Saturday November 7th, 2009

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

The Big Ten's decision to implement a permanent bye week came one year too late for Iowa. Beginning in 2010, the league will add a week off during the eight-game conference schedule. This is a wise move, and it may someday help an elite team avoid a letdown, stay undefeated and eventually reach the BCS title game.

Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, they have to play all of their 2009 schedule in a 12-week slog. And after several far-too-dramatic wins, all the tight games finally caught up with Iowa. Maybe if, at some point in the past 10 weeks, Iowa had taken a week off, Hawkeyes players would have been mentally refreshed and not have let their guard down against Northwestern and stumbled to a 17-10 loss.

I went a little open-date crazyresearching this story to advance the Alabama-LSU game, but Nick Saban's explanation made sense. As a season drags on, 18- to 22-year-old college students tend to lose focus mentally. "You can tell more by the players in the meetings than on the field," Saban told me. "They have a hard time getting it because their ability to focus and concentrate is not quite what it needs to be."

Maybe it had nothing to do with fatigue. Maybe the injury to quarterback Ricky Stanzi doomed the Hawkeyes. Or maybe Iowa players were looking ahead to Ohio State. Maybe they mentally checked out after their previous heart-stopper against Indiana. It should be noted here that Big Ten colleague Wisconsin had an open date after its loss to Iowa on Oct. 17. On Oct. 31, the refreshed Badgers crushed Purdue, 37-0.

Maybe if the Hawkeyes had gotten a chance to freshen up this season, they'd still be national title contenders. MANDEL: Stanzi injury too much for Iowa to overcome

Can Virginia please put Al Groh out of his misery? I mean, the guy always looked miserable, but at least he used to win a few games to keep Cavaliers fans happy.

Saturday, Virginia put up a fight for a half before rolling over and dying in a 52-17 loss at Miami. That makes Virginia 3-6, and the Hoos don't look capable of winning any of their three remaining games.

Groh is the type of guy who, during bowl practice, will walk past Virginia beat writers and then conduct a teleconference from his hotel. He's also the type of guy who coaches in one of the most talent-rich states in the country and still manages to put together a team that loses to William and Mary.

If Groh gets canned, there are a few coaches out there who could do well in Charlottesville. Al Golden has Temple bowl eligible. David Cutcliffe is working miracles at Duke. Turner Gill isn't duplicating the success of last year, but he coaches at Buffalo, for goodness sakes. Meanwhile, at Richmond, Mike London has the Spiders (8-0) looking like the favorite for the FCS national title. Any of these guys would be an upgrade.

Whoever gets hired at Virginia should watch the news out of Albuquerque. If Mike Locksley gets fired after an abysmal first season at New Mexico, the ace recruiter of the Maryland/DC/Northern Virginia area would make a fine recruiting coordinator. Sure, Locksley was accused of trying to strangle an assistant, but as we learned this week, he's not even the most violent person in New Mexico's athletic program.

When I visited Notre Dame in the spring, Charlie Weis struck me as a man at peace with his circumstances. He knew if this season didn't go well, he might wind up unemployed. But he also knew he had a boatload of talent.

Well, that boat got sunk Saturday by a less talented but ultimately superior force. Barring some sort of miracle finish, Navy's 23-21 win probably spells doom for Weis in South Bend. Even if Weis wins out, Notre Dame can do no better than the Gator Bowl, which certainly can't be how Weis envisioned closing this season when he looked over his roster in March and saw Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Brian Smith and Ethan Johnson.

This team has BCS-bowl talent, and Weis didn't get it done. The master of the "decided schematic advantage" and his defensive coordinator, John Tenuta, got outflanked by Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, who assumed that Notre Dame would use exactly the same defensive schemes it used in 2008, when the Fighting Irish held the Midshipmen to 178 rushing yards. Niumatalolo and his staff designed plays they knew would work against the formations and personnel groups the Irish used.

