Philadelphia opens a bigger lead in our ratings, one of a number of top teams being driven primarily by defense in the early part of 2016.
29 Aug 2013
by Matt Hinton
As of last December there was never a chance Johnny Manziel would be able to enjoy a "normal" existence in 2013, a luxury that is not open to a Heisman Trophy winner under any circumstances. With the spotlight comes scrutiny, and backlash, and unfavorable comparisons to the over-the-top statistics that fueled the spotlight to begin with. If Manziel was a model citizen, his eventual inability as a sophomore to match his own blistering, unprecedented pace as a freshman would be no less of a narrative to be dissected. Heaven forbid, a loss? Inexcusable -– a personal failure. At this level, in this century, skeptics, haters and schadenfreude come with the territory, and the camera never blinks.
So it is not at all surprising, following widespread reports that the most high-profile athlete under its jurisdiction may have violated its rules, that the NCAA feels an obligation to assert itself. It's been a terrible offseason on that front: The NCAA was forced to admit that its investigators had badly botched the Miami case, jeopardizing one of the biggest probes in the organization's history, and a long-awaited verdict against Oregon was viewed as a wrist-slap at worst. President Mark Emmert found himself absorbing the blowback from organizational tensions among schools and conferences; some of the big leagues began to entertain the notion of splitting from the NCAA altogether, and scheduled a summit with Emmert to discuss "big changes" along those lines. Between the progress of a longstanding lawsuit brought by former athletes, its subsequent decision to cut ties with EA Sports, and its own blatant hypocrisy in the course of the Manziel investigation, the NCAA's credibility when it comes to enforcing its core value, "amateurism," fared no better.
In that context, failure to act on the allegations against Manziel –- or perceived failure –- risked damaging the association's credibility even more, as it did when Cam Newton managed to survive scrutiny in 2010 without missing a snap en route to the Heisman Trophy and BCS championship. (The fact that a significant portion of the public is anxious to see Manziel get his comeuppance for the sin of being more frat boy than boy scout only increases that risk.) On the other hand, as with Newton, it is clear that the would-be enforcers had no evidence whatsoever to support the charge that their target ever received a dime in exchange for his autograph, or for anything else forbidden by the NCAA's labyrinthine bylaws. Instead, the tortured compromise that emerged this week between investigators and Texas A&M –- to force Manziel to sit out the first two quarters of Saturday's opener against Rice, in which he was already unlikely to play much more than a half, anyway -– was based on the conclusion that, although there is no way to prove that Manziel benefited personally, a celebrated student-athlete in his position should have known that his autograph could be used for the commercial benefit of others. Even others who, in this case, are in no way under the jurisdiction of the NCAA. A&M, satisfied to have its star out of the crosshairs, dutifully acceded to the "punishment," but declined to cop to a violation, "inadvertent" or otherwise.
And that's why the 2013 season will kick off with the reigning Heisman winner on the bench, in contrition for not breaking the rules, based on the actions of people for whom the rules literally do not apply. Meanwhile, in its press release announcing the suspension on Wednesday, Texas A&M's official website gave readers the option to purchase the photo of Manziel at the top of the page. Welcome back to college football.
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All games on Saturday 8/31 unless noted; all times Eastern
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• South Carolina's evolution into a reliable defensive powerhouse happened so gradually that it's easy to forget just how far behind the curve the Gamecocks were when Steve Spurrier arrived in 2005. Pronounced as that growth is on paper -– Carolina finished sixth nationally last year in S&P+ defense, and among the top 15 in both yards and points allowed for the second year in a row -– it's even more dramatic according to the proverbial eyeball test. Of 18 draft picks who were recruited and signed by Spurrier, two-thirds have come from the defensive side of the ball, with half of that number coming from arguably the weakest position on the team when he took over, the defensive line; since 2010, at least one Gamecocks defensive lineman has come off the board in four consecutive drafts. That streak will continue next year with the best of the lot, or any lot, junior Jadeveon Clowney, whose nightmarish combination of size, speed and violence has already cemented his status as a household name in pain. While Clowney was busy defying hyperbole as a sophomore, though, finishing second in the FBS in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (23.5), the rest of the front was doing its part to make Carolina the most sack-happy defense in the SEC as a whole and one of the most unforgiving against the run at just 3.1 yards per carry. Even without seven of last year's top ten tacklers around him, the more attention on Clowney, the more opportunities for linemates Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton to turn heads on their own.
