NCF Nation: what we learned 112209

What we learned in the SEC: Week 12

November, 22, 2009
We’re down to this: One more week of football remaining to determine if Alabama and Florida will meet in the SEC championship game as unbeaten teams.

The Crimson Tide and Gators are coming off “scrimmages” and should be rested for their big rivalry games this weekend.

Ole Miss seems to be getting hot at just the right time for the second straight season. They’re just plain hot in Georgia after the Bulldogs’ 34-27 home loss to Kentucky, and who knows what they’re thinking on the Bayou after one of the worst mismanagements of a late-game clock situation by LSU in recent SEC history?

Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 12:

1. Running backs galore: It’s been a while since the SEC had this many good running backs putting up these kind of numbers in the same season. Picking the top two for first-team All-SEC honors is going to be a chore. Five guys can stake a claim. Alabama’s Mark Ingram has 1,399 rushing yards, averages 6.8 yards per carry and has 15 touchdowns. Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon has 1,258 rushing yards, averages 5.5 yards per carry and has 11 touchdowns. Auburn’s Ben Tate has 1,209 rushing yards, averages 5.4 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns. Tennessee’s Montario Hardesty has 1,127 rushing yards, averages 5 yards per carry and has 10 touchdowns. Ole Miss’ Dexter McCluster has 903 rushing yards, averages 6.9 yards per carry and has nine touchdowns. McCluster also has 412 receiving yards. How do you pick just two?

2. It’s a Big Blue world: If Kentucky does this coming Saturday what it’s failed to do every year since 1984 – and that’s beat Tennessee – the SEC Coach of the Year award this season should take its rightful place in Lexington, Ky. The more you watch this team play, the more respect you gain for what Rich Brooks has done. The Wildcats proved yet again in their 34-27 win over Georgia how resourceful they are, how resilient they are and how they simply don’t give up -- sort of like how Brooks never gave up on this program several years ago when everybody else had given up on him. A win over the Vols at home this coming weekend would give the Wildcats their first eight-win regular season since 1984, quite an accomplishment when you consider all the injuries this team has endured this season.

3. Chaotic clock management: You could watch football for a long time (at any level) and not see a worse butchering of an end-of-game situation than what you saw from LSU on Saturday in its 25-23 loss to Ole Miss. And let’s face it: Les Miles has played with fire before in these situations. Remember the touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd with one second left against Auburn in 2007? He got away with that one, but not this time. There was zero direction on the LSU sideline in that final minute against Ole Miss. Sure, Jordan Jefferson should have never taken that sack on second down, but he never should have been throwing the ball in the first place. Jefferson’s comments afterward were telling. He said confusion reigned and admitted that he “didn’t know what to do.” There were so many mistakes by the LSU offensive staff that the hardest part is trying to figure out where to start. The Tigers wasted 17 seconds before calling a timeout after the third-down play. They inexplicably didn’t try to run the ball after getting to the Ole Miss 32 with 1:04 to play. They didn’t have a plan in place for the final play. And even in the postgame press conference after all the chaos had ended, Miles seemed as lost in trying to explain it all as he did when it was all melting down around him on the sideline. The truth is there isn’t any explaining this one.

4. From bad to worse for Georgia: There was already a black cloud hovering over Georgia’s football program. This season hadn’t been what anybody wanted, but then the Bulldogs went out and lost to Kentucky … at home. Not only did they lose, but they dominated the statistics and still managed to lose. But that’s what happens when you turn the ball over four times in the second half and have 75 penalty yards for the game. The Bulldogs (6-5, 4-4) are staring squarely into the face of their first non-winning regular season since Jim Donnan’s first season in Athens in 1996. The Bulldogs might not be one of the top two most talented teams in the SEC, but they’re certainly one of the top three or four. Talent is not Georgia’s problem. It’s focus. It’s execution. It’s player development and it’s discipline. When you commit as many penalties as the Bulldogs have the past two seasons and turn the ball over as many times as they have this season (26), it’s obvious that there’s a decay in the program somewhere that has to be addressed. Mark Richt has been as classy as they come and as consistent as they come. But if he doesn’t address this decay with more than just cosmetic changes, then it’s going to be addressed for him.

