Just For Argument's Sake ...
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
If a team has a lot of injuries in one season, it's an aberration. Coaches write it off as, "It's our turn." If a team has a lot of injuries in consecutive seasons, it's time to step back and at least look at how you practice and how you train. Nobody is that unlucky for that long.
A year ago, USC suffered so many injuries in its secondary that anyone walking past Howard Jones Field with a pair of cleats could have gotten a chance to play in the Rose Bowl. This season, the Trojans are down to their fourth-string fullback, are playing a freshman at tailback, and as of Tuesday, lost a second wide receiver to a shoulder injury.
Yes, both Dwayne Jarrett, who sprained his shoulder against Arizona, and Chris McFoy, who broke two bones near his shoulder Saturday at Washington State, suffered their injuries in games. But the two-year line coming out of the training room indicates more than bad luck is at work.
The good news is that defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is expected to play Saturday against Washington. As thorough as coach Pete Carroll is, it only makes sense to take a second look.
There was a time when you could guarantee that no ranking was safe. That time was any college football season but this one.
Brad Edwards and the college football research team at ESPN sent out a memo this week that only four ranked teams this season have lost to an unranked team. What's more, only one of the four upset victims was in the top 15, and its loss, as it turns out, hardly qualifies as an upset.
On Sept. 9, No. 18 Clemson lost to Boston College 34-33 in overtime.
On Sept. 16, No. 9 Florida State lost to Clemson 27-20 (you call that an upset?).
On Sept. 23, No. 20 Boston College lost to North Carolina State 17-15.
On Sept. 30, No. 17 TCU lost to BYU 31-17.
Vanity suggests that perhaps those of us in the ranking business should take credit for all of our offseason analysis being correct. A better guess is the relative lack of interesting games played by the top teams in the early part of the season. That should change as conference action commences in earnest.
An even more plausible explanation revolves around the vagaries of chance. It's been an uneventful month. Here's hoping October brings more pizzazz than its predecessor.
It's time to consider the notion that Wake Forest may be quite good. The Demon Deacons are 5-0 for the first time in 19 years and bidding to go 6-0 for the first time since 1944, or as Beano Cook might say, since the Battle of the Bulge.
Wake has gotten to 5-0 with a schedule so soft that SEC coaches probably have been calling Jim Grobe asking for pointers. When 3-2 Syracuse is the prettiest girl on your dance card (also Duke, at UConn, at Ole Miss, I-AA Liberty), it's time to move to another dance.
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Jim Grobe and surprising Wake Forest are 5-0 this season.
The Demon Deacons are doing just that, serving as host to No. 15 Clemson, a team that may be the most underranked of any in the top 25. The Tigers' defense has rebounded from its 34-33 double-overtime loss at Boston College and allowed a total of 27 points and no passing touchdowns in its last three games.
There's just one problem for Clemson: The Tigers have been flummoxed by the Demon Deacons. Wake has won two of the last three, including the 45-17 victory in 2003 that nearly got Clemson coach Tommy Bowden fired.
"I have always had a tremendous respect for them because of the problems they have caused us," Bowden said of the Deacs. "They're undefeated and it is hard to go undefeated. I think a couple of good indications are the Georgia and Ole Miss game last week, where Georgia struggled to win 14-9, and Ole Miss had the ball the last drive to win the game, but Wake Forest went there and won handily [27-3]."
It will take a victory of the magnitude of beating No. 15 Clemson to awaken the rest of the country to what the ACC learned some time ago: Grobe is one of the best coaches in the nation. Grobe is only 1-11 against ranked teams in his seven seasons at Wake. But Grobe is 6-6 against the line in those games, an indication that the Demon Deacons don't back off.
Grobe talked this week of how he has depth available this season that he has not enjoyed since he has been at Wake. He was referring to more than his offensive backfield, where injured starters Ben Mauk (QB) and Micah Andrews (TB) have been replaced by freshman Riley Skinner and junior De'Angelo Bryant, respectively, without a false step.
This season is looking for an underdog. If Wake Forest finds a way to beat Clemson and go to 6-0 for the first time in 59 seasons, the search will be over.
