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October 5, 2006 On a cold night in Iowa City, the frontrunner for the national title proved for the third time in four weeks that they belong as the top team of college football. The home Hawkeyes had a crazy electric fan base, a night home game, an established senior leader at quarterback, and a streak of 25 out of 26 straight victories at home, including a 33-7 slaughter of the team across the field two years ago. That was not enough.

The Buckeyes are bigger, faster, and more experienced, and they deal with the big game pressure by playing its best (just ask Texas three weeks ago). Iowa decided to receive the opening kickoff for some reason, and the Buckeyes forced a three-and-out before scoring on their first possession. OSU never relinquished that lead, as Iowa only got within 4 twice in the first half. The Buckeyes further schooled Iowa on why you defer the opening kickoff by blowing a close game (14-10) open with an 89-yard touchdown drive to end the first half, followed by an 80-yard touchdown drive to start the second half (28-10). Iowa tried to mount a rally, but turnovers doomed the comeback effort and the Buckeyes waltzed back to Columbus with a 21-point victory.

This game was significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the emergence of a true national title frontrunner. At the beginning of the season, the Buckeyes were number 1 in the rankings, but many other teams shared top spot votes with OSU. Now, though, the Bucks rightfully have the vast majority of number 1 votes. The question has officially shifted from “who’s number 1?” to “who’s number 2?” Much like Miami in 2001-2002 and USC in 2004-2005, Ohio State will be the dominant force this season and will show up in the national title game barring an unexpected upset. The Buckeyes do have one big game left, but it is at home in seven weeks against rival Michigan. After a September to remember, the Buckeyes are now the team to beat.

Much like Iowa, each of the Buckeyes' opponents over the next six weeks will need to play perfect and hope the Buckeyes make mistakes to have a chance to win. Going undefeated into the showdown at the Shoe in late November is OSU’s to lose now. The Buckeyes also know - like Miami and USC (and OSU in 1995, '96, and '98) - that every team will bring their best shot now, and no game can be taken for granted. Unlike the 1998 Buckeyes who lost a sure national title at home in a shocker against unranked Michigan State, these Buckeyes have more talent and better leaders on offense, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, and a much better coach on the sidelines who knows how to win championships. Given Tressel’s 4-1 bowl record and 4-1 record against Michigan, perhaps the printers should start making more national champions shirts already, as we have a clear frontrunner finally in 2006.

Speaking of frontrunners, the Heisman race is still in infancy stages but finally has a couple leaders in my opinion. If the Trophy were given away for September, Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe would have to be the winner. Yes he plays in the MAC and yes his team’s one-dimensional nature has hurt them so far, but as far as individual performances go, no running back has ever been better this far into a season. Considering Wolfe gained almost 300 yards of total offense against the aforementioned national title frontrunners at the Horseshoe, it is clear the MAC argument does not hold water. This guy is the real deal, and if he breaks Barry Sanders’ rushing record, he should win the Heisman.

Although Chris Leak and Chad Henne have looked good at times and Brady Quinn is on national TV every week, there are really only two challengers to the Wolfe throne for now. Adrian Peterson almost won the award two years ago and is clearly the only reason Oklahoma has a chance to beat Texas this week and go to the BCS again. The numbers just are not as good as Wolfe's though. The final candidate is OSU QB Troy Smith, and this status is cemented by being the general of one of the best offenses and currently the best team in college football. He needs to avoid the off-games in bad weather like he had against Penn State, but even in that win, he had his best highlight of the year. The only knock on Smith is he is not running enough to be a true dual threat like Vince Young and he has the best WR talent to throw to; but he did run more against Iowa. The title is Wolfe’s to lose, but Smith and Peterson will keep it close.

One other category of frontrunners to mention after September is hot seat coaches. Some coaches have already seemingly locked in their pink slips at the end of the season (or even before), and the demise of their programs has been utterly embarrassing. Topping the list is Miami’s Larry Coker. Riding the coattails and recruits of previous coaches, Coker won one national title and came within a play of a second one in 2002 against Ohio State. Since then, Miami has gone downhill to a point where they were upset late in the conference season to miss the conference title game, then got hammered worse than Miami has ever been in a bowl loss to LSU, and this season started 1-2 against unimpressive Florida State and injured Louisville. And then they barely escaped 14-13 at home against Houston this week. Coker is so fired, as Miami is a shell of the dynasty which almost emerged at the beginning of the decade.

Second on this list is John L. Smith of Michigan State. His teams have always ripped through September only to fall apart after one bad turn of events in Big Ten play the past two seasons. Last year the Spartans held a 17-7 lead at Ohio State and were kicking a field goal to go up 20-7 at the half when it was blocked and returned for a touchdown that cut the halftime lead to 3, and OSU stomped all over Michigan State in the second half. The Spartans then fell apart, losing 5 of their last 7. This year Michigan State choked an 18 point lead at home away against Notre Dame in the fourth quarter, and they followed it up with a home loss to Illinois, a team who had won 1 game in the past 3 seasons of Big Ten play. Smith was seen smacking himself after the game, and with Michigan and Ohio State the next two weeks, Smith might be fired in October if things get worse. Other coaches might be worth mentioning, but these two are in a race to see who can get the first pink slip in 2006-07.

