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UNPACKING THE PACK: PART I

By: Pete Honsberger

That was fast. Two weeks of college football are officially in the books, and while some teams are reeling from early disappointments, others are finishing up their celebrations and preparing for the next challenge. It is extremely interesting how some teams can separate themselves from the pack (for better or worse) in such a short period of time. Let’s start with “for better.”

The Ohio State Buckeyes, not surprisingly, are better in the eyes of their fans and the national media. Perhaps as important, they are introducing doubt into the minds of naysayers (SEC anyone?). No, they did not knock off Alabama or Florida (though I wish OSU could have played the Gators in either of the last two weeks), but they defeated an up-and-coming Miami Hurricanes team. The ‘Canes told the country that they had their swagger back, and this talented team convinced many that they would topple the Scarlet and Grey.

This, of course, was not the case, though Miami showed flashes of speed and playmaking ability (punt and kick return for touchdowns in the same half against a coach who takes intense pride in special teams). QB Terrell Pryor proved that all the talk of his improvements from 2009 was not just for public relations purposes. He handled himself like a big-time quarterback, and to be honest, I can’t think of another college signal caller who operates as smoothly and effortlessly as Pryor when the pocket begins to collapse. There were unblocked defenders flying at him from every corner of the field, and he continued to either shrug them off or step forward at the very last moment. Pryor conducted his own “roast” of the ‘Canes defense through his play on the field, making numerous would-be-tacklers look foolish. Oh, and he did not commit a turnover while throwing for 233 yards and rushing for 113 more.

Shifting gears into the rest of the college football world, Alabama did little to weaken their number one ranking, humbling Penn State without reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. I found out how hopelessly optimistic I can sometimes be, considering I actually thought that the Nittany Lions could pull off the upset on the road. With a true freshman quarterback and considerably less talent than the Crimson Tide, my idealistic prediction was not my most intelligent. On the bright side for Penn State, a game like that is great experience for their young players, as well as a measure of where they are now compared to the country’s elite. And hey, it’s not like they lost 48-13 to Oregon (blame Lane Kiffin, Tennessee fans).

Which brings us to the Ducks. What an interesting story they have been the last two years. On the field, they were stymied by Boise State to begin 2009, then wound up winning the PAC-10 (defeating USC and Oregon State along the way) before the loss to the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl. Off the field, their returning 1,000-yard rusher LeGarrett Blount was suspended for nearly the entire season after one game, their 2010 Heisman-Hopeful quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was kicked off the team in the spring, and LeMichael James, their replacement running back-turned star ball carrier was suspended for the 2010 opener. This turmoil would pave the way for a slow start, right?

Ask that to New Mexico’s coach and you might get a black eye. Their 72-0 victory over the Lobos probably had people wondering if Urban Meyer was somehow pulling the strings, because outside of the Florida Gators, I cannot remember the last time somebody put up 70+ points on a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent. To make things wackier, James’ backup Kenjon Barner (5 TDs) looked like an emerging star. What is Phil Knight putting in the uniforms in Eugene? I suppose you could have written that game off as a fluke, but Oregon responded by pounding Tennessee in Knoxville. The jig is up. The Ducks are officially contenders.

Speaking of contenders, Boise State has played itself into a delightfully confusing predicament. Critics wanted a tougher schedule for the Broncos, so they scheduled Virginia Tech, on the road, at night. One of the nation’s loudest stadiums housed a Hokie team that was ranked in the top 10 to start the season. A great battle ensued, and Boise came out on top. Finally, credibility was theirs. They received some first place votes in the polls, and were a solid third behind Alabama and Ohio State. Then, James Madison of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) indirectly pulled that rug out from under Smurf Turfers by downing Virginia Tech, 21-16, less than a week later. Now we will be subjected to another year-long discussion about whether or not Boise State deserves respect, rankings, etc. Thanks a lot, James Madison.

Not to stray from the topic of who is hot right now, but it’s hard on the streets for ACC football right now. Whether it is North Carolina’s violations derailing their promising season, or the Hokies and Hurricanes falling on the same day, the conference is not proving to be on the up-and-up in football. Add this scenario to the mix: Kansas (not in the ACC, I know) loses to North Dakota State (FCS), while failing to score a touchdown in the game. The Jayhawks (who hilariously have grown infamous for fighting members of the basketball team) then turned around and beat Georgia Tech, a ranked opponent and legitimate contender to win their second straight ACC Championship.

TCU is in a position similar to Boise, and as much as people complained about them having to play each other in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, I liked the idea of the two teams jockeying for underdog dominance. The Horned Frogs have played with a chip on their shoulder thus far in 2010, beating a solid Oregon State team before dismantling Tennessee Tech, 62-7, last weekend. TCU is as hot as QB Andy Dalton’s hair right now, and it looks as if they will continue to punish opponents until Mark May acknowledges them as a national title contender (which, however, may never happen).

It seems like a long time since this next squad has been called a national contender: The Michigan Wolverines. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that people from Grand Rapids move to Ann Arbor just yet, especially with Grand Valley State providing Division II championships to the region. However, there is some room for optimism in the land of Maize and Blue, and Rich Rodriguez has perhaps been able to enjoy that elusive good night’s sleep for a few weeks. With the fire on the back of his pants temporarily extinguished, he can focus on other tasks, such as a plan to reassert Michigan’s relevance in the Big Ten. QB Denard Robinson, who looked about as much like a quarterback last year as Seth Rogen does an A-list celebrity, now appears to be the nation’s most improved player. 502 yards of total offense is a number that most TEAMS would kill for, and it was done by a sophomore quarterback who WASN’T EVEN announced as the team’s starter until opening day. I don’t know if Michigan is back. Michigan doesn’t even know if it is back, but at least they have a chance if Robinson can remain anywhere near the torrid pace he has set through two games.

Torrid is not exactly a word that described Oklahoma during their too-close-for-comfort victory over Utah State (31-24). They did some media damage control with a 47-17 waxing of a Florida State team that looked as disappointing as the Sooners did impressive. I expected more from QB Christian Ponder and the Seminoles, who had a strong offensive performance in their first game. But perhaps some credit and national respect should go to Oklahoma. RB Demarco Murray perhaps hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves, but don’t be surprised to see him in New York for the Heisman presentation in a few months if he stays healthy. QB Landry Jones looks like a 1970s detective with that majestic mustache, and he uncovered some serious weaknesses on FSU’s defense to the tune of 380 yards passing and four touchdowns. As David Starsky might say, it looks like Florida State punched its last ticket for 2010 championship aspirations, amigo.

Though many other teams are deserving of positive recognition, we are already halfway to a novel (collegiate version of Friday Night Lights, anyone?). Somewhere, ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons is already thinking about which American Pie character embodies each team I just mentioned. Stayed tuned for Part II of this mildly anticipated series…