Commentary

Unbeaten teams, unbreakable records and the passing of powerhouses

Originally Published: October 25, 2007
By Chris Fowler | Special to ESPN.com

When three of the current BCS top five and half the top 10 were unranked to start the season, and the No. 1 team was No. 11, you know it's a wacky season. I have asked some guys who have seen a lot of seasons pass -- including coaches like Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer -- and all have answered that they can't recall anything like this season.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez will face a much tougher test in Oregon than he faced last week against Notre Dame.

Not even 1990, which I remember as the craziest stretch run in recent decades.

What's next? How about four more unbeatens falling this week? Boston College is an underdog, and Ohio State and Kansas are narrow road favorites, while Arizona State faces a nemesis in Cal. Maybe Hawaii will be the last perfect team standing Saturday night. Could happen.

It's a good-looking slate of games Saturday. Fun stuff all over the map, starting with No. 1 Ohio State at No. 25 Penn State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET), who are expected to be slogging around in a rainstorm, under the lights, surrounded by the deafening roar of the white-clad students.

It's also a great day in the Pac-10, with two crucial games of conference and national importance.

The setup at Autzen Stadium for No. 12 USC's visit to No. 5 Oregon intrigues me. USC has not been a true underdog in a Pac-10 game since the 2001 finale against UCLA. That ended 27-0, Trojans. The last time Troy was a dog, period, was for QB Matt Leinart's first career start, the 2003 opener at Auburn, another convincing win.

So this is the first time any of the Trojans' main contributors have taken the field expected by the experts to lose. Not that they expect to lose.

Obviously, Mark Sanchez as the starter at QB casts some doubt. He figures to improve on his slow start at Notre Dame. The problem is, he's not facing Notre Dame this week. The Ducks feel pretty good about their chances of covering USC on the edge, which has been a problem in recent years. But wide receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith are long gone. The Trojans' current wideouts still aren't striking fear in opposing corners. Patrick Turner's longest catch is 31 yards. No wideout has a reception longer than 48 yards.

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USC's leading receiver is strong tight end Fred Davis, who possesses the team's longest reception of the year (63 yards).

The time is now for Oregon's defense to back up its self-belief. Last week, Washington's Jake Locker had his best passing day, with touchdown passes of 83, 43 and 38 yards. That game wasn't lopsided until late, so those were not hollow yards.

Sanchez will have to cope with the deafening acoustics of Autzen and an emotional Ducks defense that feeds off of the noise.

In the Trojans' last visit to Oregon two years ago, the Ducks were flying around, fueled by emotion, and led 13-0. USC gained momentum before halftime and reeled off 35 straight points after the break, a stunning display of dominance that catapulted USC to the BCS title game.

Can Sanchez be the steady force needed to manage the game? That's a good question. The Ducks will sell out to stop the run, since that's been a trouble spot. Oregon opponents have a whopping 39 runs of 10 yards or longer, a big number for a team that's ranked in the top five. That should get the attention of Trojans running back Joe McKnight. He could have a big game.

If USC adds significantly to that total of big runs, it won't matter much how Sanchez plays.

The marquee matchup occurs when Oregon has the ball. Chip Kelly's heroes have put up stunning numbers. He's the first-year offensive coordinator who hails from Manchester, N.H., the epicenter of the spread offense. That's where Florida's Dan Mullen grew up. He and Kelly are lifelong buddies and together cooked up some of the schemes being unleashed on defenses everywhere.

Oregon leads the Pac-10 in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense, pass efficiency, third-down percentage, fewest interceptions, fewest turnovers and fewest three-and-outs, among other categories.

Get this: More than half the Ducks' plays have gone for 5 or more yards. That's a lot. Best in the nation.

But in a weird twist, the Ducks are among the "leaders" in plays netting negative yardage. USC will need to create some of those, but that's been a weak spot for the Trojans. They are just 94th in creating negative-yardage plays.

One last note: Our thoughts go out to all of those effected by the horrific wild fires ravaging southern California. It so happens that the father of Mark Sanchez is a firefighter battling the blazes in Orange County. He is with the Irvine Fire Station No. 6. He was sent to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina to help with relief efforts. ESPN reporter Shelley Smith relays that Mark has been kept posted on his dad's whereabouts and is naturally very proud of him.

Bulls (still) on parade … And 'Neers vs. Knights

USF, still ranked an average of fifth by the BCS computers, is a narrow favorite at UConn. All of a sudden, the Huskies' home field commands respect?

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsall
Charles LeClaire/Getty ImagesRandy Edsall and UConn have received two lucky calls. Can they keep rolling on Saturday?

No team has benefited more from officials' miscues than UConn. First, the Big East office issued a statement following UConn's win over Temple admitting that the crew blew a would-be Owls' touchdown pass. Then, the conference had to acknowledge the mind-boggling oversight on Friday that allowed Huskies punt returner Larry Taylor to signal fair catch, then scamper past a confused Louisville team for the decisive touchdown.

The way things are going, coach Randy Edsall should sprint to nearby Mohegan Sun and start throwing down chips on the roulette wheel. Sure, that game gives the worst odds in the house, but it wouldn't matter. UConn is on a roll. Until Saturday night. I can't see the Huskies beating the Bulls (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), who are still very much in the hunt for the conference title and the BCS bid.

If West Virginia wins at Rutgers (and I like the chances of that), USF would have the inside track.

I spoke to Rutgers running back Ray Rice, who told me he feels real "fresh." Sure, he's had a couple of extra days to get ready for the Mountaineers (ABC, noon ET), but that follows games of 36 and 39 carries within a five-day span. Rice trains and prepares like an NFL vet.

