Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
29 Nov 2013
by Matt Hinton
It's been bleak enough at Michigan lately that the athletic director, Dave Brandon, actually saw fit to reassure fans, recruits and anyone else listening this week that Brady Hoke isn't going anywhere in 2014, a telling move given that even the most demoralized fans have yet to graduate from grumbling about the offense to calling for the coach's head. The operative word there being yet: After scoring a grand total of three offensive touchdowns in regulation over the last four games – two of them on drives that began in opposing territory – a bad enough beating at the hands of the Buckeyes might strike some of them as the anvil that breaks the camel's back. Ohio State has taken eight of the last nine in the series, looked increasingly invulnerable over the past month as the Wolverines have faded and is expected to turn Michigan Stadium into a de facto neutral site with Buckeye partisans crossing state lines. The window of opportunity to retake control of the rivalry following the demise of the Jim Tressel administration in Columbus has been slammed shut.
The most glaring issue for Michigan has been a makeshift offensive line, which has looked less cohesive by the week. The starting five against Iowa marked the fifth different lineup in eight games, with familiarly dismal results: Including sacks, the Wolverines have managed a grand total of 130 yards rushing in the month of November on a little under one yard per carry, worst in the nation, on both counts. (The chaos has been entirely on the interior, where seven different players – five of them freshmen, the other two walk-ons – have taken their turn between a pair of senior tackles, Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who have started every game.) Meanwhile, Ohio State has gone in the opposite direction, riding Carlos Hyde and a healthy Braxton Miller to the top of the S&P+ rankings for rushing offense. Over their last four games alone, the Buckeyes have racked up more yards on the ground (1,505) than Michigan and 32 other FBS teams have managed all season, gashing opposing defenses for nearly nine yards per carry in the process. In the same span, Miller has 11 touchdown passes to two interceptions and an overall efficiency rating of 172.1.
The caveat in that trail destruction is that it's come at the expense of the most overmatched defenses in the Big Ten, namely Purdue, Illinois and Indiana; Michigan's defense compares more favorably to Wisconsin or Iowa's, both of which kept the Buckeyes reasonably in check earlier in the year in games that were competitive well into the fourth quarter. But OSU still topped 30 points in those games, even with Miller at less than full speed following the knee injury that forced him to miss two non-conference game in September. All indications since a mid-October bye week suggest Miller is 100 percent, and that the only way Michigan is going to sniff 30 points is if half of them come courtesy of the defense and special teams.
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Ohio State 34, Michigan 13
It's been a long time since this rivalry held the weight it did in its hey day, when every meeting carried tangible stakes for both sides. (From 1990 to 2000, Florida and FSU both came in ranked in the top ten in the Associated Press poll every single year.) But you have to go back a couple of generations to arrive at a moment when these two teams were as far apart as they are right now, and even then it's debatable: The Gators and Seminoles have played every year since 1958, and this may be the most lopsided matchup of them all. For its part, Florida State has scored at least 41 points in every game, winning all of them by at least two touchdowns; since a 48–34 decision against Boston College on September 28, the Noles have obliterated their last seven opponents by a combined score of 402 to 65. In the same span, Florida has lost a third of its starting lineup to injuries over the course of a six-game losing streak, capped by a humiliating, 26–20 flop against an FCS team, Georgia Southern, that rushed for 429 yards without completing a single pass. The Gators have already clinched their first losing season since 1979, and it's common knowledge that most of the staff under head coach Will Muschamp is on its way out after this game as part of a thorough house-cleaning aimed at saving Muschamp's job in 2014. Florida ranks dead last in the SEC in total offense, having failed to reach 21 points since October 5.
In that context, the identity of the Gators' starting quarterback is hardly relevant to the outcome. (The best option, Tyler Murphy, is likely out for the third straight week with a lingering shoulder issue, leaving the job to third-stringer/lamb to the slaughter Skyler Mornhinweg.) On the other side, the only conceivable drama is the legal status of Florida State phenom Jameis Winston, who is still under investigation for an alleged sexual assault and faces an automatic suspension if charged with a felony, per university policy. As of Thursday morning, though, there is still no indication that a decision in that case is imminent – quite the opposite, in fact – or that it will keep Winston out of the lineup in the foreseeable future. For most of the season, the standing assumption was that no matter how far the offense sank, Florida's steady, blue-chip defense was good enough to keep the Gators in every game, even opposite a soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner. But the injuries have mounted, and last week's debacle looked like the dam breaking for a team whose only goal is getting out of this season as quickly as possible.
