A lot of talent has already come off the board, but there’s still quality at the top of the ESPN 300 that could give at least 10 teams a shot at the second-best class. Plus, Penn State's James Franklin continues to be the most talked about coach in the Washington D.C. metro area.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong went back to his coaching playbook after Texas’ 48-45 win over Iowa State and dug up a familiar tactic. He wanted to make sure his defenders hadn’t deceived him.

When his defense met Sunday, they went to the tape. Strong pulled up five plays that bothered him. He’d caught a few players letting up, not running to the ball, jogging. So he brought back the lowlight reel.

“I said, ‘This is not us, but I want you to see these five plays,’” Strong said Monday. “‘If this is us, I need to know that. If it’s an imposter wearing your jersey, I need to know that. I want you guys to watch this tape.’”

[+] EnlargeSam Richardson
AP Photo/Michael ThomasSam Richardson and Iowa State humbled Texas' defense this past Saturday.
Strong used the same tactic this offseason, meeting individually with each Longhorn and showing them their worst plays of 2013. It’s a measure meant to hammer home how good those players can be with better effort.

He brought it back this week because, seven games into this season, Strong has seen how good this Texas defense can be. He’s OK with winning by three points. He’s OK with a last-second victory, Texas’ first win in a close game all season.

He’s not OK with Iowa State putting 45 points on the scoreboard, 38 of them permitted by his defense.

“Our defense did not play to the standard we’re used to seeing them at,” Strong said.

Iowa State gained 10-plus yards on 22 different plays, the second most a Strong defense has allowed in his five years as a head coach. ISU quarterback Sam B. Richardson, responsible for 18 of those big gains, threw for 345 yards and three scores against the nation’s No. 3-ranked pass defense.

Stats aside, Iowa State came into Texas’ house, kept scoring in crunch time -- a TD with five seconds left in the first half, another with 28 seconds left in the ballgame -- and had a lot of right answers offensively.

“He was mad,” Diggs said of Strong. “We’re all mad. We know we didn’t play well.”

Credit masterful play calling from offensive coordinator Mark Mangino and consistently stout play from Iowa State’s offensive line. With the exception of his two interceptions, Richardson played keep-away from Texas. He found holes in Texas’ zone coverage with quick intermediate passes that beget good tempo.

Safety Dylan Haines picked off Richardson for a 74-yard touchdown, but conceded this unit backed off a little too much after Texas’ offense provided a fast 14-0 start.

“We started missing keys, missing our drops in our zone coverages,” Haines said. “I think when they started to make those throws, they were able to get momentum and move with tempo. I don’t think we were ever able to slow them down after that.”

Just two of Richardson’s 55 attempts went longer than 20 yards. He got into a rhythm with tight end E.J. Bibbs, and missed tackles created opportunities for running back Aaron Wimberly. ISU’s 38 points were all hard-earned.

“Those guys attacked all their keys and did everything they were supposed to do,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “They didn’t make many mistakes. They were throwing the ball quick, getting it out in a hurry. Those guys played a good game. We still won.”

The good news, Strong says, is the particular mistakes and missteps Texas defenders made this past Saturday are teachable and correctable.

“It’s all about fundamentals, technique, alignment, gap integrity, them making throws that never should’ve been made,” Strong said.

He’ll praise the growth of quarterback Tyrone Swoopes and Texas’ offense and acceptable play on the special-teams front this week, no doubt. A four-loss team takes its wins by any means necessary.

But with a trip to No. 11 Kansas State up next, Strong will not take it easy on his defense this week. The shaming phase is probably complete. A little humbling never hurts. The next step? Address the formula the Cyclones offered and find a better way to stop it.

“If that formula’s there,” Strong said, “it’s there every week in this conference.”
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops thought his team played better against Kansas State than it had the previous two weeks in a loss at TCU and a narrow win against Texas.

The Sooners missed fewer assignments defensively. Quarterback Trevor Knight completed 26 of 32 passes for a sparkling QBR of 90.5 (scale 0-to-100). Oklahoma also averaged 6.8 yards per play for its best statistical offensive output since Week 2 against Tulsa.

Stoops, however, said the performance that resulted in a 31-30 loss to the Wildcats was still not good enough.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiBob Stoops said crucial mistakes by the Sooners negated their improved overall play Saturday.
"Nothing’s well enough when you lose by a point," Stoops said during his weekly news conference Monday. "We needed to be a play or two better on offense. A series or two better on defense. Or (a play better) on special teams. It all isn’t good enough when you lose."

Though Oklahoma generated 13 more first downs than the Wildcats and outgained them 533-to-385, the Sooners were ultimately doomed by several costly mistakes.

From his own goal line, Knight elected to throw on a run-pass option call. The ill-advised pass was picked off by Danzel McDaniel, who returned it three yards for a touchdown.

"Certain plays are tagged," Stoops said "If (Knight) gets a soft corner he has the option to throw the out. When the guy squeezed back down, you can’t throw it."

The Sooners had another ill-advised throwing decision, though it didn't come from Knight. Off a reverse/wide receiver pass, Durron Neal forced a throw into a coverage trying to hit Sterling Shepard for a touchdown. Instead, K-State’s Morgan Burns intercepted in the end zone for a touchback and thwarted the scoring opportunity.

