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GETTING OFF ON THE WRONG FOOT
September 11, 2007

SCS.com While two weeks of a 12 game schedule may seem very early to discuss the failed or exceeded expectations of the 2007 season, teams such as Michigan and Notre Dame must start looking around now to figure out how to save this season. Both of those teams and a few others expected to do well have instead started on the wrong foot. An 0-2 start may not seem like a big deal for some programs. Nevertheless, an 0-2 start historically is very hard to dig out of to get to a bowl game, let alone a good bowl game. Therefore the time is now to take a hard look around at the programs missing expectations.

Michigan – lost to Appalachian State 32-34, lost to Oregon 7-39

While eight Big Ten teams are 2-0 going into week three and the other two are 1-1, conference favorite Michigan stands at 0-2 all alone in last place. Embarrassed by being the first nationally ranked team to lose to a I-AA team in week 1, the Wolverines followed that up by getting blown out by the unranked Ducks in week 2. Michigan not only has been outplayed by two opponents with inferior overall talent, the Big Blue quit trying and lost all hope in the Oregon game. This set of circumstances has left most Michigan fans stunned and wondering why this has happened.

The majority of the problems come on the defensive end of the ball, where Michigan has not figured out in the past couple of seasons how to stop a wide-open offense with a mobile quarterback. Troy Smith led Ohio State to three straight wins over the Wolverines simply by leading many four or five wide receiver sets and being mobile enough to punish Michigan when they dropped into heavy pass coverage. The defensive recruiting classes have left a little to be desired the past three seasons, and even shaking things up by hiring Ron English as defensive coordinator has not solved the problem. If Michigan played in the Pac-10 this season, the Wolverines could look forward to 8-9 losses. Thankfully for the Maize and Blue, the Big Ten recruits athletes of a different style to survive the winter weather in northern states come October and November.

Michigan needs to at least slow wide-open offenses to allow a suddenly banged-up offense to keep up. Lloyd Carr needs to open up his playbook on both sides of the ball and experiment with new formations because anything is better than what they have right now. This problem has been brewing for a few years and may trickle down from recruits not staying in Michigan due to rumors of Coach Carr retiring soon. Carr needs to clarify his position or get out now in order to bring the Big Blue recruiting and football program back up to expectations. First things first, Michigan needs to take care of an absurdly weak Notre Dame team this week to gain some confidence going into a rough Big Ten opener against Penn State.

Syracuse – lost to Washington 12-42, lost to Iowa 0-35

While the Orange did expect another slow step in the rebuilding process in 2007, so far the indications are not even as good as expected. With every single other team in the Big East impressing at 2-0, Syracuse stands out as a team that could lose all 12 games if things keep on the same path. The only easy home game left is against Buffalo, as the Orange have to travel to Miami (OH), Pittsburgh, and Connecticut. Syracuse at 0-2 does not even compare to the shock of Michigan being there, but the disheartening thing is how lifeless Syracuse has played against mediocre BCS conference opponents.

In this case, the only cure for the problem might be time and experience, a hard thing to come by when recruiting only gets tougher as the program remains at the bottom of the conference. QB Andrew Robinson could help turn things around, but the offensive line needs to play better to give Robinson more time to make good reads downfield. Washington and Iowa have good defensive units, but that’s no excuse for both RB Curtis Brinkley and RB Derrell Smith to be averaging 2.2 yards per carry on 28 combined attempts. All of the Orange problems need to be solved up front on the offensive and defensive lines, and then Syracuse can worry about further developing skill players and a defensive backfield. The schedule is very front-loaded, so perhaps the Orange can be competitive in their final five games of the season.

Wake Forest – lost to Boston College 28-38, lost to Nebraska 17-20

Unlike the previous two teams, all hope is far from lost in the Demon Deacon camp after an 0-2 start. The defending ACC champions should have won one or both of their first two games of the season; however, both games were back-and-forth affairs that turned out badly in the fourth quarter for Wake. The Demon Deacons found ways to win every close game like this in 2006, so the problem behind the 0-2 start may be hard to fix. On the bright side, perhaps there is no problem at all with Wake Forest past two of their hardest games already.

QB Brett Hodges has been fairly efficient in 2007, but needs to cut out mistakes such as throwing into coverage late in games. Kenneth Moore leads the team in rushing and receiving yards after two games. Other skill players will need to step up considerably as teams begin to key in on Moore all game. As long as Wake Forest removes the turnovers and silly penalties from the first two games of the season, the Demon Deacons will be favored to win every game until November road trips to Virginia and Clemson. The loss to Boston College may not allow Wake to win the conference this season, but a January bowl game is still more than possible for these guys.

Iowa State – lost to Kent State 14-23, lost to Northern Iowa 13-24

When the Cyclones hired coach Gene Chizik in the offseason, many thought this team would come back and perhaps even become competitive in the weaker North half of the Big XII. After losses to the only two cupcakes on the schedule, Iowa State is in serious trouble already. The Cyclones lost to Kent State mostly due to critical turnovers at bad times. The Cyclones then lost to Northern Iowa while losing the turnover battle 0-4. Clearly Iowa State has been able to move the ball well and QB Bret Meyer is a strong passer. The problem comes in offensive mental mistakes and defensive breakdowns against opposing passing games.

With bigger, faster, and better teams coming in to Ames starting with the Iowa Hawkeyes this week, the Cyclones need to start by cutting the turnovers out. Whether it’s extra drills for the running backs or more film study for Meyer, the offense needs to stop putting a weak defense into big field position holes. On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa State has had trouble stopping anything at all. The defensive backfield has been burnt by both opposing quarterbacks, and the defensive front has graciously allowed two running backs to gain 130 yards in the first two games. If Iowa State is to be a spoiler and pull off any upsets in their tough schedule, the defense will need to step up and start playing better as a unit. The best advice here is to get one of those seniors on the defense to fire up the troops and lead by example. Coach Chizik just needs to focus on the week-by-week improvement at this point, as 2007 is a lost cause by the looks of it.

