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A LESSON IN WHY THEY PLAY THE GAMES
September 15, 2011

SCS.com Of the many compelling stories that are starting to develop in the first two weeks of the college football season, the disparate results at Notre Dame and Auburn stand out. Notre Dame has one of the worst turnover margins in the country, and this stands at 0-2 despite thoroughly outplaying their first two opponents for most of the games. Meanwhile, defending national champion Auburn has pulled two rabbits out of the hat in keeping the longest winning steak in college football going. Looking at these teams coming into the season, Auburn lost so much that it looked like bowl eligibility would be a tough task. In South Bend hopes were high as coach Brian Kelly had succeeded wildly in his second season at every coaching stop before Notre Dame. Yet the Irish are 0-2 and the Tigers are 2-0, leaving many to wonder what magic Gene Chizik has that Brian Kelly does not. With big games for each team coming up against Michigan State and Clemson, this is the time to figure out what needs to change for each program to do better.

When Gene Chizik was 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State and seemed to be a head-scratching hire for Auburn when they brought him on before the 2009 season. However, Chizik walked into a good situation with a solid class of juniors in 2009 recruited by Tommy Tuberville ready to improve dramatically from the 5-7 record in 2008. Although Auburn struggled to a 3-5 finish in conference play in 2009, most prognosticators has Auburn doing well last year thanks to a favorable schedule and the emergence of a rock solid offense. When transfer Cam Newton came into the picture, all of a sudden a great offense went into overdrive, which more than made up for any lapses on the defensive side of the ball. Nick Fairley also helped on the defensive front as the most dominant defensive lineman in the country, forcing some big mistakes at critical times. Auburn swept to a 14-0 record despite being in the SEC, and Chizik looked like a genius. This past season became even more impressive when pro scouts realized that only Fairley and Newton had true pro caliber talent on that team. To win a SEC championship and BCS title with little pro talent, Chizik had to work wonders a season ago. Yet everyone doubted him again with only 6 starters coming back total.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame fans were fired up with excitement when Brian Kelly ditched another program he turned into a success (Cincinnati) for South Bend in 2010. Notre Dame had slipped to a middling 6-6 type of team under Charlie Weis, which was not acceptable considering the talent Notre Dame commands. The Irish lost two heartbreaking games against Michigan and Michigan State in the first three weeks last season, so the 8-5 finish could have easily been 10-2 or 9-3. Thus, with 17 starters coming back for this season, many picked Notre Dame as a darkhorse national title contender, thanks in large part to the similarities with Auburn a year prior (second year coach, 8-5 record the year before, tons of starters returning, a mostly favorable schedule). However, a quarterback contorversy continued from a season ago and the Irish made a habit of turning the ball over in the red zone against USF and Michigan. Even with all the turnovers, both games were lost by a combined total of 6 points. The offense is there, and outside of another mental breakdown in the fourth quarter against Denard Robinson, the defense seems to be there as well. Yet Notre Dame sits at 0-2 and the folks in South Bend are beginning to get antsy about Brian Kelly. Where did his magic go?

By all rights and means, Auburn should probably be 0-2. The Tigers needed an onside kick and two late touchdowns to beat Utah State, and then relied on a big goal line stand to defeat Mississippi State. Chizik and his young team may be in for a rude awakening when SEC play begins, but the same magic that has Auburn on a 16 game winning streak may just continue thanks to the coaching prowess of Chizik. Meanwhile, Brian Kelly will need to figure out how to inspire his players, especially his quarterbacks and his defense. When he coached at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, both teams played poor defense but made up for it by great offense. Once again, a parallel can be drawn to Auburn, although the Tigers do play slightly better defense on the whole. The panic may just be too premature considering the turnovers, as Notre Dame could end up finishing with 9 or 10 wins if those problems disappear. However, in order to win a national title that the Golden Domers so badly desire, Kelly will need to find out how to coach defense better or bring in the right assistants for those jobs. Until that happens, Auburn will continue to win more games than Notre Dame, just simply on coaching.

If nothing else, both of these teams have proven that we play the games for the unexpected results and for the joys of watching teams develop over the course of the season. Auburn and Notre Dame may be on different sides of the ledger now, but both could continue to win this season and may end up in comparable bowl games at the end of the season. However, this week will give more perspective as Clemson and Michigan State may both be legitimate favorites against Auburn and Notre Dame, respectively. Irish fans may disagree, but watching Auburn the past two weeks and watching Notre Dame - Michigan have been the highlights of the early season. One can only hope that the biggest teams continue to get stern tests and close games to keep us all on the edge of our seats. After all, they play the game because every team has a chance to beat anybody on any given week.

This week brings a lot of road tests for national championship contenders and other ranked teams. The third week of the season is when most intersectional big non-conference games occur because it is a nice ramp up to conference play. Fans benefit because they get a big game against an unusual opponent. Sportswriters benefit because these games give us a measuring stick and a dose of perspective on many of the major teams. LSU played at Mississippi State on Thursday night in a huge SEC road test. Boise State heads across the country to face a much better than expected Toledo team that pushed Ohio State to the brink a week ago. Oklahoma goes to Florida State in a battle of top 5 teams. Michigan State heads to South Bend, where the home team is desperate for a win. Ohio State heads across the country to play Miami, and West Virginia gets a tough road opener at Maryland. Even lower in the rankings, quality games are there including Auburn and Clemson, Arizona State at Illinois, and Texas at UCLA. Each of these games has serious upset potential and will be important games for figuring out the national championship chase in a couple of months.

