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18 Oct 2010

OFI: Sweet, Surprising Season

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.

Toedrags

  • Nebraska sure played like they were my lock of the week, huh? I lost count at four dropped touchdown passes. Texas bottled up Tyler Martinez, and without his sprints to daylight, the Huskers were very ordinary on defense. When they finally got to within a touchdown with three minutes and two timeouts left and with Memorial Stadium finally letting loose, Bo Pelini decided to onside kick? Curious, to say the least.
  • Hate to say I told you so, but South Carolina's dropping the good karma it had from last week like fourth period French was just too obvious. Kentucky rallied from 28-10 down, with mediocre quarterback Mike Hartline morphing into a svelter Jared Lorenzen and firing bullets all over the Gamecocks. On the game-deciding play, three South Carolina defenders let Kentucky's best player, Randall Cobb, waltz right past them into the end zone, where he was wide open for the touchdown catch. Steve Spurrier then went one better. With 11 ticks left, he used his final timeout deep in UK terrain, down three. Overtime was a chip shot away. Instead, he went for the win. A defensible decision, but why throw away from the giant wideout with the vise-like talons, Alshon Jeffrey, and into double coverage on the opposite side? Sure enough, the pass was deflected and intercepted, and "Operation Win" was in full effect, the first time a Spurrier team had lost in Lexington.
  • Now the SEC East is so wide open, even Georgia can win it. The Bulldogs crushed Vandy, 43-0. Meanwhile, Florida looked sick in losing -- at home -- to Mississippi State, 10-7. I wrote in a previous column that Urban Meyer hasn't been the same since Dan Mullen left town to lead the Bulldogs, and perhaps he wanted his protégé to feel good about himself. Remember that Meyer has never been a coordinator, surprising given his pedigree as an offensive mind. So calls for him to start calling plays are misguided -- he doesn't have the experience to do so. As Florida's last-ditch field goal try sailed wide at the gun, Meyer probably was rethinking his decision to ignore his health concerns and return to the sideline so soon.
  • Mississippi State won despite not throwing a single pass in the second half. The Bulldogs had a run-pass split of 49-9 in the game.
  • Hopefully you didn't stay up to midnight to watch Alabama ugly it's way past Ole Miss. But if you did, you did you saw an amazing game from Trent Richardson, including a sprint with a screen pass that redefined the word "whooooooooooshhhhhhhhhh."
  • You won't see a better cut in space than the one James White put on to find daylight and score Wisconsin's clinching touchdown against Ohio State. Give the Buckeyes credit for taking several Jack Dempsey-level haymakers from the Badgers early and coming back to make a game of it. But White's sick footwork iced it for Wisconsin.
  • You'll note the absence of LSU in my feel-good unbeaten narrative above. They had a perfunctory win over McNeese State, yet trailed early and hardly eased jittery nerves in the Cajun State. Perhaps they were confused by the fact that the visitors all wore "McNeese" on the backs of their jerseys, a team-first statement that couldn't compensate for the gap in talent.
  • In the "What the Hell Was I Talking About?" Dept., I stated very early on that Cal's Kevin Riley looked like the best quarterback in the Pac-10. Uh, he ain't. He stinks. He threw a pick to USC's DaJohn "Big Juicy" Harris that might have been the worst pass since Knute Rockne invented the damn thing. The Trojans, led by a real quarterback, Matt Barkley, led 42-0 at halftime and exposed Cal for the pretenders they are. The Bears supposedly had a quality defense, but Barkley shredded it, thanks to a non-existent pass rush that allowed him a semester's worth of time to study his options on every play. The Trojan sophomore had five touchdown passes before halftime.
  • Tim Brewster, we hardly knew you. Actually, we did, and good riddance.
  • Godspeed to Eric LeGrand of Rutgers, a junior defensive tackle, who was paralyzed from the neck down against Army.

The OFI Top 25

1. Boise State
2. Oregon
3. TCU
4. Alabama
5. Oklahoma
6. Iowa
7. Auburn
8. Utah
9. Ohio State
10. LSU
11. Wisconsin
12. Michigan State
13. Oklahoma State
14. Nebraska
15. Stanford
16. Florida State
17. Missouri
18. Arkansas
19. Miami
20. West Virginia
21. Arizona
22. South Carolina
23. Virginia Tech
24. Texas
25. Mississippi State

Lowsman Watch

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.