5. Brantley looks the part: It was only for part of the second half and the Gators were up by something like 22 touchdowns, but this just in: Backup quarterback John Brantley can throw it. He’s a better pure passer than Tim Tebow and will add a dimension to the Gators’ passing game next season that they simply don’t have right now. Again, it was mop-up duty, but you talk to enough people in and around the Florida program, and there’s a quiet confidence about some of the things they’re going to be able to do next season with Brantley at the helm. Of course, you give up Tebow’s third-down prowess and his ability to make all the clutch plays with his legs and arm, and you also give up his incredible will to win and the impact that he's had on the rest of his teammates. But Brantley’s polished enough throwing the football that the Gators aren’t going to go quietly into the night next season when Tebow departs. In fact, Brantley might be the third or fourth best quarterback in the SEC right now.

What we learned in the Big 12, Week 12

November, 22, 2009
Here are some trends we learned about the Big 12 in Week 12:

Revenge was sweet for the Red Raiders: Texas Tech had been waiting for its chance to “Jump Around” on Oklahoma for a year. The Red Raiders were still miffed after having that House of Pain song ring through their ears during a demoralizing whipping last season in Norman. They returned the favor with a 41-13 beatdown against the Sooners -- tied for the second-worst defeat for a Bob Stoops team in a Big 12 conference game. The Red Raiders, ranked 117th rushing in the nation before the game, punished the Sooners by gashing them for 161 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Oklahoma can salvage some of its season by ruining Oklahoma State’s BCS at-large hopes with a victory. If not, there’s the very real possibility that Stoops’ team could finish the season with a losing season record after losses to the Cowboys and in a bowl game. Few could have ever imagined those possibilities this season -- even after potential All-Americans like Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham were lost with season-ending injuries.

Kansas State was bitten by its weak nonconference schedule: No team in the Big 12 could have used the extra bowl practice as much as Kansas State, which will end up being denied a bowl trip largely because of the transition from Ron Prince to Bill Snyder. The Wildcats ended up with six wins but couldn’t make a bowl trip because two of the triumphs came over nonFBS programs and could count only one for bowl purposes. The change in leadership left the new coaching staff and the KSU program scrambling for a late addition to its schedule. The result was a victory over late addition Tennessee Tech that doesn’t count for bowl eligibility and will keep the Wildcats out of those needed December practices. In the future, look for Snyder to put aside his previous appetite for gooey scheduling treats for a more determined challenge. Too much early sugar isn’t good for a developing program.

Colt McCoy hopes his memorable "Senior Night" isn't the end: McCoy beat Big Bertha and shot off the mammoth Texas cannon after leading Texas to its first Big 12 title game appearance since 2005. But it’s still undetermined if he can produce a Heisman Trophy as his ultimate reward for this season. If McCoy becomes the first Texas quarterback in history to receive the Heisman, voters are going to have to be sold on a “career achievement” kind of spin. He started it by claiming his record-setting 43rd career victory Saturday night. Big performances against Texas A&M Thursday night and against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game will be important as McCoy tries to make a late Heisman charge. It's not out of reach, but he absolutely, positively has to produce two huge performances in his remaining games in order to win it.

"The Bear's" soft side might have emerged too late to save his job: We saw the lovable side of Mark Mangino Saturday night in Austin, not the angry one that some of his players have decried over the last week in a series of troubling revelations that have surfaced around his Kansas program. Mangino, known as "The Bear" by his coaching friends, hugged his players and even told a referee he was “a good man” during an exchange that was picked up by a sideline microphone. It has taken a determined, forceful leader like Mangino to pull the Kansas program out of the abyss that he inherited in order to get them to a BCS bowl game. It's a shame that Mangino didn’t show his compassion more often during the building process.

Unsettled Texas A&M needs more stability in the future: I can’t remember a more up-and-down team in Big 12 history than the Aggies. Their 6-5 season has qualified them for a bowl trip with one more game to play despite an amazing run of emotions this season. The Aggies won games by 35, 37, 22, 25 and 35 points -- including their 38-3 whipping of Baylor Saturday that earned them the bowl trip. Earlier this season, the Aggies lost games by 28, 48 and 55 points. The Aggies are going to a bowl game, but Mike Sherman’s biggest job over the offseason will be to build consistency so that his team won’t have the week-to-week volatility that has marked his team in 2009.
What we learned from Notre Dame in its 33-30 double-overtime loss to Connecticut on Saturday:

1. It's time for Charlie Weis to go: The Notre Dame players clearly have affection for their head coach, as evidenced by Saturday's pregame gesture in which they entered the field locked arm-in-arm with Weis. But even more clearly, the Weis era is over. Too many losses to teams like Navy, Syracuse and Connecticut have sealed his fate, and it's time to begin the search for a new coach.

