Monday September 21st, 2009

Football Insiders: Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.

When the 2009 season began, we "experts" generally placed four teams -- Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and USC -- in a class by themselves. This demarcation didn't require much imagination on our parts, as all four played in BCS bowls last year.

But as with any season, new contenders have inevitably emerged from places we'd least expect. Like the Emerald Bowl.

Last December, 8-4 Cal beat 7-5 Miami, 24-17, in what seemed at the time an inconsequential bowl game. At the time, the only things that stood out were Bears running back Jahvid Best's 186-yard performance and Miami's horrific clock-management at the end. In hindsight, perhaps we should have viewed it as a launching pad for Best's Heisman campaign and the unveiling of the Hurricanes' next great quarterback.

Over the next two weeks, the Bears and 'Canes could place themselves squarely at the front of their respective conferences. Cal, 3-0 and ranked sixth in the latest AP poll following Saturday's 35-21 win at Minnesota, begins Pac-10 play this weekend with a trip to Oregon, then heads back home to play suddenly vulnerable USC. Win both, and Cal -- which hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1959 -- will be sitting in first place, having conquered what may be its two toughest league games.

Miami (2-0), which has jumped from unranked in the preseason to No. 9 following wins over ranked foes Florida State and Georgia Tech, visits No. 11 Virginia Tech this weekend with a chance to jump to a 3-0 start in ACC play. Should the 'Canes prevail, they would then meet No. 10 Oklahoma with a chance to thrust themselves into the heart of the national-title race.

"A lot of people expected us to go 0-4," Miami safety Randy Phillips said of his team's brutal first month. "I don't know what they were thinking."

They were thinking that the once-dominant 'Canes had gone 19-19 the past three seasons and, though likely improved thanks to third-year coach Randy Shannon's recent recruiting prowess, were still young (their two-deep includes 19 freshmen or sophomores) and unproven. A 2-2 start would have been deemed an achievement.

But Miami came out looking completely revamped from a year ago. Led by precocious sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris -- who made his first meaningful start in the Emerald Bowl -- the 'Canes' offense has been one of the biggest surprises of this young season.

Harris, who showed flashes of things to come with a 25-of-41, two-touchdown performance that night in San Francisco, currently ranks as the nation's third-leading passer. Miami's O-line and running game are much improved, and new coordinator Mark Whipple, the former national-champion UMass head coach, has Miami stretching the field more so than in recent years (Harris is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt) thanks in part to a suddenly deep stable of athletic receivers (Travis Benjamin, LaRon Byrd, Leonard Hankerson and tight end Dedrick Epps).

"Miami didn't just arrive right now," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said Sunday. "They were a good team when we played them in that bowl game, [with] a lot of speed and athleticism. Their quarterback was an exciting player at that time as well."

Tedford's team can't be considered as big of a surprise. If anything, Cal has started out exactly as predicted. But the Bears have often wilted under hype -- see 2007, when they started 5-0 and rose to No. 2 before losing six of seven -- which is why Saturday's road win was important.

Faced with adversity when the Gophers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the game at 21-21 late in the third quarter, quarterback Kevin Riley regained momentum with two long throws on a go-ahead drive midway through the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Best scored five touchdowns and the defense held Minnesota to 270 total yards.

"I feel good about this team," Tedford said. "A lot of guys on this team were here two years ago when we got to No. 2 and the wheels came off. We have more maturity and different team chemistry now."

Obviously, the Bears' Pac-10 title hopes got a whole lot rosier Saturday based less on their win than seven-time defending league champion USC's 16-13 loss at Washington. It would be foolish to write off the Trojans, which played the Huskies without injured quarterback Matt Barkley and star safety Taylor Mays, but even coach Pete Carroll admitted, "We're not real good right now. We weren't real good last week [against Ohio State], either."

This is the chance Cal has been waiting for since 2003, the year Tedford's program stormed onto the scene with a 34-31 victory over the Trojans. The Bears have been chasing USC ever since, losing five straight meetings, but they best not look past Oregon, which just ended Utah's 16-game winning streak.

"We've learned our lesson that in this conference, you have to be ready every single week," Tedford said. "The environment we went to play in at Minnesota was very similar to Oregon's stadium. It was what we needed for sure, to play a tough physical game in a hostile environment."

