On The Mark: Most improved teams, teams on the slide

Updated: October 27, 2008

Flip-Flopping Positions

Facing Virginia late in the season didn't seem so daunting six weeks ago. West Virginia, Louisville and Houston seemed like easy outs, too, as opponents started looking ahead.

Who wanted to play LSU during the first month of the season? Or Auburn? Or Wake Forest?

A lot has changed over the past month of the college football season, and many teams that looked rather putrid are suddenly pretty good. And teams that looked unbeatable in September can't seem to beat anyone right now.

Here's a closer look at some of the most improved teams since the beginning of the 2008 season, and those teams whose seasons are suddenly slip sliding away.

Improving

Virginia 1. Virginia: Here's how Cavaliers coach Al Groh's offseason went: Starting quarterback Jameel Sewell was one of four returning players declared academically ineligible. Starting defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald, who some ACC coaches said was more explosive than No. 2 NFL draft pick Chris Long, had his own academic troubles and transferred to Kansas State.

Here's how Virginia's season started: The Cavaliers were blasted by Southern California 52-7 in Charlottesville, Va., in their Aug. 30 opener. Virginia beat FCS opponent Richmond 16-0 the following week, but then lost at Connecticut 45-10 and at Duke 31-3 on Sept. 27. The Cavaliers allowed 28 points in the second half of the loss to the Blue Devils, and Virginia fans were calling for Groh's head after his team's 1-3 start.

But even after losing starting quarterback Peter Lalich, who was dismissed from the team Sept. 18 for violating terms of his probation, Groh somehow turned around Virginia's season.

The Cavaliers stunned Maryland 31-0, and then beat upstart East Carolina 35-20. The turning point seemed to come when Virginia beat North Carolina 16-13 on Oct. 18, after scoring a tying touchdown on a last-minute drive and winning on a touchdown in overtime.

The real surprise came Saturday, when Virginia beat Georgia Tech 24-17 in Atlanta to take sole possession of first place in the ACC's Coastal Division. The Cavaliers (5-3, 3-1 ACC) trailed 14-3 after the Yellow Jackets scored touchdowns on their first two drives. Somehow, Virginia found another way to win its fourth consecutive game, scoring the winning touchdown with about 3½ minutes to play.

2. Florida State: The Seminoles opened the season by beating FCS opponents Western Carolina and Chattanooga by a combined score of 115-7. Then Wake Forest beat FSU 12-3 on Sept. 20, and it looked as though the Seminoles had once again turned to their anemic ways on offense.

But with tailback Antone Smith running hard, and quarterback Christian Ponder making good decisions, FSU (6-1, 3-1 ACC) has won four games in a row to move into a first-place tie with Maryland in the ACC's Atlantic Division.

The Seminoles face a difficult four-game stretch to end the ACC season: at Georgia Tech, home against Clemson and Boston College, and at Maryland on Nov. 22. Then there's a Nov. 29 home game against No. 8 Florida.

West Virginia 3. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lost two of their first three games, and looked so bad in road losses at East Carolina and Colorado that some fans were questioning whether new coach Bill Stewart was the right man for the job.

But West Virginia has rebounded to win four games in a row, including an impressive 34-17 victory over Auburn on Thursday night. The Mountaineers are still very explosive when quarterback Pat White is healthy, and tailback Noel Devine showed he can carry a bigger load, running for 207 yards against Auburn.

West Virginia (5-2, 2-0 Big East) has a half-game lead over Pittsburgh and Connecticut in the Big East standings. The Mountaineers play three of their next four games on the road and host No. 23 South Florida in their Dec. 6 regular-season finale.

4. Louisville: To say Cardinals coach Steve Kragthorpe needed Saturday's 24-20 upset of South Florida would be a gross understatement. From the day Kragthorpe stepped on the Louisville campus two years ago, he has faced unrealistic expectations. The former Tulsa coach inherited a mess from former Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino, whether Louisville and Arkansas fans want to admit it or not.

It didn't help that the Cardinals looked awful in losing to rival Kentucky 27-2 in their Aug. 31 opener. But Louisville (5-2, 1-1 Big East) recovered to win five of its past six games, including the signature upset of South Florida. New defensive coordinator Ron English, who coached last season at Michigan, has rebuilt one of the country's worst defenses. Freshman tailback Victor Anderson (727 rushing yards, six touchdowns) has helped take the pressure off quarterback Hunter Cantwell.

5. Houston: The Cougars struggled out of the gate under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin, losing three of their first four games. Two of those losses came against pretty good teams -- 56-37 at Oklahoma State and 31-28 to Air Force.

