By Stewart Mandel
November 08, 2009

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As institutions, Stanford, Northwestern and Notre Dame have a lot in common. All are academically renowned private schools with Division I-A football programs. When the NCAA released its most recent Graduation Success Rate data, all three boasted four-year scores of 95 percent or higher

On the field, however, the Cardinal and Wildcats haven't always been in the same league as the Fighting Irish. The latest example of this came Saturday. Both Stanford (against No. 7 Oregon) and Northwestern (at No. 8 Iowa) knocked off Top 10 opponents, a feat Notre Dame has not accomplished since the second game of head coach Charlie Weis' tenure in 2005.

Proud Domers would surely scoff at any comparison between their beloved Irish and the historically second-class squads in Evanston and Palo Alto, but is there really that much difference between the three programs these days? All three sport six victories this season. Northwestern just became bowl eligible for the third straight season (compared with two for the Irish) and sixth time in seven years (five for Notre Dame). Stanford had been in rebuilding mode but now appears headed in the right direction thanks in part (see if this sounds familiar) to a gifted 6-foot-4 drop-back passer.

"Even though we're similar academically, we're in a little different boat as Stanford and Notre Dame," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We've been consistently winning since 1995. They're still saying they can do it, but we're doing it."


Granted, neither the Cardinal nor Wildcats have the Four Horsemen, Touchdown Jesus or Rudy. What they do have is a pair of charismatic young coaches -- Stanford's Jim Harbaugh and Northwestern's Fitzgerald -- who have stabilized their programs and energized their fan bases.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is into Year Three of the Weis hot-seat debate. Following the Irish's second straight home loss to former punching bag Navy, another round of speculation over his future figures to only intensify over the next three weeks. Irish fans expect BCS bowls, but with road games remaining at 8-1 Pittsburgh and 6-3 Stanford, it's going to be a challenge just to get eight wins.

Notre Dame's failure to return to the realm of national elite remains puzzling to many considering the Irish's multitude of perceived advantages -- their tradition, their national television contract, a series of recruiting classes that, according to analysts, rank right up there with national powers like Ohio State and Alabama. No objective observer would contest that Weis has a core of elite skill players in quarterback Jimmy Clausen, receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

But a high-powered offense only gets you so far. The Irish racked up 512 yards against Navy and may well have won if not for two red-zone turnovers by Clausen. But the junior quarterback has had to carry his team all season thanks to a defense that ranks 79th nationally and gave up 348 rushing yards to the Midshipmen. Don't let the or star-system fool you; Notre Dame does not stockpile athletic defenders like Florida or USC and probably never will.

In that respect, the Irish aren't that different from Stanford, which rode a pair of stud skill players, quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Toby Gerhart, in its 51-42 shootout victory over the Ducks; or Northwestern, which for years has employed a high-powered spread offense to remain competitive in the Big Ten. The Irish have churned out a handful of star defenders in recent years, guys like Justin Tuck, Chinedum Ndukwe, Trevor Laws and Victor Abiamiri -- but so, too, have the Wildcats. Corey Wootton, the defensive end whose end-zone sack and forced fumble of Ricky Stanzi changed the course of Saturday's Iowa game, will likely follow in the NFL footsteps of Barry Cofield, Luis Castillo and Napolean Harris.

The difference between Northwestern/Notre Dame and USC or Florida is the Trojans and Gators turn out that many prospects every year. The difference between the Wildcats and Irish is the former holds no delusions about becoming the next USC or Florida. With a record of 6-4, 3-3 in the Big Ten, Northwestern sits in fifth place in the conference. Judging by its narrow wins over 5-5 Michigan State and 4-6 Purdue and its loss to 5-5 Michigan, Notre Dame would probably sit around the same spot if it were a member of that conference.

Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker on the Wildcats' 1995 and '96 Big Ten title teams. While the school has yet to produce another team on the level of those squads, its current level of consistency is unprecedented. Saturday's Iowa win likely assured its fifth bowl trip this decade; it had played in three its entire previous history.

