deeply competitive SEC East, this would be the year the Commodores finally reached a bowl game. Doing so would entail handling a manageable non-conference schedule (with all games at home) of Richmond, Eastern Michigan, Miami of Ohio and Wake Forest. So far, they’ve won the first two. Then, all that would be left is two SEC victories, one, an early-season toss-up against Ole Miss. Vandy took care of business there as well, mauling the Rebels 31-17. But the second victory would undoubtedly take the form of an upset over a more highly regarded conference foe. Saturday night’s game against Georgia would have qualified as such, and the 'Dores had it in their grasp ... and blew it.
A year after stunning the Dawgs in Athens, Vandy jumped to a 17-7 halftime lead and appeared poised to make it two straight. Even after Georgia rallied to tie the game 17-17 with 6:12 left, the 'Dores still appeared to have control, driving to the Dawgs’ 18-yard line with 3:17 left. But Vandy being Vandy, running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison fumbled. Georgia recovered at its own 8 and drove 73 yards to set up Brandon Coutu’s game-winning field goal. It was a much needed win for Georgia (5-2) following last week’s debacle against Tennessee. Vandy, on the other hand, fell to 3-3, and now that Wake Forest has again emerged as one of the ACC’s better teams (knocking off Florida State on Thursday night), it’s hard to envision the ‘Dores finding two more victories (in addition to Miami of Ohio) amongst their remaining games at No. 6 South Carolina, No. 14 Florida and No. 20 Tennessee and home against No. 8 Kentucky and 4-2 Wake.
Julian Arthur and Cal missed out on an opportunity to jump to No. 1.
If anyone would like to fill out my AP ballot for me tonight, I would be greatly appreciative. Despite considerable resistance, my head finally exploded at about 10:30 tonight. How could it not? When your job entails analyzing something that no longer bears the slightest degree of logic or reason, eventually the ol' cranium is bound to pull a no mas.
Sorry to break it to you, brain. That earth-shattering loss by No. 1 LSU? That's old news already. You've had a whole two hours to refresh yourself -- it's time to go wrapping yourself around No. 2 Cal's loss to 3-3 Oregon State. Yes, the same Oregon State team that previously lost 34-3 to Cincinnati. ... which was itself was 6-0 before losing Saturday night to 3-3 Louisville ... which itself previously lost to Utah and Syracuse.
Yep -- the above paragraph pretty much says it all about this season of anarchy. Out of all the latest, seemingly inexplicable developments, the one most easily explained is Cal. It's pretty simple, really: They didn't have Nate Longshore.
Not only was the Bears' offense less explosive without its veteran quarterback (DeSean Jackson: four catches for 4 yards), but Longshore's replacement, Kevin Riley, was directly responsible for the ultimate, final straw. One could only cringe in agony for the redshirt feshman when, after doing nearly everything in his power to rally Cal from a 10-point deficit in the last three minutes -- first by throwing a 64-yard touchdown to LaVelle Hawkins, then by driving the Bears from their own 5 all the way to the Oregon State 12 -- he made the crucial mistake of taking off running on a first down with 14 seconds left. Cal had no timeouts remaining, so when Oregon State brought him down well short of the first down, the clock ran out before the Bears could get the kicker onto the field to attempt a game-tying field goal.
I can't think of a much more painful way to lose -- especially with the school's first No. 1 ranking in 56 years there for the taking.
So, with both the No. 1 and 2 teams losing on the same day for the first time since 1996 (as opposed to last week, when only No. 2 USC got knocked off, or the week before, when five of the top 10 lost), Ohio State is expected to jump from No. 3 to No. 1 when the new polls come out Sunday. This despite the fact the Buckeyes' 7-0 start does not include a single win over any of the other 24 teams that will appear in the new rankings. I don't feel particularly comfortable with that prospect and am currently contemplating a different possibility for my new ballot. (See if you can guess what it is.)
Or, like I said ... one of you can fill it out for me. My head still hurts.
Speaking of unexplainable phenomena .. how on earth did Auburn lose to Mississippi State? The Tigers would probably be in the top five by now had their Sept. 8 USF loss been their sole defeat -- because TommyTuberville's defense is simply unreal. Saturday night, the Tigers edged Arkansas 9-7 on a last-second field goal, and afterward, Tuberville told sideline reporter Holly Rowe that the plan was to "keep it simple" because "we knew we could stop them."
That's right, folks. He "knew" they could stop a team with two of the nation's top eight rushers in its backfield, and sure enough, the Tigers held Darren McFadden and Felix Jones to a combined 85 rushing yards. The Razorbacks came in averaging 338 per game. Amazingly, even that almost wasn't good enough, as CaseyDick's touchdown pass gave Arkansas a 7-6 lead with 1:36 remaining. But kicker Wes Byrum – quickly becoming the Tigers' MVP – hit his third field goal of the night from 20 yards with 21 seconds left to win it.
Louisville's 28-24 win should stop some of the bleeding for first-year coach Steve Kragthorpe. The Cardinals' much-maligned defense didn't necessarily shut down the Bearcats, but they did help generate an all-important plus-four turnover margin. Though Louisville only has one Big East loss (Syracuse), I still don't believe the Cards will wind up a contender in the league; they have to travel to both West Virginia and USF. But I do wonder whether Brian Brohm can reinsert himself into what is a completely wide-open Heisman race. He was spectacular again Saturday night (28-of-38, 350 yards, three TDs, no picks).
Missouri-Oklahoma was supposed be the game of the day, but I ended up missing most of it due to the LSU and Cal losses. I thought the Tigers would keep it more competitive, but it's also obvious they were missing RB Tony Temple: Mizzou ran for just 57 yards on 30 attempts. With Kansas State running away from Colorado as I write this, it appears Kansas – yes Kansas – will have first place in the Big 12 North to itself. And check this out: The Jayhawks somehow drew a schedule where the three teams they miss are Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. Wow.
Finally, the Stanford joyride only lasted a week. TCU (4-3) went to Palo Alto on Saturday, fell behind by two touchdowns midway through the third quarter, then outscored the Cardinal 21-5 down the stretch to win 38-36. Of course, there was a time earlier this season when the Horned Frogs were considered a potential BCS team. That only seems like it was about eight years ago at this point.