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The Kickoff: Will Saban be out for payback on Kiffin?

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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The men in the middle

A lot was made in the press of the verbal missiles first-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin launched at Urban Meyer over the offseason, but it was generally thought by most in SEC circles that Kiffin actually did a lot more tangible "damage" to Alabama than Florida last winter. In what was considered at the time to be a coup far more important than the much-publicized victory in the recruiting war over coveted wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson, one of Kiffin's first moves in Knoxville was bringing Nick Saban recruiting impresario and former Alabama linebackers coach Lance Thompson on to the Volunteers coaching staff.
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Almost immediately after being hired, Thompson boasted that he'd put up a recruiting fence around Memphis, ensuring that none of the top-rated high school talent in the area would leave for greener pastures elsewhere in the SEC. During his time with Alabama, Thompson was viewed as a recruiting machine, the blue-chip recruiter of blue chip recruits. Personally responsible for an estimated ten commitments for top-five recruiting classes in 2008 and 2009 (including such future standouts as Julio Jones and Mark Barron), Thompson was the rock star assistant on Nick Saban's staff. His departure — which came a mere three weeks before National Signing Day — sent the Alabama fan base into a frenzy. Current freshman tailback Trent Richardson was one of the eventual 2009 signees Thompson was primarily responsible for. When Richardson heard the news last January, the then high school tailback was shocked, telling the Mobile Press Register, "It's just crazy to me that all that stuff can just happen that quick." Saban replaced Thompson and ex-defensive coordinator Kevin Steele by promoting longtime assistant Kirby Smart for the defensive coordinator job and bringing in Sal Sunseri and James Willis as defensive assistants. While Willis, a former assistant at Auburn, has mainly focused on hammering down the recruiting trail in the South, Sunseri has significantly raised the volume on the Tide's pass rush. A former All-American linebacker at Pitt and Julius Peppers' defensive line coach with the Carolina Panthers, Sunseri has helped instill a more aggressive defensive scheme. The Tide had 26 sacks in fourteen games last year. Through just seven games this season, they already have 21. The Tide linebackers — Willis' and Sunseri's main area of focus — are without question the nation's top LB unit. Rolando McClain is playing like a man possessed, Cory Reamer's been as pleasant a surprise as any player in the SEC, and even without potential All-SEC performer Dont'a Hightower in the lineup, guys like senior Eryk Anders have stepped it up. Whereas Alabama's passing offense and red zone attack have sputtered at times throughout the season, the defense has been impressive. Ranked second in the nation in total defense, tops in the SEC in sacks, and surrendering just 163.2 passing yards per game, the unit is the heart and soul of Alabama's dominant 7-0 start. Though there was initially great concern in Tuscaloosa about the loss of Thompson to Tennessee, things seem to be going just fine — if not better — without him. As X's and O's position coaches, the combination of Suseri and Willis has been working out great for 'Bama. As for the recruiting world, early signs appear to be promising, as well. Scout.com's current recruiting rankings have Alabama No. 4 in the country for the class of 2010. Tennessee is ranked No. 7. Just how much do assistant coaches play a role in the outcome of a game, though, anyway? "I don't know," Saban said when asked that question earlier this week. "The players still have to go out there and play. Other than terminology and language, they still don't know what's coming, and what's coming when. I think this is bigger than that." The "Third Saturday in October" is actually being played on the fourth Saturday in October this year, but it should make no difference in terms of the tenor of the game. Tennessee's had an off week to prepare for the Tide and the Vols are coming off an encouraging victory over Georgia two weeks ago. Still burning from what's being viewed in Knoxville as a "missed opportunity" against No. 1 Florida earlier this season, Tennessee's looking for redemption against the AP poll's latest top-ranked squad. Alabama has won the last two meetings in Tuscaloosa, but hasn't won three straight at home in the series since 1986-93. The last time Tennessee won at Bryant-Denny Stadium, it was the unforgettable, five-overtime, 51-46 game in 2003. Though no one expects 97 points to be scored on these defenses Saturday, there's a lot of talk out there of this weekend's contest being 'Bama's potential "trap game," which all No. 1 teams eventually face. "This is what you want," defensive tackle Wes Brown said earlier this week. "This is what you come to Tennessee for. No offense to the smaller schools we play, but you come to Tennessee to play the No. 1 team in a great rivalry like this. You couldn't ask for much more." He's right. We, as fans, can't ask for much more either. Defensive assistants and recruiting wizards in the middle of a southern tug-of-war, one of the game's richest rivalries serving up a rare, late-October treat, and two squads playing the best football they have all season. Tennessee-Alabama should deliver the goods on Saturday. As for which school delivers the more robust roster of blue-chip recruits come February... well, we'll have to wait and see. The Pick: Alabama 17, Tennessee 13.

