By Dave Hershorin
October 24, 2006

Once again, I find myself grasping for gridiron straws. Another busy weekend that included little sit-down time means only writing about what I really know on this subject, which many of you already realize is very little. But as the weather becomes cooler while the leaves turn and fall, it couldn’t be anything but football that defines the greatest time of the year.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In a conference laden with highly-ranked powerhouses, Arkansas is the only team still undefeated in league play as they quietly sit in the catbird’s seat atop the SEC West. Their 38-3 domination of Mississippi makes them 6-1 and 4-0. In league play, only LSU has allowed fewer points, and only Florida and Georgia have scored more. The Razorback’s secret? Few have noticed that Houston Nutt is starting a true freshman at QB, but anyone who has seen Mitch Mustain manage the offense realizes that 2006’s No.2 drop-back prospect has proven his worth by now and deserves the helm. Mustain’s first showing was in the opener (loss) against the Trojans, and his limited 4-for-6 performance was a window unto the next four years in Fayetteville. This was a team which many prognosticators knew could succeed with 10 starters returning both on offense and defense. Still, two sophomore RBs combined with a sophomore returning QB (then-starter Casey Dick) meant most were playing it by ear with respect to the Razorbacks’ chances. Then Mustain emerged, and, along with the SEC’s best rushing attack (since 2005), foes now have their hands full. Nutt is not crazy – Darren McFadden, Felix Jones & Co. run it 64% of the time and have earned their ranking as the nation’s sixth-best rushing offense – for the coach realizes the formula for winning. But to have such maturity come forth from this youngster could never have been expected. Mustain, McFadden and Jones stand out on a team otherwise manned by experienced upperclassmen, a team that could easily represent the SEC in the BCS. With wins already against West division rivals Alabama and Auburn, Arkansas only needs to survive tussles with LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee to get to Atlanta (for the SEC championship game). If they can emerge from these last three big games with only one conference loss, these Razorbacks have a great shot at upending Florida come December 2.

Looking at the chances that Southern Cal goes undefeated, most see their last three home games as the Trojan’s best shot at a loss. But after witnessing the trouble Notre Dame had at home in dealing with Pac Ten underdog UCLA, USC’s finale (away…well, across town) against the Bruins just might be their undoing. The Irish needed last minute magic – a 45-yard TD pass from Brady Quinn to Jeff Samardzija with :27 seconds left – to beat the upstart Bruins after ND’s statistically commanding efforts. It was actually only the third time in Notre Dame history that they won a game with a TD in the last :30 seconds. But UCLA sophomore starting QB Pat Cowan, who hadn’t thrown a collegiate pass until this year’s trial-by-fire, continues to impress as he quickly grasps the subtleties needed for success. OK, so he is 1-2 as a starter, but he has kept his team in the last two games, both losses (by a total of 13 points) against top 25 opponents. Given that Cowan will be that much further along by the season ender, USC has to guard against thinking that their rivals are ripe for the pickin’ an eighth-straight time. The second-best team in Los Angeles has the 11th-ranked rushing and the 10th total defense (both conference bests), leads the country in defensive third-down efficiency, is 13th in both tackles-for loss and sacks, and has the nation’s top kicker in senior Justin Medlock. UCLA is currently the best team not to be receiving a single vote in any of the big polls. Pete Carroll has to keep his team focused for their last regular season game to assure that the (possibly then) undefeated Trojans don’t stumble as they reach for the BCS title game.

Texas’ 22-20 win on a last second field goal in Lincoln may prove that these Longhorns have taken only a few steps back from last year’s national champions. But, moreover, it seems to prove how improved Nebraska now is since going 30-20 over the past four years. At 6-2, the Cornhuskers’ only blemishes are against the participants in last year’s BCS finale. NU has a balanced offense led by senior signal-caller Zac Taylor, the country’s eighth-rated passer who has 16 TDs offset by only three INTs. Nebraska’s showdown November 4th at home against surprising Missouri is the only thing in their way from facing Texas in a rematch for the Big 12 title. But whoever wins the Big 12 North has that division’s best chance in three years (since Kansas State surprised the Sooners 35-7) to win back the conference crown. You have to give it to Texas for how little they’ve dropped off, especially with freshman Colt McCoy taking the reigns with such command from hard-to-follow phenom Vince Young. But with only three Big 12 teams sporting a losing record, this league now takes over as the second most competitive in the country (next to the SEC), and the Longhorns are nowhere near a lock for the crown.

