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November 6, 2006

Stumbling giants almost changed everything

Experts' blog
Scenes from Saturday
The College Football Wire

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Hold off on that coronation.

The winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game isn't necessarily a shoo-in to capture the national title.

That highly-anticipated Nov. 18 showdown has received so much attention that it has been compared to a national championship game. As the game draws nearer, whispers have circulated that the two teams could stage a rematch with the national title at stake.

This weekend turned into a bit of a reality check for proponents of that theory.

Ball State (3-7) has won only half of its Mid-American Conference games and lost to Division I-AA program North Dakota State, but the Cardinals had Michigan on the ropes.

Ball State drove to Michigan's 2-yard line before losing the ball on downs in the final minutes of a 34-26 loss to the Wolverines.

"They might have thought they were on cruise control on the way to Ohio State," Ball State linebacker Brad Seiss said afterward.

Illinois (2-8) has dropped five consecutive games, but top-ranked Ohio State escaped Champaign with a 17-10 victory only after recovering an onside kick with 1:40 remaining.

"I understand that everything is not always as good as it seems and everything is not always as bad as it seems," said Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, who may have lost some of his commanding lead in the Heisman Trophy race by throwing for 108 yards and an interception. "So today's performance, offensive and defensively, was one where we have to work on things. But we got through the game. A win is a win, any way you look at it."

Ohio State and Michigan remain the two best teams in college football, but their subpar performances Saturday exposed some flaws.

After throwing 13 touchdown passes in the first six weeks of the season, Michigan quarterback Chad Henne has only three more in the four games since Mario Manningham underwent knee surgery. Manningham made a cameo appearance in Saturday's game and should play a bigger role the next two weeks.

Ball State also beat Michigan's secondary for a number of long pass plays, though the Wolverines' top-ranked rushing defense limited the Cardinals to 2.1 yards per carry.

The Buckeyes learned their high-octane offense loses some of its power when Smith doesn't have plenty of time to throw. Illinois sacked Smith three times, held Antonio Pittman to 1.8 yards per carry and allowed just 224 total yards.

"Ohio State came out early in the first (half) and really made some good plays against our defense," said Illinois linebacker J Leman, who collected 19 tackles Saturday. "So we made some adjustments and put some more pressure on them."

One of these Big Ten heavyweights almost certainly will play in the national championship game. Ohio State plays host to Northwestern and Michigan travels to Indiana next week, so both teams should head into their Nov. 18 confrontation unbeaten.

And you can pretty much guarantee the Ohio State-Michigan winner will be favored in the national title game. Then again, recent history shows the folly of believing conventional wisdom.

Two years ago, Oklahoma and Southern California looked so evenly matched that their Orange Bowl meeting was billed as the latest Game of the Century. Southern California breezed to a 55-19 triumph.

Last year, Southern California was being measured against the greatest teams in college football history. Those comparisons stopped after Texas upset USC 41-38 in the Rose Bowl.

Maybe we'll see one more surprise in this year's title game.

The relatively narrow escapes by Ohio State and Michigan represented just one of the top 25 stories to emerge from this weekend's college football action. Here's a look at the rest of the major plotlines.

2. PROVE IT, AGAIN: Louisville's 44-34 victory over West Virginia apparently didn't win the Cardinals universal respect in the coaching fraternity.

The USA Today coaches' poll only moved the undefeated Cardinals up to No. 4 behind once-beaten Texas as well as Ohio State and Michigan.

Louisville still has the inside track to the national championship game as long as it remains undefeated. The Cardinals were third in the Harris Poll, the computer ratings and in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

3. GUTSY CALL: Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops refused to play it safe.

It's the kind of gamble you usually only see from a PlayStation 2 operator, but it paid off in this case.

The Sooners owned a 17-16 lead over Texas A&M and faced fourth-and-inches from their 29-yard line with 1:29 remaining. Instead of punting, Stoops chose to go for it even though a fourth-down stop would have put the Aggies in position for a game-winning field goal.

