After an awful showing for the Atlantic Coast Conference over the opening weekend, Monday night's shootout between Florida State and Miami started to get the conference moving in the right direction, despite the lack of defense on both sides. This progression continued on Thursday night, as Clemson and Georgia Tech battled in Atlanta in what turned into a tale of two halves.
The Yellow Jackets entered the night favored to win, and they didn't disappoint in the first half as they took a commanding 24-0 lead in atypical Georgia Tech fashion. It's a given that a big key to limiting the production of Georgia Tech's offense is to neutralize Josh Nesbitt and Jonathan Dwyer's running ability. Clemson managed to accomplish this daunting task throughout the game, but the beauty of the triple option is that any skill player can be a game-breaking threat.
Enter Anthony Allen.
The lesser-known member of the Georgia Tech backfield torched the Tigers defense for 127 yards on five carries and a touchdown. Despite being less talented in the special teams department, the Yellow Jackets got key contributions from Jerrad Tarrant — who returned a pooch punt 85 yards for a score — and kicker Scott Blair.
Blair's 34-yard touchdown pass off a fake punt to Demaryius Thomas gave the Yellow Jackets an early 21-0 lead. Clemson's two big playmakers (C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford) put the Tigers on their back in the second half, but not without a little help. Clemson's defense really turned things around, maintaining pressure with their front four and forcing Georgia Tech to abandon the run. Despite this fact, the true high point of Clemson's night was the poise and game management displayed by redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle Parker.
Down 24-0, Parker shrugged off all the nerves attached to a guy making just his second collegiate start. He got the Tigers on the board before the half and led Cemson on four consecutive scoring drives in the second half. Clemson ended up scoring 27 unanswered points to take the lead. Eventually, Blair ensured a Georgia Tech win with two late field goals, but this game definitely provided a strong intro into a weekend stacked with marquee matchups, trap games, and games with future implications for head coaches.
Houston Cougars at No. 5 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Boasting its highest national ranking since the Barry Sanders era in the mid '80s, Oklahoma State is looking to work its way through arguably the toughest division in the country (Big 12 South) en route to a national championship berth. The Cougars have taken Oklahoma's spot as the No. 2 team in the division, and Houston is not a team to sleep on. The Cougars have proven to be an offensive juggernaut over the past couple of years, and can string together touchdowns effortlessly.
Offense: Advantage — Oklahoma State
Both quarterback Zac Robinson and Dez Bryant are back for Mike Gundy's squad, and the nation can prepare to hear about this duo scoring time and time again this season. The pair connected for two touchdowns as Robinson went 11-for-22 for 135 yards in their season-opening win over Georgia. The Cowboys can also get it done on the ground as the Big 12's leading rusher from 2008, Kendall Hunter, has returned for his junior campaign.
Houston returns junior quarterback Case Keenum, who's looking to build on a breakout 2008 campaign in which he threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns, while completing 67 percent of his passes. The Cougars' style is similar to Texas Tech's. They just don't have the caliber receivers the Red Raiders do. All in all, Keenum will have his numbers, but considering a freshman running back led the Cougars in receiving in their rout of Northwestern State last week, Houston probably doesn't have enough to pull off the upset.
Defense: Advantage — Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State has the upper hand here as well. It boasts a defense that was relatively young in 2008 but still managed to be in the middle of the Big 12 pack when it came to pass and run defense. The gauntlet they ran late last season playing Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma in successive weeks definitely brought the unit together and should be a huge advantage against the high-powered Houston offense.
X factor: Oklahoma St. secondary
Though the Cowboys have the better defense, they still have the daunting task of stopping an offense where running backs, tight ends and receivers are all integral parts. The Cowboys should have no trouble limiting the run, but if Keenum can get into a rhythm and spread the ball around, this could prove to be a difficult outing for Oklahoma State.
No. 18 Notre Dame at Michigan
With the recent struggles both these teams have had over the past years, this game has taken on a dual purpose. The "pink slip" game, as some have dubbed it, holds major implications for both programs returning to the college football elite, and the longevity of the head coaches of these squads.
Charlie Weis was named Notre Dame's coach in late 2004 and later signed a 10-year deal worth $30 million to $40 million. Due to two BCS bowl losses and a 9-15 record the following two seasons, Weis is on the hot seat and in desperate need for a turnaround.
Michigan went outside maize and blue lineage, bringing in Rich Rodriguez to replace Lloyd Carr on the sidelines. Rodriguez's version of the spread offense yielded huge dividends at West Virginia, but only produced a 3-9 record in his first year at Michigan. The coach that comes out on top in this one gets an overall morale boost, but the win may be the one thing that keeps him in place next season.
Offense: Advantage — Notre Dame
Simply put, Notre Dame has the clear upper hand because they've had the system they're running longer. Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen looks to have a breakout 2009 in his third year in this pro-style offense, and opportunities for a home run threat definitely increase with wideout Michael Floyd on the field. Floyd caught four passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against Nevada. Considering Michigan's struggles stopping the deep ball, look for Floyd to have another monster afternoon.
