Thursday, September 30, 2010

CFBZ Top 25


W-L This Week     PR
1 Alabama 4-0 #10 Florida (4-0) 1
2 Ohio State 4-0 at Illinois (2-1) 2
3 Oregon 4-0 #13 Stanford (4-0) 3
4 Nebraska 4-0 Bye 4
5 Boise State 3-0 at New Mexico St (0-3) 7
6 Arizona 4-0 Bye 6
7 TCU 4-0 at Colorado State (1-3) 5
8 Utah 4-0 Bye 11
9 Auburn 4-0 Louisiana-Monroe (1-2) 14
10 Florida 4-0 at #1 Alabama (4-0) 12
11 Oklahoma 4-0 Texas (3-1) 8
12 LSU 4-0 Tennessee (2-2) 15
13 Stanford 4-0 at #3 Oregon (4-0) 18
14 Michigan 4-0 at Indiana (3-0) 17
15 Wisconsin 4-0 at #16 Mich St (4-0) 16
16 Michigan State 4-0 #15 Wisconsin (4-0) 23
17 Nevada 4-0 at UNLV (1-3) 25
18 NC State 4-0 Virginia Tech (2-2)                    -
19 Arkansas 3-1 Bye 13
20 Miami 2-1 at Clemson (2-1) 21
21 Iowa 3-1 #25 Penn State (3-1) 20
22 USC 4-0 Washington (1-2) 24
23 Oklahoma St 3-0 Texas A&M (3-0) 23
24 South Carolina 3-1 Bye 10
25 Penn State 3-1 at #20 Iowa (3-1)       -

Dropped Out: Texas, West Virginia

Also receiving votes (in order of votes): Kansas State, Northwestern, Texas, Missouri

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Countdown to Coaching Carousel 2010: Week 5

This is my new non-Alabama related pet project for the site (good Lord willin' and Saban don't leave). Now, I'm not a sadist. I take no joy in the misfortune of others (except Auburn and Tennessee). But, gosh, do I love me some coaching intrigue. Awkward press conference denials, tepid votes of confidence from administrators, clandestine booster meetings, tracking private jets like kids on Christmas Eve, wacky Internet rumors, hilarious talk radio...What's not to love? Unless Santa leaves a Mike Shula under your tree. In that case, you're guaranteed seasonal depression for about 4 years. And that sucks. Believe me.

Anyway, now that most teams are officially a third of the way through their schedule, my goal here is to provide you with at least a bi-weekly check up on which coaches are in danger of taking a ride on the carousel. For the sake of brevity, I'll mainly be focusing on the major programs, at least in the early going. You'll have to look elsewhere to keep up with your favorite MAC coach. The list will grow or shrink based on performance. Four coaches entered the 2010 season on stand-by for a spot on the carousel, so we'll start by assessing where they're at one month into the season. Then we'll check in on a pair who may be heading to the express check-in.


Ralph Friedgen, Maryland
2010 Record: 3-1
Coming into this season, the Terrapins have suffered through losing seasons in 4 of the past 6 seasons, including a 2 win season in 2009. Pretty much the only things that saved Friedgen's job were financial constraints, and perhaps some degree of administrative apathy. However it's difficult to believe even the most disinterested administrator (or more importantly, boosters) will stand for yet another losing campaign in 2010. So far, Friedgen is off too a good start, halfway to bowl eligibility through September. But aside from stealing a win from Navy, these wins haven't come against strong competition. The Terrapins have a good shot at being 4-1 heading into their bye-week, but after that, the going gets tough and I don't see two sure wins on the schedule. Technically, offensive coordinator James Franklin has been anointed the coach-in-waiting, but I bet he goes down with the ship.
Next 2 weeks: vs. Duke, bye
Chances for Survival: 40%

Dan Hawkins, Colorado
2010 Record: 2-1
The Buffaloes have only made one bowl appearance under Hawkins, and he's never posted a winning record in Boulder. In fact, the team has gotten progressively worse since posting a high water mark of 6-7 in 2007. Similar to Friedgen, Hawkins' return has precious little to do with any optimism regarding his ability to turn things around. However, if Hawkins fails to take advantage of this stay of execution, the odds are good the administration at Colorado will be looking for a new coach to lead the program into it's new conference. Thus far, Hawkins' Buffaloes have soundly beaten a pair of the most mid of mid-major teams, but were shellacked by a Cal team that was subsequently shellacked by Nevada. Next up - a visit from the suddenly equally as desperate Mark Richt and their entire conference schedule.
Next 2 weeks: vs. Georgia, at Missouri
Chances for Survival: 10%

Ron Zook, Illinois
2010 Record: 2-1
Through 5 years, the Zooker has posted one Rose Bowl season and five miserable, losing seasons. He survived to 2010 thanks to mandated massive turnover of his coaching staff, but I highly doubt the Illinois administration is going to be patient if the Illini don't display significant improvement. And they did look plucky opening the season in a loss to Missouri, but since then they've gone off the grid, running the dreaded gauntlet of Southern AND Northern Illinois before taking yet another week off, this time without pretense. Those two games definitely padded the record early, but all they really accomplished was to force Zook to win 7 games to get bowl eligible. Six wins is going to be tough enough as it is. Next up, 8 straight weeks of Big 10 play followed by a road trip out to Fresno.
Next 2 weeks: vs. Ohio State, at Penn State
Chances for Survival: 25%

Rich Rodriguez, Michigan
2010 Record: 4-0
Do I even need to recount RichRod's journey to this point? The guy was dead man walking until Denard Robinson happened. Now the only guy happier than Rich is Denard's momma. As long as Robinson can stay healthy (apparently easier said than done) and the defense can keep opponents below 40, the Wolverines should get bowl eligible with ease. But I'm still keeping my eye on this one. After all, Rich did have this team at 4-0 last year, too. And we all know how that ended up.
Next 2 weeks: at Indiana, vs. Michigan State
Chances for Survival: 70%


Dennis Erickson, Arizona State
2010 Record: 2-2
After bursting onto the scene with a 10-win season in 2007, Erickson's Sun Devil teams have trailed off to sub-Koetter levels. As of today, his record at ASU sits at 21-20. They're not without hope in 2010, though. Their two losses were heartbreakers where top-tier teams seemed ready to give the game to them. Are the Sun Devils a thus-far-unlucky team with a lot of upside down the stretch, or were they made to look good by better teams playing bad games? We'll find out. The bad news: the Sun Devils have been really bad on the road under Erickson, and 5 of their last 8 games will be away from home. It will probably take a bowl berth to save his job, but that's literally going to be a long, hard road for him.
Next 2 weeks: at Oregon State, at Washington
Chances for Survival: 45%

Mark Richt, Georgia
2010 Record: 1-3
Richt's situation went from "tough but manageable" to "pretty freaking dire" over night in Starkville. Georgia should never lose to Mississippi State, with or without AJ Green. Richt is now just 10-9 in conference play since the BCS season of 2007. Aside from dominating Georgia Tech, his record against UGA's main rivals is lousy (2-7 against Florida) or way more average than it should be (5-4 against Tennessee, 2-4 over the last 6). Even worse, his mystique as a road warrior (33-6 coming into this year) seems to be shattered after losing the first two road games this season, including the aforementioned embarrassment in Starkvegas. A lot of media types have been jumping to Richt's defense this week, and certainly, there are legitimate defenses for him. But he's in a tough spot. He didn't need this after a sub-par 2009. I'm not saying he's going to be fired right now, but I do think he needs to hit 7-5 again, meaning 6-2 over the last 8, to avoid a really unpleasant Thanksgiving.
Next 2 weeks: at Colorado, vs. Tennessee
Chances for survival: 70%

We'll check back in a week or two to see how these guys have progressed and if anyone is ready to join them...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In Review: Arkansas & The Season So Far

I'd like to start by patting myself on the back for my revised pick on the Arkansas game. My predicted 31-27 Bama win wasn't too far off from the 24-20 actual Bama win. In fact, they were two endzone interceptions away from hitting that score exactly. Although I'm not complaining. It's a really good thing Ryan "First Half Heisman" Mallett tossed that 2nd quarter pick to Robert Lester. 24-7 at the half is a whole different ball game than 17-7.

