Early Offer: Sumlin's message for Lodge 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin sent a not-so-subtle message to former commit DaMarkus Lodge at his Tuesday news conference. Plus, Mississippi State captured a monumental victory over LSU this past weekend, but the Bulldogs are also winning on the recruiting trail.

Take 2: Is Florida State No. 1?

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
Florida State is No. 1 in both major polls, but the ESPN.com power rankings feature a different team at the top of the heap: Oklahoma. Our good ol’ ACC friend, Heather Dinich, voted the Sooners No. 1, and she has come here to tell us why exactly she has the reigning national champions a distant fourth in her rankings.

Heather, you realize Florida State has won 19 straight games, right?

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Mark WallheiserFlorida State figured out a way to sidestep Clemson, but it still has some problems to shore up to compare to the 2013 Noles.
HD: SHOW ME MORE. I’m not convinced. Yes, I think Florida State will be in the playoff, but I don’t think the Seminoles will win it, nor do they look like the No. 1 team in the country. I’m looking at these teams every week like the committee is supposed to, with no preconceived notions. I don’t care what FSU did last year. It’s not the same team. The whole “No. 1 until proven otherwise” argument doesn’t fly. Florida State can’t run the ball. It's not good on third downs. The offensive line hasn’t lived up to the hype. The Seminoles have been underwhelming in the red zone. And that’s just the offense …

AA: Wait, you want the defending national champions to SHOW YOU MORE than beating a ranked Clemson team without its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback? Tell me, would Oregon have beaten Washington State without Marcus Mariota? Would Mississippi State have beaten LSU without Dak Prescott? I could go on, but I think you get my point. Florida State pulled off a team win, proving that it has more than just Jameis Winston on its roster. Was it a perfect game? Absolutely not. But Oklahoma did not play a perfect game at West Virginia, either. Somehow, the Sooners found a way to win. That is exactly what the Seminoles did on Saturday night. They made the big plays when they needed to -- including the game-winning overtime score on Karlos Williams’ 12-yard run. The Noles did have problems running the ball, but not on the most important play of the game. What Florida State did -- winning its biggest game of the season without the best player in the country -- stands above any other victory to date. How is that not enough?

HD: Because Clemson lost that game more than FSU won it. That “ranked team” is no longer ranked in my top 25 because it “pulled a Clemson.” Yeah, I said it. A fumble on the 18-yard line with the game tied and two minutes to play? Shotgun formation on fourth-and-inches? Seven trips to the red zone, two touchdowns.

Golf clap for the “team win.”

It’s not enough because Oklahoma has fewer weaknesses. Because Mariota was sacked seven times -- and still looked like the best player in the country. Because Amari Cooper is better than Rashad Greene. Because if Florida State lined up against any of those teams right now ... they’d lose. They’d lose because they’re No. 108 in the country in third-down conversions, and -- get this -- 30 percent of their running plays have gone for zero or negative yardage. That ranks 110th in the country, and the only team in the ACC that’s worse is Wake Forest.

Between your Ice Bucket Challenge and six gazillion viewings of “Frozen,” I think you’ve got brain freeze. Jump back to 2014. This ain’t last year’s FSU team.

AA: That’s cooold. Ice cold! But you still did not really answer my question. Mariota and Cooper are great players, just like Winston. Take them away from their teams and what happens? Lots more weaknesses get exposed. You can have your fancy stats, but I will rely on what my eyes tell me. Clemson had a solid game plan against the Florida State offense, using the strength of its front seven to shut down the run game. Therefore, it shouldn’t be that surprising the Noles had a hard time running the ball when Clemson’s main purpose was slowing down the run. Especially since the strength of Clemson’s defense is in the front seven.

Didn’t you write in April: “Clemson’s defensive line is as good as advertised.” You also picked Clemson to win, so seeing Florida State pull out the victory should further bolster its case -- regardless of whether Clemson “pulled a Clemson.” The Tigers will be back in the Top 25 this season and will win 10 games. As the season wears on, this win will look better and better for Florida State -- the No. 1 team in all the land.

Inside South Carolina’s defensive struggles

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23

Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsSouth Carolina's defense has struggled limiting yards after catch this season.
What has happened to South Carolina's defense? The Gamecocks are allowing 36.0 points per game, second-most in the SEC and the most for any FBS team with at least three wins.

They have allowed all three of their SEC opponents to score more than 30 points after allowing one conference opponent to score that many last season.

It will be difficult for South Carolina to win the SEC if it continues at this pace. In the previous 10 seasons, only Robert Griffin III's Baylor team in 2011 won 10 games and allowed 35 or more points per game.

Furthermore, defense wins in the SEC. Texas A&M last season, led by Johnny Manziel, is the only SEC team since 2000 that finished with a winning record in a season in which it allowed 30 or more points per game.

On paper it looks as if the Gamecocks took a step in the right direction against Vanderbilt this past weekend, allowing a season-low 379 yards.

However, as Steve Spurrier noted in his postgame press news conference, “Vanderbilt has not been an offensive juggernaut in the SEC... Holding Vandy to 380 yards, I think that's their best for the year, but I'm not sure. We did some good plays here and there, but we can't brag about what we did defensively here today."