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Florida State 41, Florida 10
Auburn is the third opponent Alabama has faced this season that ranks in the top 20 in Offensive F/+, and the other two have had some success against the vaunted Bama defense. Back in September, of course, Texas A&M had unprecedented success, laying waste to previous highs for total yards (628), passing yards (464), pass efficiency (203.8) and points (42) against a Nick Saban-led team. More recently, LSU made a dent in the facade running an entirely different kind of attack, cobbling together drives covering 81, 57, 75 and 50 yards in the game's first 35 minutes. (With a field goal on the opening drive of the second half, the Tigers briefly evened the score in that game, 17–17, the only time this season Alabama has yielded a lead beyond the 12-minute mark of the second quarter. No other opposing offense has touched the ball in the second half with a chance to tie or take the lead, including Texas A&M's.) Those two offenses alone combined for 59 points and eight touchdowns; Alabama's other nine opponents have combined for 43 points and three touchdowns. Still, in both cases the Aggies and Tigers left critical points on the field by committing goal-to-go turnovers inside the Alabama 5-yard line, and in both cases their opportunities were limited by Bama's ability to protect a lead with long, clock-killing drives of its own. An accurate quarterback who avoids major mistakes can get some things done against this defense.
Is Nick Marshall that quarterback? As long as the defense is forced to respect him as a runner, maybe. Although he hasn't had many moments of inspired Manzelian creativity, Marshall has flourished as a de facto tailback in Auburn's biggest wins, finishing with 140 yards on the ground against Ole Miss, 100 against Texas A&M, 214 against Tennessee, 89 against Georgia and a pair of rushing touchdowns against all four. As a team, the Tigers are averaging 285 yards rushing against SEC defenses on 5.7 per carry, including relatively pedestrian efforts against Mississippi State and LSU in the early going. Since a September 28 bye week, the ground game has been virtually unstoppable.
As a result, though, Marshall's arm is still something of a mystery: Aside from a game-winning drive against Mississippi State, the occasional salvo to his resident deep threat, Sammie Coates, and the random, Hail Mary heave to beat Georgia, challenging defenses downfield has been beside the point. (When it's really rolling, Marshall hardly needs to put the ball in the air at all: In wins over Arkansas and Tennessee, he attempted a grand total of 15 passes, completing ten for 153 yards. But even in tight, down-to-wire shootouts against A&M and Georgia, the run-pass ratio tilted more than 2-to-1 in favor of run.) That won't be the case against Alabama, which does not allow big plays on the ground and thrives on forcing opposing quarterbacks to move the sticks on obvious passing downs. Johnny Manziel and Zach Mettenberger were able to do that to an extent, one of the reasons they're both projected as first-round draft picks. Unless Marshall has been keeping that potential under wraps for this very moment, Gus Malzahn will have to get very creative to keep the running game viable and his quarterback in his comfort zone.
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Alabama 29, Auburn 16
For the first time in a long time, the stakes here are higher than in-state bragging rights: The winner is likely destined for a big-money BCS game, the loser for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. (In Clemson's case, the scenario is pretty straightforward; South Carolina's fate still hinges on the final order in the SEC East – see below.) But beating a 24/7, 365-day-a-year rival doesn't require any additional incentive, and Clemson should have all the fuel it needs regardless of the records. Carolina has won four in a row over the Tigers, all by double digits, matching its longest streak in the history of the series. In the last two meetings, quarterback Tajh Boyd has been sacked eleven times, including five times last year by Jadeveon Clowney alone. Weeks before The Hit, it was that performance more than any other that made Clowney a unanimous All-American, and kept alive the (unfair) perception that Clemson is out of its depth outside the friendly confines of the ACC.
