NCF Nation: What-we-learned-103011

What we learned in the SEC: Week 9

October, 30, 2011
We had some interesting games in the SEC this weekend, so here is what we learned after Week 9:

1. The East might be Georgia's to lose: Sure, South Carolina owns the tiebreaker between these two teams, but without running back Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks don't have much of an offense at all. South Carolina managed just 14 points against a banged up Tennessee team, and it's going to need a lot more than that to walk out of Fayetteville next week with a win. Georgia slipped by Florida to knock the Gators out of the East race, and now the Bulldogs' toughest conference game is at home against Auburn. That is a losable game for the Bulldogs, but chances are that if they win out, the Bulldogs will be headed back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. South Carolina will have to lean heavily on its defense from here on out, and we just aren't sure that the Gamecocks have enough on offense to keep up with Arkansas. Florida still looms, and while the Gators have nearly hit rock bottom, a healthy John Brantley might make a play or two against that South Carolina defense in a few weeks.
[+] EnlargeJohn Brantley
Kim Klement/US PresswireJohn Brantley struggled on the field after struggling with injuries off of it.
2. Florida's troubles stretch well beyond the quarterback position:
During Florida's three-game slide, most of the attention was on the fact freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel were taking the snaps at quarterback. Both struggled considerably when they were in, so most of the blame for Florida's mishaps rested on the quarterbacks. But after watching Florida's offense collapse in the second half against Georgia, with Brantley back, it became obvious that Florida has a lot more issues than just the health of its quarterback. Brantley was hobbled, but he still made a few plays with his arm in the first half, including a clutch fourth-down touchdown pass to Jordan Reed, but in the second half everyone around him fell apart. Outside of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, the Gators have no playmakers. And even those two weren't very effective on offense Saturday. Georgia pounded Florida's young offensive line and rarely did much in the secondary because there aren't any receiving threats on Florida's team. The Gators' offensive woes have returned this season, and it cost the Gators a chance in the East.

3. Vanderbilt really isn't going to be pushed around anymore: The look on James Franklin's face when Carey Spear shanked the 27-yard field goal that would have tied Arkansas late in the fourth said it all. He expected to take this game into overtime, and I'm sure he expected to win. But when that kick never came close to even hitting the goal post, Franklin had a look of disgust on his face. It wasn't a look that said Vanderbilt was so close. It didn't say that the Commodores will get it the next time. Franklin looked angry because he expected another chance at a stunning victory. Whether that would have happened in overtime will never be known, but for most of the day he had the better team on the field. Yes, Arkansas' talent level is greater than Vandy's, but it didn't play like it until late, giving the Hogs their fourth game this season with a halftime deficit. This Vanderbilt team is much different and better than the Vanderbilt teams we're accustomed to. Some of the sloppy mistakes that have haunted this program in the past returned Saturday, but overall this program is headed in the right direction. Vanderbilt is no longer a pushover with Franklin in charge.

4. Steve Spurrier needs to open up his passing game: Running back Brandon Wilds did a tremendous job filling in for Lattimore against Tennessee. He rushed for 137 yards and carried the ball 28 times for the Gamecocks. He's a tough runner and doesn't seem to run out of effort. But South Carolina just can't seem to throw the ball anymore. Quarterback Connor Shaw passed for just 87 yards and Alshon Jeffery caught three passes for 17 yards. That just isn't going to cut it going forward. South Carolina has the duty of keeping up with the SEC's best offense in Arkansas next weekend, and still has games with Florida and Clemson left. Shaw isn't mistake-prone like Stephen Garcia was, and he's more than capable of slinging the ball around, but for some reason that part of the playbook has been lost. Wilds was good against Tennessee, but who knows how long he can keep that up against better defenses. South Carolina is going to need to throw the ball much more and get more creative if it is going to beat Arkansas next week.

