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.
12 Sep 2013
by Matt Hinton
"The Consensus" is an elusive beast, often shifting so imperceptibly that it's easy to miss the moment that it crosses the threshold from one collectively held truth to the next. Not so for Johnny Manziel. In a span of three hours last November, "Johnny Football" passed directly from his role as an engaging but unproven upstart, an underdog even in his own locker room, to instant, universal renown: Here was a quarterback so good, so fast, that the game might as well be his middle name. To that point, as a freshman, he had been barred by his coach from giving a single interview. Even before he walked off the field, though, he was the new face of college football –- well on his way to the Heisman Trophy, on a team bound for its best finish in the polls since the Eisenhower administration. As a freshman. That's how much beating Alabama meant in 2012. Doing it again on Saturday might make that reaction feel pedestrian.
At the time, two months before the Crimson Tide ground yet another overmatched contender into a fine paste in the BCS title game, the language strained to accommodate the superlatives due Manziel and his young coaches for their confidence, execution and –- yes, here it comes -– poise in the face of the best defense in the sport, in arguably the most hostile environment in the sport. The Aggies roared out of the gate, didn't turn the ball over and never trailed against a team that, prior to its dramatic, season-saving comeback at LSU the previous week, had trailed for a grand total of twelve seconds all year. Borrowing a page from Utah's book in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, A&M stunned Bama for three quick touchdowns on its first three possessions of the game, and Bama spent the rest of the afternoon attempting to slug its way out of a very unfamiliar corner. The Aggies put up more points in the first quarter alone (20) than the Tide had allowed in a full game in nearly two years, since Cam Newton lifted Auburn out of a 24-point hole in the 2010 Iron Bowl.
Still, given A&M's track record to that point in big games, it's fitting that it took more than a strong initial punch to complete the breakthrough. Since the start of the 2011 season, A&M had led by double digits at some point in seven of its eight losses, including a 17-7 edge over Florida in the 2012 opener and a 12-0 run against LSU just three weeks prior to the trip to Alabama. In those games, Manziel's first encounters with a ranked opponent, the Aggies scored on their first three offensive possessions against the Gators, their first two against LSU, and subsequently fell head-first into a well in eventual losses. What really put them over the top in Tuscaloosa was an all-too-rare counterpunch in the fourth quarter, just as Alabama was closing the gap. As much as anything else he did all season, it was on two throws, specifically, that Manziel graduated from up-and-coming dervish to elite bomber. The first: A 42-yard drop in the bucket to Ryan Swope on a well-covered wheel route into Alabama territory. The second, one play later: A 24-yard strike to Malcome Kennedy on a well-covered corner route that pushed A&M's lead back to two scores, 29–17, instantly enshrining it among the greatest plays in school history.
A&M went on to finish with more first downs (23), more rushing yards (165), a higher pass efficiency rating (167.3) and a better percentage on third-down conversions (61.1) than any FBS offense against Alabama in the last two years. But it was in those two moments, especially, that the myth of Manziel hardened into an undeniable fact that raises the stakes every time he steps onto a field. Ultimately, that says as much about the dragon he slayed as it does about Manziel himself. Put them across from one another again as equals, and for September, neither the stakes nor the stage can get any bigger.
The "Edge" column tells the story here: Last year's game in the Rose Bowl featured 66 points on 1,092 yards of total offense, most of it coming on the ground, and this year's numbers should be even more extreme. Both offenses are off to fast starts, averaging upwards of 45 points per game behind proven, dual-threat quarterbacks Brett Hundley and Taylor Martinez, and both defenses are full of guys making their first starts in a big, above-the-fold game.
Although Nebraska may have bigger defensive questions to answer after yielding 602 yards in an opening-day scare against Wyoming, the big questions that have plagued the Cornhuskers over the last two years – especially in games like this one – are the ones concerning a) Martinez's ability to stretch respectable defenses with his arm, and b) the turnover margin. Excluding his gaudy afternoons against non-conference patsies, Martinez's efficiency against opponents from the "Big Six" BCS conferences actually declined in 2011–12 from his rating as a redshirt freshman. In the same span, he was responsible for 29 fumbles, six more than any other FBS player, bringing his career total coming into the season o 47; as a team, Nebraska finished Dead last in the Big Ten last year with 35 giveaways, nearly half of which led directly to opponent touchdowns. (Nationally, the only team that turned it over more often was Idaho.) Martinez personally accounted for ten turnovers (eight interceptions, two fumbles) in the Cornhuskers' four losses alone, including a late, game-clinching interception in the loss to UCLA.
