Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
26 Sep 2013
by Matt Hinton
We're all of five weeks into the college football season, which is still far, far too early to describe any game as "season-defining." Seasons are defined in the chill of November and December, not on the front end of the conference schedule in September. But for many teams with serious ambitions, there is no question that this weekend marks a point of no return, where those goals begin to become a concrete reality or begin to slip away. If you're for real about playing for high stakes down the stretch, this is the Saturday to prove it.
There's a potentially far-reaching matchup in every television time slot, and in every conference. After a year in NCAA purgatory, Ohio State gets its shot to get back in the Big Ten driver's seat against the reigning conference champ, Wisconsin. Of course, the Badgers wouldn't mind getting a leg up on making it four Rose Bowls in a row by upsetting the runaway favorite in the Leaders Division. The survivor of LSU's trip to Georgia remains on the short list of contenders for the SEC crown, and therefore the BCS crown; the loser moves to the back of the line with no more margin of error. USC, all but left for dead two weeks ago, can reaffirm its frontrunner status in the Pac-12 South by beating Arizona State. (Ditto the Sun Devils, smacked to reality last week at Stanford.) With one loss on the books, Notre Dame's return to a BCS game almost certainly hinges on beating Oklahoma for the second year in a row. Central Florida can force its way into the BCS conversation against South Carolina. Washington State, having already taken down USC on the road, can turn a solid decade of futility on its head by upsetting Stanford at home.
At the end of the day, nothing will be decided, and almost no path will be permanently closed. There will be plenty of time left to reverse course. But those courses will be much more clearly defined, and the goals seemed well within reach in the morning will be that much closer or that much further away.
We know all about the Gamecocks, who have already been front-and-center for national audiences against North Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt. But this will be most of the country's first introduction to Central Florida, and it might be surprised to learn that the Knights are pretty good. Against Penn State, UCF finished with 507 yards of total offense in a 34–31 upset in Happy Valley, the first 500-yard game against the Nittany Lions in the regular season since 2001. (Houston dropped 600 on a lame-duck, post-Paterno outfit in the 2012 Ticket City Bowl.) The Knights scored touchdowns in that game on three of their first four offensive possessions, on drives covering 89, 64 and 89 yards, and went 82 yards for a touchdown on their first possession of the second half. Senior quarterback Blake Bortles comes into the weekend ranked fifth nationally in pass efficiency, just behind Teddy Bridgewater and Aaron Murray and just ahead of Johnny Manziel.
Once they found their footing though, the Nittany Lions moved the ball consistently, to the tune of 455 total yards on 7.1 per play, and that was with a true freshman quarterback at the controls in his third start. South Carolina's quarterback, Connor Shaw, is a senior making his 24th career start, and will arguably have more proven weapons at his disposal than he's had in any of the previous twenty-three. On that front, the most pleasant surprise has been sophomore tailback Mike Davis, who wasted no times erasing months of offseason doubt about the state of the post-Marcus Lattimore ground game with back-to-back 100-yard efforts against North Carolina and Georgia. The last time we saw them, against Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks as a team ran for 220 en route to 579 overall. As difficult as it is to imagine UCF's offensive line holding up for more than a couple quarters against Jadeveon Clowney, et al, on the Gamecocks' front four, the deck may be even more stacked against the defense.
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South Carolina 33, Central Florida 17
Make the necessary adjustments for the fact that it was a mid-September game against San Jose State, but all things considered, Minnesota's 43–24 win over the Spartans was the most encouraging Gopher victory in years. The unlikely catalyst was redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner, who did his best Collin Klein impression by lumbering for 151 yards and four rushing touchdowns in his first career start. As a team, Minnesota amassed 353 yards rushing, its best performance on the ground since it fired run-oriented coach Glen Mason in 2006, and a whopping 21-minute advantage in time of possession. As a passer, Leidner is a work in progress, which might keep him from fully overtaking sophomore Philip Nelson when Nelson returns from a sore hamstring. Clearly, though, Leidner gave the offense an identity it's been sorely missing, and one it might actually be able to sustain.
