NCF Nation: conferences 0806

Posted by's Tim Griffin

A deep collection of playmaking quarterbacks was expected to turn the Big 12 into a place where calculators were needed to track offenses this season.

It's been all that and more this season as the conference has emerged as arguably the nation's most powerful after the nonconference portion of its season finished last week.

The Big 12 was able to navigate through a relatively soft nonconference schedule with most of its power teams unscathed. That's the major reason the conference has been able to notch three teams in the top five, four teams in the top seven and six teams in the Associated Press' media poll this week heading into the opening week of Big 12 play.

Those six teams -- Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State -- have combined for a 23-1 record mainly because they have been immune to the upset bug that has nipped many top teams this season. The only blemish was Kansas' 37-34 loss at the buzzer at No. 10 South Florida in a game it very easily could have won.

The fast start for the conference really hasn't been that much of a surprise. Most judged those teams to have the conference's best quarterbacks in a conference full of strong ones.

And the best -- Missouri's Chase Daniel, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy -- all are among the leaders in most Heisman Trophy polls after the first month of the season.

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Posted by's Ted Miller

First off: I hear you in my overflowing mailbag.

Yes, it's curious that USC's loss at Oregon State is analyzed one way, while Florida's loss at home to Ole Miss -- a program that is inferior to the Beavers by any objective measure -- is analyzed another.

The "SEC depth!" vs. "USC choke!" line of thinking should raise an eyebrow or two.

But, honestly, the Pac-10 hasn't done much at the season's quarter pole to challenge the college football orthodoxy.

(Know what would be huge? Oregon State winning at 15th-ranked Utah on Thursday. That would substantially counter the 1-5 deficit to the Mountain West Conference and demonstrate that the Beavers fluke game was at Penn State, not against USC).

Sure, the Beavers victory over USC made the formerly greatest squad ever look vulnerable, but is anyone willing to say that a team other than the Trojans will win the Pac-10?

So, it's still USC and everyone else scrapping for second place.

Well, not everyone.

Fair to say that the conference has developed a decided bottom tier with Washington and Washington State headed toward an Apple Cup showdown that will decide ninth and 10th place.

UCLA notched a shocking season-opening win over Tennessee, but hasn't won since and looked terrible in losses to BYU and Arizona. The competitive loss to a good Fresno State squad, however, suggested that the Bruins can win at least a couple of Pac-10 games, the best peer-level matchup probably being a visit from Stanford on Oct. 18.

For the now 3-2 (2-1 Pac-10) Cardinal, that's a critical game for bowl hopes and a benchmark for how far Stanford has progressed under Jim Harbaugh.

As for that elusive No. 2 spot, it could be any of these five teams: Oregon, California, Oregon State, Arizona State or Arizona.

Of that group, only the Beavers have a conference defeat (opener at Stanford), but the Beavers canceled that out with a win over USC.

Oregon, California and Arizona State all play at USC, while Arizona gets the Trojans at home.

The Wildcats, a decided darkhorse in the race, have the most favorable schedule, with California, Oregon State and Arizona State coming to Tucson. The Beavers also will face most of their toughest tests at home: Arizona State, California and Oregon.

The Ducks visit Cal, ASU and Oregon State, while the Sun Devils will be on the road at Cal this weekend and must visit Oregon State and Arizona.

And Cal visits Arizona and Oregon State.

In other words: Nos. 2-7 could go any way, and the team that gets No. 2 is going to have to show its mettle on the road.

Or, just maybe, this is the Year of the Trojan Tumble.

A long shot, yes, but in college football, nothing is impossible.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten lacks the compelling cannibalism of the SEC or the elite quarterback play of the Big 12, but the league more than makes up for it with a motley crew of championship contenders.

 AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
 Daryll Clark has the Nittany Lions atop the Big Ten standings.

After the first four laps -- three for some teams -- it's time to take a closer look at the field.

The temptation is to pick the flashiest and fastest car, the one with the 10-cylinder engine and the cool name. Don't be fooled by the octogenarian at the wheel. This thing can flat-out move. But it will have to avoid a meltdown on foreign courses. Penn State certainly looks like the class of the Big Ten, but the high-powered Lions have yet to play a meaningful road game and travel to both Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Many people are sick of seeing this next car in the race, but they can't deny its track record against familiar opposition. Ohio State has dominated Big Ten play the last three seasons, going 22-2 with two outright titles. The senior-laden Buckeyes have underperformed to date, imploding against USC and struggling against Ohio and Troy. But star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells is healthy again and forms an exciting backfield tandem with freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Like Penn State, the schedule doesn't favor Ohio State, which must visit Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois.

