TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin and the quarterbacks were what everyone wanted to see when Alabama took the field against West Virginia on Saturday. The Crimson Tide’s new offensive coordinator would be calling plays from the sideline, mere feet away from head coach Nick Saban. And on top of that, he’d be managing the quarterback situation, which promised to pit Blake Sims, the veteran who had paid his dues, versus Jake Coker, the strong-armed transfer from Florida State.

But Kiffin Cam and the QB battle didn’t yield much in the way of controversy. There were no sideline sparks between Kiffin and Saban, and Sims played well enough to hang on at quarterback until the game was essentially over. Coker came on for the final series, only to turn and hand the ball off to the running backs until the clock struck zero.

[+] EnlargeKevin White, Bradley Sylve
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBradley Sylve and the Crimson Tide secondary gave up 365 yards to West Virginia on Saturday.
The offense, it turns out, wasn’t the problem.

The game everyone expected to see against West Virginia wound up being turned on its ear. Alabama’s defense -- you know, the one everyone assumed would return to its 2009-2012 form -- instead laid an egg in the Georgia Dome. Tempo got the best of them once again. West Virginia’s running backs gashed the front seven. Its wide receivers ran roughshod over the secondary. Had it not been for a number of dropped passes, quarterback Clint Trickett might have led the Mountaineers to within reach of a monumental upset.

Returning to Tuscaloosa, Saban took stock of the hard-fought win on Monday. He started out optimistically, praising the team’s effort and the “intangible things” it did, like playing with toughness, competing and not letting one bad play carry over to the next. He pointed out that his defense made “two huge stops inside the 10-yard line” and that when Sims did turn the ball over, it responded by forcing a three-and-out.

That was the good news. But there was plenty of bad. Nearly 400 yards of offense and nine trips inside Alabama’s 40-yard line said so.

“We didn't play very well in the secondary at all,” Saban explained. “We didn't play very well at linebacker. We had too many miscommunications, too many missed coverages, too many missed assignments."

On one play, Jarran Reed doubled back nicely on a screen pass and helped force a minimal gain. But then, Saban said, there was another screen where the lineman didn’t get back and it ended up resulting in a 17-yard pickup.

“I think we have a lot to improve on defensively, all the way around,” he said. “So I'm not disappointed. It is what it is. This is where we are. This is the starting point.”

If Alabama hopes to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it better hope so. Because while West Virginia is certainly talented offensively, there are a handful of teams on the schedule that could give the defense even more trouble. Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all have explosive offenses that like to push the pace. Even Mississippi State, with the improvements its made at receiver and running back, can move the ball in a hurry.

There’s plenty of time to improve, though. Florida Atlantic, which lost 55-7 to Nebraska on Saturday, is up next, and its starting quarterback might not even be available to play. After that it’s Southern Miss, which has won one game since 2011. Neither opponent figures to challenge the defense.

Taking advantage of those tune-ups will be crucial.

By the time Week 4 and Florida comes around, Alabama's defense could take on a different look, especially in the secondary.

Cyrus Jones has shown signs of improvement at corner, but Bradley Sylve had a rough go of it on Saturday. Five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey are itching to take their spots in the starting lineup, but for now the fear is that their inexperience will lead to busts in coverage. Eddie Jackson might be the answer, but the sophomore is only five months removed from a torn ACL. He was cleared to play recently, according to Saban, but his status is uncertain as of today.

On top of that, veteran nickel back Jarrick Williams is out for the next four weeks with a fractured foot.

The good news is there’s time to find the right personnel and fix some of the issues we saw against West Virginia. The bad news is there are so many issues in the first place.

Maybe after so much time and energy devoted to Kiffin and the quarterbacks this offseason, it’s worth finally turning our attention to the other side of the football. It’s there where the most things are happening.

OSU, WVU look to build off openers

September, 2, 2014
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Oklahoma State and West Virginia might both be 0-1.

But the way they lost their openers has completely changed the outlook for the rest of their seasons.

For the better, too.

The Cowboys took defending national champion Florida State to the wire. The Mountaineers went toe-to-toe with second-ranked Alabama.