"People outside the program would always say that Northwestern might win games for a couple of years, but to win consistently would be very difficult to achieve," said Fitzgerald. ... "We've proved that's not the case. And we're having all this success without sacrificing what we stand for as a university."

Stanford's history is closer to Notre Dame's than Northwestern's. The school of Bill Walsh, Jim Plunkett and John Elway has played in 12 Rose Bowls, though its last appearance came 10 years ago. Harbaugh took over the program in 2007 after it had bottomed out under predecessors Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris and injected a much-needed dose of energy.

Despite dealing with some of the most stringent admissions requirements in the country, Harbaugh has been able to land nationally coveted prospects like Texans Luck and running back Stepfan Taylor. He's currently working on his second straight Top 20 recruiting class and has the Cardinal back in the upper half of the Pac-10.

In three years, he's built his program to about the same place Weis has in five. (We'll find out definitively when their teams meet Nov. 28.)

"[The Oregon win] was the best opportunity that Stanford football has had in the past 10 years to express who this team is, and they expressed it," said Harbaugh. "Who would not like to watch this team play? Is there a better show around?"

Notre Dame gets showcase opportunities nearly every week and has yet to take advantage. While the aerial-minded Irish can be fun to watch, they're more often aggravating. It's been that way for 15 years; only now their games are at least entertaining.

If Notre Dame does decide to make a change at season's end, perhaps the school will look to Stanford and Northwestern as models. At least we know those programs are on the rise. Admittedly, they have a ceiling, but so, too, does Notre Dame.

Nearly every discussion of Weis' possible departure in South Bend invariably includes Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly atop the list of potential replacements. Viewers tuning into ABC's primetime UConn-Cincy broadcast Saturday night saw a remarkable display of Kelly's quick-strike spread offense, which racked up a school-record 711 yards against the Huskies in a 47-45 shootout.

Former backup quarterback Zach Collaros was so effective -- 29-of-37 for 480 yards and a touchdown; 13 rushing attempts for 75 yards and two scores -- that he may have Wally Pipped one-time Heisman candidate Tony Pike, who is expected back for next week's West Virginia game after missing three starts due to a wrist injury.

"He's made it hard," Kelly said of the sophomore Collaros, whose current passer rating of 210.2 would shatter that of national leader Kellen Moore (169.4) if he had enough attempts. "I think I'll have to reconsider my decision [to start Pike]."

Cincy's national showcase wasn't entirely flattering, however. Its defense and punt return coverage allowed the Huskies (4-5) to rally from a 37-17 third-quarter deficit to cut the score to 40-38 on a Jordan Todman touchdown run with 5:03 remaining, but the Bearcats sacked quarterback Zach Fraser on the two-point conversion. Collaros promptly led a 56-yard scoring drive to seal the game.

With BCS No. 4 Iowa's loss to Northwestern, 9-0 Cincinnati finds itself jostling with 9-0 TCU for the title of "next in line" in the BCS title race (i.e. which team would face presumably undefeated SEC champion Florida or Alabama should No. 3 Texas inexplicably fall down the stretch). The Horned Frogs moved ahead of the Bearcats for No. 4 in the latest BCS standings by a scant margin of .004. TCU figures to build its edge in the short-term if its beats 8-1 Utah next week, but the Bearcats will have a chance to make the last impression on voters when they visit 8-1 Pittsburgh on Dec. 5.

These Bearcats remind me of Urban Meyer's undefeated 2004 Utah team. Both Pike and Collaros run Kelly's offense with deft precision (with the dual-threat Collaros more closely resembling Alex Smith), distributing the ball to a tandem of speedy tailbacks (Jacob Ramsey and Isaiah Pead) and a trio of athletic receivers (Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods). Just as we left that '04 season forever wondering how the Utes would have fared against undefeated USC and Auburn's defenses, a BCS matchup pitting the Bearcats against defensive-minded Florida, Alabama, Texas or TCU would be fascinating.

