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November 15, 2006
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Few football teams could lose their starting quarterback and running back and still win a conference championship, but Wake Forest (9-1) might do it.
The Demon Deacons lost quarterback Ben Mauk and running back Micah Andrews to injuries early in the season, yet they share the ACC Atlantic Division lead with Maryland. Wake Forest will face the Terrapins in its final regular season game on Nov. 25.
"You don't lose your junior quarterback and running back and get over it easily," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe. "But our freshman quarterback (Riley Skinner) has taken a great responsibility for taking care of the football and has not thrown a lot of interceptions."
Skinner has thrown just three interceptions and Wake Forest is among the national leaders for fewest turnovers.
"The other tailbacks we have used in Micah's place have also done a pretty good job hanging on to the football," Grobe said. "I think the coaches had more problems dealing with the losses than our players did. Even though our players were disappointed and sad for Ben and Micah they never had a down practice, never had a down game. They went out and played hard and gave us a chance to win."
Patience is one of the key reasons Wake Forest has won. Grobe has rarely played true freshmen during his six years in Winston-Salem. As a result, this year's team is heavy on fifth-year seniors, fourth-year juniors and third-year sophomores.
That experience surely was beneficial last week when the Deacons routed Florida State 30-0 in Tallahassee.
"I was hoping to get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win, pull one out and get back home with a win," Grobe said. "I never dreamed we'd be in a position in the fourth quarter where we'd be up 30-0. It was certainly a good win for our program and was unexpected."
Equally unexpected would be an ACC championship game matching Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, which has already clinched the Coastal Division. That's not exactly a sexy matchup in a conference that includes Florida State, Miami, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
"I'm hoping that would make people feel good," Grobe said. "Wake Forest only has about 4,000 undergraduate students. We're typically seen as little ole Wake Forest. I hope it would be a feel-good story, the kind of story people get their arms around and feel good about that."
Wake Forest has already provided a feel-good story, even if it doesn't make the ACC championship game.
Arkansas' Nutt back in good graces
He ignored the criticism.
When the Razorbacks started this season with a lopsided 50-14 home-field loss to Southern California, Nutt implored his youthful Razorbacks to tune out the teams critics.
"After the first game I thought we had to make sure our players didn't listen to anybody outside of the (locker) room," Nutt said. "There was quite a lot of negativity. If you looked at the score from the outside you'd think we were terrible. We as coaches knew we had a good team.
"We didn't have Casey Dick through the whole two-a-days. We didn't have (Darren) McFadden. We knew we were missing some pieces, but our defense played well. They were just on the field for 40 minutes. We had to convince the team to stay together and not listen to anybody outside of the room."
The Razorbacks obviously listened to their coach and not the critics.
"They just told us the season was not over. That this was one game and we had a long way to go," said Arkansas defensive end Jamaal Anderson, who had three sacks in the win over Tennessee. "We always knew what we were capable of doing.''
Turns out the Hogs were capable of making a run at the SEC championship, and maybe more.
McFadden has emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender, Dick is playing well at quarterback and the Razorbacks rank 24th nationally in total defense. They've won nine in a row since that season-opening loss, and appear to be the best team in the rugged Southeastern Conference. The Hogs are playing as well as any team in the nation.
Nutt, in turn, is now being praised as much as any coach in the nation.
"I love coaching every day," he said. "The last couple of years have been tough, but it's been a lot tougher on my family. This year has been more fun. I love to see the smiles not only of my family, but also the players. There's nothing like it."
The smiles might be flashing even brighter on Saturday.
By defeating Mississippi State (3-7), Arkansas would clinch the SEC's West Division and a spot in the SEC championship game opposite East Division winner Florida.
"We know we have our biggest week ahead," Anderson said. "We've got to treat it like it's the Super Bowl. We have to go out and execute like we have the past nine weeks."
If the Razorbacks can finish the season with victories over Mississippi State, LSU and Florida in the SEC championship game, they might have an outside shot at playing for the national championship.
That would require help, of course, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. They would likely need USC to defeat Notre Dame, but lose to either California or UCLA. Rutgers may have to lose to either Cincinnati or West Virginia and the winner of this weekend's match-up between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan must win significantly enough that a rematch isn't demanded.
However, the Razorbacks insist they're not looking that far ahead.
"Right now we're just trying to beat Mississippi State and get to Atlanta," Anderson said. "After that I think everything will take care of itself. We have to put ourselves in faith's hands and trust everything will work out."
For Arkansas to even be included in national championship discussions after that opening loss to USC shows everything has been working out for the Razorbacks.
They started the season with star running back Darren McFadden slowed by an off-season toe injury. Quarterback Casey Dick was hurt, too. They've endured several injuries on defense, but kept finding a way to win.
