Monday September 5th, 2011

An hour before kickoff of Saturday night's LSU-Oregon game, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott stood against a wall in the back of the Cowboys Stadium press box holding court with a group of reporters. The topic, of course, was conference realignment, and how Scott's league suddenly finds itself back in the center of the storm -- this time quite unexpectedly, he'll tell you.

"We haven't felt one iota of need," Scott said, since finalizing the league's move to 12 teams last summer. "Schools have reached out to us. We are not doing anything proactively."

That wasn't the case in the summer of 2010, when Scott's conference needed quite a bit: two more teams (at least) to stage a championship game, better TV deals, more exposure, better officiating. It went on the hunt and came back with Colorado and Utah. But the Pac-12 is the power player as this summer draws to a close, having in recent months announced the sport's richest television contract and the formation of the Pac-12 Network and six regional offshoots. Now Oklahoma, according to numerous reports and some rather candid comments from its president, could soon leave the sinking Big 12 and has turned "its sole focus" (according to The Daily Oklahoman) to the league it passed on joining last summer.

If only the Pac-12's football teams would start playing at a level befitting the conference's newfound status.

The rebranded league made some of the worst first impressions on opening Saturday. Two-time reigning champion Oregon once again fell flat against an elite nonconference opponent, this time LSU. At this point Oregon's failures can no longer be chalked up to inexperienced linemen, rust or sloppy field conditions. Defenses like LSU's on Saturday and Auburn's last January simply have better players than the ones Chip Kelly's Ducks have shredded for two straight seasons. And that doesn't speak well for Pac-12 defenses.

Saturday's struggles didn't just come against high-profile foes. Oregon State -- which came within a game of the Rose Bowl in 2008 and '09 -- fell in overtime to Sacramento State, a middling FCS program. Washington allowed 504 yards of offense in a 30-27 survival against Eastern Washington, an annual FCS contender at least. UCLA, which usually fields one of the league's better defenses, was no match for prolific Houston quarterback Case Keenum, falling 38-34. Newcomer Colorado fell 34-17 at Hawaii.

And USC, once the league's national pillar, looked every bit as mediocre as it has the past two seasons, nearly blowing a 19-0 halftime lead to rebuilding Minnesota and winning 19-17 despite a magnificent performance from receiver Robert Woods (17 catches, 177 yards, three touchdowns). A freshman quarterback, Max Shortell, came off the bench and nearly pulled off the comeback for Jerry Kill's Gophers. USC considered this progress after blowing numerous fourth-quarter leads last season, which really says it all.

It wasn't all doom and gloom, as the league's other lynchpin, No. 6 Stanford, drubbed San Jose State, 57-3. Cal, looking to rebound following Jeff Tedford's first losing season, handled Fresno Sate, 36-21. But even some of the highs were accompanied by lows: Washington State beat Idaho State 64-21, but lost star quarterback Jeff Tuel to a broken clavicle. He'll be out six-to-eight weeks. Coach Paul Wulff simply cannot catch a break.

It's always dangerous to read too much into one game -- a reminder that will be a recurring theme in this column. Despite Oregon's poor showing against LSU, there's no reason to think the Ducks will fail to kick things back into gear over the next few weeks as their new offensive line starters get comfortable and star Cliff Harris most likely returns from suspension. But that in itself is a problem. If a league's pacesetter only plays its best football against other league teams, why should fans in other parts of the country keep paying attention? Fox and ESPN have committed $3 billion on the assumption that they will.

Of course, there's one easy remedy: Go out and add one of the nation's most successful programs (Oklahoma) and maybe even a second (Texas). Conference realignment rumors keep changing by the hour, but it's apparent at this point that the Big 12 is on its deathbed. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel called out commissioner Dan Beebe, who seems to hold decreasingly little sway over his own members. Texas may be waffling on its stated commitment to hold together the Big 12, though Scott made it clear Saturday (without mentioning Texas by name) that the school would have to cede its precious Longhorn Network to join the conference. Perhaps Texas could still cobble things together, but really, what's the point? The Big 12 is now the Sort-of-Big 9, and nobody but SMU seems eager to climb aboard the sinking ship.

"People will ultimately want to gravitate toward conferences with stability," said Scott. "We consider our conference one of those."

In other words: We're here when you're ready, Oklahoma and Texas. And please, bring your acclaimed defenses with you.