• In response, North Carolina will attempt to wear the front down by picking up the tempo, in hopes that Clowney wasn't just sandbagging when he told reporters he was out of shape last year. The hurry-up was a hit in 2012 under first-year coach Larry Fedora: The UNC offense, a perennial albatross, finished in the top 15 nationally in both yards and points per game, and went over 40 against Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Georgia Tech. If all else fails, though, the Tar Heels are one of the few teams nationally that can conceivably leave their left tackle alone against Clowney and hope for the best -– senior James Hurst is an All-American and a potential first-rounder in his own right. The bigger question is how they're going to make up for the 172 yards per game that left with dynamic tailback Giovani Bernard -– in the two games he sat out last year, early losses to Wake Forest and Louisville, his presence was sorely missed.
Prediction. Opening night tends to be a slog, especially when it involves the Gamecocks: In their last two Thursday night debuts against major competition, Carolina has managed just seven points (against N.C. State in 2009) and 17 points (against Vanderbilt last year). But it won both games behind the defense. This time, neither side goes over 350 yards of total offense, Clowney delivers one jaw-dropping play amid an otherwise quiet night, and South Carolina wins, 21–13.
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• With apologies to departed tailback Zac Stacy, owner of the school's single-season and career rushing records, no vacancy is more urgent for Vanderbilt than the one under center, where Jordan Rodgers emerged over the second half of last season (1,298 yards, 12 touchdown passes in the last six games) as the most productive Commodores quarterback this side of Jay Cutler. The new quarterback is a former transfer, Austyn Carta-Samuels, who has not done much in Nashville but was once the Mountain West Conference's Freshman of the Year at Wyoming. So ... okay, yeah, he hasn't done much in Nashville.
Barring a major regression from Rodgers to Carta-Samuels, the rest of the offense is good enough to mount another challenge to the 30-point barrier that, before last year, had taunted previous Vandy attacks for nearly a century. Wesley Johnson leads four returning starters on the line. Between Jordan Matthews, a first-team All-SEC pick, and former classmates Chris Boyd and Jonathan Krause, Carta-Samuels inherits three proven targets who have accounted for more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns over the last three years. And in Stacy's place, the ground game falls to the gem of the 2012 recruiting class, sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who is right on schedule after accounting for 900 all-purpose yards as a rusher and return man.
• Ole Miss lists three freshman starters on its pregame depth chart, including five-star signees Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche at wide receiver and defensive end, respectively, and will surely waste no time getting other members of its massively hyped recruiting class into the mix. Despite that, the Rebels are an extremely veteran lineup: Top to bottom, the roster brings more career starts into the season (336) than any other team in the SEC. The only newcomer who has actually managed to displace a returning starter to date is Nkemdiche.
Of the vets, none has earned more attention, or has more to prove, than junior quarterback Bo Wallace. The offseason vibes have been very positive because Wallace closed 2012 with multiple touchdown passes in three consecutive games and he's the kind of guy who gets praised for "moxie" and leadership, etc. But he also tied for the national lead with 17 interceptions. The goodwill won't last very long if he can't cut that number in half.
Prediction. Last year, Vandy rallied in the final minute in Oxford to win by one point, 27–26, claiming the title of "breakthrough team" in the SEC for itself. Still, the Commodores ranked behind Ole Miss in the final F/+ rankings, and rank well behind the Rebels in the 2013 projections. That's in line with the respective talent levels. Ole Miss wins, 26–20.
