BNN: USC, SEC headline early contenders

Tim Richer

After just three weeks of the college football season, several teams have emerged as title contenders while several others have fallen off the map. Led by high-powered offenses, the always-powerful Southeastern Conference and a few non-BCS schools, the Top 25 has already begun to take shape.

Fight On!

The near consensus for the No. 1 team in the country is the Trojans of Southern California. After starting out the year by crushing a weak Virginia team, USC legitimized its standing by embarrassing No. 5 Ohio State 35-3 last weekend in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

The strength of this Trojan team lies in a defense that is considered by many to be the best in the country. After giving up only 10 points in its first two games, All-American linebacker Rey Maualuga and crew are confirming analysts’ beliefs.

In addition to its dominant defense, Southern Cal supports an explosive offense with Heisman hopefuls at quarterback (Mark Sanchez) and running back (Joe McKnight). Sanchez currently ranks among the college leaders after just two games with 510 passing yards and seven touchdown passes. McKnight adds to the offensive punch with an impressive 9.2 yards per carry out of the backfield.

With its threatening presence on both sides of the ball, in addition to a very weak Pacific-10 schedule, USC is a favorite to go undefeated and compete in the National Title game.

Pirate Power

No team has been a bigger surprise in the ’08 season than the upstart East Carolina Pirates. The No. 15 Pirates, hailing from Conference USA, are currently one of three non-BCS schools in the Top 25. It is also the first time in nine years that the Pirates have found themselves in the rankings.

Beginning the season unranked, ECU jumped onto the national radar by defeating then-No. 17 Virginia Tech in Charlotte on a dramatic blocked punt that led to a touchdown in the final minutes of the game. Eastern Carolina followed up the effort by hosting No. 8 West Virginia. Despite the common belief that ECU would falter after the upset win the previous week, the Pirates handled the Mountaineers with ease, winning by a score of 24-3. The game was the first time since 2001 that the Mountaineers’ powerful offense was held without a touchdown.

Leading the consistent Pirates offense is senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney, who holds a 75.9 completion percentage along with four touchdowns and a 160.95 quarterback rating in just three games. The running attack has also been a force, featuring the two-headed monster of senior Brandon Simmons and sophomore Jonathan Williams. The combo has combined for 259 yards and four touchdowns thus far.

ECU did finally suffer a letdown after vaulting into the rankings in week three; however,, it still pulled out a fourth-quarter comeback against Tulane to preserve its spot in the Top 25. Should they avoid faltering again, the Pirates have a legitimate shot to steal a bid in a BCS bowl game.

Big East Woes

What started out as a promising year from the Big East has turned sour quickly. The conference began the ’08 season with three teams in the Associated Press Top 25 and three more receiving votes. Three weeks into the season, only two teams remain ranked with one more receiving votes.

The lone bright spot of the Big East has been No. 12-ranked South Florida, who is coming off a big home win against No. 19 Kansas. The Bulls, led by standout junior quarterback Matt Grothe, are currently the only team in the conference to be higher in the polls than they began the season. With the toughest part of the season behind them, South Florida has a chance to run the table. Its biggest matchup of the season will be a season-ending game against West Virginia in Morgantown in December.

The biggest disappointment in the East so far probably goes to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Rutgers, which began the year on the brink of the Top 25, has worked its way into trouble by getting blown-out twice at home. The latest defeat was a 32-point loss to North Carolina, which had not which a non-conference road game since 2005.

While most BCS conferences are known for playing cupcake schedules and piling up the non-conference wins, the Big East has struggled against similar foes. After three weeks in the ’08 season, the conference’s overall record stands at 10-9 between the eight teams with a .526 winning percentage. The Big East percentage is the lowest out of the six BCS conferences.

SEC Dominance

As usual, the Southeastern Conference has established itself as the strongest in all of college football. The SEC currently holds five schools in the Top 25 with Georgia, Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn all contending for a National Title.

Headlining the conference’s hefty stature is the reigning National Champion Florida Gators and Heisman winner Tim Tebow. Tebow and company have yet to disappoint, with blowout victories over Hawaii and Miami (Fl.). With a trip to No. 24 Florida State in addition to its brutal SEC schedule still waiting ahead, Urban Meyer’s crew has a tough road to travel.

Joining the Gators as the top title contenders are the Georgia Bulldogs, who began the season as a preseason No. 1. Despite being displaced by the mighty Trojans, the Dawgs, led by All-American running back Knowshon Moreno, still sit in prime position to compete for a title. The question still remains as to whether or not Georgia, or any other team in the SEC, can make it out alive after playing each team in the conference.