Where are the great teams?

Originally Published: November 8, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

There are four Saturdays left in the season. There remain infinite combinations of which teams will make it to the FedEx Orange Bowl on Jan 4. When that game ends, sometime around Jan. 5 on the East Coast, college football will have a champion, maybe even more than one.

What college football won't have, based on the evidence to date, is a great team.

There is still time. LSU didn't begin to transform into a great team until its final game of the regular season last year. However, based on the performances of the top two ranked teams in the nation Saturday, either the rankings are wrong or, in the era of 85 scholarships and increased parity, it's just one of those years.

First, a definition -- a great team controls the line of scrimmage, and the game, whether on offense, defense or special teams, from start to finish. A great team doesn't have to turn it on when it needs to, because a great team never turns it off. A great team moves the ball through the air and on the ground, and stops its opponent from doing the same.

Given those parameters, college football is lacking a great team, especially at the top.

USC played in a fog, literally and figuratively, for most of Saturday night before winning at Oregon State, 28-20. The Trojans sputtered on offense, with Matt Leinart throwing a critical goal-line interception, before Reggie Bush broke open the game with a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown.

USC has won eight games, and been forced to come back in the second half to win four of them. The Trojans fell behind the Beavers, 13-0, looking more like the team that struggled to move the ball for the first month of the season than the team that had laid waste to its last three opponents by the combined score of 125-19.

Oklahoma fell behind by two touchdowns on three separate occasions before asserting itself in the second half to win at Texas A&M, 42-35. The Sooners gave up 489 yards of total offense, a misleading statistic in that the Aggies picked up 75 yards on special teams with fake kicks that became passes for touchdowns.

Still, whether it be special teams or defense, Oklahoma gave up 35 points for the second consecutive week. The difference between the Sooners defense of a year ago, which featured three All-Americans, and this one, is stark. The 2003 Sooners allowed 2,050 passing yards in 14 games. This year, Oklahoma has allowed 2,062 passing yards in nine games.

Fake kicks don't explain that away.

"We can't have a defense like we had last year every year," senior defensive end Dan Cody said after the game Saturday. "We've been in close games. Each close game we've been in, we get stronger."

Porous defenses are not a characteristic of national champions. Or are they? The last national champion to allow at least 31 points in regulation twice in one season was ... the Sooners in 2000.

In fact, the teams that have begun to look most like national champions are the other three undefeated teams in the top 10. No. 4 Wisconsin, with two weeks of rest and preparation, found an offense against Minnesota worthy of the Badger defense. Having scored more than 24 points only once in its first eight games, and that against winless Central Florida, Wisconsin scored four touchdowns in the first 17:13 against Minnesota, and then cruised to a 38-14 victory.

The offensive outburst came not from tailback Anthony Davis, who has served as the main engine of the Badger attack since returning from an eye injury last month. Quarterback John Stocco threw for 297 yards and a touchdown and rushed for two more. If Stocco can maintain anything close to this kind of performance for Wisconsin's final two games, at Michigan State and at Iowa, the Badgers will finish 11-0 and wait for an explanation as to why they're not in the Orange Bowl.

Like Wisconsin, No. 3 Auburn got a late-season off week. The Tigers will be well rested Saturday when they welcome No. 5 Georgia, which will be playing its sixth consecutive week, to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn has played with a champion's consistency all season, blowing out the teams it should blow out, and even one team -- No. 18 Tennessee -- that it shouldn't.

The Tigers have three difficult games remaining against the Bulldogs, archrival Alabama and the SEC Championship Game. That should end any concerns about Auburn's previous four opponents, none of which has a winning record.

No. 8 Utah continued to roll Saturday, moving to 9-0 with an even-easier-than-it-looks 63-31 defeat of Colorado State. The Utes have scored 40 points or more in seven games. Utah will not convince anyone of its greatness unless it gets an opportunity to play in the BCS, a chance that depends on the voters.

Tennessee, which lost to Notre Dame, 17-13, will no longer challenge Utah for No. 6 in the BCS ranking. But the Utes, who need to be sixth or better to automatically claim a BCS bowl bid, could use some assistance with Texas and Michigan, both one-loss teams that could finish in the top six ahead of them. The Utes also have conference games remaining at Wyoming (6-3) and against archrival BYU ( 5-4).

Any of the five undefeated teams, as well as the Longhorns and Wolverines, have time to prove that they are a great team. One thing is for certain. No one has claimed that title yet.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com