Week 1 surprises lead to Week 2 questions

Updated: September 8, 2006, 5:37 PM ET
By Jim Donnan | ESPN.com

Joe Robbins/US Presswire
Tennessee's Turk McBride (90) and Ryan Karl (39) tackle Cal's Marshawn Lynch.
Tennessee's upset of Cal caused quite a hubbub surrounding new offensive coordinator David Cutliffe. The Vols' offensive performance was obviously impressive, but their play on the other side of the ball is one of the least publicized and most underrated stories in college football. Under the guidance of associate head coach and defensive coordinator John Chavis, Tennessee consistently has fielded tough defenses -- even this year, after losing a number of starters to graduation. Since Chavis was named UT's defensive coordinator in 1995, the Vols have held their opponents to an average of less than a 100 yards rushing in six seasons -- including the much-maligned 2005 campaign.

There's no question Cal was overwhelmed by the crowd; it's tough for a Pac-10 school to visit any SEC stadium. Cal was up against a talented team that underperformed in 2005 and came out of the gates with something to prove. Right away, the Vols looked more confident than last year's squad, which often appeared frantic and disheveled.

The win over a much-higher-ranked opponent -- Cal came into the game ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll -- was golden for Tennessee. The Vols were on the fringe after last season, and a loss would have created the same kind of furor that exists in Miami right now. If you start the season with doubts and open with a loss, it's tough to rebound. Instead, the Vols came out firing on all cylinders and making the types of plays on offense that haven't been seen on Rocky Top since Kelly Washington suited up for Tennessee.

Questions now surround Cal. The Bears take on a tough Minnesota squad Saturday -- possibly opening with the toughest two-game schedule in the country. Will they be able to bounce back from the loss to Tennessee?

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Troy Smith got a strong start to the season against NIU.
This weekend's games are a little like going through the buffet line -- there's a little something for everyone.

Of course, the top story is No. 1 Ohio State traveling to Austin on Saturday to take on the defending champion (and No. 2 team in the country) Texas Longhorns (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). There are off-field issues with Texas, as starting cornerback Tarell Brown was arrested on misdemeanor drug and weapon charges earlier this week. Coach Mack Brown has suspended Brown for the game against the Buckeyes.

More than losing Brown, Texas will be hurt by the media attention this case is receiving. Players will be asked numerous times for comment, and it will be tough to make sure everyone is focused on the game. Another edge Ohio State has is the play of its quarterback and Heisman candidate Troy Smith. Smith is playing at such a high level -- he tossed three touchdowns and accumulated nearly 300 yards passing against Northern Illinois -- and has so many weapons on offense, he will be tough to stop.

The Buckeyes have some issues on defense, although many of the 171 yards they allowed Huskies running back Garrett Wolfe to gain on the ground came after the game was decided. The Ohio State-Texas matchup reminds me a lot of the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, which pitted the Buckeyes against Miami and was only settled after two overtimes. (Ohio State won 31-24 after Maurice Clarett scored on a 5-yard touchdown run.) Both games featured a ton of premier talent -- there have to be at least 40 pro prospects in Saturday's game.

Both teams feature playmakers -- Texas has an inexperienced quarterback but a supporting cast that knows what it takes to win a national championship -- so the game will boil down to which team makes the bigger mistakes. The game shows all the signs of being an instant classic. Anytime you can pit the No. 1 team against the No. 2 team, it's a tremendous boost for college football.

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Montana State coach Mike Kramer celebrates his program's signature win.
When Division I-AA Montana State defeated Big 12 North defending champion Colorado on Saturday, it sent shockwaves through the college football world. Big schools pay to play smaller opponents for a variety of reasons -- to prepare their teams, pad their schedules, etc. When one of those schools rises up and wins a game, it draws a lot of attention to the way college football is run.

The merits of Division I-A teams playing I-AA teams have long been debated. With the addition of a 12th game for the 2006 season and the change in BCS rules to allow one win over a I-AA school to count toward a school's record each year, more Division I programs are looking to pay these "sacrificial lambs" to boost their résumés.

Sometimes, those schools don't have a choice. There are so many schools scrambling to add an extra game and only so many opponents. Particularly in leagues with championships, it is hard to schedule another conference game. We're seeing teams that are in the national title hunt schedule tougher nonconference opponents -- Saturday's Ohio State-Texas game is a good example. For whichever team wins, the game certainly will help. The team that loses could be out of the title hunt.

