Saturday, Arizona State and Georgia play a game that was expected to be more than a matchup of top 15 teams. The schools were to continue a great debate, at least on this side of the country, of conference superiority.
Any arguments in the Pac-10 vs. SEC go-around, however, have been tabled indefinitely. The egg that the Pac-10 laid last week forfeited the league the right to be included in any best-conference discussion.
Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford said players know when they take the field that they are playing for conference as well as school pride.
“We keep track of it, you bet,” Stafford said. “A lot of teams do, whether they say so or not. When you go play a team that is a good team from another conference, you want to play well and win. We understand that everywhere we go, the main goal is to win and do something that reflects positively on the SEC.”
The Pac-10’s beef with the SEC was ignited when Southern California and Louisiana State shared a national championship in 2004 and fueled by LSU coach Les Miles’ dismissive comments about the Trojans before last season.
For a while, the Pac-10 threatened the SEC’s longtime status as the best conference in the nation, but Oregon’s late collapse cost the league a shot at the national title and maybe the Heisman Trophy winner.
Both of those prizes, by the way, went to SEC schools. That has fed the conference’s belief that — despite a 10-6 record by the Pac-10 in head-to-head competition since 1998 — there is no debate.
After the Pac-10’s 3-7 record in nonconference play last week, there is little argument from the rest of the college football world. Not even Southern California’s dismantling of Ohio State, which was batted down by an SEC coach, could change the perception.
“I don’t care what USC did to Ohio State,” the coach told The Sporting News. “What have we done to Ohio State the last two years?”
In the 2007 and ’08 BCS title games, the Buckeyes were smoked by Florida and LSU, respectively.
Four weeks into the season, here is how the conferences rank:
1. SEC — This conference boasts half of the teams in the Associated Press’ top 10. It says a lot about the respect the conference commands when Auburn’s 3-2 victory against Mississippi State is held up as an example of the SEC’s smash-mouth style of play rather than dismissed as a bore. Georgia, Florida and LSU are unquestionably capable of winning the national championship. And Alabama could be back.
2. Big 12 — No league can match this one in the arms race, with such quarterbacks as Chase Daniel of Missouri, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Todd Reesing of Kansas, Graham Harrell of Texas Tech, Colt McCoy of Texas and Josh Freeman of Kansas State. Oklahoma against Missouri in a conference-title matchup of unbeatens? It could happen.
3. Big Ten — The chasm between the second- and third-best conferences is wide. Penn State and Wisconsin have looked solid, and Illinois and (shudder) Ohio State are still expected to contend for a BCS berth. Six schools are undefeated, thanks in big part to soft schedules.
4. Pac-10 — Honestly, this conference could be rated lower, but USC’s excellence raises the entire league. It will be hard to make a case for the best conference this year, but a second BCS berth, something that has typically eluded the Pac-10, would go a long way in healing the wounds suffered last week.
5. Mountain West — Four of the seven losses the Pac-10 suffered a week ago were administered by the MWC, a league that was formed by the splitting of the WAC in 1999. The MWC has a 5-0 record against the Pac-10 this year, and ranked teams Brigham Young and Utah could be playing for a BCS berth when they meet in December.
6. ACC — The path to superconference status has been barricaded since the expansion to 12 teams. Clemson’s national title aspirations faded out of the box, leaving Wake Forest as the top program at the moment. North Carolina could be a comer, but the conference desperately needs Miami (Fla.) and Florida State to return to power.
7. Big East — The positive vibes from the comeback that was fueled by Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers two years ago have fizzled, as South Florida might be the only ranked team after this week. Losing its automatic BCS berth could become a concern, especially with influential commissioner Mike Tranghese stepping down in 2009.
8. Conference USA — The expansion to 12 schools and addition of a championship game has increased the league’s visibility, but it needs to find a BCS-threatener, as other mid-majors have. Is East Carolina that team?
9. WAC — With two straight BCS berths, the league staked a claim to being second-best in the West, behind the Pac-10, but it has slipped this season. Fresno State’s BCS hopes ended when it lost against Wisconsin. And there is always the threat of the Mountain West plucking a WAC power such as Boise State.
10. Mid-American — The “cradle of coaches” is a nice little league, but its upset prowess in recent years has been overrated. Do not be surprised, though, if Ball State beats Indiana Saturday.
11. Sun Belt — This still-young football league has two victories over BCS opposition, by Arkansas State (at Texas A&M) and Middle Tennessee State (against Maryland). Defending champion Florida Atlantic has taken its lumps against Texas and Michigan State but is still the favorite to win the conference title.
LESSONS FROM LAST WEEK
• Florida State’s reputation is still good enough to garner poll votes. The Seminoles moved into The Associated Press and USA Today (coaches) rankings on the strength of two victories against championship subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) schools, Western Carolina and Chattanooga. “I think we’re going to qualify for that I-AA playoff,” coach Bobby Bowden said.
