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New wave of game-breaking QBs injecting life into teams, sport

Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to a new generation of fleet-footed quarterbacks: Michigan's Denard Robinson, Auburn's Cameron Newton and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. All first-year starters, they've ignited their teams' offenses, generated a bevy of highlights and sparked giddy anticipation of more to come.

Robinson -- a.k.a. "Shoelace" -- has been the undisputed star of the season's first two weeks. His 186-yard rushing day in the Wolverines' opener against Connecticut proved to be a mere appetizer for Saturday's Herculean performance against Notre Dame, in which he accounted for a staggering 502 yards of total offense (258 rushing, 244 passing) and led a game-winning drive to beat the Irish 28-24. He is currently the nation's leading rusher, regardless of position, and is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes.

"I've had some terrific quarterbacks," said Robinson's coach, Rich Rodriguez, "but I don't know if I've had anybody that's had that many yards rushing and passing combined." Not under his watch, at least. Among his previous FBS standouts (Shaun King, Woody Dantzler, Rasheed Marshall and Pat White), only Clemson's Dantzler had a bigger game (517 against N.C. State in 2001), and that was after Rodriguez had left for West Virginia. White came the next-closest, notching 424 in a 2006 game against Pitt.

Meanwhile, viewers who tuned in to ESPN last Thursday night got their first taste of Newton, Auburn's 6-foot-6, 250-pound dynamo, who put up more modest numbers against Mississippi State (70 rushing yards, 136 passing) than he did the week before against Arkansas State (171 rushing, 186 passing), despite personally outgaining the Bulldogs, 146-125, in the first half before cooling off. Right now Newton looks a little bit like Terrelle Pryor did earlier in his career (albeit in a completely different offense): capable of moving the chains with a simple scramble, but still clearly a work in progress as a passer.

"We have some designed run [plays] that we feel good about, but the thing you really can't account for is the runs that aren't designed," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. "That's what he brings to the table with his athletic ability. There's obviously been moments where there was much-needed improvement, but for the most part he's tried to do exactly what we've asked him to do."

And then there's Martinez, the budding phenom in Lincoln who most of the country has yet to see. In two games against Western Kentucky and Idaho, the redshirt freshman -- a.k.a. T-Magic, a.k.a. T-Mobile, a.k.a. whatever nickname 'Huskers fans dream up next -- has rushed for 284 yards and five touchdowns, including a 67-yard dash Saturday against the Vandals.

If White is the default comparison for Robinson, former Nebraska Heisman winner Eric Crouch is for Martinez. That may seem a bit premature for a guy who's yet to face a BCS-conference opponent. (He'll get his first crack Saturday at Washington.) However, Wendell Barnhouse, longtime college writer for the Fort Worth Star Telegram who now works for the Big 12, tweeted this Saturday: "People [are] comparing Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez to Heisman winner Eric Crouch. Here's this opinion: Martinez is faster than Crouch."

Crouch, lest we forget, was pretty darn fast when he turned on the jets.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, note that each of these guys is still just two games into his respective tenure as a starter (though Robinson played at times last season), and faces tougher days ahead.

Even with those 502 yards, Michigan went nearly the entire second half without scoring against the Irish. Robinson can't keep running 28 times a game, not just because he might break in half, but because the Wolverines will eventually face faster defenses capable of squeezing his running lanes. Just as White had Steve Slaton and Noel Devine, Robinson will need running backs Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw to become viable zone-handoff threats if Michigan hopes to keep defenses honest.

Meanwhile, Newton and the Tigers ultimately needed big help from their defense to fend off mediocre Mississippi State. He figures to be a hot-and-cold guy for the time being. Saturday will be the first chance to see whether Martinez can be as effective against a more respectable foe. He's got the help of a capable I-back in Roy Helu, but it remains to be seen how he'll fare as a passer.

But whether next week or next month, chances are all three will be regular fixtures on SportsCenter's top 10 this season, which is a good thing. We were due some fresh highlights.

Ready for some more premature hyperbole? This one I'm fairly confident about: South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is the most physically gifted freshman running back I've seen since Adrian Peterson six years ago.

