Tuesday, September 30

September Top 25

What started out with a reasonably chalk four weeks (it's not an upset when Phil Steele calls ECU over WVU) went completely nutso in week 5, and now we're wondering if another 2007 is in store. We thought this season was reminiscent of 2004; it might more resemble 2003 - when USC lost in week 5 before turning it on to close out the season on fire, Oklahoma ran through the Big 12 looking unbeatable until championship week (hello, Missouri?) and a Nick Saban-coached team powered through the SEC behind a better-than-expected defense, game managing senior QB, and group of talented freshmen running backs. Of course the real LSU is still in contention as well. No, we know better than to start looking at bowl matchups in October, although pointing out these similarities is fun nonetheless.

1. Oklahoma
When Oklahoma faced off against then-#24 TCU, the Horned Frogs had the #1 statistical defense in the NCAA. And it took a unit like that to hold the Sooners to 35 points - the only time all season they've been held under 50. Sam Bradford has compiled a 209.1 QB rating, is sixth nationally in passing ypg, and averages 11.2 ypa, which as far as I can tell is third nationally among QBs with over 50 attempts. His 16 TDs are third in the nation. Manuel Johnson has emerged as the receiver of choice, as evidenced by his 3 TD catches (each over 50 yards) against TCU. Overall the Sooners are fifth nationally in scoring offense and 13th in scoring defense - the latter being impressive because OU has faced two decent offenses.

2. Alabama
Rooooolllllllll Taaaaaahhhhhde!
In five games, Alabama has looked impressive in four - none moreso than their 41-30 defeat of preseason favorite Georgia which started out with the Tide scoring 31 points on five first half possessions then coasting to victory. John "Holmes" Parker Wilson hasn't been asked to do much, and that may be a big reason for the offense's success. What the Tide have done is rack up 215 ypg on the ground for a +160 yardage differential! Glen Coffee has been the workhorse, averaging just under 100 ypg, but the top three rushers all average over 5 yards per carry. This rush defense is ranked third nationally despite facing James Davis, CJ Spiller, and Knowshon Moreno. (yes, we recognize that Spiller and Davis combined for 8 carries... still, when they did run the ball, they averaged just 2.5 yards a pop) Moreno in turn was held to 3.8 ypc, again not touching the ball nearly enough. These low rushing totals can in part be attributed to Saban's pro-style approach to defensive line play - linemen covering two gaps rather than the typical one in college. We recall that in 2003, his LSU Tigers gave up just 2.4 ypc and got significant pressure out of the front four. Perhaps opposing offenses recognize the futility of running against Alabama, as the Tide face the fewest opponent's rushing attempts per game. Offensively, Alabama isn't outstanding in any one area statistically, but they do rank 19th in scoring and 17th in rushing despite facing a couple of solid-to-outstanding defenses.

3. LSU
The LSU Tigers have shown their trademark fearlessness that made them the 2007 national champions. Against Auburn, Les Miles called halfback passes and threw the ball in the red zone late in the game when a FG would win it (Auburn - remember this from a year ago?) and the result is a 4-0 mark. Charles Scott has become the feature back, averaging 133 ypg on the ground and contributing another 9.2 in receptions. Though the QB situation has been somewhat volatile, Jarret Lee has emerged as the #1 guy through his performance against Auburn, and Brandon LaFell has been a strong go-to receiver after having questionable hands early in his career. The defensive front four is downright scary, completely shutting down Ben Tate and Brad Lester despite Auburn making a real effort to run the ball - overall, they yield under 70 ypg on the ground.

4. Missouri
You won't find a scarier offense than the one at Missouri. The Tigers rank second in the nation in both points and yards per game, and they're getting production from a number of different guys. Chase Daniel is completing 76% of his passes for a shade over 10 ypa, with a 12:1 ratio. He's been sacked just once and contributed heavily with his legs against Illinois. Jeremy Maclin averages just under 100 ypg receiving, and has scored six touchdowns in receptions, rushes, and kickoff returns - barely missing he end zone on a punt return against Illinois, but advancing the ball inside the 20 to set up the TD that really put the game beyond doubt in the third quarter. Chase Coffman has emerged as an outstanding tight end, averaging 94 ypg receiving, and with his size, hands, and surprising athletic ability, he is almost impossible to cover. The surprise for this unit has been Derrick Washington, a punishing force in the ground game averaging 90 ypg rushing and 20 ypg receiving. The defense, however, has shown prolonged lapses in focus which has been an issue for this team in the past.