It's not unusual for something that occurs in a Thursday night game to be buried beneath the onslaught of Saturday results. But one part of No. 2 Auburn's 24-17 victory at South Carolina has stuck with me all week. Auburn took the second-half kickoff and held the ball throughout the third quarter and into the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Tigers drove 85 yards in 17 plays and kicked a field goal. They then recovered an onside kick and drove 52 yards in 13 plays to score a touchdown.
"I tell you the truth," Auburn senior guard Tim Duckworth said. "I got tired. I did not know we had recovered the onside kick. I was going to the bench to sit down. I was going to try to recuperate from the [first] drive, and a coach yelled, 'Offense, get out there!'
"You don't want to say anything to anyone else. You don't want to tip off the defense. I used to play defense. You'd think, 'He looks tired. I'm going to tee off on him.' I tell our guys all the time, 'Look alive!' We had a couple of guys lean over, that little slump. I told them to stand straight up. Once I went back on the field and we ran a couple of plays, I caught that second wind. I started telling my teammates, 'It's going to be all right. We're going to be straight.'"
Nobody knows if Auburn's two possessions are a record. The NCAA record book lists the longest drive ever, which happened just two years ago. Navy went 94 yards in 24 plays over 14:26 to kick a field goal -- after all that work -- in its 34-19 defeat of New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl.
College football doesn't have sabermetricians who can tell you how many yards Red Grange gained on third-and-3. But the fact that Auburn ran 30 plays in 15 minutes and change before South Carolina's offense ever stepped on the field is worth at least an asterisk.
Editor's note: Every week, Ivan Maisel will explain how to perform a task integral to college football. It might happen on the field. It might happen on the sideline. It might have to do with tradition, or preparation, or the band, or the managers. But you'll go inside the sport as you never have before. Here goes:
The most famous human handwriting in the world turns 70 next week. In the 1936 season, The Ohio State University Marching Band first marched in formation to "write" the word "Ohio" in a beautiful, flowing script. The last member of the formation, a trumpet player, dotted the I.
A short time later, said Dr. Jon R. Woods, the current director of TBDBITL --The Best Damn Band in the Land -- it occurred to someone that a sousaphone player would be easiest to spot as the I dot, and it has been ever thus.
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The Ohio State band has been dotting the "i" in Script Ohio since 1936.
Year in and year out (although not lately), the Buckeyes football team may disappoint. Script Ohio, however, has been undefeated for 70 years. High school bands in the state are awash in sousaphone players who want to realize a childhood dream and dot the "i." The dotting of the "i" induces an endorphin rush in Ohioans from Cincinnati to Toledo.
As great as it makes the fans feel, to read fifth-year senior Clint Phillips' description of his i-dotting is joy incarnate. Phillips, from Findlay, Ohio, is the squad leader of the 28-person sousaphone section this year. He has dotted the "i" three times: against Iowa and Michigan last season, and against Cincinnati last month. In football terms, that's roughly equivalent to being a three-time All-American. Sousaphone players are given the opportunity to dot the "i" based on their seniority, which is accumulated according to the number of band performances in which they march.
"I don't think I slept all that much the night before the Iowa game," Phillips described. "I was so nervous and excited at the same time. I think I managed to get four hours of sleep that night before I headed to the stadium."
The band marches onto the field and launches into the song, "Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse," a French 19th-century poem set to music. From here, Phillips will take over in his words, in a combination of two interviews, one in person, and one on-line.
Dotting the "i" was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. The excitement and intensity running through your body is just unbelievable.
Phillips avoided shin splints and strained hip flexors. He had no defense for the wave of emotion that overcame him as years of hard work came to fruition.
"When I got to the top of the 'i,' I bowed to the east side of Ohio Stadium with tears in my eyes," Phillips said. "I did my kick turn to face the west side and did the low bow and couldn't hold the tears back."
In the 70 years of i-dotting, few non-band members have ever been given the rare honor, including entertainer Bob Hope, and the legendary former coach of the Buckeyes, Woody Hayes. Until, that is, this season. At Homecoming on Oct. 28 against Minnesota, Ohio State alum Jack Nicklaus, the legendary Golden Bear, will dot the "i," according to Jon Waters, Ohio State's assistant band director, and Scott Tolley, the director of communications at the Nicklaus Companies.
1. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, RB: A.P. barely played against Texas last season because of injury. He's been waiting for this game for two years.
2. Garrett Wolfe, Northern Illinois, RB: The senior already has rushed for 1,181 yards, a total surpassed by only 18 I-A rushers last season.
