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» Four Downs: AFC West

There's a serious need for defensive help in Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos must determine whether or not Case Keenum can really be a long-term solution at quarterback.

21 Oct 2013

OFI: Chaos Can't Touch Consistent Tide

by Matt Hinton

The ultimate goal of Nick Saban's "process" oriented approach at Alabama is to produce a team that plays exactly the same game week-in, week-out, regardless of opponent, and it's a testament to his success that Bama's ongoing reign over the rest of college football is so easily taken for granted. On an average weekend, the assembly-line quality of the Crimson Tide's success just makes them that much safer to ignore. Last year's final score against Arkansas? 52–0, and could have been a lot worse. This year's final score against Arkansas? 52–0, and could have been a lot worse. Why even bother watching? Beginning with the last game of 2007, Saban's first season, Alabama has won 42 in a row against unranked teams, the last 23 by at least 17 points. Of its seven losses in that span, all but one (at South Carolina in 2010) came at the hands of a team that went on to finish in the top ten. When you flip away from a random Alabama game with the score 14–0 early in the second quarter, you can pretty much guarantee you're not going to wind up flipping back an hour later, wondering what you missed after the game you're watching breaks in with an "Upset Alert." You're not going to miss anything you haven't seen a couple dozen times before.

You know all that, of course, but it's worth mentioning in light of a weekend that drove home just how rare that kind of consistency really is. Aside from Alabama, the other five favorites in SEC games all lost, every single one of them in potentially season-crippling fashion. Florida, presented with a golden opportunity to take control of the SEC East, limped through the motions in a 36–17 flop at Missouri, a team starting a redshirt freshman quarterback in his first extended action. Georgia, ravaged by injuries on offense, finished with just 221 yards and blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter at Vanderbilt, effectively eliminating any goal the Bulldogs would have considered worthwhile two weeks ago. South Carolina, having just watched UGA narrowly escape an upset bid at Tennessee, walked right into a 23–21 ambush in Knoxville itself, dropping the Gamecocks two games behind Missouri in the East Division. LSU committed three turnovers in the first half at Ole Miss and couldn't climb out of a 17–0 hole in the second, dropping the Tigers two games behind Alabama in the West. Texas A&M couldn't stop Auburn, effectively eliminating the Aggies from any next-level goals with their second conference loss.

Outside of the SEC, Central Florida knocked Louisville from darkhorse to also-ran in the AAC by rallying from a three-touchdown deficit in the second half, UCLA showed no signs of life offensively in a 24–10 loss at Stanford and Clemson fell flat on its face against Florida State on its biggest stage of the season. That's seven of the top 15 in the Associated Press poll, all losers on the same day, all but UCLA in a fashion that instantly lowers the ceiling on the rest of the year.

Occasionally there's a glitch in the system that suggests Alabama is vulnerable in some fundamental, replicable way. Last year it was Johnny Manziel's unpredictability; this year, it was Manziel again, inflicting unprecedented damage on a Saban defense in the most un-Saban-like victory in his entire tenure. A few weeks before, Virginia Tech held the Bama offense to its worst output in terms of total yards in the Saban era. But then here we are again, eight weeks into the season, and while the sky is falling on the rest of the conference Alabama is meeting every quota with room to spare. Even with the A&M shootout on their resumé, the Tide are fifth nationally in total defense and first in scoring, having yielded just two touchdowns and 26 points to their other six opponents combined. Even with the Virginia Tech debacle, the offense is averaging 40 points per game -– up from the average in last year's championship run, which was up from the average in the 2011 championship run -– and ranks eighth nationally in yards per play. In the most recent F/+ ratings, Bama's special teams come in at No. 2. It's almost automatic. And if there's a lapse in this team's future prior to the BCS title game, it is automatically the upset of the year.


