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September 15, 2008
Monday with Mike: Nasty SEC weekend ahead
Now, we can turn our attention to the SEC. Since everyone likes it when games or weekends are nicknamed, we'll call it "Armageddon in the Southeast." But all the games won't be played in the Southeast. First, there's Georgia at Arizona State. Second, there's Florida at Tennessee. And, finally, there's Vanderbilt at Ole Miss. Just joking – third is LSU at Auburn in a game that will have a huge bearing on who wins the SEC West.
Let's take a closer look at the three games:
Georgia didn't play all that well against South Carolina, escaping with an underwhelming 14-7 victory over a Gamecocks team that evidently couldn't live with itself whenever it got close to Georgia's goal line. South Carolina outgained Georgia 289-252. What has to make Georgia coaches a bit uneasy is that Chris Smelley threw for 271 yards against the Bulldogs. Smelley never will be confused with an adequate SEC quarterback and isn't in the class of Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter, who will be tossing them against the Bulldogs next Saturday. At the same time, Arizona State's defense isn't near as good as South Carolina's. You have to think that if UNLV's Frank "The Tank" Summers can run for 103 yards in an upset of the Sun Devils, Georgia likes its chances to control the ball on the ground with Knowshon Moreno. Arizona State played emotionless football in losing to UNLV, and coach Dennis Erickson has some work to do this week on that front.
Florida routed Tennessee 59-20 last season in Gainesville, but the Vols still went on to win the SEC East. The Vols finished with just 37 rushing yards against the Gators last season, and you can bet it will be a priority for coach Phillip Fulmer and new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson to run right at the Gators this season. One thing that has to worry Florida coaches and fans is that the Gators' offense has not played that well this season. One thing that has to worry the Vols is that the Gators' offense hasn't played that well and Florida has won its first two games by a combined 69 points. Tennessee's secondary was picked apart in the opener by UCLA QB Kevin Craft, and Florida would like nothing better than to spread the field and have QB Tim Tebow get the ball to receivers who only have to beat man-to-man coverage.
Finally, expect a lot of nastiness in the loveliest village on the plains. Auburn-LSU matches two potentially excellent defenses against two offenses with a ton of questions. The past four games in the series have been decided by a total of 14 points, and twice the winning team has scored 10 or fewer points. Don't expect a lot of points Saturday, mainly because there are quarterback issues for both teams. Auburn can't seem to find one who can run and throw (and maybe even chew gum at the same time), while LSU's haven't yet seen a legit defense. Auburn needs to find a way to run effectively. If it can't, Auburn will have to pin its hopes on its defense and hope to win something like 7-6.
It was a bad weekend for the Pac-10. All 10 league teams were in action, and seven lost. And it wasn't just that they lost, but who they lost to.
In the "inexplicable loss" category fall California (to Maryland), Arizona (to previously winless New Mexico) and Arizona State (to UNLV). In the "beatdown loss" category were Washington State (to Baylor), Stanford (to TCU), Washington (to Oklahoma) and UCLA (to BYU).
Take a look at some numbers:
Arizona allowed 221 rushing yards to New Mexico, committed five turnovers and gave up three sacks.
Arizona State scored seven second-half points against UNLV, which had lost 30 of its past 37 games overall and had won once on the road since the middle of the 2004 season.
California rushed for 38 yards against a Maryland team coming off a loss to Middle Tennessee State.
Stanford managed just 193 total yards.
UCLA gave up 521 yards of offense and seven TD passes, and managed just 9 rushing yards.
Washington allowed 591 yards and 55 points, and now is 117th in the nation in total defense and 113th in scoring defense.
Washington State turned it over five times and allowed 426 rushing yards.
Oregon (at Purdue), Oregon State (vs. Hawaii) and USC (vs. Ohio State) were the Pac-10's winners, and USC's victory over Ohio State overshadows some of the Pac-10's misfortunes. Still, the national perception of the Pac-10 isn't that good right now, and there are three games in the next two weeks that will give league teams an opportunity to change some minds: Arizona State plays host to Georgia, Oregon plays host to Boise State and UCLA plays host to Fresno State. That two of those games are against non-"Big Six" foes makes them all the more important for the Pac-10.
Meanwhile, you'll notice that the Pac-10 went 0-4 against the Mountain West Conference on Saturday. That makes the MWC 6-3 against "Big Six" opponents this season. And that brings us to …
Two – and maybe even three – Mountain West teams have positioned themselves nicely for a run at a BCS bowl. Here are some potential BCS-busters – knowing full well that we're still in September and that there is a ton of football to be played.
Conference USA: East Carolina was the darling of the national media after winning its first two over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but the Pirates barely squeezed past Tulane on Saturday. The Pirates' problem in the past under fourth-year coach Skip Holtz was losing games they had no business losing, such as to Marshall and N.C. State last season and UAB and Rice in 2006. ECU has two "Big Six" opponents left, both on the road – but the games are against N.C. State and Virginia. Conference games against Houston, UCF and Southern Miss probably are more dangerous.
Mountain West: BYU, TCU and Utah are 3-0 and look to be the class of the league. BYU and Utah are done with the difficult parts of their non-conference schedules, while TCU still must travel to Oklahoma on Sept. 27. TCU won in Norman in 2005, but even though the Horned Frogs' defense is solid, it's hard to see TCU pulling the upset this season. But TCU gets BYU at home on Oct. 16 and plays at Utah on Nov. 6. While the Horned Frogs seem unlikely to head to a BCS bowl, they'll have a big say in who possibly could. Utah plays host to BYU in their nasty annual get-together on Nov. 22. Potentially, you could have two unbeaten rivals ranked in or near the top 10 playing for a conference title – and, oh, yeah, a spot in a BCS game.