Spurrier was right. It was not a performance South Carolina would want to brag about. The Gamecocks allowed a season-high 6.9 yards per play against Vanderbilt.

Their defensive efficiency, which measures the points a defense contributes to its scoring margin and adjusts for the offenses faced, was their third-worst in a game in the last three seasons and second-worst this season.

Last season, South Carolina, led by Jadeveon Clowney, was a top 25 defense in most statistical categories, so why has it struggled this season?

Too many yards after the catch
South Carolina has allowed 311.5 passing yards per game this season, second worst in the SEC. Almost half of those passing yards have come after the catch.

The Gamecocks have allowed an SEC-worst 584 yards after the catch, including 291 against Texas A&M in Week 1, which is the most in SEC play in the last four seasons.

Opponents have averaged 12.5 receptions per game with five or more yards after the catch against the Gamecocks, the most allowed by any Power Five defense. The average for a Power Five school is 8.2 such receptions per game.

The Gamecocks have shown improvement in this area in its last two games, allowing 78 yards after the catch to Georgia and 46 to Vanderbilt. However, it should be noted that those were season highs for both of those teams.

Inside running game
South Carolina has allowed the most rushing yards per game (168.5) and yards per rush (5.3) in the SEC this season.

The Gamecocks have struggled against runs inside the tackles, allowing an SEC-high 5.8 yards per rush, including 6.1 when they have seven or fewer defenders in the box.

Due in part to its inability to stop inside runs and prevent yards after the catch, South Carolina has had a hard time getting off the field this season.

The average drive against the Gamecocks is 46.1 yards, three yards longer than any other FBS defense.

Their opponents have had 23 drives that have reached the red zone, tied with Tulane for the most in the FBS.

If the Gamecocks are not able to get off the field, it could be a long night Saturday against Missouri.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's not an easy time to be Jeff Driskel.

The noise in the system is reaching a crescendo after another dismal performance in a big game. The latest misstep was Saturday's 42-21 loss to No. 3 Alabama in which Driskel completed 32 percent of his passes (9 of 28) for 93 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

By now Driskel has seen or at least heard about Emmitt Smith's tweet calling for the junior QB to be benched.

Smith was just one voice in a chorus of former Gator players ready for a change at QB.

Heck, even Driskel's favorite target, sophomore wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, was caught expressing his displeasure in the form of a damning retweet:

Everyone it seems is ready for a new face at quarterback after three-plus seasons of Driskel at the controls. Even Driskel's most important supporter, coach Will Muschamp, admitted he thought about turning to true freshman backup Treon Harris during Saturday's rout.

"I did [consider a change], but Jeff gives us the best opportunity right now," Muschamp said after the game. "For us to win a football game like that, Jeff Driskel needs to play.

"As we move forward we need to play better at that position and a bunch of other positions, so we will evaluate that."

The Gators (2-1, 1-1 in the SEC) have nearly two weeks to evaluate before a critical game at Tennessee that could have a big impact on Muschamp's future as coach.

Before the season started, Muschamp said it was important to develop backups at the quarterback position. He was mostly referring to UF's two true freshmen recruits who were both among the top-10 prospects in the country last year.

Despite arriving on campus months after Will Grier, Harris won the No. 2 job in preseason camp and had a spectacular debut in Florida's season opener.

Still, this is a teenager who has thrown just two passes at the collegiate level.

After Florida's shaky triple-overtime win against Kentucky during which Driskel struggled mightily in leading the Gators to just three first-half points, Muschamp said he didn't think about putting in Harris.

He does, however, believe Harris has the ability to play this season.

"Absolutely," Muschamp said two days after the UK game. "And we have a plan every week for him in some situations to come in and play. Absolutely.”

It didn't happen against Alabama despite Driskel's ineffectiveness, and now the same noise on Twitter that has called for the starter to sit has led to a #FreeTreon hashtag.

One thing is certain -- it's gotten very difficult to defend Driskel, internally that is.

He's last among SEC starters in QB rating (111.1) as well as yards per attempt (5.5). His work on third downs this season is particularly telling. He's completing 42 percent of his passes (13 of 31). On eight third-down passes in Saturday's loss, he completed more passes to Alabama (two interceptions) than Florida (one).

"I didn't get it done," he said afterward.

He's as frustrated as any of his teammates, but Driskel is in a leadership position. All eyes are on him and he knows there's still a long season ahead.

"We're not going to hang our heads and we're going to continue to work to improve," he said "...Going into the bye week, we're going to have to shore some things up."

It starts at quarterback.

No quarterback decision at Michigan yet

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
Michigan coach Brady Hoke planned to name a starting quarterback Tuesday for this weekend’s Big Ten opener against Minnesota, but he decided to wait until later in the week to go a particular direction.

Redshirt senior incumbent Devin Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris will continue to compete for the starting job. Hoke said Monday that he wanted to let one or the other take over the first-team snaps by Tuesday. But he reversed course during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches conference call.

“We’ve got some ideas with what we want to do, but we’re still going to evaluate it,” Hoke said. “…We’ll still have both guys take reps. We feel good about both guys.”

