Commentary

Tigers, Trojans explode out of the gates

Originally Published: September 20, 2007
By Chris Fowler | Special to ESPN.com

The college football regular season is out of the blocks. The first quarter of the race is over. Wow, it has gone fast -- maybe a 22 2/5 quarter (for those of you literate in the language of the ponies). Most teams have played three games, albeit not their most meaningful, revealing games. Many have yet to be tested at all.

"College GameDay"
GameDay

Break out the houndstooth hats. Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the rest of the "GameDay" crew will be in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday. Tune in to find out about No. 22 Georgia at No. 16 Alabama and everything else in college football.
When: Sat., 10 a.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: Tuscaloosa, Ala.

That's the sad reality of modern scheduling. But no use continuing to whine about that.

So, what have we learned?

First, it's going to take a very crafty, talented and lucky offense to put up a bunch of points on LSU. That defense has a chance to be one of the best we've seen in recent years. I left LSU at No. 1 on my AP ballot this week, despite witnessing USC's beatdown of Nebraska. Sure, that was impressive, but the Trojans will face much tougher road tests in the Pac-10, where opponents will feature much more skill than the Huskers.

We've learned that the personality of this Trojans offense will be more rugged and run-oriented than last year's bunch that was built around the talents of wideouts Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. Super blue-chip recruit Stafon Johnson was one of the nation's best prep runners, but he spent 2006 in the USC doghouse and seemed a little soft. No more, obviously.

Stafon Johnson
AP Photo/Dave WeaverStafon Johnson rushed for 144 yards against Nebraska.

USC is able to do what few programs can. The Trojans staff gets recruits who are as ready for the spotlight as possible and coaches them up quickly. Freshman Kristofer O'Dowd was somehow ready to play well in the big game. The center from Tucson, Ariz., excelled in the hostile Huskers environment, blasting holes for Johnson and fullback Stanley Havili, who is a redshirt freshman recovering from a broken leg that cost him last season.

Each week I visit with coaches who bemoan the "youth" and "inexperience" of their teams. And they are usually talking about third-year sophomores or juniors just cracking the lineup. USC does not make excuses. The Trojans just get great players and get them ready. When linebacker Brian Cushing, USC's defensive leader, couldn't go at Nebraska, Clay Matthews stepped in and did the job.

By the way, after seeing LSU and USC in back-to-back weeks, I am convinced that if they meet for the title, the Tigers and Trojans should just play in their Dri-Fit undershirts -- no pads. These guys are specimens, two very "pretty" teams in the football slang. You've got to salute both strength and conditioning staffs.

Hard Lessons

I missed the mark on TCU, Auburn and Oklahoma State. All three have flopped so far, stumbling to a pair of losses. They are my three most disappointing teams so far. Outside of Notre Dame, of course. We'll see what rhetorical magic Regis Philbin can summon when he searches for inspiring stuff as the Friday pep rally's keynote speaker.
Gary Patterson
AP Photo/David Zalubowski)Gary Patterson and the Frogs are a surprising 1-2 this season.

TCU sold out but fell short at Texas on Sept. 8. Coach Gary Patterson then seemed irritated that the Horned Frogs were dropped from the polls. Perhaps less energy spent on the pollsters and more on getting his team ready for the MWC opener at Air Force was called for. TCU led 17-3 in the fourth quarter, but melted down and lost in overtime, 20-17.

Patterson criticized offensive coordinator Mike Schultz for attempting to throw the ball in the red zone, leading to an Air Force interception with 49 seconds left in regulation. Patterson didn't mention that the defense he's known for let the Falcons sprint 80 yards in four plays for one fourth-quarter score. Or Jim Ollis' 71-yard touchdown run that forced OT. Are the Horned Frogs, once considered a potential BCS team, about to crumble? They'd better regroup soon.

Auburn is in a sorry state, struggling without suspended tailback Brad Lester and lacking firepower. The Tigers have a mess at quarterback. Wow, is life good at Alabama? The Tide are flying high for the moment. The faithful are not just drinking the Saban-mania Kool-Aid, they are swimming in it!

Meanwhile, the Tigers are in last in the SEC West (thanks to Bama grad Sylvester Croom's Mississippi State Bulldogs), and archrival Tennessee is coming off a humiliation in the Swamp. "GameDay" will be in T-town on Saturday as Georgia tries to play the buzz-kill role. I don't think the Tide have ever won when we show up at Bryant-Denny Stadium, which is strange. The folks there still seem glad to see us. We'll see if my "GameDay" colleagues, Lee and Kirk, are ready to chug the crimson Kool-Aid, too.

Oklahoma State is a real letdown for me. Imagine how coach Mike Gundy feels. The Cowboys hoped they finally had a defense this year. Outscoring teams weekly is tough. Turns out, the Pokes are still waiting for the defense to find itself (did you catch any of the 41-23 spanking from Troy?) and the offense hasn't been as productive as expected. Coaches around the Big 12 really thought Oklahoma State was a threat this year. I bought in and ranked them preseason. Now that looks foolish.

