Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
Michigan's slump is over. Even the best of big-time programs go through "down" cycles. Michigan certainly did by going 15-22 over the previous three seasons. But the Wolverines have broken out of the slump. Their victory over Ohio State ended a seven-game losing streak against their archrivals and clinched a 10-win season and might have secured a spot in a BCS bowl.
USC is one of the best teams in the nation. Since losing to Arizona State on Sept. 24, the Trojans are 7-1, with the only setback a controversial loss in triple-overtime to Stanford. They finished off their season with a dominating victory over UCLA, which should assure that Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel will be replaced. While some highly ranked teams are faltering down the stretch, the Trojans have just gotten better and better in their second season under Lane Kiffin. If QB Matt Barkley and OT Matt Kalil opt to stay in school for another season, the Trojans will be a legitimate national championship threat next season.
There are few right or wrong answers in the Heisman race. After a season in which Cam Newton ran away with the Heisman, the award is back to being competitive. The Heisman Trust legitimately could invite six or seven finalists to New York. This weekend was a perfect example of the crowd at the top. Andrew Luck had a pedestrian game by his standards, looking like a quarterback who might slip down several ballots. Then he threw a 55-yard touchdown pass, his fourth of the game against Notre Dame. Robert Griffin left his game with Texas Tech with a head injury, but Baylor cruised anyway in a 66-42 win. If Griffin is healthy next week, he can still prove himself against Texas. If those two aren't front-runners, then who is? What about Trent Richardson, who rushed for 203 yards against Auburn? Richardson has 23 touchdowns - but that's 12 fewer than Wisconsin's Montee Ball. Still, Ball might not be the best Heisman candidate on his own team; that could be QB Russell Wilson. And is Wilson a better candidate than USC QB Matt Barkley, who has somehow been under the radar until the last two or three weeks? And voters can't ignore Houston's Case Keenum or Boise State's Kellen Moore. A Heisman voter could pick a player I wouldn't even list in my top three, and I could still accept the merits of the vote.
Derek Dooley is under the microscope. The SEC doesn't have Houston Nutt to kick around anymore. And Mark Richt and Georgia have won 10 games in a row. That makes Tennessee's Dooley the SEC's most embattled coach heading into 2012. Dooley inherited a mess at Tennessee - a team that had three coaches in three years and now a change at athletic director. The culture change from Phillip Fulmer to Lane Kiffin and from Kiffin to Dooley has left the remaining players with whiplash - and justifiably so. The Volunteers should struggle under those circumstances. Saturday's loss to Kentucky, Tennessee's first to UK since 1984, changes the complexion of the program. Even in down years, Tennessee should beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky. A week after celebrating wildly following an overtime win over the Commodores, Tennessee lost 10-7 to Kentucky and won't go bowling. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt sealed bowl eligibility with a 41-7 rout of Wake Forest; Dooley's successor at Louisiana Tech, Sonny Dykes, won the WAC; and Kiffin may have the best team in the Pac-12. At this point, Dooley has won far more news conferences than he has SEC games (4-12). That must change next season.
Wisconsin can't be happy. The Badgers finished off a 10-win regular season by crushing Penn State on Saturday, advancing to the Big Ten championship game in the process. But every Badgers player and coach - and fan - has to be looking back to what happened on Oct. 22 and 29 and be wondering what might have been. First, the Badgers lost at Michigan State on a last-play "Hail Mary." Then, a week later, Ohio State threw a 40-yard TD pass with 20 seconds left to stun the Badgers. In short, the Badgers are about 21 seconds away from being unbeaten. While their defense certainly is not elite, the Badgers have the best offensive balance of any of the top-15 teams. They have a stud quarterback (Russell Wilson), a star tailback (Montee Ball) and a big, physical offensive line. But instead of possibly ending the season in New Orleans playing for the national title, a second consecutive Rose Bowl berth is what they'll be playing for Saturday against Michigan State.
Steve Spurrier still can coach. He certainly doesn't oversee a prolific offense, but Spurrier deserves a ton of credit for guiding his team to a 10-2 finish. The Gamecocks hammered archrival Clemson on Saturday to get to 10 victories, and it's just the second 10-win season in school history. In addition, they won six SEC games for the first time this season and beat SEC East champ Georgia in a head-to-head matchup. The one constant for Spurrier this season has been a stout defense. There was a messy quarterback switch, from Stephen Garcia to Connor Shaw; the Gamecocks also lost one of the premier tailbacks in the nation in Marcus Lattimore to a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game of the season. The quarterback issues rendered star WR Alshon Jeffery an almost-forgotten man for much of the season. Still, this team reached the 10-win mark with the 75th-ranked offense in the nation.
Clemson needs to fix its offense - fast. How far has Clemson fallen in the past month? Clemson won 23-3 at Virginia Tech on Oct. 1, but just try to find someone outside Clemson's campus who expects the Tigers to win the rematch in the ACC championship game next week. The skepticism is justified, based on the way Clemson finished the regular season. Clemson averaged 40.6 points per game during its 8-0 start. The Tigers have gone 1-3 in their past four games and have averaged 18.5 points during that stretch. The Tigers need WR Sammy Watkins to get healthy. They also need QB Tajh Boyd to regain his early-season form. Boyd threw 24 touchdown passes and three interceptions in the first eight games of the season; he has seven interceptions and four touchdown passes in his past four.
Baylor's not just a one-man show. Robert Griffin arguably has been college football's best player this season, but his apparent concussion in a 66-42 victory over Texas Tech gave his teammates a chance to prove their worth. Baylor TB Terrance Ganaway quietly has delivered a productive season, and his 246-yard performance against Texas Tech gave him 1,195 rushing yards, which puts him 23 yards away from the school single-season record. WR Kendall Wright is an All-America candidate who caught two more touchdown passes Saturday. Nick Florence replaced Griffin in the second half and threw for 151 yards and two touchdowns. After Griffin helped Baylor grab a 31-28 halftime advantage, the Bears outscored Texas Tech 35-14 without their star quarterback in the second half.
TEAMS Thought you'd kick butt, you did: Boise State
Thought you'd kick butt, you didn't: Miami Thought you'd get your butt kicked, you did: Oregon State Thought you'd get your butt kicked, you didn't: Kentucky
Dang, they're good: LSU Dang, they're bad: Duke
GAMES Play this again: N.C. State 56, Maryland 41
Never play this again: USC 50, UCLA 0
What? Connecticut 40, Rutgers 22
Huh? Minnesota 27, Illinois 7
Are you kidding me? Kentucky 10, Tennessee 7
NEXT WEEK Ticket to die for: Georgia vs. LSU in SEC championship game
Best non-Big Six matchup: Southern Miss at Houston in Conference USA championship game
Upset alert: Ohio against Northern Illinois in MAC title game on Friday
Must win: West Virginia against USF in Tampa on Thursday
Offensive explosion: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State Defensive struggle: None
Intriguing coaching matchup: Texas' Mack Brown vs. Baylor's Art Briles in Waco
Who's bringing the body bags? UCLA at Oregon
Plenty of good seats remaining: Syracuse at Pittsburgh They shoot horses, don't they? New Mexico at Boise State