September 7, 2007

Olin's Mailbag: Reason for hope

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. This week he heads to the Heartland for the big Miami-Oklahoma game.
Previous mailbags
August 31: Bull market
August 24: Fight at the top
August 17: Dreams of youth
August 11: The cost of losing

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon. In November that year, South Carolina clinched its first football conference championship.

Thus the startling realization that man walked on the moon before the Gamecocks could win a championship.

Perhaps even more startling is that after '69, Americans walked on the moon five more times before apparently losing interest in lunar strolls, but the Gamecocks - who traditionally enter the field to the theme of "2001: A Space Odyssey" - haven't won another football title.

"The history (at South Carolina) is not that super-duper," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said last month. "In '69 South Carolina won the ACC. That's the only championship in 110 years of football."

At least part of that can be explained away by noting that in 1971, South Carolina left the Atlantic Coast Conference and competed as an independent before joining the Southeastern Conference in 1992.

In those 21 years, South Carolina endured eight losing seasons and managed more than eight victories just once - in 1984, when a loss to Navy (Navy?) prevented them from a first-ever No. 1 ranking.

But Spurrier has given Gamecocks fans hope. Last season, he led South Carolina to an 8-5 finish that included a Liberty Bowl victory over Houston - just the fourth bowl triumph in school history. This season, he has been outspoken about South Carolina's ambition of winning the SEC.

"We've raised our goals this year," Spurrier said. "We're going to try to win the conference. We felt like we've really increased our talent level at South Carolina. We feel our talent level is good enough now we should say, 'Hey, let's go try to win our conference championship.' "

Normally, that might seem overly ambitious for South Carolina, but when one of the most successful coaches in college football history says it, you have to listen.

South Carolina fans certainly did, and they've looked forward to this season more than any in recent memory. Could this really be the season the Gamecocks shoot for the moon? Or are they destined to just be left seeing stars again?

Let's check this week's mailbag for answers.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
First-things-first

Will South Carolina compete for the SEC championship this year?

Matt in Dillon, SC
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Compete? Yes. Contend? We'll see.

Gamecocks fans should take a first-things-first approach and aim for winning the SEC East. Actually, they should aim for beating their first SEC East opponent, which is Georgia on Saturday in Athens.

Last season, Georgia shut out South Carolina 18-0 in Columbia when the Gamecocks missed out on three scoring opportunities. Quarterback Blake Mitchell fumbled while trying to sneak across the goal line, South Carolina turned the ball over on downs at Georgia's 2 and kicker Ryan Succop hit the upright on a 51-yard field-goal attempt.

Mitchell - who returns from a one-game suspension - needs to play well and the Gamecocks must be able to run the ball, which they couldn't do against Georgia a year ago. Their defense must contain Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, who figures to emerge as one of the nation's premier passers this season.

The Gamecocks can beat Georgia if they do that. And if they beat Georgia, then, yes, they can contend for the SEC East championship.

As far as contending for the SEC title that will be determined in two weeks when they travel to LSU.

It could have been worse

I understand that Notre Dame just got whipped at home, but there were some positives. Do you see Jimmy Clausen and the other impact freshmen having a bigger role in the game Saturday against Penn State? What do you think the difference in the game will be?

Jimmie in Atlanta
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Believe it or not, there were indeed some positives for the Irish in last week's 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech.

The margin could have been much worse. The defense forced Tech to settle for close-range field goals on its first three scores. Clausen completed four of the six passes he attempted, so that's cause for encouragement for all Domers.

Clausen's role already has increased now that he has been named the starter. His bruise count probably will, too, against a stingy Penn State defense that posted seven sacks against Florida International last week.

The Nittany Lions defense will prove the difference in Notre Dame's second consecutive defeat.

Chalk talk

Some people picked Kansas to lose against Central Michigan last week. After the Jayhawks' 52-7 rout, do you think they have a shot at being a legit team in the Big 12 North?

Kraft in Kansas
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Hey, I'll admit to Kansas fans everywhere that I was among those that picked against the Jayhawks last week. Kansas' pass defense ranked last in the nation in 2006, and the Jayhawks started a true freshman cornerback against CMU quarterback Dan LeFevour, who threw for 3,031 yards last season.