Hoke didn’t give an exact date, other than Saturday afternoon, for when he expects to have his depth chart locked in place.

Gardner has started the past 16 regular-season games for Michigan, but he was removed during the fourth quarter of last weekend’s 26-10 loss to Utah. The veteran has thrown six interceptions and five touchdown passes so far this season. Morris threw an interception and fumbled once in relief work during the fourth quarter against the Utes.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said his team was preparing for Gardner to take the first snaps against his team. He said he expects Gardner to get touches at wide receiver (where he played earlier in his Michigan career) if he doesn’t play at quarterback.

“You can’t prepare for a ghost,” Kill said in reference to game-planning for a backup quarterback. “Right now Devin Gardner has been their quarterback, and he’s an explosive athlete. That’s what we have to prepare for.”

Hoke said more personnel changes may be coming later in the week for Michigan on offense and defense. The Wolverines failed to score an offensive touchdown in both of their losses this season. When asked specifically about mixing up an inexperienced offensive line, Hoke didn’t specify if any of the potential changes in mind were from that group.

“Any personnel decisions that we make this week, we want to make sure we're right and we don't want to mislead [reporters] at all. We want to make sure we're doing it the right way,” Hoke said.

The last scheduled opportunity for Hoke to announce any changes to his starting lineup this week will be Wednesday at noon. That's when he regularly meets with local media.

College football's top 10 QBs

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
Week 4 provided yet another reminder of the wonderful uncertainty and unpredictability of the college game.

And suffice to say, the drama tends to center on the guys taking the snaps. Shortcomings at quarterback have leveled the playing field among Power 5 and Group of 5 programs, and several breakout performers on under-the-radar teams have emerged to steal the spotlight.

So as we pass the season's one-quarter mark, my updated list of the top 10 quarterbacks in college football will reflect all of the upheaval, from the emergence of Kenny "Trill" Hill to the unfortunate decisions of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

While current productivity remains at the forefront of my thought process when compiling this list, each passer's NFL projection is equally important.

With that in mind ... Seeeet. Hut.

For the full list, click here Insider or become an Insider today.
While Billy Sims took in an Oklahoma practice this preseason, another Red River legend came to his mind whenever he watched freshman Samaje Perine.

“The strength, the power, the way he ran over people, it kept reminding me of Earl Campbell back in the day,” said Sims, who the Heisman Trophy for the Sooners in 1978, a year after Campbell won it at Texas in 1977.

Perine is no Earl Campbell yet.

But he’s off to an Earl Campbell-like start to his career.

[+] EnlargeSamaje Perine
Tyler Evert/Associated PressOklahoma freshman Samaje Perine is leading the Big 12 in rushing with 419 yards and five touchdowns this season.
The 5-foot-11, 243-pound “Tank” -- though “Optimus Perine” is his preferred nickname -- came a yard away from rushing for his weight, finishing with 242 yards and four touchdowns in Oklahoma’s 45-33 victory at West Virginia over the weekend.

Perhaps just as impressive, Perine carried the ball 34 times and afterward looked like as if he had done nothing more than taken a light morning jog.

“He works so hard with his conditioning and training,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s a guy that can handle all those carries. At the end of the game he wasn’t all that taxed. I saw him get on the bus and he looked great. He’s exceptional in his conditioning and his strength. He’s physically gifted that way.”

Like Campbell used to do to opposing defenses in the 1970s, Perine wore the West Virginia defenders down as they bounced off him like pingpong balls. While the Mountaineers' resolve to tackle him began to wane in the second half, Perine seemed to get stronger, as he finished with 84 of his rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

“He was able to sustain it for four quarters,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “That tells you what kind of shape he’s in.”

The emergence of Perine, who now leads the Big 12 with 419 rushing yards and five touchdowns, has left the Oklahoma offense in great shape, too, heading into the heart of the schedule. After the open week this weekend, the Sooners face three of the toughest front sevens in the league in TCU, Texas and Kansas State. But this Oklahoma rushing offense is beginning to smack of the Barry Switzer days when the Sooners could run right through opponents when they wanted to.

“I was glad to see the ground-and-pound game,” Sims said. “Let the big guys up front eat and the backs do their thing.”

The big guys up front ate well again after the game, too, courtesy of Perine. Showing he doesn’t just have physical maturity, Perine ordered pizzas for the entire offensive line Sunday.

“We were watching film, and he just walked right in and set the boxes of pizza down and walked out,” center Ty Darlington said. “That’s who he is.”

Though Perine was one of the major storylines in college football over the weekend, he wasn’t even the most highly touted running back in Oklahoma’s signing class. Joe Mixon, suspended for the year for an altercation before the season, was viewed as the gem of the recruiting class, with offers from every major program in the country. Perine, who hailed from the Austin, Texas, suburb of Pflugerville, didn’t even receive an offer from Campbell's Longhorns as he recovered from a knee injury his junior year and barely averaged double-digit carries his senior season for Hendrickson High School.

The Sooners, however, always felt Perine was a unique talent.