Wisconsin is the Volvo station wagon of this race: sturdy, steady, but not something to get too excited about. The Badgers grinded out a win at Fresno State and were in great position to begin their unprecedented Big Ten opening stretch -- Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State -- on a good note, but a punch-less second half led to a crushing loss. Their league title hopes rest on doing what they do best, winning at home. Wisconsin hosts Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium, where it has never lost under coach Bret Bielema.

Michigan State has backed up its preseason hype with a 4-1 start and boasts the Big Ten MVP to date in senior running back Javon Ringer. The Spartans still need a little more from quarterback Brian Hoyer and an improved defense, but the schedule sets up well. A defensive makeover has spurred Northwestern to its first 5-0 start since 1962, and if the Wildcats negotiate a manageable upcoming four-game stretch, they could be a surprising entrant for the home stretch.

Despite a shaky start, Illinois has too much talent to be counted out. And Big Ten teams shouldn't sleep on the refurbished car toward the back of the pack. You know, the one with maize streaks lining its body.

Michigan still could have a say in this thing before the checkered flag.

Posted by's Chris Low

It's foolish to make a call five weeks into the season on who's going to win the conference, especially this conference. But there are some clear indicators out there.

The combination of experience at quarterback and strength up front in both lines of scrimmage are the first areas you look to when you're handicapping the SEC race.

At this point, Alabama has been better than anybody else in the league in the trenches, and senior quarterback John Parker Wilson is playing with the kind of poise, purpose and smarts that Alabama coach Nick Saban told me back in August would be crucial if the Crimson Tide were going to take a major step this season.

They've taken more than a major step. They've taken a step to the head of the conference.

But as Saban asked aloud the other night after lamenting the way Alabama played in the second half of its 41-30 whipping of Georgia, can this team finish the season?

I know Saban doesn't want to hear this, but I like the Crimson Tide's schedule the rest of the way. They get Kentucky at home this week, then get a week off before playing Ole Miss at home. Then comes Tennessee on the road and Arkansas State at home before the much anticipated trip to LSU on Nov. 8.

The thing I don't know about this team is how well it would be able to manage some injuries in key spots. It's just not a very deep football team.

The telltale stretch for LSU is about to begin. The Tigers are off this week before traveling to Florida on Oct. 11, traveling to South Carolina on Oct. 18 and then coming back home to face Georgia on Oct. 25.

In the Eastern Division, it's almost as if the race starts over this weekend with both Florida and Georgia losing at home last week.

The Gators still have the more manageable schedule, but who's going to run the ball for this club? And going back to my original premise, they certainly have a great quarterback, but their offensive line has been just OK.

The Bulldogs have great skill players (Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green), but their young offensive line has struggled for much of this season. And the defensive front hasn't been able to generate a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

This much I'm sure of: Nobody in this league will be unbeaten when the two division winners gather in Atlanta on Dec. 6 for the SEC championship game.

But with Southern California losing last week, the door is still wide open for the SEC champion (even with one loss) to play in the BCS national championship game.

Posted by's Graham Watson

True to form, college football has been full of surprises this season, but there's been no bigger surprise than the battle that is beginning to rage in the MAC. For two consecutive seasons, Central Michigan has been the class of the conference, but now teams such as Western Michigan and Ball State are attempting to upset what's been a minor dynasty.

I think many thought Ball State would be there, but Western Michigan, a team that finished 5-7 last year, was a bit of a shocker. I'm not sure many thought the Broncos would be 4-1 at this point and locked in a 2-0 logjam at the top of the MAC West with the Chippewas and Cardinals.

Conference USA is providing an equally crazy battle because it seems as though any team can beat any other team at any time. Tulsa remains the only unbeaten in the conference, but it hasn't seen the meat of its schedule yet. Its game against Rice this weekend will test its staying power, as Rice has proven to be an up-and-comer after a terrible season last year. The shine is off East Carolina and Central Florida, but those two teams still could be players in the East. But right now, the West not only looks like the stronger side of league, but also the most offensively proficient. There's been no shortage of scoring between teams such as Tulsa, Rice, Houston and SMU.

The Mountain West is shaking out the way many expected, however, the middle and the bottom of the Mountain West have created some intrigue. Teams such as UNLV, Air Force and Colorado State have won big games and could be factors in the championship. While the top of the conference will belong to BYU, Utah or TCU, the rise of the rest of the conference means that no game is a gimme. Any of the top teams could be in danger on any given weekend.

The WAC hasn't played as many conference games as some of the other non-BCS leagues, but it's clear that Boise State and Fresno State will be the teams to beat. However, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State and even a depleted Nevada squad are making things interesting. I think the Spartans will be the team to watch here. They've played better than many thought, and though they haven't been a major player in WAC play during the last couple years, they might sneak up on a couple teams.