The same cannot be said for the Gopher secondary, which was victimized by SJSU quarterback David Fales on nine passes that covered at least 20 yards; if the offense hadn't chewed up so much clock, who knows how badly they might have been burned. Fortunately, Iowa under Kirk Ferentz has never been much of a threat to go long, and maybe less so now than ever. In their last two games, the Hawkeyes have run 118 times to just 41 passes, despite averaging barely four yards per carry in wins over Iowa State and Western Michigan. (Four of the Hawkeyes' first five touchdowns in a 59–3 rout over WMU came courtesy of the defense and special teams, fulfilling Ferentz's dream to run up the score with the offense on the sideline.) If Minnesota wants to grind, Iowa will be more than happy to grind. Until the pork-themed trophy that goes to the winner makes an appearance on the victorious sideline, my guess is both head coaches are going to enjoy this a lot more than the fans.
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Minnesota 20, Iowa 16
The SEC in 2013 is a quarterback's league, and the Bulldogs and Tigers have two of the best in seniors Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, who (so far) has earned his billing as the most improved passer in the country. While they're more than willing to spread the field in the passing game, though, these are also two of the few offenses we'll see this year that still revolve heavily around pounding a big, prototypical tailback behind a lead-blocking fullback (remember those?), and they boast arguably the two most imposing sledgehammers in the nation in sophomores Todd Gurley and Jeremy Hill. The fact that they managed to emerge as freshman headliners last year on two of the most crowded depth charts in the nation is a testament in itself. This year, we've already seen Gurley shred Clemson (12 carries for 154 yards, two touchdowns) despite missing most of the first half to injury, and take on a full load (30 for 132 yards) in the Bulldogs' win over South Carolina. After missing all of LSU's first game and most of the second due to a suspension, Hill returned to average 10.6 yards per carry with two touchdowns in his first start, a blowout win over Kent State, and confirmed his place in the pecking order last week with a 184-yard, three-touchdown showcase on 25 carries against Auburn. Both look like linebackers, weighing in the 230–235 range, and both can take it the distance on any play.
So it's a given that both of these offenses are going to score. (Or it should be: No doubt a few true believers clinging to the outdated meme about "SEC defenses" will be left stupefied by another borderline shootout.) Still, the "Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object" matchup in this game is Aaron Murray throwing against LSU's perennially blue-chip secondary, which – as usual – has yet to show any ill effects of losing two of last year's starters to the draft. Defensive coordinator John Chavis likes to lock his cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage, and Murray lives to challenge it; he led the nation in yards per attempt in 2012 and currently ranks second in the same category. How close he comes to fulfilling that on Saturday may hinge on how much respect the Tigers' safeties are forced to pay to Gurley, and vice versa. Auburn had some success on the ground last week, finishing with more rushing yards (213) than LSU has allowed in any game since 2010, even if virtually all of that came against a defense protecting a double-digit lead. If Georgia can replicate that, minus the turnovers that immediately doomed Auburn, Murray will have all the play-action opportunities he could ask for.
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LSU 34, Georgia 29
The oddsmakers' faith in Oklahoma on the road reflects their faith in quarterback Blake Bell, who finally shed his one-dimensional, "Belldozer" reputation by passing for 413 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start, a 51–20 blowout over Tulsa. That was a far cry from the blueprint in the previous game, a low-scoring, mistake-filled slog against West Virginia, in which the Sooners kept the ball on the ground on 57 of 78 snaps and pulled starter Trevor Knight for Bell in the fourth quarter. (We learned later that Knight played part of the game on a bad knee, but that means little to a fan base that second-guessed the decision to start Knight over Bell in the first place.) With Knight, the Sooners were taking a shot on an undersized scrambler they hoped could do for them what Johnny Manziel did to them in last January's Cotton Bowl. With Bell, they're reverting back to their comfort zone: A big, statuesque presence in the pocket with an arm trustworthy enough to put the ball in the air 40 times per game. If nothing else, what he lacks in accuracy and consistency compared to Sam Bradford and Landry Jones, he makes up for in his value as a short-yardage runner.
