Interesting matchups highlight midway point
by Jim Donnan, ESPN.com
Jason Parkhurst/US Presswire
Chris Leak has led Florida to an undefeated record.
I thought it was tough to run the table in the SEC, but Florida's making it look easy. The No. 2 Gators are on a good roll and have made it through the first half of their season undefeated. Urban Meyer's squad still has tough tests ahead of it; the Gators take on Auburn on Saturday (ESPN Full Circle, 7:45 p.m. ET). I've been impressed with what they've overcome so far. Florida has beaten two very good teams, Tennessee and LSU, as well as Alabama and Kentucky. This weekend's matchup is critical in terms of Florida's conference and national title aspirations.
One of the most interesting things about Florida is its ability to find different ways to win. Few teams have found success when they use more than one quarterback, but both senior Chris Leak and freshman Tim Tebow have made an impact for the Gators. They've taken a short-yardage approach to their signal-callers; when most teams would add a tailback, the Gators use Tebow, who gives them the option of running and passing. This was critical in the win over LSU, in which Tebow ran for one touchdown and threw for two more.
I got to see Tebow play in high school, and he was an outstanding competitor there. He's learning from Leak, a consummate winner. Leak hasn't received as much publicity as other quarterbacks because he hasn't won at the highest level, but that could be changing. Ohio State is my clear No. 1 team right now -- but if Florida makes it through its season unscathed, it will be hard not to vote the Gators No. 1. They should be rewarded for the strength of their schedule.
Although Florida's offense is talented, it's not overpowering. The Gators' athletic defense has created turnovers and taken pressure off the offense. That balance is a formidable combination, and one that will be hard for Auburn to contend with if the Tigers can't get their offense going. Quarterback Brandon Cox and running back Kenny Irons haven't been as powerful as I expected them to be. Auburn is a tough place to play, but the Tigers proved they can be beaten at home. Florida can follow Arkansas' blueprint to victory by using its physical defense. Although Florida doesn't have the running game Arkansas boasts with Darren McFadden, the Gators should get by with their passing game.
It will be interesting to see how Auburn responds to its first loss. The Tigers had a tough time playing the ball in the air even in their win over South Carolina, and the Gamecocks racked up 240 passing yards. If Florida can attack the Tigers' secondary successfully, it should be able to open up the game early.
by Robert Smith, Special to ESPN.com
Joe Raymond/AP Photo
Mario Manningham has had a breakthrough season for Michigan.
Michigan wide receiver Mario Manningham might miss only one game after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on his meniscus and MCL. Even if Manningham is out for the Iowa game Oct. 21, I still think Michigan has enough to beat the Hawkeyes. Michigan needs Manningham to be healthy for the Ohio State game, however, because that game has national championship implications.
As a player, the best way for Manningham to stay involved is by watching a lot of film and being around his teammates at practice as much as possible. He needs to try to keep his routine the same, even though it will be difficult. He needs to stay sharp mentally, which is fairly easy because he won't be sidelined for a significant amount of time.
Manningham is a rare talent who has been able to get behind defenders on big plays. I don't know whether Michigan has any other receivers who have that ability. While Manningham is out, Michigan shouldn't try to manufacture big plays. The Wolverines need to lean on their running game and short passing game and use the strengths of the players they have.
It is important for Manningham to be at full speed when he returns. You can't play tentative, even at wide receiver, which isn't the most physical position. If Manningham is not 100 percent, he has no business being out there. He will be pushed around even more, and his focus needs to be on the game, not his injury. Michigan's coaches will want to see him in practice -- even more than they normally would -- running his routes as hard as he can.
by Jim Donnan, ESPN.com
Syracuse at No. 5 West Virginia
You haven't seen it yet, but yes, West Virginia does have a passing game. The nation's 104th-ranked passing offense -- the Mountaineers average just 144 yards per game in the air -- has just been keeping it under wraps. I can't say I blame coach Rich Rodriguez; why give opponents a preview when you can win with the running game? West Virginia has yet to be challenged against the likes of Marshall, East Carolina and Mississippi State. I got to watch West Virginia's spring game, however, and the Mountaineers have a passing game that can attack anybody. I coached for a long time, and it wasn't magic dust they were using -- it was overwhelming how well Pat White could throw the deep ball with accuracy. The only key issue is: Can they do it when they need to do it? I believe the answer is a resounding yes -- and we might get to see a bit of it against Syracuse on Saturday.
The Orange have played West Virginia tough in the past, but Syracuse will be on the road, which is always tough. Syracuse has made great strides this season, but to pull an upset, the Orange will need some help from West Virginia with turnovers and penalties.
No. 4 Michigan at Penn State
The Wolverines boast possibly the best defense in the country, and it can carry them if the offense isn't working at full speed. The D will put pressure on Lions quarterback Anthony Morelli. On offense, Hart must establish a running game. Quarterback Chad Henne has had an outstanding year so far, and he must keep it up while Manningham is out. If other receivers step up, the Wolverines will be in good shape.
Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.
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