The Sun Belt has been difficult to read so far. Each week a different team takes the spotlight and then relinquishes it in a disappointing fashion. Troy and Arkansas State are probably the best the league has to offer so far, but I'm not sure either team is on pace with where Florida Atlantic finished a year ago.

Speaking of the Owls, few teams have been more disappointing this season. Yes, the schedule is more difficult, but the Owls' numbers are down across the board. Quarterback Rusty Smith came into the season with more hype than any other Sun Belt quarterback and hasn't lived up.

Arkansas State is the only team with a winning record, Troy is 2-2 and the rest of the league is either 1-3 or 0-4. Not quite the conference on the upswing that many predicted it to be.

As far as Independents go, Notre Dame is doing exactly what it should be doing. Maybe not what people expected the Irish to do, but with their talent and schedule, they should be 3-1 so far. The most pleasant surprise of the Independents is Navy. The Midshipmen have dealt with major injuries and setbacks, but have continued fighting. Wins over Rutgers and Wake Forest are huge in coach Ken Niumatalolo's quest for keeping this team on par with Paul Johnson's teams of the past.

Posted by's Brian Bennett

It's almost October. Most Big East teams have officially concluded one-third of their regular season. Connecticut and South Florida will reach the halfway mark already this week.

So with this body of evidence, what do we know now about the conference race? More than we did a month ago, surely. But so much still remains in doubt.

Part of that is because of the back loaded Big East schedule. There have been only two league game thus far, with two more coming this week. Cincinnati won't play its first conference game until Oct. 11, the latest start to league play of any BCS team in the country.

"This thing is wide open," Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "I think it's a race that really won't start to unfold until the month of November."

The second contributing factor to our lack of knowledge is the inconsistent performances by Big East teams. We know South Florida and UConn, who are both 5-0, look like the two most complete teams and will be major contenders all season. We also know that Syracuse is no factor and that Rutgers needs a miraculous makeover to have any shot at the league title.

The other four teams are wrapped in mystery.

Many people liked Pittsburgh as a dark horse contender this summer, and the Panthers have improved since their opening loss to Bowling Green. How much they've improved will be revealed Thursday night at South Florida. Cincinnati has all sorts of quarterback issues but boasts a veteran defense and a coaching staff that figures out ways to win. Louisville has enough offense and enough conference home games against the big boys to play spoiler, at the very least.

The biggest wild card, though, remains West Virginia. The Mountaineers have scuffled to a 2-2 start but still have the talent to win this league for the third time in four years. They get South Florida at home to end the year and have owned Connecticut, pounding the Huskies by an average of 34 points the past three years.

"Connecticut and South Florida are probably the two favorites," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But every team right now is saying, 'Hey, we've got a chance to win the conference.' There's not a coach or a player that's not having those thoughts, at least."

Posted by's Heather Dinich

No, Florida State's game at Miami this week isn't what it used to be, but that just makes the race to the ACC championship game more interesting for everyone else.

Like, say, Duke and Georgia Tech, who will suddenly be playing a game of consequence for the Coastal Division on Saturday. Surprise: The rapidly improving Blue Devils (3-1, 1-0 ACC) are second behind Virginia Tech (4-1, 2-0). Surprise: Maryland (4-1, 1-0) is leading the Atlantic Division and just beat Clemson (3-2, 1-1) in Death Valley.

Entering the midpoint of the schedule, one thing is clear in the ACC -- nothing is clear, and that's exactly what Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski told his team on Sunday.

"I don't believe there's just one team in the league that is just head and shoulders above the rest," he said. "Anybody's got a chance."

Here's why:

• The abundance of youth on so many rosters, most notably Florida State and Miami.
• The fact that half the league has coaches in the midst of their first or second seasons.
• The fact that nine of the 12 teams have either had to use their backup quarterbacks or chosen to because of inexperience.

The two preseason picks to play for the ACC title -- Clemson and Virginia Tech -- have failed to separate themselves, but the Hokies have been hanging on with their running game and defense. North Carolina and Maryland get the inconsistency awards in their respective divisions, but the Terps deserve credit for beating two ranked teams in their past three games.

Did Maryland replace Clemson as the team to beat?

"It's probably too early to even make that statement," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "We've got to get a lot better to be that team, but certainly I don't know if there's anybody else in that situation. I think there's a lot of teams that can win on any given night. ... It's going to be a heck of a race. I think Duke is getting better and better and they're going to be a factor, too. I don't know if anybody doesn't have a shot at it right now."