Well, we might as well prepare ourselves now for another season of "Does Boise State deserve to play for the national title?" talk.

Either Georgia has gotten even worse (a distinct possibility) or Chris Petersen's team hasn't missed a beat despite significant personnel losses from last year's 12-1 squad (more likely).

No. 5 Boise's two biggest concerns going into Saturday's 35-21 Chick-fil-A Kickoff victory were its depleted receiving corps and rebuilt secondary. In response, Kellen Moore (28-of-34, 261 yards, three TDs, one INT) spent the night hitting one wide-open receiver after another. (Titus and Austin who?) And the Broncos' defense teed off on Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray, sacking him six times, though allowing two second-half touchdowns after going up 28-7.

"They've got a bunch of well-coached, great athletes who just played a great game," said Murray.

Now that Boise has finally slain the SEC dragon (it was 0-4 against the conference going in), maybe the Broncos have earned some respect in that part of the country. But that won't change the talking points that figure to come out if Boise keeps winning. Like, Georgia isn't that good. Or, Boise only has to play one tough game all season. (That's not entirely true, though TCU's opening-night loss to Baylor certainly didn't help the cause.)

The best thing that can happen to Boise is for Georgia to right the ship, beat South Carolina next week and go on a run a la Virginia Tech last season. While the Hokies' eventual 11-game win streak didn't much help the Broncos in the polls, this was the SEC, not the ACC. And this one was a rout.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is usually the picture of cool. And he's built a reputation dating to his time at Cincinnati for developing and seamlessly managing an endless string of overachieving quarterbacks. So it was stunning to watch the second-year Irish coach unravel in both departments during his team's disastrous season-opening performance in a 23-20 home loss to USF.

Ten days after declaring that quarterback Dayne Crist had won a toughly contested competition with sophomore Tommy Rees and that he expected the senior to "start all 13 games," Kelly pulled Crist after just one half. Crist struggled mightily (7-of-15 for 95 yards and a critical interception) while the Bulls built a 16-0 halftime lead. Rees came in after a long lightning delay and injected life into the offense, throwing for 296 yards and two touchdowns, but an interception near the end zone that deflected off receiver TJ Jones cost the Irish yet another red-zone opportunity. On the sidelines, a bright-red Kelly laid into Crist after his first-half pick and Jones after his second-half deflection in extremely uncharacteristic fashion.

Remember what I said about not reading too much into one game? This one's a perfect example. While many will say we media types mistakenly overhyped the Irish yet again, this could still be a very good team. The Irish outgained the Bulls 508 yards to 254, yet every indignity imaginable befell them, including a 96-yard USF fumble return, a touchdown wiped out by a holding penalty and Crist's costly interception. And remember, I for one warned the masses that Skip Holtz's Bulls could be a BCS-caliber team this season. (Kindly overlook one of the other picks.)

The problem is, the Man with the Plan has ignited a full-blown quarterback controversy after just one game, with no clear sign of how to solve it. "This was a step back for us as it relates to where we thought we were going," said Kelly. "We certainly did not believe or think that we would have to make the decision that we made today."

The halftime rain delay gave Kelly an extra two hours to ponder his decision to go with Rees. He now gets a week to figure things out before heading to Michigan.

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

Title game: Alabama vs. Oklahoma Rose: Stanford vs. Nebraska Fiesta: Wisconsin vs. Boise State Sugar: South Carolina vs. Florida State Orange: Virginia Tech vs. USF

So, my "no non-AQ this year" stance ended after just one week. In fact, depending on when and against whom, it's conceivable Boise could lose a game along the way and still finish high enough to be guaranteed an at-large berth. It may depend on how the Georgia win is viewed three months from now.

Though Oregon will likely rebound, I'm subbing in Stanford as projected Pac-12 champ until the Ducks show signs of life and/or Andrew Luck proves mortal. And I'm sure I'll get my share of angry e-mails from Baton Rouge this week because the Tigers still aren't in here, but as I wrote Saturday night, LSU's convincing win didn't necessarily answer its most pressing question: quarterback.