My reaction to the latest polls and BCS standings:

One of the most inexplicable voting decisions of the season took place in the human polls this weekend. Obviously, Oregon figured to drop following its 51-42 loss at Stanford, but in an utter disregard for common sense, voters in the coaches poll dropped the Ducks from No. 8 to No. 16, six spots behind USC (No. 10), a team with the same 7-2 record whom Oregon stomped 47-20 just a week earlier. Voters in the AP poll reacted much the same way -- the Ducks fell three spots below the 11th-ranked Trojans.

This is a classic example of voters arbitrarily punishing a team for a loss without accounting for any context. Consider: Oregon fell more drastically (seven spots in AP, eight in coaches) for losing on the road to 5-3 Stanford than Iowa did for losing at home to 5-4 Northwestern (five sports in coaches, seven spots in AP). But more inexcusable is the failure to account for USC -- which itself rose two to three spots following an unimpressive 14-9 win at Arizona State. Not that the Trojans don't have their own gripe -- they sit two spots behind Ohio State.

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

Title game: Alabama vs. TexasRose: Ohio State vs. OregonFiesta: USC vs. TCUSugar: Florida vs. CincinnatiOrange: Georgia Tech vs. Iowa

While Alabama's offense seemed to right itself in the second half against LSU, my No. 1 team right now is Texas. Over his past three games, Colt McCoy has completed 80 percent of his passes for 910 yards, while the 'Horns' defense has held its last six opponents to 182 yards per game. Meanwhile, Ohio State's win at Penn State, coupled with Iowa's loss to Northwestern, has set up an unexpected Rose Bowl play-in game next week in Columbus. Considering how badly the Hawkeyes' offense struggled following Stanzi's injury, the Buckeyes have become the prohibitive favorite.All 34 projected bowl game matchups.

• No. 3 Alabama's game plan against LSU seemed curious at times, but it worked. Despite having the current Heisman favorite, Mark Ingram, in the backfield, Greg McElroy attempted 34 passes. But it softened up the Tigers' defense enough for Ingram to get going in the second half (110 of his 144 yards), while McElroy connected with Julio Jones for a decisive 73-yard touchdown.

• Penn State's soft schedule allowed it to largely mask an inadequate offensive line, but Ohio State -- like Iowa before it -- exploited the Nittany Lions. Facing heavy pressure, quarterback Daryll Clark struggled much the same way he did Sept. 26 against the Hawkeyes. He's gone just 24-of-60 with one TD and four INTs in those games compared with 17 TDs and three INTs in his other games.

• Hopefully for C.J. Spiller's sake, Heisman voters were watching Saturday night's Florida State-Clemson game. The Tigers' senior tailback broke his own school record from two weeks ago with 312 all-purpose yards, including a career-high 165 rushing yards and a 58-yard touchdown catch in a 40-24 win. Spiller, who's previously dodged the Heisman talk, even struck a "mini" pose after his last TD.

• You would think it difficult for a 9-0 team to experience a "rough" weekend, but such was the case for Boise State. In their attempt to land a coveted BCS berth (a cause for which the WAC has hired a p.r. firm, the Broncos suffered two setbacks -- a closer-than-expected 45-35 win at Louisiana Tech on national television and a loss by Oregon, with whom their fate is inextricably linked.

• On paper, No. 1 Florida cruised to a 27-3 win over 2-8 Vanderbilt, but many of its season-long offensive issues resurfaced, most notably the fact the Gators allowed four sacks. Florida now ranks 83rd nationally in sacks allowed (22). Give Tim Tebow credit, though: On the occasions he was left standing upright, the senior was an efficient 15-of-20 for 208 yards and a TD. He's working with what he's got.