In the end, I think that whole game was sort of a microcosm of the entire season so far: the offense only got stopped when they stopped themselves (2 crummy interceptions, failing to execute simple plays like screen passes), the special teams were solid, and the defense gave up big plays but ultimately made enough plays of their own to win it.

As awful as the defense was in the 1st half, I think these young guys showed a glimpse of what they're capable of in the 2nd half. You learn who someone really is when their back is up against the wall, and, boy, were these guys' backs ever up against the wall. In fact, I think that was sort of the theme for the game.

In that situation, you either quit and pack it in for next week (can't win with 'em, in the words of Mike Singletary), or you just let go of all the fear and insecurities, say, "If I'm going down, I'm going down on my own terms," then go fly around the field trying to make plays and let the chips fall where they may. The Bama defense opted for the latter. They started punishing the receivers before, during, and after they caught the football. They started hitting Mallett on nearly every drop.

And before you knew it, Bama was in their heads. All of the sudden, those high-flying receivers were dropping simple catches because they were wondering where Nico Johnson and Mark Barron were coming from next. And Mallett, oh, Mallett...The guy started flopping like a soccer player and working fake injuries like a pro wrestler. He totally folded under pressure. If he had spent less time crying to the refs, who knows how the game might have played out. But that's just who he is. When the tables were turned, he couldn't match Bama's intensity. He mentally checked out. That's what separates the great teams and the great players from the also-rans.

I told you guys to take McElroy when it came to "winning time." This game just confirmed what we knew about him already. For the record, here are his stats by half:

1st: 9 for 13, 97 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
2nd: 9 for 13, 97 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs

That's it. Not flashy at all, but that's all it takes to be a winner. Just keep your head on straight. Minimize your mistakes. Let the game come to you and then take it what it gives you. A string of cliches, yes, but also utterly true. Do you think Mallett would trade some of his 357 yards for about 2 less interceptions and a win right now?

The big question for Bama moving forward is this: For all the "growing up" the defense did in the 2nd half against Arkansas, will they be mature enough to maintain that level of play for the rest of the season, or will they continue to be immature and have to be pushed up against the wall again before they remember how to play? If they keep playing to the standard they set in the second half, Bama fans can go ahead and start making their reservations in Glendale, because no one is going to beat them.

Time for some 1st month acknowledgements!

Bama's Most Pleasant Surprise So Far: This was a little difficult to pick since the season has mostly played out exactly as I imagined, but I'd go with the kicking specialists (Cade Foster, Jeremy Shelly, and Cody Mandell). I had targeted this as THE major weakness of the team, even more so than the secondary, but all 3 have acquitted themselves well through the first 4 games. Their kicks don't always look pretty, but they get the job done. Fortunately, we haven't had to see Foster or Shelly attempt a kick for the win or a tie late in the game as of yet. I'd like to keep it that way.

Bama's Biggest Disappointment So Far: This one was easy. But as poorly as the secondary has played at times, it's not them. I expected their play to be spotty, so I can't say they've "disappointed" expectations. Instead, I'm looking at you, Pass Rush. Coming into the season, this was expected to be the strength of the defense and the saving grace of those young defensive backs. But through 4 games, the pass rush has been as spotty as the coverage. It's shown up when Bama needed it the most (Penn State's forays into the redzone, late against Arkansas) but largely has been MIA. Granted, there are some legitimate excuses for this. Bama's #1 pass rusher, Marcell Dareus, missed 2 games due to suspension and injured his ankle early against Arkansas. Likewise, Bama's #2 pass rusher, Courtney Upshaw, suffered a high ankle sprain in the first game of the season and has been gradually working his way back into the lineup ever since. You could even make the case that the coaching staff held back most of it's pressure packages through the first 3 games. Those are all clearly mitigating circumstances. But I don't see how it can completely excuse the lack of a rush against Duke or San Jose State, or even Penn State. Guys like Darrington Sentimore, Damion Square, and Ed Stinson should be able to eat up the likes of those teams on talent alone. This MUST improve.

Guys Playing Well Under the Radar: Not a lot of under the radar guys on offense. You mostly know the names there. I do think Preston Dial's emergence as a receiving threat out of the H-back spot is an underrated development for the offense, especially as a weapon in the redzone. However, I'd like to point out two guys on defense. First, true freshman inside linebacker CJ Mosely. The fact that he's a true freshman getting playing time in a loaded linebacking corps tells you all you need to know about what Saban thinks of this kid. He's proven himself to be a very intellectual and instinctual player (a deadly combination), and when he's on the field, you can bet he'll be wherever the ball is. It wouldn't shock me if he takes somebody's starting job THIS season, but just wait until he gets a full year in the strength & conditioning program. Yikes. Secondly, I'd point you toward redshirt junior nose guard Nick Gentry. To this point in his career, Gentry has mostly been just a guy filling a roster spot, seeing minimal playing time in blowout situations. However, with the departure of Terrence Cody and the coaching staff experimenting with Kerry Murphy at defensive end, Gentry has begun to see significant time platooning with Josh Chapman. And he's played very well. He's been a surprisingly sharp pass rusher, including putting a nasty hit on Ryan Mallett that I believe may have been the one that had him tapping out for good. Watch out for him as the season progresses.

Defensive Player of the Month: Robert Lester, safety. I feel like my love/hate relationship with him is already well documented. He can either be the goat or the GOAT, depending on the play. There's no middle ground with him. Though I think as a general rule, if it's a run play, something bad is probably going to happen. That said, the guy is growing into the definition of a ballhawk, with 4 interceptions in 4 games and a fumble recovery to boot. As mentioned above, his endzone pick on Ryan Mallett may have been a game-saver. Once he learns how to take pursuit angles and finish tackles, he's going to be All-SEC, right up there with Mark Barron.

Offensive Player of the Month: Trent Richardson, running back. Through 4 games, he's amassed 764 all-purpose yards and 6 total TDs. He showed he was more than capable of being The Man at running back in the absence of Mark Ingram. Even with the return of Ingram, he's remained productive when he's gotten his opportunities. And I must say I've been surprised at how well he's adapted to his new role as the primary kick returner. Nobody is touching Javier Arenas as a punt returner, but I think Trent may have already surpassed him as a kick returner. He has greater top end speed than Javy did, and he returns kicks with the same intensity he plays every other down. Good luck, walk-ons and 2nd and 3rd stringers on the kick coverage team. Speaking of which, who is the crazy genius on Bama's staff that has him ON THE KICK COVERAGE TEAM, too? That should be against the rules.

I'll be back later in the week to talk about this weekend's game with Florida.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Week 4 Questions: Virginia Tech

1. What has been the most pleasant surprise this year?

That despite how we all feel right now in Blacksburg, this apparently is NOT the beginning of nuclear apocalypse. Whew, the JMU loss had me worried for a minute.

2. What has been the biggest disappointment so far?

Well obviously the loss to JMU will never go away. JMU fans have been classy about it, but I have to say that they treat it like they have historically dominated us and the ones doing that are bandwagon clingers and can't be old enough to remember the past. I mean it's not like it didn't happen. It did. But many JMU fans don't remember the the 49-0 and 43-0 drubbings in the last two games they played against the Hokies.

Otherwise, on the field stuff...our offense. Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and David Wilson, our three-headed tailback monster that now looks as harmless as three Gremlins before you feed them after midnight. For that, I point the finger at two things: Our porous offensive line and our terrible offensive coordinator. Our offense which is supposed to be LOADED with talent (and it is) has not put up the kind of yardage or points we all foresaw in the preseason. All of us Hokie fans kind of joked "Stinespring can't even screw this one up." But the man, the myth, the legend that is Bryan Stinespring has managed to do just that. We are averaging fewer yards and points than a year ago while we return every major skill position player plus a former 1,000 yard rusher from injury, and have 3 backs who could legitimately start at any school in the nation not named Alabama.

Case and point of our offensive woes: Even in our 19-0 defeat of Boston College over the weekend we amassed only 343 yards. Compare that to earlier in the year when BC played FCS Weber State and you'll see that the ___________'s (I don't know Weber State's mascot, so that's a sign. Fill it in in the comment section if you know) gained 381 yards against the vaunted BC D. I'm not saying it couldn't be a fluke, but if our offense sputters to the tune of that yardage and that point total with only one touchdown and doing it week after week, well we're the ones who aren't doing ourselves any favors on offense...and the finger will continue to point at the incredibly unimaginative Bryan Stinespring.

