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September 20, 2009
Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
The SEC West will be the most interesting division race in football. Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU were ranked in the top 11 of the preseason AP poll, without another SEC West team in sight. The division race won't be that simple. Judging by Saturday's games, Auburn and Arkansas aren't going to go quietly. Heck, even Mississippi State is 2-1 after beating Vanderbilt. Auburn is the quietest 3-0 team in the country, and the wins are as legitimate as anyone's first three wins. Gus Malzahn has remade the Auburn offense, which has averaged 42.3 points per game; the defense sealed Saturday's victory over West Virginia with four fourth-quarter interceptions. Arkansas' Ryan Mallett didn't beat Georgia, but he sure looked like one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, passing for 408 yards and five touchdowns in a shootout with the Bulldogs. Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU have national title aspirations, but winning the division won't be easy.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are the clear favorites in the Big East. This is another spot where the preseason rankings need to be re-evaluated. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, USF and Rutgers were picked as Big East favorites by various preseason prognosticators. That field has been narrowed to the Bearcats and the Panthers. Cincinnati's defense answered the call by holding Jacquizz Rodgers to 73 yards and Oregon State to 2.9 yards per carry in a 28-18 victory on the road over the Beavers. Tony Pike was phenomenal, with 332 passing yards and two touchdowns. Pitt avoided any sort of letdown by beating Navy 27-14. The Panthers are starting to look like they can win with the backfield duo of QB Bill Stull and RB Dion Lewis. Other teams are pulling their weight - Connecticut had an encouraging road win over Baylor with its backup quarterback, Syracuse beat Northwestern and Louisville was respectable in a loss at Kentucky - but the league race is looking as if it will come down to a Dec. 5 game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Best might be the best. California RB Jahvid Best has emerged as the leader in the Heisman race one quarter of the way into the season. While Florida QB Tim Tebow, Texas QB Colt McCoy and BYU QB Max Hall had rather pedestrian performances Saturday, Best exceeded 100 yards rushing for the third consecutive game and scored five touchdowns. And that wasn't just a matter of padding statistics. California needed everything it got from Best in a 35-21 victory over Minnesota. Best now has 412 rushing yards and eight touchdowns for the 3-0 Golden Bears. The trophy may be his to lose if he has strong showings in the Bears' next two games against Oregon and USC.
Arkansas needs a defense. QB Ryan Mallett makes Arkansas dangerous, but the Razorbacks won't be a factor in the SEC West race unless their defense makes dramatic improvement quickly. Mallett arrived in Fayetteville with the reputation as a strong-armed passer. He demonstrated that against Georgia by passing for 408 yards and five touchdowns. Three of his scoring tosses covered at least 30 yards. But Mallett's brilliance wasn't nearly enough to compensate for Arkansas' porous defense, which allowed 530 yards in a 52-41 loss. Mallett's passing will ensure the Razorbacks will post some wins. But the defense doesn't figure to be good enough for the Razorbacks to be serious challengers in the division.
USC's passing attack needs work. USC's run of seven consecutive Pac-10 titles will end unless the Trojans develop a better passing game. USC is averaging 194.3 passing yards per game, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Trojans' longest pass play is just 44 yards. The second-leading receiver is FB Stanley Havili. Redshirt freshman QB Aaron Corp started in USC's stunning 16-13 loss at Washington, as true freshman Matt Barkley was out with a shoulder injury. But it likely wouldn't have mattered who was under center against Washington. This is a conservative USC offense that is trying to win with the ground game as the young quarterbacks mature. But that won't be good enough to get USC another league title this season.
TCU is looking good. With BYU (Florida State) and Utah (Oregon) losing, TCU has the best shot to be the so-called "BCS-buster." Yes, I know Boise State still is unbeaten and has a great chance to finish perfect, and I also realize Houston is in the hunt. But I think TCU will have a more impressive BCS resume than Boise State or Houston if it finishes unbeaten. The Horned Frogs will have beaten Virginia and Clemson, while also running the table in a strong Mountain West Conference with wins over BYU and Utah. The WAC (Boise State) and C-USA (Houston) can't match the strength of the MWC.
Boise State is going to finish unbeaten. Going into Friday night's game at Fresno State, there was talk about Boise having a tougher-than-it-looked schedule. Uhh, wrong. The Broncos' game at Bowling Green looks a lot easier after the Falcons fell to Marshall. Their game at Tulsa doesn't look near as difficult after the Golden Hurricane were blasted by Oklahoma. Boise gets Nevada at home, and Nevada lost Saturday at Colorado State. A trip to Hawaii is the toughest remaining game, but that's because the trip itself will be difficult, not the opponent. Boise will be behind TCU in the BCS pecking order if TCU goes unbeaten. But TCU has a tougher schedule than the Broncos.
We'll know the best team in the ACC next week at this time. Miami plays at Virginia Tech on Saturday, and the winner of that one becomes the ACC team most likely to play in the BCS. Miami's offense has looked razor-sharp in its first two games. New coordinator Mark Whipple obviously has redesigned the offense, but QB Jacory Harris deserves the most credit because he simply is playing at a high level. He's a sophomore who has made four college starts, but he looks like a senior at the end of his career. He makes great use of a talented receiving corps. As for the Hokies, they toughed out a win over Nebraska, rallying on the strength of their passing game (shocking but true). Beating Miami, though, will be tougher than beating the Huskers. And remember all that talk about the possibility of UM starting 0-4? That's long gone. Heck, 4-0 now seems possible.
The BYU defense's performance against Oklahoma was a mirage. The more I saw Florida State run roughshod over BYU's defense, the more I wondered how the Cougars ever held Oklahoma to 13 points a couple of weeks ago. The Seminoles produced five touchdowns and one field goal on their first six possessions of a 54-28 blowout. They gained more than 500 yards of total offense and averaged more than 6 yards per carry. Now we can stop thinking of BYU as a national title contender and start wondering if the Cougars are good enough to beat TCU for the Mountain West title. FSU's dominant performance also represented a major victory for offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher, who received some criticism after the Seminoles' lackluster performance a week ago in a 19-9 victory over FCS program Jacksonville State.
Hokies' Taylor has at least some potential as a passer. The scouting report on Virginia Tech said the Hokies can't come from behind because they lack a legitimate passing attack. Virginia Tech had the nation's 115th-ranked passing attack through the first two weeks of the season. Tyrod Taylor headed into Saturday with 11 career interceptions and nine touchdown passes. Taylor is best known for his running ability, but he made two huge plays with his arm to rally the Hokies to a 16-15 victory over Nebraska. With the Hokies trailing 15-10 late in the fourth quarter, Taylor hit Danny Coale for an 80-yard completion. He then threw the winning 11-yard touchdown pass to Dyrell Roberts with 21 seconds left. That comeback might be just the spark Taylor and Co. needed as they head into a huge ACC Coastal Division showdown with Miami.
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