And yet, they still control their own destiny

Ohio State fans probably weren't too shocked when six-year-old Falcon Heene wasn't actually in that balloon last week. After all, they've been there, done that. You know — waiting, waiting, and waiting some more for a young phenom to present himself in front of a captive national audience, only to have him never show up at all. I hate to pile on, but sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor's been that disappointing this season, including a forgettable individual performance in last Saturday's 26-18 loss to Purdue. Pryor threw two interceptions, fumbled four times, and struggled mightily against the Big Ten's 11th-rated defense. The lackluster effort came just one week after an embarrassingly poor individual stat line against Wisconsin that saw the sophomore complete just 5 of 13 passes for 87 yards. Not counting the three defensive/special teams touchdowns against Wisconsin, the Ohio State offense has now produced 18 points or fewer in three of Ohio State's first seven games. Though every player on the OSU offense has struggled in '09, Pryor's the one taking the brunt of the heat and public criticism. Having now started enough college games to finally start delivering on expectations, Pryor seems to be regressing. There are even fans — and local sports columnists — calling for the team's backup, sophomore Joe Bauserman, to get some work at quarterback. Perhaps the most unsettling piece to Pryor's sophomore slumber, though, is the very un-Buckeyes-like behavior that he's exhibited through his recent struggles. Both on the field and on the sidelines, the sophomore's been visibly frustrated, critical of his offensive teammates, and at times, just downright petulant. If a volcano of pressure and frustration had been rising inside of Pryor for weeks, the grand eruption occurred in a third-quarter meltdown captured by cameras on Saturday. During a four-minute stretch, Pryor made a poorly timed option pitch to tailback Brandon Saine, threw two picks, and was fortunate to not have a third poorly thrown pass intercepted. After one of the picks, Pryor slammed his helmet harshly to the ground and got in the face of receiver Duron Carter. Cameras caught it all. The visual was all you needed to see to sum up the Buckeyes' offensive output of late. And yet (there's always an "and yet"), despite the public maelstrom, Buckeyes fans' disappointment, and all the frustration brewing in Columbus this week — the Buckeyes still control their own destiny in the Big Ten. Win out from this point on, and guess what — Ohio State's your Big Ten champion. OSU travels to Penn State on Nov. 7, then hosts currently sixth-ranked and unbeaten Iowa a week later. As always, the Buckeyes end the season with Michigan, this year in The Big House. Win those three games and Ohio State's in the same spot it is every January — playing in front of a national television audience in a marquee BCS bowl game, representing the Big Ten on the grandest of stages. But to get to that all-important three-game stretch, the Buckeyes can't slip up this weekend vs. Minnesota. The Gophers offense, all but silenced against Penn State last Saturday (138 yards of total offense), features one of the best receivers in the nation in Eric Decker. The Minnesota defense, however, is giving up 23.3 points per game and currently ranks 10th out of 11 teams in the conference in yards per game (393.0). There's also a comfort in playing the Gophers. Pryor won his first career start in last September's 34-21 win over Minnesota. In that game, he rushed for 97 yards and 2 touchdowns and completed 8 of 13 passes. After that game, Buckeyes fans were nothing but thrilled with their quarterback of the future and encouraged by his leadership skills. Thirteen months later, it appears as though Pryor's taken a giant step back — both on the field and in the hearts and minds of the Buckeyes faithful. How can he fix all that? Well, starting with this Saturday, he can win out. He can get the Buckeyes back on course and into a BCS bowl game. Just like that, all of the helmet slamming visuals, the horrible interceptions, and the surly behavior will be forgotten. Poof. Like magic, things can go back to the way they were a year ago. You know, before that balloon came crashing down. The Pick: Ohio State 31, Minnesota 17.

