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September 18, 2007 With all due respect to the ACC and the SEC, the second season of conference play begins in full force this weekend. This is a dramatic time of year because no matter how your favorite team started the season, all records are essentially reset for conference play. While Michigan has struggled to beat anybody with a pulse and Penn State has cruised to a 3-0 start, all of that will be forgotten if the Nittany Lions cannot break an 8-game losing streak to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor this Saturday. Teams like Michigan may not be in the national title hunt, but that’s usually a third goal behind beating rivals and winning conference titles. The true battle for BCS berths begins now.

So what did the college football nation learn from three weeks of mostly out-of-conference play? Every conference from the SEC to the Sun Belt has some teams to be proud of and others to be embarrassed about. The Pac-10 and Big East appeared to be poised to fight the SEC for the crown of best conference after last year’s bowls and two weeks, but the embarrassments of Louisville, UCLA, and Washington last week puts the conference pecking order back in perspective. The Big East should still be competitive enough to be the nation’s second-best conference despite a lack of defense in Louisville, and the Pac-10 could still be a minefield for USC.

The Big XII still has undefeated teams in Norman, Austin, and College Station, but it looks like the same old weak league story as Nebraska and Oklahoma State get rolled. While Ohio State tried to recapture some Big Ten pride in Seattle in week 3, that still did not make up for the many sins of the Big Ten: (1) Wisconsin struggling against the likes of UNLV and The Citadel; (2) Penn State being slow to put away Notre Dame and Buffalo; (3) Iowa getting embarrassed by winless rival Iowa State; (4) Northwestern breaking Duke’s 22 game losing streak at home; and (5) Michigan’s absolute collapse against any team with a pulse.

The ACC has not looked bad outside of Miami’s loss to Oklahoma, but the conference race seems like a forgone conclusion given the impressive starts of Clemson and Boston College. (Speaking of the Eagles, everything in this column applies in reverse. Welcome to the rest of the world and out-of-conference play in week 4 BC.) These three conferences are clearly still a step behind the top 3 in 2007.

The only three non-BCS conference teams still undefeated after Week 3 are Hawaii, Air Force, and Tulsa. Tulsa will almost certainly drop from that list in week 4 against Oklahoma, but the fact remains that this is a very disappointing year for non-BCS teams after holding such high expectations following the Notre Dame and Boise State breakthroughs in 2006. Hawaii and Air Force have narrowly escaped losing already once this season; however, both should be favored in their next few games. Hawaii is the only team left with a real shot to break into the BCS party, and Colt Brennan will need to keep Hawaii’s record spotless in order to remain in the Heisman hunt. If Hawaii makes it to 10-0, the post-Thanksgiving showdowns against Boise State and Washington will be must-see television.

The story of the week in the ACC is a split between Duke winning a game on the road against a BCS opponent and Boston College ripping through Georgia Tech’s “Ramblin Wreck” defense. Wake Forest and Florida State still have the time and talent to win the Atlantic division despite early conference losses, but BC and Clemson are clearly the class of the division. Virginia leads the early Coastal Division race, but that should still come down to the Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech game. Anything can happen though as LSU and Boston College have exposed the two Tech defensive units. The early verdict: Boston College tops emotional Virginia Tech for the conference title.

Everybody has a win in the Big XII including lowly Iowa State (who lost to Northern Iowa and defeated Iowa, so apparently UNI takes the cake for best team in the Hawkeye state). While it is true that half the teams in the conference are undefeated, expectations are a little lower after Nebraska got mauled for the second straight year by USC. Oklahoma is the class of the conference, but could still slip up and lose it all against Texas or Texas A&M. Missouri will try to live up to expectations and make a conference title game this season as a sub-storyline. No matter what happens, the South Division winner will yet again defeat the North Division winner. Early Verdict: Oklahoma over Nebraska.

The Big East had its worst week of 2007 last week with Louisville and Pittsburgh suffering their first losses while Syracuse continues the hopeless struggle. Connecticut absolutely stole a game from weak old Temple as well (while not as high profile as last season’s Oklahoma-Oregon game, the injustice is just as shocking). Still, taking Syracuse out of the mix leaves a couple very decent teams in Connecticut and Pittsburgh on the “lower tier” of the conference. Much like 2006, the conference will probably feature lots of upsets and twists as teams like WVU and Rutgers are not great on the road. Louisville still has enough offense to make the good teams look silly, so it’s too early to call the five team race. Early Verdict: West Virginia takes the crown followed in order by South Florida, Rutgers, Louisville, and Cincinnati.

