Saturday October 31st, 2009

Thoughts, observations and helpful suggestions as the college football season hurtles toward the BCS apocalypse.

When I fill out my Associated Press poll ballot each week, I try to respect the results of head-to-head contests. As voters, we're asked to imagine who would win hypothetical matchups between teams except in the cases when the teams have actually met on the field. That's what makes what I have to do Sunday so hard. I've used a lot of bandwidth this season complaining about 8-0 Boise State's terrible schedule. The Broncos rolled the dice on a season-opener against Oregon and loaded up the rest of the slate with wet, hot garbage. But Boise State beat Oregon. The 19-8 final didn't even tell the whole story; the Broncos completely dominated the Ducks. So Sunday morning, when I submit my poll ballot, I will give Oregon a significant boost. The Ducks' 47-20 win against USC makes Oregon a prohibitive favorite to win the Pac-10, which is a very good conference. But no matter how high I rank Oregon, I will rank Boise State one spot higher. The Broncos won fair and square. Yes, the Ducks have evolved into a better team, but that doesn't matter. They still lost. I've evolved into a better writer since September, but I still can't take back the fact that I called Oklahoma State an elite team after the Cowboys beat Georgia on Sept. 5. So here's the burning question. Will the coaches and Harris Poll voters -- whose opinions actually count in the BCS standings -- follow suit? My guess is no. For weeks, voters in those polls ranked one-loss Oklahoma State ahead of one-loss Houston in spite of the Cougars' head-to-head win in week two. Until Iowa established itself as the Big Ten favorite, many ranked Penn State ahead of the Hawkeyes even though Iowa dominated the Nittany Lions in State College. If the voters do this in protest of Boise State's horrible schedule, I might understand. But that's not why they'll do it. They'll do it because Oregon is a BCS-conference school, and because they don't respect the only real way we have to differentiate between two teams: a head-to-head result. That won't happen on my ballot. Even though I hate the Broncos' schedule, I respect their one decent win. So until they lose twice, they'll be one spot ahead of Oregon on my ballot. Texas 41, Oklahoma State 14: When Texas saw its national title hopes evaporate last Halloween weekend in Lubbock, the Longhorns had their defense to blame. They had allowed Michael Crabtree to score an improbable touchdown, and they had dropped a game-clinching interception. This year, Texas remains a frontrunner for the BCS title because of its defense. Saturday, the Longhorns dominated a Dez Bryant-less Oklahoma State, 41-14, thanks in part to interceptions returned for touchdowns by Curtis Brown and Earl Thomas. The Longhorns forced five turnovers (four interceptions, one fumble) Saturday, running their season total to 26. That's 10 more than Texas forced all of last season. Sergio Kindle has been as disruptive as Longhorns coaches hoped when they moved him from linebacker to defensive end to replace Brian Orakpo. Meanwhile, senior Roddrick Muckelroy is a force at linebacker. He leads the team with 55 tackles and is tied with Kindle and Emmanuel Acho for the lead in tackles for loss with nine. With the defense playing so well, the offense only needs to be efficient. Quarterback Colt McCoy and company can do efficient. They also can do explosive, something Florida and Alabama -- two other teams with stifling defenses and national title dreams -- can't yet claim.

Tennessee 31, South Carolina 13: Mike Slive can reprimand him. Lil' Wayne can name-check him. Fans of 11 SEC schools can deride him, but Lane Kiffin isn't going away. In fact, Tennessee's first-year coach is just getting started. Despite the hideous black jerseys, Saturday's 31-13 Tennessee win against a pretty good South Carolina team is proof last week's near-miss at Alabama was no fluke. Kiffin's team has gotten better each week. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton weathered the slings and arrows of his own fans and has emerged as a serviceable SEC quarterback. Monte Kiffin's defense has proven adept at causing game-changing fumbles. This should scare the other 11 SEC teams, because Kiffin's staff is improving a roster that isn't stocked with top-shelf talent. Remember, Kiffin is great at two things: running his mouth and recruiting. He's going to come back with even better players in the next few years. Those close calls will turn into wins, and two-touchdown wins will turn into four-touchdown wins. So love him or hate him -- and judging by my e-mail, most of you hate him -- get used to Kiffin. You and Slive are stuck with him.

