Michigan - Notre Dame
Being a sports fan is a funny thing. Going into the game, I felt pretty good about how Michigan matched up with Notre Dame because UM's running performance in the first two games was likely to set up deep passes against Notre Dame's suspect corners and because Michigan's front four would present problems for the Notre Dame offensive line. That said, I was feeling like Michigan wasn't going to win because they hadn't won a road-opener since I was a 3L (1999) and this ND team was certainly better than the six teams UM has lost to during that stretch. So naturally, in a venue Lloyd had never won and against an opponent far better than the previous squads that ended Michigan's national title dreams in November, Michigan played its best game since the 1997 humiliation of Penn State on JUDGMENT DAY!!! and strolled out to a 34-7 lead by the time the game was 28 minutes old.
How does this happen? How does Tennessee win a national title the year after the best quarterback in school history departs? How does Ohio State win a national title in 2002 against a very tough schedule with a team with a negligible offense that would have been soundly beaten by the Bucks' '96, '98, or '05 teams? How does Barcelona reverse their fortunes against Real Madrid as a result of David Beckham proclaiming that he wouldn't play for the Blaugrana? How did the Braves win 14 straight divisional titles and yet the one team that won the World Series in that stretch had one of the weakest offenses of any team during the 14-year run? Days like Saturday are the reason why sports fans keep their faith, against all logic and despite the fact that, for most of us, the defeats hurt worse than the victories feel good.
To illustrate that last point, the moment that I decided that Michigan wasn't going to blow the lead (not an unreasonable fear, given Michigan's habit of blowing leads in this decade, not to mention Notre Dame's ability to come from behind [see: '93 BC and '05 MSU...and they lost both of those]), I started to think about the fact that Michigan annihilated Notre Dame three years ago...and promptly sleepwalked their way out to Eugene where they dug themselves a 24-6 hole from which they could not quite excavate themselves (although a bad call on their final drive aided in the loss...sound familiar, Sooner fans?). Wisconsin is next week and I full expect Michigan to struggle for the first quarter or so. The question will be whether they dig themselves a hole or if they simply muddle their way to a 3-3 start, after which they should dispatch the punchless Badgers.
As for the game itself, for once, Michigan set up an opponent beautifully. They spent the first two games of the season showing off their fancy new toy - a zone blocking scheme that takes advantage of Mike Hart's vision and cut-back ability - and then exploited Notre Dame's response to the fancy new toy - bringing up the safeties - by unveiling a cooler, fancier new toy: the deep pass. Three long TDs to Mario Manningham and that was that. The counter-measure that future opponents will likely try against Mike DeBord's homage to Al Davis - run, run, long pass - is to bring up a safety and leave the other safety on Manningham's side to force Michigan to throw deep to Steve Breaston, who has always struggled at adjusting to the ball in the air, and Adrian Arrington, who may or may not have deep speed.
Defensively, Michigan hit Brady Quinn over and over again. I started feeling good on the first play of the game when Quinn couldn't step into a deep ball properly because Terrence Taylor had pushed a blocker back into his face. Michigan consistently got pressure on Quinn by rushing only four, especially up the middle, and UM's players are vastly more active in zone coverage than they were under Jim Herrmann. (This is more a function of Herrmann the linebacker coach than Herrmann the defensive coordinator.) Quinn became less and less accurate as the game went on, culminating (for me, at least) when he missed a wide open Rhema McKnight down the left sideline in the third quarter. Quinn did not look very good in the game, starting with the second play when he threw too hard and behind John Carlson, leading to the first of Michigan's six touchdowns (I can't believe I'm typing that), but most of his struggles are attributable to the fact that he was his over and over and his receivers could not dominate Michigan's corners physically. Troy Smith will be better protected and is more accurate than Quinn, so he'll be a greater challenge down the road.
And one conciliatory note for Notre Dame fans: the biggest reason why ND lost this game is that they don't have good corners. This fact was covered in the first game by the fact that Georgia Tech only has one good receiver and it was covered in the second game by the fact that Penn State's running game didn't merit extra defenders in the box. Against a team that could run the ball, the corners were exposed. The reason why Notre Dame has poor corners is that Ty Willingham viewed recruiting corners and offensive linemen (after his first two classes) as an optional endeavor. Down the road, when Darrin Walls & company are more experienced, Notre Dame won't be so easily beaten by players like Manningham. That said, next year is when the Curse of Ty shifts from corners to offensive linemen.
Clemson - FSU
I know I'm getting soft when I saw Will Proctor's Dad crying after his son scored on a TD run against FSU and I got all emotional. Proctor, incidentally, is at least as good as Charlie Whitehurst was and Clemson is probably the best team in the ACC as a result. That said, being the best team in the ACC this year is not unlike being the most libertarian member of a Soviet Politburo. Saturday conclusively demonstrated that the sun has set on Miami and Florida State's empires. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to be a Florida State fan. The team struggles because they can't move the ball to save their lives, despite excellent talent on offense, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel because the offensive coordinator happens to be the fruit of the head coach's loins and the head coach has the field named after him. The problem will only be solved when Saint Bobby either retires or is willing to eat cocktail olives for a month because he fired his son and his wife has refused to cook for him.
