Just For Argument's Sake...
From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, here's a look at the hottest topics in college football.
3 Nagging Questions | Soapbox Moment | Whatever Happened To ... | Introducing
Just A Thought | How To | Heisman Hype | Power 16 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing
1. Who is the player of the half-year? If the ESPN Heisman poll is any indication, Ohio State senior quarterback Troy Smith is a runaway winner. He has 14 of 15 first-place votes. The one voter who didn't select Smith first is near and dear to me. He is, uh, I.
Before any Buckeyes begin to man their battle stations, hear me out. I think Smith is the best quarterback in the nation this season. He has proven himself as a talented passer. He showed against Bowling Green on Saturday that, even if he didn't show it in the first five games of the season, he hasn't forgotten how to tuck the ball into the crook of his arm and move the chains.
Harry Cabluck/AP PhotoTroy Smith has sparked the Buckeyes to a 6-0 start.
As good as he is, I think his best assets are intangible. It is obvious, even from my limited interaction with him -- a group interview here, a few postgame interviews there -- that Smith has matured into a leader. The rest of the locker room will follow him anywhere.
That said, I think there's a difference between the Heisman, which honors the "most outstanding player" in college football, and the typical award. That word "outstanding" suggests a level of excellence that Smith, in my mind, hasn't achieved.
But who has? Is there a player out there who has wowed anyone this season? The player with the best statistics is tailback Garrett Wolfe, but he made the mistake of accepting a scholarship at Northern Illinois. I say that tongue-in-cheek, because I don't think Wolfe has anything else to prove, even if he is in the Mid-American Conference. The Senior Bowl, which doesn't invite anyone that it doesn't think will interest the NFL, is going to invite Wolfe.
Perhaps it is my prejudice toward my own opinion, but I began the season thinking Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson is the best player in the country, and I have seen nothing to change my mind. Peterson gained "only" 109 yards against Texas, and had a brain lock on the pass he didn't catch that turned out to be (A) a lateral and (B) a fumble recovered by Texas and returned for a touchdown.
Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson and West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton also deserve consideration. But here's the bottom line: Who has distinguished himself as an individual player? As the "most outstanding player" in the nation. It may be that we're waiting for last year's race, when Reggie Bush had one of the great seasons of recent memory. Given the support for Troy Smith, he seems to be, as the leader of the No. 1 team, the default candidate.
By that criteria, some of our recent Heisman winners would include Tee Martin of Tennessee (1998) and Craig Krenzel of Ohio State (2002) and Jason White of Oklahoma (2003). And we all know that none of them -- oh, wait a minute. White won. My point is, the Heisman shouldn't go to anyone by default.
Make Smith the player of the half-season, but let's not inscribe his name on American sport's most famous trophy just yet.
2. What are the five biggest moments of the first half of the season? 1. Oregon-Oklahoma
Both teams have lost again, so the impact of the refusal of Pac-10 replay official Gordon Riese to overturn the ruling that the Ducks recovered an onside kick has been muted. The fact is, Oklahoma wasn't good enough to stop Oregon from scoring again.
Another fact: The Ducks escaped with a 34-33 victory that had an inquiry light attached to it. And another: The memory of Oklahoma president David Boren's emotional outburst demanding that the game be stricken from the record books will follow him, just as his predecessor (George Cross) had to deal with once saying that he wanted a university the football team could be proud of.
Cross, unlike Boren, had his tongue in his cheek.
The short-term impact may no longer be felt, but the long-term impact will be. More scrutiny has been applied to replay officials and how they operate. Pac-10 athletic directors will discuss Thursday the league's policy that Pac-10 crews work Pac-10 home games. In a season when the NCAA Football Rules Committee has endured harsh criticism for new clock rules that have shortened the game by 10 percent, the last thing anyone needed is continued controversy over instant replay.
2. Tennessee's third-quarter onslaught in the opener against California
The Volunteers had heard it for eight months. No, make that nine months. They didn't play in December. For the first time in Phillip Fulmer's 14 seasons as head coach, they didn't go to a bowl. Fulmer had his first losing record (5-6).