Western Athletic: Fresno State's loss to Wisconsin almost certainly knocks the Bulldogs out of the BCS running. The job now for coach Pat Hill is to get his team focused on winning the conference title, which Fresno hasn't done since sharing it with Hawaii and TCU in 1999. "We still have a lot to play for," Hill told reporters after the loss. "We still have the entire season." Boise State's hopes for a second BCS bid in three seasons could end Saturday, when the Broncos play at Oregon. A win in that one and Boise should be unbeaten when it plays host to Fresno on Nov. 28.
Buffalo QB Drew Willy hit Naaman Roosevelt on a 35-yard "Hail Mary" on the final play to give the Bulls a 30-28 MAC victory over Temple. That was the last of three lead changes in the final 2:27. The Bulls play at Missouri this week, but the two games after that – at Central Michigan and vs. Western Michigan – will give an idea whether Buffalo can legitimately contend in the MAC East race. The thought here is the Bulls can.
And Middle Tennessee's attempt at a game-winning "Hail Mary" ended with a shoestring tackle on Kentucky's 1. With MTSU at its 38, QB Joe Craddock heaved the ball downfield on the final play. WR Malcolm Beyah was hammered before the ball got there, but still managed to tip it to teammate Eldred King, who was tackled on the 1 by Robbie McAtee.
How MTSU got the ball is interesting. Kentucky had the ball on Middle Tennessee's 15, facing a fourth-and-nine with 20 seconds left. For some reason, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks decided to kick a field goal, which was blocked and returned to just inside UK's 30. But a holding penalty – on Alex Suber, the guy who blocked the kick – was called, and MTSU instead was given the ball on its 38 with time for one play.
After the game, MTSU coach Rick Stockstill wasn't happy with the holding call – made by SEC refs, by the way – and told The Tennesseean newspaper of Nashville, "They'll fine me a million dollars if I say what I want to say."
Raise your hand if you thought WR Damian Williams was going to be the Arkansas transfer that made the biggest impact at USC. Yep, thought there were a number of others who – like me – felt QB Mitch Mustain never would do anything for the Trojans. Williams originally committed to Florida before signing with Arkansas out of Springdale (Ark.) High, then left after his freshman season. USC never found a go-to wide receiver last season, with tight end Fred Davis eventually taking over the role. But Williams looks as if he will be that guy this season for the Trojans. He caught just three passes against Ohio State, but two went for TDs. He has 10 catches in two games.
Tyrod Taylor went the whole way at quarterback for Virginia Tech on Saturday in the Hokies' victory over Georgia Tech. The Hokies finished with just 247 yards of offense and Taylor was 9-for-14 passing for 48 yards. Georgia Tech had 387 yards of offense and converted six of 10 third-down situations, but the Yellow Jackets also turned it over three times. The Jackets have had a somewhat seamless transition to new coach Paul Johnson's triple-option offense. It has helped that quarterback Josh Nesbitt is a great fit for the offense, and tailback Jonathan Dwyer fits nicely, as well. If the Jackets can win Saturday at home against Mississippi State, a bowl bid would seem extremely likely. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, has four of its next five on the road, including trips to North Carolina this week and Nebraska on Sept. 27. Eventually, Taylor is going to have to prove his worth as a passer, or the Hokies' defense is going to get worn down from having to prop up the team.
At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot more interesting.
Iowa at Pittsburgh, noon: Iowa is 3-0, and a win over Pitt would have the Hawkeyes in great shape for a bowl bid. The Panthers, meanwhile, still are getting gigged about that Week One loss to Bowling Green. Iowa's aggressive front four on defense will focus on stopping LeSean McCoy. Can the Hawkeyes do that? And if they do, can Pitt QB Bill Stull do enough in the air?
Utah at Air Force, 4 p.m.: There already is a lot of talk about the Utes' regular-season finale against archrival BYU. Air Force lost a ton of players off last season's surprisingly good team, but the Falcons have started 3-0 and their offense is tough to defend.
One of the best scenes from Saturday was UNLV defensive tackle Malo Taumua excitedly running off the field pointing at himself after he blocked Arizona State's potential game-tying field-goal attempt in overtime.
As for Arizona State, the loss may end up being especially damaging. The next four games for the Sun Devils: vs. Georgia, at California, at USC and vs. Oregon.
Those half-points sure can come back to haunt bettors. Consider: Central Michigan was a 3.5-point favorite over Ohio; CMU won by three. Texas Tech was a 36.5-point favorite over SMU; Tech won by 36.
South Florida true freshman kicker Maikon Bonani kicked the game-winning 43-yard field goal on the final play of the game against Kansas on Friday. He had been given the kicking job earlier in the week. Bonani, a native of Brazil, was a three-sport star in high school in Lake Wales, Fla. He also played soccer (he was the Polk County player of the year) and tennis (he was the school's No. 1 singles player). He also had a GPA of better than 4.0 and owns a good sense of humor. Kansas called timeout just before the kick in an attempt to ice him. "I kind of walked away," Bonani told the Tampa Tribune. "I didn't want to be the only kicker who goes and actually talks to his teammates."
The first BCS standings of the season come out Oct. 12.