If one thing has earmarked this 2006 football season as different from previous ones, it would be the number of marquee national games in September. In the wake of Ohio State's 24-7 pasting of previously top-ranked Texas, Cunningham cited the Buckeye's tough and talented quarterback, Troy Smith, as the player who has surprised him the most.
"Troy Smith has surprised me and not because that I didn't think he wasn't going to be good," said Cunningham. "Ohio State has really changed offensively because of his skill. They really opened up the offense. They looked totally different on offense against Texas than anyone expected. You wouldn't expect that from Ohio State, as it's really outside of what they normally like to do. Everyone knew what kind of athlete he was, but I don't know if anyone gave him credit for what kind of quarterback he has turned into. He's made a lot of good throws and made a lot of good decisions. A lot of guys would wilt under that kind of pressure, but it looks like he's thriving in it."
Cunningham broadcasted the recent Auburn demolition of Washington State. Despite the 40-14 score, he came away impressed with the Cougars.
"Quite frankly, I thought Washington State handled themselves pretty well," he said. "They're such a thin team, they don't have a lot of depth. Washington State is going to have a pretty good year, if they can just keep people healthy, because they're really thin in depth, as are a lot of teams in college fotoball. But I would say that Auburn has surprised me the most in the early going. I know people expected them to be good, but I don't think anyone thought they could be this good. They had a lot of guys to replace on defense (off last year's team), but their young talent has stepped up and is playing well."
In an enjoyable interview earlier this week with KJR's Dave "Softy" Mahler, Cunningham stated that despite losing to Ohio State, Texas would be in the national title hunt at the end of the year. I asked him what caused Texas to transform from a team that always recruited brilliantly but underachieved, to one that is now a superpower.
"Their coach, Mack Brown, has become more comfortable," said Cunningham. "We talked to him last year. I did their Missouri game last season. I think he had let some of the pressure of being the head coach at Texas get to him a little bit. But he is just so much more confident now. I think that confidence in his ability is showing up in his team. They don't play tight—they're a very relaxed bunch that expects to win and prepares to win.
"And Mack admitted that he had started letting the pressure get to him," said Cunningham. "He and his wife actually made a conscious decision. You know, they're not from Texas. They made the decision in that they said, `You know what? We're going to be here for the rest of our lives, we're Texans.' And I think that was a turning point for them professionally and personally.
"But," added Cunningham, "You also can't give enough credit to what Vince Young did to that program."
Cunningham then talked about how much California's dismal performance against Tennessee in Knoxville was surprising.
"I think Tennesse is one of those teams last year everything was conspiring against them including themselves," he said. "But that is an incredibly talented, physical team, and I don't think Cal was ready for it. Cal didn't show me enough to be considered a contender. I don't think, as bad as they got beat, that they can recover on the national scene. They certainly didn't show me enough."
Cunningham's thoughts toward the Oregon Ducks were more optimistic and appreciative.
"Oregon can be very good," he said. "Dixon is very good quarterback, and they're using him well. If you go undefeated this year in a major conference, you'll be playing for a national championship. If Oregon can get out of this weekend with a win over Oklahoma in Eugene, which I think they will, then they will put themselves into the national title mix."
Lastly, Cunningham talked about the Washington Huskies. Enthusiasm permeated his voice.
"I only got to see the first half (of the Oklahoma game), and then I had to go to work," he said. "But I was awfully proud at how hard our guys played. I'm starting to see a lot of improvement in that area, in the area of toughness and in making the tackles they should make, and things like that. I think Tyrone (Willingham) and his staff are doing a nice job. I was really proud at how hard our guys played.
"They were playing sound football," he said. "Technique, tackling, blocking, those were all things that had started to slip (in previous years). Like a lot of teams in the Pac-10, the Huskies are so far behind USC talent-wise-- but it has got to start with fundamentals. That's the thing that I have been so impressed with. I started to see those improvements at the end of last year, and it's obvious they have made strides in the right direction this year.
"We may not have the best players yet," he said. "But they sure are playing hard and doing the little things that will eventually result in wins."
Derek Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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