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.
25 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
Technically speaking, Texas Tech is a top-ten team, benefiting from a sudden rash of upsets last weekend to make its move into the upper crust in every major poll. (In barely a month, the Red Raiders have advanced from unranked across the board to No. 9 in the Coaches' and Harris polls, 10th according to the BCS and Associated Press.) Seriously, tho1ugh, who's buying that? Not FO, which has Tech ranked 32nd in both FEI and S&P+. Through seven games, Texas Tech's only win over an opponent with a winning record came at the expense of Texas State, an obscure upstart in just its second year as an FBS program. Last week, in their most validating performance to date, the Red Raiders had to rally from a fourth-quarter deficit to escape an upset bid at West Virginia, a team last seen being reduced to ashes by Baylor. Sure, the Bears look like the real thing. But Texas Tech? A contender? For real?
Well, maybe, yeah. The answer depends on your points of reference: The current standings say yes, the recent track record over the second half the season says no. Under the last coach, Tommy Tuberville, late October arrived with a reality check. In 2011, the Raiders started 5–2 and rose to 19th in the polls following an upset over Oklahoma; from there, they lost their last five by 31 points per game. In 2012, the Raiders started 6–1 and rose to 18th following an upset over No. 5 West Virginia; from there, they dropped four of their last five – the lone victory coming against the worst team in the Big 12, Kansas, in overtime – and Tuberville hit "eject" before the bowl game.
But why should the story stay the same when almost everything else has changed? The locals never really took to Tuberville the way they have to his successor, Kliff Kingsbury, who – as a record-breaking quarterback from 1999-2002 – was already a venerated member of the tribe and has shown no sign of being in over his head at age thirty-four. (It can't hurt that he's got a little Ryan Gosling vibe going on, either.) Unlike the last time Texas Tech made any real noise nationally, with a veteran lineup in 2008, there's a sense that this team has overachieved: Before the season, Texas Tech was widely picked to finish seventh or worse in the Big 12, and didn't appear in the top 25 in a single preseason outlet. (FOA 2013 pegged Tech at eighth in the conference and 42nd overall.) Saturday's trip to Oklahoma, though, is another golden opportunity for a program that has so rarely been able to take advantage of them. In the long run, the program hasn't won an outright conference championship since 1955, in the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association; despite a half-dozen previous forays into the top ten, it's never finished there. Now that it finds itself on the brink, what makes the 2013 edition different from its flatlining predecessors? Maybe nothing, and the stretch run against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas is about to prove how right the skeptics were all along. Either way, this is the weekend we finally find out.
BYU tied an FBS record last week with 115 plays from scrimmage in a wild, 47–46 win over Houston, the vast majority of them calling on quarterback Taysom Hill as a rusher or passer, which may not seem like an optimum scenario heading into a short week. (Even more so when you consider that eight of Hill's 34 carries in the win came on sacks.) Injury-wise, though, the only starter expected to miss Friday's game on the heels of the mini-marathon is center Terrance Alletto. Then there's Boise State, which only ran 67 plays Saturday against Nevada but saw its season flash before its eyes when QB Joe Southwick went down with a broken ankle on the very first one. In his place, backup Grant Hedrick eased some of the anxiety by turning in an efficient, 18-of-21 performance as a passer and ripping the Wolf Pack for 115 yards rushing in a 34–17 win; add in a career day for tailback Jay Ajayi, and the ground game as a whole cleared the 400-yard barrier (407 to be exact, on 8.8 per carry) for the first time since Chris Petersen was promoted to head coach in 2006.
Still, shoving around the worst defense in the conference at home is a far cry from opening holes at BYU. Last year, the Broncos barely made a dent against the Cougars, failing to score an offensive touchdown on the blue turf despite the benefit of four BYU turnovers. This year, the Cougars remain one of the stingiest defenses in the country against the run, having allowed just 3.5 yards per carry and three touchdowns on the ground in seven games. Beyond that, the secondary is much less imposing, but between Hedrick's inexperience on the road – Friday night will be his first career start anywhere – and the presence of veteran ball hawk Kyle Van Noy on the pass rush, Boise's first priority has to be keeping obvious passing downs to a minimum.
