Commentary

No. 1 Texas, No. 2 Alabama face dangerous games

Originally Published: October 16, 2008
By Chris Fowler | ESPN.com

How crazy is the state of college football these days? Plenty.

In the eight-decade history of the AP poll, three of the top four teams lost during the same weekend only three times. Until this season. Suddenly, it has happened twice in three weeks! Let that sink in for a second. It is astounding.

Only two of the top four teams face really tricky games on Saturday: No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Alabama.

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Set your alarm clock Saturday. Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the rest of the "College GameDay" crew will be in Austin for Missouri-Texas. Tune in to find out about the Tigers, Horns, all the Week 8 action and everything else in college football.
When: Sat., 10 a.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: Austin, Texas

The Longhorns, of course, face several challenges. Texas hosts an explosive but wounded Missouri team with excellent quarterback Chase Daniel bent on redemption. The Horns return to the field on the heels of a huge, emotional win.

Texas QB Colt McCoy is excellent at buying time and waiting for coverage to unravel. Missouri's defense was exposed during Saturday's loss by the downfield throws of Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson. The Tigers were obsessed with stopping Dez Bryant, but left the gangly Damian Davis uncovered for a pair of huge TD passes. Missouri simply can't allow McCoy to escape the pocket and cast his eyes downfield, where wide receivers Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley will be finding holes in the secondary.

Expect the Tigers to work hard to guard against the same kind of offensive breakdowns that led to Daniel's three picks. He was flushed and put on the move by an OSU pass rush that dashed in between the wide line splits Mizzou employs. Even if Daniel wasn't hit, just getting him to move threw off the timing of the plays. Some of his throws on the run were shockingly off target. Cowboys defensive coordinator Tim Beckman also mixed coverages and effectively smothered many of the short, quick routes Daniel was looking for. Missouri converted on just two of nine third downs.

[+] EnlargeChase Daniel
Icon SMIChase Daniel will be looking for redemption against Texas.
Still, Daniel threw for 390 yards on Saturday! Texas is going to give up plenty of passing yards, too. That's the Horns' M.O. Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford had a monster game (387 yards, 5 TDs) in a losing effort to the Horns.

Can Missouri's O-line find a way to neutralize defensive end Brian Orakpo's edge quickness and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp's strategic blitzes? That will be the chess match. Remember that UT's secondary was stocked with two true freshman, a redshirt freshman, a sophomore and a junior in the second half against Oklahoma. They're talented, but obviously green. No group that young can hold up for 60 minutes against a bunch like Missouri without huge help from defensive pressure.

It's always interesting to watch an offense try to respond when faced with its first significant adversity. I harp on this almost every week on "GameDay." Texas passed that test as well as any team I've seen in a long time. Rallying four times with answering scores after OU had stretched a lead was as strong a display of poise and heart as I can recall. McCoy was a stud. The performance rightfully puts him atop the Heisman Trophy watch list for the moment. His performance defined what the Heisman stands for.

Missouri did not respond as well. The Tigers got a little rattled, and that's normal for a group that had not punted after a three-and-out all season!

Now, we will see if that group can grow from experience and handle the hostile scene and aggressive defense in Austin. Missouri is a live underdog and very dangerous.

Besides Missouri, another dangerous team this weekend is Ole Miss. I know the Rebels have been gashed by the ground game, and their weakness plays into the strength of the Tide's muscle-bound running game. That's a real concern.

[+] EnlargeHouston Nutt
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayHouston Nutt's pointed the way to quite a few upset wins.
But Ole Miss is a fearless bunch after taking down the Gators in the Swamp on Oct. 27. And remember, the past three Tide-Rebel meetings have all been decided by three points! Ole Miss has lost three games this season in heartbreaking fashion, in some cases after outplaying teams. But the Rebels bounced right back after earlier losses to Wake Forest and Vanderbilt, and Houston Nutt will get his guys ready again.

The Right Reverend (as Rece Davis calls Nutt) has an extraordinary record against top-five teams. In 12 games against true heavyweights, always as an underdog -- usually a big one -- Nutt's teams have won five times! Ole Miss' win at Florida was the latest, but his Arkansas teams stunned SEC favorites regularly, too. His last game at Arkansas was the triple-OT win at No. 1 LSU last season. In 2006, his Hogs stunned No. 2 Auburn. Five years ago, Arkansas rambled through No. 5 Texas in Austin. Notice how many times his teams have done this in hostile stadiums.

Never write off the Reverend!

Penn State doesn't want to let its guard down for a split second with Michigan staggering in off the unfathomable loss to a very weak Toledo crew. It's well-known that the Lions have lost nine straight to the Maize and Blue. A couple of those have been gut-wrenching defeats in the final minutes, but most of them have been humiliating defensive clamp-downs.

