Tuesday, September 26, 2006

College football: the first month

Now that the season is four weeks old, it's time to take a look at what's happened so far.

Beginning with a sad note: Rice defensive back Dale Lloyd collapsed and died during a workout in Houston yesterday afternoon. Lloyd, who saw playing time against Houston at the season's beginning, was 19 years old. The cause of death remains a mystery and autopsy results are pending.

Under new coach Todd Graham, the Owls were looking at 2006 as a season of rebirth. And, for a short while, as they jumped out to a 16-point lead against the Cougars in the season's first game, the future indeed looked promising for the Owls. But the Coogs fought back to scratch out a 31-30 win over the crosstown rivals. That demoralizing loss, as well as a killer out-of-conference schedule that included games against UCLA, Texas and Florida State, has resulted in an 0-4 start for the Owls. But the death of a fellow player is exponentially bigger blow for this team than anything that could have happened on the field.

My heart goes out to Lloyd's family as well as the Rice Owls football team.

So how have things changed since I wrote my preseason analysis one month ago? One thing hasn't changed: in terms of national championship contenders, Ohio State appears to be in the driver's seat right now. They remain the top team in both the AP and USA Today polls and their victory over Texas in Austin a few weeks ago proved that they are the real deal. They can reasonably be expected to run the table through their weaker-than-usual Big Ten slate on their way to their big November showdown with Michigan (#6 in both polls), although Stewart Mandell suggests that Iowa (#13 in both polls) might pose a challenge to both teams.

Auburn has moved into second place in the AP poll and is third in the USA Today coaches' poll; their hard-fought 7-3 win over LSU a couple of weeks ago suggests that they are the team to beat in the SEC but they still have showdowns against Florida and Georgia looming on the horizon. USC is third in the AP poll and second in the coaches' poll and is most certainly in the hunt following a quality victory over Nebraska a couple of weeks ago. The Trojans' big test probably won't come until November, when they face Oregon (#14 AP, #12 USA Today), California (#20 in both polls) and Notre Dame (#12 AP, #14 USA Today) on consecutive weekends.

West Virginia is fourth in both polls, but their weak schedule continues to work against them in the minds of the voters and their less-than-impressive 27-10 win over a bad East Carolina squad doesn't help. That November 2 showdown against Louisville (#8 in both polls) gets bigger every week. Florida is fifth in both polls and is very much a contender after squeaking out a one-point victory over a resurgent Tennessee program a couple of weeks ago. They have a tough stretch of Alabama, LSU, that road trip to Auburn and the Jacksonville showdown against Georgia ahead of them, however.

Aside from Michigan, Oregon and Louisville, Georgia (#10 AP, #9 USA Today) and Virginia Tech (#11 AP, #10 USA Today) are also all undefeated and still in contention right now as well.

By virtue of their losses, preseason contenders Texas and LSU have probably already lost their chance to play for the national championship even though both remain top ten teams in both polls. The same can probably be said for Notre Dame following their crushing loss to Michigan two weeks ago, although they managed to save their season, if not their championship hopes, with an impressive 19-point comeback against Michigan State last Saturday. Oklahoma (16 in both polls) is still reeling from controversial loss to Oregon but gets a week off prior to their annual Cotton Bowl showdown against Texas that will decide the top team in the Big 12.

As I noted in my previous post, another preseason contender, Miami, is not even in either poll anymore. In terms of teams expected to be in the hunt for the national championship when the season began, that's probably the biggest surprise of the year so far.

TCU, sitting at #17 in the AP poll and #15 in the USA Today poll, is the highest-ranked non-BCS team and is looking to crash the January BCS party. Right now, I wouldn't bet against them.

So, a month into the season, is the picture any clearer as to whom will be playing for the national championship in Arizona in January? Absolutely not! There's still a lot of football left to be played. I wouldn't have it any other way.

My other team, North Texas, isn't doing very well right now. As meaningful as their 24-6 victory over SMU - a fellow Metroplex institution that has historically held UNT in low regard - earlier this month might have been, they're still 1-3; taking away the SMU game, their anemic offense is only managing 7.7 points a game. The good news for the Mean Green is that now they begin their Sun Belt conference schedule, where they've historically had success. The bad news is that UNT is no longer the dominant team in that weak conference that they once were.

And finally, how about Rutgers? The Knights are 4-0 and are ranked in both polls. It's a bit of a shock (although I'm even more shocked by the fact that my Cougars are also receiving votes in both polls), but coach Greg Schiano and his players are finally experiencing success after decades of hardship. Good for them.

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