Upset Saturday Four unbeatens were toppled last weekend--more evidence that the gap between the top teams and the rest of the pack has narrowed

November 11, 2002

It was pleasing, in a cathartic sort of way. It cleared things up.
Unless you were a fan of one of the four teams to fall from the
ranks of the unbeaten, or bet unwisely, you enjoyed Upset
Saturday. A quartet of underdogs--Boston College, Georgia Tech,
Pitt and Florida--took a weed whacker to the Top 10, ending the
undefeated seasons of, respectively, Notre Dame, North Carolina
State, Virginia Tech and Georgia. When all the yard waste was
raked and bagged, along with those green jerseys the Irish busted
out, our view of college football's upper crust was vastly
improved.

We were grateful. We were entertained. But was anyone really
surprised? None of the previously perfect teams had been as
flawless as their records.Notre Dame was undone by its
famously erratic offense, whichcoughed up five turnovers.
Coach Ty Willingham's decision tooutfit the Irish in those
shamrock-green jerseys had theunintended effect of firing up
Boston College. "It just got mecrazy," said Eagles free safety
Ralph Parent, who made eighttackles, intercepted a pass and
forced one of Notre Dame's sevenfumbles. "I mean, they wanted
to play dress-up for us? That'srespect to us, thank you very
much."

If there was an unbeaten team that had won uglier, on a more
consistent basis, than Notre Dame, it had to be Georgia. Against
Florida, in the game known as the World's Largest Cocktail Party,
the Bulldogs allowed the Season's Largest Disappointment to
redeem himself, somewhat. Gators quarterback Rex Grossman, who
came into the season as a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy,
came into Saturday in search of timing, confidence and a win.
Deprived of his top deep threat--Taylor Jacobs was sidelined
early in the game with a sprained right knee--Grossman dinked his
way to 36 completions in 46 attempts, including a pair of
touchdowns, as Florida won 20--13.

Critics of N.C. State said it hadn't played anybody. On Saturday
the Wolfpack lost to a nobody, Georgia Tech, which was 2--3 in
the ACC. In Blacksburg, Virginia Tech was outrushed and
outmuscled by 13-point underdog Pittsburgh. The 28--21 loss
devalues the Hokies' Dec. 7 game with Miami, reducing it from a
possible play-in for the Fiesta Bowl, at which the national title
will be decided on Jan. 4, to merely the de facto Big East title
game (unless Pitt pulls off another upset, of Miami on Nov. 21,
and ends up the sole unbeaten in conference play).

The biggest surprise, though, came from a team that failed to
pull one off. Rutgers, which entered its game with Miami at 1--7,
awoke from a pleasant dream to find itself nursing a 17--14 lead
over the defending national champs through three quarters. The
Hurricanes won going away, 42--17, but it was illuminating to see
them struggle yet again. After stealing a victory against Florida
State, which ran all over them, they gave up 363 rushing yards in
a 40--23 win over West Virginia. With trick plays, alert special
teams and stout defense early on, the Scarlet Knights did a nice
job of knocking Miami off its game.

"There was never a question of losing," said Hurricanes center
Brett Romberg. "It was just a matter of getting things done and
getting them done convincingly."

For the first time this season Romberg and his teammates wore
suits on a road trip. The premise: It was time to get down to
business. Considering how they played for three quarters, the
Hurricanes might as well have shown up in board shorts and tank
tops. They looked sloppy, committing 13 penalties. For the second
time this season they allowed a punt to be blocked and returned
for a touchdown. They seemed affected by the 42° chill, huddling
around the heated benches. Only in the final 15 minutes did they
get down to business.

Why has Miami, anointed after its early-season rout of Florida as
possibly one of the greatest college teams of all time, been good
but not great most of the season? Yeah, yeah, we know: The
Hurricanes get everyone's best game. Could it also be that we
overestimated them?