3. Troy Smith, Ohio State, QB: Peterson is speed and brute strength. Smith has substance, of course, but he also has style. He never looked flustered at Iowa. Let's hear it for the maturity of the fifth-year senior quarterback.
4. Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech, WR: Six catches, two early touchdowns, at Virginia Tech. Just another day.
5. Steve Slaton, West Virginia, RB: The October menu for West Virginia is heavy on junk, low on nutrition. Slaton may have to deal with more Heisman skepticism from voters.
1. Ohio State (1 last week): It's hard to fight back the urge to say the Buckeyes will be 11-0 when Michigan comes to town.
2. Auburn (3): Yeah, the Tigers beat Washington State 40-14 in Auburn, and USC's 28-22 win over the Cougars came in Pullman. The difference still benefits the Tigers.
3. USC (2): If you're looking ahead, the Trojans' last four are Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame and at UCLA. Over those four weeks, Auburn has Georgia, at Alabama, and the SEC championship game. Auburn should hold its own there.
4. Florida (4): I doubted the Gators coming into the season, but their second-half comebacks at Tennessee and against Alabama have made me a believer.
5. West Virginia (5): The Mountaineers return from an off week to play at Mississippi State. Yes, there's a difference.
6. Texas (6): Oklahoma had an off week and Texas played Sam Houston State. Well, I think there's a difference.
7. LSU (7): The Tigers get a chance for redemption at Florida after the painful loss at Auburn.
8. Michigan (8): Michigan State will bring out the best in the Wolverines. Given the Spartans' fragile state, that should be more than enough.
9. Louisville (9): Oh happy day -- Brian Brohm sightings have returned. Playing Middle Tennessee State on Friday night undoes some of the goodwill obtained in dominating Miami.
10. Oregon (10): If the Ducks can pull off a victory at Cal, they will take a big step forward in the run for a BCS berth.
11. Tennessee (14): Sanford Stadium? No worries. Tennessee has won five of its last seven in Athens.
12. Oklahoma (12): A victory at the Cotton Bowl keeps the Sooners on the periphery of the national championship hunt. A loss means they must refocus their sights on returning to Dallas on Jan. 1.
13. Clemson (--): This week will be tougher than you think. Wake Forest is 5-0 and has beaten the Tigers two of the last three years, with the loss coming in double overtime in '04.
14. Georgia (13): Joe T III is back at quarterback, which means that the Dawgs may score more than 14 points this week.
15. Cal (16): Since the season-opening freefall at Tennessee, Cal has scored at least 40 points in four straight games for only the second time ever.
16. Notre Dame (--): The Fighting Irish looked sharp against a young Purdue defense. It will be a measure of their maturity if they look sharp against a hapless Stanford.
Adios: TCU (11), Iowa (15)
No. 9 LSU at No. 5 Florida
Saturday, 3:30 ET, CBS
Two teams that look remarkably similar meet with a lot at stake for the first week in October. Both Florida and LSU have athletic, physical defenses, veteran quarterbacks, and savvy second-year coaches.
Gators coach Urban Meyer has gone through a more public transition than has his Tigers counterpart, Les Miles. In his season and a half, Meyer has adapted his spread-option offense to the ruggedness of the Southeastern Conference. His play calling is more conservative, leading the wizened heads of the league nodding that it's just a matter of time before Meyer adopts a syrupy drawl and runs the dive every first down.
It doesn't appear as if he will go that native.
The No. 5 Gators control their own destiny in the SEC East, while the No. 9 Tigers, because of their loss three weeks ago at Auburn, must win to remain alive in the SEC West and as a national championship contender. LSU has been more impressive on defense than have been the Gators, simply because of the level of competition. LSU held Auburn to one touchdown and has held its other four opponents to a total of three, all scored in the fourth quarter, presumably when the starters were showered and scanning the stands for their dates.
If it's statistics that you want, the Tigers are in the top five of virtually every defensive category. They are second in scoring defense (7.4 points per game), one slot behind Georgia and one ahead of Auburn.
What a coincidence -- those are Florida's next three opponents. If the Gators run this gauntlet, they will sail into the SEC championship game. If they win only one, they might choose Georgia, if only for its ramifications in the SEC East. Besides a loss to either LSU or Auburn still could carry a promise of a return date in Atlanta on Dec. 3.