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September 4, 2007

Megargee: What now for Michigan?

BOONE, N.C. One of the most stunning upsets in college football history left a preseason national title contender asking itself the toughest question of all.

Where does Michigan go from here?

"I guarantee you that Michigan will forget about Appalachian State if they win a national championship," Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore said one day after his team's incomprehensible 34-32 victory over the Wolverines.

That's a nice thought, but Michigan's dreams of a national title probably ended the moment Corey Lynch blocked Jason Gingell's 34-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.

Even if Michigan wins the rest of its games, would the coaches and computers really reward the first ranked team ever to lose to a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) program? It's hard to imagine that scenario, no matter how much Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable might disagree.

"We are still in the race for the championship," Crable said. "If we come out and play well against Oregon and get a win, I think we will be right back in there."

Frankly, this argument may be a moot point. If Michigan doesn't improve significantly on both sides of the ball, the Wolverines will have enough trouble surviving next week against Oregon, let alone running the table.

For whatever reason, Michigan hasn't been the same since the death of legendary former coach Bo Schembechler.

Michigan owned an 11-0 record last fall when Schembechler died on the eve of the Ohio State showdown. The Wolverines have gone 0-3 since.

The defense that was the talk of college football for most of the 2006 season has now given up 108 points during its last three games. Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards picked apart a Michigan defense that was missing departed 2006 All-America selections LaMarr Woodley, David Harris and Leon Hall.

Michigan's defense was expected to struggle early this season as it broke in seven new starters, though the Wolverines still figured to have enough talent to contain the likes of Appalachian State. But how do you explain the inconsistency of Michigan's star-studded offense?

All-America candidate Chad Henne ended his Heisman candidacy early by completing barely half his passes. Mario Manningham's 46-yard reception in the final minute set up that foiled field-goal attempt, but he caught only two other passes all day.

Michigan also better hope Mike Hart stays healthy all season. The All-America running back was as good as ever Saturday and gained 188 yards, but the Wolverines struggled to run the ball when he missed two quarters with a deep thigh bruise.

But the biggest injury facing the Wolverines is their wounded psyche. How does a team recover after opening the season with such a stunning loss? Particularly when they now have to get ready to face a suddenly resurgent Oregon team (we'll have more on them later).

What you might have missed
Best call: Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops' decision to make Sam Bradford the Sooners' starting quarterback. Bradford rewarded Stoops' faith in him by going 21 of 23 for 363 yards with three touchdowns in a 79-10 triumph over North Texas.
Comeback of the week: After ranking last out of all 119 Division I-A teams in pass defense last year, Kansas came up huge in its season opener by limiting highly regarded Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour to 172 passing yards in a 52-7 whipping of the Chippewas.
Comeback of the week (runner-up): One year after missing the entire 2006 season with a knee injury, Colorado State running back Kyle Bell returned and felt strong enough to carry the ball 40 times for 137 yards and a touchdown against Colorado, which staged a comeback of its own by winning 31-28 in overtime after making a game-tying field goal with 13 seconds left in regulation.
Play of the week: That 77-yard punt return by California's DeSean Jackson will appear on highlight reels all season long.
Injury update: North Carolina State RB Toney Baker will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. Pittsburgh QB Bill Stull is out indefinitely with an injured right thumb that required surgery. Illinois QB Juice Williams injured his eye in a 40-34 loss to Missouri, but Illini coach Ron Zook expects him to start Saturday against Western Illinois. ... Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner has a separated shoulder that could prevent him from playing against Nebraska this weekend.
On the rise: Georgia Tech RB Tashard Choice may have just declared his Heisman candidacy. Choice rushed for 196 yards against Notre Dame and now has reached the 100-yard mark in eight consecutive games. LSU DB Craig Steltz and Boston College CB DeJuan Tribble each picked off three passes last week. Tribble now has six interceptions in his last three games. Louisville WR Harry Douglas caught five passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns in a 73-10 trouncing of Murray State. Douglas has 31 receptions for 783 yards and seven touchdowns in his last five games.
Fading fast: Mississippi State QB Mike Henig threw six interceptions in a 45-0 loss to LSU. Virginia QB Jameel Sewell was benched in favor of freshman Peter Lalich after throwing two interceptions in a 23-3 loss to Wyoming.
Prediction: Boise State could have its hands full Saturday at Washington. The game should come down to how well Ian Johnson runs against a Washington defense that allowed eight net rushing yards on 29 carries in a 42-12 victory over Syracuse.
Then again, perhaps we should have seen something like this coming.

