Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
11 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
Texas is 2–0 in the Big 12, and bracing for the worst. More than any other moment the last two years, the head-to-head flops against Oklahoma have made it abundantly clear just how far behind the curve the Longhorns really are, and both of those debacles kicked off amid a sense of growing optimism. The 2013 edition approaches amid a palpable sense of doom.
A few weeks back, a forward thinking fan at the site Barking Carnival went ahead and wrote a preemptive apology speech for Mack Brown in anticipation of a 49-point loss to the Sooners, which pretty well captures the gestalt in the rivalry. Given the results, it's easy to forget that Texas tends to arrive in Dallas looking like a team on the upswing. In 2011, a very green outfit came in undefeated, having rocketed from the "Also Receiving Votes" section in the preseason polls to No. 11 on the strength of a 4–0 start; against Oklahoma, it was smacked down in a 55–17 debacle that was far worse than the score indicates, and went on to lose four of its last seven to close the regular season. Last year, essentially the same Texas team showed up for the Shootout ranked 15th, pegged as a mere three-point underdog; it left the victim of a 63–21 massacre that was far worse than the score indicates, fell out of the top 25 altogether and ultimately ended the regular season outside of the polls for the third year in a row. Going back further, since 2000, the Sooners have taken nine of 13 over Texas, their wins in that span coming by an average margin of 25.6 points.
Saturday's game, on the other hand, will kick off at arguably the lowest point of Brown's tenure – arguable only because it still has the potential to get much worse. Last week's 31–30 escape at Iowa State felt as much like a loss as a win conceivably can, and not only because it was decided on a botched call. The Cyclones outgained Texas by 100 yards of total offense, and prior to the controversial non-fumble by Johnathan Gray at the goal line, the Longhorns had already lost two fumbles in their own territory in the fourth quarter. In the September flops against BYU and Ole Miss that sent the season into a downward spiral, Texas looked like a demoralized outfit with no confidence or fight when things didn't go its way. Against a much less talented outfit in Ames, it looked like just another bad team.
It was clear enough before this season that Brown's future hinged on making good with this roster, the end product of three years of growing pains. (Collectively, the 2013 Longhorns boasted more career starts entering the season, 372, than any other FBS team.) Six weeks in, pretense is running thin. Brown fueled the sense of urgency himself by sacking his defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, after the week two collapse at BYU; under his replacement, Greg "Gerg" Robinson, the defense subsequently yielded 44 points to Ole Miss and 30 to Iowa State on well over 400 total yards apiece. The online campaigns to lure Nick Saban and Art Briles are in full (if fairly ridiculous) swing. One of Brown's strongest defenders in a maze of backroom agendas, athletic director DeLoss Dodds, is on his way out next year. Virtually everyone in, around or remotely interested in Texas football has resigned themselves to bracing for the end, one way or another.
Barring a truly dramatic turn of events, it's not going to come to that this weekend. Nothing is inevitable, yet. As the last chance to salvage any of the team's long-term goals, though, Saturday could be a point of no return. Certainly there are no illusions that the season can be brought back from the brink after another defining flop in the biggest game of the year. By any margin, another loss to Oklahoma will put the Horns on the fringes of the chase for a Big 12 title, and slam the door on any chance of landing in a BCS bowl without it. More to the point, it would reaffirm the permanence of Texas' second-class status. Another blowout might hasten the countdown, but a moral victory won't do any more to slow it down than last week's moral defeat. Through 15 years and 205 wins, Mack Brown has never needed an actual victory more desperately than he needs this one.
Georgia limped out of Tennessee with SEC and BCS championship hopes still more or less intact, but it cannot say the same for its starting lineup. Going in, the Bulldogs arrived in Knoxville with their best receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, out for the season, and All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley on the shelf with a bum ankle. By halftime, both of their replacements (Justin Scott-Wesley and Keith Marshall) had been ruled out for the year with torn ACLs, and another starter, WR Michael Bennett, was facing knee surgery that will sideline him for at least a month. (Bennett is also coming off an ACL tear that cost him most of 2012.) This week, Gurley is still considered "doubtful" to play against Mizzou, as are starting safeties Tray Matthews and Connor Norman on defense. Among the skill players on offense, the only projected starter on Saturday who started any of the first five games is receiver Chris Conley, who has been Aaron Murray's most productive target but may want to tread lightly.