Posted by: Robert Weintraub on 18 Oct 2010

14 comments, Last at 19 Oct 2010, 9:39am by TV_Pete

Comments

1
by Bill Connelly :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 7:29am

Hey don't let me stop you -- feel free to give Mizzou whatever love you think they deserve. :-)

4
by cfn_ms :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 11:48am

Or me:

http://cfn.scout.com/2/1012958.html

(shameless self-plug)

2
by dbostedo :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 9:04am

"...the Arkansas runner clearly had his knee down before coughing it up."
I think it was close enough to fit the definition of "inconclusive" even after the numerous replays. I'm still not certain the knee was down - so I don't think "clearly" is the right word there.

3
by KJ @ theonlycolors (not verified) :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 9:18am

MSU "has had a cake schedule"? Based on last week's rankings, MSU now has four wins over S&P+ top-40 teams. And, while MSU misses OSU this year, the win over Wisconsin could end up being a much better win (depending on Iowa/Wisc and Iowa/OSU results).

Even based on your rankings above--which somehow have Wisconsin ahead of MSU, despite the head-to-head loss--the only teams with a better win than MSU's win over Wisconsin are South Carolina, Arizona, and (oddly) Wisconsin.

5
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 3:20pm

Agreed, I don't understand how beating 2 ranked teams qualifies your schedule as "cake".

7
by cfn_ms :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 3:28pm

Let's see: home games against Western Michigan, Notre Dame, FAU (in Detroit against a Florida team; that's a home game), a AA team, Wisconsin, Illinois, and just one road game so far, at a pretty mediocre Michigan team. Yeah, I'd call that a cake schedule too.

And FWIW, any team that wants to think itself top 10 should be flat-out embarrassed to get taken to OT at home by ND and to only beat FAU at home by 13.

9
by KJ @ theonlycolors (not verified) :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 4:29pm

1) Take a look at the non-con schedules of any ranked team and you'll find opponents that look a lot like Western, FAU, and Northern Colorado. Inherent in the modern game.

https://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=0At8TUg6ffPJMdDZfd0t0b2VucjdRazJ...

2) If you don't like wins over Wisc, Illinois, and UM, I assume you just don't think much of the Big Ten--since those are pretty clearly three of the top five non-MSU teams in the conference.

3) Yes, MSU's margins of victory in the non-conference schedule were less than overwhelming. That's different than saying they played "a cake schedule."

8
by zlionsfan :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 4:25pm

and as you'll find elsewhere on this site and others, a win in a head-to-head matchup isn't necessarily a sign of a better team.

Signed, a Purdue grad thinking of last season's win against Ohio State.

Yeah, Michigan State's schedule has been cake, comparatively speaking. (#95 Western Michigan at home, #100 Florida Atlantic effectively at home, I-AA Northern Colorado at home. Michigan won't be in the top 40 for long, I suspect, and that's your one true road game so far.) Same with the other Big Ten contenders. There's no need to be defensive about it, though ... it's an extremely reasonable plan, especially given the one-and-done nature of most teams' BCS hopes. There's little reward for playing tough non-conference opposition, especially considering the Big Ten revenue-sharing plan, and great risk. Would you rather be 7-0 with a weaker schedule (76th according to Sagarin) or 3-3 with the 11th-toughest schedule like Illinois?

Besides, you can't even be sure that your schedule will actually be tough when you play it. Who would have thought Notre Dame would be just another mediocre team this year? (OK, that was a cheap shot, but it was fun, wasn't it?) How did Utah feel when it scheduled a game at Michigan that turned out to hurt its SOS?

Even conference play doesn't always work out the way you thought it would. Who picked Minnesota to play I-AA-quality football, or Penn State to try to win without actually having an offense, or Purdue to try to win with its third-string offense?

10
by KJ @ theonlycolors (not verified) :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 4:35pm

Well, I'm not trying to be defensive. I'm trying to cite facts. On that note: The #76 SOS ranking from Sagarin is a good one, although I wonder if there's not a quirk going on there with the Big Ten, since MSU's SOS ranking is still higher than Wisconsin's, Ohio State's, and Iowa's.

I agree that, by the end of the year, MSU's schedule will look relatively weak compared to other BCS-conference title contenders. And I'll certainly take an undefeated season against whatever our schedule ends up looking like.

In terms of head-to-head results, I think you have to weight them pretty heavily right now, since we don't have a lot of other secondary win-loss relationships between MSU, Wisconsin, and OSU to work from.

Alright, I'll drop it now.

6
by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 3:24pm

As I stated after the game in last week's 7 Day Adventure post, the key game this weekend in the Big Ten is MSU at Northwestern. The Spartans defense has one special defender (Greg Jones) and a bunch of guys. MSU wins with offense and special teams while its defense has the proverbial 'opportunistic' tag which is announcer speak for getting turnovers that are mostly luck.

