NCF Nation: East Carolina

1. Protecting the ball makes for smooth sailing: It seemed like we'd never see the day Notre Dame went 60 minutes without a turnover, but Saturday changed that.

[+] EnlargeCierre Wood
AP Photo/AJ MastNotre Dame's Cierre Wood is 42nd in the nation in rush yards per game at 89.8.
The Fighting Irish eclipsed the 500-yard mark for the third time this season, but won while crossing that plateau for the first time, as they were doomed by five-turnover performances in Weeks 1 and 2. Saturday was huge for the offense, particularly Tommy Rees, who eliminated many of the befuddling miscues that had Irish fans calling for a new quarterback after his first three and a half games under center. Now, for the first time all season, we can no longer say Notre Dame leads the nation in turnovers or has the worst turnover margin. (The first honor belongs to East Carolina, with 17. The latter is shared by East Carolina, Iowa State and Western Kentucky, at minus-2.00).

2. The rush defense is for real: Notre Dame had another dominating performance up front Saturday, limiting the Big Ten's second-ranked rushing offense to 84 yards on 27 carries. This came two weeks after the Irish allowed just 29 rushing yards against Michigan State and one week after holding Pitt's Ray Graham to 89 yards, something that looks like more of an accomplishment after Graham exploded for 226 yards Thursday against South Florida.

3. Special teams need to improve. Still: Brian Kelly said Saturday that he didn't want to sound like sour milk when listing what his team could have done better, but the Irish did leave points on the board. David Ruffer, a 2010 Lou Groza Award finalist, missed two field goals. And the punt return experiment once again looked like just that -- an experiment. John Goodman netted minus-3 yards on two returns and, in a real head-scratcher, watched one ball sail over his head and roll for a 61-yard punt in the first quarter.

4. Penalties still need clearing up: This one gets overshadowed because the Irish didn't turn the ball over, won by 28 points and saw their opponent commit an astounding 13 penalties for 118 yards. But Notre Dame itself committed eight penalties for 85 yards, including an ugly one when long snapper Jordan Cowart got tangled up with several Purdue players on a second-quarter punt. Mental lapses such as these are forgivable against the Boilermakers, not so much against USC or Stanford.
He is fearless. He is a team player. He always does what is asked. So it is easy to see why Dwayne Harris has been such a valuable member of the East Carolina football team.

Of course, Harris never thought he would be making headlines as a receiver and all-purpose player when he was starring in high school. Back then, he played quarterback and figured he would be a quarterback with the Pirates.

But after his redshirt season, the coaching staff moved him first to running back and then to wide receiver.

[+] EnlargeDwayne Harris
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackDwayne Harris hopes to finish his college career on a high note.
“They knew I was an athlete, and when I was on the scout team going against our first-team defense, they lined up me everywhere,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I never thought I’d be the type of receiver I am now. But it’s a blessing that I can use my God-given talents in so many different ways.”

Indeed, those talents and his versatility led him to an outstanding season. Harris was selected the Most Valuable Player of Conference USA, the first non-quarterback to win the award. He also made the first team as a receiver and return specialist.

College football fans will have their last chance to see him play for East Carolina on Wednesday, when he leads his Pirates against Maryland in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. A Senior Bowl date and NFL future await. But first, Harris would love nothing more than to go out with a win.

It has been an up-and-down season for East Carolina, but the offense has thrived in the spread system under new coach Ruffin McNeill. That expanded opportunities for Harris, who set the single-season school records for receptions (93) and receiving yards (1,055) this season.

He will leave school as the career leader in receptions (260) and receiving yards (2,933) and needs two touchdowns to break the career record for receiving touchdowns, which Larry Shannon set from 1994-97 with 21.

As we mentioned earlier, Harris does more than catch. He also returns kicks, and occasionally runs and passes. Harris ranks fifth in the nation in all-purpose yards with an average of 171 a game.

When asked what makes him so good, Harris said, “I’m a guy who never quits. I’m never going to give up. A lot of coaches feel they can’t stop me, so I know they can’t stop me. It’s a good feeling for me.”

Harris hates calling for a fair catch on punts. Since many teams kick away from him, he wants to take advantage of all the opportunities he gets.

“I’m never scared. I’ve taken brutal hits and gotten up,” Harris said. “I’m a guy who’s always going to take chances on punt returns and kickoff returns, and that makes me dangerous.”

It also makes him an NFL prospect. At 6-foot and 205 pounds, he has good size, and his versatility is obviously a plus. He is projected to be a mid-round pick.

But he before he thinks about his future, Harris has one game left to play.

“I’m just going to try my all and take care of my business and everything else will fall into place,” he said.

Lunchtime Links

November, 11, 2010
Almost nailed the Miami (Ohio)-Bowling Green score right yesterday. More mid-week non-AQ football coming up tonight: East Carolina at UAB. My pick: East Carolina 41, UAB 35.

Now on to some links:

Rose Bowl officials have discussed the possibility of choosing between Boise State and Stanford as an at-large selection.

The Alford brothers will be on opposite sidelines once again Saturday when Utah plays Notre Dame.

How does anyone know who the best team in the country is on eyeballs alone, asks Jennifer Floyd Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Nevada offensive lineman John Bender plays on the edge.

San Diego State coach Brady Hoke says he's not looking to bail out after two years with the Aztecs. His name has surfaced on the Minnesota wish list.

Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan has given coach Dave Bailiff a vote of confidence.

Marshall's Donald Brown won't live down "The Slide."

Arkansas State is ready for Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey.

Louisiana Tech's Phillip Livas is back to making big plays.

Northern Illinois stays grounded after its win against Toledo.