I believe we will see many more undefeated teams than we saw last year. West Virginia, for example, is the prohibitive favorite in all its games, and now that Heisman candidate and Louisville running back Michael Bush is out for the season, the Mountaineers easily could run the table. Conversely, USC not only plays a full Pac-10 plate but also schedules out-of-conference games against Nebraska and Notre Dame. Wins against both teams would help the Trojans, but they are by no means guaranteed.

In the SEC, it's even harder to run the table. It's often not about who has the most talent but who has the most favorable schedule. Although Florida and LSU are two of the top teams, Auburn and Georgia own the most favorable slates.

Finding the balance between playing a tough, BCS-worthy schedule and one in which your team will succeed is an extraordinary task. When you factor in that even scheduling I-AA contests doesn't guarantee you a win, it becomes much harder.

When I coached at Marshall, we were a Division I-AA school. We scheduled games against I-A teams because we had to; the money the school receives from those games funds the rest of the athletic department. As a coach, I was competitive enough to believe we always had a change in those games. The major difference between the classes is depth -- our starters could line up fine against many I-A teams, but we never had enough depth to beat one. Those games took a mental and physical toll on the team. We always ended up with at least one guy hurt; a lot of injuries occur when you're tired.

On the other hand, Division I-A teams have everything to lose in games against I-AA schools. They have everything to lose -- they know they'll get that team's best shot. It's tough, however, to get your team fired up to play a I-AA school.

Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.

There is an old adage that a team improves more between Week 1 and Week 2 than any other week in the year. It's partly true.

Every coach enters the first game with a lot of what-ifs -- many of them concerning how new players will react -- whereas you don't have that any other week of the year. After the first game, questions are answered and you can make adjustments. A team rarely establishes its identity the first week of the season.

Also, good coaches don't show their full hand till Week 2. They can hold some things back that other teams haven't seen and can't prepare for. Rarely can a coach save any new material for Week 3; by that time, teams have enough film to study and the advantage of surprise is gone.

Which teams will improve the most from Week 1 to Week 2? Find out in this week's Watch List.

MichiganThe Wolverines showed flashes of brilliance against Vanderbilt in Week 1, and I expect them to continue to improve against Central Michigan this weekend. Now that Michael Hart is healthy and Michigan has its running game back, the offense will be more balanced. The Wolverines made some first-game mistakes and should play a much cleaner game the rest of the season.
AuburnThe Tigers started out slow offensively, scoring their first 12 points off field goals. Once Auburn's one-two punch of RB Kenny Irons and QB Brandon Cox gets into sync, the Tigers have a chance to be a great football team. They need to be patient; they have improved from last season and will continue to do so.
FloridaThe Gators also got off to a slow start, but sometimes the mechanics of the passing game don't always click in the first game. The offense improved as the game progressed, which is always a good sign.
Keys to victory
One of the biggest surprises in Week 1 was how good USC looked in its opener. In the offseason, everybody talked about the players USC lost, but the Trojans went on the road and played efficiently. Their ability to operate like that not only was impressive but also shows what kind of talent and coaching USC has. Matt Leinart's successor, John David Booty, showed poise and preparation.The Trojans just looked good, and I expect them to continue to surprise a lot of teams -- and critics -- this fall.
Anthony Morelli will be the difference for Penn State
No. 19 Penn State at No. 4 Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m. ET
I give Notre Dame a lot of credit for its win against Georgia Tech this past weekend. The Irish didn't have their A-game offensively, but they did what they had to do to win on the road. The defense showed it has made some improvements. The questions this weekend focus on Penn State: Quarterback Anthony Morelli has the arm strength, but how good is the Nittany Lions' O-line? Can Penn State use the pass-rush as effectively as the Yellow Jackets did? Penn State has speed on the outside, which is a plus, and has fast receivers who should be able to challenge Notre Dame's defensive backs, much like Georgia Tech.

Everybody has had a year to study Irish coach Charlie Weis' system, and the uniqueness of last year has warn off. That's not a knock on Weis -- it's just the way it is. For the most part, Notre Dame did a good job stopping Calvin Johnson; will the Irish be able to stop Penn State's deep balls? I still give Notre Dame the edge because it's playing at home.

No. 12 Georgia at South Carolina, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
In the SEC, these early-season games have so much riding on them. There are conference and national title implications for Georgia. South Carolina is a little bit away from competing for titles, but that doesn't mean the Gamecocks can't play spoiler. South Carolina's defense is a lot better than I thought. If it can improve offensively and find a way to shut down Georgia's Charles Johnson and Quentin Moses, it could be a tough out. Georgia has the best kicking game in the country, which gives the Dawgs an added dimension. If they are not firing on all cylinders offensively, they still can hang with anyone. Georgia also has great team speed on defense and is a balanced team throughout.

Jim Donnan

College Football
Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.