He didn't like that very much, and he made sure that his players didn't enjoy themselves, either.
Fulmer rehired his close friend, David Cutcliffe, to reshape the offense. The players rededicated themselves to the weight room. They got sick of hearing about the decline of the Vols. They got tired of hearing about how this would the season that the Golden Bears challenged USC for supremacy in the Pac-10.
From the first play, Tennessee became the aggressor. They dominated the first half against Cal, yet led only 14-3 at intermission. By the time 6:29 had elapsed in the third quarter, the Vols led 35-3. Cal tacked on a couple of touchdowns against the scrubs. Tennessee has returned to the top 10. So, too, has Cal, making what Tennessee did in the opener all the more amazing.
3. Michigan blows out Notre Dame in South Bend
It seems like a long time ago now, since the Wolverines are ranked fourth in the nation and are looking unstoppable. But don't forget that they went into Notre Dame Stadium having lost three of four to the Irish. The natives, as well as everyone else, had begun to question coach Lloyd Carr.
It didn't take long to figure out this was not the same Meeshigan. Prescott Burgess stepped in front of Brady Quinn's second pass, intercepted it and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. Exit crowd noise, exit momentum, exit the Irish -- and by the time Michigan led 34-14 at the half, exit the Carr doubters. Michigan cruised to a 47-21 victory, and everything is copacetic in the land of maize and blue.
4. The rise of Missouri
It stood to reason that some team in the Big 12 North would halt the division's slide into mediocrity. But few people outside of Columbia thought it would be Missouri, a team that had defined mediocrity over coach Gary Pinkel's five seasons (29-30).
But the Tigers have seven senior starters on defense and a young quarterback, redshirt sophomore Chase Daniel, whose light had been hidden behind the aura of former Tigers QB Brad Smith.
The defense has been nothing short of magnificent, holding the Tigers' first five opponents to a total of 50 points. When it gave up 21 to Texas Tech, it also forced five Red Raiders turnovers, including two interception returns for scores, 17 yards by end Xzavie Jackson and 22 yards by reserve free safety William Moore.
Missouri fans are beginning to ask about a 13-0 season and what might happen to the Tigers in that scenario. The funny thing is, it's not such an outlandish question.
5. Texas A&M's calculated risk with its nonconference schedule.
The Aggies played I-AA The Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, Army and Louisiana Tech. Do the math: two (military academies) plus two (Louisiana hayrides) equals 4-0, a start that coach Dennis Franchione could use as a shield with which to fend off frustrated Aggies fans.
A 4-0 record, even with a narrow escape against Army, is all well and good, but the Aggies had lost four of their past five against the Red Raiders, a latecomer to the old Southwest Conference and a school that all self-aggrandizing Aggies look down upon. When A&M led Tech 27-24 in the final minute, it looked as if the Aggies might be on their way to being mentioned in the same sentence as Texas and Oklahoma.
But Tech QB Graham Harrell had other ideas. He threw a 37-yard textbook fade directly to the right pylon. Wide receiver Robert Johnson brought it in without a footstep to spare before angling across the side boundary of the end zone with 26 seconds to play. Texas Tech won 31-27, and the Aggies' agony extended again.
Texas A&M is 5-1 with four ranked opponents (Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, at Texas) to come. Fran could have used that win over Tech.
3. Who is the coach of the half-year? Arkansas lost big in its opener to USC, 50-14, and coach Houston Nutt wasted no time making a change at quarterback. Casey Dick might have been the starter, but Dick got hurt in August practices. Robert Johnson, the starter for several games last season, started against the Trojans, and Nutt didn't like what he saw.
Clay Carson/WireImage.comHouston Nutt led the Hogs past Auburn.
So Nutt put freshman Mitch Mustain into the starting lineup. Mustain may have been the top recruit in the nation, but no freshman is ready to start at quarterback. Nutt decided that Mustain, even with an easy-reader playbook, would be his best weapon.
