One-third of the 2011 regular college football season is now officially in the books. After a tumultuous and controversial offseason, fans have finally been able to spend Saturday afternoons watching players make plays, rather than listen to talking heads discuss the merits of conference realignment and debate the long-term effects of flagrant league violations. Plus, we have been able to witness new and emerging storylines come to life.
While college football foremost serves as an embodiment of athletic skill, strategy, will and collective teamwork, it is also a vehicle for delivering entertainment value to mass audiences. Therefore, under the guise of “entertainment,” let our friends from Hollywood set the stage for some of this week’s most interesting developments.
“Soon you will know what it is like to be beaten by the hands of somebody who is truly better than you." -Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Rickey Bobby
With all due respect to the players and fans in Norman, this weekend LSU and Alabama proved to be the two best teams in the country.
LSU won its third game in four weeks over a ranked opponent, and again did it in dominant style. Few fans and venues are as unaccommodating to visitors as those in Morgantown, West Virginia. Plus, WVU has enjoyed a modicum of success against SEC teams in recent years, making this match up all the more intriguing.
Despite a valiant effort and commendable performance by the Mountaineers, punctuated by Geno Smith’s 463 passing yards, LSU proved to have too much depth and athletic horsepower. Seconds after RB Dustin Garrison’s 1-yard TD run putting WVU back into the game, LSU’s Morris Claiborne returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to push the lead back into double digits, and proved to be the nail in the coffin.
Coming off a couple of flat performances against Penn State and the University of North Texas, several folks doubted whether the Crimson Tide could awaken in time to deal with a powerful offensive attack by the visiting Razorbacks, who were averaging 47 points and 517 yards of offense per game before Saturday’s contest in Tuscaloosa.
As it turned out, Alabama rode a Heisman defining performance from its tailback Trent Richardson (120 rushing yards, plus a 61-yard touchdown reception) a lights out defense that frustrated Tyler Wilson for three quarters before he was benched and superb special teams play that included a breathtaking 83-yard punt return by Marquis Maze. Alabama beat an extremely talented and well coached Arkansas team in all three phases of the game, which adds more anticipation and excitement to the upcoming clash with LSU in Tuscaloosa on November 5th.
“Hi..you’re nobody.” “Sshh..don’t tell anyone.” -The Last Boy Scout
Don’t look now, but there are several undefeated teams that not many folks took seriously at the beginning of the season.
Remember Florida? You know, the team that has won two national championships over the past five years? What a difference a year makes. Two years ago, Tim Tebow was in the conversation as one of the all-time greatest college football players, and discussion of Florida’s dynasty was of historic proportions. One mediocre year later, and they rarely come up in a Top 25 discussion.
Thanks to Will Muschamp and Charlie Weiss, all that is turning around in Gainesville. Florida has amassed several top recruiting classes, and it turns out they did not forget how to play after all. With arguably the two fastest players in NCAA sports (Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey) hitting their stride, this team has the opportunity to make some noise in the SEC race this season, and help re-establish the East to its once formidable status.
How about Clemson? Coming off its strongest recruiting class in years, Clemson is making a statement in the ACC. As a former Alabama player, coach Dabo Swinney reveled in being the one to end defending national champion Auburn’s winning streak, and his team successfully rode that momentum into the following week defeating Florida State, themselves a trendy national champ contender. Freshman wide receiver (and 2011 Florida High School 200M Track Champion) Sammy Watkins is a highly talented and dangerous playmaker, who is a threat to take it to the house whenever he touches the ball.
“Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.” - Better Off Dead
Speaking of teams doing well, you have to be impressed with what Brady Hoke is doing in Ann Arbor. Of course, Michigan has started recent seasons with similar success before falling apart in the heart of Big Ten play, but I couldn’t help think that coach Hoke had an unfair advantage playing against his old players at San Diego State. Given Denard Robinson’s shaky passing and susceptibility to turnovers, coach Hoke decided to simplify the playbook a bit. Theory says he must have recognized that his QB was faster than any one of the defensive players he recruited and coached back in San Diego, and he turned the man loose for 200 yards rushing and three TDs for a Wolverine victory.
“Hey 23, don't think I don't recognize you? Hey pay attention when I'm talking to you.” -The Program
I have to admit, I thought Oklahoma was going to pulverize Mizzou right out of the gate. Sure, Oklahoma was coming off of an emotional road win over a Top 5 Florida State Seminoles team, but you knew that Oklahoma’s coaches, players and fans wanted revenge for Mizzou knocking them out of the No. 1 spot a year ago. Plus, nobody does revenge better than the boys from Norman, having gone 10-0 in the last 10 home games against teams that they had previously lost to on the road the year before.
This is not what happened. Although Oklahoma proved to be the superior team with both Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles demonstrating remarkable leadership and making strong cases for end of the year awards, it was Mizzou that showed poise and moxie with a strong first quarter performance, and solid overall showing by multidimensional QB James Franklin.
Even though Mizzou didn’t have the depth to hang with the Sooners for 60 minutes, they still exposed Oklahoma’s defense to be at times inconsistent. The defense is very good, but not in the class of an LSU or Alabama. If Oklahoma wants to keep its top spot this year, it has some work to do, especially with the likes of Baylor and Oklahoma State still on the schedule.
“I’m here to play football for the Irish.” -Rudy
The Notre Dame vs. Pitt clash at Heinz field on Saturday was far from memorable in terms of flashy highlights and classic game-breaking moments. Still, despite being beat up for three-and-one-third quarters, you’ve got to love how Tommy Rees comes through in a pinch. The boy is a “gamer,” which is a term of endearment we used to apply to other QBs such as Ohio State’s Craig Krenzel and Arizona State’s Jake Plummer, who would often win ugly, but win nonetheless. Tommy showed strong patience and resolve overcoming 45 minutes of questionable play to go 8-8 on a game-winning drive that provided a much needed victory for Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish.
“Two men enter. One man leaves.” -Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
While most fans were watching the instant classic that took place in College Station on Saturday between Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, a battle of a different kind was taking place down in Oxford, Mississippi. This was the battle for livelihood, with both head coaches sitting firmly on scorching hot seats.
During this game, I had a mental image of Mark Richt and Houston Nutt having to fight each other with broken pool cues, and Heath Ledger as the Joker saying, “Oh, there’s only one spot open right now, so we’re going to have…. tryouts. Make it fast.”
In the end, Georgia proved to be the superior team riding a staunch defense, efficient QB play from Aaron Murray and a breakout game by highly touted freshman RB Isaiah Crowell to victory.