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October 15, 2008

A look back at the best and worst of first half

» RELATED: Rivals.com Midseason All-Americans | Midseason Freshman All-Americans

Consider this a return of tradition.

If last year represented the season of the upstart, with Missouri and Kansas challenging for national supremacy, this year represents a major show of force from the old guard.

Midway through the season, Texas, Alabama and Penn State fill the top three spots in each of the two major polls. Anyone who hadn't been paying attention to college football since the late 1970s could open their newspapers and figure that nothing has changed over the past 30 years.

In reality, plenty has changed in the past three months. Here's a look at some of the major happenings – good and bad – over the first half of the 2008 season.

5 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS WE'VE LEARNED

1. THE BIG 12 IS THE NATION'S BEST CONFERENCE. Yeah, yeah, defense wins championships. But the offenses in this conference would cause a video game to short-circuit. Never before has one conference had so much firepower. As we turn the corner on the halfway mark, the Big 12 has four teams –Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State – ranked in the top 10. And Missouri and Kansas are in the top 20.

2. ALABAMA IS BACK, BABY! In only his second season in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban has the Crimson Tide in the thick of the national title chase. This decade, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops (2000), Ohio State's Jim Tressel (2002) and Florida's Urban Meyer (2006) won BCS titles in their second seasons on the job. Hmmm.

3. THE BIG EAST IS A BUNGLED MESS. After two over-the-rainbow, yellow-brick-road fantasy seasons, the Big East has turned into a pumpkin. There will be no Cinderella this fall – just a bunch of average-looking stepsister teams. Is it too late to take away that automatic BCS bid?

4. WE HAVE A BCS-BUSTER IN OUR MIDST. And it likely will be either BYU or Utah. The two meet Nov. 22 in Salt Lake City in a season that has seen several other non-"Big Six" squads also cause some heads to turn. Boise State, TCU, East Carolina, Fresno State and Ball State are either currently ranked or have been at some point this season, and Tulsa is another that could have a perfect regular season.

5. THE NEW 40-SECOND PLAY CLOCK HAS HAD AN IMPACT. The folks cfbstats.com have figured out that the average number of plays per game is down about nine from last season, and games are about 13 minutes shorter.

5 THINGS WE'RE STILL WAITING TO LEARN

1. WILL THE BCS CHAMPIONSHIP GAME FEATURE TWO ONE-LOSS TEAMS? Last year, two-loss LSU found itself playing for the title – and winning. We don't think a two-loss team will make it to Miami this January. But there's a good chance the BCS Championship Game will have at least one one-loss team.

2. IS NOTRE DAME BACK? The Irish are 4-2. But, honestly, who have they beaten? Even if the Fighting Irish march on to finish 9-3, we won't know how good this program is until next fall.

3. WHO IS THE HEISMAN FRONT-RUNNER? It's a free-for-all right now with no clear front-runner. Here's a good bet: The winner likely will come from the Big 12, which features more candidates than any league in Texas' Colt McCoy, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree and Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson.

4. WILL MICHIGAN SHOW A PULSE? Everyone knew the Wolverines would struggle as the program transitioned to Rich Rodriguez. But no one envisioned the muddled mess that has unfolded. Michigan's 33-year bowl streak looks poised to end.

5. WHO'S THE BEST TEAM IN THE NATION? Texas is the current No. 1. But Georgia, USC and Oklahoma also have held the top spot, and this game of hot potato likely continues in a season that doesn't appear to have a dominant team.

5 BEST MOVES

1. PENN STATE GOES BACK TO THE FUTURE. The introduction of the "Spread HD" offense with Daryll Clark at quarterback looks an awful lot like the attack that helped Michael Robinson lead Penn State to a Big Ten and Orange Bowl title three years ago. Penn State has returned to national title contention thanks in large part to a high-powered, multi-faceted offense that is averaging 45.3 points per game.

2. OHIO STATE HANDS ITS OFFENSE TO TERRELLE PRYOR. It took some guts to hand the starting quarterback job to a true freshman, particularly since incumbent starter Todd Boeckman had directed the Buckeyes to a BCS Championship Game appearance. But Ohio State has looked like an entirely different team with Pryor at the helm.

