By Dave Hershorin
November 7, 2006

The highly anticipated matchup of Big East unbeatens Louisville and West Virginia lived up to all expectations and turned out to be one of the most competitive and entertaining games of the year so far. It’s been since 1971 that three teams from one conference went this late into the season unscathed (SEC – ‘Bama, Georgia and Auburn). The game was close at the half (Cardinals up 16-14) due to some key defensive stops by WVU that held UL’s high-octane offense to three FGs that easily could have been TDs. But the game pivoted on Mountaineer sophomore RB phenom Steve Slaton’s two fumbles on two consecutive carries early in the third quarter, the second of which was returned 13 yards by junior LB Malik Jackson for a TD. Heisman hopeful Slaton was having a fabulous game (finished with 156 yards and a rushing TD on 18 carries, and had three catches for 74 yards) until he was benched (though he came back in the fourth quarter) due to his fumblitous. Brian Brohm found his receivers wide open all night to finish with 354 yards on 19-of-26 passing. It was a slugfest that Louisville just seemed to want to win more. But by no means did it clarify Louisville as a worthy top five team, even though they remain such and jumped Florida in the polls. Besides the six fumbles, UL’s run defense allowed 318 yards and five ground scores, hardly top five numbers. In the same breath is mentioned WVU’s porous secondary and covering skills. Regardless of whichever team eventually won, neither made the Big East look like it has produced an elite program for the 2006 season. This all gets back to the strength of schedule issue – by our standards, Louisville has the 71st toughest slate (out of all 119) and WVU has the weakest schedule in the conference at 95th. The Redbird’s toughest game before this one was at home against a dismal 5-4 Miami squad, while the Mountaineer’s only foes with winning records had been East Carolina and Maryland. Both defenses were overmatched, and it wound up a scoring frenzy that entertained more than it impressed. Does Louisville have a good enough offense to outscore either Michigan or Ohio State? Maybe, especially seeing how much trouble the Wolverines had in winning 34-26 at home against a 3-7 Ball State squad with the 117th total defense. But I think that the Buckeyes are solid enough to keep Brohm in check. If the Cardinals remain unbeaten, I do believe they deserve the shot against OSU in the BCS championship. But contrary to Herbstreit and May (as well as many other college football prognosticators), so does Rutgers if they emerge from regular season play perfect. Given that they are in the same conference, the Scarlet Knights still have to beat both WVU and UL, so they have the exact same level of competition and therefore deserve the exact same ends as either of these two if they can run the pedestrian Big East gauntlet. Big time guys on national TV need to realize that they influence voters – whom are a huge part of the BCS formula – and need to give the same due respect to programs that, though they may come out of nowhere, have earned the right to be considered amongst the nation’s best in ‘06. Prior performances don’t/shouldn’t have any bearing on how well teams are doing this season, so just because Rutgers lingers in many minds as a conference doormat doesn’t mean they should be penalized by the national media for years past. It will be a travesty if a perfect Rutgers squad is kept out of the BCS finale. That said, I feel that Louisville wins this Thursday’s matchup of undefeated Big East teams, though I am pulling for the home team so that we can see just how bad it can get before a long-overdue playoff is finally put in motion.

The SEC featured two mild upsets as Kentucky took Georgia down another peg 24-20 in Lexington, and Mississippi State broke its 23-game conference road slide at Bryant-Denny in Tuscaloosa by ripping the Tide 24-16. Anyone who follows college ball has seen UGA continually disappoint more and more this campaign, and freshman QB Matt Stafford had three INTs to prove he isn’t yet the solution for their offensive woes. The Cats chased three Dawg passes down while UK counterpart Andre Woodson was 23-of-32 with two TDs. Head coach Sylvester Croom used defense to limit Bama to 19-of-39 passing for just 187 yards and two INTs as well as a measly 4-of-14 third-down conversion rate. The embattled UA-alumni had never beaten his former school, and is now 9-23 overall in his third struggling year at Starkville. Tennessee, which had recently been 5-1 against LSU, blew a 17-7 third quarter lead and the game 28-24. The Tigers lost the turnover battle 4-1, but they held the ball over 22:00 more than the Vols to easily outgain them by 230 yards. While this may not be considered much of an upset, then-No.8 Tennessee was on enough of a roll that they were vying for a wildcard BCS birth until Saturday’s narrow defeat. LSU – with road losses to Auburn and Florida – proved why they were the nation’s best two-loss team and now reside one spot ahead of UT at No.12. But ala Rutgers, how does SEC West leading Arkansas, 26-20 winners at South Carolina, rate so poorly in the polls? The No.11 Hogs lost only their opener with USC and have the conference’s lone perfect record, yet they still sit six slots behind one-loss Auburn, a team they spanked 27-10 at Jordan-Hare. The Razorbacks will soon be tested by LSU and Tennessee at home, so I guess pollsters are waiting before anointing Nutt’s latest underdogs. But just on what they have done already, Arkansas deserves to be grouped with the Tigers and Gators in the middle of the top 10. Oh, that wacky SEC and those even wackier pollsters.

