For Argument's Sake

Originally Published: October 7, 2004

From nagging questions to the latest rumors to soapbox moments, Ivan Maisel and Gene Wojciechowski continue their weekly arguments and go head-to-head to talk about the hottest topics in college football.

What one player will make the biggest difference in the Texas-Oklahoma game?
Cedric Benson has been magnificent over the first four games of the Longhorns' season. If you and I are astute enough to figure out that, then surely Sooners' defensive coordinators Brent Venables and Bo Pelini have noticed. It makes sense that Oklahoma will load up to stop Benson, who has rushed for at least 180 yards in every game this season. That puts the responsibility for the Texas offense on the back of redshirt sophomore quarterback Vince Young.

Young has been highly regarded since Mack Brown signed him nearly three years ago. He had a coming out party of sorts against the Sooners last season, rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown. He also threw two interceptions and worse, fumbled on the Sooners' goal line early in the game. What would have been a game-tying touchdown instead became the start of an Oklahoma drive to go ahead, 21-7. As you may imagine, Young has been thinking of that fumble for a year now. He's a more polished quarterback.

Young has been a smarter passer this season. He has looked for his backs and his tight ends instead of merely looking deep before taking off. Young ranks second behind Jason White of Oklahoma in passing efficiency in the Big 12 (51-of-81, 653 yards, 8 TDs, 2 INTs). He also is throwing more and running less, an indication that he has a better grasp of the offense. Young rushed for 998 yards last season, and at the pace he is going this season (224 yards in four games), he won't reach 700.

But Young hasn't seen any defense with the quickness of Oklahoma. Defenses like to take away the best player, and make offenses beat them with someone else. That someone is Young. The Longhorns' best chance of breaking the streak depends on him.

There are four candidates: Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, Texas running back Cedric Benson, Texas quarterback Vince Young, or Oklahoma quarterback Jason White.

White, the stealth Heisman winner, is healthy, experienced, and familiar with whupping the Longhorns. He knows how to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and, unlike last season, he has an actual running game as a safety net (hello, Adrian Peterson!).

Benson, the second-leading rusher in Texas history, has been unstoppable this season. Of course, North Texas, Arkansas, Rice and Baylor don't exactly have the same defensive talent as OU.

Everyone knows Young can run, but can he pass when it counts? He was 15-of-20 against Baylor last week, which is encouraging.

But Johnson is the player I'm going to watch during this game. The guy already has forced six fumbles this season (second most in Longhorns history) and he has the speed and strength to give OU's offense a cluster headache. If the Sooners can't neutralize him, OU is in trouble.

Five Big Ten teams -- Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin -- are ranked between No. 10 and No. 16. Which one goes to the Rose Bowl?
The two most impressive teams in the Big Ten through the first five weeks of the season have been No. 10 Purdue and No. 13 Minnesota. Their rise to the top threatens to continue the league's uncanny knack of having its top teams not play each other in conference. Northwestern and Ohio State in 1996, Wisconsin and Ohio State in 1998, Iowa and Ohio State in 2002 -- they all shared the conference championship without facing the other (Michigan had a slice of that '98 pie, too).

No. 14 Michigan has sputtered on offense. It's too much to ask to believe that freshmen Chad Henne and Mike Hart can fuel the Wolverines through the conference season. That includes games at Purdue and at Ohio State. Even the sainted Rick Leach, who led Michigan to three consecutive victories over Ohio State, lost to the Buckeyes when he started as a freshman in 1975.

No. 16 Wisconsin has played the best defense of anyone in the conference, and, all together now, defense wins championships. The truth is, defense against good teams wins championships, and the Badgers' first five opponents are 5-12 against I-A competition when not playing Wisconsin.

The Badgers' real season starts Saturday at No. 15 Ohio State, which has gone about proving that, unlike mutual funds, past performance can affect future earnings. The Buckeyes' ranking is due to its success the last two seasons, not this year, when Ohio State eked out a victory over 1-3 Marshall and lost in overtime at Northwestern.

Purdue has a scheduling advantage over everyone, because Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State all must come to West Lafayette, while the Boilermakers won't see the Gophers at all. That will help a young Purdue defense, which has taken bend-don't-break to absurd levels. Notre Dame gained 536 yards, yet scored only 16 points. If Kyle Orton continues to play at the level he has played for the first month, the Boilermakers can easily run the table.

The problem is, Minnesota has a tiebreaking advantage over the Boilermakers. If two teams have the same conference record, the same non-conference record and don't play each other, the team that has been absent from the Rose Bowl for longest gets the trip to Pasadena. Purdue last went in the 2000 season. Minnesota last went in 1961.

The Gophers biggest hurdles are road trips to Michigan on Saturday and to Wisconsin on Nov. 6.

Minnesota has the scent of fate. If Northwestern and Purdue can get to the Rose Bowl, surely Minnesota can get there. It's not as if the Gophers are, oh, Indiana.

This is an Ivan question, so please direct all indignant, "What, you don't think we'll be playing for a national championship at the Orange Bowl?" e-mails to the appropriate Maisel online mailbox.