“He’s a very special player,” Stoops said. “We felt that all along in the recruiting process. We loved him. Physically, he’s so powerful and strong. He’s also got great vision, great speed. He’s got hands."

While Sims invoked Campbell to describe Perine, Stoops didn’t hesitate to compare Perine's immediate impact to other great runners to pass through Norman in recent years like Quentin Griffin and Adrian Peterson.

“Samaje, his performance the other night, was as good as any of those in one game,” Stoops said. “I believe he’ll continue to add on to it. He’s a similar player like that. He’s unusual in that his size and power are different than maybe anyone else we’ve had.

“We’ll see if he can continue to build on it.”

Sims, however, is a believer that will happen.

“After watching him in practice, what he’s doing now, it doesn’t surprise me,” Sims said. “Oklahoma is known for great running backs. He has the potential to be the next."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If all Urban Meyer wanted was something to feel good about and reassure him progress on defense was being made, the Ohio State coach has plenty of numbers he can pull to set his mind at ease.

The Buckeyes just pitched a shutout before their bye week. They’ve already intercepted five passes. Only two teams in the nation are allowing fewer yards per game through the air.

Those things may be encouraging, and Meyer certainly isn’t complaining considering Ohio State’s horrendous pass coverage a year ago effectively cost them a Big Ten title and a shot at a national championship. But those statistics provide something of a false positive, because the reworked secondary of the No. 22 Buckeyes hasn't really been tested yet.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"This is the test," Urban Meyer said of Cincinnati. "This is the one that we're all shooting for."
But Cincinnati figures to give them that test on Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.

“Here we go,” Meyer said. “This is the test. This is the one that we’re all shooting for.

“They’re really good at throwing the ball, and it will be a challenge for us. But I really can't make an evaluation yet after the first three games.”

The signs appear to be pointing in the right direction under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who was brought in to lead the overhaul of a coverage unit that finished No. 110 in the nation last season against the pass.

Ohio State was routinely torched down the stretch a year ago, barely surviving a shootout against Michigan before falling to both Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl thanks largely to breakdowns in the secondary. Meyer didn’t hesitate in the aftermath of the losses that snapped a 24-game winning streak to express his frustration with a defense that wasn’t playing as aggressively as he wanted, and after Everett Withers left following the season to take over at James Madison, it was up to Ash to dial up the intensity and deliver what his new boss wanted in the secondary.

So far, he appears to be delivering that with a system that relies on simpler schemes, man coverage and players with fearless mentalities who don’t back down from the challenge of intense competition on every snap.

“We did make improvement, but again, we’ve got a long way to go in a lot of areas,” Ash said. “It’s hard to answer [how much improvement there is], because I don’t really know. I was hoping that we would be good, but I was hoping that we would be undefeated at this point and we’re not.

“Where are we at right now? We won [against Kent State], we made improvement and that’s all we can ask for.”

Kent State is a far cry offensively from Cincinnati, and the Buckeyes haven’t pretended otherwise since pitching a shutout ahead of their off date and turning the focus to one of the nation’s most dangerous quarterbacks and a talented receiving corps.

Ohio State had already snuck a peek at Gunner Kiel and the explosive Bearcats before taking on Kent State, watching the redshirt sophomore’s debut in a Friday-night game in which he carved up Toledo for six touchdowns. He was impressive again in another win last weekend against Miami (Ohio), and his hot start and the strength of the Cincinnati offense is clearly not a secret to the Buckeyes.

But with just three weeks of somewhat worthless data on hand, Ohio State is actually welcoming a measuring stick for the revamped secondary. That way Meyer might finally have something worth evaluating to put his mind at ease -- or maybe some evidence that last year’s problems haven’t yet been solved.

“We’ve got some things to work out, but we’re getting there, real close,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “I’m just excited about playing the game, and we’re ready to just display to the world that the pass defense has improved.”
Pitt running back James Conner has a little bit of Aaron Donald in him. The traits they share do not seem coincidental when you consider the attributes that turn good players into great ones.

They are both relentless, aggressive, physical, constantly churning and mostly impossible to stop -- stat-producing machines who demand constant attention.

Is it any wonder they have become poster children for the Panthers' program over the past two seasons? Not in blue-collar Pittsburgh, a town that prides itself on its hard-working, no-nonsense tough guys. Conner and Donald fit the mold more than most.

Perhaps these qualities drove Pitt assistants to recruit them both hard. Nobody else really did, a puzzling fact given how they have developed. Donald had four offers out of nearby Penn Hills High, but only two from Power 5 programs (Rutgers and Pitt). Last season, he won every major defensive player of the year award and became a first-round draft pick.

Conner garnered even less interest on the recruiting trail out of McDowell High in Erie, Pennsylvania. Toledo, Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan were the only FBS programs to show significant interest in him until Pitt came along.

[+] EnlargeConner
AP Photo/Gene PuskarJames Conner leads the nation in rushing through four weeks.
Right now, Conner leads the nation in rushing with 699 yards -- the most through four games in Pitt history.

"He's blessed with great size, a great competitiveness, power and strength, and he’s really started to develop and understand the position more," Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "I'm not sure why things were a little slow early in his recruitment, but as he went through that senior year, a lot of people tried to get back in. He was adamant about wanting to be at Pitt. It’s worked out well."

