Table is now set for BYU to crash title game

The first big upset of the season could provide the momentum to reshape the whole BCS power structure.

Forget being a BCS buster. Brigham Young is setting itself up as a national championship game buster.

Believe it or not, it’s set up perfectly. Of course, they have to win the games, but these guys could actually play their way into the title game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 7.

Premature? Maybe. Possible? Very.

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Quarterback Max Hall and the surprisingly rugged Cougars have an upside that we have never seen from an “outsider” in the BCS era, thanks to their schedule and national TV cache that can actually impress the voters.

They took care of Oklahoma at a neutral site, 14-13, knocking out Heisman Trophy quarterback Sam Bradford along the way, and still have three games against ranked teams remaining. Florida State visits Provo on Sept. 19, and TCU and Utah (who are also hopeful of becoming this season’s BCS buster) have to visit Cougar Stadium, too.

Last year, the Mountain West Conference proved itself as one of the top five conferences in the country, and it could be even better this year.

In fact, once you get past the SEC and the Big 12, does any other conference have three teams better than BYU, Utah and TCU?

I’ll answer that one for you.

Nope.

BYU, certainly, has a difficult schedule. But after the way the Cougars defeated Oklahoma, their upside could rival even champions of some BCS conferences. This is a team that showed it can do it with defense as well as offense, and the Cougars can use their Cowboys Stadium performance as a launching pad for the rest of the season.

Consider the way Utah soared in the polls last year with a 12-0 regular-season record that included a season-opening victory against ho-hum Michigan, and a triumph over Oregon State. Wins over Oklahoma and Florida State would carry much more weight nationally. The Utes, interestingly enough, had BYU and TCU at home.

It’s a nice recipe that Bronco Mendenhall would love for his team to follow.

What they really need now is for Florida State to beat Miami on Labor Day to give the Seminoles a high national ranking heading into their game in Provo.

Protection breakdown

The three Heisman QB amigos have been reduced to a dynamic duo.

When Sam Bradford and other Heisman-winning quarterbacks say during their acceptance speeches that they wouldn’t be there without their outstanding offensive lines, they aren’t kidding. Even before Bradford was planted into the Cowboys Stadium turf by BYU’s Coleby Clawson, he’d already absorbed more hits Saturday than he ever had to deal with last year. That offensive line was an outstanding, veteran group, of which four starters were seniors.

So, that leaves a youngish O-line for the Sooners, which is the real reason OU isn’t going to contend for the national championship this season. The Oklahoma defense did a great job against a potent BYU offense, but the Sooners couldn’t run the ball consistently even with returning 1,000-yard rushers DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown on hand.

Even when Bradford returns, that offensive line is going to be hard-pressed to keep him upright against all the pressure opponents will be sure to bring.

QBs aren’t only Heisman candidates

Let’s not overlook Jahvid Best and Dez Bryant, the top non-quarterback candidates on the Heisman radar. It’s going to take something special from either of them to reach the upper echelon, but their team’s success will be the catalyst for their trips to Times Square in December.

Look at it this way: Best is not only the most electrifying running back in the country, but he’s playing on a team that has a legitimate chance to end USC’s seven-year stranglehold on the Pac-10 championship.

If Cal upends the Trojans (Oct. 3), and Best continues his amazing stretch of games, Heisman voters will not be able to ignore him.

As for Bryant, well, Georgia did everything it could to limit his touches, but you can’t keep a good man down for a whole game. He eventually made a sensational, diving catch of a 46-yard touchdown pass from Zac Robinson, and added a 12-yard scoring reception in the 24-10 victory over the Bulldogs.

Stage set for Notre Dame-Michigan

Imagine: A Notre Dame-Michigan game that actually means something.

The Irish staged their best performance in 36 games — dating back to when Brady Quinn was calling signals and they hammered Penn State, 41-17, on Sept. 9, 2006. Saturday, they beat Nevada, 35-0, and looked good doing it.

Michael Floyd had a stunning performance in which he caught four passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns. The completions covered 7 … then 24 for a touchdown … then 70 for a touchdown … then 88 for a touchdown. If anybody mentions Jimmy Clausen as a Heisman candidate, laugh and tell them he’s not the best player on his own offense.

