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September 25, 2007 One weekend remains in the opening month of the college football season, and the stage has been set for a fantastic slate of conference games in October. Looking back on the past four weeks, the only real theme has been a high number of upsets and near upsets, more so than usual for the early-season. For every Appalachian State-Michigan or Syracuse-Louisville, there seems to be 3 “what might have been” games. A quick rundown of these close calls can separate the true national title contenders from the pretenders in September.

The Top Contenders

USC leads the way so far in 2007, not being challenged at all at Nebraska or against Washington State. The road schedule is tough with Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona State, but the Trojans are the real deal. LSU had something like a close call in the first half against South Carolina, but have dominated all opponents overall including Virginia Tech and the aforementioned Gamecocks. No trouble this week, but after that it gets rough with Florida and Kentucky back-to-back. Oklahoma has had no close calls, and we’ll know more about them in two weeks against Texas. West Virginia is the final team in this top group, only struggling in one half at their rival Marshall. The combination of Pat White and Steve Slaton will be tough to stop all year. These four teams have all the weapons and are not playing down to competition so far in 2007.

The Second Tier

Each of the following teams can certainly make the national title game, but some warning signs have shown early. Florida is getting used to SEC play and the national title target on their back after escaping Mississippi with a 6 point win last weekend, and will need to help Tim Tebow on offense to stay undefeated. A week after dismantling Tennessee, California inexplicably needed a comeback to beat Colorado State by 6. The Golden Bears need to improve defensively to stay with the likes of Oregon and USC. Rutgers has the only defense worth mentioning in the Big East, and that just might let their offense keep up with Louisville, Cincinnati, and West Virginia (and no close calls so far). Boston College makes a surprise appearance up here after racing out to a 3-0 ACC start with impressive wins over Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Matt Ryan is enough of a playmaker in a weak league like the ACC to perhaps run the table despite a rough last 5 games.

The Dark Horses

While some of these teams are indeed ranked in the Top 10, close calls and tough schedules doom the following lot to outsider status. First up is Oregon, whose 39-7 win at Michigan was no fluke even with the Wolverine injuries. No real close games yet, but the Ducks will face their first truly good opponent this week (Cal). Second on this list is Ohio State, who has a championship-caliber defense and a troubled offense. The Buckeyes need to continue getting new skill players in tough situations so that when Purdue, Penn State, and Wisconsin come knocking, the Bucks are ready. OSU also needs to stop coming out slow as they did against Akron and Washington. Fellow Big Ten frontrunner Wisconsin also fits this category after much too narrow comeback wins against lesser opponents UNLV, The Citadel, and Iowa. The Badgers have gotten lucky so far while making plays when it counts, so perhaps they have the winner’s instinct. Texas rounds out this list much like Wisconsin, with three way-too-close calls against lesser opponents Arkansas State, TCU, and Central Florida. Colt McCoy hit his stride against Rice this week, but Oklahoma looms in 2 weeks.

Are You Kidding?

Clemson has the usual hot September start, only challenged by a quality Florida State team. Still, this team looks like many other Tiger teams in the past, and they all seem to lose 1-2 games in the middle of the season inexplicably. Kentucky joins this list as the true dark horse in the SEC behind Florida and LSU. The October schedule is brutal (at South Carolina, LSU, and Florida in consecutive weeks), but Andre Woodson has proven he will test every defense in the SEC. Hawaii busts into this list on the back of Colt Brennan’s gaudy numbers. The narrow escape at Louisiana Tech is troubling, as is the non-BCS conference affiliation. Still, they have an outside chance. The final Cinderella is Purdue, who might steal a weak Big Ten this season by missing Wisconsin, hosting Ohio State, and going to Penn State for the only tough road game. The Boilermaker offense seems unstoppable, but we will see when they host the Buckeyes in 2 weeks.

I know that the above 16 teams are undefeated, and while there are 7 other undefeated teams so far (for the record: Arizona State, UConn, Michigan State, Cincinnati, South Florida, Missouri, and Kansas) and a handful of high quality one loss teams exist, the rankings above are just where the national title contenders stand right now. Every week that will adjust itself as teams play it all out on the field. This week should remove a few more from the ranks of the undefeated teams, but college football will enter October with many title contenders.

Although my article will be a little short due to personal time constraints this week, I do have to comment on Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s post-game blowup at the media conference over a Saturday Oklahoma newspaper article criticizing starting QB Bobby Reid. While the writer, Jenni Carlson, likely had some facts wrong, Gundy was completely across the line when he went out there to defend his player instead of answering questions about the big win the Cowboys just finished. Gundy is completely within his public speaking discretion to try and re-direct the heat to himself from the media, but he has to understand that the media has an equal free speech right to report on and write about the student-athletes leading their teams, not just the bad ones. Everybody will move on from the incident rather quietly I suspect, but Gundy should clam down and brush off criticism of his football kids. Jenni Carlson respects all the hours studying and practicing every starting QB in college football spends each week, but part of getting better is responding to constructive criticism. At least Gundy finally gave us a memorable soundbyte from the 2007 season, which had only been highlighted by Joe Paterno’s lack of technological prowess before now.

Moving to a good slate of games for Week 5, the first game of the week is Michigan State at Wisconsin. The Spartans have an absolutely murderous slate of conference road games, but the defense has played strong under new leader Mark Dantonio. On the other sideline, Bret Bielema tries to continue his amazing success in his second year at Wisconsin. This is the Big Ten opener for MSU, while Wisconsin escaped a home game with Iowa last weekend. Spartan QB Brian Hoyer may struggle against the Badger defense, which would allow them to stack the box and make the sledding tough for both RB Javon Ringer and RB Jehuu Caulcrick. Wisconsin has more talent but has played down to competition thus far, so expect another close game unless RB P.J. Hill breaks the Spartan defense early. Wisconsin narrowly escapes again, this time by 7.

The second game of the week is the first titanic struggle in the Big East race, that being West Virginia going to South Florida on Friday night. Everybody knows that the Mountaineers can put up serious points and yards on anybody with QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton, but what will be interesting is the other side of the ball. Bulls QB Matt Grothe has been solid this season, but the problem is the lack of a rushing attack. The Bulls need to establish a good running attack to keep WVU off the field as much as possible. Despite hanging with Auburn two weeks ago and this game being down south, WVU will be more prepared than last season for this game. West Virginia sweats it in the first half, then cruises to a 21 point win.

The final and best game of the week has to be California at Oregon. Both teams not only have a serious claim to threatening USC (both get the Trojans at home later this season), but they might also have a claim to the BCS Championship game. This contest is an elimination game for that dream, and may eliminate one team from conference contention early. With tons on the line, California veterans QB Nathan Longshore and RB Justin Forsett should lead a nice balanced attack. Oregon will run the usual wide-open offense to open up lots of running lanes for RB Jonathan Stewart and QB Dennis Dixon. Dixon has also been one of the best quarterbacks in the entire nation thus far, completing over two-thirds of his passes for 932 yards and 11 TD’s. Neither team has faced an offense as good as the one they will face this week, but California has just a bit more close game and big game experience. Nevertheless, Oregon is playing at home and that means a lot. This one goes to overtime, where Cal steals a big win by 3.

GOTW Record to Date: 7-5 (.583)
Last Week: 1-2

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

As always, have a fantastic week!

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