It's the kind of gamble you usually only see from a PlayStation 2 operator, but it paid off in this case. Paul Thompson's quarterback sneak gave the Sooners the game-clinching first down, though Texas A&M made Thompson's play irrelevant by having 12 men on the field.

4. FRANCHIONE'S FRUSTRATION: Texas A&M's quick start probably has bought Dennis Franchione at least one more year, but the loss to Oklahoma illustrated what many Aggies fans don't like about their coach.

Franchione has never beaten Texas or Oklahoma in his four-year tenure. Instead of gambling on the Aggies' last two series Saturday, he went for field goals on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line and on fourth-and-6 from the Oklahoma 22.

Texas A&M's unintended use of the 12th man on the game's climactic play Saturday only emphasized the divide between Stoops and Franchione.

When Stoops went for broke, Franchione's team broke down.

5. STOPPING THE PASS: Texas apparently learned its lesson.

The only question remaining is whether McCoy will earn a trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

One week after Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell picked apart the Texas secondary, the Longhorns regrouped and shut down Bobby Reid. The highly regarded Oklahoma State quarterback went 11-of-28 for 123 yards with two interceptions in a 36-10 loss to Texas.

An improved pass defense would shore up the defending national champions' only real weakness.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy has long since answered the questions about whether he can lead this team. The only question remaining is whether McCoy will earn a trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

6. LOSING THOMAS: Losing a defensive tackle as good as Marcus Thomas would devastate most defenses.

Not Florida.

Gators coach Urban Meyer kicked the talented but troubled Thomas off the team, but Florida still collected four sacks and allowed just 2.7 yards per carry in a 25-19 victory over Vanderbilt.

The presence of Southeastern Conference sack leader Derrick Harvey, Ray McDonald, Jarvis Moss and Joe Cohen should help the defensive line overcome the loss of Thomas. McDonald, Harvey and Moss have combined to deliver 20 tackles for loss.

7. NUTT'S GAMBLE: How often do you see a team voluntarily switch quarterbacks in the middle of a Cinderella season? That's what Arkansas coach Houston Nutt did at South Carolina.

After Mitch Mustain's first pass was intercepted, Nutt replaced the true freshman with sophomore Casey Dick. The move paid off in the short run, as Dick went 11-of-19 for 228 yards with a touchdown and interception in the Razorbacks' 26-20 victory.

The quarterback switch comes as Arkansas enters the toughest part of its schedule. The Razorbacks play host to Tennessee next weekend and face Louisiana State the following week at Little Rock, Ark.

8. STRANGE DAYS IN SEC: Throw out the 1993 season when Alabama had to forfeit eight wins and a tie and the Crimson Tide and Georgia haven't both finished a year with a losing record since 1957.

Don't be surprised if it happens again this year.

Georgia (6-4) and Alabama (6-4) both could end up 6-7 if they lose their remaining two regular-season games and their likely bowl appearance. Georgia still must travel to Auburn and play host to Georgia Tech, while Alabama heads to Louisiana State before Auburn comes to town.

Alabama's stunning 24-16 loss to Mississippi State will turn up the pressure on Tide coach Mike Shula, who got the job over current Mississippi State coach and Alabama alum Sylvester Croom. Georgia coach Mark Richt earned himself plenty of capital by winning SEC titles in 2002 and 2005, but Shula doesn't have that luxury.

9. STAFFORD'S STRUGGLES: Georgia freshman Matthew Stafford eventually will live up to the potential that caused Rivals.com to rate him as the top quarterback in the 2006 recruiting class.

But it's growing more and more apparent that he isn't quite ready to carry an SEC offense on his shoulders.

Stafford threw three interceptions in a 24-20 loss to Kentucky and has been picked off eight times in his last three games. He has thrown 12 interceptions and only four touchdown passes this season.

It doesn't help matters that his team's lack of playmakers has forced Stafford to throw 31 times a game the last three weeks.

10. WAKE UP: Every week we expect Wake Forest to realize it's Wake Forest.

It hasn't happened yet.

Here's the big question. Could the Deacons actually enter Doak Campbell Stadium as favorites next weekend?