2. The Irish may have to settle for a bad bowl: A loss to Stanford this week seems predestined. That would make Notre Dame 6-6, and the Gator Bowl would be out of the picture. Somebody somewhere would find a way to take the Irish, but who would want to watch a team on a four-game losing streak and lame-duck coach?

3. Stopping -- and starting -- the run have been the downfall: UConn's beefy offensive line simply wore down the Notre Dame defensive front, as the Huskies had no other plan besides running the ball with Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman late in the game. They produced more than 5 yards per carry. On the other side, though, Armando Allen managed a 100-yard game, the Irish averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and had no power running game to rely on when they got down to the goal line. Those are big reasons why this team is no better than 6-5.

What we learned in the Pac-10: Week 12

November, 22, 2009
What did we learn from Week 12 of Pac-10 action?

1. It all comes down to the Civil War: After a frenzy of a race, the smoke has cleared and two teams are still standing: The Ducks and Beavers, who will do battle on Dec. 3 in the biggest Civil War in state of Oregon history. The winner in Autzen Stadium goes to the Rose Bowl. The loser must watch its rival celebrate with a rose between its teeth. Both teams are off this weekend, so there will be plenty of time to get healthy and prepare. And think.

2. It all comes down to the Civil War, part 2: Who's the first-team All-Pac-10 quarterback? Oregon State's Sean Canfield entered the weekend as the frontrunner and he played fairly well at Washington State with two touchdown passes, which gives him 19 for the year. But Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli made a statement with six touchdowns -- three running, three passing -- at Arizona. Masoli doesn't have the passing numbers Canfield has, but he has 12 rushing TDs to go along with 14 TD passes. That's a lot of production. The quarterback who comes out on top in the Civil War might be the one who comes out on top for postseason honors.

3. It ain't easy being the Pac-10's hot team: Stanford is the latest "hot" conference team to face-plant. It did so against California, which knows all about it. Oregon started things off with a terrible performance at Boise State after an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a loss at Stanford following its big win over USC. Remember when road warrior USC was reloading, not rebuilding? Arizona was nationally ranked until it fell at Cal two weeks ago. The only contender that hasn't been the flavor of the week is Oregon State, which might become the "it" team at exactly the right time: The final weekend of the season.

4. The Rose Bowl is easy, the rest of the pecking order is hard: Consider the Pac-10 standings. Sure, things have cleared up at the top, but the rest is a muddle. Four teams -- Arizona, California, Stanford and USC -- have three conference losses, and an Oregon State loss in the Civil War would be the Beavers' third. Stanford is done with its conference schedule. Arizona and USC have two more conference games, including one against each other on Dec. 5. Cal will be favored at Washington on Dec. 5. The ultimate pecking order in completely unsettled and won't be decided until the final weekend of the regular season, and even then there may be some hurt feelings when the bowls pick teams they want for reasons other than pure merit.

5. The Pac-10 sure can put on a show: The past college football weekend was mostly a yawner -- except in the Pac-10, which produced a pair of thrillers featuring three ranked teams and a fourth, Arizona, which is pretty darn good. The Pac-10 blog is obviously not a fan of the eight-game conference schedule because it hurts the conference's national perception. But it does make every weekend of the regular season pretty darn fun, though Jim Harbaugh and Mike Stoops -- who both want to revert to an eight-game schedule -- probably aren't enjoying their Sunday.

What we learned in the Big East, Week 12

November, 22, 2009
1. The Gator Bowl is back in play: Connecticut's 33-30 double-overtime win at Notre Dame dropped the Irish down to 6-5. With a tough game remaining at Stanford, the Golden Domers may well finish 6-6 and be ineligible for the Gator Bowl slot. Even with a win, Notre Dame would be 7-5 with a lame duck coach, not exactly a great bowl draw. Putting the Gator back in the Big East ledger helps the entire league lineup, and ensures that the Cincinnati-Pitt loser won't end up falling all the way to the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

2. UConn is going bowling: The resilient Huskies improved to 5-5 and have a pair of home games remaining against Syracuse and South Florida. They'll get at least one of those, and even at 6-6 they'll be an attractive bowl team because of what they've overcome this season.