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• Oklahoma State will play two quarterbacks in this game -– it's obligated to play two quarterbacks, according to coach Mike Gundy, because there's been no separation between senior Clint Chelf and sophomore J.W. Walsh -– but at this point there aren't a lot of surprises to be had from this offense. Juggling three different quarterbacks last year for various reasons, OSU still finished in the top five nationally in both total and scoring offense for the second year in a row, effectively matching the explosive 2011 attack that just missed playing for the BCS championship on both counts. (They were in the same ballpark in F/+ terms, as well.) The Cowboys are going to move the ball.
But are they going to score touchdowns? Explosive as it was on paper, the offense left an awful lot of points on the field as the result of both turnovers (four giveaways at Arizona, five at Kansas State) and simply stalling out in scoring range last year. For the season, Oklahoma State attempted more field goals than any other team nationally, and settled for more field goals in the red zone than any other team in the Big 12. If they convert just a couple of those three-point opportunities into seven, Mississippi State doesn't have the firepower to keep pace.
• Despite their ess-ee-see pedigree, the Bulldogs may not have the defensive juice to hold up against such an up-tempo, aggressive attack, either. Of the many deflating turns last year following a 7–0 start, none was starker than the decline of the defense, ravaged for more than 475 yards and 37 points per game in MSU's five losses despite an abundance of veteran talent: Five outgoing seniors (cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, safety Corey Broomfield, linebacker Cameron Lawrence and defensive tackle Josh Boyd) combined for 164 career starts, and Banks, Slay and Boyd all came off the board in April's draft. Even with the glaring voids in the secondary, the first priority in 2013 is creating more pressure in opposing backfields after finishing last in the SEC in sacks and next-to-last in tackles for loss. To that end, the Bulldogs won a down-to-the-wire battle for five-star defensive end Chris Jones, who joins last year's most hyped arrival, Denico Autry. The pass rush (or lack thereof) will also be critical in the fate of the league's best turnover margin, buoyed in 2012 by an SEC-best 34 takeaways.
Prediction. Though they finished with the same record in 2012, in reality Oklahoma State and Mississippi State were miles apart -– in the F/+ ratings and the proverbial "eyeball test." Only one of the Bulldogs' eight wins came against a team that finished with a winning record (Middle Tennessee), and their four SEC wins came against opponents (Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas) who combined to go 3–29 against the rest of the conference. In Arlington, MSU trails by double digits in the first half, quarterback Tyler Russell is baited into at least one costly turnover, and Oklahoma State wins, 34–17.
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• Where is the bar for Penn State? The 2012 Lions were backed into such an unprecedented, demoralizing corner that an 8–2 finish on the heels of early losses to Ohio U. and Virginia felt like a genuine triumph, even if only two of those wins (over Northwestern and Wisconsin) came against winning teams. The 2013 Lions, thinned by scholarship restrictions, will field the youngest lineup in the Big Ten by a wide margin, including one of two first-year quarterbacks vying to be thrown into the deep end.
And yet: Once it found its footing, PSU reinforced the distance between itself and the bottom half of the conference, dropping Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue, and Indiana by double digits, and closed by outlasting Wisconsin in the finale. It was the only team in the conference with both a 1,000-yard rusher (Zack Zwinak) and receiver (Allen Robinson), each of whom are back. And as far as Saturday is concerned, the new quarterbacks have proven every bit as much as Syracuse's new quarterbacks have.
• While certain NFL scouts were busy creating a bubble around Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib last winter, the Orange were becoming more and more content to slug it out, averaging 238 yards rushing on nearly 50 carries per game over the last seven. The top two tailbacks, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, are both back after combining for exactly 2,000 yards on the ground as juniors, including 365 yards in the bowl romp over West Virginia. In that context, the draft pick the offense misses most may not be Nassib, but first-round tackle Justin Pugh, one of the best run blockers in the country.
