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?
29 Oct 2007
by Russell Levine
This was finally the week to learn something relevant about the handful of surprising teams currently occupying the rare air atop the Bowl Championship Series standings, as each one faced its most significant test of the season.
With the results now in, it can be said that all passed with flying colors. Well, perhaps Boston College scraped by on the curve in its miraculous, 14-10 win at Virginia Tech Thursday night, but chances are the voters were captivated enough by quarterback Matt Ryan's Heisman-worthy finish to forget that he and the Eagles looked awful for the game's first 56 minutes.
Boston College solidified its hold on the critical second spot in the BCS standings out yesterday, widening its edge on idle LSU. At the top of the list, Ohio State remains No. 1 with a resume that is significantly improved after the Buckeyes carved up Penn State in a 37-17 rout of the Nittany Lions.
Ohio State is no stranger to the top of the polls, having gone wire-to-wire at No. 1 last year before getting trounced by Florida in the national-title game. But this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Ohio State offense. Instead, quarterback Todd Boeckman is starting to look like a more-than-adequate replacement for Heisman-winner Troy Smith. He leads a balanced Ohio State attack that has won its five conference games by an average score of 38-11 and didn't punt once against Penn State's top-ten defense. It now looks as if the traditional season-ending game against Michigan will decide the Big Ten championship and determine whether the Buckeyes play for the national championship for the third time in six seasons.
The other BCS interlopers, undefeated Arizona State and Kansas, also solidified their standing. The No. 4 Sun Devils in particular were a mystery due to their back-loaded schedule. They started 7-0 without playing a ranked opponent, but close the year with games against Cal, Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Arizona. When the Sun Devils quickly fell behind Cal Saturday night, it looked as though the skepticism about their lofty ranking might have been justified. Yet they rallied for a 31-20 win to set up a game with enormous implications next week at Oregon.
The Ducks, second behind LSU among the once-beaten teams in the BCS (and No. 5 overall), made a statement of their own Saturday, producing a workmanlike win over USC.
Eighth-ranked Kansas has more work to do before it can begin thinking about national championships, but it's doubtful the Jayhawks and their supporters are complaining after getting to 8-0 for the first time in 98 years. Mark Mangino's defense completely shut down Texas A&M, but Kansas still faces Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State before a regular-season ending battle against Missouri that could decide the Big 12 North title. It certainly hasn't hurt that Oklahoma and Texas aren't on the schedule this year, but Kansas could well face the Sooners in the league championship game with a BCS bid on the line.
One conference that has to be suddenly worried about its BCS standing is the SEC. The conference that has been perceived to be the nation's best for much of the last decade has no undefeated teams and is down to just one with a single loss: LSU. The Tigers' toughest remaining test is this week at Alabama; a loss to former coach Nick Saban and the Tide will eliminate the SEC from the national-title picture.
The problem is the conference's East Division, where the teams have been beating each other up all season. SEC defenders typically point to this as evidence of the conference's overall strength and depth, but that is a more difficult argument to make this season when non-conference results are taken into effect.
Consider that Tennessee, which currently controls its own destiny to win the East, has lost three games by a combined 84 points. One of those blowout losses came at Cal, which has now lost three straight games to fall completely out of the rankings. Florida lost at home to Auburn, which lost at home to South Florida, which has lost two straight in the Big East to Rutgers and Connecticut. LSU's lone loss came to Kentucky, which was just beaten badly at home by a Mississippi State team that was routed last week by West Virginia of the Big East.
The SEC has the best overall out-of-conference record at 30-5, but when the results are narrowed to only games against other BCS conferences, the picture is far different. In those contests, SEC teams are 5-5. By comparison, the Pac-10 is 5-3 -- best among the six leagues with automatic BCS bids. The lowly Big Ten, suffering through a down year overall, is the only other conference with a winning record against the other BCS leagues (5-4).
Should LSU edge Oregon for a berth in the national-title game -- despite mounting evidence that the Pac-10 is at least the equal of the SEC -- a lack of exposure could be to blame. While other conferences' biggest games are on ABC, ESPN, and CBS each week, Pac-10 games that don't make ABC are relegated to Fox Sports Net. While nearly every cable household in America has access to FSN, it's not the first place channel-surfers look to find a college football game. Saturday's two biggest Pac-10 games, USC at Oregon and Cal at Arizona State, aired on MSG and FSNY, respectively, in the nation's largest media market. At the same time, Florida-Georgia was on CBS, South Carolina-Tennessee was on ESPN, and ABC had Ohio State-Penn State.
With a human element -- in the form of the polls that make up two-thirds of the BCS formula -- playing a huge role, the SEC's reputation and national exposure could keep Oregon on the outside looking in.
