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September 16, 2008

SCS.comWith the best week of non-conference football behind us now, it is time to turn the national spotlight to regional battles and conference play. Much like the broad swath of country flooded or blacked out by Hurricane Ike this weekend, quite a few teams and conferences were blown back to the starting block this weekend. After watching the ACC and Big East struggle mightily in the first two weeks, the misery continued in other parts of the country. Before jumping into the meat of my point, let me send a quick word of admiration for all the power company employees and rescue operations going on in Texas all the way up to my neck of the woods in the Great Lakes. Without your help, most of us could not enjoy the sport that we use every Saturday to get away from it all. So thanks to all of you!

First and foremost on the docket was the showdown in the Los Angeles Coliseum. USC became the clear frontrunner for the BCS Championship by thoroughly dominating a very strong Ohio State squad. Praise should be given to the Trojans and Pete Carroll, but that can be dished out over the remainder of the season. The flip side of the game was Ohio State stumbling for the third straight year on the biggest national stage possible, but unlike the LSU “road game” in January, this one was never even close. Ohio State (according to pro talent) has top-3 talent alongside Florida and USC, yet the players looked absolutely overmatched by their “equals” on Saturday night. Ohio State’s offense the past two weeks has been abysmal, and the Silver Bullet defense is not playing anything like the units in 2002 and 2006 that dominated games. Jim Tressel had a good gameplan switching quarterbacks to throw off the USC defense, but the gameplan got too lazy in the second half and allowed the Trojans to successfully blitz every time one Mr. Boeckman took a snap. Still, the worst loss in 14 years has to beg the question where do the Buckeyes go from here? A roadtrip to suddenly-favorite Wisconsin looms in three weeks and the Buckeyes must find a way to instill some rage and excitement in their players who currently look lethargic and beaten-down. My advice: go read some national newspapers OSU. If that does not make your blood boil, there’s no solution and this team will likely struggle just to get to a January 1 bowl game let alone the BCS.

The Big Ten conference as a whole also did not exactly have a banner day, but things are not as bad as some would say. The day started great with an Illinois escape of Louisiana and Iowa completely shutting down rival Iowa State, but things turned sour in the late afternoon. Michigan’s offense has now added turnovers to the continuing list of problems Rich Rodriguez must fix as the Wolverines got crushed by Notre Dame. Purdue was a darkhorse to contend for a title with OSU, UW, and PSU, but the Boilermakers could not stop Oregon from coming back and stealing a win in West Lafayette. Then the Buckeyes took the field in LA, or at least some guys dressed in White and Gray jerseys did. At least Wisconsin got a tough road win at Fresno state, but even the Badgers did not look all that good in the victory. While the supposed leader of the conference was blown away, the rest of the league did not impress. This is bad news for a conference looking to rehabilitate its national image as compared to the Big XII and the SEC.

While it may sound like the Pac-10 picked up the pieces and joined the two power conferences going into regional play, the opposite is true. Outside of Oregon’s narrow escape and USC, the conference was blown back to the starting block again. UCLA, with all its promise and fanfare, laid an absolute egg against BYU in a 59-0 loss. California slept through the first three quarters at a weak Maryland team and could not recover in time to win. Arizona State took the luster off a showdown with Georgia next weekend by choking at home to UNLV. Washington was mauled by Oklahoma and Washington State joined the Huskies at 0-3. Even Arizona and Stanford lost, to New Mexico and TCU, respectively. The Pac-10 is a lot closer to the Big Ten, Big East, and ACC than the elite conferences after this week. Sure, USC is the best looking team in the country, but they will likely not be truly tested again until the BCS game. That could lead to a lack of focus and determination as the season progresses. Signs are not good for the Pac-10.

One last team whose season hopes were blown away this weekend was Fresno State. This home game against Wisconsin was supposed to be the coming out party for a BCS contender, and instead turned into a nightmare loss. Given the prowess of Utah, BYU, ECU, and Boise State, Fresno State had to go undefeated to even hope for BCS consideration. The Bulldogs will still be ranked this year, but the real goals for Pat Hill’s team are as dead as any discussion of Ohio State making the BCS Championship in 2009. Non-BCS conference teams have no margin for error, and so Fresno State is long gone in the discussion of BCS busters.