Missouri can sympathize, having endured an avalanche of injuries last year in its SEC debut, but the 2013 edition is as healthy and optimistic for its first above-the-fold test of the season as it could possibly be. Although they haven't faced anyone in Georgia's weight class, the Tigers' best wins to date (over Indiana and Vanderbilt) have both come on the road, both by comfortable margins; the Indiana win, in particular, is looking pretty good this week in light of the Hoosiers' ambush of Penn State. And statistically, at least, the offense is on par with the loaded attacks from Clemson and LSU that left the UGA defense in tatters, outpacing both in terms of yards and points per game and running neck-and-neck with Clemson according to S&P+. Like those Tigers, Mizzou boasts a senior quarterback who has been around the block (James Franklin, making his 27th career start) and a deep rotation of potential playmakers: Between them, the top three running backs and top three receivers are averaging nearly 400 yards from scrimmage per game, not including Franklin's contributions as a runner.
One member of that group is towering, 6-foot-6 receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2012 recruiting class, who has given every indication as a sophomore of rounding into blue-chip form. (Through five games, DGB leads the team with 364 yards on 15.8 per catch, three of which have covered more than 40 yards.) Georgia's secondary, playing short-handed and having already been burned for big games by Clemson's Sammy Watkins (6 catches for 127 yards, 1 TD), South Carolina's Nick Jones (6 for 97, 2 TDs) and LSU's tandem of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry (16 for 274, 1 TD), has given every indication of being vulnerable to top-shelf wideouts. Green-Beckham won't have a more opportune stage to prove he belongs in that category.
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Georgia 33, Missouri 30
The most persistent issue in Texas' ongoing, four-year malaise is the lack of a coherent identity on offense. At their best, Mack Brown's teams have always deferred to talent, evolving from a straight-ahead, power running scheme behind workhorses Ricky Williams and Cedric Benson to a spread running scheme to exploit the athleticism of Vince Young to a spread passing scheme to suit the decision-making of Colt McCoy. The current team has elements of all of the above but hasn't consistently excelled in any of them. Against Iowa State, for example, the offense seemed to establish the run early, springing Johnathan Gray – who was coming off a career-high, 141-yard night in the win over Kansas State – for a 45-yard touchdown in the first quarter. By the second quarter, though, coaches had all but given up on the run, eventually calling on pedestrian backup quarterback Case McCoy to put the ball in the air 50 times in a game that was close throughout. Meanwhile, Gray and the rest of the running backs finished with just 23 carries, despite averaging 5.8 yards per carry to McCoy's 5.4 per pass, a ratio Brown admitted after the game didn't make a lot of sense. Most of McCoy's most successful throws of the night were pass-interference penalties against the Cyclones.
McCoy will be the starter again Saturday in place of David Ash, who poses a much greater threat to defenses as a runner and a downfield passer but hasn't fully recovered from a concussion he suffered at BYU. Against a defense that yielded upwards of seven yards per carry to both West Virginia and Notre Dame, that would seem to dictate a heavy dose of Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron between the tackles to stay out of obvious passing downs. (McCoy has struggled in those spots, completing just three passes for first downs in 16 attempts on 3rd-and-7 or longer.) The receivers are good enough to challenge Oklahoma's secondary deep, especially senior Mike Davis and sophomore Kendall Sanders, who both have long touchdown catches this season from Ash, but McCoy hasn't been nearly as successful: Only three of his 62 completions have gone for 25 yards or more, and less than half (26 of 62) have gone for first downs.
At any rate, Oklahoma's defense is an entirely different animal than the one that devoured the Longhorns last year, the Sooners' best performance by a mile: By the end of the season, the 2012 D ranked as the worst of coach Bob Stoops' tenure across the board. Faced with a mandate for change and a shortage of viable linemen, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops used the offseason to convert OU's base scheme from a 4–3 to a 3–3–5, and the turnaround has been immediate. Even with eight new starters, Oklahoma leads the Big 12 in both yards and points allowed, having held West Virginia to 7, Notre Dame to 21 and TCU to 17 in wins that (unlike many of the Sooners' wins last year) didn't require the offense to keep the pedal to the metal in shootouts. Last week, the Horned Frogs didn't gain a first down until well into the third quarter.
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Oklahoma 41, Texas 20
Even adjusting for the less-than-imposing strength of schedule, Baylor's production through the first four games cannot be denied – the Bears were so dominant in a 73–42 obliteration of West Virginia that leapt to No. 1 in this week's overall F/+ rankings – but after four consecutive blowouts in Waco, it is worth asking how well those numbers are going to travel:
Numbers include home-and-home with TCU in 2010–11
Note that two of the five wins in the road/neutral category are neutral-site victories over Texas Tech in Cowboys Stadium, and two others came over rock-bottom outfits from Colorado (2010) and Kansas (2011); in six years under Art Briles, the only road win over a team that finished with a winning record came against Missouri in 2009. Despite close calls at West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma, the only true road game Baylor won in 2012 came in an equally close September shootout with Louisiana-Monroe. None of the wins in an ongoing, eight-game winning streak dating back to last November have come on an opponents' home field. The last time the Bears were in Manhattan, in 2011, K–State spoiled a similarly white-hot start in a 36–35 upset, aided by a Robert Griffin interception that set up the game-winning touchdown.
