Real Trends, False Trends

This early in the season, it’s dangerous to make overly broad or bold predictions about the season-long fortunes of a lot of teams. As in most things in life, it’s wise to pick spots and choose battles wisely.

Here’s an attempt to do just that in the college football world, especially in connection to the sport’s big-name programs.

One big question that annually crops up every September is this: how are Texas and Oklahoma shaping up for their battle on the second Saturday of October at the Texas State Fair? Based on the weekend, a quick glance might suggest that the Sooners are ready to retake control in this rivalry. But a deeper look under the surface of OU’s 17-point win and UT’s 17-point loss indicates that a verdict should be withheld at this stage of the season.

Sooner quarterback Paul Thompson developed a good feel and rhythm in the second half, as he finally established a good rapport with his receiving corps on downfield routes. But in the first half, the Sooners needed a punt return to jump-start their offense, and they profited later on in the game from a blocked punt. OU’s offense wasn’t nearly as prolific as the 37-point total suggests, and the Sooners’ defense allowed over 200 rushing yards against a Washington team that is trying to escape the bottom rungs of the Pac-10.

Texas might have lost by 17, but first of all, the Longhorns lost to the team that, by all appearances, deserves to be ranked No. 1 in America right now. Secondly, Colt McCoy — while not able to keep up with Troy Smith, his Ohio State counterpart, on a big stage (that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone) — didn’t fall flat on his face against the Buckeyes. This freshman showed a lot of poise and composure, a reality that bodes well for his team and its cohesiveness. And with the Sooners sporting a currently leaky run defense, the Longhorns are still in good position to win the Red River Shootout.

The big question concerning the matchup between the Sooners and Longhorns is this: has Mack Brown become a shaky big-game coach again now that Vince Young has left the building? Brown and his offensive coordinator, Greg Davis, routinely had no answers against Oklahoma, even in Vince Young’s first two years under center. It took the junior-year version of VY, a fully ripened college football superstar whose talent spilled out in full flower, to finally subdue Oklahoma and wrest the monkey from Mack Brown’s back. On Saturday night against Ohio State, though, we saw the Mack Brown (and the Greg Davis) who was nervous and groping for solutions that never came. Admittedly, Brown had a freshman QB on his hands, but his nervousness was revealed in a panicky and clearly erroneous decision to use his one replay challenge on a goal-line fumble that, while devastating to his team, was clearly a fumble.

If Florida fans know the Phil Fulmer grimace all too well (they hope they’ll see it this Saturday night at, oh, about 11:15 Eastern time), Sooner fans know the Mack Brown nervous look all too well, and it came back Saturday night. The level of Brown’s coaching–and the way Brown carries himself before and during the Red River Shootout–will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of that collision in Dallas. All in all, the Texas-Oklahoma comparison shapes up pretty evenly at this point, but don’t think that the Sooners are looking much better right now. That’s what you need to keep in mind.

Another “big-ticket” question in the college football world is this: did anything happen over the past weekend that will influence the upcoming weekend of super showdowns?

First, one must not latch onto false signs. For Gator fans, Air Force’s 30-point output in Knoxville is one such sign. Let’s face it: that’s a quirky, rarely-used offense Tennessee saw, and it’s the only time the Vols will see it all year. Furthermore, John Chavis had to prepare for Air Force in a sandwich game that followed the pressure-packed season opener against Cal, and preceded the gigantic game coming up against Florida. And what’s more, this Air Force game came early in the season, when teams are more disorganized, anyway. Putting too much stock in Air Force’s near-upset of Tennessee would be a mistake … at least at this point.

Another false sign in connection with the big games of September 16? LSU’s defensive output. ESPN2 obviously viewed the Arizona-LSU game as a contest worthy of televising (and placing in the capable hands of comfort-food broadcaster Ron Franklin). And there were some murmurs (albeit from places outside the Southeastern United States) that Mike Stoops might have an improved team on his hands, a team that could at least make things interesting in Baton Rouge.

Guess not.

So while LSU has a fabulously talented team (and ditto Auburn), let’s not think that a defensive slugfest will occur on the Plains this Saturday. These are two terrifically talented offenses with returning quarterbacks who, though erratic on occasion, will benefit from their comfort levels with veteran coordinators Jimbo Fisher and Al Borges. Yes, it’s early in the season, but we might see an offense-first game when two Tiger teams tussle in Jordan-Hare.

There are, however, some real signs — some genuine indications of how this upcoming weekend’s games will play out — that I’ll take from the past weekend of action.

One legitimate indicator is the quality of Notre Dame’s defense. True, Georgia Tech and Penn State won’t light up a scoreboard — maybe there’s a false sign if you’re still skeptical about this — but it’s still worth noting that the Irish defense was skewered in the offseason, and this has been the true rock for Charlie Weis in the first two games of 2006. It took a long time for Brady Quinn to get going this past Saturday, and it was Notre Dame’s defense that made a runaway victory possible against JoePa and Company. Since Notre Dame beating Michigan in South Bend is just about as certain as death and taxes, the fact that the Irish are gaming on defense (not so much on offense) has to make them feel very good about their chances against a Michigan team that must substantially open up the playbook in South Bend this Saturday.

Another telling element of the past weekend was how Oregon — on the road against Fresno State, the team that nearly felled USC last season — stood up to the challenge and prevailed with bold play calling in the form of a fake field goal inside the five-minute mark. The Ducks have to be oozing confidence right now, and with Autzen Stadium — a September graveyard for non-conference visitors (ask Michigan from a few years ago) — playing host to the aforementioned Oklahoma Sooners, I have to feel very confident about the Ducks’ ability to gain revenge for the Holiday Bowl loss … a loss in which Oregon, not Oklahoma, played without its No. 1 quarterback. This year, the role reversal — along with a rabid Eugene crowd — should carry Mike Bellotti’s team to victory.

In conclusion, some questions were answered authoritatively over the past weekend, but on balance, many more questions were either freshly raised or left unanswered. It’s this upcoming weekend that will begin to give substantial shape and texture to the 2006 season.