That said, I've got a lot of articles on my plate right now that I'm trying to get out. I still have yet to complete my NHL Preview (it should be out Wednesday), and plan on covering baseball with an article about Jonathan Papelbon's future in Boston, plus I'll also take a mulligan on the MLB Playoffs (Boston over St. Louis was a big whiff!). Check back for those, but, for today, it's Tuesday, and that means that the priority, as always, is college football!
Play-by-Play: Roll Tide
In preparing for this article, I stumped myself in terms of college football. I couldn't name the Alabama quarterback! In fact, as I thought about more, I realized I couldn't name anybody on the Crimson Tide! The only person I could name was Head Coach Nick Saban.
I've followed the Pac-10 much closer for the last four years, but that doesn't necessarily mean I don't know anything about the SEC. Aside from being able to name Tim Tebow (obviously) and Jevan Snead as SEC quarterbacks, I could tell you that Jonathan Crompton is the sub-par QB in Tennessee, Ryan Mallett (the Michigan transfer) starts at Arkansas, and the last names of the South Carolina and Georgia quarterbacks are (respectively) Garcia and Cox.
So, why couldn't I come up with Greg McElroy as Alabama's quarterback? In fact, when I looked up Greg McElroy, why was his name still foreign to me? Usually, if you forget a player's name, it rings a bell when you look it up. That wasn't the case for McElroy, his name was new to me.
The answer lies in the fact that while Alabama was supposed to be great this season, it didn't have the same buzz as other top teams in the nation.
Alabama went 12-0 last season before being handily beat 31-20 by Florida in the SEC Championship Game and thoroughly embarrassed by BCS-busting Utah 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.
This season it started the preseason ranked at #5 in both the AP and the Coaches' Poll. Even so, the votes seemed almost sentimental for last season's strong regular season. The Tide was placed behind Florida, who received all of the hype in the SEC, and Big 12 powers, Texas and Oklahoma, who were expected to take the second spot in the BCS Championship game. Even USC, who had lost eight defensive starters and seen its starting quarterback go in the first round of the NFL draft, was ranked well in front of the Tide (by between 150-200 points depending on the poll). Both polls put Ohio State just behind Alabama (in the Coaches', it was a difference of just eight points). It was clear that while 'Bama was expected to be a top team in the country, voters tempered preseason expectations and believed it wasn't good enough to make a National Championship run.
It's time to heighten those expectations.
Alabama sent warning the first week of the season when it thoroughly beat then-No. 7 Virginia Tech 34-24. This past weekend, it hit to road to face another ranked foe (and preseason Top 10), at No. 20 Mississippi, and dominated on both sides of the ball in a 22-3 win.
In between the Tide (as expected) beat Florida International (40-14) and North Texas (53-7), and, then, in SEC play, it rolled Arkansas 35-7 and Kentucky, on the road, 38-20.
A quick glance at these scores shows just how good Alabama has been; it has dominated on both sides of the ball.
This weekend was the only time that the offense scored less than four touchdowns in a game. And, despite being slowed by a strong Ole Miss D, the Tide's defense put out its best performance of the year, holding heralded quarterback Jevan Snead's offense to just three points. The defense hasn't given up three touchdowns in a game since the first game of the season; and, this combination has led to Alabama obliterating opponents and winning the game with both its offense and its defense.
Alabama looks to continue its run with No. 22 South Carolina coming into Tuscaloosa this Saturday (7:45 P.M., ESPN). Based on the way it's been dispatching of similar SEC opponents, it could again prove the preseason critics wrong with a lopsided win.
Sports philosophers always say that "defense wins championships." And, while that usually holds up, it can't be denied that a championship-caliber defense combined with a steady offense is the championship equation in college football. And, that's the formula that Alabama brings to the gridiron each weekend.
The Crimson Tide could be the most balanced team in college football, and it's time to start acknowledging it as such. Expectations were lowered at the end of last season, but this team looks better than last year's Tide that went 12-0 in the regular season. This could be the season that Saban fulfills the prophecy and leads Alabama back to glory.