One more note to consider after the opening month. All 119 Division I-A teams came into September with zero losses, but only 13 teams exit the month unscathed. These teams include powerhouses (Ohio State, Louisville, West Virginia, Michigan, USC, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Boise State) as well as surprises (Wake Forest, Missouri, Rutgers, Oregon). Many of these teams still must face each other, so the likelihood of having even two undefeated teams in the BCS title game seems slim. I’m guessing this number slowly dwindles to 5 undefeated teams at the end of October.

After two weeks where the Buckeyes got to play the best game of the week (since they were the only real showdown two weeks in a row, if there were any showdowns), the real showdowns return this week for the first time since “Showdown Saturday.” Part of this occurrence comes because the four top 10 caliber teams in the SEC start playing each other regularly (or other ranked SEC teams), but more showdowns such as the Red River Shootout start popping up in October. The two teams who played the toughest September stretches (Ohio State and Notre Dame) do not have any big battles until late November, so it will be nice to focus on different teams until then. Let’s jump into this week’s best three games.

Some may argue Tennessee and Georgia should be in this slot, but I think that game will be an exposing of Georgia. And while Wake Forest is a cute 5-0 as well, call me when they beat Clemson. That leaves the Pac-10 battle for second place, Oregon at California. Oregon has survived a crazy game against Oklahoma and is thriving after removing Arizona State officially from any chance in conference play. California has recovered from a tough opening loss and also blasted Arizona State two weeks ago. These two teams have top 10 offenses according to yards and points, but they achieve greatness in different ways. Oregon has a nice balance between passing with QB Dixon and RB duo Stewart and Johnson, while California has a mediocre running game and relies a lot on QB Longshore to get the Bears down the field. Thankfully for the Bears, this game is not at Autzen Stadium, as the first to forty points might not take home this victory. I think California is slightly better battle-tested, and I’ll call for the Golden Bear running game to show up enough to control this wild contest. Cal by 7.

The Red River Shootout always seems to be very important, and this year is no different when Texas and Oklahoma meet in Dallas. The atmosphere of this rivalry is unlike most others in that the stadium is split down the middle visibly between fans in burnt orange and those in crimson. Both teams have a non-conference loss this season, so any hopes for a national title are premised on this game (and this will probably decide the Big XII South seeing how unimpressive Texas Tech and Texas A&M look). Both teams, like Cal and Oregon, are in the top 10 teams in points averaged, and that is really impressive for Texas who got shut down in a 24-7 loss to Ohio State. Both teams have inexperienced quarterbacks and great rushing attacks. Texas should not tire as they have a dual rushing attack with Jamaal Charles and Selvin Young, but fatigue never seems to slow Heisman frontrunner Adrian Peterson late in games. I think the Texas defense will be able to stack 8 guys in the box and force Oklahoma into uncomfortable passing situations, while doing the same to Texas may not be as effective (freshman Colt McCoy seems to be getting better under pressure as the weeks go on). McCoy has the better receivers and the better defense, so I’ll take Texas by 17 in a shocking blowout.

The game of the week unsurprisingly comes from the SEC, when LSU comes into Florida on Saturday evening. LSU lucks into the toughest two road games in the SEC coming early in the season, and they were unsuccessful in a 7-3 battle at Auburn. Florida barely escaped the Tennessee game and has gotten to prepare for LSU ever since. The Bayou Bengals cannot afford to lose this game if they hope to have any conference title hopes (Auburn is not likely to lose 3 to fall behind LSU), while Florida is not eager to give up their undefeated season or national title hopes. I think on the home field of the Swamp, Chris Leak will step up in the pressure situation. I do not expect Heisman numbers from Jamarcus Russell or Chris Leak against these defenses, but both will not be prone to making too many mistakes. I like Florida’s intangibles, and they win by 3.

GOTW Record To Date: 10-5
Last Week: 1-2

Fitzy’s Top 10 – Week 6
1. Ohio State (5-0)
2. Michigan (5-0)
3. USC (4-0)
4. Auburn (5-0)
5. Florida (5-0)
6. West Virginia (4-0)
7. Texas (4-1)
8. Louisville (4-0)
9. LSU (4-1)
10. Tennessee (4-1)

I’m not one to condone sports betting, but did you see Ohio State is a 44-point favorite to beat Bowling Green this week? OSU has covered the spread in all 5 games this year, but they have never beaten anyone under Tressel by more than 43 (50-7 against San Jose State) and I really have trouble thinking OSU will cover this spread. Seems like Las Vegas is just trying to make OSU not cover... But anyways, like I said, I’m not a gambler so perhaps this is not so far-fetched. Have a great weekend!

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