A few days ago I did an interview and got asked what I thought was the most underhyped story of the season. It is a really good question. After having another weekend of games to ponder the question, I figured it made for a good top 10 list subject.
The emergence of Penn State's defense: As dominant as USC's defense has been at times this season and was when it manhandled Ohio State, the Nittany Lions' effort in Columbus the other night was even more impressive when you consider they faced a Buckeye attack with a healthy Beanie Wells and a more experienced Terrelle Pryor in a hostile environment. PSU held Ohio State to its fewest points at home since a 6-0 loss to Wisconsin in 1982 and the 61 rushing yards OSU managed was 121 under their season average. Most people have been focusing on the "Spread HD" offense, but who could've imagined that PSU would be this tough given all of the attrition that has plagued this unit, starting with losing its best player, linebacker Sean Lee in April? That was just the start of it. Two quality defensive linemen (Chris Baker and Phil Taylor) were booted from the program. Another promising D-lineman, Devon Still, broke his leg in a preseason scrimmage. Then, prior to a Week 2 matchup with Oregon State, first-team All-Big Ten defensive end Maurice Evans and starting defensive tackle Abe Koroma were suspended after police found marijuana in their apartment and they sat out three games. And in that Oregon State game, DE Jerome Hayes went down with a torn ACL. Still, none of it has slowed down this defense. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley should get Broyles Award consideration for his work this season, although give a bunch of credit to D-line coach Larry Johnson Sr., who, again, has produced a fierce pass rush and one that can get after quarterbacks without using much blitzing.
Boise State is back, and they're really, really young: Just because you see Ian Johnson still playing, don't assume this is a very experienced, savvy group of Broncos making another run at a BCS bowl. It's not. In fact, it's the youngest top 25 team, with freshmen all over the depth chart. The Broncos had a whopping 19 freshmen on their two-deep for Friday night's win at San Jose State. Slender QB Kellen Moore, a redshirt freshman that chose Boise over Eastern Washington, has been superb. He leads the WAC in passing efficiency and has thrown 15 TDs and just 4 INTs. The guy he takes the snap from, center Thomas Byrd, is also a redshirt freshman and calls the offensive line signals. The defense is dominated by sophomores with DE Ryan Winterswyk leading the team in tackles for loss and quarterback sacks, while safety Jeron Johnson is the team's leading tackler and cornerback Brandyn Thompson leads the team in interceptions. Kicker/punter Kyle Brotzman, one of the nation's best specialists, is also just a sophomore.
Greg Davis: Who? He's the Texas offensive coordinator and he's never been a guy who gets mentioned whenever people talk about top assistants or great offensive minds. Maybe that should change after this season. Colt McCoy deserves all of the credit he's getting, but let's give a little to the guy who has helped him go from being a good QB (65%, 22 TDs, 18 INTs in 2007) to an incredible one (82 completion rate, 21 TDs, 4INTs). Davis has made some key game-planning adjustments, like sliding 195-pound Jordan Shipley into an ersatz tight end role against Oklahoma to exploit a vulnerability in the Sooner D. Also, it has to be noted that as great as these Longhorns have been playing, it's not like this is an offense loaded with future NFL stars. Tailback Chris Ogbonnaya had been a backup for his entire career until about a month ago. Shipley and Quan Cosby have been very productive, but neither is a 6-4, 6-5 Roy Williams-type presence, and UT's best tight end prospect, Blaine Irby, went down early in the season to injury. None of it matters, though, because McCoy, Shipley and Co., have been playing at an unbelievable level.
The SEC isn't the top conference any more: At least not this year. It's been passed up by the Big 12, a league stacked with great QBs, who all seem to be smart, accurate and poised. That is where the difference is this season. Whether it's Colt McCoy, Graham Harrell, Sam Bradford, you name, everywhere you look in the Big 12 you see QBs with a ton of game experience and moxie. The Big 12 has by far the best division in college football in the loaded Big 12 South, which has more good QBs right now than there are in the entire SEC. I think the shift comes down to the Big 12 having five top 15 teams as compared to the SEC only having three this season, and not so coincidentally, those three -- Alabama, Florida and Georgia -- are the ones with the really experienced QBs.
Al Groh, Mr. Comeback: OK, technically, it's not a comeback if you were in a decent bowl last year and probably are heading to something similar the following season, but c'mon, who expected Virginia to be headed back to a bowl a month ago? Seriously, who even believed Groh would still be coaching at UVA by the end of the year after the Cavaliers started out 1-3 with three losses by a combined 109 points and one of them was a 28-point loss to Duke? And yet, here Groh is, coming off a win at No. 21 Georgia Tech and sitting in first place of the ACC's Coastal Division. How'd this shocking turnaround happen? Start with the return of hard-charging Cedric Peerman, a terrific runner and maybe an even better leader, and then factor in the development of QB Marc Verica. The sophomore QB has completed well over 70 percent of his passes in his last four games after hitting on just 45% in his four-INT effort at Duke.
The WR Class of 2008: A freshmen crew of receivers that has more than exceeded its lofty hype. It's hard to pick the best one of a sizeable group that includes Alabama's Julio Jones, Georgia's A.J. Green, Southern Miss' DeAndre Brown, Miami's Travis Benjamin, Notre Dame's Mike Floyd, Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin, Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller and FIU's T.Y. Hilton. Worth noting: One of the most productive rookie wideouts, A&M's Ryan Tannehill, technically isn't a true freshman and hopes he won't be a receiver for his entire career. The 6-foot-4 Tannehill (39 catches, 583 yards) still has hopes of becoming the Aggies' QB of the future. (Incidentally, Houston's Patrick Edwards, the frosh with the most receptions, also is a redshirt.)
