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Sunday, October 17, 2004

College Football Observations

It was another interesting weekend in college football, so here goes:

1. Virginia at Florida State. There were high hopes in Charlottesville going into this game. The Cavaliers were ranked in the top 10 with a 5-0 record, and they were heading to Tallahassee to face the #7 Seminoles team that had eked out a victory against a bad Syracuse team the week before. Spirits were high, but close observers who don't don orange and blue in their spare time had a few doubts. First, how strong was the Cavaliers' record going into the game? Had they really beaten anyone, when their toughest opponent was Clemson? Was the schedule solid enough to give them the proper confidence they needed going into this game, or was it a false indicator of what the future would bring? Second, how tough would it be to win at Florida State, where visiting teams get handled about as nicely as a matching luggage set at a regional airport in Paraguay. And third, could the Cavaliers beat a top-10 team, something, according to Beano Cook on ESPN Radio, they had not done in 52 years?

Here are the answers to the questions: Weak, no, obvisouly not, very and no. Bobby Bowden's Seminoles reminded the Cavaliers of a pecking order in the newly reconstructed ACC, and the Virginia Cavaliers return to the annual heap of pretenders that gets formed around this time of the year every college football season. A 36-3 thrashing in Florida's capital, proving that there still can be excitement in Tallahassee outside of post-presidential election challenges every four years.

2. Arizona State at USC. People like taking shots at front-runners, and who could blame them for at least questionining the invincibility of the Men of Troy after Cal came to Los Angeles last weekend and made the USC defense resemble that of a second-rate American Basketball Association team during the early 1970's? After that game, one commentator remarked that the Trojans' defense didn't have enough athletes at linebacker or defensive back (he might have said they didn't have any athletes). Leading up to this game, the commentators gave #19 Arizona State a legitimate shot. They were coming off a bye week, and in Andrew Walter, they have a play-making quarterback. The cognoscenti also said that Arizona State had some good athletes on defense, and they should give USC a battle in the Coliseum.

But it just didn't work out that way for Dirk Koetter's Sun Devils. The Sun Devils' running game was a question mark, and they started a third-string tailback who had a cast on his arm as recently as last Friday. Sure, the Trojans had lost wideout Steve Smith, but they have this 6'5" jumping jack of a freshman named Dwayne Jarrett, and all he did in the first half was catch 4 passes for 122 yards and 3 touchdowns. Arizona State was sent back to Tempe to lick its wounds, perhaps turning out to be the Virginia of the Pac-10. 45-7, Southern California, which sent a message that until further notice, it is the #1 team in the country.

3. Oklahoma at Kansas State. While one Manhattan is trying to re-assert its preeminence in one major sport, there was a big game in the "other" Manhattan yesterday, where the Oklahoma Sooners had Wild Wild West revenge on their mind after the Wildcats had thrashed them 35-7 in last year's Big 12 title game. This year's game might have had that kind of significance, but that probably should have been it, as going into the game the Sooners were 5-0 and coming off what seems to be a perennial "big" win over Texas, and the Wildcast were 2-3. So what happened en route to a revenge bloodbath? The Sooners made some mistakes, the Wildcats played tough, and Oklahoma had to rally to win 31-21. Which just goes to show you that the college game still is played by kids and that a BCS champ;ionship game match-up featuring USC and the Sooners could be quite enticing and, perhaps, a toss-up. Many might have been ready to cede the national title to OU after OU's impressive shutout of the Longhorns and USC's struggle to beat a very good Cal team, but after Saturday's games, the national title contest looks to be a dead heat.

4. Columbia at Pennsylvania. I viewed this as the barometer game for the Ivy League yesterday, and, yes, Ivy gridiron fans, you're not supposed to use a noun to modify another noun, so I'll correct myself and write that I viewed yesterday's game as a barometer for the remainder of the Ivy season. Why? Because going into yesterday's game, the Penn Quakers looked to be (once again) the class of the Ivies. Penn thrashed the University of San Diego by 43, whereas Princeton held on to win by 7 (although the game wasn't that close). Princeton, which is now 4-1 on the year (and they should be 5-0, but last week they led Colgate by 12 with 6 to go and lost), beat Columbia at the home of the Big Light Blue on an OT score. So, I had figured that the Quakers would paste the Lions by about 21 at Franklin Field, at least.