5. The winner in the East doesn't stand much of a chance in Atlanta: The big boys were off this weekend, but after watching Georgia and South Carolina sneak by, it became more and more obvious that the SEC title game will be won by the West. Even if Arkansas somehow slips into the championship game, it's a pretty fair assumption that the Hogs would take the crown inside the Georgia Dome in early December. The two left in the East race just have too many issues to be able to stand tall against an Alabama or an LSU. Neither will play the Crimson Tide or the Tigers before then, so we won't get a preview of the potential Atlanta matchup, but that's probably a good thing. Two bad losses like that could do a number on a team's psyche. The mistakes that these two make on offense will be capitalized on again and again by the West champ. At this point, it's safe to say that the SEC crown will remain in the West for a third straight year.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 9

October, 30, 2011
Here's what I learned on a hectic Saturday in the Big 12.

[+] EnlargeMissouri Tigers
Troy Taormina/US PresswireMissouri got a much-needed win by beating Texas A&M in overtime.
You do not want to play desperate teams in the Big 12. Missouri needed a win with its record at 3-4. Iowa State sat at 3-4 after four consecutive losses. Both notched huge road wins over ranked teams. For Missouri it was the first since 1997, too. Iowa State rolled over a stunned Texas Tech team that looked entirely helpless. Missouri bounced back from a 28-14 deficit to become the third team this season to erase a double-digit halftime lead against Texas A&M.

The Big 12 title race is trimmed to two teams. So it's goodbye to Texas A&M University. The Aggies needed some help, but they were still in the hunt. Not anymore. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will meet on Dec. 3, and barring upsets in the four weeks along the way, it's the only game left that will have any bearing on the Big 12 title race. Should be a classic, especially after last year's 47-41 Oklahoma win in Stillwater with the Big 12 South on the line. The other team in the race?

Kansas State really was a pretender. Kansas State is a good team. I (and plenty of others) contended all season it was not an elite team. Any questions? K-State hung tough in the first half, and looked like it was going to have a great season. But it's about to get real for the Wildcats, who were outscored 35-0 at home in the second half of a 58-17 beating by Oklahoma. Oklahoma State hosts K-State next week before a date with Texas A&M. The Wildcats then face Texas to complete a streak of four consecutive ranked opponents. Buckle up.

Dark days are happening and more are ahead in Lawrence. The numbers say plenty about this game. The defense was a lost cause all season. While Kansas had an improving offense, there was little chance the Jayhawks would win games with the kind of numbers the defense was allowing. Maybe that's still the case. Kansas was reduced to a one-dimensional team on Saturday, and the Longhorns ate them up in a 43-0 blowout. The Jayhawks gave up 441 rushing yards and rushed for minus-2. It had three first downs and gave up 34. Games don't get much more lopsided.

Oklahoma State is trying to make you believe in them. Maybe you still don't and I suppose that's fair. But this team doesn't have a stinker in its repertoire. Maybe K-State slows the game down next week and springs the upset. Wouldn't be an absolute shocker. Oklahoma in Stillwater is a toss-up. But this team is for real and its defense really is made up of a bunch of athletic playmakers. They'll give up yards, yes, but the offense is more than capable of making up for it. When the turnovers roll in by the bunches like they did Saturday, things get out of hand quick.
1. Winning is the best medicine of all: This week will be a lot easier for everyone associated with the Notre Dame football program following a 42-point win against a team that beat it three times in the previous four years. The USC loss is in the rearview mirror and, at least at the moment, the fallout from Brian Kelly's comments Thursday seems to have come and gone, with the Irish responding in convincing fashion Saturday. Now comes the ACC portion of the schedule, with Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College up next.

2. The Irish have done a solid job against the option: Notre Dame's defense put on a very impressive performance against the nation's third-ranked rushing team Saturday, holding Navy to 196 yards on the ground. To put that in perspective, the Midshipmen averaged 325.14 rushing yards per game entering Saturday. The defense's performance forced a pair of turnovers against an Air Force offense that chunked up plenty of yards but had little to show for it against the Irish's first-team. Notre Dame has come a long way from its eighth game of last year, a 35-17 loss to Navy that featured 367 rushing yards from the Midshipmen.