"We didn’t have as many mental breakdowns, we executed our passing game in a really good way, we were much better on third-down conversions," Stoops said. "We were much better as far as missed assignments.

"But it doesn’t matter. I’d take the other in a minute. You can’t make the critical mistakes that change the game."

The Sooners also made critical mistakes elsewhere. Safety Ahmad Thomas whiffed trying to tackle quarterback Jake Waters on the opening play of the third quarter, resulting in a 53-yard run that set up a field goal. Earlier, Oklahoma turned fullback Glenn Gronkowski loose on a delayed pass play that led to a 62-yard touchdown, though Stoops implied he wasn’t pleased with the way the play was officiated.

"The guy (Gronkowski) running down the middle of the field, that’s a difficult play when (Waters) waits and waits and the center (B.J. Finney) is blocking the linebacker," said Stoops, who wanted officials to flag K-State for an illegal man downfield. Before that, Stoops was also upset that his fullback, Aaron Ripkowski, was ejected in the first quarter for targeting, and that on the same play, the Wildcats weren’t penalized for hitting Knight after he had hit ground diving.

"Those are tough plays to defend," Stoops said of the delayed pass, "in the way they’re allowed to play them."

Yet the biggest play that decided the outcome came on special teams. Senior Michael Hunnicutt, the school’s all-time leading scorer, missed two field goals, including a 19-yarder late in the fourth quarter. Hunnicutt also had an extra point blocked in the fourth.

"He just rushed the second (field goal). He hit a bad shot," Stoops said. "Michael has been as consistent and as good a player as we’ve had here. He’s been a big part of a lot of wins. He had a bad day and a couple of bad shots. It came at a bad time.

"We all respect him and think the world of him. And we’ll need (him) to win more games coming forward."
Having a case of the Mondays? Not to fret, my friends. Sparty and his band of Big Ten mascots are here to lift your spirits.

OK, so you might hate pop music or Taylor Swift. But if you don't enjoy choreographed mascot dances, you are a cold, humorless soul and I cannot help you.

The latest from the Big Ten mascots is a rendition of Swift's "Shake it Off."

In addition to Sparty, the video includes appearances from: Herky the Hawk, Purdue Pete, Goldy Gopher, Herbie Husker (and Lil' Red), Bucky Badger, Brutus Buckeye and a new face to the party, Rutgers' Scarlet Knight. Best moves (coming from someone who has none) and creativity in performance: Bucky Badger, followed by Purdue Pete.

Enjoy the video ...


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Big Ten

For nearly two decades, former Penn State assistant Larry Johnson jogged through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium and turned right -- past the cheering student fans, past the Nittany Lions' mascot -- to the home sideline.

On Saturday night, for the first time in his career, Johnson will be standing across from that sideline.

The 18-year Penn State assistant is now the defensive line coach at Ohio State, and his new team will face his old Saturday night in State College. Urban Meyer scooped Johnson up after he left Happy Valley in January -- making the Buckeyes just the second college team he’s ever coached -- and Johnson said he’s not quite sure what emotions to expect when he returns.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"I had a great time there for 18 years." said ex-Penn State assistant Larry Johnson, now the D-line coach at Ohio State.
“It’ll be different,” Johnson said Monday afternoon. “You spend 18 years in one place for a long time and then you walk back in there on a different sideline. But I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m looking forward to going back with Ohio State University.

“I’m looking forward to going back home and being excited to play in the stadium.”

Johnson’s departure was an emotional one for Penn State fans. He was the final Joe Paterno holdover, the last assistant with a direct connection to the no-name jerseys and the rolled-up khakis. While unprecedented change swept through Happy Valley, Johnson was the lone constant.

He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator when Paterno was fired. Then he was relegated to defensive line coach with Bill O’Brien’s arrival. Two seasons later, when O’Brien left, he kept this team together as the interim head coach. Then, with James Franklin’s hiring, he left.

“I didn’t have any bitterness when I left. It was my decision to leave, it was my time to move on,” he said Monday. “I just felt that Coach Franklin was coming in with a new staff, and I knew he had a guy he really liked a lot. I just felt it was the best thing to do.”

Now, instead of addressing the media behind a blue and white backdrop, he talks to reporters behind a scarlet and gray one. On Monday afternoon, in a dark Ohio State jacket, the even-tempered coach kept a soft tone as if he were in a library while reflecting on his time in State College.

He spoke highly of his past stop throughout the news conference. About how past “White Outs,” where the crowd wears all white, jump-started his players. About the “great friends, great players” he coached. About how blessed he feels with PSU and now OSU on his resume. Though he remained stoic for much of the time, he smiled when asked if -- in his 18 years -- he ever caught a peek of the visitors’ locker room.

“I have not,” he said.

But have you heard about it?

“I have heard about it,” he said with a slight grin. “It’s very small.”

Besides Monday’s location -- and the color of his shirt -- Johnson said not all that much has changed in his life. He still tends to his flowers in the offseason -- “That’s kind of my style,” he added -- he still preaches player development and relationships, and he’s still a top recruiter. He built a new house near Ohio State, and his son, former Penn State wideout Tony Johnson, moved closer to him.

