Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
06 Sep 2013
by Matt Hinton
Was it inevitable? After eight months of perpetual hype and hyperbole, much of it casting him as a freak from an alternate dimension where all species breathe pain, was there any way that Jadeveon Clowney's first game of 2013 wouldn't result in a backlash? By failing to turn the opposing quarterback into a pillar of salt on national television, the most feared pass rusher in America went from celebrated to overrated, exalted to out-of-shape, in a matter of hours. Even his coach admitted that Clowney was "obviously ... not up to par."
So stunned was the rest of the world by the exposure of such an otherworldly talent as a mortal human being that it seemed incapable of processing the success of South Carolina's defense as a whole. But whether anyone noticed or not amid the focus on Clowney, and Clowney's conditioning, the Gamecocks were as good against North Carolina as anyone had any right to expect. While the headliner failed to record a tackle for loss, eleven other Carolina defenders did, in the process of holding UNC more than 30 points below its 2012 scoring average. Last year, the Tar Heels' worst game of the season in terms of total offense netted 410 yards; against South Carolina, they finished with 293. The only SEC defense that allowed fewer yards per play in its opener was Alabama's.
Clowney's role in that, specifically, may be debatable. But the basis of South Carolina's rise in the conference pecking order under Steve Spurrier is not: Carolina finished sixth nationally in 2012 in S&P+ defense, and among the top 15 in both yards and points allowed for the second year in a row. 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. While Clowney was busy defying hyperbole as a sophomore, 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, a trajectory it seems determined to continue. 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. If they survive Saturday's visit to Georgia with championship ambitions intact, it will be in very large part because the front four – all of them – are finally on part with the league's elite.
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All games on Saturday 9/7 unless noted; all times Eastern. F/+ ratings are a combination of 2013 projections and results from week one. S&P ratings have not been updated in 2013 pending more results.
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• Florida's ongoing search for an offensive spark continues after another defensively driven, lo-fi win over Toledo, after which junior quarterback Jeff Driskel assured reporters that, "Big plays will come. You can't force them. Later down the road they will come." Florida receivers in 2012: Thirteen touchdowns on 10.4 yards per catch, next-to-last in the SEC on both counts. Florida receivers in the opener, against a MAC defense: One touchdown on 9.0 yards per catch, with a long of 26. If they can't find more room than that against a Miami defense that ranked 88th last year in Defensive F/+, Gator fans should brace themselves for another long, tense slog through the SEC.
• On paper, the Hurricanes are the most experienced outfit in the ACC, but given the nature of that experience the only thing they can be sure of at this point is the explosiveness of sophomore tailback Duke Johnson. Coming off a fantastic debut in 2012, Johnson lit up Florida Atlantic in the opener for 224 total yards, including a 53-yard touchdown run and a 38-yard gain on his only reception. Florida is not Florida Atlantic: If Johnson is going to have any room to run against the Gators' blue-chip front seven, the Hurricanes will need consistent production from the very capable-but-erratic arm of senior quarterback Stephen Morris. (Unlike his counterpart, Morris is most definitely not afraid to challenge any secondary downfield, with mixed results.) But that is expecting a lot from an offense that failed to top 20 points last year against Kansas State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Florida State.
Prediction. Florida 24, Miami 16.
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• For most Big Ten teams, a narrow, 42–34 escape against Southern Illinois would be a cause for alarm. For Illinois, which was far too terrible in 2012 to contemplate the idea of a "moral defeat," any and all victories are worthy of commemorating, especially on a weekend that saw FCS teams dropping their more well-heeled hosts at a furious pace. Under any circumstances, the end of a nine-game losing streak is the end of a nine-game losing streak.
Most encouraging for the Illini was the performance of senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who put a dreadful 2012 campaign to bed by throwing for 416 yards and two touchdowns on 11.6 yards per attempt. As a junior, Scheelhaase threw for 1,361 yards and four touchdowns all season, on 5.5 yards per attempt, leading many fans to write him off as a one-dimensional scrambler who'd be lucky to hold off incoming freshman Aaron Bailey. At the very least, a career-high in the opener means Scheelhaase's job is secure. How far that gets him against a real, live FBS opponent opposite the kind of defense that yields 34 points to Southern Illinois, we're about to find out.