• Iowa 42, Indiana 24: It's time for the tinfoil hat crowd to move north. The conspiracy theory of the week comes from the Big Ten, where officials overturned an apparent touchdown by Indiana's Terrance Turner in the third quarter at Iowa. The overturned call nearly sent Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch into convulsions, and it triggered a missed field goal that was the prelude to an Indiana collapse that allowed Iowa to stay undefeated with a 42-24 win. MANDEL: Time to stop doubting Iowa

Replays were tough to judge, but Sports By Brooks found this screen capture. Turner's right foot appears to land in bounds. So get ready for more complaints about a vast conspiracy to keep undefeated teams undefeated. And if the Big Ten follows the new SEC model, expect Lynch to lose a month's salary -- because he may find it hard to keep his mouth shut about the call.

It probably doesn't matter, though. Indiana would have a far better argument if its secondary hadn't quit at the start of the fourth quarter. The Hoosiers allowed touchdown passes of 92 and 66 yards, and Iowa never looked back.

Though the Hawkeyes survived another scare, don't expect the human voters to give Iowa any more respect after this win. The computers still love the Hawkeyes, but the horrible first half coupled with the controversial call will keep the coaches and Harris Poll voters from giving Iowa more love. To put themselves in position to play for the national title, the Hawkeyes may need a definitive win at Ohio State on Nov. 14. Maybe that would allow Iowa to slide in if Texas or one of the SEC's elite schools falters.

But that's a big maybe.

• Florida State 45, NC State 42: Florida State's offense looks like an ACC title contender. Unfortunately for the Seminoles, their defense might not keep them alive in a Pop Warner league. Saturday, NC State quarterback Russell Wilson torched FSU for 349 yards and five touchdowns, but Florida State's ground game saved the game.

On a day when Seminoles quarterback Christian Ponder threw more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one), Jermaine Thomas rushed 19 times for 161 yards and two touchdowns to lead FSU to a 45-42 win.

The most surprising part wasn't that FSU allowed Wilson to keep the Wolfpack in the game so long, it was that the Seminoles -- who have allowed an average of 39.3 points game in their past three games -- actually made plays at the end to keep Wilson from marching NC State down the field for a winning or tying score. Florida State's Mister Alexander sacked Wilson with 23 seconds remaining, and Jamie Robinson intercepted Wilson to end the game.

With Florida State's offense seemingly finding its groove and the ACC Atlantic Division still somewhat up for grabs, things should be looking up in Tallahassee. But coordinator Mickey Andrews has to fix FSU's defense for the Seminoles to have any chance of salvaging this season.

• Houston 50, Southern Miss 43: Call him a system QB if you want -- and we know Chamillionaire does -- but Houston's Case Keenum is racking up some amazing numbers.

Saturday against Southern Miss, Keenum completed 44-of-54 passes for 559 yards and five touchdowns. The fifth, a 28-yarder to Patrick Edwards, came with 26 seconds remaining to give the Cougars a 50-43 win. Through eight games, Keenum has thrown for 3,293 yards and 25 touchdowns. Most quarterbacks would be happy with those numbers for a full season. • It's been a wild day in the ACC so far. Wake Forest collapsed against Miami, allowing the Hurricanes to hold onto their slim hopes in the ACC Coastal Division race. Meanwhile, David Cutcliffe's Dookies may have finally felled Coach Rasputin Al Groh with a 28-17 win in Charlottesville. In case you're scoring at home, that means Groh's Cavaliers now have lost at home to William & Mary and Duke in the same season.

Losing to Duke (5-3) shouldn't sting so much this year, though. At 3-1 in conference, the Blue Devils actually have a better Coastal Division record than Miami (3-2) and Virginia Tech (3-2). Cutcliffe has Duke playing well, and the Blue Devils' next win will make them bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. While the Dookies probably would love to clinch bowl eligibility next week in Chapel Hill and throw a bowl party on Franklin Street just to rub it in, poor scheduling and a choke against Richmond will delay the festivities. Because North Carolina Central is classified as a transitional Division I team, Duke's win against the Eagles doesn't count toward bowl eligibility. Had the Blue Devils beaten Richmond on opening day, they'd be one win away from bowling. Unfortunately, Duke now must split games against North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami and Wake Forest to make a bowl.

• Thanks to Georgia and Tennessee, Halloween brought us some absolutely hideous uniforms. We expect horrifying uni combinations from Oregon, but Georgia and Tennessee usually stick to traditional garments.

Georgia warmed up in its usual red helmets and silver britches, then returned to the locker room. The Bulldogs emerged wearing black helmets and black pants that looked like an order Grambling shipped back because it was the wrong color scheme. Obviously, the gambit didn't work; Florida dumptrucked the Bulldogs in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

Meanwhile, Tennessee wore its usual white helmets with orange pants and black jerseys. The Volunteers looked a little like a Halloween-themed Wyoming, but at least the switch had the desired effect. Tennessee defeated South Carolina 31-13.

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