He sold his old house in State College and doesn’t plan to stop by once he returns. He doesn’t plan to swing by the Creamery for some Peachy Paterno ice cream, or see much of anything other than the walls to his hotel and the inside of Beaver Stadium. He said he simply doesn’t have the time.

He remains in touch with his pastor from Penn State, along with some members of the congregation, so he plans to see some familiar faces in the crowd Saturday night. He’ll shake hands with his former players after the game, and it’s sure to be a surreal experience for the coach whom Paterno plucked from the high school ranks back in 1996.

“I had a great time there for 18 years,” Johnson said. “I got to be part of their lives for a long time. It’s a new job, a new place and a new school, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”

Recruiter Rankings: Oct. update

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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Tony HughesAP Photo/Don Juan MooreMississippi State's Tony Hughes has had a big hand recruiting the team that has risen to No. 1 in the rankings.


The recruiter power rankings examine which assistant coaches have already done damage on the recruiting trail in the 2015 class. Beyond looking at how many four- or five-star recruits a coach lands, the rankings take into account the needs those recruits will fill at the next level.

With the season and official visits off and running and more than 200 players in the ESPN 300 having already committed, the coaches are working extra hard to bolster their classes.

Previous rankings: Feb. 6 | April 17 | June 19 | Aug. 25 | Sept. 22



To read this month's update, click here Insider.
With no game this past weekend, the Auburn coaches gave the players Friday and Saturday off. Some went home. Others stayed around campus, enjoying the two-day break. Sammie Coates did neither. The wide receiver made the two-hour trip to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham to spend Friday with Kenzie Ray, a 12-year-old girl with leukemia.

The two spent hours playing video games. When she got stuck on a level, Coates helped her get through it. He went to dinner with Kenzie’s family before going back to the hospital, where he stayed with her until almost 9 p.m.

"She just gets happy [around Coates]," Kenzie’s mother, Keisha Ray, said. "It’s just like when her family comes up. She gets a little more rambunctious when her brothers are here or her daddy is here. It’s the same thing.

[+] EnlargeCoates
@sammiecoates/ InstagramSammie Coates spent time playing video games with his friend, 12-year-old leukemia patient Kenzie Ray.
"I think to start with, she kind of looked at Sammie as something bigger. He did make her feel special and that sort of thing, and he still does. But I think it’s grown into something bigger. He’s my family. I feel like he’s one of mine when he’s here."

The relationship began in September 2013, when Kenzie attended the Auburn-Mississippi State game. She was invited by a family friend to meet Auburn offensive tackle and cancer survivor Shon Coleman, and the two talked after the game. But Coleman wasn’t the only player she met that night.

Not knowing who Kenzie was, Coates walked up after the game and began talking with her. The two exchanged wristbands; he gave her a shoutout on Twitter; she sent him a friend request. Now there’s nothing that can separate them.

More than a year later, they don’t go even a day without at least texting one another. Most of the time, they are talking on the phone or through Facetime.

"When I met Kenzie, I thought she was my role model because I look up to her and how strong she is and how she fights," Coates said after the Louisiana Tech game in late September. "That makes me fight harder. It makes me become a better person every day. It’s just a blessing to have her in my life."

With Coates, it’s about more than football. He led Auburn with 42 receptions, 902 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, but he will be the first to tell you that it doesn’t matter how many catches or yards he has. It doesn’t even matter who wins or loses. He just wants to use his abilities to help other people, people like Kenzie.

"Sammie’s got a big heart," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "Obviously he loves football, loves to compete, but he’s got a big heart for things outside of football.

"Usually if you’re around Sammie and he doesn’t have a big smile or he seems down, it’s because one of those kids that he’s gotten close to is struggling. It gets him in a funk, and that’s how close he gets to them."

Recently, Coates did receive some bad news about Kenzie. The family discovered that despite getting a bone marrow transplant in August, she still has leukemia.

As soon as Coates got the news, he sent Kenzie a text message. They talked briefly, and the same girl who was crying just five minutes earlier came out, told her mom Coates had sent her a message, and said: "I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep fighting."

"I don’t really know what he said," her mother said later. "But he just keeps her fired up. He’s a huge source of inspiration for her."

That’s why when Coates finally got some time away from the football field, he didn’t waste any time, and went to see Kenzie. After all, she’s his source of inspiration, too.

"You can’t get down when you see people like that, that fight every day of their life," Coates said. "That’s one thing I take out there and try to tell my teammates to do. Play this game like you’re happy to play it. Don’t be down about little stuff, like a nick or a bruise. You’ve got people out there fighting for their life every day.

"That’s the attitude you’ve got to have. You’ve got to be happy for every opportunity you get. That’s what I take from [Kenzie]. She means a lot to me."

Clemson's Choice out with torn ligament

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said leading running back Adam Choice is lost for the season after tearing a knee ligament, according to the Associated Press.

The 21st-ranked Tigers (5-2, 4-1 ACC) will also be without tight end Jordan Leggett for several weeks after he also suffered a knee injury. Swinney said both players were injured in last Saturday's 17-13 victory at Boston College.

Clemson faces Syracuse (3-4, 1-2) on Saturday night.