The good news is that Nebraska still scored at least 30 points in all four of those losses. The bad news is that opponents scored 52 points off the giveaways. The margin for error with this defense appears to be even smaller, but if they can eliminate the mistakes, there is more than enough firepower offensively to survive a shootout.
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Nebraska 41, UCLA 34.
As always with Oregon, it's easy to get carried away by the outrageous statistics this time of year – through two games, the Ducks rank third nationally in scoring (62.5 ppg), second in total offense (664.5 ypg) and third in Offensive S&P+ – but given the competition, the really part is not the production so much as the pace: Although 140 plays in two games is almost right on the national average, Oregon has managed to get there while ranking dead last in time of possession at a little over 20 minutes per game. That's roughly one play every 17.6 seconds. And when you're averaging 9.5 yards per play… well, you don't have to do the mat to figure out that adds up to a lot of yards, very, very quickly. Last week at Virginia the Ducks broke eight plays covering at least 25 yards against a defense that had more than held its own against BYU, which subsequently ran wild on Texas, etc.
Predictably, Oregon coaches spent this week saying flattering things about the Tennessee defense, which certainly appears to be on the upswing from last year's finish in the SEC basement – and really, how could it not? – although there's not a whole lot to be learned from forcing five turnovers in a span of six plays against Western Kentucky. On the front end of this series, in 2010, Oregon racked up 447 yards of total offense in a 48–13 rout, the most lopsided loss ever administered to Tennessee in Neyland Stadium. We know the Ducks are every bit as good as they were then. This is the Vols' first chance under coach Butch Jones to prove it's getting any better.
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Oregon 48, Tennessee 17
One national writer this week labeled Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron the "anti-Manziel," which he meant as a compliment – McCarron, the guy with an indecipherable tattoo scrawled across his chest, is regarded as a humble, salt-of-the-earth leader compared to his notoriously reckless counterpart – but could have been taken in quite another context the last time these two teams saw each other. While Manziel was breaking big, McCarron was suffering through one of his worst games as a starter, beginning with an early interception that set up an A&M touchdown, and ending with an end zone pick that clinched the upset. (Prior to that, another interception that would have likely sealed the game for A&M had been overturned on replay, which didn't excuse McCarron's decision-making on the throw.) Although he finished with a career-high 309 yards and came within a few yards of a career-defining comeback, it came too late to dig the Tide out an early, 20–0 hole, and it was the only game all year in which he was intercepted twice.
It would be easier to write off that afternoon as a mulligan if we hadn't just seen McCarron deliver an even more uninspiring performance in Alabama's opening-day win over Virginia Tech. After an early touchdown drive in the first quarter – which started in Virginia Tech territory – the most touted Crimson Tide offense in recent memory spent the rest of the game going nowhere, punting on eight of their last ten possessions with five three-and-outs. Bama's total production for the night, 206 yards, was the most anemic turn of Nick Saban's tenure. The game was over early thanks to the overwhelming contributions of the defense and special teams, but aside from a successful bomb to Christion Jones in the third quarter, at no point in the final three quarters did McCarron look like the most efficient passer in the nation – in fact, with a rating of 89.3, he turned in the least efficient game of his career – and the offense as a whole looked nothing like the attack that ended last year on equal footing with the chart-topping defense.
Virginia Tech's veteran defense had a lot to do with that; certainly three new offensive linemen making their first career starts did, too. And there was very little need to open things up with a double-digit cushion on the scoreboard and the Hokie offense looking even worse. Against A&M, as we've seen, even this defense can't necessarily be relied upon to be nearly so foolproof. Between Jones, Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon, Bama has the firepower to keep pace in an up-tempo game, and then some – last year's SEC Championship win over Georgia turned into a bona fide shootout – but clearly there are few kinks to work out to get back into championship form.