Who’d of thunk it? With just three games to go, Maryland and Wake Forest are the frontrunners in the ACC’s Atlantic division. Then-No.22 Wake made a statement by beating a steady (then No.16) Boston College 21-14 at home, while the then-unranked Terrapins went into Death Valley and won 13-12. While neither team seems dominant, both have done enough to only have one conference loss and the inside track for getting to Jacksonville (the site of this year’s ACC Championship game December 2). Appropriately enough, Maryland hosts the Demon Deacons November 25 in a possible winner-goes-to-the-title game matchup, but who could have guessed that it would be the ACC regular season game of the year? Ok, ok…the Terps still have to go to Boston and survive at home against the Hurricanes while WF has the Noles in Tallahassee and a home tilt with Virginia Tech before either can say anything about possibly being conference champs. And with BC 3-2 and Clemson 4-3 in league play, no one is a lock just yet with so much action still to take place. The Ramblin’ Wreck seems to have their Coastal side sewn up with only North Carolina and Duke (both winless in ACC play) remaining and a one game lead over a Virginia Tech team they’ve already defeated. But who Tech faces is still as up in the air as a Ray Guy punt. In 53 years of ACC football, Wake has only won one league title (trivia question – Can you name the year the Deacons won their ACC title? See answer below) while No.22 Maryland has won it seven times, most recently in 2001. In only their second ACC season, Boston College has never won one, let alone a Big East title in their 14 affiliated years there, meaning they have never won any conference since they were an independent before being in the Big East. GT shared a title in 1998 with FSU, but ostensibly were second since the Noles beat them 34-7 that year. Since joining the league in 1983, Tech’s only legit ACC championship came in 1990 under Bobby Ross, the same year they won a share of the national title. In a year when big dogs Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech are struggling just to finish over .500, the door is wide open for any of these teams that has never even thought of having a chance at the BCS to break through. Just three years into the ACC-Big East merger, who’d of thunk it?

Nebraska answered the question as to who will face Texas in the Big 12 title game. The Cornhuskers turned two first half Missouri INTs into TDs while scoring on four of their first six possessions to go out 27-3 and ultimately win 34-20. The matchup of these two (in conference) two-loss teams gave winning Nebraska a proverbial two game lead in the North division with two games to go. NU has to lose against both A&M and Colorado while Mizzou has to win out for the Tigers to have a shot. Kansas State is also alive, but similarly has to win against both Texas this weekend and in-state rival Kansas as the Huskers lose twice. For those of you who think Texas is again a lock to win against Nebraska, you must still be riding on the Longhorn’s 2005 national title coattails. UT barely pulled out a 22-20 win in Lincoln a little over two weeks ago. Senior signal-caller Zac Taylor has his Huskers averaging 25 more yards of offense than Texas, though the ‘Black Shirts’ are also allowing close to 60 yards more defensively. Many forget the 2003 Big 12 title game, when three-loss Kansas State pulled out a 35-7 win over heavily-favored No.1 Oklahoma. Even though Texas is led by the nation’s second-ranked passer in Colt McCoy, he is a freshman and wasn’t up to the task when the Longhorns played their other tough opponent (Ohio State in a 24-7 loss at home). The December 2nd matchup, played at Arrowhead Stadium, marks the league’s 11th title game and the longest running conference championship currently in I-A. Texas can tie Oklahoma for the most crowns if they can capture their third title.

