Sunday, October 18, 2009

Close to chaos

No. 1 Florida survived on a field goal with nine seconds left. No. 2 Texas was thoroughly outplayed by Oklahoma for most of three quarters before eeking out a 16-13 victory (thanks in part to Sam Bradford blowing out his shoulder on the eighth play of the game). No. 6 USC needed a last-minute goal-line stand and some poor clock management (what else is new) by Notre Dame to escape South Bend with a 31-24 win.

We were pretty damn close to having some awesome chaos at the top of the rankings, and I haven't even mentioned No. 4 Virginia Tech and No. 7 Ohio State, both of whom actually did lose.

Just for a second, let's go into the alternate universe where all those teams lost. Alabama would obviously be No. 1, but after that ... ummm ... Cincinnati, Boise State and Iowa (not necessarily in that order) would be next. Sports radio hosts everywhere would be preparing their monotribes against non-BCS schools as we speak.

Back in reality, though, the team that must really be kicking itself right now is Ohio State. For some pure, unfiltered hilarity, visit any OSU message board right now. I'm not sure which is more amusing, the calls for Joe Bauserman to take over as starting quarterback or the debate over whether Urban Meyer (lol) or Brian Kelly should take over for Jim Tressel after this year.

As ridiculous as the overreaction has been, it's also somewhat understandable given Saturday's performance. Purdue isn't as bad as their 2-5 record indicates -- four of their five losses were by a touchdown or less -- but Ohio State should NOT be struggling on offense against a team that came into the game 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense. Purdue hadn't given up fewer than 24 points this year while dropping games to Northern Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota, yet the Buckeyes couldn't do better than 18 points and 287 total yards. Their insistence on turning Pryor into a pocket passer despite the lack of a strong running game is baffling, and it's clear even against the bad teams that the offense just doesn't have anything consistent to fall back on. I wouldn't be surprised at all if OSU ends up with four regular-season losses.

The two games I wrote about Saturday morning -- Texas-Oklahoma and USC-Notre Dame -- were just as close as I anticipated, but I couldn't have been any more wrong about the way the games were played. Texas' offense was completely shut down in every aspect outside of a couple big runs by Foswhitt Whitaker in the third quarter, and if Bradford hadn't gotten hurt less than four minutes into the game (and Oklahoma hadn't lost three crucial fumbles), the Sooners would have won that game comfortably. They just couldn't put the ball in the end zone, though, and once Texas got the go-ahead field goal, you just never got the feeling that Landry Jones could bring Oklahoma back.

You certainly can't put that loss on Bob Stoops (Oklahoma out-gameplanned Texas on both sides of the ball), but there will surely be more criticism now that Oklahoma is 3-3 and looking at playing the rest of the year without Bradford. As for Texas, I obviously underestimated the rush defense -- holding DeMarco Murry and Chris Brown to a total of 20 yards is impressive -- but the offense was far worse than I expected, because there's just no deep threat and no consistent running game. It's kind of unfortunate that the 'Horns are probably going unbeaten (I don't see them losing to Missouri or Oklahoma State), because I'm even less impressed with this team than I was before Saturday's win. Colt McCoy is extremely good, but he has little help; defenses are taking away the short pass and respecting nothing else, and Texas doesn't have an answer.

Up in South Bend, my "lower-scoring game than most people are anticipating" prediction was thrown out the window as soon as USC realized that their play-action passes were as good as gold against the Notre Dame secondary. Damian Williams, Anthony McCoy ... Matt Barkley regularly had his choice of open receivers 20 yards downfield, and he didn't miss: 380 yards on 13.1 yards per attempt tells the story.

I will say this: Notre Dame's offensive gameplan was the most impressive I've seen from Charlie Weis. Robby Paris made several clutch catches underneath while Golden Tate was running wild in the secondary, and despite five sacks, Clausen usually hung in long enough to find someone open. The fake field goal in the first half was brilliant, as it tied the score at 7-7 and made Notre Dame's late comeback relevant.

My only criticism is that Notre Dame didn't manage its time better on the final drive. After Clausen threw a laser to Robby Paris on fourth-and-10 for a first down at the USC 16-yard line with 36 seconds on the clock, the next snap didn't come until 18 seconds were left. Notre Dame could have called a timeout -- although they took a timeout before the fourth-down play, so they should have had a couple plays called in advance -- but instead, 21 seconds were lost. After a roughing penalty gave ND a first-and-goal at the USC 4-yard line, the Irish got off only three snaps (and it would have been only two if not for the officials correctly putting a second back on the clock at the end). One extra play might not have made a difference, but I'm sure Notre Dame would have liked to find out. (Quick tangent: How about calling a QB draw for Clausen on first or second down, maybe with a running back providing a Bush Push for karma's sake?)

Another team that has to be questioning its late-game performance: Arkansas. It's hard to be upset when you're a 24-point underdog playing on the road against the defending national champions and you only lose by three, but Arkansas should have won that game except for some poor special-teams play and missed opportunities. Their defensive line controlled the game, holding Florida's running backs to 61 yards on the ground and sacking Tebow five times, but then Bobby Petrino went with an awfully conservative set of plays on the final series to set up a field goal only to have Alex Tejeda miss for the second time in the final 19 minutes. In a situation like that -- ESPECIALLY with Tim Tebow standing on the opposing sideline -- you've gotta play to win.

You could feel the momentum turn when Tejeda's kick sailed wide left, because there was little doubt at that point that Tebow would do his thing and find a way to get Florida the victory. And he did, accounting for 57 yards on the 69-yard drive and completing an absolutely huge thread-the-needle pass to a falling-down Riley Cooper at the Arkansas 28-yard line on third-and-10. An incompletion there probably results in overtime; instead, Florida is 6-0 and still on a collision course with Alabama for a spot in the national title game (although I obviously spoke too soon when I said earlier this week that they wouldn't be seriously challenged until the SEC championship game).

'Bama is the one team that hasn't been living dangerously of late, and the Tide were rewarded in Sunday's poll, taking Florida's spot at the top while the Gators slipped to No. 2. It doesn't matter which of those two is No. 1 right now, obviously, but what's really interesting is that Cincinnati is now No. 5 (ahead of Boise State) and Iowa has jumped all the way to No. 7. If -- and this is a big if -- only one of the three teams at the top ends up undefeated, the voters could end up with a verrry tough choice for the second spot in the BCS title game: Pick a clearly flawed one-loss team (USC? Miami?), pit Alabama and Florida against each other for the second straight game or choose from the Cincinnati/Boise/Iowa group, which I assume would create a media disaster despite the fact that those teams have demonstrated on the field that they're better than everyone ranked behind them.

My current top 10 (as always, this is based on which teams I think are the best right now, not a prediction of where they'll finish or a ranking of which teams have the strongest resumes):

1. Alabama
2. Florida
3. Texas
4. USC
5. Cincinnati
6. Boise State
7. Iowa
8. Miami
9. LSU
10. Oregon

The No. 10 spot could easily go to Virginia Tech (the Hokies might be 6-0 if not for a particularly difficult schedule) or TCU, but Oregon seems to have solved its early-season problems and looks really dangerous right now. If the Ducks knock off USC in two weeks -- and I think they will, just because the game's at Autzen -- there's a good chance they'll run the table.

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