Non-AQ What to Watch, Week 11

November, 11, 2010
Come one, come all for your top 10 non-AQ storylines for Week 10:

1. Let the jockeying continue. Now that TCU has passed Boise State in the human polls, the race is on to see whether the Horned Frogs can stay there -- and grow their lead. Both need to happen for TCU to solidify its spot ahead of the Broncos in the BCS standings. TCU plays San Diego State (7-2) while Boise State plays Idaho (4-5) so it is unlikely Boise State will move ahead after this week. But looking ahead, TCU has one game left against New Mexico (1-8), while Boise State has games remaining against Fresno State (6-2), Nevada (8-1) and Utah State (3-6).

2. Is a letdown in store for TCU? The Horned Frogs are coming off an emotional 47-7 win over Utah, but this is not a team that loses focus easily. They have given up a total of 23 points in six league games, and have given up one touchdown at home in three league games. This is Senior Day, where TCU will say goodbye to a group of players who have not lost in the regular season since 2008. San Diego State is much improved, so we will see how the Horned Frogs handle their emotions.

3. How does the Boise State-Idaho rivalry end? Boise State and Idaho have no future games set as the Broncos depart the WAC for the Mountain West. But this game has not proved to be much of a rivalry over the last several years. The Broncos have won 11 straight over the Vandals, and have won those game by an average score of 51-18.

[+] EnlargeUtah
Andrew Weber/US PresswireComing off a disappointing loss to TCU, the Utes have to go on the road to face Notre Dame.
4. Can Utah bounce back? The Utes are coming off an embarrassing loss at home to TCU and travel to play a beaten down Notre Dame team. As badly as the Irish need to win, so does Utah, which wants to avoid having its season go down the drain due to one loss. After losing 55-28 to TCU last year, Utah rebounded with a 38-7 win over San Diego State. But that one was at home. This is going to be a tough challenge.

5. Will we get clarity in Conference USA? There are several big games for the league this weekend as UCF hosts Southern Miss, and Tulsa travels to Houston. UCF is the lone team that is undefeated in league play in Conference USA and can clinch the East Division with a win over Southern Miss and an East Carolina loss to UAB tonight. Meanwhile, Tulsa, Houston and SMU each have two losses in the West. Whoever wins would remain in the hunt.

6. Will we get clarity in the Sun Belt? Who would have thought when the season started we would be saying Troy and FIU would be meeting with Sun Belt title chances on the line? Both teams have one loss in conference play and the winner here would be in the driver’s seat. Whoever wins out, wins the league. It’s as simple as that.

7. Bowl eligibility time. Here are your teams that have a shot to become bowl eligible this week: Army, East Carolina, Houston and Troy. Army plays at Kent State, while East Carolina is at UAB, Houston hosts Tulsa and Troy hosts FIU. SMU (5-5) is off.

8. What does Navy do for an encore? The Midshipmen racked up 76 points and 521 yards on the ground against East Carolina last week. So what happens against Central Michigan (3-7)? Quarterback Ricky Dobbs reportedly missed a few days of practice with a slight concussion. If he cannot go, Kriss Proctor would get the start. But even without Dobbs, Alexander Teich has played well since replacing Vince Murray in the starting lineup. He averaged 11.2 yards a carry last week against the Pirates, and had a 200-yard game against Notre Dame.

9. What does Nevada do for an encore? The Wolf Pack may not have scored as many points as Navy, but they had more yards -- 844 in a 63-17 win over Idaho. Nevada sits at No. 21, behind several two-loss teams from power conferences. The question is whether voters see Nevada as a great team or merely a good team from a bad conference. How it does against a good Fresno State team on Saturday is important for perception.

10. The future is now. True freshman quarterbacks Pete Thomas and Jake Heaps face each other when BYU travels to Colorado State. Thomas has thrown for 2,273 yards for the Rams and is second in the league in passing, mostly because he has been put in situations where his team has fallen behind. But still, he is progressing well and coach Steve Fairchild believes Thomas' future is bright. Heaps has not been as successful, struggling as much as the rest of the BYU offense. He had his first good game against UNLV last week, throwing for 294 yards and a touchdown. The play of the quarterbacks is the key to the game.

Non-AQ predictions: Week 11

November, 11, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Three straight weeks of going 7-3 is not that bad considering the alternative. I did get one of my upset specials right, though I didn’t expect Navy to hang 76 on East Carolina. Props to New Mexico. Does it count that I said there was a “slim chance” of an upset? Hey at least I said there was a chance!

With a 64-40 overall record, bring on Week 11.

East Carolina 41, UAB 35. (Tonight) The Pirates have to get past the 76 points they allowed to Navy last week. UAB is going to have to get running back Pat Shed going, because Dominique Davis will be able to pass for the Pirates. The East Carolina defense has been bad, but somehow the Pirates will find a way to bounce back with bowl eligibility on the line. They have got to hold on to the football, though. Four turnovers on five possessions in the third quarter against Navy let the game get out of hand.

No. 4 Boise State 45, Idaho 13. (Friday). You know the atmosphere is going to be rowdy, what with offseason comments from Boise State president Bob Kustra stirring the pot. This is the final scheduled game in the rivalry now that the Broncos are leaving for the Mountain West. The Vandals would love nothing more than to end their undefeated season, but they are one of the most penalized teams in the country. Idaho hasn’t beaten Boise State since 1998. The Vandals’ last win at home over the Broncos? 1995.

