Let's hear it for Bo Pelini and Nebraska. The Huskers are 3-0, exactly where most pundits thought they would be, and confidence has been built in easy victories over Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State.
Now, the reckoning hour is here. Virginia Tech is headed to Lincoln on Saturday, and the tenor of the season will be set by the outcome. A win could send the Big Red to a better-than-expected season. A loss – especially a blowout – could put the Huskers into a funk with Missouri coming to town next.
So, what do we really know about Pelini's first Huskers team? The offense has been as good as expected, showing great balance in ranking 20th in the nation (450.3 ypg). Nebraska's defense also has made huge strides, especially against the run (77.7 ypg, 18th in the nation). Still, Virginia Tech – even with its offensive problems – is a major upgrade in competition for Nebraska, which was off last Saturday.
I talked off the record to a coach who already has coached against Nebraska this year. Here are his thoughts:
"I like the quarterback (Joe Ganz) a lot. He's a heck of a kid. But they can't run the ball. (Marlon) Lucky is good, and he runs good routes. But they really can't run the ball. The line has that mentality of throw, throw, throw (from the old coaching staff). And it's hard to change that mind-set quickly and become a running team overnight. Bo (Pelini) wants to run the ball, but they aren't there yet. It may come after seven or eight games. Or it may not come until the spring. The passing game? They can't just drop back and throw it. Most of their big passing plays come off play-action.
"On defense, I wasn't that impressed. They are big up front, but there isn't much of a pass rush. Bo is trying to scheme them up. He's a big schemer. They came at us with a lot of different blitzes and stunts. I think the DBs are average. I will say the kid they moved from running back to linebacker (Cody Glenn) is a player. He's good. I think this defense will struggle to play in space."
• Earlier this month, John L. Smith visited Utah State. Hmmm. Was he there just too say "hello" to old friends? Or were he and the school kicking around the idea of Smith returning as Aggies coach? Smith was coach at Utah State from 1995-97, posting a 16-18 record before taking the Louisville job. As Aggies coach, Smith led the school to two co-championships in the old Big West Conference. But Smith turns 60 in November. Whether Smith is a candidate for the job or not, current Utah State coach Brent Guy looks in jeopardy.
• Don't be shocked if Montana coach Bobby Hauck becomes a hot coaching commodity. Hauck was 52-14 in five seasons at Montana entering this season, taking the Grizzlies to the FCS playoffs each season. His 2004 team played for the title. Hauck, 44, was an assistant to Rick Neuheisel at Colorado (1995-98) and Washington (1999-02) before landing the Montana job. Montana (3-0) has won 24 consecutive regular-season games. An interesting side note: Hauck replaced Joe Glenn when Glenn left to take the Wyoming job. Now, Glenn finds his job in Laramie in peril. Could Hauck replace him again?
• Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin could be on the market, as it appears owner Al Davis isn't smitten with the second-year coach. Kiffin, 33, was hired off Pete Carroll's staff at USC after developing a reputation as a master recruiter. Kiffin was USC's offensive coordinator his last two years there. He interviewed for the Minnesota job that went to Tim Brewster.
GRADING THE "BIG SIX"
Did your school – and conference – pass last week?
THREE QUESTIONS WITH .... NORTH CAROLINA OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN SHOOP
What part of your offense has pleased you the most?
We run a pro-style offense. We are trying to run the ball and be physical. We can make explosive plays and get some deep balls. Our wide receivers have been most productive for us. Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate have been outstanding.
What area of your offense would you like to see improve?
We think we can get more out of our tight ends and running backs. We aren't unhappy with what they've done. We just think we can get more out of them. We are playing better situational football, but we are looking for (tight ends) Richard Quinn and Zack Pianalto, and (running backs) Greg Little and Shaun Draughn to produce more.
What has impressed you about your quarterbacks?
They understand and know that what we do on first down impacts what we do on second and third down. They know what's expected of them on every play. We have been good at getting conflicts of assignment (against defenses). We don't have to pull out the driver on every play. I think Tiger Woods only uses his driver three or four times a round. Our quarterbacks know we have playmaking ability. Big plays will happen. Don't force them.
The only conferences worth watching the rest of the season are the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-10. That's it.
Your interest in the Pac-10 should begin and end with USC's ability to run the table. And the Big 12 has been boiled down to watching two teams: Oklahoma and Missouri. They don't meet, so everyone will be watching to see if both can run the table and meet as unbeatens in the Big 12 Championship Game in Kansas City, Mo. The one wild card is Texas, and the Longhorns get a crack at both schools on consecutive weekends: Oct. 11 vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, and Oct. 18 vs. Missouri in Austin.
That leaves the SEC, the only league with more than two teams that still harbor league title hopes – and even national championship dreams. There's LSU, Alabama, Florida and Georgia in what shapes up as an exciting and drama-filled race to the Atlanta for the SEC title game. And don't forget Auburn, which could crawl back in the hunt. The race could come down to who has the easiest schedule. Here's a look at who plays whom among the five contenders (sorry, Vandy):
• Alabama: at Georgia (Sept. 27); at LSU (Nov. 8); vs. Auburn (Nov. 29).
• Auburn: vs. Georgia (Nov. 15); at Alabama (Nov. 29).
• Florida: vs. LSU (Oct. 11); vs. Georgia (Nov. 1 in Jacksonville).
• Georgia: vs. Alabama (Sept. 27); at LSU (Oct. 25); vs. Florida (Nov. 1 in Jacksonville); at Auburn (Nov. 15).
• LSU: at Florida (Oct. 11); vs. Georgia (Oct. 25); vs. Alabama (Nov. 8).
Who has the easiest road ahead? It's Florida – by far.