The Panthers clued in late on Conner, but give them credit for tuning in when everybody else tuned out. Truth be told, he would probably be playing somewhere else if it were not for the relationship between Rudolph and Conner's high school coach, Mark Soboleski.

The two got to know each other well when Rudolph recruited McDowell quarterback A.J. Fenton to Wisconsin. After Rudolph arrived at Pitt in early 2012, Soboleski started pitching Conner, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound rising senior with the physical skill set to play both running back and defensive end.

To this day, Soboleski is not sure why Conner was virtually ignored.

"I was beating my head against the wall. I couldn't understand it. I don't know what it was," Soboleski said. "If a kid doesn't have a lot of film his junior year, sometimes those guys will wait for that senior film. James' film was really limited. He wasn't rushing for 1,500 yards or 2,000 yards as a junior, so people could say maybe we should look at this kid."

Conner was stuck behind running back Greg Garmon, who went on to Iowa. In an effort to get on the field, he voluntarily asked to play defensive end his junior year. Conner had never taken a snap on defense but ended up with 12 sacks, setting the school's single-season record.

Soboleski called Rudolph in the spring with a bold prediction.

"I said, 'Joe, you know me well enough. I'm telling you, put this kid in your program -- he's going to be the centerpiece of your freshman class,’" Soboleski recalled.

Rudolph listened.

"I trusted him," Rudolph said. "He’s a really good coach and a really good person, and he knew the type of person we’d be looking for. Those things are important. And he was right."

Rudolph invited Conner to attend a Pitt summer camp. Playing defensive end and linebacker, Conner did not lose any one-on-one reps. He was offered a scholarship on the spot.

Conner wanted his mom and four brothers to see the campus before he made his decision. In August, he committed.

"I was just one of those guys who was under the radar," Conner said. "I tried to work really hard and I thought I had pretty good numbers in high school, but I knew whatever school gave me an opportunity, I’d give my all to them."

Conner returned to running back his senior season and ran for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging 10.8 yards per carry. Though Pitt recruited him to play defense, the coaches could not ignore his productivity at running back.

"We were still recruiting backs at the time, but some of the guys we were on fell through or went other places," Rudolph said. "Then there were some guys we went back to look at. I sat down with other coaches here and came to same conclusion: There wasn’t anyone that we watched that was better than [Conner] at tailback."

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsLike Conner, Aaron Donald came out of nowhere to become Pitt's star last season.
Conner got a chance to play immediately as a true freshman in 2013 but battled injury and inconsistency. He knew with more time, he’d get there, especially with help around him.

Throughout his freshman season, Donald served as an inspiration. "I Googled his name and I looked on his Rivals profile, and I think he only had two offers, and it was like, 'Wow, all those trophies he accepted,' and he said the same thing every time: ‘Hard work pays off,’" Conner said of Donald.

Conner came on strong in the bowl game against Bowling Green, rushing for 229 yards while also playing defensive end. Donald took notice, screaming at his coaches, "He's carrying the ball for us and winning us the game. Get him off the field [on defense], I'll take care of this!"

Donald ended up making the game-winning sack.

Conner, meanwhile, tried to mimic the hard work and film study he saw Donald put in during the offseason. He has mastered the playbook, is in better condition and running with a better pad level. The offensive line has improved, too. All are big reasons Conner has gotten off to such a fast start.

If he continues his current pace, Conner would break Tony Dorsett's school record for fewest games needed to reach 1,000 yards. Dorsett needed seven games in 1976, the year he won the Heisman Trophy and led Pitt to a national championship. Conner is on pace to reach 1,000 yards in six games.

Dorsett and Conner are vastly different runners. While Dorsett relied on his speed and shiftiness, the 250-pound Conner relies on his power, reminiscent of the way Andre Williams bowled over defenders en route to a 2,000-yard season for Boston College a year ago.

While Conner still practices at defensive end, Pitt has not used him both ways in a game this season. There has been no reason to, not when he is running over people on offense.

"With me being a bigger guy, some DBs don’t really want to tackle, you put your pads down and make it happen," Conner said. "I’m blessed with the size and speed, so I take advantage of it. Running back is fun and I’ve been doing pretty good at it, so we just want to keep it rolling."

If he keeps rolling the way Donald did, Conner could end up with a full trophy case, too.
videoHistory might look back on the 2011 season and call it The Great Pac Purge. In a matter of weeks, a third of the league's coaches were out of a job.

Mike Stoops didn't even make it through Arizona's season. Rick Neuheisel didn't coach UCLA's bowl game. Dennis Erickson was fired prior to the Las Vegas Bowl, but coached the Sun Devils in a loss to Boise State. And Paul Wulff was dismissed after winning just nine games at Washington State in four years.

Then came the hires. Two big names and two “huhs?”

Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach, cast outs from their previous jobs at Michigan and Texas Tech, respectively, were considered home run hires for Arizona and Washington State. They were offensive innovators whose unique schemes would mesh perfectly with the offensive reputation of the conference.

