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October 16, 2009

Midseason report: Lots of first-half surprises

It seemed as if it took forever for the college football season to get here, and now we're already at the halfway point.

Here's a look back at the good, the bad and the ugly from the first half of the season; we also take a peek at what's still to come.

Five biggest games the rest of the way

(This does not include conference title games. Those obviously are vital.)

1. Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Saturday: Is Texas a worthy title contender? The "Red River Rivalry" will tell a lot about the Longhorns, and if they win, they'll be favored in the rest of their regular-season games.

Our BCS projections
Fiesta Bowl: Iowa vs. TCU
Orange Bowl: Boise State vs. Virginia Tech
Rose Bowl: Ohio State vs. USC
Sugar Bowl: Florida vs. Cincinnati
Title game: Alabama vs. Texas
2. TCU at BYU, Oct. 24: This appears to be the toughest obstacle for TCU in its quest to finish unbeaten and earn a BCS bid.

3. USC at Oregon, Oct. 31: Chances are good that this game will determine the Pac-10 titlist.

4. West Virginia at Cincinnati, Nov. 13: Can Cincinnati finish unbeaten? A victory over the Mountaineers would remove a lot of the doubt.

5. Iowa at Ohio State, Nov. 14: This could end up being a de facto Big Ten championship game.

Five biggest upsets

1. Washington 16, USC 13, Sept. 19. Like clockwork, USC lost to an inferior Pac-10 opponent after a major victory, this time over Ohio State. There were reasons for the loss: USC used its backup quarterback and Washington is much better than it was when it finished winless last season. Still, USC found a way to make the national title race and Pac-10 race more complicated than it needed to be.

2. BYU 14, Oklahoma 13, Sept. 5. What if Sam Bradford didn't get hurt? Who knows, but the teams were tied at 7 when Bradford went down late in the first half. Even with Bradford, the Sooners didn't look like a team that would challenge for the national title.

3A/3B. Houston 45, Oklahoma State 35, Sept. 12, followed by UTEP 58, Houston 41, Oct. 3. The Cougars upset the No. 5 team in the country in Stillwater and further looked like a BCS contender by defeating Texas Tech in its next game. All that came crashing down when the Cougars' defense couldn't handle UTEP's Donald Buckram (262 yards, four touchdowns). UTEP lost to Memphis in its next game.

4. Duke 49, N.C. State 28, Oct. 10. N.C. State came into the game ranked sixth in the nation in total defense. Duke came into the game with a 20-game losing streak in ACC road games. So, naturally, Duke smashed the Wolfpack, rolling up 502 yards - including 459 yards through the air.

5. USF 17, Florida State 7, Sept. 26. "They're a lot better than I thought," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said after the game. In hindsight, perhaps this game wasn't as big an upset as it appeared at the time. But at the time ... . USF was playing its first game without quarterback Matt Grothe since 2005; he had suffered a season-ending injury and redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels was making his first college start against an FSU program that most assumed had turned the corner and was on its way back. Instead, Daniels and USF pulled the upset, and you wonder if this game will end up being the beginning of the end for Bowden.

Five best games

1. Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34, Sept. 12. Just about any Notre Dame game and most Michigan games could be on this list, but this was the most important. Both were coming off lackluster seasons, but this game showed both had to be taken seriously this season. The game established Jimmy Clausen as a Heisman contender and Tate Forcier as one of the nation's top freshmen.

2. Miami 38, Florida State 34, Sept. 7. The rivalry finally had some signs of life after a few uninspiring seasons. The fourth quarter featured four lead changes. Miami's win set the stage for a surprising 3-1 start and set the tone for a difficult season for Bobby Bowden.

3. Houston 45, Oklahoma State 35, Sept. 12. An offensive showcase proved the Big 12 South doesn't have the monopoly on explosive players. The game featured 946 combined yards of offense. The fourth quarter included three lead changes before two Houston scoring drives in the final 6:42.

4. Georgia 41, South Carolina 37, Sept. 12. So much for vaunted SEC defenses, huh? The game wasn't a total offensive showcase. The teams scored on a kickoff return, an interception return and a safety. The game ended on Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran's deflected pass at the goal line in the final seconds.

5. USC 18, Ohio State 15, Sept. 12. The importance of the game lessened after USC lost to Washington the following week, but the potential Rose Bowl preview proved the Trojans could continue as an elite team with a rebuilt defense and a freshman quarterback.

Five worst injuries

(Our caveat: These injuries had to have occurred after the season started.)

1. QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma: A sprained AC joint forced the reigning Heisman winner to miss 3∏ games; the Sooners lost two of them.

2. OT Trinton Sturdivant, Georgia: The reeling Bulldogs definitely miss their best offensive lineman. He was injured in the opener this season after missing all of last season.

3. WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame: He was averaging more than 27 yards per catch and had five TDs before breaking his collarbone. He might return later this season. His absence leaves a glaring hole in the Irish's passing attack and puts a lot more pressure on Golden Tate.

