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Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Just For Argument's Sake ...

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles the hottest topics in college football.

3 Nagging Questions | Soapbox Moment | Whatever Happened To ... | Hello, My Name Is ...
Just A Thought | Hidden Stat | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing

1. How do Texas, Notre Dame and Iowa State get back to work?
Iowa StateNotre DameTexas The Longhorns, Irish and Cyclones all won emotional victories Saturday. Notre Dame and Iowa State beat traditional rivals, Michigan and Iowa, respectively. In a setting that fell only a few ugly blazers short of being Jan. 1-caliber, Texas overcame Ohio State and its 105,000 fans in a nationally televised matchup of top-five teams.

Therein lies the dilemma. All three teams are susceptible to the same ailment. It's easy to say Saturday is history, and that it's time to look forward. It's hard to do. Ask TCU coach Gary Patterson. One week after a physically dominant 17-10 victory at Oklahoma, the Horned Frogs lost at SMU 21-10.

After the game, Patterson said he sensed in the middle of last week that his players hadn't come down from their Sooner high. If nothing else, TCU's loss has become the poster child for every other coach trying to get the attention of any players who believe they have won the BCS lottery in September.

"TCU turned around and lost focus," Iowa State coach Dan McCarney said Sunday night. "They lost a game they should have won."

The Cyclones won a game they should have won, forcing five turnovers in a 23-3 rout of the arch-rival Hawkeyes. For all of his success in rebuilding Iowa, Kirk Ferentz is only 2-5 against Iowa State.

"There's no fluke to it," McCarney said.

McCarney has the advantage of an open week. The Cyclones will play at Army Sept. 24. Notre Dame has its home opener against Michigan State, a team that has won its last four visits to Notre Dame Stadium. Texas, on the other hand, must play a Rice team that opened its season with a 63-21 loss at UCLA Saturday night.

"I think they'll be excited for a little while," Longhorns coach Mack Brown said early Sunday somewhere in the bowels of Ohio Stadium. "When you're ranked second, that helps. They don't want to stop. It's way too early to start talking about the end of the year. What they should be talking about is being the best team they can be and how to improve each week."

Texas has its own TCU story. Only Vince Young's 21-yard scramble on fourth-and-18 kept the Longhorns alive long enough to score a late touchdown and beat Kansas last season. Brown brought that game up, too. Coaches have much longer memories than players. You can bet he'll bring it up to his team in the coming weeks.

2. Is Kevin Steele off the hook?
The gold standard for painful lessons learned by rookie head coaches had been Baylor's 27-24 loss to UNLV in the second game of the 1999 season. Rather than order his quarterback to take a knee at the Rebel 8 on the final play of the game, Bears coach Kevin Steele gave in to his players' wishes to score one more time. Tailback Darrell Bush fumbled, and UNLV's Kevin Thomas returned it 100 yards for the winning touchdown.

Now there is another candidate: Marshall coach Mark Snyder. With nine seconds left in the game, trailing Kansas State 21-19, Marshall had the ball first-and-10 at the Wildcats' 21. But the Thundering Herd didn't attempt a game-winning field goal. Quarterback Jimmy Skinner threw a pass right into the hands of Kansas State corner Justin McKinney at the Kansas State 12.

Game over, nightmare begun.

Skinner, a backup quarterback -- starter Bernie Morris suffered a shoulder injury -- didn't see any signals from the bench. The Thundering Herd were jumping around so much that Skinner couldn't find the signals from the bench. So he ran the offense.

Everyone knows the perils of using true freshmen early in the season. The same can be said of first-year head coaches, too. Snyder, who took over the job in the spring after Bobby Pruett suddenly retired, understood how badly things had gone awry.

"Obviously as soon as Wilbur Hargrove went out of bounds and we got into field-goal range, I would kick the ball," Snyder said. "Having the timeout still left, if we had some kind of operation failure from the center to your holder, you fall on the ball, you call timeout and you get a chance to rekick. If I had to do over again, that's what I would do."

So what happened?

"It was a poise and patience thing for us," Snyder said. "We just may have been in a little bit of a panic, and the communication lines weren't good through the whole game, to be honest with you. The headsets went down. We reciprocated at Kansas State's request. Their headsets went down.

"Again, that's still no excuse for not having poise and patience at the end. We've been in those situations quite a bit in practice. It's hard to emulate the pandemonium on the sideline, the crowd, all those things. It's just hard to emulate that in practice."

If Snyder practices it again, it's a good bet he'll have the undivided attention of his team. In the meantime, he can rest assured that someday, some other first-year head coach will learn a similar lesson in similarly painful fashion.

"We didn't get it done Saturday," he said. "We've got to learn from it."

3. Will Vanderbilt go to a bowl game?
VanderbiltWhen I brought this up to Colin Cowherd on his radio show Tuesday morning, he nearly did a spit take with his morning coffee. But Vandy is 2-0 and has a genuine shot at its first winning season -- and dare we say, first bowl game -- since 1982.

There are four reasons to take the Commodores seriously:

1. Vandy had to go to the final minutes to beat Wake Forest and Arkansas -- and did it. That's a huge improvement over last season, when the Commodores lost three games in which they held a double-digit lead in the second half.

2. Vandy beat both Wake and Arkansas on the road. They haven't started 2-0 in that fashion since 1943, and if you throw that out as a war year, you have to go back to 1903 to find a similar start.

3. Senior quarterback Jay Cutler, a four-year starter, is playing like a guy with experience and the talent to have NFL scouts interested in him. There's also a high level of leadership that comes with leading teams to victory late in the game. Two games in, Cutler leads the league in total offense (321 yards per game) and has been as big a leader as any quarterback in the conference, and that includes Chris Leak of Florida.

By the way, Cutler leads Leak among active SEC quarterbacks in career passing yardage. Cutler has 6,178. Leak has 6,171.

4. The game against Ole Miss on Saturday will define the season: here's why. The next two games, against I-AA Richmond and Middle Tennessee, are certainly winnable. If Vandy gets to 5-0, they will begin play against the stacked SEC East needing only one victory to qualify for a bowl. If they get there 4-1, that means they will have to beat someone among LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee to qualify for a bowl.

In other words, the game Saturday in Nashville is a fulcrum. We'll find out which way the Commodores go.