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October 26, 2009

Huguenin: Contenders face offensive issues

Florida and Alabama remained first and second in this week's BCS standings, and they appear to be on a collision course to meet in the SEC championship game -- which would be a de facto semifinal in the national title chase.

But if their offenses don't come around, one or both easily could veer off course before the end of the regular season.

Both play great defense, and because of that, it often seems like their coaches are playing not to lose rather than playing to win. And, yes, there is a difference.

Why take chances offensively when your defense is dominant? Because, chances are, at some point this season, the offense is going to have to come through. But can Alabama or Florida count on their offenses -- especially if they were to meet in the SEC title game?

Florida is No. 8 in the nation in total offense, at 457.0 yards per game. But that's misleading. Forty percent of the Gators' offensive output came in the first two games, against Charleston Southern and Troy. Take those games out, and Florida is averaging 382.4 yards per game, which would be 56th nationally -- one spot below Tennessee.

The pass offense numbers provide an especially stark contrast. As it is, Florida is just 80th in the nation, at 198.7 yards per game. But take out the first two games and that number drops to 152.8 yards per game, which would be 110th nationally -- one spot ahead of Kentucky.

Florida is ninth nationally in scoring offense, at 35.3 points per game. Again, take out the first two games and the numbers drop dramatically, down to 25.8 per game. That would put Florida 73rd nationally, tied with Arkansas State.

The flipside is that the Gators' defense has allowed just four touchdowns in seven games; two other touchdowns have come on interception returns.

Alabama is 34th nationally in total offense at 410 yards per game, but take out games against Sun Belt Conference bottom-feeders North Texas and Florida International -- those two have combined for two victories, both over Western Kentucky -- and the Tide's numbers drop, too. Thirty-two percent of the Tide's offensive output came in those two games. Take those out, and Alabama is averaging 373.5 yards, which would be 62nd nationally.

Alabama is 84th in pass offense, at 192.4 yards per game. Without those two games, the number drops to 172.5, which would be 104th.

Finally, in scoring offense, the Tide is tied for 26th at 31.8 points per game -- and that's with scoring just two offensive touchdowns in the past three games. Take out the contests against FIU and North Texas, and the average drops to 26.8, which would be 64th nationally.

Again, the flipside for the Tide is that they have allowed just 91 points. That's not as good as Florida, but still quite impressive.

Lest you think we're picking on the SEC schools, let's also look at Texas, which remained No. 3 in the BCS standings this week.

The Longhorns have played three non-Big Six opponents, one more than Alabama and Florida. Texas leads the nation in scoring at 41.9 points per game. But when you toss out the games against non-Big Sixers Louisiana-Monroe, UTEP and Wyoming, that number drops to 32.3, which would be 22nd nationally.

Texas is 21st in passing offense, at 274.1 yards per game. Take out the UTEP, ULM and Wyoming games, and that number tumbles to 217.0 yards per game, which is 64th nationally.

And Texas' rushing numbers would be greatly affected, too. With all seven games figured in, the Longhorns rush for 164 yards per game. Take out those three games, and the number drops precipitously, to 113.5, which would be 101st nationally.

The flipside for the Longhorns, too, is that their defense has been great. Texas is No. 1 in rush defense, No. 2 in scoring defense and No. 9 in total defense.

Can a great defense and a spotty offense carry you to a title? It appears as if some top teams are going to test that theory.

A nice run for Tech
Georgia Tech is second in the nation in rushing offense and 116th in passing offense. So, how can a team so one-dimensional on offense be the ACC front-runner?

Simple: Because that rushing attack is tough to stop.

The Yellow Jackets have won five in a row since getting hammered by Miami on Sept. 17; the fifth win in that stretch came Saturday, a 34-9 beatdown of Virginia that basically was sealed when Tech took the opening kickoff of the second half and methodically marched 82 yards in 18 plays. The drive took 10:47 off the clock -- yes,10:47 -- and ended with Tech leading 20-6. The drive featured 17 runs and one pass.

In the second half, Tech had the ball for 22:48, giving it a commanding time-of-possession advantage over Virginia -- 42:43 to 17:17.

As with every opponent, Virginia basically knew what was coming -- a run. But that doesn't mean the triple-option is easy to stop. Tech had two players rush for at least 100 yards and three rush for at least 82.

"It's hard to play against them because they have all those different options," Virginia defensive lineman John-Kevin Dolce told reporters afterward. "One player, and the next, and the next."

The three main options are quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen. Dwyer essentially lines up at fullback, while Allen is a slotback of sorts. All three have rushed for at least 470 yards and scored at least five touchdowns this season.

