The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
01 Nov 2013
by Matt Hinton
When the ACC poached Miami from the Big East in 2004, the assumption was that the Hurricanes would run roughshod over their new league on a more or less perennial basis, finally offering a counterweight to the reigning overlord, Florida State. The new dynamic was so compelling that the conference took care to relegate the Canes and Noles to opposite divisions, geography be damned, to protect what would surely be many years of FSU-Miami showdowns in the ACC championship game. Here, at last, was the rivalry that would overcome the ACC's reputation as a basketball conference.
Not so much, as it turns out: Since 2006, Florida State has one ACC title, Miami has none, and the would-be goliaths of the league have only met once when both teams were ranked. (And even then, just barely.) That's how long it's been since a game between Florida State and Miami has arrived with the cachet of Florida State–Miami, one of the defining rivalries of the sport, and why Saturday's collision between two undefeated, top-10 contenders in Tallahassee arrives with a sense of overdue inevitability. The winner will be the first ACC team in more than a decade with legitimate designs on the national championship after the first weekend of November.
The only factor undermining the suspense is the point spread: FSU is a three-touchdown favorite, having outscored its first five conference opponents by 174 points. Miami's 3–0 start in ACC play has come by a combined 22 points, including a pair of down-to-the-wire, come-from-behind escapes from North Carolina and Wake Forest. If those games were a preview of the Hurricanes we're going to see this weekend, the 21-point spread is much too low. But haven't we seen enough by now to know that the stretch run for BCS frontrunners rarely unfolds so smoothly?
USC has yet to look like the same team two weeks in a row, which is not surprising for an outfit that ditched its head coach at the airport after the fifth game. Post-Kiffin, though, the Trojans have been a different team from week to week, literally: Ten full or part-time starters missed at least one game in October to injury, including the top two tailbacks (Tre Madden and Justin Davis), the leading receiver (Marqise Lee), a pair of veteran tight ends (Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer), a multiyear starter at linebacker (Lamar Dawson) and the best pass rusher (Morgan Breslin). Only 48 scholarship players played at Notre Dame, where multiple walk-ons and third-stringers were forced into key roles in 14–10 loss, and two more starters (offensive tackle Kevin Graf and safety Su'a Cravens) were carted off during last week's win over Utah. This week, the offense expects to have Madden at or near full strength after easing him back against the Utes, as well as Lee and Grimble in the passing game; in the secondary, both Cravens and senior Dion Bailey – who didn't plan to play against Utah until Cravens left the game, and had to take a painkilling injection to come off the bench – said this week they'll be ready for Friday night, too. Even at relative health, though, the Trojans are desperately thin across the board.
Given the volatility elsewhere, the front seven stands out as a relative constant: Aside from a 62–41 debacle at Arizona State in Kiffin's last game, USC has allowed a single rushing touchdown in its other seven, and otherwise ranks among the elite run defenses in the nation by any measure. (Even with the ASU collapse on their record, the Trojans rank 15th in rushing defense and 18th in yards per carry; remove it, and they'd rank third and fourth, respectively.) The most consistent force in that effort is sophomore end Leonard Williams, who has managed to lead the team in total tackles despite playing essentially an interior position in the Trojans' 5–2/3–4 scheme.
For its part, Oregon State doesn't bother much with establishing the run – nationally, the only team that runs less often, or for fewer yards, is Washington State – but the offensive line was overwhelmed last week in a 20–12 loss to Stanford, yielding as many sacks to the Cardinal (8) as it allowed in its first seven games combined. Under consistent pressure, QB Sean Mannion turned in his worst game of the season, by far, averaging just 4.8 per pass. If they're allowed to tee off, Williams, Breslin and Devon Kennard are good enough to have the same effect.
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Oregon State 29, USC 21
Depending on your perspective, Wisconsin might look like one of the most balanced, underrated outfits in the country, or just another Big Ten mediocrity. On paper, for example, the Badgers are one of only five teams that rank in the top 20 nationally in both Offensive and Defensive F/+, and have outscored their first seven opponents by 24 points per game. (The only other team boasting a 20-point margin despite a loss on its record is Louisville.) On the other hand, none of their five victims boasts a winning record, and they barely sneak in at the bottom of the latest BCS standings after being snubbed from the top 25 in all six computer polls. For human pollsters, arguably the two most validating entries on Wisconsin's resumé are the games it lost, near-misses at Arizona State and Ohio State.
Iowa is not a great leap forward where the strength of schedule is concerned, although the Hawkeyes stand to offer more resistance to the Badgers' prolific ground game than any defense they've seen outside Ohio State. (The Buckeyes held Wisconsin to 104 yards rushing, barely a third of its season average, on just 3.9 per carry.) Ohio State is also the lone outlier against Iowa's defense, having pounded the Hawkeyes for 273 yards and two touchdowns rushing on 5.4 per carry; in its other seven games, opponents have averaged just 107 yards on the ground without a single rushing touchdown between them.
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Wisconsin 28, Iowa 17
October was a dismal month for both of these teams, defined by injuries, upsets and plummeting fortunes in the polls, and the biggest victory wasn't even their own: If not for South Carolina's late, improbable comeback to beat Missouri last week, the SEC East would be all but gift-wrapped for Mizzou. As it is, the winner in Jacksonville is still clinging to some hope that the divisional dominoes will fall its way down the stretch, even if (in Georgia's case) the decision comes down to a three-way tie. The loser is facing a three-game losing streak, a .500 record and the grim demise of any goal that would have seemed worthwhile 30 days ago.
