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Sputtering Nebraska still primed for title run
Dennis Dodd Sept. 9, 2001
By Dennis Dodd
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Through three games, the first inclination is to dismiss Nebraska as a national championship contender.

TCU's defense tackled the Huskers 13 times behind the line. Either Troy State failed to get Nebraska's attention or the Trojans are better than their fledgling Division I-A status would suggest. Maybe both. Still, the 42-14 victory was unimpressive by Big Red standards.

DODD'S POWER POLL
1. Miami
2. Oklahoma
3. Florida
4. Virginia Tech
5. Oregon
6. Kansas State
7. Tennessee
8. Nebraska
9. Fresno State
10. Florida State
11. LSU
12. UCLA
13. Texas
14. Washington
15. Georgia Tech
16. South Carolina
17. Louisville
18. Mississippi State
19. Toledo
20. Clemson
21. Oregon State
22. BYU
23. Northwestern
24. Illinois
25. North Carolina State
NON-BCS TOP 10
1. Fresno State
2. Louisville
3. Toledo
4. BYU
5. South Florida
6. Middle Tennessee
7. Bowling Green
8. TCU
9. Southern Mississippi
10. Rice

Saturday night's pseudo-epic with Notre Dame stirred only the big red corpuscles in Nebraskans' blood. Looked at objectively, it was more of the same.

The Huskers, No. 8 in this week's Power Poll, slept walked through the second half of a 27-10 victory. It looked like they could have named their score after going up 27-3 at halftime.

"With the lead we had, we came out and we were running the ball trying to eat up some clock at the beginning of the second," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "It just seemed to make sense not to try to get too fancy or too exotic."

Against a Notre Dame team that inexplicably didn't come to play, the tactics made sense. But viewed another way, the second half looked more like Notre Dame waking up than Nebraska playing 30 minutes of prevent defense. Bob Davie's schizophrenic offense -- does it want to pass, run, be balanced? -- was more of a factor than Nebraska's defense.

That's why we still have many, many questions about the Huskers. Questions, that we still might be asking on Jan. 3 in Pasadena.

Never has a Nebraska team been set up better for a championship run. The Huskers ended up with eight home games. Eight. Now that Notre Dame has fallen, Nebraska won't be challenged again until Oklahoma comes to town on Oct. 27.

When that game rolls around, don't be surprised if Nebraska is ranked No. 1 or 2. In this age of parity, the No. 5 Huskers will benefit from the usual upsets.

The Huskers have a serviceable running game. The offensive line had been inconsistent until Saturday night. I-back Dahrran Diedrick runs hard but straight. There is nothing, though, to rival the power running game of the past. Eric Crouch is just dangerous enough (6-of-9 passing, 31 yards rushing) to keep his Heisman candidacy alive.

Nebraska gained only 270 yards, its second lowest total since at least 1999.

Dahhran Diedrick has the kind of solid skills to make Nebraska a contender. 
Dahhran Diedrick has the kind of solid skills to make Nebraska a contender.(AP) 

The defense is nothing special considering it hasn't faced a quarterback yet who can audible his way out of a McDonald's drive-thru. That will change. Nate Hybl, while not Josh Heupel, has a monstrous defense to back him up. Kansas State looks like it is at least the equal of the Huskers after an impressive road victory at Southern California.

Colorado is already looking forward to Nebraska's visit on Nov. 23. The Buffs are smarting from two near-upsets the past two meetings.

But the only other road trips are to Missouri, Baylor and Kansas. Whoever made this schedule -- Solich, athletic director Bill Byrne -- ought to be handed the BCS medal of honor because the road is clear for at least a BCS at-large berth.

Just remember this is not a vintage Nebraska team. Not yet. With this schedule, it can afford to learn on the fly and believe the hype inscribed on its schedule poster.

Run for the Roses.

Bulldogs in the Valley?

Now that Fresno State has officially established itself as a BCS bowl threat, the question needs to be asked: What BCS bowl is going to take on the feel-good story of the season?

The answer is not easy. If Fresno, 3-0 after a victory at Wisconsin, finishes in the top six of the BCS poll, it will earn at least a BCS at-large berth. Most likely the Bulldogs will have to finish 13-0, winning their final 10 games.

But the hardest part of the schedule is over -- forcing the big four bowl directors (Fiesta, Rose, Orange, Sugar) to at least discuss what to do with Fresno. And you'd better believe it has been discussed.

The most likely spot for the Bulldogs is the Fiesta Bowl. It is close to the West Coast, and Fresno State travels well. We're talking Kansas State-like numbers. Twenty thousand or so would make the trip to Tempe.

The problem is the Fiesta is more or less anchored to the Pac-10 and Big 12 champions this season. Virtually the only way a spot opens up close to home for the Bulldogs is if one or both of those champions finish high enough to play in the Rose Bowl. Considering the starts by Oregon and Oklahoma, that's a possibility.

