College Football Nation: Football middle class rises up

Eric Avidon

The first shots of the uprising were fired Saturday when college football’s middle class gave a hint of the season’s revolution to come.

Way back in the spring and summer, when preview magazines and preseason polls were first published, it was clear there was an unquestioned top team and a handful considered in the same class, but there was also a large group just below which could easily rise up.

Last weekend the perceived middle made its first moves.

It muddled what had been a clear picture from the moment the ball was kicked off in the first game. Instead, nothing is clear anymore. The next two months will eliminate one member of the top class after another, and potentially create something similar to the wreckage that was left at the end of the 2007 season when a two-loss team won the national championship.

The uprising was most notable in Columbia, S.C., but also seen in places like Ann Arbor, Miami and Gainesville.

It was Columbia where the unquestioned top team - Alabama - lost for the first time since the end of the 2008 season.

The Crimson Tide survived a tough game at Arkansas two weeks earlier, then won an emotional contest at home against Florida. Last Saturday came a trip to South Carolina - a third ranked opponent in three weeks, the second on the road. It made sense that Alabama would be a bit beaten up, and that getting psychologically ready for a third straight emotionally charged game might be difficult.

Sure enough, the Gamecocks manhandled the Crimson Tide.

If Alabama - the perceived leader of this year’s upper class - had been significantly better than South Carolina - a member of this year’s middle class - it would have been able to survive the trip north and remained perfect. But the gap that seemed pretty small back in the summer is pretty small, so the Tide got trapped.

“Just because you beat Florida 31-6, people start talking about you being the best team in the country,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “We’re not the best team in the country. We had the best team in the country last year and we proved it. We proved it over 14 games. This team hasn’t proven anything.”

Meanwhile, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said at his press conference on Tuesday, “It was obviously a good day for all South Carolina Gamecocks and for our state. The exposure we got last Saturday was very good. We’ll look back and see if it led to anything big for our team or if it was a one-day hoopla.”

Within the same conference, another school showed it’s got a little magic. Just hours after the Alabama-South Carolina score went final, LSU went into The Swamp in Gainesville and beat Florida. The Tigers were the undefeated team, not the Gators, but LSU’s perfect record seemingly had so many holes that Florida would win big.

But the Gators were coming off that game at Alabama, a bit beat up, and so an inspired bunch from the Bayou made things more interesting in the SEC.

Just south of Gainesville, Miami appeared to be the class of the ACC. The Hurricanes had one loss, but it was at Ohio State, and they were coming off a win at Clemson. There was a growing feeling that Miami could run the table in the conference and wind up a one-loss team in December.

Enter the old rival Florida State Seminoles, also a one-loss team but whose defeat was a demolition at the hands of Oklahoma. Miami seemed to fit right into its tawny Coral Gables location, sipping mimosas in the morning beneath the palm trees while the rest of the conference toiled for respect.

The ’Noles didn’t just beat the ’Canes, they crushed ’em.

Finally, up in the Midwest, a team from the middle didn’t rise up and beat one from the upper tier, but one from the middle fired a warning shot by taking out one of its brethren and showed that it might just overtake that one from the top.

Ohio State is the perceived best of the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes have to travel to Wisconsin on Saturday and they’re at Iowa on Nov. 20. Meanwhile, Michigan State beat the Badgers two weeks ago, and last weekend went to Ann Arbor and beat - beat up - previously undefeated Michigan.

The Spartans do not meet Ohio State, and they host Iowa.

Suddenly, Michigan State, which wasn’t ranked in the preseason, looks like it has a legitimate shot to run through the regular season unbeaten. The Buckeyes could do it too, but their path is much more difficult.

Last Saturday was the first of the season to show just how little separates the perceived best from the next tier. There will be similar Saturdays. Don’t be surprised, when the dust on the season settles, if 2010 resembles the one three years ago that wound up with a two-loss team named No. 1 for the first time.

The difference this year, however, is Boise State has respect.

There’s an uprising afoot.

What We Learned

Oh, what might have been on Tobacco Road.

On Monday some permanence finally hit North Carolina, three players completely lost because of offseason contact with an agent and the subsequent lies they told the NCAA. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin was dismissed from the team, while defensive end Robert Quinn and wide receiver Greg Little were declared permanently ineligible.

None had played a down for the Tar Heels in 2010, and they’re far from the only players who have missed time this season because of their contact with an agent - cornerback Deunta Williams, for example, was suspended the first four games and more than a dozen missed North Carolina’s season-opening loss to LSU.

According to the NCAA, Quinn and Little received travel accommodations and jewelry, then lied about it to investigators in three separate interviews. Austin, according to the NCAA, received double the benefits provided to Quinn and Little.

Reportedly, former North Carolina assistant coach John Blake - who has resigned - was the conduit between the players and agents.

Are the punishments too harsh?

No, not at all. What happened in Chapel Hill - and Florida and the Bahamas - was egregious. There were apparently ties between an agent and an assistant coach, a member of the staff, and that’s flat-out sleazy. Throw in a brewing academic scandal and North Carolina deserves whatever comes its way from the NCAA.

But the agent aspect does point to the helplessness of coaches like North Carolina’s Butch Davis. It’s simply impossible for even the best-intentioned coach to know what more than 100 players are doing every second of every day, especially in the offseason when teams aren’t allowed to practice.