As bad as it gets

For as down as critics are on the Big 12 as a whole this season, there may be no uglier black eye for the conference than the sorry excuse of a football team currently occupying Kyle Field down in College Station. After starting the season a promising 3-0, Texas A&M has put forth a string of bad losses, culminating in Saturday's shameful, 62-14 defeat at Kansas State. Consider some of these facts from the game:
  • Kansas State entered Saturday's contest with the 75th ranked offense in the nation. They rushed for 232 yards and scored six touchdowns on the ground.
  • The loss was the worst defeat the Aggies have suffered since their memorable 77-0 loss to Oklahoma in 2003. That Oklahoma team finished the season ranked No. 1 and played in the BCS Championship Game. This Kansas State squad may not end up being bowl eligible.
  • The Aggies trailed 38-0 at halftime. They were down 59-0 at one point in the third quarter.
  • Texas A&M finished the game with -13 rushing yards.
  • The embarrassing statistics and factoids go on and on, but there's no use lingering on them. Things can — and very well might — get a whole lot worse for the Aggies on Saturday. A&M is on the road for a date with Texas Tech, a team that's beaten them by an average of 33 points the last three times they've met in Lubbock. And, oh yeah, a Red Raiders team that beat that very same Kansas State squad 66-14 just two weeks ago. Monday's San Antonio Express headline said it all: "Do The Math — A&M Could Lose by 100 to Tech". Every week, I receive a flurry of emails from impassioned Texas A&M fans not only calling for the firing of second-year coach Mike Sherman, but for the axing of athletic director Bill Byrne, as well. One such email I received on Monday opened with the following: "The bait on the hook is already dead (Mike Sherman), but the fish at Texas A&M rots at the head, and that is Athletic Director Bill Byrne. He has singlehandedly destroyed in seven years what took a century to build." Though a bit extreme, the sentiment seems to be shared by several Aggies supporters. Over on TexAgs.com, a popular Texas A&M blog, there are multiple threads around Sherman and Byrne's immediate futures, while the local talk radio shows are calling for both of their heads. The program has undoubtedly regressed in Sherman's second year as head coach. Though the Aggies gave Oklahoma State a game two weeks ago, there's a strong chance Texas A&M goes winless the rest of the way. But the former Green Bay Packers head coach likely isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He's in the second year of a seven-year deal with a reported buyout stipulating he'll receive $150,000 for each month left on his contract. The Texas A&M athletic department recently cut 17 full-time positions in the summer. If costs are any issue at all, Sherman's going to stay on as coach. As for Texas Tech, things appear to be on the up and up. After tough, back-to-back losses to Texas and Houston in September, the Red Raiders have beaten their last three opponents — New Mexico, Kansas State, and 15th-ranked Nebraska last week — by a combined score of 145-52. Whether it's Taylor Potts (now back from injury) or Steven Sheffield starting at quarterback, Tech should have no problem handling the struggling Aggies in Lubbock. The passing offense is clicking, the running game is delivering, and the defense is as good as it's ever been in Mike Leach's time in Lubbock. Look for a major league blowout on Saturday. A 100-point win? Probably not. The Pick: Texas Tech 55, Texas A&M 21