The fact is, the gap between the sport's traditional powers and
the rest of the pack has narrowed, thanks to the suits at the
NCAA. Scholarship reductions imposed in the early '90s, from 105
to 85, have resulted in a more even distribution of talent across
the country. That's why this year you've seen Louisville humble
Florida State and Pitt have its way with Virginia Tech. Consider:
Nebraska suffered its first loss to Iowa State since 1961 and has
fallen out of the rankings for the first time since '81. Bowling
Green has beaten two Big 12 teams, Kansas and Missouri, for the
first time in its history. Rutgers led Tennessee at halftime of
their Sept. 28 game, and on Saturday the Scarlet Knights--who'd
lost their last three games to Miami by a combined score of
180--6--came within 15 minutes of their biggest win since a 6--4
triumph over Princeton in 1869, in the first-ever college
football game. The difference between a 1--7 club and one with 29
straight victories was the depth and conditioning that turned a
potential upset into a fourth-quarter romp.

The 85-scholarship rule "is going to keep games close from now
on," says Pitt coach Walt Harris, who has guided a team that was
4--7 in 1996, the year before he was hired, to a 7--2 mark this
season. "It's going to get harder to keep undefeated records
going."

We'll see. Right now no team has an aura of invincibility. The
three BCS-leading unbeatens, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Miami, have
had close calls, and all face stern tests in the weeks to come.
The Buckeyes, 34--3 winners over Minnesota on Saturday, still
must face Michigan, albeit at home. The Hurricanes' upcoming game
against Pitt now appears no less difficult than the more
ballyhooed season-ending matchup with Virginia Tech.

Which leaves us with the Sooners, who are starting to remind
people of the national champion 2000 Oklahoma team. After
struggling in a 35--24 win over Texas on Oct. 12, senior
quarterback Nate Hybl has been consistent and poised. In a
driving rain on Saturday he threw three touchdown passes in a
27--11 win over a very good Colorado team. The defense,
meanwhile, continues to be the most fearsome in the nation.

More worrisome for the Sooners' remaining opponents--Texas A&M,
Baylor, Texas Tech and possibly Colorado again, in the Big 12
championship game--is that Oklahoma is improving each week. The
roll his team is on feels familiar to coach Bob Stoops. "We've
got the same feeling" as in 2000, he told reporters on Saturday.
"We're traveling through the season the same way."

Having joined the ranks of one-loss teams, by contrast, Georgia
is on a new road, one that almost certainly will not lead to the
Fiesta Bowl. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt now faces some
second-guessing over his two-quarterback system. After coming in
for David Greene in the second quarter with Georgia ahead 7--6,
D.J. Shockley threw a pick that was returned 47 yards for a
touchdown. The Dawgs lost by seven. But Richt can take the heat.
He has done a remarkable job this season, in part because he's
avoided the sort of mental errors that cost him two games last
year.

"You're always one game away from doing something pretty dumb,"
says Richt. "You're never out of the woods." The nice thing about
Upset Saturday was that now we can see the forest for the trees.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER [Leading Off] BC-ing You! Boston College players take flight as they celebrate their 14--7 win over Notre Dame on Saturday (page 56). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT SCHEER/THE INDIANAPOLIS STAR/AP BOSTON COLLEGE 14, NOTRE DAME 7 Irish running back Ryan Grant could only hang his head after the Eagles pulled off the win in South Bend. The Irish had benefited all year from opponents' mistakes and questionable refereeing. This time they were the ones victimized by sloppy play and shaky calls. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO FLORIDA 20, GEORGIA 13 Rex Grossman, the Gators' beleaguered quarterback, rekindled his Heisman Trophy candidacy with a stellar performance--completing 36 of 46 passed for 339 yards and two touchdowns--as Florida defeated the Bulldogs for the 12th time in 13 years. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO PITTSBURGH 28, VIRGINIA TECH 21 In what was to have been a showcase for the Hokies' running game, Pitt's offense stole the spotlight: Larry Fitzgerald (left) caught three touchdown passes, and running back Brandon Miree rumbled 53 yards for the clinching late-game touchdown. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY MIAMI 42, RUTGERS 17 Tight end Kellen Winslow and the Hurricanes have reason to look dispirited. After a sluggish victory over the Scarlet Knights, Miami fell from the AP No. 1 spot for the first time since October '01, making the Hurricanes' hold on a Fiesta berth more precarious.

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