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BYU 29, Boise State 17
For Tennessee, last week's upset over South Carolina marked the end of a 19-game losing streak against ranked teams dating back to 2009, all the more validating considering how far the Vols have come in just a few weeks: After lopsided losses at Oregon and Florida and a too-close-for-comfort escape against South Alabama, they seemed to be falling further behind the curve. In the meantime, no one on the team has grown up faster than junior quarterback Justin Worley, who briefly lost the job following the debacle at Oregon but arrives in Tuscaloosa as the unquestioned starter. Among a hopelessly green receiving corps, a pair of relatively reliable targets are beginning to emerge in Pig Howard and Marquez North, the true freshman who stole the show against Carolina with a pair of outrageous, clutch catches that set up go-ahead field goals on Tennessee's last two drives.
What a shame that a team still adjusting to the altitude has to be subjected to the Alabama Death Star. Since 2008, the Crimson Tide have taken 43 in a row against unranked opponents, the last 23 by at least 17 points; against Tennessee, specifically (the Vols have not been ranked in that span), they're 6–0 under Nick Saban by an average margin of 23 points. Remember when the vaunted Bama defense was torched by Texas A&M for six touchdowns in a very un-Bama-like shootout back in September? Since then, opponents have combined for a single touchdown in the last five games, and the defense has returned to its usual perch as the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation. In that context, it will count as a minor triumph if the Vols find the end zone before garbage time.
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Alabama 41, Tennessee 10
For most of Bob Stoops' tenure there, Norman, Okla., earned its reputation as the Bermuda Triangle of the Big 12: Between 1999, Stoops' first year on the job, and 2010, Oklahoma racked up an absurd 72–2 record at home, only one of those losses coming at the hands of a Big 12 opponent. (Oklahoma State pulled off an ambush in 2001 under head coach Les Miles, costing the Sooners a division crown at the eleventh hour.) Not coincidentally, that run produced seven conference championships and four bids to the nominal BCS title game in twelve years. Is it any coincidence, then, that the relative malaise in Norman began at home, in a stunning, 41–38 loss to Texas Tech in October 2011? At the time, the Sooners were ranked third in the AP poll after opening the season at No. 1; they subsequently dropped two more games on the road and finished 16th. Last year, they lost not once but twice at home, to Kansas State and Notre Dame, and limped in at 15th in the final poll after opening the season at No. 4. Although OU has won six in a row in Norman since the flop against the Fighting Irish, all four conference games in that span have been decided by single digits.
So which side here is really the one out to justify its existence as a viable Big 12 contender? At 7–0, Texas Tech has already matched its win total for all of 2012 behind a 34-year-old, first-time head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, and a pair of true freshman quarterbacks (Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield) who have refused to concede to the conservative trend across the conference as a whole. Of the eight receivers in the Big 12 with at least 30 receptions on the season, four of them are Red Raiders, including Jace Amaro, who is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league with nine catches in five consecutive games; regardless of where he lines up, at 6-foot-6 he's a mismatch on virtually every snap. Oklahoma brings plenty of speed to the position with Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard, but not much size, and not nearly as much confidence as it had in quarterback Blake Bell before uninspiring turns against TCU, Texas and Kansas the last three weeks. Texas Tech has seen more than one promising season come to a grisly end at Oklahoma, most memorably in 2008, but this time around the talent gap is not as obvious as it's been in the past.
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Oklahoma 37, Texas Tech 28
Finally, Jadeveon Clowney looked like his old self last week against Tennessee, registering three stops in the backfield in his most disruptive, Clowney-esque performance of the season, by far. Even at full strength, though, it's an open question on Saturday whether college football's answer to Paul Bunyan is even the best defensive end on the field: For sheer production, no pass rush in the SEC right now is outpacing Missouri's, and no individual defender can touch Michael Sam. With three sacks against Florida, Sam moved into the national lead for both sacks and tackles for loss – categories Clowney dominated as a sophomore, but rarely registered in before last weekend – just one week after returning a fumble for a touchdown in the Tigers' eye-opening, 41–26 win at Georgia. As a team, Mizzou is No. 1 in the conference in both sacks and takeaways, and No. 2 in tackles for loss, looking every bit the prototypical, blue-chip SEC defense in the process.
