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Michigan's rapid improvement calls Pryor's college choice into question

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Two years ago this winter, archrivals Ohio State and Michigan waged an offseason battle as intense as any of their annual late-November showdowns. Fans from both sides sweated the decision of a gifted high school quarterback who, if he chose the Wolverines, figured to give newly hired coach Rich Rodriguez a perfect weapon for his spread-option offense, and who, if he chose the Buckeyes, might doom Michigan to three more dire years in the recently titled rivalry.

Rodriguez wound up landing his dream quarterback all right -- but it wasn't Terrelle Pryor. In just his second career start, true freshman Tate Forcier could not have looked more poised and potent in leading the Wolverines to a dramatic last-second win over Notre Dame. He finished the day 23-of-33 for 240 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while running for 70 yards and a score.

Later that night, Ohio State's Pryor slogged his way to an erratic 11-of-25, 177-yard performance in a heartbreaking last-second loss to USC. In just his second start, Forcier did what the Buckeyes' mega-recruit has yet to do through 12: deliver a breakthrough performance.

Granted, it's far too early to render any definitive judgments on Pryor (Vince Young, the player to whom Pryor is most commonly compared, didn't truly blossom until midway through his redshirt sophomore season), and granted, he faced a much tougher defense Saturday than Forcier. Still, if I'm an Ohio State fan, I'd be concerned about two things right now: the fact that Pryor, for all his obvious physical gifts, still looks largely uncomfortable running the Buckeyes' offense, and the fact that the archrival Wolverines now have their own prodigy who seems totally at ease.

Against the Irish, the 6-foot, 180-ish-pound Forcier looked like he'd been running Rodriguez's offense for years, often hitting receivers at the exact moment they broke open (see his game-winning touchdown throw to Greg Matthews). In addition, the deceivingly deft runner duped the entire Notre Dame defense early in the fourth quarter when, on fourth-and-3, he faked a handoff, ran three steps to the right, stopped, turned up field and dashed 31 yards to the end zone.

"He's kind of a unique individual," Rodriguez said of Forcier. "Everything around him may be going crazy, and yet he's still calm in the middle of the storm. Some guys have that quality and he's one of them."

Pryor -- the oft-chronicled fastest Buckeye -- showed some moves of his own early on against USC, but more often than not he looked hesitant. His few attempts at option plays were so slow to develop that the Trojans inevitably snuffed them out. (A botched option pitch on first-and-goal at the 10 late in the third quarter caused a seven-yard loss.) And while nearly every time the 6-foot-6 behemoth rolls out it looks like something big is about to happen, time and again against USC he misfired at open receivers.

Afterward, a disappointed Pryor unnecessarily took blame for the loss before adding: "We should have beat [the Trojans] by two or three touchdowns, easy."

Comments like those -- not to mention his bizarre statement last week about Michael Vick -- should remind us that Pryor is still a young man with considerable room for maturation. His coach, Jim Tressel, cautioned as much last week, saying, "He's still not a wily veteran by any means."

Youth, however, did not hinder Forcier from delivering one of the most clutch performances we've seen so far this season. Perhaps the Michigan quarterback is simply preternaturally developed.

Or, perhaps Pryor simply chose the wrong school.

On the surface, it seems like Tressel and his staff have properly adjusted their offense to fit Pryor's talents. They line him up in the shotgun. They call a fair share of options, quarterback draws and rollouts. In execution, however, it's still very much a work in progress. Mind you, that's not all on Pryor -- the offensive line and receivers weren't always in sync against USC, either.

But then look at Michigan and just how radically its offense has improved in such a short time. Seeing how smoothly the Wolverines operate under Forcier, and knowing what Rodriguez did with Pat White at West Virginia, one can't help but wonder whether Pryor would be more developed at this point if he'd gone to play for the spread guru.

Of course, all that's moot now. Both teams have their quarterbacks of the present and future. What's scary is that Michigan's offense is only beginning to scratch the surface. Imagine the possibilities should Rodriguez bring in an explosive tailback to complement Forcier or find more ways to utilize speedster Denard Robinson.

Ohio State still has a superior defense to the Wolverines'. The Buckeyes did still come within 1:05 of beating the No. 3 team in the country thanks almost entirely to a reloaded D led by budding star linebacker Brian Rolle.

