Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Cynic's Guide to College Football: Week 1

It’s that time of year when hopes across the college football landscape are running unjustifiably high (except maybe in Knoxville, TN). Half of our nation’s college football teams are now 1-0 after dining on a healthy snack of cupcakes and creampuffs. My job is to bring you back down from your sugar high and pull down the goalposts of hyperbole. Some call it pessimism. I call it a double shot of reality.

A few notes on Week 1:

1. Missouri Fans Shouldn’t Book Nonrefundable Airfare to the Championship Game Just Yet

You know, I could have sworn I saw Rashard Mendenhall get picked in my fantasy football draft last week. Wait, he was? He’s not at Illinois anymore? Then what in the heck was Missouri doing giving up 42 points to the Illini? Look, I know that Juice Williams is a nice player, but 451 passing yards? From a guy who threw for just 1743 last year and whose previous career single-game best was 227 yards? (ESPN now projects him to throw for more than 5400 yards this year—someone call the Heisman committee).

Granted, Chase Daniel and Mizzou’s offense were solid (323 passing, 226 rushing), Jeremy Maclin was his usual stud self in the return game and the Tigers’ defense held Illinois to just 81 yards rushing. But for a team that has hopes for a national championship run this season, this defensive effort raised a lot of questions. How might this game have been different if the Illini had been able to muster any kind of running game? Or if Illinois’ defense could have been more than a speed bump? Yes, this was a nice win. I still think Missouri is a very talented team, and I don’t know that anyone in the Big 12 North has a good enough defense to stop them. But while Mizzou’s offense may be good enough to get them to the Big 12 title game in Kansas City, it’s going to take a much better defensive effort if they want to be playing in a warmer climate in early January.

2. Hokie Fans Need to be Very Concerned.

After Virginia Tech’s upset loss to East Carolina, sports commentators across the country were tripping over themselves trying to come up with the best catchphrase to describe how the Hokies got “out-Beamer-balled.” And, to be sure, ECU’s blocked punt and TD did provide the final nail in the Hokies’ coffin on Saturday. But I think that’s a short-sighted analysis that loses focus on a much bigger issue.

VA Tech’s offense was atrocious. In the first quarter, when they had the chance to put ECU’s backs against the wall, the Hokies turned the ball over in the ECU red zone twice. For the game, the offense’s stat line read two interceptions, three over on downs, three punts, one missed FG and just two TDs. The only reason this game was close were two VT fumble recoveries, one of which went for a TD and another that set VT up at the ECU 25 and led to a Hokie TD. QB Sean Glennon was an anemic 14 of 23 for 139 yards (62 of which came on one play) and two INTs (maybe it was the jersey?). Virginia Tech finished with just 239 yards of offense against a team that ranked 95th in total defense last year.

The Hokies were minus several skill position players due to injuries and dismissals, and exciting QB prospect Tyrod Taylor was on the bench in a red shirt. So the fact that the offense was sluggish wasn’t a surprise. But the fact that it was this overtly bad was. Frank Beamer’s hallmarks of good defense and special teams will keep the Hokies in most contests this year. But, after this coming week’s “game” against Furman, the Hokies play Georgia Tech, @ North Carolina and @ Nebraska. So they’d better find an offense and find it soon. And on a related note . . .

3. The ACC is Bad.

I think we all knew that the ACC was in for a down year this year, but I don’t think anyone expected it to get this bad, this soon. The defending conference champs losing to ECU. NC State getting blanked by Steve Spurrier. Clemson, the favorites to win the conference this year, showing they are clearly not ready for prime time with a beatdown at the hands of the Crimson Tide. Things got so bad, the pre-game parachutists couldn’t tell a difference between North Carolina (supposedly an up-and-comer this year) and Duke football. Let’s put it another way—what was the league’s best win this weekend? Maryland holding on for a 14-7 win over Joe Flacco-less Delaware? North Carolina struggling to hold of McNeese St? Or Bobby “Bye Week” Bowden’s triumph over the early bird special Grand Slam at Denny’s?
Wake Forest and Boston College both had good wins over sub-par competition (Baylor and Kent St, respectively). But when beating Baylor is the only “good” win your conference can point to, it’s time to sound the alarm. The good news is that, with the exception of Florida State/Miami, the rest of the ACC schedule is loaded with cream-filled cupcakes next week. But if Week 1 is any indication, it may still not be a cakewalk.

