Matchups that matter: Alabama-Florida

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
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Finally, the game is almost here.

For both Alabama and Florida, it's been a long time coming. The Crimson Tide breezed through the nonconference portion of their schedule to get here. The Gators missed their season-opener, gassed Eastern Michigan and survived Kentucky to reach its trip to Tuscaloosa undefeated and eager to prove that last season was a fluke.

What do we know about both teams so far? Not a lot. But that's what Saturday is for.

To get you prepared, we had SEC writers Jeff Barlis and Alex Scarborough assess the matchup.

Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.

I could tell you Blake Sims is a changed man. I could tell you he's transformed overnight into a quarterback capable of carrying an offense against a good defense like Florida's. But I might be stretching the truth.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxThe challenge for Florida will be to keep Alabama's defensive line off Jeff Driskel.
Sims' numbers are impeccable -- 75 percent completion percentage, 215 passing yards per game, six total touchdowns, one interception -- but that's just the top layer. Dig deeper and you'll see that of Sims' 646 total yards passing, 454 of which has gone to one receiver. And that one receiver, Amari Cooper, has racked up 245 of those yards after the catch.

So what happens when Vernon Hargreaves III takes away those quick passes that have been so effective? What happens when Dante Fowler rushes off the edge? What happens when Sims gets in the weeds?

Frankly, I don't know.

But I do know this: I trust him more than I do Jeff Driskel.

Barlis: There's no doubt Driskel's performance against Kentucky undermined some of the optimism that had grown for him and for the Gators. He failed to recognize obvious blitzers, didn't run the ball when he needed to, didn't give his receivers a chance at catching the deep ball, and hesitated to hit an open Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on what could have been a crushing mistake in overtime.

Driskel's numbers -- 25-of-43 passing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- weren't bad, though, and he deserves credit for some key plays that helped Florida stave off a colossal upset.

I don't think anyone is expecting Driskel to brilliantly engineer an upset of his own this Saturday, but he can't afford the kind of big mistakes that have plagued him in the past. He just needs to be efficient, manage the game and give his team a chance.

It's not all on Driskel's shoulders. I think one of the biggest matchups of this game will be in the trenches when Florida has the ball. The Gators' offensive line has been a sore spot, particularly in pass protection, for the last couple of years.

Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (ankle) is out, and while senior right tackle Chaz Green is a capable fill-in, his understudy is Roderick Johnson, a redshirt freshman making his second start in the third game of his career. He's never seen anything like the No. 3 Tide and it's stable of defensive linemen.

Scarborough: That's an interesting point. Alabama's D-line has been solid so far, but hasn't lived up to the preseason hype yet. A'Shawn Robinson, the All-SEC tackle/end, has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss. He's got help rushing the passer with Ryan Anderson, Xavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen, but that group can't allow Driskel time in the pocket.

If that happens, watch out for Alabama's secondary. Nick Perry will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting, and Jarrick Williams isn't likely to play after fracturing his foot a few weeks ago. Those are two of the Tide's most veteran DBs.

Landon Collins is as solid as they come at safety, but he'll need help. Eddie Jackson's return has been a boon, but pay attention to rookie Tony Brown, whom Nick Saban said will play a lot on Saturday.

Still, my biggest question mark for Alabama isn't on defense. Setting aside Sims' play at quarterback, who is going to step up besides Cooper? O.J. Howard hasn't caught a pass all season and Christion Jones has dropped a few passes himself.

While there are a lot of talented tailbacks to turn to, I'll be interested to see how Alabama's receivers and Florida's defensive backs match up.

Barlis: I will, too. These are two of the best run defenses in the SEC if not the country. Although both teams are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, neither passing game has more than one scary playmaker -- Cooper for the Tide, and Robinson for the Gators.

It appears both defenses will be in a similar situation -- apply consistent pressure on the quarterback or else a vulnerable secondary could be exposed. Florida's D-line was strong in the first half against UK but fatigued in the second when Patrick Towles went off. That made the mistakes by young DBs even more glaring.

I say the matchup the matters most on Saturday is Florida's defensive line against Alabama's offensive line. The Gators desperately need someone other than Dante Fowler Jr. to emerge, but I'm not sure this is the game for that to happen. Bama has an outstanding line that has keyed a deadly efficient offense. The Tide have just two three-and-outs in 32 possessions this season.

The bottom line in what could very well be a defensive struggle is that both teams prefer to run the ball but probably won't be able to dominate the game that way. It'll be up to the passing attacks.

I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.

Brother's keeper

September, 19, 2014
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There will be several familiar faces in Michigan Stadium Saturday afternoon for freshman defensive tackle Bryan Mone when his Wolverines host Utah. The Salt Lake City product will get a chance to square off with former high school teammates and friends, but he is most looking forward to seeing his parents on their first trip to his new home.

Homesickness is a common ailment among freshmen football players across the country, but it hit Mone harder than most. Making the 1,600-mile move east to Ann Arbor was a difficult decision. Not only was he leaving behind his tight-knit Tongan family, but he was also leaving them with the heavy responsibilities he shouldered for many years.