No. 3 TCU 38, San Diego State 10. Sure this is the classic “trap” game for the Horned Frogs, who will be coming down off an emotional 47-7 win at Utah. San Diego State is much improved this season, and bowl eligible for the first time since 1998. Ronnie Hillman already has 1,000 yards rushing and will be the No. 1 target to stop. The Aztecs have won four straight but haven’t looked good doing it. They have won their past three games by an average of eight points. Their opponents in those three games have a combined six wins.

No. 14 Utah 35, at Notre Dame 20. The Utes have to bounce back and fast to put the embarrassment of last weekend behind them. This certainly will be a big test for coach Kyle Whittingham to get his team to stay focused for the remainder of the season. The Irish have a handful of starters out because of injuries. Bank on Jordan Wynn putting the mistakes of last week behind him to have a big game.

No. 21 Nevada 45, Fresno State 40. This one is not going to be easy for the Wolf Pack, but they come into the game riding a major 844-yard output on offense, with three 100-yard runners and a 300-yard passer in a win over Idaho. Chris Carter and Logan Harrell each have nine sacks for Fresno State, but the first key is to stop the run. The same can be said for Nevada -- Fresno State has gotten good production from Robbie Rouse in the last three games. He is coming off a 286-yard day against Louisiana Tech.

UCF 35, Southern Miss 21. The Knights are the only undefeated team left in Conference USA and are the favorites to win the entire conference. They survived a scare on the road against Houston last week and now face an East Division rival that has been inconsistent. But the Golden Eagles have lost their two league games by a combined two points. Still, their defense has been somewhat disappointing and is going to have a hard time slowing down Jeff Godfrey.

BYU 30, Colorado State 27. I am trying not to read too much into the Cougars’ offensive explosion last week because it came against UNLV. But still, it has to be encouraging to see Jake Heaps throw for more than 100 yards in a game. This one features the two top freshman quarterbacks in the league, and the Rams are much improved with Pete Thomas leading the way. But BYU has an improving defense -- and has to win to keep bowl hopes alive.

Army 30, Kent State 27. The Black Knights have to win either against Kent State or next week against Notre Dame to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1996. This one is an intriguing matchup -- Army has the No. 8 rushing attack in the country, averaging 277 yards a game. Kent State has the best run defense, giving up just 69 yards a game. But the Golden Flashes have to major injuries on defense: linebacker Cobrani Mixon and safety Brian Lainhart. Mixon is second on the team in tackles, while Lainhart is third. Quarterback Spencer Keith also has a sprained thumb and is listed as day-to-day.

Troy 28, FIU 17. Though FIU is 3-5, the Panthers are 3-1 in conference play, half a game behind Troy (4-1). So essentially the Sun Belt title is on the line. Troy has never lost to FIU, so bank on the Trojans to win this one and eventually win their fifth straight league title. Great special-teams matchup to watch between T.Y. Hilton of FIU and Jerrel Jernigan of Troy.

UPSET SPECIAL: Tulsa 45, Houston 44. The top two scoring offenses in Conference USA battle it out with the West division title at stake. The Golden Hurricane have loads of confidence after winning three straight, and plenty of weapons for Houston to try and handle. Tulsa has a more high-powered attack than UCF, which scored 40 in a win last week, so the Golden Hurricane get the edge.

Lunchtime Links

November, 10, 2010
More midweek MAC football coming up. Tonight: Miami (Ohio) at Bowling Green. I will take Miami, 24-20.

Now on to some links:

Boise State's defensive line has been key this season.

Gary Patterson is in demand, and that's good for TCU.

Utah linebacker J.J. Williams finally makes his return from a lingering foot injury.

Nevada wide receiver Rishard Matthews is hitting his stride.

There is a chance Southern Miss wide receiver DeAndre Brown could play against UCF.

Is running the football the best option for UAB against East Carolina?

Houston linebacker Matt Nicholson suffered another knee injury, ending his season and career.

The WAC could add Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and Denver as early as today.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun deflected talk about the Colorado opening.

FAU is not proud of its poor offensive production.

Injuries have hit Middle Tennessee -- both starting cornerbacks could be out Saturday.

Non-AQ bowl look

November, 9, 2010
You saw my bowl projections from Sunday. Now here is a breakdown of the teams that have a shot at becoming bowl eligible this weekend.

Conference USA

Already eligible: UCF, Tulsa, Southern Miss, UTEP.

Vying for a spot: East Carolina, SMU and Houston each have five wins. The Pirates are hoping to bounce back after an embarrassing 76-45 loss to Navy at UAB. Houston hosts Tulsa in an important West division game, while SMU is off. SMU, Houston and Tulsa each have two league losses. SMU already beat Tulsa but lost to Houston. If there is a three-way tie atop the division when the season ends, the first tiebreaker is overall record to determine who plays in the Conference USA title game.

On the other end of the spectrum: Tulane (3-6), Marshall (3-6) and UAB (3-6) have to win out. Rice (2-7) and Memphis (1-8) have been eliminated.

Guaranteed bowl spots: Six.


Already eligible: Temple, Toledo, Ohio and Northern Illinois.

Vying for a spot: Miami (Ohio) is 5-4 and has a great shot at becoming bowl eligible in the next two weeks with games at Bowling Green (2-7) on Wednesday and at Akron (0-10) on Nov. 17. Kent State (4-5) needs to win two of its final three against Army (5-4), Western Michigan (3-6) and Ohio (7-3).

On the other end of the spectrum: Western Michigan has to win out. Buffalo, Central Michigan, Bowling Green, Akron, Eastern Michigan and Ball State are out.

Guaranteed bowl spots: Three.

Mountain West

Already eligible: TCU, San Diego State, Air Force, Utah.

Vying for a spot: BYU (4-5) plays at Colorado State in a critical must-win before closing against New Mexico and Utah.