3. What are the biggest areas of improvement needed right now?

Offensive line. No doubt. Although the aforementioned grilling of Stinespring was warranted, the OL has not been doing him or anyone else on this team any favors. It's a classic Tech O-line who returns 3 quality starters and inexplicably they come back a year later as if they had played well last year because of some freak accident. If this stable of backs can't go for 250 a game no matter what the playcall, these guys don't deserve to be called offensive linemen. They're just impersonating.

4. Which players are quietly playing really well so far this year?

Bruce Taylor. Some people grilled him early on for missed tackles, and true, he did miss his share. But he also leads the team in tackles, and is one of the team's best leaders out there, despite having literally no PT before the Boise game. It has to be hard to have two game-altering calls go against you in your first two games as a starter, especially since neither was the right call. You have to feel like you can't do anything right at that point. But to his credit, Taylor took it all in stride and is now playing like a man on fire. It's to the point where there might be a controversy over who to start when incumbent Barquell Rivers returns.

Also Steven Friday's torrid play continues as he has registered four sacks in four games. His play has helped to solidify a defensive line unit which was one of the big question marks heading into the season. Through four games, Friday has recorded four sacks and has been a constant presence in the backfield.

5. What are the major question marks headed into this weeks game?

Can the defense put a full 60 minutes together? The 19-0 victory over BC last week was a deceiving margin. The Eagles left at least 17 points on the board against the Hokies, missing a very makeable field goal, throwing an interception in the red zone and poor clock management at half. Although at times they looked the dominant force that a Bud Foster D should look, they have yet to look that way for 60 minutes, much less a full quarter. Our linebackers (particularly Jeron Gouveia-Winslow) keep getting lost in coverage, and are biting on the play-fake at a staggering rate.

I only say the defense is the question mark because they hold the key to the game. I don't see the offense inexplicably exploding against the Wolfpack, even with the possibility of an infusion via Ryan Williams return. The offense is what it is, and after a full four weeks, this is probably a very close representation of our 2010 offense's form. With that being said, the defense limiting the opponent's scoring is the key...just like classic Tech football, an offense relying on a defense to keep them in games. The only thing is, it was supposed to be the other way around this year!

6. What needs to happen in order to secure a victory in this weeks game?

With a team like NC State and a guy like Russell Wilson at the helm this week, it will be key to keep him from making plays, both with his arm and with his feet. He is a freak athlete (evidenced by being picked in the MLB draft, but choosing to stay in college). He is an extremely efficient QB who is on another 100+ passes without an interception streak. His last one was last year against the Hokies after going over 300 passes without a pick. Much like Tyrod Taylor he keeps plays alive, but much differently than Taylor (although Taylor of late has done this a lot more) his eyes are ALWAYS downfield.

I watched last week while Wilson torched the Georgia Tech defense. It was scary. But, our defense, even in its youth is better than the Jackets D. So while I don't expect a free-for-all out there, it is paramount that our D keep Wilson under 250 total yards. If we do that, I like our chances. If not, it's anyone's game.

I know that our offense has to improve before we start beating teams like NC State on the road, but short of a miracle or Michael Vick regaining his eligibility to come back and suit up, our D is going to have to answer the call.

The Agony of Defeat

I've been trying to think of what to say after the debacle that was the Georgia/Miss State football game. It would be easy to come out and call for somebody's head and to blame players and coaches but honestly I'm not exactly sure what is wrong with this team. The biggest issues right now are the offense having no idea how to score inside of the red zone (and Washaun Ealey's knack for fumbling at the opponent's goaline), the offensive lines refusal to live up to expectations, the defensive line not playing consistently and blown assignments on the defensive side of the football. Georgia is 1-3 and 0-3 in the SEC (Georgia has lost 3 games in a row for the first time since 1990). ESPN blogger Chris Low notes that Georgia is just 2-7 in their past 9 SEC games.

Georgia hasn't been blown off the field by any of their opponents. South Carolina controlled Georgia on the lines of scrimmage but Georgia was within a fumble on the goal line of bringing that to a 1 pt game in the 3rd quarter. Arkansas beat Georgia on a last minute drive where they probably only had the football because of a poor play call on 3rd down by Georgia and poor blocking in pass protection. Despite the score, Miss State didn't run Georgia off the field either and if Washaun Ealey doesn't fumble on the two yard line again it might be a completely different football game. That being said, with all due respect, we are talking about South Carolina, Arkansas and Mississippi State here. This isn't Florida, Alabama and LSU. Georgia has lost to 3 consecutive teams (that while improving) have spent the better part of their SEC history being middle of the pack and worse teams. The fact that Georgia has just lost to all of these teams is very troubling and perplexing.

One third of the football season has passed. I'm no math major but that means that we have 8 games left to get this thing turned around as much as possible. Mark Richt is feeling the heat more than he ever has as a coach or player. He understands that his team is in a worse position than it's ever been with him at the helm. The Georgia coaching staff and players have a lot of soul searching to do. The next game is at Colorado this Saturday. At this point Georgia has to take it one game at a time, one drive at a time, one play at a time. This year has quickly turned into a nightmare. The upcoming schedule is favorable (at Colorado, home versus Tennessee and Vandy and then on the road at Kentucky). It's time to step up and be men or be left behind. In all my years as a Georgia fan I've never looked so forward to the start of the college basketball season.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Alabama/Arkansas: The Pick

I had some Internet problems this week that kept me from doing a full write up on the game, but I at least wanted to get ON THE RECORD with my official pick before kickoff. Basically, I was temporarily insane when I made my preseason prediction on this one. I can't pick ARKANSAS to beat Bama. Come on. They struggled to hit 30 against Georgia. No way they're getting that much against the Tide, let alone the 40+ I called for. So for a variety of reasons I don't have time ro get into now, the new pick is:

Alabama 31, Arkansas 27

Should still be a nailbiter, though.

College Football Pick'ems Week Three Results

Last week we had 2 people pick 22 correct games including Troy of the Wisconsin based blog BadgerofHonor and then we had 13 people pick 21 correct (including CFBZ's J Martin & Ross). In terms of overall performance J Martin & Ross are both holding down Top 5 spots and representing for CFBZ. The pro-UCLA blogger and Anti-USC The Trojan Haters Club comes in at #3 overall. And despite a lackluster start to the football season for the Big East, the bloggers are holding up their end of the bargain as Bearcatmark's Blog and Orange:44 are both in the Top 10.

Overall Leaderboard Correct Pics Bonus Pts
1 Thomas Bates (Beach Bums) 60 764
2 J Martin (CFBZ) 60 763
3 Trojan Hater ( 59 760
4 David Cosgrove (Outabounds) 59 738
5 Ross WB (CFBZ) 58 761
6 Frank Cilento (Winter Springs Gators) 58 752
7 Mark Raines (Bearcatmark) 58 750
8 Roy Smith (BSUBOYZ) 58 744
9 Carl Mayer (Zoe and Ethan) 58 736
10 Brian Harrison (Orange44) 58 721

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Six Pack Games of the Week: September 23-25

Every week, I’ll throw a spotlight on the six most interesting games of the weekend to tell you why these are the games you should try to catch, who’s going to win (and why), and what ramifications they could have on the rest of the college football landscape.


#19 Miami (1-1) @ Pittsburgh (1-1) (7:30pm EST, ESPN)
Both teams have been off since 9/11/10, so they should be well-rested and well-prepared for this game, which pits two former Big East rivals against one another, both of whom could really use an impressive win to regain some of their season's lost momentum. Miami's had two weeks to stew over a loss to Ohio State in which any chance they might have had at springing the upset was killed by Jacory Harris' four interceptions, while Pittsburgh hasn’t played an opponent with a pulse since their opening night stumble at Utah. (They beat New Hampshire two weeks ago.) In a battle of two coaches who recruit well but frequently struggle on game day, I’d usually say go with the guy with the better talent on hand (which seems like Miami, by a hair). On the other hand, it’s not often wise to bet against the home underdog on Thursday night, so I’ll grudgingly side with the Wannstache in this one.

