Monday October 4th, 2010

LSU has managed to start its season 5-0, but it's hard to blame Tigers fans for thinking this year is heading into the toilet. Just ask Rusty Welch, LSU tailgating czar and loyal Mailbag reader, who e-mailed me this account from Saturday's mystifying 16-14 win over Tennessee.

"My friend and I sit in the game until the third quarter ended. Go back to the tailgate. Game ends, I go to the Port-a-Potty knowing we had lost. I step out of the Port-a-Potty and we had won. Must have been some kind of magical time-warp Port-a-Potty."

There's a magician at LSU, all right. His name is Les Miles, and his latest train wreck-turned-Houdini escape instantly became the most infamous moment yet for one of the most fascinating figures in the sport today. LSU's offensively putrid games are borderline-unwatchable, but we can't turn away from them because they're so perversely dramatic.

I watched the final minutes of LSU-Tennessee with a pack of sportswriters huddled around a press-box television in Tuscaloosa. As the Tigers began intermittently moving down the field while trailing 14-10 in the final minutes, the inevitable Miles-related snickers poured forth.

"You watch," said one scribe. "He's going to pull it out."

The clock ticked. "He'll find a way to blow it," said another. On fourth-and-10 from the Vols' 39, LSU called timeout -- only to draw a delay of game penalty coming out of it.

"Are you kidding me, Les???" (That was me.)

But then quarterback Jarrett Lee, making a triumphant comeback after nearly two years on the bench, completed a clutch 21-yard pass to Terrance Toliver. Soon enough, the whole country got to watch Miles simultaneously blow the game AND pull it out.

If you haven't yet seen the unfathomable final 32-second sequence, please, watch it now. I'd say we've never seen anything like it before -- except we have, at least two other times, from Miles. There was the time against Auburn, when the clock nearly ran out on Matt Flynn before he delivered a game-winning touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd. And then there was the time last season, when the clock did run out on Jordan Jefferson after the quarterback erroneously spiked the ball against Ole Miss to end the game amid utter confusion on the LSU sideline.

Lessons learned, right? Wrong.

Against Tennessee, there again was a confused-looking Jefferson, trying frantically to get his team lined up on third-and-goal after LSU stunningly tried to sub in three new players, the clock ticking dangerously close to zero until T-Bob Hebert finally went ahead and snapped the ball. The ball tumbled past the not-ready Jefferson, sealing the Tigers' fate, sending Derek Dooley and the Vols into a full-on celebration -- and a disgusted Rusty to the Port-a-Potty.

But wait -- suddenly, the official is on his headset. And now he's signaling something. Turns out, Dooley had out-Miles'd Miles, sending in his own subs to counter LSU's subs -- two too many, it turned out. What had seemed like The Mad Hatter's most flagrant clock-management breakdown yet had magically worked in his favor. Given new life, the Tigers ran another play, and won in the wildest finish this season.

Afterward, in classic Les fashion, Miles explained exactly what happened in excruciating detail, but in his patently strange speech pattern. At one point, he's yelling at his audience, as if the reporters were the ones who messed up the substitutions. Twenty-seconds later, he's chuckling and happy again.

College football runs the full gamut of coaching personalities. It has its charmers (Mack Brown), its evil geniuses (Nick Saban), its icons (Joe Paterno), its wizards (Chip Kelly) and its villains (Lane Kiffin). Miles has come to occupy his own category.

He's eccentric. He's maddening. He's widely mocked. Some would say his most appropriate label is "lucky." He owns a BCS championship ring, a .789 winning percentage at LSU and a 5-0 record this season, yet most of the 93,000 celebrants at Tiger Stadium on Saturday still want his head on a platter.

Mind you, only one of the Tigers' five wins has come against a respected foe (West Virginia), and it's widely assumed Miles' offensively challenged team will get its comeuppance soon enough, most likely this weekend at No. 14 Florida. But don't be so sure.

For one thing, if you watched the Gators' 31-6 meltdown at Alabama on Saturday night, you know Florida has its own offensive issues (like its undying loyalty to the spread-option despite employing pro-style quarterback John Brantley). Maybe Lee, who made several big throws (and one ghastly end zone interception) after replacing Jefferson for most of the second half, will be the sparkplug for a previously woeful offense. The Tigers certainly have a championship-caliber defense.

The predictable endgame would be for LSU to lose three or four as it hits the meat of its conference schedule (which includes dates with Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas) and for Miles to beat it out of town before the masses get to him first. But that seems too predictable. More likely, he'll write an accidental script which keeps us scratching our heads -- and which, as my guy Rusty has learned, you can never turn away from.