On the other end of the spectrum: Colorado State, Wyoming, UNLV and New Mexico have been eliminated.

Guaranteed bowl spots: Five.

Sun Belt

Already eligible: No one.

Vying for a spot: Troy (5-3) is the only team with five wins. A home win against FIU on Saturday gets the Trojans bowl eligible. ULM (4-5) and Arkansas State (4-5) have to win two of three. The Warhawks have LSU, North Texas and Louisiana. Arkansas State has Western Kentucky, Navy and FIU.

On the other end of the spectrum: FIU, Middle Tennessee and FAU are each 3-5. The Blue Raiders may have the easiest road with games against North Texas, Western Kentucky, FAU and FIU remaining. FAU has Troy and Texas on its schedule. FIU also has tough games against Troy, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee. North Texas, Louisiana and Western Kentucky have been eliminated.

Guaranteed bowl spots: Two.


Already eligible: Boise State, Hawaii, Nevada, Fresno State. Hawaii has accepted an invite to the Hawaii Bowl.

Vying for a spot: Idaho (4-5) has to win three of four against Boise State, Utah State, Fresno State and San Jose State. Since the Vandals have a 13-game schedule, they have to get to seven wins. Louisiana Tech and Utah State are both 3-6 and have to win out. The Bulldogs have New Mexico State, San Jose State and Nevada. Utah State has San Jose State, Idaho and Boise State.

On the other end of the spectrum: New Mexico State and San Jose State (1-8) have been eliminated.

Guaranteed bowl spots: Four.


Navy (6-3) became eligible for the Poinsettia Bowl. Army (5-4) needs one more win with games left against Kent State, Notre Dame and Navy. Army does not have an automatic bowl tie-in this year, but has backup agreements with the Armed Forces Bowl and Military Bowl. Notre Dame (4-5) needs two more wins with games remaining against Utah, Army and USC.

Non-AQ bowl projections

November, 7, 2010
Not much has changed in my non-AQ bowl projections for this week. I still have a non-AQ team in the BCS national championship game. I have TCU in there for the second straight week, based on my projection that the Horned Frogs will finish ranked ahead of Boise State at the end of the season. Moving in front in the human polls is a huge plus for TCU as it jockeys with the Broncos for that top spot among the non-AQs.

I still have Boise State in as an at-large BCS team, now playing Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. As for my conference champions, I am still projecting UCF to win Conference USA, Northern Illinois to win the MAC and Troy to win the Sun Belt.

I am still looking for a place to put Toledo. I know Rockets fans must think I am crazy for not having them in here. The problem is there are not that many at-large spots open because so many of the power conferences are going to have teams that end up being bowl eligible at 7-5 or 6-6. Lots of parity this year. I am still going with Ohio to get the No. 3 MAC nod ahead of Toledo.

Here are all of the non-AQ picks:

BCS National Championship Game: Oregon vs. TCU

Sugar Bowl: Auburn vs. Boise State

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Boston College* vs. Nevada Bowl: Temple vs. Troy

Liberty Bowl: UCF vs. Kentucky

Armed Forces Bowl: SMU vs. Army

Military Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. East Carolina

Independence Bowl: Clemson vs. Air Force

Little Caesars Bowl: Iowa State* vs. Northern Illinois

Hawaii Bowl: Tulsa vs. Hawaii**

Poinsettia Bowl: San Diego State vs. Navy

Las Vegas Bowl: Utah vs. Texas A&M*

St. Petersburg Bowl: ULM vs. Southern Miss

New Orleans Bowl: Houston vs. Middle Tennessee

Humanitarian Bowl: Ohio vs. UTEP*

New Mexico Bowl: BYU vs. Fresno State

*at large selection because conference couldn't fill allotment.

**Hawaii already accepted bid to bowl.

Non-AQ storylines to watch: Week 10

November, 4, 2010
Come one, come all for your Top 10 non-AQ storylines for Week 10:

1. Who remains undefeated, TCU or Utah? You have got to love the national spotlight being placed on two teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences on Saturday. Both teams are terrific. It is a shame somebody has to lose and be relegated to the Las Vegas Bowl. Utah has a great home-field advantage, having won a Mountain West record 21 straight at Rice-Eccles Stadium. TCU has worked on silent counts all week and pumped crowd noise into practice in order to prepare for what is sure to be a wild atmosphere. The winner of the TCU-Utah game has earned an automatic bid into a BCS game each of the past two years.

[+] EnlargeTejay Johnson
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTCU has the No. 1 overall defense and the No. 1 scoring defense in the country.
2. TCU D vs. Utah D. OK so the defenses don’t play against each other, but they are the two units to watch in this game. Both are ranked in the Top 10 in total defense and scoring defense, and both are playing better than perhaps many people expected going into the season. TCU is rated No. 1, a spot it held at the end of 2008 and 2009. Both get tremendous play from their front seven to take the pressure off their secondary. Big plays on offense are going to be at a premium in this one.

3. Will Hawaii be able to pass on Boise State? Yes, but pay attention to what happens inside the red zone. In 46 trips inside the 20, the Warriors have scored 37 times. But they have only gotten 25 touchdowns. They are going to need to convert those opportunities into points against an aggressive Boise State defense and a secondary eager to prove its worth.

4. So who ends up ahead in the BCS standings on Sunday? That is asking to predict the unpredictable. If TCU and Boise State win, expect to see the Horned Frogs stay on top. They might even jump Boise State in the human polls, depending on the outcome of the game. If Utah and Boise State win, expect the Broncos to go back into the No. 3 slot. In any of those scenarios, we will all be tuned into the BCS show Sunday night to find out.