5. Texas
We knew they'd be 4-0 in September; what we didn't know was that they'd look so good doing it. I said in the preseason that the barometer for success in 2008 was Colt McCoy. Thus far: 80% completions, 10.2 ypa, 14:1 ratio, 2 sacks taken, 278 yards rushing (8.2 ypc), 4 rush TD. He now leads the Big 12 is passing efficiency rating. Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley are playing as well as any receiver tandem in the country, which is impressive considering the receiver tandems in this conference alone. What's lacking is a third receiving threat, and at some point in their remaining (brutal) schedule, McCoy cannot be the only player averaging over 50 ypg on the ground. The defense also looks sound, allowing a shade under 11 ppg and they are second in the nation in rush defense, but keep in mind that the opposition has been extremely weak.

6. Penn State
The Nittany Lions continue their tradition of strong defense, ranking 12th in scoring and 14th in yardage. The group is very well-rounded, ranking 28th against the pass and 15th against the run. Offensively, Daryll Clark has really opened up the unit that now averages over 500 ypg and is 4th in the nation in scoring at 49.8 ppg. The lack of a primary receiver is noted, but on the ground Evan Royster (103 ypg, 7.8 ypc) and Stephfon Green (63 ypg, 6.8 ypc) and a tough duo to stop, and even Clark is chipping in 26 ypg on the ground. Penn State with a good offense is scary.

7. BYU
Speaking of scary offenses, look out for Max Hall and BYU. Hall has compiled a QB rating of 180.8, averages 321 ypg, and has a 15:2 ratio passing despite facing two Pac 10 opponents in their four games so far. TCU was not able to handle Oklahoma's passing attack, and Utah has not looked as strong as BYU thus far, so these guys are looking like a very strong candidate for a possible BCS buster with UCLA and Washington out of the way. The Cougars have also not allowed a single point in their last two games, with their only weak defensive outing coming against Washington and the mobile Jake Locker. BYU does not face an offensive player of that caliber for the rest of this season, so their defensive outlook is also very strong.

8. Georgia
Thus far, Georgia has not turned in the kind of performance we were expecting after a strong close to the 2008 season. Getting dominated by Alabama was bad, but we can expect a bad week out of any team, and Saban's teams are known for dominating line play. But what about the poor performance against South Carolina, a team completely lacking an offense yet were within a few yards of tying the game late in the 4th quarter? What about Matthew Stafford's relatively low QB rating (for top 10 caliber teams) and Mohamed Massaquoi still unable to average even 50 ypg despite defenses now having to account for standout freshman AJ Green? Knowshon Moreno has been strong, but the offense has been unable to turn him into a 100 ypg back, to say nothing of the yardage that a back of his caliber should be averaging. This team seems like they're sleepwalking a bit, and as Alabama showed that is not going to cut it in an extremely tough SEC.

9. South Florida
USF has had some up games and some down games, but managed to walk away from September 5-0. First let's talk about the good. The Bulls rallied from a 20-3 deficit to take a 2 TD lead on a tough Kansas squad, saw Kansas tie the game, but were able to come back to win by a FG. In this game, Matt Grothe rose to the occasion, found A.J. Love and Taurus Johnson for a pair of TDs and ran another one in himself, the latter being a critical drive to end the first half as KU had just extended their lead to 17. However, Grothe has yet to be consistent week-to-week, and the offense has yet to develop even a 50 ypg rusher! Indeed these problems were evident as USF got into a close game against Florida International, and had to overcome a -2 TO performance against UCF which also included two missed FGs. We'd like to see a better performance, but frankly what they've played like so far is good enough to win the Big East.

10. USC
We knew the Virginia game was a red herring, as UVA has since struggled to beat Richmond and been blown out by Duke. However, the Trojans' performance on both sides of the ball was completely dominant against Ohio State, and playing at that level there are very few teams who could hang with SC. Then we saw another USC, one probably buying into the hype surrounding them and unable to stop a 5'6" running back who gashed their proud defense, while the offense showed up only after halftime and could not muster enough points to make the comeback. We know this team is extremely talented, but we're not sure that Mark Sanchez is the kind of leader that Chase Daniel, Colt McCoy, or even Matt Grothe is - so we're not sure how the Trojan offense is going to respond in such games. On the other hand, the defensive leadership of Rey Mauluga cannot be questioned, and his group came out fired up in the second half of the team's losing effort.

11. Ohio State
We really don't like placing Buckeye this highly, and clearly there's a gap between 10 and 11 here. However, the offense is much better with Terrelle Pryor, who leads the team in total rushing yards and averages just under 60 ypg despite limited opportunities early on. Now that the offense has been handed over to him, and now that Beanie Wells is healthy and back on the field, we think the offense will be okay. I don't know what to think of the defense after watching them get gashed by USC, but remember that this group has also been gashed by Florida and LSU, but they thrive in conference play. Penn State and Illinois are the only other Big Ten teams fielding potent offenses this year (Illinois no defense though), so Buckeye is in good shape through November.

