- Chris Fowler, College Football
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Yes, this is the wackiest, wildest opening half of a college football season I have witnessed. Going into Thursday night's game between USF and Rutgers, ten teams that were ranked in the top 10 have lost to unranked teams. That's a big number.
Just in the past three weeks, five teams ranked in the top five have been stunned by teams outside the rankings.
The candidates for the honor this week: BCS No. 1 Ohio State (vs. Michigan State), No. 2 USF (Thursday, at Rutgers) and No. 5 Oklahoma (at Iowa State). No. 3 Boston College is off and No. 4 LSU hosts No. 17 Auburn.
This points out two things: There aren't many (if any) dominant, consistent teams this season, and the rankings are even more of a crapshoot than ever before. More on the struggles of a modern pollster below. One positive about the voters, though, is that this year they have been less reluctant to suddenly embrace teams not considered worthy of a ranking two months ago. That's a frequent complaint heard about the polls. Of course, that's because all the upsets this season have left them little choice but to embrace dark horses.
It almost has been unheard of for a team unranked in the preseason to climb fast enough to appear in the first edition of the BCS standings. This season, there are two: USF and Boston College.
By the way, let's all get used to calling the raging Bulls "USF." They don't seem to fancy "South Florida" any more. I guess it perpetuates confusion about the school's location, which is not in the southern part of the state, after all. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson on the witness stand in "A Few Good Men," I think they've earned the right to be called what they want. And if you want to stay on coach Jim Leavitt's good side, don't make any comparisons between his Bulls and UCF, the school in central Florida which is south of the University of South Florida. "We're in a BCS conference," Leavitt points out. That's a huge selling point to recruits. As Mr. Nicholson asked, "ARE WE CLEAR?"
The gap between the hard drives and the pollsters in the Coaches' and Harris rankings has never been greater. There is no agreement on the placement of any of the top six teams. The computers would replace Oklahoma and Oregon with South Carolina and Kentucky -- and have Ohio State tied for fifth.
Once again, West Coast formula geeks are noticing that the computer ratings seem to contain a built-in bias against the Pac-10. That has been decried from the beginning of the BCS. It often has seemed as though the computers know in which time zone they've been plugged in -- or at least from which region the creator of the formula comes from.
This time, Cal, Oregon and USC all seem underrated. Three SEC teams are rated higher by the collective computers: South Carolina, Kentucky and LSU.
My go-to guy for this stuff is Jeff Sagarin. He explains to us that his rankings contain a stiffer penalty for a loss at home. The Bears, Ducks and Trojans all lost home games. The Gamecocks, Wildcats and Tigers were beaten on the road.
At first glance, this seems fine. When voting, I usually give a little more weight to a big win in a hostile setting, so I suppose the reverse principle has merit.
Except that a weird trend has developed in a couple of the conferences involved: SEC home teams are now just 11-10, after going 1-4 this past weekend. If Kentucky had not survived, it would have been 0-5 for the home teams. What's up? With all those giant stadiums and loud, passionate fans, it has always been assumed that the SEC's homefield edge was among the best out there. Maybe teams are just getting better at combatting the challenges of hostile settings.
Pac-10 play has featured the aforementioned upsets of home teams.
In the Big East, six conference games have been played. Five have been won by the visitors! Do you remember the league's only home win? It was USF's upset of West Virginia. Strange. This includes upsets of home-standing Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati.
Now that's not a huge sample of Big East games. As Lee Corso says, "Lotta football to be played, sweetheart." I am pretty sure this will correct itself.
On A Roll Vs. Rested
It's always worth noting the physical and emotional highs and lows that accompany the weekly demands of an SEC schedule. I know teams in other conferences have gauntlets to run, too, but there's nothing quite like the challenges faced by SEC teams.
So, when analyzing these mid- and late-season games, freshness is a big factor. Often, it is the key factor.
Not to make excuses for LSU, but the Tigers' ability to hold up defensively last week was compromised by the brutal battle the week before with Florida. Kentucky had a couple extra days to recover from a game at South Carolina. After studying tape of Kentucky's success pounding the middle of Glenn Dorsey & Co., coach Urban Meyer told me he couldn't believe it was the same bunch that had faced his Gators the week before.
