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Coach Tyrone Willingham truly enjoyed Notre Dame's victory over Michigan.
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Tuesday, March 8

Fighting Irish in BCS? Wait and see

A number of great stories are evolving in college football, but none has stolen the spotlight like the 3-0 start of the Tyrone Willingham-led Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

Following wins over Maryland, Purdue and Michigan, the Irish are being discussed as a contender for the BCS, with a 10-win season in the realm of possibility. While excitement reigns supreme in South Bend -- and for good reason -- I'll continue to be a bit more conservative with the final projections.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham has the Irish off to a 3-0 start.
Even with improved offensive production in the victory over Michigan, the Irish still enter this Saturday's game at Michigan State with a national ranking of 100th in total offense. QB Carlyle Holiday is completing just 48 percent of his passes, and while talented sophomore RB Ryan Grant has displayed a ton of promise, he's averaging just 4.3 yards per carry and has to do a better job of taking care of the football.

Junior wideout Omar Jenkins paces the Irish receiving corps with nine catches for a whopping 19.9-yard average, but the player to watch is heralded freshman Maurice Stovall. Athletically gifted at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Stovall hauled in a 41-yard reception against Michigan and could be a valuable weapon in the weeks to come. Coming out of high school last year, Stovall was rated the 44th-best prospect in the nation by recruiting guru Tom Lemming.

Defensively, the Irish have been flying around the field, sustaining a high intensity level for the entire 60 minutes. Senior CB Shane Walton has been outstanding, and senior ILB Courtney Watson provided a major boost against Michigan on Saturday. After sitting out the first two games due to a viral infection, Watson was a key performer in the victory over the Wolverines, leading the Irish defense with eight tackles. With Watson back at 100 percent, the Irish are basically at full strength and continue to be extremely fortunate on the injury front.

Even though Michigan State was dominated in East Lansing by upstart Cal this past Saturday, a victory on the road at East Lansing this week would still be a satisfying accomplishment for the Irish. You would expect a much more intense and focused Spartan squad to show up this week.

The schedule, which has been challenging early for the Irish, doesn't get any easier over the next month and a half. In fact, the next six Irish opponents currently have a combined record of 12-3. Remember also that the Irish close out the regular season on the road against a USC squad that's off to an outstanding start.

Speaking of USC, coach Pete Carroll's fired-up Trojans moved to 2-0 on Saturday with a dominating 40-3 victory over Colorado at Boulder. The Buffaloes were playing without injured QB Craig Ochs. This Saturday, the Trojans have a huge test at Kansas State.

Senior QB Carson Palmer has been on fire, but like Notre Dame, the remaining schedule for the Trojans is brutal. Check this out: The current record of their remaining 10 opponents is a staggering 24-4. Included are critical Pac-10 road games against Washington State on Oct. 5 and Oregon on Oct. 26.

Staying in the Pac-10, you have to be wowed not only by the 3-0 start of a Cal squad that won just one game last year, but also by the awesome explosion of a Golden Bears offense that's averaging 50 points per game. New head coach Jeff Tedford, who did a masterful job developing QB Joey Harrington as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, has done an equally impressive a job with Cal senior QB Kyle Boller.

But as is the case with USC, the schedule presents some serious challenges in the weeks to come. The Golden Bears' nine remaining opponents have a combined record to date of 18-4. On Saturday, Cal hosts a 2-0 Air Force squad that had the week off to prepare for this key nonconference showdown. So on successive Saturdays Cal must adjust from facing Michigan State's Jeff Smoker-to-Charles Rogers passing combination to the triple-option wizardry of coach Fisher DeBerry's Falcons.

Ohio State is 3-0 after Saturday's impressive 25-7 victory at Columbus over Washington State, and everything appears to be set up for coach Jim Tressel's talented Buckeyes to make a run at the national championship.

Kiper's Games of the Week
Boston College at Miami
Cal at Air Force
Florida at Tennessee
N.C. State at Texas Tech
Notre Dame at Michigan State
USC at Kansas State
Virginia Tech at Texas A&M

Other key contests:
Arizona at Wisconsin
BYU at Georgia Tech
Colorado at UCLA
Fresno State at Oregon State
Louisiana Tech at Penn State
Southern Miss at Alabama

Beano Cook, my good friend at ESPN and the top college football historian in the country, predicted before the season that Ohio State would play Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title. As we move into late September, Beano has a chance to be on target with his analysis.

Offensively, the major spark has been provided by freshman sensation Maurice Clarett, a multidimensional back who combines breakaway speed with tackle-breaking ability. Clarett deserves to be in the Heisman Trophy mix, as does Miami (Fla.) third-year sophomore RB Willis McGahee.

The schedule is extremely favorable for the Buckeyes. They have to guard against a letdown this week on the road against Cincinnati. Then, over the next three weeks, they face Indiana, Northwestern and San Jose State -- teams they should physically dominate. From that point on, their toughest road battles are against Wisconsin and Purdue, while Penn State and Michigan must travel to Columbus.

Faced with QB Grant Noel's injury, severe graduation losses at DT and ILB, and the loss of big-play WR/return man Andre' Davis, Virginia Tech should have expected some rough going early in the season. Or so I thought.

Boy, have I been proven wrong. The extremely well-coached Hokies, under the direction of incomparable coach Frank Beamer and his outstanding staff, have managed their way through a challenging early schedule, dominating in wins over LSU and Marshall.

Featuring the rushing exploits of senior Lee Suggs and sophomore Kevin Jones, the Hokies (3-0) have established an awesome overland attack while flying to the football with speed and athleticism on defense. As always, Beamer's squad has no peers in the special-teams department.

That said, the Hokies face their toughest test to date on Saturday when they leave Lane Stadium and Blacksburg for the first time this season and travel to College Station to face coach R.C. Slocum and Texas A&M. That won't be their last major hurdle. The Hokies also travel to Boston College (Thursday, Oct. 10 on ESPN, 7:30 p.m ET) and close out the regular season with a showdown at the Orange Bowl against defending national champion Miami.

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