Rushing The Field: Poll Anarchy

Well, seven weeks in and we’ve got the same damned problem we had last year with college football (or non-problem, for without these issues, the sport isn’t as half as fun to discuss or opine on.)  The field has leveled out so greatly that you have three of the top five getting knocked off on a Saturday.

Oklahoma and Texas were essentially trading blows for about three quarters, with Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy upping the ante on who would be favored in the Heisman race. Texas turned it in the 4th quarter: prodding Bradford into picks and getting big play from McCoy (who was 28-35 passing, good accuracy) along with a huge 60-yard run from Chris Ogbonnaya, and the Horns took the win 45-35. However, any analysis of this game without a lament about the sorry Big 12 officials in charge is incomplete. I understand the reasons for stringent rules about roughing the passer or personal foul calls; you want to keep people from getting hurt. McCoy flopped twice on ruhses out of bounds that got called for 15-yard flags, he and Bradford both were given the gift of flags on roughing penalties that shouldn’t have been called, an OU interception that should have been in the first half wasn’t, and the OU punter put on an acting job that Cristiano Ronaldo would have been ashamed of.

The Swamp is an entirely different beast of a stadium, particularly for a new starting QB like Jarrett Lee in his first road game as LSU “supplied the butt” for Florida to whip, in Mike Patrick’s parlance.  Florida got out to a 20-0 lead at one point; LSU closed it to 6 points, but the Gators’ defense finally stepped up, turning the multitude of running backs of LSU into an ineffective rotation, and forcing them to try to win on Lee’s arm — never a good prospect for a redshirt freshman.  Urban Meyer’s squad wound up putting half a hundred on ’em in the first complete game where Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin were not the sole playmakers in the Gator spread.

T. Boone Pickens’ money is apparently going to good use; it’s enough to buy a defense when there apparently was none.  A 28-23 upset of Missouri at Columbia gives Oklahoma State some of the respect they’ve been seeking, as no other team made Chase Daniel look out of sync as often as the Cowboys did (Mizzou fans may be tempted to blame the fact that Daniel was wearing #25 in honor of a fallen teammate rather than his usual #10 jersey), forcing him into crucial picks late.  Zac Robinson was a revelation for those of us who haven’t taken the time to watch him, pulling touchdown passes out of his ass. One in particular impressed me in the second half: he rolled out left and had NOTHING at the time downfield, he’d just avoided a sack, and to avoid another one, he hurled it to a spot in the end zone where he had two receivers against one cornerback — leap, catch, touchdown.

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Would A “Bush” Label Stick For Potential First-Round Picks?

This question is prompted by Dan Shanoff, who wrote this morning that New Orleans RB Reggie Bush is essentially Devin Hester with a devastating salary cap hit for his team attached — certainly not the revolutionary RB that he had been projected as back in the 2006 draft.  The pretty basic point about Bush, so far, is that he isn’t a between-the-tackles guy, and the breakaway speed he showed at USC isn’t quite so unique at the pro level, where even the mediocre linebackers are often fortified with SEC speed.

But the second, short part of his assessment of a possible “Bush-like” label for current college football star players with similar skills is a bit lacking:

There is an incredibly strong class of Bush-like players coming to the ’09 NFL Draft: Jeremy Maclin (a draft-eligible redshirt sophomore), Percy Harvin and Derrick Williams, to name the Top 3. Will the “Bush-like” label help or — to bring it back to the ’08 Election — hurt?

Labeling Percy Harvin with that brush may not be terribly far off, and that’s really the fault of his coach, Urban Meyer.  Meyer’s refusal to devleop actual running backs in Florida’s offense (don’t tell me you have Emmanuel Moody and Chris Rainey and can’t use either one of them in the backfield efficiently) keeps Harvin from developing more straight-ahead route-running  skills, and he still seems to be somewhat raw at it.  But as far as Jeremy Maclin and Derrick Williams go, those two — and many of your multi-option threats in that vein — are on the depth chart as wide receivers; they know how to run all the routes asked of them by their coaches.  You see plays run for them to get them into the backfield, not out of it — end arounds, reverses, etc. to throw wrinkles into the offense (and you can include Harvin there, easily.)  Those types of trickery are part of the playbooks of most of your NFL coordinators; they work best with a WR who has the basic skills, so defenses can’t peg it as a play for that particular multi-dimensional player right off the bat.

