October 24, 2009

Winners and losers: Winning with defense

College football remains without a dominant team.

Alabama, Florida and Texas seem to be a cut above everyone else. Cincinnati, Iowa and USC also remain in the hunt. Boise State? Not so much. Look for the Broncos to sink in the rankings as they notch unimpressive win after unimpressive win. And LSU (against Alabama) and Oregon (USC) could move into contention with big wins in coming weeks.

There is another theme among the teams in contention to play in the BCS title game: great defense.

Entering Saturday's games, Alabama's defense ranked No. 1 in the nation. Florida was No. 2, Texas was No. 6, USC was No. 9, Oregon was No. 15, Iowa was No. 22, LSU was No. 35 and Cincinnati was No. 36.

Knowing that, maybe we should focus on the top defenders on these teams as Heisman candidates, guys such as Rolando McClain of Alabama. Joe Haden of Florida and Earl Thomas of Texas. A defender won't win the Heisman, but we can expect a mad scramble to the BCS title game.

Here's how we rank the contenders.

1. Alabama. In the past two weeks, the Crimson Tide have had to survive fourth-quarter scares to secure home wins over South Carolina and Tennessee. Alabama is getting by on suffocating defense. And this week, it needed two blocked field goals to hold on. How much longer can this last? Maybe all the way to the BCS title game, as the Crimson Tide should cruise past its last tough foe (LSU) and into the SEC title game against Florida.

2. Florida. The Gators march on in lackluster style. Like Alabama, Florida is built on defense. But the Gators' offense seems even more limited since quarterback Tim Tebow came back from a concussion suffered in a win at Kentucky. Since then, Florida has beaten LSU (13-3), Arkansas (23-20) and Mississippi State (29-19). And Tebow hasn't been Tebow, completing 39 of 63 passes for 518 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions and rushing 66 times for 195 yards with one touchdown over the past three games. The Gators need to be wary of a game at South Carolina on Nov. 14.

3. Texas. Sure, the Longhorns have a middling offense, but the defense is dynamite. Of all the elite unbeaten teams, the Longhorns have the best chance to finish perfect. If Texas wins at Oklahoma State next week, the Longhorns should cruise with remaining games against UCF, Baylor, Kansas and Texas A&M.

4. Iowa. Some wanted to pick the Hawkeyes to win the Big Ten but were scared by a schedule that included games on the road against Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State. Well, Iowa has won at three of those venues; the game with Ohio State is on Nov. 14.

5. Cincinnati. The Bearcats showed their resilience Saturday by winning with quarterback Tony Pike out. That's nothing new for Cincinnati, which had to start four quarterbacks last season because of injury and still won the Big East. There still is a visit from West Virginia and a season-ending game at Pittsburgh.

6. USC. The Trojans are beginning to come to life on offense behind true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. In a win at Notre Dame last week, Barkley threw for 380 yards. And the Trojans kept rolling Saturday, outlasting Oregon State 42-36. Maybe USC was looking ahead to its game at Oregon next week, the Trojans' toughest remaining game.

Miami wakes up from BCS dreams
When the initial BCS standings were released last Sunday, Miami was the top-ranked ACC team with a No. 10 ranking.

It was time to start dreaming big.

Miami was 5-1 overall, and 2-1 in the ACC. Beat Clemson, and many felt the Hurricanes could finish 11-1 and earn a BCS bowl berth either as ACC champ or as an at-large entrant.

It made sense. Miami already had survived the toughest four-game start of any team in the nation, posting a 3-1 record with wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma and a loss at Virginia Tech.

What was left after the visit from Clemson? Wake Forest, Virginia, North Carolina, Duke and USF.

But Saturday's 40-37 overtime loss to Clemson has changed all of that. Miami's loss likely will cost it a shot at winning the ACC Atlantic Division. In fact, Miami likely will end up third in the division, behind Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

And the defeat delays what looked like a breakthrough season under third-year coach Randy Shannon.

The Hurricanes' offense rolled up 434 yards against a Clemson defense that had been among the best in the ACC in a back-and-forth game that had nine lead changes in the final three quarters. But Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris was undone by three interceptions and three sacks. One of Harris' picks was returned for a touchdown, and Miami also allowed Clemson to run back a kickoff for a touchdown.

The Hurricanes had a 34-31 lead before Clemson kicked a late field goal to tie the game and force overtime. After Miami kicked a field goal in its first possession, Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker tossed a 26-yard scoring strike to Jacoby Ford on third-and-11 for the 40-37 win.

Miami has made great strides in its third season under Shannon. And that's good, because many felt he entered this season under pressure. Over his first two seasons, Miami was 12-13, including a 6-10 mark in ACC play, with one bowl appearance.

Unhappy with his offense, Shannon fired coordinator Patrick Nix and hired Mark Whipple. It has proven to be a key hire that likely has saved Shannon's job.

Shannon wanted a pro-style attack, and Whipple has been just the guy to do it. He arrived after stints in the NFL as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, where he worked with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb.