Todd Graham at Arizona State and Jim Mora at UCLA were met with more of a hesitant golf clap than the raucous applause of the other two. Alright, let's be honest. The Graham hire drew groans and the Mora hire was perceived as borderline baffling. One was a program hopper and the other, with almost zero college coaching experience, was supposed to recruit Los Angeles? Against USC?

But as Winston Churchill said, history is written by the victors. And from the ashes of those firings came an influx of coaching talent that upped the ante for the rest of the league. And all four programs are in better shape than they were following the 2011 season. Of course, some are in better shape than others.

Per ESPN Stats and Information, there are 21 active FBS coaches who started at their school prior to the start of the 2012 season. Six of those coaches have at least 20 wins so far. Three of them are from the Pac-12 -- Mora, Graham and Rodriguez.

Two of those coaches will square off this week in a game that has been the tipping point in the South Division race the last two seasons. Arizona State hosts UCLA Thursday night in a blossoming rivalry.

Mora and the Bruins got the better of the Sun Devils two years ago in Tempe when Brett Hundley orchestrated a game-winning field goal drive. Last year ASU jumped out to big lead at the half and then held off a late charge to lock up the South.

You could make the argument that South was wide open after 2011 with USC still feeling the impact of sanctions, Utah still adjusting to life in the Pac-12 and Colorado trying to climb out of the basement. The timing was perfect for one or two of the new coaches to establish their foothold.

In the North, Leach hasn't enjoyed as much success as the other three. But his 10 wins already surpasses the nine that Wulff had during his four-year stretch. And the Cougars went to a bowl game last season -- something they hadn't done in a decade. You need only watch the scare WSU put into No. 2 Oregon Saturday night to see what type of a team the Cougars can be under Leach.

While the 2012 coaching class infused an already good coaching corps, it's worth noting that all four had quarterbacks already recruited or ready to go. In an age where three years is the new standard by which coaches are measured, that's a colossal advantage. But that's not to say this group can't recruit, having brought in talent like Myles Jack, Jaelen Strong, Vince Mayle and Anu Solomon.

However, they aren't without criticism -- particularly when it comes to signature wins. Leach is just 1-7 against AP Top 25 teams, with WSU's landmark victory being a 10-7 win at USC last year (though most will say the 2012 Apple Cup qualifies as landmark). Rodriguez is 3-7 against Top 25 competition, though last year's Oregon beat down stands out as signature. Graham is 4-5, but more importantly, 2-0 in the Territorial Cup. Mora has the best record at 5-5 and has beaten USC twice, though he's 0-3 against Stanford and 0-1 against Oregon.

None of the four are going anywhere soon unless it's by choice. They all have spearheaded programs for new or upgraded facilities (some of which are already in place) and each coach is already on his second contract.

That Washington State fans are groaning over the slow start, wanting everything to be Leachy-keen, shows that his presence has elevated the expectation level. Graham and Mora already have a South title and Rodriguez produces some of the most exciting offensive football in the country. See the Mary, Hill.

The 2012 class of coaches raised the national perception of the league, and also the stakes. The Pac-12 is as deep as it's ever been, the roster of coaches from top to bottom is at its peak and, as Oregon learned, there are no easy outs. Their presences makes their teams, and every team in the league, that much better.
If you tilt your head ever so slightly toward the city of Birmingham, Alabama, you might be able to hear the light, yet almost sinister, cackle of Mike Slive, his fingertips rippling toward one another as the word "excellent" slithers through his teeth.

What has the SEC commissioner so happy? Well, just take a look at the most recent top 25 and all the chaos erupting around him in college football. The SEC leads all conferences with eight representatives in the top 25. Four of those teams are ranked inside the top 10: Alabama (three), Auburn (five), Texas A&M (six) and Ole Miss (10).

So can the SEC realistically get two teams into the College Football Playoff?

For now, that answer has to be yes. While the rest of the Power 5 conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 -- have lost steam or suffered losses to start the year, the SEC is sitting very pretty in the national rankings. It also helps that five of the SEC's eight ranked teams are unbeaten.

That's not going to last, as all five of those teams, which are in the SEC Western Division, will face each other in a bloody round-robin in the coming weeks.

Hello, strength of schedule!

Oh, what's that? The SEC faced soft nonconference opponents to start the season? Well, not so fast, my SEC-hating friend. The league has a 5-2 record against nonconference Power 5 opponents and is 3-1 vs. the top 25.

  • Alabama beat West Virginia, which held tight with No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday.
  • LSU roared back from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin.
  • Auburn went on the road to Kansas State and won with its passing game ... and maybe some knowledge of the Wildcats' signals.
  • Georgia thumped a Clemson team that took No. 1 Florida State -- sans Jameis Winston -- to overtime, thanks to Clemsoning to the max!*
  • Arkansas is still running over and through Texas Tech after a 49-28 drubbing of the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas.
*Only true home win.

To put that in comparison with, oh, let's just say the Big Ten, the SEC is light years ahead. Through the first three weeks, the Big Ten went 23-13, including 1-10 against the Power 5 and 0-8 against the FPI Top 50.