Nesbitt has scored eight touchdowns in the past three games and has 11 for the season. He has 71 carries in the past three games; he has attempted just 23 passes in that same span.

The best news for Tech is that its next three games are against Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Duke, which should turn a 7-1 record into a 10-1 mark going into the regular-season finale at home against Georgia, a team Tech beat last season. Regardless of what happens against the Bulldogs, wins over Wake and Duke would give Tech the ACC Coastal title.

The Yellow Jackets' victory over Virginia was their first in Charlottesville since 1990. Coincidentally, Tech is off to its best start since '90, when it started 7-0-1 -- and went on to win a share of the national title.

Pitt hitting on all cylinders
We've certainly been critical of Dave Wannstedt in the past, but he has it going on at Pittsburgh this season. His Panthers crushed USF 41-10 Saturday to move to 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big East. Pitt led 31-7 at halftime Saturday and didn't punt the whole game.

"They just whooped us and were much better than us" was USF coach Jim Leavitt's succinct reaction.

If not for a loss to N.C. State in which it blew a 14-point lead, Pitt would be 8-0 and almost certainly in the top 10. (That NCSU has not beaten any other FBS team has to make it doubly frustrating for Pitt.)

The Panthers are off this week and play host to mediocre Syracuse on Nov. 7, meaning they'll almost certainly be 8-1 heading into a tough three-game stretch to close the regular season -- vs. Notre Dame, at West Virginia and vs. Cincinnati. The Panthers' pass defense hasn't been as good as expected, but a potent offense has covered up some mistakes:

Senior quarterback Bill Stull has put together an impressive season. Stull has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just four picks a season after throwing nine TDs and 10 interceptions. He has thrown at least one TD pass in every game and has thrown at least two in six.

True freshman tailback Dion Lewis has rushed for 1,029 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lewis is the leading freshman rusher in the nation and No. 4 overall. He's short -- 5 feet 8 -- but he weighs 195 pounds and is a tough between-the-tackles runner. He has carried the ball at least 20 times in every game except one -- the loss to N.C. State.

Senior tight end Dorin Dickerson suddenly has blossomed. He has 32 receptions and nine have gone for touchdowns. Dickerson played wide receiver as a true freshman in 2006, making one catch and getting three rushing attempts. He was moved to linebacker as a sophomore and made 15 tackles as a reserve. It was back to offense last season, as a backup tight end; he finished the season with 13 receptions and two rushing attempts. He was set to be the backup this season, but has beaten out Nate Byham and responded with numerous big plays.

Sophomore wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin is starting to live up to the high school hype. He was highly recruited out of Aliquippa, Pa., and saw backup duty at wide receiver last season as a true freshman, finishing with 18 catches and three TDs. This season, Baldwin -- a big target (6-5/225) who can run and has good hands -- has 34 catches, with four going for touchdowns.

There's also a veteran line, which returned four starters from last season.

A big plus for the Panthers has been new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., who had the same role last season at California. He replaced Matt Cavanaugh, who became an offensive assistant with the New York Jets. Under Cavanaugh, the Panthers were known as offensive underachievers and for inconsistent play-calling. That hasn't been a problem this season, as the Panthers average 399.8 yards and 34.3 points per game. Those totals are up by almost 60 yards and seven points from last season and by 80 yards and 12 points from the 2007 season.

Wannstedt's first four seasons saw Pitt win five, six, five and nine games. This season's team is in good position to win 10, which would be the Panthers' first double-digit victory total since 1981 - when Dan Marino led Pitt to an 11-1 record and a spot in the Sugar Bowl.

There won't be a major bowl for the Panthers this season unless they win the league; the Big East isn't going to get two teams in the BCS. Plus, because Notre Dame is part of the Big East's postseason lineup, teams that finish second and third in the Big East this season risk getting bumped down the league's pecking order. That means a 10-2 Big East team could end up in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, opposite the ACC's sixth bowl team.

That's certainly an unpleasant thought. Still, for right now, it's all good for Pitt.

Owls eyeing MAC division title
Temple has won five in a row after routing Toledo on Saturday and is the only unbeaten team in league play left in the MAC's East Division.

The five wins in a row matches last season's victory total and -- staggeringly -- is more wins than in any season from 1990-2007.

The winning streak is the school's longest since 1979, when the Owls also won five in a row. They finished 10-2 that season, including a bowl victory over California in the short-lived Garden State Bowl. That is the last bowl appearance in school history; the only other came in the 1935 Sugar Bowl.

The Owls are at Navy this week, which likely will be a loss. But then come back-to-back games against Akron and Miami University, which have combined to win once. The final two games are against Kent State and Ohio, the teams currently tied for second in the division.