12. Texas Tech
Graham Harrell is quietly leading the NCAA in yards per game passing but has not turned in the monster numbers we'd expect given the Red Raiders' September schedule, and that is why we have ranked this group outside the top 10. Phoning it in beats Nevada, but the offense will need to be sharp for this team to stand any chance against Oklahoma and Texas, as the defense has not improved by a whole lot since last season.

13. Florida
Miami exposed it, and Ole Miss capitalized on it. Despite Tim Tebow, and for all the speedy backs and receivers this team is loaded with, they have a sub-par offensive line by SEC standards. In a conference known for tough, physical defenses, that's not going to get the job done. Florida's own defense has played well in three of four games, but the offense does not seem capable of providing the explosive effort needed when the Gators' D does have an off week, as they did last Saturday. LSU and Georgia are looming on the horizon - two teams with excellent defensive fronts and quality secondaries.

14. Utah
After upsetting Michigan then rolling UNLV and Utah State, Utah's pace has slowed a little. It's only a little - they did still beat both Air Force and Weber State, but had more difficulty than we'd like. Still, they are 5-0, so that's that. Brian Johnson has performed well for the most part, although his ratio is a bit low at 8:5. Matt Asiata has stepped up to lead a two-headed rushing attack along with Darrell Mack that averages 177 ypg - the Utes havea very physical attack for a midmajor. Defensively this group is untested, but that's about to change as Oregon State comes to town this week.

15. Auburn
Install the spread, get a mobile QB... the more things change, the more they stay the same. Auburn still seems incapable of putting together a quality drive, despite having a wealth of talent at tailback. This group is averaging just 13 ppg in their last three games - all against SEC opponents - and that just will not get the job done in such a tough conference. Credit the defense for allowing just 6 TDs in 5 games, as their job is made all the tougher by the fact that the offense cannot stay on the field.

16. Kansas
Whatever small dropoff Todd Reesing and the offense have had isn't the real concern here. Kerry Meier has stepped up to become the team's leading receiver, completing a brilliant transition from QB, and Dezmon Briscoe continues to be a big target. The defense, which was statistically in the top five a season ago, clearly misses Talib and McClintock. The Jayhawks are 18th in scoring despite facing four extremely easy opponents, and in their top 25 matchup against USF, the defense was unable ot stop Matt Grothe once he got going.

17. Boise State
The unbeaten Broncos jumped onto the national radar when they defeated the Oregon Ducks in Autzen in a game not as close as its final score. Defense leads this team as, through 11 quarters they had given up just 27 points before Oregon tacked on a few scores late in the game. Kellen Moore has performed well at QB as defenses continue to stack against Ian Johnson, averaging 74 ypg rushing.

18. Oklahoma State
In compiling a 4-0 record against a very weak schedule, Oklahoma State's offensive balance has forced us to take them seriously. Kendall Hunter averages 154 ypg rushing to lead an offense that gains 340 yards per game on the ground alone, tops in the nation. Zac Robinson has a QB rating of 192.4, and his favorite target Dez Bryant is pulling down 148 ypg in receptions. Bryant has also returned a punt for a TD. We're suspicious about the defense's abilities, but with a talented trio like this on offense, they are going to be tough for anyone outside the top 10 to deal with.

19. Vandy
The Commies have arrived! Vanderbilt has knocked off South Carolina and Ole Miss to get off to a 2-0 start in SEC play, 4-0 overall. Vanderbilt runs a combination of zone read and triple option, but their Achilles is the complete inability to pass the ball, throwing for just 80 ypg and having QB ratings below 130 despite defenses generally disregarding their passing game. However, Chris Nickson has proven an effective force leading the offense, and the defense has come up with big stops such as their goalline stand to preserve the victory against Ole Miss. The schedule is notably lacking both Alabama and LSU; beating Mississippi State and Duke could provide the Commies with a bowl-eligible record!

20. Wisconsin
Just as we were taking Badger Badger Badger! seriously, they drop an offensive egg at Michigan. UW had four first-half drives start in Michigan territory and walked away with 9 points. The 19-0 lead seemed enough at the time, but as we'd expect, you leave that many points on the field and it's going to come back to bite you. Now, PJ Hill and the rushing attack are very good, and the Badgers' defense did shut down the Fresno State offense all game and Michigan's offense for at least a half. (not that the latter is horribly impressive) However, Evridge has not been impressive and the Badgers' own secondary may be vulnerable. They've earned a ranking, but are just as likely to stay about here or to drop out entirely.

