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MANY LESSONS LEFT TO BE LEARNED AT MIDSEASON
October 7, 2010

SCS.com Five weeks into the 13 week long college football season, it is painfully clear that some coaches and conferences around the country need to learn their lesson. Lesson number one comes right at the top of the polls as Alabama is proving once again why they are the only real elite team in the SEC and in the country at large. Put the toughest conference schedule in front of the Tide, and they roll on through like it is not even a challenge most weeks. The win against Florida not only knocked Florida out of the elite status in the SEC, it was the 29th consecutive regular season win and 32 out of 33 overall. A week after falling behind at Arkansas and looking mortal, Nick Saban demolished the only team who seemingly had hope of topping the West division in the SEc Championship. And next week, Alabama will travel to South Carolina and will likely make the Gamecocks look just as silly. There's always an opportunity for an upset against most teams, but not this Alabama team. Not under this coach, and not with Mark Ingram healthy and slicing up defensive lines. So the first lesson to learn is there's no questioning the team at the top until they actually end up losing a game. Don't hold your breath though, as I don't know how the air will be in 2012.

The second lesson to learn is that maybe Michigan hired the right coach after all. Despite starting 5-0 last season, Michigan ended up missing out on a bowl. This year's team has a huge difference though in a Heisman candidate quarterback who will carry his team over opposing defenses no matter how much they prepare for Denard Robinson. Michigan is still not ready to be an elite team because the defense has to improve drastically, but Rich Rodriguez has his talent now and Michigan looks like one of the better teams Rich Rodriguez has had in his coaching career. Meanwhile, the leading candidate for the job was Les Miles, and he has done nothing to prove that he deserves the job he has let alone the job he covets. Once again LSU topped themselves in the mind-boggling clock management department. LSU ran the ball to the one yard line with about 30 seconds left and somehow did not manage to get off another snap until 2 seconds were left. The play expectedly failed but Miles was bailed out by a late substitution for Tennessee (the second-straight week they couldn't come up with 11 defenders on the field in the final drive). So LSU got an untimed down, and they scored the game winning touchdown. This is not the first time Les Miles has botched the end of the game only to escape, at least most of the time. LSU has inexplicably made their way to 5-0 but that may not last long as a hungry Florida team comes calling next week. Even as bad as Florida looked last week, they are a better team than LSU. If Les Miles ever gets hired on at Michigan, the program will be blown back beyond the discouraging years of 2008 and 2009.

A third lesson to be learned is a primer on fourth down for the Big Ten conference. Perhaps now that they have figured out their divisions and their schedules for Nebraska's first two seasons in the league, they can hold a seminar on when it is obvious and proper to go for it on fourth down. Illinois played right up to Ohio State all game long and drove into the red zone in the fourth quarter, down by 7. Despite having the conference favorite soemwhat on the ropes defensively, Ron Zook decided to kick a field goal with 4 minutes left instead of going for a possible tie. Of course the decision backfired when Ohio State drove right down the field and put the game out of reach. You have to at least take a chance there to win the game. After all, you play to win the game. Speaking of that axiom, maybe coaching legend Joe Paterno needs to remember that when down by 14 points halfway through the fourth quarter and near midfield. Penn State decided to punt away to the dominating Hawkeyes rather than keep trying to win, and the Hawkeyes rewarded the white flag with another touchdown on the next drive to put the game farther away than it was before. When in the fourth quarter, feel free to go for the touchdown or the fourth down when on the opponent's side of the field and down by 4 or more points. There's no point in giving up or cutting a deficit from 7 to 4. You have to take some obvious chances, and these coaches are 0-1 in Big Ten play based partially on poor decision making in the clutch.