5. Which of the service academies becomes bowl eligible? Army, Air Force and Navy all have five wins and are on pace to have winning seasons in the same season for the first time since 1996. Army and Air Force play in West Point with the Commander-In-Chief Trophy on the line. Air Force beat Navy earlier this year and would win it with a victory over Army. Navy, meanwhile, tries to overcome its worst performance of the season at East Carolina. Navy has a bowl tie-in to the Poinsettia Bowl this year. Army has no guaranteed tie-in but is a backup in the Armed Forces Bowl. If they are passed over for that game, the Black Knights are a backup for the Military Bowl.

6. Who else has a chance to become bowl eligible? East Carolina, Houston, Tulsa, Southern Miss , UTEP, SMU, Miami (Ohio) and Fresno State also are one win away from bowl eligibility. UTEP and SMU play each other.

7. Houston offense vs. UCF defense. The Cougars have reinvented themselves with Case Keenum out for the season and have relied more on the run. But they are facing the best defense in Conference USA and one of the best defenses in the country. UCF is allowing right around 100 yards a game on the ground this season, and has confidence. Last season, the Knights upset the Cougars in Orlando for the first win over a ranked opponent in school history.

8. Does anybody want to win the Sun Belt? Troy has won four straight conference titles but opened the door for others to knock it off the perch after losing to ULM last week. If the Trojans win out, they still win the crown, but there is no margin for error anymore. FIU has one conference loss. ULM, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee each have two conference losses, but Troy has already beaten the Red Wolves and Blue Raiders.

9. Will the winless watch for Akron and New Mexico ever stop? Last season ended with two winless teams from the MAC (Eastern Michigan) and Sun Belt (Western Kentucky). This season could end with two winless teams, too. But both squads are playing opponents with losing records this week -- Akron against Ball State (2-7) and New Mexico against Wyoming (2-7).

10. Must win for BYU. The Cougars (3-5) come off their bye week facing a must win every week from here on out if they want to make it to a bowl game. They start against UNLV, a team struggling more than the Cougars are this season. After that, they play Colorado State and New Mexico before closing the season at Utah. So they have to win all three games before the season finale. Colorado State next week will be the biggest test in the upcoming three-game stretch.

Non-AQ Picks, Week 10

November, 4, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

My picks in Week 9 were decent, and I got my upset special right. Tulsa beat Notre Dame to help me get to 7-3. Should have known Western Kentucky might have a letdown after its first win since 2008.

With a 57-37 overall record, bring on Week 10.

Drumroll please: No. 3 TCU 24, No. 5 Utah 21. Yes, I know Utah has a 21-game home winning streak. Yes, I know TCU is 0-3 in Utah. But I am picking the Horned Frogs for two reasons: 1. I think the defense is better. 2. I think Andy Dalton and his experience will be a big key. These teams are so evenly matched, turnovers could make a difference. Utah has struggled until recently in creating them. TCU is at plus-5. Utah is at minus-1 in turnover margin. For more on my pick, check out my prediction video on this game later today.

No. 4 Boise State 38, Hawaii 23. The Warriors will give the Broncos a test with their passing offense. The Boise State secondary has to step up and prove it is not a weak link on this defense. In the end, Boise State will get enough pressure on Bryant Moniz to throw him off rhythm, and Kellen Moore will be able to make enough plays to help the Broncos win.

No. 23 Nevada 35, Idaho 17. Nevada got back on track last week on offense in a win over Utah State. But coach Chris Ault had some choice words for his defense, which gave up 42 second-half points after shutting the Aggies out in the first two periods. “We stunk up the field and played with absolutely no sense of urgency,” Ault said. That should be corrected against the Vandals, who had 14 penalties for 152 yards and four turnovers in a loss to Hawaii last week.

Air Force 28, Army 21. The Falcons have hit a bit of a rough stretch, losing three straight. All three were to bowl-eligible teams, including No. 3 TCU and No. 5 Utah. Army is putting together its best season since 1996, but the Falcons have the edge in this game because their triple option offense is better. They gave Utah all it could handle last week, but had five turnovers. If Air Force wins, it gets the Commander-In-Chief Trophy for the first time since 2002.

UCF 27, Houston 17 (Friday night). This is going to be a grind-it-out game between two teams that are relying on running the ball. But the difference here is UCF will be able to run on Houston, which ranks No. 98 in the country in run defense. Ronnie Weaver has emerged, and is coming off a career night. Bryce Beall, Houston’s leading rusher, is banged up and his status is in question for the game. UCF has the best defense in Conference USA and will be able to slow Houston down.

UPSET SPECIAL: Kent State 21, Temple 20. The Golden Flashes are undefeated at home, and have the nation’s top-ranked rushing defense. That is going to pose a problem for Temple, which relies on Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown to set the tone. Temple has won three straight against MAC bottom feeders, including back-to-back shutouts of Akron and Buffalo (combined two wins). This will be the Owls’ biggest challenge since losing to Northern Illinois on Oct. 9.

UPSET SPECIAL II: Navy 35, East Carolina 27. If you can figure Navy out this year, please raise your hand. The Midshipmen have been on more highs and lows than a yo-yo. But East Carolina is going to have a hard time stopping the run game, and the Navy defense should return to form to get it to six wins and bowl eligibility. Last week was a very uncharacteristic performance from a Navy defense that has generally played well all season.

Troy 35, North Texas 23. Troy has won six of the last seven meetings between the schools, and no longer has any margin for error if it wants to win the Sun Belt. That is because the Trojans lost to ULM last week, their first conference loss in two years. North Texas won last week under interim coach Mike Canales, but Troy has more talent and depth and will be even more motivated to win.