[+] EnlargeKevin White, Bradley Sylve
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWest Virginia's Kevin White had nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown against Alabama.
 Before last weekend, Oklahoma State was thought to be in rebuilding mode. Facing a brutal schedule, West Virginia seemed headed for another year without a bowl.

Not anymore in Stillwater.

And not anymore in Morgantown.

“They should be able to establish a certain level of confidence from the way we played,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said of his team. “The second half we were very competitive. Once they got up and going and realized they could play with the speed that Florida State brought to the table, they were much better. And so I think there’s a certain amount of confidence they should have developed from that game.”

The Mountaineers should take plenty of confidence out of their opener with Alabama, too.

West Virginia went into Atlanta almost a four-touchdown underdog. But on the first drive, the Mountaineers took it right to the Crimson Tide. Rushel Shell grinded out tough yards between the tackles, while quarterback Clint Trickett fired completions all over the field. The opening drive stalled inside the Alabama 5-yard line, leading to a field goal. But the Crimson Tide quickly learned they’d have a fight on their hands.

“We’re not interested in any moral victories,” Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said Monday. “But we felt like we could play with those guys. And went into the game with a good frame of mind that was going to happen. And it did.”

Coming off an injury-riddled year in which he was still learning Holgorsen’s offense, Trickett looked like a completely different quarterback. With perfect poise and even more perfect hair, he completed 29 of 45 passes for 365 yards -- the second-highest passing total a Nick Saban defense had ever allowed at Alabama.

“Clint is a completely different quarterback than he was last year,” West Virginia receiver Jordan Thompson told reporters after the game. “People are basing our team off of what we were last year. We were inexperienced last year. Everybody now has a year under their belts. We’re healthier, stronger, faster, a little bigger, but most of all we’re more experienced, and Clint’s the No. 1 difference.”

Mario Alford and Kevin White were difference-makers, too. Against one of the top-rated defensive backfields in the country, White showed he could flourish as West Virginia’s first go-to wideout since Stedman Bailey. White hauled in nine receptions for 143 yards and a 19-yard touchdown pass. Alford, meanwhile, kick-started a return unit that ranked last in the Big 12 last fall, returning a kick 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Defensively, the Mountaineers should get better, too. They struggled to contain Alabama’s powerful rushing attack up front. But at the back end Karl Joseph finished with 18 tackles and Daryl Worley pick off a pass, underscoring the playmaking West Virginia will have in its secondary this season.

Ultimately, the Mountaineers dropped too many passes and coughed up too many touchdown chances to pull off the upset. But along the way, they learned they can play with anyone in the country, which should do wonders for a program that has struggled the past season-and-a-half.

“Our guys are in a good place right now,” Holgorsen said. “That’s the standard that we need to play with. And if we can play with that kind of mentality the whole year, we’ll have a good team.”

[+] EnlargeJ.W. Walsh
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start, J.W. Walsh and the Cowboys regrouped against defending champion Florida State.
 If the Cowboys continue playing the way they did in Arlington, Texas, they might have a great team.

With the fewest returning starters among any team from a Power 5 conference, Oklahoma State’s young squad seemed to be on the verge of getting blown out after falling behind 17-0 in the second quarter.

Instead, the Cowboys hung tough. Quarterback J.W. Walsh settled down after a rocky start. Tyreek Hill began running away from anyone wearing a white Seminoles jersey. And Oklahoma State’s defensive line began imposing its will against Heisman winner Jameis Winston and a Florida State offensive line starting five seniors.

"We saw our team grow a little bit and mature," Gundy said. "I wasn't really sure how a number of players would react, and I think we learned that they'll fight and compete. We were in a really tough situation at one point, being down 17 points to a really good football team, but they kept their focus. I was proud of them for that."

Every time Florida State made a play, the Cowboys answered. And only after the Seminoles -- who won every regular-season game last season by least two touchdowns -- recovered an onside kick in the final minutes could they rest easy.

The Cowboys figure to be favored in at least their next five games, with the key tilt coming Sept. 25 at home against Texas Tech. And as Saturday showed, Oklahoma State has the pieces to transform its season outlook from rebuilder to Big 12 contender.