3. BOISE STATE PUTS ITS FAITH IN A FRESHMAN QUARTERBACK. Redshirt freshman Kellen Moore wasn't the most experienced candidate for the Broncos' starting quarterback position, but he clearly was the best guy for the job. Moore ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency and has Boise State in the hunt for a second BCS appearance in the past three seasons.

4. TEXAS TECH COACH MIKE LEACH'S FOURTH-DOWN GAMBLE AGAINST NEBRASKA. Texas Tech faced fourth-and-5 from its 36 in a tie game late in the fourth quarter against Nebraska. Just about anyone else would have punted in that situation, but Graham Harrell instead threw a 47-yard completion to Michael Crabtree to set up a go-ahead touchdown. The play didn't decide the game – Nebraska scored a touchdown of its own before losing 37-31 in overtime – but it symbolized the go-for-broke approach that has made Leach such a success.

5. VIRGINIA TECH SWITCHING GEARS AND HANDING THE QUARTERBACK JOB TO TYROD TAYLOR. The Hokies should have never considered redshirting Taylor in the first place, but give Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer credit for changing his mind instead of stubbornly sticking to a mistaken preseason decision. The Hokies are playing as well as anyone in the ACC now that Taylor is running the offense.

5 WORST MOVES

1. AUBURN SWITCHING TO THE SPREAD OFFENSE. Auburn has the type of championship-caliber defense that could have made the Tigers a top-10 team as long as their offense was merely competent. Switching to the spread when you don't have players suited to that offense assured Auburn would waste all the talent it had assembled on the other side of the ball.

2. VIRGINIA TECH'S PRESEASON DECISION TO REDSHIRT TYROD TAYLOR. Virginia Tech might be undefeated right now if it had played Taylor in its season-opening loss to East Carolina. At least the Hokies realized they made a mistake and corrected themselves early in the season.

3. WEST VIRGINIA'S CLOCK MANAGEMENT AGAINST COLORADO. West Virginia was driving for the potential winning score late in the fourth quarter against Colorado, but the Mountaineers allowed too much time to tick away and had to settle for overtime. The Mountaineers' eventual loss to Colorado put even more pressure on first-year coach Bill Stewart.

4. SOUTH CAROLINA'S DECISION TO GIVE THE STARTING QUARTERBACK JOB TO TOMMY BEECHER. Giving the job to Beecher at the start of the season only created more uncertainty at a position that has caused plenty of headaches for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks' quarterback carousel kept on spinning after Beecher threw four interceptions in a season-opening 34-0 win over N. C. State. He's now the third-teamer.

5. THE ACC MEDIA MAKING CLEMSON AN OVERWHELMING CONFERENCE FAVORITE AND NAMING CLEMSON QB CULLEN HARPER THE PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR. Both these choices seemed obvious at the time, but the moves look rather foolish – and for obvious reasons – in retrospect.

5 BIGGEST SURPRISES

1. ALABAMA IN THE TRENCHES. The Crimson Tide would be in the national championship game if the season ended today thanks to offensive and defensive lines that dominated Clemson and Georgia. The offensive line was supposed to be good – but not this good. The defensive line, though, has performed way above expectations because of junior tackle Terrence Cody.

2. PENN STATE'S OFFENSE. Quarterback Daryll Clark is becoming the best Heisman candidate outside of the Big 12, Derrick Williams is looking like the No. 1 overall prep prospect he was coming into college in 2005 and the Nittany Lions are a national title contender.

3. THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE TURF. Vanderbilt and Northwestern started 5-1, Duke is 3-2. Stanford is 4-3. Finally, schools that can say the phrase "student-athlete" with a straight face.

4. CLEMSON'S COLLAPSE. Should this really qualify as a surprise? Unmet expectations have cost Tommy Bowden, Rob Spence and Cullen Harper their jobs.

5. AUBURN'S OFFENSE. The Tony Franklin experiment failed miserably. The Tigers were a top-10 team in the preseason, but they have lost three of the last four, including losses to Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

5 HOTTEST SEATS

1. JOE GLENN, WYOMING. He's ready to join a growing club of failed Cowboys coaches since Joe Tiller left in 1996. To be fair, this is one of the most difficult jobs in America.

2. TYRONE WILLINGHAM, WASHINGTON. It's not if but when he will be asked to turn in his keys. When he leaves, Willingham can know he has left the place better than he found it.

