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THE CHANGING SEASONS: CONFERENCE PLAY IN FULL SWING
September 27, 2006

SCS.com A wise college coach once said, “conference play is the second season, a step up from the non-conference play in intensity and passion.” As college football officially moves into conference play last weekend and this weekend, these words ring true no matter what league you speak of. The battles are always a bit more intense, as regional and conference bragging rights are on the line every week. Teams who play you every year know your style and know how to beat you, so even games against the lowly weaklings of the conference cannot be taken lightly.

The conference season also brings a change from the heat of summer to the chilly autumn weather, what some would characterize as football weather. As shown last weekend in some key matchups (Notre Dame and Michigan State in a driving rainstorm, Iowa State and Texas delayed over an hour by a thunderstorm, Penn State and Ohio State slogging through a muddy, rainy day in Columbus), the change of weather can have crucial impacts on the outcome of games. Perhaps one of many reasons great defenses win championships is because at some point in the year, the inclement weather will grind good and great offenses to a halt...and if you cannot rely on the defense to get you out of a close game, your team usually misses out on conference and national titles.

The focus of the first season has seemed to linger in the Midwest, specifically in Big Ten and Big 12 country. Huge games in this part of the country have compelled the nation throughout September. For example, the College Gameday show usually broadcasts live from the location of the best game of the week, and in September that crew has basically followed #1 Ohio State around through their brutal September schedule, including broadcasts of OSU-Texas, OSU-Penn State, and now OSU-Iowa. The other Midwestern team with a brutal September is Notre Dame, and they have had their fair share of national spotlight (Georgia Tech and Michigan State games were primetime games, all other games at home were still nationally broadcast by another network). This week continues the trend, as the far and away best game of the week is a historic Big Ten clash in Iowa City.

Now as we move into October, the birds fly south and the focus of the football nation will also shift southward. Although there will be occasional big games in the Midwest such as Penn State-Michigan, Louisville-West Virginia, and Michigan-Iowa, the truly captivating top 25 battles will mostly come from the SEC. With four teams currently ranked in some of the national rankings as top 10 teams, the SEC seems to have important and intriguing conference games every week in October. To top it all off, the darlings of September (Ohio State and Notre Dame) really have no more big national spotlight games until the end of the year when Michigan visits OSU and Notre Dame goes out west to face USC. So the focus will shift south like the migration patterns of birds, if you will.

Before we turn our complete focus down south, there remains one week in September and one week of big battles in the Midwest. Before getting into the specifics of this week’s top games, let’s look at a few of the pleasant surprises and biggest disappointments in the first four weeks of the season.

BEST SURPRISES

Some teams are expected to be undefeated, but other programs which had much lower expectations have pleasantly surprised the country by almost ensuring bowl eligibility in September. Rutgers went to their first bowl game in a long time last year, and a 4-0 start this season has them nationally ranked for the first time in 30 years. The Scarlet Knights might even make the Big East more than just a Louisville-WVU showdown. Wake Forest has overcome adversity to a probable 5-0 start and perhaps will compete in the weak ACC this season. (With the inconsistency of NC State, Clemson, FSU, BC, and Maryland, Wake Forest could go from perennial worst to division champion.)

Washington may finally be on the right track again with coach Willingham leading the Huskies to a 3-1 record and a shocking win over UCLA. Missouri, Purdue, and Houston all have tough battles ahead, but all have started 4-0 and look much better than last season. My final pleasant surprise has been Syracuse, which finally has two wins in a row and a 2-2 record after losing so many games in a row and what could have been a team demoralizer at home against Iowa earlier in the season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

First and foremost, I am a little disappointed with how replay has been conducted in the month, but I figure this is just a bad time and we will have an upswing of good calls for the rest of the season. Although Colorado put up a valiant effort against Georgia and should have won, the Buffaloes 0-4 start is nothing short of unacceptable. Vanderbilt almost made a big bowl splash last season, but a 1-3 start is not leading them toward that again this year. The entire ACC, except for Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, has been utterly awful so far, and this includes powerhouses Florida State and Miami. These teams need to turn it around in conference play, or else each will be buried and fans will begin or continue to put the coaches on the hot seat.

For some reason it was hard to decide which games I think are the second and third best games this week, and I had to leave out possible gems such as Michigan-Minnesota, Alabama-Florida, Purdue-Notre Dame, and Boise State-Utah. These games are all intriguing, but there is something a little better about the following three games.