  • There is no drama whatsoever at the top of the season's initial BCS standings, where Alabama reigns as indisputably as ever, but much hand-wringing is in store over the dead heat for No. 2 between Florida State and Oregon. The Seminoles took round one Sunday on the heels of their start-to-finish, 51–14 slaughter of Clemson, despite failing to overtake the Ducks in either of the relevant human polls -– even without being allowed to take the stunning margin of victory into account, the BCS computers were suitably impressed by the Noles' win in Death Valley to vault them to No. 1 in the aggregate, which was just enough to nudge them past Oregon in the overall standings. Note the margin, though: In the end, the Ducks and Noles are separated by a whopping .0028 points, the narrowest gap between any two teams in the top twenty-five. In all likelihood, Oregon can make that up next week against UCLA and never look back as it hits the meat of its schedule. (Three of the Ducks' next five opponents are ranked in the BCS top 25, and the other two, Utah and Arizona, are on the fringes with a chance to rise.) Meanwhile, Florida State just dominated its biggest game of the season and still sits behind Oregon in the human polls. If the preference for the Ducks holds there -– which it almost certainly will as long as they keep winning -– the computers that gave FSU the edge this time will fall in line soon enough.

  • High-profile attacks struggled in the SEC, but they flourished everywhere else on a banner weekend for over-the-top offense. New marks on Saturday included, but were not limited to:

    – The SEC record for total offense in a career (12,327 yards), set by Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in the Bulldogs' loss to Vanderbilt, his 48th consecutive start;
    – The FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback (316), set by Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch in a 38–17 win over Central Michigan;
    – The FBS record for offensive plays (115), set by BYU in a wild, 47–46 win over Houston, in which QB Taysom Hill passed 44 times and ran 34 more for 545 total yards;
    – The team record for total offense at Michigan (751 yards), set in a 62–47 win over Indiana, as well as the individual record for total offense at Michigan (584 yards), set by quarterback Devin Gardner;
    – The Big Ten record for receiving yards (369), set by Michigan's Jeremy Gallon on 14 receptions;
    – The FBS record for passes in a game (89 ... seriously, 89!), set by Washington State QB Connor Halliday in a 62–38 loss at Oregon that wasn't nearly that close. Halliday also set conference records for completions (58) and passing yards (557), most of them coming in obvious futility with the game well out of reach. (Oregon's defensive coordinator was not impressed.) The previous standard for pass-happiness was held by Purdue's Drew Brees, who launched 83 passes in a 31–24 loss at Wisconsin in 1998.

  • Texas A&M's offense was far from perfect in a 45–41 loss to Auburn, including Johnny Manziel, who threw a pair of interceptions in the first half, missed a crucial series in the second half to a shoulder injury and couldn't finish off a last-gasp drive in the final minute. But with this defense, perfection is most definitely required. In four SEC games –- two wins, two losses –- the Aggies have been rocked for 532 yards and 41 points per game, yielding 49 to Alabama, 33 to Arkansas, 38 to Ole Miss and now 45 to Auburn, three touchdowns above the Tigers' average in their first three conference games. (Saturday, they scored touchdowns on drives covering 86, 96, 65, 75, 69, and 75 yards, respectively, the last three on their last three offensive possessions of the game.) Incredibly, Manziel is slightly exceeding last year's blistering pace for total yards, and his pass efficiency rating has risen by nearly 30 points despite the uptick in interceptions. But any shot he had of adding an SEC or BCS championship to his trophy case are dead in the water thanks to a defense that has looked even deader.
  • On a weekend full of surprises, nothing was more shocking than the dominance of Arizona State's defense against Washington in a 53–24 rout. Through their first six games, the Huskies averaged 248 yards rushing on 50 carries, including 268 yards against Boise State, 244 against Arizona and 194 against Oregon; against the Sun Devils, they finished in the red with –5 yards on just 25 carries, including –55 yards on seven sacks. (Individually, UW tailback Bishop Sankey, who woke up Saturday as the nation's leading rusher in terms of both yards and attempts, averaging 31 carries per game against FBS defenses, ran 13 times for 22 yards, his lowest total in 18 games since September 2012.) Altogether, Washington finished with negative yardage on seven of 16 offensive possessions and went three-and-out on eleven.
  • Miami is 6–0 with Florida State on deck in a couple weeks, but the really big news for the Hurricanes is the arrival of the NCAA's verdict in the Nevin Shapiro scandal, expected to drop this week after two solid years of speculation. (Yahoo! Sports' original story on Shapiro, documenting alleged violations by dozens of players and coaches over nearly a decade, was published in August 2011.) There are a handful of mitigating factors that could conceivably soften the blow: 1. By the time the story broke, almost no one named in it was still associated with the program; 2. Miami has already "self-imposed" a two-year bowl ban, rejecting potential bids in 2011 and 2012 as well as a chance to play in last year's ACC Championship Game; and 3. The NCAA has admitted to botching the investigation on multiple fronts, including some that could lead to legal action from the university if the NCAA comes down too hard. Even if the verdict includes a postseason ban, it's unlikely to go into effect this season if Miami opts for an appeal, which in that case it almost certainly will. The more severe the verdict, the more bitter this fight is going to become, but it's not likely to stand in the way of this team's immediate goals re: the ACC and BCS.