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Alabama 27, Texas A&M 23.
Every year a couple of teams seem to exceed expectations by just enough in the early going to disorient preseason assumptions, but not quite render them obsolete. Here we have two of them. No one made a bigger leap in last week's F/+ ratings than Illinois following its 45–17 win over Cincinnati, and it wasn't close: The upset propelled the Illini up 32 spots, from 97th to 65th, easily outdistancing Washington State's jump from 103rd to 85th on the heels of its ambush at USC. The reality may have been even more dramatic than that. After dropping nine straight games to close 2012 – all but one of them by double digits – Illinois has looked like an entirely different team, especially senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who had as many touchdown passes against the Bearcats alone (4) as he had in his entire junior season. As a team, 45 points was nearly double the Illini's best total in the losing streak.
But that still leaves them looking up at Washington, whose stock is on the uptick, too, after an opening-night, 38–6 romp over Boise State, by far the most lopsided defeat inflicted on the Broncos in eight years. (For what it's worth, Boise was back to looking like its usual, methodical self last week in 63–14 dismantling of UT–Martin.) The Huskies racked up 592 yards in that game, nearly 140 yards above their 2012 average, at one point ripping off four consecutive, extended touchdown drives on their first four possessions of the second half. And they did it entirely without their towering, All-American tight end, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a first-round talent who will be back in the lineup Saturday after serving a one-game suspension.
So what to make of this matchup? Washington is the de facto favorite by virtue of carrying more experience (336 career starts to Illinois' 209) and significantly higher expectations into the season, and exceeding them in its first game. On the other hand, these are essentially the same Huskies that have turned in a 7–6 record three years in a row. Illinois is coming off easily its best performance under second-year coach Tim Beckman, but the nearest competition for that title is probably a 24–7 win over Western Michigan last year in Beckman's first game. In either case, a win or a loss tells us very little until we know just how far the other side has come.
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Washington 33, Illinois 20
On paper, it's a no-brainer. In their minds, though, this must be a game that scares Ohio State fans to death. For one, it was only last year that a clearly overmatched Cal outfit outgained the Buckeyes by 100 yards in Columbus, 512 to 412, and pushed OSU to the brink in a 35–25 loss decided in the final four minutes. Then there's the mysterious status of star quarterback Braxton Miller, who reportedly will travel with the team to Berkeley but has not been cleared to play. If Miller can't go, the baton passes to his backup, senior Kenny Guiton, whose only significant snaps have come off the bench, at home. If Miller does play, it's likely to be at less than 100 percent, with limited mobility.
Either way, while Cal hasn't done anything yet to lift itself from the bottom of the Pac-12 pecking order, it has the look a team that sooner or later is going to set some unsuspecting frontrunner's season on fire. There was a lot to like in the opener, a 44–30 loss to Northwestern, most notably the Golden Bears' youth: First-year coach Sonny Dykes inherited the greenest lineup in the Pac-12, and aside from some untimely, correctable turnovers the result against the Wildcats was reasonably competitive the first time out. True freshman Jared Goff flashed a major-league arm in that game in the course of throwing 63 times—a school record, if that was in question – and his top two receivers, Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, are both true sophomores. Last week, Goff put it in the air 53 times with no interceptions in a 37–30 win over Portland State, leaving him as the leading passer in the nation in terms of yardage. He's not far enough along yet to seriously contemplate an upset of this magnitude in his third game, if for no other reason than he has to overcome his own, much less promising defense as well as Ohio State's. At some point, though, he's going to do something that gets everyone's pulse quickening, even if just for a few minutes.
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Ohio State 29, Cal 21.
Last week, I instructed readers in this space to ignore the media-driven backlash over Jadeveon Clowney's decidedly un-dominating turn in the season opener, and focus instead on the fact that South Carolina's defense as a whole looked as nasty as anyone had any respect in the course of holding North Carolina well below its 2012 lows for both yards and points. Inevitably, the Gamecocks responded by allowing 538 yards and 41 points to Georgia in a full-fledged shootout, including a badly blown coverage on an 85-yard touchdown pass that effectively put the game on ice. The Bulldogs finished with seven touchdowns on their first nine possessions, an extended, clock-killing march on their tenth and a single punt; Clowney finished with one sack and enough pent-up frustration to tell reporters he'd like to be moved around more to keep offenses from running away from him.
