by Matt Hinton
Like all incoming bosses, new college football head coaches usually arrive boasting visions of a brighter, more productive future. With Mark Helfrich, on the other hand, Oregon made a calculated bet on the present. Let's face it, it was not much of a gamble: As Chip Kelly's offensive coordinator, Helfrich was an integral part of the most meteoric ascent in college football, Oregon's evolution from a regional contender with no national profile beyond its penchant for bizarre-looking uniforms into a perennial powerhouse with a stranglehold on its conference. In 2010, the Ducks led the nation in total and scoring offense en route to the first undefeated, untied regular season in Oregon history. In 2011, they won the first Pac-12 championship game, then won the Rose Bowl for the first time in 95 years. The 2012 team eclipsed 2010 records for yards and points per game and landed at No. 2 in the final polls. Oregon won more games in those three seasons (36) than any other program in the nation. After Kelly's departure in January, the last thing it needed was a new vision.
No wonder, then, that Saturday's random, 42–16 flop at Arizona was met with so many eulogies for the status quo. The time for panic had already passed, on the heels of a thorough, emasculating beatdown at Stanford earlier this month. This time, the reaction was funereal. Locally, a 26-point loss to an unranked imitator marked "the end of an era" and "Black Saturday." The way it felt when Oregon definitively unseated USC as the reigning West Coast overlord in 2009? Saturday felt a lot like that.
If that sounds like hyperbole, so does Oregon's track record in this kind of game. The Ducks don't really do "random." Before Saturday, they hadn't lost to an unranked opponent since October 2009, a span of 35 consecutive games, the last 25 of which were all decided by at least 17 points. (Oregon went into Tucson as a 20.5-point favorite.) The last five teams to beat Oregon under Kelly all went on to finish in the top seven in the final polls, and three of those losses were decided by a field goal on the final play. The final margin against Arizona, 26 points, marked the Ducks' most lopsided loss since 2007. Forty-two points marked the most they'd allowed in a loss since 2009. The Wildcats racked up 304 yards rushing, most against Oregon since the 2007 opener. Marcus Mariota, more than a full calendar year removed from his last interception, was picked off twice. Even by the standards of their previous defeats, the Ducks have never looked less like themselves.
Part of the disappointment comes with a sense of missed opportunity. At 8–0, this team seemed destined for the BCS championship game; at 9–2, it looks destined for the Alamo Bowl. Even after the lapse against Stanford, the Cardinal's subsequent loss to USC put Oregon back in the driver's seat for another Pac-12 crown and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Instead, it's suffered through as many conference losses in the last three weeks as it did in the previous three years. This weekend's visit from Oregon State will be the first game any active Duck has played that doesn't stand to further any tangible goal beyond itself. For Helfrich's sake, it stands to reveal more about where his program his headed than any high-stakes showdown possibly could.
- How the Mighty Fall, Part II. Last week in this space, I singled out Baylor's offensive balance as the key to its scorched-earth run to 9–0: After obliterating Texas Tech in all phases, the Bears were on pace to become the first FBS team ever to average 300 yards rushing and passing over an entire season. This week, not so much. Playing without its top two tailbacks and starting left tackle at Oklahoma State, Baylor managed a grand total of 94 yards on 2.6 per carry in a sobering, 49–17 blowout, its worst effort on both counts since 2009. Given the Bears' success with the same lineup against Texas Tech – backup tailbacks Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin both went over 100 yards in that game – injuries don't go as far to explain the sudden drought as the stickiness of the OSU secondary, which successfully manned up against the Bears' receivers without yielding any of the space they're accustomed to generating downfield. On paper, Baylor QB Bryce Petty finished with 359 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but also turned in season-lows for yards per attempt, yards per completion and overall efficiency. Not coincidentally, he was also forced into a season-high 48 passes, with play-action looks (Petty's bread and butter) rendered irrelevant both by the scoreboard and the inability to make a dent in the Cowboys' front seven.
- How the Mighty Fall, Part III. There are few surer signs of disaster for a coach than the dreaded "vote of confidence" from his boss, but after an inconceivable, 26–20 loss to Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp needs all the support he can get. The Eagles were supposed to be a toothless, FCS patsy, and a much needed one on the heels of five consecutive losses in SEC play. Instead, GSU's triple-option attack rolled up 429 yards rushing on a solid, blue-chip defense without completing a single pass, ultimately outgaining the Gators' own toothless attack by 150 total yards. (Read that again.) So far, the word in Gainesville is that Muschamp likely will be back as head coach in 2014, regardless of the inevitable carnage this weekend against Florida State; if so, it's only as a concession to a) Florida's surprising Sugar Bowl run in 2012, and b) the glut of injuries that has decimated the current lineup across the board. Barring a miracle against FSU, though – by which I mean merely keeping the final score within the bounds of decency – the fan base is on the verge of revolt. If Muschamp is back next year, it will be on the thinnest of ice, with no excuses and no mulligans.