Of course, the overriding difference between that K–State team, which scored 36 points and limited the Bears to just 62 plays, and the current Wildcats is the presence of ultra-efficient quarterback Collin Klein, who has been every bit as sorely missed as his production would suggest. In the first four games, the job of replacing him fell mainly to juco transfer Jake Waters, with occasional cameos by Wildcat option Daniel Sams. Last week, with one starting receiver (Tramaine Thompson) in street clothes at Oklahoma State and another (Tyler Lockett) injured in the first half, coaches decided to give Sams the green light; he proceeded to reward their confidence with a pair of touchdown passes and lose it all over again with four giveaways in the second half of a 33–29 loss. (In the midst of that run, Waters came on to supply a fifth giveaway, losing a fumble in the third quarter.) Bill Snyder has always preferred mobile, balanced quarterbacks to pure pocket types, and if Lockett and Thompson can't play, Sams becomes the de facto playmaker as a rusher. To create enough space to make that work, though, he has a long way to go to convince defense to respect his arm.
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Baylor 45, Kansas State 23
Right around this time last year, I described LSU's offense in a 14–6 loss at Florida as a "nightmare," which it was: After marching for a field goal on their first possession, the Tigers only crossed midfield once the rest of the day, on a long pass play that ended in a fumble. Including sacks, the ground game managed 42 yards on 1.7 per carry, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger turned in the first of three consecutive games with a completion percentage in the red. LSU's only other points came on a short-field field goal set up by the defense. So that's our "Before" picture.
The "After" is an offense that's scored 35 points in every game this season, behind a bankable senior quarterback who leads a crowded field of SEC quarterbacks in passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and efficiency. The Mettenberger on display the last two weeks against Georgia (372 yards, 3 TDs, 173.4 efficiency) and Mississippi State (340 yards, 2 TDs, 200.6 efficiency) bears no resemblance to the indecisive, inaccurate Mettenberger who looked like such a liability at the same point as a junior. In those two games alone, receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for 549 yards on 16.6 per catch, leaving them second and third in the conference in receptions and putting them on pace to become the first and second receivers under Les Miles to go over 1,000 yards in a season. (At this rate, both are on pace to go well over 1,300.) In Starkville, LSU dropped more yards (563) on Mississippi State than it has on any SEC defense since 2002, and more points (59) than it's managed in a conference game since 1997.
Florida's defense, on the other hand, looks more or less exactly like the group that straitjacketed the Tigers last year, only more so: Most of the starters are new, but statistically the Gators are right back where they finished 2012, ranked among the top five nationally in every conceivable category – according to S&P+, they're No. 1 overall and on passing downs by significant margins, and they're a close second on third downs, in general. Between the defense's ability to get off the field and the tortoise-like offense, Florida also leads the nation in the old-fashioned category of time of possession, hogging the ball for 37:39 per game. No defense has faced fewer plays per game, and only Michigan State has allowed fewer yards per play. If LSU's offense is out for redemption, it's still up to the defense to make sure it has enough chances.
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LSU 26, Florida 17
Northwestern may have won more converts in last week's down-to-the-wire loss against Ohio State than it did during a 4–0 September, thanks in no small part to a defense that forced three turnovers and held the OSU offense out of the end zone for nearly three full quarters. (Even at the end, two of the Buckeyes' three touchdown drives down the stretch were short-field marches that began inside the Northwestern 40-yard line.) The red flag where a trip to Wisconsin is concerned was along the line of scrimmage: The Wildcats were pounded for 248 yards on the ground on 5.2 per carry, despite holding OSU to a long run of just 17. Wisconsin is more balanced offensively than it gets credit for – quarterback Joel Stave is over 200 yards passing in four of the first five games, the majority of it going in the direction of All-Big Ten target Jared Abbrederis – but its first and last priority is still establishing the run between the tackles, which it's done so far better than any other offense in the conference. The Badgers are in the top ten nationally in both Rushing S&P+ and success on Standard Downs, easily their two largest advantages relative to the Northwestern D.
Wisconsin's other glaring edge on paper is on obvious passing downs for the Northwestern offense, when the Wildcats are all but forced to go with the resident pocket passer, Trevor Siemian, in place of the more athletic Kain Colter. The difference in the passing game when the run is realistically in play and when it isn't is stark:
Of Northwestern's 343 yards passing against Ohio State, the vast majority came on first down and second down with less than seven yards to go; on the other hand, six third-and-long attempts yielded just 28 yards, one first down and two sacks. As long as they can keep the entire playbook open, the Wildcats are efficient in all phases of it, but they're not good enough to consistently pass their way out of holes if the defense doesn't respect the run.
