Just For Argument's Sake ...

Originally Published: September 20, 2006
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, here's a look at the hottest topics in college football.

1. Has Washington turned the corner?
One day last summer, 15-year-old Blake Baer, a fan who bleeds Washington Huskies purple, walked out of a grocery store in Jackson Hole, Wyo., carrying a copy of Athlon's preseason football magazine. He returned to the car, and the more he flipped through it, the angrier he got.

The magazine predicted Washington would finish last in the Pac-10. It picked a first-, second- and third-team All-Pac-10, and a grand total of two Huskies made the three teams. Athlon listed a dozen or so key conference games, and Washington wasn't in a one of them.

C.J. Wallace
G. Newman Lowrance/WireImage.com
C.J. Wallace has helped lead a resurgent Washington defense.

The more he read it, the angrier he got, which amused his dad and got his dad to thinking.

Blake's dad is Washington defensive coordinator Kent Baer. He showed the magazine to his players at a preseason meeting.

"This is what people are writing about you," Baer told his defense, "and they have the right to do so."

After all, Washington went 2-9 last season, the first year head coach Tyrone Willingham came to Seattle, bringing Baer, and four other assistants from Notre Dame.

"But," Baer continued, "we know better. The only thing we can do is prove people wrong. The only people who can do something about it are the people in this room."

They've done it. Washington is 4-1 as it prepares to play at No. 3 USC on Saturday. The Huskies have won impressively for three consecutive weeks. They blocked a fourth-quarter extra point to defeat Fresno State 21-20, came back from a 16-0 second-quarter deficit to defeat UCLA 29-19 and, last week, had few problems in winning 21-10 at Arizona.

It's looking more and more as if Willingham and Notre Dame were simply a bad marriage.

"I get such a kick out of that," said Baer, referring to the wonderment that has been expressed by some that Willingham isn't the failure that his firing at Notre Dame made him out to be. Baer has coached for him for 12 seasons, including a stint at Stanford as well as Notre Dame and Washington. "Ty has stayed the course. He doesn't waver. He understands what he wants to do."

The numbers on Baer's defense are startling. Washington is third in the conference in third-down defense, allowing only 20 of 69 (28.9 percent) conversions, which is tied for 16th in Division I-A. Last season, the Huskies waved offenses through on third down like a highway flagman (69 of 155, 44.6 percent, 98th in I-A).

The turning point, Baer said, came at Oklahoma in the second game of the season. At halftime, the Huskies stood even with the Sooners, 13-13.

"I think our kids were a little bit surprised," Baer said. "The look on their face was, 'It's supposed to be a different score.'"

And not to Washington's benefit. Oklahoma drew away in the second half, winning 37-20, but the light went on.

Senior strong safety C.J. Wallace has been a force in the secondary. Senior linebacker Scott White, who had 10 tackles, including two sacks, at Tucson, is the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week.

"To go in there [Arizona] and win the way we did was huge," Baer said, in no small part because at Washington, which is on the quarter system, classes didn't begin until last week.

"It's been fun. We've only played five games. The best part about it is that we've been straightforward about it. We haven't turned the corner by any means."

That might be a pretty strict definition of corner-turning. Whether you bleed purple or write predictions that infuriate those who do, it is easy to detect that the Huskies have their blinker on. Before the season, the notion that Washington would gain its first bowl bid in four seasons seemed rash. Now, it hovers much more realistically in view.

2. Has coordinator David Cutcliffe resuscitated the Vols offense?
If Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe had sat home this year as he did last year, regaining his health after heart surgery, doing radio gigs and watching video his coaching buddies delivered him, his stature in the coaching business would continue to grow. After all, the longer that Ole Miss struggles under Ed Orgeron, Cutcliffe's replacement as head coach, the more burnish is applied to his five bowl seasons in six years there.

But Cutcliffe chose to come back to coaching, to come back to his old job in Knoxville as offensive coordinator to his close friend Phil Fulmer, and the results have been Extreme Makeover: Rocky Top Edition.

Erik Ainge
Charles Sonnenblick/WireImage.com
Tennessee QB Erik Ainge has thrived under David Cutcliffe.

A quick review: Tennessee went 5-6 last season because its offense went out of its way to discover new paths of destruction. The Vols were minus-seven in turnover margin. They rushed for more than 175 yards only once all season. They lost three games in which they gave up 16 points or fewer, including a 6-3 defeat at Alabama that pained the checkerboard end zone well into the offseason.