"We've got a lot of things to work on, and we had our mistakes, but there's obviously a lot of talent,” said slot receiver David Glidden, who hauled in a 55-yard touchdown bomb against the Seminoles. “There are a lot of guys who can play the game of football pretty well.”

The Cowboys and Mountaineers didn’t win Saturday. But based on how they played, plenty of victories could be on the way.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 1

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Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
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Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
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SEC power rankings: Week 1

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The first week of games brought about a big shake-up in the SEC power rankings. From the dominance of Texas A&M and Georgia to the struggles of Alabama, it was a wild week that should set the stage for a wide-open season. But remember, it's only the first week.

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Edward Aschoff, Jeff Barlis, David Ching, Sam Khan Jr., Chris Low, Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough contributed to these rankings.
You’d think that we’d all learn. You’d think that all the comebacks, successful trick plays, that goofy smile and almost sinister wink would teach us not to doubt The Hat.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles' latest gamble paid off for the Tigers, who rallied to defeat Wisconsin on Saturday.
 But for some reason, we fail to realize the mad scientist genius that LSU coach Les Miles is. Right when we think he’s palm-clapped a win away, he’s there smiling, jumping and fist pumping in a crowd of purple and gold.

Saturday night, we were guilty of distrusting Miles when his team buried itself into a 24-7 hole against No. 14 Wisconsin in the third quarter. But neither the Mad Hatter nor his team flinched, as the Tigers reeled off 21 straight points for a thrilling 28-24 win in Houston, which was Miles’ 22nd fourth quarter/overtime comeback victory at LSU.

Naturally, the Tigers’ comeback was fueled by a fake punt that Miles called early in the third quarter (a drive after Wisconsin built its 17-point lead) on fourth-and-4 from his own 44-yard line. The Tigers kicked a field goal at the end of that possession, which led to four straight scoring drives for LSU.

“I’m very proud of this victory,” Miles said Saturday night. “I think we played sloppy, I think we did everything that we could have possibly done to the latest possible time to do it before we decided to play our best. The number of mistakes that were made by young players, the number of misfires that stopped us from really controlling a game and playing like we are capable will all be addressed in very orderly fashion as we go through this week. How much fun it is to have victory when making corrections!”

Grass smoothies for all!

It was so vintage Miles. He had just got done watching his football team set offense back 100 years with a dismal first half that featured just seven LSU points and 136 measly yards of offense. We still aren’t sure if Anthony Jennings’ 80-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural was even supposed to hit him or if it was supposed to float out of bounds.

But does it really matter? That’s Miles football right there, and it’s something that has captivated us for nine-plus years. We scoff at Miles’ quirkiness and those occasional indecipherable mumblings. There are loads of jokes about his clock management skills -- or lack thereof. And don’t take your eyes away from Miles when it’s fourth down. At this point, you just assume Miles is going to either go for it or fake it.

Which takes us back to Saturday. LSU had nothing going for it early in the third quarter. The defense had just surrendered a 75-yard touchdown drive on six plays. The offense then mustered six yards on three plays. Miles’ team needed a spark, so he ordered the fake, and the pieces just fell into place, as the Tigers found that want to win.

 “We felt like we had to make a play, and we didn’t have the right personnel in the stinking game,” Miles said. “I was madder than hell. It was a right call, and it was a right time and we had Kendell Beckwith with the ball, and I think those are quote, positives, and the momentum change at that point was significant. I think our guys started feeling it, and our opponent realized that we’re not going anywhere, and they were going to have to play until the bitter end.”

Miles was right. As LSU’s offense transformed into a more than competent unit, Wisconsin’s melted. The Tigers swarmed on defense and mirrored terrorizing defenses we’ve seen in the past. LSU pounded away, with Miles thunder palm-clapping with glee.

It isn’t easy to trust Miles, but as he enters his 10th season in Baton Rouge, we all know to expect the unexpected. Or should we just expect the expected? Whatever, you get the point. For all the questionable calls, Miles resembles a genius more than he does a goof. There’s a reason LSU is the winningest program in the SEC since Miles took over in 2005 (96-24), Miles has a national title (2007), and he’s won 10 or more games in seven of his nine full seasons at LSU.