The 27-10 victory at No. 2 Auburn on Oct. 7 raised eyebrows across the country and the Razorbacks haven't slowed down since. Any remaining doubters likely changed their minds after the Hogs' thrashing of Tennessee last weekend.
"The last couple of years we haven't been on the radar," Nutt said. "We were nowhere close on the radar when the season started. We've kind of been hiding. When you're that far away and beat Auburn people think you had a lucky Saturday. We tell our players winning takes care of all of that."
Obviously, that was another piece of sage advice from Nutt.
? Bad news keeps coming at Miami. Quarterback Kyle Wright has a fractured right thumb which may require surgery. Receiver Rashaun Jones won't play this weekend against Virginia while he sits out the second game of a two-game suspension. Linebacker Tavares Gooden has not yet been cleared to play because of a concussion.
? Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge said he expects to play on Saturday against Vanderbilt. Ainge sprained his right ankle in a win over South Carolina three weeks ago and played sparingly the next week against LSU. Last week he did not play in the Volunteers' loss to Arkansas. Redshirt freshman running back LaMarcus Coker, who has missed the last three games with a knee injury, is also expected to be back in the starting lineup.
? Florida coach Urban Meyer said he should not have played injured middle linebacker Brandon Siler last week against South Carolina. Siler isn't likely to play this weekend against Western Carolina. True freshman Brandon Spikes will probably start in his place.
? Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith had a wrap on the thumb of his right (throwing) hand in last week's win over Northwestern. He said the thumb isn't bothering him, which appeared obvious when he threw four touchdown passes. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes expect tackle Alex Boone - who missed the last two games with a knee injury - to play on Saturday against Michigan.
? Headaches and dizziness may prevent Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton from playing Saturday against Penn State. Stanton has not been cleared to play. If Stanton cannot play, sophomore Brian Hoyer will start for the Spartans.
? Smith, 58, has indicated he hopes to get another head coaching position. There is speculation that he could be considered to replace recently fired Dan McCarney at Iowa State.
? Todd Dodge, a former Texas quarterback and successful coach at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High School, acknowledged he's interested in returning to coaching at the collegiate level. He was offensive coordinator at North Texas from 1992-93. North Texas recently fired coach Darrell Dickey.
? Missouri junior tight end Martin Rucker, who has caught 36 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns, has indicated he will definitely return for his senior season. He caught 47 passes for 567 yards last season.
? Texas A&M's defense tends to improve dramatically in the second half. In its seven Big 12 games, A&M has allowed an average of 15.1 points and 202.9 yards in the first half and 8.7 points and 147.1 yards in the second half. A&M has outscored opponents 92-61 in the second half.
? Texas quarterback Colt McCoy indicated he anticipates playing against Texas A&M on Nov. 24 in a game the Longhorns need to win to clinch the Big 12 South Division championship. McCoy suffered a stinger that caused shoulder weakness that knocked him out of the game in the first quarter of the Longhorns' 45-42 loss to Kansas State. The Longhorns are also closely monitoring the status of guard Justin Blalock, who hurt his left knee in that game.
? Gator Bowl officials have acknowledged they're considering selecting a Big 12 team ? perhaps Oklahoma ? to play an ACC team this year. The Gator Bowl has an option of picking a Big 12 team ahead of the Cotton Bowl, which traditionally has the second selection among Big 12 teams.
? Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, a strong Heisman Trophy contender before breaking his collarbone while scoring a touchdown against Iowa State on Oct. 14, might be able to play in the Sooners' regular season finale against Oklahoma State. Also, OU receiver Manuel Johnson, who lost consciousness after a hit in last week's win over Texas Tech, will not play against Baylor on Saturday.
? Washington quarterback Carl Bonnell has endured several injuries the last four weeks, but said he hopes to play against Washington State on Saturday. Bonnell left last week's loss to Stanford with a thigh bruise but returned when backup Johnny DuRocher suffered a concussion. Bonnell will start against Washington State if he's able.
? Southern California running backs Chauncey Washington and Emmanuel Moody both underwent MRI exams earlier this week. Washington has a sprained knee, but should play on Saturday against California. Moody is expected to miss at least two weeks with an ankle injury.
? UCLA sophomore quarterback Ben Olson won't start on Saturday against Arizona State, but he may play. Olson was the Bruins' starter before suffering a knee injury against Arizona on Oct. 7.
? California hasn't played in the Rose Bowl since 1959, but the Bears can clinch a trip to Pasadena, Calif., with a victory over Southern Cal on Saturday.
? The Berkeley City Council authorized a lawsuit to stop the University of California's planned upgrade of its football stadium and construction of a training facility because Memorial Stadium is built on a major earthquake fault.
Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com.