Prediction. Neither team trusts its quarterback yet, and both will be willing to play it close to the vest as long as the scoreboard allows. At some point, tough, the Nittany Lions' talent advantage will emerge. Syracuse finishes with a slight edge in total offense, but Allen Robinson breaks the game open late and Penn State wins, 22-14.
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• Not to undercut the hype or anything, but if you think anything about Alabama on a national stage requires a spoiler alert you are in the wrong column. This script has all the nuance and suspense of the next Fast and Furious flick, and only slightly fewer casualties: Three times since 2008 the Crimson Tide have opened against a name-brand opponent at a neutral site, and three times they've dropped the hammer, bludgeoning Clemson by 28 points in 2008, Virginia Tech by 10 points in 2009 and Michigan by 27 points last year in Cowboys Stadium, none of which was as close as the final score. Of the three, Tech fared the best, actually leading Bama through three quarters, 17–16, before succumbing to its overwhelming depth in the fourth. Even in an ostensibly competitive effort, though, the Hokies were outgained by 343 yards. In the meantime, Alabama has won three BCS titles and welcomed four more top-ranked recruiting classes.
• If the Hokies have any hope, it's by beating Nick Saban at his own game, which also happens to be Frank Beamer's game. The few teams that have had success against Alabama (namely LSU) have found it along the line of scrimmage, by holding up against the run: In five losses since 2010, Bama has averaged a paltry 85 yards rushing on 2.8 per carry, falling short of 125 yards in all five. (And not for lack of trying, either; the Tide averaged 30 carries in those games, to little avail.) To anyone who watched Alabama at the end of 2012, which it commemorated by steamrolling Georgia and Notre Dame for a combined 615 yards on the ground in the SEC and BCS championship games, that seems like a farfetched scenario. But three-fifths of the starting offensive line in those games has departed for the NFL, leaving three brand new starters in their place against arguably the most proven defensive line in the country. Between them, Virginia Tech's starting four (Derrick Hopkins, James Gayle, J.R. Collins, and Luther Maddy) have logged 92 career starts, anchoring a unit that led the ACC last year in Defensive Rushing S&P+. When they're able to keep the offense behind schedule in terms of down-and-distance, the Hokies have ranked fifth nationally on passing downs two years in a row. Given Alabama's track record, that's still a big if.
Prediction. We haven't even discussed the quarterbacks, one of whom (Alabama's A.J. McCarron) finished his junior season as the most efficient passer in the nation, while the other (Logan Thomas) finished with 16 interceptions in a severe regression from 2011. Beamer responded in the offseason by firing the quarterbacks coach and demoting his longtime offensive coordinator, Bryan Stinespring, to tight ends coach. Regardless of the brain trust, this is no setting for a rehabilitation. McCarron goes deep for an early touchdown bomb, the Hokies fail to respond until they're at least three scores in the hole and Alabama wins, 34–13.
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• The offenses in this game are so prolific that they effectively cancel each other out: Both attacks finished 2012 ranked in the top ten in Offensive F/+, and ranked first (Georgia) and second (Clemson) in Offensive Passing F/+, specifically. Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd are arguably the best senior quarterbacks in the country. There is firepower to burn.
And speaking of burning! Both secondaries here are in a lot of trouble – Clemson's because it earned its reputation as one of the most flammable in the nation, and Georgia's because it is mostly brand new. Last year, UGA's defensive depth chart featured seven guys who were subsequently drafted in April; for this game, it features eight true freshmen, half of them in the secondary, including projected starters Tray Matthews at safety and Brendan Langley at corner. Matthews, who won the free safety job in the spring, has struggled with injuries throughout the preseason; if he can't play, he's backed up by another true freshman, Quincy Mauger. The other starting safety, touted sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, won't play due to a suspension. Lining up opposite Boyd and blazing wide receiver Sammy Watkins, in "Death Valley," is not exactly the ideal venue for getting your feet wet.
