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November 22, 2009
Rivals.com experts: What we learned
Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
LSU must refine its clock management. Trailing Ole Miss by two points, LSU did not immediately call a timeout after a screen pass lost yardage and let 17 seconds run off the clock before calling a timeout with nine seconds left. The Tigers completed a long pass on the next play that would have set up a winning field-goal attempt, but only one second remained. LSU did not get its field-goal team on the field nor did the Tigers snap the ball quickly and throw into the end zone. Rather, they tried to spike the ball and the final second expired as Ole Miss held on 25-23.
Finally, the Big 12 divisions are decided. Texas clinched the South Division - which didn't have much intrigue - with a rout of Kansas and Nebraska wrapped up the Big 12 North - which was interesting all season - by beating Kansas State. The Longhorns' 51-20 victory marked their fifth consecutive game with at least 35 points. QB Colt McCoy may make a late charge at the Heisman after throwing for 396 yards and four touchdowns. Texas, which plays Texas A&M on Thanksgiving Day, remains on track to play for the national championship. But the Longhorns better beware of Nebraska. A Texas upset in the first Big 12 championship game knocked Nebraska out of the national championship race. The Huskers would love to return that favor.
The SEC is overrated. Yes, Florida and Alabama are top teams, but they are far from being among the elite teams of this decade. After those two squads, there's a big drop. LSU is a decent team, but there's no way the Tigers are a top-10 team. Did you see the Louisiana Tech or Ole Miss games? Ole Miss failed to live up to billing as an SEC West contender, while Auburn and Arkansas are works in progress. In the East, Georgia is suffering through its worst season under Mark Richt, Tennessee is in a rebuilding mode, South Carolina is average and Kentucky may be the league's biggest surprise. The bottom line: The SEC is good, but it isn't far and away the best league this season.
Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli may belong in the Heisman race. His effort in a wild 44-41 double-overtime win over Arizona was one of the best performances of the season. Masoli was 26-of-45 for 283 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran 16 times for 62 yards and three scores. And Masoli sprinkled in some heroics, engineering a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the final three minutes to tie the score and force overtime. The Ducks went on to win on a Masoli TD run in the second OT and now will play Oregon State on Dec. 3 in Eugene in a "Civil War" contest that will determine which team will play in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State.
We finally have a signature game for the season. It's OK to say it: This hasn't been a pretty football season. National title contenders Florida, Alabama and Texas have not been challenged on a consistent basis. SEC officiating woes have marred the seasons for the Gators and the Tide. The Heisman race has lacked clear leaders all season. Until Saturday, I couldn't name a single game of national relevance that stacked up with anything from the past several years. But with two weeks left, we finally have a game from '09 to remember, thanks to Oregon's 44-41 double-overtime win at Arizona. Jeremiah Masoli played at a near-elite level. Arizona brought new blood into a major conference race. We saw major momentum swings throughout the game. Both teams looked as if they had dug themselves too deep a hole to recover, only to defy expectations. Oregon and Arizona provided great edge-of-your-seat entertainment. It's about time.
Pat Fitzgerald is one of the nation's most underappreciated coaches. Northwestern isn't in the upper echelon of the Big Ten this season, but it's getting there. Fitzgerald, the nation's second-youngest coach, proved he's coming of age in the past three weeks, culminating with a 33-31 victory over Wisconsin to seal an 8-4 regular season. It's a major victory for a team that has been slammed with injuries. Star DE Corey Wootton has played through injuries all season, and Fitzgerald has had to shuffle quarterbacks. Northwestern isn't the same caliber of team it was when it went to the Rose Bowl when Fitzgerald was a player, but Northwestern can't be ignored in the Big Ten as long as Fitzgerald is the coach.
Oklahoma's lost season continues. We should've had an inkling as to how this season would go for the Sooners (6-5) when All-America TE Jermaine Gresham was lost for the season to injury before the first game. Then came the season-opening loss to BYU in which Heisman-winning QB Sam Bradford was injured. Close losses to Miami and Texas followed later. Then came an offensive meltdown in a 10-3 loss at Nebraska on Nov. 7. Saturday, though, was the season's nadir - a 41-13 beatdown at the hands of Texas Tech that might go down as the worst loss in Bob Stoops' tenure. The only way to salvage something from this season is to beat Oklahoma State in the "Bedlam Game" on Saturday. Oklahoma State hasn't been all that impressive, but the Cowboys are 9-2 and have a shot at a BCS at-large bid. Will Oklahoma play hard, or have the players packed it in? If OU finishes 6-6, it will be the worst season since 1998 - when John Blake was fired.
Let's wait before we truly praise Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Kansas State's Bill Snyder. The hirings of Swinney and Snyder were among the most derided of the coaching changes last offseason. But their teams performed beyond expectations this season, with Swinney and the Tigers winning the ACC Atlantic Division title and Snyder and his Wildcats losing in a de facto Big 12 North title game against Nebraska. But as impressive as Clemson and K-State have been at times this season, let's not go overboard and now say the Swinney and Snyder hires were good ones. Swinney and Snyder led their teams to good seasons in weak divisions. For the most part, both got their teams to realize their potential, though there were some bumps (Clemson losing to Maryland, K-State to Louisiana-Lafayette). While there's something to be said for meeting your potential, let's wait two or three more seasons to truly judge these hirings.
Rutgers didn't deserve its ranking. Rutgers has put together a nice season, but that didn't mean the Scarlet Knights belonged in the latest Associated Press poll. The Scarlet Knights' 7-2 record heading into the weekend was largely the product of a ridiculously easy schedule that included non-conference games with Howard, Florida International, Maryland and Texas Southern. Instead of proving worthy of their ranking, the Scarlet Knights responded to their entrance into the AP rankings by laying an egg in a 31-13 loss at Syracuse, which hadn't won a Big East game all season. Freshman QB Tom Savage should put together a good career at Rutgers, but he can chalk Saturday's game up as a learning experience. Savage went 7-for-17 for 66 yards and two interceptions. Savage will get better. So will his team. One day, it actually might merit a top-25 ranking.
Jahvid Best isn't California's only great running back. Best has missed back-to-back games while recovering from a concussion, but his absence hasn't prevented the Golden Bears from running the ball effectively. Shane Vereen stepped in for an injured Best last week and gained 159 yards in a 24-16 victory over Arizona. This week, Vereen showed that he not only is the best backup running back in the nation, he might be one of the 10 or 15 best overall running backs. Vereen carried the ball an astounding 42 times and ran for 193 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-28 victory that knocked Stanford out of Rose Bowl contention. Stanford's Toby Gerhart entered the game as a Heisman candidate and backed up the hype by running for 136 yards and four touchdowns. But on this particular day, Vereen was the best running back on the field.