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The Kickoff: Freshman ready to star for LSU

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Welcome Freshman

When you have a game featuring the two teams that have accounted for the last three BCS titles, have combined for more than a dozen NFL first-round draft picks this decade, and have played in some of the most thrilling nationally televised games in recent memory, there are more than enough familiar faces involved. Sometimes it feels like LSU senior wideout Brandon LaFell's been in college for 27 years. He hasn't — but he, like his teammate Ciron Black or Florida's Brandon Spikes and Tim Tebow — has played in more big time games than the average college football player could ever possibly dream of. The list of household names on the field Saturday is virtually endless. In addition to Black and LaFell, LSU's Charles Scott, Keiland Williams, Trindon Holiday, Richard Dickson, Harry Coleman, Danny McCray, Rahim Allen, Charles Alexander and Al Woods are all seniors who've been on the radar since they stepped on campus in Baton Rouge. The other sideline — whether Tim Tebow plays or not — is just as loaded with "Oh yeah, I know that guy" names. Spikes, Riley Cooper, David Nelson, Jermaine Cunningham and Ryan Stamper are just a few of the seniors who've "been there, done that" in big time spots for UF. And yet, here we are looking ahead to the biggest game of the college football season — and perhaps the biggest regular-season game played in the past five years — and there's a shot that a player you've likely never heard of could end up being the biggest difference maker in the end. LSU true freshman wideout Rueben Randle, one of the most sought-after high school recruits in the nation in 2008, should be given more than a few opportunities to step up on the grandest of stages on Saturday. He's earned it. In last week's thrilling 20-13 victory over Georgia in Athens, it was the 6-foot-3 Randle who made two of the most important catches of the afternoon. Coming into the game with just one reception in LSU's first four contests, Randle hauled in a crucial 16-yard pass thrown well behind him on third down late in the fourth quarter, and then another big 12-yard reception to keep LSU's drive — and national title hopes — alive. With the game on the line, the LSU coaching staff turned to their true freshman in the clutch. Of the five true freshmen on the Tigers roster, Randle's the only one who has appeared in all five games. Les Miles told reporters that Randle "came of age on the road at Georgia" in his presser this week. Having spent the start of the season buried on the bench behind veteran wideouts like LaFell, Terrance Toliver, Chris Mitchell and R.J. Jackson — Randle emerged as a reliable target when his number was called. "Man, let me tell you Rueben Randle came up big," Toliver said after Saturday's game. "I felt so good seeing him show what he is capable of. Those two catches down the stretch in that drive kept everything running and gave us a lot of momentum. I can't tell you how happy I am for Rueben Randle.
"He has been doing everything he can to learn as much as he can from me and JoJo (LaFell)," Toliver added. "And I knew it was a matter of time before he stepped up and made a big play. That conversion on third and long? That was big." A Louisiana product, Randle chose LSU over national powers Alabama and Oklahoma. He'll be used in various packages on Saturday and could end up being a difference maker down the stretch. Just add him to the list of names to watch for on Saturday evening. Trust me, you'll be hearing his name over and over again in the next few years. Might as well get to know the super frosh now.