Notre Dame – lost to Georgia Tech 3-33, lost to Penn State 10-31

The one true axiom about Notre Dame football is that everything is exaggerated. Whether overrated or underrated, love ‘em or hate ‘em, the massive microscope hovering over South Bend makes the court of public opinion sway dramatically. Notre Dame truly has not belonged in BCS bowls in the first two years of Charlie Weis’ coaching, but Notre Dame did take care of business against every team not in the Top 10 in the country (USC, Michigan, Ohio State, LSU). Now that the great offensive stars are all gone to the pros, Notre Dame has received a large dose of reality in two bad losses. While the defense is not great by any means, that aspect of the Irish is actually not worse than the 10-2 teams of the past two seasons. The problem lies with the inexperienced offense.

After week one, the easy solution for Weis was to stop the silly quarterback carousel that was awful against the Yellow Jackets. Jimmy Clausen did not impress in his first start, but road games at Penn State make the best quarterbacks look very shaky (see Chad Henne and Troy Smith in 2005). Young quarterbacks need good rushing attacks to take the heat off, and Notre Dame has not done that with Armando Allen and Demetrius Jones so far (-8 yards rushing on the season total). Therefore Weis needs to focus more on the running game during this killer 8 game stretch to open up the passing lanes for Clausen. The great news is that Notre Dame gets Michigan, one of the worst defenses in college football for week 3. The bad news is that the Big Blue is looking for a statement victory after an abysmal start, so perhaps this is not the best week to catch Michigan. Assuming Clausen stays healthy until November, the back four games set up nicely as a lead-in for 2008. If Notre Dame manages to steal 2 of the next 6 games (highly unlikely), then a bowl season may not be out of reach yet.

The Sun Belt Conference – (0-13) in out-of-conference play so far

Where to begin? The worst conference in Division I-A continues to prove why all the big boys love to schedule them as the cupcakes. There’s no easy solution to the problems plaguing the teams of this conference, but mistakes and turnovers are another common theme. Perhaps the Sun Belt will begin to improve as the weeks go by, but someone in the league needs to start making a name for themselves outside conference play if the champion is to deserve any respect come bowl season.

While other teams have disappointed so far, these few above are the teams that must step it up in a hurry or risk having much worse seasons than each ever anticipated. Pleasant surprises include teams like Washington, Oregon, Cincinnati, South Florida, South Carolina, LSU, Clemson, and Georgia Tech. Out of the 120 Division I-A teams to start the season, two weeks has pared down the list of undefeated teams to 41. We will soon see how this list shrinks down to a very small number of national title contenders, perhaps even zero by the end of the season.

Another interesting slate of games for Week 3 leads to another great big three games of the week. With all due respect to Tennessee/Florida and Notre Dame/Michigan, first up is USC at Nebraska. Last year in Trojan-town this was a laugher, but do not expect the same thing to happen in Big XII territory. USC is clearly gifted with far better talent than the Cornhuskers, but the Trojans have quite a few tricky road games this season including this one. USC is coming off a bye week, so Nebraska must get off on the right foot and put the Trojans in a hole early to stick around. Inevitably John David Booty and his many weapons will put some points on the board. Nebraska proved they can win the tough close games against Wake Forest in week 2, but this one will not be close in the fourth quarter. USC by 17.

Our second game of the week, surprisingly, is Ohio State at Washington. Despite the fact that Florida and Tennessee are both nationally ranked, this game is a lot more compelling and features two undefeated teams (as well as the Top 10 team on the road). The Buckeyes looked absolutely sluggish in the rain against Akron before getting the wheels rolling, but their defense was rock solid (at one point getting 14 straight Akron 3-and-outs). The savior of the U-Dub program, freshman QB Jake Locker, has been beautifully efficient throwing for 175 yards per game. Locker has run for 167 yards and 3 TD so far as well, almost matching RB Louis Rankin with 192 yards and 3 TD. Ohio State historically struggles in road openers, especially on the West Coast. Turnovers could decide this game as Washington holds a +3 TO margin while the Buckeyes have started with a -5 TO margin, and mistakes always cost a team more on the road. While Washington has been very impressive while facing the toughest schedule in America, Locker and his offense have not faced anything remotely as good as the Buckeye defense. As long as OSU stops making early-season mistakes such as turnovers and penalties, the Buckeyes will escape Seattle with a 10 point victory. Big upset alert if OSU keeps turning it over.

The third game of the week is Boston College at Georgia Tech. This may be a preview of the ACC Championship considering how both teams have come out impressively, but BC has a brutal set of conference road games including this one and Virginia Tech, Maryland, and Clemson. The Eagles offense is very strong behind their leader QB Matt Ryan (275 yards per game). Georgia Tech blew by Notre Dame and Samford while running for more than 325 yards per game. Expect both defenses to be tested, but Georgia Tech is much better against the pass than BC is against the run. Georgia Tech at home is a tough out, and Boston College will be lucky to keep up. Closer than some expect, Georgia Tech wins by 4.

GOTW Record to Date: 4-2 (.666)
Last Week: 2-1

Fitz Top 10 – Week 2
1. LSU (2-0)
2. USC (1-0)
3. Oklahoma (2-0)
4. West Virginia (2-0)
5. Wisconsin (2-0)
6. Texas (2-0)
7. California (2-0)
8. Louisville (2-0)
9. Ohio State (2-0)
10. Florida (2-0)
Just Missed: UCLA, Penn State, Rutgers, Georgia Tech, Nebraska

Have a good week!

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