NORMAN, Okla. -- The Sooners' maiden trip to Morgantown two years ago resulted in the lowest point in the history of the Oklahoma defense.
The Sooners somehow prevailed in a 50-49 shootout. But West Virginia running back Tavon Austin turned the defensive culture that Jerry Tubbs and Lee Roy Selmon and Brian Bosworth built over six decades into a punch line.
The Sooners looked slow chasing around Austin, who set a Big 12 record with 572 all-purpose yards, including 344 rushing.
The Sooners looked discombobulated, with each defensive bust leading to another play bigger than the one before it.
And, perhaps most troubling at the time, Oklahoma looked as if it had no defensive identity, an unforgivable transgression for a program with so much tradition on defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was so disgusted despite the win that he declined to glance at the box score sheet after it was handed to him during a postgame interview.
But as they prepare for a return to Morgantown this week, the Sooners are none of the things they were two years ago.
They are fast. They are focused. In Stoops' new 3-4 scheme -- whose impetus traces back to the West Virginia debacle -- Oklahoma has fashioned a new identity centered on its ability to harass opposing quarterbacks with defenders from many angles.
"Both Bob and Mike Stoops have done a great job revamping [the defense]," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Monday. "They're everywhere right now."
Just ask Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, who was sacked five times Saturday while facing the most recent Oklahoma onslaught.
"We're totally different, in every aspect," said a succinct Bob Stoops, when asked Monday for the contrast between this defense and the 2012 one. "Simplest way I can put it."
This West Virginia offense, however, isn't all that different from the one that torched the Sooners for 778 total yards -- the most an Oklahoma defense had ever surrendered since the school began recording statistics.
The Mountaineers no longer possess a versatile talent like Austin, who probably still haunts Mike Stoops' nightmares. But West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett is second in the nation in passing QBR and trails only Ole Miss' Bo Wallace by a tenth of a point for the nation's top completion percentage. Trickett also has two of the most lethal wideouts in the Big 12 at his disposal in Mario Alford and Kevin White, who is second in the country with 460 receiving yards.
"We're going to have to play a lot better than the last time we went there," Mike Stoops said. "That was a bad night for all of us. Bad game plan, bad execution, bad everything."
Plenty of good, however, came out of so much bad for the Sooners.
The defensive collapse in Morgantown spearheaded the biggest coaching shakeup of the Stoops era, which included the aggressive pursuit and hire of Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. Since, Montgomery has whipped Oklahoma's front into one of the most disruptive and deepest in the country. Under Montgomery, end Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips have developed into All-Big 12-caliber performers. And outside linebacker Eric Striker has emerged into arguably the most ferocious pass-rusher at his position in the country -- even drawing comparisons in "destructiveness" from Bob Stoops on Monday to former Oklahoma 2001 All-American Roy Williams.
But the front isn't where the reconstruction effort stopped.
The Sooners have also assembled a sure-tackling, ball-hawking defensive backfield, which has matched the swagger of the Oklahoma defensive line. Saturday in the first quarter, Quentin Hayes blindsided Worley off a safety blitz to force and recover a fumble. Cornerbacks Zack Sanchez, who how has an interception in five of his last six games, and Julian Wilson both picked off Worley in the end zone. Wilson returned his interception 100 yards for an exclamation point touchdown.
“The secondary is playing great right now,” said Wilson, who had to play middle linebacker at the West Virginia game two seasons ago because they had no better option. "But we still have room to improve."
That's a scary thought. Since last bowl season the Sooners have now produced the third-most sacks and third-most interceptions in college football. And that combination of an overwhelming front and an opportunistic secondary has given this Oklahoma defense the potential to become one of the school's all-time.
"They've got their guys, defensively, playing as good as they have," Holgorsen said, "since I've watched tape on them going back to the 2000 season."
Holgorsen has his guys playing well, too. And a game that appeared to be a cakewalk for the Sooners in the preseason now looks to be one of the toughest games on their schedule.
Just like its last visit to Morgantown, the Oklahoma defense will be severely tested. But this time -- thanks to the foundation forged out of that West Virginia trip two years ago -- the Sooners will be equipped for it.
There were several academic functions held in the area. There was the game morning Mass, at Saint John the Evangelist. There were three community service projects, including a restoration of a high school.
And, of course, there was a football game at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Irish beat Purdue 30-14 to improve to 3-0.
Kelly has said he does not know much. Anyone with a Twitter account can tell that those being investigated are also in the dark. They are far from alone.
This is fine and all, assuming business is being taken care of in a proper, timely manner behind the scenes. And there is no reason to think that it is not. But as the Irish enter their bye week with little clarity regarding if or when they will get any of those suspended players back — and as those players continue to attend classes with their fate at the school still hanging in the balance — it begs the question of how long is too long when it comes to dealing with this matter. At what point do these kids, however innocent or guilty they may be, deserve an answer that could have major implications for their academic and athletic futures?
There is no set public blueprint for this, to be clear. Yes, Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey, who lost leading scorer Jerian Grant for the spring semester last season because of an academic mishap, said recently that the entire honor-code process with Grant took about three weeks. But these cases are often apples and oranges: Grant's ordeal presumably took place with classes still in session last fall, while Notre Dame fall classes this year did not start until Aug. 26, 11 days after the investigation into the football players became public. Grant's case was also not as widespread as with the football players.