SMU 30, UTEP 20. The Miners are in a tailspin, losing three straight games. Trevor Vittatoe hasn’t been healthy, and he has played erratically because of it. SMU is the stronger team on offense and defense. One more point: Since 2006, the Miners are just 4-15 in November.

Wyoming 33, New Mexico 17. Slim chance for an upset here -- the Lobos are the worst team in America for a reason. Now add in the fact that they could be without starting quarterback B.R. Holbrook and well, this one is looking like another loss. Wyoming has been eliminated from bowl contention, but I’m sure the players don’t want to be the ones to end the New Mexico losing streak.

TCU, Utah, Boise State top Mailbag

November, 3, 2010
Time once again for our midweek mailbag. Lots of questions this week about TCU/Utah and Boise State. Since I got so many of the same questions, I will answer a few right here at the top before getting to others.

On the issue of whether TCU or Utah will jump Boise State: There are a lot of conflicting opinions on this. Some believe Boise State will jump back ahead because it has more games remaining, including games against Hawaii and No. 23 Nevada. TCU only has Utah, San Diego state and lowly New Mexico, which would drop the computer average.

If TCU wins, and wins convincingly, I think voters will jump the Horned Frogs over Boise State. This is just my opinion. There really is no way of knowing right now what is going to happen. TCU jumping ahead last week after a win over UNLV was quite unexpected. Many have asked how that happened, but I think it was more a function of other teams on the schedule. TCU has also played two more games, and that has played a role.

If Utah wins, it is a bit more difficult to predict. The Utes’ computer average is 9, while Boise State’s is 5. A win over TCU is not going to jump them ahead in the computer average or in the polls. There is still way more skepticism about Utah than there is about TCU, though a win would go a long way toward convincing people.

On margin of victory: The BCS asked the computer programmers to no longer count margin of victory after the 2001 season, so a blowout is equal to a close win (hence Auburn can squeak past Mississippi State, Clemson and South Carolina without batting an eyelash). I understand there is a concern about running up the score for style points, but counting a 60-3 win and a 6-3 win the same seems a bit off to me.

Also, I asked last week for some suggestions on what I should do if Utah beats TCU, since I have picked the Horned Frogs to win. Lots of creative responses. Trevor in Draper, Utah, wants me to kiss a frog. Nonpoisonous of course.

Ben in Salt Lake City wants me to paint my face red and white and sing the school song. My only concern -- red with a red-head? Hmmm. Tyler D. in Salt Lake City wants me to film one of my video segments in a bikini. That is just a flat-out no. Rob in Salt Lake City also wants me to wear Utah gear and hang a Utah flag in all my videos -- for the rest of the year. That one is extreme, but I do like the flag idea for just one video.

Another Tyler in Salt Lake City wants me to eat tofu so I stay healthy to cover Utah's undefeated run. Is there such thing as chocolate covered tofu? Brandon in Salt Lake City wants me to wear a “Max Hall hates me T-shirt” in red. Where can I get one of those?

Now on to a few other questions:

Eric Barrier writes: How is this for an argument? The Giants do not actually deserve their World Series victory because they came from a weaker division than some of the others. Beating the Rockies and Dodgers is less impressive than beating, for example, the Red Sox and Rays, with some regularity. The Yankees really deserved to win the World Series. Their division was tougher, and it's a shame that a loss prevented the better team from making it to the championship. After all, this is the team that won last year. The comparison does not really work because, the MLB has a playoff. But this is how the Alabama-over-Boise/TCU arguments sound to me.

Adelson writes: I could not have written that better myself.

James Dorminey of Orlando writes: I don't know where you get your Conference USA information but if you don't go out of your way to apologize for the lack of respect you have given to UCF the last 2 weeks I am going to go out of my way to trash your writing on every blog I can find. ECU's defense really improved? UCF better be on your stupid non-AQ top 10 with an apology note included for disrespecting the seventh-best defense in the nation. You really thought ECU could play with us? The score doesn't show how lopsided the game was, check the tape.

Adelson writes: Let's see, East Carolina beat NC State, and UCF lost to NC State. You're right; there was no way the Pirates could hang with UCF. I did pick UCF to win, by the way. The Knights are in the Power Rankings this week. But hey, if you still feel the need, trash away, my friend.

Konnon in Salt Lake City writes: Can I get your take on something? Utah had 51 running plays against Air Force and a narrow escape from Colorado Springs. Is this cause for alarm, or were they keeping the playbook shut to prevent TCU from learning anything from game film?

Adelson writes: No cause for concern at all. Air Force has had major problems stopping the run, and the key to keeping the Falcons' dangerous triple option is ball control. So the game plan made perfect sense.

Tanner Pump in Dallas writes: What do you think is going to happen in November to substantiate your Big Ten bowl picks? I'm particularly intrigued by how you think Iowa will end up in the Insight Bowl.

Adelson writes: The Insight Bowl has actually jumped up in the pecking order and will alternate with the Gator Bowl for the No. 4 pick. My projections are based on two non-AQ teams making it and only one Big Ten making it. Therefore, I have Iowa being the No. 4 selection behind Wisconsin and Ohio State, and Michigan State going to the Rose Bowl.

Andrew Hinton in Monroe, La., writes: What is your take on the ULM Warhawks after they dismantled the Sun Belt Conference bully Troy and pushed their record to 4-4 and 3-2 in conference play. With a favorable schedule down the stretch, do you see the Warhawks finishing 7-5 and heading to their first bowl since joining Division I?

Adelson writes: I have ULM in a bowl game in my latest projections. Very impressed with the win last week, and I think 7-5 is possible, though the game against Louisiana-Lafayette to close the season is no gimme.