Niumatalolo guessed correctly. Notre Dame hadn't added even the slightest new wrinkle, and Navy bulldozed ahead for 348 yards. After the loss, reporters asked Weis if he worries that now his job status will be questioned.

"That comes with the territory," Weis said. "It comes with the territory. You know, the sad part about it is that's this job every week. It's a week-to-week deal."

Weis said he'll handle the criticism the way he always does.

"As I just told the team, I coach the team exactly the same way every week regardless of the situation, whether it's win or lose," Weis said. "One thing they know from me is I never change, never, ever change."

And that's precisely the problem.

So now that we've discussed Notre Dame, we must naturally discuss Cincinnati. Now that Weis Watch 2009 has officially begun, the spotlight will shine brighter on Bearcats coach Brian Kelly, Weis' presumed successor.

On Saturday, Kelly's team eked out a 47-45 win against a resilient Connecticut team. The Notre Dame questions will start rolling in on Sunday, but late Saturday, Kelly was just thrilled to still be undefeated.

"At the end of the day, you need one more point," Kelly told Cincinnati's radio network. "We did enough to win."

Kelly finds himself in the same catbird seat now that Urban Meyer enjoyed in 2004. The difference then was that two elite programs (Florida and Notre Dame) needed a coach. This year, Notre Dame is in a different league than other schools that might have openings. We've already married off Kelly and Notre Dame, even though Weis remains employed and Kelly remains the coach of an intriguing, plucky team that could sneak into the national title race, if Texas should slip.

So Kelly will have to deal with thinly veiled questions about Notre Dame as well as a brewing quarterback situation. I say "situation" rather than "controversy," because Kelly's situation isn't negative. His original starter, Tony Pike, is ready to return from an injury to his non-throwing arm suffered Oct. 15 at South Florida, but Cincy's backup, Zach Collaros, is 3-0 as a starter and just threw for 480 yards against the Huskies.

So let's run down the list of Kelly's issues: He has a great team, and he's coveted by another school that would pay him $4 million a year. He has two star quarterbacks.

If we could all have those kind of problems.

So I tried to go over all the scenarios to figure out how Colorado could win Big 12 North, but the sheer schizophrenia of the teams made my head hurt. Let's just stick to the basics. If Kansas State beats Missouri next week and Nebraska wins at Kansas, it will set up a Nov. 21 clash in Lincoln for the division title.

The winner will earn the right to go to Jerry World (aka Dallas Cowboys Stadium) two weeks later and lose to Texas by five touchdowns.

Get ready for a new quarterback at Florida State. Junior Christian Ponder -- who was having a truly excellent season in spite of his team's issues -- separated his right (throwing) shoulder during Saturday's 40-24 loss to Clemson, crack Orlando Sentinel beat writer Andrew Carter reported Saturday.

Replacing Ponder will be redshirt freshman E.J. Manuel, a Virginia Beach, Va., native who was one of the prizes of the 2008 recruiting class. Back then, Rivals.com ranked Manuel as the nation's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, ahead of Baylor's Robert Griffin and budding South Florida star B.J. Daniels. Who was the only player to outrank Manuel? Terrelle Pryor.

Of course, actual production and recruiting rankings sometimes have nothing in common, so we'll have to wait and see how Manuel does. But make no mistake, he'll get more attention this week --as he prepares for Wake Forest --than any other time while in Tallahassee. So far, the most significant press Manuel has received came last year at Maryland, when a camera crew noticed Manuel's number (3) and began asking questions about the Rhodes Scholarship he won earlier that day. Manuel smiled and politely pointed the crew to the Seminoles' other No. 3, supergenuis safety Myron Rolle.

Case Keenum threw for 522 yards Saturday in Houston's 46-45 thriller against Tulsa. That's two weeks in a row that Keenum has broken the 500-yard barrier. Next week, he travels to Orlando to face Central Florida, which isn't exactly the Steel Curtain.