Three Down Conversions
Virginia's - It was a good week to be a "Virginia" team: -No. 5 Virginia Tech beat up Boston College 48-14 and snuck up to the #4 spot with the LSU loss to Florida. -West Virginia opened "Little" East play by beating Syracuse 34-13 on the road. The Mountaineers haven't been overly impressive, but they're now 4-1 with their only loss coming at Auburn and could crack the Top 25 soon. -Virginia beat Indiana 47-7, and while there's no reason to get excited about the Cavaliers, after that win and a 16-3 win over once-ranked UNC the week before, at least the days of losing to William and Mary appear to be behind them.
Sooner Returns - It's not that we didn't expect a win like the 33-7 home victory No. 19 Oklahoma got against Baylor. It's the return of Heisman Trophy winning Sam Bradford that was the biggest win this weekend for the Sooners. Bradford went 27/49 for 389 yards, a TD, and no INTs. Even still Oklahoma had to settle for four field goals in the red zone, three inside the 10, so this offense can still take another step. That's scary!
Cornhusking - No. 21 Nebraska played a drag 'em out battle this weekend with a 27-12 victory over No. 24 Missouri to take control of the Big 12 North. The score is rather deceiving. Nebraska trailed 12-0 going into the fourth quarter. After scoring early in the fourth, the defense picked off two passes to give the offense drives from the Missouri 21 and 10 (respectively) that were turned into touchdowns. The offense only picked up 263 yards on 14 first downs, but the defense held Mizzou to just 225 yards. Nebraska's only loss of the season was a similarly ugly 16-15 battle at then-No. 13 Virginia Tech. There's nothing wrong with playing ugly football, so long as you can win.
Tigers - After the Detroit Tigers blew the AL Central and promptly watched the AL Central-winning Twins get swept by the Yankees, we should have known: it's not a good week to be a Tiger (especially undefeated in college football)! -The undefeated No. 4 LSU Tigers lost 13-3 at home to No. 1 Florida and saw its opportunity to make itself an instant National Championship favorite slip by the wayside. -The undefeated No. 17 Auburn Tigers were embarrassed 44-23 at Arkansas. After being an upstart team expected to do some damage in the SEC, Auburn fell apart, going down 27-3 at the half and 34-3 in the third quarter before climbing back into the game with three touchdowns in a five minute span. -The undefeated No. 24 Missouri Tigers (as mentioned above) gave up 27 fourth quarter points and lost at home to No. 21 Nebraska 27-12, effectively ceding control of the Big 12 North to the Cornhuskers.
Cardinal Sin - If we want to use baseball as a precursor for "Three-and-Outs," look no farther than the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost Game 2 against Los Angeles after Matt Holliday dropped a routine liner with nobody on that would have been the final out. On the gridiron, the Stanford Cardinal had made itself relevant for the first time in nearly a decade and had been trying to claw into the rankings before this weekend. That opportunity took a huge hit with a 38-28 loss at Oregon State, in which Stanford brought back bad memories of 2008 for USC fans, when the Cardinal fell into a 21-0 hole and was dominated by the "bite-sized" Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed for 189 yars and 4 touchdowns.
Bobby Bowden's Coaching - Using the Cleveland Indians horrible season that ended a week and a half ago as a comparison is somewhat of a stretch, but it goes with the theme. The Indians fired their manager after a sub-par season, and, in the midst of a sub-par season of their own, a trustee at Florida State did the unthinkable and suggested that the legendary Bobby Bowden should step down after the season. The Seminoles didn't respond well, and gave up 401 rushing yards in a 49-44 loss to No. 22 Georgia Tech. The loss dropped to Noles to 0-3 in ACC play (a first for Florida State since it joined the conference in 1992).
While we're on the topic of Bowden's job, let me take my soap box for just a minute.
I don't think I should have to remind the trustee that asked for Bowden's head that Bobby has coached Florida State for 34 seasons, won two National Championships, is the second winningest coach in the history of college football, and coaches on a field named after none other than himself!