To Kelly's credit, he has been remarkably diplomatic publicly, going through the season's first three games without three starters and two other potential contributors to a football team he is paid handsomely to coach to success, and doing so without complaint.
"This is separation from church and state in the sense," he said Thursday. "This is the deans, and they have their domain and that's their business, and it truly is their business, and I respect that. They don't give me advice about play calling, and that's the truth of the matter. Whether that's a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things, and that's their domain and that's their world, and I want my guys back. But I get it, and they work and that's their job, and so I really don't have any say on it."
Notre Dame is about more than athletics; we know. Athletes and nonathletes will receive the same treatment; we get it. But the idea that this whole ordeal cannot be completed too soon for fear of unequal treatment or misguided priorities is a bit much, especially in light of another successful Shamrock showcase of Notre Dame in a major metropolitan area.
"The Shamrock Series has activated our city," Indiana Sports Corporation spokesman John Dedman told the school's athletic website. "Notre Dame has made this so much more than an athletic event. The university has been involved in service projects in the city, and there have been academic events, and the city has embraced it. It's just been great for Indianapolis."
More than an athletic event, but only possible because of athletics. Those are still pretty important, too. And there's no shame in acknowledging that.
Virginia Tech loses all team and conference momentum with a home loss to East Carolina. Georgia Southern was once again 90 seconds from upsetting an ACC team. Louisville, who many felt was now Florida State's biggest threat to an undefeated season, loses at Virginia. And, off all teams, it was reeling Boston College left to extinguish the flames, and the Eagles salvaged the Saturday with the biggest upset of the season, according to the Football Power Index, with a bulldozing of No. 9 USC, shocking even the staunchest ACC supporters.
So here we are, at the outset of Week 4 and exactly where we thought we would be before the season kicked off: the ACC seemingly comes down to Clemson and Florida State for the third consecutive season. The two will play in prime time Saturday, and the winner controls its destiny in the Atlantic Division and, with the lack of clarity in the Coastal, conference.
It is what we have grown accustom in the ACC as of late as both programs have been on a similar linear ascent to the top of the conference. Only the Tigers and Seminoles have represented the Atlantic in the ACC championship game since 2009, but the Coastal was superior then. Now, the two have won the past three conference titles and that looks to be the case once again in 2014, too.
Except this year, winning the conference has an entirely new significance. A College Football Playoff invitation is on the line now. Technically, the ACC has seven undefeated teams, but Clemson and Florida State are the conference's prized horses capable of carrying the league to the inaugural final four. The other five would likely need an undefeated run, and that's a wager I'm not sure anyone outside of Atlanta, Pittsburgh, central New York or the Triangle is willing to make right now.
"There's no doubt" the Tigers are a rival, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. "...It's a game in which you like to be at Florida State to play in because of the ramifications and the national attention it brings."
Despite No. 22 Clemson entering the game with a loss, the national implications will be near the level it was last season because of the dawn of the playoff era. There's the sense conference titles won't mean what they used to for the elite programs, and Fisher has said as much multiple times, pondering whether fans will deem any playoff-less season as a failure. And for two teams that have each won conference titles and played in multiple BCS games the past few seasons, there is the argument that a conference title might not be enough, especially for Florida State.
If Clemson loses big, it almost certainly ends the Tigers' playoff hopes. A Florida State loss and now the nation's top-ranked program and the conference's best chance at a playoff bid needs to not only play close to perfect football against a tough remaining slate but solicit help from the supernatural to even play in the conference championship.
It might only be September but the ACC's playoff chances potentially hinge on this game between conference heavyweights.
With 52 percent of the vote, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's diving touchdown was named this week's Pac-12 Blog Play of the Week.
It was certainly a play that made more than a few Duck fans nervous as he launched himself headfirst over five players and soared, upside-down, toward the end zone. But, he bounced up and Mariota gave a Heisman-highlight reel play in a game in which those kinds of plays typically don't happen.
As with every week, we're going to reach out to readers to get some of your reactions as well as some reactions from our team of Pac-12 writers.
Kyle Bonagura: By the time Marcus Mariota gets to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony later this year, most the country will have forgotten Oregon even played Wyoming this season. If that makes you sad for some strange, illogical reason, don't worry because Mariota's Chip-Kelly-Dive-Into-The-Pool impression against the Cowboys is a lock to be featured prominently in his Heisman highlight reel.
It was also one of those plays that can play with the collective emotions of a fan base, which I can imagine went something like this:
"Go, go, go ... he's in! ... Wait, is he in? ... Wait, never mind, is he OK? Get up. ... Yeah, he's ok ... Are we sure he got in? ... [watches replay] Oh, he is definitely in, what a play! ... SHOW IT TO ME AGAIN!”