An interesting case study arises thanks to the two conferences linked by last weekend’s problems as well as Rose Bowl tradition. With the exception of one down year in 2004, Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten for six seasons, racking up 2 shared and 2 outright conference titles against Midwest-style competition. Now all of a sudden, the national game appears to have passed the Buckeyes by as OSU has struggled to win against national-title caliber competition each of the past four seasons (lost to Texas in 2005, beat Michigan but lost to Florida in 2006, lost to LSU in 2007, lost to USC this season). The Big Ten is apparently suffering because nobody is challenging the Buckeyes, or at least that’s the popular theory. USC under Peter Carroll has been flawless in winning six conference titles since 2002 and really never being threatened for the crown except for two unexplainable losses in 2007 that dropped the Trojans into a tie. With the Pac-10 seemingly lagging farther and farther behind as programs like Arizona State, Washington, and UCLA get crushed by national competition, will USC stagnate over the next few years and cause the runaway Pac-10 to be breeding grounds for failure and national embarrassment? If it happens to USC, then the true value of parity and competition will be proven. The SEC and the rest of the country eagerly await the results.

Moving onto this week’s slate of games, the third best game of the week is Boise State traveling west to face Oregon in tough Autzen Stadium. The Ducks are thanking their lucky stars and everybody else for the escape from West Lafayette in double overtime, but perhaps this was a necessary wake-up call to the only team seemingly close to USC in the Pac-10. Sophomore QB Justin Roper has taken the reins well in the 3-0 start and leads the offense. The real problem for the Bronco defense will be stopping both the Ducks running backs LaGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson. On the other side of the ball, RB Ian Johnson will be looking to get his first 100-yard game of the year to take pressure off rookie starting QB Kellen Moore. The Ducks just have something special with the home field advantage and the Day-Glo uniforms which change every week, and the WAC’s last hope for BCS glory disappear with a 14 point Duck win.

The second game of the week sends national powerhouse Georgia across the country to battle the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Bulldogs have the household pro-level talent of QB Matthew Stafford, RB Knowshon Moreno, and WR Mohamed Massaquoi, while the Sun Devils counter with a potent passing attack led by senior QB Rudy Carpenter. Until last week’s shocking home loss to UNLV, Coach Erickson appeared to have ASU headed in the right direction to start competing with USC and other national powers. Arizona State will have to be more balanced against the salty Bulldog defense, or else Carpenter will face more pressure than he has ever faced in his long career. Look for Mark Richt to pull out a few tricks after the Bulldogs struggled last week, and Georgia should find enough big plays to allow their defense to dominate. A 20 point win seals Georgia as another contender for #1.

The top game of the week may not be as hyped as USC-OSU, but a crucial SEC showdown between LSU and Auburn may decide who wins the West Division and has a chance as a national title. Even better, this Saturday night showdown should actually be close! The Bayou Bengals probably hoped to have another tune-up last week before this showdown to clarify whether Andrew Hatch or Jarrett Lee will be the starting signal-caller, but LSU is not afforded that luxury. Auburn will be looking to recover from a mind-boggling game where they scored only a field goal against Mississippi State and yet still managed to win. This game will be decided in the trenches like most SEC battles, and LSU has the better line talent. Still, if Auburn RB Ben Tate outplays LSU RB Charles Scott, that could equalize the talent differential. Despite the hiccup last week, I think Auburn recovers and defends the home turf by knocking off the champs by 3.

2008 GOTW Record to Date: 6-3
Last Week: 2-1

Fitz Top 10 – Week 3
1. USC (2-0)
2. Missouri (3-0)
3. Florida (2-0)
4. Georgia (3-0)
5. Oklahoma (3-0)
6. Wisconsin (3-0)
7. LSU (2-0)
8. Texas Tech (3-0)
9. Auburn (3-0)
10. East Carolina (3-0)
Just Missed: BYU, Texas, Penn State, South Florida, Alabama

As conference play begins, look for the battles to become better and better. Again, I wish all the people from Texas to Michigan the best in recovering from Ike and hopefully we can peacefully enjoy this weekend of college football. See you next week!

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