- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

The Back Judge is going no-huddle this week, starting with a little love and a gameball for Ralph Friedgen and the suddenly streaking Terps.

A month ago, Maryland looked like an ACC corpse after getting rolled by West Virginia, squeaking past lowly Florida International and opening league play with a loss at Georgia Tech.

All Fridge and Co. have done since is collect four straight ACC wins. Sure, the four victories have been short on style points, coming by a total of just 12 points. That only reaffirms Friedgen’s coaching prowess; the best coaches are at their best in close games. Winning four straight (three on the road) as an underdog in any league is a mammoth accomplishment.

Saturday’s last-second win at Clemson leaves the Terps (7-2, 4-1 ACC) in control of their fate in the Atlantic Division. The Terps close with a brutal stretch-run trio (Miami, at Boston College, Wake Forest), but the Nov. 25 game against the Demon Deacons (8-1, 4-1) has a chance to be college football’s feel-good, love-in of the season if a trip to Jacksonville is on the line.

With all apologies to Louisville, the Back Judge left Louisville in absolute awe of … West Virginia’s Steve Slaton. Now, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound sophomore shared the goats’ horns in Thursday’s 44-34 loss to the Cardinals with the Mountaineers’ defense, which received a rude introduction to the advent of the forward pass from Brian Brohm and the Cardinals.

There’s no question Slaton’s back-to-back third-quarter fumbles changed the game. Louisville’s Malik Jackson turned Slaton’s second gaffe into a quick six, putting the Cardinals up 23-14. And four plays later, Louisville speedster Trent Guy closed the box at Papa John’s Stadium with a 41-yard touchdown return that put the Cardinals up 30-14 with 9:23 left in the third quarter.

But no one who left the stadium later that night, not even the most ardent black-clad Louisville disciple, failed to recognize that Slaton was the best player on the field by a healthy margin. Slaton, who finished the game with 18 carries for 156 yards (an 8.67 average), had a Reggie Bush-esque shimmy shake in the open field and has no peer on the electricity meter in the college game.

Ohio State’s Troy Smith is almost certain to win the Heisman Trophy. But make no mistake, Slaton is the best offensive player in the nation.

Meanwhile, there is a new leader in the clubhouse for the most disappointing team of 2006. In a season rife with compellingly incompetent candidates like Miami, Florida State and Iowa, no team has been more hapless than Georgia.

The Bulldogs lost to lowly Kentucky on Saturday, becoming the first member of the SEC East’s power trio (Florida, Tennessee and Georgia) to lose to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same season since 1974, when the Gators plumbed the depths against the SEC’s toilet tandem.

Coaches in the nation’s least forgiving conference have been canned for less, and Georgia’s Mark Richt officially has cashed in all the chits he earned en route to winning the SEC last season.

“Was that just last year that we won the SEC?” the dazed Richt asked rhetorically after the 24-20 loss to Kentucky dropped the Bulldogs (6-4, 3-4 SEC) to the bowl-eligibility precipice. “It seems so long ago. It’s crazy, isn’t it?”

Finally, the nation got a glimpse Saturday at the only way to get 79-year-old fossil Joe Paterno off the sidelines. Joe Pa is even-money to become the first man to coach a game from a wheelchair … and the Back Judge doesn’t mean next week.

Here’s the Back Judge’s current Heisman pecking order: Slaton, Smith, Michigan DT Alan Branch.

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