The major caveat there is that the Tigers have yet to face a prototypical, blue-chip SEC ground game, and no back has been more consistent in that role than the Gamecocks' Mike Davis. In seven games, Davis has hit the century mark in six of them, flashing breakaway speed (eight runs of 20 yards or longer) and between-the-tackles power (seven first downs on a dozen carries on 3rd-and-3 or less) in equal measure. Against Georgia, Missouri had the luxury of facing a pair of freshmen in place of the Bulldogs' usual tailbacks, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, and still gave up 176 yards on 6.1 per carry before sacks; had the Bulldogs not been forced to abandon the run in catch-up mode, the damage could have been much worse. Although Davis is getting his hands on the ball more often than any non-quarterback in the conference, Carolina fans thought 21 carries wasn't nearly enough last week with the passing game looking out of sync and Davis averaging well over six yards a pop, anyway. Assuming QB Connor Shaw is out of commission due to a knee injury, Steve Spurrier has every reason to heed their advice.
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Missouri 30, South Carolina 24
Offensive line was pegged as a sore spot for UCLA before the season, and the cloudy forecasts are beginning to look optimistic. Most of the problems stem from the classic combination of youth and injuries: One true freshman, Alex Redmond, has started every game at right guard, and has been joined the last two weeks by classmate Caleb Benenoch at right tackle; this week, a third freshman, Scott Quessenberry, is expected to make his first career start at left guard in place of junior Xavier Su'a-Filo, who'll be sliding to left tackle for the injured Simon Goines. Against Cal, the Bruins were stopped cold on the ground (78 yards on 2.3 per carry) by one of the worst run defenses in the Pac-12; against Stanford, they were stopped cold (74 yards on 2.7 per carry) and yielded four sacks in a 24–10 slugfest that consisted mainly of UCLA getting slugged. In addition to the injuries up front, the Bruins have also missed leading rusher Jordon James, who's expected to miss his third consecutive game due to a bad ankle.
Even at full strength, they'd be heavy underdogs in Eugene, although just how heavy is up for debate because Oregon tends to put opponents away so quickly that it can be difficult from a statistical perspective to determine where the Ducks' "real" defense ends and garbage time begins. Last week, for example, Washington State kept throwing (and throwing… and throwing…) from the first gun to the last in a hopeless, one-sided blowout, eventually setting the FBS record for pass attempts (89) and Pac-12 records for completions (58) and passing yards (557), none of which had any bearing whatsoever on the outcome. Of the 13 touchdowns Oregon has allowed to opposing offenses this season – a pretty good number under any circumstances – seven have come with the Ducks already leading by at least 20 points. If all-purpose dynamo De'Anthony Thomas is back in the lineup Saturday, as he says he will be after losing a month to an ankle injury, the threshold will arrive that much sooner.
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Oregon 45, UCLA 27
Is Texas so volatile, so derelict from one game to the next that it deserves to be an underdog against the most underachieving outfit in the Big 12? True, no one is flocking to the Longhorn bandwagon after September flops against BYU and Ole Miss and a narrow, controversial escape against Iowa State; prior to their out-of-nowhere, 36–20 upset over Oklahoma, they'd given no indication whatsoever of fulfilling the preseason hype that projected them in the top ten, a running theme in Austin for the last four years. But at least Texas has the Oklahoma game, high-water mark of a 3–0 start in Big 12 play. TCU has nothing: Although they opened the season with a top-20 ranking of their own, the Horned Frogs are 1–3 in the conference (the lone victory coming over the resident whipping post, Kansas) and 0–4 against teams in the current polls. Arguably the best players on both offense (QB Casey Pachall) and defense (DE DeVonte Fields, who had a breakout game against Texas last year as a true freshman) have been bitten by season-ending injuries. In losses to Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, it took the offense three full quarters to find the end zone in all three, leaving the Frogs as the lowest-scoring team in the league in Big 12 games.