Nutt proved to be right.
Mustain gets better every week. Tailback Darren McFadden, after injuring his foot in a preseason bar fight, gets healthier every week. Arkansas sneaked past Vanderbilt 21-19, somehow beat Alabama 24-23 in double overtime and dominated No. 2 Auburn this past week 27-10. The Razorbacks have a significant edge in the SEC West.
Nutt, who began the season on a hot seat, is on his way to transforming it into his second division crown in nine seasons.
Soapbox Moment The NCAA passed a rule last spring allowing athletes who get their undergraduate degree and still have eligibility remaining to transfer without having to sit out a season. There is an academic component -- graduate study may be necessary at another school -- and there is a reward, too. An athlete who earns his degree earns some control over the rest of his career.
Ask Ryan Smith, who became so disenchanted with football at Utah that he quit the team and prepared to transfer to I-AA Howard. Instead, Smith finished his sociology degree requirements over the summer at Utah and, under the auspices of the new rule, transferred to Florida to play for Urban Meyer and Chuck Heater, the head coach and secondary coach who had lured him from Diamond Bar, Calif., to play for the Utes.
Steve Franz/WireImage.comRyan Smith made two interceptions against LSU.
Smith started 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2004, the year that Meyer's Utes went 13-0. His impact in Gainesville has been just as immediate. The junior has made two interceptions in each of the Gators' past two games. The four picks tie him for the lead in the SEC.
Smith fell out of the Utah starting lineup last season and lost interest in playing for coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff. Smith quit the team last spring and prepared to transfer. He liked the idea of going to I-AA Howard, where perhaps he could resume his relationships with college football and other African-American students, neither of which he had in Salt Lake City.
Enter Heater. Smith and Heater had stayed in touch over the course of last season. Heater tried to intervene on Smith's behalf with the Utah coaches. When it became clear that Smith wanted to leave, Heater began trying to help him get on another team.
"The rule in the SEC was that you had to have two years of eligibility left to transfer in," Heater said. "I thought it was over for us. I said to Ryan, 'I'm going to start calling people for you.' At Utah, we had played Arizona. I told him I would call [head coach Mike] Stoops."
Heater went over the scenario with the NCAA compliance people at Florida.
"Our guy said, 'Are you telling me he's graduating from Utah?'" Heater said. "He told me he might be able to come here. I called Ryan's dad, Lance. He called the NCAA, and the SEC and called me back and said, 'This is real.'"
Smith showed up for practice in August, a Utah football dropout. Every set of eyes on the practice field watched him line up against the Gators' Dallas Baker, the Outback Bowl MVP from last season.
"I was nervous," Smith said. "I was real nervous. I knew I was going against big-time receivers, and everybody would be watching to see if I was the real deal. Starting all those games in '04, and going through '05, I felt like a veteran. I knew what to expect."
In a two-minute drill, Smith batted a pass away from Baker. If it wasn't instant acceptance, it was close.
"I tell you what's valued in a really good program," Heater said. "If a guy can play, and can help you win, he gets immediate credibility."
Smith thought he would be playing at Howard. Instead, he is playing in front of 90,000 in the Swamp.
"It's like a dream being in that stadium. I remember growing up watching games like that. To be there, it's unreal," Smith said. "I don't take any of these games for granted."
Smith has become a walking advertisement for the NCAA. Give it credit. The NCAA got this decision dead right.
Whatever Happened To Florida State.
It wasn't just that the Seminoles lost at NC State 24-20 on Thursday night. It was the way they lost. In the third quarter, Florida State stopped the Wolfpack on a goal-line stand, turned around and drove the ball 99 yards for a touchdown to take a 20-10 lead.
It appeared as if the Seminoles had taken control of the game. Instead, from that point forward, the Wolfpack dominated. NC State ground out two long drives for scores, running and throwing at will against a defense that looked nothing like one coached by Mickey Andrews, the longtime Florida State defensive coordinator.
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBobby Bowden doesn't like FSU's 1-2 ACC record.