• Meanwhile, the Bearcats spent opening day waylaying another Big Ten doormat, Purdue, by a final score of 42–7, which may or may not signify anything for the rest of the season. (The only reliable takeaway from the victory was the return of the immortally named Munchie Legaux as starting quarterback after losing the job midway through 2012.) True, the defense showed real potential, forcing a turnover, turnover on downs, or three-and-out on eight of Purdue's eleven offensive possessions –- the Boilermakers' only score came on a short field following a muffed punt –- although there's no way to judge yet just how bad Purdue really is. At least where the fledgling American Athletic Conference is concerned, all that really matters is that Cincinnati keeps winning: With each victory, the league gets one step closer to the best possible scenario in its inaugural season, a meaningful, winner-take-all showdown between the Bearcats and the ostensible frontrunner, Louisville, with a BCS bid on the line in the season finale. If both sides come in undefeated against mediocre schedules, all the better.
Prediction. Cincinnati 38, Illinois 20.
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• It is very easy to ignore anything that happens against Nicholls State, even a number as outrageous as the 772 yards Oregon dropped on the Colonels en route to a 66–3 massacre. For the Ducks, par for the course. What cannot be ignored, though, is Oregon's pace: In its first game of the post-Chip Kelly era, the offense managed 71 plays in just 19:46 of time of possession, or roughly one snap every 16.7 seconds. (That's including the time it took to actually run the plays, some of which were quite long.) Only one of the Ducks' eight touchdown drives took more than two minutes.
• Virginia, on the other hand, achieved very little offensively in a 19–16 win over BYU, all but three of those points coming as a direct result of BYU miscues: The Cavaliers' two touchdown "drives" covered 16 and 13 yards, respectfully, following a blocked punt and a late, tip-drill interception, and they added a safety when the Cougars botched a shotgun snap near their own goal line. Had BYU played it closer to the vest with a late lead rather than attempt to throw for a first down in wet conditions, leading to the pick that set up the winning touchdown, it's unlikely the UVA offense would have had enough juice to get anywhere near the end zone –- to that point, the Cavs had only crossed midfield once all afternoon, and only just far enough then to kick a 53–yard field at the end of the first half. By the time they cross the 50 against Oregon, the Ducks may have already scored fifty.
Prediction. Oregon 48, Virginia 17.
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• Given the choice between North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, the choice is fairly obvious: As a junior, Murray finished second nationally in pass efficiency and first in yards per attempt, and picked up where he left off last week by averaging 11.1 per pass in a 38–35 heartbreaker at Clemson. But the much bigger difference between the Bulldogs and Tar Heels –- what Georgia brings to the table against South Carolina on Saturday that UNC did not last week -– is the threat of a viable, punishing, every-down running game. Despite missing part of the first half with a minor injury, sophomore tailback Todd Gurley was nearly unstoppable in the second, gashing the Tigers for 154 yards and two touchdowns (one of them from 75 yards out) on just a dozen carries. Fellow sophomore Keith Marshall, while quiet against Clemson, managed to exceed his blue-chip recruiting hype last year while splitting time with Gurley. Even the fullback, Quayvon Hicks, flashed his big-play potential in the opener on a 37-yard run and a 38-yard reception out of the backfield.
But all of that was true last October, too, when Murray, Gurley, and Marshall led the undefeated Bulldogs into South Carolina on the heels of a breakout performance against Tennessee, and limped out of Columbia licking the wounds of a 35–7 humiliation that bounced them from the top ten. In that game, the precocious tailbacks combined for 76 yards on 3.0 per carry and Murray finished with the worst efficiency rating of his career (58.6) by a mile. Between Georgia's backfield, the offensive line, and South Carolina's defensive line, the only difference between that Saturday and this one is the setting.
• Good as the defense was against North Carolina, the really frightening aspect of the Gamecocks' opening-day win was the firepower on offense, evident immediately on a 65–yard bomb from Connor Shaw to sophomore Shaq Roland on the third snap of the game. (Roland dropped another would-be touchdown a few minutes later.) Later on, sophomore Mike Davis put comparisons to Marcus Lattimore in the rearview (along with the UNC defense) on a 75–yard sprint that effectively put the game away in the third quarter. The biggest question mark for South Carolina coming into the season was its ability to generate big plays with the departure of last year's top target, Ace Sanders, to the next level. But between Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd, Nick Jones, and tight end Rory Anderson, Shaw has four veteran targets to choose from who each averaged more than 15 yards per reception last year. If Roland, the gem of the 2012 recruiting class, is ready to join that group after a quiet debut, the question shifts from one of potential to one of consistency.
Prediction. South Carolina 29, Georgia 24.