Donald Brown, UConn Huskies: If Brown played for almost any other BCS program in the country, he'd probably be in the Heisman race, but instead the nation's leading rusher just continues to shine in relative anonymity. The New Jersey product, who was once passed over by Rutgers, continues to chew up defenses. Last weekend, he slashed his way through a very good Cincinnati defense that hadn't given up a 100-yard game all season. Brown went for 150 on 29 carries in a UConn romp. Part of the reason why the buzz isn't bigger perhaps is his style. He's not a burner or a big bruiser. He's just very patient, relies on terrific vision and amazing balance to knife through creases, marveled one scout. It's possible Brown could run UConn right into a BCS bowl.
Beamerball? Virginia Tech built its reputation on great special teams, but this season Frank Beamer's program has been really let down by major gaffes from that group. Tech lost its opener against East Carolina after surrendering a blocked punt and the Hokies have allowed three TDs on punt returns in its first seven games. This weekend at FSU, the Hokies had another bad mistake. The Hokies were leading 13-10. Tech's D had FSU in a fourth-and-19 and Beamer called for a punt block. Too bad freshman Eddie Whitley took a bad angle and missed his "landmark" and roughed punter Graham Gano, giving FSU a first down. FSU went on to win 30-20. Making matters worse, Tech ranks 114th in the country in net punting. Last year the Hokies were 25th.
Urbanball? We knew Florida would have a dangerous return game with elusive Brandon James back (he's fifth in the country in punt returns and 11th in kickoffs). However, it's been the rest of the Florida special teams that has been so awesome. Over the weekend, UF had three blocked kicks against Kentucky that lead to three TDs in the Gators' rout of the 'Cats. Florida also had a big blocked punt against Miami earlier in the season. Florida has blocked five kicks this season and 22 since Meyer came to Gainesville in 2005. The Gators are 12-0 under Meyer when they block a punt.
Texas Tech has a good O-line: For all of the crazy stats that Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree and the Texas Tech offense put up, it's fair to say that Tech has only surrendered three sacks is the most startling one of them all, especially considering how much they throw. The Tech O-line is massive and it's more than just scary-looking Brandon "Mankind" Carter. Tackle Rylan Reed, the strongest man in college football, is a guy who last season contained UVA's Chris Long in a bowl game, and nimble 335-pound guard Louis Vasquez has battled through injuries to consistently rank as the Red Raiders' best linemen the past two years. It's also become a very respectable run-blocking team. Tech averaged 5.4 yards per rush, up more than two yards from last season's 3.1 average. Of course, this weekend Tech will get its biggest test when Brian Orakpo, Roy Miller and Texas come to Lubbock.
The drop-off in the SEC has come via the SEC West, where LSU and Auburn have both fallen in the standings. Seeing Les Miles team lose to UF and UGA is no shame but seeing them lose 103-59 is eye-catching. It also doesn't help that Tennessee has sunk into mediocrity. The next wave of teams after LSU are all a bunch of Nebraska-type teams right now. Heck, Vandy, which seemed like such a nice story, lost to Duke this weekend.
• Lawrence Taylor's son, Brandon, a promising DT, has committed to Purdue, Tom Kubat reports.
"Taylor has been a two-year starter at Dr. Michael Krop High School, this year playing defensive tackle and offensive guard. After six games this season, he has about 40 tackles and seven sacks. He picked Purdue over Central Florida. "I enjoyed the environment at Purdue," said Taylor, who has a 3.46 grade point average (on a 4.0 scale). "I also liked the academics, because I want to study sports medicine."
• Arizona had to turn some fans away, reports Sarah Trotto.
• A little Willie Williams update. The former all-everything linebacker recruit had a school-record 22 tackles for Union College (Ky.) in a 33-27 loss to Shorter College (Ga.) Thursday.
• Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback in college football according to Tony Barnhart:
I'm not sure I agree, although I could see him proving to be the best QB of the group three years from now. Right now, I don't think any college QB is playing at a higher level than McCoy, but I will say I was really impressed with Stafford. For those of you who have been skeptical about the pro hype that seems to be around the strong-armed Stafford, I hope you saw the way he lit up the LSU defense on the road. By the way, hats off to UGA line coach Stacy Searles, who continues to work magic with a patched together young O-line.
• Speaking of Georgia, College GameDay ran an amazing piece on Mark Richt's family Saturday morning. A long time ago, I spent time with Richt's family for an ESPN Magazine story right after they adopted their two children. I was blown away by the warmth and kindness of the family back then and was really touched to see those kids all grown up now.
• Best receiver nobody talks about: UNC's Hakeem Nicks. He ate up BC's zone defense and scored four times Saturday.
• My favorite I-AA player, Morehead State's Nick Feldman, put on quite a show this weekend at Butler. He had three catches for 140 yards, including an 83-yard TD play. He also had a 37-yard TD run and had a 23-yard punt return. However, Feldman's team lost. Still, not a bad performance for the Walter Payton award hopeful.
• Props to Navy, which pounded SMU, 34-7, and became the first team to play a game without throwing a pass since 1997 as the Middies ran for 404 yards on 77 carries.
• Every once in a while some non-sports story link in a margin will catch my eye. This morning, this one did.