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September 22, 2006

Ask the Experts: Contenders or pretenders?

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It's "Contenders" Week here on Ask the Experts.

Maybe we're jumping the gun a bit, but already a handful of teams seem to have separated themselves from the pack and can be considered national title contenders.

Certainly Ohio State is at the top of that list. Rivals.com's preseason No. 1 (and just about everybody else's) has been impressive thus far, particularly offensively. It easily passed what was supposed to be a difficult test at Texas, and it doesn't figure to be challenged much this weekend by Penn State.

Out West, USC remains a strong contender despite losing the likes of Matt Leinart, LenDale White, Reggie Bush and a few others to the NFL.

In the South, Auburn won its first heavyweight bout this season, against LSU. Tommy Tuberville's Tigers are getting most of the attention, but don't forget about Florida and Georgia, too.

Then there is Louisville, which will try to keep it rolling despite losing Michael Bush for the season in the first game and Brian Brohm on Saturday for 3-6 weeks.

We talked to the experts at a few of the undefeated teams in the nation to get a gauge on how the season has unfolded thus far.

No. 3 Southern Cal Trojans
Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com, talks about the Trojans:
How is John David Booty progressing?
Booty has shown he can make some throws that even Matt Leinart couldn't make. He is very accurate, especially on the throws that require some zip. Even his deep throws have been good, but so far they have not connected on many of these. Against Nebraska, Steve Smith slowed down a bit, costing the team a touchdown.

Is the running game where it needs to be for another run at a national title?
The running game is coming along and shouldn't prevent this team from contending for the championship. As Chauncey Washington gets healthy he is complemented nicely by C.J. Gable and Emmanuel Moody. The line has suffered a few injuries but is playing well. The biggest issue is losing the top two fullbacks to season-ending injuries.

The defense has been excellent thus far. Who has been the surprise on that side of the ball?
Fili Moala has been a great surprise for the defense. Not only was his play at defensive tackle impressive, but when Sedrick Ellis went down Moala filled in very well at nose guard, too. With Josh Pinkard out for the year Taylor Mays has looked great, although he has not been tested in the passing game yet.

No. 9 Georgia Bulldogs
Steve Patterson of UGASports.com, talks about the Bulldogs:
How is the development of Matthew Stafford coming along?
Mark Richt said after the season opener that perhaps Stafford was coming along quicker than the coaches had believed. Then, after Joe Tereshinski was injured on the opening drive in week two at South Carolina, Stafford was elevated to starter and really took off with reps with the first-team offense in practice. One coach told us that "the light has come on" for Stafford, and that he is picking things up at a much quicker pace. Add to that the fact the team really seems to have embraced him as their leader, and the kid looks less and less like a rookie every day.

The defense is going for its third consecutive shutout. Just how good is Willie Martinez's unit?
The biggest thing that the Georgia defense has going for it is depth and a coaching staff that has had just one change in the past five years. With the exception of linebacker, the team is nearly three deep at every defensive position, and Martinez is using that to his advantage by keeping fresh legs on the field at all times. A look at the UGA defensive stat sheet clearly illustrates that this plan is working. A few players have a lot of tackles, but a lot of players have a few tackles.

Are the Dawgs flying under the radar to this point?
As defending SEC Champs who are rated in the top 10 in both polls, I can't imagine whose radar Georgia would be flying under. However, Tennessee comes to town in three weeks, and if the Dawgs can remain undefeated through that game, they will undoubtedly begin to get a bit more recognition nationally.

No. 8 Louisville Cardinals
Howie Lindsey, of CardinalSports.com, talks about the Cards:
Talk about the players who have stepped in for Brian Brohm and Michael Bush and made the transition seem almost seamless.
Louisville sent 10 players into the NFL Draft in the last two seasons, and the talent on the Louisville offense right now could send a half dozen more prospects into the pro ranks. Sophomore wide receiver Mario Urrutia is a 6-foot-6 behemoth with speed, size and spectacular hands. Junior wideout Harry Douglas is Louisville's best route runner and has speed to burn. The Cards also have great size in the receiving ranks with Georgia Tech transfer Patrick Carter, Notre Dame transfer Chris Vaughn and redshirt freshman Scott Long. Kansas State will see a heavy dose of both Kolby Smith and George Stripling out of the backfield. Smith is a senior with a 220-pound frame and a fullback mentality. Stripling is a speed back from Jacksonville, Fla., who is just a week removed from outrunning the Miami secondary into the end zone. Louisville's biggest asset on offense is the line. The Cardinals have a pair of seniors, Kurt Quarterman and Renardo Foster, slated to be draftable this season. The Cardinal line is big, athletic and well-schooled. With the Louisville line playing so well, it is much easier for the Cardinals' skill position guys to make the big plays they are expected to make.

Do you believe Brohm will make it back in time for the showdown with West Virginia?
When asked about the torn ligament in his hand after the Cards' win against Miami, Brohm said it didn't hurt and that he should be back in 3-6 weeks. When a local TV anchor pointed out the time frame ending at six weeks and the West Virginia game being seven weeks away, Brohm grinned, stuck his tongue out and chuckled at the mention of the coincidence. The coaches and trainers fully expect Brohm to be back and ready for the West Virginia game, and probably earlier if everything goes as planned.

Not a lot of people are talking about the Cardinals defense. How good is it?
Some of Louisville's success against the run this season is personnel; the Cards have a ton of young talent and keep them rotating throughout the game. That said, some of the success particularly the stat of 34 yards per game is fool's gold. The Cardinals faced Kentucky and Temple in the first two games of the season. Temple's offense was so anemic the Owls couldn't possibly run on Louisville. In the Kentucky game, the Cardinals banked on UK quarterback Andre' Woodson not being able to beat them and stacked the box with nine players in many cases. So as stale as it is to say, it's a little of both.

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