Bowden, who goes year-by-year with his contract, has full control of when he will step down and says he plans on coming back next year. It's clear that Bowden's teams have lost something (as I said, this is their worst ever conference start in the ACC), but it's unfair to ask him to step down. He's a legendary coach that has made Florida State a legendary program, and he should be on his own timetable.
I can understand their frustrations, but Seminole fans shouldn't despair. At some point, I guarantee Bowden will step down. I can't guarantee the same thing to Penn State fans, as I've made it clear that I fully expect Joe Paterno to die on the sidelines sometime in the next 5-10 years. Before you think that's an awful thing to say, let me point out that I find this a very honorable way to die, and believe that, when it happens, it would have been the way Paterno would have wanted to go out, and will only further the legend that is "Joe Pa." Then again, with two BCS berths in the last four seasons (including a triple-overtime win over Bowden's group in the 2006 Orange Bowl), Penn State fans haven't called Paterno's coaching into question.
Last Week's Results
Week Record: 2-1 Season Record: 10-5
Prediction: LSU 24, Florida 20 Result: Florida 13, LSU 3
Prediction: Nebraska 34, Missouri 24 Result: Nebraska 27, Missouri 12
Prediction: Alabama 34, Ole Miss 20 Result: Alabama 22, Ole Miss 3
This Week's Gameplan
The Red River Shootout at the Cotton Bowl No. 3 Texas (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) vs. No. 2o Oklahoma (3-2, 1-0 Big 12), 12 P.M. ET, ABC
Texas has steadily lost hype each week and slowly slipped closer to Alabama in the AP Poll until the Tide finally passed them this week for the #2 ranking. That doesn't make the Longhorns any less of a team, they just got what they deserved for scheduling three no-name non-BCS conference schools in their first five games. Despite falling to #3, UT is still in control of its destiny for the National Championship, as Florida and Alabama will either have to lose at some point or play each other in the SEC Championship. This weekend will be Texas' opportunity to either reaffirm itself as a top team or prove the skeptics right and fall out of the driver's seat for both BCS Championship and the Big 12.
As I said last week, Oklahoma's season is far from done despite a disappointing start. The Sooners might have lost twice, but both were out of conference and they still have a golden opportunity at the Big 12 Championship. Oklahoma looked like its old self against Baylor last week when Sam Bradford returned under center for it. This team is in a rare position of cruising a little under the radar right now because of its two early season stumbles. It's important to remember that both losses were by single-point, and a different bounce in both of those games could have meant this team was still undefeated and right there in the Top 5 with Texas.
It's still early in conference play, but, last season, this game had big implications for the National Championship, because the winner controls their destiny in the Big 12 South, and thus the Big 12 Championship and ultimately a chance at the National Championship. The math is simple, no Big 12 South equals no Big 12 Championship which equals no BCS Championship Game. Just ask Texas, who was left out in the cold last year after it didn't win the Big 12 South.
Last year, the Longhorns won this game but lost to Texas Tech a few weeks later and ended up losing the tiebreaker for the Big 12 South. Oklahoma has a lot of ground to make up to make a run at the National Championship, but, at the very least, it can destroy Texas' hopes this weekend. A healthy Sam Bradford and a Sooner team with its back against the wall is a combination of trouble for the Longhorns.
Oklahoma 38, Texas 34
The "Little" East Championship No. 8 Cincinnati (5-0, 1-0 Big East) at No. 21 South Florida (5-0, 1-0 Big East), Thurs 7:30 P.M. ET, ESPN
I don't call it the "Little" East for nothing. This is a very weak conference, as referenced by the fact that in mid-October this literally is the championship game! Barring an unforeseen upset, the winner of this game should carry the conference the rest of the way.
Pittsburgh has quietly been racking up a strong record at 5-1 and 2-0 in the Big East, and they'll get both these teams at home. West Virginia looks a little stronger than Pitt and gets the Panthers at home, but it'll have to go on the road to both Cincy and USF. Other than that, there's nobody to challenge for the conference.
