Marshall: Football Perceptions vs. Reality

Phillip Marshall takes a look at the college football landscape after a weekend of checking out games from around the country.

It was a Saturday not like many others at my house. Starting at 11 a.m., I was piled up on my sofa watching college football for the better part of 12 hours.

Here's what I learned from the folks who make their living talking: Bama is back. Penn State is back. Notre Dame is back. Nebraska is, well, not quite back after all. I also learned that all those teams being "back" is good for college football.

I'll have to admit I'm a little confused.

Alabama was back in 2002. You remember those days. Despite a loss to Auburn, the Tide won 10 games. It had the anointed one, Dennis Franchione, as head coach. Of course, the Tide didn't stay back for long, going 4-9 in 2003 and 6-6 in 2004. Franchione? He is busy having his rear end handed to him at Texas A&M.

Alabama was for sure back in 1999 when it won 10 games, beat Florida twice and won the Southeastern Conference championship. The next season, the Tide lost eight games and Mike DuBose lost his job as head coach.

Penn State was certainly back in 2002 when it took a 10-2 record into a Capital One matchup with Auburn. Maybe it was that 13-9 loss to Auburn that sent the Nittany Lions toward losing records the next two seasons.

Joe Paterno has his Nittany Lions at 6-0 and at the top of the Big 10.

Notre Dame was very much back in 2002 when it won its first nine games under coach Tyrone Willingham and finished 10-3. It wasn't so much back in 2003 and 2004, and Willingham was fired and is now trying to revive a woebegone Washington program. Notre Dame, of course, has already lost at home to Michigan State, but that doesn't seem to matter for some reason or another.

Nebraska, it turns out, isn't back after all, because Texas Tech scored the winning touchdown in the final seconds. Seems like Nebraska was closer to being back a couple of years ago when Frank Solich was fired for going 9-3.

I'm not sure I understand why one team being back and another team being gone is good for college football. Why is it better for Penn State to be good than for Pittsburgh to be good? What is the benefit of Notre Dame being good, other than the school can continue to make lots of money with its own TV contract? Why is it better for Alabama to be good than for Auburn or Florida or Tennessee or Georgia or LSU to be good?

I guess I'm just not smart enough to see it the way all the talking heads with stiff hair see it.

The way I see it is that, in any given season, any one of the 40 or so programs who have the commitment and the resources to compete at the highest level can be great, be good or be not so good.

Some, obviously, have more advantages than others. But every season is different and every Saturday within a season is different.

Already this season, two teams ranked in the preseason top five--Michigan and Oklahoma--have fallen out of the polls. Iowa, who for some unknown reason started the season in the Top 10, is also out of the polls. Those teams never belonged at such lofty heights in the first place, of course. Those same talking heads who said Auburn couldn't possibly be good again because it lost four first-round draft choices ignored the 10 Oklahoma players who were chosen in the NFL draft. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr told friends before the season ever started that this would not be one of his better teams.

Every season starts with perceptions based, really, on nothing of substance. The unfortunate thing about college football is that sometimes those perceptions are so ingrained that they are never overcome.

Some other thoughts and impressions from my day in front of the TV:

The Big Ten isn't very good. It has long been a fact of life that poll voters are itching to rank Big Ten teams as highly as possible as soon as possible. Saturday, I saw Ohio State, a supposed national championship contender, look lost on offense at Penn State. I saw Wisconsin give up six touchdowns on six possessions to Northwestern. Michigan lost for the third time. Purdue, highly ranked in the preseason for the flimsiest of reasons, continued its flop. The list could go on...

If Southern California doesn't shore up its defense, it might not make it to Pasadena and the BCS championship game...

Listening to Lou Holtz is akin to hearing someone raking fingernails across a blackboard...

In all my years of watching college football, I'm not sure I have ever seen a team so utterly incapable of protecting its quarterback than was Vanderbilt against LSU. It was a moral victory for Jay Cutler that he escaped without serious injury. LSU was so mistake-prone for three quarters that Vanderbilt was still in the game in the fourth quarter. If the Bayou Bengals don't find some consistency, they'll run into big trouble against better teams.

LSU might be the hardest team in the SEC to read. Because of Hurricane Katrina and then Hurricane Rita, it is been a convoluted season. You don't have to be an expert to see that LSU has size, strength, speed and athleticism. You also don't have to be an expert to see that it is often terribly inconsistent. The Bayou Bengals have back to back home games against Florida and Auburn the next two weeks. We'll know a lot more after that ...

Want to know how much recruiting rankings often mean? Take a look at Tennessee, a 27-14 loser to Georgia at home. Year in and year out, nobody signs more players who are highly ranked by the recruiting services. Yet, the Vols find themselves in one big mess.

Even before the season started, it was obvious there were problems. More than a dozen players ran afoul of the law between last season and this season. There is no way to know from the outside how much impact, if any, that has had on this season.

What is obvious? The Vols' offensive line, supposedly one of the nation's best, isn't performing up to the hype. For some reason, tailback Gerald Riggs doesn't get the ball a lot. Rick Clausen, the players' choice at quarterback, isn't talented enough to get the job done against the better SEC defenses.

It has been a rough season for UT offensive lineman Arron Sears and the Volunteer offense.

The Vols have been strong defensively, but they seemingly called it a day in the fourth quarter and stood around and watched Georgia gleefully run for huge chunks of yardage on the way to the clinching touchdown.

Add it all up and you have an offense that has played one good half of football in five games and a defense that did the unforgivable and gave up. The results are predictable. The Vols are 3-2 overall and 2-2 in the SEC. Before the season's halfway point, they are all but eliminated from the East Division race. They must go to Alabama on Oct. 22. Two weeks later, they go to Notre Dame. It's not a pretty picture...

Georgia took a large step forward with its victory over Tennessee. The Bulldogs were impressive on both sides of the ball and seem to be poised for a big year, maybe a championship year. Barring a letdown against Vanderbilt or Arkansas in the next two weeks, if they can beat Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 22, they will all but lock up the East Division championship. Under Mark Richt, Georgia is 17-2 in opponents' home stadiums. That is nothing short of amazing...

I wonder when we are going to start hearing snide comments about Florida State playing The Citadel. My guess is never …

Until next time...

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