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September 28, 2009

Monday with Mike: Not living up to the hype

It's not even October, but the early season carnage has made for great entertainment already.

Six of the top-10 and 18 of the top-25 teams in the preseason coaches' poll already have lost, and four teams in this week's top 10 have one loss. (We're using the coaches' poll rather than the writers' poll because the coaches' poll is used in the BCS formula.)

It's the first time since 1990 that at least one top-five team has lost in each of the first four weeks of the season. This week, it was No. 4 Penn State at home to Iowa and No. 5 Ole Miss at South Carolina. A third top-10 team, No. 6 California, also lost Saturday, at Oregon.

While Penn State and Ole Miss lost close games, Cal was crushed by the Ducks, so let's focus first on the Golden Bears.

Quite simply, Cal again spit the bit.

Cal had a lot going for it this season, not the least of which is that the nation's best running back, junior Jahvid Best, is the focal point of the offense. Another was that USC looked to be a bit down. Another was that its defensive line and secondary looked to be among the nation's best at those positions. Finally, there was USC having to play in Berkeley.

Cal started the season 3-0 and Best was running wild. Now, though, after the beatdown administered by Oregon, the season is in danger of slipping away. The USC game is next week, and another loss and Cal can kiss any hopes of the Pac-10 title goodbye.

"I still have confidence in our guys," Cal coach Jeff Tedford told reporters after the loss. "We'll go back to work this week with a good attitude and a lot of focus. I love this team, and I love our kids. It's one loss. It's a tough loss, so we'll make sure we work extremely hard."

Not much went right for Cal. Oregon's Walter Thurmond III fumbled the opening kickoff, and the Golden Bears recovered at the Ducks' 22. But quarterback Kevin Riley was sacked for an 8-yard loss on first down, and that set the tone for the game. Vince D'Amato did kick a 47-yard field goal to cap the four-play drive. Cal trailed 25-3 at halftime, but hit a 50-yard pass play on its first play of the second half. Alas, four consecutive incompletions followed, and Oregon promptly marched 70 yards for a touchdown that removed any doubt about the outcome.

Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli came in having completed less than 50 percent of his passes, with no touchdowns. He was 21-of-25 -- that's an 84 percent completion rate -- for 253 yards and three TDs against the Golden Bears. LaMichael James ran for 118 yards, too.

And an Oregon defense that had been struggling mightily against the run slammed the door on Best and his teammates. Cal ran for 77 yards, and Riley again showed that he is mediocre when the passing game has to be the focus of the offense, going 12-of-31 for 123 yards. He was sacked four times, and backup Beau Sweeney was sacked once.

"It's one loss, but we don't want it to be a downward spiral," Riley said. "We'll come back next week and surprise some people. It's a lot easier to play at home."

That's certainly true for Cal, which now has lost nine of its past 11 road games. Cal is 20-21 on the road in Tedford's eight seasons.

A victory over USC and Cal stays in the Pac-10 hunt. A loss and the Sun Bowl, at best, beckons.

As for Penn State, the Nittany Lions had done nothing on the field this season to justify a No. 4 ranking; they simply opened the season ranked eighth and moved up after wins over Akron, Syracuse and Temple.

Iowa exposed their lack of a running game, and Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark -- other than a 79-yard touchdown on the first play -- was ineffective as a passer. Iowa was no great shakes offensively (298 total yards), but the Hawkeyes hung around and hung around until they blocked a punt for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to take control.

Penn State can take solace that the schedule returns to "easy" mode for the next two weeks -- at Illinois, then at home against FCS member Eastern Illinois -- so it should be 5-1 when the season's defining stretch begins. There's a home game with Minnesota, followed by back-to-back road games against Michigan and Northwestern, then a home game with Ohio State. It's still possible the Nittany Lions go 10-2 or even 11-1, but no one who saw Penn State against Iowa could say the Nittany Lions are a legit national title contender.

Finally, there's Ole Miss, which was vastly overrated at No. 5. Like Penn State, the Rebels benefited from a nice preseason ranking (No. 10), then moved up because other teams lost. Ole Miss' victims were a bad Memphis team and FCS member Southeastern Louisiana, and the Rebels' offense was exposed Thursday night.

Penn State's offensive output (307 yards) was magnificent compared to Mississippi's. The Rebels finished with 248 total yards, and quarterback Jevan Snead -- who some actually thought was a Heisman contender -- was 7-for-21 for 107 yards and a TD. He was sacked four times and generally looked uncomfortable in the pocket all night.

As with Penn State's defense, Ole Miss' defense did its job, holding South Carolina to 285 yards. But as with the Nittany Lions, offensive ineptitude cost the Rebels.