Temple wins with defense and big contributions from true freshman running back Bernard Pierce, a big guy (6 feet, 212 pounds) who was a state sprint champ in Pennsylvania. Pierce, who has rushed for 766 yards and nine touchdowns, spent his final two years in high school at Glen Mills School in Concordsville, Pa.

Glen Mills is a boarding school for court-adjudicated male delinquents 15-18 years old. Located 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia, it is the nation's oldest residential school for court-referred young men. The school preaches discipline and structure in its mission to help students develop life skills and change their behavior.

Temple's success should make fourth-year coach Al Golden a marketable man this offseason. Golden was a tight end from 1987-91 at Penn State and has been an assistant at Boston College, Penn State and Virginia. He spent five seasons as the Cavaliers' defensive coordinator before being hired at Temple after the 2005 season.

Grid bits
Hmmm. Maybe Nebraska isn't back after all. Losing to Iowa State is bad enough. But committing eight turnovers (five fumbles, three picks) and losing 9-7 at home? Pitiful. Four of the turnovers came inside Iowa State's 5-yard line. The Huskers are 4-3, with three of the wins over Sun Belt teams and the other over a Missouri team that's winless in Big 12 action. Iowa State was without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and starting tailback Alexander Robinson, both of whom are injured. Nebraska still has a good shot at the Big 12 North title, but this program is a long way from where it wants to be.

Navy attempted no passes in its 13-10 victory over Wake Forest, rushing 64 times for 338 yards. The last time a FBS team didn't attempt any passes in a game? It was almost a year to the day: Navy did it last season, on Oct. 25, in a 34-7 victory over SMU. The Midshipmen ran the ball 77 times in that contest.

Ball State was 2-for-10 passing for 1 yard, but still beat Eastern Michigan 27-25 in a battle of winless teams. Ball State ran for 463 yards and had two players rush for more than 200 yards -- MiQuale Lewis ran for 301 and a TD and Cory Sykes ran for 203 and three TDs. It's just the fourth time in major-college history that one team had two backs rush for more than 200 yards in a game. The last was West Virginia in 2006, with Patrick White and Steve Slaton. By the way: The announced attendance at EMU's Rynearson Stadium was 1,535.

No one questions Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett's arm strength, but you also can't question that he struggles mightily against "good" defenses. Mallett is 14th in the nation in passing yards per game, at 271.4. But he's only completing 52 percent of his passes overall, and that low number is because of his production against Alabama, Florida and Ole Miss. Against those three defenses -- all in the top 14 nationally in pass defense -- Mallett is 36-of-96 (37.5 percent) for 638 yards. Mallett was 12-of-34 against Ole Miss on Saturday; that followed games of 12-of-35 against Alabama and 12-of-27 against Florida. Unluckily for Mallett, Arkansas still has games remaining against South Carolina (third nationally in pass defense) and LSU (20th).

OK, someone explain this. Texas Tech blasts Kansas State 66-14 on Oct. 10. On Oct. 17, K-State blasts Texas A&M 62-14. Saturday, A&M blasted Texas Tech 52-30.

This was the first weekend of the season without any games for an FBS school against an FCS school.

We talked about Temple before; now let's mention Kent State, which is in second place in the MAC East. The Golden Flashes made themselves a division contender by upsetting Ohio University 20-11 on Saturday. Both of their previous FBS wins this season had come over winless MAC opponents, so Saturday's outcome was a surprise. Kent State had seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss, and held the Bobcats to minus-9 rushing yards and 164 total yards. Kent State also had three interceptions and kept its opponent without an offensive touchdown for the second week in a row.

Some fun with numbers: Ohio State's easy win over Minnesota improved the Buckeyes to 42-7 all-time against the Golden Gophers, including 22-3 in Columbus. Utah State snapped a 12-game October losing streak by beating Louisiana Tech. Clemson and Miami have met three times as members of the ACC; each of the three games has gone to overtime, with the visiting team winning each time. Heading into next weekend's showdown with USC, Oregon has outscored its four Pac-10 foes 161-38. Utah beat Air Force 23-16 in overtime, the first time this season Air Force had allowed more than 20 points in a game. Three of the winning teams in the Sun Belt Conference scored at least 50 points: Troy had 50, Florida Atlantic 51 and Middle Tennessee 62. UNLV won at New Mexico to end its losing streak in Mountain West Conference road games at 20. California quarterback Kevin Riley threw three passes in the first quarter against Washington State -- and all three went for touchdowns. Cal scored 28 points on 11 plays in the first period en route to the 49-17 victory. The Golden Bears have scored 115 points in the past two seasons on the Cougars.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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