By Dave Hershorin
November 15, 2006

We again begin with the battle of unbeaten Big East teams as Rutgers surprised the college football world and beat Louisville 28-25 at home last Thursday on a last second field goal. The win over then-No.3 UL was due to the Scarlet Knight’s defense stepping up and holding the Redbird’s potent offense to 33 second half yards and 266 total yards. Rutgers fell behind 22-7 and looked like an over-hyped undefeated turkey that hadn’t played a tough game yet, which was true. But “New Jersey State” got it to 25-14 by the half and then made a slow, methodical move that had things tied with 10 minutes left and then had Rutgers up with :13 seconds left. The TV coverage showed Louisville coaches yelling at Brian Brohm on the sidelines all night. The Knights have the fourth-ranked D, both in scoring and for total yardage. They have their work cut out closing the regular season with West Virginia in Morgantown December 2nd. Rutgers just needs to get by Cincy (this Thursday) and then Syracuse to enter the WVU game undefeated. Even with one loss, Rutgers-WVU would be for the conference title. Listening to the “experts” on ABC and ESPN, no one thought another team besides Louisville or West Virginia could emerge from the Big East unscathed. Before last season’s 7-5 mark, Rutgers hadn’t had a winning campaign since 1992 (7-4). They went 11-0 in 1976, but playing four or five I-AA teams will help you win more. Rutgers finished 17th in the final ’76 AP poll, and finished No.15 in 1961 when they were 9-0. Another undefeated season was 1876, but 1-0 Rutgers only win was over Stephens 3-2. The Scarlet Knights previous biggest win was over No.13 Penn State 21-16 in 1988’s third game. Louisville was forced to punt it their last seven possessions and had five three-and-outs in the second half. Maybe Rutgers does have the defense that can stop West Virginia – they allow only 2.8 ypc and have surrendered only six ground scores in ’06. I try not to look too far ahead with three games left, but I easily get caught up in the debates about whether an undefeated Rutgers team should play for the national championship. How could Louisville have been right there at No.3 last week prior to the game, but Rutgers can’t get closer than No.6 in the most recent BCS polls? If five teams ranked in front of Rutgers hadn’t of lost, where would Rutgers be right now, around No.9 or 10? This is a team being penalized for past year’s losing records, whereas Rutgers should only be scrutinized upon this year’s record. If going undefeated in a BCS conference isn’t good enough to get a school into the BCS finale, then look for even more tweaks soon to this flawed system in an upcoming offseason.

What was once (last week) a muddled group of one-loss wanna-be’s ranked 4th through 11th is now a much clearer picture thanks to some timely upsets. Texas, who I had prematurely anointed as the Big 12 South division’s best, had been making noise with their only loss being to No.1 Ohio State. But now Kansas State (7-4) is added to their list of detractors. With a blocked punt, the Longhorns had tied it up at 21 early in the third quarter and looked like they had the shizz to get past the home Wildcats. But then, thanks to two fumbles by UT RBs Young and Charles, KSU reeled of 21 unanswered points and survived UT’s late surge with a 51-yard FG late in the fourth to make the final 45-42. Texas sits ahead of Oklahoma in the South half (though both have one conference loss) due to their 28-10 win in the Red River Shootout. But UT has feisty Texas A&M (8-3) next Friday while OU has Baylor (4-7) and in-state rival OSU (6-4) to close out their 12-game slate. It’s simple – if Texas losses to the Aggies and Oklahoma wins out, the Sooners will sneak into the December 2nd championship game versus Nebraska (which clinched with their 28-27 win at College Station). Then-No.8 California had been climbing the polls until last week’s 24-20 loss to Arizona. Up 17-3 at the half, the Golden Bears let their guard down and the Wildcats went on a 21-0 tear, capped by Antoine Cason’s 39-yard INT return for a TD. Cal sophomore QB Nate Longshore, the nation’s 17th-rated passer, went 17-of-36 and his career-high three INTs led to 10 UA points. Cal goes into Memorial Coliseum Saturday night to decide the Pac Ten winner – both they and USC have one conference loss, so it’s winner-take-all. The Trojans are very much alive for the other spot in the national championship after jumping right over Florida as they went from 7th to 3rd in the BCS standings. The Gators are third in both the AP and USA Today/Coaches polls, but the computers don’t seem to like Urban Meyer’s bunch, enough such that USC gets the all-important spot behind Michigan. You may think that this occurrence makes it easy for the Trojans to win their last two conference games so that they go to the BCS title matchup, but one-loss Notre Dame visits Thanksgiving weekend, giving the winner of that game (assuming USC beats Cal) the inside track to Glendale. Arkansas beating Florida in the SEC championship would usher in (a hypothetically 11-1) USC due to the Trojan’s big 50-14 win to open the season in Fayetteville, though a one-loss, SEC-title winning Gator squad makes the final BCS standings the deciding factor. Notre Dame beating USC big and UF struggling to get past Arkansas might just get the Irish the title spot, but undefeated Rutgers beating WVU throws an extra wrench into the system…aargh!!! The next three weeks will tell all…and isn’t this why we love the topsy-turvy world of college football so much? (Murmurs of a I-A playoff are heard buzzing in the background)