Division I-AA programs proved their mettle a year ago when Montana State stunned Colorado, Richmond surprised Duke and Portland State knocked off New Mexico in the opening week. We should have known then it was only a matter of time before a Top 25 program suffered a similar fate.

From here on out, no big-time program should ever underestimate a team from a lesser division, particularly a two-time defending I-AA national champion. That's the lesson Edwards and Co. taught us on this wild weekend.

"Hopefully the whole world knows that just because we're called D I-AA doesn't mean we can't play with the bigger schools," Edwards said. "The only thing different is they're just bigger than us."

Here are some of the other lessons we learned from the first week of the college football season.

Playing baseball can help you prepare for football: How else to explain the resurgence of Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon?

Dixon struggled so much last year that he was benched in the midst of a four-game losing streak that ended the Ducks' season. After the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the fifth round, Dixon spent most of the summer playing minor league baseball in the Gulf Coast League instead of working exclusively on football.

The time off apparently didn't hurt his quarterbacking skills.

In his first game back, Dixon rushed for 141 yards and went 9-for-15 through the air for 132 yards in Oregon's 48-27 victory over Houston. Dixon threw two touchdown passes and rushed for an 80-yard score.

Dixon still must prove he can stay effective for an entire season. Dixon looked like an emerging star after leading Oregon to a victory over Oklahoma last year, but he threw nine interceptions and only two touchdown passes in his final seven games.

It could be a long year at Notre Dame: We thought the big question facing Notre Dame was the identity of its starting quarterback. The real mystery should be how the Irish expect to win any of their first eight games.

Notre Dame allowed nine sacks and finished with negative rushing yards on 41 carries in a 30-3 loss to Georgia Tech. The inexperienced Irish offense may face an even bigger challenge next week at Penn State, which won its opener 59-0 over Florida International.

The Irish certainly don't look prepared for a brutal early season schedule that includes seven 2006 bowl teams in the first eight games. The Irish might be an underdog in all those games except for a Sept. 15 home clash with Michigan State, which has won in its last five trips to Notre Dame Stadium.

The only good news for Irish fans this weekend was the fourth-quarter entrance of highly touted true freshman Jimmy Clausen, who was the most effective of three Notre Dame quarterbacks Saturday.

When Clausen admitted last month that he had undergone offseason surgery on his throwing arm, speculation mounted that the No. 1 prospect in the 2007 recruiting class might not have much of an impact this season. Now it appears he could represent Notre Dame's best chance at leading the Irish to a bowl.

The ACC's still down: Georgia Tech's big victory over Notre Dame gave the ACC reason to cheer, but the conference didn't do much else to redeem itself after a dismal 2006 season.

Virginia continued its recent trend of woeful nonconference performances by gaining just 110 total yards in a 23-3 loss to Wyoming, a Mountain West program that went 6-6 last season. The Cavaliers fell to Western Michigan, Pittsburgh and East Carolina while needing overtime to beat Wyoming at home last year.

North Carolina State followed up its 2006 nonconference losses to Akron and Southern Mississippi by losing its season opener 23-20 to UCF, a Conference USA team that went 4-8 last year.

Even preseason ACC favorite Virginia Tech struggled in a 17-7 victory over East Carolina. The Hokies could go a long way toward upgrading the ACC's national reputation by winning at LSU this weekend.

Texas might not be the best team in Texas: At least that's the early indication after seeing how much the Longhorns struggled to beat Arkansas State 21-13. Texas Christian, on the other hand, steamrolled Baylor 27-0.

Those two results make next week's showdown between Texas and Texas Christian that much more intriguing. A victory by Texas Christian could catapult the Horned Frogs to a BCS invitation if they manage to stay undefeated all season.

As good as Texas Christian looked this weekend, the Horned Frogs can't expect to beat Texas unless star defensive end Tommy Blake is in uniform. After being on a medical leave for an undisclosed illness for part of the preseason, Blake didn't play against Baylor. His status for the Texas game remains uncertain.

And, no, we haven't forgotten about Texas A&M, which beat Texas last year to claim the state's bragging rights. The Aggies kicked off their season with a 38-7 whipping of Montana State, the same team that stunned Colorado in last year's opener.