Miami faces its own treacherous trip this weekend at two-time defending ACC champ Virginia Tech. The Hokies pulled off an improbable win Saturday over Nebraska, overcoming another bout of offensive ineptitude by holding the Huskers without a touchdown in a dramatic, last-second 16-15 victory. The Hokies' defense will come after Harris, who threw two interceptions against Florida State but was nearly flawless against Georgia Tech (20-of-25, 270 yards, three TDs, no INTs).

If anything, however, Miami gained even more validation on its off-day Saturday when the Seminoles went and trounced No. 7 BYU. The 'Canes may be more "back" than we realized at the time.

"We're ready for anyone," Phillips said. "We embraced the schedule, and we're still embracing it."

Win again this week, and the nation will have to start embracing the 'Canes, too.

In a sport full of coaches perennially looking ahead to the next game, it was refreshing to call Washington coach Steve Sarkisian on Sunday morning and hear a man still deservedly soaking in his team's watershed upset of USC.

"When good things like this happen, you have to sit back and enjoy it," said the first-year Huskies coach, who celebrated Saturday night with a gathering at his house for staff and their families. "It would be wrong to look too far ahead or nitpick too many things."

Despite his and defensive coordinator Nick Holt's past experience on Carroll's staff, Sarkisian said the coaches did not prepare differently for the Trojans than a typical opponent, with one small exception: At Friday's final practice, Sarkisian played the part of USC's quarterback against Washington's defense to simulate the tempo they'd be facing.

Once the game started, USC jumped to a 10-0 lead largely by gashing the Huskies' defense on the ground. Washington adjusted by subbing in true freshman defensive end Talia Crichton and moving sophomore end Everette Thompson to tackle to produce more speed up front. Senior linebacker Donald Butler carried the day, notching 12 tackles and ending two deep USC drives with a forced fumble and interception.

"We have excellent, excellent leaders on defense, players that are little better than people might think," Sarkisian said. It's hard to believe that in just a week's time the Huskies have gone from snapping a 15-game losing streak to being nationally ranked (No. 24 in the AP poll). But with Jake Locker back under center, it was clear from their opening-week performance against LSU that the Huskies were a far more confident team. That starts with their head coach, whose own swagger was honed, ironically, at the school he just beat.

"A lot of those wins at 'SC, the pundits all said you're supposed to win," Sarkisian said. "In this game, you're a huge underdog. It's a different feeling, but one with a lot of joy."

Overrated: No. 4 Ole Miss and No. 5 Penn State

It's not impossible the Rebels and/or Nittany Lions boast top five teams; I just don't know how one could tell. Ole Miss to date boasts blowouts of Memphis and Southeast Louisiana, while Penn State has beaten up on Akron, Syracuse and Temple. The only reason these teams remain ranked ahead of more accomplished teams like Cal and Miami is because they started that way.

Underrated: Florida State (AP: No. 18; coaches: No. 25)

The Seminoles came within a last-second end zone drop of beating Miami in Week 1. It was pretty clear that night they were two evenly matched teams, yet they remain nine spots apart in the AP poll and 12 in the coaches. At least AP voters had the sense to rank FSU ahead of BYU. The coaches still have the 'Noles five spots behind a team they just drubbed 54-28 on the Cougars' home field.

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

Title game: Florida vs. Texas Rose: Cal vs. Penn State Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Boise State Sugar: Alabama vs. Cincinnati Orange: Miami vs. USC

Lots of changes this week. Miami takes over the ACC's spot in the Orange Bowl, Cal takes over the Pac-10's spot in the Rose Bowl and Boise State reclaims favored status among potential BCS-busters following BYU's loss (though neither the Cougars, TCU or Houston are out of it). The Orange Bowl at-large spot was the toughest to fill. Flying in a 10-2 USC team with presumably disinterested fans would not be all that desirable for the Orange Bowl committee, but it'd still probably be preferable to taking Boise or Cincinnati.

• It was a weekend of devastating injuries to key players. South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe, who just last week became the Big East's career total offense leader, is out for the season with a torn ACL. A school spokesman said a medical redshirt is unlikely for the fifth-year senior. His injury comes a week before USF's first-ever game against Florida State and likely cripples the Bulls' Big East title hopes.

Elsewhere, Notre Dame lost star wide receiver Michael Floyd for the rest of the regular season with a broken collarbone. He already had 13 catches for 358 yards and five touchdowns. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen still racked up 300 yards in a 33-30 win over Michigan State despite Floyd's exit in the second quarter, but the sophomore was unquestionably the Irish's most dangerous threat.