4. The Rest of the PAC 10 is Playing for Second.

Nobody wanted to poke the sleeping giant. Around the PAC 10 this off-season, everyone said all the right things about how great USC and Pete Carroll were. When asked about the PAC 10 title, they all mumbled something like, “We’re just focused on our team, taking it one game at a time, etc. etc.” But in the backs of a lot of those minds, there was some thought—could this be the year? I mean after all, USC would be starting a new QB. They returned just four offensive starters. Quietly, almost hoping against hope, a few brave souls dared to let their minds wander to the unthinkable—a world in which USC was vulnerable and the PAC 10 title was within their grasp.

Then Saturday came around and all those dreamers were smacked violently back into reality. USC was as good as ever, manhandling Virginia. Mark Sanchez looked sharp, USC led 21-0 after just 11 minutes of play and seven different players scored TDs for the Trojans. The defense was completely dominant, holding Virginia to just 187 total yards (just 32 on the ground).
True, Arizona State and Oregon should be good again this year, and UCLA’s upset of Tennessee on Monday night was great for the conference’s self-image. But any talk of someone other than USC playing in the Rose Bowl have been put to rest for the time being.

5. This May Be Phil Fulmer’s Last Hurrah

In July, Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer signed a contract extension that not only keeps him on the payroll through 2014, but has a provision saying that, for every eight win season he has, he gets an extra year added on to the contract. Based on what I saw this weekend, that provision may never be triggered. Tennessee was beaten in every phase of the game. Even when they were leading, the Vols looked flat, confused and uninspired.

UCLA did everything they could to hand this game to Tennessee. Starting a third-string QB who had four interceptions in the first half was a good way. Then three other UCLA starters left with injuries in the first half. And yet Tennessee was unable to capitalize. In the second half, when the game was on the line, Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton was 8 of 18 for just 80 yards. And defensive adjustments? I’ve been told they’re known to happen, but I sure didn’t see any from the Vols on Monday night.

Part of it is player talent. At Fulmer’s peak, the Vols had seven first round NFL draft picks from 1998-2000, the same number they’ve had in all the years since combined. Be honest—is there anyone on Tennessee’s roster you can look at right now and say, “Now there’s a guy who will be starring on Sundays in the future?” RB Arian Foster might be an NFL prospect, but does he really compare to Travis Henry or Jamal Lewis? And no one is going to confuse anyone on this current Vols defense with Al Wilson or Albert Haynesworth. But part of it is something less tangible. It just seems that there’s no “there” there. Tennessee looked like they were just going through the motions on Monday night, with no fire or excitement. I know it’s clichéd, but UCLA clearly wanted to win this game more.

To be fair, Tennessee lost their opener to a PAC 10 team last year and then went on to a 10-4 season and the SEC East title. So Fulmer may get lightning to strike twice. But I think most impartial observers (and even some partial ones) would agree that Tennessee has fallen a couple of notches down the food chain in the SEC and national pictures. Fulmer may get to eight wins this year (although there’s not much room for error), but this may be the year that Fulmer’s seat really starts to heat up.

6. One Positive Note

Never let it be said that I can only find the negative in things—I did want to give big kudos to Fresno State and Rutgers for their game on Monday. Both teams (Rutgers especially, coming from a BCS conference) could have gone the cupcake route this week. But instead, they agreed to play each other in a 3,000 mile showdown. Congrats to both schools for agreeing to take on a real game, rather than just throwing some money around for a glorified high school scrimmage. And, for the record, if your school played a I-AA team this week, don’t give me that “Well, we couldn’t find anyone to play us and we needed to fill that game on our schedule” excuse. The contract between Fresno State and Rutgers wasn’t signed until last April. At any time before then, a big-name program could have called up Fresno State about playing this week, and Pat Hill and the Bulldogs would have jumped at the chance. So props to Rutgers and Fresno State for actually pulling it off.

-posted by Throw the Flag

1 comment:

MMayes said...

#2 -- The ACC is bad.

I can't disagree after the Clemson game. However, Duke Football is over .500 in September for the first time since the halcyon days of 2004 when the Devils were 2-1 on their way to a decade-best log of 4-8. Last week's win over James Madison matches the win totals of the 2005 and 2007 seasons and eclipses the win total of the 2000, 2001 and 2006 season. Duke is now on pace for its 4th perfect season of the 2000's, although this perfect season would be far different than the perfection achieved in 2000, 2001 and 2006.

Let's go, Duke!!!