The Kickoff: Longhorns and Sooners and Trojans, oh my

BY Peter Schrager • October 17, 2009

It's Your Heisman To Lose, Jimmy

What do you do when you wake up Christmas morning and there are no gifts under the tree?

College football fans that spent the summer looking forward to a heated, season-long, three-man Heisman Trophy race this fall have been gravely disappointed.

We're six weeks into the '09 season and it appears as though Heisman Saturday in December may end up consisting of nothing more than a bunch of lumps of coal, drizzled with glitter and polished with a faux, shiny veneer.

The three overwhelming preseason Heisman favorites — 2007 winner Tim Tebow, 2008 winner Sam Bradford and 2008 runner-up Colt McCoy — have had seasons impacted by injuries (Bradford); conservative offensive game plans and strategies (Tebow); and strong, but hardly Heisman-worthy offensive numbers (McCoy).

Despite the flurry of summer magazine covers, fancy photo shoots and national mainstream media attention, neither Bradford, Tebow nor McCoy have been Heisman-worthy midway through the 2009 season.

But who, then, exactly has?

Jahvid Best, the All-America junior running back out of California, got off to a fast start and had a 5-touchdown effort versus Minnesota on ESPN. Just as quickly as the all-loving media put the Heisman front-runner crown on him, it was torn off by two opposing Pac-10 defenses (55 yards, 0 TDs vs. Oregon; 43 yards, 0 TDs vs. USC) in cruel, unforgiving fashion.

Houston's Case Keenum has put up big passing numbers and knocked off three different BCS-conference opponents along the way. But a curious 58-41 loss to UTEP a few weeks ago will most likely cost the Houston quarterback from being the first U of H gunslinger to win the award since Andre Ware.

Up and down the list of preseason Heisman hopefuls there's been underwhelming individual performances.

Oregon's LeGarette Blount played in just one game this season. In that contest, he brutally punched an opposing player in the face during a postgame fracas.

The leading wideout candidate heading into the season was Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant. Bryant was ruled ineligible and suspended last week for questionable contact he's had with Deion Sanders. So much for that.

Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead — the subject of "Need 4 Snead" banners, bumper stickers and posters all over Oxford, Miss., — has worse statistics this season than oft-criticized Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton.

Terrelle Pryor? The Ohio State QB has been a solid enough leader, but stat lines like Saturday's 5-for-13, 87-yard effort vs. Wisconsin won't do the job.

Quarterbacks Tony Pike of Cincinnati and Kellen Moore of Boise State, as well as Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, have all had nice starts to the season, but play for schools that usually do not produce Heisman Trophy winners. They'd need outstanding final weeks and consistent incredible individual efforts to be considered legitimate candidates come December.

Alabama's Mark Ingram shares carries in the Tide offense, I don't see a defensive player winning anytime soon, and no offensive lineman is garnering much momentum.

Which leads us to one guy.

One guy who, by the process of elimination, can win the Heisman Trophy with a win on Saturday.

"Clausen's clearly at the top of his game, confident and competitive. He just needs to seal the deal with a brilliant performance in beating the dreaded Trojans."
Chris Huston of the "Heisman Pundit" blog

I'm putting this out there right now: Jimmy Clausen, if you beat USC on Saturday, you might as well start writing that Heisman acceptance speech.

Yes, it's come to that. With as thin a field as ever and a nation of writers, pundits, and fans desperately seeking someone to fill the Heisman favorite void — it's the Golden Domer's award to lose.

Clausen's done everything in his power to get himself into this position. Widely criticized and highly doubted through much of his first two seasons in South Bend, the nation's former No. 1 high school recruit has emerged as a symbol of resiliency for the Notre Dame faithful during his junior campaign. With improbable and heroic come-from-behind wins in four straight games, Clausen's captured the spirit and confidence of not only of Irish fans, but a nation of college football followers.

Chris Huston writes the popular "Heisman Pundit" blog and updates it each week with his thoughts. He shares, "Clausen leads the nation in pass efficiency and has led fourth quarter comebacks in each of the last four games. He's clearly at the top of his game, confident and competitive. He just needs to seal the deal with a brilliant performance in beating the dreaded Trojans."

