OFI: Georgia Comes In From the Cold
by Matt Hinton
Before Saturday, Georgia had lost nine of its last ten games against top-ten opponents, including a 35-7 wipeout at the hands of South Carolina earlier this month, and had spent most of the week preceding its season-defining date with Florida bickering amongst itself over which members of the defense were too "soft." As of Saturday night, the Bulldogs are officially off the snide against elite opposition, and well on their way to another SEC Championship Game courtesy of a 17-9 upset over the second-ranked Gators. From the looks of things in things in Jacksonville, this one they may actually have a chance to win.
Well, from the looks of the defense, anyway, an ironic development considering most of the buzz heading into the Cocktail Party was over the defense's failure to live up to the standard set by largely the same group of players in 2011. The triumph over Florida was all defense, all day long, in very large part thanks to the one player no one ever considered calling soft: outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Jones spent the afternoon rampaging through the Gator offense like a dreadlocked Grendel through a Medieval village. If you prefer a more recent comparison, perhaps Lawrence Taylor will do: Aside from his intangible influence as a pass rusher, Jones' final stat line Saturday included 13 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, and two forced fumbles, including the game-saving strip on Gator tight end Jordan Reed just before Reed crossed the goal line for the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
One week after feasting on a barrage of turnovers against South Carolina, Florida gave the ball away six times in the muck and failed to score a touchdown. Coming into the game, the Gators had only given the ball away four times all year, the fewest in the conference. Just one more example of the long-term dangers of living by the fumble.
Ostensibly, it was Florida entering the weekend hoping to clinch the SEC East and a return to the conference championship game after two years in the wilderness. Instead, Georgia emerged in control of its own destiny down the stretch: if they avoid an unthinkable stumble against Ole Miss or what little is left of Auburn over the next two weeks, the Bulldogs are back to Atlanta for the second year in a row against (presumably) the winner of this weekend's "Night of the Crimson Tiger" showdown between Alabama and LSU. Unlike last year, UGA will go into that game with a big, validating win that finally clears away four years of accumulated disappointments. With enough help in the BCS standings –- and they certainly got plenty of it on Saturday –- they may also go in with the national championship within their grasp.
Frankly, given the obvious issues on offense Saturday and the proximity to the all-purpose flop at South Carolina, it still seems premature to think of the Bulldogs in that class of teams. But if they take care of the rest of their business over the next month, they have certainly earned the right to prove it in Atlanta.
- Besides the Gators, three other undefeated seasons ended Saturday at Oregon State, Rutgers and Ohio, leaving six perfect records intact going into November: Alabama, Kansas State, Louisville, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oregon. Of the six, the only one that looks particularly vulnerable is Louisville, survivor of an overtime upset bid from Cincinnati. In fact, five of the Cardinals' last six wins have come by a touchdown or less, and they trailed in the fourth quarter in three of them. Of course, the way November usually works in college football, that probably means a month from now they'll be the only team left standing.
- No team on any level did more for its stock Saturday than Notre Dame, which vanquished all remaining skeptics with a thorough, 30-13 upset at Oklahoma that validated all of the Irish's good qualities over the first half of the season -– stifling run defense, bend-but-don't-break secondary, patient, clock-churning offense –- without exposing any new negatives. At 8-0, ND looks a legitimate national contender in November for the first time since 2002, with the friendliest stretch of the schedule coming up against Boston College, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. No one who looked at the schedule before the season would have believed it possible, but now that it is, there is no excuse for the Irish not to be 11-0 entering the regular season finale at USC.
- Offensively, the individual performer of the weekend was USC sophomore Marqise Lee, who racked up up an incredible 469 all-purpose yards -– 345 receiving, 123 on kickoff returns -– in the Trojans' game at Arizona, easily the best single-game total by an FBS player since ex-Trojan Reggie Bush locked up the Heisman Trophy by generating 513 yards against Fresno State in 2005. In Lee's case though, all 469 of those yards went for naught in an unexpected 39-36 loss that officially ended USC's hopes of climbing back into the BCS championship race. In terms of total yards, Lee met his match in Wildcat quarterback Matt Scott, who torched the SC defense for 369 yards passing, another 100 rushing, and four total touchdowns in the ambush.
- Ohio State is still carrying the tattered Big Ten banner in the top ten of the polls, but among teams actually eligible for the B1G championship, Nebraska appears to be emerging as the frontrunner after a 23-9 win over Michigan. With back-to-back wins over the Wolverines and Northwestern, the Cornhuskers are the league's only non-Buckeye representative in this week's polls and control their own destiny at the top of the "Legends" Division. Even if they win out, though, they'll know their opponent in the Big Ten Championship Game long before they've confirmed a seat for themselves: With Ohio State and Penn State both barred from the game, Wisconsin can formally wrap up the "Leaders" Division title this weekend against Indiana, despite residing behind both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions in the current standings.
- With any luck, we haven't seen the last of Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina, although his future is in the air after being carted off the field Saturday with his second major knee injury in as many years in the Gamecocks' win over Tennessee. Before blowing out his ACL last October, Lattimore was arguably the best running back in college football –- or, given his combination of power, speed and consistency as a receiver, at least the most well-rounded -– but appeared to have lost a step this year after undergoing surgery and extensive rehab. According to a release from South Carolina's team doctor, the latest injury resulted in damage to multiple, unspecified ligaments in Lattimore's right knee, leading coach Steve Spurrier to speculate that his workhorse may not be back until 2014. Until then, the really sobering question is whether he'll ever be back at anything resembling his initial, All-American form at all.