Choice, a freshman, led Clemson with 218 yards and a touchdown. Swinney said Choice would need surgery in a couple of weeks to repair the ACL injury.

Swinney said Leggett tore his meniscus and sprained an MCL. He's caught 10 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.

The coach did not provide any further details on the injuries, per athletic department policy.

Read more on this story.

B1G early look: Setting up Week 9

October, 20, 2014
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Curse the double bye, as we have another week coming up with just five Big Ten games. But there are a few good ones on tap, including a couple intriguing rivalries. Here's your early look at the storylines for Week 9:

1. Can Michigan close the Bunyan-sized gap with Michigan State? Based simply on this year's performances, Saturday's game between Michigan and Michigan State could be one of the most lopsided in the history of the Paul Bunyan Trophy series. The Spartans are riding high, having won 13 straight Big Ten contests, while the Wolverines are just 3-4. Michigan State has won five of the past six in this rivalry, including three straight in East Lansing. The inability to beat his rivals is a big reason Brady Hoke is fighting for his job right now. Maybe the Wolverines can rally behind their embattled coach. If not, this has a chance to get ugly.

2. Will Ohio State keep it rolling? The Buckeyes have scored 50 or more points in each of their past four games to build their case for the College Football Playoff. This week brings their toughest road test of the season to date, a night game at Penn State. Beaver Stadium will be decked in white, and Nittany Lions fans will do their best to rattle young quarterback J.T. Barrett. Penn State's defense is probably the best one Ohio State has played in at least a month as well. Of course, the Lions have lost their first two Big Ten games and are having all sorts of issues with their offensive line, which they spent last week's bye week trying to solve. Don't be surprised if James Franklin and his staff throw out some new wrinkles this Saturday night.

3. Make-or-break game in Madison: Is Maryland for real? Is Wisconsin a serious contender? The season has failed to adequately answer these questions thus far. The Terrapins are 2-1 in their first year in the league and are coming off a solid win over Iowa. They've been up and down (the down includes a home blowout loss to Ohio State), but they also have a lot of explosive playmakers. Wisconsin has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon but hasn't figured much else out on offense, especially in the passing game. The Badgers already have one conference loss and likely can't afford another one if they want to win the West Division. Can Wisconsin keep pace with Maryland's skill players like Stefon Diggs? Can the Terps' shaky defense slow down Gordon? One team will be left standing as a serious division contender after Saturday.

4. Beckman's last stand? Illinois coach Tim Beckman may well have to make a bowl game to save his job this season. That means the 3-4 Illini probably have to win this week at home against Minnesota, because the rest of the schedule isn't kind. The Gophers sit atop the West Division at 3-0 but looked vulnerable to a big-play passing offense on Saturday against Purdue. Illinois will have to follow the Boilermakers' game plan, though either Aaron Bailey or Reilly O'Toole must make a big jump at quarterback. Here's the best reason to predict that Minnesota will come away with the road win in Champaign: Beckman's defense is surrendering a Big Ten-worst 271.1 rushing yards per game. David Cobb could run all day.

5. Rutgers' mettle being tested: You really wanted to join the Big Ten, Rutgers. Well, here you go. After dealing with the piping-hot cauldron of the Horseshoe last week -- where the Scarlet Knights got scalded in a 56-17 loss to Ohio State -- Kyle Flood's team jumps back into the fire this week with a trip to Nebraska. It's harder to imagine many more difficult back-to-back road challenges than that in the Big Ten, and it highlights the difficulty of Rutgers' second-half schedule (a November trip to Michigan State still awaits). Nebraska looked terrific last week in the second half at Northwestern and must simply avoid complacency before the big West Division showdowns arrive the final three weeks (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa). For the Scarlet Knights right now, this is mostly about survival and not letting a promising season go up in flames
BATON ROUGE, La. -- After a rocky start in SEC play, LSU is finally starting to accomplish some of its objectives on offense.

The initial spark, according to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, was settling on the starting lineup of offensive linemen that has been in place for each of the past four games.

“It’s a pretty good line,” LSU coach Les Miles said after last Saturday’s 41-3 win against Kentucky. “They’re starting to play like they’re capable.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings and the LSU offense will surely get a stiff test against Ole Miss on Saturday.
Playing like they’re capable was a lengthier process than most expected for a line that returned four starters. Not only did center Elliott Porter miss the first two games on suspension, but guards Vadal Alexander and Ethan Pocic had struggled with injuries.

“Something that’s overlooked is all the movement we had early in the year,” Cameron said after the Kentucky game. “It was significant, not only with Elliott not starting the season, but with some injuries, with Pocic and so forth, and just our style of wanting to be physical and getting better each week. Our guys played tonight like they practiced all week.”

LSU has long prided itself on a physical, run-first mentality, but the line’s general ineffectiveness was one of the lowlights from a bumpy first half of the season. Perhaps the group has turned a corner after back-to-back solid outings against Florida and Kentucky.

Although it ran the ball reasonably well against Auburn (36 carries, 138 yards), LSU didn’t deliver a strong performance against a good run defense until Leonard Fournette was the driving force in a 195-yard night against Florida. The Tigers followed that by wearing down a mediocre Kentucky run defense, rushing for 231 of their 303 yards in the second half.