Ole Miss should get back on the plus side of the ledger this weekend, playing at offensively challenged Vanderbilt. But Vandy beat the Rebels in Oxford last season. And after that comes a visit from Alabama. If you've seen Alabama and seen Ole Miss this season, there's nothing that would lead you to believe the Rebels have a shot, though Ole Miss lost by just four last season in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss also has games remaining against Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State, and none of those are gimmes.

Much was made this season about the high expectations for the Rebels, and those who brought up that perhaps expectations were too high for this type of program generally were ignored. But this is a program that had lost 21 games in the past three seasons and was used to losing.

The biggest question was how well Ole Miss would react to being the hunted rather than the hunter. Well, the Rebels are back to being hunters -- and maybe that will help.

What's next for the Gators?
By now, everybody who follows college football has seen video of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow suffering a concussion in the Gators' 41-7 victory over Kentucky.

Tebow was released from the hospital Sunday. Florida is off this week, then travels to LSU for a huge game Oct. 10.

Let's assume Tebow plays against the Tigers. It's doubtful he'll change his playing style, but you'd have to figure Florida coaches will tweak their offensive game plan in an effort to keep Tebow from taking too many hits.

Florida used some two-back sets against Kentucky -- but with two tailbacks in the backfield along with Tebow, who essentially serves as a fullback when he runs. While Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey aren't power backs, they form probably the fastest tailback duo in the nation. There also is the potential for third-string tailback Emmanuel Moody -- much bigger but also a half-step slower than Demps and Rainey -- to line up with either Demps or Rainey.

Questions remain about Florida's passing attack; sophomore Deonte Thompson, the Gators' best deep threat, missed his second consecutive game Saturday with a hamstring problem. Given the concerns about the pass offense, it seems unlikely Florida coaches used the two-tailback scheme on Saturday night as a smokescreen. Given Tebow's concussion, the potential exists for the double-tailback lineup to be called upon more often.

Still, Florida's best weapon remains its defense, especially against the pass. No quarterback truly has tested the Gators' secondary this season. LSU would seem to possess the type of physical running backs that might be able to give Florida some trouble, but the Tigers have been inconsistent on the ground; they ran for just 30 yards in Saturday's escape at Mississippi State.

LSU also has a nice wide receiver corps, but the Tigers haven't gained more than 330 yards in a game this season. That was against Louisiana-Lafayette, a team that a week after allowing 31 points and 330 yards to LSU surrendered 55 points and 433 yards to Nebraska.

Thus, while Florida has some offensive issues, so, too, do most of the teams on the Gators' regular-season schedule.

Poll positioning
The first BCS standings of the season don't come out until Oct. 18, but it's still worth noting that Boise State is fifth in both media polls this week.

After beating Oregon in its opener, Boise since has won against Miami University, Fresno State and Bowling Green. The Broncos don't play another ranked team the rest of the way. How much higher will they climb in the media polls? And what will the BCS computers think about their schedule?

On its statistics Web site, the NCAA has a weekly update of the nation's toughest schedule. This week, Boise State's is ranked 92nd.

Grid bits
You have to think USC coach Pete Carroll is somewhat worried about his offense. Since scoring 56 in the opener against San Jose State, the Trojans have scored just 58 points in the past three games -- and one of those was against Washington State, which is the worst team in a Big Six conference. USC scored 20 first-quarter points against the Cougars on Saturday, but scored just one touchdown the rest of the way. USC has turned it over eight times this season, including losing six fumbles. Four of the Trojans' next five games are on the road, and all are against teams with legit bowl hopes: at California, at Notre Dame, vs. Oregon State, at Oregon and at Arizona State. The line has played up to expectations, but the other offensive units have struggled.

Stanford sophomore wide receiver Chris Owusu returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the Cardinal's rout of Washington. That gives him three kick-return touchdowns this season; the NCAA FBS single-season record is five, by Tulsa's Ashlan Davis in 2004. Owusu, who was a high school teammate of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen at Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian, also returned the opening kickoff for a score against San Jose State last week. And Kansas State's Brandon Banks returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the Wildcats' rout of FCS member Tennessee Tech. He became the 10th player to do that in one game; the most recent was North Carolina's Brandon Tate against Duke in 2006.

Florida State's secondary was considered a weakness heading into the season, and it has played out that way. In four games, the Seminoles already have given up 22 passing plays of more than 20 yards. Included in that total are four of at least 50, three more of at least 40 and five more of at least 30. There also have been eight of between 15 and 19 yards. FSU is allowing 295.3 passing yards per game. Luckily for the Seminoles, their next three opponents are Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, none of whom is particularly proficient throwing the ball.

