Most intriguing matchup of the weekend? Try Washington at Ohio State. You get two programs that have endured rocky summers centered around their two most charismatic figures (Rick Neuheisel at UW and Maurice Clarett at OSU). You also get arguably the country's top wideout (U-Dub's Reggie Williams) going against arguably the top cornerback (Ohio State's Chris Gamble). A matchup you will probably hear about all night. But there is another compelling head-to-head to keep an eye on: Khalif Barnes, one of the Pac-10's best pass blockers, working against the Buckeyes all-American DE Will Smith.
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Barnes is as agile as any O-linemen in the West, running in the 4.8-range. He was very sound for most of the 2002 season -- except against Arizona State where superstar Terrell Suggs torched him. Barnes admits he was blown away by Suggs quickness of the ball and reaction to the snap. He simply couldn't handle it. He says he has seen plenty of film on Smith and compares him to the Michigan edge rushers he faced last season, Shante Orr and Larry Stevens. "Very physical guys," Barnes says.
But Barnes better not underestimate Smith's quickness. We're told it's just a shade below Suggs. One Big Ten coach we spoke with says Smith is much more athletic than the Michigan guys and called him the most underrated player in the conference. Barnes understands he can make his reputation with a big game Saturday night. He also understands that if he doesn't do a better job than he did against ASU, the Huskies have no shot of winning in Columbus.
Speaking of Smith, we decided instead of the usual pre-hash about the upcoming Heisman race it made more sense to focus on the chase for Suggs' vacant sack crown. Here are our top seven choices for NCAA sack king:
Brady Poppinga, BYU, DE: No player will benefit more from a system change than the Cougars right end, who goes from playing in a read-and-read 4-3 to Bronco Mendenhall's aggressive 3-3-5. Mendenhall, a disciple of New Mexico's Rocky Long, has been raving about the camp Poppinga (8 sacks in '02) has had and says he's a perfect fit to the scheme because he is so active and has such good change of direction.
Jason Babin, W. Michigan, DE: Miami (Ohio) QB Ben Roethlisberger will get most of the ink from the MAC, but the 6-4, 265-pound senior from WMU is almost as deserving. His 15 sacks were more than some MAC teams. Coaches say he just overpowers bigger offensive tackles and is master at utilizing leverage thanks to a champion amateur wrestling background.
Darryl Blackstock, Virginia, OLB: After a great freshman season (10 sacks), Blackstock, who played at 215 pounds last year, is up around 240 and claims he has gotten even faster.
Shaun Cody, USC, DT: The cornerstone of the nation's best D-line, he also has the benefit of playing in the pass-happy Pac-10 and gets BYU and Hawaii on the sked too. Cody's a natural pass rusher who missed most of the '02 with a knee injury. He had 57 sacks in his final two prep seasons and he's back at 100 percent. "The guy's tenacious," says Trojan D-line coach Ed Orgeron, a guy who knows something about great DTs having coached at Miami. "He's about as close to (Warren) Sapp in intensity level as I've seen. He's not as quick, but he gets off blocks very well and has got that first-step quickness and is very strong.
David Pollack, Georgia, DE: Yes, he did benefit from the double teams Jonathan Sullivan invited and now that the big DT is in the NFL, Pollack will get more attention, but he's bigger this year and the Dawgs other D-linemen are almost as talented as last year's crew.
Booger Kennedy, North Texas, DT: Kenoy Kennedy's kid brother is a fantastic athlete despite his 5-10, 300-plus pound frame. Folks back at his high school in Texas still talk about his days as an all-district point guard, something that must've been quite a sight since he wasn't that much lighter than the 315 lbs. he's totting around these days. And, yes, he can actually dunk. He had 24 TFLs and 9 sacks in 2002.
Bo Schobel, TCU, DE: Plays in a great scheme that blitzes constantly. Had 7.5 sacks last season. That could double.
Just a hunch but we're expecting a breakout season for UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis. The 6-7, 250-pound sophomore has looked like he could be a difference-maker for the Bruins this fall. He has regained the 10 lbs. he lost while playing for the UCLA hoops team last winter and appears to be the ideal guy to give Mike Shanahan protégé Karl Dorrell a weapon that could a hybrid between Shannon Sharpe and Ed McCaffrey.
The freshman most on the spot this season has to be Virginia ILB Ahmad Brooks. Not only does the 6-4, 250-pounder come in with a huge rep, he walks into a D that was awful against the run, allowing 208.9 yards per game, which ranked 108th in Division I-A. Making things worse, UVa's top three tacklers in 2002 -- linebackers Angelo Crowell (155) and Merrill Robertson (122) and safety Jerton Evans (116) -- were seniors.
Even though Pittsburgh is losing its conference connection to South Florida when Miami heads to the ACC, the Panthers are still apparently doing well in the Sunshine State. In addition to their two blue-chip oral commits, QB Anthony Morelli and TB Andrew Johnson, they also have pledges from TE Darrell Strong and CB Alphonso Smith both from South Florida. They also have a good shot at rangy burner John Peyton, a 6-4 wideout and Tampa LB Maurice Crum Jr., the son of former Miami all-American Maurice Crum who reportedly likes Pitt for its dental school.
Two freshmen we're told to keep an eye on are LSU hard-hitting safety LaRon Landry and DE/OLB Kirston Pittman who gives the Tigers an edge rushing presence they hadn't had in five years. Staying in the SEC, another rookie who is creating a buzz is Kentucky's Keenan Burton, a swift 6-2, 180-pounder who will start against Louisville. New Wildcat coach Rich Brooks has been raving about Burton's combination of size, speed and hands.
Towering Nathan Chandler (6-7, 240) is the guy Kirk Ferentz is banking on to take over for Brad Banks, but word is the Iowa coach was stunned at the maturity and accuracy freshman Drew Tate has shown this summer. The 6-0, 175-pound Tate may in fact be the anti-Chandler and don't be surprised to see the little Texan emerge as the starter by October. Tate, who owns most of the Texas state prep passing marks, had committed to A&M before R.C. Slocum left College Station.
It's doubtful after throwing for 28 TDs and almost 4500 yards Washington's Cody Pickett can put up even gaudier numbers in 2003, but new Huskies QB coach/O-coordinator John Pettas thinks the senior will be sharper this fall thanks to some refined mechanics. "Sometimes he was too quick," says Pettas, Jake Plummer's mentor at Arizona State. "He'd push the ball and not set his feet. Now we've got him setting his feet, throwing and transferring his weight a little big more consistently because at times, his mechanics got a little bit sloppy. So now we've re-grooved him."