Commentary

Script might be flipped for SEC, Pac-10 for this season

Updated: September 28, 2007, 11:51 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

What if LSU coach Les Miles was completely wrong this summer, when he suggested the Tigers had a much more difficult road to the BCS National Championship Game than Southern California?

In fact, what if Miles was so off the mark that the Trojans had a more difficult path than LSU, at least this season?

John David Booty
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJohn David Booty will see some tougher competition than initially thought this season.

Four games into the season, it's beginning to look that way. And believe it or not, it might benefit LSU more than any other team.

During the previous few seasons, when the Trojans were winning at least a share of back-to-back national championships and contending for a couple of more titles, they were head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the Pac-10 conference.

But heading into this weekend, four Pac-10 teams are unbeaten and three schools seem better equipped to unseat the Trojans. USC is ranked No. 1 in the country and should cruise through its next four games, against Washington, Stanford, Arizona and Notre Dame.

Then USC's schedule should get much more arduous. California is ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press poll with a 4-0 record, including a 45-31 victory over Tennessee in its opener. Oregon is ranked No. 11 with a 4-0 record, after winning at Michigan 39-7 on Sept. 8. Arizona State is ranked No. 23 with a 4-0 record under first-year coach Dennis Erickson, who has now guided four different schools into the national polls.

"To this point in the season, if you have four undefeated teams, I think that's good," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. "I think Southern Cal is as good as advertised. I think they're the real deal. I think Cal has proven [it is good] and they've beaten Tennessee and all comers. Arizona State is an improved football team and they weren't that bad last year. I think we're a little bit better, although our record was the same at this point last year."

The Pac-10 pecking order will begin to take shape this weekend. The Ducks play host to California on Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. The Bears dominated Oregon 45-24 in Berkeley, Calif., last season.

"I think to people who were here last year, we realize that we had an opportunity we didn't capitalize on," Bellotti said. "I think it's two good football teams, which have done what they needed to do to get to 4-0 and they're both trying to get to 5-0."

The Ducks are 4-0 because quarterback Dennis Dixon is one of the most improved players in the country. Dixon, who spent much of the summer playing minor league baseball in Orlando, Fla., already has thrown for 932 yards and 11 touchdowns and run for 291 yards and four scores. Dixon threw 14 interceptions with 12 touchdowns a year ago.

The Bears seem to be as explosive on offense, even after losing star tailback Marshawn Lynch, an NFL first-round draft choice. Replacement Justin Forsett has run for 484 yards and seven touchdowns, and quarterback Nate Longshore has thrown for 852 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Of course, the Bears also have perhaps the most explosive player in college football in receiver/kick returner DeSean Jackson.

"Every game is tough," Longshore said. "Every game brings new challenges. Needless to say, we're excited to play this game. You always get excited to play big games."

With more balance in the Pac-10, the Bears and Ducks -- and even the Trojans -- might play a lot of big games this season. USC plays road games at Oregon, California and Arizona State and closes the season Dec. 1 against rival UCLA, which upset the Trojans 13-9 last year.

"To me, it's not about what we've done to this point," Bellotti said. "Certainly, the proof is in the long run and we're all trying to finish strong."

On (and Off) the Mark

On the Mark
Early surprises. Cincinnati is 4-0 for the first time since 1954 and ranked in The Associated Press top-25 poll for the first time since October 1976. Kentucky is 4-0 and ranked No. 14, its highest ranking since it finished the 1977 season with a 10-1 record and No. 6 ranking. South Florida is ranked No. 18, after earning the first ranking in school history last week.

(Off) the Mark
No wonder Oklahoma State is one of the biggest disappointments in college football this season. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy can't even keep his composure.

Several minutes after the Cowboys finally won a meaningful game, 49-45 over defenseless Texas Tech on Saturday, Gundy used his postgame news conference as a platform to publicly berate a columnist from The (Oklahoma City) Daily Oklahoman. Gundy was upset about a Saturday column she wrote about benched quarterback Bobby Reid.

Gundy's team couldn't even beat Troy two weeks ago, so he chose to verbally attack a journalist.

"If anybody hasn't read this article, I think this is something worth reading," Gundy said, while holding up a copy of the newspaper. "Three-fourths of this is inaccurate. It's fiction. And this article embarrasses me to be involved with athletics."

Gundy's childish outburst probably embarrassed quite a few people associated with the Cowboys. He scolded the columnist for criticizing Reid, who rarely has played well in Oklahoma State's biggest games, and the coach refused to answer any questions about the Texas Tech game. Since the columnist didn't have children, Gundy said, she wouldn't know what it was like to have them ridiculed after they played poorly.

In his Sunday teleconference, Gundy told reporters he might have handled the situation differently.

"If I'd have had to do it again, I would have prepared for it," Gundy told reporters. "I shot from the hip. I would have had a written-out statement and actually covered some things that I probably could have gone into a little more in-depth. But I shot it from the hip. It probably wasn't very well-prepared."

You know, kind of like the Cowboys have looked all season.

On The Mark
Strong-armed Texans. It was a big weekend for several Lone Star State-born quarterbacks. Texas Tech's Graham Harrell threw for 646 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-45 loss to Oklahoma State. Texas' Colt McCoy had 333 yards and three touchdowns on 20-for-29 passing in a 58-14 win over Rice. Kansas' Todd Reesing threw for 368 yards and one touchdown on 23-for-37 passing in a 55-3 blowout of Florida International. Houston's Case Keenum threw for 197 yards with two touchdowns off the bench in a 38-27 win over Colorado State. Missouri's Chase Daniel had 294 yards and three scores in a 38-17 win over Illinois State. Georgia's Matthew Stafford had 224 passing yards and threw the game-winning touchdown in overtime of a 26-23 win at Alabama. Michigan's Ryan Mallett had 170 passing yards and only one interception in a 14-9 upset of Penn State, only his second college start.