Thankfully, Alabama’s Saban - no matter what you may think of him - spearheaded an attempt last summer to get the NFL involved in trying to keep agents from contacting players still in college and providing them illegal benefits. It’s a problem that cost Saban’s Crimson Tide Marcell Dareus time at the beginning of the season, and affected the Tide’s conquerors as well when South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders was caught attending the same South Beach party as Dareus.

SEC teams Georgia and Florida were also touched by the same problem, and it’s Reggie Bush’s contact with an agent that ultimately led to USC current sanctions that include the loss of 30 scholarships over the next few seasons, bowl ineligibility this season and vacated victories.

A Sports Illustrated story this week shed further light on the ugly issue.

This could have been a special season at North Carolina.

Austin, Quinn and Little are stars. So is Williams.

Their losses - plus the many others who have had to sit out while the school and the NCAA conduct their investigations - cost the Tar Heels dearly on the field. They were ranked 18th in both the AP and USA Today polls prior to the season, and went 8-5 last year. They had a real shot to win the ACC and represent the conference in the Orange Bowl.

“I am very sorry that all of this stuff has tainted the football program,” Davis said earlier this month. “And as the head football coach, I take a tremendous amount of responsibility for all of the football-related issues. I’m the head guy.

“I’m sorry that it has affected the football program. But I’m going to tell you what I’m more sorry about, I’m sorry that I trusted John Blake.”

Last year, with Austin and Quinn anchoring the defensive line and Williams roaming the secondary, North Carolina was fifth in the nation in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. This season, without those players - except Williams now for one game - the Tar Heels are 38th in total defense and 45th in scoring defense.

They’re 3-2. They started 0-2, losing by identical 30-24 scores to LSU and Georgia Tech, and have won three straight. It’s reasonable to think they might be undefeated if they’d had players like Austin and Quinn on defense and Little on offense.

“We should’ve been doing something else,” North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour said on Monday. “We should’ve acknowledged the level that these guys are and that there were going to be people coming at them. ... I wish we had done more. I’d like to relive that part.”

What might have been.

Game of the Week

Could No. 1 fall for the second straight week?

Ohio State is now the top team in the polls, but rather than having a game or two to ease into the position the Buckeyes travel to Madison to play Wisconsin. The Badgers, who returned 16 starters from a 10-3 team that beat Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl - manhandling the Hurricanes in the trenches - were surprisingly unimpressive in early wins over UNLV, San Jose State and Arizona State.

Their lackluster play caught up with them in a Week 5 loss to Michigan State.

They recovered with a solid win over archrival Minnesota, and now they get a shot to take down the Buckeyes.

“Well, they were going to be ready if we were (ranked) 15th,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said this week. “I don’t know that (our ranking) will change their readiness. What’s most critical is our preparation and then how we handle the adversity and the situation there. There will be times when you can’t hear.”

History says Wisconsin has a shot on Saturday.

While the Buckeyes beat up the Badgers last year in Columbus, Wisconsin has given Ohio State fits in Camp Randall Stadium. The last three times the teams have met in Madison, the Buckeyes have won two and the Badgers one, but the cumulative score of the games is just 49-48 in Ohio State’s favor.

“I think the last couple years (the players) realized that they’ve been in the position to win the game against a very good football team, a team that’s been at the highest level of success in our league,” said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. “And it’s not like they don’t understand they can’t have success. I think they’ve probably learned what they can’t do better than ever. And part of that is mainly taking care of the football and taking advantage of every opportunity that we get defensively to gain an extra possession, and getting off the field on third down.”

No matter what’s happened in recent years, however, there’s a reason Ohio State is the top-ranked team in the country. The Buckeyes’ offense is best in the Big Ten, averaging 43.2 points per game - the Badgers average 37.2 - and their defense leads the conference in total yardage and is second only to Iowa in scoring, giving up 13.5 points per game.

They also have Terrelle Pryor, who more and more is resembling the quarterback he projected to be when he was the object of a recruiting war between Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Wisconsin counters with a solid quarterback in senior Scott Tolzein and the running of big John Clay and James White.

The numbers favor Ohio State, but last week they favored Alabama over South Carolina. Funny things happen when teams go on the road in conference play, and funny things have happened to the Buckeyes in Madison.

There’s a decent shot Oregon will be atop the polls at this time next week.

If I Had a Ballot ...

1. Ohio State (6-0): Saturday will be the toughest game the Buckeyes have played to date.

2. Oregon (6-0): The Ducks should score early and often against UCLA.

3. Boise State (5-0): Alabama’s loss was the first domino to fall in the Broncos’ favor.

4. Oklahoma (5-0): After three straight close games, the Sooners should roll over Iowa State.

5. Nebraska (5-0): The Cornhuskers host Texas, a game that once appeared daunting but now could result in an easy Nebraska win.

6. TCU (6-0): With BYU having a bad season, Saturday’s game won’t be close.

7. Auburn (6-0): Arkansas could be the Tigers’ downfall.

8. South Carolina (4-1): The next three opponents represent probable wins, so the Gamecocks must avoid a letdown.

9. Alabama (5-1): There’s no shame in losing on the road to a ranked opponent, and the Tide will crawl back toward the top as others fall.

10. Michigan State (6-0): Wins over Wisconsin and Michigan have the Spartans in position to run the table.

Contact Eric Avidon at 508-626-3809 or