• Oregon State (6-3, 4-2 Pac-10) is quietly making its now-annual late-season push for Pac-10 contention following a 31-14 win at Cal (6-3, 3-3). Quarterback Sean Canfield posted his third straight game with 300-plus passing yards and the Rodgers brothers (James and Jacquizz) racked up their customary 208 combined yards of offense as the Beavers outgained the Bears 436-239.

• The obvious asterisk to that latter stat is that Cal played the second half without tailback Jahvid Best, who suffered a horrifying fall on this touchdown run. After a scary scene in which the entire Cal team stood in a circle and watched paramedics immobilize Best and place him on a stretcher, it was a relief to find out that Best suffered a concussion and regained movement in his extremities.

• Safety Matt O'Hanlon notched 12 tackles and three of Nebraska's five interceptions in a typically ugly 10-3 win over Oklahoma. For all its offensive shortcomings, Nebraska (6-3, 3-2 Big 12) will likely play for the Big 12 North title on Nov. 21 against Kansas State (6-4, 4-2). Meanwhile, the Sooners (5-4, 3-2) are closing in on their worst record since Bob Stoops' first season in 1999.

• Has USC quarterback Matt Barkley hit a freshman wall? After an impressive seven-game start that earned him recognition as a Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist, Barkley has struggled mightily the past two weeks. Against Arizona State, he went just 7-of-22 for 112 yards, with 75 of those coming on one completion to Damian Williams. A week earlier, he went 5-of-16 in the second half against Oregon.

• Props to Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson for one of the gutsiest calls of the season. Facing fourth-and-inches at Wake Forest's 5-yard-line and needing only a field goal to send the game to a second overtime, Johnson instead kept the ball in the hands of quarterback Josh Nesbitt. He converted a sneak to set up a game-winning TD, putting the Jackets (9-1) one win from an ACC title berth.

• A month ago, Kansas coach Mark Mangino was touting quarterback Todd Reesing for the Heisman. Since then, both player and team have endured a downward spiral. The Jayhawks (5-4) have lost four straight, with Reesing committing 10 turnovers. He was benched last week against Texas Tech but returned for a 17-10 loss to rival K-State, throwing a pick and losing two fumbles.

• Arkansas (5-4) creamed South Carolina (6-4) 33-16, which would be notable if the Gamecocks' late-season slides hadn't become so easily predictable. Steve Spurrier's team has reached the six-win mark in all five seasons of his tenure while posting a 34-26 overall record, but their combined record after the seventh game of each season is 9-16.

• Texas' McCoy and Jordan Shipley got in some nice target practice during the 'Horns' 35-3 rout of UCF. McCoy threw for a career-high 470 yards and his buddy caught 11 passes for a school-record 273 yards.

• Temple freshman running back Bernard Pierce continued his recent tear with a 40-carry, 178-yard, three-TD night in a 34-32 win over Miami (Ohio) that put the Owls (7-2, 5-0 MAC) in prime position for their first bowl berth in 30 years.

• ESPN's Lou Holtz compared Florida's off-field turmoil of the past week to Germany's bombardment of England during World War II. Apparently I was the only one watching.

• A lot of people watch the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. I'm not normally one of them, but I'll make an exception Monday when Mailbag Crush Katy Mixon guest stars.

The game of the weekend -- and quite possibly the wildest finish of the year -- came in No. 13 Houston's 46-45 win at Tulsa on Saturday. How improbable was the ending? On Sunday morning I spoke with a fellow writer who turned off the game with a few seconds remaining and was under the impression that Houston lost.

Down 45-37 with 3:28 remaining, Cougars star Case Keenum -- who posted another ridiculous stat line (40-of-60 for 522 yards, three touchdowns and no picks) -- led the Cougars on a 13-play, 61-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown pass to James Cleveland with 21 seconds remaining to make it 45-43. However, when Tulsa sacked Keenum on the 2-point conversion try, even CBS College Sports announcer Tom Hart declared the game over.