LSU won’t go undefeated, and Miles’ riverboat gambling will catch up with him at times, but for anyone thinking the Tigers weren’t going to have a say in the SEC West race this fall, you were wrong. The second half of Saturday’s game proved this young team’s resiliency, and these cats are only going to grow and get better as the year continues.

"We're imperfect, even though we made the point that frankly, this is the time,” Miles said. “... I think we'll be better. I think this football team can take this experience and realize that to do the things that we want to do, to have the ambition that we really have, we're going to have to play better. The good news is, after victories, it's a lot more fun to go to work.

"The growing pains are very slight tremors and very light infection when you win.”
These are the best debates to have, the ones that don't have a wrong answer.

Would you rather have Georgia's group of running backs or Alabama's?

If you gave the 120 other FBS coaches in the country a choice, their answer would likely be, "Yes."

You can't go wrong with either, you see.

But for the sake of argument, we had Edward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough take sides.

Edward Aschoff: Don't get me wrong, I love what Georgia has at tailback. I think Todd Gurley is the best player in the country, regardless of position. A healthy Keith Marshall is scary, and those freshmen could be special.

But Alabama still has the best running back duo in the SEC with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Both of those guys could start at just about any school in the country, and they have health on their side. Yeldon has carried the ball 405 times for 2,469 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career and has missed only one game because of an injury. Gurley missed a month of work last year and Marshall missed most of last season with a knee injury.

What we've seen from Yeldon and Henry in the past two games has been nothing short of fantastic. The two have combined to rush for 411 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries. That's 6.3 yards per touch. Yeldon has had fumbling issues in the past, but the Yeldon we saw against West Virginia ran with that ball tucked tightly. He also ran with a purpose and looked faster than ever. He became the first back at Alabama to ever rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, and if he can continue to run with the power and speed that he displayed Saturday, he'll get to 1,000 again.

And that's even with Henry chugging right alongside him. I think Henry, who looks a like a tank on the field, could hit 1,000 yards as well. He's a bigger, more physical runner than Yeldon, but has that explosive speed to hit the home run ball. These two are going to absolutely punish defenses.

Don't forget about Kenyan Drake (982 career yards) or big ol' Jalston Fowler. When Drake gets on the field, he's the most dynamic running back the Tide has. He's the fastest and shiftiest of the three. He'll get more chances to run the ball and he'll show off that lightning speed and Playstation moves. Fowler doesn't have the speed that any of those other backs have, but he just runs people over. He's one of the toughest runners in the league.

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Alex Scarborough: It appears Aschoff beat me to the punch. The conservative in me -- don't even think I mean politics, OK? -- says to go with the backfield less likely to fail. And that, to me, is Alabama's. Yeldon has been the most consistent tailback in the county since bursting onto the scene as a true freshman in 2012. He's never had injury concerns and can do it all on the field: run, block, catch passes. His steady hand, combined with the dynamite talents of Henry and Drake, makes for a terrific trio at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's disposal.

But if I'm going for sheer upside, there's no question in my mind Georgia is the backfield to choose. Gurley, when healthy, is the best player in the country, hands down. He's big, strong and explosive. Backs that well built aren't supposed run as fast as he does. Yet he's the one guy I look at in the SEC and know he can take over the game whenever he wants. Just look at Saturday against Clemson. He got the ball only four times in the first half. So what'd he do? He went in on special teams and took the kickoff 100-plus yards for a touchdown. In the second half he ran for 154 yards, doing everything he could to win the Heisman Trophy Week 1 of the season.

You think Henry is a beast? Just look at Nick Chubb. You didn't need to see the freakish Herschel Walker-type photo that surfaced of him this summer to know how physically gifted the true freshman is. All you had to do was watch Clemson's defenders struggle to tackle him Saturday. He was a bowling ball with jets, running around or right through would-be tacklers. No one in college football has a better yards per rush average (17.5) than he does (minimum four carries).

Oh, and lest we forget, there's also Keith Marshall and Sony Michel to consider. When Marshall is healthy, we all know what he brings to the table. But Michel, another freshman, has the chance to be special. He's a lot like Drake. Each time he touched the football against Clemson, it looked as if he was shot out of a cannon. Six carries for 33 yards may not sound like much, but watch the tape.