Defense: Advantage — Notre Dame
Notre Dame gets the nod mainly because of Michigan's defensive struggles last season. The Fighting Irish aren't in a much better spot defensively, but facing a spread offense team with power-I personnel is the perfect setup for turnovers. Michigan should be pretty good against the run in this one, but an inability to stop the intermediate passing game and the deep ball could cost them.
X factor: Jimmy Clausen
The highly touted signal-caller's collegiate career has been riddled with inconsistency, partially because of lack of protection, but mostly because of decision-making. If inconsistent play doesn't rear its head this season, Notre Dame can definitely be a 10- or 11-win team, but the key lies with Clausen. The 2009 schedule is loaded with winnable games. The big question is: Can Clausen lead the charge?
South Carolina at No. 21 Georgia
Never have the Georgia Bulldogs been more beatable than early this season. Replacing Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno has proven to be a daunting task, and a marginal performance Saturday proved costly in the loss to Oklahoma State. South Carolina, and namely Steve Spurrier, has a prime opportunity to take the No. 2 spot in the SEC East with both Georgia and Tennessee trying to rebuild. There's no better way to get things started than getting a big win in Athens, but an offensive improvement from the season opener against NC State is much-needed.
Offense: Advantage — South Carolina
Despite inconsistent play in the season opener, South Carolina maintains the advantage because Georgia is breaking in a new quarterback. New quarterbacks need a reliable running game and deep threats to adjust to tough defenses, and this is especially the case in the SEC. The Bulldogs still have A.J. Green, who can beat opponents deep on any play, but the lack of a go-to running back will hurt Joe Cox early in the season. Despite the fact that South Carolina couldn't establish the run against NC State, quarterback Stephen Garcia's ability to extend plays with his legs and find a battery of receivers downfield should prove to be the difference in this one.
Defense: Advantage — South Carolina
Yes, Georgia still has some talent on defense. And yes, the defense will win them some tight ballgames this season. But the one thing that stood out in the season opener is the emergence of Eric Norwood. The guy is a flat-out beast and has the ability to play sideline to sideline and disrupt the backfield as a defensive lineman. Norwood is definitely filling the leadership void left by Jasper Brinkley, and look to the standout Norwood to keep Georgia off balance all game.
X factor: Stephen Garcia
Garcia arrival in South Carolina was the answer to Gamecocks fans' prayers. Spurrier hadn't found his quarterback, and Garcia entered with a great arm and mobility. Suspensions kept Garcia out of spring practice and off the field his first season, but Garcia eventually rose to the top of the Gamecocks' depth chart. Inconsistency has followed him through his career thus far, but this is a prime opportunity for Garcia to shake that, and establish himself among the SEC's elite. Garcia will face pressure, but if he can get outside the tackles and use his mobility to create plays down the field, look for South Carolina to pick up a big win on the road.
Mississippi State at Auburn
These two teams ended the year horribly and dismissed their coaches. So why talk about them?
First, it's because of last season's soccer-style match that ended 3-2. Sylvester Croom was coming off a 7-5 campaign, Mississippi State's best record since the year 2000. Auburn fired offensive guru Al Borges in place of spread offensive mastermind Tony Franklin. To make a long story short, Auburn was completely flat on offense and eventually spotted the Bulldogs two points on a safety. Mississippi State couldn't capitalize on the miscues, and subsequently lost 3-2.
Second, the new hires are at the forefront of this matchup. Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen, offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators from 2006-2008. Mullen was responsible for the development of Chris Leak and, more notably, Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow. Auburn hired Gene Chizik, head coach at Iowa State and defensive coordinator at Auburn during its undefeated campaign in 2004. The pick was very controversial, considering Chizik tallied a 5-19 record and only won two conference games in his two years at Iowa State.
Third, I'm a Mississippi State alum, and my brother is an Auburn alum. This matchup has major implications because there's a steak dinner on the line. Aside from that, both teams are looking for a turnaround, and a conference win is a great way to get things going.
Offense: Advantage — Auburn
Auburn has the leg up because, despite the 45-7 win over Jackson State, the Bulldogs looked sloppy offensively. You also have to give the advantage to the team that isn't learning a spread offensive system for the first time. Chizik abandoned the spread at Auburn, returning the Tigers to a style that made Bo Jackson, Stephen Davis, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown all top commodities in the NFL.
This doesn't mean Auburn gets a free pass, though. Senior Tyson Lee should get most of the snaps for Mississippi State, but watch out for sophomore Chris Relf, who displayed dual threat potential and great efficiency in the season opener.
Defense: Advantage — Auburn
Auburn still has great talent on defense despite losing SenDerrick Marks and Jonathan Wilhite to the NFL. The Tigers have the advantage because Mississippi State has the daunting task of replacing Jamar Chaney and Titus Brown up front, and Keith Fitzhugh and Derek Pegues in the secondary. There's still talent there, but the number of gaping holes definitely leave the Bulldogs at a disadvantage.