Kevin Gemmell: The best part about that play was that it didn't have to happen. I get that the Ducks were only ahead 13-7 at the time. But come on, was Oregon really in any danger of losing that game? Of course not. But Mariota doesn't care. He could have stepped out of bounds at the 3.5-yard line instead of going all Evel Knievel. I'll wager dollars to donuts the Ducks would have scored a touchdown one or two plays later. But Mariota was laser focused on delivering a knockout blow. He plays with one speed. And it's pretty fun to watch a guy with no off switch.
Chantel Jennings: The move itself was a bit McKayla Maroney-esque, launching himself up and over a pile of teammates and players, before twisting, turning and landing on his rear end. The feel in the stadium the entire time was "OMG!" but it swayed from a "Oh my gosh, that's so awesome" to "Oh my gosh, is he OK? IS HE OK? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HE'S OK!" to a "OK, sweet, he's OK, great. Good score. Wooooo." The only thing Maroney did better was the unimpressed face. Now, if someone can get Mariota to do that, that would certainly win the day.
The best of Twitter:
@ESPN_Pac12blog Go, go, go! He's gonna score! He's in...HOLY CRAP, BE CAREFUL, MARIOTA.— Peter Mertens (@psMertens) September 15, 2014
Dear Marcus, please don't fall on your head.— Cora (@Cora_Bee) September 13, 2014
@ESPN_Pac12blog the sort of play where Gurley stops polishing his Heisman case, swears under his breath, and goes to hit the weight room— Ryder Cochrane (@RyderCochrane) September 15, 2014
Oklahoma will make its first Big 12 road trip of the season without leading rusher Keith Ford.
Ford will miss the Sooners game against West Virginia and could be out for two-to-three weeks with an ankle injury, coach Bob Stoops announced on Monday. Stoops said sophomore Alex Ross to likely start against the Mountaineers.
"You need a bunch of running backs when you go through a long year," Stoops said.
Ford, a sophomore, is the Sooners' most complete running back. Ford has 34 carries for 194 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns this season. He’s also proven to be a valuable asset in the passing game with six receptions for 100 yards and one touchdown along with his solid pass blocking skills.
"Keith has great hands and is really explosive out there in space," Stoops said. "He has played really well."
Yet losing Ford is not a crippling loss for the Sooners' offense, which has featured the trio of Ford, Ross and true freshman running back Samaje Perine during the first three games. Ford is averaging 11.3 carries and 64.7 yards per game. Perine is averaging 10.7 carries for 59 yards per game (5.5 yards per carry). Ross is averaging seven carries for 44 yards per game (6.3 yards per carry).
Despite Ford's injury, the Sooners' running back-by-committee approach remains intact and OU will continue to build its offensive success around the running game with Ross and Perine as a main contributors.
Ross has already shown his big-play ability with a 82-yard touchdown gallop against Tulsa and a 80-yard kick return against Louisiana Tech. Sliding him into the starting lineup won’t limit anything the Sooners try to do against WVU.
"Alex is a big, strong, powerful, fast guy," Stoops said last week. "So hopefully he’ll just continue to play the way he has."
Perine should be able to continue his trend of entering games midway through the first or second half and punishing defenses with his physical running style while helping the Sooners put the game away. Perine's team-high 108 rushing yards after contact reinforce OU's plan to wear down defenses with the 5-foot-11, 243-pound big back.
"He’s a really bright young guy that is playing really well and he knows what he’s doing," Stoops said of Perine. "We love him. He’s an excellent runner. Even when there isn't much there he finds a way to make something happen with his power."
The loss of Ford gives Ross and Perine the chance to prove they can handle an even bigger role in OU's offense as much as anything else. The duo has each shown the ability to be impact running backs but Ford’s injury means even more carries to show they could handle the burden of being the No. 1 guy if that opportunity arises in the future.
"We certainly made it interesting," said a visibly disappointed Florida coach Will Muschamp afterward.
His Gators squeaked past Kentucky, 36-30 in triple overtime Saturday night. They were down to their last breath on more than one occasion. Talk of Muschamp's future at UF swirled on social media.
When it was over, stunned fans walked out of the stadium with dazed looks in their eyes, not sure of what they had just seen.
But there was one overwhelming difference -- Florida won the game.
"Never a doubt," athletic director Jeremy Foley joked.
Foley and Muschamp exited the field arm in arm after the Gators dodged what would have been a crushing upset by Kentucky.
"I don't really feel relief after games," said Muschamp, who acknowledged his team has a lot to work on. "I look at it from a technical standpoint of we've got to clean some things up in the back end.
"Our guys fought. It wasn't always pretty at times."
This time the Gators didn't give in when an inspired opponent wrestled away momentum in the third quarter. The "woe is me" mentality that Muschamp said infected his team in 2013 was not on display.
These 2014 Gators stayed together.
"It's so different," sophomore safety Keanu Neal said. "I think it's because we're more of a unit this year. Offensively you can tell that we're together. Defensively you can tell we're together. And as a team we're just all here for one purpose. You can see that this year versus last year."
Fortified by a much stronger belief in their offensive system, the Gators say there was no panic.
“Not at all, and that's what I think was so great about the victory," said senior left tackle Chaz Green. "It's good that we faced a game like this early in the season. It's good for our team, and I think it shows we're willing and ready to respond to any situation. ...