Unlike the Eastern elitist Ivan, who lives in a toney Connecticut town, drinks martinis, and will bore you to tears with his Proust readings, I'm a Midwesterner with Midwesterner sensibilities. I love the Big Ten, and you should love it too. That said, Ivan will lose his "Deliverance" accent before the Boilers, Gophers, Michigan Men, Sweater Vests or Badgers play for the national title this season.

So that leaves the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl, which isn't such a bad thing. Problem is, four of the five candidates are going to take it in the compression shorts.

No. 15 Ohio State is one of only nine 119 D-IA teams (I'm also including two transitional members) this season that has yet to score more than 27 points in a game. This is a bit disturbing, given that three of the four teams the Buckeyes have faced have losing records. Even more disturbing: 37 rushes, only 97 yards in the OT loss against Northwestern (no OSU runner gained more than 35 yards).

Then again, we should have known the Buckeyes were in distress when place-kicker Mike Nugent was the one getting votes as early-season Ohio State MVP. The only way OSU sees Pasadena in January is when they watch the Rose Bowl parade on TV.

No. 16 Wisconsin got a a major sugar rush when Anthony Davis returned to the Badgers lineup last week and promptly rushed for 213 yards against Illinois. Of course, Illinois isn't exactly the Steel Curtain these days. That's OK, Wisconsin is. The Badgers defense has given up exactly 26 points in five games -- or one less point than Ohio State gave up to Northwestern by the end of regulation.

Defense wins championships. LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Miami have all won titles in recent years because of their defense. But at some point UW quarterback John Stocco is going to have to win a game. Can he do it this week at Ohio State, or at Purdue next week? What about the Oct. 23 Northwestern game? Or the Nov. 6 game at Minnesota? I know what Davis can do. Until I know what Stocco can do I wave a reluctant goodbye to the Badgers' Rose Bowl hopes.

No. 13 Minnesota has the schedule to make it to Pasadena. No Purdue. No Ohio State. But they still have a little trip to Ann Arbor this weekend, and a visit to Madison in early November. The Gophers have a running game to die for, a tested and successful coach in Glen Mason, and some serious motivation. And still, I'm not convinced.

No. 10 Purdue is hotter than the right end of a victory cigar. The Boilermakers have scored more points in their first two games than Ohio State has scored all season. Kyle Orton is the leading Heisman candidate. And the defense just put the screws to Notre Dame (though, defensive end Anthony Spencer's leg injury is cause for concern).

Purdue gets Wisconsin at home, Michigan at home and Ohio State at home. Joe Tiller and the fellas could make their reservations for Pasadena if not for ... No. 14 Michigan. I'm skittish about depending on a freshman quarterback, even if it's Chad Henne, sort of a Drew Henson Jr. But there's simply too much talent everywhere else to ignore the Wolverines. They've got a manly-man offensive line, great wide receivers, the best rush defense in the Big Ten, and a good-to-very good secondary.

Does that mean they're a Rose Bowl lock? Absolutely not. They have a tougher schedule than Purdue, but I took Michigan at season's beginning and I'm not bailing on them now.

If you could schedule any one game this season, what would it be?
As I pointed out above, Purdue and Minnesota don't play this season, and they may end up sharing the Big Ten championship because of it. It would be nice to see if Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney could keep Kyle Orton off the field, especially given Purdue's rubber band defense.

Auburn and Florida would be a great game, and not merely because the Tigers and Gators played against each other every year from 1945-2002. The notion of seeing Chris Leak trying to decipher the tough, fast Auburn defense is enjoyable. Won't happen -- unless the teams stage a rematch of their 2000 SEC championship game.

In the Pac-10, Cal doesn't have to face the bewildering defenses of Bill Doba at Washington State.

But the best games that never were are the intersectional games. In this made-for-TV era, we get a few of them in September, and then at the end of the season, we get one shot at matching the best two teams in real life. Even then, as last year showed, we can screw it up.

So it would be great to see Georgia's defense try to slow down California's offense, or Auburn and Oklahoma match their newly balanced offenses. But the best game that isn't on the schedule is Miami's speed and quickness against USC's, well, speed and quickness. Sun Belt East vs. Sun Belt West. Norm Chow vs. Randy Shannon. That's the game that's missing. And I'd play it at the Fiesta Bowl, just to make sure that neither team could stock the local BCS venue near their respective campuses.

At last, an Ivan-generated question with a little meat on its bones. Think of the possibilities:

South Carolina at Notre Dame (Lou Holtz returns to the University of Our Lady on the Dome).

Central Florida at Notre Dame (George O'Leary brings an updated résumé to South Bend).

Florida Atlantic at Miami (Howard Schnellenberger's plucky 3-0 FAU team takes on the program he helped build into a perennial powerhouse).

Arizona at Oklahoma (Mike vs. Bob Stoops).

Penn State at Florida State (JoePa vs. Bobby).

Texas-El Paso at Alabama (Mike Price back in T-Town).

From a pure football standpoint I'd love to see Cal vs. Purdue, Purdue vs. Minnesota, Utah vs. USC, Georgia vs. Virginia.

My No. 1 choice: Oklahoma at USC.