The Kentucky game was the first time LSU rushed for 200 yards against a Power 5 opponent after Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn -- all of which rank among the nation’s top 26 defenses against the run, as does Florida -- effectively defended the Tigers’ running game.

“We’re getting better,” said Cameron, who participated in postgame interviews for the first time all season after the Kentucky game. “I think our guys up front really did a nice job. That was the plan coming in. Obviously [Kentucky employs] a pressure front. They bring a lot of field blitzes, a lot of boundary blitzes and I thought our guys did a nice job once we got on track.”

Pinning the Tigers’ offensive improvement solely on improved play from the offensive line would be too simplistic, however. It’s also receivers running better routes and getting separation from defensive backs. It’s running backs hitting the correct holes and making tacklers miss. It’s playing with a full complement of fullbacks for the first time in weeks and having them create consistent running space for the backs.

It also helps that the Tigers (6-2, 2-2 SEC) recently faced two mediocre teams from the SEC East -- clearly the lesser of the conference’s two divisions -- in Florida and Kentucky after opening league play against Mississippi State and Auburn, teams ranked No. 1 and 5, respectively, in the newest Associated Press Top 25.

They’ll move back toward the tougher end of the SEC spectrum on Saturday when No. 3 Ole Miss (7-0, 4-0) visits Tiger Stadium, bringing a run defense that ranks sixth nationally at 97.1 yards per game.

Facing the Rebels’ defense will be the true test of the progress LSU has made recently – and whether quarterback Anthony Jennings can truly be an effective performer against a top-flight defense. Although LSU seems to have settled on sophomore Jennings as the starter after freshman Brandon Harris struggled mightily in his lone start at Auburn, Jennings has hardly scared the major-conference defenses LSU has faced thus far.

“He really can play better than he played [against Kentucky],” Miles said. “There are a number of guys that he could have chosen to throw the ball to early on in the game and I think that he’ll see this and learn from that and I think he will be a better quarterback when we get to next Saturday.”

Jennings was 7-for-14 for 120 yards and a touchdown against Kentucky and 10-for-21 for 110 yards and one score against Florida. Harris threw an interception in his only pass attempt against Kentucky and didn’t play against Florida.

“I don’t know that it’s a competition as much as it’s just guys working to get better,” Cameron said. “It’s two guys that are growing just day by day, snap by snap and just maturing and understanding what we’re trying to get done.”

One objective that Jennings has met is taking care of the football. He briefly lost the starting job with three early turnovers against New Mexico State, but otherwise Jennings has not been plagued by turnovers. He has thrown three interceptions and lost one fumble through eight games, helping LSU tie for 11th nationally with a plus-7 turnover margin.

If all LSU asks of Jennings is to be a game manager, it will probably need to have more games like last Saturday’s, where it made big plays on special teams and controlled the contest with stout defense and a powerful running attack. It was the type of performance that LSU fans have grown accustomed to seeing under Miles.

“We’re trying not to put our defense in a tough position if we can help it. They do a great job of getting us the ball,” Cameron said. “Our special teams got us in great position. They scored tonight. I think it’s a collective effort.

“Anytime you block well and take care of the football, whether it be run blocking, pass protection, you should be successful. ... We’re in the back half of the season and we’re still getting better, and that’s a good thing.”

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In his most recent postgame news conference, Will Muschamp spoke as quickly as ever, but this time his words were hushed.

There's a pall over his Florida football program, and at this point it doesn't matter if words are screamed or whispered.

All that matters are results. The ones Muschamp has not delivered.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWith a 2-8 mark in his past 10 SEC games, one has to wonder how much longer Will Muschamp can survive as Florida's coach.
This past Saturday at the Swamp, with everyone in attendance aware that the coach's job was on the line, the Gators played like his fate was already sealed.

What could have been a stepping-stone game against Missouri to set up an SEC East showdown with Georgia in two weeks was instead a laugher. The Tigers returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and then stepped out of the way as Florida self-destructed.

When it was over Muschamp sounded like a coach out of answers.

"I told them anytime you go have one like this, you look in the mirror and figure what we need to do to improve," he said. "... We've just got to nail it down to some things that we do well, which right now is not that much."

Florida has lost 10 of its past 13 games. In the past two seasons, the Gators' only wins have come against Toledo, Eastern Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas.

In four seasons, Muschamp has a 25-19 record. He's 15-14 against SEC competition, including a 2-8 record in his past 10 conference games.

What few supporters were left on Saturday night gave up on their coach in the third quarter. Boos echoed throughout the Swamp, and loud chants of "Fire Muschamp" rained down on the field as fans left in droves.

As usual, the coach took full responsibility and swore to address the issues that are plaguing his team -- a starting quarterback who has had an astonishing 12 turnovers in his past 14 quarters, leaky pass protection, and a corps of receivers who drop balls with frightening regularity.

Reinforcements don't appear to be coming, though, as a lack of player development has compounded Florida's offensive ineptitude.

"It's on me" or something to that effect is what Muschamp has said after every ugly loss, but it's cold comfort to Gators fans who have grown restless and irate as the program has sunk to bottom-tier status in the league it dominated just a few years ago.

Muschamp claimed he did not hear the fans chanting for his ouster, and he vowed to stay focused on his team.