The big question, of course, is how much of Texas' ostensible coming-of-age against Oklahoma carries over through the bye week. The performance in Dallas was so far removed from the precedent set in the first five games that it's hard to gauge whether it represented a real turning point or a random fluke or what. It certainly wouldn't be the first time this particular set of Longhorns has given a fleeting glimpse of its potential, only to lose the thread again in deflating fashion. (See last year's loss to TCU, for example, coming on the heels of a four-game winning streak.) The de facto gauge for the rest of the team is the only starter who has never been confused for a blue-chip talent, quarterback Case McCoy, who defied low expectations against the Sooners by delivering one of the most efficient starts of his career. But that was a direct result of the best run support he's ever had, an uncharacteristically patient assault that churned out 256 yards on 59 carries. For all its other problems, TCU is as solid as ever against the run and matches up well against Texas' receivers with future pros Jason Verrett and Kevin White on the corners. The best possible scenario for the Horned Frogs is a noncommittal ground game behind a quarterback who lacks the arm to challenge them downfield.
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Texas 25, TCU 17
A win is a win, as the adage goes, but for an outfit considered head-and-shoulders above the rest of its conference, the Buckeyes never make it look easy, do they? Last week's come-from-behind, 34–24 win over Iowa matched Ohio State's widest margin of victory in its last five Big Ten games, and marked the sixth time in the course of an 11-game B1G winning streak OSU has trailed in the second half. And of course, where the BCS is concerned, any win can take on a very different complexion when it's being compared to other, more impressive wins: While Florida State, Oregon and Baylor have been racking up "style points" galore, Ohio State has been preoccupied with mere survival.
But Penn State may be more vulnerable to a bloodletting than its numbers let it on. Offensively, the Nittany Lions are starting a true freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, in his first really heavy road test; his reaction is anybody's guess. Defensively, although the Lions rank in the top ten in Defensive S&P+, they've also been gashed for 486 yards in a 44–24 loss at Indiana and 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.) The last time we saw them, the Lions yielded 40 points to Michigan, 34 in regulation. The gap between the numbers and the reality against sentient competition 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 four games against non-MAC offenses, the Lions have allowed 25 plays that gained at least 20 yards, and six that went for at least forty.
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Ohio State 35, Penn State 24
If you don't live on the West Coast, keeping of track of Oregon State takes a certain level of channel-surfing, up-all-night commitment that most casual fans do not possess, which means many of those fans who stumble across the Beavers on ESPN proper on Saturday night/Sunday morning will be getting their first look at the most prolific pass-catch combo in the nation, Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks. Mannion, coming off an erratic 2012, is leading the nation in passing yards, total yards and touchdowns, with at least four scoring strikes in six consecutive games; his touchdown-to-interception ratio is up from roughly 1:1 as a sophomore (15 TDs to 13 INTs) to nearly 10:1 (29 TDs, 3 INTs). Cooks, largely overshadowed last year by Markus Wheaton, is leading the nation in receptions, yards and touchdowns, and is currently on pace to break the FBS record for receiving yards in season. Together, they've packed a solid season's worth of work into seven games, the main reason the Beavers have won the last six.
On the other hand, the corollary to such over-the-top success through the air is an anemic running game that isn't called on very often and doesn't get much done when it is: Nationally, only Washington State runs less often, or for fewer yards, despite the fact that OSU has yet to face anything resembling a first-rate defense. Stanford has a higher profile in that regard, and deserves it, bouncing back last week from a pair of borderline efforts against Washington and Utah to hold UCLA to just ten points. Although Oregon State has done a reasonably good job of protecting Mannion to date, the Cardinal are more than capable of bringing consistent pressure with just four rushers, and far too loaded on the front seven to be allowed to tee off without some facsimile of a threat on the ground to slow them down.
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Stanford 31, Oregon State 23
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