The Demon Deacons upended Boston College 21-14 to improve their record to 8-1 for the first time since 1944. This also represented Wake Forest's first November victory since Nov. 1, 2003.

Conventional wisdom indicates the Deacons will struggle with a late-season schedule that includes trips to Florida State and Maryland plus a home game with Virginia Tech. Then again, the Deacons have proved the skeptics wrong all year.

Here's the big question. Could the Deacons actually enter Doak Campbell Stadium as favorites next weekend?

11. GROBE'S STOCK INCREASES: You have to wonder if other schools around the ACC are paying attention to the success Jim Grobe has enjoyed at Wake Forest.

When lower-level BCS teams such as Wake Forest have a season like this, their coach almost inevitably ends up parlaying the breakthrough season into a larger payday at a higher-profile school.

North Carolina already appears on its way to hiring Butch Davis to fill its vacancy, but a number of other ACC schools (North Carolina State? Virginia? Miami?) also could make coaching changes in the near future. They might want to give Grobe a call, though we'd love to see him stick around and make Wake Forest more than a one-year wonder.

12. HOOSIERS AND HYDE: Just when you think Indiana is on the verge of leaping into bowl contention, the Hoosiers fall flat on their faces.

Indiana followed a stunning victory over Iowa with a 44-3 loss to Ohio State. The Hoosiers bounced back with a 46-21 triumph over Michigan State, then took another step back Saturday by falling 63-26 to Minnesota.

If the good-game, bad-game pattern continues, Indiana could throw a wrench into the national title sweepstakes. The Hoosiers play host to Michigan next week.

13. RUSSELL'S REDEMPTION: Before being tagged this season as a guy who couldn't hack it in big games, LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell had developed a reputation as the king of comebacks.

Russell may have regained that status Saturday by leading the Tigers on an 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes of a 28-24 victory over Tennessee. Russell also threw three interceptions, but he came up big when it mattered most.

14. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (NON-BCS DIVISION): Central Florida wanted its program to catch up to Florida State and Miami. This season it reached its goal in the wrong way.

On their own level, the Knights are staggering through a year every bit as disappointing as the seasons Florida State and Miami have put together.

UCF returned nine offensive starters and nine defensive starters from the team that reached the Hawaii Bowl last season. The Knights signed coach George O'Leary to a 10-year extension in the offseason and entered this fall as a consensus pick to repeat as the Conference USA East Division champions.

The Knights (2-7) instead guaranteed themselves a losing season Saturday by falling 23-10 to East Carolina. UCF has lost five games in a row and eight of its last nine.

15. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (NON-FLORIDA DIVISION): Those preseason projections of a BCS appearance for Iowa were perhaps a tad optimistic. And nobody could have predicted the rash of injuries that have ravaged the Hawkeyes.

But even with all those injuries decimating the roster, Iowa still should have more than enough talent to beat Indiana and Northwestern. Both teams have beaten the Hawkeyes (6-4) in the last month, which explains why Iowa will spend the holidays going to a second- or third-tier bowl game.

16. CLEMSON COLLAPSE: Every year Clemson drops a game it has no business losing.

Don't bother arguing that Clemson is the best team in the ACC. ... Good teams figure out how to win close games.

Last year the Tigers fell to Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest by a combined total of eight points. Two years ago, Clemson followed a victory at Miami with a 16-13 loss to Duke.

The Tigers have lost their last five games that went into overtime or were decided by fewer than three points. The trend continued Saturday when Dan Ennis kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired to give Maryland a 13-12 victory at Clemson.

Don't bother arguing that Clemson is the best team in the ACC, regardless of whether the Tigers actually win the conference title. Good teams figure out how to win close games.

17. FEAR THE TURTLE?: Maryland doesn't have nearly as much talent as Clemson, but the Terrapins continue to discover ways to win the close ones.

The Terps have won their last five games by a grand total of 12 points. Most casual college football fans across the nation couldn't name a single Maryland player, yet the Terps control their destiny in the ACC Atlantic Division race.