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Wisconsin 32, Northwestern 27
Baylor's offense is de rigueur, even in the weekly F/+ rankings, where the Bears just displaced Oregon at No. 1. But the Ducks are still the Ducks: Through five games under Mark Helfrich, they're on pace to blow past every offensive precedent set under Chip Kelly, including the pace itself – they're packing 77.2 plays per game into just 25:29 in time of possession, and that's with the foot easing off the gas in the second half of blowouts. The machine is running so efficiently, there's been relatively little concern about the short-term status of all-purpose dynamo De'Anthony Thomas, who has missed almost all of the last two games with an ankle injury and remains doubtful to play against Washington, and even less over the departure of tight end Colt Lyerla, who decided to get a head start on the draft on the heels of a suspension for last week's win over Colorado. Thomas and Lyerla are both former five-star recruits with a future on Sundays, but if the offense hinges on one guy, it's quarterback Marcus Mariota, who's accounting for 339 yards per game and has yet to throw an interception. At this point, all of the other pieces seem more or less interchangeable.
If there's a defense on the schedule that can change that perception, though, it's Washington's, which leads the Pac-12 in total defense after clamping down on two very different offenses, Arizona and Stanford, in consecutive weeks. Against Stanford, the Huskies allowed just two plays longer than 20 yards (one rushing, one passing, both by Cardinal receiver Ty Montgomery) and only one completion for a first down in the entire second half; aside from Montgomery, who had three catches for 54 yards, the Cardinal's other receivers didn't have a reception longer than six yards all night. Top to bottom, it's the most experienced defense in the Pac-12, and the first legitimate test for Oregon to prove it is the overlord it's supposed to be in the North Division.
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Oregon 39, Washington 24
There are two Penn State defenses. One is the defense that exists on paper, where the Nittany Lions rank 17th nationally in yards allowed and 14th in Defensive S&P+. The other exists in the real world, where the Lions were just gashed for 486 yards in a 44–24 loss at Indiana just a few weeks after being gashed for 507 yards in a 34-31 loss to Central Florida. (UCF was the first team to drop 500 yards on Penn State in a regular season game since 2001.) That dual identity is possible because the defense has been so dominant in its other three games, wins over Syracuse, Eastern Michigan and Kent State, that its collapses against the Knights and Hoosiers are obscured in the averages. But it can't hide for long: In three games against non-MAC offenses, the Lions have allowed 21 plays that gained at least 20 yards, and five that went for at least forty.
On the other side, Michigan's defense is the steepest test by far for Penn State's true freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, whose first five career starts have yielded flashes of both his blue-chip arm strength and some inevitable inconsistency. (On the latter front, although his completion percentage has dropped significantly in the last two games, Hackenberg has taken better care of the ball. In his first two games, he was picked off three times and lost one of the most hilarious fumbles of the year, leading to Eastern Michigan's only points.) The looming question in Ann Arbor this week is over the status of All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan, who has reportedly been cleared to play on Saturday for the first time since tearing his ACL in spring practice; coach Brady Hoke has conceded only that Ryan will "potentially" play. It's a not exactly a footnote: In 2012, Ryan was the best player on the defense as a true sophomore, finishing with the team lead in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles.
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Michigan 29, Penn State 18
Can it count as a "trap game" if everyone sees the trap coming? Schedule watchers singled out this trip as a dangerous one for A&M months ago, long before Ole Miss climbed into the polls on the strength of its first 3–0 start in a generation, mainly because the Aggies had so many problems in Oxford last year: In that game, Ole Miss led by ten points in the fourth quarter, 27–17, and only lost by three following a pair of Johnny Manziel touchdowns (one rushing, one passing) down the stretch. That was the first of three down-to-the-wire SEC losses in games the Rebels led in the final two minutes, which played no small part in the wave of optimism that carried them into this season.
Another catalyst for high hopes, of course, was the over-the-top recruiting class Ole Miss landed in February, which is already beginning to reshape the depth chart in its image. Already, six true freshmen have assumed regular starting roles over the first half of the season, four of whom – DL Robert Nkemdiche, WR Laquon Treadwell, OL Laremy Tunsil and DB Antonio Conner – were pegged as five-star prospects. Every member of that group has been productive, as has tight end Evan Engram, a far less touted, three-star signee who has carved out a solid niche at the only position on the entire team that wasn't already occupied by a returning starter. His classmates all had to displace veterans to earn their roles, a reassuring trend for the future, although not necessarily for keeping pace with the most prolific offense in the conference on Saturday night.
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Texas A&M 42, Ole Miss 31
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