All Eyes on You, Jevan

Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead entered the 2009 college football season as a Heisman frontrunner and a 2010 NFL mock draft favorite. Ranked as high, if not higher, on both lists as fellow big time college quarterbacks Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, and Tim Tebow, Snead entered his junior year with some pretty lofty expectations. There were "Snead 4 Heisman" bumper stickers and posters all over the state of Mississippi and his Ole Miss Rebels were ranked in the preseason top 10 for the first time since 1970. Things haven't gone exactly as planned for the junior QB. Ole Miss, at one point ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation, stumbled out of the gates with uninspiring efforts vs. Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana. Snead wasn't Heisman material in either outing. During a bye week, an estimated 30 Ole Miss players came down with the flu. Then, with critics already mumbling about the Rebels' rather curious high poll ranking, the apocalypse hit. Sept. 24, 2009 — a day in history Jevan Snead would likely love to forget. That evening, in front of a nationally televised audience, Snead and his Ole Miss Rebels lost 16-10 to unranked South Carolina. It wasn't your usual Thursday night upset special, though. It was worse. The Ole Miss offense looked inept. Snead looked lost. In one crucial stretch, he missed six straight throws. Every time you thought he would wake up out of the fog and pull a rabbit out of his helmet, Snead came up short. The junior completed just 7 of 21 passes for 107 yards. Not your typical Heisman stat line. Almost immediately following the game, the Rebels were labeled "frauds" by the pundits and their quarterback was written off as "overrated" and "overhyped." The rest of the college football weekend was draped in negative Ole Miss media coverage and over-analysis from the talking heads on the glaring inefficiencies of a poll system that could ever rank such an unproven and unimpressive team so high. Naturally, Snead's Heisman buzz faded completely. His name was scrubbed from the first round of most mock drafts, as well. Ole Miss rebounded last Saturday vs. Vanderbilt. Though still not Heisman material by any means — Snead threw three interceptions — the Ole Miss quarterback was solid. Entering the game having completed just 49.3 percent of his passes and ranked 65th nationally in passing efficiency, the junior connected on 19 of 34 passes for 237 yards and tossed three touchdowns. But no one cares about what you do against Vanderbilt. 'Bama comes to town Saturday. Simply put, it's the biggest game of Jevan Snead's career. Bigger than the Cotton Bowl win last January. Bigger than the victory over undefeated Florida in '08. Beat 'Bama on Saturday and the preseason dreams of an SEC West title — and who knows, perhaps even a national title — are still very much alive. All eyes will be on Snead — and up against an Alabama defense that features five or six future NFL players, two or three of which could end up being selected in the first round of April's draft, it'll be no easy task. The Crimson Tide defense already has 15 sacks on the year. They're ranked second nationally in team defense and have surrendered just 222 yards per game. "We must sustain blocks, they don't stay blocked long," Rebels coach Houston Nutt said of the 'Bama D on Tuesday. "Nobody has blocked them yet. We can't hurt ourselves in any way, illegal procedures, holdings, we can't self-inflict wounds. They're too good, too good." Speaking with reporters this week, Snead said "We have to just come out and execute. "We can't turn the ball over. That's solely on my back. I know what I have to do to get better in that department. It's not just me. It's a team thing. But the turnovers, I can correct that," he said. Snead's Heisman hopes may be all but done, but the opportunity to be an all-time legend in Oxford, Miss. is still very much alive. As for his plummeting NFL Draft stock? That can be salvaged, too. "If it is indeed possible to save Jevan Snead's falling stock in only one game, making quick decisions and throwing accurately to all levels of the field against Nick Saban's talented Crimson Tide defense would be the perfect opportunity to do so," Rob Rang, the Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout, told me earlier this week. "Some of Snead's early troubles this season can be attributed to the loss in talent along the offensive line and receiver from last year. If he is able to compete with an NFL-caliber defense due to his physical tools, he'll stabilize his stock. Beating that defense will require greatly improved poise and recognition, which would lead scouts to actually raising Snead's stock." The future's still bright for Jevan Snead.
It just wouldn't hurt for him to play the game of his life against what might be the best defense in all of college football on Saturday. Good luck with that, kid. The Rebels had their first "closed" practice under Houston Nutt on Tuesday and every Ole Miss student received an email from Houston Nutt encouraging everyone to wear all blue on Saturday. The crowd will be nuts. It's the biggest game being played in Oxford in years. With all eyes on him, I think Snead finds a way and makes it happen. Gimme the Rebels in the upset. And get Snead back on those mock draft boards. The Pick: Ole Miss 20, Alabama 16

An Underappreciated Team out of the Big Ten? I Know, I Know...