But Sumlin, a former Oklahoma assistant, kept his team's confidence up, and the Cougars have won their past three games. Houston scored at least 40 points in each of those games, including an impressive 41-24 road victory at East Carolina on Sept. 27.

Houston should be favored in three of its last five games, but faces major tests against No. 18 Tulsa on Nov. 15 and at Rice on Nov. 29.

Declining

LSU 1. LSU: Defending national champion LSU wasn't supposed to fall this hard or this fast. Even though the Tigers are 5-2, they're a shell of the team that beat Ohio State 38-24 in last season's BCS Championship Game.

Even after losing great players such as All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, tailback Jacob Hester and free safety Craig Steltz, LSU was supposed to be good enough to simply reload its lineup (as evidenced by its No. 7 ranking in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll).

Early this season, it looked as if coach Les Miles would do exactly that. The Tigers won their first four games and climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP poll. LSU beat FCS opponent Appalachian State, North Texas, Auburn and Mississippi State. But maybe LSU's 34-24 win over Mississippi State was the first sign of trouble (the Bulldogs had scored nine points combined in their past two games).

The LSU defense was exposed in a 51-21 loss at Florida on Oct. 11, allowing 475 yards, including 265 rushing. After winning at South Carolina 24-17, LSU was routed by Georgia 52-38 in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday. It's the first time LSU has ever allowed 50 points or more in two games in a season. And, according to ESPN research, it's the first time a defending national champion has accomplished that dubious feat.

LSU's two-quarterback system has failed so far. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee has thrown four interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, including two against Georgia. Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch has been somewhat effective running the option, but hasn't been much of a passing threat.

2. Auburn: The Tigers had plenty of reasons for optimism this season: They were bringing back a menacing defense and new spread offense. Well, the offense has been a complete disaster and the defense finally buckled in the loss at West Virginia on Thursday night.

After winning their first three games, the Tigers have lost four of their past five games and will have to improve quickly if they're going to qualify for a bowl game. Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was fired three weeks ago, and coach Tommy Tuberville will be on the hot seat if things don't turn around.

Colorado 3. Colorado: Only five weeks ago, Colorado stunned then-No. 21 West Virginia 17-14 in overtime on a Thursday night, and it seemed coach Dan Hawkins was ahead of schedule in rebuilding the Buffaloes' program. The Buffs were 3-0 after beating the Mountaineers, and had a solid running game and stingy defense.

But Colorado has lost four of its past five games to fall to 4-4, after losing at Missouri 58-0 on Saturday. The Buffaloes mustered only 199 yards and were shut out for the first time since 1988. Colorado has a quarterback controversy (involving Hawkins' son, Cody, no less) and its defense allowed 30 points or more in each of the losses.

4. Wake Forest: Wake Forest has lost three of its past four games and looks nothing like a Jim Grobe-coached team. The Demon Deacons had six turnovers in a 24-17 loss to Navy on Sept. 27, and have struggled to run the football in their first seven games.

Wake Forest climbed as high as No. 16 in the rankings, but seemed to be a mirage even after its 3-0 start. The Demon Deacons won their first two ACC games, despite scoring only one touchdown. They gained seven turnovers against Florida State, but scored only on four field goals in a 12-3 victory. Then Wake Forest was shut out 26-0 at Maryland on Oct. 18.

Grobe seemed determined to run the football against Miami on Saturday, running 52 times for 195 yards in a 16-10 loss. Quarterback Riley Skinner attempted only eight passes against the Hurricanes.

5. Arizona State: The Sun Devils were ranked No. 15 in the preseason and were supposed to challenge USC for Pac-10 supremacy. They were impressive in their first two games, beating FCS opponent Northern Arizona 30-13 and Stanford 41-17. But then the wheels came off against UNLV, which beat Arizona State 23-20 in overtime on Sept. 13.

Arizona State has lost five games in a row and would match the longest losing streak in school history if it loses at Oregon State on Saturday night. Senior quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who is playing with a sprained ankle, has thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions in his past three games.




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WEEK: Preseason | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

On The Mark: Precision passers

Colt McCoy McCoy

1. Colt McCoy, Texas
The junior might be headed toward a landslide victory in Heisman Trophy voting. McCoy completed 38 of 45 passes for 391 yards with two touchdowns (and one scoring run) in a 28-24 victory over Oklahoma State.

2. Mike Teel, Rutgers
The senior overcame an awful start to the season by throwing for 361 yards with a career-high six touchdowns in a 54-34 rout at Pittsburgh.

