NCF Nation: academic 0806
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Vanderbilt junior safety Ryan Hamilton can do the math. After all, he is going to school at Vanderbilt.
The Commodores have lost 21 games since he arrived on campus in 2005. They've lost 11 of those games by a touchdown or less. During the 2006 and 2007 seasons, they lost four games by three points or fewer, and three of those games were decided in the final seconds by kickers.
"We just couldn't close out games," Hamilton said.
Notice he used the past tense. Again, he's a Vanderbilt guy. He knows the difference between past and present tense.
And the present is all that matters to these Commodores, who're unbeaten, nationally ranked for the first time in nearly a quarter century and bracing for their most anticipated home game since ...
Well, let's just say it's been a while.
How are they doing it?
Fittingly, with smarts, discipline, an opportunistic approach and an attitude that screams out: We could care less what's happened around here in the past.
"We're still a pretty young team," said Hamilton, who had three interceptions in the Ole Miss win. "A lot of the guys here now weren't around for all those games we couldn't close out. This is a new team, a new Vanderbilt. We don't lose those games anymore."
Indeed, the No. 19-ranked Commodores (4-0, 2-0 SEC) head into their game with No. 14-ranked Auburn on Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium -- complete with ESPN's College GameDay on hand -- doing all of the things right that it takes to win those close games. Both of their SEC wins came by a touchdown or less.
Here's their formula: They're tied for first nationally in fewest penalties per game (2.75) and interceptions (10). They lead the SEC in turnover margin (plus-9) and sacks per game (2.75). They're tied for the SEC lead with Georgia in red zone offense (scoring on 16 of their 17 chances) and are second in the SEC in red zone defense (allowing only four touchdowns in 11 chances).
In both of their SEC wins, they either scored a touchdown on defense or set up a touchdown with a big play on special teams.
Simply, this is a well-coached, fundamentally sound football team that believes. And don't think the Commodores don't have talent, either. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has upgraded the recruiting, and there's a higher caliber of athlete on campus now than ever before.
Rice coach David Bailiff doesn't proclaim himself a prognosticator, but he saw this type of season coming.
When he arrived on campus two years ago, the team was depleted by injuries. Players were playing out of position to fill gaps and Bailiff said the first time he was able to practice with a full squad was during fall camp of last season. Several young players had to learn on the fly and what resulted was a 3-9 season, the school's worst since 2005.
"Last year, we had the injury bug, so we never really knew what we had," Bailiff said. "We knew we had a lot of talent, but we had to get it on the field."
So by the time this season rolled around, the team was healthy and had experienced what it was like to be at the bottom. There was nowhere else to go but up.
Out of the gate, Rice won its first two games -- both Conference USA games -- and took a quick, commanding lead in the conference standings. It played toe-to-toe with Vanderbilt, despite most of the players' minds being on their homes and families back in Houston in the midst of Hurricane Ike. It struggled at Texas, but was able to move the ball on the Longhorns. And last week, the Owls piled 77 points on a hapless North Texas team.
Scoring is something that's come fairly easy to the Owls this season. They average 41.2 points and 424.6 yards per game. Only twice this season have the Owls scored fewer than 42 points.
They'll face their greatest conference test this weekend when they clash with Tulsa, the nation's top offense.
"We're not comparing this season to anything we've done in the past because this is obviously a completely different team," quarterback Chase Clement said. "This is a team that's led by a completely different group of seniors that I think has a lot better leadership."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
As Northwestern endured a maddeningly inconsistent season last fall, the communication gap between players and coaches seemed to widen.
One high-ranking assistant told me toward the end of the season that he had run out of ideas for how to motivate his group. Multi-year starters regressed on defense, while a sink-or-swim offense put too much on the passing game after losing star running back Tyrell Sutton to an ankle injury in Week 2.
When head coach Pat Fitzgerald reviewed a disappointing 6-6 campaign, the 33-year-old elected to relinquish some control while increasing the competition level. Every element of Northwestern's offseason program -- from running to lifting to academics to community service -- had competition built into it. But the players were the ones driving the competition, splitting into 10 groups and electing leaders from every position group and academic class.
By successfully creating what he called "an environment of ownership," Fitzgerald got his players to bond better with one another and with the coaching staff, which included two new coordinators. The results are showing this fall, as Northwestern has started 5-0 for the first time in 46 years.
"There's a lot of things that are going the way we want it because we're taking control of this team," Sutton said. "The coaches are backing off and giving us a lot more control than we have in the past."