Lost in all the talk about how well Michigan's offense is playing in its second season in coach Rich Rodriguez's version of the spread is how poorly the Wolverines' defense is faring. Indiana, which had opened with wins over Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan and Akron, ran for a season-high 197 yards against the Wolverines on Saturday in a 36-33 loss. IU also threw for 270 yards. While RichRod has his offense in gear, he and his staff better start recruiting some better defensive players. Then again, when you're 4-0 after finishing 3-9 last season, life generally is good.

Boston College's offense is pitiful (310.5 yards per game, 104th in the nation), yet the Eagles are 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the ACC. BC's defense, as usual, is stout (264.8 ypg, 18th nationally). After an offseason filled with turmoil, a bowl appearance no longer appears out of reach for the Eagles. BC got a huge win Saturday by holding off Wake Forest in overtime. BC blew a 24-10 lead but forced a fumble in OT to nip the Demon Deacons 27-24. It seems doubtful BC can win at Virginia Tech on Oct. 10, but its defense should be strong enough to keep the Eagles in their other games - starting Saturday with a visit from Florida State. One plus is that except for the trip to Virginia Tech, the other tough league games (FSU, N.C. State and North Carolina) are at home. If BC does get to a bowl, first-year coach Frank Spaziani deserves mention for ACC coach-of-the-year honors.

Let's hear it for Idaho. The Vandals are 3-1 after winning at Northern Illinois, which was coming off a road victory over Purdue. Idaho's only loss is to Washington, a game in which the Vandals outgained the Huskies 482-374. Idaho already has matched its victory total from the past two seasons combined and plays four of its next six games at home. Third-year starting quarterback Nathan Enderle, who came into the season with a below-50 percent career completion rate, is completing 63.6 percent of his passes and has thrown for 960 yards and five touchdowns, with two interceptions. Coming into the season, he had 30 career TD passes and 35 career picks. Idaho also is running effectively. In senior Mike Iupati, the Vandals have one of the best guards in the nation. Idaho hasn't had a winning record since 1999 and hasn't gone to a bowl since '98.

Texas Tech has been held to fewer than 30 points in back-to-back games for the first time since late October 2007, when the Red Raiders managed 10 against Missouri and 26 against Colorado in two losses. They scored 24 last week in a loss at Texas, then 28 on Saturday in a loss at Houston. Part of that can be attributed to a pitiful rushing attack (62.3 yards per game, last in the nation) and part to growing pains for new quarterback Taylor Potts. He has thrown for 1,602 yards and 13 TDs. But more than half the touchdown passes (seven) and more than a quarter of the yards (456) came against Rice, which can't play defense. Toss out the Rice game, and Potts has six TD passes and four picks. He threw one TD pass against Houston. Expect Potts -- and the offense as a whole -- to get back on track in the next two weeks, as winless New Mexico and rebuilding Kansas State have to travel to Lubbock.

Rutgers threw for just 42 yards and gained only 249 total, yet pounded Maryland 34-13. The Terps committed five turnovers to fall to 1-3. The heat is on Terps coach Ralph Friedgen and offensive coordinator James Franklin, who is the school's coach-in-waiting. The other two coaches-in-waiting had bad days, too. Florida State, where offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher is Bobby Bowden's successor, and Kentucky, where offensive coordinator Joker Phillips is Rich Brooks' successor, each scored seven points in falling to USF and Florida, respectively.

Nebraska is 3-1 overall, with all three wins coming against Sun Belt Conference opponents. The Huskers are averaging 39.3 points per game, but in their only game against a team with a defensive pulse (Virginia Tech), they managed just 15 and lost. It's all Big 12 opponents from here on out, starting with a Thursday night game at Missouri on Oct. 8.

Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews deserves more attention. The Bulldogs are 1-3, but it's not Mathews' fault. He ran for 145 yards and a touchdown in a 28-20 loss at Cincinnati, which had shut down Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers the week before. Last week, Mathews ran for 234 yards and three TDs in a loss to Boise State. He is second in the nation in rushing at 148.0 yards per game, behind Marshall's Darius Marshall (166.0 ypg).

North Carolina has a solid defense, and that makes the Tar Heels dangerous in the ACC. But the offense needs work. In two games against Big Six conference teams this season (Connecticut and Georgia Tech), UNC has rushed for a combined 52 yards. And when you have as many interceptions as touchdown passes (six), you need to get your running game cranked up.

UNLV was three points away from a 3-0 record, as Oregon State kicked a last-play field goal to win by two on Sept. 12. But the Runnin' Rebels played poorly and lost 30-27 at Wyoming, which had scored just 10 points in two games against FBS programs. The loss is bad news for coach Mike Sanford, who entered the season on the hot seat.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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