Marshall Column: Early Season Football Quirks

Phillip Marshall looks at some early season football mysteries and analyzes this week's SEC schedule.

The first few weeks of most seasons make for some interesting quirks in college football. And this season is no different.

Much of what you read and hear is based on perception that might or might not be reality. In the offseason, some teams are anointed and some are dismissed based on very little or nothing at all. Even when the season starts, much of what becomes accepted as reality is based on nothing of substance.

Consider:

Iowa became the darling of the national media and was called a national championship contender. Why? Got me on that one. The Hawkeyes lost 23-3 to Iowa State last Saturday, but they are still ranked. Why? Got me on that one, too.

Auburn, it was quickly decided after last season, could not possibly be any good because it had four players chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. The truth of that one remains to be told, but it's unfathomable and probably unprecedented that a BCS conference team that has won 16 of 17 games, 11 consecutive games against Southeastern Conference opponents and finished last season ranked No. 2 is not ranked in the Top 25 after one loss.

Oklahoma lost 15 starters but was projected as a big winner anyway. The Sooners might win big, but they showed no signs of it in losing to TCU and having to rally to beat Tulsa.

Georgia got more respect than Auburn in the preseason, but not much more. Then it got way too much respect for routing a Boise State team that was nationally ranked but physically overmatched. Boise State is a lot closer to being on the level of Kentucky than it is to being on the level of the top teams in the SEC. In fact, if Boise played Kentucky, I'd pick Kentucky.

Florida, loser of 15 games over the past three years, is a Top 10 team because new coach Urban Meyer was successful at Bowling Green and Utah. Beating Wyoming and Louisiana Tech shows nothing. We'll start to find out about the Gators when they play at home against Tennessee on Saturday.

Alabama has been a popular pick to be a darkhorse in the SEC West. From what I saw of the Tide last Saturday, there might be something to that one. Then again, there might not.

Beating a pitiful Pittsburgh team and an overrated Michigan team makes you a Top 10 team if you are Notre Dame.

Of course, the story of the year in early SEC season has to be Vanderbilt. The Commodores are 2-0. Their victory at Arkansas might have put Coach Houston Nutt's job in serious jeopardy. Don't be surprised, though, if the Hogs give USC a fight in Los Angeles on Saturday.

The bottom line is that we are still several weeks from identifying the contenders and the pretenders.

On to this weekend…

Auburn, obviously, should win easily at home against Ball State, but the Cardinals might not go as quietly as some would like.

Auburn coaches believe Ball State's offense could create some problems. It can't create enough problems to make the game close, but it could create enough to irritate the fans, who expect a blowout.

Games against Ball State and Western Kentucky the next two weeks are all about getting ready for the meat of the SEC schedule that starts with South Carolina's visit on Oct. 1. It really doesn't matter in those kinds of games if you win by four touchdowns or by 10 touchdowns.

I'd say Ball State will come to town inspired and will hang around for a little while before Auburn's talent and speed put an end to it. Auburn 45, Ball State 7.

Because there are some interesting matchups, we'll take a closer look than usual at other SEC games. Last week's record was a mediocre 5-2.

Alabama at South Carolina: All I have seen of Alabama is the second half of last Saturday's 30-21 victory over Southern Mississippi. The Tide looked to be a team with a lot of confidence, which is important. The second half was impressive, but giving up three unanswered touchdowns to Southern Mississippi in the second quarter is anything but impressive.

South Carolina looked awful against Central Florida in Steve Spurrier's first game, but would have taken Georgia to overtime in Athens were it not for a missed extra point. The Gamecocks had no running attack in either game. They'll need to do better on the ground to beat Alabama. Alabama 23, South Carolina 17.

Arkansas at USC: The Razorbacks are reeling from their stunning home loss to Vanderbilt, but my guess is they'll play with fire and purpose against the Trojans. They won't win, but if I was a betting man, I'd load up Arkansas plus 30. USC 34, Arkansas 20.

Tennessee at Florida: Maybe Meyer really is an amazing combination of Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant and Amos Alonzo Stagg, but I'm going to have to see it for myself. Wins over Wyoming and Louisiana Tech show nothing one way or the other.

Tennessee was unimpressive in beating UAB 17-10, but the Vols had a week off to get ready for their trip to The Swamp. Even on the road, I think Tennessee will give Meyer a lesson in the difference between the SEC and the Mountain West Conference. Tennessee 28, Florida 21.

Ole Miss at Vanderbilt: The Commodores are favored. Who would have ever believed that? Senior quarterback Jay Cutler has engineered back-to-back-comeback wins over Wake Forest and Arkansas.

But let's don't get carried away. It's still Vanderbilt. The Commodores are giving up five yards per carry on the ground. If the Rebels will be patient and keep the ball on the ground most of the day, they will win. My guess, however, is that they won't do that. Vanderbilt 24, Ole Miss 23.

Mississippi State at Tulane: Everyone knows the Tulane story. The game will be played in Shreveport and Tulane will finally open its their season after being displaced to Dallas by Hurricane Katrina.

Most everybody outside of Mississippi will be pulling for Tulane to succeed in the face of such adversity. My guess is the Green Wave will do just that. Tulane 17, Mississippi State 14.

Kentucky at Indiana: Does anybody really care? Kentucky 31, Indiana 28.

Louisiana-Monroe at Georgia: Pick a score, any score. Georgia 56, Louisiana-Monroe 7.

Until next time…


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