October 12, 2006

Midseason Top 25: Top spot remains firm

The Rivals.com midseason top 25 poll thankfully doesn't look wholly unlike our preseason top 25 poll.

Ohio State remains solidly on top, earning every one of our first-place votes (shame on you two AP stragglers who continue to vote West Virginia No. 1; we like the Mountaineers, too, but a quick comparison of schedules played thus far reveals there is little comparison).

Our preseason top 10 also included Florida, USC, Texas, West Virginia and Louisville, as does this poll.

Now we cannot tell a lie. A couple of other schools in the Sunshine State have made us look bad, but we're not alone in being too complimentary in our assessments of Miami and Florida State.

The biggest move up since our preseason poll comes from a team that fell like a stone last season - Tennessee. The Vols went unranked in our late August look at the top 25, but they jump in at No. 8 now.

The most precipitous drop in our poll, or should we say out of it, comes from the Hurricanes. We had them at the spot now occupied by the Vols.

The big argument in our poll, and nationwide, is for the spot behind Ohio State. The Gators had a slight edge over Michigan; both will be tested in big road games this weekend with Florida at Auburn and the Wolverines at Penn State.

Rivals.com 2006 Midseason Top 25 Record
1. Ohio State (Preseason Rivals rank: 1) 6-0

Only Texas has come within 20 points of the Buckeyes, and even that was a 24-7 triumph for Jim Tressel's troops that was convincing in most every facet. Quarterback Troy Smith has been as good as advertised, completing better than 68 percent of his passes for 1,261 yards and 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Top targets Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez have been outstanding, and running back Antonio Pittman has been a nice complement. The surprise has been the defense, which despite giving up some yardage (38th nationally in total defense) has given up precious few points (No. 1 nationally at 9.3 points per game). The success of the defense mostly has been about forcing turnovers. Ohio State is third in the nation in turnover margin, including 12 interceptions. Sophomores James Laurinaitis and Vernon Gholston have been outstanding. The schedule appears not to pose a problem until the Nov. 18 home date against Michigan.
2. Florida (Preseason Rivals rank: 9) 6-0

The Gators still haven't established much of a ground game (47th nationally), but they've made their offense work. Chris Leak's detractors need to take a serious look at the numbers: The senior has completed 101 of 156 passes for 1,395 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions, and he hasn't complained about giving a couple of series per game to freshman sensation Tim Tebow. The Tebow package yielded big-time results against LSU (all three of UF's touchdowns), and it probably will expand as the season continues. The defense, though, has been the backbone. It's fourth in the country against the run, and it ranks second in the nation in scoring. The front seven was expected to be solid if not spectacular, but the secondary - with safety Reggie Nelson and Utah transfer Ryan Smith - has been a revelation.
3. Michigan (preseason Rivals rank: 11) 6-0

The Wolverines have been one of the nation's surprise teams, bouncing back from a 7-5 season in which they looked sluggish and slow to dominant thus far. Mario Manningham has made the quantum leap to one of the best receivers in the college game with nine TD receptions and 22 yards per catch. Quarterback Chad Henne also has been on target. Henne, who completed less than 50 percent of his passes in four of Michigan's five losses last year, is hitting on 62 percent for 1,103 yards and 13 touchdowns with four interceptions. Mike Hart is healthy and grinding teams down behind a solid offensive line. But the real reason the Wolverines are in striking distance of the national championship game is the defense. It's No. 1 in the country against the run, yielding a paltry 40.3 yards per game. Linebackers Prescott Burgess and David Harris have been the anchors, along with cornerback Leon Hall.
4. West Virginia (preseason Rivals rank: 7) 6-0

The Mountaineers continue to put up impressive rushing numbers behind a top-notch offensive line and the dazzling 1-2 punch of sophomores Steve Slaton and Pat White. Slaton is fourth in the country in rushing yards per game (153.6) and he has added seven touchdowns. White has been quietly efficient, completing a dazzling 71.7 percent of his passes - though he has only thrown the ball 60 times. White has rushed for 270 yards and four TDs. As a team the Mountaineers are averaging 6.3 yards per carry. The schedule hasn't been particularly stout, but Rich Rodriguez's team hasn't come close to stumbling. It's only "close" game was a 27-10 victory at East Carolina in which White threw three interceptions (it was the only game this season in which he has thrown a pick). Louisville and Rutgers loom down the road.
5. USC (preseason Rivals rank: 5) 6-0