It was hardly unexpected, but now-fourth-ranked Boise State fell victim to its first "poll jumper" this week. Oregon, with its primetime, 52-31 showcase win over ninth-ranked Stanford, leapfrogged Boise (which beat New Mexico State 59-0) to No. 3 in both the AP and coaches polls Sunday. It's exactly what I predicted would happen once the Broncos went back into hiding during its WAC schedule. But should it have?

If the Ducks run the table, no question, they'll have a far superior resume to the Broncos come December. As of today, however, Boise's schedule strength is 32nd on CollegeBCS.com (Jerry Palm), 38th in Jeff Sagarin's ratings. Oregon's schedule, which includes wins over New Mexico and Portland State, ranks 57th in Sagarin, 81st in Palm's. Body of work? We're not there yet.

Having said that, the Ducks' performance against Stanford absolutely solidified their status as a national-title contender. After committing two costly turnovers early that helped the Cardinal jump to a 21-3 lead, Oregon flat-out shredded a previously stout Stanford defense behind LaMichael James' career-high 257 rushing yards and quarterback Darron Thomas' 117 rushing yards and three touchdown passes. The defense, meanwhile, pitched a shutout in the second half and, remarkably, has allowed only seven second-half points all season.

"It ain't a statement win," Oregon coach Chip Kelly insisted afterward. "... If we talk about statement wins and stuff like that, then we're buying into all the stuff, too."

Clearly, poll voters are buying into it, which must be particularly galling to Broncos fans, seeing as their team beat the Ducks, on the field, in each of the past two seasons. To be clear, past results shouldn't affect this year's poll. But can I help it that the image of Boise's defense completely stifling Oregon's spread last year lingers in the back of my mind? Ultimately, a dominant defensive team usually trumps even the most powerful offense, and Boise's experienced defense has only gotten better (particularly against the run).

Perhaps the better poll question is, why didn't the Ducks jump over Ohio State, too, in light of the Buckeyes' sluggish 24-13 win at Illinois? (It was 17-13 with two minutes remaining.) Is it because voters subconsciously remember the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl win last year over Oregon? If so, they're practicing selective memory.

Don Treadwell would have preferred not to earn a head coaching audition due to his longtime boss' heart attack and subsequent return to the hospital. But as mentor Mark Dantonio watched on television, Treadwell, Michigan State's offensive coordinator, caught open some eyes with his aggressive play-calling in the Spartans' 34-24 win over No. 11 Wisconsin.

Nursing a 27-24 lead late in the game, quarterback Kirk Cousins led the Spartans on a 15-play, 84-yard drive that culminated with Treadwell's decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the Badgers' 1-yard-line. Cousins delivered a perfect play-action touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham to seal a landmark victory for Michigan State (5-0), which had lost 14 of its last 15 games against ranked opponents.

"We have always had tremendous leadership in this program," said Treadwell, 50, who first worked with Dantonio on Jim Tressel's Youngstown State staff in 1986 and served as his coordinator at Cincinnati. "The administration has done as much as possible to keep things off my plate. It's let me focus on my role as offensive coordinator and, when called upon, step in and do a few things in Coach D's place."

The 17th-ranked Spartans first gained notice with Dantonio's "Little Giants" fake field goal to beat Notre Dame, but Michigan State's offense is far from smoke and mirrors. Behind the tailback tandem of sophomore Edwin Baker (107.2 yards per game) and freshman Le'Von Bell (94.2), the Spartans beat the perennially physical Badgers at their own game. Michigan State's rushing attack has improved from 73rd to 20th nationally, while Cousins is completing 67.5 percent of his passes.

Next up comes a milestone matchup with Michigan, also 5-0, as the Spartans will look to become the first team to rein in Wolverines star Denard Robinson. Dantonio, who's had something of a Maize and Blue obsession since he took the job, should be back as the Spartans look to achieve their first three-game winning streak over their rival since 1967.

Treadwell was happy to speak about the Wisconsin game and MSU's improved running game, but deftly deferred when asked about Michigan. "Coach D is our head man," he said. "I'll let him speak about our next opponent."

