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October 12, 2009

Monday with Mike: Midseason report

We're at the season's midway point, and after an important Saturday of conference matchups in the Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC, things have become somewhat clear in each of the 11 leagues.

Here's a midseason breakdown of each league, including a look at the key remaining games and projected conference winners.

ACC
BUZZ: The Atlantic Division, to be nice, isn't good. Coastal members Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia Tech are the three best teams in the league. Georgia Tech plays host to Virginia Tech on Saturday, and if the Hokies win that, go ahead and mark them down as the division champs. If the Yellow Jackets win, things get interesting. In that scenario, North Carolina's games with Virginia Tech on Oct. 29 and Miami on Nov. 14 take on added importance. UNC already has fallen to Georgia Tech. As for the Atlantic, Florida State might have the best overall talent in the division, but the Seminoles are 0-3 in league play -- the first time that has happened -- and the defense is an absolute sieve. Wake Forest's game at Clemson on Saturday is huge. Boston College owns the tiebreaker over Wake, and BC has the easier remaining schedule.
KEY GAMES: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Oct. 17; N.C. State at Boston College, Oct. 17; Wake Forest at Clemson, Oct. 17; Clemson at Miami, Oct. 24; North Carolina at Virginia Tech, Oct. 29; Miami at Wake Forest, Oct. 31; Wake Forest at Georgia Tech, Nov. 7; Clemson at N.C. State, Nov. 14; Miami at North Carolina, Nov. 14; North Carolina at Boston College, Nov. 21.
PROJECTED WINNERS: Virginia Tech in the Coastal, Boston College in the Atlantic.

BIG EAST
BUZZ: Before the season, Louisville and Syracuse looked to be the only league teams without even a faint hope of winning the league title, and that remains the case. Still, Connecticut and Rutgers need some help if they're to come away with the crown. The title merry-go-round starts this weekend, with big games on Thursday (Cincinnati at USF) and Friday (Pittsburgh at Rutgers), and it doesn't stop until Dec. 5. Pitt might have the most advantageous schedule, with USF and Cincinnati having to play at Heinz Field. Conversely, West Virginia might have the toughest schedule, with road games against Cincinnati, Rutgers and USF.
KEY GAMES: Cincinnati at USF, Thursday; Pittsburgh at Rutgers, Friday; Connecticut at West Virginia, Oct. 24; USF at Pittsburgh, Oct. 24; West Virginia at USF, Oct. 30; Rutgers at Connecticut, Oct. 31; Connecticut at Cincinnati, Nov. 7; USF at Rutgers, Nov. 12; West Virginia at Cincinnati, Nov. 13; Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Nov. 27; Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Dec. 5; West Virginia at Rutgers, Dec. 5.
PROJECTED WINNER: Cincinnati.

BIG TEN
BUZZ: Before the season, the Nov. 7 Ohio State-at-Penn State game looked to be the de facto Big Ten title game. That still could be the case, but the Nov. 14 Iowa-at-Ohio State contest might trump it. Iowa has to get by Wisconsin on Saturday, and if the Hawkeyes win that they should cruise into Columbus unbeaten. Ohio State shouldn't be tested until it goes to Happy Valley. And Penn State's lone test before then is an Oct. 24 meeting at defense-challenged Michigan. The rest of the league is playing for fifth place.
KEY GAMES: Iowa at Wisconsin, Oct. 17; Penn State at Michigan, Oct. 24; Ohio State at Penn State, Nov. 7; Iowa at Ohio State, Nov. 14.
PROJECTED WINNER: Ohio State.

BIG 12
BUZZ: Saturday's Red River Rivalry has lost some luster because Oklahoma already has two losses, but the game remains huge for Texas. A victory means the Longhorns have taken a big step toward nailing down a spot in the Big 12 championship game. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State look to be the top contenders, but each has some issues. Oklahoma's offensive line is a concern, and Oklahoma State needs to be worried about its defense (wow, what a surprise) and the ineligibility of wide receiver Dez Bryant. The North has the league's three weakest teams in Colorado, Iowa State and Kansas State; that means the division title very well could go to the team that has the easiest crossover schedule. That would be Nebraska, which misses Texas and Oklahoma State, plays Baylor on the road and gets Oklahoma and Texas Tech at home.
KEY GAMES: Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 17; Missouri at Oklahoma State, Oct. 17; Texas Tech at Nebraska, Oct. 17; Oklahoma at Kansas, Oct. 24; Texas at Missouri, Oct. 24; Texas at Oklahoma State, Oct. 31; Oklahoma at Nebraska, Nov. 7; Nebraska at Kansas, Nov. 14; Kansas at Texas, Nov. 21; Kansas vs. Missouri in Kansas City, Mo., Nov. 28; Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Nov. 28.
PROJECTED WINNERS: Texas in the South, Nebraska in the North.