3. Floyd will get his: Games 7 and 8 looked an awful lot like Games 4 and 5, didn't they? At Pitt five weeks ago, Michael Floyd was held to four catches for 27 yards before tallying 12 catches for 137 yards a week later at Purdue. Last week Floyd had four catches for 28 yards, responding Saturday with a six-catch, 121-yard performance in which he scored a rushing and a receiving touchdown. Floyd can be held in check every now and then, but there is no key to stopping him on a consistent basis.

4. Jonas Gray is having himself quite the farewell tour: Seriously, Gray didn't have a single career touchdown before Week 4 at Pitt. He's scored in every game since, including three Saturday, giving him eight touchdowns for the season to tie Cierre Wood for the lead among Irish backs and receivers. Gray's 12-carry, 69-yard effort Saturday actually lowered his yards per carry average from 8.5 to 8, though the senior likely isn't complaining.
Five lessons from a full slate of Big Ten conference play in Week 9:

1. The race to Indy is wide open: Division play, parity and the lack of a truly dominant team have combined to add serious drama to the Big Ten title chase. Nebraska's 24-3 win over Michigan State helped create a three-way tie atop the Legends Division between the Huskers, Spartans and Michigan. You could make a strong case for any of the three earning the trip to the inaugural Big Ten title game. Nebraska is the only team that controls its own destiny, but the Cornhuskers still have to go to Ann Arbor and State College, while Michigan would lose a tiebreaker against Michigan State, which has the easiest schedule the rest of the way. Wisconsin's second straight heart-breaking loss leaves Penn State in control of the Leaders Division. But the Lions' remaining schedule (Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin) means that race is far from over. Ohio State could get to Indianapolis by winning out and having Penn State lose one of its other two games. It should be a November to remember in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Silas Redd
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSilas Redd and Penn State are flying high with a perfect 5-0 conference record.
2. Penn State is living dangerously: Who would have thought that Penn State would be the last unbeaten team in Big Ten play? Or that the Nittany Lions would be 8-1 at this point? We've seen it, but we're still not sure we believe it. Penn State has won all of its five league games by 10 points or less, and Saturday's 10-7 victory over Illinois was the latest example of the football gods smiling on Happy Valley this season. Quarterback Matthew McGloin and the offense stunk for most of the game but somehow drove 80 yards for the tying score with a little more than a minute left. The team held on when Derek Dimke -- who hadn't missed a field goal all year -- bounced one off the upright as time expired. Hey, 8-1 is 8-1, and Joe Paterno deserves some good fortune. But can the Lions keep this up when the meat of their schedule arrives after the bye week? The good news: every other team in the Leaders Division has at least two Big Ten losses.

3. Ohio State has reasons to believe: An Ohio State program that has been beaten up on and off the field in recent weeks and months finds itself with new life -- and a very real chance to make noise in the Leaders Division. The Buckeyes defense seems to be getting better by the week and stifled Wisconsin for much of Saturday night's game. Braxton Miller is the same player we saw at the start of the month and showed he not only can pass the ball but make a huge throw at the most important time. Ohio State has zero margin for error if it wants to reach Indianapolis, but Luke Fickell and his players seem to be thriving on adversity and, as Fickell often says, the need to gain momentum. Right now, the Buckeyes have momentum entering a month where they've always thrived.

4. This is a different Michigan team: Excitement over Brady Hoke's early success has been tempered because Michigan started strong and faded the past couple of years under Rich Rodriguez. But Hoke is not RichRod, and this Wolverines team looks different. They made a statement on Saturday by bouncing back nicely from the Michigan State loss and trouncing Purdue 36-14 at home. Even without an superstar performance by Denard Robinson, Michigan still ran for 339 yards as Fitz Toussaint had a career day. The defense stiffened after an early touchdown, and defensive tackle Mike Martin's safety highlighted his terrific day. Because the Wolverines now can actually stop people and run the ball with more than just Robinson, they can be good in November instead of just September.