OFI TOP 25
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1. Alabama (8-0). Six of the seven touchdowns Bama has allowed this season have come with the Crimson Tide already leading by at least 17 points. Emphasis on allowed.
2. Kansas State (8-0). Wildcats have beaten three ranked teams -– all still ranked –- by a combined 77 points.
3. Notre Dame (8-0). Irish just made the tallest hurdle on the schedule look like another bump in the road.
4. Oregon (8-0). Ducks are easily leading the nation in margin of victory (+34.0 points per game) after obliterating Colorado, 70-14, but OFI and the BCS computers refuse to be impressed until the strength of schedule improves down the stretch.
5. Florida (7-1). When the turnover margin was reversed, ongoing offensive issues finally bit Gators hard.
6. LSU (7-1). Upset in Baton Rouge would blow all standing BCS assumptions to smithereens.
7. Ohio State (9-0). Buckeyes can easily finish 12-0 with only one win over a ranked team, or none.
8. Georgia (7-1). Inter-division schedule has been incredibly kind to Bulldogs' ambitions in the SEC East: UGA misses Alabama and LSU for the second consecutive year, and doesn't have to play Texas A&M, either.
9. Florida State (7-1). BCS title hopes are not dead with Florida still on the schedule, but computer polls clearly are not going to be impressed by winning the ACC.
10. Oregon State (6-1). Beavers' first loss is a blow to the Pac-12's chances of getting two teams into BCS bowls.
11. Oklahoma (5-2). From 1999-2010, OU lost exactly one home game in Norman in Bob Stoops' first twelve years as head coach. Since the start of 2011, the Sooners have lost three home games, all as double-digit favorites.
12. South Carolina (6-2). Gamecocks are a better team now than the one that finished strong without Marcus Lattimore in 2011, but odds he won't be back this time takes a greater emotional toll.
13. Texas A&M (6-2). Aggies are the latest to benefit from Auburn's implosion in a 63-21 debacle.
14. Texas Tech (6-2). Raiders remember last year's collapse after a 5-2 start all too well.
15. Stanford (6-2). First-rate defensive front (see below) can lift the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship, but not without more help from the post-Andrew Luck passing game.
16. Louisville (8-0). Cardinals had to go to overtime against Cincinnati to keep the winning streak intact, their fifth win by a touchdown or less in the last six games.
17. USC (6-2). Pac-12 title is still a possibility, but with two conference losses –- and Oregon on deck -– the Trojans have officially underachieved.
18. UCLA (6-2). South Division crown could be decided when USC visits the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17, but Bruins have Arizona to deal with first.
19. Nebraska (6-2). Cornhuskers took a giant leap toward winning the Big Ten's "Legends" Division.
20. Clemson (7-1). Other polls were impressed enough with the 42-13 beating Clemson put on Wake Forest last Thursday to move the Tigers into the top ten. OFI is waiting for them to beat an opponent with a winning record.
21. Arizona (5-3). Wildcats come out of a brutal midseason stretch with nine wins and a division title still very much within reach.
22. West Virginia (5-2). Mountaineers took a week off to find their footing with back-to-back blowouts behind them and dates with TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma dead ahead.
23. Texas (6-2). Longhorns' last three games have consisted of squeaking by Baylor and Kansas and getting destroyed by Oklahoma, and now there may be a renewed quarterback controversy, to boot.
24. Oklahoma State (5-2). Cowboys are banged up, under the radar and still very much alive to repeat as Big 12 champs with an upset at K-State.
25. Iowa State (5-3). Not the best record, but credit the perennially outmanned Cyclones for holding their own against a rough schedule.
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In: Arizona, Texas, Iowa State. Out: Mississippi State, Rutgers, Michigan.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
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1. JARVIS JONES, LB, Georgia. See above. As a footnote, Jones was back at full speed against Florida after sitting out the Bulldogs' lackluster win at Kentucky with an ankle injury. At least, let's hope Jones was at full speed, because the idea of anyone dominating to that extent at less than 100 percent is frankly terrifying.
2. RYAN SHAZIER, LB, Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been so banged up and shorthanded at linebacker that they were compelled to convert the starting fullback, Zach Boren, into a starting linebacker at midseason, and it showed in too-close-for-comfort wins over Indiana and Purdue. Against Penn State, though, Shazier turned in his best game with seven tackles, two sacks, and a pick-six at the start of the third quarter that turned a 7-7 tie at the half into a 35-23 cruise. Including negative yardage on sacks, Penn State finished with 32 yards rushing on 1.1 per carry.
3. MANTI TE'O, LB, Notre Dame. As usual, the face of the "Wake Up the Echoes" Tour led the Irish in tackles (six solo, five assists) in the upset win at Oklahoma, including two tackles for loss, a sack, and a game-icing interception that may have punched Teo's ticket to the Heisman ceremony in December. All his resumé is missing now is a touchdown or two for the highlight reels.
4. FRONT SEVEN, Stanford. I could pick a name from the list, but it would be fairly pointless when the list includes six different players -– Usua Amanam, Alex Debniak, Ben Gardner, Joseph Mauro, Henry Anderson and Trent Murphy –- who had a hand in at least two sacks for a defense that held Washington State to minus-16 yards rushing in a 24-17 Stanford win. As a team, the Cardinal stopped the Cougars behind the line 15 times, moving them into the national lead with 76 tackles for loss for the season. Only Alabama is better against the run overall.
5. QUANTERUS SMITH, DE, Western Kentucky. Smith had five sacks in the Hilltoppers' 14-6 win over Florida International, a Sun Belt Conference record and the best single-game total by any FBS player this season. With that, Smith moves into a tie for the national lead with 11.5 sacks for the season –- all of them coming in three games.