[+] EnlargeGarrett
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsMyles Garrett (15) and the Aggies are just one of four SEC West teams in the AP Top 10.
The FPI (Football Power Index) measures team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. Its top four teams are in the SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia.

With the exception of the Big 12, the other Power 5 conferences really haven't done themselves any favors. Florida State has survived two games it could have easily lost, while suspected darling Virginia Tech went from beating Ohio State in Week 2 to promptly losing to ECU and Georgia Tech. USC upset Stanford on the road then lost 37-31 to -- wait for it -- Boston College.

The SEC has received plenty of help from the other conferences, and I think it's very safe to assume the SEC champion is getting into the playoff, regardless, but here are some scenarios that could put two SEC teams in the playoff:

The wild, wild West
Before we go on, check out these notes provided by ESPN Stats & Information about the SEC West:

  • The SEC West is 22-0 outside the West, winning by an average of 34 points.
  • All seven West teams rank in the top 20 of the FPI, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC combined.
  • Six West teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Arkansas isn't, but has won its last three games by 41.7 points per game.

Strength of schedule isn't going to be a problem for the West champ. For as tough as the West is, don't rule out an undefeated run or a one-loss run. We've seen it before ...

Let's just say an undefeated Alabama beats an undefeated Texas A&M close at home on Oct. 18. Alabama runs the table and wins the SEC. A&M runs the table afterward and sits in the top 10. Chances are that if A&M has just one loss, it has won some pretty good games, so you're looking at a potential top-five finish.

Alabama is in and with the other conferences in such disarray, it'd be tough to keep an A&M team out that would have (according to current rankings) five wins over ranked opponents.

Swap these two out for any West teams and it works, even Arkansas.

The LEast
The East isn't close to what its Western counterpart is this season, but that doesn't mean that an Eastern representative can't make it in. The easiest way is for the champ to win in Atlanta.

But look at Georgia for a possible two-team appearance. Let's say that South Carolina and Georgia run the table and South Carolina loses in Atlanta. Georgia, which lost only to South Carolina and is ahead of the Gamecocks in the polls, has a good shot at making it in with the West champ.

If both of these teams win out and South Carolina wins the SEC, I dare you to keep Georgia out.

Atlanta upset
You have an undefeated West champ upset by the East champ. The East champ is in, and after everything that West team did to make it through the gantlet, how do you keep that team out? Even if the East champ has two losses, I don't see how the committee could keep the West champ out based on body of work alone.

Hey, these are all hypotheticals, but they aren't impossible. The SEC got two teams into the BCS national title game in 2011 and almost got two in 2012.

Based on past BCS standings to determine a four-team playoff, the SEC would have gotten two teams in five times since 2005.

Don't count out the SEC.
WACO, Texas -- Spencer Drango and Bryce Hager got rings like everyone else.

They celebrated like everyone else inside Floyd Casey Stadium last December, when the Bears clinched their first outright Big 12 title in more than 30 years. But it just didn’t feel the same.

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AP Photo/Tony GutierrezSpencer Drango's return to the field is good news for Baylor.
 “Watching the celebration was tougher than I thought it would be,” Drango said. “I’m so happy we won everything, but…I wasn’t suited out.”

As No. 7 Baylor gears up for its Big 12 opener at Iowa State on Saturday, two of its biggest leaders are not taking another conference title run for granted.

Drango and Hager were both lost for the 2013 season just as Baylor’s stretch run was getting good, during a 63-34 win over Texas Tech last November to improve to 9-0. Both went down with unusual ailments, leaving a void in both production and leadership. Both watched Baylor lose two of its last four -- derailing their BCS title chase -- and couldn’t do anything about it.

That unsatisfying feeling is giving Drango and Hager plenty to play for this season.

“I think there definitely is some unfinished business,” Drango said.

Drango, the left tackle with 25 career starts, hurt his back four days before Baylor’s blowout win over Texas Tech. He assumed he had a pulled muscle and played through it. In the week following that game, as Baylor prepared to face No. 11 Oklahoma State on the road, Drango met with doctors and learned that, if he kept playing, he risked permanent nerve damage.

The surgery that followed, a microscopic lumbar discectomy, lasted no longer than an hour but required roughly five months of rehab.

Drango doesn’t remember much about watching Baylor’s 49-17 loss to OSU, mostly because he was still on post-surgery pain medication. But he remembers wishing he could assist his struggling teammates.

“I was disappointed I couldn’t be there. I was texting guys at halftime, trying to say, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing,’ stuff like that,” Drango said. “I knew a lot of them don’t check their phones, so a lot of them wouldn’t get it. So I texted four of them, just to try to help.”

The first few weeks of recovery were rough. He couldn’t carry more than 10 pounds for a while. Fortunately, his mother came up to Waco during those weeks to help out.

“A gallon of milk was about the most I could carry,” Drango said, “and I had to hold it to my chest.”

Most of the rehab process required ab work, for up to 90 minutes a day. He never got a six-pack – “it’s under there somewhere,” the 310-pound lineman joked -- but he did get better.

“You can’t replace a guy like Spencer Drango,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said. “Not physically, not from a leadership standpoint, not intellectually. I’m delighted to have him back.”