The Trojans appeared right on schedule while working in an entirely new offensive backfield until looking shaky the past two weeks in narrow victories at Washington State then at home last week against Washington. They rank 37th in the nation in rushing and 25th in passing. Not bad numbers, but hardly the stuff of the past three years. John David Booty has performed well enough at quarterback, but it doesn't appear as though Pete Carroll has settled on a running back. The defense gave up 379 yards to the Huskies, almost 100 more than its season average. It's too early to count out this bunch because there is a bevy of talent, but the Trojans look ripe for the picking during a wicked three-game home stretch that sees Oregon, California and Notre Dame come calling.
6. Louisville (preseason Rivals rank: 10) 6-0

You knew coming into the season that the Cardinals had star power in quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush. What you didn't know is that they could lose both to injury and keep right on winning. Bush was lost for the season with a knee injury in the opener against Kentucky, yet here Louisville stands at 5-0 - including a 31-7 thrashing of Miami. Brohm suffered an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand against the Hurricanes, but could return as soon as this Saturday against Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Hunter Cantwell has filled in admirably for Brohm, the running game hasn't suffered noticeably and Bobby Petrino continues to be on the lips of the fans at every school where a coach is in trouble.
7. Texas (preseason Rivals rank: 4) 5-1

No shame in losing to Ohio State, and truth be told the Longhorns would put up a better fight if that matchup were to occur again in January. Redshirt freshman quarterback Colt McCoy is coming along nicely, and the running game has been solid (19th in the country) behind backs Jamaal Charles, Selvin Young and a super offensive line. The defense figured to have to carry Mack Brown's team for a while - and it has. The Longhorns rank seventh in the nation in total defense and third against the run. If Texas runs the table from here, and the 'Horns will be favored to do so, a berth in the national title game isn't a far-fetched thought. Of the teams ahead of them in our poll, Louisville and West Virginia play each other - as do Michigan and Ohio State. There's room to climb for UT.
8. Tennessee (preseason Rivals rank: NR) 5-1

The Vols have one thing going for them that they didn't have during last year's dismal 5-6 season: offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. How much of a difference has he made? Umm, have you seen Erik Ainge play this season? The Vols' QB may be the most improved player in the country. He's sixth in the nation in passing efficiency, having completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,657 yards and 14 touchdowns with five interceptions. Last season he completed 45.5 percent and finished with more interceptions than TDs. If Ainge isn't the nation's MIP, then wide receiver Robert Meachem might be the one. He already has career highs in receptions (34), yards (675) and TDs (six). There have been stouter defensive units in Knoxville, but this one doesn't have to be relied upon as much as the units during the Randy Sanders era.
9. Notre Dame (preseason Rivals rank: 2) 5-1

It's a good thing Charlie Weis can coach up an offense because the Irish defense is simply not very good. Notre Dame is 75th in the country in total defense and 77th in scoring defense. Those numbers are not misleading in any way. The Irish have been gashed on the ground and through the air, while their ground game has not been up to snuff (86th in the country). Starter Darius Walker has done reasonably well, but there is virtually no run-game production after him. Fortunately for Weis and Irish fans, Brady Quinn has gotten back on track since the Michigan debacle. Quinn is 14th nationally in total offense and has thrown for 1,634 yards and 16 TDs with four interceptions.
10. California (preseason Rivals rank: 13) 5-1

The Golden Bears have put an embarrassing performance in the season opener at Tennessee behind them and have bounced back well. QB Nate Longshore looked lost against the Vols; he has been virtually unstoppable since. He didn't have a TD pass against Tennessee; he has had at least two in every game since. The Golden Bears scored 18 points in Knoxville; they haven't scored fewer than 40 the rest of the way. But with weapons like Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and DeSean Jackson, the offense was supposed to be there. The question now is can it do the same thing it has done in the past five games to USC on Nov. 18 with the Pac-10 title likely on the line?
11. Auburn (preseason Rivals rank: 3) 5-1

The Tigers entered the season with national championship aspirations and were living up to those plans up until a stunning 27-10 loss to Arkansas last week. The Tigers now don't even control their destiny in the Western Division race. Defending SEC rushing champion Kenny Irons has done his part with 514 yards - despite missing the Buffalo game with a knee injury. Irons' older brother, David, has developed into one of the nation's top cornerbacks. But the Tigers' highly touted offensive line must provide better protection for QB Brandon Cox after allowing 19 sacks. Auburn's defense also has looked suspect the last two weeks. The Tigers barely held off South Carolina before falling to Arkansas. Perhaps the reinstatement of suspended redshirt freshman linebacker Tray Blackmon - a former five-star prospect - will help.
12. Clemson (preseason Rivals rank: 20) 5-1

