Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
There's a fine line between success and failure. The offenses at Oklahoma and Oregon were among the nation's best last season. Both teams returned their quarterback, at least one star running back and a standout tight end. But there is a saying about backs being only as good as their linemen. That was proved again this week. Both teams have rebuilt offensive lines - four new starters - and both had trouble. Oregon rushed for just 31 yards and managed only one touchdown in a 19-8 loss to Boise State. Oklahoma managed only 264 yards and QB Sam Bradford was knocked out of the game in a 14-13 loss to BYU. Both the Ducks and the Sooners were held to fewer points than in any game last season. Those teams may continue to struggle if the line play doesn't make significant improvement quickly.
The Big 12 can play defense, too. Last season, the Big 12 was a league of explosive offense and exasperated defenses. Nine Big 12 teams ranked 74th or worse in the nation in scoring defense, and all but Texas allowed more than 24 points per game. But if the first week is any indication, defense is making a comeback. In nine of the 11 games played so far, Big 12 opponents were held to less than 20 points. Some of those weren't surprising - Northern Colorado wasn't expected to score at will against Kansas and North Dakota wasn't expected to put up big numbers against Texas Tech. But Missouri beat Illinois 37-9, Texas A&M beat New Mexico 41-6, Oklahoma State topped Georgia 24-10 and Oklahoma allowed BYU just two touchdowns in a 14-13 loss. In fact, the highest point total allowed was in Baylor's 24-21 victory over Wake Forest. Last season, Baylor gave up 41 points in a loss to Wake.
The Irish look good. Notre Dame's season-opening 35-0 whipping of Nevada was impressive. Remember, some felt Nevada was going to throw a scare into ND. Credit Charlie Weis for making staff changes, highlighted by hiring new coaches for the offensive (Frank Verducci) and defensive (Randy Hart) lines. While the defensive line remains a work in progress (153 rushing yards allowed), the offensive line looks stout after ND ran for 178 yards. Couple that with the precision passing of Jimmy Clausen (15-of-18 for 315 yards and four scores) and Weis' play-calling, and this high-powered offense may lead ND back to the BCS.
The Cowboys are riding high. Oklahoma State looks primed to enjoy a Texas Tech-esque season after dispatching Georgia 24-10. Naysayers about Oklahoma State said Georgia's speedy defense would neutralize the Pokes' dynamic offense. Oklahoma State was slowed, as it tallied just 307 yards. But the Cowboys didn't commit a turnover. The biggest story, though, was a defense led by new coordinator Bill Young. A notoriously mediocre defense for most of this decade, the Pokes allowed just 257 yards and generated three turnovers in picking up one of the school's biggest victories ever.
Missouri will contend in the Big 12 North. Raise your hand if you automatically ceded the Big 12 North to Nebraska or Kansas. Don't be ashamed. I was one of those people, too. I thought the departures of Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman and coordinator Dave Christensen would be too much for the offense to overcome. That was way too hasty an assessment. Mizzou looks just fine with its new personnel. At 6 feet 5 and 240 pounds, Blaine Gabbert certainly looks more like a big-time quarterback than Daniel, and he put up Daniel-like numbers in a rout of Illinois on Saturday: 25-of-33 for 319 yards and three touchdowns. Danario Alexander and Jared Perry look as if they can be playmakers at wide receiver to replace Maclin. Illinois may be headed for another losing season under Ron Zook, but I'm not going to hold that against Mizzou. With the Nebraska game at home and the Kansas game on a neutral field, Missouri will contend for its third straight North title.
Paulus is not a gimmick. Cynics pointed to Syracuse coach Doug Marrone's decision to start former Duke guard Greg Paulus at quarterback as a gimmick. A maligned guard playing quarterback would be a sideshow to an otherwise miserable season at Syracuse. Well, Paulus is going to put butts in the seats at the Carrier Dome not just because he's a curiosity. Instead, he'll do it because he can win games. Syracuse nearly stole a win from Minnesota before losing 23-20 in overtime. Paulus threw a critical interception in overtime, but that was one of the few times Paulus looked out of place. The return of wide receiver Mike Williams and a healthy Delone Carter at tailback also have helped transform an offense that sputtered during former coach Greg Robinson's reign. Paulus isn't a first-team all-conference quarterback, and Syracuse probably won't play in a bowl, but Paulus should help the 'Cuse score an upset or two in conference play.
Cal is USC's only real challenger in the Pac-10. It's not that the Pac-10 isn't good; it's just that California and USC look to be of top-10 quality. Cal players, coaches and fans likely were glued to the TV on Thursday night, when Oregon lost to Boise State. Cal plays at Oregon the week before the Golden Bears play host to USC. What Cal people saw is an Oregon team that's going to take a while to jell. That's not an issue for the Golden Bears, who looked tremendous in mauling Maryland 52-13. Everyone knew the Cal rushing attack would be strong, and it was, rolling up 244 yards. But QB Kevin Riley also was extremely sharp, carving a solid secondary to the tune of 298 yards and four TDs. And Cal's defense was as good as advertised, coming up with six sacks and holding the Terps to 4-of-17 on third-down conversions.
Ohio State has reason to be worried. When USC comes to town, as it will next week in Columbus, opposing teams generally brace for bad times. But going off Ohio State's performance in the opener, the Buckeyes should be quaking in their boots. The Buckeyes were lucky to escape with a four-point win over Navy. Now, maybe the Buckeyes were playing possum, being very vanilla on both sides of the ball. But that seems doubtful because of how the game played out. Navy ran for 186 yards, and that was with no linemen or no skill-position players that would've interested USC - or Ohio State, for that matter - on the recruiting trail. Ohio State's linebackers had problems, and with USC and its deep running back corps coming to town, those problems need to get fixed in a hurry.
BYU QB Hall has come of age. In our preseason breakdown of the Mountain West Conference, we called BYU QB Max Hall the league's most overrated player. We offer our apologies. The guy who came up small in losses to TCU, Utah and Arizona last season came up huge when it mattered most Saturday in a 14-13 upset of Oklahoma. Hall displayed remarkable poise while leading the Cougars on a winning 78-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. The series included a gutsy 23-yard completion to tight end/brother-in-law Dennis Pitta on fourth-and-4 from Oklahoma's 29 and a 7-yard touchdown pass to McKay Jacobson on third-and-goal. A shoulder injury that knocked out Heisman winner Sam Bradford made BYU's job easier, but keep in mind that Hall led the Cougars on that winning drive without the services of star running back Harvey Unga, who sat out the game with a hamstring problem.
The heat is on Virginia coach Groh. One-sided victories by Notre Dame and Michigan removed some of the pressure on Charlie Weis and Rich Rodriguez, at least until their showdown next week. So for at least the next few days, Al Groh occupies arguably the hottest seat in the nation. Virginia closed the 2008 season as one of only two ACC teams that failed to earn a bowl bid, and the Cavaliers opened 2009 by committing seven turnovers in a 26-14 loss to Football Championship Subdivision program William & Mary. Here's one sign of hope for Groh: Virginia started the '07 season with a surprising loss to Wyoming and went on to finish 9-4.