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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Ten Themes for Saturday: Week 9

Ten teams, themes, players and games to watch on Saturday. Pretty straightforward. Here we go:

Par for the course This is pretty typical for the Pac-12 in 2011: all 12 teams are in action, but only one game, Stanford at U.S.C., pits two teams with a winning record. The rest is a minefield of potentially unwatchable football. Washington State, 3-4, heads to Oregon, 6-1, and the results will be ugly — nice for Oregon, disastrous for the Cougars. Colorado, 1-7, heads to Arizona State, 5-2, and the same said of Washington State can be said of the Buffaloes. Then there’s 4-3 California at 3-4 U.C.L.A.; the latter is a train wreck. Oregon State’s playing better football, but at 2-5, the Beavers — who visit 3-4 Utah — are facing an uphill climb to bowl eligibility. This is just another weekend in the Pac-12, where the great teams are really great but the bad teams… well, they’re pretty bad.

Getting to know Lembo Ball State’s Pete Lembo is from Staten Island, making him the second-most famous college football figure to hail from the borough. The first, of course — of course! — is former Notre Dame running William Shakespeare, the “Bard of Staten Island.” Then there’s Lembo, who was hired by Ball State after highly successful stints at Lehigh, Georgetown and Elon. You’re excused if you don’t know Lembo, can’t find Muncie on a map or couldn’t pick Lembo out of a lineup. Just know this: at 5-3, Lembo needs only one more win to become bowl eligible in his first season in charge. With one more victory, Lembo can tie Lawrence McPhee for the third-most wins by a rookie coach in program history; with two more, he can Bill Lynch for the most wins by a rookie coach during the program’s F.B.S. history. That chance comes today at Western Michigan, against a team that has alternated periods where it has looked like the MAC’s best with periods where it looks like one of the MAC’s worst.

3-0, 3-3, 3-4, benched Give Iowa State’s Steele Jantz credit for always keeping things interesting, which is a polite way of saying that even while winning games, Jantz gave Paul Rhoads and the I.S.U. coaching staff heart palpitations. Jantz, a first-year junior college transfer, led the Cyclones to a 3-0 start — beating Northern Iowa, Iowa and Connecticut — despite throwing six picks, three apiece against the Panthers and the Huskies. But the writing was on the wall, it seems; the three victories came by a combined eight points, and even if Jantz was keeping things exciting it was apparent that the Cyclones couldn’t hope to make hay in Big 12 action with such a turnover-prone quarterback under center.

That he lasted three games, all losses, was a testament to Iowa State’s limited options at the position. After opening last week’s loss to Texas A&M with five straight incomplete passes, including one interception, Jantz was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Jared Barnett, who was named the starter for today’s road date with Texas Tech. What did Barnett do to get into Rhoads’ good graces? Perhaps the 36 attempts without an interception against the Aggies warmed his heart. But with the confident Red Raiders looming, Barnett is going to be forced to take chances to keep the Cyclones in contention. In short, it’s not a great way to open a starting career.

Holding serve in Conference USA While the Conference USA East has been a disappointment, what with the way U.C.F. has flopped, the West division has three very strong teams jockeying for position. Houston has already moved to 4-0 after ripping Rice to shreds on Thursday night, leaving Tulsa and S.M.U. needing to hold serve. The Golden Hurricane, 3-0 in conference play, host the Mustangs, 3-1, looking to avenge last year’s 21-18 defeat. The head-to-head tiebreaker gave S.M.U. the West title and a spot in the Conference USA title game, where it lost to U.C.F. by 10 points. Last year’s division race didn’t include Houston, of course. This year, it’s a three-team race. Today’s meeting in Tulsa is the first time two of the three have met on the field: S.M.U. heads to Houston on Nov. 19 and Houston to Tulsa on Nov. 26. With one loss already on its record, the Mustangs really can’t afford to lose to Tulsa.

Winless in conference play There are 13 B.C.S. conference teams still without a win in conference play. I won’t ask you name them. Instead, here’s the full list: Boston College, Iowa State, Kansas, South Florida, Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana, Utah, Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Mississippi. That’s a lot of winless teams. You can break this group down into four smaller groups: not surprising, somewhat surprising, plain-old surprising and I-don’t-believe-it surprising.

The first group, the not surprising crop of conference lollygaggers, goes as follows: Kansas, Minnesota, Indiana, Colorado and Kentucky. The second group, the somewhat surprising, includes the following: Iowa State and Mississippi. The third group, plain-old surprising: Boston College, Tennessee and Northwestern. Then there’s the I-don’t-believe-it surprising: Utah, Mississippi State and South Florida. Only one, the Bulls, were pegged as a conference favorite. But the Bulldogs were a trendy pick in the SEC, and few expected Utah to turn into an also-ran in its first season as part of the Pac-12.