Good luck to the poor souls trying to tackle Michel, Marshall and Chubb after Gurley has pounded them for three quarters. With Georgia's emerging offensive line, it looks like power football is the way to go.

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Some of you will be sad when the lights go out Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. The Michigan-Notre Dame series will go to sleep, and no alarm clock has been set to rouse a rivalry that exists more for some than others.

College football fans born in the past 40 years, especially those living in the Midwest, have grown up with Michigan-Notre Dame as a September staple. Since 1978, the two teams have played in all but six seasons, and every year since 2002.

If you're among this group, it's not easy to see the series go away for a while.

But you should also know a few things about the Michigan-Notre Dame series, and Big Ten future scheduling as a whole.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame/Michigan
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsEven though Michigan will no longer play Notre Dame, the Wolverines will face other teams that can bolster their resume.
First, while there have been several memorable games in the series, especially in recent years, wins haven't meant much in the bigger picture. Michigan victories in 2009, 2010 and 2013 didn't springboard the team to great heights. Although Notre Dame's win in 2012 was part of a run to the national title game, other victories (Stanford, Oklahoma) provided the real momentum.

Schedule strength is paramount in the playoff era, and every game against a major opponent should be a résumé booster. This game hasn't been.

More important, nonconference schedules throughout the Big Ten are improving and diversifying, and Michigan is a prime example. The Wolverines lose Notre Dame after Saturday, but look what they're gaining: Florida (2017), Arkansas (2018-19), Washington (2020-21), Virginia Tech (2020-21), UCLA (2022-23) and Oklahoma (2025-26), not to mention both Oregon State and BYU in 2015. If Notre Dame remained an annual opponent, forget about many of these other contests, especially with the Big Ten adopting a nine-game league schedule in 2016.

So focus on the end of the Notre Dame series if you'd like, but there are many exciting beginnings for Michigan and its Big Ten brethren.

"It has picked up," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told me. "I've seen a lot of games that are in discussion, haven't been approved or announced yet. Over the next 15 years, Big Ten football fans will be very pleased with what they see in how our schools are scheduling."

Even the games already announced should get fans excited.

Here are some:

  • Ohio State: Virginia Tech (2014-15), Oklahoma (2016-17), Oregon State (2018), TCU (2018-19), Oregon (2020-21), Texas (2022-23)
  • Wisconsin: Alabama (2015), LSU (2016), Virginia Tech (2019-20)
  • Nebraska: Miami (2014-15), BYU (2015), Oregon (2016-17), Oklahoma (2021-22), Tennessee (2026-27)
  • Michigan State: Oregon (2014-15), Arizona State (2018-19), Miami (2020-21), Boise State (2022-23)
  • Rutgers: Washington (2016-17), Miami (2018-19), UCLA (2020-21)
  • Purdue: Virginia Tech (2015, 2023), Missouri (2017-18)
  • Maryland: West Virginia (2014-15, 2020-21), Texas (2017-18)
  • Penn State: Pitt (2016-19), Virginia Tech (2022-23), possible LSU game in 2020
  • Northwestern: Stanford (2015-16, 2019-21)

Michigan State and Purdue will continue to play Notre Dame -- the Spartans resume their series in 2016, while Purdue and Notre Dame play again in 2020 and beyond -- but both also have plenty of new opponents. Variety is a great thing, especially for teams trying to reach the playoff.

It's why Michigan could get much more national mileage without Notre Dame on its schedule every year. (It's also why I worry about Iowa and whether having the annual game with Iowa State could prevent playoff runs.)

Wisconsin might be the best example of the Big Ten's schedule upgrade trends, thanks in part to the playoff and its emphasis on who you play. The Badgers' opener Saturday against LSU marked their first regular-season game against an SEC opponent since 1972 (also LSU). Counting Saturday, Wisconsin will open three consecutive seasons against top-flight SEC foes. The Badgers have gone from Week 1 light bites (UNLV, Northern Iowa, Massachusetts) to porterhouses.

Those are national showcase opportunities and games with playoff implications. The Big Ten needs these, especially until its league games carry more currency with the committee.

"Our schools have become a lot more serious about nonconference scheduling," Rudner said.