The crushing double overtime defeat at Boston College was the type of loss that might have caused previous Clemson teams to go into a month-long tailspin. Not this year. The Tigers responded to that loss by winning at Florida State, reasserting themselves as legitimate Atlantic Coast Conference title contenders. James Davis and C.J. Spiller provide an outstanding one-two punch that has helped give Clemson the nation's sixth-ranked rushing offense. Defensive end Gaines Adams remains one of the game's top pass rushers. Clemson looks like the most talented team in the ACC, but the Tigers must win the games they're supposed to win. That has been a problem for Clemson in the past and it nearly cropped up again last weekend. The Tigers needed to rally in the fourth quarter to escape Wake Forest with a win.
13. Georgia Tech (preseason Rivals rank: NR) 5-1

Offensive coordinator Patrick Nix has placed extra emphasis on making sure All-American wide receiver Calvin Johnson gets the ball as often as possible. That one change in strategy has helped turn the Yellow Jackets from pretenders to contenders in the ACC. Johnson has caught 22 passes for 413 yards and five TDs in his last three games to help Georgia Tech surge to the top of the ACC Coastal Division. Johnson has provided just enough offense to a team that already had a stellar defense, thanks to coordinator Jon Tenuta and the talented linebacker tandem of Philip Wheeler and KaMichael Hall. Georgia Tech is another ACC team that must prove it can handle prosperity without losing to inferior opponents. The Jackets barely eked out a home victory over Maryland last week.
14. Iowa (preseason Rivals rank: 17) 5-1

As Drew Tate goes, so go the Hawkeyes. Iowa nearly lost to Syracuse when Tate was sidelined with an abdominal strain. The Hawkeyes got blown out by Ohio State when Tate threw three interceptions. But when Tate is on, Iowa can compete with just about anyone. Tate has performed well enough in Iowa's other games to help the Hawkeyes rank second in the Big Ten in passing offense. Iowa needs to throw the ball because the Hawkeyes have struggled to establish a rushing attack this season with a revamped offensive line. The loss to Ohio State may have derailed Iowa's Big Ten title hopes, but the Hawkeyes still have a chance to make a national statement when they travel to Michigan next week.
15. LSU (preseason Rivals rank: 6) 4-2

When LSU plays a bad team, the Tigers look like one of the top programs in the country. JaMarcus Russell completes everything in sight to a plethora of talented receivers. Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey helps the Tigers control the line of scrimmage. Safety LaRon Landry leads one of the nation's best defensive backfields. Too bad all that talent couldn't produce a victory against Auburn or Florida. A meltdown on special teams particularly hurt in The Swamp. Those two losses have crushed the Tigers' national title hopes and may keep LSU out of a BCS bowl. But if those two disappointing defeats don't cause the Tigers to lose their focus, LSU might not lose again this season.
16. Arkansas (preseason Rivals rank: NR) 4-1

This dream season began with a nightmare. Arkansas' season-opening 50-14 loss to Southern California offered no clues that the Razorbacks would be leading the SEC Western Division by midseason. Since then, true freshman Mitch Mustain has taken over as the starting quarterback, star running back Darren McFadden has regained his health, and the Razorbacks have knocked off Alabama and Auburn. McFadden leads the SEC in rushing and has teamed up with Felix Jones to help the Razorbacks average 5.7 yards per carry. Arkansas runs the ball so well that it has allowed Mustain to ease into his starting assignment without having to win games by himself.
17. Georgia (preseason Rivals rank: 12) 5-1

Georgia's uncertainty in the offensive backfield has led to uncertainty about the strength of this team. The Bulldogs already have started three quarterbacks and two tailbacks. They went scoreless in the first half of closer-than-expected victories over Colorado and Ole Miss. Their receiving corps has underachieved. Yet they remained unbeaten for much of the season because of a defense that had allowed fewer points per game than any team in the nation. But even that defense collapsed last week in a 51-33 loss to Tennessee. The Bulldogs better hope their defense returns to form soon because their offense could struggle all year long.
18. Missouri (preseason Rivals rank: NR) 6-0

Tigers QB Chase Daniel has made the same quantum leap as Tennessee QB Erik Ainge and become a player around whom you can entrust an offense. Not bad for a sophomore who attempted only 66 passes a year ago in mostly mop-up duty behind the sensational Brad Smith. Through six games in '06, Daniel is completing 64 percent of his passes for 1,446 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also has been the benefactor of Tony Temple's emergence as a go-to back (25th in the country in rushing). But the real surprise has been a unit that ranks among the top 15 in the nation in total defense (11th), rushing defense (10th), scoring defense (eighth) and sacks (third). The defense is led by linebacker Marcus Bacon. The Tigers have dates looming with Oklahoma and Nebraska which will tell the real story.
19. Boise State (preseason Rivals rank: NR) 6-0