Lattimore's performance Saturday in the Gamecocks' 17-6 win over Georgia was one for the ages. In just his second college game, the 6-foot, 218-pound sensation toted the rock 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns. The Bulldogs flat-out couldn't handle him.

"I don't think I've ever had a running back break as many tackles as Marcus Lattimore did yesterday," Steve Spurrier said Sunday after watching tape of the game. "We didn't count 'em, but it was a whole bunch of 'em."

Travis Haney of the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courierdid count them. His review of the game tape found that on Lattimore's 38 touches (which included a 16-yard reception), he broke 28 tackles and gained 121 yards after contact.

Monitoring Twitter during the game, I noticed some undue surprise that a running back would get so much attention in a Spurrier-coached offense. Yes, the Ball Coach is known for his quarterbacks, but at its core, his passing offense is predicated on the threat of the play-action, which works best with a potent runner. He had quite a few in Gainesville -- from Errict Rhett to Fred Taylor to Earnest Graham -- but Lattimore is by far the best talent he's had at South Carolina.

Much like Peterson at Oklahoma, Lattimore appears beyond his years both physically and mentally. Both were the top-rated running backs in the country coming out of high school, and both were asked to shoulder a heavy load nearly from day one.

"I think Marcus can handle all the attention he's receiving very well," said Spurrier. "He's a very level, grounded young man.

It's become an annual tradition. At least one Saturday each September, the ACC reminds us that it's still not ready for primetime. The league's four ranked teams after Week 1 -- No. 12 Miami (at Ohio State), No. 13 Virginia Tech (vs. James Madison), No. 15 Georgia Tech (at Kansas) and No. 17 Florida State (at Oklahoma) -- all went down in one fell swoop, essentially eliminating any hope of the conference producing its first national champion in 11 years.

Before we go piling on, it's worth commending ACC teams for their willingness to go on the road, outside their region, for challenging nonconference tests. Neither the 'Canes or 'Noles were expected to beat their top 10 hosts. (Though it would have been nice to see FSU at least put up a fight.) However, you've still got to win at least a couple to earn respect -- or, in the case of the Hokies and Yellow Jackets, avoid humiliation.

At least Miami engendered some semblance of encouragement. While admittedly overmatched at times by the Buckeyes, the 'Canes gave a tougher fight than the 36-24 final score indicated. Many of their wounds were self-inflicted, most notably the miscommunication between quarterback Jacory Harris and his receivers that led to at least two of his four interceptions.

"Look at the stats, it's equal," said Miami coach Randy Shannon. "But it came down to one thing -- turnovers. You can't do that and win big games like this."

In Shannon's fourth season, the 'Canes have an undisputed bevy of playmakers at the skill positions and a tough defensive line. If they can stay out of their own way, they're the new favorites (for now) in their beleaguered conference.

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

Title game: Alabama vs. Ohio State

Rose: Oregon vs. Boise State

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Connecticut

Orange: Miami vs. Wisconsin

Sugar: Florida vs. Texas

Remember last week when I was suffering buyer's remorse over Oklahoma? Yeah, not so much anymore after Landry Jones went and did what Bob Stoops quarterbacks generally do, shredding Florida State for 380 yards and four touchdowns on 30-of-40 passing. The bigger question is: Texas or Nebraska for the other Big 12 spot? We'll find out more about both after this weekend, when the Longhorns visit Texas Tech and the 'Huskers go to Washington.

Meanwhile, don't mistake Florida's sudden inclusion as me having some newfound faith in the Gators' offense. The spin after Saturday's 38-14 win over USF was that the Gators "grew up" in the second half (it was 7-7 at halftime), but it sure seemed more like the defense once again kept the Gators in it long enough for Jeff Demps to eventually break a big run or two. Having said that, I don't yet have full confidence in South Carolina or any other SEC team not named Alabama, either.

My reaction to the latest AP and coaches' polls (or BCS standings):

Overrated: Arkansas (AP: No. 12; coaches': No. 13)

Help me out here. The Razorbacks finished last season 8-5 and unranked. Two games later -- wins over Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe -- they're now ranked high enough to qualify for a BCS bowl. What did I miss?