Coach Tommy Tuberville has told me over the years about the "post-LSU" factor. Win or lose, the Tigers will beat you up. It carries over to the following week -- or at least it usually did for Auburn, which will hit you, too. So, credit to Florida for answering the physical challenge at LSU. But when it came to the final drive, the Gators' defensive midsection had been worked over pretty good, allowing Jacob Hester to hammer ahead for the crucial yards.
Florida, although talented, lacks a key component helpful to survive in the SEC: D-line depth. Charlie Strong doesn't feel comfortable enough with the unproven backups to use them much in big games. It showed against Auburn and LSU, especially because the Gators' offense is on the field much less than their opponents' offense is. Florida runs an average of just 64 plays. That's a low number, 11 less than their opponents. It doesn't work well with a thin D-line.
So, the bye week was enormously useful for Florida. However, it wasn't a case of just relaxing and recovering. Meyer told me his team is far too inexperienced for that sort of "veteran" team scenario. "We're in a race to improve," he said. So, there was a lot of teaching and active practices.
And add a bit of psychological healing, too. QB Tim Tebow took his team's second consecutive loss hard. Real hard. Never before had he had to deal with a loss quite that tough, Meyer told me. Remember, hundreds of idiots bombarded Tebow's cell voice mail with messages and threats brought his emotions a couple notches higher. So coach and QB spent some private time talking about it. Meyer is confident that Tebow has bounced back.
Meyer's main concern is still his defensive line facing a quality Kentucky line that is often maneuvered into the proper blocking scheme during line-of-scrimmage checks by Andre' Woodson. The Wildcats are crafty about when and where they run the ball. UK runs only into favorable defensive formations and don't rely on just mashing people.
The Cats' success is something to marvel at, because it doesn't seem to matter which back is carrying the ball; they just move it. Rafael Little remains a question mark for Saturday, but Derrick Locke, a freshman who came to Kentucky to run track, was a battering ram in the second half last week and showed he can do the job against the Gators.
Of course, now it's Kentucky that has to cope with the "post-LSU" factor against a more rested opponent. Good luck, Cats. A win Saturday would impress me even more than Saturday's epic.
The Ballot Box
Here's how the top of my AP ballot looks. I never have felt less convinced about a No. 1 team in mid-October, never had a team coming off a loss at No. 2, never had three of the first four already nicked up, never had USF in the top five or Boston College in the top seven, and I have never had so much trouble ranking teams, period.
It's a great year to be a college football fan, but a rough year to be a poor pollster.
1. Ohio State. I know, not much on the résumé to brag about yet. Just a stout defense (at least it's stout against the teams they've faced), an efficient offense and a coach who's expert at winning with teams like this. The tests, of course, lie ahead -- at Penn State on Oct. 27 in a raucous night setting, where the Bucks have lost five of seven, and then Nov. 17 in the Big House, where Michigan could gain some sweet redemption and bookend the program's most embarrassing loss with a finale to ease all the early pain.
2. LSU. I remain convinced that the Tigers are one of the nation's best and can't penalize them too much for losing a game on a 57-yard field goal try that was a foot wide in regulation, followed by three overtimes.
3. Oklahoma. The Sooners were in a bit of trouble against Mizzou until turnovers saved them. Facing OU's comparatively soft remaining schedule, style points will count. But I'm not saying that I'll keep OU here the rest of the year.
4. Oregon. The Ducks are not as good a team as they were a couple of weeks ago. The loss of Jeremiah Johnson and Cameron Colvin (a senior, sadly) remove key weapons from the offense. Saturday's visit to Husky Stadium is an upset trap, even thought the Huskies are mush against the run. Then, USC and ASU visit. We'll see how the Ducks hold up.
5. USF. Looking forward to seeing the Bulls handle the pressure and hype, as well as a Rutgers team that bloodied their nose physically last year. If USF gets out of Jersey alive, the remaining schedule is quite manageable, with Cincinnati and Louisville visiting.
6. Cal. Even without Nate Longshore, I didn't see the loss to Oregon State coming. Most pollsters punished Cal much more than I did. The Bears must be perfect from this point on. If they are, the Bears deserve to be right there in the BCS conversation at the end. UCLA has had two weeks to get ready and coach up a third-string former walk-on QB. The Bruins could salvage the first half of the season with an upset.