#1 Alabama (3-0) @ #10 Arkansas (3-0) (3:30pm EST, CBS)
The season’s second all-top ten clash (after the Boise State-Virginia Tech thriller in week one) was one of the more anticipated games of the SEC slate before the season began and even before Arkansas seemed likely to be ranked in the top ten, owing to Arkansas’ status as the sexy dark horse pick in the SEC. After nearly toppling Florida last year and having a solid season, Arkansas was expected to be a major threat this year with nearly all of their offensive firepower back, an improved defense, and, in this game a match-up advantage (Ryan Mallett and Arkansas’ high-powered passing offense versus Alabama’s inexperienced secondary), and homefield. On the other hand, Alabama has cruised through the opening three weeks with nary a speedbump, even without the services of two of their best players, RB Mark Ingram and DT/DT Marcell Dareus for the opening two games. They both returned last week and Alabama obliterated Duke, 62-13. They are scary good – again. Still, even the best teams are going to have tough games and this looks like one of Alabama’s toughest games of the year. It’s also the beginning of a brutal three-game stretch that sees road trips to Arkansas and South Carolina bookended around a home game against Florida. Then again, with Saban in charge, their eyes should be firmly on the obstacle in front of them, which is Arkansas and Mallett. And it’s tough to pick against the defending champs when they’re playing so lights-out. So as much as I want to go for the upset…

#12 South Carolina (3-0) @ #17 Auburn (3-0) (7:45pm EST, ESPN)
There are few things stranger than watching architect of the Fun-n-Gun offense that revolutionized the passing game in the SEC become a disciple of the cro-mag football that’s long characterized the Big Ten, but then again running backs like Marcus Lattimore don’t come along every day, so even a passing guru like Steve Spurrier knows when to ride that horse as long as possible. Granted, it’s not like Spurrier’s been allergic to the running game in the past (even at Florida he churned out quality tailbacks like some guy by the name of Emmitt Smith) and if Stephen Garcia was your main option at quarterback, it’s easy to see why pounding away on the ground seems a little more palatable… but still: kinda weird. Meanwhile, Gene Chizik’s Auburn squad has its own freshman stud running back in Michael Dyer, although he’s only the third most prolific runner on this team, behind QB Cameron Newton and fellow RB Ontero McCalebb. Newton continues to be a work in progress in the passing game, but he’s a definite threat on the ground. With two powerful running games and two nasty, hard-hitting defenses (the Auburn-Clemson game a week ago seemed to feature a game-stopping injury every third play), this one should be the kind of game Bo and Woody would have enjoyed, even if it is dressed up in SEC colors. Auburn has the homefield edge, but they’ve looked like the shakier side so far and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could finally be the year that South Carolina breaks through.

#24 Oregon State (1-1) @ #3 Boise State (3-0) (8:00pm EST, ABC)
For the first time ever, College GameDay’s headed to Boise to party on the Smurf Turf as Boise State continues their inexorable march to, at the very least, a third BCS bowl appearance in the last five years – and perhaps even a BCS Championship Game appearance if a few things can break their way. Oregon State represents the last chance for one of the power conferences to derail the Broncos before they can crash the big boy party; all they have to do is accomplish the nigh-impossible: beat Boise on that aforementioned Smurf Turf. You could count the number of games Boise has lost on their home field in recent years on one hand, even if that one hand was a stump. They basically never, ever lose there. Oregon State gave TCU a run in the opener, but they struggled to put away a middling Louisville team traveling thousands of miles to Corvalis, OR last week; maybe they were just looking ahead to their big showdown with Boise, but it doesn’t breed much confidence. Meanwhile, Boise rebounded from seeing their national spotlight win over Virginia Tech lose almost all of its luster after the Hokies got knocked off by James Madison by turning around and curbstomping Wyoming last week. They seem pretty focused on doing what they need to do, which is just beating everyone in front of them. If this game was anywhere but Boise, I would give Oregon State a slight chance at the upset. But in Boise? Not happening.

#22 West Virginia (3-0) @ #15 LSU (3-0) (9:00pm EST, ESPN2)
Can ESPN just air three hours of these two fanbases tailgating and hanging out before the game? That’s almost guaranteed to be more interesting than whatever these two winning-but-flawed football teams do on the field, given how passionate (read: totally goddamn insane) their fans are. I would not want to be a cop in Baton Rouge on Saturday night. Anyway, the game. LSU enters the game as the sole team in the FBS who’s managed to record three wins over fellow BCS teams; sure those three teams were SEC bottomfeeders Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and a hugely depleted North Carolina team, but hey: wins over teams that aren’t just there to collect a fat paycheck are nothing to sniff about at this stage of the season. After inexplicably giving up a career day to North Carolina’s TJ Yates, the LSU defense has buckled down considerably, holding Vandy and MSU to a combined 10 points and roughly 400 yards of total offense. Which is good because the LSU offense has looked a mite sluggish; they needed big second halves to break open both games. West Virginia’s 3-0 mark contains two wins over FBS competition, but they haven’t looked hugely impressive in doing so; they needed a quasi-miraculous comeback to get by in-state rivals Marshall two weeks ago and they let Maryland hang around for a good chunk of the game a week ago. Geno Smith is emerging as a solid quarterback (71/101, 800 yards, 7/1 TD/INT), but he hasn’t faced a defense nearly as brutal as LSU’s, nor a cornerback as impenetrable as Patrick Peterson, and while Noel Devine is slippery, busting off runs against CUSA and ACC defenses is one thing; doing it against one of the SEC’s best is another. And picking against LSU in Death Valley at night? You must be crazy.

Cal (2-1) @ #14 Arizona (3-0) (10:00pm EST, FSN)
Arizona is the team of the moment, and justifiably so after picking up one of the young season's signature wins in knocking off a top-ten team in Iowa. But the college football season is a marathon, not a sprint; it's one thing to get amped up for one big night game on national TV, against an opponent that your coach has history with and that you wanted to beat to avenge a loss from last fall -- it's another thing entirely to be able to maintain that level of focus and passion throughout eight, nine, or ten more games. Arizona was well-coached and well-prepared for their game with Iowa and executed their gameplan very well... but 18-22 year olds can't (and won't) execute at that level, week in and week out. So the trick becomes winning when you aren't at your best. And a week after such a big win, after spending all week reading stories about how great they are and how they've shed the "mediocre" or "underachiever" labels that have dogged them in the past, it would be an absolute stunner if there wasn't a little bit of a hangover there. On the flipside, Cal's coming off one of the most humiliating losses of Jeff Tedford's tenure, a game in which their defense got utterly destroyed by Nevada's Colin Kaepernick. But they're not as bad as they looked in that game and they have the talent to give Arizona some troubles if their heads aren't totally in the game. On the other hand, the home team has won five straight in this series...

Monday, September 20, 2010

CFBZ Top 25

W-L This Week PR
1 Alabama 3-0 at #13 Arkansas (3-0) 1
2 Ohio State 3-0 Eastern Michigan (0-3) 2
3 Oregon 3-0 at Arizona State (2-1) 3
4 Nebraska 3-0 S Dakota St (0-2) 7
5 TCU 3-0 at SMU (2-1) 6
6 Arizona 3-0 California (2-1) 22
7 Boise State 2-0 Oregon St (1-1) 5
8 Oklahoma 3-0 at Cincinnati (1-2) 4
9 Texas 3-0 UCLA (1-2) 9
10 South Carolina 3-0 at #14 Auburn (3-0) 10
11 Utah 3-0 San Jose St (1-2) 11
12 Florida 3-0 Kentucky (3-0) 13
13 Arkansas 3-0 #1 Alabama (3-0) 16
14 Auburn 3-0 #10 South Carolina (3-0) 19
15 LSU 3-0 #22 West Virginia (3-0) 17
16 Wisconsin 3-0 Austin Peay (2-1) 14
17 Michigan 3-0 Bowling Green (1-2) 12
18 Stanford 3-0 at Notre Dame (1-2) 15
19 Oklahoma St 3-0 Off 23
20 Iowa 2-1 Ball State (1-2) 8
21 Miami, Fl 1-1 at Pitt (1-1) 22
22 West Virginia 3-0 at #15 LSU (3-0) NR
23 Mich State 3-0 Northern Colorado (2-1) NR
24 USC 3-0 at Wash St (1-2) NR
25 Nevada 3-0 at BYU (1-2) NR

Dropped Out: Cal, Houston, Air Force, Georgia

Also receiving votes (in order of ranking): Penn State, Kansas State, Oregon State, Pitt, Northwestern, Temple, Air Force

*PR= Previous Ranking

Alabama/Arkansas: Greg McElroy vs. Ryan Mallett, Round 2

This week I'm trying to break up my pre-game preview into smaller, bite-sized pieces, so I'm not dumping it all on the blog Friday afternoon. I hope to have something about the Bama defense up tomorow, but for today, I thought we'd have a brief word on the quarterbacks.

