The rash of upsets last Saturday, when seven members of the Top 25 lost to lower-ranked or un-ranked teams, emphasized the volatility of the first five weeks of this season, during which 20 such surprises have occurred. Aside from a bunch of torn-down goal posts, last week's upsets shared these characteristics: inexperienced players in the starting lineups of the losing team and the proliferation of the spread offense.
Recruiting promises, star players leaving for the pros early and increased injuries have forced coaches to cut back on the red-shirting of freshmen and, instead, thrust many newcomers into the starting lineups. It's no coincidence that five of the seven upset victims lost on the road, where the noise can unnerve the uninitiated. Florida's defense, which features five freshmen and sophomores, surrendered 517 yards in a 47-35 defeat at Mississippi State. Inexperience can be especially costly at quarterback, as Miami, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and USC have already found out.
For example, the Volunteers, who had nine players taken in the NFL draft last April, start more freshmen (three) than seniors (two) on offense. Though freshman quarterback A.J. Suggs generally has been poised, his inability to manage the clock at the end of the first half cost Tennessee in both its losses. In a 27-23 defeat to Florida on Sept. 16, the Vols had the ball at the Gators' 19 with two timeouts and 1:10 remaining in the first half. Suggs ran only four plays before Alex Walls kicked a 19-yard field goal as time ran out. Just before halftime in last Saturday's 38-31 overtime loss at LSU, Suggs drove Tennessee to the Tigers' 16 but allowed the clock to run out without getting off a field goal attempt.
As for the spread offense, Clemson, North Carolina State, Oklahoma and Oregon State, all undefeated, have demonstrated that the four-wideout set can make up for a lot of shortcomings. "If you take a job [coaching at a school with a losing program] and recruit speed on the outside, you can become competitive faster," says ESPN commentator Mike Gottfried, a former coach at Pittsburgh.
The spread may be here to stay, but many inexperienced teams should come back strong next year. Baltimore Ravens scout Phil Savage watched a recent Tennessee practice and came away impressed. "People better get the Vols now," he says. "Next year they're going to be something."
The Wildcats' Edge
Northwestern Smells Roses
When Northwestern junior quarterback Zak Kustok, a Notre Dame transfer, said before the season that he believed the Wildcats could win the Big Ten, no one paid attention. The conference is all ears now. Northwestern's smashing 37-17 victory at Michigan State last Saturday, on the heels of an upset at Wisconsin the week before, reestablished the Wildcats as a Big Ten contender for the first time since they shared the league championship in 1996. With six games left, Northwestern is in the driver's seat to go to the Rose Bowl.
Consider: Northwestern (4-1, 2-0) has only two more conference games on the road—at Minnesota (3-2, 1-1) on Oct. 28, for which the Wildcats have two weeks to prepare, and at Iowa (0-5) on Nov. 11. As for the two other Big Ten teams that are unbeaten in league play, Michigan (4-1, 2-0) must play at Northwestern and at Ohio State (4-0, 1-0), and the Buckeyes must travel to Purdue and Illinois, both of which have sustained upset losses but are far stronger than either of the Wildcats' road opponents. The best omen of all: Just as in 1995, when then coach Gary Barnett fulfilled his promise to take Northwestern to Pasadena, the Wildcats and the Buckeyes don't play each other this year.
Texas A & M's Grand Plan
Aggies Blitz By Red Raiders
Last year Oklahoma offensive coordinator Mike Leach watched his quarterback, Josh Heupel, throw for 372 yards and three touchdowns in the Sooners' 51-6 rout of Texas A&M. Now the coach at Texas Tech and running the same spread offense that the Sooners use, Leach hoped to have similar success against the Aggies' young secondary last Saturday. But Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum devised a scheme to take pressure off his defensive backs by taking advantage of the Aggies' experienced front seven.