Of the seven remaining unbeaten teams, the Big East claims three of them. Many saw No.4 West Virginia and No.6 Louisville competing for the smallest BCS-aligned conference’s title, but few felt Rutgers was a threat (including ourselves, who had the Scarlet Knights outside of our preseason top 50). The boys from New Brunswick went into Pittsburgh Saturday and dealt the then-one-loss Panthers a 20-10 blow that knocked them from atop the league standings. No.14 Rutgers boasts the nation’s 2nd-ranked total and 3rd-best scoring defense, and their 8th-ranked rushing offense is as methodical as it is unflashy. But WVU has the country’s best rushing offense to bolster their 5th-ranked total and 3rd scoring offense, which is complimented by their No.17 total defense (which is 10th in scoring allowed). Louisville’s offensive stats aren’t far behind (7th in rushing and 10th in passing place them 2nd total and 6th in scoring), and they lead the Big East in rushing defense while placing second in the conference (8th in the nation) for scoring D. It all adds up to some terribly good football, though only one school in the Big East (Cincinnati at 17th) ranks in the top 50 for its strength of schedule. These three unbeatens still have yet to face off, and within the scenario that Louisville falls to both WVU and Rutgers in their first two games of November, the December 2 game between the Mountaineers and Scarlet Knights likely becomes a by-default conference championship, possibly with both still unscathed coming in. If the Ohio State-Michigan game two weeks earlier also features two unbeatens for the Big Ten title, it would be the first time in history that two conferences would be determined in the last week of regular season with all four combatants having no losses. As a dazed Jasper said on The Simpsons when he was thawed out of the Quickie-Mart freezer section – “…what a time to be alive”.

Lagniappe

Speaking of strength of schedule, Stanford was rated by us as having the toughest slate for this season. But whereas most thought they could win a handful of games, the Cardinals have thus far tanked in all eight. With USC up next, a resurgent Washington Huskie squad after that, and Cal to end, their home game with Oregon State on November 18th looks like the only chance for Palo Alto’s best to earn a W…Northern Illinois senior RB Garrett Wolfe has had his productivity stemmed for two straight weeks now. Held to 25 yards against Western Michigan, it was Temple this time that focused all their might into stopping the former-Heisman hopeful (Wolfe had 45 rushing yards on 17 tries against the Owls). On his way to challenge Barry Sanders’ single-season record (2,628) just two weeks ago, Wolfe now leads Rutgers sophomore Ray Rice by only 16 yards per game…Speaking of Temple, they remain the only school in I-A without any positive yardage for punt returns. The Owls’ five returns have netted negative seven yards…UTEP is best in punt returns. The Miners’ seven return tries have netted 234 yards and two TDs…Western Michigan senior LB Ameer Ismail surged into the national lead for sacks with a record-tying six sack game against Ball State. He tied Louisville’s Elvis Dumervil’s effort against Kentucky from last year…Junior CB Dwight Lowery leads the nation with eight INTs after just six games. He is on pace to break Al Worley’s single-season record of 14 (Washington, 1968)…I have to mention the Michigan State 41-38 comeback win over Northwestern. Down 38-3 with 9:54 left in the third-quarter, the Spartans staged the greatest comeback in I-A history. The previous mark was overcoming a 31-point deficit, which was accomplished by both Maryland in 1984 (vs. Miami) and Ohio State in 1989 (vs. Minnesota)…Utah State, which had scored only one TD in its first four games (on an INT return), has piled up 83 points in their last four since accepting the resignation of OC Mike Santiago…New Mexico State and Hawai’i lead the nation in passing offense, both averaging over 400 yards per game (419 and 411, respectively). But when they faced off last Saturday, neither was able to hit the 400 yard mark for aerial success (330 and 353). The Rainbow Warriors, which upset the Aggies’ homecoming festivities by winning 49-30 in Las Cruces, easily lead the nation with 29 passing TDs and a 72.5 completion percentage (the only team over 70%)…Wisconsin, which ranked 45th in pass efficiency defense while giving up 25 passing TDs last year, presently leads in this category and in allowing only two TDs via the air…Florida has allowed only one ground score…As a team, Tennessee has 52 tackles-for-loss, but somehow all of them are unassisted. San Diego State has 23 TFLs, also with none assisted. Somehow, the official scorekeepers have to be missing some of the action…