- How the Mighty Fall, Part IV. Seeking to avenge the worst performance of his career in 2012, Johnny Manziel fared even worse against LSU, finishing with two interceptions and career lows for pass efficiency (83.2) and total offense (278 yards) in a full start. As a team, Texas 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 since last November the Aggies have failed to score forty.
- Meanwhile, at the opposite pole, Saturday was a good day for a handful of very bad teams: Iowa State won its first conference game of the season, Connecticut won its first game, period, and Illinois snapped a 20-game Big Ten losing streak dating back to October 8, 2011. Then there's Washington State, which has been bad for so long that a 49–37 win over fading Utah qualifies as a major triumph. With the win, the Cougars move to 6–5 in Mike Leach's second season as head coach, cracking the six-win barrier for the first time since 2006, and likely securing their first bowl bid since 2003.
- Baylor notwithstanding, the most consequential development in the new BCS standings is Northern Illinois' move from 16th to 14th, courtesy of a surge in the relevant computer polls. (For some reason, the BCS computers love Northern Illinois: All six rank the Huskies in the top ten, roughly ten spots higher on average than their standing in the human polls.) The difference is small, but potentially dramatic. Although NIU and Fresno State are outsiders in the BCS hierarchy as members of the Mid-American and Mountain West conferences, respectively, Series rules do provide a path for them to crash a big-money bowl if either team is a) Ranked in the top 12 of the final standings in December; or b) Ranked in the top 16 in December, and a champion from one of the "Big Six" automatically-qualifying conferences is ranked lower.
Barring a stunning lapse over the next two weeks, Fresno and Northern Illinois will both make the cut under condition b) – the presumptive champion in the AAC, Central Florida, is well behind the curve at No. 19 – just as NIU did last year when it crashed the Orange Bowl. (Every other "BCS Buster" has qualified under the first condition, all of them finishing in the top ten.) But then, even if there are two unbeaten darkhorses, there is only one available slot for the team with the higher ranking. Last week, that was Fresno State. This week, it's Northern Illinois, despite Fresno's significant, ongoing edge in the human polls. The final decision could still break either way. So who says the final days of the BCS are devoid of drama?
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TYLER LOCKETT • WR/KR, Kansas State Lockett was a 5-foot-9, 170-pound, one-man show against Oklahoma, ripping the Sooners for 440 all-purpose yards – nearly 80 percent of K-State's total as a team – and three touchdowns in a losing effort. No other FBS player this season has accounted for 400 yards in one game.
ANDRE WILLIAMS • RB, Boston College Williams is here for the second consecutive week, following up a dominant, 339-yard effort against N.C. State with an equally dominant, 263-yard effort against Maryland, including a 72-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that sparked a come-from-behind, 29–26 win. Through eleven games, Williams is already over 2,000 yards with one regular-season game and a bowl game still to come, putting him on pace for 2,450 yards for the season. Only Barry Sanders (2,628 in 1988) and Kevin Smith (2,565 in 2007) have ever rushed for more.
AARON MURRAY • QB, Georgia Murray's college career is over due to a torn ACL in the Bulldogs' win over Kentucky, a terrible ending for one of the most prolific passers in SEC history. Murray didn't win any championships at Georgia, but he will leave as the owner of SEC records for career passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offense. If only he'd managed 12 more yards in last December's SEC title game…
OREGON STATE. Last week, I singled out the Beavers' quarterback, Sean Mannion, for his sudden regression amid the most prolific passing season in school history. This week, the defense bears most of the blame for yielding an incredible 530 yards rushing on 9.1 per carry to Washington in an ugly, 69–27 rout that wasn't nearly as close as the final score. (At the end of three quarters, the Huskies led 48–0, and were unable to throw on the brakes in the fourth because OSU couldn't stop them from ripping off huge gains on the ground.) But then, Mannion is hardly off the hook after serving up three interceptions for the third consecutive game. The larger point is that the Beavers are a team in a free-fall: After a 6–1 start, they've dropped four in a row, the last three by double digits.
DYKES' DISMAL DEBUT. Speaking of free-fall: Cal ended its season in horrific fashion Saturday at Stanford, a 63–13 debacle that leaves the Bears winless against FBS opponents in its first season under head coach Sonny Dykes. (They did beat an FCS team, Portland State, in the second game.) Granted, not much was expected from one of the greenest lineups in the nation against one of the most brutal schedules. After showing some early signs of life offensively, though, the Bears regressed over the course of the season, ultimately dropping eight of nine Pac-12 games by at least 17 points; the one exception coming in a relatively close, 33–28 loss to Arizona. Aside from Portland State, they never held a second-half lead and never gave any indication of turning a corner toward a more promising 2014.