McElroy vs. Mallett

It won't get the hype that Jacorry Harris vs. Terrelle Pryor got two weeks ago, but this is the REAL quarterback duel of September. As of today, the chronically underestimated Greg McElroy sits atop the NCAA's passing efficiency rankings. Heisman hopeful Ryan Mallett currently resides at #5. Their numbers through 3 games look like this:

McElroy: 43-60 (71.7%), 705 yards, 6 TDs, and 1 interception

Mallett: 70-100 (70%, duh), 1,081 yards, 9 Tds, and 2 interceptions

Mallett has significantly more yards, but he has also thrown significantly more passes. McElroy averages almost a full yard more than Mallett per attempt. G-Mac is also throwing touchdowns at a slightly higher rate.

In last year's meeting in Tuscaloosa, McElroy was the winner on more than just the scoreboard. Mallett struggled mightily on the road, as he typically did prior to this past Saturday's Georgia game, completing only 12 of 35 passes for 160 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Meanwhile, McElroy hit on 17 of 24 for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns, including scoring throws of 80 and 50 yards.

This is not an attempt to convince you that McElroy is a better passer than Mallett. I'd argue he's a better quarterback, but he's definitely not a more gifted passer. It's just to let you know that he's in the same ballpark. Given the current state of the secondaries they'll be playing against, both could put up big numbers this Saturday.

Personally, I'll take McElroy. I know, I know...I might be a bit biased. And there's no denying that Mallett is putting up some huge numbers. I just think it's going to be a close game. And in close games, Mallett has a tendency to get a little wild with the football, forcing balls into tight coverage and throwing errant deep balls when a check down would have been a smarter play. He played poorly down the stretch against Georgia before the Bulldogs gave him that one last drive and proceeded to play their worst defense of the day. Who knows, maybe that drive was his breakthrough. Or maybe he just lucked into Georgia playing with a young secondary in a new scheme.

When it comes to "winning time," I'll take the preeminent winner. That's Greg McElroy. Even beyond having the winning gene, he's been on fire this season, connecting on throws that I didn't even know he had in his repertoire. He's taken his game to another level and really looks like he can do anything he wants right now. He is pure confidence, and it's rubbing off on the rest of the team. Guys like Earl Alexander and Chris Underwood are suddenly making plays well above their station. Say what you want about the competition he's done it against, but Arkansas' defense isn't any better than Penn State's, whom McElroy clowned on early before Saban shut it down in the second half to spare JoePa's dignity.

In case you're wondering, I may be softening on my rather dire preseason prediction of a 41-38 Arkansas win. I still have a few days to flip-flop. Stay tuned...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Arkansas/Georgia Thoughts

This one is a little harder to swallow than the South Carolina game because Georgia fought so hard to get back and were in position to take control of the game late in the 4th quarter. Unfortunately, depth reared it's ugly head. Going into the game Georgia knew that it would be without star receiver A.J. Green (NCAA Suspension), starting FB Shaun Chapas, starting TB Caleb King and two-way speed merchant Branden Smith. With the game tied Georgia had a 3rd and 4 or 5 at mid-field, Aaron Murray dropped back to pass and just got destroyed by an Arkansas end before Murray even had a chance to think. The culprit? Washaun Ealey missed a key block that gave Arkansas the ball back and led directly to Arkansas's winning TD drive. I'm not here to throw Washaun Ealey under the bus. He's a good RB and does a lot of things better than Caleb King. But King is a much better blocker and would have been in the game in this position if he was healthy and he would have made that block. After that who knows? Maybe Murray completes the pass, maybe he doesn't. I'm not here to play what ifs. The point is that Georgia doesn't have the depth right now to compete for an SEC title and that needs to change. In addition to Ealey's missed block, Branden Smith's replacement Sanders Commings made a big mistake on the Arkansas wheel route that went for the game winning TD as he bit down on the underneath route leaving the deep guy open. Football is a game of inches and while that play was far from inches this game was in Georgia's grasp and we just didn't finish the drill.

The positives that I take away from this game for Georgia is the heart that they showed down 14 points in the 4th quarter to come back and tie up the game. The receivers stepped up and had good games. Kris Durham made some great plays (5 rec for 101 yds) and Tavarres King stepped up as well (4 rec for 91 yds and a hard fought TD). The DL played better and I thought the LBs played better against the run. Aaron Murray continues to develop. At times he looked like a freshman, but at times you see his upside potential and you see the star quality that he has (15 of 27 for 253, 1 passing TD, 1 rushing TD, 1 INT). Murray's QB rating is 44th in the Nation right now and that puts him ahead of guys like Jacory Harris, Landry Jones, Christian Ponder, Taylor Potts, John Brantley, Blaine Gabbert, Jeremiah Masoli, and Jake Locker (if you put stock into that statistic).

The negatives are the holes in the secondary (aka blown coverages; which also happened against South Carolina but Stephen Garcia wasn't good enough to take advantage of it). Obviously, we knew that we would give up some plays against Arkansas because their bread and butter is the passing game. But we gave up too many. Losing Branden Smith hurt but it wasn't the reason that we played so poorly. The fact is that Brandon Boykin is the only returning starter in the secondary and we have a new scheme that the guys are learning. If our guys can't learn this scheme and perform then we need to see Derek Owens and Alec Ogletree in the game learning and gaining valuable playing time.

Where do we go from here? When I looked at the schedule I knew that the beginning of the schedule would be tough. Arkansas and South Carolina are good teams but I thought that at worst Georgia would win 1 game of the two and be 2-1 and in a position to compete in the SEC East. As it stands now Georgia is 1-2 (0-2 in the SEC East) and it would take some luck (and Georgia basically running the table) to get back into the race at this point. Georgia needs to get healthy as we just can't afford to be without key guys right now (on a side note we need a really good recruiting class this year to get back some depth as it appears we don't have guys ready to come in and fill in where needed). Georgia is not that far away but is just far away enough that we have two losses. Georgia is one fumble (inside the 5 yard line) away from basically tying the game against South Carolina in the 2nd half and one block away from having a great chance to beat Arkansas. Georgia has a must win road game at Miss State in Stark Vegas this week where both teams are playing with their backs against the wall. In terms of Arkansas, this was a huge win as it got the monkey off of their back regarding playing on the road. Arkansas now has a tough stretch of games as they play Alabama (loss), Texas A&M (win) and play at Auburn (probable win).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Brief Thoughts on Alabama @ Duke

Before we begin, I'd like to pass along a message I just received from a high ranking official at Auburn University to Charles Barkley. And I quote, "Keep it down home, cuz." You know what I'm talking about.

I'm not going to do the full pre-game work up for this one. No disrespect to Duke. Just saving up my energy for Arkansas week. I feel like I'm going to need it...Anyway, here's an awkward assortment of thoughts and information for Bama/Duke.

Perhaps the most interesting factoid about this game is that it's the rare, true non-conference away game for the Tide. Of course, that wasn't the idea when Alabama agreed to the deal (the original plan was for Duke to sell the rights to the game to a larger neutral site), but here we are. This is the first such game for the Tide since the 2002 meeting with Oklahoma in Norman. Going on the road out of conference is a unique challenge, especially against a team you overmatch. It can be very difficult to get a bunch of elite talent motivated to play a game like this. Meanwhile, the home team will be treating it like a BCS bowl. Just this week, Duke coach David Cutcliffe has said that the Blue Devils have been practicing 1's vs. 2's (no scout team).

