Five Thoughts: The sleeper to watch out for
1. Enough safe and sane, it's time for dumb and dangerous.— Pete Fiutak
You're not going to buy this, but we're going to sell it anyway.
Cincinnati will end up playing Florida for the national championship. Yes, in football.
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In 2007, right about this time (actually, it was on Sept, 29), we made the call that West Virginia was going to play for the national title. It seemed crazy at the time, considering the Mountaineers had just lost to South Florida — but when looking at how the first few weeks of the season had been wacky, and with the remaining schedules ahead for all the top contenders, it seemed like a long shot that wasn't so long. As it turned out, we were this close to being right. The Mountaineers would've played in the BCS Championship game against Ohio State (and a two-loss LSU, who would end up winning the whole thing, would've been left out), but Rich Rodriguez's club gagged at home to a mediocre Pitt team in the regular-season finale. Now, fast forward to 2009 and take a look at what's happening, and you'll see why it's not so insane to think Brian Kelly's loaded team could end up in Pasadena.
First, you have to be sold on the Bearcats. You might not have seen them play yet this year, and you've probably dismissed them on name recognition alone, but Kelly has put together a tough, battle-tested team that doesn't make mistakes and has been better than it gets credit for. His team has won 24 games over the last two years plus the first three games of this season, highlighted by a run to the Orange Bowl last season after winning the Big East title. His 11-3 squad ended up losing to Virginia Tech, whereas the two other losses came at Oklahoma (no shame there) and against Connecticut in a strange 40-16 blowout that went from being a tight battle to a laugher in a heartbeat, thanks to a slew of UC fumbles. But this year's team, at least as it appears so far, is too tight, too experienced and too good to let that happen again.
And then there's the schedule. After beating Oregon State last week in Corvallis, snapping OSU's 26-game home streak against non-conference teams that went back to 1996, the toughest remaining road game for the team that's currently fourth in the nation in scoring, sixth in offense, second in tackles for loss and eighth in sacks is an ironic date at Pitt to end the regular season. The Panthers are good enough to end the national title dreams of the Big East for the second time in three years — but before that, UC has to play at South Florida without its star QB, Matt Grothe, and it has to go to Miami University and Syracuse. That's it. Louisville, Connecticut, West Virginia and Illinois all have to come to Cincinnati, and those are all extremely winnable games if the Bearcats can maintain the high level they're currently at.
But for the Big East to achieve its dream, several other major dominoes have to fall. USC and Ohio State losing were big. Penn State doesn't appear to be good enough on the offensive line and in the running game to not get tagged by Ohio State, at Illinois, at Michigan or at Michigan State. Oklahoma could certainly beat Texas. The Longhorns, who haven't exactly looked like the world-beaters of last year, also have to play at Missouri, at Oklahoma State and (don't laugh) at Texas A&M to go along with a home date against Kansas. California is California, it'll brain-cramp somewhere along the way in spectacular fashion, if it doesn't get knocked out of the national-title picture by USC, the stars in the ACC will start picking each other off soon, and the SEC won't get two teams into the BCS Championship.
Does anything there sound too far-fetched? Of course, this could all end in a hiccup if Fresno State and Ryan Mathews don't make a slew of mistakes and pull off the road upset this weekend, but it's mid-September and the season has already taken several nutty turns. It's time to think longview at what might happen if everything breaks the right way. When you can't decide on the favorites, go for the longshot.
2. They're back (and they never really left).— Richard Cirminiello
I know it's early and a full recovery doesn't come from routs of Idaho State and Tulsa, but I'm beginning to watch Oklahoma with a raised level of intrigue.