Behind veteran QB Jared Zabransky (17th in the nation in passing efficiency) and sophomore running back Ian Johnson (sixth in the nation with 134.3 yards per game), the Broncos can put up the points. Even with the departure of coach Dan Hawkins, the offense hasn't missed a beat under new coach Chris Petersen, and why should it? Petersen was the offensive coordinator at Boise for the past five seasons. The Broncos also have been tough on defense, allowing fewer than 13 points per game and playing particularly well against the pass. The schedule doesn't appear too difficult the rest of the way, so the question could become where Boise State lands if it can pull off an unblemished record.
20. Oregon (preseason Rivals rank: 18) 4-1

There were no Ducks luckier than the ones from Eugene when Mike Bellotti's crew snuck past Oklahoma. But they got a comeuppance at California, getting rocked 45-24 by the Golden Bears. Still, this is an Oregon team that is very dangerous offensively (fourth in the nation with 469.2 yard per game). Dennis Dixon has performed well at quarterback (seventh nationally in total offense), Jonathan Stewart is on the verge of being a superstar at running back (96.4 yards per game), and Jaison Williams has filled the shoes of Demetrius Williams at wide receiver. You'd think you can't spell Ducks without the "D," but so far the defense has been virtually non-existent. Oregon is 85th in the nation in scoring defense and it yielded 424 yards to Cal.
21. Rutgers (preseason Rivals rank: NR) 5-0

When is it time to be sold on the Scarlet Knights? When they beat a good team. Sorry, New Jersey, but the only team Rutgers has defeated that is even remotely good is South Florida. Now there's no doubt that we're sold on the backfield of Ray Rice and Brian Leonard. Rice has 806 yards and 11 touchdowns so far, and fullback Leonard is the team's leading receiver with 19 catches. But is the defense really this good, or has it just taken advantage of the weak schedule? Rutgers is the only team in the nation that ranks in the top 11 in total defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, scoring defense and tackles for loss.
22. Nebraska (preseason Rivals rank: 22) 5-1

Nebraska's four-headed monster at running back continues to eat up yardage and clock. Marlon Lucky leads the unit with 405 yards and five touchdowns. However, the other three backs each have had a 100-yard game. Zac Taylor has been reliable when the Huskers need a quick score. He has passed for 1,398 yards and 13 touchdowns while completing 66 percent of his passes. The defense, however, has not lived up to the Blackshirts of the past. In 2005, the Huskers led the country in sacks. This season, despite returning All-America candidate Adam Carriker, they are ranked 95th in the nation with just eight sacks in six games - Carriker has just one.
23. Oklahoma (preseason Rivals rank: 16) 3-2

The Sooners lost QB Rhett Bomar to a summer-job scandal then Bob Stoops had to deal with the officiating in the Oregon game. But his biggest problem could be a defense that has not lived up to expectations. Linebacker Rufus Alexander has not been up to standard, and a unit that sacked the opposing quarterback 45 times last season has just six sacks this season. C.J. Ah You and Calvin Thibodeaux, who combined for 16 sacks last season, have a combined total of zero. The lone bright spot has been the dominating performance by Adrian Peterson. Peterson has all but strapped the Sooners to his back.
24. Virginia Tech (preseason Rivals rank: 19) 4-1

The Hokies got ambushed at home by Georgia Tech to fall from the ranks of the unbeaten. It would be a stretch to call it one of the biggest upsets of the season; the shock came in how convincing a defeat it was. It's not often you see a Hokies defense give up a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver in the same game, let alone give up 325 yards at home. The defense has been OK with that exception, but the offense has underperformed. The Hokies are 90th in the country in rushing, not the ideal way to take pressure off a new quarterback. Sean Glennon hasn't hurt his team at all with a respectable 1,116 passing yards, seven TDs and just three interceptions.
25. Wisconsin (preseason Rivals rank: NR) 5-1

The Badgers continue to find beefy running backs to put behind beefier offensive lines that turn opponents into ground chuck. First-year coach Bret Bielema has turned to redshirt freshman P.J. Hill to carry the load. Hill has performed well thus far, rushing for more than 100 yards in all but one game - the loss at Michigan. He's fifth in the nation with 141.2 yards per game. The defense has been especially stout (ninth in total defense and 13th in scoring), and the remaining schedule isn't especially meaty. There are no ranked teams remaining for Wisconsin, though that's a double-edged sword. While it could mean a chance at double-digit wins, it doesn't

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