    Do Frogs like Ducks? In this case, no

    If there was any surprise from Sunday's release of the first BCS Standings, it was just how far apart unbeaten Boise State was from unbeaten TCU. Seven weeks into the college football season, Boise State currently sits fourth in the BCS standings with a rather healthy .2485 point lead over No. 8 TCU. Boise State, coming off a rather unimpressive victory over Tulsa last week, was given a heck of a lot of respect from both the pollsters and the computers. If TCU and Boise both finish in the top 12 this year, there is only one guaranteed spot in one of the major BCS bowls. Both teams could be picked, but that likely won't happen. TCU is currently seventh in the USA Today coaches poll, two spots below Boise, and eighth in the Harris Interactive poll, three spots lower. Together, the two polls contribute to two-thirds of the BCS standings. At first glance, it appears as though TCU is well behind Boise and would need a miracle upset from a Nevada or Louisiana Tech to leapfrog the Broncos in the standings. But it's early, and as is the case every year, the BCS standings mean very little in October. TCU is currently the lowest ranked of the seven remaining undefeated teams in the AP poll — behind Alabama, Florida, Texas, Cincinnati, Boise and No. 7 Iowa. TCU's resume, however, is about to get significantly bolstered. Though early season wins on the road at Virginia and Clemson are somewhat nice notches on their BCS belts, the Horned Frogs can make their bones (and their BCS standings jump) with wins over conference rivals BYU and Utah. Boise State, meanwhile, has only cupcakes the rest of the way. Of course, the real wildcard in this two-horse race is Oregon. If the Ducks keep winning, knock off USC, and win the Pac-10 title — Boise's case for the non-BCS conference bowl slot gets a lot stronger. If the Ducks go into one of their usual October/November tailspins and loses a game or two, Boise's BCS profile could take a major hit. The Ducks face a pesky Washington team this weekend, then have USC, Stanford, Arizona State, and Arizona in consecutive weeks. Oregon's performance through that stretch will greatly impact both Boise and TCU's BCS fates. Of course, none of that will matter if TCU can't get by BYU on Saturday. The Mountain West foes have been thorns in each other's sides in recent years. Last season, the Frogs beat then-No. 9 BYU 32-7, snapping the Cougars' 16-game winning streak and crushing BYU's BCS dreams. Two years earlier, BYU beat TCU in Fort Worth to end the Frogs' 13-game streak that was, at the time, the nation's longest. Well, here we go again. "I don't understand how it works, the numbers or the computers, whatever," TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes told reporters on Monday. "We can't really worry too much about what the BCS says about us. We've just got to go out there and perform and try to win games." "One thing we've got to do is win a conference championship," added Hughes. "That's our number-one goal right now." The Frogs can forget about any of that without a win on Saturday. The Pick: TCU 13, BYU 9

    The weekly Fast Freddie watch

    Last week in this space, we shed some much-deserved light on Bowling Green senior wideout Freddie Barnes's absurd 2009 campaign. Barnes only added to his Crabtree-irian totals last Saturday, grabbing 10 passes for 160 yards and scoring 3 touchdowns against Ball State. Through just seven games, Barnes already has 88 receptions for 882 yards and 8 touchdowns. For comparison's sake, through seven games last year, the All-American Crabtree had 51 receptions. Barnes is on pace to catch 151 balls this season, 31 more than Crabtree caught last year (which included a bowl game). The nation's current leader in both receptions and yards, Barnes is also tied with Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard for tops in the land in scores. He'll be up against his toughest test of the season on Saturday, facing Central Michigan, the MAC's top-ranked defense. The Chippewas are 4-0 in conference play and are a fixture in the "Also Receiving Votes" section of the past few weekly AP Top 25 polls. CMU is 31st in the AP Poll, 29th in the USA Today Coaches Poll, and coming off of a gritty, hard-earned victory over rival Western Michigan last weekend. This should be a good one. Fast Freddie will be on the field. That, alone, is enough of a reason to tune in. The Pick: Central Michigan 34, Bowling Green 27

    Upset picks of the week

    I was 0-2 last weekend with my Mizzou and Minnesota picks. This week, I'll go out on a limb and take Washington over Oregon and Michigan State over undefeated Iowa.
    Tagged: Clemson, Virginia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, Boise State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Bowling Green, Ball State, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, Oregon, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tulsa, Texas Christian, Nevada, Louisiana Tech, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas State, Texas, Cincinnati, Houston, New Mexico

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