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Monday, September 15, 2008
SEC is top conference so far, but Big 12 isn't far behind

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

Rank And File

1. SEC

What we believed: From top to bottom, the SEC was once again supposed to be the best conference in college football. Georgia was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls. Florida was picked to win the SEC East -- over the Bulldogs -- by the media that cover the league. Defending national champion LSU and Auburn were supposed to battle it out in the SEC West. South Carolina was a popular choice to be the league's dark horse. SEC

What we know: For the first time in history, five SEC teams are ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. But the league's top teams -- No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 LSU, No. 9 Alabama and No. 10 Auburn -- have serious concerns. Georgia's offensive line and defensive line have been less than impressive. Florida still doesn't have a running game -- other than quarterback Tim Tebow. LSU has an inexperienced quarterback, and Alabama remains one of the youngest teams in college football. Auburn's new spread offense has been a disaster, and Tennessee remains a mystery after losing at UCLA 27-24 in overtime on Labor Day night. There are no easy outs in the SEC -- Vanderbilt is 3-0, Ole Miss is much better under Houston Nutt and Kentucky's defense will keep the Wildcats competitive in most ballgames. Defense again rules the roost in the SEC, but many of the league's offenses are just bad.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 16-3

2. Big 12

What we believed: With so many great quarterbacks, the Big 12 was supposed to be full of high-octane offenses. Oklahoma was supposed to be a national championship contender (at least until bowl games begin), and Missouri and Kansas were supposed to pick up where they left off last season. Texas Tech, with record-setting quarterback Graham Harrell and receiver Michael Crabtree and an improved defense, was supposed to be the dark horse in the Big 12 South.

Big 12 What we know: The Big 12 offenses are as good as advertised and might be even better. Eight Big 12 teams are averaging at least 450 yards of offense per game. Missouri leads the country with 597.3 yards per game, and Texas Tech is second with 584.3. Quarterbacks Chase Daniel of Missouri and Sam Bradford of Oklahoma are leading Heisman Trophy candidates. Eight of the league's teams have unblemished records, and Kansas narrowly lost at South Florida on Friday night. Oklahoma's defense seems to be more prepared to survive in such a pass-happy league, but Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Texas Tech are each capable of challenging for a spot in a BCS bowl game. Oklahoma State might be the league's biggest surprise. The league's overall depth is better, too, because Colorado, Kansas State and Nebraska are no longer pushovers. The Big 12 has considerably closed the gap on the SEC.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 20-4

3. Big Ten

What we believed: With so many star players coming back for another chance to win a BCS National Championship, Ohio State was supposed to run away with its third straight outright Big Ten title. Michigan was supposed to be rebuilding under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez, and Illinois wasn't supposed to be as good as last season after losing star tailback Rashard Mendenhall and several other key players.

Big Ten What we know: The Buckeyes are struggling mightily after three games. With star tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells sidelined with a right foot injury, the Buckeyes narrowly beat Ohio 26-14 and were embarrassed 35-3 at Southern California. The Buckeyes' latest flop in a big game all but eliminates them from the BCS National Championship race. Penn State looks like the class of the Big Ten right now, after routing Oregon State and Syracuse. Wisconsin has the league's most impressive victory, winning at Fresno State 13-10 on Saturday night. Michigan is worse than expected, losing to Utah and Notre Dame.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 16-6.

4. Pac-10

What we believed: Southern California would again be a national championship contender if quarterback Mark Sanchez played well. Arizona State would be the league's second-best team -- if the Sun Devils learned how to protect quarterback Rudy Carpenter. California would have to repair its psyche after last season's late collapse, and Oregon would have to replace a boatload of playmakers to be competitive.

Pac-10 What we know: The Trojans are much better than expected. In fact, this might be Pete Carroll's best team at USC. Sanchez has played brilliantly in two games, and the Trojans have tailbacks stacked up like cordwood. Arkansas transfer Damian Williams gives USC a much-needed deep threat. As good as the offense has looked, the defense might be even better. Oregon has played remarkably well after losing quarterback Dennis Dixon, but injuries are taking their toll on offense. California looked really good before sleepwalking through a 35-27 loss at Maryland on Saturday. Arizona State got caught looking ahead to Saturday's game against No. 3 Georgia, losing to UNLV 23-20 in overtime. The league isn't very deep and probably won't fill its bowl allotment. Give the Pac-10 credit -- its teams have played only one FCS opponent.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 9-10

5. Mountain West

What we believed: BYU was capable of spoiling the BCS party by finishing the season with a 12-0 record. The Cougars would have to win two games against Pac-10 opponents and beat rival Utah in their regular-season finale to do it. The Utes would be BYU's biggest challenge in the Mountain West if quarterback Brian Johnson stayed healthy. TCU would rebound from last season's disappointing 8-5 record.