Five games into this season, Tennessee is second in the nation in passing efficiency, with a rating of 184.99, and second in third-down efficiency (59.7 percent). The Vols are throwing for 296.2 yards per game, nearly 100 yards more per game than last year. Starter Erik Ainge has thrown 12 touchdown passes, one more than the offense had in all of last season.

Those are the stats. But in a quest to look under the hood of the Vols' offense, we inspected two important components. Offensive tackle Arron Sears, a preseason All-American, said he notices how much crisper the Vols work.

"The tempo is two times greater than last year," said Sears, a 6-foot-4, 318-pound senior. He has dropped 15 pounds since last season, which means his knees no longer ache and he's running the field much better. "We're getting out on the perimeter. We're using reverses and screens. It gets the defense tired early. I'm definitely for that. They got those 250-pound guys and we weigh 300. Anything to slow them up."

Junior wide receiver Robert Meachem is third in I-A in receiving yards per game with 115.40. His totals for five games this season (27 catches, 577 yards, 5 touchdowns) are superior overall to what he accomplished all of last season (29, 383, 2).

The 6-3, 210-pound Meachem said this season is easier personally because he dropped 10 pounds, gaining speed and flexibility. It's also easier, he said, because the team isn't pulling in two directions as it did last year, when Ainge split time at quarterback with Rick Clausen.

"We had a lot of stuff going on and we brought it to the field," Meachem said. "I'm having a whole lot of fun as of right now. Our play-calling is different. That's Erik's offense. He doesn't have to do too much looking over his shoulder to see if someone else is going to play."

The 21-20 loss to Florida means that Tennessee must win at Georgia on Saturday to remain in the SEC East race. Last season, the Bulldogs came to Knoxville and dominated 27-14, the first step down a steep slope. Thanks to the regeneration of the Tennessee offense, win or lose on Saturday, no one expects a repeat slide.

3. Is Syracuse for real?
The pessimism hovering like fog over central New York is beginning to break. When that suggestion came Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson's way, he laughed.

"They like the fight in this team," Robinson said of the fans of the 3-2 Orange. "They are a little leery of jumping on the bandwagon. If we pull off a game like this [Saturday's test against visiting Pittsburgh (4-1)] we'll have those people where we want them."
Greg Robinson
Scott Schild/WireImage.com
Greg Robinson has Syracuse pointed in the right direction.

In a season of relatively few surprises, Syracuse entering October with a winning record qualifies as a stunner, especially after the 20-10 opening loss to Wake Forest and the futility of the 20-13 double-overtime loss to Iowa in Week 2. The latter loss, which came after a 1-10 season in 2005 in which every first down should have set off a celebratory parade, seemed to indicate that the Orange would continue to suffer the same offensive woes.

In the last three weeks -- victories over Illinois, Miami (Ohio) and Wyoming -- Syracuse has scored more than 30 points. Put another way: The Orange has scored 128 points this season, only 24 fewer than in 11 games last year.

And with Wake Forest 5-0, that loss doesn't look so bad.

Fifth-year senior Perry Patterson has looked much more comfortable in an offense that he was not recruited to run. Patterson has thrown only two interceptions in 120 attempts, a big reason the Orange lead the Big East in turnover margin (plus-eight). A year ago, Patterson threw 11 picks in 130 attempts. Robinson's predecessor, Paul Pasqualoni, ran an option-oriented offense.

"It was always about counting the numbers for the running game," Robinson said. "'They got three to this side, so we run option the other way. One to this side, run the sweep.' That wasn't learning how to see the field when you drop back. In the concepts of the passing game, he was a neophyte. In this system, he's a sophomore. His efficiency has been good. He's been a different guy."

As has this team. The most impressive part of the 40-34, double-overtime victory over Wyoming may have been that Syracuse won despite its own mistakes.

"That was the key," Robinson said. "I could feel during pregame warm-up that they were not being smooth. I'm glad we're heading into the Big East [schedule]. It has helped refocus the team."

Syracuse needs only a 3-4 record in league play to qualify for a bowl bid. But the Orange play only three conference games at home, and those include Pittsburgh and No. 8 Louisville. Syracuse may need to win at South Florida or at No. 23 Rutgers to get to six wins.

The Orange may not be for real, but just being able to ask the question is a victory of sorts. Before the season, Syracuse fans would have considered a four- or five-win season a sign of progress. After the first month, it may be a disappointment.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com