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Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Just For Argument's Sake...

By Ivan Maisel

From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, here's a look at the hottest topics in college football.

3 Nagging Questions | Soapbox Moment | Whatever Happened To ... | Introducing
Just A Thought | How To | Heisman Hype | Power 16 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing

1. Who is the player of the half-year?
If the ESPN Heisman poll is any indication, Ohio State senior quarterback Troy Smith is a runaway winner. He has 14 of 15 first-place votes. The one voter who didn't select Smith first is near and dear to me. He is, uh, I.

Before any Buckeyes begin to man their battle stations, hear me out. I think Smith is the best quarterback in the nation this season. He has proven himself as a talented passer. He showed against Bowling Green on Saturday that, even if he didn't show it in the first five games of the season, he hasn't forgotten how to tuck the ball into the crook of his arm and move the chains.
Troy Smith
Harry Cabluck/AP Photo
Troy Smith has sparked the Buckeyes to a 6-0 start.

As good as he is, I think his best assets are intangible. It is obvious, even from my limited interaction with him -- a group interview here, a few postgame interviews there -- that Smith has matured into a leader. The rest of the locker room will follow him anywhere.

That said, I think there's a difference between the Heisman, which honors the "most outstanding player" in college football, and the typical award. That word "outstanding" suggests a level of excellence that Smith, in my mind, hasn't achieved.

But who has? Is there a player out there who has wowed anyone this season? The player with the best statistics is tailback Garrett Wolfe, but he made the mistake of accepting a scholarship at Northern Illinois. I say that tongue-in-cheek, because I don't think Wolfe has anything else to prove, even if he is in the Mid-American Conference. The Senior Bowl, which doesn't invite anyone that it doesn't think will interest the NFL, is going to invite Wolfe.

Perhaps it is my prejudice toward my own opinion, but I began the season thinking Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson is the best player in the country, and I have seen nothing to change my mind. Peterson gained "only" 109 yards against Texas, and had a brain lock on the pass he didn't catch that turned out to be (A) a lateral and (B) a fumble recovered by Texas and returned for a touchdown.

Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson and West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton also deserve consideration. But here's the bottom line: Who has distinguished himself as an individual player? As the "most outstanding player" in the nation. It may be that we're waiting for last year's race, when Reggie Bush had one of the great seasons of recent memory. Given the support for Troy Smith, he seems to be, as the leader of the No. 1 team, the default candidate.

By that criteria, some of our recent Heisman winners would include Tee Martin of Tennessee (1998) and Craig Krenzel of Ohio State (2002) and Jason White of Oklahoma (2003). And we all know that none of them -- oh, wait a minute. White won. My point is, the Heisman shouldn't go to anyone by default.

Make Smith the player of the half-season, but let's not inscribe his name on American sport's most famous trophy just yet.

2. What are the five biggest moments of the first half of the season?
OregonOklahoma 1. Oregon-Oklahoma
Both teams have lost again, so the impact of the refusal of Pac-10 replay official Gordon Riese to overturn the ruling that the Ducks recovered an onside kick has been muted. The fact is, Oklahoma wasn't good enough to stop Oregon from scoring again.

Another fact: The Ducks escaped with a 34-33 victory that had an inquiry light attached to it. And another: The memory of Oklahoma president David Boren's emotional outburst demanding that the game be stricken from the record books will follow him, just as his predecessor (George Cross) had to deal with once saying that he wanted a university the football team could be proud of.

Cross, unlike Boren, had his tongue in his cheek.

The short-term impact may no longer be felt, but the long-term impact will be. More scrutiny has been applied to replay officials and how they operate. Pac-10 athletic directors will discuss Thursday the league's policy that Pac-10 crews work Pac-10 home games. In a season when the NCAA Football Rules Committee has endured harsh criticism for new clock rules that have shortened the game by 10 percent, the last thing anyone needed is continued controversy over instant replay.

Tennessee 2. Tennessee's third-quarter onslaught in the opener against California
The Volunteers had heard it for eight months. No, make that nine months. They didn't play in December. For the first time in Phillip Fulmer's 14 seasons as head coach, they didn't go to a bowl. Fulmer had his first losing record (5-6).

He didn't like that very much, and he made sure that his players didn't enjoy themselves, either.