Another intangible factor that may help Duke in this situation is the crowd size. Even with temporary additions to the stadium to accommodate the ticket demand, capacity at Wallace Wade Stadium will still not exceed 40,000 people. The only time Bama ever plays to a crowd that size is the twice a decade interdivisional trip to Vanderbilt, and at least that game has conference stakes. It could be a relavtively quiet environment compared to what Bama is used to playing in and might just lull them to sleep.

I guess it'll be up to the thousands of Bama fans who bought Duke season tickets to get good seats for the game to make a lot of noise. (You're welcome, Duke athletic department.)

All that aside, the worst thing that could have happened for Duke is Marcell Dareus getting suspended for 2 games and Mark Ingram missing 2 with injury. Any chance of the Blue Devils catching the Tide napping is gone. This isn't just another game for those two guys. This is THEIR season opener. You can bet they're going to be hyped to play, and they'll have their teammates hyped to play.

By the way, here's Duke's offensive line by the numbers:

LT: 6'6", 290 lbs
RT: 6'5", 295 lbs
LG: 6'2", 315 lbs
RG: 6'2", 275 lbs
C: 6'3", 260 lbs

So, they're a bit undersized. Specifically, I'm a little concerned about the right guard and center's ability to handle Mr. Dareus (6'4", 306 lbs) when he slides inside on passing downs. Not that it'll be a picnic when they're matched up against Josh Chapman (6'1", 310 lbs) or Kerry Murphy (6'4", 319 lbs) in the base defense.

And they're just as small on the defensive side of the ball. But, I mean, it's Duke. I shouldn't pick.
That's not to say this game is without it's dangers. In his first two games as the starting QB at Duke, Sean Renfree is completing 71% of his passes for 708 yards with 6 TDs and 3 interceptions. Now, we know Elon and Wake Forest aren't comparable competition to what he'll face this Saturday. But this is an illustration of what the Bama defense will be up against. The Dukies are going to throw, throw, throw, and throw some more, with 3, 4, and 5 receiver sets. Aside from screens and the occasional draw, I doubt you see the running backs get many touches. I think highly of David Cutcliffe as a coach, and as an offensive mind in particular. He knows what the weakness of this defense is, and he's going to probe it all afternoon, in hopes of popping some of the same big plays that Penn State did.

And they'll probably hit some. But are they going to have better luck cashing in when they get to the redzone? Doubt it.

Back in No Win Scenario I called this game as a 42-13 Bama win. I think I'm going to stick with that. Thus far, my preseason predictions are at 100%, with the San Jose State score being almost dead on and the Penn State game being an even worse beating than I ever imagined.

The main thing the team needs to do is just continue to polish on offense and continue to develop the young secondary in game situations. The main thing the fans need to do is chill out and enjoy one last respite before Bama dives headfirst into a hellacious 3 game stretch that is sure to test hearts across the state. Fayetteville is on the horizon...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Georgia Bulldogs Week Two Questions

What are your overall thoughts on the teams performance so far this year?

I'm disappointed by the teams performance against Darth Visor and South Carolina. Georgia improved on some of the things that I thought we needed to be successful (penalties and turnover margin- except we have a huge turnover in the most critical point of the game). Right now at 1-1 we are still very much in the race for the SEC East but a loss this week to the coward Bobby Petrino and the Arkansas Razorbacks and things get ugly quick.

Based on the performance in Week 1 and 2, what area(s) does the team need to improve on the most?

The lines of scrimmage have been our weak points so far. The defensive lines inability to stop the run and the inside linebackers inability to make tackles killed us last week. We were in position to make a lot of plays last week on defense but against the run we just didn't complete the play. On the offensive side of the ball the Offensive Line continues to be a HUGE disappointment. We had a lot of injuries in training camp so they didn't get a lot of time to practice together but with the experience we had we should be doing a much better job opening holes for our backs.

The biggest reason that we lost last week (besides the untimely Washaun Ealey inside the 5 yard line that would have given us a possibility to tie the game with a TD and a 2-pt conversion) was the inability to get the Gamecocks and Lattimore off the field.

Which player(s) needs to step up their performance in the coming weeks?

They aren't players but OC Mike Bobo and OLC Stacey Searles need to step up on the offensive end. They need to get the OL fixed and they need to open up the playbook more for Aaron Murray. Murray outplayed Garcia last week but Garcia had Lattimore and the South Carolina OL so we lost the game.

On the defensive side of the football ILB Akeem Dent and Christian Robinson need to step up or we need to be getting Marcus Dowtin in the game more and Darryl Gamble needs to be playing more ILB instead of OLB. Bacarri Rambo is our leading tackler after two games and has shown a knack to get to the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage but at times on Saturday he looked very tentative (which could date back to the hit he made on an Auburn receiver that jarred the football from him and helped lead Georgia to victory but also left Rambo knocked out) in certain situations. He is one of the leaders of the defense and he needs to play like he's on fire.

Any receiver and all of the Tight Ends. We have some of the most talented TEs in the country and they just aren't making catches right now. Is that because of the play calling, the lack of success of the OL or because they aren't getting open? Orson Charles, Aron White and Bruce Figgins need to step up this week because they should be running free through the Arkansas secondary this weekend. White and Figgins have combined so far for 0 catches this year. On the receivers side we need somebody (Tavarres King, Rantavious Wooten, Marlon Brown) to step up beside Kris Durham while A.J. is out.

Which player has surprised you the most so far this season with their performance?

I like what I've seen out of former QB Logan Gray. He's tied for 2nd in receptions for the team with 4 and has made a couple of good catches. Considering how long he's been a WR his performance has been impressive. The other offensive player was the man who beat out Logan Gray at QB, Aaron Murray. Murray is 31 of 47 for 352 yards 3 TD and 1 INT so far. He's shown a lot of poise. Now we get to see what happens when the play book gets opened a little bit.

On the defensive side of the football the only correct answer is Justin Houston. Dude is a beast. He had 3 sacks against South Carolina's mobile QB Stephen Garcia. He could have a field day against Ryan Mallet on Saturday as Mallet does not move well in the pocket. The more he gets to Mallet on Saturday the better the chance Georgia has to beat the Hogs.

What are the major question marks headed into Week 3?

The biggest question marks from last week (the lines of scrimmage) shouldn't be an issue heading into the Arkansas game. Arkansas is not going to suddenly go I-formation and try to cram the football down our throats. The bigger questions this week is how we face up to a prolific passing attack. Last year we beat Arkansas because their defense was pathetic and Mallet and the passing game folded in the 4th quarter. It won't be as easy this year. The other question is how much is Bobo going to take the reigns off of Aaron Murray and how successful will he be against a defense that was the worst in the SEC just a year ago and has not been tested against a legitimate college football team yet this year. 

Another question mark is CB. Branden Smith is questionable so that means that Georgia will need somebody to step up and play nickel alongside Brandon Boykin and Vance Cuff. My guess is that it will be Sanders Commings and possibly true freshmen Derek Owens and Alec Ogletree. Against Arkansas the nickel back will be pivotal on Saturday.

What needs to happen in order to secure a victory in Week 3?
Continue the progression that has been made in terms of penalties and turnovers. Get consistent pressure on Arkansas and Mallet in the passing game and force them to make negative plays or turn the ball over. Find the offensive line and grind out a victory behind the legs of Caleb King (who sat out last week with an ankle injury) and Washaun Ealey.

Week 2 Questions: Iowa Hawkeyes

1. What are your overall thoughts on the team’s performance so far this year?

Pretty pleased. There’s not much to dislike about 37-7 and 35-7 wins. The biggest question mark on offense (the offensive line) has looked solid through two games (albeit against weak competition); Stanzi’s rarely been pressured and usually had ample time to find open receivers and they’ve done a nice job of opening holes for the running game most of the time. The biggest question mark on defense was the pair of new linebackers and so far things have been going pretty well there, too. Tyler Nielsen slid into one of the outside linebacker spots and already looks as comfortable as a multi-year starter there; at middle linebacker Jeff Tarpinian’s been slowed by a wrist injury, but he’s been fine in limited action. The running game has been a pleasant surprise, with Adam Robinson looking even better than a year ago and Jewel Hampton looking like a very competent sidekick. The defensive line hasn’t been recording a lot of sacks, but they have been getting quite a bit of pressure on the quarterback. Overall, they’ve done exactly what you’d want them to do against lesser opposition: dominate them.