Mountain West What we know: The Mountain West has three teams capable of earning a BCS at-large spot: BYU, TCU and Utah. The Cougars are the best bet to do it after winning at Washington 28-27 and routing UCLA 59-0. But BYU plays road games at TCU on Oct. 16 and at Utah on Nov. 22. Utah beat Michigan 25-23 in its opener and gets TCU and BYU at home. The Horned Frogs rank second in the country in defense, allowing only 174 yards per game. Mountain West teams are 5-0 against Pac-10 opponents.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 10-4

6. ACC

What we believed: We hoped the ACC would be better this season, after the league lost a BCS bowl game for the ninth time in 10 tries. Clemson was supposed to be a national championship contender with so many skill players back. Boston College and Virginia Tech were supposed to be rebuilding, and North Carolina was supposed to be much improved.

ACC What we know: Clemson's chances of winning a BCS National Championship ended in its first game: a 34-10 loss to Alabama in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The Tigers still have the skill players to win an ACC title, but do they have the leadership? Virginia Tech looked pretty average in a 27-22 loss to East Carolina in Charlotte in its opener, but the Hokies recovered to beat Georgia Tech 20-17 on Saturday. The Tar Heels might be as good as advertised after winning at Rutgers 44-12 on Thursday night. Under first-year coach David Cutcliffe, Duke might finally escape the ACC cellar. NC State and Virginia look as bad as any FBS teams in the country.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 6-8

7. Big East

What we believed: West Virginia would be too good to skip a beat in coach Bill Stewart's first full season. With quarterback Pat White and tailback Noel Devine returning, the Mountaineers would pick up where former coach Rich Rodriguez left off. South Florida would contend for a Big East title, despite losing several key players on defense. Rutgers would have one of the country's best passing games after losing star tailback Ray Rice. Pittsburgh would be one of the country's most improved teams and might even challenge for a Big East title.

Big East What we know: After saving itself in the past two seasons, the Big East isn't very good this year. West Virginia lost at East Carolina 24-3 in a game that wasn't that close. Rutgers is 0-2 after being embarrassed at home by Fresno State and North Carolina. Pittsburgh lost to Bowling Green 27-17 in its opener. Louisville isn't much better in coach Steve Kragthorpe's second season. Syracuse might be the worst team from a BCS conference. South Florida is carrying the Big East flag this season and might be good enough to finish 11-1.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 5-9

8. Conference USA

What we believed: Tulsa would be the Conference USA favorite even without departed star quarterback Paul Smith. Houston would still have a high-powered offense under new coach Kevin Sumlin, and Southern Mississippi would look much different running Larry Fedora's spread offense. East Carolina would win the Eastern Division if the Pirates could replace star tailback Chris Johnson.

Conference USA What we know: East Carolina is a BCS contender after upsetting nationally ranked Virginia Tech and West Virginia in its first two games. The Pirates might be good enough to finish 12-0 and don't play Tulsa during the regular season. Tulsa and Houston are still scoring a ton of points, but the Cougars are giving up too many points. Memphis is the league's biggest disappointment with an 0-3 record, and UTEP and UAB aren't much better.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 5-13

9. MAC

What we believed: With quarterback Dan LeFevour returning, Central Michigan would win its third consecutive MAC championship. Ball State and record-setting quarterback Nate Davis would be the Chippewas' biggest challenger. Miami, Ohio and Bowling Green would battle for the Eastern Division title.

MAC What we know: The Chippewas won't run away with the MAC crown this season. Ball State is as good as advertised. Akron won at Syracuse. Bowling Green won at Pitt (and then lost badly at Minnesota and Boise State). Other teams have put up a fight against opponents from bigger conferences: Ohio scared Ohio State; Miami gave Michigan fits; Temple lost in overtime to Connecticut. Turner Gill has turned Buffalo into a consistent winner, and Temple, of all teams, is two plays away from being 3-0.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 6-16

10. WAC

What we believed: Fresno State would contend for a BCS bowl spot if the Bulldogs could navigate their way through a very difficult schedule. Boise State would get closer to where it was two years ago, and Hawaii would take a huge step back after losing coach June Jones and quarterback Colt Brennan.

