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?
18 Oct 2010
by Robert Weintraub
The worst part of the 2009 season was its utter predictability. Alabama, Florida, and Texas ran the table in the regular season, as expected, and two of the three played for the national title. Outside of those college towns, the college football nation sat on its hands and waited for Tim Tebow to graduate already.
The payoff is here in 2010. I'm not even talking about the back-to-back weeks of No. 1 going down, although Ohio State's loss to Wisconsin was as delicious as South Carolina topping Alabama was nine days ago. For me, the best part of the first half of the season has been the outsider unbeatens, teams that have vaulted to the top of their conferences despite little fanfare.
I'm not referring to Boise State or TCU here -- nothing unexpected about their rampaging starts. I am looking happily toward East Lansing, where Sparty somehow sits atop the Big Ten despite the preseason hosannas pointed toward the Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, and Badgers. Michigan State has had a cake schedule, it's true, with only Iowa remaining as a sizable roadblock to an undefeated season. But 7-0 for MSU is historic -- the last time they were in these waters, it was 1966 and Notre Dame was playing for the 10-10 tie.
The figure that stood out in the Seventh Day Adventure matchup table was Illinois' rushing defense -- third in the nation coming in to the game. Sure enough, the Illini front seven clogged the run game, resulting in a 6-3 lead at halftime. But the Spartans adjusted, finding throwing lanes over the middle, including a 48-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter that broke a 6-all tie. Sparty cruised from there.
Down south, the surprise unbeaten team with the easy early schedule is Auburn. It's ironic to say that a team that gave up 43 points won with defense, but three late turnovers gave Auburn the breathing space it needed for a mind-blowing 65-43 win against Arkansas. The first one, a fumble returned for a score by Zac Etheridge, was dubious to say the least -- the Arkansas runner clearly had his knee down before coughing it up. Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes then made a pair of picks to set up easy scores and the 108 final point total, the most in the SEC history for a game ending in regulation.
No need for me to further praise Cam Newton in this space -- I gave him the Heisman after Week 3. He's Denard Robinson with 100 more pounds. He had four more touchdowns on Saturday, including one where he blasted right through linebacker Jerico Nelson, and another where he flew over the pile like Marcus Allen. Kudos to Arkansas backup quarterback Tyler Wilson, who may or may not have Wally Pipped Ryan Mallet by tossing four touchdowns off the bench. One thing is for sure -- SEC West opponents looking forward to Mallet moving on to the NFL swallowed hard. Arkansas throws outside the numbers better than any other team, thanks in part to another NFL-ready player, wide receiver Greg Childs. But there aren't any pro prospects on defense in Fayetteville, and that's the their problem.
Another eyebrow-raising unbeaten team is Oklahoma State. Last season the Cowboys were a colossal disappointment, thanks to injuries and suspensions to top players like Kendall Hunter and Dez Bryant. This year, T. Boone's Boys are 6-0 and in the deep shadow of the other pigskin power in the state. But while Oklahoma is atop the BCS standings (but not mine -- see below), Oklahoma State came into Saturday only 20th in the nation. Then the Cowboys rolled to a 34-17 win against Texas Tech in Lubbock, a place they hadn't won since a few months after D-Day (that's 1944 for you history buffs). Justin Blackmon is among the best receivers in the country, and he had a monster afternoon, putting up 207 yards and a touchdown. Hunter is back healthy and has 10 touchdowns on the ground. Brandon Weeden has been sensational in his first year at quarterback. A victory over smarting Nebraska on Saturday would do wonders toward getting the words "for real" tossed around Stillwater, and dates at Texas and hosting Oklahoma await.
(I'd give Missouri the same love, but Bill Connelly has that covered just fine.)
The final team lurking around with an unblemished record is Utah. They work as the surprise packet for both the Mountain West, where TCU reigns, and the Pac-10, where the Utes will play starting in 2011. Utah bullied Wyoming in Laramie, 30-6, to go to 6-0. Somehow, Utah is also minus-six in turnover margin this season, including three interceptions by quarterback Jordan Wynn on Saturday. A three-game stretch at Air Force, home for the monster with TCU, and at Notre Dame will determine if Utah can match the heights of the 2004 and 2008 Utes, who started 6-0 and never lost. Forget a Boise State-TCU BCS title game -- Boise-Utah would be a true apocalypse, which is reason enough to hope it happens (buy Dan Wetzel's "Death to the BCS" for more).
Sure, come season's end Michigan State, Utah, Oklahoma State, and perhaps even Auburn will have multiple losses and have been forgotten. But at the moment, they are playing as well as any teams in the nation. Let's celebrate them while we have them.
1. Boise State
9. Ohio State
12. Michigan State
13. Oklahoma State
16. Florida State
20. West Virginia
22. South Carolina
23. Virginia Tech
25. Mississippi State
1. Chris White, linebacker, Mississippi State. Sure, shutting down Florida isn't as tough as it used to be, but White had a fantastic game with 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss.
2. Sam Acho, defensive end, Texas. Plenty of love to go around for the entire Longhorns defense, but the senior end led the attack on Taylor Martinez, punishing him enough that Nebraska abandoned its game plan, benching Martinez and trying to throw its way back into the game.
3. Gabe Carimi, offensive tackle, Wisconsin. The entire Badger Wall shoved the tough Ohio State defense around, to the tune of 184 rushing yards. We'll give the senior left tackle the spotlight, given how he outplayed the ferocious Cameron Heyward.
4. Cort Dennison, linebacker, Washington. He made a big hit in the end zone to jar the ball loose from Oregon State's Joe Halahuni in double-overtime, as the Huskies held on for a 35-34 win.
5. Da'Quan Bowers, defensive end, Clemson. Making a push for the Lowsman Trophy, Bowers had three more sacks against Maryland, giving him nine for the season to go with 15.5 tackles for loss.
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