2. Based on the performance in Week 1 and 2, what area(s) does the team need to improve on the most?

There are a few question marks on special teams. Due to circumstance, Iowa hasn’t yet attempted a field goal this year and given the inconsistency of our kickers over the past two years, that’s a bit of a worry. The coverage on a few kickoffs and a punt on Saturday was also poor; it didn’t cost them anything in that game, but it would be a poor idea to give easy yards to stronger opponents. Other than that, it’s just a matter of being a bit more consistent along the offensive line and in coverage for the linebackers. We’ll know a lot more about this team after this week’s road game against Arizona; that will be their first real test of the season.

3. Which player(s) needs to step up their performance in the coming weeks?

As noted earlier, no one’s really played poorly thus far. RG Nolan MacMillan probably needs to be more consistent if he wants to keep his starting job; he only inherited that job because of an injury late in training camp to projected starter Adam Gettis. Now that Gettis is getting healthier, MacMillan will need to play at a high level to keep the starting spot to himself.

4. Which player has surprised you the most so far this season with their performance ?

Probably Tyler Nielsen, if only because before this season he’d only seen action on special teams or in mop-up duty (which was especially hard to come by on last year’s livin’ on the edge Iowa team). Riley Reiff, Julian Vandervelde, Adam Robinson, and Allan Reisner have also been playing very well this season, but it’s not quite as much of a surprise since they’d played well in spurts over the past two seasons. After some early game jitters against Eastern Illinois, Nielsen has really come on strong, delivering some hard hits and displaying impressive athleticism in leaping up for an interception against Iowa State. He’s filling A.J. Edds’ shoes quite well at the moment, although the true test will be when Iowa plays a good passing team, as Edds’ greatest skill was his excellent coverage ability – the jury’s still out on Nielsen there.

5. What are the major question marks headed into Week 3?

Just how good is this team and how well they handle a difficult road trip? They’ve played well through two games and avoided any embarrassing pratfalls (a la Virginia Tech) or near-pratfalls (a la last year’s Iowa team), but the level of competition also hasn’t been very high. They’ve basically performed up to expectations so far (although the first half against Iowa State last week was an impressive showcase of domination in all facets of a game: offense, defense, special teams), but things will be much more difficult this week. Arizona has also blown out its first two opponents (Toledo and The Citadel) and is building off a solid season a year ago. They’re far more talented than either Eastern Illinois or Iowa State and have plenty of speed and talent on offense and defense to challenge Iowa. And in Nick Foles they have a QB who can be patient and accurate and give Iowa’s defense some problems (see: pretty much every Northwestern quarterback over the past five years).

There are some worries related to the game that have little to do with the actual football, too. It’s a trip west for a late start (9:30pm CST) in the desert, conditions which have caused some Iowa fans to draw parallels to the ugly 44-7 road loss they suffered against Arizona State in 2004. Those same Iowa fans are also fretting over Iowa’s record in games west of the Rockies, since they’ve lost their last six or seven games in those conditions (albeit over a span of 20-30 years, so we’re talking about a pretty absurd sample size here). Still, even without the superstitions, it’s obvious that these are obviously ideal conditions, given how uncommon they are to Iowa.

6. What needs to happen in order to secure a victory in Week 3?

As usual with Iowa, it’s all about the line play. The offensive line needs to give Stanzi adequate protection and open up holes for Robinson and Hampton, while the defensive line needs to get pressure on Foles and disrupt this rhythm; the latter is especially important since Iowa rarely blitzes. If the defensive line can’t get pressure by themselves, the defense will either be forced to make uncomfortable blitzes or settle for getting picked apart by Foles and the Arizona receivers.

That said, I feel good about this game despite the fact that it’s a tough road game against an offense that’s been blitzing teams lately. Arizona’s struggled against teams like Iowa over the past few years: big, physical teams that can push them around and impose their will have really put the brakes on their offense (see: Iowa last year, or Arizona State and USC last year, or, most notably, Nebraska in last year’s Holiday Bowl, when they wiped the floor with Arizona) and been able to overpower their offense as well (see: Iowa last year to an extent and, again, Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl). If Iowa can deal with the inevitable early surge of emotion from Arizona (night game, national TV, “revenge” game, etc.) and avoid costly turnovers, I think they’ll be able to wear Arizona down and take control in the second half.

Mark Ingram Ready to Roll

Ingram's return for the Duke game has been rumored since the final whistle sounded this past Saturday, and at this afternoon's SEC teleconference, Nick Saban confirmed that Ingram is "ready to go" for the trip to Durham. Ingram has practiced all week with no setbacks. No specifications were given as to whether he would start or how much he would play, but my guess is he'll be the first back on the field (Trent Richardson wouldn't have it any other way) before ceding the majority of the workload to his understudy. I'm somewhat surprised that they would play him in such an irrelevant game they won't need him to win, but I understand the rationale. I think the main goal here is make sure he has his sea legs back, so to speak, heading into the Arkansas. Let him take some hits and get confidence in his knee, that sort of thing.

My guess is he ends up with somewhere around 10 carries and a couple of catches. That said, while he loves Trent like a brother, I think he's going to come out looking to make the most of his touches and remind people that he's the Heisman winner in town. If you thought the offense looked great without him, you haven't seen anything yet.

And while we're getting ready to lavish Mark The Player with praise, I have to tip my cap to Mark The Teammate. He definitely didn't spend his down time sulking on the sidelines like a lot of stud athletes (understandably so, it's frustrating to get sidelined). The guy was a dynamo the past two games, hyping up punters and acting as Trent's personal equipment manager. He's one of those "heart and soul" type of players, and Bama is going to miss more than his skills with the football when he's in the NFL next year.

Here's an obscure fact for you: Last August, Ingram made his first ever appearance in Alabama's media room as the team's presumptive starter at running back. What was the first question asked of him? Paraphrasing: "That Trent Richardson kid sure is great, how's he doing?" He was already getting written out before he'd even had the chance to show what he was capable of. It would've been really easy for him to try to hold Trent back, to protect his spot. Happens all the time with skill position guys. And with the type of year he went on to have, it would have been even easier to keep Trent on the sidelines. But that's not the type of guy he is. He embraced his competition, taught him everything he could, and welcomed sharing carries with him. And he made the whole team better for it.

So I'm pretty excited to see him back. He's just a good dude. I hope he gets off to a good start against Duke and goes on to have the type of year good dudes deserve to have.

The Six Pack Games of the Week: September 16-18

Every week, I’ll throw a spotlight on the six most interesting games of the weekend to tell you why these are the games you should try to catch, who’s going to win (and why), and what ramifications they could have on the rest of the college football landscape.



#12 Arkansas @ Georgia (12pm EST, ESPN)
Arkansas was the trendy pick in the SEC this year, following in the proud footsteps of 2009 Ole Miss and 2008 Georgia, although by now the pollsters have learned their lesson well enough not to place Arkansas immediately in the top ten. They certainly didn't look like a top ten team in struggling with UL-Monroe for three quarters last week. Like that '09 Ole Miss squad, they feature a much-hyped veteran signal-caller (Ryan Mallett for Arkansas, Jevan Snead for Ole Miss) and a good amount of other returning starters and were competitive against other top SEC teams the year prior. Unlike that '09 Ole Miss squad, they don't have Houston Nutt, a serial underachiever when expectations are high. This road trip to Georgia is their first real test of the season and the first game in a fairly brutal four-game stretch that will either reveal them as real contenders for an SEC (and possibly even national) title or expose them as fraudulent pretenders; after the road game against Georgia, Arkansas entertains Alabama at home, faces Texas A&M in Dallas, and heads back on the road to play Auburn. That's some tough sledding. A week ago, Georgia failed their first big test of the season, getting manhandled by South Carolina, 17-6. The Ol' Ball Coach rarely had South Carolina test Georgia's pass defense in that game -- why bother when Marcus Lattimore could grind those undersized Georgia defenders into dust -- but Petrino and Mallett figure to do just that on Saturday. If the Georgia pass defense can keep Mallett in check, they have a shot in this one. Here's guessing they struggle to do that.