A few curious calls stood out for me during this weekend's action. First, on Thursday night, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer elected to go into the prevent defense despite having completely shut down Boston College for up to that point. The result was two touchdown drives and BC win.
Saturday, both Pete Carroll and Urban Meyer chose to get cute on critical fourth-down calls. First, USC. The Trojans recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff, but three plays left them facing fourth-and-1 at the Oregon 12. Carroll probably should have kicked the field goal, but opted to be aggressive. Yet the play call was a strange one. With an empty backfield, he had quarterback Mark Sanchez hand off to the motion man, running back Joe McKnight. The play fooled nobody and McKnight was easily stopped, giving the Ducks and their crowd a huge lift.
Florida also faced a critical fourth-down call in its loss to Georgia. Trailing 28-24 early in the fourth quarter, the Gators had a fourth-and-2 at the Georgia 25. From the shotgun, quarterback Tim Tebow gave the ball the receiver Andre Caldwell on an end-around. It looked as if Caldwell intended to hand the ball off for a true reverse, but there was too much penetration by Georgia and Caldwell was tackled for a loss of three. On Florida's final possession, Meyer was late getting a play call in, and Tebow rushed a snap, resulting in a fumble and a direct hit on his injured right shoulder -- which Meyer had designed an entire game plan to protect.
Meyer is a great coach. His results speak to that. But there are times when he gets too cute, as if he has to prove his brilliance by going against common football strategy. Sometimes on fourth-and-short, the best play call is to just run it up the gut.
Another candidate for the award is Tennessee's Phil Fulmer, who wasted a precious timeout attempting to "ice" South Carolina kicker Ryan Succop before he attempted a go-ahead, 49-yard field goal with 1:30 remaining. That the Vols managed to come back to tie the game in regulation despite wasting their second timeout does not excuse Fulmer from this blatant error.
Still, Carroll, Meyer, and Fulmer are all safe this week. The JLS Trophy goes instead to Georgia coach Mark Richt. Yes, Richt had his team ready to play and it earned one of the biggest wins of his Georgia career against Florida.
Yet I was appalled by Richt's order to his team to take a celebration penalty after its first touchdown. When Georgia scored, the entire team rushed onto the field, resulting in a double-personal foul call and a kickoff from the 8-yard line. The move set the tone for a chippy game in which nine personal fouls were called.
Georgia's action -- sending the entire team on the field after a touchdown to celebrate amid the Florida defenders -- could easily have sparked a brawl far worse than last year's Miami-Florida International fiasco. The Florida players actually deserve credit avoiding such a scenario.
It saddens me that there hasn't been more outrage over this. Instead, Richt was receiving accolades from the CBS announcers and ESPN analysts for the move. This is the same coach that was lauded two weeks ago for angrily shoving his players away from celebrating on the Vanderbilt logo after a close road win.
I'm sorry, but I don't care how "fired up" he got his team by ordering the mass taunting. I don't care that it set the tone for a big win. It was a disgusting, classless, bush-league move that could easily have left the entire sport with a huge black eye. There has been talk of fines, but the SEC should go further, and suspend Richt for Georgia's next game. There is absolutely no place for that on a football field and it's only through luck that we haven't spent the past three days talking about one of the ugliest brawls in memory.
Rankings that may require further explanation: I feel pretty good about the top nine places; after that it's pretty much guess work. USC is probably a little high, but given the plethora of decent two- and three-loss teams, I didn't feel that hammering the Trojans for a loss at my No. 2 team was justified.
Arizona State moves way up after beating a real opponent and in somewhat impressive fashion. Kansas's move is a combination of a decent road win and attrition in middle of the poll. Boston College slips two because they looked awful for 56 minutes and won with a major assist from luck and a prevent defense. Remember, save your "how can you drop two spots after a win" arguments for the AP. The BlogPoll was created to counter the practice of anchoring teams. All BC's ranking means is I have more evidence this week and I'm admitting I was wrong last week.
Michigan's position is in recognition of a seven-game winning streak, and does not mean that I've blotted the first two weeks from Memory. They still have road games against Michigan State and Wisconsin, as well as Ohio State at home, to prove me right or wrong.
All year, I've felt the SEC was the best conference, albeit by a narrow margin. No longer. The Pac-10 is the best overall league. Those who would accuse me of poll bias against the SEC, however, please take a look and tell me how many three-loss teams are in my top-25.
Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: Boston College-Virginia Tech, West Virginia-Rutgers, Mississippi State-Kentucky, USC-Oregon, Nebraska-Texas, Minnesota-Michigan, Florida-Georgia, South Florida-Connecticut, Kansas-Texas A&M, South Carolina-Tennessee, Ohio State-Penn State, Cal-Arizona State. (I have a dual-tuner DVR and a second screen in my living room and it rained all day in the Northeast).
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
60 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2007, 4:15pm by Pete