"I would say that was a big step. You could say [last year's team would have lost], but that's behind us. We just want to focus on this year."
The biggest difference in Florida one year later, according to Muschamp, is an offense that can pull its weight and keep up in a shootout.
The Gators and Wildcats combined for nearly 1,000 total yards of offense on Saturday night. Last year, Florida and its opponents combined to average just under 621 yards a game in 12 contests.
"We're explosive enough offensively to get in a game like that and know we can make some plays," Muschamp said. "We gave up some things on the back end secondary-wise, but we didn't blink on the side. We knew no matter if we got down one score, two scores, we're explosive enough offensively to go make some plays.
"Quite frankly, as we moved forward in the season last year we weren't. As a competitor you don't ever want to admit something like that, but it's hard not to at times when you struggle to score 10 points."
Nine months later it's easy for Muschamp to admit how badly his team struggled in 2013. It's even easier to highlight the positives on display in this new season when your team is still undefeated.
Winning has a way of brightening every mood, and the beleaguered coach was no different late Saturday night. While some folks walked away with frazzled nerves, Muschamp found humor in providing Gator fans with bonus football.
"More than anything we missed us some football in the [cancelled] Idaho game," he said. "We figured we'd give you all a little extra shot of some ball. It's paying the fans back."
After the Big Ten's worst two-week stretch in nonconference play since, well, ever, the league sits with a 1-10 record against Power 5 teams and Notre Dame. The season looked so promising when Rutgers upset Washington State in Seattle on college football's opening night.
Since then: bupkis.
So prepare for 1-10 fever. Many of you would expect nothing else from evil ESecPN and its Big Ten-hating agenda. But 1-10 is a fact, and in a playoff-first environment where conferences will be constantly compared until Dec. 7, the Big Ten finds itself in a miserable spot.
So, you ask, is there hope for a turnaround? Sure. There's a lot of season left, and as we saw Saturday night at Boston College, anything can happen in college football. The biggest measuring-up opportunities -- Wisconsin-LSU, Michigan State-Oregon, even the Notre Dame games -- are finished, but the baby-step opportunities remain.
There are several of those for the Big Ten in Week 4. It's not the end of nonleague play, but it's the last full Saturday before conference play kicks off.
No one will confuse Missouri, Pitt, Syracuse, Utah and Miami for world beaters, although Mizzou is pretty darn good (Big Ten expansion miss?). But the Big Ten's Week 4 opponents provide chances for that 1-10 mark to look a little bit better ... or much worse.
Fans have to understand that in the playoff environment, everything is connected. Teams can be both playoff contenders and enhancers for league brethren who carry genuine playoff hopes.
For example: If Maryland beats West Virginia on Saturday, and WVU later knocks off a Big 12 heavyweight or two, Maryland suddenly carries more cache, even in subsequent defeats. If Michigan State beats Maryland later this season in College Park, the Spartans would get more playoff credit for that road win.
The problem for the Big Ten is when you lose almost all of your games against comparable conferences, your league race becomes devalued. Conference wins that could make the difference between getting into the playoff and just missing the cut aren't as impressive because of the opponent's nonleague struggles.
And don't kid yourself: it's all about the playoff now. Don't imprison yourself in a Big Ten bubble and pretend like the national race is secondary. You can still enjoy league play and all the twists and turns from now until Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. But you should ultimately judge this league on whether it's in or out on Selection Sunday. Some of you will disagree, but expecting less than the best is part of the reason why the Big Ten finds itself in this position.
That brings us to Week 4. On paper, it should be a better week for the Big Ten, but the last two weeks have shown us nothing is guaranteed.
Nebraska will beat Miami in Lincoln if it plays like it did Saturday night at Fresno State. But if the Huskers revert to McNeese State form against a Hurricanes team that never lacks talent, things could turn sour for one of the Big Ten's last two remaining unbeatens.
Michigan also gets its Power 5 foe at home, where it has been 11-0 in nonconference games under Brady Hoke (21-2 overall). But Utah leads the nation in sacks per game (5.5) and is tied for first in tackles for loss (10.5 per game), which could be a problem for a still-shaky Michigan offensive line.
Other than Rutgers, Big Ten teams have been dreadful in nonleague road games against the Power 5 -- not just losing but losing big (average margin of defeat: 24.5 points). This week, Iowa travels to Pitt, Indiana travels to Missouri and Maryland visits Syracuse.
Pitt is off to a very good start behind bruising back James Conner, while Iowa hasn't played particularly well in any of its three games. Indiana just lost to an undermanned Bowling Green team on the road, as the Falcons ran 115 plays and racked up 39 first downs. Maryland and Syracuse look fairly comparable, but Syracuse comes off an impressive win at Central Michigan, while Maryland surrendered 694 yards in the West Virginia loss.
A 4-1 or a 5-0 record in these games won't transform the national narrative about the Big Ten. But it will keep the league out of the crosshairs. After all, 6-10 sounds a lot better than 1-10.
But another bad day -- 1-4 or 0-5 -- would make the Big Ten's playoff path even trickier. And the way this season is going, expect the worst.
The Big Ten can't repair its reputation in Week 4, but it can begin the patching-up process and take some baby steps toward respectability.