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• The line on this game is subject to change based on the status of Northwestern's most vital offensive weapons, quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark, who have been described as "day-to-day" with a concussion and an undisclosed lower-body injury, respectively. Those two alone accounted for two-thirds of the Wildcats' total yards from scrimmage in 2012, and will probably remain question marks through the opening kickoff.
In their place, quarterback Trevor Siemian (18-of-29, 276 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions) and tailback Treyvon Green (16 carries for 129 yards, two touchdowns) fared relatively well last week in a 44–30 win over California, although the final margin in that game was supplied by a pair of pick-six interception returns by linebacker Collin Ellis in the second half. Syracuse's long-in-the-tooth secondary is a better match for Northwestern on passing downs than Cal's, and Colter's versatile presence in the backfield would go a long way toward avoiding them.
• On the other hand, compared to Cal's "Bear Raid," Syracuse's offense could not be more different than the one that called on a true freshman quarterback to put the ball in the air 63 times in his first college game. The Orange split the difference exactly against Penn State, calling 37 passes to 37 runs, although ideally they'd prefer to keep the ball on the ground as often as possible with seniors Jerome Smith and Prince Tyson-Gulley; over the course of a 6–1 finish in 2012, Smith and Tyson-Gulley alone combined average 36 carries for 204 yards per game. Against Penn State, they ran 28 times for 97 yards, leaving first-time starter Drew Allen to attempt to pick up the slack. Instead, he completed just 16-of-37 with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 23–17 loss.
Prediction. Northwestern 29, Syracuse 21.
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• BYU played defense about as anyone outside of Tuscaloosa and South Bend in 2012, holding six of 13 opponents out of the end zone entirely, and would have added Virginia to that list in the opener if not for gaffes by the offense and special teams in a very frustrating loss. The offense remains the issue, especially the passing game, which is not something we were ever supposed to be able to say about BYU. Sophomore Taysom Hill was a dismal 13-of-40 passing in the opener, and the equally dismal weather can only account for so much – after all, the Cougars were 83rd in pass efficiency last year after finishing 64th in 2011. On one hand, offensive coordinator Robert Anae had enough faith in Hill to let him throw on a crucial third down late in the game against UVA; on the other, he blamed himself after Hill threw a game-deciding interception for ever putting his young QB in that situation. That's against Virginia; can they really be ready for Texas?
• After a slow start, the Longhorns exploded last week against New Mexico State, following a scoreless first quarter with five touchdowns in a span of 16 offensive snaps in the second and third. Under a new coordinator, Major Applewhite, they set a school record for total offense, dividing the production equally between rushing (359 yards) and passing (356 yards), on more than 11 yards per play. Eight different players accounted for at least 60 yards from scrimmage. For an extremely veteran team facing the usual high expectations, it was exactly what impatient fans needed to see against New Mexico State. As far as the rest of the schedule is concerned, though, it could not have mattered less. BYU, on the road, is a real test that will tell us exactly where the Longhorns stand ahead of the Big 12 race.
Prediction. Texas 27, BYU 14.
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• No team was as severely traumatized by a single player in 2012 as Oklahoma was by Tavon Austin, who racked up more all-purpose yards against the Sooners last November (572) than any FBS player against any opponent in more than a decade –- and this in a game the Sooners actually won, 50–49. Final score notwithstanding, the trip to West Virginia was arguably the worst defensive effort in school history, resulting in a staggering 778 yards of total offense (458 rushing) by the Mountaineers, the most ever allowed by an Oklahoma defense.
The West Virginia offense that shows up on Saturday could not be more different: No Austin, no Geno Smith, no Stedman Bailey, and suddenly no inclination to indulge coach Dana Holgorsen's instinct to keep the ball in the air as often as possible. In last week's opener against William & Mary, the Mountaineers ran 44 times with just 27 passes, their most run-oriented distribution in 27 games on Holgorsen's watch. Ironically, the leading rushers in both 2011 (Dustin Garrison) and 2012 (Andrew Buie) played no role in that, having been displaced on the depth chart by newcomers Charles Sims (a transfer from Houston, where he played under Holgorsen in 2009), Dreamius Smith (a junior-college transfer), and Wendell Smallwood (a true freshman). Evicted from the three-deep, Garrison logged a single carry in the opener, and Buie left the team rather than redshirt.
• Oklahoma's offense was a foreign affair in the opener, as well, where the Sooners' new quarterbacks (Trevor Knight and Blake Bell) combined for fewer passing yards against UL–Monroe (124) than Oklahoma had amassed in any game since a September 2007 loss at Colorado. Knight, a redshirt freshman, was an uninspired 11-of-28 passing in his first start, including a late interception. On the other hand, he also threw for three short touchdowns and lived up to his athletic reputation with 103 yards rushing -– a far cry from the days of his statuesque predecessors, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones.