Last spring, the Big Ten began having quarterly conference calls with each school's football schedule coordinator. During these calls, each school reports its scheduling agreements or potential agreements. The idea is to keep everyone in the loop. If there's a series one conference member can't schedule with a marquee opponent, another might make it work.

Previously, the schools only shared schedule plans in specific situations. But things are changing, thanks to the playoff and other factors like declining attendance.

"[The playoff] factors in to the extent that it's all about strength of schedule," Rudner said. "Who you play matters. It's important that we all report to each other, that we're all accountable. Because in order for this to work, we all have to be paddling in the right direction."

That direction is the playoff, the only relevant barometer for teams and leagues.

"With the format being what it is, strength of schedule being a factor," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood told me, "you don't want to leave a shadow of a doubt about whether you belong."

Saturday marks the end of one traditional nonleague matchup, but there are plenty of new beginnings that can help the Big Ten show it belongs in the field of four.
LouisvilleJamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsCardinals linebacker Keith Kelsey tackles Miami running back Duke Johnson in Monday night's game.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Louisville Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino walked into his postgame news conference after a triumphant 31-13 season opener against the Miami Hurricanes, the first question he got was not about his new quarterback or workhorse running back.

Nope. The defense wrote the signature on this victory.

So Petrino was asked about his defense first, and then his defense a little bit more, and each time he heaped more praise on a group that faced a series of questions heading into the game Monday night.

With a new scheme, a new coordinator and seven new starters, the Cards did not stand a chance to match their group from last year, did they?

They did.

Louisville absolutely dominated Miami in a rematch of their bowl game from last postseason, and it was a near carbon copy of the results from that December contest. Louisville's defense was a new, reinvented version of itself under first-year coordinator Todd Grantham. The Cardinals looked faster, but they were still physically dominant, pushing around a veteran Miami offensive line while holding running back Duke Johnson down and flummoxing freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya.

In its last two meetings with Louisville, Miami has scored a combined 22 points, gained a total of 418 yards, and converted just 1-of-24 third-down opportunities.

With a stifling defense, Louisville took the burden off new starting quarterback Will Gardner and placed its offense in the hands of running back Dominique Brown, who had an eye-popping 33 carries for 143 yards and a score. The two units worked in concert with each other, but the defense stood tallest considering all the uncertainty going in.

"Our defensive staff had a great plan going in and really worked hard at it," Petrino said. "That's the thing that I really noticed, how fast our defense played. We tackled well and we got a lot of guys to the ball."

Having a healthy Johnson gave the Canes hope they would reverse their dismal performance from last postseason. But he was essentially a nonfactor, despite rushing for 90 yards on 20 carries. Take away his long run of 24 yards and he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry -- well off his career average of 6.6 yards.

The key, simply, was to cut off the edge.

"When he did get to the edge, we had some problems in the middle of the defense, but a couple of the guys were saying that we're quicker now, so now we're able to keep up with backs like that, so basically keeping him contained from the outside was a big deal," Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin said.

The quickness was evident. Having four fast linebackers on the field was a big reason why. Not only was Mauldin doing his best to get into the backfield from his new outside linebacker position, but Deiontrez Mount was making his presence felt with a sack and two tackles for loss. So was linebacker Keith Kelsey, who had a fumble recovery and five tackles.

Then there was safety James Sample, the former Washington Huskies player who transferred from junior college and got the start. Louisville lost plenty of experience and production from safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor, so filling that spot was the biggest concern heading into the season.

But Sample played better than anybody anticipated, leading the team with eight tackles and a crucial interception in the third quarter with Louisville up 21-13. The Cards scored a field goal on the next possession to put the game out of reach.

For Mauldin, the only recognizable player left on the defense from 2013, the result had to be particularly satisfying. No defense of his would start taking a step back, regardless of new faces and new scheme.

"As the leader of the defense, you just look at what you've got and you say, 'This is what we've got. This is what we're going to make of it, get the guys that are young, get the guys who are new to go along with the defense,'" Mauldin said. "You can't think negative about anything when it comes to a team, because if you think negative the team feeds off you. What I'm doing is picking the guys up, letting them know that if they miss a play, you've got it the next play. Forget about [that] play and move on. Just positive energy."

