Updated: November 5, 2006 5:49:52 PM PST

Fuzzy for weeks, season coming into focus


WHO MOVED MY FOOTBALL CHEESE?

There has been something not quite right about this season, a feeling that college football is missing some ineffable quality that it has possessed in recent years. At first, I ignored the feeling. But I have heard the same sentiment from other writers, from college administrators, even from a coach or two.

But what to say? No one wants to hear this. It sounds like stereotypical whining from sportswriters. You're disappointed in the season? Fine. Let me quit my 9-to-5 job and go to football games.

It has been a virtual hangnail for the last month. It kept bugging me and it wouldn't go away. But this weekend, I figured it out. Someone moved the football cheese.

Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Morry Gash
Things haven't been quite right this season, like JoePa getting hurt on the sideline.

Look around. In a sport that depends on preconceptions to determine its champions, seasons begin under certain assumptions. This group of teams will be good. This group won't.

But it's like someone took the roadmap of this season and put it through a shredder. The milestones aren't in their usual places this fall. With some teams only two weeks away from concluding their season, down is up and up is down.

In the second week of November, Rutgers and Wake Forest have a combined record of 16-1.

In the second week of November, Penn State, Georgia and Alabama, all January bowl teams a year ago, are each 6-4 and will be home to ring in 2007. Florida State, which played Penn State in the Orange Bowl last Jan. 1, is one victory short of joining them. You want a metaphor for this season? It's Penn State coach Joe Paterno on crutches.

And, in the second week of November, California and Arkansas control their own destinies in the Pac-10 and SEC West, respectively.

Some of the old reliables are there: Ohio State and Michigan are staging a revival of that '70s smash, Big Two and Little Eight (Plus One). Texas again reigns in the Big 12. But they are almost the exceptions rather than the rule.

Hey, I've been a sucker for underdogs from way back. Wake Forest is a great story. Rutgers is a great story. Arkansas, at 8-1, where most of the fans have forgotten they wanted to run off coach Houston Nutt, is a great story.

But it seems like it's been harder this season than in any in recent memory to determine which teams are good and which aren't. College football has been out of focus. The lines are beginning to sharpen. The cheese has been found.

BUCKING THE ODDS

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops absolutely knew he had to make a gamble, even if it went against some of his best coaching instincts.

With his team facing a fourth-and-inches call just short of his own 30 with 1:29 left, Stoops elected to make one of the gutsy coaching decisions that have marked his career. After taking two timeouts, quarterback Paul Thompson squeezed into the line for the first down, allowing the Sooners to escape with a gritty 17-16 victory over Texas A&M.

Bob Stoops' gambling ways put the Aggies away Saturday night.

"I went through a range of what to do several times," Stoops said. "I first thought about punting it. But when I looked into their [his offensive coaches'] eyes, and I decided I couldn't. I felt we would make an inch and that was it."

Stoops' gambling nature was especially striking considering the two previous series by A&M coach Dennis Franchione, who elected to kick field goals when he had a chance to go for a touchdown that could have either tied the score or given them the lead.

"We had no choice," Franchione told reporters after the game. "We came up one play short. We just needed one more stop."

When facing third-and-goal from the OU 2 midway through the fourth quarter, Franchione disdained an inside run by bullish 274-pound running back Jorvorskie Lane, who ranks second in the nation with 18 touchdown runs. Instead, A&M elected to try tight Martellus Bennett on an unsuccessful crossing pattern and then converted a short field goal.

And on the ensuing possession, facing fourth-and-6 from the OU 22 with 3:28 left, Franchione again elected to kick a field goal.

Considering his defense has forced successive three-and-outs earlier in the quarter, it seemed to Franchione like he was making a wise decision. But the Aggies never got the ball back, leaving A&M message boards hopping over his strategic decision.

"Hindsight is 20-20. It's a tough call, either way," Franchione said. "You think about four downs and you think about field goals. You have all those kinds of thoughts crossing your mind.

"Certainly, going for it on fourth downs was something that we discussed."

Franchione's lack of late coaching moxie helped snap his team's four-game winning streak and squandered a fine comeback by his defense. The Aggies allowed OU to rush for 139 yards in the first quarter and 85 yards for the rest of the game.

OU marched 80 and 60 yards for touchdowns on their first two possessions, but produced only a field goal during the rest of the game.

"We came out with a full head of steam on offense," said OU tailback Allen Patrick, who accounted for 101 of his game-high 173 yards in the first quarter. "We planned on pounding the ball and as you can see, we ran the ball well. We didn't do too much passing, but were happy to grind it out."