Miami entered the Clemson game with the No. 6 offense in the ACC (385.7 ypg). But more than anything, Whipple has played a big role in the development of Harris, who was 17 of 27 passing for 259 yards with two touchdowns against Clemson.

Miami's loss makes the ACC race more muddled. Clemson looks to be in good shape to win the Atlantic Division thanks to a victory over Boston College, while Georgia Tech looks primed to win the Coastal. Those two teams already have played this season, with Georgia Tech taking a 30-27 decision in Atlanta on Sept. 10.


Houston Nutt: For the second year in a row, Nutt beat his former employer as Ole Miss topped Arkansas 30-17. The Rebels' offense finally came to life, with quarterback Jevan Snead completing 22 of 33 passes for a career-high 332 yards.

Duke: The 17-13 win over Maryland was the Blue Devils' second in a row over an ACC foe after they toppled North Carolina State last week. The last time Duke posted consecutive ACC wins was 1994, which also happens to be the last time the Blue Devils played in a bowl.

Clemson: By winning 40-37 in overtime at Miami, the Tigers look to be in the driver's seat in the ACC Coastal Division.

Colt McCoy: Finally, a Heisman-like effort for the Texas quarterback, who was 26 of 31 passing for 268 yards with three touchdowns in a 41-7 rout at Missouri.

Tennessee: Yes, the Vols lost 12-10 at Alabama, but program is making strides under rookie coach Lane Kiffin. Tennessee outgained Alabama 318-233 and held the Tide without an offensive touchdown for the first time since 2007. At 3-4, the Vols have legit bowl hopes.

TCU: An emphatic 38-7 win at BYU makes it loud and clear -- the Horned Frogs are the nation's best non-Big Six school. Anyone who ranks Boise State ahead of TCU should be ashamed of themselves.

Texas A&M: The Aggies' 52 points were the most they ever scored against Texas Tech, and A&M showed it still has life after getting drubbed by Kansas State.

Ball State: Finally! The Cardinals ended a nine-game losing streak that stretched to last season with a come-from-behind victory over winless Eastern Michigan. It was coach Stan Parrish's first win in 23 years -- a winless streak that covered 35 games in a row. He last won as a head coach when he was at Kansas State, which he led past Kansas on Oct. 18, 1986.

Iowa State: The Cyclones' 9-7 win at Nebraska was the school's first in Lincoln since 1977. And Iowa State did it with backups at quarterback and tailback. The victory was first-year Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads' fifth as Cyclone coach, matching the two-year total of Gene Chizik, who left Iowa State to take the Auburn job after going 2-10 last season.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets scored their first win at Virginia since 1990, when Tech won a share of the national title. The Jackets used 362 rushing yards to score a 34-9 win puts them in the drivers' seat in the ACC Coastal Division.

Kansas State: Don't look now, but the Wildcats sit atop the Big 12 North with a 3-1 record after a solid 20-6 win over Colorado. It's K-State's first 3-1 Big 12 start since 2000. How did this team lose to Louisiana-Lafayette and get beat 66-14 by Texas Tech?

Northwestern: The Wildcats avoided a mega-embarrassment in rallying from a 25-point hole to kick a game-winning 19-yard field goal with 21 seconds left to beat Indiana, 29-28.

Pittsburgh: Dave Wannstedt finally is having that breakout season. A 41-14 rout of USF makes the Panthers 7-1 for the first time since 1982, when Dan Marino quarterbacked Pitt to its last No. 1 ranking.

Terrelle Pryor: Was this the same guy who was sacked five times and committed four turnovers in a 26-18 loss at Purdue last week? Pryor was 13 of 25 passing for 239 yards with two TDs and one interception and ran 15 times for 104 yards in an impressive 38-7 win over Minnesota. Pryor is back -- at least this week.

Oklahoma State: A dominating 34-7 win over Baylor was Oklahoma State's fifth in a row and gives it momentum heading into a huge visit from Texas next Saturday. Even more impressive about the Cowboys' streak: The past four wins have come without RB Kendall Hunter (hurt) and WR Dez Bryant (suspension).

Oregon: Many felt the Ducks would get clipped at Washington, but Oregon kept rolling with an impressive 43-19 victory to remain unbeaten in the Pac-10. Oregon was sparked by the return of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli from an injury. The Ducks have won a school-record six in a row over Washington, all by more than 20 points. Up next: A visit from USC.


Auburn: The Tigers have lost three in a row after a 31-10 defeat at LSU. That once-dynamic Gus Malzahn offense is sputtering, with just 47 points over the past three games after averaging 41.1 over the first five games. The bleeding doesn't figure to stop with games remaining against Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.

BYU: TCU was too fast and just too good for the Cougars, who managed only 298 yards in a 38-7 loss at home. And BYU quarterback Max Hall (162 yards, with one touchdown and one interception) was outplayed by counterpart Andy Dalton (242 yards, three TDs).

Big 12 North: Who is going to win this pathetic division? Saturday, Kansas got trounced by Oklahoma, Nebraska got dumped by Iowa State and Missouri got whipped by Texas. Kansas State sits atop the division after beating Colorado.

