Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
11 Sep 2006
by Russell Levine
Unlike 2005, when Texas and USC went wire-to-wire atop the polls before meeting in the national championship game, this college football season appears to be shrouded in mystery. Six teams garnered at least one first-place vote in the preseason AP poll, suggesting the 2006 national-title race would be a wide-open one.
But thanks to a strong early slate of non-conference games and some early conference tilts, some of the fog of uncertainty surrounding this season has been lifted. The national picture is sure to become even clearer next Saturday, with seven scheduled games between ranked teams.
The front blowing in from Austin, Texas, that was largely responsible for lifting that fog was Ohio State's 24â€“7 thrashing of defending national champion Texas on the Longhorns' home field Saturday evening. The first regular-season meeting in 10 years between the top two teams in the AP poll turned out to be no contest as top-ranked Ohio State showed that its quarterback, Troy Smith, is every bit as much a Heisman contender as Notre Dame's Brady Quinn. The Buckeyes also emphatically answered some questions about their defense, a concern since the unit was breaking in nine new starters from last season.
Ohio State's defensive white-washing of Texas also answered a question or two for the Longhorns, namely that redshirt freshman quarterback Colt McCoy will take some time to develop into an adequate replacement for Vince Young.
It was Young who bailed out Texas in numerous big games the last two seasons, including back-to-back Rose Bowls. At this point in his career -- that is, after two starts -- McCoy is simply not yet up to the task. His play against Ohio State was not the reason for the loss, nor was it good enough to lift the Longhorns to a win. But all is not lost for Texas, still the Big 12 favorite. A win over Oklahoma in Dallas on October 7 would pave the way for another trip to the conference championship game, where the Longhorns should have a decided edge over the best the North Division has to offer (likely Nebraska).
Because Texas's loss came early -- and to a top opponent -- the Longhorns will be in excellent position to slip back into contention for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game should there be only one defeated major-conference team at season's end.
If there is only one team with a zero in the loss column come the first weekend in December, the smart money might be on the Buckeyes. Ohio State has three games remaining against teams that are currently ranked, but two of them -- home vs. Penn State and at Iowa on Sept. 23 and 30, respectively -- look a lot less menacing after this past weekend's results. Penn State was throttled by Notre Dame, while Iowa only survived a trip to Syracuse thanks to a goal-line stand for the ages (or some inept play-calling, depending on your perspective). Granted, the Hawkeyes were without standout quarterback Drew Tate, but should still have been able to muster a better effort against one of the worst BCS-conference teams in America. After those two games, it's smooth sailing for Ohio State until the November 19 grudge match with Michigan, which takes place in Columbus.
The optimism surrounding Notre Dame's national title hopes appears to be more than preseason hype, although to the astute observer there are still some questions about the defense. Despite allowing just 27 points in games against Georgia Tech and Penn State, the Irish have shown plenty liabilities on defense. They were unable to contain Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson -- which hardly puts Notre Dame in exclusive company, it should be noted -- and allowed 7.5 yards per rushing attempt in the first half to a Penn State running game that struggled to move the ball on the ground against Akron.
We've also seen Notre Dame that is well-coached and opportunistic, with big-play producers on both sides of the ball. The Irish have dominated after halftime in both of their games, a nod to coach Charlie Weis's abilities. We also know this about Notre Dame: In most games, it will have the best player on the field in Quinn. He had some rough moments in the Georgia Tech game, but was masterful against Penn State.
If Notre Dame beats Michigan at home this week, then gets past its nemesis Michigan State the following Saturday, the Irish should be 11â€“0 heading to USC on November 25. There's a good chance USC could also be undefeated entering that contest. Though they've played just once, the Trojans showed little drop-off from losing a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in a 50â€“14 destruction of Arkansas, and all their toughest games are at home.
Though title paths already are emerging in the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-10, and for Notre Dame, things will only become clearer in the ACC, the Big East, and the SEC in the coming weeks. The SEC in particular will begin to sort itself out after a pair of key conference games this week. The winners of Florida-Tennessee and LSU-Auburn will have legs up in the conference's East and West divisions, respectively. The ACC picture is probably the most muddled; Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Boston College could be considered contenders for the title. The Big East likely won't take shape until West Virginia faces Louisville November 2, unless Rutgers forces its way into the conversation.
The Scarlet Knights, coming off a breakthrough bowl season, are off to a 2â€“0 start with wins over a pair of BCS-conference teams, including a 33â€“0 destruction of Illinois this week. Suddenly, Rutgers is staring at six straight winnable games -- the toughest contest in that stretch is a trip to Pittsburgh -- before facing Louisville on November 9. Though there still appears to be a significant gap between Greg Schiano's club and the Big East heavyweights, confidence has a way of snowballing for up-and-coming teams. An 8â€“0 Rutgers team would have a more than decent shot against Louisville.
This just in -- the NCAA has royally messed up its instant replay system by adding a coaches' challenge while still maintaining its official stance that "every play is reviewed." If every play is truly reviewed, why would a coach need to challenge a play? Since the replay official reviews every play, surely anything that would be close enough for a challenge would be reviewed anyway, right?
Unfortunately, saying that every play is reviewed has about as much credibility as anything that came from Baghdad Bob during the invasion of Iraq. The statement gets more ludicrous by the week. Latest egregious example of failure to use replay: Michigan's Max Pollock scored an apparent touchdown on an interception in the fourth quarter against Central Michigan. Only he didn't. First look at the replay revealed he most likely fumbled before crossing the goal line. Perhaps there was no definitive angle, but there's no question the game should have been stopped for a review. Michigan didn't particularly rush to attempt the extra point. Central Michigan coach Brian Kelly, perhaps wanting to save his timeouts, opted not to challenge.
If the college system can't stop the game to review that play, there's no point in having a system so obviously flawed. The NCAA needs to either scrap replay altogether or put the decision in the coaches' hands entirely, except for the final minutes of each half.
Much to my disappointment, CMU's Kelly didn't do anything to wacky against Michigan other than a few rugby punt formations that had the center on the end of the line. I'm not sure why college coaches feel the need to tinker with punt formations. The traditional one has worked pretty well for eight or nine decades.
No, we have to go elsewhere for the JLS Trophy this week. And the winner is UTEP's Mike Price. Though Price surely has made worse decisions in his life, electing to go for two while trailing, 17-12, at the end of the first half against Texas Tech was moronic. The Miners failed to convert, and ended up chasing that missing point the entire second half. They failed on a subsequent two-pointer, and ended up losing in OT. Coaches, remember, that little two-point cheat sheet you carry should not be consulted until the fourth quarter!
A tip of the JLS Trophy cap must go to San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan this week for displaying the rare acumen to understand how time remaining affects your decisions. Trailing by 10 points and out of timeouts in the final minute against Arizona, Nolan elected to kick a field goal on first down as soon as his team got in range. When the 49ers recovered the ensuing onsides kick, they suddenly had a chance to win. It's simple math, but coaches routinely blow this situation, chasing the touchdown even when trailing by 10 or 11 points in the final minutes. Mike Holmgren butchered this sequence in last year's Super Bowl.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
29 comments, Last at 13 Sep 2006, 8:11pm by BillWallace