The Big Ten is perhaps even harder than the Big East to decipher, with everybody’s pre-season darling Michigan falling apart and nobody winning every game impressively. Michigan State and Minnesota were supposed to be the dregs of the conference, but the two teams could not possibly have had more different starts (Minnesota is lucky to have one win, MSU dominant in 3-0 start). Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and even Purdue have enough talent to win the conference. Northwestern, Illinois, and Minnesota are already eliminated from contention, but everyone else is still in it. MSU has to visit Wisconsin, OSU, Iowa, and Purdue, so they are eliminated by schedule. Wisconsin and Purdue have easier schedules than Ohio State, but the one team that stands out in quality of wins and easiest schedule is Penn State. The Nittany Lions only have one tough road game against Michigan (this week), and then every other contending team has to travel through Happy Valley. While Penn State may drop one to the trio of Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Purdue, 7-1 is more than enough to win this conference. Early Verdict: Penn State followed by Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan.

The Pac-10: can anybody stop USC? This has been the question of the past 6 seasons, and the question remains the same as long as Pete Carroll out-recruits every team in the nation. The schedule reverses from 2006 which means the Trojans have to manage to win at Nebraska, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon, California, and Arizona State to make the BCS Championship. As good as USC is, that’s too tough a gauntlet. The home schedule is a joke this season, but teams like Oregon State and UCLA snuck up on the Trojans last season. Early Verdict: California splits with USC and wins head-to-head, but both go to BCS bowls.

And finally we come to the home of the current national champion, the SEC. Tennessee and Auburn have been more than disappointing, but the surprising play of Alabama and South Carolina under legendary head coaches makes up for that. Florida and LSU are the class of the conference though after absolutely destroying ranked opposition in the first three weeks. LSU hosting Florida starts off a great slate of October battles to shape the conference race. LSU gets two weeks to prepare for their only rough road game at Alabama, so it seems hard to predict anything other than a Florida-LSU rematch in December. That would be a true blessing to college football to get to see those two teams do battle twice this season, but Alabama-Florida would not be too surprising either. Early Verdict: Florida and LSU give each other losses but both make BCS bowls. Florida the SEC Champ in the title game and LSU in the Rose Bowl.

While all three games of the week could conceivably come from the SEC, Georgia at Alabama will have to be left out in the cold this time around. Kentucky goes from the frying pan of Louisville right into the fire this week at Arkansas, who is steaming after a loss at Alabama. QB Andre Woodson did not disappoint in a battle of quarterbacks with Brian Brohm, but Woodson will need continued help from RB Rafael Little to keep the pressure off. Everything in Arkansas runs through DMC, Darren McFadden. Arkansas gave up quite a bit against Alabama, so the passing lanes could be wide open for Woodson. Expect McFadden to have another big game though, and this time the home crowd will make enough of a difference to ruin Kentucky’s conference opener. Arkansas in a nail-biter by 3.

As mentioned above, the only real road obstacle standing between Penn State and a Big Ten title happens to be Michigan. Penn State has lost 8 straight to Big Blue including a last second hail mary loss at Ann Arbor in 2005 that turned out to cost PSU an undefeated season. This is a different Michigan team though, even with Mike Hart healthy and another promising freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett taking the reins. Penn State is now the favorite thanks to actually having a defense (and a good one at that), while Michigan struggles to find a defensive identity. PSU also has a nicely balanced offensive attack, with QB Anthony Morelli and the dual threat rushing attack of RB Rodney Kinlaw and RB Austin Scott leading the way. Mike Hart will find the sledding tough against the Nittany Lion defense, but the key will be how Mallett deals with the certain heavy blitz package Joe Paterno will throw at him. Michigan earns back a little respectability in this one, but the real Top 10 team and conference front-runner will be in the white jerseys. PSU by 11.

The game of the week pits two undefeated SEC teams together as South Carolina goes to LSU. QB Blake Mitchell has been serviceable for the Gamecocks, but the real stars are RB’s Cory Boyd and Mike Davis. On the other offensive unit, QB Matt Flynn and WR Early Doucet have had an extra week of rest after sitting against MTSU last week. Steve Spurrier can make the most out of nothing talent-wise, so expect South Carolina to be more competitive than Virginia Tech was two weeks ago. Still, LSU has perhaps the best defense in the country this season and South Carolina is having trouble putting points on the board. Look for LSU to get a couple early breaks and make the Gamecocks desperate, which will compound the problems and lead to a LSU 24 point wacking.

GOTW Record to Date: 6-3 (.666)
Last Week: 2-1 (yet again)

Fitz Top 10 – Week 3
1. USC (2-0)
2. LSU (3-0)
3. Oklahoma (3-0)
4. West Virginia (3-0)
5. Florida (3-0)
6. California (3-0)
7. Texas (3-0)
8. Ohio State (3-0)
9. Penn State (3-0)
10. Wisconsin (3-0)
Just Missed: Rutgers, Boston College, Oregon, Alabama, South Carolina

Have a good week!

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