• It looked like West Virginia might have suffered its own injury blow when senior quarterback Jarrett Brown left late in the game against Auburn, but Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart said the senior's injury to his non-throwing shoulder is not serious. More painful for West Virginia: blowing a 21-10 lead and wasting 509 yards of offense in an eventual 41-30 Tigers victory.

• Yet again, Bob Stoops and Kevin Wilson have worked their magic with a green quarterback at Oklahoma. Redshirt freshman Landry Jones, who seemed so in over his head when thrown in to replace Sam Bradford against BYU, went 25-of-37 for 336 yards and a school-record six TDs in Oklahoma's 45-0 rout of Tulsa. Meanwhile, his porn-star mustache has inspired its own T-shirt and cheering section.

• From the depths of its Boise State debacle, Oregon has improved to 2-1 after knocking off No. 18 Utah, but it's still hard to put faith in the Ducks. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was a ghastly 4-of-16 with an interception and two lost fumbles (one returned for a TD) against the Utes, but redshirt freshman running back LaMichael James (27 carries, 152 yards) and a stingy defense (297 yards allowed) bailed him out.

• Where have you gone, Matt Ryan? Boston College figured to struggle offensively this season with two freshman quarterbacks, but the extent of its misery Saturday against Clemson was mind-blowing. In a game delayed two hours by weather, BC went nearly three quarters without a first down and netted just 54 yards of offense in a 25-7 defeat. Somewhere, Steve Logan is smirking.

• It's not every day you see a team forced to punt on fourth-and-goal, but that's exactly what happened to Nebraska late in the third quarter against Virginia Tech. Starting with a first-and-goal at the Hokies' six, the Huskers first had a touchdown pass nullified by holding, then committed three more false start or holding penalties that drove them back to the 37 and out of field-goal range.

• The early scouting report on Arkansas: quarterback Ryan Mallett is as good as advertised (he threw for 408 yards and five touchdowns against Georgia to remain the nation's pass-efficiency leader), but Bobby Petrino's defense is horr-i-ble. With his various ailments behind him, Dawgs quarterback Joe Cox spent the bulk of the night lofting passes down field to wide-open receivers (resulting in five TDs) in a 52-41 win.

• Texas A&M has quietly undergone a massive offensive overhaul after Mike Sherman installed a no-huddle attack. Quarterback Jerod Johnson and the Aggies rank No. 1 nationally at 589.5 yards per game following wins over New Mexico and Utah State. However, A&M also gave up 521 yards to Utah State and ranks 86th in total defense. In two weeks, they face ... Arkansas. Hello, shootout.

Jim Tressel apparently got the memo to unleash Terrelle Pryor. The quarterback set or matched career highs for both passing (262) and rushing (110) yards against Toledo. Just as impressive, the Buckeyes' defense shut out a Toledo offense that had posted 85 combined points against Purdue and Colorado. Rockets quarterback Aaron Opelt, who came in averaging 371 passing yards, managed just 197.

• Syracuse coach Doug Marrone got his first career victory in dramatic fashion. With the score tied 34-34 late, safety Max Suter intercepted previously torrid Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka (35-of-42 for 390 yards), setting up Ryan Lichtenstein for a game-winning 41-yard field goal. Much like Washington, the previously dormant Orange seem far more energized thus far under Marrone.

• One day I swear I'll stop overlooking Connecticut. A week after nearly knocking off North Carolina, the Huskies went to Baylor a 10-point underdog and left with a 30-22 victory. Lest you think Randy Edsall's team misses departed star Donald Brown, running backs Andre Dixon (31 carries, 149 yards) and Jordan Todman (22 for 103) helped keep Baylor star Robert Griffin off the field for 39 minutes.

• Fresno State running back Ryan Matthews pulled off a rare feat Friday night against Boise State, breaking three touchdown runs of 60 or more yards to finish with 234 on the night. The Broncos still prevailed, 51-34, and now face nine remaining FBS foes with a combined 10-18 record. It's because of that schedule that I believe a one-loss Mountain West team could still finish higher than Boise.

• Embattled Virginia coach Al Groh can't catch a break. Just when his new spread offense seemed like a lost cause, quarterback Jameel Sewell exploded for 312 passing yards and the Cavs jumped to a 27-10 halftime lead against a very good Southern Miss team. Unfortunately, the Golden Eagles were good enough to roll off four second-half touchdowns and win 34-27.

• Here's all you need to know about the state of Maryland's program: The Terps lost Saturday to Middle Tennessee State -- for the second straight season.