In a way, it wasn't. The Seminoles have been hit so hard by injuries, coach Bobby Bowden said, that at one point he looked out on the field and saw four freshmen in the secondary.
"I think that if we had that full deck out there," Bowden said, "we maybe would not have some of the problems we are having right now. It just happens that they are all on defense."
Headline: Bowden Not Playing With Full Deck (insert punch line here).
Florida State has lost both nose guards (Paul Griffin and Emmanuel Dunbar). The Seminoles have lost linebackers Marcus Ball and Derek Nicholson. Starting end D.J. Norris didn't play.
"Now," Bowden said, "we are bringing in some guys that didn't even plan to play."
The remaining defenders simply panicked.
"The first thing you know," Bowden said, "is that some of those starters, good ones, are starting to try to play two gaps instead of one. I saw that when their tailback came up the middle the other night several times and it looked like one of our linebackers kind of helped somebody else. Can't do that. You have to take care of your job. That is what starts happening when you start getting people hurt."
Perhaps. Perhaps without all these injuries, the Seminoles would be in their customary position among the ACC leaders. The thing is, it's getting less and less customary for Florida State to be among the leaders. This loss felt different, as if it the Seminoles crossed a line, the one that separates the best from the others.
Even last season, when Florida State struggled in the second half of the season, they found a way to win the Atlantic, then upset Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game. But this season feels different. Both of the Seminoles' losses have come within the division. They're not coming back to win the Atlantic this season.
Here's a line that they've crossed: the one that separates Jan. 1 from the rest of the postseason. Florida State hasn't played a December bowl since it defeated Penn State in the late, lamented Blockbuster Bowl in 1990. It looks like the Seminoles will be home for New Year's.
Introducing Penn State is Linebacker U. USC, once upon a time, was Tailback U. Now, judging by the way that Wisconsin redshirt freshman P.J. Hill has burst onto the scene, Wisconsin, the alma mater of 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, has firmly established itself as Big Tailback U.
Hill, listed at 5-foot-11 and 242 pounds, ran through Northwestern for 249 yards on 35 carries in the Badgers' 41-9 rout Saturday. The Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week is fifth in the nation in rushing with an average of 141.2 yards per game. He has rushed for nine touchdowns and caught a 10th.
Steve Levin/WireImage.comP.J. Hill is averaging 141.2 yards per game in 2006.
Only Michigan held Hill to fewer than 100 yards, which means the Badgers are 5-0 when Hill hits triple figures, 0-1 when he doesn't.
What's even more impressive is that Hill has eight plays of 20 yards or more -- five rushes and three receptions. He is third on the team in receptions (13, for an average of 11.9 yards per catch). That hints at speed unusual for a player of his bulk.
Hill's emergence has made all the difference for an offense predicted to rely on senior quarterback John Stocco. He has also made smooth the transition for first-year head coach Bret Bielema.
And Hill will only get better. Bielema noted earlier this year that Hill isn't always making the right reads and that he could do a better job of running north and south instead of trying to run around tackles, a typical freshman mistake. But Hill has been productive enough that, in the middle of a schedule that features 12 games in 12 weeks, Bielema is taking care of the 19-year-old. He holds him out of a drill here and a drill there.
"I think our guys realize and understand too we're a better ball club with P.J. out there," Bielema said at his press conference Monday, "so no one's taking any unnecessary shots at him during the course of the week.
Wisconsin's 27-13 loss to Michigan left the Badgers a game behind Ohio State and Michigan as their rivals head toward a Nov. 18 showdown. If one of them falters, however, Wisconsin is right there. That's not a position anyone would have predicted for the Badgers, and Hill has played a large role in keeping them there.
Just A Thought The rise of Missouri sophomore quarterback Chase Daniel came to mind Saturday as I heard the urgency in Florida coach Urban Meyer's voice.
Paul Abell-US PRESSWIREUrban Meyer is looking for the next Gator quarterback.