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen deserves credit for naming himself the offensive coordinator in the offseason and rejuvenating a team that had suffered back-to-back losing seasons. Friedgen's new role has helped quarterback Sam Hollenbach, who has been picked off just six times this year after throwing 15 interceptions last season.

18. CAREER REBIRTHS: Although their teams both ended up losing, a couple of forgotten players returned to the spotlight with big performances this week.

South Carolina quarterback Blake Mitchell opened the season as the starter before getting benched and suspended. He replaced an ineffective Syvelle Newton on Saturday and nearly rallied the Gamecocks all the way back from a 20-point deficit.

Mitchell went 15-of-21 for 213 yards with a pair of touchdown passes before throwing a late interception in a 26-20 loss to Arkansas. Although he didn't win the game, his performance might have helped him regain his starting job.

Miami tailback Tyrone Moss was leading the ACC in rushing last year before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Virginia Tech. He faced Virginia Tech again Saturday and delivered a game-tying 50-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter of the Hurricanes' 17-10 loss.

19. GOOD START, GOOD FINISH: Virginia Tech's upcoming opponents better make sure they don't fall behind early. After rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Miami, the Hokies now have won each of the last 26 games in which they've scored first.

The Hokies kept that streak alive Saturday by intercepting Miami quarterbacks Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman three times.

20. WHAT'S WRONG WITH WRIGHT?: The loss to Virginia Tech continued a disappointing season for Wright, who entered the season with great expectations.

Wright has thrown four touchdown passes and no interceptions against overmatched opponents Florida A&M and Florida International. He has seven interceptions and only four touchdown passes in the Hurricanes' other seven games.

His first interception Saturday led to Virginia Tech's go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He was picked off again as soon as Miami got the ball back.

The Hurricanes better hope Wright or Freeman emerges soon. They're the only two scholarship quarterbacks on Miami's roster.

21. PATERNO'S PAIN: Penn State coach Joe Paterno plans to continue coaching this season despite fracturing his left leg Saturday when Wisconsin linebacker DeAndre Levy and Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless ran into him.

Paterno was carted off the field after the sideline collision took place in the second half of Wisconsin's 13-3 victory. He was diagnosed Sunday with a fracture in his tibia, or shinbone, plus ligament damage in his left knee.

22. DYNAMIC DUO: Paterno's injury and Penn State's ineffective offense overshadowed a couple of notable achievements by the Nittany Lions' outstanding linebacking corps.

Paul Posluszny made seven solo stops and seven assists to take over as Penn State's all-time tackling leader. The 2005 Butkus Award winner has 349 career tackles to break the record set by Greg Buttle, who collected 343 tackles from 1973-75.

Dan Connor forced a fumble and delivered 10 tackles and a sack despite playing with a broken left hand. Sean Lee added 13 tackles, two sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries.

23. BIGGEST MYSTERY: We might never know how good a team Wisconsin has this season.

The Badgers own a 9-1 record and haven't beaten a ranked team. Wisconsin doesn't play Ohio State this year and fell 27-13 to Michigan.

Although it would be interesting to see how Wisconsin could fare in a BCS game, the Badgers probably won't get that chance. Wisconsin is only 15th in the latest BCS standings, so the Badgers probably will have to settle for an appearance in the Capital One Bowl or Outback Bowl.

24. IS USC BACK?: Southern California responded to its stunning loss to Oregon State by pounding Stanford 42-0, but let's wait a while before declaring that the Trojans have returned to form.

Over the next three weeks, USC plays host to Oregon, California and Notre Dame. Those three games not a one-sided victory over arguably the nation's worst BCS program will measure the strength of this team

25. THE CLOSER: Vanderbilt wide receiver Earl Bennett sure knows how to finish.

Bennett caught an astounding 49 passes for 545 yards and nine touchdowns in the final four games of his freshman season. He doesn't have Jay Cutler throwing to him anymore, but Bennett is still putting together the same type of second-half surge.

The sophomore standout caught 13 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown Saturday in a 25-19 loss to Florida. That gives him 44 receptions for 635 yards and three touchdowns in his last five games.

Mississippi State NEWS


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