But Rodriguez was hired to bring balance back to a rivalry that Tressel has thus far owned, winning seven of eight meetings. Two weeks ago, when Michigan was still an unknown commodity coming off a 3-9 debacle, the possibility remained unimaginable. But with Forcier on the fast track and Pryor seemingly stuck in neutral, the Wolverines' day may come sooner than anticipated.

Despite my past (and well-documented) skepticism regarding second-year West Virginia coach/uber-nice guy Bill Stewart, I couldn't help but be impressed by the Mountaineers' 35-20 win over virtually the same East Carolina team (15 returning starters) that drubbed them 24-3 a year earlier. Quarterback Jarrett Brown, in particular, put together a rousing performance: 24-of-31 for 334 yards and four touchdowns, plus 73 rushing yards on 10 carries.

So I put in a call Sunday to "Coach Stew," who, as always, sounded like there was nothing in the world he'd rather be doing at that moment than talking on the phone.

"This one Saturday was big [for Brown]," Stewart said of the fifth-year senior. "Our team saw it throughout spring camp and fall camp, and in the past, but he never had a chance to showcase it because of Patrick [White]. He threw two touchdowns Saturday where he had defenders right in his mouth."

The seeds for West Virginia's performance Saturday were planted a year ago. From Day 1, Stewart adamantly stated his goal to turn the previously run-heavy Mountaineers into a more balanced team. That wasn't the case most of last year as White and the offense struggled to adjust.

However, if you remember back to West Virginia's Meineke Car Care Bowl win over North Carolina, White threw for a career-high 322 yards. When I suggested to Stewart his offense's current incarnation actually began taking form late last season, a truly unusual thing happened: He complimented me.

"You are absolutely, positively accurate with that [observation]," said Stewart. "It's been a thing of beauty, but it's been a struggle. The receivers had to learn [new routes], we never really pass-blocked that much, we'd always been more of a zone team. We struggled a little bit, but now we're spreading the wealth."

Indeed, four different players -- receivers Jock Sanders, Bradley Starks and Alric Arnett and running back Tavon Austin had between 59 and 99 receiving yards Saturday, while right end Will Johnson caught a touchdown and running back Noel Devine ran for 80 yards and a score. With Brown at the helm and all those weapons at his disposal, the Mountaineers -- who visit suddenly potent Auburn on Saturday (more on the Tigers in a bit) -- seem to be fulfilling Stewart's vision of a balanced attack.

"I'll tell you what," promised Stewart. "You will enjoy watching the West Virginia Mountaineers."

My reaction to the latest polls and standings:

Overrated: LSU (AP: No. 9; coaches: No. 7)

Two games in, the Tigers have provided little indication of their anticipated return to heavyweight status. Last week the defense raised suspicion after allowing 478 yards to Washington. This week the offense was highly unimpressive against Vanderbilt, which trailed just 16-9 midway through the fourth quarter. LSU may be 2-0, but it has yet to look like a top 10 team.

Underrated: Houston (AP: No. 21; coaches: unranked)

You would think going on the road and knocking off a top five team (Oklahoma State) would have earned a bigger bump for Case Keenum and the Cougars, but because Houston doesn't yet have the track record of a Boise State or TCU, the voters apparently remain skeptical. There's no justifiable reason, however, why the Cougars remain five to nine spots lower than the team they just beat.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:

Title game: Florida vs. Texas Rose: USC vs. Penn State Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Boise State Sugar: Alabama vs. Cincinnati Orange: Georgia Tech vs. BYU

Cincinnati supplanted Rutgers as my Big East representative after the Bearcats ... you know, crushed the Scarlet Knights. Quarterback Tony Pike has Cincy's no-huddle offense zipping in a way that compares to Oklahoma's ludicrous 2008 tempo. As for the Sooners, I reluctantly placed them back in the Fiesta Bowl. It's a long leap of faith to think they will only lose once more (to Texas). However, there's no other potential at-large team, Big 12 or otherwise, in which I currently feel more confident.

Guz Malzahn is working his magic again. Facing the same Mississippi State team it infamously beat 3-2 a year earlier, Auburn racked up 589 yards -- including a staggering 390 on the ground -- in a 49-24 win. Under the direction of the former Arkansas and Tulsa offensive coordinator, the Tigers currently rank fourth nationally in total offense, up 100 spots from 2008.