What happens when No.18 (AP) one-loss Wake Forest goes into Tallahassee an 8.5 point underdog against a struggling 5-4 FSU team? The Demon Deacons had something to prove against a team they had lost to 14 straight times. Well, they handed FSU its first shutout since 1988’s 31-0 season opening gloss to Miami and the Nole's first bagel in the capital since Kansas beat them 28-0 9/22/73. WF - which hadn’t won in any Florida city since 9/22/59 (22-20 win at FSU) - is now 3-21-1 in their series with State, a team they had never beaten with both as members of the ACC. The Deacons held the Noles to 26 rushing yards and forced four INTs while also holding FSU to 113 passing yards and only one play of 20 yards. Not that stifling the Nole offense is that much of an accomplishment this season, but we still given the WF D props for what it did Saturday night on national TV. No.14 Wake Forest is the ACC’s version of Rutgers, though with one loss and no shot at the national title game. WF is the only one-loss ACC team left, but their past struggles will plague their ranking potential in ’06, and they will be lucky to make the top 10 if they can somehow win out. A home tilt with No.19 Virginia Tech is the only thing in the DD’s way to facing Maryland in both school’s season ender for a winner-goes-to-the-ACC Championship showdown. Maryland, which hadn’t beaten the Canes since 1984’s 42-40 win in Miami, became the first team since the 1985 Gators to beat both Miami and FSU in the same season by beating UM 14-13 Saturday afternoon. Now the Terps face Boston College, also 8-2 and still capable of landing in the ACC title matchup if they win out and then all goes the Golden Eagle’s way. They may not feature any of this year’s elite programs, but the best of the ACC is a competitive battle that will go down to the wire.