With 5:24 left in the fourth quarter, and the Gamecocks clinging to a 38-35 lead over sixth-ranked Georgia, Thompson gift wrapped an interception for Georgia cornerback Damian Swann. The veteran defensive back scooted toward the end zone and an illegal block on the Gamecocks gave Georgia the ball at South Carolina's 4-yard line after Swann was eventually tackled.
No one could possibly judge Thompson's immediate assumption about the outcome of the game. With Georgia holding the nation's best player -- running back Todd Gurley -- in its backfield, you just knew that the Dawgs would pull ahead.
Minutes later, the Gamecocks were celebrating and rushing through their own set of hedges in the end zone to mob their fantastic student section.
"We were meant to win this game, and Georgia was not," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who improved to 16-6 all-time against Georgia.
That might be true, and though there were a lot of questionable calls and no-calls that helped the Gamecocks along the way (has anyone found the phantom hold that took away the early 54-yard Gurley touchdown?), not giving Gurley, who had 128 rushing yards to that point, the ball inside the 5 was a mistake of epic proportions. Everyone in the stadium expected No. 3 to get the ball, and he should have. Even if South Carolina had all 11 defenders stacked in the box, the first -- and only -- call you have to start the drive is to hand it to the best and toughest running back in the entire country.
Instead, Georgia gambled with the pass and Mason's penalty moved the Dawgs back 10 yards. Georgia eventually had to settle for a field-goal attempt that was missed.
"If I had to do it again we would’ve hammered it," Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the game.
Bobo wasn't made available to the media after the game.
At least Richt knows it wasn't the right call, but there is nothing that can be done about it now. You learn and move on, but this one will sting. There will be a lot of finger-pointing by fans, as the Bulldogs dive into the teeth of conference season. And this play could come back to haunt the Bulldogs if they don't make it to Atlanta for the SEC title game in December.
Forget all the craziness that certainly didn't help Georgia on Saturday, that first-down call will leave a sick feeling in Athens for months if the Bulldogs continue to look up in the SEC East standings.
We don't know if Gurley, who had already made a handful of dazzling/gritty plays before that drive even began, would have punched the ball in on first down, but he was without a doubt the best option in that situation.
They are a 19-point underdog -- the largest point-spread they have faced going back to 2004. The oddsmakers clearly do not have much confidence in a team that lost badly to the Noles at home last season, and fell apart in the second half against Georgia in the opener.
But maybe all is not lost. Here are three reasons Clemson has a shot at pulling the upset.
1. No Todd Gurley: Gurley was an absolute menace in the opener, running for 198 yards and three touchdowns and also returning a kickoff for another score. He set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards and averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Clemson knew exactly what type of runner it would be facing, yet the Tigers could not contain him. Tackling was a factor, but so was Gurley's superior strength. He just ran through people. Florida State back Karlos Williams is not in the same category, at least not yet. Williams does present nearly identical size -- both are 6-foot-1, 225 pounds -- but he has not started the season the way Gurley has. Gurley had more yards and touchdowns against Clemson than Williams has in two games combined (132 yards, one touchdown). Gurley is averaging 9.4 yards per carry; Williams is averaging 4.1 yards per carry. The Florida State offensive line has not played as well as everybody expected heading into the season, so that has played a role. The Seminoles rank No. 77 in the nation in rush offense; Georgia ranks No. 10.
2. No Jeremy Pruitt: That has to be a relief to Clemson coaches, who probably never ever want to see him again. Last season when he was defensive coordinator at Florida State, Pruitt had the perfect game plan to shut down Clemson and its vaunted offensive stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. The Tigers had four turnovers and were never in the game after going down 17-0 in the first quarter. Boyd finished 17-of-37 for 156 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions (quarterback rating 34.6), and Watkins had 68 yards and a score. Pruitt moved on to Georgia in the offseason, and though the Tigers had success early against the Bulldogs, all that changed in the second half. Pruitt made terrific halftime adjustments and outcoached Chad Morris and company. Clemson had one first down and 15 total yards in the second half. The game was tied at halftime. Florida State's defense has been slow out of the gate with so many key starters gone. But Pruitt is gone, too. Perhaps this gives Clemson an edge.
3. Deshaun Watson: Though coach Dabo Swinney does not want to incite a quarterback controversy, we have seen first-hand just how dynamic Watson is when he gets into the game. Cole Stoudt does remain the starter, but Watson is effective when he gets his turn. Of the six drives Watson has led, Clemson has scored a touchdown on five of them. Granted, most came against South Carolina State, but it is hard to ignore how much more dynamic the Clemson offense is when Watson is in the game. His mobility makes him a tremendous asset, and Clemson should use that to its advantage. Plus, he is averaging 16.4 yards per pass attempt and 21.3 yards per completion. The bye week gave Clemson coaches the opportunity to figure out how they want to use him, and when they want to use him.
The plot certainly thickened in the Pac-12's South Division on Saturday, but not necessarily in a good way.
A week after posting a gritty upset at Stanford, USC was humiliated at Boston College, while UCLA cobbled together a win over Texas behind scrappy, ebullient backup QB Jerry Neuheisel. Neuheisel's services were required because Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. His status remains uncertain, though there was reasonable hope based on initial reports that his injury wasn't serious.