I start this week with Texas Christian traveling to Utah to take on Brigham Young. Unlike the Boise State-Utah game (which is just as important as far as getting a non-BCS team into a BCS bowl is concerned), this game is an in-conference Mountain West clash. TCU has the longest active winning streak in Division 1-A football at 13 games, capped off two weeks ago by an impressive 12-3 win over offensive powerhouse Texas Tech. TCU did get a bye week to prepare, but the Horned Frogs also have to play their two toughest MWC games in a row (a roadtrip to Utah looms next weekend). BYU looked good in their toughest game thus far, a double-OT loss at Boston College. Despite having a pretty good offensive attack, BYU is starting their backup QB, and this will be the key to the game. TCU has one of the best defensive fronts in the country, and BYU will have to establish the running game if their high-powered offense is to do anything. I predict BYU QB Beck and RB Fui Vakapuna have rough outings in this one, and the Horned Frogs extend the winning streak with a 10-point victory.

The second game of the week is one of the only times two good ACC teams meet this season, Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech. Although VT struggled into the fourth quarter against Cincinnati, they will be prepared for this possibly Coastal division-deciding game. Georgia Tech has looked outstanding since opening with a tough loss to Notre Dame, and the defense carries the team. The offenses are very similar, but Virginia Tech relies a bit more on the passing game and the suspension of second best WR Josh Morgan for team rules violations will have an effect on the Hokies. As long as Georgia Tech makes no special teams mistakes against Beamerball, the Jackets can come out with a win. I think Virginia Tech gets a big win at home though, slowing QB Reggie Ball and WR Calvin Johnson enough to allow the offense to keep up. VT by 3.

Clearly the best game of the week is Ohio State visiting Iowa for its first Big Ten road test. There has not been a bigger game in Iowa City, perhaps ever, but at least for 20 years (1985 #1 Michigan v. #2 Iowa, 1992 night game against Miami FL, 1996 only other College Gameday trip to Kinnick for #2 OSU v. #20 Iowa). This game has all of the above, a #1 ranked visitor, the second ever night game at Kinnick, and the second ever visit by Gameday. Ohio State is no stranger to the big games, having already won on the road at night against #2 Texas and overcoming #23 Penn State last weekend. Iowa escaped the non-conference schedule and the Iowa State game undefeated for only the second time in ten years, but Iowa has been just as good as Michigan and Ohio State since their 2002 Big Ten title run. The home team has held serve in this series in this decade, including two OSU wins in 2003 (19-10) and 2005 (31-6) while Iowa won in 2004 (33-7). Ohio State has had Iowa’s number since 1990 though, winning nine of the last ten.

Although Iowa seems to have proven they belong with Michigan and Ohio State in the first tier of the conference, this game would probably cement that in stone and further solidify Kirk Ferentz’s record as Iowa coach. A national TV spotlight primetime on the team and the newly renovated Kinnick Stadium is what Iowa longed for, and now the Hawks get a chance to prove themselves. I have witnessed each of the last three games in this series and have my tickets for the game this Saturday, and I cannot wait to see the atmosphere in Iowa City. For one final weekend in September, the Midwest will be the place to be for college football.

The game itself has one of the two Heisman favorites, OSU QB Troy Smith, and two other hopefuls, OSU WR Ted Ginn and Iowa QB Drew Tate. The Ohio State offense is overpowering on paper but has sputtered in the first half against Cincinnati and all game against Penn State in the last two weeks. Smith, Ginn, and (just-as-dangerous) second WR Anthony Gonzalez should have a field day with Iowa’s conservative coverage schemes. Iowa will refuse to give up the big play that has haunted OSU competition thus far, and so the key to this half of the game will be how the front four defenders of Iowa perform getting much needed pressure on Troy Smith while stopping the great rushing attack of Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells.

The other side of the coin matches the young but proven Buckeye defense against an experienced Iowa offense. Iowa has looked good offensively in every game except the Syracuse contest, which Tate missed, so it is obvious that Tate needs to lead this offense for them to be successful. Albert Young will have to have a better running day than his 4 yard-per-carry season average indicates, and the Buckeyes have given up the ground game to each team this year. Even with this apparent weakness in the defense, Iowa will still need Tate to make good decisions and great passes to prevent the Buckeye linebackers and secondary from taking the game over. Special teams cannot be overlooked either, as all three touchdowns in the 2003 game were on special teams and Tressel depends on his punting and special teams to win games. Assuming the weather is good and Ohio State makes no special teams mistakes, they will have too much for the Hawkeyes in this contest. OSU by 10, pulling away late.

GOTW 2006 Record to Date: 9-3
Last Week: 3-0

Fitzy’s Top 10 – Week 5
1. Ohio State
2. USC
3. Michigan
4. Auburn
5. West Virginia
6. Florida
7. Texas
8. Louisville
9. Iowa
10. TCU

As I said before, I will be in Iowa City all weekend for the big game, so if you want to meet up at the tailgate, shoot me an email. Have a great week and we’ll see you back here next week, as we welcome October and SEC showdowns to the fray.

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