SOUTHERN SCHEDULES ON THE SKIDS. Florida flopped against Georgia Southern, but six other Southern powers – Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and South Carolina – combined to outscore non-conference patsies Saturday by an average of 57 points. (Note that Ole Miss and Georgia are honorary members of this club for last week's games against Troy and Appalachian State, respectively, both lopsided blowouts as planned.) What is the point of these grisly spectacles? Florida State alone dropped 80 points on Idaho, at the same time North Carolina was dismembering Old Dominion in such grisly fashion that both sides agreed to shorten the fourth quarter by five minutes with the score reading UNC 80, ODU 20 at the end of the third. (Why not? The Tar Heels had already broken school records for points and touchdowns.) The "body bag" approach to scheduling is barely tolerable in September. In November, at the very moment conference races should be reaching full throttle, it's an insult.
OFI TOP 25
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1. ALABAMA (11–0).
2. FLORIDA STATE (11–0).
3. OHIO STATE (11–0).
4. AUBURN (10–1).
5. MISSOURI (10–1).
6. OKLAHOMA STATE (10–1).
7. BAYLOR (9–1).
8. CLEMSON (10–1).
9. STANFORD (9–2).
10. ARIZONA STATE (9–2).
11. OREGON (9–2).
12. WISCONSIN (9–2).
13. MICHIGAN STATE (10–1).
14. SOUTH CAROLINA (9–2).
15. LSU (8–3).
16. UCLA (8–3).
17. USC (9–3).
18. OKLAHOMA (9–2).
19. CENTRAL FLORIDA (9–1).
20. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (11–0).
22. FRESNO STATE (10–0).
23. LOUISVILLE (10–1).
23. TEXAS A&M (8–3).
24. NOTRE DAME (8–3).
25. DUKE (9–2).
– – –
In: Notre Dame.
Out: Ole Miss.
Waiting: Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Ole Miss, BYU.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. RYAN SHAZIER • LB, Ohio State
Shazier continued a dominant November with the best stat line of his career against Indiana, racking up 20 total tackles, five tackles for loss and a forced fumble in another start-to-finish rout for the Buckeyes. (In three games this month, Shazier has a solid season's worth of production: 43 tackles, a dozen TFLs, five sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.) Over their first nine games, the Hoosiers averaged 43.1 points and were never held below 28; against Ohio State, they managed just 14, on a pair of garbage-time scores in the final six minutes.
2. LB CHRIS YOUNG and DE DAVON COLEMAN • Arizona State
With Pac-12 South on the line at UCLA, Young and Coleman took up residence in the Bruin backfield, combining for 18 tackles and six of the team's nine sacks in a season-defining, 38–33 win that could propel Arizona State back to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. As usual, the Devils' aggressive approach at the line of scrimmage yielded its share of big gains, but ultimately held the Bruins to 3-of-12 on third-down conversions and kept them out of the end zone on four of their seven trips inside the ASU 30-yard line.
3. AARON DONALD • DT, Pittsburgh
At 6-0, 285 pounds, Donald bears no resemblance to Ndamukong Suh, and has nowhere near the hype that fueled Suh's darkhorse Heisman campaign in 2009. But he is delivering the same kind of production: With four tackles for loss Saturday against Syracuse – not to mention five additional tackles, two QB hurries and a blocked PAT in a one-point victory – Donald has recorded multiple TFLs in seven of eleven games, leaving him well ahead of the pack nationally with 26 for the year. An absurd number for anyone, but especially for a tackle who lines up exclusively on the interior: As a senior, Suh finished with 20.5 TFLs, and subsequent no-brainer All-Americans Brian Price, Nick Fairley and Will Sutton all fell short of twenty-five. (So did unanimous All-American Jadeveon Clowney in 2012, for the record.) Assuming Pitt is on its way to a bowl game, Donald still has two more chances to pad his lead.
4. DARQUEZE DENNARD • CB, Michigan State
Dennard turned in a solid stat line against Northwestern, finishing with a team-high nine tackles and his fourth interception of the season in a 30–6 blowout. With cornerbacks, though, the devil is always in the details, where Dennard looks even better: Of those nine stops, all but one came within ten yards of the line of scrimmage opposite an offense that a) attempted 46 passes, and b) did not score a touchdown. Northwestern is the fourth opposing offense in the past five games to leave without finding the end zone against the Spartans, despite crossing into MSU territory eight times.
5. ANTHONY HITCHENS • LB, Iowa
Hitchens was the ring leader of a dominant effort against Michigan, turning in eight total tackles, three TFLs, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in a 24–21 win for the Hawkeyes. (He also recovered the fumble, for good measure.) Altogether, the Wolverines were held to eight three-and-outs and a season low for total offense, no small feat for an attack that had already failed to generate 200 yards in two of its previous three games. Michigan's only points came on an early interception return and a pair of drives that began in Iowa territory in the first half; in the second half, the Wolverines didn't come close.