Georgia Tech @ North Carolina (12pm EST,
Oh, ACC. It wasn't really just two weeks ago that you had five teams ranked in the top 20 and various pundits (including this one) suggesting that the ACC Coastal could be the toughest division in college football, was it? Yeah, about that... NOT SO MUCH. It may still be tough for one team to emerge from that division, but only because all the teams in it are varying degrees of mediocre. Georgia Tech dispatched South Carolina State easily in week one (41-10), but provided one of the more surprising upsets of the season in traveling to Lawrence and losing to the same Kansas team that a week earlier had failed to score a touchdown against a I-AA North Dakota State team. That's... not good. But when your quarterback goes 5/15, good things generally aren't right around the corner, even if you are an option team. On the other side, North Carolina has had two weeks to think about their near-miss against LSU and prepare for Georgia Tech's always-tricky offense. The bad news is that they still have no idea which players that were suspended for that LSU tilt may be available for this game; the wheels of NCAA justice move very slowly indeed. Giving a team an extra week to prepare for the Tech offense is usually a good way to neutralize (at least in part) its effectiveness, but that may not be of much aid to a Tar Heel team dealing with so much chaos.

#8 Nebraska @ Washington (330pm EST, ABC/ESPN2)
Nebraska pulled off a sloppy 38-17 win over Idaho last week, turning the ball over four times and committing ten penalties (for 123 yards); they'll need to be sharper than that to get to to 3-0 this week. The Washington hype bus got a flat tire in week one as they came undone on a road trip to BYU, but they bounced back nicely to take care of business against Syracuse last week. Nebraska obviously represents a massive leap in quality from either of those teams, but Washington has been a scrappy team against ranked opponents under Sarkisian. They went 2-3 a year ago, blasting a 19th ranked Cal team to the end the season and pulling off a memorable September upset over then-#3 USC. (In their three losses, they lost a spirited 31-23 game to LSU, but got smashed by both Oregon schools.) Granted, those teams may have been overrated at the time of those games (USC certainly was, judging by the rest of their season), but still: Sark has done an excellent job of getting his team ready to play against top teams when they come to Seattle. Nebraska, meanwhile, has found a bit of offense to go with their very solid defense, led by freshman quarterback Taylor "T-Magic" Martinez, who's been a capable passer (21/32, 242 yards, 0/1 TD/INT) and a dynamic runner (21 carries, 384 yards, 1 TD). Washington keeps it close by forcing Martinez into some costly errors, but Nebraska's defense ultimately makes enough stops to secure victory.

Clemson @ #16 Auburn (7pm EST, ESPN)
Somewhat inexplicably, ESPN's College Gameday has chosen to head to this game this week. Maybe they got some good buy one/get one free deals when they were in Alabama for the Penn State-Alabama game last week. In any event, it is an intriguing match-up between one of the few ACC teams that hasn't fallen on their faces yet and an SEC West team that continues to generate buzz as an SEC title contender. Mind you, Clemson's largely managed to avoid the embarrassing fates that have befallen fellow ACC teams by playing no one with a pulse (North Texas and Presbyterian so far) and Auburn looked decidedly not-ready-for-primetime in eking out a win over a Mississippi State team that could barely complete a pass. Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper have done an adequate job of replacing CJ Spiller so far (27 carries, 243 yards, 4 TD) and QB Kyle Parker has been efficient (15/26, 283 yards, 4/1 TD/INT), but Auburn's defense is a gigantic leap in quality from the likes of the Mean Green and the Blue Hose. Auburn's been led by JUCO transfer QB Cam Newton, still best known for stealing a laptop at Florida a few years ago. Newton's leading the team in both passing (20/33, 322 yards, 5/1 TD/INT) and running (33 carries, 241 yards, 2 TD) and Clemson hasn't had to deal with anything like him yet. Throw in the fact that Auburn has utterly owned this series (14 wins in a row dating back to 1952, including 9 in a row in Auburn) and the pick to win is pretty easy. And, hell, Clemson's from the ACC -- are you really gonna pick them to do something good?

#6 Texas @ Texas Tech (8pm EST, ABC/ESPN2)
The last time Texas went to Lubbock these two teams played one of the best games of the last few years and Michael Crabtree made one of the most memorable catches of the decade in Tech's sensational upset of Texas that ended Texas' conference (and national) title ambitions. Sadly, most of the key personnel from that game -- Colt McCoy, Quan Cosby, Jordan Shipley, Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree, Mike Leach -- are no longer around for this installment, so it may be hard to get a rematch that lives up to that tremendous standard. That said, if Texas Tech continues to build upon the promise shown in their first two games and the Texas offense continues to look lethargic, an upset isn't out of the question. The atmosphere in Lubbock should be frenzied and Tuberville's Auburn teams frequently played their best ball in the biggest games (from 2004-2008, Tuberville's Auburn teams went 9-6 against top ten-ranked foes). On the other hand, for all its sluggishness, the Texas offense hasn't turned the ball over thus far and has scored 30+ points in both games and the defense has been absolute nails most of the time. Thus far, Tuberville's stayed remarkably faithful to the Air Raid offense that Mike Leach installed at Texas Tech: they threw 53 times against SMU and 41 times against New Mexico. Of course, they also ran the ball 36 times against New Mexico and two backs had ten carries, so Tuberville clearly hasn't forgotten about establishing the run. Against a stout Texas defense that may be easier said than done, so look for Taylor Potts to chuck the ball early and often. On the other side of the ball, the Texas Tech defense hasn't been particularly fearsome yet: they conceded 433 yards of offense to New Mexico and two second-quarter touchdowns when the game was still in doubt to a degree. Against SMU they gave up 327 yards and 27 points, so this is clearly a work in progress; in any event, there should be some holes for the Texas offense to exploit. Unless Texas has some really costly turnovers, they should win this one; they have a defense capable of stopping Tech a few times, while Tech doesn't seem to have a defense capable of stopping Texas very often.

#9 Iowa @ #24 Arizona (1030pm EST, ESPN)
And now we come to the only game of the day to feature two ranked opponents. Iowa beat Arizona 27-17 a year ago in Iowa City in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated (Arizona's two touchdowns came off a pick-six and late touchdown drive against reserve defenders after Iowa had already built a 27-10 lead). So what's changed in a year, aside from the locale? Not much for Iowa, aside from a rebuilt offensive line that's performed well against admittedly below-average competition (this week will be the first true test) and a linebacking corps that's two-thirds new. Arizona, on the other hand, has a lot of new faces in the front seven on defense, but returns a lot on offense. But the most significant change is at quarterback; Matt Scott was the Wildcats' QB in the early going last year, but he was so disastrous against Iowa (4/14, 50 yds, 0/1 TD/INT) that he gave way to Nick Foles... and never got the job back. Foles led the Arizona offense on their only scoring drive against Iowa a year ago and went to garner all-conference honors in the Pac-10; the Arizona offense really exploded when he took over and bears little resemblance to the outfit that sputtered and died against Iowa a year ago -- so that will be a significant new challenge. One thing that should give Iowa confidence? That offense curled up into a ball and whimpered when faced with a fast, hard-hitting, aggressive defense in Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl last year. Iowa doesn't have an Ndamukong Suh to lead that attack, but they do have Adrian Clayborn and the rest of a very aggressive and disruptive defensive line, linebackers that have been coming into their own, and a mostly veteran secondary.

On offense, Iowa's approach won't be much of a mystery: they're going to pound away with their physical offensive line and the one-two punch of Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton at running back and then use play-action to go over the top to Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. A week ago, they demoralized Iowa State with an unstoppable, punishing ground game and followed it up by finishing them off with some deep bombs in the passing game. If the offensive line can open holes for the running game and give Stanzi time to survey the field, the Iowa offense should do very well; on the other hand, the Arizona defense has far more speed and physical talent than either the Iowa State or the Eastern Illinois defenses, so the going won't be easy. Iowa has a dreadful record in games played out west, but that was then and this is now: they have a well-prepared, mentally tough team that should be able to punish Arizona physically.

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