This game has a similar equation to USC and Cal a few weeks ago. The "Little" East, like the Pac-10, has no postseason championship game. Neither of these teams have to run to the table to win the conference, but, considering, they're the only two teams with a likelihood of finishing conference play with a maximum of one loss, they must beat the other team, or they'll lose the head-to-head tiebreaker, and thus the conference.
While the implications for the game is big, the game itself should be one-sided. Simply put, Cincinnati is for real, and South Florida (as always) is not. I still have yet to buy into USF, as evidenced by the fact that despite their undefeated record, they haven't cracked my Top 25 (until just this week). Voters around the country, obviously, feel similarly, as the Bulls are only at #21 in both the AP and Coaches' Polls.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, proved itself with sizable wins at both Rutgers and Oregon State, and, in doing so, gave it plenty of confidence for this road game as well.
Cincinnati 41, South Florida 17
The Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh No. 6 USC (4-1) at No. 25 Notre Dame (4-1)
Of course, the USC alum wasn't gonna miss the opportunity to talk about the biggest non-conference rivalry in college football. This game always holds significance because of the tradition among the two programs, but, this year, the rivalry could be back to its old competitive nature.
Only once since Pete Carroll's first season at USC, when the Trojans lost 27-16 in South Bend, has this game even been close. That game, of course, was the infamous "Bush Push," when the top-ranked Trojans scored a touchdown on the last play to win the game 34-31.
However, take a look at the USC wins dating back to 2002: 44-13, 45-14, 41-10, 34-31, 44-24, 38-0, 38-3. That's domination!
The last two seasons, in which Notre Dame has been outscored 76-3, have been downright embarrassing. The Irish were shutout at home two years ago to then-green (and I don't mean "Jets" green) Mark Sanchez, who was making just his second career start. The performance was so awful that in picking a "Player of the Game" for Notre Dame, the NBC broadcast awarded it to the Irish punter, who had punted 10 times.
Last season, Notre Dame took until the first play of the fourth quarter until it gained a first down. The performance of quarterback Jimmy Clausen, an Oaks Christian (CA) high school grad, was so horrible that USC backup running back Marc Tyler (also from Oaks Christian) didn't get on the field until the fourth quarter, but still gained more yards on the ground (58) than his high school teammate gained in the air (41)!
Clausen is much improved this season. His name has been thrown around in Heisman discussions, he's completed over 2/3 of his passes for 12 TDs and only 2 INTs, and his current 179.25 QB Rating is the best in college football. That said, he hasn't had to face a defense near USC's caliber yet this season.
Based on USC's current seven-game winning streak against the Irish, in which the Trojans have scored at least 34 points in every game, I don't Clausen is the worry for the Irish, it's the D! USC's offense isn't what it used to be, but looked quite strong against Cal two weeks ago, scoring 30 points and settling for three field goals when it could have had touchdowns. Notre Dame's defense, meanwhile, has given up at least 30 points in three of five games this year.
I said it would be more competitive, but I never said that Notre Dame was a good enough all around team to finally dispatch of the Trojans.
USC 34, Notre Dame 23
- Also, this just coming across the news feed: speaking of USC, Stafon Johnson is expected to be released from the hospital on Wednesday. He's been in for over two weeks, since he suffered a life-threatening neck injury when he dropped the bar on his neck while weight lifting. Fight On, Stafon!*
My Top 25
1. Alabama (Last week: 3) 2. Florida (2) 3. Texas (1) 4. USC (4) 5. Ohio State (6) 6. Virginia Tech (7) 7. TCU (8) 8. Cincinnati (9) 9. Boise State (10) 10. Miami (12) 11. LSU (5) 12. Penn State (11) 13. Oregon (13) 14. Oklahoma (14) 15. Nebraska (18) 16. Iowa (17) 17. Georgia Tech (21) 18. Oklahoma State (15) 19. BYU (19) 20. South Carolina (23) 21. Notre Dame (25) 22. Kansas (22) 23. South Florida (NR) 24. Houston (NR) 25. West Virginia (NR)
OUT - Auburn (16), Ole Miss (20), Stanford (24)