One thing is for certain — I've never been accused of being much of a Big Ten guy. Readers have railed against me in recent years for making the case of Florida over Michigan in the BCS race of 2007, for referring to this year's Penn State-Iowa game as a "typical Big Ten snooze fest", and for all but writing off Ohio State as a second-tier national power year after year after BCS bowl-losing year. I'll be the first to tell you — Big Ten football just usually doesn't do it for me. Pam Ward's voice at noon on Saturday usually has a Pavlov's dog reaction with me and my remote control. That reaction is not salivation, though — it's changing the channel as fast as possible to anything else on the tube. And yet, with all that that said, I was surprised to see Wisconsin on the outside looking in of the AP Top 25 poll this week. Wisconsin's win in Minnesota last Saturday — like its recent victories over Fresno State and Michigan State — showed a steely resolve that quite frankly, I wasn't expecting from the Badgers heading into the '09 campaign. Wisconsin's as tough as nails this year. But here they are — a run-heavy, defensive-minded, undefeated Big Ten squad five weeks into the season — and they're unranked. That seems a bit off. "I can't say enough about the resiliency of this team. We tend to make things a little more difficult than they need to be," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after Saturday's 31-28 win over the Gophers in Minnesota. The style and fashion of their wins this year — not exactly suited for the faint of heart — have seemingly hurt the Badgers in the polls. But a win is a win, and five wins are well, five wins. With Fresno State giving Boise State a battle two weeks back and Michigan State knocking off Michigan last Saturday, those early season Badgers victories appear to be even more impressive than they were when they originally occurred. So, where's the love? We'll know exactly how good this Wisconsin team is after Saturday. The Badgers travel to Columbus for a clash of the titans on Saturday. Aside from Joe McKnight's fourth-quarter performance in the USC game, no one's been able to run on Ohio State this year. Wisconsin's offense is heavily based around their workhorse, redshirt sophomore running back John Clay. In the Badgers' past two wins, Clay has carried the ball a combined 64 times. Ohio State's been downright stingy against the run this year, but Clay's one of the few remaining traditional bruising, every-down tailbacks left in college. McKnight, one of the more talented backs in the nation, couldn't break through until the fourth quarter vs. Ohio State. Of course, he's a slasher/speed type back. Clay, on the other hand, is an up-the-gut power back. Ohio State hasn't seen anyone quite like Clay this season and he may very well be able to wear the Buckeyes' defensive line down. "The guys that are coming up to tackle him in the third and fourth quarter aren't doing it in the same way they were in the first half. He has an effect on the game and just wears you down," Bielema told reporters this week. "There is a cumulative effect," Bielema said. "It's kind of like watching a heavyweight boxing match." A heavyweight boxing match, huh? Sounds a bit like Saturday's Wisconsin-Ohio State game — regardless of what the polls might tell you. Expect a close one. The Pick: Ohio State 26, Wisconsin 20

We've Been Down This Road Before

Please excuse me for not getting too excited over South Florida's 5-0 start out of the gates this season. I just happen to have a decent memory and like to learn from my mistakes. South Florida's started 5-0 the past two seasons, only to limp to 9-4 and 8-5 records in '07 and '08, respectively. I regrettably jumped on the Bulls' bandwagons twice before. I'm not purchasing any tickets this time. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times — well, you won't fool me three times. But — and there's always a "but" — there is something a little different about these Bulls. They've already overcome a bit of adversity when senior quarterback Matt Grothe went down a few weeks ago, already won a defensive slugfest with big, bad Florida State two weeks ago and most importantly — they appear to be as well aware of their recent poor finishes down the stretch as anyone.
They're humble and they're not the slightest bit impressed with their quick start to the season. Last Saturday's 34-20 win over Syracuse put the Bulls in the AP Top 25 for the first time all season, but by the sound of it, the team could be ranked No. 23 or No. 113 — and none of that would matter in the locker room. "That's neither here nor there," said USF safety Nate Allen, who had two interceptions against Syracuse. "In the past, we have gotten ranked and it has got to us. We know in order to win the Big East, we need to be focused on every game." If the Bulls seem nonplussed by the AP ranking and early season media buzz, it's because they know wins in September don't mean a thing. And for as good as South Florida has been in out-of-conference play in recent years (22-5 since joining the Big East in 2005), they've been anything but bullish against their Big East foes. Since '05, USF is just 15-14 against conference opponents and has never finished better than 3rd in the conference standings. In 2007, South Florida knocked off Auburn and then West Virginia in early season, nationally televised showdowns. The latter catapulted the Bulls to a No. 2 ranking. After the media gushed and the sycophants deemed Jim Leavitt college football's latest "genius," the Bulls promptly lost their next three games and fell out of the Top 25. A similar situation unfolded last year. The Bulls seem to have learned from those experiences and give off the impression of a veteran, workmanlike squad. With their bye this weekend, USF has time to prepare for another nationally televised showdown — this time against Big East big dogs and No. 8 Cincinnati next Thursday night. Before we jump on the B.J. Daniels/George Selvie express just yet, let's see how the Bulls size up to the Bearcats. If they can pull that upset, well, then I might be willing to consider jumping aboard the ol' USF Bulls October bandwagon for a third time. Until then, I'll keep my car parked at the station.

Heidi Game Part II:

Looks like some viewers in the Chicago-area had their Notre Dame-Washington game briefly interrupted by an episode of "Access Hollywood" on Saturday night. Hello, Billy Bush! The guys at The House Rock Built put together a puppet show interpretation of the near "Heidi Game" disaster this week. Check it out here.

Upset Picks of the Week:

I went 2-0 with Northwestern and Oregon State last week. I'm hot. Watch out. This week, I'm taking Ole Miss over Alabama and Michigan over Iowa.
Upset Picks This Season: 6-4
Tagged: Florida State, Virginia, West Virginia, Syracuse, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, North Texas, Boise State, Oregon State, USC, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, LSU, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia, Fresno State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, Air Force, South Florida

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