Ranking the conferences

September, 1, 2008

Thanks to an intriguing group of out-of-league matchups, the opening weekend provided a pretty good window into taking stock of the conference pecking order, so that'll serve as this week's top 10 list:

1. SEC: Those of you who believed the gap was closing at the top (that's probably just folks in the Southwest and out here on the Left Coast) had it backward. The distance between the SEC and everyone else has expanded. Sure, the league is still sorting through a bunch of QB inexperience, but an influx of top newcomers has made these teams only that much tougher. Thanks to Alabama's dominant performance over the ACC's supposed top dog, Clemson, it sure looks as if the league has another top-15 program to boast. Though Bama doesn't have a ton of experience on D, it still mauled a Tigers offense that features three Heisman hopefuls.

South Carolina also showed off a fierce defense by shutting out NC State on national television. Kentucky made a nice statement on defense Sunday when it hammered Louisville and QB Hunter Cantwell, a guy some mock drafts have anointed as a possible first-rounder. More good stuff: Ole Miss finally has a QB in Jevan Snead; LSU thumped the FCS powerhouse (Appalachian State) that the Big Ten powerhouse (Michigan) couldn't handle; and Florida's offense, even without Percy Harvin, displayed speed to rival the Jamaican 4x100 relay team in the Beijing Olympics.

The bad news: Mississippi State lost to La. Tech, and Arkansas barely squeaked past FCS Western Illinois in Bobby Petrino's debut. Georgia's title hopes took another big hit on the injury front when standout DT Jeff Owens was lost for the season with a knee injury.

2. Big 12: A slate of games heavy on FCS and Sun Belt competition provided a chance for some big numbers, and the Big 12 took advantage of that opportunity. Mizzou's hanging 52 on Rose Bowl team Illinois showed how potent the Tigers' offense is, and it showcased a bunch of playmakers beyond Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin. Oklahoma State also beat Washington State by 26 on the road.

The bad news: Mike Sherman's debut was even worse than Petrino's, as Texas A&M lost to Arkansas State. Baylor got blown out at home by Wake Forest, while the Mizzou defense -- at times -- made Juice Williams look like Dan Fouts.

3. Pac-10: Alabama might've been the only team with a more impressive opener than USC. The Trojans were scarily dominant against Virginia, although the Cavs probably aren't more than a five-win team while Clemson should at least be a bowl team. As expected, USC's defense looked nasty, but the eye-opener was how sharp Mark Sanchez and the Trojans' offense looked. Then again, after facing the defense he sees every day at practice, UVa's D probably looked like it was made of high schoolers. Cal beat a solid Big Ten team (Michigan State), and the Bears showed that Jeff Tedford indeed picked the right QB in Kevin Riley.

The bad news: Washington State looked horrible, essentially losing a home game to a mid-level Big 12 team.

4. Big Ten: This was actually a pretty rotten weekend for the Big Ten when you consider that the best thing that happened for the league was Northwestern's crushing Syracuse at home, 30-10. Other than that, a lot of beating up on FCS and MAC teams is all we can label as good news.

The bad news: Beanie Wells gets carted off the field and might not be able to play or at least be 100 percent in the momentous Ohio State-USC game. Illinois' defense was picked apart in a loss to Missouri, while Michigan State lost at Cal and Michigan fell to Utah in the Big House.

5. Big East: It's not as if the Big East narrowed the gap between itself and the top four, and if Rutgers loses at home to Fresno State (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET) on Monday, you could make a case the league could slide out of the top five. Best thing we can say is Pat White's Heisman chances still look pretty good after he impressed in the passing game (25 of 33, 208 yards, 5 TDs) in a rout of Villanova.

The bad news: Louisville is in serious trouble if it is getting thumped at home by Kentucky. Syracuse showed it is still dismal in its three-touchdown loss to Northwestern, while the worst news of all is that Pitt wilted under lofty expectations and was upset at home by Bowling Green. WVU must win next week against East Carolina.

6. Mountain West: This was almost a perfect weekend for the MWC, which actually has a chance to leapfrog two BCS conferences in the rankings. Utah's win at Michigan was impressive, especially how QB Brian Johnson moved the ball against a formidable Wolverine D.

The bad news: Now Chuck Long is really on the hot seat. San Diego State just can't lose at home to Cal-Poly, but that's what happened to the Aztecs. In perhaps the most amazing stat of the first week, State got outrushed by the FCS school, 263-27. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, desperate to establish a "pound-it" mentality, must be drooling about getting the Aztecs as the Irish's home opener.

7. ACC: What a nightmare! If it wasn't for Wake Forest, things would really be bleak here. The Demon Deacons opened Thursday night and just carved up Baylor, showing that the ACC probably has at least one Top 25 team. And, since there wasn't much else to pick from, Duke blew out a good FCS team in James Madison, and Georgia Tech looked surprisingly crisp in coach Paul Johnson's debut with the big shift in offensive style. It also contained Jacksonville State's Ryan Perrilloux. Of course, Tech is supposed to beat up on the FCS schools.