5. It's just not Iowa's year: The Hawkeyes were holding out hope of making the Big Ten title game, with both Michigan schools having to play in Iowa City. But that balloon popped when Minnesota pulled off a shocking 22-21 upset to keep the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in the Twin Cities. Kirk Ferentz and his staff haven't been able to plug the holes on defense all season, and a normally high-scoring offense couldn't cash in opportunities against the Gophers. Simply put, this is just not a very good Hawkeyes team. Their wins have come against mediocre or bad opponents, and they've lost two rivalry games they shouldn't have (Iowa State being the other). Given the team's five-game road losing streak and the remaining schedule (Michigan, Michigan State, at Purdue, at Nebraska), it's fair to wonder whether or not the 5-3 Hawkeyes will even make a bowl this season.
What did we learn in the Big East in Week 9?

1. Separation. We have a clearer picture of the Big East race today, but by no means is anything certain. Louisville, West Virginia and Pitt each have one conference loss, right behind league unbeaten Cincinnati. The Bearcats, West Virginia and Pitt control their own destinies -- if one of those teams wins out, it heads to the BCS; Louisville needs help because it lost to the Bearcats. But at this point, it appears that one of those four is the most likely candidate to win the conference.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireCan emerging Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater help the Big East gain more national attention?
2. Growing up. If anybody thought Louisville would be in the conversation -- with home losses to FIU and Marshall this season -- then you were a big-time believer. The Cardinals have had one of the most anemic offenses in the Big East, and a defense that had given up way too many big plays. But they have consecutive victories in league play against two winning Big East teams and look as if things are starting to come together. The offensive line and running game have made huge strides, and so has true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Remember, Bridgewater is one of eight true freshmen starting for this team — we are watching the Cardinals grow up before our eyes.

3. Jekyll 'n' Hyde. If anybody knows what they are going to see from West Virginia and Syracuse next week, let me know. The Orange went from beating the Mountaineers 49-23 to losing to Louisville 27-10. The offense, so dominant last week, had a season-low for points. Quarterback Ryan Nassib was completely off all game, and Syracuse was unable to run effectively. The secondary had some of the same problems that has plagued it at various times this season. Meanwhile, West Virginia gave up 31 first-half points to Rutgers before pulling out a 41-31 victory. The defense played much better in the second half, but there appear to be some holes in the secondary that need to be addressed.

4. Life without Ray Graham. Pitt found out it would be without running back Ray Graham for the remainder of the season after he was hurt during a Wednesday night game against UConn. Losing your best player, along with another starting offensive lineman in Matt Rotheram and receiver Cameron Saddler, is probably not going to bode well for the Panthers. Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown will start in Graham's place, but quarterback Tino Sunseri will face more pressure to get the job done. He did it against UConn but he has been so inconsistent, there is no telling which Sunseri you are going to get on game days. He will be incredibly tested in the final four games of the season.

5. So long, Huskies? UConn dropped to 3-5 on the season and needs to win three of its final four to become bowl-eligible. With Syracuse, Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati left on the schedule, the Huskies face an incredibly tough task; each of those teams is .500 or better. They simply have not been able to get anything going on offense with Johnny McEntee at quarterback, but coach Paul Pasqualoni says he is sticking with him as a starter. UConn overcame steep odds to win a spot in the BCS last year. But the odds of making a return trip to a lower-tier bowl game are much steeper.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 9

October, 30, 2011
It’s not hard to believe Clemson lost. It is, however, hard to believe Georgia Tech played THAT well after playing so poorly for two weeks. What did it teach us? Check out the lessons learned in Week 9:

The ACC no longer has a national title contender or Heisman candidate. It happened that quickly. It was a great win for Georgia Tech, but the truth is, it was bad for the ACC. Clemson’s chances of playing for the national title were slim as an undefeated team, but now, with one loss, the Tigers will have to hope a trip to Charlotte is their consolation prize. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd threw one touchdown and two interceptions, and now that he's no longer playing for a national title contender, his Heisman hopes will take a dive.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Tech's Tevin Washington
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGeorgia Tech's Tevin Washington rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown against Clemson.
Georgia Tech is (still) good enough to win the Coastal Division. If the Yellow Jackets play as well against Virginia Tech as they did against Clemson on Nov. 10, there should be a new leader in the Coastal Division standings. Despite back-to-back losses, Georgia Tech managed to put together its best game of the season against its best competition. On the same day, Virginia Tech barely beat Duke, and its lead in the Coastal Division standings now seems even more precarious. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said not to bury his team just yet. How fitting that right before Halloween the Jackets chose to come back to life.

