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?
24 Sep 2012
by Matt Hinton
For a certain generation of college football fan, Florida State and Notre Dame will always be inextricably linked by their epic, era-defining "Game of the Century" showdown in 1993, and the national championship controversy that followed. For another, more recent generation, Florida State and Notre Dame are inextricably linked as perennially overrated, past-their-prime also-rans that inevitably fail to live up to the preseason hype.
And who can blame the kids? For all of their ostensible resources and talent, the Seminoles haven't finished in the top ten since 2000, and haven't lost fewer than four games in a season since the first year of ACC expansion in 2004. The Fighting Irish have had an even harder go of it, haunted annually by their absence from the national title picture since the '93 team came up a few votes short. The past five years, they've been absent from the final polls altogether. These two programs have been in "Returning to Glory" mode for so long it's become a source of open mockery.
After all these years, then, what is the discerning skeptic to make of a Saturday night in which both Florida State and Notre Dame deliver convincing, high-profile wins that seem to confirm their place among serious national contenders? In Tallahassee, FSU moved to 4-0 by dropping an incredible 667 yards of total offense on 10th-ranked Clemson in a 49-37 track meet, the most by a Florida State offense (or against a Clemson defense) in any game since the 'Noles hung 771 yards on the Tigers back in 2000. In South Bend, Notre Dame moved to 4-0 by holding Michigan out of the end zone in a 13-6 slugfest, just seven days after holding Michigan State out of the end zone in a 20-3 slugfest. At one point, the Irish defense forced Wolverine turnovers on six consecutive possessions, including four interceptions on four consecutive passes by quarterback Denard Robinson.
As we round the first quarter-turn of the season, both teams are now ranked in the top 10, and both can boast double-digit victories over otherwise unbeaten opponents currently ranked in the top twenty. In FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, both can boast above-the-fold headliners who define their respective ethos. Both give every indication of settling in for the long haul. Both have also earned reputations over the years for dropping random games to mediocre opponents and generally disappointing at precisely the moment when expectations begin to rise. Whatever happens over the next two months, it will be history repeating itself. We just can't be certain yet which period.
1. Alabama (4-0). For what it's worth, Nick Saban was "much more pleased" with his team's performance in a 40-7 rout over Florida Atlantic than in its 52-0 rout over Arkansas.
2. Oregon (4-0). Ducks playing defense is a truly terrifying development.
3. Florida State (4-0). If vintage form is a mirage, there may not be anyone left on the schedule to expose it until Florida in the finale.
4. Stanford (3-0). Ominous music playing ahead of Thursday night trap game at Washington.
5. LSU (4-0). Yep, the offense is going to be an issue.
6. Kansas State (4-0). Wildcats already had the Big 12's best non-conference win, a 52-13 blowout of Miami, and more than earned the leap into the top ten with a convincing road upset over the preseason favorite to win the conference.
7. Florida (4-0). Gators dispatch Kentucky, get a week off before the annual reality check against LSU.
8. Notre Dame (4-0). The Irish are on the right track for a BCS bid, but still have to go through Miami, BYU, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC.
9. Georgia (4-0). Forty-five-point blowouts over Vanderbilt count for a little more than they used to.
10. South Carolina (4-0). Depth isn't there yet, but annihilation of Missouri proves that when healthy, Gamecocks' starting lineup may finally stack up against SEC's elite.
11. West Virginia (3-0). Relatively sleepy win over Maryland. Ask again later.
12. Ohio State (4-0). Too close for comfort for the second week in a row -– or, depending your opinion of Central Florida, maybe the third.
13. USC (3-1). No complaints with 488 yards of total offense against Cal, but three turnovers for the second week in a row?
14. Texas (3-0). Longhorns hit the ground running in Big 12 play with Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma on tap in consecutive weeks.
15. Oregon State (2-0). The man who put down money on the Beavers beating Wisconsin and UCLA in back-to-back games is now a wealthy man.
16. Mississippi State (4-0). Bulldogs still on track for a 7-0 start before degree of difficulty goes through the roof.
17. Arizona (3-1). Still-solid win over Oklahoma State gives the Wildcats a stronger anchor here than the weekend's other high-profile losers.
18. UCLA (3-1). Previously dominant ground game ran into a wall against Oregon State. But a win over Nebraska makes for a pretty good anchor, too.
19. Clemson (3-1). Tigers are still not good enough on defense against explosive offenses, but in the ACC, it's going to be a while before they run into another one.
20. Oklahoma (2-1). Outside of the "OU" on the helmet, Sooners haven't done anything to deserve being ranked at all.
21. Rutgers (4-0). Arkansas and South Florida have already proven elsewhere that they are not good teams, but relatively speaking, they are good wins for the Scarlet Knights in back-to-back weeks.
22. Louisville (4-0). At this rate, Cardinals' season finale at Rutgers on Nov. 29 will be for the Big East's BCS bid.
23. Michigan State (3-1). No excuse for trailing Eastern Michigan in the second half.
24. Northwestern (4-0). Wildcats looked as good as any team in the Big Ten through the non-conference rounds, which says a lot more about the state of the Big Ten than it does about the Wildcats.
25. TCU (3-0). Horned Frogs finally beat a team with a pulse, though Virginia's may prove to be rapidly fainting.
- - -
In: TCU. Out: Iowa State.
1. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame. Te'o is the rare defensive player on the college level whose presence is felt as acutely on most plays as a star running back or receiver's, which is one way of saying he's not just another overhyped, blue-chip recruit fortunate enough to get national face time because he plays for Notre Dame. A week after earning national honors against Michigan State, he may have locked up the Butkus Award Saturday with eight tackles and two of ND's five interceptions against Michigan, confirming the Irish defense as an emerging force to be reckoned with.
2. Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU. The Tigers' 12-10 win at Auburn was nigh-unwatchable, thanks in very large part to LSU's very large All-American. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Montgomery justified his outsized status with four tackles for loss, including the first quarter safety that eventually supplied the final margin of victory.
3. Kansas State's Offensive Line. The Wildcats churned out 200 yards rushing, amassed a nearly ten-minute advantage in time of possession and didn't turn the ball over a single time in one of the most difficult road environments in college football. That is a fundamental, physical victory, and that starts with the front line: B.J. Finney, Cornelius Lucas, Tavon Rooks, Keenan Taylor and Cody Whitehair.
4. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State. Chrichton led the charge against UCLA's prolific ground game, finishing with six solo tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, and a pass broken up for good measure. In 2011, Oregon State finished dead last in the Pac-12 against the run, yielding nearly 197 rushing yards per game. After two games against Wisconsin and UCLA, the 2012 Beavers rank second in the nation.
5a. Ifo Ekpre-Olumu, CB, Oregon. Unknown sophomore managed the rare feat of stealing the show from the Duck offense, picking off two passes and breaking up three more in the shutout win over Arizona. His second pick went back for an icing touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter, at which point he ceased to qualify as "unknown."
5b. Michael Clay, LB, Oregon. If Ekpre-Olumu was the lightning, Clay was the thunder, racking up 13 tackles with one sack and a forced fumble that thwarted one of Arizona's many fruitless drives into Oregon territory.
Honorable Mention: Michael Atkinson, DT, Boise State. Boise's offense couldn't find the end zone against BYU, but its senior captain did, motoring 36 yards with an interception in the third quarter to supply the Broncos' only points in an otherwise unsightly 7-6 win. As always, there is no sight that can compare to the splendor of a Fat Guy Touchdown.
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