• Georgia's most obvious edge is in the running game, both in the sense that it obviously has one – Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined for 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns on 6.3 yards per carry last year as true freshmen; UGA's ground game as a whole finished 11th in Offensive Rushing S&P – where Clemson really has no idea following the departure of Andre Ellington, and in the sense that it was significantly better at stopping the run in 2012. Defensively, the gap may have been narrowed by the exodus for the NFL. Offensively, Georgia is capable of striking a balance that Clemson most likely is not.
Prediction. If there's one college quarterback I'd take to put a team on his shoulders in a game like this, it's Boyd, whose effort last year in a come-from-behind win over LSU felt like a turning point for this program in big games. Going into that game, the Tigers had a reputation for serial flops against top competition, but with a chance to fold late they rallied, and overcame a blue-chip SEC defense that had seven players drafted in its own right. At home, against a mewling secondary, Boyd approaches 400 yards passing, both quarterbacks connect on at least three touchdown passes, and Clemson wins, 37–35, in dramatic fashion.
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• The single biggest question of the offseason – how is TCU going to manage its quarterbacks with senior Casey Pachall's return from suspension? – remains unanswered, apparently by design. But the intrigue over the Horned Frogs' prodigal QB has been overshadowed this week by the uncertainty around a pair of sophomores, LSU tailback Jeremy Hill and TCU defensive end DeVonte Fields, who may or may not play over discipline issues. (Hill pled guilty earlier this month to charges stemming from a bar fight; Fields reportedly violated a team rule.) Coaches Les Miles and Gary Patterson have been coy, both suggesting that Hill and Fields will travel with the team but pointedly avoiding any answers about playing time. The question is not academic: As freshmen in 2012, Hill led LSU in rushing and Fields was voted the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year.
• It's difficult to get a grip on this matchup, statistically, because of LSU's youth. With so much attrition on defense, only four players are back on that side with more than three career starts, and two of them are sophomores. TCU, on the other hand, boasts a similar track record of knee-capping defenses under Patterson (albeit in the Mountain West, not the Big 12 or SEC), and proven commodities all over the field: Nine returning starters, four of whom (Fields, DT Chucky Hunter, CB Jason Verrett and SS Sam Carter) were voted All-Big 12 in an ostensible rebuilding year. The assumption is that LSU can reload with top-shelf athletes who will quickly prove indistinguishable from the blue-chips they're replacing. But TCU's guys have actually done this before.
Prediction. If LSU lives up to its usual standard, that last statement may turn out to be an exaggeration: Even with last year's Thanksgiving win at Texas under their belts, the Frogs have not faced a defense with this level of raw, disruptive talent. TCU's defense will probably hold up okay, especially if it's able to keep the Tigers behind schedule and facing a lot of obvious passing situations. If new starters Anthony Johnson, Ego Ferguson and Jermauria Rasco are as good as they're supposed to be on the defensive line, though, the Tigers will have plenty of margin for error on offense, and more than enough muscle offensively to wear the Frogs down in the second half. Pachall starts for TCU but doesn't play the entire game, a tight, low-scoring game starts to get out of hand late and LSU wins, 23–13.
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• Not that some regression wasn't expected from one of the greenest lineups in the country, but Boise State looked nothing like its usual, hyper-efficient self offensively, averaging just 19 points in six games against teams that finished above .500 and failing to reach 30 in any of them. The lineup arriving in Seattle Saturday is a far more veteran group, but despite some tangible improvement late in the season there's no question of comparing quarterback Joe Southwick to his prolific predecessor, Kellen Moore. Southwick was generally good at taking care of the ball: Boise finished second nationally in turnover margin, and only finished in the red once, although that ultimately more to do with the defense's penchant for taking the ball away than the quarterback's thrift. At any rate, until a more reliable playmaker emerges from the skill positions the ceiling is very limited.