"I'm not going to get concerned about those things I don't have any control of other than this team," he said, "and I think that's the most important thing right now."

What's next for Florida is a tense bye week sure to be filled and fueled by speculation.

Athletic director Jeremy Foley said early in September he would give Muschamp the entire season to show progress before rendering judgement. After last Saturday's loss, Foley reiterated that stance when asked if he would fire his coach midseason.

"C’mon, I’m not going to answer that question," he told Greg Stoda of the Palm Beach Post. "It’s irrelevant. Any evaluations on this team will be made on the season."

After Saturday's ugly display on the field and in the stands, it's hard to imagine this coach and this team turning this ship around. Like last Saturday's game, the momentum has spiraled out of control.

It's also hard to argue that progress has been made, although one player insisted it has.

"We've improved drastically even if the numbers don't say it," senior center Max Garcia said. "We have. I feel it just as a team chemistry-wise. We're a team this year."

At this point in Muschamp's tenure, progress in the locker room likely won't be enough without the results to back it up.

Whether he coaches Florida against Georgia in two weeks or not, the fans chanting "Fire Muschamp" seem certain to get their wish.
Of all the prominent last names on the College Football Playoff's 13-member selection committee -- Haden, Rice, Jernstedt, Alvarez, even Osborne -- one resonated more than all the rest.

Akin to the first family of football, the Mannings are a household name that even the most casual college football fan can recognize. Archie Manning's necessary decision to step down from his role on the committee for health reasons was a significant loss for the group and the game in its first season of the playoff.

It’s not that the committee can’t figure out the top four teams in the country without Manning -- it will carry on and fully function with 12 capable members -- but it will be missing an influential voice with the power, knowledge and respect to sway their votes.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning, Archie Manning, and Eli Manning
Jason Merritt/Getty Images For DirecTVThe rest of this season, the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee will be without the influential voice of Archie Manning, center, who is flanked by famous sons Peyton, left, and Eli.
One of the many lessons learned from the mock selections that have been held is that opinions can be changed and votes swayed. A committee member might enter a meeting convinced that only conference champions should be in the playoff -- until a Hall of Famer and two-time NFL Pro Bowler persuades them otherwise.

The selection process is as much about strength of personality as it is about strength of schedule. The biggest difference in this system is the human element. These are powerful people -- including a former secretary of state, a retired three-star general and a congressman -- all sitting around the table and debating.

Odds are they are used to winning.

Manning’s voice, and perspective, would have been heard -- especially when it came to discussions about the ACC and Mountain West Conference, the leagues he was a point person for.

Of course, Manning would have been recused from all votes about Ole Miss. He has a condo on campus with such a great view from the balcony that he watched the goalposts go back and forth about four times after Ole Miss beat Alabama. So, yeah, that's a little awkward.

But he could have weighed in on whether Florida State should be No. 1 or No. 2.

He could have opined on Michigan State’s strengths and weaknesses, broken down TCU’s defense and explained why Ohio State looks so much better now than it did in Week 2.

He could have cast a tiebreaking vote. Now, if there is a 6-6 tie, the committee members will continue to debate and revote until it is resolved.

Officials at the playoff have decided not to replace Manning, which is a logical and necessary option so late in the season. The other committee members have gone through mock selection exercises, and they are supposed to be paying attention to this season closer than anyone else in the country. It would have been impossible for Manning to do that, and to travel to the seven weekly meetings in Dallas that begin Oct. 27, when health is a concern.

Manning’s knee problems -- while not to be overdramatized -- left him unable to attend his son Peyton’s historic game Sunday in which he passed Brett Favre for the league's record for career touchdown passes. College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock has said he is looking forward to Manning’s return in 2015, but that might not be realistic and is sure to be a storyline this offseason.

The story now doesn’t change, only the face of the committee. On Oct. 28, the 12-person selection committee will reveal its first Top 25 ranking of the season. It’s going to be the most scrutinized, overanalyzed decision the sport has seen.

We know Manning is capable of making tough decisions. He just did.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Red Lightning is beloved at Florida State. No opponent dare lay a hand on a Seminoles player on the sideline lest they wish a shove and a confrontation with Florida State’s red-bearded ball boy.

But as he ran onto the field and waded through the ongoing Florida State party at the 10-yard line, he was a little overzealous trying to get the football. Offensive lineman Cam Erving had a vise grip locked around it and just gave a Red Lightning a glare. Erving wasn’t handing it over.

Asked what he planned with the ball, an emotionally spent Erving pointed to the tape around his right wrist: RT, it read. This ball was for offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who was watching the game on a hospital monitor as he lay in bed.

[+] EnlargeRick Trickett
AP Photo/Phil CoaleFlorida State gave the game ball for Saturday's win against Notre Dame to offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who was in the hospital but has since been released.
"I’ve never been around a guy who takes more pride in his work, works any harder, is a better line coach than he is," Jimbo Fisher said after the game. "When I talked to him [Saturday] on the phone, he broke down. He cried, [and] that guy don’t cry over nothing. He felt he was letting me down and letting his team down and those kids down. ... We gave him the game ball. That game was for him."

Less than 24 hours before kickoff Saturday night, Trickett suffered what the athletic department called a personal health issue and would not coach.