• If not for the good grace of one incredibly executed onside kick, Auburn may have suffered the most mortifying season opener of any national champion in history. We knew the Tigers had serious rebuilding to do following the departure of 16 starters, but not to the point where Utah State would come into Jordan-Hare Stadium and outmuscle the Tigers on offense for nearly 60 minutes. The Aggies, led by fleet-footed freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton (21-of-30, 213 yards), took it right to Auburn, gaining 227 yards on the ground. "I felt like we were stronger than them," said coach Gary Andersen, whose ingenious fake field goal call helped put Utah State up 38-28 with 3:38 left.

Of course, the Aggies could only hold down Gus Malzahn's offense for so long, and quarterback Barrett Trotter led the Tigers on consecutive touchdown drives to escape. Auburn has enough pieces to be OK on offense, but it could be a long season for Gene Chizik's young defense. "We are a long way off from being able to win very many games right now," Chizik said.

• Baylor's publicists made the most of quarterback Robert Griffin III's weekend in the spotlight. About six hours after leaving the stadium Friday night following his epic performance in the Bears' 50-48 upset of TCU, Griffin was in a car heading from Waco to Arlington, Texas, where he appeared on ESPN's GameDay. Despite only getting a couple hours of sleep, Griffin wowed the GameDay crew with his eloquence, leading Chris Fowler to call him "a great ambassador for Baylor."

• A year ago it probably wasn't a good thing if you heard a Michigan defender's name, so consider this progress: Linebacker Brandon Herron was named Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week after returning both an interception and fumble for touchdowns in the Wolverines' rain-shortened 37-10 win over Western Michigan. New coordinator Greg Mattison's defense dialed up the pressure as the game went on. Now we've just got to find out if Michigan can do it for an actual four-quarter game.

• Unlike Brian Kelly, Steve Spurrier makes no predictions about how long his starting quarterbacks might keep their jobs. He pulled Connor Shaw after the sophomore started 3-of-9 against East Carolina, and old staple Stephen Garcia came in after the Gamecocks fell behind 17-0 early and led them to a 56-37 rout. "I didn't say [Shaw] was our quarterback for the year, I just said he would start the first game," said the Ball Coach, who took a little jab at Kelly while discussing the subject.

• You don't want to get too excited over a performance against UNLV, but Russell Wilson's debut for Wisconsin last Thursday showed potentially scary possibilities for the Badgers' offense. They still do their thing with running backs Montee Ball and James White, but Wilson brings exactly the dimension we thought. He was a highly efficient 10-of-13 for 255 yards and two touchdowns in the 51-17 rout and also broke off a 46-yard touchdown run. Good luck trying to defend all that.

• If Saturday's opener against Kent State was truly an audition for Alabama quarterbacks A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims, it seems like Nick Saban got his answer. McCarron went 14-of-23 for 226 yards and led five scoring drives, but did throw two interceptions. However, Sims threw for just 73 yards, also had two interceptions (one of which set up Kent State's only touchdown), took two sacks and fumbled. Saban gave no indication, however, that the competition is over.

• Perhaps Ohio State's two-quarterback system won't just be temporary. The common belief was that true freshman Braxton Miller will eventually supplant fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman, but both players were highly effective against admittedly overmatched Akron. Bauserman went 12-of-16 for 163 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a 15-yard score; Miller was 8-of-12 for 130 yards and a score.

• Nebraska unveiled its secrecy-cloaked new offense against Chattanooga, and it included elements both new and retro. The Huskers went no huddle virtually the entire game, a legacy of new coordinator Tim Beck's days at Kansas. But they also broke out the old Tom Osborne triple option, complete with a fullback belly dive on the opening play. The Huskers looked sloppy, but the possibilities are intriguing with a healthy Taylor Martinez, who had gains of 43 and 47 yards.

• Speedy Florida running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey always seemed like prototypical Urban Meyer spread-offense guys. It turns out, pro-style coordinator Charlie Weis couldn't wait to get his hands on them. Rainey burst for 168 total yards and three touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving and one return) and Demps ran for 105 yards in the Gators' 41-3 win over Florida Atlantic. Said Rainey: "The best thing that ever happened to me is a pro offense."

• North Carolina quarterback Brynn Renner could not have asked for a much better debut. He completed 22-of-23 passes in a 42-10 win over James Madsion, setting an ACC record for completion percentage (95.7). Unfortunately, the one incompletion was an interception. Afterward, interim coach Everett Withers said he'd send the game ball to dismissed predecessor Butch Davis. Here's hoping Davis sends it back to Renner.