Prediction. Oklahoma 32, West Virginia 21.
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• Before last season, the blackest mark against Tommy Rees as Notre Dame's starting quarterback was his penchant for giving the ball away, which he did both too often -– 14 interceptions, five lost fumbles in 2011 alone –- and at especially inopportune moments. For many, the defining moment of Rees' career to date remains an infamous fourth-quarter fumble in Michigan Stadium in September 2011, when the ball slipped untouched out of his hand as he attempted a pass inside the Wolverine red zone. The gaffe likely cost the Irish a decisive score in a game they'd dominated for three quarters and went on to lose in gut-wrenching fashion. (Tellingly, far fewer fans seem to give Rees credit for returning to throw a go-ahead touchdown pass in the same game with less than a minute to play, only to watch the defense melt down in the final seconds.) Altogether, Notre Dame went on to commit 29 turnovers that season, and finished in the red in overall turnover margin all five of its losses.
With Everett Golson taking the vast majority of snaps in 2012, the Irish were no better at moving the ball than they had been under Rees, but they turned the ball over just 15 times, and finished in the red just twice in the regular season. (Tellingly, both of those games were settled in dramatic fashion in overtime against Stanford and Pittsburgh, nearly derailing the "miracle" run to the BCS title game.) With Golson out of the picture this season and Rees once again entrenched at the top of the depth chart, the Irish showed no signs of their old, butterfingery selves last week in a 28–6 rout over Temple, in which Rees passed for three touchdowns in the first half and finished with the highest pass efficiency rating (239.0) in the Brian Kelly era. Michigan is not Temple: On the road, backed up by effectively the same first-rate defense that anchored last year's turnaround, eliminating mistakes takes precedent over explosiveness.
• Even the more realistic corners of the Michigan fan base are betting the house this year on the emergence of quarterback Devin Gardner, who arrived with high marks as a recruit in 2010, looked good in his first extended action late last season, and left coaches and pro scouts alike gushing over the summer. In last week's win over Central Michigan, not so much: Gardner only put the ball in the air 15 times, and was picked off twice. Instead, the good news against CMU was the ground game, a major question mark coming into the season, which racked up 242 yards behind Gardner, true freshman Derrick Green in his first college game, and senior Fitzgerald Toussaint in his first game back from a broken leg. But Notre Dame is not Central Michigan: If Gardner is who Michigan fans think he is, this is the time to prove it.
Prediction. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 20.
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• For San Jose State, this trip serves mainly as a showcase for the talents of its senior quarterback, David Fales, against a defense brimming with NFL prospects. Fales could not have been further off the radar before the Spartans' near-upset in Palo Alto last year, having just arrived at SJSU from junior college, but he acquitted himself well in his first start (24-of-35, 217 yards, a touchdown and an interception) and proceeded to dominate the rest of the schedule, finishing No. 1 nationally in completion percentage and third in pass efficiency; blessed with a viable quarterback for the first time in recent memory, SJSU won eleven of its last twelve games and finished in the top 25 for the first time in school history. For the season, Fales' completion percentage never dipped below 65.4 percent.
Still, given the depths of MWC defenses, it took a 305-yard, three-touchdown effort from Fales in the Spartans' next-to-last game of the regular season, a 20–14 upset over BYU, to begin turning heads. Since then, scouts have evaluated him as a solid second-day prospect in next year's draft, and he will have everyone's full attention against one of the most loaded defenses in the nation. Including said defense's.
• For Stanford, the question that dogged the offense last year is the same, only heightened: Who are the playmakers? Efficient as he was as a redshirt freshman, quarterback Kevin Hogan was not inclined to challenge defenses downfield, averaging a modest 10.1 yards per completion. And his receivers didn't give him much incentive: Even more so than in the past, the passing game revolved around a pair of towering, NFL-bound tight ends (in this case, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo) deployed to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties on play-action routes. The same role will be reprised this fall by sophomore Luke Kaumatule, typecast at 6-foot-7, but there are no proven big-play threats among the wide receivers or, with the departure of 1,500-yard workhorse Stepfan Taylor, in the backfield. One potential exception is Barry J. Sanders, son of the Barry Sanders, who will make his debut in the rotation after sitting out his first season on campus as a redshirt. Still, all sparks are strictly hypothetical.
Prediction. Stanford 26, San Jose State 17.
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