3. Graham Harrell, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders senior completed 34 of 42 passes for 386 yards with five touchdowns in a 63-21 blowout of Kansas, setting up a showdown Saturday against No. 1 Texas.

4. Chase Daniel, Missouri
Daniel took out his frustration from consecutive losses, completing 31 of 37 passes for 302 yards with five touchdowns in a 58-0 rout of Colorado.

5. Jerrod Johnson, Texas A&M
Johnson had a career day in the Aggies' 49-35 win at Iowa State, completing 31 of 39 passes for 381 yards with four touchdowns (and one touchdown run).

Off The Mark: Defenseless defenses

Kansas State

1. Kansas State
The Wildcats allowed 55 points in the first half against Oklahoma. Give Kansas State credit for holding the Sooners to a field goal in the second half.

2. Pittsburgh
The Panthers allowed 442 yards and 54 points in the loss to Rutgers. It was the highest point total allowed since a 60-6 loss to Notre Dame in 1996.

3. Auburn
The Tigers allowed 445 yards and gave up 31 consecutive points in the loss at West Virginia.

4. Kansas
The Jayhawks could only watch as Texas Tech broke open a 14-14 tie with 49 consecutive points.

5. LSU
The defending national champions allowed more than 50 points for the second time in three games. LSU had never allowed more than 50 points in two games in one season.

On The Mark: Ground-churning runners

Noel Devine Devine

1. Noel Devine, West Virginia
Devine gashed Auburn's defense in a 34-17 victory Thursday night, running for 207 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries.

2. Knowshon Moreno, Georgia
The Bulldogs sophomore put himself back into Heisman Trophy contention, running for 163 yards and one touchdown in a 52-38 rout at LSU.

3. Chris Brown, Oklahoma
Brown helped the Sooners run all over Kansas State, gaining 142 yards with one touchdown in a 58-35 victory.

4. Javon Ringer, Michigan State
Ringer once again carried the Spartans on his back, running 37 times for 194 yards with two touchdowns in a 35-21 victory at rival Michigan.

5. Ricky Dobbs, Navy
The Midshipmen didn't have to throw a single pass in a 34-7 win over SMU. Dobbs ran 42 times for 224 yards with four touchdowns against the Mustangs.

Off The Mark: Bowl-busting losses

Vanderbilt

1. Vanderbilt
A 10-7 loss to Duke means the Commodores will have to beat either Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee or Wake Forest to become bowl eligible.

2. New Mexico State
The Aggies were inexplicably shut out in the second half of a 20-14 loss at Idaho, dropping their record to 3-4.

3. Colorado
The Buffaloes have lost four of their past five games after a 3-0 start, and must win two of their last four games to become bowl eligible.

4. Nevada
The Wolf Pack allowed the winning touchdown pass with 20 seconds to go in a 38-31 loss at Hawaii. Nevada's record fell to 4-4 and dropped it to fifth place in the WAC.

5. Auburn
The Tigers have lost four of five games and must win at Mississippi or upset Georgia or Alabama to become bowl eligible (assuming Auburn beats FCS opponent Tennessee-Martin, of course).

On The Mark: Big-play receivers

Kenny Britt Britt

1. Kenny Britt, Rutgers
Britt finally got his season untracked against Pittsburgh, catching five passes for 143 yards with three touchdowns.

2. Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina
Nicks helped the Tar Heels forget about Brandon Tate's injury by catching eight passes for 139 yards with three touchdowns (and a touchdown run) in a 45-24 rout of Boston College.

3. Nate Swift, Nebraska
The Cornhusker looked rather swift against Baylor, catching 11 passes for 121 yards with two touchdowns in a 32-20 win.

4. Jordan Shipley, Texas
Colt McCoy's favorite target caught 15 passes for 168 yards with one touchdown against Oklahoma State.

5. Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
The Tigers' explosive receiver caught 11 passes for 134 yards with two touchdowns in the rout of the Buffaloes.

On The Mark: Good fortune

To win a national championship, college football teams need a little magic. James Madison, ranked No. 1 in FCS, had lightning strike for the second time in as many games Saturday at Villanova.

James Madison
Two weeks after beating No. 5 Richmond on an improbable punt return to end the game, the Dukes beat No. 7 Villanova 23-19 on Rodney Landers' 35-yard touchdown pass to Bosco Williams on the final play. The touchdown pass was equally as incredible as Scotty McGee's 69-yard punt return to beat Richmond 38-31. The Dukes, who have won seven games in a row, beat three-time defending FCS national champion Appalachian State 35-32 on Sept. 20, overcoming a 21-0 deficit at the half.