(Off) The Mark

Felix Jones & Darren McFadden
(1) Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE (2) Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesFelix Jones & Darren McFadden ran wild but the Hogs still fell vs. Kentucky.
How do you blow a 20-7 lead when you have a pair of tailbacks run for more than 100 yards each in the first half? Ask Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. The Razorbacks squandered a big first-half lead when Michael Smith fumbled, and Kentucky's Trevard Lindley returned it 66 yards for a touchdown with 26 seconds left in the half. With the Razorbacks leading 29-21 in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats missed a field goal attempt. But Arkansas was penalized for roughing the kicker, giving Kentucky new life. The Wildcats converted that miscue into seven points and added two more touchdowns in the final 4:02 of the game before winning 42-29.

On The Mark
Running back duos. Arkansas' Darren McFadden ran for 173 yards and one touchdown, and Felix Jones added 133 yards in the loss to Kentucky. Georgia's Thomas Brown and Knowshon Moreno each ran for 74 yards and combined for two touchdowns (one receiving) in the upset of Alabama. Oklahoma's Allen Patrick ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns, and freshman DeMarco Murray added 46 yards and two scores in a 62-21 win at Tulsa. Clemson's James Davis had 166 yards and one touchdown, and C.J. Spiller ran for 114 yards and one score in a 42-20 victory at NC State. Oklahoma State's Dantrell Savage ran for 130 yards and one touchdown, and Kendall Hunter had 113 yards and one touchdown in the win over Texas Tech (Cowboys quarterback Zac Robinson even ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns). Auburn's Ben Tate and Mario Fannin combined for 214 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-20 win over New Mexico State. Oregon's Jonathan Stewart had 160 yards and one touchdown, and Jeremiah Johnson ran for 60 yards and one score in a 55-31 win at Stanford. UCLA's Chris Markey gained 193 yards and one touchdown, and Kahlil Bell had 109 yards and one score in a 44-31 win over Washington.

(Off) The Mark
Louisville has gone from BCS national championship contender to the laughingstock of the commonwealth. Losing to rival Kentucky was bad enough for Louisville fans, but then the Cardinals gave up 465 yards in a 38-35 loss to previously winless Syracuse.

Orange quarterback Andrew Robinson threw for 423 yards on 17-for-26 passing and had touchdown throws of 79, 42 and 60 yards. He averaged 16.3 yards per completion, after throwing for fewer than 200 yards in two of his first three games.

First-year Cardinals coach Steve Kragthorpe accepted blame, but much of it falls squarely on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Mike Cassity, a holdover from former coach Bobby Petrino's staff. The Cardinals rank 104th in the country in pass defense, 90th in total defense and 88th in scoring defense.

Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich, who immediately wooed Kragthorpe from Tulsa when Petrino left for the Atlanta Falcons, told the Louisville Courier-Journal he'll stand by his new coach.

"Steve knows what he's doing," Jurich said. "He's got a great pedigree. He's been through tough times before. He will fight through this."

On the Mark
Miami quarterback Kyle Wright (275 yards on 21-for-26 passing in 34-17 upset of Texas A&M). Central Florida. South Florida. Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall (214 yards in a 27-14 win at Indiana). Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper (268 yards, two touchdowns versus NC State). Virginia running back Cedric Peerman (138 yards, one touchdown in 28-23 win over Georgia Tech). West Virginia quarterback Pat White (18-for-20 passing, two touchdowns in 48-7 blowout of East Carolina). Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (261 passing yards and two touchdowns, 166 rushing and two scores in 30-24 win at Ole Miss). Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller (school-record 438 yards, three touchdowns in 41-40 win over Ball State). Joey Bullen's game-winning field goal for Navy. Wyoming's comeback. Kentucky's comeback. Wake Forest's bigger comeback. BYU quarterback Max Hall (293 yards, two touchdowns in 31-6 win over Air Force). LSU's fake field goal. Notre Dame's two touchdowns. Michigan running back Mike Hart (153 yards and one touchdown on 44 carries versus Penn State). Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith (100-yard interception return in 31-24 win over Maryland). Kentucky quarterback Andre' Woodson (265 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions versus Arkansas). Southern California quarterback John David Booty (279 yards, four touchdowns in 47-14 win over Washington State). Sellout at Cincinnati. Tulane running back Matt Forte (Conference USA-record 303 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 35-27 win over Southeastern Louisiana). Northern Illinois defensive end Larry English (five sacks, five tackles for loss, 12 tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in 42-35 win over Idaho). Central Florida running back Kevin Smith (124 yards, three touchdowns in 56-20 win over Memphis).

(Off) the Mark
Central Michigan's embarrassing defeat (44-14 to North Dakota State). Appalachian State's stunning loss (42-31 to Wofford). Texas A&M's play calling (where was Jorvorskie Lane?). Dennis Franchione. Houston Nutt. Phil Bennett. Mike Stoops. Dave Wannstedt. Maryland's collapse. Notre Dame's 0-4 record. Texas Tech's defense. Oklahoma State's defense. Nebraska's defense. Penn State's offense. Colorado State's 10-game losing streak. Georgia Tech at Virginia. Florida State's arrests. No Larry Munson in the press box.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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