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?
17 Sep 2007
by Russell Levine
Here we go again.
Just three weeks into the new college football season, the legions of crystal-gazers that double as the sport's fan base are already anticipating -- and decrying -- the next controversy atop the Bowl Championship Series standings. Never mind that the first edition of those standings won't be released for another four weeks.
The problem is that a quartet of contenders has begun to separate itself from the pack, but there is only one game between those teams remaining on the schedule (Florida at LSU) -- meaning three worthy teams could finish undefeated and one would have no chance at the national title.
Those four teams are LSU, Oklahoma, USC and Florida. Each has authored statement victories this young season, the latter two doing so Saturday. USC went into a very hostile environment at Nebraska, at night, and walked out with a 49-31 win that was not as close as that score would suggest. During the competitive phase of the game, the score was 42-10. Florida, meanwhile, opened up its conference schedule by destroying Tennessee, 59-20, at home.
Of those top four, only Florida was a real question mark coming into the season. The Gators lost 14 starters from last year's national champions. Among the replacements was quarterback Tim Tebow, who saw the field plenty as a freshman but rarely threw the ball. Three weeks in, Tebow has put any doubts to rest. He's second in the nation in passing efficiency, completing nearly 74 percent of his passes, with eight touchdowns and just one interception.
What's more, he's proving to be every bit the rushing threat he was as a freshman, when he was deployed mostly as a short-yardage runner. With Tebow fast becoming the elite dual-threat quarterback in college football, the Gators don't suffer from the lack of a standout running back.
The authoritative victories by USC and Florida followed similar results a week ago from LSU (which destroyed Virginia Tech) and Oklahoma (which did the same to Miami). Just as was the case last week, when LSU gained on No. 1 USC in the polls, this weekend's final scores opened the eyes of poll voters, as Florida moved up to a consensus No. 3 and USC gained back some of what it lost when the Trojans were idle last Saturday.
Perhaps the voters are learning. Florida's move came at the expense of West Virginia, which fell a spot in each poll, to fifth. The Mountaineers are an excellent team and could well end up in the mix for a spot in the BCS title game, but they have yet to look dominant this season.
The human polls tend to suffer from the bad habit of "anchoring" a team to its ranking and refusing to drop anyone that wins. At least thus far this season, the voters seem to have done a better job of recognizing that not all victories are created equal.
Having LSU, USC, and Oklahoma in a potential logjam atop the polls has to bring back unpleasant memories for BCS officials, for it was those exact teams that gave the BCS its biggest headache yet. In 2003, USC finished atop both human polls but was third in the BCS standings. LSU beat Oklahoma for the BCS title, while USC won the AP crown after thumping Michigan in the Rose Bowl. It remains the only split championship in the BCS era.
Still, it is far too early to project three (or more) teams to finish undefeated. Beyond LSU-Florida, which is shaping up as one of the games of the year on Oct. 6, USC must travel to both Oregon and Cal, while Oklahoma may have the easiest path of the top teams, but still has its annual showdown with Texas. And if West Virginia is to contend, it must survive a difficult round-robin against a much deeper Big East conference.
Trying to project season-long results in college football is normally a fruitless exercise, particularly in a year in which parity has crept into the game. The evidence of that is as plentiful as the number of games where heavily favored teams from the power conferences are forced to sweat out difficult wins over mid-major teams. Middling teams from the BCS leagues fare even worse. Just ask the Big Ten, which saw Minnesota fall to Florida Atlantic Saturday, and the Big 12, which had Oklahoma State lose to Troy on Friday.
No list of the season's surprising developments could be complete without including Notre Dame. The school has a high-profile coach, a national television contract and regular top-rated recruiting classes, yet fields what might be one of the absolute worst offenses in Division I-A, and a defense that's not much better. If that can happen to Notre Dame, then it's official: Anything is possible.
How bad are the Irish? They gained just 79 net yards against a Michigan defense that was torched by both Division I-AA Appalachian State and Oregon. That the Fighting Irish are in a rebuilding mode after losing their three best offensive weapons from a year ago is no shock. That Notre Dame has seemingly become a creampuff the likes of Duke is a complete stunner.
The team has yet to score an offensive touchdown and has produced minus-14 yards on 100 carries in three games. (The NCAA counts sacks against rushing yardage, which accounts for that preposterous total.) Coach Charlie Weis has a reputation as an offensive genius, but he's having a hard time getting anything going with his quarterbacks playing behind an offensive line that resembles five human traffic cones. At one point in Saturday's 38-0 loss to the Wolverines, quarterback Jimmy Clausen was sacked by four Michigan players simultaneously.
Irish fans, I want to hear from you. I'm soliciting your opinions in a completely non-taunting manner. It appears to me that in his third year, Weis is getting the benefit of the doubt far more than Ty Willingham did in his third season in South Bend. Am I wrong? If I'm right, why do you think that is (non-racially charged reasons, only, please)? Leave your thoughts in the comments or drop me an e-mail at Russell-at-footballoutsiders-dot-com.
I understand that Willingham's last two recruiting classes left the Irish bereft of upper-class talent. But where are Weis's players? I expected Notre Dame to struggle this year, but they're not even competitive right now. I would love to know what the line on Notre Dame-Duke would be if that game were played this week. At home, I don't think the Irish would be favored by more than a field goal.
Speaking of bets, it's a stone-cold lock that neither the Wolverines nor the Irish will factor in the chase for a berth in the BCS title game. It's one of the few safe assumptions in college football.
I usually try to avoid any winning coach with the JLS Trophy, but some brain farts are just too big to ignore.
Rich Brooks earned his biggest win as Kentucky coach Saturday night as the Wildcats stunned Louisville, 40-34, on a late touchdown pass by Andre' Woodson.
It's what happened immediately after that scoring pass that earned Brooks this week's award. Woodson's pass gave Kentucky a five-point lead with just 34 seconds left, yet Brooks inexplicably sent his kicker onto the field to attempt the PAT instead of going for two and a potential seven-point margin.
There is a lot of debate about when to go for two, but never in this situation, which is clear-cut as they come. The extra point meant nothing for Kentucky, while a two-pointer would prevented a touchdown from beating the Wildcats. Brooks is lucky Brian Brohm and Louisville couldn't convert, otherwise he might be hanging (in effigy, of course) from the goalposts at Commonwealth Stadium.
The only conceivable excuse is the wild celebration that followed a last-minute, 57-yard touchdown pass, Brooks felt he couldn't get a two-point play called in time. Yet even that doesn't apply; Kentucky had a timeout remaining.
Congratulations, Rich. On the win and the JLS Trophy.
Rankings that may require further explanation: I view the top four as very even and the rankings there will continue to change week-to-week. All four have one really impressive win. USC's came on the road, so I thought about putting the Trojans back up top, but decided I would pick LSU over USC on a neutral field right now.
This is the first week that teams with a loss were allowed to stay. Louisville and Arkansas both dropped close games in the final seconds, on the road, to good teams.
I'm still trying to figure out what to make of the Big Ten. The bottom half of the conference is horrendous, but Ohio State and Penn State may still turn out to be really good. I'm no longer convinced that Wisconsin is anything special. Ohio State gets the nod this week for a road win over a decent Washington team.
Games I watched at least part of: West Virginia-Maryland, Oklahoma State-Troy, Pitt-Michigan State, Michigan-Notre Dame, Tennessee-Florida, Texas-UCF, Arkansas-Alabama, Boston College-Georgia Tech, USC-Nebraska, Florida State-Colorado.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
77 comments, Last at 19 Sep 2007, 9:32pm by lionsbob