3. Syracuse is determined to make Rutgers a rivalry: If you didn't think the Orange consider beating Rutgers for New York/New Jersey area supremacy one of their top priorities, you should be convinced after Saturday's 31-13 surprise. Head coach Doug Marrone brought out some new wrinkles, including option pitches and quick swing passes, and the depleted Orange put together a fierce effort. The Scarlet Knights may have not concerned themselves too much with Syracuse before the game, judging by their effort. They should now.

4. Rutgers is not a ranked team: Not even close. The Scarlet Knights sneaked into the Associated Press Top 25 last week, as voters apparently didn't notice that five of their seven wins came against complete stiffs. Rutgers is too weak on offense, and its offensive line far too inconsistent, to be a Top 25 team. The Scarlet Knights could still win eight or nine games this year, but this club is nothing special.

5. B.J. Daniels is tough at home: The South Florida redshirt freshman quarterback had some rough games at Rutgers and at Pitt, but he has been solid at Raymond James Stadium. He became the first Big East player to throw for more than 300 yards and run for more than 100 yards in a 34-22 win over Louisville. Daniels still could use some more playmakers around him, especially in the running game. But if he continues to play like that at home, the Bulls will have a chance this week against Miami.
Five lessons from the final week of Big Ten play.

1. Opportunity knocks for Buckeyes' defense: You can take shots at Jim Tressel's play calling or the fact Terrelle Pryor isn't a Heisman Trophy candidate by now. Or, you can admire what has happened with the Buckeyes' defense this season. A unit that lost several national award winners has gotten even better this fall, and Saturday's five-takeaway triumph against Michigan means Ohio State leads the nation in turnovers forced with 33. Ohio State's offense isn't always a masterpiece, but it's awfully fun to watch Kurt Coleman, Brian Rolle, Ross Homan, Cameron Heyward and the rest of the Buckeyes' defenders.

2. Penn State can play to its potential: It had been a ho-hum season for Penn State -- some would even call the campaign disappointing -- but the Nittany Lions saved their best for the regular-season finale. Penn State made a major statement in East Lansing, throttling Michigan State and executing on both sides of the ball. A secondary that I doubted all year stepped up to shut down Kirk Cousins, and Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark had arguably his best performance of the season. If Penn State gets a BCS at-large berth ahead of Iowa, the Lions will represent well if they play like they did Saturday.

3. Mike Kafka and Joey Elliott should gain All-Big Ten consideration: Both senior quarterbacks have made the most of their only full season as starters. Kafka has been accurate and extremely efficient for a surging Northwestern team, while Elliott turned in another terrific performance in Purdue's 38-21 victory at Indiana. In a year where returning starters struggled at quarterback (Adam Weber, Juice Williams, Pryor), these two signal-callers answered the bell for their teams. Kafka will be rewarded with a bowl trip, and Elliott should get some love on the All-Big Ten ballots.

4. The Iowa-Penn State debate is on: Both the Hawkeyes and the Lions finished the regular season 10-2, and both will be eligible for Big Ten at-large consideration. The league remains in pretty good shape for a second BCS berth, so will it be Iowa or Penn State? Iowa owns the head-to-head victory back on Sept. 26 and a stronger overall schedule, and the Hawkeyes should get starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi back for a bowl game. Penn State looked more impressive Saturday, and the Lions boast a national fan base, a history with both the Orange and Fiesta Bowls and the Joe Paterno factor. It will be very interesting to see which team gets the nod.

5. Four Big Ten coaches will be on the hot seat in 2010: We could still see changes in the coming days, but it's likely that all 11 Big Ten head coaches will be back next fall. But four of them -- Illinois' Ron Zook, Indiana's Bill Lynch, Michigan's Rich Rodriguez and Minnesota's Tim Brewster -- will certainly be feeling the heat. Zook has lost the momentum from the Rose Bowl run in 2007, while Lynch's team can't get over the hump or field a consistent defense. Rodriguez owns a 3-13 record in Big Ten play and has missed bowls in each of his first two years at Michigan. Brewster's change in offensive philosophy looks like a mistake as Weber has regressed and the Gophers were shut out for the second straight time against Iowa on Saturday.