Fulmer rehired his close friend, David Cutcliffe, to reshape the offense. The players rededicated themselves to the weight room. They got sick of hearing about the decline of the Vols. They got tired of hearing about how this would the season that the Golden Bears challenged USC for supremacy in the Pac-10.

From the first play, Tennessee became the aggressor. They dominated the first half against Cal, yet led only 14-3 at intermission. By the time 6:29 had elapsed in the third quarter, the Vols led 35-3. Cal tacked on a couple of touchdowns against the scrubs. Tennessee has returned to the top 10. So, too, has Cal, making what Tennessee did in the opener all the more amazing.

Michigan 3. Michigan blows out Notre Dame in South Bend
It seems like a long time ago now, since the Wolverines are ranked fourth in the nation and are looking unstoppable. But don't forget that they went into Notre Dame Stadium having lost three of four to the Irish. The natives, as well as everyone else, had begun to question coach Lloyd Carr.

It didn't take long to figure out this was not the same Meeshigan. Prescott Burgess stepped in front of Brady Quinn's second pass, intercepted it and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. Exit crowd noise, exit momentum, exit the Irish -- and by the time Michigan led 34-14 at the half, exit the Carr doubters. Michigan cruised to a 47-21 victory, and everything is copacetic in the land of maize and blue.

Missouri 4. The rise of Missouri
It stood to reason that some team in the Big 12 North would halt the division's slide into mediocrity. But few people outside of Columbia thought it would be Missouri, a team that had defined mediocrity over coach Gary Pinkel's five seasons (29-30).

But the Tigers have seven senior starters on defense and a young quarterback, redshirt sophomore Chase Daniel, whose light had been hidden behind the aura of former Tigers QB Brad Smith.

The defense has been nothing short of magnificent, holding the Tigers' first five opponents to a total of 50 points. When it gave up 21 to Texas Tech, it also forced five Red Raiders turnovers, including two interception returns for scores, 17 yards by end Xzavie Jackson and 22 yards by reserve free safety William Moore.

Missouri fans are beginning to ask about a 13-0 season and what might happen to the Tigers in that scenario. The funny thing is, it's not such an outlandish question.

Texas A&M 5. Texas A&M's calculated risk with its nonconference schedule.
The Aggies played I-AA The Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, Army and Louisiana Tech. Do the math: two (military academies) plus two (Louisiana hayrides) equals 4-0, a start that coach Dennis Franchione could use as a shield with which to fend off frustrated Aggies fans.

A 4-0 record, even with a narrow escape against Army, is all well and good, but the Aggies had lost four of their past five against the Red Raiders, a latecomer to the old Southwest Conference and a school that all self-aggrandizing Aggies look down upon. When A&M led Tech 27-24 in the final minute, it looked as if the Aggies might be on their way to being mentioned in the same sentence as Texas and Oklahoma.

But Tech QB Graham Harrell had other ideas. He threw a 37-yard textbook fade directly to the right pylon. Wide receiver Robert Johnson brought it in without a footstep to spare before angling across the side boundary of the end zone with 26 seconds to play. Texas Tech won 31-27, and the Aggies' agony extended again.

Texas A&M is 5-1 with four ranked opponents (Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, at Texas) to come. Fran could have used that win over Tech.

3. Who is the coach of the half-year?
Arkansas lost big in its opener to USC, 50-14, and coach Houston Nutt wasted no time making a change at quarterback. Casey Dick might have been the starter, but Dick got hurt in August practices. Robert Johnson, the starter for several games last season, started against the Trojans, and Nutt didn't like what he saw.
Houston Nutt
Clay Carson/
Houston Nutt led the Hogs past Auburn.

So Nutt put freshman Mitch Mustain into the starting lineup. Mustain may have been the top recruit in the nation, but no freshman is ready to start at quarterback. Nutt decided that Mustain, even with an easy-reader playbook, would be his best weapon.

Nutt proved to be right.

Mustain gets better every week. Tailback Darren McFadden, after injuring his foot in a preseason bar fight, gets healthier every week. Arkansas sneaked past Vanderbilt 21-19, somehow beat Alabama 24-23 in double overtime and dominated No. 2 Auburn this past week 27-10. The Razorbacks have a significant edge in the SEC West.

Nutt, who began the season on a hot seat, is on his way to transforming it into his second division crown in nine seasons.