North Carolina: UNC blew a 24-6 lead early in the third quarter in losing 30-27 at home to Florida State. The Tar Heels are 0-3 in the ACC.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders endured an epic meltdown in a 52-30 home loss to Texas A&M. The Aggies hadn't won in Lubbock since 1993. All of that momentum the Red Raiders had coming off big wins over Kansas State and Nebraska is gone.

Illinois: A 24-14 loss at Purdue was the Fighting Illini's fifth in a row and dropped them to 1-6.

Kansas: Where did that 5-0 start go? Kansas' entered its game against visiting Oklahoma with the second-best offense in the nation. But OU limited the Jayhawks to two field goals before Kansas scored a meaningless late touchdown in 35-13 Sooners rout. KU has lost two in a row and is slipping fast.

Maryland: The Terps seemingly reach new depths each week. This week's downer: a 17-13 loss at Duke. It was Maryland's third loss in a row and fifth in its past six games.

Michigan: That's three Big Ten losses in a row for the Wolverines following a 35-10 drubbing by visiting Penn State. Games with Wisconsin and Ohio State loom.

Nebraska: That win at Missouri on a rainy Thursday night seems like it happened years ago. Texas Tech administered a 31-10 dubbing at Nebraska last week. Now, this: a mind-numbing 9-7 home loss to Iowa State that saw the Cornhuskers commit eight turnovers, with four coming inside Iowa State's 5.

USF: The Bulls moved into the Top 25 two weeks ago. In its two games since, USF has been outscored 75-31 in consecutive defeats to Cincinnati and Pitt.

Virginia: The Cavaliers entered the day as the only unbeaten team in ACC play. No more, thanks to a 34-9 drubbing by Georgia Tech that ended a three-game winning streak. And Al Groh's faint hopes of remaining as Cavs coach also may have gone out the window.


Rick Neuheisel, UCLA. The Bruins started 3-0. UCLA has lost four in a row after Saturday's 27-13 setback at Arizona. Outside of Washington State, this is the Pac-10's worst team.


THE COCKTAIL PARTY: The bad blood between Georgia's Mark Richt and Florida's Urban Meyer has gone from a simmer to a boil. In 2007, Richt irked Meyer with his "Gator Stomp," a premeditated group touchdown celebration after Georgia's first score in a 42-30 win. Last season, Meyer hung a 49-10 rout on Richt, the worst loss of Richt's Georgia tenure, and called some fourth-quarter timeouts.

PAC-10 SHOWDOWN: Oregon is the lone unbeaten team in Pac-10 play. But here comes USC, which has won or shared the past seven conference titles. The last time USC visited Eugene, it lost 24-17. Still, since 2002, the Trojans have ruled this series, winning four of five meetings -- and two of those triumphs have come in Eugene.

BIG 12 SOUTH TITLE GAME? Texas' Mack Brown never has lost to Oklahoma State, as the Longhorns have won 11 in a row over the Cowboys dating to a 42-16 loss in Stillwater in 1997 when John Mackovic was coach. Since then, the Longhorns have won five in a row at Oklahoma State, with many in dramatic fashion. The last time Texas visited Stillwater, the Longhorns staged the largest fourth-quarter comeback in school history by scoring 24 points en route to a 38-35 win.

FLORIDA STATE IS ALIVE: It's hard to believe, but the 3-4 Seminoles control their own destiny in the awful ACC Atlantic Division. It starts with a visit from struggling N.C. State.

Dienhart's weekly awards
Wish I were him: Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh
Glad I'm not him: Mike Leach, Texas Tech
Lucky guy: Nick Saban, Alabama
Poor guy: Randy Edsall, Connecticut
Desperately seeking a clue: Bronco Mendenhall, BYU
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Mike Stoops, Arizona
Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Thought you'd kick butt, you did: Texas
Thought you'd kick butt, you didn't: Nebraska
Thought you'd get your butt kicked, you did: Louisville
Thought you'd get your butt kicked, you didn't: Texas A&M
They're good: Oregon
They're bad: Wake Forest
Did the season start? Michigan
Can the season end? Auburn
Can the season never end? TCU
Play this again: Alabama 12, Tennessee 10
Never play this again: Texas 41, Missouri 7
Are you kidding me? Texas A&M 52, Texas Tech 30
Oh my God: Iowa State 9, Nebraska 7
Told you so: TCU 38, BYU 7
Ticket to die for: USC at Oregon
Best non-Big Six vs. Big Six matchup: Central Michigan at Boston College
Best non-Big Six matchup: Southern Miss at Houston
Upset alert: Tennessee over South Carolina in Knoxville
Must win: USF over West Virginia in Tampa on Friday
Offensive explosion: Kansas at Texas Tech
Defensive struggle: Rutgers at Connecticut
Great game no one is talking about: Texas at Oklahoma State
Intriguing coaching matchup: Florida's Urban Meyer vs. Georgia's Mark Richt
Why are they playing? New Mexico State at Ohio State
Plenty of good seats remaining: Iowa State at Texas A&M

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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