Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
The SEC schedule isn't the grind it's cracked up to be. At least, not this season it isn't. SEC advocates compare playing conference games to walking on glass. This season, it's like walking on grass – lush, green, well-manicured grass. Tennessee's 13-7 home loss to Wyoming, a lower-tier Mountain West team, is just another indication that this season is different. Sure, there are national championship contenders and top-25 teams in the SEC, but there are several mediocre teams, too. Tennessee's loss was the latest reminder. Vanderbilt lost to Duke, Mississippi State lost to Louisiana Tech, Ole Miss lost to Wake Forest. Auburn lost to West Virginia and needed a big fourth quarter on Saturday to subdue Tennessee-Martin. Arkansas and Kentucky are hardly powerhouses. The SEC remains strong with its top three or four teams. The next levels are ordinary. There are still tough games to be played in the SEC, but it's not the weekly event some believe.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has officially changed the Spartans' mentality. Before Dantonio took over last season, Michigan State's program routinely faded in the second half of the season. In fact, in the three years before his arrival, the Spartans were 4-14 in the second half of those seasons. In 2007, the Spartans were 3-3 in the second half. But after Saturday's victory over Purdue, Michigan State is 4-1 down the stretch this season. That includes a come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin last week. Michigan State likely will clinch a share of the Big Ten championship if it can upset Penn State on Nov. 22.
2009 will be the make or break year for Notre Dame. Saturday's humiliating 17-0 loss at Boston College further clouds the impact Charlie Weis' "genius" is having at Notre Dame. No one expected the Irish to compete for a national championship this season. But no one expected ND to be 5-4, having lost three of its last four. Most predicted this was going to be an eight- or nine-win season in South Bend. Now, the Irish look headed for a 7-5 season – at best. No matter the final record, Notre Dame looks to have made only a modicum of significant progress following the ugly 3-9 record of 2007. The blue-chippers keep arriving by the truck full, but the wins aren't following. That will set up a make-or-break 2009 season for Weis.
The spotlight isn't kind to the Big Ten. When the pressure was on, Penn State crumbled the same way so many other Big Ten teams did this season. For whatever reason, almost every team in the league has struggled or simply fallen apart when all eyes are on them. What started with Ohio State in the 2006 championship game and continued against USC this season was continued by the rest of the league. Joe Paterno's team was in position play for the national title, but the Nittany Lions let Iowa complete a 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter. Former league contenders Wisconsin, who lost four in a row earlier this year, and Illinois, who lost to Western Michigan on Saturday, are 5-5. And upstart Minnesota has lost two in a row after it couldn't beat Michigan on Saturday, even when the Wolverines are having their worst season since 1967.
The MAC West is pretty good. Ball State is a distant third behind Utah and Boise State among the undefeated non-"Big Six" teams, but expect that gap to close in the next couple of weeks. Two of the Cardinals' last three games are against Central Michigan and Western Michigan. The top three teams in the West are a combined 24-4 overall and 15-1 in the conference. With the Broncos' win over Illinois on Saturday, the MAC West is 5-2 against the Big Ten this season. The division will be on full display in November during mid-week games spotlighting big-time MAC quarterbacks: Ball State's Nate Davis, Central's Dan LeFevour and Western's Tim Hiller.
Florida's offense is cranked up. Florida's defense ranks 14th in the nation overall and fourth in scoring, but what has been overlooked a bit of late is how proficient the offense has become. Since the beginning of the second half of the game at Arkansas on Oct. 4 – four-and-a-half games ago – the Gators have had 52 possessions. They have scored on 35 of them – 31 touchdowns and four field goals. In their past three games, they have scored 22 touchdowns (154 points) on 34 possessions. Saturday, the Gators scored on their first four possessions to take a 28-0 lead on Vandy early in the second quarter; Vandy hadn't allowed more than 24 points in a game this season and had given up more than 17 points just twice. Next week, the Gators play host to South Carolina, which is third nationally in scoring defense.
Kansas' great 2007 season was an aberration. In retrospect, maybe the Jayhawks' 11-2 record in '07 was the result of a weak schedule rather than the thought that they had turned the proverbial corner. Saturday, the Jayhawks fell 45-35 to a Nebraska team coming off a 32-point loss to Oklahoma. The loss dropped Mark Mangino's group to 6-4 – and it looks as if two more losses are on the way. Kansas plays Texas this week, then ends the season Nov. 29 against Missouri. Given the way those teams play offense and the way KU plays defense, a 6-6 regular season looks likely. A 6-6 season for Kansas – gee, where have we seen this before?
USC has the best defense we've seen in quite a while. We knew before the season USC might have the best defense in the nation, but the Trojans are exceeding those lofty expectations. USC's 17-3 victory over California on Saturday marked the sixth time in nine games that the Trojans have held an opponent to single digits. USC has allowed just 6.7 points per game and has given up a total of 13 points in its past five contests. USC could become the first team to allow less than 10 points per game in a season since Miami's 2001 national championship team gave up 9.4 points per game. Oregon State reached the end zone four times in a 27-21 upset that may end up keeping the Trojans from playing for the national title, but USC has allowed a total of three touchdowns in its other eight games. With each passing week, freshman Jacquizz Rodgers' 186-yard, two-touchdown performance in that Oregon State shocker over USC seems all the more amazing.
Midseason firings don't necessarily inspire a team. Sometimes, the midseason firing of a coach can inspire a team to send its leader out in a blaze of glory. Four years ago, Florida won three of its last four regular-season games after Ron Zook's dismissal and even won at Florida State at for the first time since 1986. But as we learned Saturday, sometimes a midseason move doesn't make any difference. Tennessee's players spent the week griping about Phillip Fulmer's dismissal, but the Volunteers sure didn't honor their coach with their dreadful performance in a 13-7 loss to Wyoming. And Kansas State didn't seem particularly fired up in its first game since it was announced Ron Prince would be leaving at the end of the season. The Wildcats fell behind 24-0 on their way to a 41-24 loss at Missouri.