•It is still early, but the Rose Bowl cannot be crazy about either possible scenario: An Ohio State-Southern California rematch, or another nontraditional matchup (assuming USC plays in the national title game) because the Pac-10 might not have a team high enough in the BCS standings for an at-large invitation.
•The best unit in the country might be Brigham Young’s offensive line. According to research by the Salt Lake Tribune, the line — the starters are Dallas Reynolds, Matt Reynolds, Travis Bright, Ray Feinga and David Oswald — has not allowed a sack or been called for holding while providing the Cougars’ offense time to roll up 42.7 points and 521 yards a game.
Few coaches face more fan pressure than the Nebraska football coach, which made Bo Pelini’s declaration that he is going to coach the Cornhuskers his way so refreshing.
Nebraska is 3-0 — albeit with wins against Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State — but the sea of red is making waves because the Cornhuskers’ offense has not been the grind-it-out running machine that defined the Bob Devaney-Tom Osborne glory years. The Cornhuskers are averaging 189.0 rushing yards a game.
Given the disaster that the pass-oriented Bill Callahan era was, the fans’ feelings are understandable. But they are not justified.
Pelini wants a balanced attack, especially if opposing defenses crowd the line of scrimmage. He said that he will not “pound my head against the wall” to run, just because that’s how Nebraska has always done it.
“I don’t care if (the offense) is embraced or not, to be honest,” Pelini said. “My job is to win games.”
Ohio State is hoping that creating competition at quarterback — veteran Todd Boeckman and hotshot freshman Terrelle Pryor will split snaps in Saturday’s game against Troy — will help lift the team’s sagging confidence. In last week’s debacle at Southern California, Boeckman fumbled and had an interception returned for a touchdown, while Pryor showed off his athleticism when he got a chance to take snaps.
“Terrelle has been very impressive,” coach Jim Tressel said. “There are not many freshmen that I’ve had with limited reps that have been able to conceptually pick up as much as he has, and he’s a pretty special player. But did I think this would happen? No.”
A quarterback switch could be a cosmetic change if the Buckeyes cannot find a fire.
“We’re Ohio State!” offensive lineman Alex Boone said after the USC game. “We should have been screaming and yelling the filthiest things we’ve ever said to each other at halftime, and no one was saying anything.”
In this page’s newest feature, just put me in charge of your remote. I promise to not steer you wrong.
East Carolina at North Carolina State: (9 a.m., ESPN) The Pirates continue their BCS-crashing quest. Or, there is the Underachievement Bowl pairing Iowa and Pittsburgh on ESPN2.
Notre Dame at Michigan State: (12:30 p.m., Ch. 15) The Spartans have won six straight against the Fighting Irish at South Bend, but they’ve lost three in a row at home. Red-hot MSU running back Javon Ringer could change that. If you want to catch the next big thing — the Mountain West Conference — unbeatens Utah and Air Force hook up at 1 p.m. on Versus.
Georgia at Arizona State: (5 p.m., Ch. 15) I have a hunch that, at kickoff, ASU fans will need to be reminded that this game has lost some luster. At 4:45 p.m. on ESPN, Louisiana State-Auburn is the matchup of the day, but if the Tigers do not get their offense ironed out, the contest will not be competitive.
Late night: Hardcore fans utilize same-day replays to catch up on what they missed; Arizona at UCLA (10 p.m., Fox College Sports Central) provides one team with an opportunity to redeem itself from an embarrassing loss last week.
THREE AND OUT
• Earlier this week, Florida receiver Percy Harvin declared himself “100 percent healthy” for the first time since his sophomore year in high school. As if the limited Harvin was not imposing enough for opposing defenses.
• Less than a week after Fresno State coach Pat Hill extolled the virtues of “scheduling big,” the school added Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado and Mississippi as future opponents. The Bulldogs will play at Illinois and Wisconsin next season.
• Apparel sponsorship gone mad: A statue of Ernie Davis recently unveiled at Syracuse has Nike cleats. The Nike swoosh started appearing on footwear in the 1970s, a decade after Davis won the Heisman Trophy for the Orange.
Chase Daniel: The Missouri quarterback shredded the Nevada defense that gave Graham Harrell and Texas Tech some difficulty the week before. In the last 13 Tigers drives guided by Daniel, the offense has scored 12 touchdowns and amassed 900 yards.
Max Hall: The Brigham Young quarterback and Mesa Mountain View High School product has two things going for him: eye-popping statistics, and the attention that comes with trying to help the Cougars break into the BCS.
Knowshon Moreno: The Georgia running back (306 yards, seven touchdowns this season) will get other chances to make a national statement, but Saturday’s prime-time stage against Arizona State should not be wasted.
Mark Sanchez: The Southern California quarterback’s modest numbers (510 yards passing, seven touchdowns) do not reflect how effectively he has managed the Trojans’ balanced offense.
Tim Tebow: We have not forgotten about the Florida quarterback and 2007 winner, who has played well. But, with Daniel and Hall (and Sam Bradford of Oklahoma) posting ridiculous numbers, he will have to start following suit.