What we learned: Week 12 in the ACC

November, 22, 2009
Here’s a look at what we learned in the ACC in Week 12:

The ACC is not so hard to figure out this year. Clemson and Georgia Tech are the two best teams in the conference, and will meet again in the Dec. 5 ACC championship game. The Tigers clinched the Atlantic Division when Boston College lost to North Carolina, but they made sure there weren’t any doubts about it by defeating Virginia in their home season finale, 34-21. This refreshing matchup will give the ACC championship game a much-needed boost in both interest and attendance.

Duke will have to wait another year to try for a bowl. The Blue Devils still have a chance at a six-win season when they finish with Wake Forest on Saturday, but because NC Central is a provisional FCS team, Duke needed seven wins to become bowl eligible this season. That slipped away in the fourth quarter against Miami on Saturday, when Duke relinquished its lead and was outscored 21-0. It’s still a successful season for Duke, which earned one more win than it did a year ago, but it’s not the finish it was aiming for.

BC’s offense hasn’t made enough progress against better defenses. It’s not as if the Eagles haven’t faced tenacious defenses this season. They played Clemson and Virginia Tech before hosting North Carolina on Saturday. But BC lost all three of those games, never scoring more than 14 points in the process. We knew the Eagles had issues when they left Death Valley with just 54 yards of total offense in September, but the turnovers have only gotten worse. BC has racked up 13 turnovers in those three losses, and this time, the home-field advantage didn’t help.

Florida State isn’t ready for Florida. OK, so most of us realized this long before the Noles were almost embarrassed at home on Senior Day by a two-win Maryland team using its backup quarterback, but it’s a question I get asked every week since Florida State won four of its past five games and became bowl eligible. The gap between Florida State and Florida is as big as it is in the rankings right now. Backup FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel looked good in the win at Wake Forest, but he reminded us on Saturday with three interceptions that he’s still a rookie, and Florida’s defense will humble him in the Swamp.

It’s time to give Dabo Swinney some credit. After his quick promotion from receivers coach to head coach, many questioned whether Swinney was the right man for the job. After a 2-3 start to the season, those doubts grew louder. As far as job descriptions go, though, Swinney has accomplished one major task his predecessor did not: earning the school’s first trip to the ACC championship game. He made a good hire in first-year offensive coordinator Billy Napier, another move that was questioned this offseason, and he made one of the best hires of the offseason in defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. This staff has gotten better as the season progressed, and in turn has made the players better. For that, it’s time they get some credit.
1. TCU is one win away: The Horned Frogs proved during Saturday's 45-10 win over Wyoming that they don’t have to play at their best to beat some of the teams in the Mountain West Conference. The Horned Frogs had a rough start and turned the ball over three times, but they were dominant on offense and defense throughout the game and Wyoming couldn’t match up. Now, the Horned Frogs are a win away from a Mountain West Conference title and a BCS bowl berth.

2. Nevada makes it interesting: For those who thought Boise State could skate through its conference schedule to another WAC title, think again. Nevada is playing as well as the Broncos, and could be the team to end the Broncos run in the game this Friday. Nevada has been dominant on the ground with three 1,000-yard rushers. It was averaging 353.10 rushing yards per game heading into Saturday's 63-20 win over New Mexico State, when they rushed for 574 yards.

3. Conference USA still up for grabs: Both the East and West divisions of Conference USA are up for grabs in the final week of the season. SMU’s 34-31 loss to Marshall allowed Houston to move back into first place in the West after losing that spot a week ago. If the Cougars beat Rice, it will win the division title. The East will come down to Saturday's game between East Carolina and Southern Miss. The winner will play for the C-USA title.

4. MAC East down to one game: Ohio won the elimination game against Northern Illinois, 38-31, and now has a chance to defeat Temple for the MAC East title. After losing its first two games to start the year, Temple has rattled off nine consecutive wins and has become one of the most dominant teams in the conference. Temple hasn’t won this many games since 1979 and it’s never won the MAC title.

5. Troy makes history: Troy earned its fourth consecutive Sun Belt title with a 47-21 win over Florida Atlantic. The Trojans become just the second school in Sun Belt history to win four consecutive titles. North Texas won four straight from 2001-04. The Trojans now are looking to sweep conference play for the first time while a member of the Sun Belt. The Trojans play Louisiana-Lafayette during their final game of the season.