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?
10 Sep 2007
by Russell Levine
What have we learned after two weeks of the college football season?
For one thing, we learned that my alma mater, Michigan, is in big, big trouble. After a pair of humiliating defeats, the Wolverines are staring at an 0-4 start, all at home, with Notre Dame and Penn State coming to the Big House (of Cards) the next two Saturdays. Yes, Notre Dame is bad. Really bad. But Michigan will likely be starting a very raw true freshman quarterback after Chad Henne was injured against Oregon, and its defense can't stop anybody. Probably not even Notre Dame. I'm sure Charlie Weis was drawing up a new spread-option offense on the flight home from Happy Valley Saturday night.
I'm running out of the energy to defend, or even analyze, my Wolverines. The program is a mess. If there was a shred of hope that it could rebound after the Appalachian State debacle, it disappeared by halftime the Oregon loss, which was even more dispiriting. I have defended Lloyd Carr for his overall body of work in Ann Arbor, and will continue to do so. I wasn't quite ready to admit it was time to pass the torch after last week; now I am. Michigan will have a new coach and a new direction next year. We, the Michigan fan base, will spend the rest of this season trying to figure out who that coach will be (and count how many potential candidates pick up contract extensions the next few weeks). I'm ready to turn the page. More on that topic in this week's Seventh Day Adventure podcast.
Michigan's struggles, to use a kind word, are just a part of the Big Ten's problems. Only Penn State has distinguished itself in any way so far this season, and the Nittany Lions were often ragged in beating Notre Dame by three touchdowns. The conference's other contenders, Ohio State and Wisconsin, were less than stellar against Akron and UNLV, respectively, and the Badgers were very nearly upset.
Establishing a conference pecking order so early in the season is difficult. Here's my guess: SEC, Big East, Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC.
Despite losses by Tennessee (to Cal) and Auburn (to South Florida), the SEC remains the deepest conference in the nation. There is a gap between LSU and Florida and everyone else in the conference, but any of the next layer of teams -- Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee -- could beat either the Tigers or Gators without raising too many eyebrows.
The Big East gets the nod over the Pac-10 because its top four teams -- West Virginia, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida -- are collectively better than USC, Cal, UCLA, and Oregon.
and, umm, Washington? The Big 12 has a very, very good Oklahoma and question marks everywhere else. Where is Texas's offense? Is Nebraska really any good? Texas A&M might be the fourth-best team and the Aggies were lucky to survive a very average Fresno State in triple-overtime at home.
Apologies for the butchery in the preceding paragraph. I blame the Michigan defense. In any case, I still think the Big East gets a slight edge even though my own BlogPoll ballot would suggest the Pac-10 by the slightest of margins.
The Big Ten's issues are well established, but Penn State/Wisconsin/Ohio State could still turn out to be formidable. And let us not forget that the first two teams on that list beat SEC opponents in bowl games last season.
The ACC is reeling from a Saturday that saw its two marquee programs -- Virginia Tech and Miami -- lose on the road to LSU and Oklahoma by a combined score of 99-20. Yet all is not lost for the conference. Both Boston College and Clemson may turn out to be very good, and Wake Forest gave a very good accounting of itself against Nebraska. Georgia Tech is a wild card. The Yellow Jackets have looked fantastic, but a win over Notre Dame may not mean much in the long run.
The rise of the Big East continues to be one of the stories in college football. The reconfigured league was thought to have one questionable power (Louisville) when it debuted in 2005. West Virginia came out of nowhere to beat the Cardinals, win the conference title, and defeat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl that season. Just as importantly, Rutgers made a bowl game, and South Florida beat Louisville with a stunning display of speed and athleticism, to give the conference added credibility.
Rutgers competed for the conference crown last season, raising the league's profile even further, while South Florida beat West Virginia on the road. A stellar non-conference mark and a 5-0 bowl record were icing on the cake.
This season has already shown more progress. Not only did South Florida's win over Auburn Saturday cement that program's status as one on the rise, but the conference's depth continues to grow. Cincinnati, which beat undefeated Rutgers last November, spanked a pretty good Oregon State team on Thursday night.