1. ALABAMA (7–0). Bama has 111 unanswered points against Arkansas since the Razorbacks' last score in the series, in 2011.
2. FLORIDA STATE (6–0). Noles look BCS-ready, for now, but remember that from 2005-12, ranked FSU teams lost at least one game to an unranked opponent in eight consecutive seasons.
3. OREGON (7–0). Marcus Mariota lost a pair of fumbles against Washington State, one of which was returned for a touchdown, but still hasn't thrown an interception since last November.
4. MISSOURI (7–0). If they make it three in row this weekend over Georgia, Florida and South Carolina –- the last two with a backup freshman quarterback -– the Tigers are in the national discussion for the long haul.
5. OHIO STATE (7–0). Buckeyes scored on six of their first seven offensive possessions against Iowa and didn't punt once -- a first under Urban Meyer -– but still had to pull away late in another Big Ten nail-biter.
6. STANFORD (6–1). Routine, defensively-driven win over UCLA has Cardinal right back in the BCS mix after last week's flop at Utah, although mainly because everyone immediately in front of them bit the dust.
7. BAYLOR (6–0). Defense held Iowa State to 174 yards and came within 47 seconds of its first in-conference shutout since 1985. (Oh, and the offense broke the 70-point/700-yard barrier for the fourth time in six games.)
8. MIAMI (6–0). Best start here since 2004, the Canes' first year in the ACC, but anyone who watched last Thursday's win over North Carolina knows speculation over conference titles and BCS bowls is still premature.
9. TEXAS TECH (7–0). Raiders escaped a bizarre, back-and-forth test at West Virginia that similarly fast-starting outfits in 2010-11 probably would have let slip away. Now things start to get interesting.
10. CLEMSON (6–1). Tigers not only blew their shot at national relevance down the stretch; Georgia's nosedive at Vandy means they also lost the Bulldogs as a validating, "quality" win at the top of the resumé.
11. LSU (6–2). Zach Mettenberger threw more interceptions in his first dozen passes at Ole Miss (3) than he threw in his first 195 passes this season, but in the end the Tigers' flop in Oxford only confirmed the mediocrity of this defense.
12. AUBURN (6–1). It says a lot about the nature of Texas A&M's offense that the Tigers yielded 41 points on 602 total yards and still left the impression that the front seven on defense played pretty well.
13. UCLA (6–1). Bruins are better than expected on defense, but Stanford exposed the offensive line as exactly the liability everyone predicted.
14. VIRGINIA TECH (6–1). Barring a lapse against one of the scrubbier members of the ACC, Hokies are one win at Miami away from taking an eleven-game winning streak into the ACC title game.
15. OKLAHOMA (6–1). Sooners' 34–19 win over Kansas wasn't as close as it seemed after OU fell behind 13–0 (Jayhawk QB Jake Heaps finished 5-of-13 passing for 16 yards, the fewest by any FBS offense this season), but it wasn't exactly reassuring after last week's flop against Texas, either.
16. OKLAHOMA STATE (5–1). In a league suddenly devoid of reliable quarterbacks, Cowboys are leaning more heavily on the defense by the week.
17. ARIZONA STATE (5–2). Sun Devils were slight favorites to beat Washington, but the 29-point margin was a shocking as anything else that happened this weekend.
19. CENTRAL FLORIDA (5–1). Trailing Louisville 28–7 in the third quarter, UCF rallied to tie the game with three consecutive touchdowns in a little over four minutes heading into the fourth.
20. TEXAS A&M (5–2).
21. OREGON STATE (6–1). With 232 yards against Cal, receiver Brandin Cooks extended his national leads for receptions (76), yards (1,176) and touchdowns (12), and put himself on pace to set the single-season FBS record for receiving yards.
22. FRESNO STATE (6–0). Bulldogs have nothing between them and a BCS bowl except their own consistency.
23. MICHIGAN (6–1). A win is a win, but after close calls against Akron, Connecticut and Indiana, no other team with a record this good feels as badly about it.
24. NOTRE DAME (5–2). After combining for 24 points in the first half, the offenses for Notre Dame and USC failed to score at all in the second, combining for ten punts, eight three-and-outs, two turnovers, one third-down conversion and two turnovers on downs in the final two quarters alone. The Irish sealed a 14–10 win in appropriate fashion, on three straight incomplete passes by Trojan QB Cody Kessler to put the game out of its misery.
25. MICHIGAN STATE (6–1). After a couple of offensive outbursts against Iowa and Indiana, Spartans reverted to form in a 14–0 bludgeoning of Purdue -– they even scored a touchdown on defense, for old times' sake.
– – –
In: Arizona State, Central Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame.
Out: Georgia, Louisville, Washington, Utah.
Waiting: Ole Miss, Louisville, Wisconsin, BYU, Georgia