And yet the Coastal Division is deeper than a two-team race. Speaking of coming back from the dead, North Carolina and Virginia shook off some ghosts, too. After six turnovers against Clemson two weeks ago, the Tar Heels turned the tables on Wake Forest and had five takeaways in a convincing win. UNC is now bowl eligible. And Virginia, one week after losing at home to NC State, beat Miami on the road. Virginia would win the head-to-head against Georgia Tech and is right there behind Virginia Tech. With wins by UNC, UVa and GT this past weekend, the drama continues.

Wake Forest vs. Clemson is still interesting, but for a different reason. Had both of these teams won, their November date would have been a showdown for the Atlantic Division lead. It still is, but it’s a less compelling national story now that both teams lost and Clemson is no longer a national title contender. That and that both teams combined for nine turnovers on Saturday. With Clemson’s loss, the gap between the Tigers and the rest of the division shrunk considerably, but Wake Forest remains its biggest obstacle in the standings right now.

In the battle for the bottom, Maryland wins. It’s about the only thing the Terps have won in the ACC this year. Boston College was due for an ACC win, and Maryland opened the door. Wide. The Terps didn’t just lose at home, they got run over by a sophomore reserve running back who had a career day. BC and Maryland both have identical records (2-6 overall, 1-4 ACC), but after the head-to-head competition, Maryland now officially sunk to the bottom of the division, though NC State made a statement in its loss to FSU that it’s still a candidate.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 9

October, 30, 2011
What did we learn from Week 9 of Pac-12 action?

Stanford can win a brawl: After blowing out 10 consecutive opponents, it was reasonable to wonder how Stanford might handle itself when challenged in a game that was tight in the fourth quarter. Well, the Cardinal emphatically answered that question with a 56-48, triple-overtime win over USC. Quarterback Andrew Luck had to rally the Cardinal in regulation just to force OT after he tossed a fourth-quarter pick-six, but there was plenty of poise to answer the call.

[+] EnlargeChris Polk
Jesse Beals /Icon SMIChris Polk found the end zone five times in Saturday's win over Arizona.
Chris Polk is a beast: We already knew this but it bears repeating. Polk hoisted Washington on his shoulders by scoring five touchdowns in the 42-31 win over Arizona. He also became the first player in Washington history with 100 yards rushing and receiving in a single game. Polk had 34 carries for 144 yards and four touchdowns, and he caught four passes for 100 yards with another score. Up next for Polk is a chance to get some national notice against Oregon.

UCLA and Utah aren't dead yet: Last week, UCLA and Utah suffered humiliating defeats: UCLA to Arizona, Utah to California. Some were writing epitaphs to their seasons. But the Bruins blistered baffling California on Saturday and the Utes dominated Oregon State for their first-ever Pac-12 victory. Both ran the ball and dominated the line of scrimmage. And both have hope if you look at the record and schedule. Both are 4-4 and two wins away from bowl eligibility. The Bruins actually could take control of the South Division with a win against Arizona State on Saturday. Utah is at Arizona with a chance to record its first conference road victory.

Oregon is not, at present, a well-oiled machine: Is Darron Thomas healthy? And, if yes, is he still ahead of Bryan Bennett in Chip Kelly's eyes? And what's with getting outgained at home by Washington State? The Ducks have two big tests coming up: at Washington on Saturday and at Stanford on Nov. 12. They won't have the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium to help work through their issues.

Redemption doesn't always last: Last week, Arizona, Cal and Oregon State each seemed to make a positive statement, one that suggested each was emerging from struggles. While Arizona has an excuse -- playing at Washington with four players suspended; fired head coach -- Cal and Oregon State just looked awful. These three fan bases are used to bowl games. Will any of the three be eligible for one at season's end.