Turning to the games of the week, the first game of the week is another SEC East showdown as Tennessee heads to Florida for an early rekindling of their rivalry. Tennessee has not fared well in the past few years, as Urban Meyer never lost to the Volunteers in building a current six game winning streak. But now new coaches Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp will set a new course for this series, one in which Tennessee could be more successful. Each team has feasted on weaker opposition the first two weekends, although Tennessee's win against cincinnati could get better as the season goes along if the Bearcats do well. Each team ranks in the top 25 in offensive yards thus far, but each team is doing it far differently. For Tennessee, the Volunteers have racked up 368 passing yards per game behind sophomore QB Tyler Bray. Despite that early success, the Volunteers will need senior tailback Tauren Poole to have a big game to keep the Tennessee defense off the field and rested. Meanwhile, Florida has rushed for nearly 250 yards per game in their first two games, led by senior running back Chris Rainey. Rainey could be the star of this game as Tennessee had some minor trouble against Cincinnati's offensive front last weekend. If this game were in Knoxville, the Gators might fold under the road game pressure. However, the Swamp will be a tough assignment for a still young Volunteers team. Despite a good performance, Florida notches another win in the series with a 4 point margin.

The second game of the week is Michigan State at Notre Dame. Despite Notre Dame bringing down my own personal game of the week picks after missing on them the first two weeks, here the Irish stand again with another opportunity to prove me wrong. Kirk Cousins has been a solid game manager against weak competition with 200 plus passing yards per game to date. His favorite target BJ Cunningham should have a big day against a Notre Dame defense subject to big holes in the defensive backfield. Notre Dame should bring pressure more readily now that they face a less mobile quarterback than BJ Daniels and Denard Robinson. Tommy Rees will get the start again for the Irish, and Brian Kelly appears to have finally picked his man for the quarterback job. As good as Cunningham is for the Spartans, Michael Floyd is even better for Notre Dame (over 300 yards receiving and two touchdowns already). Michigan State's defense has feasted on poor passing games the first two weekends, but a road trip to face a much more efficient offense will be a true test of how well Michigan State has kept the strong defense from a season ago. As long as Michigan State gets a couple of turnovers, they should be able to win. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, that will happen and Michigan State will escape with a tough 10 point win.

The top game of the week is unquestionably Florida State hosting Oklahoma. Some experts have floated the idea that this could be a preview of the BCS Championship, but we have never yet seen a rematch of a regular season game in the BCS championship. Furthermore, neither team appears to have the killer schedule necessary to overcome an undefeated or one loss SEC team with a one loss record. Thus, this game appears to be an elimination game for the national title. Oklahoma has struggled mightily on the road, especially against quality teams. Oklahoma is well rested after an opening weekend win against Tulsa where the Sooners racked up 660 yards of offense. QB Landry Jones threw all over the Seminoles defense in Norman last year, and the Seminoles defense will be looking to prove they have improved a ton over last year in this marquee match up. Meanwhile, EJ Manuel has been a steady performer at quarterback the first two weeks for Florida State, but he will not be able to afford interceptions this week. FSU has also struggled to get the running game going well against overmatched competition, so Oklahoma's defense may force the Seminoles to become one-dimensional. considering how poorly Oklahoma plays away from home, this is a huge trap game that could vault Florida State back into the national championship chase for the first time in nearly a decade. Florida State has nothing to lose here in all reality, so expect a strong effort from the underdog home team. However, Oklahoma will find a way to escape Tallahassee with a 7 point win.

Other Games of the Week - Week 2

(3) LSU def. (25) Mississippi State
(4) Boise State def. Toledo
(2) Alabama def. North Texas
(6) Stanford def. Arizona
(7) Wisconsin def. Northern Illinois
(8) Oklahoma State def. Tulsa
(9) Texas A&M def. Idaho
(10) South Carolina def. Navy
(11) Nebraska def. Washington
(12) Oregon def. Missouri State
(13) Virginia Tech def. Arkansas State
(14) Arkansas def. Troy
Miami def. (17) Ohio State
Maryland def. (18) West Virginia
(19) Baylor def. SF Austin
(20) South Florida def. Florida A&M
Clemson def. (21) Auburn
Illinois def. (22) Arizona State
(23) TCU def. LA monroe
UCLA def. (23) Texas

2011 GOTW Record: 3-3
Last Week: 2-1
2011 Overall Top 25 Record: 36-8
Last Week: 17-4

Fitz Top 10 - Week 2

1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Boise State
5. Florida State
6. Wisconsin
7. Oklahoma State
8. Texas A&M
9. Virginia Tech
10. Nebraska

Just Missed: South Carolina, Stanford, Arkansas, Michigan State, Ohio State

So that's all for week 2 and we begin week three with a couple of big Thursday night and Friday night show downs. Expect some wild games with many ranked teams headed on the road for big games right before conference play begins. Will the Big Ten rebound from a poor weekend? Can the SEC remain dominant against the rest of the country? Will other conferences step up to make a national championship contender? So many questions should find the beginnings of answers over the weekend. Thanks for reading and we will see you next week!

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