In his postgame team address after No. 2 Florida State’s 31-27 win against Notre Dame, Fisher announced the ball would go to Trickett, who came with Fisher to FSU in 2007. One of Trickett’s sons, Chance, works in the Seminoles’ recruiting department and was handed the ball to deliver to his father, who was released from hospital Sunday afternoon and is expected to rejoin the team by Wednesday.

Considering the circumstances, Saturday had to be a proud day for Trickett. The second half of the day began with his son Clint, a quarterback at West Virginia, playing one of the best games of his career, throwing three touchdowns in a 41-27 upset of then-No. 4 Baylor. And in the nightcap, the former Marine and Vietnam War veteran is known for coaching his players hard, but in a show of solidarity, the offensive line all wrote RT on their right wrists. The Seminoles won even though their backs were against the wall much of the game.

Chance Trickett told ESPN.com on Sunday that his father is "doing well" and in "high spirits." He said he learned of his father’s issue just hours before the game and that quarterback Jameis Winston sought him out before kickoff to offer his support.

"Jameis Winston came up to [me] before the game and said this one’s for him," Chance Trickett said.

Then Winston spoke to his line, which he still considers the country’s best.

"I kept reminding them that you got to do this for your coach. We’re a family, and one of our 'dads' was down. Our daddy was down. I was like, 'You all got to protect your daddy’s house,'" Winston said.

Before the game, injured center Austin Barron spoke to Trickett and relayed a message to the starting linemen. However, the offensive line struggled in the first half without its patriarch. When the line wasn’t being confused by exotic blitzes that allowed free rushers, it was getting beat at the line of scrimmage.

David Spurlock, a graduate assistant who played under Trickett, and tight ends coach Tim Brewster were left making the offensive line calls, and Fisher and quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders helped with adjustments. Trickett even spent parts of the game on the phone trying to relay messages and fixes to his players.

The second half was different. The group that has been criticized much of the season stepped up. It still whiffed on some blitzes, but it was not playing with an edge. In the third quarter, the offensive line pushed Karlos Williams into the end zone after he was initially stopped at the 2-yard line, and it was a fourth-quarter Williams touchdown that was the winner.

"We just had to learn to fight through adversity," guard Josue Matias said. "That’s Coach Trickett’s attitude."
There is a simple bit of clarity confronting the ACC and Florida State eight weeks into the season: Perfection seems the only way to get the Seminoles into the College Football Playoff.

No other Power 5 program will be held to such a standard. But no other Power 5 conference has its reputation in a sinkhole the way the ACC does. That is why it was so important for Florida State to beat Notre Dame on Saturday. As long as the Noles keep winning, they are assured of a spot in the top four. But lose? Florida State may as well be playing in Conference USA. That is how little respect the ACC has nationally right now.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston was fired up after Saturday's victory over Notre Dame, but the Noles will have to keep winning if they hope to make the playoff.
Just look at the most recent AP and coaches Top 25 polls. While the College Football Playoff selection committee will put together its own rankings next week, it is instructive to look at how the media and coaches perceive the ACC -- outside Florida State.

Because the league as a whole is what will drag Florida State down if the Noles lose a game.

Besides Florida State, the ACC has only one ranked team. In the AP poll, Clemson (5-2) is No. 21 behind two other two-loss teams: Oklahoma and USC. Reigning Coastal champion Duke (6-1) cannot even crack the Top 25 after back-to-back victories over ACC teams with winning records. East Carolina (5-1), with wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, is ranked No. 18.

Duke and Minnesota are the only 6-1 teams from Power 5 conferences that are unranked. That fact not only speaks to their status as “non-football powers,” but to the idea that their respective leagues are weak. The Big Ten has been panned for its mediocrity this season. But the ACC ranks lower than the Big Ten in the ESPN.com conference power rankings, sitting last among the Power 5 conferences.

Everything we heard during media days about the ACC being stronger? Everything we heard about the ACC gaining more respect since it boasted the national champion? False propaganda. As it turns out, an ACC world with the reigning national champion does not look much different.

Florida State is still alone holding the flag, while Clemson is a distant second. It is hard for a program to fight off the weak-conference stigma when it does not beat its most difficult opponents (Clemson) or play anybody tough out of conference (Duke).

Clemson lost to two Top 10 teams this season -- to Georgia and Florida State. Both teams were ranked higher than the Tigers at the time they played. Yet Oklahoma lost to two teams ranked lower (TCU and Kansas State) and is still four spots higher than Clemson in the AP poll.

These are the ingrained notions that follow programs around, no matter what they do. Clemson “chokes” and the ACC is constantly disrespected. Put them both together and you get critics completely dismissing Florida State’s win over the Tigers earlier this season.

Falling flat nationally hurts, too. While ACC teams like Virginia Tech, Boston College and Florida State have big wins over then-Top 10 opponents, the league also has some head-scratching losses to Colorado State, Akron and ULM. Plus, there were blown opportunities against UCLA, Nebraska, Iowa and Maryland.

So essentially, Florida State gets no lifelines from its conference foes. Even a beefed-up nonconference schedule has not engendered much goodwill from the rest of the country.