Georgia has experienced offensive woes this season and struggled to reach 7-4. Tennessee beat them 51-33 to start October, which in turn started a 1-4 skid that wasn’t halted until last Saturday’s 37-15 romp at Auburn over the nation’s (then) No.5 team. UGA senior “Rover” Tra Battle picked off three passes (one returned for a score) as the Dawg secondary held Tiger QB Brandon Cox to 4-of-12 passing and got another timely INT from Paul Oliver to give Cox four on the day. It would have been even more lopsided if Georgia hadn’t lost three fumbles. With so many QB problems, few thought UGA had a chance in Jordan Hare, but Matt Stafford went 14-of-20 for 219 yards while running for 83 yards and scoring once each way. Georgia’s sudden surge on offense did not produce this result as much as Auburn’s inconsistencies on both sides of the ball. This game played out eerily similar to AU’s 27-10 home loss to Arkansas. The losses UGA suffered – save the trouncing by the Vols – were never by more than seven, whereas the Tigers barely looked competitive in getting their two whippings. Junior hurler Cox matched his career high with four picks, but at least in last year’s opening loss to Georgia Tech when he did the same he had 44 attempts. The Tiger’s field general had only 35 passing yards Saturday to mark his lowest collegiate output in a game where he attempted at least one pass. Give it to Georgia’s 11th-ranked total defense that did its homework well enough to earn the Dawgs a 30-7 halftime lead en route to the school’s 700th all-time win. Coach Mark Richt said, “We stayed together and we stayed unified” throughout the troubled times. “We didn’t give in. We kept grinding and we kept working.” Georgia, which began the season (at No.15) as a serious challenger for their division half, needed this win badly to salvage some of their respectability, especially after so many close games with teams they seemingly outclassed had defined the Dawg’s 2006 efforts as disappointing. Auburn gets to wonder what coulda-woulda-shoulda happened if they hadn’t tanked in two crucial SEC home games. AU had eight of their 12 games at home, with all of their toughest conference foes (LSU, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia) as visitors. Look for the Tigers to bounce back in their matchup this weekend against rival Bama, but it is likely too little too late for them to earn a vaunted BCS spot.

Arkansas looked sharp in beating solid then-No.13 Tennessee 31-14 in Fayetteville. Now No.7 in the latest BCS polls (No.5 in AP), the Hogs have their best record (9-1, 6-0) since 1988’s 10-0 team – which subsequently tanked its last two games in grand style. This time around, UA has the nation’s 7th-ranked rusher (Darren McFadden), both the top rushing attack and the only undefeated record in the conference, and arguably the best offensive line in I-A as they lead the nation with six sacks allowed. Arkansas still has to get by LSU at home, but they have wrapped up the SEC West and are headed to Atlanta (Georgia’s win secured such). Florida, the team they will meet in the SEC championship game, squeaked by former-coach Steve Spurrier’s Gamecock squad 17-16. Urban Meyer relied on three blocked kicks (two FGAs and one PAT) - the last two by 6’6 DE Jarvis Moss on South Carolina’s final two drives - to get the win. The Gators seem to stay alive with blood and guts, never quite putting teams away until late in the fourth quarter. UF has scored only 25 points per game, and though they’ve aggregately won the fourth-quarter 51-47, it signifies both their worst offensive and defensive stanza. In other words, the Gator’s offense doesn’t finish well and their No.18 total defense has barely held the line when the team wins. This title game will come down to UF’s defense having to hold the Razorback’s grinding offense to under 28 points. The SEC’s best defenses have been able to do this, but can the Gators then score more on an Arkansas D that has held all its 2006 foes (not named USC) to under 23 points? UF’s running game has had inconsistent results, but senior Chris Leak has quietly produced the nation’s 20th-best performance at QB to compensate just enough for the Gators to only have lost once. The Arkansas-Florida matchup is wide open, meaning that a number of scenarios could play out and that either team has a legitimate shot at their conference’s automatic BCS bid. The winner should have a strong argument so as to possibly be the one-loss team chosen for the BCS title game, but LSU and FSU could nix that possibility before the SEC title match even begins. Oh, those whacky pollsters…