Underrated: South Carolina (AP: No. 16; coaches': No. 16)

If you're going to jump on the bandwagon of a traditionally second-tier SEC team, why wouldn't it be the Gamecocks, who have started the season by routing a decent mid-major (Southern Miss) and holding Georgia to six points?

• Last Thursday, I laid out the criteria by which we'd determine if Alabama was worthy of its No. 1 ranking after Saturday's Penn State game. Suffice it to say, the Tide met every possible measuring stick in their 24-3 rout. They dominated both lines of scrimmage, they intercepted Nittany Lions QB Rob Bolden twice and they averaged 7.1 yards per play despite Mark Ingram watching from the sideline (Trent Richardson sprang for 190 rushing/receiving yards). Yep. No. 1, all right.

• Just how unlikely was it that James Madison would knock off the Hokies? So much so that Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer had no problem letting Dukes coach Mickey Matthews (whose team won the 2004 I-AA national title and reached the semifinals two years ago) and his staff visit Hokies practices and recruiting camps over the past several years. "It's the biggest win of my career," said Matthews, who lost his two previous meetings with Tech 47-0 and 43-0.

• Oregon's LaMichael James left jaws dropping around the country with this incredible, reverse field 72-yard touchdown run against Tennessee. At the time of his run, early in the third quarter, the Ducks and Vols were tied 13-13. By game's end, Oregon had run off 45 unanswered points and has now scored exactly 120 points in 120 minutes. "Once the tempo gets going, it's hard to stop," said James. "Once those guys got tired we kept rolling."

• Wow, Turner Gill. Just wow. A week after losing his Kansas debut 6-3 to North Dakota State, the Jayhawks produced three touchdown drives of at least 60 yards. It's no coincidence Gill made two key changes during the preceding week: switching quarterbacks (freshman Jordan Webb went 18-of-29 for 179 yards, three touchdowns and an interception) and going back to more of the up-tempo, shotgun-spread offense KU had success with under Mark Mangino.

• Last week the problem was the defense. This week it was the offense. Playing its home opener against a team picked to finish at or near the ACC cellar, USC converted five third downs and amassed 13 penalties in a 17-14 win over Virginia. Give Mike London's team props for an impressive defensive showing, but Lane Kiffin ... really? "That's the most miserable 2-0 locker room I've ever been in," he said afterward. "Which is good." Next week: Minnesota. It'd be hard to screw that up.

• Watch out, because Iowa's got a running game. Adam Robinson rushed for a career-high 156 yards and Jewel Hampton, who missed last season, added 84 in a 35-7 rout of rival Iowa State. The Hawkeyes' 275 rushing yards were their most in a game in four years. Injuries hampered any hopes of a decent rushing attack last season and put added pressure on QB Ricky Stanzi. The prospect of Iowa developing a balanced offense to go with its dominant defense is a tad scary.

• West Virginia avoided its first-ever loss to in-state foe Marshall thanks to an incredibly clutch performance from first-year starting quarterback Geno Smith. Taking over after a fortuitous Thundering Herd fumble at the WVU four-yard line and down 21-6 with 8:48 remaining, Smith led touchdown drives of 96 and 98 yards to send the game to overtime. The Mountaineers prevailed when Marshall kicker Tyler Warner's 39-yard field-goal attempt missed wide right by about six inches.

• Three years in and Rick Neuheisel's UCLA offense is still downright atrocious. Impressive-looking Stanford came to the Rose Bowl on Saturday and blanked the Bruins, 35-0. Neuheisel's and coordinator Norm Chow's great experiment, the Pistol offense, has yet to render returns, due in no small part to another rash of injuries and attrition along the offensive line. And things may soon get worse. UCLA's (0-2) next two opponents are No. 23 Houston and No. 4 Texas.

• It appears almost certain at this point that Colorado won't be joining the Pac-10 until 2012, but Cal was sure to give the Buffs a nice, rude welcome basket Saturday in the form of a 52-7 rout. The Bears' defense racked up six sacks and five forced turnovers. After starting with unusually low expectations, Jeff Tedford's team quietly cracked the coaches' poll at No. 24 on Sunday. But as I've learned well by now, use caution before jumping on the Kevin Riley/Cal bandwagon.

