Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
01 Oct 2007
by Russell Levine
Rutgers fans laid low by their team's performance in a home loss to Maryland Saturday, take solace. It could have been worse. You could be a scalper holding tickets to next week's Red River Shootout game between Texas and Oklahoma, both of whom lost to unranked foes on an upset-filled day.
This weekend saw as much poll carnage as any in recent memory, although outside of dealing Oklahoma's title hopes a serious blow, it did surprisingly little to alter the national-title picture. More on that later. First, the casualty report: Five of the top 10 teams in the AP poll lost, and seven of the top 13. Five of the seven losers fell to unranked teams; four lost at home. It was the worst weekend for top-10 teams since October of 2003, when five also fell.
There was nearly even more chaos. Top-ranked USC edged Washington by a field goal, losing the top spot to LSU in the process. The Tigers passed USC in the AP rankings despite looking far from impressive in a win over Tulane. Boston College got a stiff challenge from UMass. Wisconsin held off Michigan State in the final minutes. Among the top 10, only Ohio State, a three-touchdown winner over Minnesota, survived the weekend without so much as a mark.
Next week was to have been one of those days necessitating an ESPN nickname. But instead of Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-LSU headlining a "Showdown Saturday," perhaps the focus will shift to Kansas-Kansas State and Kentucky-South Carolina (combined records: 16-2).
Those four teams are all nice stories, and in the case of perennial SEC doormat Kentucky, suddenly a contender in the conference's East division, maybe more than that. Yet even the Wildcats take a back seat to what is occurring in Tampa as the year's best Cinderella tale. In a sport ruled by traditional powers, South Florida is the upstart to end all upstarts. The Bulls have been playing the sport for just 11 seasons, yet after beating then-No. 5 West Virginia Friday night, they must now be considered the favorite to capture the Big East's BCS berth.
That label might instead be worn by Rutgers today had the Knights not fallen on their face against a Maryland team that came into the contest on a two-game losing streak. Rutgers was better than a two-touchdown favorite, yet trailed much of the game despite knocking out Maryland's starting quarterback with a concussion.
Though Rutgers has yet to play a conference game, this loss revealed defensive holes which may be too great to overcome against the likes of South Florida, West Virginia, and even Cincinnati, which visits Piscataway this coming Saturday. Against Maryland, and before that, Navy, Rutgers was gashed repeatedly on the ground. Unlike Navy, Maryland is not known as a standout rushing team, yet the Terrapins rolled up 239 yards on the ground against the Scarlet Knights. Maryland possessed the ball for nearly 37 minutes and kept Ray Rice on the sidelines.
Rutgers can still have a very successful season, perhaps even better than last year's 11-2 campaign. But if there is anything to be learned from this loss it is this: It is time for Rutgers to upgrade its schedule. Games against Buffalo and Norfolk State help to pad the stat sheet, but they do little to prepare a team for the better competition to come. Rutgers no longer needs to schedule patsies just to ensure it can get to six wins and a bowl, and would be better served challenging itself more in the non-conference season.
Still, Rutgers was not the weekend's biggest loser. That honor goes to Oklahoma, which was stunned by Colorado in Boulder. Oklahoma was one of four teams (along with USC, LSU, and Florida) that appeared to have separated itself from the pack coming into the weekend. The Sooners looked like they might cruise to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the BCS title game, especially with Texas showing its vulnerability. Instead, they saw their championship dreams come crashing down as Colorado -- 2-10 a year ago -- scored the final 20 points to pull off the day's biggest upset.
The overall weakness of the Big 12 will likely prevent a one-loss Oklahoma from reaching the title game. The same can't be said of Florida, thanks to the reputation enjoyed by the SEC. The Gators fell just five spots in the new AP poll despite losing at home to unranked, two-loss Auburn. That kind of benefit of the doubt means that should the Gators pull off the upset of LSU this week, they will have an excellent chance to earn a rematch against the Tigers in the SEC championship. A second win there could propel a 12-1 Florida back to the title game, just as it did last season. LSU, on the other hand, can probably afford to lose this week as long as it runs the table and wins a presumed rematch against the Gators in December.
