Surprise teams bring new perspective

Rutgers, Wake Forest, Missouri, Washington are gaining attention

National notebook

September 29, 2006|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,Sun reporter

Programs of faded glory like Missouri and Washington are trying to regain prominence while traditional weaklings like Rutgers and Wake Forest have emerged as the season enters its league races.

The Tigers and Scarlet Knights, both 4-0, enter this weekend as the 25th and 23rd ranked teams in the country, respectively. Meanwhile, the 4-0 Demon Deacons and 3-1 Huskies are on the cusp of a spot in the poll.

Washington and Wake Forest went a combined 6-16 last year. Missouri and Rutgers made bowl games last year, but neither was expected to climb in the polls this year.

Excitement might be strongest in Piscataway, N.J., where the Scarlet Knights' ranking is the program's first since 1976. They're ranked fifth nationally in total defense, and on offense, Ray Rice is averaging 151 yards per game and fullback Brian Leonard has 40 career touchdowns.

"If you keep winning, the buzz will continue," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "If you don't, the buzz will go away."

Missouri and coach Gary Pinkel are quite familiar with the ebbing of good vibes. The Tigers entered the 2004 season ranked No. 18, and lost to Troy in Week 2.

With the nation's No. 1 defense and eighth-ranked offense, and 16 players returning from last year's 7-5 team, Missouri is trying to maintain composure.

"I'm not going to sit here and act like we don't think we should be ranked," Tigers cornerback Domonique Johnson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But if you don't go out and prove it every week, then why be ranked?

Handicapping the major conference surprises:

Rutgers -- The Scarlet Knights will still have the softest schedule from here, but three straight road trips - to South Florida tomorrow, followed by Navy and Pittsburgh - will tell the tale.

Missouri -- Tough to get a read on the Tigers of the up-for-grabs Big 12 North. Kansas State seems to be the only remaining sure win. Mizzou's season will likely be judged by November trips to Nebraska and Iowa State.

Wake Forest -- Of the four toughest teams on the Deacons' schedule down the stretch - Clemson, Boston College, Florida State and Virginia Tech - three of the games will be played at home.

Washington -- Might be the strongest of the group - visible to anyone who saw the game at Oklahoma - but might be the least likely to get into a major bowl, facing trips to USC, California and Oregon.

Vanderbilt by 34

Not every day brings a football game in which a 1-3 Vanderbilt team is favored to win by five touchdowns.

The day comes tomorrow, when the Commodores host the doormat's doormat, Temple.

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson expressed disdain for the odds, to a point.

"I've never looked at them or cared about them," Johnson said. "But I'm hoping they're right."

Although the margin says a lot about the Owls and their 16-game losing streak, it's also a sign of progress for the Commodores, who finished 5-6 after a decade of seasons with three victories or fewer.

Richt's depth

Controversy ensues at most programs when the reserve quarterback needs to relieve the starter, and ends up winning the game.

Not so in Athens, Ga., where Joe Cox subbed for struggling freshman Matthew Stafford and led two scoring drives in Georgia's 14-13 win over Colorado.

To have two talented quarterbacks is nothing new for Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, who was able to have heralded D.J. Shockley sit behind David Greene for three years before Shockley took over last year.

Cox and Stafford will play tomorrow at Mississippi. In an ESPN interview, Richt advised the players to "just focus on your job and work on what you do." christian.ewell@baltsun.com

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