Hager’s recovery process was a bit more confusing. The 22-game starter at inside linebacker suffered a groin injury last October, during a win over Kansas State, but kept playing for another month. Art Briles and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett limited his practice schedule, but after four games, the inflammation finally overwhelmed Hager during the Texas Tech game.

Coaches didn’t rule out his eventual return, but Baylor doctors couldn’t diagnose what was really wrong. Like Drango, Hager missed the Bears’ final four games.

“He wasn’t getting better,” Bennett said this spring. “I could tell in his eyes.”

So they sought outside help and found the best of the best. Hager and his father flew to Philadelphia last winter to see Dr. William Meyers, an esteemed sports injury expert. He discovered an abdominal tear and an adductor tear and completed Hager’s operation the next morning.

“All of our doctors referred us to Dr. Meyers in Philadelphia,” Hager said. “I knew I was going to the best guy and felt really comfortable about that.”

Before he left, Hager visited Lincoln Financial Field, got a Cheez Whiz-topped cheesesteak from Geno’s and received some long-awaited relief after months of pain.

Hager and Drango both missed spring practice but felt better than ever by the end of the summer. They went right back to playing at a high level, too.

Drango has graded out better than 85 percent on his blocking in each of Baylor’s first three games. And Hager, the quarterback of the defense, leads the Bears with 19 tackles.

“He’s the guy,” Briles said during fall camp. “He makes the calls and he makes the plays.”

They both do. The Bears proved last season than can win the Big 12 without Drango and Hager. But the chase Baylor begins Saturday is made easier now that they’re back. And this time, they want a little more to celebrate come December.

Campaign trail: Mississippi State

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
Which teams will make the College Football Playoff? Ultimately, the selection committee will decide. Until then, there will be a lot of campaigning. Each week we'll unveil what we think one team's campaign message should be.

Mississippi State's upset of then-No. 8 LSU -- the team's first win at Death Valley since 1991 -- catapulted the Bulldogs into the rankings and College Football Playoff contention. Dan Mullen has a star on his hands in Dak Prescott -- and a week off to prepare for a visit from No. 6 Texas A&M. In other words, he has plenty to smile about.

Mississippi State bannerIllustration by Sam Ho

Early Offer: What a win for Wilson 

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
Missouri and Indiana often tangle on the recruiting trail, but now Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a big victory to recruit against the Tigers with. Plus, UCLA and Notre Dame are locked in a battle for the nation's top tight end prospect.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireKevin Wilson and Indiana hope to get a recruiting boost from Saturday's 31-27 win against Missouri.
1. Indiana's 31-27 victory against No. 18 Missouri this past Saturday is the type of win that can go a long way on the recruiting trail. Because of its location, Missouri is one of the few SEC schools that actively targets players in the Midwest, and it is quite common for the Hoosiers and Tigers to tangle over players in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and even in St. Louis. For the most part, Mizzou has had its way with IU, but now Hoosier coach Kevin Wilson has a breakthrough win to recruit with. As one Big Ten recruiter told me on Monday, "that's the type of win that can change recruits' minds."

2. On Monday RecruitingNation released the latest edition of the Recruiter Power rankings and UCLA’s Adrian Klemm came in at No. 2 on the list. A big reason why Klemm is ranked so high is because he was able to land ESPN 300 tight end Alize Jones, the No. 1 tight end in the country. However, there’s some legitimate concern in Westwood that Jones could end up at Notre Dame. A source indicated the Bruins are doing everything they can to "fight off Notre Dame's advances." Jones continues to say he’s still with the Bruins and is only looking around at the Irish as a security blanket, but insiders believe the interest is much more than just that.

3. What an interesting few days it’s been for Draper (Utah) Corner Canyon offensive tackle Branden Bowen. On Saturday, Bowen, the No. 5 player in Utah, committed to the Utes to give Kyle Whittingham a nice in-state recruiting victory. Then hours later on Sunday, he tweeted he had picked up an offer from Ohio State, a school he admitted he was hoping to receive an offer from earlier in the process. It will be interesting to see if the Utes can keep Bowen on board, or if the Buckeyes' offer is too tempting to pass up.


Social Studies

Often players link their highlight videos on their social media accounts, but you almost never see them posting their grades or test scores. So give Alabama commit Christian Bell a whole lot of credit for posting his ACT score for everybody to see. It's the type of highlight that also should be cheered.


AUSTIN, Texas -- After three difficult weeks of contemplation, David Ash is ready to move on from football and begin the rest of his life.

The former Texas Longhorns quarterback held a 25-minute news conference Monday and offered his first public comments since his concussion symptoms returned after an Aug. 30 win against North Texas.

He explained why, after consulting with Texas coach Charlie Strong and team doctors, he knew he needed to stop playing in the interest of his health and future.

"I'm at peace with that. God has given me a peace," Ash said. "I have a lot of hope and a lot of belief that there's still awesome days ahead for me."

Ash said he experienced headaches for seven or eight days after the 38-7 victory over North Texas, his first game since Sept. 2013. That painful week brought some needed closure.

"At the core of my heart of hearts," Ash said, "I knew I shouldn't be playing."

To read the full story, click here.