• N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson broke an FBS record previously held by Kentucky's Andre Woodson by throwing his 326th straight pass without an interception Saturday against Gardner-Webb. He finished the game at 331.

• Northern Illinois, which came in with a 1-32-1 all-time record against Big Ten foes, knocked off Purdue 28-21 for its first win over a Big Ten team since 1988.

• I regret that the deadline for this column prevents me from commenting on Sunday night's Curb Your Enthusiasm premiere. I'm sure it was phenomenal.

Is it too early to start the Army bowl watch?

Under new coach Rich Ellerson, the Black Knights -- who last went bowling in 1996 (Independence) and haven't won more than four games in a season since -- are off to a 2-1 start, beating Ball State 24-17 on Saturday.

''It feels right. It feels like that's the way it should be,'' said Ellerson, whose team previously beat Eastern Michigan but lost to Duke. ''But we don't want to start the celebration too soon."

Of course they don't. But that doesn't mean the rest of us can't scout Army's schedule and find four more potential wins: Tulane (Oct. 3), at Temple (Oct. 17), VMI (Nov. 14) and at North Texas (Nov. 21). The Black Knights already have a standing invite from the EagleBank Bowl if eligible.

Kenny Chesney, while not a personal fave, I could at least understand. "This is our time," yada, yada, yada, seemed vaguely connected to college football.

But I've yet to hear a logical explanation for why ESPN has chosen to relentlessly interweave snippets from sappy 15-year-old Dave Matthews songs like Ants Marching into its college football broadcasts. It's true that when I hear that familiar fiddle, I do think of college -- as in, people blasting Under the Table and Dreaming in my freshman dorm hall at 7:30 in the morning -- but not football.

However, Saturday on CBS, following a Verne Lundquist voiceover and shots of Florida and Tennessee coming out of the tunnel at The Swamp, producers set up the long-awaited showdown with an rockin' intro set to Green Day's Know Your Enemy. You know -- because the two teams are enemies. While not one of the pop-punk trio's finer efforts, I'll take it over Dave's headache-inducing voice any day.

Thanks for letting me rant.

According to the description by this particular uploader, the Tennessee safety "jacked up Tim Tebow" in their epic collision during Saturday's contest. Personally, I kind of saw it the other way. To the judges...

Last week, Gus Johnson nearly had a heart attack on air while calling Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley's 87-yard game-winning touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals. Saturday, it sounded as if Sean McDonough's lungs might pop right out of his body following Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor's two miraculous throws to beat Nebraska.

Let's face it: Twitter has completely changed the Saturday game-watching experience. If you've been following me, you know I do my best to keep the masses updated on everything I'm seeing while at the same time reading and re-tweeting accounts from others around the country. And Saturday at around 6:45 p.m. ET, I became the most popular man on Twitter (besides @OGOchoCinco).

As you may have seen, I called the Washington-USC upset Friday. Starting with a congratulatory tweet from @JimmyTraina (that I promptly re-tweeted), I received about 50 "mentions" in a five-minute span. I started receiving texts from numbers I didn't even recognize (apologies if you sent one and are currently reading this thinking "that jerk doesn't have me programmed in his phone?"). And I checked my e-mail, which included a slew of laudatory messages, highlighted by someone calling it a "career-defining pick."

I don't know about that. If my career was dependent on picking games correctly, I would have been unemployed long ago. But coming as it did on the heels of a nightmarish 3-7 week, I appreciate the love (even Sarkisian noticed).

But now I'm wondering ... does this make next week my "trap game?"

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

• Ole Miss at South Carolina, Thursday (7:45 p.m. ET): At last, the No. 4 team in the country faces someone of note. Will that someone shut down Rebels quarterback Jevan Snead the way it did Russell Wilson on opening night or get caught up in a shootout as it did at Georgia? Steve Spurrier would be wise to avoid the latter.

• Miami at Virginia Tech, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): I've given up trying to figure out the Hokies. They had been outgained by Nebraska 343-190 before producing a game-winning 88-yard drive. Either they'll intercept Harris three times, run back a punt and win 19-17, or they'll suffer a fate worse than Georgia Tech.

• Texas Tech at Houston, Saturday (9:15 p.m. ET): If the Cougars want to bust the BCS, they need another Big 12 win. The Red Raiders largely slowed down Colt McCoy on Saturday, but can they do the same to Case Keenum? And has any team ever played two quarterbacks with such cool names in back-to-back weeks?

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