In fact, Oklahoma's offense may look more like the attack that Notre Dame's defense held to 13 points last year than vice versa. Against Michigan, the Irish were torched for 41 points on 460 yards of total offense, numbers the 2012 defense would not have dreamed of allowing to anyone except Alabama. More reassuring box scores against Michigan State and Purdue haven't been able to mask how badly the defense misses Manti Te'o in the middle, as well as Stephon Tuitt as a reliable force in the pass rush. (Last week against MSU was Tuitt's best game of the early season, by far, an encouraging sign that he may be rounding back into 2012 form.) Landry Jones came out of last year's game with more yards (364) and a higher efficiency rating (124.2) than any other quarterback against Notre Dame in the regular season, but had no run support and barely made a dent on the scoreboard. These Irish have been just forgiving enough against the run to predict more time for Bell, and more importantly, more time for his receivers against a very vulnerable secondary.
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Oklahoma 28, Notre Dame 23
If there is such a thing as a sure thing in college football, certainly Alabama's defense under Nick Saban is it: Since 2008, Bama has finished in the top ten in both yards and points allowed five years in a row. The last two years, it not only finished at the top of both categories; it barely budged from the top at any point in either season. Before their trip to Texas A&M on Sept. 7, the Crimson Tide hadn't allowed 30 points to an opposing offense in 35 consecutive games, dating back to October 2010. Only four teams in that span managed to crack 20 points, and two of them featured soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback. Twenty points against Alabama is an elite performance.
So how much of the 628-yard, 42-point bonanza the Tide yielded in College Station can we chalk up to Jonathan Football being Jonathan Football, and how much can we take as a sign that the 2013 edition may be in for more excitement than it bargained for? So far, it looks like strictly a one-time, Manziel-related event: In its other two games, Bama has only yielded one touchdown, and only then on a 77-yard run by Virginia Tech's Trey Edmunds. For a defense that hasn't allowed another run longer than 20 yards, that's a lightning bolt.
Then again, that also describes diminutive Ole Miss tailback Jeff Scott, who has a pair of 100-yard rushing games under his belt against Vanderbilt and Texas and a long, spectacular touchdown strike in both games. (Against Vandy, he turned a routine handoff into the boundary into a 75-yard sprint that turned out to be the game-winner; in Austin, he broke the Longhorns' backs on a 72-yard punt return.) If there is a post-A&M crack in the facade, he will find a way through it.
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Alabama 35, Ole Miss 14
Arizona has played three games, and all we can say for certain about the Wildcats is a) They seem to have settled on a starting quarterback, senior B.J. Denker, who has taken every significant snap so far, and b) They're a lot better than Northern Arizona, UNLV and Texas–San Antonio. Otherwise, every preseason question remains going into Seattle, beginning with Denker's athleticism relative to Pac-12 opponents. While the defense consists almost entirely of upperclassmen with starting experience, for a unit that was torched last year for at least 600 yards in six different games, returning all eleven starters is a mixed blessing. The front seven in 2012 lacked an immovable body against the run (Arizona ranked 105th in rushing defense, a reflection on the undersized defensive line) or a reliable force in the pass rush (108th in sacks), too often leaving an experienced but oft-torched secondary to its own devices. If anything has changed, this is the first real chance to prove it.
Even if it has, though, the defense figures to be in for a long, frenetic night against a team that has not resembled in any way the Washington that limped to three consecutive 7–6 finishes the last three years. In each of their first three games, the Huskies have set a new high for total offense this century, dropping 592 yards on Boise State, 615 on Illinois and 680 on Idaho State, without breaking a sweat; the only other attacks averaging 300 yards by ground and air are Baylor and Oregon. Keith Price, victim of a junior slump in 2012, has looked like a different quarterback in the early going, rivaling Zach Mettenberger as the most improved passer in the country. Arizona is down with the accelerated pace – the Wildcats crammed in more plays last year than any offense except Marshall – but the Washington defense under second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox is in much better position to break serve.