X factor: Anthony Dixon
The key factor in the success of a changing offense is a solid running game. After being suspended for the opener, Mississippi State gets Dixon back, who was instrumental in the Bulldogs' win at Auburn in 2007. Though Relf, Arnil Stallworth, and Brandon McRae should be a major part of Mississippi State's offense, look to Dixon to be a steady constant as a power runner with deceptive speed.
UCLA at Tennessee
In a return matchup from a 2008 overtime thriller, there will be a battle of offensive-minded coaches in the 2009 edition. Last year's game ultimately led to Phillip Fulmer losing his job. Enter Lane Kiffin.
The former USC Trojans offensive coordinator didn't last long as coach of the Oakland Raiders, but he already is making waves as Tennessee's coach, calling out Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. Well, that game's next week, and Kiffin's main focus has to be not falling to the UCLA Bruins at home.
Rick Neuheisel hasn't quite acquired the tools to challenge USC for the Pac-10 crown, but there are enough skill position players that, combined with Neuheisel's scheme, can cause problems for opposing defenses.
Offense: Advantage — Tennessee
Jonathan Crompton gives Tennessee a slight edge in this category, mainly because of the lumps he took last season. He was very inconsistent despite possessing great offensive tools, and Kiffin's style likely will bring the best out of him. The Vols are trying to replace Arian Foster, Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe, but the return of Gerald Jones and three starters on the offensive line should make the difference for Tennessee.
Defense: Advantage — Tennessee
The loss of Robert Ayers on defense is significant, but the Volunteers have a lot to build on as they return seven starters. UCLA displayed a great ability to throw the football in the season opener against San Diego State, but a big thing SEC defenses can do is get pressure in the backfield. Look for Tennessee's defense to make the Bruins one-dimensional and create miscues in the passing game to keep the ball in Crompton's hands.
X factor: Kevin Prince
With Tennessee's prior history of recruiting defensive personnel in California, along with having Kiffin and Ed Orgeron on the sidelines, freshman Kevin Prince is likely to see someone he knows in Knoxville. But with the defensive styles that you find in the SEC, it's not likely to be a friendly meeting between the whistles.
Prince can definitely spread the ball around and has done a good job reading defenses thus far. The key for him is to adjust to 108,000 fans in orange screaming at you while reading defenses. Count on Tennessee being ready for the run in a home night game. Prince's main goal is to avoid second and third and long downs, and let short routes lead to the deep ball rather than change the game on one throw. As tough as it is to do, the best friend for Kevin Prince is a quiet Neyland Stadium.
No. 3 USC at No. 8 Ohio State
Finally, the early game with national championship implications has arrived. Ohio State has revenge on their minds after getting destroyed in Los Angeles last season, a game which marked the emergence of current signal-caller, Terrelle Pryor.
Pryor showed flashes of things to come as he ran through the Trojans' defense late in the game last year, and proved to be pretty solid as he took over the reins from senior Todd Boeckman.
USC, on the other hand, fell short of a national championship bid when it fell late in the season. But the Trojans look to rebound in 2009 as one of the nation's top teams.
This year has been nerve-racking for Ohio State, to say the least. The Buckeyes narrowly escaped their season opener against Navy, while the Trojans easily handled San Jose State 56-3 behind freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. He went 15-for-19 for 233 yards and a touchdown in the season opener and looks to grow even more as USC has returned every key contributor on offense from 2008 except wideout Patrick Turner. If the Buckeyes can't make the transition on defense from triple-option to USC's pro style, it's going to be a long night in Columbus.
Offense: Advantage — USC
If it were strictly based on quarterback, the advantage would go to Pryor and the Buckeyes. But considering the Buckeyes enter Saturday with Chris Wells, Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline gearing up to play on Sunday, Ohio State is in a huge hole. Couple that with Joe McKnight and Damian Williams being weapons at Barkley's disposal, and Ohio State will need to play the game of its lives to keep pace with the Trojans.
Defense: Advantage — USC
Yeah, the Trojans lost Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga on defense, but safety Taylor Mays anchors a defensive unit that always manages to reload in a way that only a select few teams can in college football. There's a ton of depth at linebacker and in the secondary, and a lot of young talent on the defensive line.
Along with losing James Laurinaitus, the Buckeyes have had trouble in the past covering teams with speed at the skill positions. That was exposed last weekend, when Navy torched the Buckeyes for 342 yards, 156 of which came through the air.
X factor: Terrelle Pryor
Whatever chances the Buckeyes have of knocking off the Trojans lie in the 6-foot-6-inch frame of Pryor. With the loss of three key offensive weapons from 2008, Pryor will need help from the running game and receivers that he may not have yet. A go-to receiver likely will emerge from the Buckeyes' depth chart at some point, but with a game like this as early as it is in the season, a weapon has to be pre-established and in sync with Pryor. If either Hartline or Robiskie were still on the team, there would be a release valve for Pryor to use to counter his running ability, but because both are gone, and there's no Chris Wells, it's going to take a monster performance from Pryor and the 100,000-plus Buckeyes fans to keep the Trojans off balance. Expect Pryor to turn in a solid performance, but Ohio State doesn't appear to have enough help on the sideline to compete the entire game.