• Although Washington has veteran starters spread more or less evenly across the entire roster, visions of a breakthrough begin and end with the redemption of senior quarterback Keith Price. One of the most efficient passers in the nation in 2011, Price's stock plummeted last year behind a shaky, injury-ravaged line, significantly regressing in terms of touchdown passes (from 33 to 19), yards per attempt (from 8.5 to 6.3) and overall efficiency (from 161.9 to 122.4). The offense as a whole followed suit, failing to top 21 points in eight different games, and failing to match its 2011 scoring average (33.4 ppg) in ten. (In the S&P+ terms, the offense dropped from 35th nationally in 2011 to 67th.) Still, the basic components of a turnaround are all there, especially up front, where five returning starters – none of them seniors – are back with a year of growing pains under their belt and two former starters, Erik Kohler and Colin Tanigawa, taking aim at their old jobs after missing all of 2012 to knee injuries. Skill-wise, virtually everyone who touched the ball is still on hand, including the three that really matter, tailback Bishop Sankey, receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins – local products who, as sophomores, accounted for 74 percent of the Huskies' total yards from scrimmage.
Prediction. This is a rare rematch of teams that just saw each other the last time they took the field, in a neck-and-neck, 28–26 decision for Boise in the Las Vegas Bowl that probably says very little about the outcome on Saturday except that it should be very close. The most enduring takeaway from that game was Sankey's 30-carry, 205-yard romp through the Bronco defense, which also had its problems against 1,000-yard workhorses LeVeon Bell of Michigan State and Adam Muema of San Diego State – not coincidentally, the only games Boise lost in the regular season. This time, Sankey goes over 150 again, Southwick struggles to put together sustained drives in the absence of a reliable ground game and Washington wins, 27–23.
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• For Cal, the most obvious sign of decline under Jeff Tedford was at quarterback, where Tedford – once considered college football's most bankable quarterback guru for his track record of molding first-round draft picks – failed to develop a successful starter after Aaron Rodgers' departure for the draft in 2005. The man to reignite that spark, Cal hopes, is Sonny Dykes, an "Air Raid" disciple whose up-tempo, spread-friendly scheme at Louisiana Tech churned out more yards and points per game in 2012 than any other FBS offense on an exhausting 87.8 plays per game. Initial expectations for the "Bear Raid" are slightly less ambitious: The starting quarterback on Saturday, Jared Goff, is a true freshman in his first college game, always a terrifying prospect even when the quarterback in question is projected to be pretty good down the line.
The rest of the offense is not much further along. Besides Goff, five other starters on the most recent depth chart are in just their second year, including two of the top three receivers (Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, both sophomores) and three-fifths of the offensive line. The only senior, wide receiver Jackson Bouza, is a former walk-on with one career start in his first four years. The only players who started a majority of Cal's games in 2012 are Treggs (8) and linemen Chris Adcock (11) and Jordan Rigsbee (12); there is no one left who started a game in 2011. It's a work in progress.
• Northwestern, on the other hand, arrives with mostly fourth and fifth-year guys, including tailback Venric Mark and quarterback/Wildcat/receiver Kain Colter, who together accounted for two-thirds of the Wildcats' total offense as juniors. Colter split the quarterback job last year with Trevor Siemian, a more conventional pocket passer, although it was Colter who wound up as the more efficient passer overall and on third downs. (Some of that comes from the fact that Siemian was stuck with most of the obvious passing situations, but given that it was his M.O. his production on third down – and third-and-medium, in particular – was surprisingly poor.) At its best, the offense uses the read option and old-school misdirection to stay ahead of the chains and only puts the ball in the air enough to keep the running lanes open. On paper, the front seven on defense looks like Cal's only strength, and both the secondary and the fledgling quarterback will benefit greatly if it plays like it.
Prediction. Goff would not be the Bears' quarterback if Dykes wasn't comfortable with him throwing 40 times per game, and his receivers are more athletic than Northwestern's secondary; expect a handful of big plays. Inevitably, though, there will also be a handful of big mistakes that put the defense in an even tougher position than it's already in defending Colter and Mark. Cal scores early, but not often, the Wildcats control the second half and Northwestern wins, 27–18.
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