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October 10, 2006

Halfway home and not much is decided

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Troy Smith has made himself the Heisman Trophy favorite while helping Ohio State emerge as the front-runner for the national title.

That much is certain.

Beyond that, the first half of the college football season has created as many questions as answers.

Who should be the second-ranked team in the country?

How good are West Virginia and Louisville?

What's wrong with Colorado?

And why has Florida remained one of the nation's elite programs while in-state rivals Florida State and Miami have fallen back in the pack?

As we attempt to sort out the college football landscape at midseason, we've decided to put aside our top 25 storylines of the week. We instead decided to break down the top events of the first six weeks while handing out some midseason awards and postseason predictions.

Biggest surprise (team): Missouri. Who could have expected the Tigers would replace departed quarterback Brad Smith ranked fourth in NCAA history in total offense with someone who's arguably better? Chase Daniel has helped spark Missouri to its first 6-0 start in 33 years. Honorable mention: Washington, Arkansas, Wake Forest, Rutgers.

Breakdown: Missouri Tigers

Biggest surprise (player): Tennessee QB Erik Ainge. The guy who looked so lost and confused last year now just might be the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. New offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe deserves plenty of credit for helping Ainge regain his confidence. Honorable mention: Washington QB Isaiah Stanback, Tennessee WR Robert Meachem, Missouri QB Chase Daniel.

Tennessee QB Erik Ainge

Biggest surprise (unit): UCLA defense. Granted, the Bruins haven't played anyone ranked among the top 44 teams in total offense. You still have to be amazed to find UCLA ranked second in the nation in total defense and run defense one year after allowing 34 points per game.

Biggest disappointment (team): Colorado. We knew the Buffaloes were rebuilding under new coach Dan Hawkins after winning back-to-back Big 12 North Division titles. But we certainly didn't expect the Buffaloes to lose each of their first six games, including a season opener against Division I-AA program Montana State. Dishonorable mention: Florida State, Miami, Arizona State.

Biggest disappointment (player): Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter. The 2005 NCAA passing efficiency leader has completed 44 percent of his passes. He has five interceptions and just two touchdowns in his last two games. An injury to his non-throwing hand clearly is having an impact on his performance. Dishonorable mention: Alabama RB Kenneth Darby, Ole Miss QB Brent Schaeffer.

Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter

Biggest disappointment (unit): Miami offense. The arrival of offensive coordinator Rich Olson was supposed to mark a return to the high-scoring Hurricane teams of old, but Miami is averaging just 14.5 points per game against Division I-A opponents. Dishonorable mention: Florida State offense, Arizona offense, Oklahoma defense, Georgia offense.

Best game: Notre Dame 40, Michigan State 37. The Fighting Irish rescued their BCS hopes by rallying from a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit and benefiting from the Spartans' epic collapse. This game featured tons of big plays and critical mistakes by two teams that clearly despise each other. Honorable mention: Oregon-Oklahoma, Auburn-LSU.

Notre Dame at Michigan State highlights

Biggest statement performance (team): Michigan 47, Notre Dame 21. This one-sided victory at Notre Dame Stadium showed that the Wolverines had bounced back from last year's 7-5 disappointment and were ready to compete for national titles again. Honorable mention: Arkansas over Auburn, Tennessee over California, Louisville over Miami.

Michigan at Notre Dame highlights

Biggest statement performance (individual): Garrett Wolfe against Ohio State. Wolfe's 285 total yards couldn't help Northern Illinois stay competitive with the Buckeyes, but it probably will end up earning the senior tailback a trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Honorable mention: Mario Manningham against Notre Dame, Calvin Johnson against Virginia Tech, Erik Ainge against California.

Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe

Heisman Trophy front-runner: Ohio State QB Troy Smith. The quarterback of the nation's top-ranked team has changed his game. He once was known more as a runner than a passer, but Smith now leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency.

Ohio State QB Troy Smith

Who should join him in New York: Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson, Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson, Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn, Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe.

Breakdown: Heisman Trophy race

Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson

Most impressive true freshman (offense): Alabama OT Andre Smith. This former five-star prospect began his career as the Crimson Tide's starting left tackle and already has emerged as one of the team's top linemen. Honorable mention: The quarterback class. Arkansas' Mitch Mustain, Georgia's Matthew Stafford, Illinois' Isiah "Juice" Williams and Ball State's Nate Davis already have led their respective teams to victories as starting quarterbacks. Davis even leads the nation in passing efficiency. Miami RB Javarris James and Syracuse RB Delone Carter also merit consideration.

Alabama OT Andre Smith

Most impressive true freshman (defense): Oklahoma State LB Chris Collins. Don't blame him for the Cowboys' poor start. Collins is tied for the team lead with 25 tackles. He delivered seven solo tackles in last weekend's 31-27 loss to Kansas State, including a stop on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Honorable mention: Southern California S Taylor Mays, Louisville DE Peanut Whitehead, Iowa State DE Rashawn Parker, South Carolina DL Eric Norwood.