21. Oregon
Oregon's stats are inflated from killing the Washingtons, but they've got that nice road win at Purdue. I don't know how Boise State managed to embarass them at Autzen, but I'm more worried that their QBs keep dropping like flies. LeGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson has provided a strong running presence for the #4 ground attack in the country, and in four of their games they look like they've got one of the best offensive lines in the conference.

22. Fresno State
After handling Rutgers easily, Fresno State lost to Wisconsin, went to 2OT to beat Toledo, and struggled against UCLA before emerging victorious. Now, when Steele says they're going to lose to Toledo, I'm frankly impressed that the Bulldogs could thwart his will. However, the tale of the tape shows that this is a team who is actually getting outgained overall and are probably lucky not to be 2-2! October is a very easy month after a fairly difficult September, so it's time for the Dawgs to get some momentum going. Ryan Mathews and his 117 ypg rushing might be a good thing to build upon.

23. Va Tech
After a close loss to ECU, Virginia Tech has won four straight games, and for that we kinda have to rank them. We don't like it, particularly since three of those games were settled by 7 points or less, all against unranked opposition, but meh. Oh, they're also getting outgained by 36 ypg and the two QBs have a combined 1:5 ratio. Good times.

24. Tulsa
How can you not rank the #1 offensive team? Tulsa is scoring the most points (54/gm) and gaining the most yards (600/gm) of any team in the country, led by David Johnson and the country's #4 passing attack. Johnson has a 227 rating, averages 12.8 yards per attempt (fuck it, I'm going deep) and his 19 touchdowns lead all QBs. Brennan Marion is the leading receiver at over 100 ypg, and the #2 guy's name is Slick Shelley. Is that not perfectly suited for porno? Westerns? Both? The defense has been getting gashed, but who cares?

25. UConn
The Huskies got into a close one with Temple, edged out the Baylor "Cream" Bears off a WR dropping an easily catchable ball in the red zone, and survived Louisville on a late defensive touchdown. These are not quality opponents to be struggling against. Nonetheless, they are 5-0, and we'll be damned if we're going to rank Wake on the basis of beating Florida State then losing to Navy. Though it does say something that they're an underdog against unranked North Carolina. (The SextonCannon is coming.)

Keep an Eye on:

Ball State
Ball State could be the team most likely to finish unbeaten, because good god look at their schedule. If they win at Toledo next week... hmmm.

They've looked absolutely fantastic against everybody but Maryland. Yeah, we still haven't figured that out, and probably never will. Jahvid Best's dislocated shoulder could cause them to drop a game against the Arizonas if he can't play.

The Wildcats have the #1 defense in the country (5.5 ypg) and they're unbeaten! So why no love? Well, for one, we don't think that's credible. The stat is as much a testament to their desire to hold Norfolk State to just 3 points, dammit as it is of actually having a top ten defense. We'll see how the game against Alabama goes this weekend. Offensively, there's not a lot going on here.

Whatever the rankings say, Illinois has faced the toughest schedule in the country so far with two top ten opponents. Both were losses, neither was embarassing though. Juice Williams is clearly improved as a passer (139.4 rating, 226 ypg) and again, we repeat that this is against two strong teams to go with the two cupcakes. The rest of the schedule includes 2 top 25 opponents and 6 teams who shouldn't be that much of a challenge.

Michigan State
Javon Ringer is a one-man offense, averaging 179 ypg on the ground! MSU is so impressed with his ability that, to go with 37 carries per game, they've got him returning kickoffs. This team lost a 10 point decision at Cal and beyond that they're 4-1.

Credible or not, at 5-0 we've got to mention them. Aaaand yeah... we'll go into more detail after they've seen Purdue and MSU.

Oregon State
They lost a weird game against Stanford and got blown the fuck out by Penn State. Since then they've only beaten Hawaii... and USC. Lyle Moevao may not be the greatest QB, but with the Rodgers brothers, Sammie Stroughter, and Shane Morales they have got plenty of overall offensive talent. Defensive effort has been inconsistent - again, they showed us what they are capable of last Thursday, but they've also shown us what they're capable of (in a bad way) when they started 0-2.

Wake Forest
Some voters think that beating Cream Griffin III, surviving against Ole Miss, scoring four FGs against Florida State and living off their QBs doing what they do best (throw picks), then losing to Navy earns you a spot in the top 25. Well not here! We're looking at Wake, but right now they're just not doing what Tulsa and UConn are - namely, going unbeaten against weak opposition rather than a mere 3-1.