But Clausen and the Irish looked like a good team, which is sorta how Michigan looked in its 31-7 rout of Western Michigan, with freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson splitting time and providing the kind of mobile quarterbacking Rich Rodriguez looks for.

This all means that late Saturday afternoon at the Big House, either Michigan or Notre Dame will have —for the first time in a long while — real reason to puff out their chests. Amazing.

USC reloads

It’s almost as though Pete Carroll is able to throw anybody out there at quarterback and get a sensational performance. In order, it has been Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez … and now he makes Matt Barkley the first true freshman ever to start a season at quarterback for USC. And Barkley promptly performed the way USC quarterbacks always do: 15-of-19 for 233 yards, a touchdown and NO INTERCEPTIONS in the rout of San Jose State.

Barkley showed some nerves in the first quarter before turning things around with six consecutive scoring drives in the second and third quarters. It will be interesting to see how long it takes him to deal with nerves at Ohio State this week.

Know the rules

One thing about Iowa’s double-blocked-kick victory over Northern Iowa is that it served as a lesson for all coaches to remind their squads about the special rules of special teams. Iowa players didn’t know the rules, but then, how many people do? When Broderick Binns blocked the first field-goal attempt (on first down), the ball harmlessly bounced around behind the line of scrimmage, where Iowa’s Jeremiha Hunter almost picked it up. But his teammates were screaming at him to get away from it, so he peeled away and NIU fell on the ball.

Since the ball did not cross the line of scrimmage, it was free to be recovered by either team. That meant the Panthers got a second down, and used it for a chance for another kick. This time, Hunter himself blocked it, and since the ball traveled well beyond the line of scrimmage, Northern Iowa would not have been allowed to keep the ball even if the Panthers had recovered.

Anything but boring

Jim Tressel’s decision to go for it on fourth and 2 while leading by 15 points in the fourth quarter gave us an nice, relevant reminder of why coaches almost always lean toward the conservative side of things. When the Buckeyes didn’t make it, Navy promptly scored two touchdowns to have a chance to tie the score with a 2-point conversion.

Of course, the Buckeyes won the game with the interception and 2-point return by Brian Rolle, which finally put Navy away, but Tressel and every other coach who saw it will be just a tad more conservative next time. Too bad.

ACC worse than ever?

After being knocked around last year, the ACC took several steps back in the first long weekend of the season. Consider that only one ACC team has beaten a major-college opponent so far (Clemson, 37-14 over Middle Tennessee).

Against lower-division programs, the league is already an embarrassing 3-2, as Virginia was handled by William and Mary and Duke couldn’t hang with Richmond.

Hey, but at least the league is best in the country at graduating its players.

Everything in between

For most of the game, Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus played like the five-year player that he is. OK, so the first four of those years were as a point guard for Duke. But other than the first and last play of the game Saturday, he was terrific, going 17-for-28, for 162 yards and a TD. The problem was, his first play was a snap over his head, which soon led to a Minnesota touchdown, and his last play was an ill-conceived pass in overtime that was intercepted in the end zone.

A glance ahead

Monday, Sept. 7

  • Miami at Florida State: Earliest major showdown in any major conference.

    Saturday, Sept. 12

  • USC at Ohio State: Don’t kid yourself. Even in the Horseshoe, the Trojans are much better.
  • Notre Dame at Michigan: Two of the most unlikeable coaches in the country.
  • UCLA at Tennessee: Neuheisel used this matchup for first big win; Kiffin tries to do the same.
  • Troy at Florida: Can Sun Belt champs slow down top-ranked national champs?
  • South Carolina at Georgia: An early “knockout game” in the SEC East.
  • Purdue at Oregon: (Overrated) Ducks try to get past season-opening debacle at Boise.
  • Fresno State at Wisconsin: Badgers barely escaped from Fresno intact last year.
  • Houston at Oklahoma State: Cougars look like class of C-USA; OSU looks like national dark horse.
  • Clemson at Georgia Tech: Apparent contenders need to get out of ACC blocks fast.