3. GREG ROBINSON, SYRACUSE. Mercifully, one of the most painful eras in this glorious school's history will end – with a thud, of course.

4. TOMMY TUBERVILLE, AUBURN. Less than a year ago, Tuberville signed an extension. Now, a torch-carrying mob is on his doorstep following an epic offensive meltdown.

5. PHILLIP FULMER, TENNESSEE. It's painfully obvious this program is a notch below the SEC elite – and has been for a few years. But how do you deftly show a school icon the door?

5 HOTTEST COACHES

1. WILL MUSCHAMP, TEXAS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR. Meet this year's "it" assistant. He will be a head coach somewhere this time next year. Clemson? Washington? Auburn? It's good to be Muschamp.

2. LANE KIFFIN, UNEMPLOYED. He's the only coach on this list who doesn't currently have a job. But that should work in his favor. He presumably can pick and choose the best fit. He has a great coaching pedigree and did great work as a USC assistant before heading off to the dysfunctional mess that is the NFL's Oakland Raiders. Getting fired by Al Davis last month means Kiffin is available now.

3. MIKE LOCKSLEY, ILLINOIS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR. Have you seen quarterback Juice Williams and the Illini's offense? The big-time production is because of "Locks," who doubles as a standout recruiter.

4. TODD GRAHAM, TULSA. First, he took Rice to its first bowl since 1960 in his only season (2006) with the Owls. Now, he has Tulsa poised to finish unbeaten in just his second season with the Golden Hurricane.

5. KYLE WHITTINGHAM, UTAH. First it was Urban Meyer. Now, it's Whittingham. He has perhaps the top non-"Big Six" program in the nation and his Utes are primed to go unbeaten.

5 KEY INJURIES

1. TB CHRIS WELLS, OHIO STATE: Wells injured his right foot in the opener, which caused him to miss the USC game. It seems extremely unlikely his presence would have meant a Buckeyes win in Los Angeles, but the final score wouldn't have been as embarrassing.

2. QB JAKE LOCKER, WASHINGTON. The Huskies were bad with Locker. With him out until at least November, Washington's season is unsalvageable – along with Ty Willingham's job security.

3. LB QUENTIN COTTON, EAST CAROLINA. The Pirates have lost three in a row and allowed 19 more points per game after Cotton's season-ending knee injury. Coincidence? No.

4. LB REED WILLIAMS, WEST VIRGINIA. Williams never made a full recovery from two offseason shoulder surgeries, but the Mountaineers already had lost twice by the time they decided to redshirt him.

5. WR DANTE LOVE, BALL STATE. Love, the nation's leading receiver at the time of his injury, suffered a frightening spinal injury against Indiana on Sept. 20. Ball State is undefeated, but Love won't play football again.

5 BEST GAMES

1. TEXAS 45, OKLAHOMA 35, OCT. 11: The Sooners kept taking the lead and the Longhorns kept rallying. OU led 35-30 midway through the fourth quarter, but the Longhorns scored two touchdowns to clinch victory in the highest-scoring game in the history of the series. Texas senior wide receiver Jordan Shipley had the best performance of his career with nine catches for 122 yards and a 97-yard kickoff return, and quarterback Colt McCoy passed for 277 yards. OU quarterback Sam Bradford threw five touchdown passes in the loss.

2. SOUTH FLORIDA 37, KANSAS 34, SEPT. 13: USF rallied from an early 20-3 deficit, then Kansas stormed back from a 34-20 deficit in the fourth quarter. But with the score tied, Jayhawks quarterback Todd Reesing – who threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns – was intercepted by Nate Allen, who returned the pick 40 yards to Kansas' 27 with just 30 seconds left. Freshman kicker Maikon Bonani, who was making his college debut, converted a 43-yard field goal as time expired.

3. UTAH 31, OREGON STATE 28, OCT. 2: Aiming to follow up on an upset of USC the week before, Oregon State led 28-20 after Lyle Moevao hit Brady Camp with a 2-yard pass with just 2:18 remaining. But Utah quarterback Brian Johnson rallied the Utes to 11 points in the final two minutes – the last three coming on Louis Sakoda's game-winning 37-yard field goal on the final play.