Louisville could not have planned a better start to ACC play. And the Cards will only get better from here. The schedule sets up for a 6-0 start headed into the showdown against Clemson, with Syracuse the only bowl team on Louisville's schedule over the next five games.

But looking ahead is for another day. Let the defense have this one.
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Mariota is a model of efficiency at QB

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Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota is one of the top dual threats in the sport.
Entering Week 1, Marcus Mariota was the favorite to win the Heisman, according to the ESPN Heisman Watch.

Mariota did not disappoint in his first game. He was responsible for 310 yards of total offense and four touchdowns, despite not playing in the second half of Oregon’s 62-13 win against South Dakota State.

Throughout his career, Mariota has been one of the most efficient and consistent FBS quarterbacks. He has ranked second in the FBS in Total QBR in each of the last two seasons.

His 87.3 career Total QBR is the second-best for any player with at least 20 starts in the last five seasons, behind Johnny Manziel.

Mariota has an FBS-high 13 games with a Total QBR of at least 90 since 2012.

Mariota makes Oregon go
The Ducks have been one of the most efficient offenses in the FBS, ranking third in this category in each of Mariota’s first two seasons.

They have scored on an FBS-high 45 percent of their drives since Mariota became the starter, best in the FBS.

When the ball is snapped to Mariota, Oregon averages 7.5 yards per play, the second-best for any quarterback who has taken at least 500 snaps (Jameis Winston is No. 1).

The Ducks have gained at least 10 yards on 28 percent of their plays with Mariota at quarterback, which is also second to Florida State and Winston.

Mariota makes plays
Mariota has been responsible for 82 touchdowns in his career, most for any Pac-12 player in the last three seasons and sixth-most for any FBS player.

During that time, he was responsible for at least three touchdowns in a game 18 times; only former Northern Illinois running back Jordan Lynch has had more such games.

Mariota takes care of the ball
Mariota has 10 career interceptions, tied for the third-fewest for any player with at least 20 starts during the last three seasons.

The only active player with at least 20 starts and fewer interceptions than Mariota is Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who has 502 fewer attempts. Mariota set the Pac-12 record with 343 consecutive passes without an interception.

Mariota can run
Mariota has rushed for 1,510 yards in his career and has averaged 7.3 yards per carry. Almost half (49 percent) of his carries have been designed quarterback runs.

On such plays, Mariota leads all Power Five quarterbacks with 10.1 yards per rush and is second to Braxton Miller with 17 runs of 20 yards or more.

Mariota is often not touched on these plays until he is well past the line of scrimmage, as he averages 8.2 yards before contact.
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EUGENE, Ore. -- Jameis Winston has already begun putting together a highlight reel of Heisman-worthy clips. The video of his touchdown run against Oklahoma State in the season opener went viral as he hurdled over his own teammate and juked opponents like a video game.

This weekend, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota will get his chance to do the same against visiting Michigan State (6:30 p.m. ET) -- a primetime game, a quality opponent, and a full four quarters (most likely) to pull a rabbit out of his hat for one play or another.

And the fact that it'll be against one of the nation's best defenses could look pretty good to Heisman voters if Mariota is able to put up some big plays.

Last season, Michigan State had the best defense -- statistically -- in the nation, holding opponents to just 251.9 yards per game, including just four yards per play. The Spartans allowed just 12 passing touchdowns and held opposing quarterbacks to a 47.5 percent completion rate.

"They're a great defense," Mariota said. "They're really good at what they do. They put their players in good positions to make plays."

Up front this season, the Spartans feature the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Shilique Calhoun, who goes by the nickname "Bane" (as in the masked villain from "The Dark Knight Rises"). The defensive line also features defensive end Marcus Rush, who's one of the Spartans' more underrated players.

The middle of the field saw some loss for the Spartans in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, however, MSU returns Taiwan Jones as well as young talent in Riley Bullough (younger brother of Max) and Jon Reschke.

But the "No Fly Zone," which is what the Spartans' secondary has come to be known as, is what Mariota will go up against. Darqueze Dennard is gone but Trae Waynes hopes to be the next lockdown corner for the Spartans. And at safety, Michigan State features two-year starter Kurtis Drummond and R.J. Williamson.