The bad news: Where to begin? Preseason favorite Clemson was embarrassed by Alabama, which is supposedly only the third-best team in its division. The Tigers looked completely flat and played with absolutely no passion on the prime-time stage. They could run the table after this and no one will care because they'd only be beating The Citadel and other suspect ACC squads. Virginia Tech lost a lead when it was upset by ECU, and the Hokies have a QB mess on their hands. NC State's offense looked dreadful when it was blanked on national TV by South Carolina.

Virginia got destroyed by USC at home, Maryland struggled mightily with Delaware and UNC almost got knocked off by McNeese State. Oh, and there was that botched parachutist thing, when the game ball was delivered to the wrong ACC stadium. Luckily for them, another bad ACC football team was just a few miles away. Unless Miami pulls off a shocker in Gainesville this weekend, it's hard to see the ACC's jumping up much higher next week.

8. Conference USA: Few people have touted East Carolina as a possible BCS buster, but the Pirates took a big step in that direction by knocking off Va. Tech. Now, if only they can beat West Virginia this weekend.

The bad news: UTEP got drilled by Buffalo, and Memphis lost, again, to Ole Miss.

9. MAC: Thanks to Bowling Green's win at Pitt, maybe the MAC should be ahead of C-USA. Then again, beating a Frank Beamer team should count for more than beating one coached by Dave Wannstedt. Other MAC goodness: Temple was impressive in beating Army on Friday night. It showed that Al Golden's team is at least decent now. Meanwhile, Buffalo pounded UTEP, proving Turner Gill has really elevated that UB profile.

The bad news: Miami (Ohio) got drilled at home by Vandy.

10. WAC: Maybe Fresno State can come through and win at Rutgers to salvage a shaky opening week that really had only one highlight: La. Tech's beating a bowl team from the SEC (Mississippi State).

The bad news: Idaho lost by 70 to Arizona. San Jose State barely survived UC Davis, 13-10. Hawaii gave up 56 to Florida, although that one probably could've looked a lot worse.

Random stuff
• I watched a lot of the Washington-Oregon game late Saturday night. The Ducks look superfast on both sides of the ball. It almost looked as if they were making Washington defend on a CFL-sized field because they create such space offensively. (Meanwhile, it seemed as if U-Dub's offense was playing on an Arena League field.) I was surprised at how bad Washington's offense looked. Of course, they were going against one of the nation's top secondaries. The receivers really struggled to get open, but they also dropped a bunch of passes. I know Tyrone Willingham is on the hot seat, but facing that schedule with the inexperience his offense has, I wouldn't be surprised if the Huskies win three games or fewer. In fact, I think the only chance he has to keep his job is if Washington beats both of his former schools this year, Notre Dame and Stanford.

One final U-Dub point: The analyst on the telecast, Petros Papadakis, made an interesting point when he asked whether Washington made a mistake by redshirting QB Jake Locker. Instead, if he had played in 2006, they could've shifted speedy QB Isaiah Stanback to WR (where he now plays in the NFL), and that might've made the school more appealing to recruits who would want to play with the young QB. Would that have helped Locker's development more? Not sure, but it is an interesting thought.

• Skip Holtz has done a marvelous job at ECU. I wonder if he actually doesn't get the credit he deserves because he's Lou's son.

DeAndre Brown had a terrific debut for Southern Miss and displayed great ball skills. The freakish 6-foot-6 freshman wideout snagged four passes for 92 yards and a TD against Louisiana-Lafayette. And for those of you wondering whether Larry Fedora's spread would hinder USM's ability to run the ball, well, it sure didn't seem to be the case. The Golden Eagles rushed for 427 yards as TB Damion Fletcher ran for more than 200 himself.

• Nice job by Texas' young safeties against a capable FAU passing offense. Mack Brown had never started a tandem of freshmen safeties, but Blake Gideon and Earl Thomas really came on during the second half Saturday night. UT did surrender 151 passing yards in the first quarter, but just 104 in the final three.

• A good sign for Iowa: Speedy Andy Brodell (just ask Texas fans about him) was back Saturday after being hobbled last season with a hamstring injury. Against Maine, he returned five punts for 76 yards, caught a pass for 16 yards and had a 24-yard run on Iowa's first TD drive.

• Weis had to be one of the big winners of the opening weekend, even though his team didn't play. Or at least the ND head coach must've felt a little better about the Irish's schedule. Sure, USC looked awesome at Virginia, but the rest of his opponents went like this:

SD State: lost to an FCS school
Michigan: lost to an MWC school
Michigan State: lost to Cal
Purdue: off
Stanford: beat Oregon State
UNC: barely beat FCS McNeese State
Washington: got destroyed by Oregon
Pitt: lost at home to Bowling Green
BC: beat Kent, 21-0
Navy: beat I-AA Towson 41-13
Syracuse: got hammered by Northwestern

I think the Irish will win eight games, at least against that bunch.

• Former Virginia QB Kevin McCabe had a better day than his former teammates, completing 30 of 36 passes for 297 yards as his Cal (Pa.) Vulcans defeated West Chester, 44-32.

• A reminder to myself, my brethren in the media and to fans out there: Don't read everything into one dazzling performance or one listless effort, assuming your team didn't actually lose the game.



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