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Washington 38, Arizona 26
All signs point to headliner Braxton Miller returning to the starting lineup after two weeks nursing a bum knee, although it's hard to say at this point whether his presence will make any difference: Even adjusting for the competition, backup quarterback Kenny Guiton has been nearly flawless since taking the reins from Miller in the second game, accounting for 823 yards of total offense and 13 touchdowns to one interception. In his first career start, at Cal, Guiton had three touchdown passes in the first six minutes, including a pair of bombs to Devin Smith that covered 90 yards and 47 yards, respectively, on consecutive throws. Guiton also punched his "dual threat" card by rushing for 92 yards in that game, a week after breaking a 44-yard touchdown run against San Diego State. With Miller healthy (or healthy enough) and All-Big Ten tailback Carlos Hyde back in good standing on the heels of a three-game suspension, there is a surplus of firepower and no reason to hold any of it back.
When it looks at Ohio State's defense, though, Wisconsin must be thinking the same thing. Through four games, it's the Badgers, not the Buckeyes, who lead the Big Ten in total offense, the vast majority of it (as always) coming on the ground courtesy of tailbacks Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement; between them, they're averaging 350 yards per game on 8.9 per carry. Gordon's name goes first on the marquee, for now, because of the unique home-threat he's brought to the offense on speed sweeps; in four games, he has an 80-yard touchdown run against Arizona State and seven other runs covering at least 20 yards in just 53 carries. But the basic, between-the-tackles blueprint has not changed in the transition from Bret Bielema to Gary Andersen, and Ohio State's talented but very green front seven will be getting its first tastes of Wisconsin's characteristically massive offensive line. Between Miller's on-the-fly heave in 2011 and Montee Ball's ill-timed fumble last November, maybe the Badgers are due for a break in this series.
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Ohio State 36, Wisconsin 24
One of the reasons USC took so much more blame for its loss to Washington State than the Cougars received credit – other than the fact that people relish any opportunity to bash Lane Kiffin – is that Washington State really did look like a doormat. The Cougars achieved zilch offensively, failing to cross midfield at any point between a first-quarter interception in their own end zone and a 50-yard pass in the final five minutes, setting up an improbable field goal for the win. That play alone covered more ground than the rest of Wazzu's second-half snaps combined, and it was entirely the result of a missed tackle. Most of USC's struggles on offense were self-inflicted, which was hardly a new phenomenon. At no point did Washington State look like a team breaking through.
Throwing a scare into Stanford would be a different story: The Cardinal don't have a track record of losing random games they should win, and are generally considered one of the most well-coached outfits anywhere. Still, the Cougars did manage to play them within a touchdown last year in Palo Alto, the game that ultimately convinced coach David Shaw to ditch his starting quarterback at the time, Josh Nunes, for Kevin Hogan, who has subsequently won eight straight as a starter. Dating back to last year's season finale, an overtime win over Washington, Washington State has won four of its last five, the only loss coming by a touchdown in he season opener at Auburn. Progress or mirage? Win or lose on Saturday night, a late-night visits from an undisputed conference heavyweight will go a long way toward confirming just how far along the curve Mike Leach's rebuilding project actually is.
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Stanford 28, Washington State 13
There were no fireworks in USC's latest win, a workmanlike, 17–14 decision over Utah State, but maybe that doesn't have to be a bad thing. As mediocre as the Trojans have been offensively – and "mediocre" doesn't even begin to describe the depths of a 10–7 loss to Washington State – they've been unrelentingly good on defense, and the conservative, turnover-free effort against the Aggies can be seen as a step toward embracing that reality. Utah State's Chuckie Keeton may be the best quarterback USC will face until UCLA's Brett Hundley in the regular season finale (Oregon is not on the schedule), and he posed very little threat. No matter how bad the offense gets, the Trojans can expect to be in every game as long as it's able to take care of the ball.
Not a very inspiring pitch for the upset, obviously. The oddsmakers certainly aren't buying it, probably because they're still not buying quarterback Cody Kessler as a viable starter. Aside from taking better care of the ball, Kessler reverted to form last week after a surprisingly stellar effort against Boston College, in which he followed up his dismal night vs. Washington State by completing 15-of-17 for 237 yards and two touchdowns – good for a sky-high 244.2 efficiency rating in a comfortable,
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USC 21, Arizona State 17
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