Bright Spots

Boston College is 3-0, and QB Matt Ryan and coach Jeff Jagodzinski are getting all the love. Rightfully so. Ryan is now inspiring the same kind of fear/respect from ACC defensive coordinators that Philip Rivers did at NC State. No matter what Georgia Tech defensive coordinator John Tenuta threw at him last week, Ryan handled it. Rivers used to have that kind of mental command, forcing defenses to back off and play less aggressively.

But, of the 3-0 teams led by rookie coaches, Air Force is the most surprising. Troy Calhoun has pressed all the right buttons, energizing a stagnant situation and retooling the Falcons from head to toe. Calhoun, an Air Force grad, hired nine other assistants (academies are allowed a total of 14 coaches by the NCAA, four more than other schools) who are also ex-cadets, many of them not much older than the current players.

Ryan Harrison
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiRyan Harrison got a ride after kicking Air Force past TCU.

Calhoun has brought back intensity and belief. During that landmark win over TCU, the Cadets crowd got involved, sprinting to the opposite end of the stadium to fill the seats near the TCU offense. When Ryan Harrison booted the game-winner, the Cadets stormed the field for the first time since 1998 and carried him off. It was a great moment.

It will be tough for the Falcons to pull off a third upset of a supposed MWC front-runner (they beat Utah, too) this Saturday at BYU, but I wouldn't count out Calhoun's gritty bunch.

While I'm at it, a salute to 2-0 Tulsa, which hung 55 on BYU last week, behind 454 passing yards from Paul Smith. Tulsa fans were despondent when Steve Kragthorpe bolted. But Todd Graham came from Rice and hired co-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the mad scientist who helped conceive Arkansas' wacky attack. Tulsa, like Air Force, is likely about to receive a reality check against Oklahoma on Friday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). The Sooners may ring up a big score on the Golden Canes, but I want to see how Smith tests the stout Oklahoma defense.

Penn State-Michigan

A very intriguing game for me is Penn State's attempt to snap an eight-game skid against Michigan. I doubt any other team has ever beaten coach Joe Paterno that regularly. Haven't been able to confirm it, though.

Here's the central question: will Penn State coach and play boldly? Will Paterno allow his son, Jay, to let Anthony Morelli line up in the shotgun and run the no huddle. He is very comfortable in it, guiding the Lions to a few TDs in that set. It would allow Penn State to spread Michigan and attack the defense's weaknesses, as Oregon did. True, Morelli doesn't have any of Dennis Dixon's running ability, but he does have a supply of weapons who can exploit open space.

Anthony Morelli
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterAnthony Morelli and Penn State face Michigan on Saturday.

The Nittany Lions lack a special running back. Austin Scott's fumbles versus Buffalo landed him on the bench. Fellow senior Rodney Kinlaw is adequate. Not landing an elite running back has been the one hole in Paterno's recent recruiting classes. He passed on Steve Slaton. "Too small." But then, most every school thought that, except West Virginia.

So anyway, can Joe Pa be convinced to break his decades-old pattern of approaching big road games conservatively? I hope so. It'd be fun to see State open the game in no huddle! To play his cards close to the vest would be to play in to the hand of Lloyd Carr, who would love to grind out a replica of last year's 17-10 win, using a heavy dose of Mike Hart and limiting Ryan Mallett's risks. I know that Morelli continues to make the sort of mental mistakes that frustrate and worry his coaches, but now is the time for him to step up and play smart, sharp football. If he's allowed to, that is.

Morelli is just part of the story, though. Penn State's players have to prove that they can break the hex of the winged helmet. They have found ways to lose tight games during the frustrating skid. This team is thin on seniors (only stud Dan Connor is a senior starter on defense). That might be a plus. The less knowledge they have of the recent clashes with Michigan the better. Playing and coaching tight would be a mistake.

Did You Know?

SEC teams that have scored first are 21-0 this season. Bama's late rally kept that streak alive.

Notre Dame has never been a nearly two touchdown home underdog to an unranked opponent, like Michigan State. Never.

The Big Ten is bragging that its 26-7 nonconference record is second only to the SEC's. But where is the signature win? Ohio State's win at so-so Washington is the closest thing.

Fun With Facebook

By the way, one fun feature of the little-known Master Coaches Survey Poll, a collection of mostly distinguished ex-coaches, is that the poll's Web site features links to its voters' Facebook pages. That's right, gang. LaVell Edwards, John Cooper, Hayden Fry and others have Facebook pages. Who knew? After all, most coaches are not all that wired. Nick Saban does not own a PC and has never used e-mail. Much like Mr. Corso.

On that subject, our ace researcher, Chris Fallica, is flexing his football knowledge in the Facebook prognostication competition. Out of 27,390 people who participate in the weekly contest, Chris ranks first. That's right, first of 27,390. Now, as my pal Corso says: "Lotta football to be played." Don't ice down the bubbly just yet, big guy.

Chris says his Facebook page is bombarded with folks who want to be his "friend." So they can get access to his picks. He's not answering any of them. But as a consolation prize, I will simply say that Fallica is leaning to the under-Dawgs from Athens as they invade the Capstone this week.

It's a shame he has been unable to pass along any of his weekly hunches to the two guys to my left on Saturday mornings. OK, so Corso did call BC's road win at Georgia Tech and Herbstreit called Kentucky's miraculous comeback win.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.