So while Clowney arrives nursing a foot injury and a diminished reputation – Clemson's Vic Beasley has been the more productive pass rusher in 2013, by far – it's Boyd who's nursing a glaring omission on his otherwise spectacular college resumé. Besides the setting, the biggest difference in Saturday's showdown and the 2012 edition is the presence of a fully healthy Sammy Watkins, who has actually been gimpy against the Gamecocks the last two years. As a sophomore, Watkins never looked like his explosive freshman self following an early suspension, and he did nothing to change that perception with just four catches for 37 yards in the loss to Carolina. As a junior, he's been back in top form, going over 100 all-purpose yards (the vast majority of it coming as a receiver) in all nine games against FBS competition. The only top-shelf quarterback South Carolina has faced, Georgia's Aaron Murray, lit up the Gamecocks for 309 yards and four touchdowns in September in a 41–30 win for the Bulldogs. Like Murray in that game, Boyd has at least three first-line targets in addition to Watkins (Martavis Bryant, Adam Humphries, Mike Williams) who have proven themselves as viable downfield threats. The Gamecocks have been able to get away with diminishing returns from the pass rush against a string of quarterback-challenged opponents like Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Florida, but if Clowney only has one hype-affirming game in him this season, now is the time.
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South Carolina 28, Clemson 26
Here we have a quality, name-brand matchup that nevertheless has the makings of a late-season NFL game in which one team has locked up its division and the other has already been eliminated from the playoffs. For Stanford, the main event is next week, in a rematch with Arizona State for the Pac-12 championship and a ticket to the Rose Bowl. On the other side, with its best player out for the season and no BCS bid on the horizon, Notre Dame is already looking toward 2014, beginning with the return of quarterback Everett Golson from a season-long suspension next month. Somehow, the final regular-season start for Tommy Rees fails elicit the same sense of anticipation.
Ideally, draftniks would be treated to a collision of a pair of future first-rounders on the interior line, Stanford guard David Yankey and Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III; instead, with Nix's injury and Stephon Tuitt lagging well behind his sophomore form, the Cardinal have an opportunity to pound out their usual living between the tackles, thereby opening up play-action for Kevin Hogan. In fact, the more intriguing matchup may be on the other line of scrimmage, where the Irish have allowed fewer sacks for the season (7) than any FBS team except Toledo. Stanford, on the other hand, ranks sixth nationally with 34 sacks, more than a third of them courtesy of senior Trent Murphy, who leads the nation with thirteen. At its best, Notre Dame is able to establish enough consistency from at least one of its stable of tailbacks to keep Rees out of trouble on obvious passing downs. But since its inexplicable loss to Utah on October 12, Stanford is allowing just 49.8 yards per game on the ground over the last five, on 1.9 per carry.
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Stanford 24, Notre Dame 16
Seeking to avenge the worst performance of his career in 2012, Johnny Manziel fared even worse in last week's loss to LSU, finishing with two interceptions and career lows for both pass efficiency (83.2) and total offense (278 yards) in a full start. Altogether, A&M managed just 10 points against a Tiger defense that had allowed at least 21 points to every other SEC offense it faced except Florida's, the first time this year the Aggies have failed to score forty. So much for a BCS bowl, too.
Meanwhile, Missouri's 24–10 win over Ole Miss marked its narrowest margin of victory of the season, all the more impressive considering the improbable, gut-wrenching nature of its only defeat. (It's also impressive considering the Tigers don't have any obvious, above-the-fold stars: The starting quarterback, James Franklin, was back from a shoulder injury last week for the first time in six weeks, and ace pass rusher Michael Sam has had an eerily quiet month after a blistering run in October. But overall production has not wavered on either side of the ball.) A win over A&M would send Mizzou on to the SEC championship game in just its second year in a conference a lot of people thought it would take a decade to adjust to. If it can handle Manziel, every goal – up to and including a BCS championship, if the right dominoes fall in the Tigers' favor – is still in front them.
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Missouri 34, Texas A&M 31
Making the rounds of in-state hate.
Apple Cup: WASHINGTON STATE (+14) at WASHINGTON • 3:30 pm Friday (FOX)
Back-to-back wins over Arizona (the same Arizona that subsequently crushed Oregon) and Utah (the same Utah that upset Stanford) has Wazzu bound for a bowl game for the first time since 2003, and even that doesn't quite capture the magnitude of the turnaround under Mike Leach: Of the Cougars' five losses, four of them came at the hands of teams currently ranked in the BCS' top fifteen. Unfortunately for them, Washington can say the exact same thing, and the Huskies just took the same Oregon State outfit that handed Wazzu its other loss behind the woodshed.