Patrick's words were a huge understatement. The Sooners accounted for only 39 yards on three completions. It was the lowest passing total in Stoops' 100-game coaching tenure and marked only the third time in Stoops' coaching tenure the Sooners were held below 100 passing yards in a game.

"The first drive or so we were rolling and felt good about where we were at," Thompson said. "Then, it got sloppy from then on out. It's a big win, but I didn't think my play was up to part. And to get the win here says a lot about us."

APPLIED MATERIALS

The under-achieving label obviously struck a chord with LSU and its normally stoic head coach Les Miles.

The Tigers had done less with more than perhaps any team in the country heading into an environment Saturday at Neyland Stadium that was their last real chance to salvage an otherwise hollow season.

This time, they got it done thanks to a heart-stopping, last-minute touchdown drive that an emotional Miles said should tell everybody all they need to know about his club.

JaMarcus Russell
Steve Franz/WireImage.com
JaMarcus Russell and LSU have a chance to redeem their season.

LSU, in rallying to beat Tennessee 28-24, dominated the line of scrimmage, survived four turnovers and finally won on the road against a quality team after dropping disappointing decisions in their other marquee games against Auburn and Florida.

"Our football team has character," said Miles, who celebrated with his players over in front of the LSU fans after JaMarcus Russell hit Early Doucet with the game-winning 4-yard touchdown pass. "Our football team will play until the last minute, until the last second. Our football team is strong and lithe."

They were also doggedly resilient Saturday and never blinked after Tennessee took a 17-7 lead early in the third quarter.

"Before we came out, Coach [Jimbo] Fisher [the Tigers' offensive coordinator] told us whatever happens, to make no excuses, empty your pockets and leave your excuses at home," said Russell, who overcame three interceptions to rack up 318 yards of total offense. "We just went out there and played tough no matter what the situation was.

"Just never give up."

Some in the Bayou had given up on the Tigers (7-2, 3-2) after they scored a total of 13 points in their losses to Auburn and Florida.

Those two losses were particularly frustrating for LSU fans because the general consensus around the SEC is that the Tigers' starting 22 on offense and defense is better and more talented than anybody else in the league.

Now, they have a real chance to win 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history.

"We turned it over a little too much," Miles said. "But when the chips are down and a play has got to be made, we make 'em."

CHANGE OF FORTUNE

While the Big East prepares for another nationally-televised battle of unbeatens Thursday night, the ACC is putting on its best fake smile.

After all, when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College recently decided to jump the Big East ship and swim for the green shores of the ACC, it was supposed to signify the end of the Big East as a legitimate football league and give birth to a new power conference that would rival the SEC and Big Ten on the gridiron. Things clearly haven't gone according to plan.

The expectation was that Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and perhaps even Clemson would be fixtures in the newly-formed ACC Championship Game. It would have been difficult for anyone to conceive of a season without at least one of those four teams winning a division title, but that's exactly what is about to happen in year two of this new format.

Georgia Tech is a win over North Carolina or Duke away from clinching the Coastal Division, while the Atlantic Division will almost certainly be won by Wake Forest, Maryland or Boston College. All are great stories -- Wake is in position to be college football's best Cinderella story since the 1995 Northwestern Rose Bowl team -- but this isn't what the conference really needed with its young championship game being played in a city (Jacksonville) that is much more connected to the SEC than the ACC. There could be plenty of seats available for this one.

The Big East is certainly enjoying its current place behind only Ohio State and Michigan on the national praise meter (and the gap has closed after the performances of the Buckeyes and Wolverines on Saturday). But time will tell whether this sudden change of fortune is a sign of things to come or merely a blip on the radar screen.

FIVE SATURDAY OBSERVATIONS
IVAN MAISEL
Jeff Bowden
Bowden
1. It's not a good year for offenses where the head coach has a son on his offensive coaching staff. Army (offensive coordinator Kevin Ross) is struggling. Penn State (quarterback coach Jay Paterno) is struggling. Florida State (offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden) is beginning to show a pulse with Xavier Lee at quarterback. USC (tight end coach Brennan Carroll) may be an exception, but tight end coaches are lower on the masthead.

Maryland 2. I didn't understand the grumbling from Maryland fans about coach Ralph Friedgen at the beginning of the season. The low point of his six seasons in College Park is higher than anything that had come before it in a long while. Now that the Terps are 7-2 and tied for the ACC Atlantic lead, Friedgen's ability to mold a quarterback remains unparalleled. Anyone who saw Sam Hollenbach lead the two-minute drill for the winning field goal against Clemson knows how far the senior has come.

Brian Brohm
Brohm
3. Did you notice the degree of success Louisville had Thursday night on the first play of its possessions? Brian Brohm completed five-of-six passes for 149 yards, and the running backs gained 29 yards on four carries. In sum, the Cardinals had nine plays of 20 yards or more against West Virginia, five of them (Brohm's completions) on the first play off the sideline.