The UCLA-Arizona State game was one we eyeballed in the preseason as a major measuring stick in the battle for the South. A significant part of the appeal was the quarterback battle. That hasn't changed, only now the intrigue is whether it will be Neuheisel for UCLA and Mike Bercovici for Arizona State. A week ago, that quarterback news would have heavily favored the Sun Devils. While Bercovici isn't the runner Kelly is, he's got one of the best arms in the conference and is well-versed in the Sun Devils offense. He is expected to win the starting job as a fifth-year senior next fall. Neuheisel was widely viewed as a career backup with a well-known father -- former UCLA QB and coach Rick Neuheisel -- but his second-half performance against the Longhorns suggested he can be more than a rudimentary game manager.
Both teams have an off week, when they can either get healthy or retool their plans. The stakes continue to be high, perhaps more so after USC threw up on itself with a wet-noodle performance at Boston College. While a nonconference game doesn't affect the Trojans' Pac-12 standing, it certainly made them look extremely vulnerable heading into a much-needed bye week. Other than USC fans, the most miserable folks watching that game surely root for Stanford, which probably can't believe it lost to the Trojans just a week before.
What this implosion and these injuries reveal in a wider sense is vulnerability in the South. In the preseason, UCLA looked like a decisive South favorite. Then USC made a statement with a win over the Cardinal. Arizona State was lurking with a great offense and a questionable defense. At this point, however, none of these three teams is scaring anyone. And don't look now, but Arizona and Utah remain unbeaten and have shown flashes that suggest they might be factors in a divisional race that previously seemed limited to the aforementioned troika.
The Wildcats play host to California on Saturday. Lo and behold, the Bears also are unbeaten, and this game suddenly possesses some potential meaning it didn't seem to have in the preseason. If Cal gets the upset, it can fully erase last season's misery and start thinking bowl game. If Arizona gets the win, it will be 4-0 and eyeballing the Top 25 with a visit to No. 2 Oregon looming on Thursday, Oct. 2.
Arizona appears suspect on defense, but the offense, with impressive redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon, a good O-line, deep corps of receivers and breakout freshman running back Nick Wilson, will make the Wildcats a threat to any foe.
Utah visits Michigan on Saturday. While the Wolverines don't look like they'll be hailing in much victory this season, a Utes win would certainly raise more than a few eyebrows. While Utah's trouble hasn't been in nonconference games since joining the Pac-12, a 3-0 start would hint they are not a South afterthought, particularly if the offense continues to shine with QB Travis Wilson.
While Oregon's win over Michigan State coupled with Stanford's loss to USC only boosted the Ducks' status as North Division favorites, the South intrigue has seemingly spiderwebbed since the beginning of the season. The race appears more wide open and complicated. UCLA's visit to Arizona State remains a major measuring stick, but it's just as likely either team would sacrifice that game -- as horrible as that sounds -- to know it will get its starting quarterback back healthy for the rest of the season.
Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.
"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.
Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."
This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."
Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.
"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."
Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.
There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."
This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.
The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.
Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.
You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.
"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...
"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."
"I’m all about winning championships," Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs told ESPN.com. "So when we went from 11 games to 12 games, I made the commitment -- that 12th game has to be a BCS opponent."
Jacobs, who is responsible for putting together Auburn’s non-conference schedule, has stayed true to his word. Since the schedule expanded to 12 games in 2006, the Tigers have played at least one power conference foe outside the SEC every year.
The answer goes all the way back to the Tommy Tuberville era. Auburn first welcomed Kansas State to the Plains in 2007 as part of a home-and-home series. With Tuberville still pacing the sidelines, the Tigers scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes to rally and beat a Wildcats team featuring Josh Freeman and Jordy Nelson.
Auburn is hoping for a similar result when it makes the return trip to Manhattan this week, seven years later.
As for playing the game on a Thursday night, that was Kansas State’s call. It’s their home game, so they were the ones who initially pitched the change to Jacobs. He then checked with head coach Gus Malzahn, who liked the idea, and voila, the game was moved up two days.
"It worked out great for our schedule," Jacobs said. "It gave us a few extra days to rest for Kansas State and a few extra days to get ready for our next team.
"The other thing, too, is it’s on Thursday night, so everybody in the nation will be watching. We didn’t have a competitive disadvantage whatsoever -- us or Kansas State -- and it put Auburn versus Kansas State on Thursday night, ESPN."
Among those watching will be the College Football Playoff selection committee. The game gives Auburn an opportunity to impress the committee members on a national stage.
It’s also not 2008 anymore. If you remember, that was the year when seven top-25 teams fell to unranked teams on Thursday night, the same year Oregon State took down No. 1 USC and Pittsburgh knocked off No. 10 South Florida in back-to-back weeks. Last season? Just one top-25 upset took place on a Thursday.
Still, the Tigers should be weary of the atmosphere and the raucous crowd that will be awaiting them inside Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The game has been sold out since June.