Non-AQ Power Rankings, Week 10

November, 1, 2010
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Not much has changed in this week’s power rankings. Here they are for Week 10:

1. Boise State (7-0). The Broncos dropped a spot in the BCS standings despite beating Louisiana Tech 49-20, but they have not done much to dissuade me from putting them right here in the top spot. They have won all of their games, beaten both teams from the power conferences they played and have terrific talent.

2. TCU (9-0). The Horned Frogs easily beat UNLV to set up a showdown at Utah on Saturday. They are now No. 3 in the BCS standings, but I am going to keep them here for now. I still think Boise State would win again in a head-to-head game.

3. Utah (8-0). The Utes struggled to put away Air Force, but they usually have problems with the Falcons. The important thing is they are undefeated going into their game against TCU. Utah has been slammed for having a weak strength of schedule to date. The Utes can’t help who they play, but Boise State and TCU have beaten ranked teams. Utah has not done so yet.

4. Hawaii (7-2). The Warriors are officially in the Hawaii Bowl after beating Idaho, the earliest they have ever secured a bowl invitation. They are still leading the nation in passing, and have a big game at Boise State on Saturday.

5. Nevada (7-1). The Wolf Pack survived a late rally from Utah State to become bowl eligible. After jumping out to a 35-0 halftime lead, Utah State crept back into the game, but Nevada came up with one answer after another. They are back in the human polls this week and ranked No. 23 in the BCS standings.

6. Northern Illinois (7-2). The Huskies have won six straight after surviving a 28-21 win over Western Michigan. That is their longest winning streak since 2004. Chad Spann reached 1,000 yards for the season in the victory.

7. UCF (6-2). About time I give some love to the Knights, right? Their two losses were heartbreakers. They fumbled away a chance to beat NC State, and lost in the closing minute to Kansas State. After feasting on the likes of Buffalo, Rice, UAB and Marshall, UCF finally recorded a quality win this past weekend, beating East Carolina 49-35.

8. San Diego State (6-2). The Aztecs are bowl eligible for the first time since 1998, but survived a serious threat from Wyoming on the road. They are usually a much more balanced team than what they showed, but the Cowboys took away the run and had several leads in the first half before coming up short.

9. Temple (7-2). The Owls posted back-to-back shutouts for the first time since blanking Connecticut and Xavier during the 1971 season after blanking winless Akron 30-0. They beat Buffalo last week 42-0.

10. East Carolina (5-3). The Pirates lost to UCF, but look at the losses and the wins. They lost to two teams from the ACC, but beat NC State. They also have wins over Southern Miss and Tulsa, two teams that are likely to end up bowl eligible.

Dropped out: Navy

Non-AQ Bowl Projections

October, 31, 2010
Well, nine weeks in and the time has come. I am removing Boise State from the national championship game. The latest BCS rankings make it clear that if the Broncos and TCU finish undefeated, it would be the Horned Frogs who finish as the top non-AQ team. So I am going with Oregon vs. TCU in the BCS national title game for this week.

This is still is a leap of faith on my part, because I have no idea whether the Horned Frogs would be able to hold off a hard-charging one-loss Alabama team, should the Tide win out. I still have TCU beating Utah and project the the Horned Frogs to go undefeated. I also am still projecting Boise State to go undefeated, and am guessing the BCS would take two non-AQs again. There is always the possibility it could go with two Big Ten teams rather than two non-AQ teams. Or even two Big 12 teams, depending on who they are.

Toledo is bowl eligible, but I have not been able to find a home for the Rockets just yet. They would need an at-large selection. UTEP is in the middle of a massive slump, and though I do project the Miners to be bowl eligible, I have them as the No. 7 team in Conference USA. That means they would also need an at-large berth. ULM is back in, but mainly because the Sun Belt serves as a backup to the Big East in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg.

BCS national championship game:Oregon versus TCU

Sugar Bowl: Alabama versus Boise State

Little Caesars: Michigan versus Northern Illinois

Military Bowl: North Carolina versus Tulsa

Liberty Bowl: UCF versus Kentucky

Hawaii Bowl: East Carolina versus Hawaii**

Armed Forces Bowl:SMU versus Army*

New Orleans Bowl: Houston versus Middle Tennessee Bowl: Temple versus Troy

Humanitarian Bowl: Ohio versus Iowa State*

Las Vegas Bowl: Utah versus Texas A&M*

Poinsettia Bowl: San Diego State versus Navy

Independence Bowl: Air Force versus Clemson

New Mexico Bowl:BYU versus Fresno State

Kraft Fight Hunger: Boston College* versus Nevada

Beef O’Bradys:ULM* versus Southern Miss

*=at large selection because conference doesn’t have enough teams to
fill tie-in.

**= accepted bid.

Non-AQ What we learned: Week 9

October, 31, 2010
Time to see what we learned from the non-AQs in Week 9:

1. Bring on TCU vs. Utah. The huge game we have waited all season for is finally here, and the teams involved did not disappoint in Week 9, staying undefeated to set up a colossal matchup between the two teams. Utah had a tough time against Air Force, but that was not entirely unexpected. The defense forced five turnovers and had several crucial fourth down stops to preserve the win. TCU cruised over UNLV. Now attention can focus on the matchup between the two. Will Utah pull off the win in its final season in the Mountain West? Or will TCU win for the first time at Utah? The Utes have won a Mountain West record 21 straight games at home. After the Air Force game, Utah players talked about getting their shot at TCU. “Can't wait,” safety Greg Bird said. “I’m excited. We’re going to bring it to them.”