Hester is learning that at the NFL level, and Bush is pretty much turning into a slot guy and outside-running back at the pro-level.  Those aren’t good comparions at all. I think there is a better one out there, and considering how his rookie season has gone so far, “the next DeSean Jackson” might be the label that Maclin and Williams are looking at. So far, Jackson has two scores (one a punt return TD) and 335 receiving yards in 5 games. That’s not bad for a rookie that wasn’t expected to crack the starting line-up when camp opened.

Maybe Bush should have been a very short slot receiver instead. Hell, he might not have as many endorsements or that fat contract, but there are worse things to be in the NFL than Wes Welker.

Rushing The Field: That Was Supposed To Be Competitive, Right?

Honest question: is 35-3 a bad enough beating for Ohio State that we can no longer consider them candidates for the BCS championship game? After watching USC’s offensive pick apart the secondary and the Trojans’ front seven on defense get after Todd Boeckman early and often, it seems that Jim Tressel’s ethic and mentality in Columbus may need just as much of a change as Lloyd Carr’s did in Michigan. That wound up with Carr leaving and Rich Rodriguez replacing him, but I am not suggesting such a drastic step.  What it may require is Tressel stretching out his recruiting area — because he can get every athlete in the Midwest and many in the Atlantic part of Big 10 territory that he likes, but he isn’t attracting players that can be difference makers in out-of-conference games.  I don’t think Beanie Wells would have made a lick of difference, either, and you know what? I don’t like the Buckeyes much when they have to play Penn State are their spread offense later this year, either.

They may not be able to get by Wisconsin, who grind out wins. For every play that Fresno State made against the Badgers in the San Joaquin Valley, the Badgers had answers and their defense was able to keep Tom Brandstater in check.

The dirty little secret about USC? They have the easiest path to the MNC game because the Pac-10, usually good for 2nd in conference strength behind the SEC these days, is in a down cycle. USC was one of only two Pac-10 teams that won an out-of-conference game convincingly, and I would rather not count Oregon State-Hawai’i as any sort of meaningful OOC game. Oregon lost another QB and snuck by Purdue in OT, to be fair.

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Rushing The Field, Week 1: Atlantic Coast Collapse

It wasn’t a good opening weekend if you happen to be a general ACC backer, unless your team happened to be chomping on some early dessert in I-AA or low I-A cupcake form (Miami, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Boston College.)

Clemson was more than happy to let Alabama drive a heart right through any attempt to do anything more than maybe win an ACC championship, and they still look ready to underachieve for the rest of their schedule. I know we are dealing with SEC vs. ACC, but not being able to protect Cullen Harper for shit and being so poor that James Davis and C.J. Spiller only got 20 yards from scrimmage combined is much, much more of a problem that any prognosticator had anticipated. (Most had flagged the Tigers’ O-line as a problem long ago.)  As for Nick Saban and his charges, I don’t know what to make of them yet since ABC decided Michigan State-Cal was what I wanted to see (not so much) and thus did not see the telecast — and there’s not much to go on until the Tide hits its SEC schedule.

It seems fitting that Frank Beamer is hoisted by his own petard, so to speak — on a late blocked punt by Skip Holtz’s East Carolina squad and what looks like an even poorer decision to redshirt Tyrod Taylor in favor of Sean Glennon, who may well be remembered as the white Reggie Ball. If you have a Virginia Tech squad with absolutely no returning skill players outside of the quarterbacks, why redshirt the QB with the potential to use his feet to make plays if the pocket breaks down? Then again, considering the state of the ACC, this was less of an upset than every analyst was claiming.

As for the rest of it? Maryland and UNC barely beat I-AA teams, Boston College won the weakest shutout known, N.C. State was picked apart by the Ol’ Ball Coach’s Cocks, and the aforementioned Wake and Duke were the only teams to eat their cupcakes in record time.

Virginia got absolutely destroyed by USC. Mark Sanchez is, for now, everything Pete Carroll and Steve Sarkisian were waxing on about and if the Tailback Factory can rotate effectively and take advantage of the skills of Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, and Joe McKnight like that, be very afraid. I do question the cornerbacks: it’s USC’s style to play aggressive with the other team’s wideouts, but they were doing things that were bound to get flag-happy refs to toss the yellow.