Mariota said the Spartans' defense doesn't really remind him of any Pac-12 defense in particular, but he's expecting to see a lot of man coverage because Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi definitely trusts his defensive backs to make plays on the ball.

"We'll have to communicate up front and make sure we're good in our protections," Mariota said. "And try to take our shots."

Mariota certainly took those shots against South Dakota in Week 1, averaging 19.1 yards per completion. But the Coyotes' defense is nowhere near as tough as what the Spartans will present.

And with a younger crop of receivers, it'll be interesting to see how the Ducks divvy up the targeting among the players. Against South Dakota, Ducks running back Byron Marshall was actually the leading receiver, but 11 different players caught passes during the game.

That number will certainly decrease as the Ducks key in on go-to receivers as they prepare to face the Spartans, but how much the rest of Mariota's statistics decrease will be much more interesting and important for Oregon and the Heisman race.
AUBURN, Ala. -- D’haquille Williams did not disappoint in his much-anticipated debut on Saturday. The man now known simply as “Duke” caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown in his first-ever SEC game.

It was the most yards receiving by an Auburn player since Darvin Adams (217) in the 2010 SEC championship game and the most ever by a Tiger in his first game.

[+] EnlargeD'haquille Williams
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesD'haquille Williams caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown in his Auburn debut on Saturday.
 “Honestly, I didn’t come in thinking I was going to have a big game like that,” Williams said. “I just kept catching the ball, catching the ball and making plays. As the game went on, the ball kept coming so I just had to make a play for my team.”

The junior-college transfer was the only one surprised by his performance. The coaches knew they had something special before he ever stepped foot on campus.

In his signing day press conference, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Williams will have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat. Before that, during the week of the BCS title game, wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said Williams could have a Jameis Winston-type impact on the program. More recently, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told ESPN’s Travis Haney that he had a “Dez Bryant,” referring to his star newcomer.

Even the high school coaches who had seen the team practice during fall camp were raving about the 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver. One coach said that he was on another level from Sammie Coates, the team’s leading receiver from a year ago, while another said that this will likely be his only season at Auburn because he’ll be playing on Sundays next year.

High praise for a kid who had yet to catch a pass, but Williams delivered on those expectations Saturday in Auburn's 45-21 win over Arkansas.

“Duke had a great performance, but we knew that was coming,” Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “We expected that. We expect big things out of him.”

 “This was nothing surprising,” added quarterback Jeremy Johnson. “That’s what we expect out of him. Duke is amazing. He’s an NFL-type player.”

The fans must have known it was coming, too. They were chanting Duke’s name during warmups, and that carried over to the game when Williams made his first catch. The stadium just about erupted when he caught his second pass and nearly took it to the house. The play gained 62 yards, and the casual observer might have thought they were booing him with the collective “Duuuuuke” heard after the play.

"It just made me feel like they love me,” Williams told reporters after the game. “I never thought I'd have a chant like that.

“When they chanted that, I caught the chills. My heart just started beating faster. I'm just like, there's no way 90,000 just chanted my name. I ran to the sidelines and just had to take a seat, put a towel on my head and start thinking, 'It's really here. Everything I worked for.'”

Four plays later, Williams finished the drive with an 18-yard touchdown grab. He caught a quick slant over the middle and carried his defender across the goal line for the score, his first as an Auburn Tiger.

After the game, Malzahn praised the newcomer’s efforts.

“He attacks the ball, there’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “He can do some things with it after he catches the ball, too. We had a plan, if they played us a certain way, we’d attack them with him in the middle of the field. That’s kind of what happened, and he did a good job executing.”

It was certainly a debut to remember for Williams.

“This had to be the best feeling of my life,” he said after the game.

Campaign trail: Texas A&M Aggies

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
10:45
AM ET
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.

Texas A&M wasn't top of mind for many entering the season, but the Aggies made a statement Thursday night. A road game at South Carolina and a new quarterback could have been disastrous. Instead, Texas A&M's 52-28 drubbing of the Gamecocks launched the Aggies into the national title discussion -- and gave coach Kevin Sumlin something to cheer about.

Kevin SumlinIllustration by Sam Ho

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