He can handle a workload as well as any back, including the guy he admires most -- Mike Hart. But I still was surprised to hear that he's "fresh." Ray likes the idea of running downhill into the quirky "3-3-5 stack" of the 'Neers. He toted it for 129 yards (5-plus per carry) and two touchdowns last year, when Rutgers lacked a substantial passing complement. No longer.

Mike Teel's ailing thumb should be OK for the showdown with the Mountaineers, by the way. He was throwing well in practice Wednesday. He will have to throw well Saturday, too.

I mentioned Temple's heartbreaking loss, so let me also salute coach Al Golden's Owls for a three-game winning streak! It has been 17 years -- when the current players were toddlers -- since they've done that within a season. Three wins equals Temple's combined total from 2004-06. After a Saturday off to savor all this, the Owls travel to Ohio University to try and make it four straight, before welcoming Penn State to Philly.

Rocky Times

Tennessee arrived in Tuscaloosa as the favorite in the SEC East and left beaten and embarrassed, but still not out of the race. Coach Philip Fulmer is feeling heat, with unrest growing after a second lopsided loss to a main rival this year, which Alabama accomplished without five suspended players.

[+] EnlargePhil Fulmer
Jason Parkhurst/US PresswirePhil Fulmer is on the hot seat after losses to SEC foes Florida and Alabama.

The Vols have not exactly built on the stirring home win over Georgia. After that one, they were crowing that "We're back … we're still Tennessee!"

Uh, fellas … in the SEC effort and performance are required each week, not once or twice a year.

If another home-field loss to Steve Spurrier follows, look out. The Ole Ball Coach is even weighing using another quarterback, last week's third teamer, Tommy Beecher. The Cocks were roundly booed in last week's home loss to Vandy, and Spurrier said he didn't blame the fans. "It just appeared our guys didn't give a damn," he said.

Vols fans might have drawn the same conclusion about UT's second-half collapse, as the Vols were outscored 31-3 after leading 14-10. Their defense could not get Bama off the field and made struggling John Parker Wilson look like Joe Willie.

I assume they will show some motivation this week. It'll be good for South Carolina to get on the road (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET), and perhaps hear the other side get booed. Another intriguing collision.

Recruiting fallout

Nebraska has lost a top running back recruit but gained a California juco defensive lineman, even as the manure hits the fan in Lincoln. Simi Kuli, from El Camino College, is Nebraska-bound, according to Internet reports. But recruiting guru Tom Luginbill also relays to me that Big Red's uncertain coaching situation has cost the Huskers the nation's 89th-rated prospect, running back Jonas Gray from Detroit. He has de-committed and plans to now join the growing class of blue chippers pledged to Notre Dame.

Stay tuned: This year's crop of "de-commits" is likely to surpass the huge number from across the country last season.

Noles in trouble?

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesBobby Bowden owns the career wins record -- but Joe Paterno could surpass him this season.

After an especially painful home loss to Miami, the Seminoles will have to scramble to surpass last season's 6-6 regular season which landed them in the Emerald Bowl. If you give FSU a win over Duke on Saturday (ESPNU, 8 p.m. ET), the Seminoles will still have to beat Maryland and then win at either Boston College (next week), Virginia Tech or Florida to get to seven wins.

Bobby Bowden is just one win ahead of JoePa now. If the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State and Joe keeps pace, he could very well pass Bowden and have the all-time wins lead.

I am curious to know if Joe is aware of that. I am going to ask him Friday morning during a little sit-down if he knows the current gap. I am pretty sure he'll just scowl, and say, "Aaaw, Fowler, Jeez. I don't know about that stuff!"

Oh, and I will be sure to drive safely and obey all traffic laws while navigating the Penn State campus, lest I get a strict scolding.

POTUS

That gives a nice segue to this little historical nugget, since Paterno's tenure at Penn State has spanned 11 presidential administrations.

In 1930, on Oct. 23, two future presidents put on the pads in college football games: Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Reagan was a stalwart guard for Eureka (Illinois), which beat Illinois Wesleyan. Nixon came off the bench at end (not necessarily the end of the bench) for Whittier (California). Alas, Nixon's squad was blanked by San Bernardino 13-0.

That same autumn, Gerald Ford was a stud senior at Grand Rapids South High School, a year away from becoming a Wolverine and the most accomplished football player to become president.

Bluegrass red carpet

They really rolled it out for "GameDay" last weekend in Lexington. We have never experienced such overwhelming hospitality from a school and a city in the 14 years of road shows. We were showered with well-wishers and gifts. When you walk into your hotel suite and find six bottles of nice bourbon (three large and three small), you know they want you to enjoy your stay. I don't know how they knew my favorite brand, but they provided it. You can spot it by the silver race horse on the cork.

The rest of the Hospitality Top Five: Clemson, Eugene, Blacksburg and Tempe (thanks to the classy Fiesta Bowl folks).

Speaking of thoroughbreds, we'll have an eye on the Breeders' Cup on Saturday in the "GameDay" bus. There is a very short list of non-college football events ever allowed on one of our five dishes: U.S. Open men's semis, Ryder Cup if it's close and postseason baseball if it involves someone's favorite team.

And most of all, the Breeders' Cup. Our ace researcher Chris Fallica also enjoys the ponies. A lot. So, I offer you this bonus for slogging all the way to the bottom of the column.

Fallica's Breeders' Cup top selections, delivered with all the bravado we have come to expect. Use them however you like.

Classic: Curlin over Street Sense, with favorite Lawyer Ron fading from the early lead and pressure from Hard Spun.
Juvenile Fillies: Proud Spell to win.
Distaff: Balance worth a look at a hefty price.
Sprint: Greg's Gold the latest speedy Californian to claim this prize, with a great trip from Victor Espinoza.

And I'm off and running, getting ready to watch QB Matt Ryan and the Eagles invade Lane Stadium on Thursday night (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

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.