Michigan looks bad — very bad. Utah nearly gave that game away at the Big House, but the Wolverines don’t have the playmakers or enough familiarity with Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense to be able to take enough advantage of the late errors by the Utes. Eventually, Brian Johnson and the Utes offense will click enough to make a run at crashing the BCS party (if it ain’t them, it’s their hated rivals at BYU) — but it’s all about who will step up in what will be Michigan’s obvious absence from the top ranks of the Big Televen for the next year.

It could be Illinois, but the Illini are off to rough start after losing to Missouri (by much less than I’d expected.)  Gary Pinkel was losing defensive players of his (supposedly) much improved squad during the game, but that seems irrelevant as Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, and Chase Coffman appear to be enough in and of themselves to outscore teams in shootouts.  That said, watching Juice Williams improve on the field (26-42, 451 passing yards, five TDs) and lead second half rallies, I’m thinking he’s in the process of turning himself into a very, very good quarterback.

Dave Wannstedt keeps renewing his status as the symbol of profound mediocrity since the early 1990s.  Pre-season assessments had Pitt RB LeSean McCoy as the star to fthe offense, but when he struggled, the Wannstache decided it would be best to throw 51 times and not even pretend to have a running game. Eventually’s Pitt’s athletic department will tire of this — how long it will take, we don’t know, but being upset by Bowling Green as a result of that hard-headedness will add some fuel to the fire.

The Shakedown: Six Days ‘Til Kickoff

Come next Saturday, I’ll be planted in front of the TV for every Saturday afterwards as giant dudes bash heads for school pride (or something like that.) Better take a look at who’s competing for the chip this year, and who’s got the best shot. (Note: this is how I’ve arranged the top 10, I know Georgia’s #1 going in, folks.)

(Rey Maualuga is coming for you, puny quarterbacks.)

1. USC – This isn’t pure SoCal homerism. I think the Trojans get the better of the Buckeyes and the Pac-10 isn’t a whole lot outside of Arizona State this year. If Mark Sanchez (or Mitch Mustain) can be anything resembling good and there is a wide receiver that stands out, they have the easiest path to get to the MNC game. The defense will be nasty, but the offense needs a star to pop out — whether that’s Joe McKnight, Vidal Hazelton, Damian Williams, somebody needs to be a go-to-guy. Of course, you can win big-time with team effort, and the fact that the Pac-10 looks to be in a bad swoon (Arizona State is the only other program that has any upside to look at this year) means a nice, laid-out path to the BCS game. Of course, we wrote all this last year before Stanford.

2. Ohio State – If there is any sort of karmic justice in the sport, OSU will find a way to nab a 2nd loss after losing to USC, thus promptly knocking them out of title contention. However, it took a miracle from Illinois to do it and they still have the best talent in the Big 10, by a long shot.  Their odds of making it back to the BCS title game really do depend on how much the defense can make up for losing Vernon Gholston to Sundays and whether Todd Boeckman will be consistent enough in throwing to the two Brians at wide receiver. If not, the Sweater Vest may bring in Terrelle Pryor earlier than he’d like to.

3. Georgia – The Dawgs’ in-conference schedule will eat them up. Probably won’t have more than one loss, but I don’t think they make it unscathed. They could live up to this pre-season #1 ranking they have if Matthew Stafford can up his completion percentage and Knowshon Moreno continues the form that had everyone drooling last year. Probably second best defense in conference to LSU.

4. Oklahoma – Bob Stoops has a real good chance to go undefeated in the Big 12 — but that defense allows way too much on the ground. The Sooners have laid eggs in their last few bowl games, but bring Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray back for what was a good, solid offensive attack last season. That said, there are few coaches I loathe more than Stoops — he’s whiny and petulant, an SEC coach without a bit of the inherent humor that comes with coaching in that conference.  He should be fortunate that OSU has lost two straight BCS championship games — otherwise, someone would notice he’s 0 for his last 4 BCS bowl games in the past four years.

5. Mizzou – If the Tigers’ vaunted defensive haul is true, then Chase Daniel and Co. stand a real good shot at taking out Oklahoma come Big 12 Championship Game time — and even though teams will probably double team Jeremy Maclin all season, it will only make Daniel and the spread attack in Columbia that much more dangerous. The thought that Gary Pinkel has a bunch of defensive starters returning and is confident that this team will keep others out of the end zone could make them a dark horse favorite if the tops falter.