• All those "PersaStrong" dumbbells apparently couldn't help Northwestern's quarterback rehabilitate from last year's ruptured Achilles tendon in time to play in Saturday's opener against Boston College. However, replacement Kain Colter gave the Eagles fits with his ability to run the option. The Wildcats racked up 227 rushing yards -- 71 by Colter -- against the nation's No. 1 rushing defense from a year ago, as Northwestern held on in the last minute for a 24-17 victory.

• It's not shocking news that perennial FCS contender Richmond beat perennial ACC cellar dweller Duke, 23-21. The Spiders have now done it three times in six years. However, Richmond pulled this one off despite a tumultuous preseason in which coach Latrell Scott resigned Aug. 24 following a DWI arrest. Interim coach Wayne Lineburg, the Spiders' offensive coordinator, took his place. Richmond's quarterback is a familiar name: former USC one-game starter Aaron Corp.

• We'd heard that Virginia Tech running back David Wilson was tearing things up in preseason camp. Saturday he exploded for 162 yards on 16 carries in a 66-13 blowout of Appalachian State.

• The good news for Purdue: It survived a scare and beat Middle Tennessee, 27-24, on a last-second blocked field goal. The bad news: Beating Middle Tennessee is now cause for a full-team on-field celebration at Purdue.

• While Texas has its own network, Syracuse's thrilling comeback win over ACC foe Wake Forest last Thursday wasn't even televised. That new Big East deal can't come soon enough.

• Speaking of the 'Horns, major props to the Rice marching band for this Stanford-esque halftime salute Saturday night in Austin.

This will be the first and possibly last time this section involves the No. 1 team in the country. That's because Dominique Whaley will likely be the only walk-on and former NAIA backup to rush for four touchdowns for the No. 1 team in the country.

All offseason we wondered which of Oklahoma's running backs would fill the void left by star DeMarco Murray. Would it be sophomore Brennan Clay, a former five-star recruit? How about 5-foot-7 jitterbug Roy Finch Jr.? Or possibly this year's five-star freshman Brandon Williams? Clay got the first carry Saturday night against Tulsa, but Whaley -- a junior who last saw the field at Langston (Okla.) University in 2008 -- was listed as a co-starter on the depth chart and wound up leading the Sooners with 131 yards and four touchdowns on 18 carries.

Saturday night Whaley told reporters in Norman he didn't want any media attention. Reached by phone Sunday, I told him that wasn't going to be possible much longer. "Yeah," Whaley said. "I'm starting to realize that."

Whaley is not your typical overachieving walk-on. He's 5-10, 205 pounds, runs a 4.4 40 and is considered one of the best athletes on the team. But his journey to prominence may be one of the most improbable I've ever heard.

The son of two military parents, Whaley spent his first two years of high school playing on a military base in Ansbach, Germany. Upon returning to the States in Lawton, Okla., coaches at MacArthur High School played him at slot receiver and defensive back. From there he went to Langston, an NAIA school that offered him an academic scholarship. He switched to running back, but even there he was a backup who ran for 258 yards. He left for what he will only say were "personal reasons," enrolling at OU, walking on in 2009 and beginning his long climb up the depth chart.

"Every single day, I looked at it as, 'Even though I wasn't recruited out of high school, I'm just as good as the other guys -- three-star, four-star, five-star," said Whaley. "It's not easy. But I wasn't going to be satisfied just to be part of the team, or just make the travel squad. I came here to start and play."

Against astoundingly long odds, that's exactly what's happening.

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

Alabama at Penn State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): It's likely that four different quarterbacks -- Penn State's Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin and Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims -- will play in this game. It may not matter if the Tide play defense the way they did against Kent State, which they held to 90 total yards.

Notre Dame at Michigan, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The Irish, too, have a decision to make at QB. Michigan's quite happy with Denard Robinson, thank you. Sholeace looked like his 2010 self against Western, still playing plenty in the shotgun. He and his linemen will be challenged by the Irish's newly stocked d-line.

South Carolina at Georgia, Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET): It was in this game a year ago that South Carolina's then-freshman Marcus Lattimore announced his arrival as an elite SEC tailback. For Georgia to avoid falling to 0-2, it would really help if Isaiah Crowell -- who ran for 60 yards against Boise State -- did the same.

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