4. BYU 28, WASHINGTON 27, SEPT. 6: Neither team led by more than seven points, and Washington was on the verge of forcing overtime when quarterback Jake Locker capped a 17-play, 76-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run with two seconds remaining. But Locker threw the ball into the air in celebration and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing the Huskies to attempt a 35-yard extra point try to force overtime. BYU defensive end Jan Jorgensen blocked the kick, allowing the Cougars to escape.

5. LSU 26, AUBURN 21, SEPT. 20: Strange occurrences and big plays are a staple in this series, and that trend continued. Auburn took a 14-3 lead when defensive end Gabe Mckenzie intercepted a pass by freshman Jarrett Lee and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter. LSU rallied to take the lead, but Auburn re-took it at 21-20 on Robert Dunn's 15-yard touchdown catch with just over six minutes to play. LSU, though, came back and Lee passed 18 yards to Brandon LaFell for the game-winning touchdown with 1:03 left.

5 BIGGEST UPSETS

1. OREGON STATE 27, USC 21, SEPT. 25: Freshman running back Jacquizz Rodgers knifed through USC's usually stingy defense for 186 yards and two touchdowns. The Beavers held off a late USC rally to post their first win over a top-ranked team since beating the Trojans in 1967.

2. OLE MISS 31, FLORIDA 30, SEPT. 27: Rebels defensive end Kentrell Lockett blocked a potential game-tying extra point in the fourth quarter, and the Ole Miss defense stopped Tim Tebow on fourth-and-1 in the final minute to topple the Gators. Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead rushed for a touchdown and threw two touchdown passes, including an 86-yard connection with Shay Hodge for a 31-24 lead with 5:26 left.

3. MARYLAND 35, CALIFORNIA 27, SEPT. 13: The Terrapins started the season by eking out a win over Delaware and losing to Middle Tennessee State. California opened with an impressive victory over Michigan State and a blowout of Washington State. So what happens? The Terps don't allow a touchdown in the first three quarters and take a 35-13 lead before the Golden Bears score two late touchdowns to make it close.

4. UNLV 23, ARIZONA STATE 20 (OT), SEPT. 13: Maybe the host Sun Devils were looking ahead to a matchup with Georgia. Or maybe they just didn't take UNLV seriously. After all, UNLV had lost 21 of its past 22 games. Whatever the case, Arizona State blew a 10-point lead and Phillip Payne's touchdown reception with 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter forced overtime. Then, UNLV's Malo Taumua blocked Thomas Weber's field-goal attempt in OT to finish off the upset.

5. TOLEDO 13, MICHIGAN 10, OCT. 11: While this certainly isn't an elite Michigan team, this season's Wolverines certainly shouldn't have lost to this season's Rockets – especially in Ann Arbor. Toledo came in with one win and had lost by 19 at home to Florida International. Michigan's offensive problems were on full display against a bad Toledo defense.

5 MUST-SEE GAMES THE REST OF THE WAY

We're listing these chronologically:

1. GEORGIA AT LSU, OCT. 25: This is one of three big SEC games the rest of the way. But this also is the only one of those three that is guaranteed to have the winner staying in the national title hunt and the loser falling out of that same hunt. The others are Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville on Nov. 1 and Alabama at LSU on Nov. 8. Potentially, of course, Alabama-LSU could be a Southeast version of Armageddon – as long as you can drink Dixie beer and eat crawfish at Armageddon.

2. PENN STATE AT OHIO STATE, OCT. 25: Penn State looks to be the only team in the Big Ten with a realistic shot at playing for the national title.

3. TEXAS AT TEXAS TECH, NOV. 1: The Big 12 still has numerous big games left, but this could be the biggest Longhorns-Red Raiders game ever if both are unbeaten when they meet.

4. BYU AT UTAH, NOV. 22: If BYU wins Thursday at TCU, it appears as if this heated rivalry will feature two unbeaten teams. The Mountain West Conference would be on the line – and a BCS berth likely would be up for grabs, too.

5. OKLAHOMA AT OKLAHOMA STATE, NOV. 29: This one is a long way away. But can you imagine the, well, bedlam if Oklahoma State is unbeaten and playing its archrival in the "Bedlam Game"?

» RELATED: Rivals.com Midseason All-Americans | Midseason Freshman All-Americans



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