A fourth lesson to learn is that an 18 point lead on the Oregon Ducks is not safe until the game ends. Stanford learned this lesson the hard way as they parlayed a 21-3 first quarter into a 31-52 loss at Autzen Stadium. Let that sink in...Stanford, a legitimate top 10 team, was outscored 49-10 in the final three quarters. Oregon does not let up offensively at any time and no lead is safe when LaMichael James and Darron Thomas take the field. James already has 712 yards in five games and will easily run past his 1500 yards from a year ago at this pace. Thomas has stepped right in where Jeremiah Masoli left off, and gives opposing defensive fronts a lot to think about on every down. Oregon beat one of their demons from a year ago, when Boise State, Stanford, and Ohio State all physically dominated the Ducks and won a game of attrition. That will not happen this year, and someone in the Pac-10 will need to step up and outscore the Ducks to beat Oregon. That is a tall task, and one that may not be possible, although Arizona and Oregon State will have a chance to do just that.

A fifth and final lesson to learn is that two games does not a season make. Although Virginia Tech is not going to the Championship game after losing their first two games, that will not prevent the Hokies fron having a chance to dominate a seemingly weak ACC and playing for the right to play in another BCS game. Boise State is one of the best 3 teams in the country, and scheduling a game 5 days later was a poor choice, so the losses are actually looking more understandable as Virginia Tech knocks around former undefeated teams Boston College and NC State. The bottom line will come with back to back November road trips to North Carolina and Miami, but Frank Beamer is again back on his game and had the Hokies moving in the right direction. This is also good news for Boise State, who needs a big season out of Virginia Tech like they got from Oregon a year ago. Virginia Tech and Oregon State will do a lot more for Boise State than anything the Broncos can do on the field the rest of the season, although the impressive margins of victory agaisnt Wyoming and New Mexico State are promising. Boise State still has a legitimate shot at the national title, despite contrary thoughts two weeks into a 13 week season. College football is a grind, and you cannot count on anything until the final BCS standings come out in December.

With all these lessons learned, we jump back into looking ahead at the week and month at hand. Eighteen undefeated teams remain, highlighted by 4 in the Big Ten, 3 in the SEC West, and 5 in the Big 12. At least two of the teams must lose this week as Nebraska travels to Kansas State and Michigan plays Michigan State. However, the ranks of the undefeated teams will narrow quickly as the season continues, and many of the undefeated teams are headed on the road this weekend for only the first or second time. There's nothing more challenging than a road game against a conference opponent who knows you well. Although the schedule may lack some big lights on the big games the next two weeks, do not sleep on the schedule as this time of year is when title contenders fall away with unexpected upsets. Just when you think it cannot happen, it will happen. Let's move on to the games of the week.

The first game of the week is Florida State at Miami. This will be the first time the rivalry does not involve Bobby Bowden, but that should not take the luster off in a battle between two teams with one tough road loss apiece and undefeated conference records. Miami has been road warriors thus far with wins the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Clemson. Miami has primarily succeeded with a strong pass defense, which has shut down everything they have faced outside of Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State. Christian Ponder was befuddled the last time he went on the road against Oklahoma, and this game poses a similar challenge as Miami gets a great pass rush on opposing quarterbacks. Ponder will need some help from Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones in the running game, or cornerback Brandon Harris will shut down the best Seminoles receiver and Ponder will be running for his life too much for Florida State to be effective. When Miami has the ball, the entire key will be which Jacory Harris shows up. The Harris who throws a lot of interceptions and puts his team out of contention, or the confident leader who has been accurate and outstanding in the majority of his games. Florida State also has a good pass defense, which means this game could come down to the running game. In that department, Florida State clearly has an edge. However, Miami will be happy to be back home and has simply been playing better football the past 2 weeks. The good play continues and Harris avoids the costly turnovers, leading to another Miami win in this series. Hurricanes by 4.