Competition remains a focal point, particularly on a defense that has transformed behind new coordinator Mike Hankwitz, ranking fifth nationally in sacks (3.4 per game) and ninth in scoring (12.4 ppg).
A line that boasted more career starts than notable plays has seen improvement from holdovers (Corey Wootton, John Gill) and newcomers (Vince Browne). Linebackers Malcolm Arrington and Quentin Davie are much improved and the secondary isn't a liability for the first time in years.
"Our guys have great confidence in each other," Fitzgerald said. "Through that competition, we've built trust. A lot of guys have stepped up."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
The root of the transformation within Duke's football program began in the weight room this past winter, where over 500 collective pounds were shed for a vast physical improvement that appears to have had a correlation with the Blue Devils' win column this fall.
"I told them, I said, 'You're going to feel like different players if you buy in to what we do,'" first-year coach David Cutcliffe said. "We're big in that regard, as far as being able to run."
Now, the Blue Devils not only look like an FBS football team this season, but a pretty good one at that.
Duke, a program that won a total of four games in the past four seasons, is 3-1 overall and off to its first 1-0 start in the ACC since beating Maryland in the 1994 season opener. Saturday's game at Georgia Tech suddenly carries significance not only in the Coastal Division race, but also for a program that is quickly stepping out of the shadow of irrelevance.
The difference can be seen in the second half, where Duke is outscoring its opponents 48-7 in the third quarter and 28-7 in the fourth quarter. It is a product of Cutcliffe's emphasis on finishing everything they do.
"I'm proud of that, but I know this," he said, "I told them, I said, 'This is great, but please start a little faster. I don't have much hair left in my head, and it's beginning to fall out in the first half of these games.'"
It's still too early to tell where Duke stands, or what it is capable of in the wide-open ACC, but for many outside the program, the Blue Devils have already exceeded expectations.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Stanford is the most elite academic institution playing FBS football. It's basically a West Coast Ivy League school. And in recent years the Cardinal played football like they belonged on the field with Yale and Harvard.
|Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images|
|Jim Harbaugh's players are more physical than they have been in recent years.|
But that's changing. Both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
Stanford of the past brings to mind a team that boasts a future NFL QB and tries to finesse wins by out-thinking its opponents. Its smart players might not smack the opposition in the mouth, but they just might fool or outflank it every once and a while.
And Stanford was always disciplined. It didn't make mistakes or commit stupid penalties (see Pac-10 rankings of No. 1, No. 1 and No. 3 the previous three seasons in penalty yards against).
During the preseason, second-year coach Jim Harbaugh repeatedly spoke of developing a more physical team, one that wasn't trying to outsmart a foe but preferred to put a cleat mark on its figurative forehead.
While Stanford fans might prefer talking about an improved running game -- and we will, in a moment -- one unmistakable measure of the new Stanford is this: The Cardinal rank eighth in the conference in penalty yards per game (68) and are building a reputation as a team not afraid of playing until the echo of the referee's whistle -- or just a bit after.
Stanford (3-2, 2-1 Pac-10) had at least one personal foul penalty against all three Pac-10 opponents, and left coaches from Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington grumbling afterwards.
"They're dirty," said one Pac-10 assistant in the postgame elevator.
So these guys don't play like theoretical physics majors.
Another way the physical attitude shows itself is the run game. The Cardinal ranks third in the Pac-10 with 168.4 yards rushing per game and has eclipsed 200 yards on the ground in three of five games.
The defense is hardly dominant -- 27.6 points per game surrendered -- but it's aggressive (15 sacks) and tough against the run (3.4 yards per carry, 128 yards per game).
Both the passing offense and passing defense are a problem, but those issues are due in large part to an overall lack of speed and athleticism.
That might be changing because Harbaugh is proving to be an excellent recruiter.
Stanford presently has 16 verbal commitments for its 2009 class and most recruiting services rank the class among the nation's 15 best. ESPN.com's Tom Luginbill lists the Cardinal class among his 11 "Chomping at the Bit" outside his top 10.
So the athletes are coming.
And with a new, nasty attitude, Stanford might become a player in the Pac-10 and not just the team with the highest SAT scores.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
8:00 PM ET 20 Duke 1 Florida State 8:17 PM ET 2 Ohio State 10 Michigan State 4:00 PM ET 5 Missouri 3 Auburn 12:00 PM ET 17 Oklahoma 6 Oklahoma State 7:45 PM ET 7 Stanford 11 Arizona State 3:30 PM ET 25 Texas 9 Baylor 12:00 PM ET 16 UCF Southern Methodist 10:00 PM ET Utah State 23 Fresno State