The Wildcats have a very good qb, are playing at home, are well coached save for the glaring gap at placekicker which is a disaster.

It's also glaringly obvious that Wisconsin had circled the OSU game on the calendar at the expense of all other games which explains their erratic efforts leading up to this game. So when MSU punched them in the mouth on special teams and began hitting play action passes Wisky had little response because that isn't how Ohio State plays the game.

Another indictment of the WI head coach who along with being a jack*ss isn't capable of keeping a legitimately talented team focused for every game or at least looking prepared.

Opinion may change if WI manages to put up a fight against Iowa. But if history services Wisconsin will get roughed up and leave Kinnick Stadium defeated and deflated with Tolzien having multiple tread marks courtesy of the Iowa d-line which always outplays the WI offensive line no matter the circumstances.

11
by Flounder :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 5:59pm

I have been really surprised by the MSU secondary. I wouldn't exactly describe the turnovers they've produced the last two weeks luck. Perhaps lucky in the sense that the QBs throwing the ball aren't great passers.

Going from memory, 2 of the 6 INTs were just straight-up terrible passes (in particular, one in the IL game was right at an MSU defender, without an IL player within five yards). On the other 4 INTs from the last two weeks, the receiver was open, but not by a lot. An accurate throw was needed to complete the pass, and when the QB was either a bit off or a bit late getting out, the secondary was in the right spot to take advantage.

I do think, however, much like GBs defense last year, against a good QB they are likely be exposed.

12
by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Mon, 10/18/2010 - 7:09pm

Carimi played well against Heyward but the guy in the trenches who stood out even more was JJ Watt, DE of WI, who is the only guy on that defense capable of generating a consistent pass rush. Watt has been a holy terror most season combining strength and quickness on a 6'6" frame which allows him to bat down passes if he doesn't get to the qb.

Among d-linemen in the Big Ten it's looking like a race between Kerrigan, Watt, Danels and Browne for who reigns supreme. Clayborn must be getting triple-teamed as he doesn't hit the leader boards in any category.

Right now just by the obvious stats Kerrigan is having a great season.

13
by Will :: Tue, 10/19/2010 - 12:24am

It was obvious in this game that Ohio State's defense has moved too far to defending the spread - it's been a long time since I've seen the Buckeyes get pushed around like that. Actually, it's been obvious since they've used Rolle at MLB - he's way too small for that position against power running teams.

Watt and Kerrigan are beasts - love them both.

Will

14
by TV_Pete (not verified) :: Tue, 10/19/2010 - 9:39am

I tend to prefer FEI and Sagarin for rankings. One thing I wish FEI and Sagarin may not offer is insights into WHY a team isn't doing well.

One example, in particular, is why Florida is doing so poorly this year. They have either the #1 or #2 or recruiting for the past 5 years.

1) Catching - Every game there seems to be at least 5 dropped passes. Sure, most of Brantley's passes are high, but if you get two hands on them they ball needs to be caught.

2) Blocking - The Florida Offensive line is the largest in the SEC. However, they are using a finesse (zone?) style of blocking where they always take a step back. The linemen appear to wait for defenders to come to them and then block them to the side, using their own energy against them. When effective this style of blocking is best done with smaller, extremely athletic linemen. However, this scheme is useless in typical short-yard setups as the linemen are not used to firing off the line. There are often 1-3 defensive linemen that are able to shoot through the line to get into the backfield and disrupt the play.

3) Scheme - Brantley is supposed to be a pro style QB. On the 2-minute drill against Mississippi State he was able to move the ball effectively. The RB, Moody, is also a pro style RB who does best running up the middle. However, Urban Meyer refuses to adjust to these personnel, instead calling option/pitch to the outside with a slow QB and a RB that is ill-suited to this style. If Burton is the QB that Urban Meyer needs to run his system then he may also want to get him more practice passing.

4) Tackling - Can anyone in Florida wrap up and make a good, driving tackle? Mostly, they appear to make arm tackles. I would love to see what the YAC for RB against Florida is compared to other schools.

5) Short pass defense in flat - Florida often lines up 10 yards off the ball with their CB. Only Saban and Miles seem to take advantage of this, but a 5-yard pass is available most of the day. After a couple short passes the offense should try a pump-fake and watch the aggressive CB take themselves out of the play.

6) Agressive blitzing, leaving open receiver - Florida is agressive in blitzing and sometimes this can be effective. However, the players telegraph this blitz and the safety is too slow covering. This often leaves a little dump pass over the blitzing CB for a 5 or 10 yard catch that has the potential for more.

What is Florida doing well right now? Punting?