EVEN GEORGIA, OHIO STATE AND NOTRE DAME ARE SURPRISED THEY'RE STILL IN THE MIX
Out of nowhere, in coach Mark Richt's second season in Athens, fifth-ranked Georgia has emerged as the best team in the SEC. Last Saturday's 18-13 win over reeling Tennessee gave the Bulldogs back-to-back wins over ranked opponents for the first time in 11 years. In their previous game the Dawgs beat Alabama 27-25 despite the prediction of former Auburn coach Pat Dye that they weren't "man enough" for the job. Dye's remark, followed by Georgia's proving him wrong, gave rise to a briskly selling T-shirt bearing the legend MAN ENOUGH, DAWG ENOUGH.
After clock-management fiascos cost him a pair of games last season, Richt is clearly growing into his first college head coaching job. Hired away from Florida State, where he spent 10 years, first as quarterbacks coach and then as offensive coordinator, Richt knows from championship-caliber football. That means he recognizes that his offense still has a few bugs to work out. While quarterback David Greene is the triggerman for a potent passing attack, the Bulldogs' rushing game is ranked 11th in the SEC. The defense, on the other hand, is rock solid. While it's unlikely that Georgia will run the table, win the conference title game and get to the Fiesta Bowl, keep an eye on the Dawgs anyway.
In the unpredictable and underwhelming Big Ten, where the best player (wideout Charles Rogers) plays on one of the worst teams ( Michigan State) and where the defensive backs aren't the only ones with closing speed (did you see Joe Paterno run down that zebra after Penn State's loss to Iowa on Sept. 28?), fourth-ranked Ohio State is as close to a sure thing as there is. True, the Buckeyes barely beat Cincinnati and struggled with an atrocious Northwestern team, but they found ways to win those games. Optimists in the Ohio State camp interpret their club's 50-7 dismantling of San Jose State last Saturday as a sign that coach Jim Tressel's offense is finally hitting on all cylinders. Tressel, who paces the Buckeyes' sideline in his trademark sweater vest, has been pleased by how quickly sophomore quarterback Craig Krenzel has picked up the offense, which requires him to make quick reads and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Against San Jose State, Krenzel completed 11 of 14 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns.
If Krenzel has been a pleasant surprise, freshman tailback Maurice Clarett has been an out-and-out shock. Even with teams crowding eight in the box to stop him, the Warren, Ohio, native has averaged 141 rushing yards per game and scored 13 touchdowns, tops in the Big Ten in both categories. Clarett may not stick around Columbus for four years, but the man in the sweater vest appears to be on board for the long haul.
In the movie Rudy the tide character is carried off the field after his moment of glory. The Fighting Irish's 2002 season will not have a Hollywood ending. Newcomer Tyrone Willingham is a deserving national coach of the year candidate, but a very limited offense all but ensures him a loss or two. The Irish rank 113th of 117 in total offense, and former option quarterback Carlyle Holiday has proved a rough fit for Willingham's West Coast offense, having completed just 49.0% of his attempts and thrown only two touchdown passes. The Irish's defense (third best in the nation in points allowed, at 11.7) and special teams have combined for 68 of Notre Dame's 137 points. Somewhere down the road—maybe in the thin air of Colorado Springs on Saturday against Air Force; maybe the following weekend at Florida State—the Irish will run into a team that they can't keep up with on the scoreboard.
So where does all this leave us? Outside the locker room of the Cotton Bowl, with the fairgrounds looming behind. Davis, Oklahoma's left guard, was all smiles as he made his way through a crowd of reporters. He was extra happy, he said, because Miami had lost to Florida State. Informed that that was not the case, his smile disappeared. "Are you serious?" he said. "Someone told us before we ran out on the field that they were about to lose, and we assumed they had."
Nope. Halfway through the season, though they may be looking shakier, the Hurricanes are still undefeated, still the team to beat.
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