One week into conference play in most leagues except the Big XII, and the one issue which stands out the most to me is how teams have excelled or failed on a national championship-caliber stage based on leadership. Most national championship teams in this decade have had great quarterback leaders on offense and one or two clutch leaders on the defensive side as well. The offensive leader is almost always the quarterback, as they must lead the team even if they do not have the best talent out there. If you look at the top teams in the nation coming into the season, the success or failure of these teams for the most part has been keyed by their quarterback. While injury brings up quarterback controversies at any time, head coaches not deciding on a quarterback for no good reason always seems to hurt teams in the end. We have three shining examples of this phenomenon in the early stages of the 2005 season, and each team with national championship talent has already lost.
Tennessee has been jumping from Erik Ainge to Rick Clausen for the first four weeks of the season, never really deciding upon a team leader. The results on the field were clearly bad as they struggled to put points up to defeat UAB at home, then followed that up with a loss to Florida when their defense held the Gators to 16 points! Just when Phillip Fulmer had his eyes set on Erik Ainge as the starter, LSU ruins his debut to the tune of a 21-0 trampling at halftime on Monday. Then Fulmer trots out Clausen, and Clausen shows real heart, grit, and leadership in taking the Volunteers to a monster comeback victory. Now everyone thinks Clausen holds the job, but I still think Fulmer will be switching them if success does not continue. Tennessee is lucky to be 2-1 and in the top 10 with no clear leader on the offense, and they need to pick a quarterback and stick with him the rest of the season if they want to continue vying for the SEC East crown.
Oklahoma has had various problems this season, but the quarterback controversy has allowed defenses to pick on Adrian Peterson alone. Peterson has been shut down, but no leader has emerged at quarterback to give defenses something else to think about. Admittedly a freshman coming in off the heels of a Heisman winner will be in a tough situation considering all the new personnel Bob Stoops is running out there this year. Michigan succeeded last year when Coach Carr showed confidence in freshman starter Chad Henne, and I see no reason for Coach Stoops to do any different this year with Rhett Bomar. It finally appears Stoops is willing to stick it out with Bomar as the only other scholarship quarterback requested a change to wide receiver last week, but any controversy in this area can only make this season worse for Oklahoma.
Finally I bring to your attention my preseason pick for the national championship game, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Troy Smith's suspension for the Alamo Bowl last year and the Miami (Ohio) game this year allowed Justin Zwick a chance to claim the starter job again. He did so in spectacular fashion, but all reports from training camp and practice in the early part of the season said Troy Smith had easily won the job. Now when Texas comes to town, instead of leaving the ball in Troy Smith's hands after he brought the Buckeyes back from a quick 10-0 deficit, Jim Tressel continued to switch quarterbacks every two series. Now there were many opportunities to win this game and both teams played a fine game, but you have to think Smith would have won the game or made the offense better on the Texas side of the field if he knew he was staying in there all game as opposed to every other series. Zwick has talent, but Smith obviously won the job and has held it to big victories over San Diego State and Iowa, so why did Tressel not come to this conclusion before the biggest game of the season to this point? Ohio State has righted the ship before too much damage was done, so we will see if this quarterback controversy and loss to Texas costs them a Rose Bowl berth at the end of the season.
The opposite side of this argument is looking at the top three undefeated national title competitors at this point in the season. Each one has a great team leader at the quarterback position. Matt Leinart at USC, Vince Young at Texas, and Marcus Vick at Virginia Tech have rallied the troops through good and bad times already this season. USC has tough games remaining against Arizona State, Notre Dame, and UCLA, so the leadership of a Heisman Trophy winner will be critical to their repeat appearance in the title game. The same arguments can be said of Texas and Tech's remaining schedules, so look for the true leadership and character of these three great quarterbacks to continue leading these teams into a late-season national championship hunt (and perhaps a Heisman Trophy on the side).
Looking ahead to the weekend, three games really stand out in my mind as critical for conference and national title implications. Michigan has little time to right the ship after ugly losses to Notre Dame and Wisconsin as they travel to East Lansing to play perhaps the toughest current competition for Ohio State in the Big Ten. I know Michigan has history on their side, but I cannot imagine Michigan's overall poor defensive play will stand up to Drew Stanton and the Spartan offense, so I'll take MSU by 10. When is the last time you remember Michigan having a losing record? If they lose this one, this is a distinct possibility as long as running back Mike Hart remains on the sideline injured and quarterback Chad Henne struggles.
With so many teams undefeated or in the top 10, it seems like every week, the SEC has something big to offer. This week, two undefeated teams collide as Florida visits Alabama. Florida has had plenty of time to look forward to this game following a big home win against Tennessee, and I doubt the pressure of Bryant-Denney Stadium will get to the Gators. I honestly believe this is more of a true test than Tennessee was two weeks ago, and I pick the Gators by 7 to jump fully into the national title picture for the rest of the season.
Although an argument could be made for USC-Arizona State (and I will be enjoying that game for sure this weekend), I select Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia as my third game of the week. Morgantown is no easy place to play, and I smell an upset despite the Mountaineers being unproven. Vick and Beamerball might get their toughest test other than Miami or the ACC title game this week, and a win could propel them solidly into the top three teams in the nation (which they are already a part of, but Texas and USC have looked on a different level so far). After Louisville lost the Big East some credentials this week, West Virginia could regain stature for the league with a win or even a close game here. I'll take WVU by 3 in my upset special of the week.
Unfortunately this article is coming later to you in the week than usual as my law school life is going through its first really hectic week. I apologize to any readers for the extra wait and furthermore for not going through each conference individually if that's what you like. Feel free to email any comments or article suggestions to my email link above, and have a great week watching these great games!
Top 3 Game of the Week Record to date: 5-7 (2-1 last week)
Fitzy's Top 10 - Week 5
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