But the Quakers went into yesterday's game with some consistency problems, which showed at times in yesterday's game. They won the game, 14-3, and until someone knocks them off they are the team to beat in the Ivies. That said, the gap between the Quakers on the one hand and the Crimson and Tigers is not that great. All that said, I still look for Harvard-Penn game in Philadelphia on November 13 to decide the Ivy title. Right now, Harvard leads the Ivies with 183 points scored, while Penn has (by far) yielded the fewest amount of points, 62. You can heck out the Ivy standings by clicking here. Penn is 4-1 overall, having lost to neighborhing rival Villanova (which may be the best non-conference team an Ivy school has played this year), and Harvard is 5-0. Something will have to give.

5. Brown at Princeton. Unless, of course, the Princeton Tigers have something to do with it. The Tigers have quietly amassed a 4-1 record, with their only loss a 3-point margin at the hands of a Colgate team on the road that they led by 12 with 6 minutes to go. That loss was not only bad enough in and of itself, but it brought back nightmares of last year's season, where the Tigers were in every Ivy contest except a thrashing they got at Penn, losing four Ivy games by about a total of ten points, all in the final minutes.

The Tigers needed to recover from the disappointment in Hamilton, New York, and they needed to beat the always formidable Brown Bruins in Princeton Stadium in order to keep pace with Harvard and Penn. They did, winning 24-10, and the way they won said a lot about the team, as they finished off an Ivy opponent by scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter.

The Tigers' senior QB, Matt Verbit, has shown solid improvement this season. He has put up big numbers at Princeton and now is third on the all-time passing list, but up until this season he has been more prolific than successful. No one figured that heretofore underused RB Branden Benson would turn out to be a 100-yard a game rusher, and Tiger fans wondered who would catch Verbit's passes after rising senior WR B.J. Szymanski gave up his football eligibility to sign a contract for a $750,000 bonus (he was a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in the Major League Baseball draft last June). Most of the pundits had the Tigers picked for sixth, figuring that the combination of an average offense, a team that couldn't hold off opponents in the fourth quarter last season, the pressure on the Roger Hughes' coaching staff to have a very good season in their fifth year or risking getting the axe would keep the Tigers mired in the second division. What they underestimated was the improvement of the Tigers' line play on both sides of the ball and a very tough back 7 on the Princeton defense, led by LBs Justin Stull and Zak Keasey and DBs Brendon Mueller and Jay McCareins.

The October 23 game against Harvard is the Tigers' biggest game in a long time, perhaps since 1996, as the last three seasons under Hughes' predecessor, Steve Tosches, were losing ones. Tiger Stadium should draw a big crowd on Saturday, and if the Tigers are going to take a big step in their league, they'll have a golden opportunity to do so in front of the home crowd.

6. Arkansas at Auburn. Last year, Tommy Tuberville's Auburn Tigers were a huge disappointment, so, perhaps, this year you didn't hear as much about them as other teams in major conferences and, even in the SEC. But, suddenly the Tigers are 7-0 and the best team in the SEC, and while I'm no huge fan of the SEC, I am rooting for the Tigers to make the lives of the BCS brahmins miserable. Why? Because right now, the pollsters, poll voters, cognoscenti and talk radio callers all have anointed a BCS title game at the Orange Bowl between USC and Oklahoma. Which certainly wouldn't be fair to Auburn, Miami and Wisconsin if those schools win out. Because you can bet that Tommy Tuberville, Larry Coker and Barry Alvarez won't concede for a moment that they won't be deserving at a shot at the title if they win out. Which will mean that there will be a huge hue and cry, and that the BCS powers that are will have to agree with the NCAA on something which could be extremely compelling, as it is for the other NCAA football divisions -- a national playoff. So, go Tigers. And 'Canes. And Badgers.

7. Lousville at Miami. The Louisville Cardinals had a huge game at the Orange Bowl on Thursday night for a variety reasons. Win, and the Cards would have been dubbed the favorite to be the non-BCS team to get a bid to a BCS bowl game. Win, and the Cards, under their (relatively) young coach, Bobby Petrino, would have taken a step "to the next level." Win, and the Cards would have shown everyone that this year's version of the Miami Hurricans, like Clubber Lang in Rocky III, "ain't so bad." Lose, and, well, you're just Louisville, you're a basketball school, Rick Pitino is the main focus, and while you might turn out a great player every now and then, remember that Kentucky just isn't a bona fide football state.