PACIFIC-10
BUZZ: This is a deep league, with Washington State the only truly bad team. But all that parity means a lot of tough games, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see a two-loss team win the conference. Oregon has bounced back nicely from that season-opening loss to Boise State, and the Ducks are the only team without a Pac-10 loss. Still, it was said before the season that if you didn't get USC this season, it might be a while. It looks as if it might be a while. The Trojans have their inexplicable loss behind them, and the defense seemingly gets tougher each week.
KEY GAMES: Stanford at Arizona, Oct. 17; Oregon at Washington, Oct. 24; Oregon State at USC, Oct. 24; USC at Oregon, Oct. 31; Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7; Oregon State at California, Nov. 7; Stanford at USC, Nov. 14; Washington at Oregon State, Nov. 14; California at Stanford, Nov. 21; Oregon at Arizona, Nov. 21; Oregon State at Oregon, Dec. 3.
PROJECTED WINNER: USC.

SEC
BUZZ: The biggest question in the East is who will finish second, behind Florida. Come to think of it, that looks to be the biggest question in the West, too. Alabama is the clear-cut favorite; LSU and Ole Miss have offensive issues, while Arkansas and Auburn need one or two more recruiting classes to have enough defensive playmakers. In the East, if Florida plays as well as it is capable of, no one left on its regular-season schedule should come within 10 points of the Gators.
KEY GAMES: Auburn at LSU, Oct. 24; Ole Miss at Auburn, Oct. 31; LSU at Alabama, Nov. 7; Florida at South Carolina, Nov. 14; LSU at Ole Miss, Nov. 21; Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 27.
PROJECTED WINNERS: Florida in the East, Alabama in the West.

THE NON-BIG SIX LEAGUES

CONFERENCE USA
BUZZ: Houston is the best team, but the Cougars have an embarrassing -- and puzzling -- loss at UTEP already on the resume. Houston can beat Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, but it can't beat UTEP? Wow. Still, the Cougars will be favored in each of their remaining games. The East Division is wide open because of the season-ending injury to Southern Miss QB Austin Davis and East Carolina's bad loss to SMU. Each of the six division teams has a shot, though Memphis and UCF need a heck of a lot of help.
KEY GAMES: Tulsa at UTEP, Oct. 21; Southern Miss at Houston, Oct. 31; Marshall at UCF, Nov. 1; Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 7; Southern Miss at Marshall, Nov. 14; East Carolina at Tulsa, Nov. 15; Tulsa at Southern Miss, Nov. 21; Marshall at UTEP, Nov. 28; Southern Miss at East Carolina, Nov. 28.
PROJECTED WINNERS: East Carolina in the East, Houston in the West.

MID-AMERICAN
BUZZ: Central Michigan appears to be the best team. An offense led by Dan LeFevour and a deep receiving corps is going to be tough to handle for the defenses in this league. A case can be made that four of the league's five best teams are in the West along with the Chippewas, whose toughest remaining game might be Saturday's trip to Western Michigan. The East is wide open, with Ohio U. and Temple in the best shape right now. Temple wins with defense; Ohio has a much better offense than the Owls, though. Those teams meet in the regular-season finale.
KEY GAMES: Central Michigan at Western Michigan, Oct. 17; Northern Illinois at Toledo, Oct. 17; Central Michigan at Bowling Green, Oct. 24; Ohio at Buffalo, Nov. 10; Northern Illinois at Ohio, Nov. 21; Temple at Ohio, Nov. 27; Northern Illinois at Central Michigan, Nov. 27.
PROJECTED WINNERS: Ohio in the East, Central Michigan in the West.

MOUNTAIN WEST
BUZZ: This looked to be a three-team race before the season, and BYU, TCU and Utah still appear to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. TCU has the best defense and BYU the best offense, while Utah might have the best mix of the two. But the Utes also have to play BYU and TCU on the road. It wouldn't be a surprise if the TCU-BYU winner on Oct. 24 takes the prize. An advantage for BYU is that the game is in Provo. Air Force and Colorado State are the possible spoilers.
KEY GAMES: Colorado State at TCU, Oct. 17; Air Force at Utah, Oct. 24; TCU at BYU, Oct. 24; Utah at TCU, Nov. 14; Air Force at BYU, Nov. 21; Utah at BYU, Nov. 28.
PROJECTED WINNER: TCU.

SUN BELT
BUZZ: Troy already has beaten Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee, which looked to be the Trojans' main challengers for the title. If Louisiana-Monroe can beat Arkansas State on Tuesday night, the Warhawks become a contender. If they don't, just give the trophy to Troy.
KEY GAMES: Arkansas State at Louisiana-Monroe, Oct. 13; Louisiana-Monroe at Troy, Oct. 31; Arkansas State at Middle Tennessee, Nov. 21; Louisiana-Monroe at Louisiana-Lafayette, Nov. 21; Middle Tennessee at Louisiana-Monroe, Nov. 28.
PROJECTED WINNER: Troy.