4. QB Matt Grothe, USF: The loss of their senior leader compromises the Bulls' chances in the Big East race.

5. RB Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State: The Cowboys' offense isn't as potent without Hunter, who ranked seventh in the nation in rushing last season.

Five most surprising teams

1. Washington: Winless a year ago, the Huskies have three victories, including a stunning upset of USC.

2. Miami: The Hurricanes are 3-1, a remarkable start considering that each of their first four opponents - Florida State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma - were ranked in the top 20 at game time.

3. Auburn: Last season's total of five wins already has been reached, and the Tigers' offense already has scored more points (230) than it managed all of last season (208).

4. Houston: The Cougars followed up a road upset of No. 5 Oklahoma State with wins over Texas Tech and Mississippi State.

5. Idaho: The Vandals won a combined three games in 2007 and '08. This season, they are 5-1 and should gain bowl eligibility Saturday against Hawaii.

Five most disappointing teams

1. Oklahoma: Injuries have hurt, literally and figuratively. The Sooners already have lost twice after opening the season ranked No. 3.

2. California: Instead of contending for the Pac-10 title as expected, the Golden Bears were outscored 72-6 in losses to Oregon and USC and just have to hope the season hasn't already spiraled out of control.

3. Ole Miss: Once ranked in the top five, the Rebels managed just 13 total points in losses to South Carolina and Alabama. As with Cal, the Rebels need to regroup quickly.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs already have three losses, and the defense was torched by mediocre Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton.

5. Florida State: One of the Seminoles' two wins was a come-from-behind victory over FCS member Jacksonville State. FSU is 0-3 in ACC play and basically has been eliminated from the title chase in the weak Atlantic Division.

Five most surprising players

1. Auburn QB Chris Todd: He benefited more than anyone from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. After throwing six interceptions and only five touchdown passes last season, Todd has thrown 12 touchdowns while getting picked off only once so far this year.

2. Miami QB Jacory Harris: Although he showed plenty of leadership while splitting time as a true freshman last season, Harris has turned plenty of heads with his poise and passing ability. Harris helped Miami win a shootout at Florida State in the season opener and recovered from two early interceptions to help the Hurricanes upset Oklahoma. Although he needs to reduce his interceptions, he already has made the leap to stardom.

3. Pittsburgh TE Dorin Dickerson: After playing wide receiver and linebacker earlier in his college career, Dickerson finally has found a home at tight end. Dickerson has caught 21 passes for 232 yards, and he leads all tight ends nationally with seven touchdown receptions.

4. Texas A&M DE Von Miller: This guy's a natural fit for the Aggies' "jack" position, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Miller has nine sacks this season to lead the nation in that category; he had 3.5 last season.

5. Bowling Green WR Freddie Barnes: Never heard of this guy? Well, it's time to learn about him. Barnes has 75 catches - 28 more than anyone else in the country - for 722 yards and five touchdowns. Barnes is on pace for a 150-catch season, which would set an NCAA record. He caught 22 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 36-35 victory over Kent. Not bad for someone who caught just 40 passes for 355 yards last season.

Five most disappointing players

1. Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead: His late-season surge last year allowed Snead to enter 2009 as a sleeper contender for the Heisman Trophy. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to his so-so stats from the first half of 2008. Snead has been picked off seven times in his past two games and has thrown as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes. He hasn't received much help from a shaky line.

2. Illinois QB Juice Williams and WR Arrelious Benn: Williams has been on a steady decline since the Rose Bowl season of 2007. He has thrown four interceptions with only two touchdown passes and lost his starting job last week. Williams' slide has caused the Illini to waste the abilities of Benn, perhaps the nation's most talented receiver. Benn has just 13 receptions for 176 yards this season and hasn't caught a touchdown pass since Oct. 18, 2008.

3. Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor: While Pryor isn't having a bad year by any stretch, he also hasn't taken the giant step forward that was expected. Pryor has thrown for 200 yards in just one game this season and ranks 58th in the nation in passing efficiency. Nobody's questioning his speed, but Pryor won't live up to his billing until he improves his passing.

4. The entire Florida State defense: A defense that consistently has ranked among the nation's best since Mickey Andrews took over as coordinator in 1984 now struggles to stop anybody. Florida State ranks 87th in the nation in scoring defense, 108th in total defense and 116th in pass efficiency defense.

5. LSU RB Charles Scott: Although Scott's big effort in the fourth quarter sparked a victory over Georgia, he otherwise has been underwhelming. After rushing for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, Scott has run for just 372 yards and two scores this season.

The five hottest seats

1. Louisville: Steve Kragthorpe hasn't been able to maintain the success the Cardinals enjoyed under Bobby Petrino. Already, there are reports that Jon Gruden will be a Louisville target.

2. UNLV: Mike Sanford barely saved his job last season. It seems unlikely his Rebels can rally this season.

3. Virginia: Al Groh's Cavaliers started 0-3 but have won their past two. Still, an under-.500 finish seems likely, and it seems unlikely that Groh could survive a losing record.

4. Illinois: It's hard to believe Ron Zook's Illini were in the Rose Bowl after the 2007 season. If the Illini lose Saturday to Indiana, a 1-11 season beckons.