Both Connecticut and Pittsburgh have invested a lot of money in facilities (at UConn) and coaches (Pitt's Dave Wannstedt, granted, not the best ROI thus far). In an ironic twist, the conference's bottom feeder is also the school with the deepest football tradition: Syracuse, which may be the nation's worst BCS conference team.
The legitimacy of the Big East's automatic BCS bid was a hot topic as recently as two years ago. The conference is now a rising power that has shown the savvy to place its top teams in the national spotlight in late-season, weekday night games. If Rutgers proves to have staying power as a BCS contender, the nation's largest media market will be devoting significant attention to college football.
The traditionalist in me hates that Rutgers played Navy on a Friday night and that South Florida plays in a half-empty NFL stadium. The entire Big East is short on tradition, but that seems to be an ingredient of decreasing importance in the present landscape of college football -- and not just because Michigan and Notre Dame will bring a combine 0-4 mark into the meeting of the sport's two winningest programs of all time this Saturday.
How's this for tradition? If Notre Dame were looking to join a conference today, the Big East (where the Irish already compete in basketball) might actually make more sense than the Big Ten, which was always thought to be the only football conference which Notre Dame would ever consider joining. A few weeks before the season, speculation arose that the Big Ten might target Rutgers if it ever expands to 12 members and can't land the Irish. Today, the two leagues appear headed in opposite directions.
Like all things in college football -- yes, including the dominance of the SEC and the present state of the Michigan program -- the Big East's present status among the elite could turn out to be cyclical. For now, the league's schools and commissioner Mike Tranghese, the overseer of this renaissance, will sit back and enjoy the spoils that a growing reputation brings.
The actions of South Florida coach Jim Leavitt late in the Bulls' upset of Auburn make it very difficult for me to continue my unofficial policy of not tagging winning coaches with the JLS Trophy.
Few things irk me more than an underdog coach that plays it safe, as Leavitt did in opting for a game-tying field goal attempt by a kicker, Delbert Alvarado, who had missed four second-half attempts. South Florida had the ball at the Auburn one in the final minute, yet opted to take a delay-of-game penalty and send Alvarado on the field on fourth down. He made the kick, and South Florida went on to win in overtime because Leavitt went for the touchdown after Auburn kicked a field goal. Had the Bulls blown the game, Leavitt would be wearing a Michigan-sized set of goat horns today.
Instead, the JLS Trophy goes to Marshall's Mark Snyder, for a similar gaffe. Marshall had sluggish West Virginia down 10-6, late in the first half and had a first down at the Mountaineers' 10 with one timeout remaining. Rather than take a shot at the end zone and a two-score halftime lead, Snyder ordered his team to center the ball and kick a short field goal. West Virginia might well have won either way, but Snyder's message to his team with that strategy was "we're here not to win, but not to get embarrassed."
You're Marshall, they're West Virginia. You're at home, in front of a record crowd. You appear to have caught the Mountaineers napping with an 11 a.m. start time. What do you have to lose? Throw the ball in the end zone!
Rankings that may require further explanation: Remember, I'm treating my preseason poll as pure guesswork, and last week's rankings as only less so. As I gather more information by, you know, actually seeing these teams play, I'm re-ranking as I see fit. Therefore, Louisville, Wisconsin and Ohio State all drop after wins. Georgia Tech shoots up after beating up on Samford. This is the premise of the BlogPoll -- to avoid poll anchoring or momentum.
I nearly kept Georgia in the poll with a loss; South Carolina is pretty good and the Bulldogs had an impressive season-opening win over Oklahoma State. But there were just too many teams -- such as Washington and Cincinnati -- that I felt were deserving of being ranked based what they've done so far this season and not on preseason projections.
As I see it, there's a large drop-off after the top four teams. The next 15 or so spots will be very volatile in the coming weeks.
Games I watched at least part of: Oregon State-Cincinnati, Middle Tennessee-Louisville, Navy-Rutgers, West Virginia-Marshall, Miami-Oklahoma, Oregon-Michigan, Fresno State-Texas A&M, Notre Dame-Penn State, South Carolina-Georgia, Hawaii-Louisiana Tech, South Florida-Auburn, Virginia Tech-LSU.
64 comments, Last at 13 Sep 2007, 10:07pm by Chuck Coleman