LSU 4. "If you want to write who we are, that's who we are right there," LSU coach Les Miles said after the 28-24 victory over Tennessee. Miles meant JaMarcus Russell's four-yard touchdown pass with :09 to play. But the Tigers are also the four turnovers they committed Saturday. LSU held the ball for 41:06 and nearly doubled Tennessee's offensive output (478 yards to 248). LSU should have won by two touchdowns. That's who the Tigers are: a sum not as great as their parts.

Alabama 5. Bad enough that Alabama lost at home to lowly Mississippi State. But Mike Shula's team got beat by a team coached by Sylvester Croom, the people's choice to replace Mike Price in May 2003. The anguish in Shula's post-game remarks was palpable. Shula may throw some assistant coaches to the wolves to keep them at bay.

COLLEGE GAMEDAY RADIO RECAP
Dave Revsine, Gerry Dinardo and Todd McShay run through Saturday's action.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM THE FINAL CREW
RECE DAVIS
Bob Stoops
Stoops
I don't think you could ever say a two-loss Oklahoma team has overachieved, but given everything that's happened to the Sooners this year, Bob Stoops should get strong consideration for Big 12 Coach of the Year. When you dismiss your starting QB just before two-a-days, lose arguably the best player in college football for the second half of the season, and still have a chance to win 10 games ... that's pretty impressive.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
George "Duke" Robinson, Oklahoma
Paved the way for 224 rushing yds vs. Texas A&M

Scott Van Pelt (filling in for Rece) Helmet Stickers:
• Erin Henderson, Maryland
18 tackles, forced fumble vs. Clemson
• Sylvester Croom, Mississippi St.
Beats alma mater and snaps team's 23-game SEC road losing streak

LOU HOLTZ
Big Ten There are only going to be a few times each season when your team plays up to its potential. To win the national championship, you must be fortunate enough to play your worst games against teams you can still beat, and that's exactly what Michigan and Ohio State did on Saturday. They may not be able to afford another letdown this season, especially when they play each other.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern
168 rush yds, TD vs. Iowa
Darren McFadden, Arkansas
219 rush yds, 2 TD vs. South Carolina
MARK MAY
JaMarcus Russell
Russell
That was a huge win for Les Miles. He needed a road win against a top-10 team to silence some of his critics, and it may have been even better that it happened in comeback fashion. And don't think it wasn't just as big for JaMarcus Russell. Bouncing back from earlier mistakes to lead the winning drive should give him plenty of confidence down the stretch, and that's a dangerous thing for LSU's future opponents.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Colt Brennan, Hawaii
413 yds, 6 TDs in 3 quarters vs. Utah State
Joel Filani, Texas Tech
8 rec., 212 yds, 3 TDs vs. Baylor
LOOKING BACK: OK STATE-TEXAS
THE REAL MCCOY
Only 10 games into his college career, Texas QB Colt McCoy is dazzling his coaches and teammates -- and possibly guiding the Horns back into national title contention, writes Mark Schlabach. Story
TWO TRICK PONIES
BRAD EDWARDS, ESPN Research
On horse racing's biggest day, it was only fitting that two of college football's big stars were Colts. Texas QB Colt McCoy threw for 346 yards and 3 TDs against Oklahoma State, giving him a school-record 27 TD passes for the season in only 10 games. McCoy, who is only a freshman, went ahead of current NFL players Vince Young and Chris Simms in the Texas record book and is just three more TDs away from having the most scoring passes of any freshman in Division I-A history. David Neill of Nevada had 29 in 1998.

Hawaii junior Colt Brennan threw for 413 yards and 6 TDs against Utah State, increasing his national-best number for TD passes to 39. With four more regular-season games and a bowl still to play, Brennan is on pace to break the Division I-A single-season record of 54 (by David Klingler of Houston in 1990). He has thrown at least four TD passes in seven straight games and has 35 TDs and 3 INTs during that span. Over his last five games, he has 25 TD passes and 1 INT.

Brennan also leads the nation in total offense (395 ypg), completion percentage (72.9) and passing efficiency (190.0). That efficiency rating would be I-A record if he can maintain it. Ranking just behind him in passing efficiency this season? Colt McCoy.

LOOKING BACK: BC-WAKE FOREST
WAKE BOARDING
Searching for the best coach no one has heard of? Try looking in Winston-Salem, where Jim Grobe has Wake Forest at 8-1, writes Ivan Maisel. Story
HIGHLIGHTS: EAGLES-DEACONS
Jim Grobe has the Demon Deacons in control of their destiny in the ACC.


 

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