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?
02 Sep 2008
by Russell Levine
With so little known about the teams, college football fans tend to lend the events of opening weekend a greater importance than they might actually merit.
Sprinkled among the weekend's expected routs were a handful of upsets that may look at lot more- or less-surprising in another few weeks, when we'll know if the preseason hype accorded certain programs was warranted. Such was the case with Pittsburgh's home loss to Bowling Green, one of the better mid-major conference clubs. Pitt was rated in the preseason polls after a season-ending upset of West Virginia last year and some strong recruiting classes, but the Panthers have yet to post a winning season in Dave Wannstedt's three years. The weekend's biggest upset saw No. 17 Virginia Tech fall to East Carolina. That result may also be viewed differently if Virginia Tech struggles all season while East Carolina competes for a BCS bid out of Conference-USA.
Monday, Rutgers posted another such result, falling to Fresno State, 24-7. This loss might look a lot less shocking as the year wears on; Fresno State is vying to be the third WAC team in three years to garner a BCS berth. In the night game, UCLA rallied from a miserable first half to stun Tennessee in overtime, but at this point we don't know if UCLA has a better chance to contend in the Pac-10 than Tennessee does in the SEC.
Still, one introductory statement was too loud to be ignored: the 34-10 whipping that No. 24 Alabama put on ninth-ranked Clemson. The neutral-site venue, Atlanta's Georgia Dome, assured an evenly split crowd. But even a colorblind observer would have had no trouble distinguishing the orange-clad Clemson backers from the Tide supporters in red -- the Clemson fans were the ones who were silent from the beginning, such was the domination by Alabama.
Clemson's pratfall put the capper on an awful weekend for the ACC. In addition to Virginia Tech's loss, Maryland struggled at home against lower-division Delaware, and North Carolina had to rally to beat another Championship Subdivision school, McNeese State. Virginia proved little more than a speed bump for visiting USC, and North Carolina State was shut out 34-0 by South Carolina to open the season Thursday night.
Yet despite all the evidence suggesting the weakness of the ACC, Alabama's performance was so convincing that the Tide won all the chicken-vs.-egg debates about whether it was Alabama's dominance or Clemson's ineptitude that was most responsible for the one-sided result.
Nick Saban was hailed as a savior when he bolted the Miami Dolphins after just two seasons to take over at Alabama. He brought with him a championship pedigree, having led conference rival LSU to the BCS title in 2003, and the reputation as the type of recruiter that could make Alabama relevant again in the SEC. He also received a precedent-setting contract, one that he was constantly reminded of as the Tide finished just 7-6 in his first season -- including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
Many college football observers felt it would take Saban several years to return the Tide to anything approaching their former glory. They had been passed by not only arch-rival Auburn, but also by LSU in the SEC West, to say nothing of Florida and Georgia in the East -- all of which would be competing with Saban over the same fertile recruiting territory.
Saban's recruiting prowess has already been seen. His 2007 and 2008 classes at Alabama have ranked 10th and first, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Recruiting rankings are highly subjective, but anyone who watched Alabama's heralded freshmen and sophomores play critical roles in the destruction of Clemson would be hard-pressed to argue the lofty status awarded the Tide. Freshman running back Mark Ingram -- son of the former Giants Super Bowl hero of the same name -- carried 17 times for 97 yards and a two-point conversion. Alabama's most-hyped recruit of 2008, wideout Julio Jones, also made an immediate impact with four catches for 28 yards and a touchdown.
Even with the impressive performances of the young skill-position players, Alabama won this game by dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage. It was the physical whipping by both sets of linemen that bodes best for Alabama in SEC play. The defense completely contained Clemson's stellar tailback tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, holding them to a combined 20 yards on eight carries. With sacks factored in, Clemson managed exactly zero yards on the ground.
In a college game that is increasingly moving towards the spread offenses like the one Urban Meyer deploys at Florida, Alabama's approach is a throwback. The Tide's offensive linemen average better than 300 pounds, and they deployed plenty of two-tight end, power running formations against Clemson. The results were spectacular: 239 yards rushing and possession for 41:13. Saban is one degree of separation removed from the Bill Parcells coaching tree, having coached under Parcells disciple Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. Even though his current job is to guide the Miami Dolphins out from under the mess Saban left them in, Parcells had to smile at the game plan against Clemson, which mirrored the Giants' successful approach against Buffalo's vaunted "K-Gun" in Super Bowl XXV.
Despite the lopsided win, Saban was trying to dampen the enthusiasm of the Tide's fanatical fans. He knows that Alabama could be vastly improved and still finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC West, where LSU is the defending national champion and where cross-state rival Auburn owns a six-game winning streak over Alabama. Those two schools won their openers by a combined 75-13, though against softer opposition than the presumptive ACC favorite.
As for Clemson, as bad as the Tigers looked, and as many times as they have failed to live up to high expectations in recent seasons, the ACC is likely still theirs for the taking. After all, it's never smart to read too much into opening weekend.
I hate to knock a coach whose team outperformed expectations, but UCLA's Rick Neuheisel made a pair of shaky decisions that nearly cost his club its upset win against Tennessee.
Neuheisel was within 45 seconds of going into halftime with a tie score despite seeing his team vastly outplayed and his quarterback, Kevin Craft, throw three first-half interceptions. Yet with a first down at midfield, Neuheisel called for yet another pass. Craft's fourth interception of the half was returned 60 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
Craft had shown no ability to make good decisions with the ball to that point. Why not try a screen or a draw (UCLA still had two timeouts) to move into field goal range? Throwing downfield was clearly not the right choice.
Yet somehow, Craft turned it completely around in the second half, twice driving UCLA for go-ahead scores in the fourth quarter, the second time with less than 30 seconds to play. But leading by just a field goal, Neuheisel called for a squib kick, and gave Tennessee the ball on its own 43-yard line. The Vols drove for the tying score to force overtime, where UCLA eventually won.
Welcome back to college football, Rick. Enjoy your big win, and your JLS Trophy.
Rankings that may require further explanation: Look, if your reaction to my ballot is "How can team X drop after beating Directional State by 50!?!?" you don't understand the BlogPoll. The idea was to create a poll with voters who actually re-evaluate their picks each week. The preseason poll is 100 percent guesswork. This week, we're probably down to about 80 to 85 percent. Teams that moved up this week did something to impress me. Teams that moved down didn't necessarily do anything to disappoint, they just didn't stand out. Wild swings should be expected for the season's first several weeks, until we have enough data to put results in better perspective.
Games I watched at least part of: North Carolina State-South Carolina, Oregon State-Stanford, SMU-Rice, Bowling Green-Pitt, Virginia Tech-East Carolina, Utah-Michigan, Alabama-Clemson, Missouri-Illinois, Colorado-Colorado State, Fresno State-Rutgers (attended), Tennessee-UCLA.
Portions of this article appeared in Tuesday's New York Sun.
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