But short of that, Fresno most probably will have to play thousands of miles away in New Orleans or South Florida. We're seeing why the BCS commissioners wanted to make it so hard for non-BCS interlopers to qualify for one of their bowls.

In the above scenario, Fresno State would be like the fly in the punch bowl more than an underdog in a BCS bowl. The WAC champion playing in the bosom of SEC football? An already financially strapped Orange Bowl trying to sell Fresno State?

The bowls might have to deal with it. Fresno is on the fast track because, unlike Marshall and Tulane of years past, voters want to rank it high. Those undefeated Thundering Herd and Green Wave teams played unimpressive schedules.

The Bulldogs will reach the top six because they have gone out and sought to play Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin. By the time the first BCS poll debuts in mid-October, the Bulldogs are likely to be in the top 10. It won't matter that the remaining WAC schedule includes games against Tulsa, Boise State, Rice and Hawaii.

"We've still got 10 games; it's a long season," Fresno coach Pat Hill said. "But if we keep winning, maybe we could get ourselves in a position where we get to play in a big game.

"That would be a great story."

In other words, the feel-good story of the season will still feel good in November.

Sunshine of their love

Once again, there's no reason to leave the state of Florida on Saturday to get a handle on the college football scene. Can you say showdowns?

Tennessee at Florida: The Vols are in no shape to win in Gainesville for the first time since 1971. The Gators are hitting on all cylinders. Chalk up another SEC East title.

Georgia Tech at Florida State: The Yellow Jackets tuned up for the trip to Tallahassee by sneaking by Navy by 63. Florida State's Chris Rix provided the highlight of the young season with his somersault into the end zone for a touchdown against Alabama-Birmingham.

Washington at Miami: The Huskies were the only thing that kept Miami out of the national championship game last year. How sweet it would be for the 'Canes to get revenge.

Scoping the nation

  • As is usually the case, the pickings tend to get slim near the bottom of the Non-BCS top 10. The pretenders start to filter out. The contenders are hitting their heads against that glass ceiling that keeps them out of the BCS. But Rice deserves special mention at No. 10 in the Non-BCS ratings this week. After defeating Duke 15-13, the Owls have started 2-0 for the first time since 1991 and only the second time in the last 28 years. Typically, Ken Hatfield's bunch played gutsy. They scored touchdowns on the opening possession of each half and then hung on. Rice was outgained 328-270 but stopped the Blue Devils on a late two-point conversion try. Rice's victories have come over rival Houston and Duke, which lost for the 14th consecutive time. That's the longest streak in I-A. How much Rice can college football stomach? Let's just say the banquet ends this week. The Owls travel to Nebraska for one of those pat-'em-on-the-head, nuke-'em-back-to-the-Stone-Age routes. At least that's what the menu says.
  • The biggest upset of the day was not Fresno over Wisconsin, it was South Florida over Pittsburgh. The Bulls, in their first year in I-A, ran out to a 28-7 lead and beat the Panthers 35-26. With Biletnikoff Award winner Antonio Bryant on the sidelines, South Florida receiver DeAndrew Rubin might have announced himself as the best receiver in the country. Rubin caught 11 passes for 144 yards. In two games he has 14 catches for 265 yards. Rubin played most of the game with a turf toe injury suffered in the second quarter. "He could hardly walk," coach Jim Leavitt said. But Rubin did catch a short slant pass that turned into a 53-yard gain setting up the Bulls' clinching touchdown. Conference USA might want to reconsider waiting until admitting South Florida in 2003. It seems ready now.
  • Iowa has grabbed control of the early MAC lead beating Kent State and Miami (Ohio) in its first two games.
  • Central Michigan's James King tied an NCAA record by blocking four punts against Michigan State. Two were returned for touchdowns.
  • Thank the recruiting coordinator for Washington's Omar Lowe. The Huskies defensive back's two touchdowns were the difference in the Washington's 23-18 victory over Michigan. Lowe returned a blocked field goal 77 yards, then returned a John Navarre interception 21 yards for a touchdown. The rest of the "offense" generated only 268 yards and no touchdowns for the Huskies.
  • It's amazing how much hype some of the mid-level SEC games receive, but South Carolina's 14-9 victory at Georgia was huge for Lou Holtz and the Gamecocks. Phil Petty's touchdown pass with 1:22 left boosted South Carolina to their biggest victory in the Holtz era. Holtz said before the season that sustaining the excellence produced in last year's 8-4 season was the key. In three short seasons, Holtz has gotten the Gamecocks (2-0) competitive -- for the long term.
  • Falling: Big Ten -- again. Two powers, Wisconsin and Michigan, get nicked. Indiana gets embarrassed.
  • Rising: Pac-10. The Left Coast boys go 8-2. Only Southern California (to Kansas State) and Cal (to BYU) lost.

 

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