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. Arizona

Orange: Miami vs. West Virginia

Sugar: Auburn vs. Nebraska

I'm not making any rash changes to my title-game matchup just yet. As amazing as Oregon has looked, I still have my doubts the Ducks can run the table in what is, at worst, the nation's second-toughest conference this season.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 remains a mystery. I wanted to come away from the Red River Shootout enamored with Oklahoma, but it's hard to say how much was the Sooners' doing and how much was Texas' continued ineptitude. Despite a bevy of mistakes, the 'Horns still wound up outgaining the Sooners (373-360) and coming within a Landry Jones' tipped fumble and/or Aaron Williams' muffed punt of getting a shot at a last minute game-tying drive. But we've only seen Nebraska play one game of significance to date so I'll keep OU in the driver's seat.

One other note: I dumped Florida from the Sugar Bowl spot because I don't have faith in that team to drop fewer than two more games. Auburn or Arkansas may have a better shot at the SEC's second bid. I went with the Tigers for now.

• First, some requisite Denard Robinson adulation. With his 217-yard rushing, 277-yard passing day against Indiana, the sophomore joins Vince Young as the only players in NCAA history to post two career 200/200 games (the other was against Notre Dame). And his 905 rushing yards (that's right, 905 through five games) are more than all but 29 teams nationally. And he already holds the three highest total-offense games in Michigan history (UConn was the other).

• I'm done defending embattled Georgia coach Mark Richt. Even with star receiver A.J. Green back in the lineup (and making ridiculous, falling-down, one-handed catches), the Bulldogs couldn't even beat hapless Colorado, falling to 1-4 with a 29-27 loss. Caleb King's fumble in the final two minutes cost a shot at a possible game-winning field goal. "It's bad luck, man. Nothing's falling our way," said Green. It's going to take more than luck for UGA to avoid a losing season.

• BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is already taking drastic action to curb his own team's 1-4 implosion, its worst start since 1973. Following Friday's 31-16 loss to Utah State -- the Aggies' first win over their in-state rival since 1993 -- Mendenhall canned fifth-year defensive coordinator Jaime Hill, who told the Salt Lake Tribune he was a "scapegoat." What an ideal time for the program to bolt its conference in search of more national relevance. (Stop cackling, Craig Thompson.)

• Miami quarterback Jacory Harris continues to be the most schizophrenic player in the country. He was electrifying for much of the 'Canes' 30-21 win over Clemson, throwing four touchdown passes, but he also repeatedly threw into double-and even triple-coverage, tossing two interceptions and narrowly avoiding several more. But Miami's defense, led by run-stuffing cornerback Brandon Harris, shut down the Tigers in the second half of an important ACC win.

• Harris is living the good life, however, compared to Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who managed to cost his team a game last Thursday at Oklahoma State despite going 40-of-62 for 409 yards and five touchdowns. Unfortunately, Johnson also had five turnovers, including a fourth-quarter fumble that James Thomas returned for a touchdown and a last-minute pick that set up the Cowboys' game-winning field goal. That's got to kill a kid's confidence.

• Or, perhaps Johnson will redeem himself like Washington's Jake Locker. In his first game since that disastrous 4-of-20 day against Nebraska, the senior threw for 310 yards, ran for 110 and led a game-winning field-goal drive as the Huskies stunned USC for a second straight year. "What a performance by No. 10," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. "Legendary." Easy now, Sark. Locker has now won five career Pac-10 games -- two of them against 'SC.

• Now there's the Adrian Clayborn we know and love. Iowa's star defensive end had been notably absent from the stat sheet during the Hawkeyes' first four games, but he once again wreaked havoc on Penn State, recording 10 tackles, a sack and three tackles for loss in a 24-3 win. Iowa has now won eight of its last nine games against the Nittany Lions. And there's no nice way to put it: Penn State's offense -- averaging 13 points against FBS foes -- is awful.

• Virginia Tech (3-2) continued its quiet return to respectability, rallying from an early 17-0 deficit to win at No. 23 N.C. State, 41-30. With star running back Ryan Williams out, both Darren Evans (15 carries, 160 yards) and quarterback Tyrod Taylor (16 carries, 121 yards) filled his shoes. Meanwhile, Hokies cornerback Jayron Hosley picked off Wolfpack star Russell Wilson three times. The rest of the ACC's schedule will basically be filler until Tech's trip to Miami on Nov 20.

• A week after its big win at Texas, UCLA looked in danger at one point of suffering an unthinkable loss to Washington State. It was 28-20, Cougs, late in the third quarter. But the Bruins won going away, 42-28, and, in doing so, racked up a staggering 437 yards on the ground. Tailbacks Jonathan Franklin (30 carries, 216 yards) and Derrick Coleman (15 for 185) became the first tandem in school history to eclipse 180 in the same game. The Pistol is firing.

• Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is the best athlete, and most accurate passer, the Wildcats (5-0) have had at the position under Pat Fitzgerald. Persa, the nation's third-rated passer, went 23-of-30 for 309 yards and ran for 99 yards in a 29-28 win at Minnesota. On the downside, he also helped out the Gophers with two red-zone turnovers, and it took a late field goal to prevail. The 'Cats have won six of their last eight Big Ten games, all by a touchdown or less.

• Perhaps Iowa State (3-2) is ready to make a move in the Big 12 North? The Cyclones notched a nice upset Saturday, 52-38 over Texas Tech (don't say you weren't warned), despite blowing a 24-0 lead at one point. It marked ISU's highest point total in a conference game since 1972 and its first win over a Big 12 South opponent (besides Baylor) since 2005.

• This week in the miserable Big East: UConn, behind 190 yards from running back Jordan Todman, scored the league's second win over an FBS foe, beating Vanderbilt, while Pittsburgh's Ray Graham steamrolled FIU for 277 yard on 29 carries. Great week, right? ... Not so much. Rutgers, the once-upstart program that captured New York City's heart for a week or so in 2006, looks more and more like the Rutgers of 2002. The Scarlet Knights (2-2) lost 17-14 to ... Tulane.

• What's with the running back assembly line at Temple? With Bernard Pierce out, 5-foot-5, 170-pound Matt Brown ran for 226 yards in a 42-35 win over Army.

• Prediction: In the increasingly deep and quarterback-heavy Pac-10, USC -- which currently ranks 116th in pass defense -- will finish no higher than seventh.

• Last Thursday's Oklahoma State game marked Texas A&M's first televised game this season. Tell me again why the school deserves that $20 million?

When the score scrolled across the ticker Saturday afternoon, I must say, I did a double take: "Baylor 55, Kansas 7." While we've known since Week 1 that the Jayhawks have their issues, it's not every day Baylor puts up 55 on a Big 12 opponent. In fact, it never had.

The Bears (4-1) rolled to a school-record 678 yards behind a career-high 380-yard passing day from quarterback Robert Griffin. He and the Bears first started generating buzz following the 2008 season when the speedy freshman ran for 843 yards and threw for 2,091, but a season-ending knee injury in the third game of last season killed Baylor's hopes of its first bowl trip since 1994 and sent Griffin -- who was once eliciting Terrelle Pryor comparisons -- back off the radar.

But Griffin is back, healthy and now, as a third-year sophomore, much more of a passer than runner. He's attempted at least 28 passes in every game while averaging a more modest 44 yards rushing.

"The hardest thing about [ACL] rehab is not really the rehab, it's coming back and everyone doubting you," Griffin told me Sunday. "I knew as soon as I stepped on the field in fall camp I was ready to be a quarterback again."

Griffin raised eyebrows after Saturday's game when he called the Bears' 45-10 loss to No. 5 TCU on Sept. 18 a "fluke." He emphasized Sunday that the Horned Frogs are a great team, but "that wasn't the Baylor team we are anymore. After three hard years working to make sure that doesn't happen, we want to show people we're not the same old Baylor. We want people to fear coming here."

The Bears probably aren't that far along yet, but it's certainly realistic to think they can pick up the two more conference victories necessary to become bowl eligible. Coach Art Briles has upgraded the program's overall talent level, starting with Griffin, who seems hellbent on wiping out the school's long-entrenched culture of losing.

"We had some great players when we first got here, but we needed some youth and some new energy to come in and push us over the edge," he said. "After three years of Coach Briles' recruiting, we have a lot of talent, a lot of speed and a greater sense of confidence. It's not a matter of getting to six wins and calling it quits. The sky's the limit."

Suffice to say, he's feeling pretty good about 55-7.

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

Alabama at South Carolina, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Another week, another ranked opponent for 'Bama. If an SEC foe is going to get the Tide, this may be the week they do it, coming off their much-hyped Florida game. It may still be a stretch, but hey, they're only going to get better come November.

Michigan State at Michigan, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): And now, we find out what happens when Denard Robinson faces a team with a decent defense. If he goes for 490 against the Spartans, go ahead and engrave the Heisman. More realistically, Michigan State will control the ball and try to keep him off the field.

Florida State at Miami, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The 'Noles have quietly gone about their business since their debacle in Norman and bring a 4-1 record to Miami. Christian Ponder gets a chance to put himself back on the map. But Jacory Harris will be licking chops watching tape of that Oklahoma-FSU game.

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