It may not be time to throw Dion Lewis into the Heisman race yet, but the Pittsburgh freshman still bears watching in a wide-open year. Saturday in a 37-10 cakewalk against Syracuse, Lewis carried 18 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. In nine games, Lewis has 1,140 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. If he continues on this pace, he'll finish the regular season with 1,520 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Next week, Lewis will have a prime showcase when Notre Dame comes to Heinz Field. As I write this, Notre Dame trails Navy, 14-0. Lewis may have an even bigger audience if the Fighting Irish lose to Navy, because in a week of terrible games, the national media would descend on Pittsburgh to commence the Charlie Weis Unemployment Watch.

Arkansas scored a huge win Saturday that proves once again that Bobby Petrino has the program headed in the right direction.. Quarterback Ryan Mallett led the Hogs to 23 unanswered points in a 33-16 win against South Carolina. Arkansas (5-4) needs only one win in its final three (Troy, Mississippi State, LSU) to attain bowl eligibility.

Meanwhile, South Carolina (6-4) is staring at a .500 season. The Gamecocks face top-ranked Florida next week, and then they have a week off before facing Clemson. The Gamecocks have lost 10 of their last 12 against their in-state rivals.

Oregon fans spent the week pestering me on Twitter about ranking Boise State over the Ducks on my most recent AP ballot. My reasoning for this was simple: Boise State beat Oregon head-to-head, and a head-to-head matchup is the best way to measure two programs.

On Saturday, we learned that Stanford is also better than Oregon. The Cardinal crushed the Ducks, 51-42, throwing the Pac-10 into chaos and proving that Oregon wasn't exactly the juggernaut it seemed to be during a monthlong hot streak. That's probably bad news for Boise State, though.

I elevated Boise State last week because I had to elevate Oregon after the Ducks thumped USC. Still, I felt terrible for jumping Boise State over TCU. Now, with Oregon out of the picture, I can move TCU back above Boise State, which didn't look very impressive for 55 minutes Friday at Louisiana Tech. Of course, Boise State will leap back over the Horned Frogs if TCU can't handle Mountain West rival Utah next week in Fort Worth.

The Ducks needn't worry about the rankings now. They should worry about what they can control, and they can control whether they play in the Rose Bowl. Oregon plays Arizona State next week, and if the Ducks beat the Sun Devils and Arizona beats Cal, then it sets up a matchup in Tucson on Nov. 21 between Oregon and Arizona for pole position in the conference, and, depending on what happens next week, could decide the conference champ.

Here's hoping Cal tailback Jahvid Best didn't suffer any permanent damage when he landed hard on his head during the Bears' game against Oregon State. Best was taken off the field on a stretcher and taken to a hospital for more tests, and Cal spokesman Herb Benenson told USA Today that preliminary tests revealed a concussion. Benenson told the paper Best had movement in all his extremities. Still photos of the play show just how far Best fell after he was flipped in midair by tackler Cameron Collins.

Hopefully Best, who began the season as a Heisman contender, will make a full recovery.

It was so much fun to speculate that next week's Georgia Tech-Duke matchup could decide the ACC Coastal Division, but alas, the Dookies couldn't hold up their end of the bargain. To add insult to injury, the Blue Devils fell short in a place so many Dookie dreams go to die, Chapel Hill, looking for any glimmer of hope in a tough season, beat Duke, 19-6, and allowed Tar Heels fans to chant "just like basketball."

North Carolina kicker Casey Barth was the breakout star, nailing all four of his field-goal attempts. The Tar Heels' defense also held Duke's offense to 125 yards. Ed Davis blocked three shots, and Larry Drew II dished out seven assists. Whoops, wrong sport.

Finally, Saturday's most poignant moment took place in a sports bar in Tuscaloosa, where some LSU fans were drowning their sorrows after the Tigers' 24-15 loss to Alabama. On one TV was one of those spectacular plays countdown shows, and No. 14 was the Hail Mary that allowed LSU to escape Kentucky in 2002.

"Yeah!" one purple-clad fan screamed. "We won! History still counts."

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