"I tell you what we've got to do: go get us some quarterbacks to back him [Tim Tebow] up," Meyer said. "Right now, he's it, come December or January, whenever our last game is. That's my biggest concern. We better have three of them and we don't."
It's going to be a tough sell. What blue-chip senior is going to want to compete against Tebow, who will have a year's head start and a state full of fans ready to elect him governor?
Daniel is an example of the havoc that an outstanding young quarterback can wreak on his coaches' recruiting. Daniel is from Southlake, Texas, and wanted to play for the Longhorns. Coach Mack Brown slow-played Daniel while going after Ryan Perrilloux. Texas lost Perrilloux, who chose not to come in and sit behind Young but to sign with LSU. Texas tried to come back to Daniel but he stuck with his relationship with Missouri.
Texas redshirt freshman quarterback Colt McCoy is all the Longhorns had once Young decided to leave for the NFL. McCoy is playing well, but he was not prepared for the Longhorns' second game of the season against Ohio State. Daniel, a redshirt sophomore, has led Missouri to a 6-0 record.
Tebow has a promising future with Florida, and vice versa. But the Gators will have a hard time convincing a top high school quarterback to come to Gainesville and try to penetrate the Tebow aura.
How To Game Plan 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:
Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges is a magnetic personality. He's friendly, funny and emotional, and he turns all of that off once a football game starts.
"You have to put yourself in a booth, figuratively speaking," Borges said. "There are no emotions involved in your decision making. Emotion can cloud your judgment and keep you from thinking ahead -- not five plays ahead, but a play or two ahead. I'm not the most exciting guy for TV cameras to pan to. I'm not very animated."
The way that Borges and the Auburn offensive staff assemble a game plan is collaborative. Borges, as a disciple of Bill Walsh, puts together a script of plays with which to open the game.
John Reed-US PRESSWIREAl Borges prefers to direct the Auburn offense from the sidelines.
"I comprise a list of 15-17 opening plays so that, come Thursday, we can practice the [script]," Borges said. "Have a play for every situation. I heard that from [former San Francisco 49ers coach] Bill Walsh."
Borges recalled how Joe Montana found John Taylor in the back of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown in the waning moments of Super Bowl XXIII in 1989.
"He [Walsh] may have had a play for 11 weeks and not used it," Borges said. "They hadn't used that play all year, but he knew that if the defense double-covered Jerry Rice, they had a play to run from the 10-yard line in. Have a play."
Borges' script applies to first and second down between the 20s. For everything else, responsibility is divvied up among the offensive assistants. Line coach Hugh Nall is in charge of the running game. Wide receivers coach Greg Knox is in charge of third downs. Running backs coach Eddie Gran is in charge of the red zone, and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger handles goal-line offense. Borges meets with each coach early in the week and they come up with plays for each of those situations.
"You want at least one play or two more than you are going to run," Borges said. "You don't want a lot of overage. If you do, you're going to practice a lot of plays you're not going to run. The delicate balance is to practice what you're going to run. If you go through your computer [data] and third-and-3 or third-and-4 comes up three times, what you would like to do is have four plays. Those are the four we'll practice. Don't carry 10 third-and-3 plays. You're not going to [need] that much.
"Third-and-5-to-7 comes up four or five times a game; we'll carry five or six plays. Third and longer comes up six or seven times a game; we'll have eight or nine plays."
On Wednesday morning, Borges puts all his plays on the "call sheet" that he prepares for Saturdays. A lot of offensive coordinators like to be in the press box upstairs in order to better see the field and to isolate themselves from the chaos of the game. Borges is not among them.
"For every reason to be in the booth, I'll give you five not to be in the booth," Borges said. "From the sideline I can manage much easier without a middleman. I can see face to face the entire offense without going through anybody. I can see whether the quarterback is rattled. I can have a better feel for game management with the head coach. Communication is much better."
Borges, in his mind, mixes the two. He stands on the sideline and, as he described, puts himself in a "booth." He stays unemotional. As collaborative as he is in creating the game plan, he is an autocrat about calling plays.