7. Boston College. Looking forward to seeing Matt Ryan handle the challenge of Lane Stadium at night next Thursday (ESPN, 7:30 ET). If BC passes the Virginia Tech test, the Eagles will soar up my rankings.
8. USC. Troy is struggling to create any sort of big play through the air (see stats below), but the defense should be able to dominate anemic Notre Dame, even with Evan Sharpley getting the full 60 minutes to show what he can do, instead of coming off the bench in a deep hole. Shouldn't make much difference.
9. South Carolina. The Gamecocks' résumé makes them deserving of the ranking, but I think there are more than eight teams out there I'd pick to beat them on a neutral field. For example:
10. Florida. The Gators are among the 10 best teams. They have to prove it, though, by using fresh legs to scoot past the Wildcats.
Kentucky just misses the top 10. A win over Florida would push them way up into the BCS hunt, though.
Dropping all the way out of my poll this week is Hawaii. A second overtime win (over San Jose State on Oct. 12) was too much to overlook. I have seen big chunks of about three Warriors' games and just think there are 25 better teams out there at the moment. I find it amazing how highly some of my AP colleagues are voting Hawaii. I have peeked at one ballot that places coach June Jones' team 10th! Plenty of others have them in the top 15. How closely are they watching?
I like QB Colt Brennan, but he is clearly forcing the issue now, trying to make up for the time he missed with his ankle sprain and perhaps allowing thoughts of making a New York Heisman visit in early December enter his head. Throwing downfield into the teeth of San Jose State's four-deep coverage is crazy.
If Hawaii marches on a bit more efficiently and beats Boise State and Washington at the end of the year, they'll be comfortably in my poll. But I can't reward a win over San Jose State in which the Spartans basically handed it to UH via a mind-boggling fumble in the final seconds. What else can you say, except "that's why you're San Jose State." I felt bad for a waterlogged Dick Tomey and the fans who showed up to make noise all night, then left stunned.
Stats Of The Week
On opposite ends of the offensive food chain: Texas Tech and Notre Dame. The Red Raiders have some remarkable stats. So too, the Irish. Remarkably bad.
These are the categories in which Notre Dame is dead last: rushing yards per game and per carry (a robust 1 yard!), total yards per game, sacks allowed (34), yards per play, number of plays 20 yards or longer (only 11) and number of plays for minus yardage (a whopping 75).
Notre Dame is second to last (or 118th) in points per game, offensive touchdowns, percentage of drives resulting in points, scoring percentage inside the opponents' 30 and yards per completion.
The Irish are in the bottom three in third-down conversions, too. ND has exactly one running play for 20 yards or longer. If there is an offensive line that has been assembled anywhere on the planet that has a measurable performance worse than that, I do not want to see it, much less carry the football behind it.
I am not trying to pick on the Irish. It's just that I get printouts on a bunch of teams each week containing columns and columns of numbers, and these just jump of the page.
So do Texas Tech's. Coach Mike Leach's offense is gaining 500 passing yards per game, with 34 TD passes and four picks! Tech has been stopped three-and-out only seven times in seven games! More than half their plays go for 5-plus yards. That's a big number, best in the nation. Tech is frighteningly good in the red zone, scoring touchdowns more than 83 percent of the time. The Red Raiders are also the best team converting third downs beyond 7 yards. Of course, a lot of these stats are tied together. I could go on, but why?
Graham Harrell is a legit, big-time talent at quarterback and Michael Crabtree is a very advanced, talented redshirt freshman receiver, a converted high school quarterback. Leach wishes they would get some more love from the national media. The problem is, it's hard to feature guys you can't talk to. Leach cuts off all media stuff after Mondays, which effectively cuts out most opportunities for national media coverage. Mondays are spent dissecting the previous week's games.
Plus, it's not that easy to get to Lubbock! We wanted to feature Crabtree on "GameDay" this week, but we weren't in Lubbock on a Monday. C'mon, Mike, what are you guys, Michigan?
Hope you'll check us out on "GameDay" from Lexington for the first time. That makes nine SEC campuses we've visited.
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.
Stunning upsets in the wackiest, wildest start to a season on record leaves voters with tough choices to make and plenty of dark horses to embrace.