The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. LAMARCUS JOYNER • DB, Florida State
Jameis Winston was the headliner, but the initial spark in FSU's 51–14 obliteration of Clemson came from Joyner, who caused a pair of fumbles in the first quarter that led directly to the Seminoles' first two touchdowns –- one of them an easy scoop-and-score for defensive end Mario Edwards caused by Joyner's blindside sack of Tajh Boyd off the corner. For the game, Joyner finished with eight tackles (all solo) and an interception that set up another score, at the head of a defense that held Clemson to arguably its worst offensive game since Boyd took over as the starting quarterback in 2011.

2. MICHAEL SAM • DE, Missouri.
For the second week in a row, Sam stood out in a validating upset for the Tigers, looking every bit the prototypical Ess Ee See pass rusher with three sacks in the win over Florida. (Fellow end Kony Ealy made his mark from the other side, as well, with a sack, a forced fumble and three hurries.) Unable to deal with the rush, the Gator offense crossed midfield just once and finished with their worst output in terms of total yards (155) since the 1999 SEC Championship Game.

3. WILL SUTTON • DT, Arizona State
Through ASU's first six games, Sutton was another preseason All-American who looked more like a bust, coming in for criticism from scouts over the "bad weight" he put on over the offseason and his rough night at Stanford opposite NFL-bound guard David Yankey. Against Washington, he was back to his old, disruptive self in the middle of the line, keeping the Huskies in the red via three tackles for loss, a sack and a pass broken up. As a team, the Devils recorded a dozen tackles for loss, easily their best effort of the season after leading the nation in TFLs in 2012.

4. JORDAN RICHARDS • S, Stanford
Richards was credited with a team-high ten tackles and a pair of interceptions against UCLA, both leading to short-field touchdowns for the Cardinal offense in a 24–10 win. Altogether, the Bruins managed just 266 yards of total offense in Palo Alto, less than half of their season average through the first five games and their worst single-game output since October 2010. Seven of UCLA's eleven offensive possessions ended in a punt, and six ended without a single first down.

5. JADEVEON CLOWNEY • DE, South Carolina
Finally. College football's answer to Paul Bunyan lived up to the legend for the first time this season, finishing with three tackles for loss and generally harassing the Tennessee backfield throughout the afternoon. He even turned in a highlight-worthy hit on the Vols' Rajion Neal, who later denied Clowney another TFL in the box score by awkwardly pitching the ball forward for an incomplete pass on his way to the turf. Any other backs who think about trying that might want to work on getting the pass out before they get rocked.

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 21 Oct 2013

3 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2013, 1:20pm by Matt Hinton


by dan in philly (not verified) :: Tue, 10/22/2013 - 6:03am

Watching Alabama play is like watching a python slowly strangle and devour a helpless mouse.

by Paul M (not verified) :: Tue, 10/22/2013 - 11:40am

curious how Arizona State can be 17 and Wisconsin out of poll? I mean but for a stupefying blown call in the desert, Badgers beat Sun Devils in Tempe and they have the better record.... Do we pretend that play didn't happen? Computers have to; humans are smarter than that...

by Matt Hinton :: Tue, 10/22/2013 - 1:20pm

Agree that Arizona State and Wisconsin are close (the difference between No. 17 and No. 28 at the moment is negligible), but ASU's schedule is the main difference. Aside from the head-to-head win – which is NOT discounted by any means – Devils' wins over Washington and USC are more valuable than Badgers' wins over Northwestern and Illinois.