[+] EnlargeEddie Wide
AP Photo/Chris SchneiderUtah celebrated a win over Air Force on Saturday and can now focus squarely on TCU.
2. Non-AQs get more good news, but Boise State is going to have to be more impressive. Even a 49-20 win over Louisiana Tech was not enough to silence its critics. The Broncos had the spotlight to themselves on Tuesday night, but looked sloppy and led many to wonder why against such inferior competition. Boise State and TCU/Utah got help when Michigan State and Missouri lost, leaving only two undefeated teams from the automatic-qualifying conferences. That is obviously good news. But now they have to start sweating the one-loss teams (ahem, Alabama) and that means impressing human voters, who have to keep Boise State in the top 2 of the polls for the Broncos to have any legitimate shot at playing for a championship.

3. Six more non-AQ teams became bowl eligible. We went into the weekend with 11 who had the chance. We end with six getting to the magical mark: San Diego State, UCF, Toledo, Ohio, Nevada and Hawaii. UCF becomes the first team eligible from Conference USA -- Southern Miss and UTEP fell short of six wins on Saturday. The MAC has four teams eligible, including Northern Illinois and Temple, but only three guaranteed bowl spots. So that means somebody needs an at-large berth or could be left home. San Diego State is eligible for the first time since 1998, while Toledo is eligible for the first time since 2005.

4. UCF is the favorite in the East in Conference USA. The Knights won a critical game over East Carolina 49-35 to take command of the East. If UCF wins out, it plays in the conference championship game. Ronnie Weaver had a career-high 180 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The lead is actually pretty commanding. UCF is the only remaining team in the entire league that is undefeated in conference play. It has the head-to-head tiebreaker over East Carolina, and a two-game lead on UAB (which it already beat) and Southern Miss. The Knights have a critical game at West Division leader Houston on Friday night before hosting the Golden Eagles on Nov. 13.

5. Navy suffers a letdown. Just when you think the Midshipmen have turned a corner, they have a complete meltdown. A week after handily beating Notre Dame 35-17, the Midshipmen lost to Duke 34-31. The defense, which had carried this team all season, gave up a season-high 34 points and inexplicably allowed quarterback Sean Renfree to pass for 314 yards. He set a school record with a 93.3 completion percentage and completed his first 16 passes. Navy trailed 24-0 at halftime, its largest deficit at the break since 2002. Though Navy had won several games thanks to fourth-quarter comebacks this season, it was not meant to be Saturday.

East Carolina improving on defense

October, 29, 2010
This was not supposed to be their year. Not with a new head coach, not with new schemes, not with all those starters gone.

Yet here we are in the last week of October, and the same old team is in contention for the Conference USA title.

[+] EnlargeDustin Lineback
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesSenior linebacker Dustin Lineback says the Pirates' defense is playing with a lot of confidence now.
Two-time defending champion East Carolina (5-2, 4-0) has shunned any thoughts of this being a rebuilding year, working its way to the top of the East Division. The Pirates have already beaten one division foe in Southern Miss. Now they need to get past UCF on Saturday to take control.

Much easier said than done, of course. UCF (5-2, 4-0) has the best defense in Conference USA and is playing at home, with the expectation that this is their year to win the league.

Both teams have won nine straight league games. Both are undefeated in league play. Both are trying to become bowl eligible.

“It’s a big division rivalry,” said East Carolina linebacker Dustin Lineback. “They’re looking to get us and we’re looking to get them, too. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

East Carolina has owned the series with UCF, leading 8-1. The only time UCF beat East Carolina was on the road, 30-20 in 2005.

Coach Ruffin McNeill took over when Skip Holtz left at the end of last season and brought his high-octane spread offense. He only had six returning starters to his entire team. What helped was the addition of Boston College transfer Dominique Davis, who has been an immediate success. His Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Tulsa to open the season set the tone for the offense.

Davis and his teammates have converted 27 of 28 opportunities in the red zone, and the Pirates are the top-ranked offense in Conference USA. Dwayne Harris has been a huge key, ranking sixth in the nation in receptions per game (7.7). He has at least one reception in 38 straight games, the second-longest streak in the country.

This spread offense is on pace to set several school records, including scoring average, passing yards per game, touchdown passes per game and first downs per game.

It is the defense that has been the biggest question mark. East Carolina only had two returning starters, and it showed early. The Pirates gave up 40-plus points in four of their first five games of the season, relying on the offense to outscore opponents.

But in the last two games, the defense has tightened. The Pirates held NC State to 27 points in an overtime victory, then held Marshall to just 10 in another win -- the fewest points they had given up since 2008.

There is more: East Carolina has forced eight turnovers in the last two games after getting only one takeaway in the previous three. That includes six interceptions in those games, after going without one in three straight.

Last week against Marshall, East Carolina had six quarterback hurries, bringing its two-game total to 17 -- an average of 8.5 pressures per contest.

“It’s been a step-by-step process,” McNeill said of his defensive unit. “We’re playing 16 to 18 guys who have never played significant reps before, but they’ve improved on their fundamentals, execution of the calls, and the exactness in their technique. I’ve seen the trust that develops in a defense that has been through trials and tribulations, and the belief in one another that if we stay the course, we’ll be OK.”

What has also helped has been the senior leadership of Lineback and fellow linebacker Melvin Patterson, along with tackle Josh Smith. Lineback and Patterson lead the team in tackles. But it is Patterson who has emerged -- Lineback calls him the Energizer Bunny.

Now the strong effort of the last two games has to be sustained.

“It took a few games to make sure things were going smoothly, but now we’re playing with confidence,” Lineback said. “That’s how you win games on defense, when you’ve got 11 guys on the same page.”