WAC What we know: The Bulldogs are pretty good, beating Rutgers 24-7 and losing to Wisconsin 13-10. Boise State will be Fresno State's biggest challenge in the WAC; the teams meet in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 28. Louisiana Tech has made great strides in coach Derek Dooley's second season, upsetting Mississippi State 22-14. Hawaii is worse than expected without Brennan and Jones.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 4-13

11. Sun Belt

What we believed: Sun Belt teams would continue to pay their bills with big paychecks from opponents from BCS conferences. Florida Atlantic would win its second consecutive Sun Belt championship with record-setting quarterback Rusty Smith coming back. Troy would take a step back after losing quarterback Omar Haugabook and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.

Sun Belt What we know: Buyer beware: Sun Belt teams aren't as easy to beat as they used to be. Arkansas State ruined Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman's debut, beating the Aggies 18-14 in College Station, Texas. Middle Tennessee persuaded Maryland to play in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and beat the Terrapins 24-14. Florida Atlantic has struggled, losing to Texas 52-10 and Michigan State 17-0. Things won't be much easier when Sun Belt Conference play begins. Arkansas State is the league's most improved team, and the Trojans are 2-0.

Record vs. nonconference FBS opponents: 3-13



WEEK: Preseason | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

On The Mark: Top offensive performers

Max Hall Hall

1. Max Hall, QB, BYU
The junior tied a school record with seven touchdown passes -- six in the first half -- and threw for 271 yards in two-plus quarters of a 59-0 rout of UCLA.

2. Javon Ringer, RB, Michigan State
The Spartans rode Ringer to a 17-0 shutout of Florida Atlantic; he had 43 carries for 282 yards with two touchdowns.

3. Matt Grothe, QB, South Florida
Grothe guided the Bulls to a come-from-behind, 37-34 victory over Kansas on Friday night, completing 32 of 45 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns.

4. Brandon Tate, WR, North Carolina
The speedy Tar Heel caught four passes for 138 yards with one touchdown and ran for a score in a 44-12 victory at Rutgers.

5. Drew Willy, QB, Buffalo
Lilly completed 29 of 42 passes for 348 yards with three touchdowns, including the game winner to Naaman Roosevelt on the final play of a 30-28 win over Temple.

Chase Daniel Daniel

6. Chase Daniel, QB, Missouri
The senior is playing better than ever, completing 23 of 28 passes for 405 yards with four touchdowns in a 69-17 rout of Nevada.

7. Graham Harrell, QB, Texas Tech After a slow start this season, Harrell was 31-for-48 for 418 yards with five touchdowns (three to Michael Crabtree) in a 43-7 victory over SMU.

8. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
The sophomore has completed a whopping 79 percent of his passes this season after throwing for 304 yards and five touchdowns in an easy 55-14 victory at Washington.

9. Joe McKnight, RB, USC
The sophomore reminded Ohio State how slow it is by running for 105 yards in a 35-3 blowout of the Buckeyes.

10. Trindon Holliday, WR/KR, LSU
The fastest player in the SEC returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and had 163 return yards in a 41-3 win over North Texas.

Off The Mark: Struggling players

Mike Teel Teel

1. Mike Teel, QB, Rutgers
The senior threw three interceptions -- he has five picks in two games -- in a 44-12 loss to North Carolina.

2. Jahvid Best, RB, California
After running for 311 yards in the first two games, Best was held to 25 yards on 10 carries in a 35-27 loss at Maryland.

3. Rusty Smith, QB, Florida Atlantic
The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year completed only 8 of 34 passes for 143 yards in a 17-0 loss at Michigan State.

4. Michigan's offense
Rich Rodriguez's spread offense had six turnovers and seven penalties in a 35-17 loss at Notre Dame.

5. UCLA
How did this team beat Tennessee? The Bruins had 9 rushing yards and four turnovers and were completely overwhelmed in a 59-0 loss at BYU.

Mike Davis Davis

6. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
The senior ran 12 times for only 22 yards and fumbled into the end zone in the fourth quarter of a 14-7 loss to Georgia.