Showdown in Lincoln The Rose Bowl is on the line. Well, not directly. But the loser of this game will have an awful hard time reaching the Big Ten title game, where a Rose Bowl berth will be decided. Nebraska’s chances of winning the Legends division will be infinitesimal with a loss, since the Cornhuskers will have two setbacks in conference play and will lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with Michigan State. The Spartans will be in trouble with a loss but far from dead, seeing that it has the head-to-head edge over Michigan and will be tied — in record, at least — with the Cornhuskers in the standings. Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska. And no, not all teams will be like Minnesota, who you took behind the woodshed last weekend. Most teams are like Michigan State: tough, physical, mean and nasty, and not likely to roll over in conference play regardless of the environment. Having said that, it wouldn’t hurt the Sea of Red to show up in full-throated force.

Maryland in miniature The best team in Maryland isn’t the Terrapins. And no, it isn’t Navy, losers of five straight after a 2-0 start. The best team in Maryland — by record, at least — is Towson University, which is 6-1 entering today’s key Colonial Athletic Associated tilt with perennial favorite Delaware. Maryland got the better of Towson when the two met on the first Saturday of October, but little has gone right for Terrapins in the weeks since: three straight losses, each by a growing margin, and even a recent quarterback change — C.J. Brown for Danny O’Brien — has done little to stem the slide. A loss today, to Boston College, ends Maryland’s bowl hopes.

If there’s a team that’s looked worse than Maryland it would be the Eagles, who are 0-6 against F.B.S. competition. And decidedly uncompetitive against this level of competition, putting Frank Spaziani on a decidedly hot seat entering the final game of October. And Navy? Five straight losses, yes, but four have come by a combined eight points. Unlike the Terrapins, the Midshipmen seem close to breaking out. Just not this Saturday, I’m betting, seeing that Navy heads to South Bend to take on the angry Fighting Irish.

Georgia Tech plays it slow Do you want to beat Clemson? If you’re Georgia Tech, the key will be keeping the Tigers’ offense off the field: this would entail getting the ground game rolling and controlling the clock, two areas where the Yellow Jackets failed miserably in last week’s loss to Miami. It was even an issue two weeks ago, when the Jackets lost a shocked to Virginia. It’s look-in-the-mirror time for Tech, which opened the season like gangbusters but has been revealed as a pretender in back-to-back losses.

Again, the key will be getting the running game back on track. Stopping the run has been one trouble spot for the Tigers, who have alternated strong performances — 29 yards allowed against Florida State, 102 on 28 carries against North Carolina last Saturday — with pitiful showing by the front seven. And stopping Georgia Tech in particular has been an issue since Paul Johnson was hired in 2007. When all else has failed for Clemson in 2011, the Tigers have simply relied on the offense to outscore the opposition. So it’s on the Jackets to do the simple: keep the Clemson offense off the field. Easier said than done.

Five picks to use as you will Some teams are being overlooked after a bad loss. Other teams are underdogs, for some reason or another. Here are five lines I’d consider if I was into this sort of thing:

Central Michigan (-8) at Akron
Tulane at East Carolina (-16.5)
Iowa (-15.5) at Minnesota
Wisconsin (-7.5) at Ohio State
Stanford (-8) at U.S.C.

P.S.R. top five, before and after The top five entering the weekend and the top five on Saturday, to my best estimation:

1. Alabama.
2. L.S.U.
3. Stanford.
4. Boise State.
5. Clemson.

1. Alabama.
2. L.S.U.
3. Stanford.
4. Boise State.
5. Oklahoma State.

Three of the top five — Alabama, L.S.U. and Boise State — are on a bye, so they’re hanging in their current spots. And I don’t necessarily think Clemson is going to lose at Georgia Tech, though I think the Jackets can keep it close, as noted. But if Oklahoma State impresses in taking care of business against Baylor, I think the Cowboys may move up a slot, pushing Clemson out of the top five.

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  1. Parker says:

    Hi Paul,

    What a weekend! Wisconsin is snake bit. Russell Wilson keeps writing comeback checks that Wisconsin’s defense can’t cash. The Badgers are 2 plays away from being undefeated.

    Kansas St, Clemson and Michigan State were exposed.

    A&M choked another double digit halftime lead, extending their losing streak against SEC teams.

    Robert Griffin threw for 207 yards during the first 3 quarters when Oklahoma St took a 49-3 lead, and 218 yards in the 4th quarter when no one cared.

    The Southern Ivies at Duke and Vandy had every opportunity to take down Arkansas and Virginia Tech and came up two steps slow.

    Texas Tech is Jekyll & Hyde.

    And Stanford/USC put on a great show for the nation. LSU-Bama will be hard pressed to top that spectacle.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    It was probably my tortured World Series state of mind which caused me to watch parts of New Mexico game for the second week in a row. Now understand that this team after losing to Sam Houston State and New Mexico State has lost 49-7, 69-0, and 42-0. They rank #118 in scoring offense and #119 in scoring defense. They might be the worst team at this level I have ever seen. Yesterday, Air Force plays it’s second team qb and is up 35-0 at halftime before running it’s Maryland I short yardage offense much of the second half to keep the score down.

    In the middle of all of this is a Lobo linebacker named Carmen Messina, #58, playing on a bad ankle with almost hysterical energy. The kid has no quit in him and plays his ass off every play. If you get a chance, watch him play a few series. We all have players like this on our teams but there is something special about him and on a truly remarkable day of college football, Messina’s fight and defiance in a hopeless situation was the best thing I saw all day.

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