Penn State's offenses usually have been made to look impotent by Michigan. The Lions remember well.

Quarterback Daryll Clark was a young guy getting knocked around as a replacement for Anthony Morelli two years ago. It won't happen again. Michigan, I suspect, will play hard and tough defense for a while. With its anemic offense struggling for first downs (and it will be worse if ailing QB Steven Threet can't play or is limited), Michigan's defense will ultimately wear down and lose fire as the Wolverines fall behind.

The Penn State faithful are hungry not just to defeat Michigan, but to punish Rich Rodriguez's pups for all the pain Lloyd Carr's teams inflicted. I suspect they'll get their wish.

Stock Down

Plummeting stocks are littering everybody's portfolio these days. But three college football stocks have fallen so far, so fast that they have become large parts of the 2008 season. Spiraling from the preseason top 10 all the way to midseason oblivion (not getting a single poll point) takes work. A lot of bad work.

Count West Virginia, Auburn and Clemson in that club. At Auburn, offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has been sacked. At Clemson, head coach Tommy Bowden and playcaller Rob Spence are out. There is mere grumbling in Morgantown, where Bill Stewart's bunch has slugged to three straight wins after a 1-2 start. If Auburn limps into town on Thursday, Oct. 23 (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) and outslugs the 'Neers, the grumbling will grow in volume.

If quarterback Pat White stays concussion-free and otherwise healthy, there is no reason West Virginia can't navigate to a nine-win season. The problem is that 9-3 feels disappointing to WVU fans these days, thanks to the heights scaled in the Rich Rodriguez era.

[+] EnlargeTommy Bowden
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesCoach Tommy Bowden's tenure with the Tigers ended on Monday.
Clemson is clearly the most disappointing team in this trio. So many talented skill guys, so little production. Offensive-line injuries are a big part of it, but it can't explain away the whole mess.

I was sad to see Bowden forced out after six games, but I get it. He could not seem to find the right buttons to push. Bowden seemed fairly joyless and a little worn out by it all. It's my belief that he never had a truly confident, comfortable feeling in his gut about this group -- even before they were taken behind the woodshed by the Crimson Tide. Too many individual agendas collided. I think Bowden saw it coming.

He was undone by a huge void of leadership and collective character among the Tigers. Does Bowden bear the blame for that? Some of it, I suppose. He has been hammered for not winning an ACC title, of course.

Bowden's team came a play or two short of beating Boston College and earning the right to rematch against the Hokies last year. Close isn't good enough there. I get it.

I just hope he finds some peace. Tommy, unlike his dad, was never a guy pointing toward a long, long coaching career. He can find happiness away from the football field -- sitting on a beach in Panama City, Fla., for example. I don't think he'll be in a hurry to jump back into coaching. That big "orange parachute" he got will alleviate the need to do so.

The ACC's quest to emulate (and try to catch up with the SEC) continues. First, there was expansion and the move to divisions and a championship game. Lately, this -- plus the increasing need to avoid falling further behind the SEC -- has made these times tough for coaches. Frank Beamer and Bobby Bowden have obviously been around forever, but both have heard the chorus of critics howling (at varying decibel levels) that it's time to move on.

Jim Grobe is on extremely solid ground at Wake Forest, fielding offers every year. It will take special circumstances to woo him from Winston-Salem, N.C.

But eight of the other nine ACC coaches are deemed either "hot seat" guys (Al Groh and Ralph Friedgen) or coaches who have replaced guys who were fired (Tom O'Brien, Butch Davis, Paul Johnson, Randy Shannon, David Cutcliffe and now Clemson's Dabo Swinney). Jeff Jagodzinski stepped in for O'Brien at BC.

That's serious turnover. So much for the self-professed notion that the ACC is a kinder, more gentlemanly and civilized conference. It seems a lot like the shark pool of the SEC these days. The sharks just have smaller teeth.

Final Thought

And finally, spare a thought this weekend for Wazzu. The Cougars are 43-point underdogs to visiting USC. And I know, Stanford shook up the world as a similar long shot last year, but this time seven TDs is not enough. Washington State's bare cupboard cannot be filled this season, and the '08 Cougars sadly stand as perhaps the weakest Pac-10 football team ever. Ever. Conference coaches quietly are saying that -- and there has been little evidence to counter it. Will the Apple Cup pit 0-11 Washington against 1-10 WSU, with the one win coming against Portland State? Looks like it.

Cougars boss Paul Wulff has ahead of him the biggest rebuilding job west of Syracuse.

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.

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