Well, Louisville did lose, but to a degree the Cards did take a step to the next level, and they did show, to some degree, that the Miami Hurricanes aren't the invincible team that they have been in past years. Because while Louisville lost the game, they threw a huge scare into Miami in its house. Up by 17 against an enigmatic QB whose name may be a synonym for one who could confuse activity with achievement, that same enigmatic QB recovered from adversity and led the 'Canes to a come-from-behind victory, 41-38.

So Miami remains undefeated, remains as a Top 4 team, remains as a team who, if they win out, will very much complicate the year-end conversation as to who is the Number 1 team in the nation. Because while Louisville gave them a scare, this isn't a top-tier Division III team or a third-tier Division I-A team. This Cardinals' team is the real deal.

And look for its coach, Bobby Petrino, to be the second name on the short list for all serious BCS school vacancies in the off-season. Rick Pitino may be the big name in Louisville right now, but he hasn't done much damage in the NCAA since his return to college hoops. Should Bobby Petrino stay at Louisville, he may well eclipse the legendary hoops coach in a matter of years.

8. North Carolina at Utah. This game was testimony to a few points. One, the law of gravity, or, put very simply, "what goes up, must come down." Because last week John Bunting's North Carolina Tar Heels upset #25 N.C. State, making people wonder what is the real personality of Carolina Football and whether the Heels could beat a ranked team for the second week in a row. 46-16, Utah, #10 Utah, which is now the top-ranked non-BCS team, making it the odds-on favorite to go to a BCS bowl because the Utes should win out.

More importantly, the Utes' win showcased once again Urban Meyer, another (relatively) young coach who will be the top name on the short list for all openings at BCS schools that want to take their programs to the next level (I write it this way because I doubt Meyer would leave Utah for a place like Vanderbilt or Duke, for example).

I hope Penn State fans, whose Nittany Lions were idle this week, watched this game and saw Urban Meyer in action. And I hoped they used their imaginations, envisioning how mellifluous and pleasing the chant "Ur-ban, Mey-yer, Ur-ban Mey-er" will sound in their huge stadium, the way "Joe PA-Ter-no, Joe PA-Ter-no" resonated loudly during the Nittany Lions' glory years. And, if they like that thought, they should conjure up whatever influence they have with the higher powers in State College and figure out the right way to ease their legendary coach to retirement.

Because the quicker they get someone like Urban Meyer into Happy Valley, Happy Valley will become happy again.

Quickly.

9. Wisconsin at Purdue. Lest we forget, the #1 ranked defense in the country went into West Lafayette, Indiana, and the Badgers staged a comeback to defeat the host Boilermakers, 20-17. We've written about this phrase from time to time, but while Kyle Orton's offense certain grabbed headlines and brought tons of attention to Purdue, Wisconsin's stifling defense has been winning football games. And, if the Badgers win out, this stifling defense will win the Big 10 championship and figure into the national discussion about who is the best team in the country.

And the reason for the latter point is that the BCS tried to reform its system so that you don't have the coaches voting for one team as national champion while the writers vote for another team. Right now you have 5 undefeated teams -- USC, Oklahoma, Miami, Auburn and Wisconsin, all of whom could figure into the conversation once college football's regular season concludes. So if any of these schools gets the shaft because writers and voters have pre-ordained an Oklahoma-USC faceoff at the Orange Bowl in January, the hue and cry for a playoff system (that seems to work well in the other NCAA football divisions) will hit its loudest pitch. So instead of considering whether to add a 12th game to the regular-season schedules of Division I-A college football teams, the NCAA should consider instituting a playoff system.

Which will let the two best teams standing compete for the national title.

Many people question sports that are judged -- boxing, gymnastics, figure skating. Because of the judging, some of us do not really believe they're sports the way baseball, basketball and football are, because those games are won on the field and not relying upon a dowager from Darien, Connecticut wearing her J. Crew ensemble and giving a thumbs up for a triple axel. But, right now, major college football depends upon coaches who can't possible see all of the teams and writers who can't either to, at a minimum, play a major role, and at a maximum, determine, who the national champion should be.

And that's not right.

Football is a collision sport.

Let the champion be the one who is the best at collision, not the product of a consensus by people who are not on the field.

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