True freshman sleeper: Southern Mississippi RB Damion Fletcher. This former two-star prospect opened the season by gaining 89 yards against Florida, which remains the highest rushing total for any Florida individual foe all season. He has exceeded the 100-yard mark in every game since, including a 177-yard outburst in a 37-17 triumph over North Carolina State. Honorable mention: Toledo S Barry Church, Ball State QB Nate Davis.

Southern Miss RB Damion Fletcher

Most impressive redshirt freshman (offense): Wisconsin RB P.J. Hill. The nation's fourth-leading rusher has run for at least 100 yards in five of his first six games. Honorable mention: South Florida QB Matt Grothe, Akron WR David Harvey.

Most impressive redshirt freshman (defense): Virginia DE Jeffrey Fitzgerald. He has emerged as one of the lone bright spots in Virginia's dismal season with eight tackles for loss and three sacks in his last four games. He returned a fumble for a touchdown and also intercepted a pass in a 37-0 shutout of Duke. Honorable mention: Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks, Auburn S Aairon Savage, UNLV LB Jason Beauchamp.

Biggest upset: Arkansas 27, Auburn 10. The Razorbacks ended Auburn's national championship hopes while asserting themselves as the unlikely leaders of the Southeastern Conference Western Division. Honorable mention: Montana State over Colorado, Georgia Tech over Virginia Tech, Illinois over Michigan State.

Arkansas at Auburn highlights

Biggest question answered: How will the Ohio State defense respond after losing nine of last year's starters? All those preseason concerns about Ohio State's inexperienced defense now seem silly. The Buckeyes have allowed just 9.3 points per game to lead the nation in scoring defense.

Ohio State's defense

Biggest question lingering: How good is Southern California? Even after losing Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart to the NFL, the Trojans remain undefeated. But this isn't the same dominant USC team of the last few years. USC struggled to eke out victories over Washington State and Washington the last two weeks. Is this team a legitimate national title contender? We probably won't know until mid-November, when the Trojans play host to Oregon, California and Notre Dame on consecutive weeks.

Breakdown: USC Trojans

Best game yet to be played: Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 18. If both teams remain undefeated, this game will essentially amount to an NCAA semifinal because the winner almost certainly will advance to the national title game.

Game we never expected to look forward to: North Carolina State at Clemson, Nov. 11. At the beginning of the season, who figured this game might determine the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division title?

Best goal-line stand: Iowa against Syracuse. The Hawkeyes escaped the Carrier Dome with a victory only after stopping Syracuse seven times from inside their 2-yard line in double overtime.

Iowa goal-line stand

Best BCS conference: SEC. No conference plays tougher defense. Florida, Auburn and LSU all rank among the nation's top six teams in scoring defense. Georgia actually ranked first in that category before getting smoked 51-33 by Tennessee last weekend.

Worst BCS conference: ACC. The fact that North Carolina State leads the Atlantic Division after losing to Akron and getting blown out by Southern Mississippi explains it all.

Coach of the year: Bobby Petrino, Louisville. The Cardinals haven't missed a beat since losing Heisman Trophy candidates Michael Bush and Brian Brohm to injuries. Honorable mention: Rutgers' Greg Schiano, Michigan's Lloyd Carr, Florida's Urban Meyer, Washington's Tyrone Willingham.

Coach on the hot seat: John L. Smith, Michigan State. Ever since that fourth-quarter collapse against Notre Dame, the Spartans have self-destructed. Michigan State's inability to handle adversity each of the last two seasons could seal Smith's fate. Dishonorable mention: Miami's Larry Coker, North Carolina's John Bunting, Texas A&M's Dennis Franchione.

Coach off the hot seat: Gary Pinkel, Missouri. Pinkel entered the season under pressure despite leading the Tigers to an Independence Bowl victory last year. Now that Missouri appears on its way to a higher-profile bowl, Pinkel shouldn't have to worry about his job security.

Most costly injury: California CB Tim Mixon. The easy answer is to give this to Louisville's Michael Bush, who broke his right leg in the season opener. That injury certainly was unfortunate, but it hasn't exactly ruined the national title hopes of the undefeated Cardinals. That's why we're going with Mixon, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason. Mixon's absence haunted California in a season-opening loss to Tennessee that could end up costing the Golden Bears a BCS bid.

Best call: The NCAA's decision to allow Clemson to set up a trust fund to help freshman cornerback Ray Ray McElrathbey to take care of his little brother. McElrathbey was awarded custody of his 11-year-old sibling, Fahmarr, because of his mother's drug problems and gambling addiction. As of last week, nearly $50,000 has been raised to assist the McElrathbeys.

Worst call: The onside kick in the Oregon-Oklahoma game. The official ruling that Oregon had recovered an onside kick in the final minutes helped the Ducks rally for a dramatic 34-33 victory over Oklahoma. The only problem was that Oregon touched the ball early and Oklahoma appeared to have possession anyway. The only good news is that subsequent losses by both teams assured this blown call shouldn't have an impact in determining the national champion.

Oklahoma at Oregon - The onside kick

BCS predictions: Championship game: Ohio State vs. Southern California. Sugar Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Florida. Fiesta Bowl: Texas vs. Louisville. Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. West Virginia. Rose Bowl: Michigan vs. Auburn.



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