Ever heard of an onside kick?

The Cougars (8-1) recovered it at their own 39-yard line, and Keenum completed passes of 14 and 13 yards. With three seconds left, Houston sent out redshirt freshman kicker Matt Hogan -- playing in just his third game and, while 6-of-6 on the season, yet to attempt a kick from longer than 34 yards -- to try a game-winning 51-yarder.

He drilled it.

"You just try to stay cool," said Hogan, a walk-on. "Everybody is in [the locker room] getting jacked up, and I'm in here listening to country music trying to stay calm."

No one is cooler and calmer than Keenum, whose Heisman hopes would likely be extinguished without Hogan's field goal. He's now completed 71 percent of his throws for 3,815 yards, 28 TDs and five interceptions.

"As long as we have No. 7 back there," said Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, "our team believes we can win the game no matter what the score is."

Danny Hope, Purdue's fiery first-year coach, shed a tear during his postgame interview after the 4-6 Boilers won their first game in Ann Arbor since 1966 on Saturday. Having overcome a 1-5 start to post wins over both Ohio State and Michigan and keep alive hopes of a bowl berth, you couldn't help crack a smile for him.

Conversely, Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez -- whose team has lost five of six since it 4-0 start -- looked bewildered and overwhelmed fielding questions during a postgame press conference. "At moments we're beating ourselves," he said. "You've got to give them credit. Purdue did a nice job. ..."

At that point, Rodriguez trailed off and his mind appeared to wander for a second. He then proceeded to launch into a tangent about a "disappointing" postgame moment with Hope. He said the Purdue coach shook his hand, then introduced offensive lineman Zach Reckman, who was suspended by the Big Ten for a game earlier this season for a cheap shot against a Northern Illinois player. His suspension was announced the same day Rodriguez publicly questioned the conference for a similar suspension of his own player, Jonas Mouton, and pledged to "watch every Big Ten game closely" for similar acts.

"Their coach seemed to bring [Reckman] over like I was the reason that his lineman got suspended for the one game," said Rodriguez. "He came over and shook my hand and then introduced Mr. Reckman and then said, 'Thanks coach, we appreciate what you did.'"

If the conversation did happen the way Rodriguez described (a SportsCenter clip showed an interaction involving the three of them but with no audio), that's an awfully petty move by Hope -- especially by involving his player. Address those matters privately. Don't mock a competitor moments after beating him.

But the real loser in the situation, as has increasingly been the case this season, is Rodriguez. The West Virginia native often gets himself in trouble simply for his natural instinct to say whatever's on his mind, regardless of how it looks publicly. Hope may be petty, but Rodriguez comes off as a sore loser for even brining up the subject when he should be explaining why his offense has so badly regressed and his defense remains terrible.

He'll have a whole lot more explaining to do if Michigan loses its last two games to Wisconsin and Ohio State and finishes with its second straight losing season.

Miami's sophomore receiver -- with the help of some serious blocking -- turns in one of the most exciting punt returns you'll see all season.

Arizona State's safety picks off a Matt Barkley pass, but only after three other players on two different teams get their crack at it.

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

Utah at TCU, Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET): It's amazing just how dominant the Horned Frogs have been. Since a 20-17 scare at Air Force on Oct. 10, TCU has outscored its past four opponents by an average margin of 45-6. The Utes -- which have won three straight in the series -- should provide more resistance.

Iowa at Ohio State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Was it really only three games ago that the Buckeyes lost at Purdue? Panicked Buckeyes fans had visions of a free fall at the time. Now, behind a seemingly more confident Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State is suddenly one win away from a trip to Pasadena.

Stanford at USC, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): The Cardinal return to the scene of their historic 2007 upset when they were 41-point underdogs. More notably, this will be the first of possibly three duels between quarterbacks Luck and Barkley, both of whom figure to make some NFL team very happy in 2012.

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