• Five days after its shootout with Miami, Florida State came within 35 seconds of losing to Jacksonville State. The Seminoles trailed 9-7 nearly the entire second half before putting together a 57-yard scoring drive to avoid defeat. Perhaps FSU officials ought to stop fighting so hard to save Bobby Bowden's vacated wins and start figuring out a way to get out of that $5 million Jimbo Fisher contract.

• Georgia's dramatic 41-37 win over South Carolina could do wonders for its psyche. Coming off an opening-week loss at Oklahoma State and with continued questions about quarterback Joe Cox, the Dawgs found creative ways to score points (a kick return by Brandon Boykin, a 61-yard reverse by freshman Branden Smith) and prevent them (DeAngelo Tyson's clutch extra-point block.)

• There were a lot of crazy endings Saturday, but the North Carolina-UConn game may take the cake. First, after catching a game-tying touchdown with 2:36 remaining, Tar Heels tight end Zack Pianalto dislocated his foot while celebrating and had to be carted off the field. UNC then won, 12-10, by scoring a safety when Huskies tackle Dan Ryan was flagged for holding in his own end zone.

Jacquizz Rodgers is back, and he's bringing a new dimension. Oregon State's star running back had a big night Saturday against UNLV, rushing 26 times for 166 yards and a touchdown -- and hauling in 10 receptions for 65 yards. Beavers coach Mike Riley wasn't kidding about using Rodgers more as a receiver; he never had more than four catches in a game last year.

• If you're a Georgia Tech fan, you shouldn't be concerned about quarterback Josh Nesbitt's performance against Clemson. The stat line wasn't pretty: 3-of-14 for 73 yards and two TDs. However, when the game was on the line, Nesbitt (who ran 18 times for 91 yards) engineered consecutive scoring drives, highlighted by a huge 39-yard pass to Demariyus Thomas with 1:48 left.

• Pittsburgh wasted little time finding its next great running back now that LeSean McCoy's in the NFL. True freshman Dion Lewis carried 24 times for 190 yards and two TDs and caught six passes for 72 yards in a 54-27 win over Buffalo. That's following his 129-yard debut against Youngstown State.

• Virginia Tech rookie running back Ryan Williams is delivering on the hype. A week after his 32-yard touchdown run against Alabama, the redshirt freshman ran for 166 yards and three TDs in the Hokies' 52-10 rout of Marshall. Williams helps negate the preseason ACL injury to Darren Evans; now if the Hokies can just develop a semi-decent passing game, they'll be in good shape.

• It felt a whole lot like 2003 in the MAC this weekend, with Toledo knocking off Colorado, Central Michigan toppling Michigan State and Bowling Green nearly taking down Missouri. Such upsets used to be customary in the storied league of Midwestern overachievers, but the MAC saw its profile plummet over the last five years. Perhaps a resurgence is in the works.

• Obligatory congrats to Washington for ending its painful 15-game losing streak with a 42-23 win over Idaho. Now, the Huskies try to make it two in a row when they face ... um, USC.

• It's great to see Southern Miss wideout DeAndre Brown back on the field and shining following his gruesome leg injury in last year's New Orleans Bowl. Brown caught seven passes for a game-high 75 yards in the Eagles' 26-19 win over UCF.

• Check out this stat line for Iowa safety Tyler Sash from Saturday's 35-3 win over Iowa State: 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, three interceptions and a forced fumble. Sash was arguably more productive than the entire Iowa State defense.

• My new favorite name in college football: Central Michigan cornerback Tommy Mama. The only thing that could possibly make it cooler is if his middle name were Bahama.

You may have seen that Louisiana-Lafayette knocked off Bill Snyder's Kansas State Wildcats 17-15 on Saturday night. As bad as K-State must be right now, this was still a huge win for the Ragin' Cajuns, which hadn't beaten a BCS-conference foe since Texas A&M in 1996. For that, they can thank kicker Tyler Albrecht, who nailed a game-winning 48-yard field goal ... in his first career kick.

Albrecht, a fourth-year junior, spent his first year in the program redshirting, his second year handling kickoffs and his third sidelined by injuries. In ULL's opener last week against Southern, Albrecht made six extra points but did not attempt a field goal. His first career attempt finally arrived with 32 seconds left and his team down one.