"This will likely be our greatest attended game ever," Kansas State athletics director John Currie told the Wichita Eagle last week. "We actually have not sold standing room-only tickets, because we know our student section will be as full as it has ever been that night. Student attendance is highest on weekdays."
On one hand, Thursday’s game has all the makings of an upset. On the other hand, it’s the perfect challenge to prepare Auburn for arguably the toughest schedule in the SEC. Either way, it's must-see TV. And to think, it was first thought up almost 10 years ago.
Sims is Alabama’s starting quarterback.
Through three games, the redshirt senior hasn’t done anything to lose the job. He’s connected on 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 646 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also run for 102 yards and two scores. His total QBR of 89.6 ranks sixth nationally, ahead of Jameis Winston and Trevor Knight.
Coker may get there before it’s all said and done, but in the meantime there’s no doubt who is in charge. And who would have guessed a month ago it would be Sims?
Ken Mastrole says he saw it coming. The former NFL quarterback turned personal QB coach worked with Sims for nearly 100 hours this offseason, working on the mechanics of Sims' throwing motion, his release point and the way his feet move when he delivers the football.
But the specifics of Sims’ game that everyone seems so concerned with didn’t bother Mastrole all that much. There were always going to be questions about Sims’ arm strength, he understood. There was always going to be some hitch in his delivery. Rather than starting over, he wanted to make the best, most confident version of Sims.
In conversations, in phone calls and in text messages, Mastrole coached Sims on how to do the job of a quarterback. He told Sims about having his teammates’ backs, taking his linemen out to dinner and handling adversity. They even spoke about how to handle “the transfer situation,” as Mastrole put it.
“Embrace it, get to know each other,” he told Sims of Coker’s late arrival.
Sims won the locker room early, but the way it translated on the field wasn’t expected by many. Not after what we saw during the spring game, when Sims looked out of sorts, throwing two interceptions and lucking out when a defensive back dropped a third.
“He just wanted to get back to work,” Mastrole said. “When he got down here, we just shut it out. We didn’t talk about A-Day.”
Now Sims is a new man.
“He’s gelling very well for a first year in the offense,” Mastrole said. “He looks very confident and very poised. I love his demeanor.”
His teammates do, too.
Brian Vogler, a fellow senior at tight end, said he hasn’t been surprised by how far Sims has come.
“He’s a smart football player,” Vogler said. “He makes the right decisions and he has the great ability to make things happen with his feet. It’s a whole new dimension to our offense.
“He’s really matured over these last three games.”
Maybe it was during the summer or maybe it was the spring, Vogler couldn’t remember. But at some point he saw things click for Sims.
“He zoned in and said, ‘It’s time to lock down. I haven’t taken these last four years as seriously. It’s time to lock in and do what I can to be the best quarterback,’” Vogler said.
Cyrus Jones, a junior cornerback, goes against Sims every day in practice. To him, it was just a matter of time before Sims gelled within the offense. As Jones put it, “Experience is definitely in the key. ... You can’t play this game without confidence.
“I had confidence in Blake since Day 1,” he said. “I know what kind of athlete he is. I know what type of drive he has and what type of focus he has. I’m not surprised he’s playing as well as he is.”
But this much better? How many people in their heart of hearts expected that?
“Do we want to continue working both quarterbacks and work both guys? Absolutely,” Saban said. “Jake needs to play and develop confidence, but I think we’re going to have to make decisions on a week-to-week basis on who gives us the best opportunity to win. Right now Blake is probably more confident. If that remains that way, he’s probably going to start.”
"The first game I was trusting the line,” Sims said. “I was trusting the wide receivers. And as the games go by, I'm trusting them more and more, and they're trusting me that I'll get the ball there.”
If he continues to play well Saturday against SEC rival Florida, Sims may never surrender the starting job. But that’s a big if. The Gators have one of the best defenses in the SEC and boast one of the top cornerbacks in the country in Vernon Hargreaves III. Those quick passes to Amari Cooper and all the yards after catch he’s accumulated might not be so easy to come by.
Mastrole’s advice to Sims heading into the biggest test of his career? Don’t change.
“Just trust your offense,” Mastrole said. “Play within the system. No stage is too big. It’s just another opportunity to go out there and play the game you love.
“It’s a kid’s game. Take all the pressure off and just go out there, trust your preparation during the week and go out there and executing the offense. Don’t even worry about the jerseys lining up on the other side.”
Those might all be typical coaching cliches, but they’ve gotten Sims this far. Now we’ll see if they can carry him to the next level.
While some of those media members were firmly in middle age, nobody there had been alive since October 1941, a couple of months before the Pearl Harbor invasion pulled the United States into World War II, when the Tigers tied Mississippi State 0-0 and beat Rice 27-0 on consecutive weekends.
Both of those streaks are history thanks to what Mills and the other members of LSU's defense accomplished over the past two Saturdays at Tiger Stadium, first shutting out Sam Houston State 56-0 and then taking down Louisiana-Monroe 31-0.
"They were not getting yards," Miles said after Saturday's win against ULM. "They handed the ball off, they weren't getting yards, and [LSU's defensive backs] were covering. In short throws, they were covering. So I think the defense is playing dominant football."