For Georgia, the injury list has become a revolving door: While starters Michael Bennett and Tray Matthews will be back in the fold Saturday at wide receiver and safety, respectively, starters Chris Conley and Josh Harvey-Clemons may be on their way out at the same positions. (Harvey-Clemons appears more likely to play at the end of the week than he did at the beginning, but he's still in a non-contact jersey in practice and clearly far from 100 percent.) But no one benefitted from the bye week more than tailback Todd Gurley, who appears to be very close to full strength after sitting out the last three games. Prior to injuring his ankle against LSU, Gurley was averaging 6.3 yards per carry and generally looked like the most physically imposing runner in the nation. Although it's impossible to separate the effect of his absence from the other attrition on offense, it's also difficult to overstate how much the threat of a viable running game means to quarterback Aaron Murray.
Of course, the decline also coincides with the absence of three of Murray's top four receivers, which will still be the case on Saturday. But the play-action game, at least, should have renewed bite.
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Georgia 26, Florida 17
Michigan State's offense was such a laughingstock over the first few weeks of the season, some of the assumptions about the Spartans still lag well behind the reality. In Big Ten play, it's looked like an entirely different attack:
Of course, it's fair to point out that the turnaround has come mainly against the bottom rungs of the B1G, but even grading on a curve, 42-point outbursts against Indiana and Illinois qualify as significant progress for an offense that was ground to a halt in its first two games by South Florida and Western Michigan. The most obvious catalyst is sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, who is quickly emerging as one of the most efficient passers in a conference bereft of them. Last week, Cook was 15-of-16 for 208 yards and three touchdowns against Illinois, and the offense as a whole converted 14 of 15 third-down attempts before kneeling out a 42–3 win. Tailback Jeremy Langford went over 100 yards rushing against the Illini for the third week in a row.
Michigan is not Illinois, but the Wolverines have had their share of problems in the secondary, most recently in a wild, 63–47 shootout against Indiana. (They've also allowed 300-yard passing days to Notre Dame, Akron and Penn State, none of them up-tempo spread attacks.) Michigan State isn't about to play that kind of game, and the domineering defense will ensure it doesn't have to. If absolutely necessary, though, it's no longer out of the question.
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Michigan State 27, Michigan 18
It's a down year for up-tempo, high-volume Big 12 passing attacks, and no offense has reflected the trend more dramatically than Oklahoma State's. Not that the Cowboys aren't still willing to put the ball in the air: Prior to last week's win over Iowa State, they were one of only two teams in the conference averaging 40 passes per game. At no point, though, has the offense resembled the prolific attacks that lifted OSU into the league's upper crust – in terms of total offense, the 2013 edition is lagging more than 100 yards per game behind the 2010-12 curve – and the trip to Ames took on a far more ground-oriented flavor than Cowboy fans have seen in years. (The play distribution there, 47 runs to 27 passes, was OSU's most run-oriented ratio against an FBS opponent since 2009.) The main beneficiary of the shift was junior tailback Desmond Roland, a career backup who turned in a career day with 219 yards and four touchdowns on 8.4 per carry. But the ongoing quarterback shuffle between Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh is an unsettled and uninspired as ever.
On the other hand, a more ground-bound philosophy might play well opposite a vastly improved defense that has shown no propensity for dragging the offense into shootouts. Texas Tech will be the most productive, up-tempo offense the Cowboys have seen, by far, but the Red Raiders also looked very vulnerable against the run in their loss to Oklahoma, which rode a tailback-by-committee approach to 277 yards on 50 carries; the Sooners also finished with a nine-minute edge in time of possession, and the defense held Tech to fewer yards and plays than any previous opponent except TCU.
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Texas Tech 32, Oklahoma State 26
Of the two quarterbacks in this game, one is a senior making his 25th career start; the other is a redshirt freshman playing in just his eighth game. But of course it's the latter, Jameis Winston, who comes in as the proven commodity, having already entrenched himself on Heisman lists by playing the savvy vet in FSU's 51–14 annihilation at Clemson. Winston arrives at his first Miami-FSU showdown ranked second nationally in pass efficiency, still on pace (along with Baylor's Bryce Petty) to obliterate the current FBS record after a relatively routine day of lighting N.C. State on fire. His counterpart, Stephen Morris, arrives with nearly as many interceptions (8) as touchdowns (10) and a reputation for inconsistency that overrides his NFL-caliber arm. Morris is always looking for the big play downfield – his top four receivers all average upwards of 16 yards per catch – and always in danger of supplying one to the opposing defense instead.
For Miami, the difference between 7–0 frontrunners and 5–2 also-rans isn't the home-run ball, but a conventional, between-the-tackles ground game that has come through in the clutch in back-to-back wins. Trailing in the fourth quarter at North Carolina, 23–13, the Canes ran six times on a seven-play touchdown drive that cut the deficit to 23–20, and ten times on a 13-play march to win. Trailing in the fourth quarter against Wake Forest, 14–10, Miami ran on all eight plays of a touchdown drive for the lead, then responded to a Wake score by running on eight of ten plays for the win. (That adds up to 32 carries on 36 plays for four season-saving touchdowns in two weeks.) No one has been able to run like that in any situation on Florida State, with the possible exception of Boston College, the only team that was still within reasonable striking distance of the Noles at the half. Miami has the size and the experience on the offensive line to control the line of scrimmage, and the backs to keep the chains moving (and Winston on the sideline) in Duke Johnson and Dallas Crawford. Obviously, Morris has to be on his game to hold serve opposite Winston, but the longer he's able to rely on the run, the less likely he is to shoot the Canes in the foot trying to do too much himself.
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Florida State 41, Miami 23
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