7. Tyler Graunke, QB, Hawaii
Colt Brennan's replacement threw for 118 yards with two interceptions in a 45-7 loss to Oregon State.

8. Kevin Goessling, K, Fresno State
The freshman missed three field goals, including a 35-yard attempt in the fourth quarter, in the Bulldogs' 13-10 loss to Wisconsin.

9. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs could muster only six first downs and 116 yards in an ugly 3-2 loss to Auburn.

10. Todd Boeckman, QB, Ohio State
The senior had another big game to forget Saturday night at USC, throwing for 84 yards with two interceptions and four sacks in a 35-3 loss to the Trojans.

On The Mark: Hot coaches

1. Charlie Weis, Notre Dame
Weis silenced his critics by beating Michigan 35-17 and remained on the sideline after blowing out his knee when he was hit by one of his players.

Jim Leavitt Leavitt

2. Jim Leavitt, South Florida
There's a lot to be said for patience, and Leavitt stuck with freshman kicker Maikon Bonani, who missed badly on his first attempt. Bonani recovered to kick three field goals, including the game winner in a 37-34 victory over Kansas.

3. David Cutcliffe, Duke
Cutcliffe is working his magic at one of the worst programs in the country, guiding the Blue Devils to a 2-1 record after Saturday's 41-31 victory over Navy.

4. Ralph Friedgen, Maryland
The Terrapins got some much-needed confidence and momentum after upsetting California 35-27 at Byrd Stadium.

5. Mike Sanford, UNLV
After compiling a 6-29 record in his first three seasons, the Rebels turned the corner with a 23-20 upset of Arizona State in overtime on Saturday night.

Off The Mark: Coaches on hot seat

1. Tommy West, Memphis
The Tigers were supposed to be one of the most improved teams in Conference USA, but fell to 0-3 after Saturday's 17-16 loss to Marshall.

Al Groh Groh

2. Al Groh, Virginia
It's going to be a rebuilding year at Virginia, but the Cavaliers didn't show much fight in a 45-10 loss to Connecticut.

3. Chuck Long, San Diego State
Long's tenure seems to be coming to an end after the Aztecs fell to 0-3 after a 35-10 at San Jose State.

4. Brent Guy, Utah State
Guy's record fell to 6-32 in four seasons after an ugly 58-10 home loss to rival Utah.

5. Greg Robinson, Syracuse
It only gets worse at the Carrier Dome; the Orange were routed by Penn State 55-13 on Saturday. Syracuse has allowed 127 points in three losses.

On The Mark: Big-play defenders

1. Rey Maualuga, LB, Southern California
The All-American had five tackles and returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown in the Trojans' 35-3 rout of Ohio State.

2. Rennie Curran, LB, Georgia

Rennie Curran Curran

The speedy sophomore had six tackles, one sack, two quarterback pressures and forced a fumble into the Bulldogs' end zone in the fourth quarter of a 14-7 win at South Carolina.

3. D.J. Moore, CB, Vanderbilt
Moore returned an interception 31 yards and had 206 all-purpose yards (84 on punt returns, 54 on kickoff returns and 37 rushing) in a 38-21 win over Rice.

4. DeAndre Levy, LB, Wisconsin
Levy had nine tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack and one interception in the Badgers' 13-10 win at Fresno State.

5. David Bruton, S, Notre Dame
Bruton had 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and one interception in the Fighting Irish's 35-17 victory over Michigan.

Off The Mark: Porous defenses

1. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers, still making the transition to FBS, allowed 557 yards in a 41-7 loss to Alabama. It was the Crimson Tide's highest offensive output since 1989.

2. UAB

UAB
The Blazers are dead last in total defense among FBS schools; they have allowed 1,703 yards and 18 touchdowns in their first three games. UAB surrendered 548 yards in a 35-3 loss at Tennessee.

3. SMU
June Jones was supposed to bring a high-powered offense to SMU. The only thing offensive is his team's defense. The Mustangs rank 105th against the run, 114th against the pass and 115th in scoring defense.

4. Syracuse
Defense was supposed to be Greg Robinson's speciality. The Orange allowed 216 rushing yards and 344 passing in a 55-13 loss to Penn State at the Carrier Dome.

5. North Texas
The Mean Green allowed 41 points to LSU -- the fewest points North Texas has allowed in a game this season.