The second game of the week is Alabama at South Carolina. Coming into this three week stretch to start the SEC season, Alabama looked like they would be happy to come out with 2 wins. After overcoming adversity at Arkansas and blowing away the Gators, Alabama now faces their hardest remaining road test when the Gamecocks host the Tide. Mark Ingram had his breakout performance last year against the South Carolina defense, and job number one for the Gamecocks is to stop those gaps at the lines which allow Ingram and Richardson to run wild into the backfield. This is a big mismatch though, as South Carolina was gashed by another SEC West power Auburn for 334 rushing yards two weeks ago in their only loss. South Carolina will likely keep Greg McElroy from beating them in the air, but Alabama is more than content to run their way to a plodding victory. South Carolina also has some controversy at quarterback as Stephen Garcia was pulled from the game late against Auburn when South Carolina gave up a 13 point lead. Garcia is the starter this week, but the hook may come quickly if Alabama comes out swinging like they did agaisnt Florida. South Carolina will need to generate a couple of turnovers to win this game, but that simply will not happen. Alabama puts this one away with the running game in the second half, a 17 point Crimson Tide victory.

The third and final game of the week is an intrastate battle for supremacy in Michigan as the Spartans travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines. Coach Mark Dantonio is expected once again to lead his team from the pressbox after a heart attack and a clot have kept him out the past 2 weekends. Michigan is led by Denard Robinson as mentioned above, and an interesting match up will be Big Ten defensive player of the year LB Greg Jones against Robinson. Jones is the kind of talent that can track down Robinson and perhaps even put enough good hits on Robinson to slow the running game. However, Michigan can also bring similar looks with both backup quarterbacks as shown against Bowling Green two weeks ago. Michigan State may have some weaknesses at the edges of the defensive backfield, so look for Robinson to try and find WR Roy Roundtree and Darryl Stonum when the openings are there. The Spartans offense is led by QB Kirk Cousins, who must be salivating at the prospect of playing against the sturgglign Wolverine defense. Michigan has had to outscore Notre Dame and Indiana this season, but Michigan State may actually have a better offense than either of these teams. At the minimum, the Spartans have the best defense Michigan has played, which will give MSU plenty of opportunities to stay in this game and perhaps take it over like they did agaisnt Wisconsin a week ago. A program defining win is there for the taking at home for the Wolverines, but this is just not the right week for that to happen. Michigan State takes another big step toward a possible Rose Bowl berth with a 3 point road win.

Other Games of the Top 25 - Week 6

(7) Nebraska defeats Kansas State
(22) Oklahoma State defeats Louisiana Lafayette
(2) Ohio State defeats Indiana
(3) Oregon defeats Washington State
(4) Boise State defeats Toledo
(5) TCU defeats Wyoming
(8) Auburn defeats Kentucky
Oregon State defeats (9) Arizona
(10) Utah defeats Iowa State
(11) Arkansas defeats Texas A&M
(14) Florida defeats (12) LSU
(16) Stanford defeats USC
(20) Wisconsin defeats Minnesota
(21) Nevada defeats San Jose state
(24) Missouri defeats Colorado
(25) Air Force defeats Colorado State

2010 GOTW Record: 13-2
Last Week: 3-0
2010 Overall Top 25 Record: 88-13
Last Week: 11-3

Fitz Top 10 - Week 5

1. Alabama (5-0)
2. Boise State (4-0)
3. Ohio State (5-0)
4. Oregon (5-0)
5. Oklahoma (5-0)
6. TCU (5-0)
7. Nebraska (5-0)
8. Utah (4-0)
9. Auburn (5-0)
10. Arizona (4-0)

Just Missed: Michigan State, Michigan, Arkansas, Miami, LSU

So another week in the books and this week will find me on the couch at home taking in as much college football as possible! If you choose to come find me, please bring things to grill out and some beer, and we'll make a ready tailgate out of it. In all seriousness, this is the perfect time between the cold days of early winter and the hot days of late summer. Perfect weather across most of the country makes it the best time to go see your favorite team live, even if that favorite team happens to be in the MLB playoffs this weekend instead of the college gridiron. Next week I hope to look forward to another road trip to either Knoxville or Madison, two great college towns I have not had the pleasure of seeing yet. Until then, have a great week and remember the basic lessons or else you too will find a way to lose your way in the long college football season.

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