• Of all the coaches believed to be on the "hot seat," my money's on Minnesota's Tim Brewster to earn the season's first pink slip (we'll say late October). Saturday's embarrassing 41-38 loss to South Dakota comes three years after the Gophers fell to North Dakota State in Brewster's first season, a pretty telling sign that the program has swung firmly back in the wrong direction. What a waste of that beautiful new stadium. Paging Mr. Leach on Line 2?

• Air Force won at least eight games in each of coach Troy Calhoun's first three seasons, but to this point has lagged a step or two behind the Mountain West's "big three" (Utah, TCU and BYU). So Saturday's 35-14 win over the Cougars was a big one for the Falcons, who snapped a six-game losing streak to the Cougars. QB Tim Jefferson helped the Falcons' option offense rack up 409 rushing yards.

• Houston star Case Keenum left Friday night's 54-24 rout of UTEP in the third quarter after displaying what coach Kevin Sumlin called "symptoms of a mild concussion." Keenum, who suffered the injury while trying to tackle a Miners player after throwing an interception, is day-to-day.

Randall Cobb really does do it all. The versatile Kentucky star threw a touchdown, caught a touchdown and returned a punt for a touchdown against Western Kentucky.

• Where have you gone, Ray Rice? Rutgers managed just 172 yards of offense in a 19-14 win over Florida International.

• Purdue endured a devastating blow Saturday: All-Big Ten receiver Keith Smith suffered a knee injury against Western Illinois that appears to be "serious."

Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger has made a career out of playing the contrarian, but you'd be hard-pressed to defend his bizarre decision -- and ensuing explanation -- in the Owls' game against Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit on Saturday. There's no other way to put it: He laid down. Surrendered. Decided he'd seen enough for the day.

Sure, FAU's prospects looked bleak when, with just 2:53 remaining, they faced fourth-and-goal at the Spartans' one-yard line, down 30-14. Still, the Owls remained within two scores (two touchdowns and two two-point conversions). A comeback would have been miraculous, but possible. But when FAU got flagged for a false start, moving the ball back to the six, Schnellenberger ... sent out his field-goal team. The Owls kicked the field goal, lost 30-17, and that was that.

"I want to congratulate the Michigan State Spartans for playing an outstanding game and ... there at the end, for not running the score up," he said afterward. "It was obvious we couldn't slow 'em down any more."

Wait. It gets better.

"We get out of this what we've been getting out of playing these kinds of games for all the years we've been doing this. We had a great scrimmage. ... Obviously we get a lot of p.r. out of it, and certainly, the bottom line is, our financial statement is also helped."

Apparently, Schnellenberger takes the "guarantee" part of the phrase "guarantee game" quite literally -- though this was actually an FAU home game (complete with an Owls logo at midfield) that the school voluntarily moved to Michigan State's backyard in hopes of netting more ticket sales. According to the Palm Beach Post, the school stood to make $2 million if all 65,000 seats sold out. Actual attendance was 36,124. And apparently everybody -- even the losing coach -- went home happy.

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

Iowa at Arizona, Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET): It's the only game of the day matching ranked teams, and it's a pivotal one for Mike Stoops' program, which in seven years has yet to score a big nonconference win. The Wildcats lost 27-17 in Iowa City last year, but QB Nick Foles is completing 83 percent of his passes.

Nebraska at Washington, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): All those who wrote off Jake Locker's Heisman chances after an opening-week loss at BYU forgot he had this game on his schedule. The nation will be watching. Of course, if the Huskers bat him around like they did Colt McCoy last year, that really will be the end of that story.

Texas at Texas Tech, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The 'Horns return to Lubbock for the first time since the infamous Michael Crabtree catch in 2008. It should be a nice test for Texas QB Garrett Gilbert, who will be making his first Big 12 road start, while Tommy Tuberville can obliterate Mike Leach's shadow by pulling the upset.

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