"If I want a play suggestion, I'll ask," Borges said. "All that does is screw you up. Play calling is about sequencing plays. When it comes to game day, the less people involved in play calling, the better. One guy knows what he wants to do in sequencing one play to set up the next. What you don't want from the other coaches is getting the 'runs.' 'Run this.' 'Run that.' Don't get the 'runs' during the game."
With all that planning, Borges said, the actual play-calling remains a combination of art and adjustment.
"The battle never goes as planned," he said. "Some days, it's really fun. Some days you can close your eyes and point to your play sheet and it works. Other days, whether they are doing a good job defensively or you are not doing a good job executing, you're trying to find something. When we're three-and-out, I don't have enough sequences to set anything up. Offense is very much about getting in sync. Running one successful play block will [set up] another. If you don't get in sync and guys don't start finding it, it's hard. The defense gains confidence as they play against you."
Look for Borges on the sideline. He'll be the one with the stone face.
Heisman Hype 1. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, RB: Yes, he gained "only" 109 yards against Texas, but that's nearly three times what the Longhorns had been allowing (36.6 yards per game).
2. Troy Smith, Ohio State, QB: He gave a near-flawless performance against Bowling Green, winning his second Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award this season and third in the last seven regular-season games.
3. Garrett Wolfe, Northern Illinois, RB: When 162 yards and two touchdowns seems workmanlike, you've set a pretty high standard to meet.
4. Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech, WR: Had his first 10-catch game and fourth 100-yard game of the season in the comeback victory over Maryland.
5. Steve Slaton, West Virginia, RB: West Virginia's current schedule -- The Hunt for Soft October -- is hurting Slaton's chances.
The Power 16 1. Ohio State (1 last week): It's impressive how the Buckeyes stepped out of conference and played with the same consistency as they did against Iowa.
2. Florida (4): The Gators hadn't recovered a fumble all season. They recovered one LSU drop at their own 1-yard line and turned another into a touchdown.
3. West Virginia (5): As other unbeatens lose, the Mountaineers will maintain a high ranking, Big East or no Big East. And, I still add, deservedly so.
4. Michigan (8): I may have been slow to jump on this bandwagon, but I'm on it now.
5. USC (2): The Trojans are ranked higher than this based on reputation. They began the season with a 22-game Pac-10 winning streak in which their average margin of victory had been 26.4 points. USC's Pac-10 wins this season have been by 17, six and six points.
6. Texas (6): Freshman quarterback Colt McCoy came of age in the second half against Oklahoma. But the conversation about these Longhorns still should begin on defense.
7. Louisville (9): Keep an eye on Cincinnati. The Bearcats led at Ohio State and at Virginia Tech before being overwhelmed by superior depth and talent. Now they come to Louisville.
8. Tennessee (11): Steve Spurrier made a big deal out of his Florida team scoring 50 between the hedges in 1995. It seemed totally natural for Phil Fulmer's Vols to do it Saturday night.
9. Clemson (13): The fourth-quarter comeback in the cold and rain Saturday at Wake Forest is the kind of victory from which memorable seasons sprout.
10. Cal (15): Marshawn Lynch injures an ankle and Justin Forsett comes in and gains 163, including 115 in the fourth quarter. Wow.
11. Arkansas (NR): They almost didn't beat Vandy. It's still hard to figure out how they beat Alabama. But there's no question about what the Hogs did to Auburn on Saturday.
12. Auburn (2): There's no time for wound-licking. Florida is coming to town. If the Tigers' offensive line doesn't improve, the Tigers will be dealing with their second league loss.
13. LSU (7): Talent has not equaled performance. LSU may be 4-2, but the Tigers are 0-2 against teams with winning records.
14. Notre Dame (16): You have to respect how the Irish took care of business against winless Stanford. They didn't overlook the Cardinal. They won the game and moved on.
15. Georgia Tech (NR): Every week, the Yellow Jackets make Notre Dame look better. Tech has a week off before a three game stretch: at Clemson, Miami, at NC State.