WESTERN ATHLETIC
BUZZ: Boise State is a lock, the biggest lock of any team in any league. Every other team is playing for bowl positioning. Fresno State looks to be the second-best team in the league, but the Bulldogs do not have an advantageous schedule. Surprising Idaho (5-1) is one of the most unbelievable stories of the season; too bad more people aren't noticing.
KEY GAMES: Idaho at Nevada, Oct. 24; Louisiana Tech at Idaho, Oct. 31; Boise State at Louisiana Tech, Nov. 6; Fresno State at Idaho, Nov. 7; Fresno State at Nevada, Nov. 14.
PROJECTED WINNER: Boise State.

SEMINOLES ARE DEFENSELESS
Man, Florida State's secondary is a mess.

In the past three games, the Seminoles have given up just 25 completions. That sounds great -- until you realize those 25 receptions have gone for 557 yards, or 22.3 yards per catch, and five touchdowns.

The Seminoles fell 49-44 to Georgia Tech on Saturday -- FSU led 35-28 at halftime -- and are 0-3 in the ACC for the first time. They also are 1-3 at home this season. Doak Campbell Stadium used to be where opposing teams went to get mauled. Not anymore. Since the playing surface at the stadium was named "Bobby Bowden Field" before the regular-season finale in 2004, the Seminoles are 18-13 at home. Eight of those victories are against FCS or non-Big Six opponents, and only one -- the 2005 season opener against Miami -- came against a ranked opponent.

From 1987-2000, the Seminoles finished in the top five every season, and in those 14 seasons, the 'Noles lost three home games. Since that run ended, they have lost 17 at home.

Given the state of the defense and the inconsistency of the rushing attack -- they ran for 180 yards against the Yellow Jackets after totaling 90 the past two weeks combined -- the 'Noles (2-4) face the real possibility of failing to get the six victories needed for bowl eligibility. They have been to a bowl for 27 consecutive seasons, the nation's longest current streak.

After Saturday's setback, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, "I think the critics will keep criticizing. The good folks won't."

GRID BITS
Further example of the assembly-line aspect of Texas Tech's quarterbacks: Steven Sheffield threw for 490 yards and seven touchdowns in the Red Raiders' 66-14 demolition of Kansas State. He was playing in place of Taylor Potts, who suffered a concussion last week against New Mexico. Earlier this season, Potts threw seven touchdown passes against Rice. Tech is believed to be the first team to have two quarterbacks throw seven TD passes in a game in a season.

UCLA has issues on offense but still managed to hold a 3-0 halftime advantage over Oregon. It went bad quickly for the Bruins in the second half. First, Oregon's Kenjon Barner returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead. On UCLA's first play from scrimmage of the half, Talmadge Jackson returned an interception for a score to make it 14-3. Then, on the second play of UCLA's next possession, the Bruins fumbled at the 50. Eight plays later, Jeff Maehl scored on a 20-yard pass to make it 21-3 less than four minutes into the second half.

All hail Duke. The Blue Devils hadn't won an ACC road game since the 2003 season finale before pounding N.C. State 49-28 behind 459 yards and five touchdown passes from quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.

Following Tennessee's 45-19 whipping of Georgia in which Jonathan Crompton (Jonathan Crompton!) threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns, Vols strong safety Eric Berry said new coach Lane Kiffin on Friday night "basically made a promise to us that we wouldn't lose to them anymore, forever, or until he leaves. He's not going to let Georgia beat us."

Since the season-opening loss to Alabama, Virginia Tech junior quarterback Tyrod Taylor has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each game; he has eight TD passes and just one pick this season after his two-touchdown performance in the Hokies' rout of Boston College. He had thrown seven career TD passes entering this season. In the past two games, victories over Duke and BC, Taylor is 24-of-32 for 553 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He gets to throw against Georgia Tech's mediocre secondary next.

Bowling Green's Freddie Barnes had 22 receptions for 278 yards and three touchdowns in the Falcons' 36-35 victory at Kent State. That's one short of the NCAA record of 23 receptions in a game, shared by UNLV's Randy Gatewood (vs. Idaho in 1994) and Eastern Michigan's Tyler Jones (vs. Central Michigan last season). It was Barnes' fourth double-digit receptions game of the season and the third time he had at least 15 receptions. For the season, he's at 75 catches for 722 yards and five TDs. The 75 receptions are more than 14 teams.

What's gotten into Wake Forest senior QB Riley Skinner? He never had thrown for more than 271 yards in his career until he began lighting it up four games ago. He threw for 289 in a victory over FCS member Elon, then 354 in a loss to Boston College, 361 in a victory over N.C. State and 360 on Saturday in a win over Maryland. He threw three TD passes in the first half and four for the game against the Terps.

Arizona State's defense had a nice day in a 27-14 victory over Washington State. The Sun Devils came up with 12 sacks and held the Cougars to minus-54 rushing yards. But the game was much closer than it should have been because Arizona State committed six turnovers.

A reminder: The first BCS standings of the season come out Sunday.

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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