Lagniappe

Boise State had a tough time in San Jose but prevailed on a game-ending 39-yard FG by senior Anthony Montgomery. The Spartans were up 20-12 in the fourth before Bronco senior QB Jared Zabransky led the decisive drive that won it for BSU. He went 3-of-4, scored on a tough one-yard run, and then hit WR Gerard Robb with the tying two-point conversion. A big defensive stand and an even bigger 44-yard punt return set Montgomery up for the eventual winning kick. Boise has won 39 of its last 40 Western Athletic Conference games and 43 of 46 since joining the WAC in 2001. Currently No.12 in the BCS, their nationally televised season ender at Nevada (11/25 on ESPN2, TBA) will tell whether the Broncos become only the second mid-major (the first was Utah in 2003) to break through into the BCS bowl draw…Colt Brennan hit four more TD passes in Hawaii’s 61-17 win against Louisiana Tech, giving him 43 so far and keeping him on record-setting pace to break David Klingler’s 1990 mark of 54. Houston’s Klingler did it in 11 games, so Brennan has to break it this weekend (in his 11th game) to make a fair comparison. Klingler’s rate of 4.9 TDs per game (also in 1990) will be a better measurement for Brennan to match/break. But in playing (probably) 14 total games - which includes the Hawai’i Bowl, and bowl games now count toward a season’s statistics - he will be more accepted if he can break Dante Culpepper’s (UCF) completion rate of 73.6% and/or Shaun King’s (Tulane) passer rating mark of 183.3, both set in 1998. Brennan currently has completed 72.4% of his passes and has an 189 efficiency…Navy looked strong in defeating Eastern Michigan 49-21 at Rynearson Stadium. (Trivia question – Can you name the town in Michigan where the Eastern Michigan Eagles play? See answer below) Navy now has had four consecutive winning seasons, the most since they were above .500 from 1978-82 (five years). These modern Midshipmen have a ways to go, though, to break the school mark of 11 straight set from 1904-11…Northern Illinois senior Garrett Wolfe gained under 100 yards (54) for the fourth straight game, a first in his collegiate career, but still held off WVU super soph Steve Slaton to remain atop the I-A rushing leader board. Western Michigan is ranked 8th for rushing defense and was the first this season to hold him under 100 four weeks ago, though he also struggled the next week against Temple’s 119th (out of 119 teams) run stoppers. Slaton has gained nearly a yard more per carry than Wolfe (7.5 to 6.7), but trails fellow Mountaineer and classmate Pat White (QB), who leads all runners (with at least 100 carries) with his 7.9 ypc rate. Houston junior Anthony Alridge has earned a phenomenal 12.45 ypc, but he has only 64 carries (lowest in the top 100) as he is the only wide receiver amongst I-A’s best rushers…Most would agree that the SEC is consistently the nation’s toughest defensive conference. But this year, the ACC has the same number of teams (six) ranked in the top 30 for total defensive efforts as the SEC. Moreover, the ACC has four of the nation’s top 10 D’s – Virginia Tech (ranked 1st), Miami (5th), Clemson (6th) and FSU (10th), while the SEC has only LSU’s second ranked squad listed that high. The Big Ten lands four in the top 30, while the Big 12, Big East and Pac Ten have only two each. The SEC leads all conferences in scoring D with seven amongst the top 30, while the ACC only renders six (though FSU is 31st). The Big East has five of the country’s top 30 “point misers”, but their non-conference patsies skew these results…Many wondered if the return of Irish WR Rhema McKnight from knee problems (out most of 2005) would disrupt the production of ND’s all-American Jeff Samardzija. Give it to Charlie Weis for finding a game plan each week that currently has the two seniors with 55 catches each. Samardzija averages a yard more per catch (14.4 to 13.2), but McKnight has scored 12 times, three more than Samardzija. Any way you slice them, senior QB Brady Quinn can’t seem to miss…Brett Swenson of Michigan State (36th) and Matt Reagan of Memphis (37th) are the only freshmen in the top 40 for placekickers…Virginia Tech senior Brandon Pace is the only kicker in ’06 with a perfect performance – all 14 have gone between the uprights, but he has no attempts longer than 42 yards and only two tries from 40+…Western Michigan senior LB Ameer Ismail is running away with the sack title. He has 15 in ten games, though with two games left (three if the 7-3 Broncos can get into a bowl game) he likely falls short of Terrell Suggs 2003 sack record of 24…the answer to the trivia question – Eastern Michigan plays on its campus in Ypsilanti, located between Detroit and Ann Arbor. The school’s teams were called the ‘Hurons’ from 1929 until 1991, when they changed to the Eagles. The football program was established in 1950, and has been an I-A program since 1975…