6. LSU – Fear the Hat, but Les Miles has a quarterback deficiency. If Ryan Perrilloux hadn’t been such a dunce cap, this team likely would have been #2 pre-season with their loaded status at all the skill positions on offense and a robust defense returning, even with Glenn Dorsey moving on to play on Sundays. As is, they’re a favorite for the SEC West crown and a chance to knock off UGA.

7. Florida – The Gators are here until the team proves it has a secondary, essentially. I don’t care how much Tim Tebow you throw at opponents — there are teams they won’t be able to keep out of the end zone and there are defenses (the U, LSU, Georgia) that will pound Tebow, Percy Harvin, and Emmanuel Moody around.

8. Texas Tech – Mike Leach’s Pirate Academy could put a very real scare into OU, Texas and any of the Big 12 South’s regular powers. I don’t expect them to make a championship game yet — but the defense will be a load better and Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree are back. If nothing else, Leach’s teams are nothing short of fun to watch — and hopefully Fox Sports will do a lot of regional games with them.

9. Clemson – In a very, very weak ACC (Virgina Tech is offensively depleted; Boston College is trying to replace Matt Ryan), Tommy Bowden is running out of excuses. He has Cullen Harper, a backfield tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller (plus a freshman back by the name of Jamie Harper hoping to get PT), and he’s fallen short the past few years. An ACC title has to be his or he may not be back.

10. West Virginia – The Mountaineers go as far as Pat White’s legs and arm will take them, and as long as Bill Stewart will stay out of the way as head coach. (This was still an epic hiring error.) They certainly won’t be in a position to make the BCS game — not that the conference is great, but when USF has your number, no division is yours.

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Take The Skinned and Headless Bowling, III.

USC 49, Illinois 17 – Essentially, the Illini fucked themselves; Juice Williams got squeezed with sacks and INTs, and when the Trojans made their few errors on plays, Illinois couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities — thus, the rout everyone expected came to fruition, and only fed fuel that the BCS selection committee couldn’t get it right yet again due to the insistence on conference selection. The Trojans racked up an astonishing 633 yards of offense.

Georgia 41, Hawaii 10 – Thus, Bizarro College Football season ends appropriately, with no unbeaten teams in the mid-major and big-time conferences. That it happened in such ugly fashion is another matter (and probably expected as much as USC’s dismantling of Illinois.)  Carping about being robbed of the BCS championship aside from the Georgia players (win your conference and we’ll talk), they took it out on Colt Brennan, sacking him eight times and rushing him into throws while running all over the Warriors defense. I’d really like to thank the BCS for its lame selection criteria — if they hadn’t stuck to their guns, we could have seen USC vs. UGA, and no one would have wanted that.

Michigan 41, Florida 35 – There’s a reason Florida was a three-loss team. I just didn’t ffigure that Ron English had figured out how to get his guys to defend 21st century offenses.  That said, this rode on the arm of Chad Henne and the hands of both Adrian Arringotn and Mario Manningham — as well as the usual play calling of “run Mike Hart up the middle.”  Florida’s weak spot all season on defense has been the secondary, and it turned into a shoot out that the Gators couldn’t pull out. Nice way to go out for the senior class — which hadn’t won a bowl game — and for Lloyd Carr.

Texas Tech 31, Virginia 28 – 14 points in under 4 minutes in the 4th quarter. Such are the ways of the Lubbock Pirate Academy.  After being shut down by the Cavaliers’ defense (giving up two safeties in the process), Graham Harrell and the Red Raiders made their way back via late turnovers and crucial defensive stops. Harrell threw for 407 yards on 44 completions (out of 69 attempts!)

Missouri 28, Arkansas 7 – You’d have been right to wonder if the Heisman Trophy candidate playing running back in this game wasn’t on Missouri rather than Arkansas. Tony Temple rushed for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns in a performance that turned star QB Chase Daniel into an afterthought.  McFadden did get into the end zone, but came out in the third quarter.

Tennessee 21, Wisconsin 17 – Vols QB Erik Ainge finishes with 345 passing and two scores to end his college career, and Tyler Donovan made a few mistakes along the way, including a fourth quarter pick on an attempt on a late drive in the Outback Bowl. The future for the Vols will be questionable as ususal — not for coach Phil Fulmer, but he’ll have to revamp his offensive staff yet again with David Cutcliffe and Trooper Taylor both bailing out.

Photo: AP/Mark J. Terrill