"Of course I was nervous," he said, "but I hit it real solid."

Some kickers go their whole careers without getting a shot at a game-winner. Some get it their first time out.

From my perch high in the press box at Ohio State on Saturday night, I was looking around the interior of the always-wondrous Horseshoe when I noticed something peculiar. On the facade beneath the upper deck of the north end zone, the school lists seven national championship seasons. One of them is 1970.

Some quick research reveals that in 1970, the Buckeyes finished second behind Texas in the coaches poll ... and fifth in the AP poll (which crowned Nebraska). According to the treasure trove that is College Football Data Warehouse, the title that Ohio State so proudly displays was bestowed by the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame -- and even that one was shared with Texas.

Hey, as long as you're at it, Buckeyes, why not tack on 1969? No love for Matthews Grid Ratings? And what about that '73 banner from Foundation for the Analysis of Competitions and Tournaments? There's still plenty of room on that wall.

When South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia's last-second shot at a game-winning touchdown fell incomplete, the Gamecocks' coach reacted with agony. The two Georgia state troopers assigned to protect him, however, didn't try to hide their satisfaction with the outcome.

The Big Ten recently produced a series of lighthearted PSAs entitled "Big Ten Fan Camp." Watch closely, and you'll see a familiar face playing the role of a camp counselor yelling words of encouragement at a group of kids playing tug-of-war.

I must say, the commissioner is quite convincing -- presumably from years of practice bossing around the little guys of his sport.

Late Friday night, I and three other writers sat in a near-empty Columbus sports bar, morbidly fixated on Toledo's beatdown of Colorado. The game was over early in the third quarter (when the Rockets went up 30-3), yet for whatever reason we stayed and watched until nearly the bitter end as Toledo quarterback Aaron Opelt (15-of-23, 319 yards, four TDs) played his own personal game of target practice against the Buffaloes' nonexistent defense.

Meanwhile, I didn't know whether to feel sorry for overmatched Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins (three picks, three sacks) or admire his perseverance (in the waning moments, he dove head first into a Toledo defender while diving for a seemingly meaningless TD, suffering a nasty concussion in the process. While being helped to the sideline, he at one point turned back around for no apparent reason, clearly dazed as to his own whereabouts).

In last week's Mailbag, I wrote it was too soon to pass judgment on fourth-year coach Dan Hawkins following CU's opening-week loss to Colorado State (which itself barely survived Weber State on Saturday). Forget that. The Buffs are terrible, and it's pretty darn stupefying. After four years' of Hawkins recruiting, they've seemingly regressed to a worse state than when he arrived.

But that didn't stop Colorado AD Mike Bohn from throwing predecessor Gary Barnett under the bus following Friday's defeat. "We maybe have been guilty of building a facade that didn't reveal the ... severity of the situation we were in," he said.

Yes, the school endured a recruiting nightmare following the sexual-assault scandal during Barnett's tenure -- but that was five years ago. Hawkins has had plenty of time at this point to build a program capable of not getting its brains beat in -- literally -- by Toledo.

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

• Georgia Tech at Miami, Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET): Last year, the Jackets racked up 472 rushing yards against the 'Canes in a Thursday night rout in Atlanta. This year could be a different story. Miami gets 10 days to prepare for Tech's triple-option attack this time, and whereas last year the 'Canes were playing their second straight Thursday night game, this time the Jackets face that scenario.

• Tennessee at Florida, Saturday (3:30 p.m.): Fans around the country have been waiting since February to see what kind of on-field punishment Florida coach Urban Meyer will inflict on Lane Kiffin for Kiffin's infamous cheating allegations. I'd say there's a 50-50 chance the Vols' anemic offense will put up a bagel, but it's much less certain whether the Gators will hang 50 or 60 on a tough Tennessee D.

• Texas Tech at Texas, Saturday (8 p.m.): Speaking of revenge ... the 'Horns get an early shot at payback for last year's heartbreaker in Lubbock. Mike Leach's team isn't going quietly into the night -- quarterback Taylor Potts threw seven touchdowns against Rice last Saturday -- but traditionally the Raiders haven't fared well in Austin. They've allowed an average 50.8 points their last five games there.

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