16. Missouri (NR): The Tigers get my vote for surprise team of the first half of the season, in a photo finish over Arkansas.
Adios: Oregon (10), Oklahoma (12), Georgia (13)
Three Games Worth TiVo-ing No. 2 Florida at No. 11 Auburn
Saturday, 7:45 p.m ET, ESPN
A week ago, Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville went on a rant about the unfairness of the BCS, and no one -- including the guy typing this -- thought to pipe up and say, "You're not there yet."
In the course of three hours on Saturday, Auburn went from national championship contender to SEC West also-ran (and LSU to also-also-ran). The Tigers must win Saturday to keep within sight of the Razorbacks. But Auburn can't win without making a tire-screeching U-turn from the way they played in the 27-10 loss to Arkansas.
There is no better description of the state of the offense than this: The Tigers are 69th in Division I-A in total offense, with 331.3 yards per game. That's halfway down the list of 119 teams. In other words, Auburn is mediocre. The offensive line has struggled to open holes for Kenny Irons and Brad Lester. When quarterback Brandon Cox has had time to throw, the young receivers have not been getting open.
The result? Auburn is last in the SEC in tackles for loss allowed (7.33 per game) and 11th in the league in sacks allowed (3.0). That's not good news with the Florida defense that's coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Not only has the Gators' front seven been dominant, but cornerback Ryan Smith, the transfer from Utah, is tied for the SEC lead in interceptions after getting a pair in each of the Gators' past two games.
Here's what Auburn does have going for it: better special teams. Halfway through the season, Florida kicker Chris Hetland is either 0-for-4 or 0-for-2006, depending on how you look at it. Auburn kicker John Vaughn and punter Kody Bliss are among the best in the league.
I'm willing to give the Tigers the benefit of the doubt and say they looked past Arkansas toward Florida (all Tigers fans were). The Gators proved at Tennessee that they can win on the road. Auburn will be just as difficult. The Tigers will be hungry.
I'm voting Florida second along with many others, but it will take a victory at Auburn on Saturday to completely convince me.
No. 4 Michigan at Penn State
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Yes, Beaver Stadium is a tough place to play. And yes, Beaver Stadium at night is a very tough place to play. We all know that Michigan coach Lloyd Carr would rather sing Carmen, Ohio, than play a night game.
We also know that without Super Mario Manningham at wide receiver, who will be out for as many as six weeks with a knee injury, the field won't stretch quite as easily for tailback Mike Hart. Could it be that the Wolverines will revert to that offense of last season, which proved to be as captivating as a recital of the Congressional Register?
Sorry. That's all the drama I can muster. Michigan is more experienced, deeper and plain better on both sides of the ball than Penn State.
Like every Wolverine fan, Nov. 18 already is penciled in on my dance card. Michigan's toughest test ought to come next week against Iowa. The Wolverines, even without Manningham, have too much for the Nittany Lions.
No. 19 Missouri at Texas A&M
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Tigers passed the first half of their two-week Texas Test on Saturday, bolting out to a 24-0 lead at Texas Tech, including two defensive touchdowns, before pulling away to a 38-21 victory. The Aggies are a much different team than the Red Raiders. Coach Dennis Franchione teaches a much more physical brand of football. He emphasizes ball control and clock management. Witness that final, game-winning drive at Kansas on Saturday night.
Texas A&M moved down the field in methodical chunks, even as the clock ticked to the final minute. Stephen McGee completed 6-of-9 passes for no more than 10 yards before Fran proved again why he has earned the reputation as one of the best play-callers in the sport. An inside screen from McGee to L'Tydrick Riley suckered in the Jayhawks' defense. Riley broke it outside and took the pass 35 yards to the Kansas 5. Two rushes, and Texas A&M had scored with seconds to spare.
It is tough to win in College Station. But Missouri has made a believer out of me. A tough, senior-dominated defense is hard to build and harder to unnerve. Chase Daniel has proven to be a talented young quarterback, but the Tigers will go to 7-0 on the backs of their defense.
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