For the second week in a row, though, the Gamecocks flashed some surprising big-play potential offensively, especially from sophomore tailback Mike Davis, who ripped off his second 75-yard run in as many games, and wide receiver Nick Jones, who had a pair of touchdown grabs. Between Jones, Bruce Ellington, and tight end Rory Anderson, Carolina has three proven targets who averaged at least 15 yards per catch in 2012, and blue-chip sophomore Shaq Roland may have already passed them all on his way to the top of the rotation. Vanderbilt will the best individual receiver on the field, All-SEC senior Jordan Matthews, but the Commodores are going to have a much harder time establishing the run – the Commodores' rotation of undersized backs cannot begin to approximate the consistent, between-the-tackles impact of Georgia's Todd Gurley – and challenging the Gamecocks downfield. At 0-1 in the division, Carolina needs this game too badly in the East race to suffer a lapse at home.
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South Carolina 34, Vanderbilt 17.
Quite a few betting sites have taken this game off the board, ostensibly due to questions over the availability of Texas' starting quarterback, David Ash, who hasn't practiced this week and appears to be doubtful for Saturday due to head and shoulder injuries. If Ash can't go, the Longhorns will turn first to senior Case McCoy, and if things go as badly as they have in the past with McCoy at the controls, then to true freshman Tyrone Swoopes, who has all of the talent McCoy lacks and none of the experience. So Ash's absence would be crisis enough.
After last week, though, the real uncertainty is on defense. The Longhorns' historic flop at BYU set off so many alarm bells last Saturday night that by Sunday morning, Mack Brown had already fired his defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, reinforcing just how crucial this season is to Brown's own survival. In Diaz's place, Brown will turn to former coordinator Greg "GERG" Robinson—last seen in disastrous stints as head coach at Syracuse and defensive coordinator at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez—who conveniently rejoined the team in the offseason as an "analyst" and had already been involved in game-planning. (Apparently Brown, unlike myself, the F/+ projections and other members of the preseason prediction racket who pegged his team for a breakthrough season, began preparing for the worst-case scenario months in advance. Although as Michigan fans will tell you, putting Robinson in charge of a struggling defense seems like "throwing gas on an already raging tire fire.") New quarterback. New defensive coordinator. New level of urgency. Same shoddy defense. There is no way on Earth to predict what we're going to get from this group on either side of the ball.
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Ole Miss 32, Texas 28
We stand to learn more from this inter-sectional clash than any other game of the weekend: In three games between them, neither the Badgers nor Sun Devils have allowed a point, which says a lot more the state of their competition so far than it does about either defense. That said, all indications are that Wisconsin is determined to be more or less exactly the same team under its new coach, Gary Andersen, as it was under its old one, Bret Bielema, whose old-school approach resulted in three consecutive Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls. Against UMass and Tennessee Tech (yeah, I know), the Badgers have kept it on the ground twice as often as they've put it in the air, and the top three running backs (Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement) have all gone over 100 yards rushing in both games. The starting offensive line averages 320 pounds, which is about as Wisconsinian as it gets.
On that note, the most interesting matchup of the night will be the Badgers' colossal front against Arizona State's All-American defensive lineman, Will Sutton, considered a tweener at 6-foot-0, 292 pounds, but arguably the most disruptive presence on any defensive line in the nation. As a junior, Sutton led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (23.5) largely from an interior position, where his quickness overwhelmed guards and centers, but he's also capable of sliding to the outside as an edge rusher if necessary. But it's not just Sutton: As a whole, the defense lives and dies on creating pressure in opposing backfields – ASU was No. 1 nationally last year in TFLs, No. 2 in sacks – but how that philosophy holds up against a brawny, straight-ahead power running game as opposed to the more spread-friendly attacks of the Pac-12 is one of the more interesting mysteries of the weekend. If the Devils can answer it, the South Division is wide open for the taking.
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Wisconsin 30, Arizona State 24.
2 comments, Last at 13 Sep 2013, 10:24am by Dan in Philly