USC also need not worry. The Trojans remain in the driver's seat for a spot in the title game as long as they keep winning. That's no certainty, of course, not with visits to both Oregon and Cal sill to come. Following this weekend's upsets, the Trojans' trip to Berkeley on November 10 now looks like it has the potential to be the regular-season game of the year.
Yet such forecasts come with a cautionary tale. If ever there was a season that proved the folly of trying to project matchups weeks ahead of time, it was this one. Just ask anyone trying to dump a spare pair of tickets outside the Cotton Bowl this coming Saturday.
The usual policy with the JLS Trophy is to avoid awarding it to winning coaches. I will dispense with the policy for a week -- and also try to make a point about my own biases as Michigan alum -- by tapping Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr for this week's honor.
Michigan's entire game plan against Northwestern was dodgy at best. Apparently by design, Chad Henne returned from missing two games with a knee sprain, but was only supposed to play the first series of each half. Indeed, Henne started the game, led Michigan on a 65-yard touchdown drive in which all but three yards came via his arm, and then took a seat on the bench.
If Henne was well enough to take the field, why is he coming out of the game? Freshman Ryan Mallett, who played reasonably well in wins over Notre Dame and Penn State, struggled badly. Michigan didn't help him much by continuing to run Mike Hart into a stacked line, constantly leaving Mallett in undesirable down-and-distance situations.
Mallett entered the game with a 7-3 lead. During his five possessions, Michigan fell behind 16-7. Only once was he allowed to throw a first-down pass, and that was after a holding penalty had backed the Wolverines up.
Henne returned to start the second half and promptly sparked the Michigan offense, which scored three touchdowns and missed a field goal on its next six possessions. He was helped in no small measure by more aggressive play-calling.
Again, I'll ask the question. If Henne was only supposed to play two series because of injury concerns, how was he suddenly well enough to play the entire second half when Michigan fell behind? And if injury wasn't a concern, why didn't he play the entire game? And when will coaches learn that the best way to protect a young quarterback is to give him easy throws on first down, and not constantly leave him in third-and-long?
Throw in the mix that Michigan called time out to contemplate going for two with a four-point lead and just under 10 minutes to play, before (correctly) opting to kick the extra point (but wasting the timeout in the process) and this week's JLS Trophy is an easy one.
I'm a Lloyd Carr guy. I have never called for his head, not even after the disastrous start to this season. He's done more than enough at Michigan to deserve to go out on his own terms. But I won't hesitate to question him anytime he does something like this. I also hope that the Michigan fans who thought Mallett should keep the job he inherited via injury took a close look at how the team played with Henne under center on Saturday. There are maybe four quarterbacks in college football who could make the 16-yard pass Henne threw to Adrian Arrington -- looking off the safety, and delivering a laser on the skinny post -- for the go-ahead score.
Rankings that may require further explanation: Umm, all of them? This is the week the polls went to hell. I would encourage you not to do too much of the "last week vs. this week" type of comparisons. Yes, Boston College moves up after skating by UMass. After what happened Saturday, where would you put them?
This was the first week I really had to judge the value of a team's loss. Thus Oregon, losing by seven and fumbling on the goal line in the final seconds to a really good Cal team, doesn't fall far. Rutgers, getting badly outplayed by a not very good Maryland in its first even semi-test, falls out altogether. Texas hasn't impressed me all year, so even though I think Kansas State is pretty good, I'm punishing the Longhorns for their entire season's worth of results. Same with Clemson.
Please leave poll feedback in the comments. This was the most difficult ballot thus far, and if you think I've overlooked something obvious, let me know about it.
Games I watched at least part of: West Virginia-South Florida, Michigan-Northwestern, Cal-Oregon, Maryland-Rutgers, Alabama-Florida State, USC-Washington, Auburn-Florida.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
44 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2007, 10:50am by SoonerHQ