Funny to think that before the season started, many believed a one-loss Florida State team would survive and make it into the College Football Playoff based on a strength of schedule that looked much better than it did last season.

As it stands today, Florida State is on pace to play fewer ranked teams than it played in 2013. Right now, the Noles have two ranked teams behind them and none remaining. Last season, they played four Top 25 teams at the time of the matchup (two of them ended the season unranked).

Four of Florida State's remaining five games are against teams with winning records. But nobody wants to hear that going to Louisville and Miami won’t be easy; that Virginia is vastly improved; that Boston College gave the Noles fits last season. Florida State will be expected to win them all.

That’s really the only way the Noles can guarantee themselves a spot in the playoff.

Once again, Florida State is on its own.
Programs like Ohio State are like Air Force One: They're never supposed to disappear from the radar screen.

There are several places in college football where the national spotlight fixates, and Ohio Stadium is one. When Urban Meyer is prowling the sidelines, the glare is even brighter.

But Ohio State has been somewhat of a forgotten team since 11:54 p.m. ET on Sept. 6. That's the moment when Virginia Tech completed a 35-21 win against the Buckeyes in Columbus.

It wasn't just the shock of the loss or that it marked Ohio State's third defeat in four games after a 24-0 start under Meyer. It was that Ohio State fulfilled the doom-and-gloom outlook many had after quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury in August.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett has really stepped up the past four games, throwing 17 TDs to one pick and rushing for 263 yards and three TDs.
The Buckeyes stalled against Bud Foster's complex, aggressive defense. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, making his first home start, completed 9 of 29 pass attempts with three interceptions and a touchdown. An offensive line featuring four new starters surrendered seven sacks, and the Buckeyes averaged just 2.7 yards per rush. The supposedly upgraded defense showed the same old warts against the pass and especially on third down (9 of 17 converted).

It was one of those worst-fears-fulfilled kinds of nights. The loss, while surprising, followed a narrative many had mapped out the moment Miller's labrum tore during an innocuous throw in practice.

So Ohio State became a forgotten team nationally and, to a degree, in the Big Ten -- as crazy as that sounds.

Well, it's time to take notice again. No Big Ten team is playing better than No. 13 Ohio State. And few quarterbacks nationally are playing better than Barrett.

Since the Virginia Tech loss, the Buckeyes' numbers are staggering. They've outscored their opponents 224-69. They set a team record with four consecutive games of 50 or more points and tied a team mark with four straight games of 500 or more yards.

Barrett's four-game line: 1,170 pass yards, 17 touchdowns, one interception (none in the past three games), 68.3 percent completions, 263 rush yards, three touchdowns.

"He's throwing it on time, throwing it early, trusting what he sees, directing traffic, going through his progressions, not getting freaked out with a little pressure," offensive coordinator Tom Herman recently told me.

He has accounted for at least four touchdowns in all four games, the longest active streak in the country and the longest for a Big Ten quarterback since former Purdue star Kyle Orton in 2004, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Offensive line coach Ed Warinner once again worked his magic, simplifying things so a group that looked like a liability in Week 2 has become a strength.

"Until you understand Algebra 1, you can't take Algebra 2," Warinner told me. "You just have to be patient and trust that playing hard and having good fundamentals will carry you through. Eventually, you can build on that with your changeups, your exceptions, your adjustments.

"People get caught up in thinking, 'I'm a really good coach. I've got these guys who never played and look at all this stuff I told them.' And you don't get anything done."

Ohio State also is getting it done on defense during the win streak: 12 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, eight interceptions. The Buckeyes held both Maryland and Rutgers well below their averages for yards and points. They suddenly rank in the top 25 nationally in points allowed (24th), opponent adjusted QBR (21st), pass yards allowed (16th) and first downs allowed (20th).

"We're playing at a pretty high level right now," Meyer said of his defense.

But what about the competition? Ohio State hasn't beaten a ranked team during its run. Unlike teams in the SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12, the Buckeyes' schedule has allowed them to regain their mojo. But you play who you play, and Ohio State has destroyed everything in its path.

It's all pointing to the Nov. 8 showdown at No. 8 Michigan State, which hasn't lost at home since 2012. Both teams won 56-17 on Saturday, but Ohio State seems to be playing at a higher level. The Buckeyes are No. 5 nationally in ESPN's Football Power Index, which measures team strength as a future predictor.

According to FPI, Ohio State has a 48.5 percent chance to win the Big Ten, the third-highest percentage of any Power 5 team and by far the highest percentage in the league, as defending champion Michigan State has just a 23.7 percent chance. Yes, we all know FPI has never been high on the Spartans, who remain the team to beat in this league until proved otherwise.

But the numbers favor Ohio State, which, according to FPI, is the one-loss team from a Power 5 conference with the best chance (27 percent) to finish with just the sole blemish.

So everyone must pay attention to the Buckeyes again, including the playoff selection committee. Virginia Tech is a bad loss that seems to be getting worse. But the circumstances surrounding Ohio State with Miller's injury should be considered, if the committee members stay true to their word.

Ohio State has few résumé-boosting opportunities left: trips to Michigan State and Minnesota, and the Big Ten title game.

But if the Buckeyes continue on this trajectory, they should be in a familiar spot: playing for championships.

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