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September 11, 2009

Mailbag: How far can we take first impressions?

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A good first impression can really enhance an image. But it doesn't necessarily guarantee substance.

Strong performances in a season-opening game can change the way a team is perceived. But a big opening victory or a surprising showing in a loss doesn't necessarily mean a successful season will follow.

UCLA's stunning upset of Tennessee in the 2008 opener raised hopes that the Bruins would be factors in the Pac-10 race. Instead, they were routed 59-0 by BYU the following week and struggled to a 4-8 finish.

Still, even in defeat, there can be indicators that a good season awaits. Last season, Michigan State opened with a competitive 38-31 loss at California, then went on to post nine wins, its highest victory total of the decade.

Navy's near-upset of Ohio State was the most impressive showing in a season-opening loss. Does that mean the Midshipmen will cruise the rest of the way or are rough seas ahead? That question and others are topics in this week's mailbag.

What now for Navy?

From: Dan in Hopkinsville, Ky.: After coming close to pulling off an upset over Ohio State in the first game, how will Navy do the rest of the season?

Based on last week's game at Ohio State, when the Midshipmen were a two-point conversion away from forcing overtime, it's tempting to proclaim Navy as a potential top-15 team that could post 11 or 12 wins in a 13-game schedule.

Sound absurd? Well, Navy has posted at least eight wins in each of the past five seasons and won 10 in '04. And what remaining opponent is better than Ohio State? Pittsburgh? Air Force? Notre Dame? If Navy can play Ohio State even in Columbus, is it so outrageous to suggest it could beat all the other teams on the schedule? Quarterback Ricky Dobbs proved himself a big-play threat as a runner and a passer. He threw for 156 yards against the Buckeyes, which is more than half the yardage that leading passer Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada threw for last season.

But let's pull back on the reins some. As impressive as Navy played, it was one game. Some opponents - Notre Dame, perhaps - may prove more explosive than Ohio State. Some teams will just have good days against Navy. And Navy's national profile was raised by its play against the Buckeyes, so opponents may view a win over the Midshipmen as an even bigger feather in the cap than previously thought. That will make them even more subject to an upset.

Besides, Navy has to show it can consistently play as it did against Ohio State. The Midshipmen showed they were capable of beating the Buckeyes. But if Navy isn't focused Saturday, it's capable of losing to Louisiana Tech.

Still, the overall schedule is advantageous. The feeling here is that Navy will have another strong season and post nine wins. Ten isn't out of the question, and that likely would be good enough to earn a spot in the final polls for the first time since finishing 24th in '04.

NCAA vs. swine flu

From: Jacob from Toledo, Ohio: Do you think teams that have had encounters with swine flu should be allowed to play games? Sure, it's not fair to those teams since it's beyond their control, but it's even more unfair to the teams that play them. If the infection starts spreading each week, going around all the teams in the country, it could derail the entire season. Should the NCAA take any action to prevent this?

Outbreaks of the H1N1 virus have been reported at Washington State and Ole Miss. Washington State coach Paul Wulff said that as many as 16 Cougars players had complained of symptoms such as chills, fever, sore throat, muscle pains, coughing and headaches. The virus is most threatening to children and the elderly.

I don't think the NCAA needs to step in; rather, individual programs should appraise their situations and react accordingly. Washington State is scheduled to play Hawaii on Saturday. If either school feels their athletes are at a great risk, perhaps the game should be canceled.

Ole Miss is off this week. But if there remains a perceived threat before next week's game against Southeastern Louisiana, those schools should make the call on whether the game will be played.

I don't see this as such a threat that the NCAA needs to quarantine certain programs.

One step at a time

From: Peter in Bloomington, Ind.: After watching Notre Dame against Nevada, I was impressed. Do you think the Irish could be a sleeper pick for the national championship? If they beat every team and then somehow upset USC, it's possible, right?

Notre Dame certainly was impressive in a 35-0 victory over Nevada, an opponent that many - including myself - thought would give the Irish trouble.

Instead, the defense posted Notre Dame's first shutout since 2002. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen passed for 315 yards and four touchdowns. Three went to wide receiver Michael Floyd, who averaged 47.3 yards on four receptions.

No doubt, an unbeaten Notre Dame would be in the national championship picture. An unbeaten record would include a victory over USC, and that likely would propel the Irish into the national title game. Indeed, Lou Holtz and Beano Cook already have predicted Notre Dame will play in the BCS championship game, an opinion not shared here.

As impressive as the Nevada victory was, it still needs to be kept in perspective. Nevada finished 7-6 last season and ranked 120th in the nation - last - in pass defense. So, really, is it any wonder Clausen and Floyd had such brilliant performances? The Irish figure to face sterner tests in remaining September games against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

This Notre Dame team is better than last season's, which finished 7-6. Much better. But it doesn't strike me as a national title team. The Irish still have to prove they can run and stop the run against good competition.

Anticipate seeing Notre Dame in a BCS game, but not the BCS championship game.

Auburn under the radar

From: Paint in Auburn, Ala.: No one is talking about Auburn. Yet, here's a team that was ranked in the top 10 last season. Auburn historically has been better as the underdog. What do you think Auburn's chances are with the returning players the Tigers have and with an excellent coaching staff led by Gus Malzahn, among others?

Yes, Auburn was ranked in the top 10 last season. In fact, the Tigers were ranked as high as No. 9. But that was before they had five losses in a six-game span on the way to a 5-7 finish that led to the ouster of coach Tommy Tuberville.

The Tigers opened last week with an impressive 37-13 victory over Louisiana Tech, so that's encouraging. Well, it is until you remember they opened last season with a 34-0 victory over Louisiana-Monroe.

This season will be different, though. Coach Gene Chizik is fully committed to Malzahn's spread offense. Malzahn's offenses were highly productive at Tulsa in each of the past two seasons. If he can jump-start Auburn's stagnant offense, he'll likely be an attractive candidate for a head-coaching position in December.

Auburn rolled up 556 yards against Louisiana Tech, with two running backs exceeding 100 yards and quarterback Chris Todd passing for 255 yards. The 556 yards were 94 more than Auburn managed in any game last season and 150 more than the Tigers managed against any FBS foe.

The Tigers face seemingly improved Mississippi State on Saturday, and a visit from West Virginia looms a week later. If the offense continues to produce in those games, then Auburn's status as a contender in the SEC West has to be reassessed. Still, I don't think the Tigers will finish higher than third in the division.

Tiger time

From: Michael in St. Louis: After a great opening week against Illinois, where do you put the Blaine Gabbert-led Missouri Tigers and their younger, faster defense in the Big 12?

Although Missouri has represented the North Division in the past two Big 12 championship games, the Tigers were picked third in the division in the league's preseason poll. If the first week of the season is a true indication of what to expect, the Tigers were grossly underestimated.

Illinois projected to be an upper-division team in the Big Ten, but Missouri dismantled the Illini in a 37-9 victory. Gabbert, who's replacing Chase Daniel, passed for 319 yards and three touchdowns. Danario Alexander, the replacement for Jeremy Maclin, had 10 catches for 132 yards.

But most surprising was the play of Missouri's defense. Last season, it often was a liability, allowing six opponents - including Illinois - to score at least 28 points.

Kansas, which opened with a win over Northern Colorado, hasn't been tested. Colorado was upset by Colorado State in its first game. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini scolded his defense for being soft. Based on the first week, then, Missouri definitely has to be considered a serious challenger in the North.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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