October 06, 2008
I hate to do this, I do, but as BYU further into the top ten and the "BCS Buster" narrative solidifies, I feel some obligation to throw the brakes on runaway Cougar love. If Hawaii's schedule last year was a joke -- and there's virtually unanimous agreement that it was -- BYU's to date is not too far off.
There's the 59-0 wipeout over UCLA, and as bad as the Bruins have been, the sheer margin of victory over a mediocre Pac-10 team is worth something. That 's a good win. Otherwise, not so much -- to date, the Cougars have played I-AA Northern Iowa, winless Washington and downtrodden Wyoming and Utah State, which are a combined 2-9, and might be in for a rude awakening when the first BCS standings come out in a couple weeks. Among the BCS computers that list a strength of schedule component, BYU's slate is ranked 118th out of 119 by Anderson&Hester, 136th out of 136 by the Colley Matrix and 116th by Kenneth Massey, none of which rank the Cougars in their current top 20. Only Jeff Sagarin, who ranks BYU 16th, comes very close to feeble human opinions, and he ranks the Cougars' schedule No. 126.
To be fair, the Cougars will have a couple chances to make up for that, at TCU for a Thursday night game next week and, of course, for a potential blockbuster at Utah on Nov. 22. They're not going to remain in Hawaii territory. Until they navigate the killer Horned Frog D in Fort Worth, though, the incorrigible skeptic in me is resisting the hype.
Mid-Major Game of the Week. With apologies to Akron's 30-27 win over Kent State, UTEP's barn-burning, double-overtime win at Southern Miss was the more exciting -- and, for USM alums who cut our teeth on proud Eagle defenses, more painful, especially on the heels of an equally embarrassing home loss to Marshall -- of a pair of multi-overtime games Saturday, more for the route to OT than the extra frames themselves.
First, let me say: Damion Fletcher, I love you, and I'm so, so sorry you have to play on a team that repeatedly fails to honor your dominance. Fletcher set a single-game school record against the Miners with 260 yards rushing on 7.6 per carry, ripped off the longest run of his career (56 yards) and passed USM's career rushing mark with a year-and-a-half of eligibility left to pad it. Southern Miss -- a program largely defined by the punt, which awarded its "offensive player of the game" honor to the punter on more than one occasion in my years there -- did not punt once.
But the Eagles also missed three field goals -- altogether, more than 150 "wasted yards" that produced zero points -- while allowing a pair of touchdown passes by Trevor Vittatoe (one of them, incredibly, to someone named 'Tufick Shadrawy'). Up 27-24 in the fourth quarter, UTEP had a chance to close the game after picking off Austin Davis at the USM 40 and driving inside the Eagle five. Standing up for itself for once, though, Southern's defense forced a turnover on downs, setting up an epic, 14-play, 93-yard march for the tying field goal as time expired on regulation. Davis hit seven of nine passes for 82 yards on the drive, including a pair of third-and-long strikes to true freshman DeAndre Brown, but couldn't get USM across the line for the winning points.
Like all the day's missed opportunities, settling for the kick inside the Miner five cost them: after trading touchdowns in the first overtime, the Eagles had to opt for another field goal in the second, then committed a pass interference penalty on the first play of UTEP's possession. From the USM 10, Vittatoe hit Kris Adams for the winning touchdown, the Miners moved to an unlikely 2-0 in Conference USA and Southern Miss -- prolific new offense and all -- is all but finished in the league at 0-2.
Mid-Major Player(s) of the Week. BYU's Austin Collie caught eight balls for 132 and two touchdowns, including a 76-yarder, in the Cougars' win over Utah State. ... No-name Cadet Collin Mooney broke out with 187 yards rushing and four touchdowns in Army's streak-busting win over Tulane. ... Western Michigan's Time Hiller passed for 347 yards and four touchdowns and added another 51 yards rushing in the Broncos' win over Ohio U. ... Florida International receiver T.Y. Hilton hauled in touchdown passes of 65 and 73 yards from Paul McCall in FIU's win over North Texas. ... Somebody has to get credit for TCU's incredible defensive effort against San Diego State, so we'll go with Jerry Hughes, who had two sacks. ... And again, hats off to Damion Fletcher, who had one of the most impressive offensive days in Southern Miss history in the face of wretching defeat.
Steppin' Up. Conference play means the pickin's for inter-conference upsets are awfully slim, and in four games last week, there was only one, and not a true "upset" at that: Utah's Thursday night comeback over Oregon State. The Beavers were well-position with a late eight-point lead to kick off a clean sweep on behalf of the big conferences, but the Utes repped by rallying for 11 points in the final three minutes. Northern Illinois put the fear in Tennessee, especially after a UT fumble set up a short field goal that cut the Vol lead to four late in the third quarter, but the Huskies went nowhere (backwards, actually) with three chances to mount a winning drive in the fourth.
An Arbitrary Mid-Major Top Ten
This is more of a power poll.
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1. Utah (6-0): Of the five undefeated teams, the Utes have the best combo of "Big Six" wins, at Michigan and over Oregon State, and not a bad conference record over Air Force and UNLV.
2. Boise State (4-0): Win at Oregon should remain a strong value, but with Fresno State losing to Hawaii, there's not much left to help strength of schedule.
3. BYU (5-0): Wiping everybody out, but strength of schedule-wise, there's the meltdown by UCLA, and ... ? The close call at Washington looks sketchier by the week.
4. Ball State (6-0): Hasn't been challenged -- may not be challenged in the MAC -- but the Cardinals' best win is probably Navy. The schedule's just not there.
5. Tulsa (5-0): Ditto. The Hurricane should cruise to the C-USA Championship game on a rainbow slide of points, but what's there to say about any single victory along the way?
6. TCU (5-1): Completely dominating on defense, and a serious contender to derail the Utah-BYU collision in the Mountain West. The Utes and Cougars would have a blemish now, too, if either had Oklahoma on its schedule.
7. Navy (4-2): Not missing a beat post-Paul Johnson. Probably should have lost to Air Force Saturday, but somehow managed to block two punts for touchdowns to offset an awful day defensively.
8. East Carolina (3-2): Off the radar after two terrible losses to N.C. State and Houston, but the Virginia Tech and West Virginia wins (especially the former) are holding up.
9. Air Force (3-2): Still extremely tough to stop on the option and capable of beating anyone on the schedule -- including BYU and TCU (although I wouldn't bet on it).
10. Western Michigan (5-1): Big passing day over Ohio U., WMU's fifth straight win after dropping the opener at Nebraska.
The Week Ahead
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Best Game. I'm going to give Southern Miss one more shot to win me over by competing with Boise State -- not winning, even at home, but just showing up and turning in a fight -- after laying a foul egg on national television against the Broncos last year on the blue turf. The talent gap certainly isn't as wide as these teams' reputations suggest, if it exists at all.
Most Realistic Upset. Memphis hosts old C-USA rival Louisville in the Liberty Bowl on Friday, where the Tigers are used to the kind of high-scoring thriller that gives them the best chance to eke out a win over the Cardinals, who don't seem that awful, after all.
Least Realistic Upset. Michigan's veering into dire straits, but the Wolverines may as well scuttle the ship and start looking for a new captain if they run aground against 1-4 Toledo.
Break Out the Abacus. It's always countin' time when Tulsa's involved, but against the JUCO-level defense of SMU, the Hurricane can name its number. June Jones' Mustangs should put a few touchdowns on the board at home, but not nearly enough to throw a scare into the hottest offense this side of Missouri.
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Photo of Austin Collie via Getty Images; Photo of Damion Fletcher via the Associated Press.