I feel really bad for Florida State fans, but I feel worse for Mr. College Football and other assorted pundits who were unaware that Florida State isnÂt what they were before Mark Richt departed, and Miami isnÂt what they were when Butch Davis was in charge of evaluating talent. You think that Kirk Herbstreit would like that ÂMiami to the Fiesta BowlÂ pick back? He should have known better than to take a team with no receivers and four new starters on the offensive line, but even moreso when that team was Miami, a team that has struggled on offense in recent years even with plenty of returning starters on the line.
Florida Â Tennessee
I started to have a few pangs of concern on Saturday night when Florida started running the ball effectively on Tennessee. My whole basis for deeming the Gators to be the most overrated team in the country, per the Charles Rogers Theorem, was that their losses on the offensive line would doom their running game and cause Chris Leak to have to run for his life. So what the hell were they doing running for 168 yards at over four yards per carry against Tennessee? If the Gators can block and DeShawn Wynn can run, then FloridaÂs weaknesses will be strengths and the Florida-Auburn SEC Title Game that every pundit predicted in the offseason will become a reality.
Ultimately, the question is whether Tennessee is the team that shelled CalÂs running game or the team that gave up yards and points by the bushel against Air Force. If theyÂre the former, then Florida will win two of three against Auburn/LSU/Georgia, brush away the Alabama/South Carolina/Florida State no offense posse, and head to the Dome at 11-1. If the Vols are really an 8-4 team that looked better than they are against Cal (and IÂm leaning towards this conclusion, mainly because TennesseeÂs defensive line is below their normal standardsÂ
and because I want the Charles Rogers Theorem to be right again), then 10-2 or 9-3 is more likely. One thing is for certain, though: FloridaÂs defense is very, very good, as evidenced by the fact that the Gators allowed 24 yards rushing to the Vols. Lord only knows what the Gator defensive line does to their offensive line in practice.
LSU Â Auburn
I didnÂt get to watch much of this game because I was too busy grinning like a fool as Tom Hammond tried to make sense of MichiganÂs detonation of Notre Dame. (ÂWait, this wasnÂt in the script. What about my ÂCharlie Weis is a genius because heÂ
SELF-SCOUTS!!!Â) From what I did see, the defenses dominated the offenses (no surprise) and the game was very similar to the tilt in 2004, right down to the immaculate weather. I was disappointed in LSU that they got to the Auburn 20 with 14 seconds remaining, but didnÂt get a single shot off at the end zone. They were first bailed out by a false start penalty that prevented the game from ending on Jamarcus RussellÂs inept decision to throw underneath with no timeouts remaining, and then they threw six yards short of the end zone on the final play. I guess they figured that Auburn wouldnÂt possibly give up a last gasp touchdown at home from 20 yards outÂ
Incidentally, it did amuse me on Saturday that Gang of Six member Florida and ÂOMG!!! West Coast Hottnezz Al Borges!!!Â Auburn combined to average 14 points and 295 yards against poor, dumb Tennessee and LSU. Could it be that SEC defenses are very good and donÂt simply benefit from playing on a weekly basis against inept offenses? OK, in my heart of hearts, IÂll concede that there are a lot of atrocious offenses in the SEC this year and the depth of the conference simply isnÂt very good. There are four excellent teams (Auburn, LSU, Florida, and Georgia), one link-up midfielder that might be excellent or merely good (Tennessee), a bunch of feisty, but offensively-challenged and average teams (Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Vandy) and three absolutely abysmal teams (Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Kentucky). As I mentioned last week, Georgia essentially has a three-game schedule (plus Georgia Tech at the end). This is not a vintage SEC season, although I don't know which conference can say that it's having a really good year, other than the Big East and that's a relative statement: "See, we don't suck as badly as you thought we did!"
Bucs - Falcons
Forgive me for saying so, but the Falcons' game on Sunday was incredibly boring. It was so boring, in fact, that watching Fabio Capello turn Real Madrid into an Iberian version of Bolton was more enjoyable. (One quick note on Gol TV: I'm overjoyed to be able to watch Barca and Madrid just about every weekend now, but it kills me that there is so little crowd noise in the audio feed. Half of the enjoyment of watching European soccer is the atmosphere and Gol TV deprives me of that enjoyment by giving me so little crowd noise.) It was encouraging to see the Falcons throw a deep ball to Ashley Lelie, as the result would have been pass interference to just about any official other than the one running with the play. With the usually over-sensitive pass interference calls that NFL refs make on a regular basis, there's no reason not to throw deep on a regular basis. This is doubly true when you have a quarterback who throws a beautiful deep ball and a deep threat like Lelie. Sigh.
I was very happy to see the Falcons do what I and most fans with a passing knowledge of college football wanted them to try: running zone read plays. The personnel fits the play perfectly. It was great fun watching Vick and Dunn repeatedly break big gains on the play that Texas rode to a national title and West Virginia rode to the best season in school history. Eventually, Tampa figured the play out and started blitzing on the weak side of the play to stop Vick from breaking outside, but it seems likely that the Falcons have (or will put in) a countermeasure, probably a pass play to the outside to take advantage of that sort of blitz.
And we need to note, before we're done, that the Falcons have not allowed a touchdown in two games this year. Sunday's performance benefited heavily from Chris Simms' incompetence, so it wasn't as much fun as the shelling of Carolina the week before, but the pass rush was fairly good and the coverage was excellent. DeAngelo Hall was toying with Simms by the end of the game. The net result is that the Falcons have a two-game lead on their two primary rivals for the divisional title and the Monday nighter in New Orleans this week should be a lot of fun.