5. Colorado: The Buffs have been a huge disappointment, and the only thing that may save Dan Hawkins is that he has a $3 million buyout.

The five hottest potential coaches

1. Brian Kelly, Cincinnati coach: Kelly will get feelers. The question is whether he considered the vacant job "better" than the one he has at Cincinnati.

2. Kevin Sumlin, Houston coach: He played in the Big Ten (at Purdue), was a grad assistant in the Pac-10 (Washington State), then was an assistant in the Big Ten (Minnesota, Purdue) and Big 12 (Texas A&M, Oklahoma) before getting the Houston job after the 2007 season. Houston's success this season has greatly increased Sumlin's visibility.

3. Charlie Strong, Florida defensive coordinator: He has been the coordinator on two national titlists in the past three seasons, and his defense this season currently is No. 1 in the nation. He has paid his dues.

4. Gus Malzahn, Auburn offensive coordinator: He's an extremely hot commodity, considering the productivity of his offenses the past three seasons at Tulsa and now Auburn. Auburn already has scored more points in six games this season than it did in 12 games last season.

5. Bud Foster, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator: Foster seemingly has been at Tech since about 1970. At one point, it was assumed he eventually would replace Frank Beamer, but the time might be right for Foster to start actively seeking a head-coaching job.

Five things we thought we knew - but didn't

1. We thought Ole Miss and Oklahoma State would be darlings, with each challenging for a league championship, but neither looks capable. The Rebels have been average, thanks largely to ineffective QB Jevan Snead. The Cowboys have struggled on defense and have had to deal with injury (RB Kendall Hunter) and suspension (WR Dez Bryant).

2. We thought Alabama would take time to develop on offense, but the Crimson Tide have featured an explosive attack. Heady QB Greg McElroy has been a revelation, leading a diverse offense and making good decisions for the Tide.

3. We thought Boston College would be an ACC doormat, but the Eagles have been one of the nation's biggest surprises. BC saw its coach get fired (Jeff Jagodzinski), its best player get cancer (Mark Herzlich) and its quarterback flunk out (Dominique Davis). But the Eagles are 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the ACC, rallying behind 25-year-old freshman quarterback David Shinskie and a salty defense. Let's hear it for coach Frank Spaziani.

4. We thought Illinois would be a sleeper Big Ten title contender, but the Illini have been one of the nation's biggest bombs. How bad has it been? Shortly after becoming the school's career leader in total offense, QB Juice Williams was benched. Offense, defense, special teams ... you name it, 1-4 Illinois has stunk at it in what is fast becoming a crossroads season for Ron Zook, who had the Fighting Illini in the Rose Bowl just two years ago.

5. We thought offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn eventually would improve Auburn's offense, but no one saw the Tigers' attack becoming this good this quickly. Auburn has the No. 1 offense in the SEC, averaging 489.8 yards, and that is the main reason the Tigers are off to a surprising 5-1 start. Last season, Auburn ranked No. 8 in the SEC in offense (302.9 ypg) in a dreary 5-7 season that cost Tommy Tuberville his job.

Five things we thought we knew - and did

1. We thought Florida would be the top team in the nation, and the Gators haven't disappointed. But instead of QB Tim Tebow being the pillar of the team, it has been the Florida defense that has carried the program to a 5-0 start. The Gators returned all 11 starters from last season's defense, and it shows. Florida is No. 1 in the nation in total defense (202.6 ypg) and scoring defense (6.4 ppg).

2. We thought UCLA would struggle on offense, and that has been the case. The Bruins have gotten improved offensive line play, which has helped. But the ground game still ranks ninth in the Pac-10 (170.2 ypg). And issues remain at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince has promise, but he lacks experience and has battled injury. That's a big reason UCLA's offense ranks ninth in the Pac-10 (282.8 ypg) and 114th in the nation. The result: The Bruins may struggle to make a bowl.

3. We thought the Big Ten would struggle, and it has. The marshmallows of the Midwest have suffered myriad humbling losses with nary a marquee win. Who can forget Central Michigan over Michigan State... Northern Illinois over Purdue ... Syracuse over Northwestern ... Virginia over Indiana. Truly embarrassing. In the one shot the Big Ten had to impress, it flopped, as USC won at Ohio State. And the Big Ten's best team might be Iowa.

4. We thought Notre Dame was primed to win at least nine games, and at 4-1, the Irish are right on track. The schedule poses a few challenges down the stretch, but after this weekend, Notre Dame should be favored in every game the rest of the season. Can you say "BCS bowl"? Can you also say "undeserved BCS bowl"?

5. We thought Boise State and TCU would be the best non-Big Six teams, and both have delivered. Boise is 6-0 and ranked fifth. It began with an impressive season-opening win over Oregon. The rest of Boise State's piece-of-cake schedule almost ensures a perfect record - but no chance at playing for the national championship. TCU is 5-0 but still has tests remaining against BYU and Utah ; the tougher schedule likely means TCU will finish ahead of Boise in the polls if the Horned Frogs can finish unbeaten.



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