Both shutouts were impressive. Even when it's an FCS squad such as Sam Houston State or a lower-division team such as ULM, preventing an opponent from scoring a single point is an accomplishment -- and in ULM's case, the Warhawks didn't even generate 100 yards of total offense (they had 93 yards, the fewest by an LSU opponent since 2007).
Now we'll see whether these achievements mean something or whether they'll become historical footnotes that in a few years will interest only those who dig stats out of old media guides.
We'll probably learn which option it's going to be over the next couple of weeks, beginning with Saturday's game against Mississippi State. LSU was supposed to dominate its past two opponents and it did. Neither of those offenses had a player like Dak Prescott at quarterback or weapons like De'Runnya Wilson, Jameon Lewis or Josh Robinson at his disposal.
Prescott (91 rushing yards per game, 232 ypg passing, 12 total touchdowns) is not a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at this point, but that would change quickly if he runs wild next weekend and the Bulldogs improve to 4-0 in the SEC opener for both teams.
"He's a very mobile guy," Mills said. "He's at best when he is being mobile -- so [LSU's defense must] just try to contain the pocket, try to contain him, try to get the timing on him and his receivers' routes off a little bit."
Prescott and State were giving LSU fits last season until the Tigers got it together late in the third quarter and closed the game on a 31-0 run to earn a 59-26 victory. The defense ignited that win-clinching run by forcing two turnovers and a turnover on downs in State's final three possessions -- mirroring a trend in the Tigers' recent run of defensive success.
They have been finishers. Finishing drives with third-down stops to force punts (ULM had seven three-and-outs in 12 possessions Saturday). Finishing possessions by forcing turnovers (LSU has six takeaways and two turnovers on downs since the start of the fourth quarter in the opener against Wisconsin). Finishing plays with hard hits on quarterbacks and gang tackles on opposing ball carriers.
LSU's defense needs to keep playing that way or its SEC West chances might quickly be finished.
Like some of Les Miles' best Tiger teams, this is not a team built to win shootouts against prolific offenses such as Auburn's or Texas A&M's. Last season's LSU club was more comfortable playing that style of game because of its wealth of NFL-ready skill talent, but this team seems to be cut more from the traditional LSU cloth. Challenge the opponent's manhood with a physical brand of offense. Limit risks and mistakes. Then let John Chavis' defense put away wins by overwhelming opponents with aggression and athleticism.
We're about to discover whether the Tigers have the pieces to duplicate the massive success that previous Miles teams enjoyed while abiding by that basic philosophy.
Will the interior defensive line be good enough to slow down the power running games ahead on the schedule? Will the pass rush be effective enough to force some mistakes? Are the linebackers going to be effective against high-level skill talent? It's too early to respond with a definitive "yes" to any of those questions, but aside from a rocky first half against Wisconsin, things look good for Chavis' bunch so far.
If they stifle Mississippi State's offense on Saturday the way they suffocated two overmatched nonconference opponents the past two weekends, LSU fans will have good reason to ratchet up their excitement level another few notches.
The SEC went 8-1 in non-conference games in Week 3 with it only loss being Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma. The SEC is now 27-2 in non-conference games with an average margin of victory of 27.6 points per game.
Even more amazing is that the SEC West is 18-0 against every other team not in the SEC West.
The SEC now has 10 of the top 25 teams in the Football Power Index; the Big 12, ACC and Big Ten have a combined seven teams in the FPI top 25.
The ACC had an up-and-down week, but ultimately losses by Virginia Tech and Louisville hurt the conference in the power rankings. The issue for the ACC is that it has one or two top teams, but there is a big drop off after that.
After Virginia Tech upset Ohio State in Week 2 and Louisville looked strong in its first two wins, there was a perception that the middle of the conference was catching up to the top. But losses by those two teams on Saturday dropped them out of the AP Top 25, leaving just two ACC teams ranked in the poll.
The Big Ten’s struggles continued in Week 3, as its teams lost all five of its games against Power Five opponents. The Big Ten has lost its last 10 games against non-Big Ten Power Five teams, including losses to West Virginia (by Maryland), Iowa State (by Iowa), TCU (by Minnesota), Washington (by Illinois) and Notre Dame (by Purdue) on Saturday.
The only conference with a worse record in non-conference games against Power Five opponents than the Big Ten is Conference USA, who is 0-16 in such games.
The Big 12 is gaining ground on the Pac-12 for the second-best conference in the FBS. This season the Big 12 is winning with defense, with four of the top eight teams in ESPN’s defensive efficiency metric. Baylor and Oklahoma are looking like national title contenders, and the middle-tier teams of the conference – Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia – are all off to strong starts.
Six Big 12 teams have byes in Week 4, but the conference will have a chance to make a statement on a national stage as Kansas State hosts Auburn on Thursday (7:30 ET, ESPN). Other enticing non-conference Week 4 games include: Utah at Michigan (3:30 ET, ABC/ESPN2), Indiana at Missouri (4 ET, SEC Network) and Miami (FL) at Nebraska (8 ET, ESPN 2).
The conference power rankings are a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP Poll and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the country. For more information on the rankings and FPI, click here and here.
Jonathan McDonald and Jason Starrett also contributed to this post