Michigan may have narrowly survived Ball State’s upset bid, but their smelly 34-26 escape didn’t seem to affect their poll standings. The Cardinals were up 9-7 entering the second quarter, and highlights from Ann Arbor were all over every network break-in that gave a scoring update. The Wolverines beat them statistically, but the early proceedings prove that this team is vulnerable in more ways than one. Michigan’s front four on defense is awesome and has provided a pass rush that leads the country in sacks (35). Another way Michigan seems impenetrable is via ground attack. They allowed BSU 47 net yards on 22 carries, and so far this year have allowed a total of 303 rushing yards on 229 carries. That is an average of 1.32 per attempt and 30.3 per game. Since 1999, only five schools have allowed less than two yards per carry all season long – Mississippi State (1999, 1.83ypc), UAB (2001, 1.89), TCU (2002, 1.98), USC (2003, 1.84) and Ohio State (2003, 1.95) – and this year Texas is also allowing under two per try (1.87). But if Michigan can keep it up, they will post the best run defense since Penn State set the I-A record in 1947 by allowing only 17 rushing yards per game. The Nittany Lions finished ranked fourth in the AP that year, a number UM would like to surpass as they have a shot at playing for the national title if they can get past the Buckeyes in Columbus November 18th.


Lagniappe

Florida State pitched one of the weekend’s three shutouts by doing Virginia 33-0 at home. The other bagels came from Auburn (27-0 vs. Arkansas State) and USC (42-0 at Stanford)…Virginia Tech’s 17-10 win over hapless Miami means the road team has now won the last three meetings. Frank Beamer’s squads have seemingly overcome their November jinx, going 6-1 since 2004 after going 5-7 in the 11th month from 2001-03…Junior Colt Brennan is nothing short of amazing. The Hawai’i QB is on a burning pace with 39 TDs, which set a new school record (Timmy Chang had the old record of 38 in 2004) but will fall short of David Klingler’s 1990 single-season record of 54. He also leads the nation in passing percentage (72.94%), and with only six INTs, is atop the passer charts with a 190.0 efficiency rating. Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell has 160 more yards than Brennan, but needed 129 more pass attempts to get there. Brennan has had his 7-2 Warriors receiving AP votes for three weeks now…Stanford ranks last in the Pac 10 in every major team statistic, both offensively and defensively. They have the nation’s worst scoring offense (9.2 points per game), worst rushing defense (239.1 ypg allowed), are the second-worst for sacks allowed (4.11 per game) and have the third-worst TO-ratio (-1.22 per game). I sure hope coach Walt Harris is at least graduating his guys, but at a fine learning institution like Stanford, he probably doesn’t push them in that area, either…Washington has allowed opponents to convert 22 field goals this season, the most in the land. Illinois is second with 16…One of three teams in I-A without a win, Florida International still ranks 11th in pass defense and 17th for total defense…Wisconsin has allowed only three passing TDs so far. The Badgers are the only team to allow under five yards per pass attempt (4.6) and under nine per completion (8.99)…Minnesota, hobbling along at 4-6, won its first Big Ten game of the year 63-26 over Indiana and scored more points than any Gopher team over a Big Ten opponent in one game since 1916’s 67-0 win over Iowa…Illini junior J Leman continued his tackling clinic by registering 19 tackles (3.5 for loss and a sack) and a forced fumble as his team came the closest so far in ‘06 to beating No.1 Ohio State. Leman has had double-digit tackle totals in eight of Illinois’ ten games…Junior Erin Henderson had 18 tackles and a forced fumble for Maryland in their 13-12 win at Clemson…Oklahoma is doing fine even with all-world RB Adrian Peterson out with a broken collar bone. Junior Allen Patrick, who recorded a team high 37.5 inch vertical jump in spring drills, has 440 rushing yards since getting his chance to finally start the last three games...the answer to the trivia question above: Wake Forest won the ACC title in 1970 by going 5-1 in league play, though they were 6-5 overall under Cal Stoll…