Saturday's game will be paramount to Clausen's Heisman bid. Quite frankly, it's make or break. As magnificent as the junior gunslinger's been this season, the Irish have still not beaten a team worthy of mention and lost to currently unranked Michigan early on. Rarely do we see Heisman candidates come from the No. 25 ranked team in the nation, let alone a team that gets walloped in a nationally televised game in its own building.

If Clausen finds a way Saturday, he'll be doing so without the help of star receiver Michael Floyd (out until at least Nov. 14), on a bad toe and despite a porous and laughable Notre Dame defense.

And history is by no means on his side.

USC's won seven straight games over ND, with all but one of them — 2005's famous "Bush Push" game — coming in lopsided fashion.

Last year vs. the Trojans, Clausen completed just 11 of 22 passes for 41 yards and was sacked four times. The Irish lost 38-3 and the effort was viewed by many as a moral victory for ND. The two teams were that far apart.

Though the USC defense lost eight starters to the NFL in April's draft, they're just as nasty as they were a year ago. In '09, the Trojans have not allowed any of their first five opponents to gain 300 yards and they are ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense at 8.6 points per game. The Trojans are also the only team in the country that has not allowed a single passing touchdown this year.

Insert Clausen — the great hope of not only the Notre Dame fans, but fans of the Heisman Trophy as well.

An outstanding individual effort out of Clausen makes this process an easy one. Beat USC, and we have our guy. Done and done. Lose, and we've got a whole lot more head scratching to do.

Perhaps there will be something under that Heisman tree come December, after all. If not? Well, then it's back to the drawing board, waiting for someone — anyone — to emerge.

Red River Runs Dry?

When Texas and Oklahoma met last season in Dallas, the two teams combined for 873 yards of offense, 10 touchdowns and 80 points. Colt McCoy tossed for 277 yards; Sam Bradford hurled five touchdowns.

Both Bradford and McCoy are back under center for Saturday's meeting, but it's hard to imagine the same type of offensive fireworks show.

The Texas defense has been downright nasty this season. Ranked fourth nationally in total defense, Will Muschamp's unit has given up a stingy 235 yards per game. First in the nation against the run, the Longhorns have surrendered just 241 yards on the ground the entire year.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, boasts the nation's third-best scoring defense (8.4 points per game) and has given up just 27 more yards on the ground than the rival Longhorns.

Whereas run 'n' gun was the name of the game in 2008's Red River Shootout, it appears as though the two teams' defenses may lead the way on Saturday.

Are we looking at a 13-10 defensive battle? Perhaps.

The Longhorns defense, though victorious in last year's meeting, hasn't forgotten the aerial show Bradford put on last year. Speaking with reporters Monday, Muschamp described the Horns' defensive effort in last year's 45-35 win as "very poor."

Asked about a particular 52-yard Bradford touchdown pass to Sooners tight end Jermaine Gresham, Mack Brown said on Monday, "It was hard to tell who was to blame, because no one was in the area code."

But that was then and this is now, and we could be talking about a very different Sooners offense this season.

Bradford's still recovering from his Week 1 shoulder injury, the OU run game has been inconsistent at best, and left guard Brian Simmons, Gresham and quite possibly star receiver Ryan Broles will all be sidelined with injuries for Saturday's showdown.

Though the final score of Oklahoma's 33-7 victory over Baylor on Saturday would suggest a dominant offensive performance, the Sooners receivers struggled mightily in the win. The unit accounted for double-digit drops against the Bears.

And though the Longhorns are currently first in the nation in scoring, the Texas offense is seventh in the Big 12 in rushing and features a less-than-desirable carousel at the tailback position.

In the Longhorns' Big 12 battle last week vs. Colorado, Texas gained just 46 rushing yards on 25 attempts, a 1.8 yards-per-rush average, against the Big 12's worst defense.

The Red River Shootout is set to kick off at noon EST on Saturday, but there's a good chance it's not a shootout at all.

"The Red River Defensive Battle" doesn't have quite the same pizzazz to it, but perhaps we consider a name change.

OK, maybe not.

Fast Freddie

If you've never heard of Freddie Barnes, you're probably not alone. After all, the nation's top receiver plays for 2-4 Bowling Green. But it might be time to start paying attention.

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