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November 21, 2010
Tom Dienhart's Week 12 awards
What we learned in Week 12
Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
Texas A&M's Wrecking Crew is back. At the least, it's on the way back. OK, there were some, uh, questionable calls that went against Nebraska, but that shouldn't take away from a tremendous effort by the Aggies' defense to limit the high-scoring Huskers to just two field goals in a 9-6 A&M victory. QB Ryan Tannehill and the Aggies' offense have received most of the attention during their current five-game winning streak, but the defense has been exceptional, too. The Aggies held Oklahoma to 18 points three games ago and shut out Baylor in the second half last week. Then, against Nebraska, the Aggies held the Huskers to their lowest point total in three seasons.
Never take a USC victory for granted in Corvallis. Frankly, that lesson should have been learned in 2006, when the Beavers upset the Trojans 33-31. It should have been made clear in 2008, when the Beavers upset the top-ranked Trojans 27-21. But considering Oregon State had lost three of its past four games -- including a home loss to lowly Washington State last week -- it made sense to assume the Trojans would take care of the Beavers. And maybe they would have if the game hadn't been in Corvallis. Oregon State not only won, but dominated the Trojans 36-7 for their third consecutive home-field victory over USC. Go ahead and project an Oregon State victory for 2012.
Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy should be national coach of the year. Entering this season, the Cowboys were picked by many to finish last in the Big 12 South. Now, they have clinched at least a share of their first division title, have won 10 regular-season games for the first time and are poised to play in their first league title game. Credit Gundy. He went out and hired offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen from Houston and relinquished play-calling duties, which was difficult for Gundy to do. Oklahoma State's attack had some big holes to fill, too, with QB Zac Robinson, WR Dez Bryant and OT Russell Okung gone. The defense has been just good enough most of the season. Add it up, and the Pokes have thrived and enter the "Bedlam" game with lots of momentum. Hat's off to Gundy.
Wisconsin is the best team in the Big Ten. The Badgers, Ohio State and Michigan State remain in a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten. And there's a good chance they will remain that way when the league season closes next weekend. The BCS standings then will be used to determine which school gets the Rose Bowl bid. But no matter what the BCS standings say, it's becoming clearer that the Badgers are the best team in the Big Ten. Wisconsin is a physical offense with big-play ability, and it hasn't missed a beat in recent weeks with RB John Clay out with injury. The defense continues to improve, led by Big Ten defensive player of the year candidate J.J. Watt. In Big Ten play, the Badgers have been more dominant than either the Buckeyes or Spartans, who both barely survived this week.
The Big East is down to three. Finally, some clarity in the Big East. Going into the week, no Big East team was guaranteed a losing record overall or in conference. At the same time, only one team was guaranteed a winning record. Now, the Big East race looks how we thought it might at the start of the season: Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Connecticut won this week and established this as a three-team race. Pitt leads the way with only one conference loss, but if the Panthers lose to the Mountaineers on Friday, Connecticut is well-positioned for its first BCS appearance. The Huskies pretty much sum up the Big East season as a whole. They started 3-4, lost to Temple and scored only 10 points against Michigan's porous defense. But they also beat three Big East contenders -- West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse. The Syracuse win was the most important. Connecticut hadn't won on the road all year, but the Huskies won comfortably (23-6) in the Carrier Dome.
Utah is the No. 2 team in the Mountain West after all. After Utah's 28-3 loss to Notre Dame and San Diego State's close loss to TCU, I wondered if San Diego State would end up being the second-best team in the Mountain West. Before losing to the Horned Frogs, the Aztecs' only losses (Missouri, BYU) were decided by a field goal in games where officiating benefited their opponents. Last week, San Diego State was competitive with TCU, while Utah followed its 47-7 loss to TCU with the drubbing at Notre Dame. Saturday, Utah proved it was the second-best team in the conference with a wild 38-34 win over San Diego State. The game started in rocky fashion, but Utah rebounded by the second half. San Diego State amassed 587 yards of offense, but Utah picked off Ryan Lindley on the last two drives, including once in the end zone. Utah's offense bounced back, too, with 500 yards and no turnovers. Utah may never have been an elite team, but this game at least proved the Utes haven't collapsed.
NC State's Tom O'Brien should be ACC coach of the year. This was supposed to be a middling season for the Wolfpack; instead, a victory next week at Maryland and they win the Atlantic Division crown. QB Russell Wilson has been steady, and he has made good use of an underrated receiving corps. A revitalized running game has been the big difference offensively. The defense isn't outstanding, but it's good enough. O'Brien began the season on the hot seat; now, despite talent that frankly is in the bottom half of the league, he has his team one win from advancing to the ACC title game.
The best story in Florida this season? It's FIU. Florida and Miami have underachieved relative to their talent level. Florida State and UCF have shots at division titles in their respective leagues. USF still is getting acclimated to its new coach. Howard Schnellenberger remains on the sideline at Florida Atlantic. Still, the most intriguing storyline in the state has been at Florida International, which never has had a winning season since starting football in 2002. FIU might be just 5-5, but the Panthers are one win away from clinching the Sun Belt title and a bowl bid. FIU looked to have turned the corner in 2008, going 5-7, but the Panthers faltered last season and limped home with a 3-9 record. They started 0-4 against a tough schedule this season, then found their stride once league play started. FIU coach Mario Cristobal is a former UM player and assistant, and there's no doubt he has gotten more out of his talent this season than Randy Shannon has coaxed from his.
Illinois coach Ron Zook probably will be back next season. Conventional wisdom suggested Zook needed to lead Illinois to the postseason this year, and the Illini became bowl eligible Saturday with a 48-27 victory over Northwestern that ended their recent history of frustration against their in-state rival. Illinois' surprising loss to Minnesota last week put Zook back on the hot seat, but he showed his ability to respond to adversity by making sure the Illini bounced back this week. The convincing win should just about assure that Zook returns in 2011.
Dion Lewis and Ryan Williams may be regaining their 2010 form. These preseason All-America candidates have battled inconsistency and injuries for much of the season, but each player took a giant step forward this week. Lewis, who rushed for 1,799 yards last season, had just his second 100-yard performance of the year Saturday when he gained 105 yards in a 17-10 victory over USF. Williams ran for 1,655 yards last season for Virginia Tech, but he missed four games with a hamstring injury this season and headed into the weekend with just 262 rushing. He broke through in a big way Saturday by racing 84 yards for the tie-breaking touchdown in a 31-17 triumph over Miami that allowed the Hokies to clinch the ACC Coastal Division title.