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Washington 37, Washington State 30
Civil War: OREGON STATE (+21) at OREGON • 8 pm Friday (ESPN)
With nothing tangible on the line, Oregon is out to fend off an existential crisis after last week's flop at Arizona, giving the Ducks as many conference losses in the past three weeks as they'd suffered in the previous three years. But Oregon State is in the midst of a straight-up collapse: After a 6–1 start, the Beavers have dropped four in a row, the last three by double digits, including the aforementioned debacle against Washington in which the Huskies racked up 530 yards rushing on 9.1 per carry. Yeah, good luck in Eugene.
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Oregon 45, Oregon State 19
DUKE (+5) at NORTH CAROLINA • Noon (ESPN2)
It speaks volumes to the perception of Duke football that even with a 9–2 record, even after seven consecutive wins, even after the end of an epic bowl drought and every other stain of futility that has plagued this program for two decades, the Blue Devils are still considered underdogs this weekend in this game. True, the Tar Heels are hitting their stride, having taken five in a row after a 1–5 start. (On Saturday, they agreed to shorten the fourth quarter from 15 minutes to ten after dropping 80 points on Old Dominion in the first three.) But it's just as likely that gamblers are simply unable to reconcile themselves with the thought of Duke playing in the ACC championship game in December instead of March. It may be an unfair, lizard-brain perception, but until it actually happens I can't blame them.
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North Carolina 38, Duke 28
KANSAS STATE (–16) at KANSAS • Noon (FS1)
Kansas played its best game in years in a 31–19 upset over West Virginia, snapping a 27-game Big 12 losing streak in the process. Seven days later, the Jayhawks rebuked any notion of progress by failing to score against Iowa State. Kansas State has the league's most underrated weapon in receiver/return man Tyler Lockett, and Kansas can't do much about it.
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Kansas State 39, Kansas 17
GEORGIA (–3) at GEORGIA TECH • 3:30 pm (ABC)
This will be Georgia's first game since 2009 with a starting quarterback other than Aaron Murray, whose prolific career came to a premature end last week with a torn ACL against Kentucky. That's terrible news for the offense, and for Murray's already middling draft stock, but as long as Todd Gurley is in the backfield it's not enough for the Yellow Jackets to close the gap.
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Georgia 27, Georgia Tech 18
NORTHWESTERN (–3.5) at ILLINOIS • 3:30 pm (Big Ten Network)
Illinois snapped a 20-game Big Ten losing streak last week at Purdue, finally relieving some of the tension that boiled over on the Illini sideline against Ohio State. After the weekly heartbreaks and sucker punches that have accompanied Northwestern's slide from the top 25 to the bottom of the Legends division standings, the Wildcats deserve a positive of their own.
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Northwestern 35, Illinois 23
Old Oaken Bucket: PURDUE (+20.5) at INDIANA • 3:30 pm (Big Ten Network)
Seven of the Boilermakers' ten losses have come by at least 24 points, which is also the most they've managed to score in any game this season. Let's say they break that streak against the Big Ten's worst defense, but don't come any closer against its most shootout-friendly offense.
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Indiana 51, Purdue 27
Commonwealth Cup: VIRGINIA TECH (–13) at VIRGINIA • 3:30 pm (ESPNU)
Incredibly, if UNC beats Duke it's still possible for the ACC Coastal to end in a five-way tie for first place, but the equation for the ACC championship game is actually pretty simple: Duke loss + Virginia Tech = Virginia Tech goes to Charlotte. Given that the reward there is playing Florida State, no surprise it's not exactly a coveted prize.
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Virginia Tech 32, Virginia 16
UCLA (+3.5) at USC • 8 pm (ABC)
Unusually for this game, there are no championships at stake, the Pac-12 South having already been decided for Arizona State. Between both teams, though, there are more wins (18) and fewer losses (6) coming in than in any season since 2005, which is also the last time both teams were ranked. In USC's case, just salvaging a shot at 10 wins after ditching the head coach at the airport at midseason is a victory in itself.
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USC 27, UCLA 21
Territorial Cup: ARIZONA (+12) at ARIZONA STATE • 9:30 pm (Pac-12 Network)
Arizona's out-of-nowhere throttling of Oregon gives the Wildcats a menacing edge they would not have had otherwise, even with the well-documented presence of tailback Ka'Deem Carey. But Arizona State is one of the hottest teams in the nation and has home field advantage in the Pac-12 championship game at stake, which should mitigate any lingering sense of "mission accomplished" after last week's draining win over UCLA to wrap up the division.
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Arizona State 38, Arizona 31
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