Steve Logan and Matt Ryan are a match made in heaven: Boston College fans always wondered what Ryan might accomplish if the all-Atlantic Coast Conference quarterback operated a more wide-open offense.

They may have just gotten their wish.

Ryan went 32-of-52 for 402 yards and five touchdowns in the Eagles' 38-28 victory over defending ACC champion Wake Forest. This marked the Eagles' first game with Logan the former East Carolina head coach as their offensive coordinator.

This winning combination could face its ultimate test next weekend when the Eagles face the coach who knows Ryan better than anyone. Former Boston College coach Tom O'Brien returns to Chestnut Hill to face his former team for the first time since taking over North Carolina State's program.

The Oklahoma Sooners are college football's version of the Denver Broncos: In the same way that the Broncos run the ball effectively no matter who Mike Shanahan puts in the backfield, Oklahoma also has developed an outstanding ground attack that doesn't rely on any individual runner.

When Adrian Peterson broke his collarbone midway through last season, Allen Patrick and Chris Brown picked up the slack to help the Sooners win the Big 12 title. A sprained ankle sidelined Patrick and a suspension forced Brown to sit out Oklahoma's season opener Saturday, but it merely opened the door for yet another running back.

Redshirt freshman and spring-practice sensation DeMarco Murray lived up to his considerable advance billing by rushing for 86 yards and five touchdowns in a 79-10 triumph over North Texas.

The best matchup of next weekend involves Murray and Co. trying to keep it going against Miami's stingy run defense. The Hurricanes ranked fourth in the nation against the run last year and allowed only 1.6 yards per carry in a season-opening 31-3 victory over Marshall.

John David Booty isn't the Pac-10's only Heisman candidate: The last two Heisman-winning receivers Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991 and Notre Dame's Tim Brown in 1987 also were exceptional punt returners. California's DeSean Jackson appears intent on continuing that trend.

Jackson set a Pac-10 record last year by returning three punts for touchdowns. The electrifying junior opened his 2007 season by scoring on a spectacular 77-yard punt return that showed the nation USC doesn't have all the West Coast's elite players.

Although the junior receiver only caught four passes for 45 yards in the Golden Bears' 45-31 victory over Tennessee, Jackson's special-teams prowess made him one of the most talked-about players of the weekend.

If Jackson returns a couple more punts into the end zone, he could emerge as California's first legitimate Heisman contender since Chuck Muncie placed second to Ohio State's Archie Griffin in the 1975 voting.

Nebraska back on the run: Nebraska has returned to its familiar spot atop the NCAA rushing statistics.

The Cornhuskers have never finished higher than fifth in the Big 12 in rushing offense since Bill Callahan brought the West Coast offense to Lincoln three years ago, but their performance Saturday brought back memories of those great Nebraska rushing attacks from the 1990s.

Marlon Lucky gained 233 yards to lead Nebraska's 413-yard rushing attack in a 52-10 thrashing of Nevada. No player rushed for more yards than Lucky and no team gained more yards on the ground than Nebraska last weekend.

This game doesn't signal a return to Nebraska's run-oriented ways, but it does show that the Huskers may have the balance necessary to match up with USC's star-studded defense in their Sept. 15 showdown at Lincoln. The Huskers travel to Wake Forest this weekend before returning home for the USC game.

"We can go either way," Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller said afterward. "We know we can pass and got the horses to throw to, but today the tempo was set by the offensive line and the running backs running the ball. To have that dimension is just fantastic for a quarterback. I'm very pleased with where our offense is at right now."

The nation's best runner can still throw: The departure of former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn hasn't stopped Arkansas from figuring out different ways to get the ball to Darren McFadden.

McFadden rushed for 151 yards in a 46-26 triumph over Troy, but his biggest highlight came when he faked a run and instead threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Crosby Tuck.

The 2006 Heisman Trophy runner-up occasionally lined up at quarterback last year and went 7-for-9 for 69 yards with three touchdown passes and one interception. He took several direct snaps again last weekend.

If that weren't enough, McFadden also delivered a key block that helped Felix Jones score on a 90-yard kickoff return.

"That guy is hands-down the best football player I've ever seen," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said.

College Football Rewind: Week 1 | What We Learned | Video: Scenes From Saturday

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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