So what happens? LeFevour gets sacked twice, passes for just 172 yards and one touchdown, and new Jayhawks starter Todd Reesing goes 20-of-29 for 261 yards and four touchdowns.

Remember, Kansas posted six victories last season and was tantalizingly close to a big year. A weak pass defense was largely responsible for a second-half crash in a loss to Oklahoma State and in fourth-quarter collapses in losses to Texas A&M and Baylor.

If Kansas has indeed bolstered its pass defense, then anything is possible. Wake Forest proved that last season and Appalachian State proved that last week. But please allow me to reserve judgment on the Jayhawks until they open Big 12 play on Oct. 6 at Kansas State.

Going south

What is up with Nebraska's lack of press in the Big 12 championship chase? First, the media picks Missouri to win the North (would be shocked if that happened). Second, it seems that they are all but giving the league title to Oklahoma or Texas. Nebraska is not mentioned even though they basically gave the win to Texas last year with a less-talented Huskers squad. I think this year's team will give any team in the South Division a run for their money. Where's the love?

Chad in Omaha
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Rivals.com picked Nebraska to win the Big 12 North. The media from cities that cover the Big 12 on a daily basis picked Missouri.

As far as doubting the North Division, the South Division representative has won four of the past five conference championships, including the past three. And the North team has scored a combined 13 points in the past three championship games.

While it is true Nebraska appeared to have Texas beaten last season, the Huskers still found a way to lose - in Lincoln, no less. Does that speak well or poorly for them?

Also, the assertion that Nebraska is more talented this season is up for debate. Clearly, the Huskers should be better offensively with tailback Marlon Lucky emerging, wide receiver Maurice Purify returning from suspension and quarterback Sam Keller a proven passer. But the defense lost its entire front four. Is the Huskers' defense better without ends Adam Carriker and Jay Moore?

Let's play devil's advocate and assume Nebraska is more talented than it was last season. Can't the same be said for Oklahoma, which beat the Huskers in the Big 12 championship game last season? There should be no doubt about that, especially if redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Bradford proves he can handle the demands of running that team. Based on his performance in the Sooners' opener - 350 passing yards by halftime - it appears he can.

Not upsetting

One of the TV experts said he expects an upset (Boise State over Washington). What? I know the game is at Washington and Washington has improved, but wouldn't Boise be favored? Who do you pick and why?

Loren in Seattle
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Boise State is a three-point favorite, so it certainly wouldn't - or shouldn't - be considered an upset if the Broncos win Saturday in Seattle.

Playing at home is an advantage, and Huskies quarterback Jake Locker had an impressive first week. UW tailback Louis Rankin was terrific. But keep in mind Washington was playing lowly Syracuse, so that's not exactly a signal to expect a throwback to the Don James era.

Still, Washington's 42-12 victory over the Orange was more impressive than Boise State's 56-7 season-opening victory over Weber State if for no other reason the Huskies were playing a Division I-A opponent.

The Huskies may be significantly improved from last season's team that finished 5-7, and Boise State - even with the return of tailback Ian Johnson - won't be as good as its undefeated team of '06. But I still think the Broncos win.

Electric Bear

Is DeSean Jackson from Cal the premier game-breaker in college football?

Louis in Las Vegas
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Anyone who saw Jackson's 77-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee probably would think so. I was in the stadium when he broke off that run, and I was certainly impressed.

It was the sixth punt-return touchdown in his career, which is more than most programs get in six years. He also had four catches for 45 yards and a 21-yard run on an end-around.

Jackson's impact doesn't always show up in the box score - at least not affixed to his name. He often draws double-coverage, which puts Lavelle Hawkins or Robert Jordan in man-to-man situations. And his mere presence can give punters the yips. Tennessee's Britton Colquitt is one of the nation's best punters, but when trying to kick away from Jackson, Colquitt shanked a punt for 13 yards late in the first half. Given good field position, Cal was able to get a field goal just before halftime.

Does that make Jackson the nation's most dangerous game-breaker? Perhaps. But the supporters of Arkansas' Darren McFadden, West Virginia's Steve Slaton or Rutgers' Ray Rice probably have a different point of view.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.



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