Since the start of junior high Mone has been largely in charge of caring for his older brother Filimone, who was born in Tonga with health problems that have prevented him from walking, talking or fending for himself. Bryan, seven years his brother’s junior, hustled home from football practice throughout high school to feed Filimone, change his diapers and help move him around the house. The family jokes that Mone’s first foray into weight training was lifting his brother.

[+] EnlargeBryan Mone
Courtesy of IntersportMichigan freshman Bryan Mone on family: "We come from nothing, and they're my motivation."
"I had to grow up faster than other kids," he said. "It's a blessing. I say it's a blessing."

The family moved from Tonga to California to Utah in search of the resources they needed to help Filimone. The silver lining for Mone was finding football. He landed at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, a school that has produced a handful of NFL draft picks including five-time Pro Bowler and fellow Tongan Haloti Ngata. Two other Highland alums -- Utah starting defensive end Nate Orchard and Michigan fullback Sione Houma -- will be on the field Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who coached Ngata during his time with the Baltimore Ravens, tells Mone he sees similarities between the two players. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Mone has played all three games and has made four tackles so far for the Wolverines. He has helped to add a new element of depth to the front lines of a top 10 defense that is allowing an average of 80 rushing yards per game this season.

"The sky is the limit for him," Mattison said. "You don’t think he’s the youngest of all of them. He just got out of high school, and all the sudden he’s here starting or playing a lot for the University of Michigan."

Mone finished his high school career as the top-rated prospect in Utah. He chose to pass up scholarship offers to stay close to Filimone and the rest of his family because he thought Michigan gave him a chance to help them more in the long run.

"We come from nothing, and they're my motivation," Mone said. "At first I was planning to stay home, but I trust the coaches here. Academic-wise, I knew I'd be able to get something."

A promising future didn’t make the transition to life away from home any easier. The self-proclaimed "mama’s boy" enrolled a semester early at Michigan and struggled to deal with the distance at first. He called often to make sure his family was managing to take care of Filimone without him, and so that his brother could hear his voice.

"(Filimone) does understand his surroundings and his atmosphere. He can sense it. It did get him down a little bit," said Latu Lauhingoa, Mone's older sister who has helped pick up some of his caretaking responsibilities. "Every time Bryan calls, he wants to talk where Filimone can hear. We would just put the phone to his ear and, oh my gosh, would he smile."

Mone leaned on Houma, his current and former teammate, for support during the spring semester. He also started to develop close relationships with his fellow defensive linemen. Coaches and veterans of that unit say they have bonded more this year than in any previous seasons. Mone called them his new family. When asked if he had any particular mentors that have helped him get settled on the field, he rattled off the names of 10 fellow linemen before taking a breath.

The defensive line was heralded this offseason as a strength that would need to be an anchor of this Michigan team if it was going to rebound from a 7-6 season a year ago. The final decorating touch to their position group meeting room, which was renovated in the spring along with the rest of Schembechler Hall, is a sign that assistant coach Mark Smith hung this summer. He made all of the players sign it as an oath of sorts when they returned for fall camp in August. It reads: "I am committed to my brothers."

Among a group that universally agrees it has grown closer in the past year, no one understands that concept of commitment quite like Mone.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris are two of the best offensive minds in football. But they go about their business in very different ways. Fisher is a little more old-school by 2014 college football standards, while Morris subscribes to lightning speed and triple-digit play counts.

One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but just with all offensive philosophies, there are positives and negatives to both. Each coach offers insight into his offense on the eve of the ACC showdown between No. 1 Florida State and No. 22 Clemson. Jared Shanker spoke with Fisher about his "complex" model, which backup quarterback Sean Maguire will operate without restrictions, and David Hale talked with Morris about his "left lane" preference.

Fisher looks at championships and points, not plays
[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher thinks Florida State has an advantage when his pro-style Seminoles line up on offense.
 Fisher was in his element at the Seminoles’ media day in August. He was talking Football 101, discussing X's and O's and, taking a page from public speaking handbooks, actively engaging his audience by moving across the dais.

Toward the end, he was asked about the latest trend in college football offenses. It’s no longer just spread offenses and no-huddle drives, but now coaches, including Saturday’s opposing offesive coordinator, have their eyes on running as many plays as possible with the intention of reaching 100.

“We scored the most points in NCAA history and didn’t go no huddle,” Fisher said in August. “And Alabama didn’t win a bunch of national championships with no huddle.”

The fifth-year Florida State coach wasn’t criticizing the up-tempo faction of coaches -- in 2014 that’s a losing battle as far as numbers go -- but pointing out that recent national champions, himself included, aren’t relying on any gimmicks offensively.

Florida State is No. 1 in the country again, and while Fisher said his teams are capable of exhibiting no-huddle and up-tempo concepts, why would he mess with a winning formula?

With the overhaul of offensive philosophies throughout the country -- five of the top-10 teams in the AP poll are spread, up-tempo or both -- Fisher said it is an advantage when his pro-style Seminoles line up on offense.

“Being able to play conventional plays into our hands because not many people are doing it,” Fisher said in August. “It used to be the teams that spread, you don’t know how to play it [on defense]. Now all teams are playing spread, it makes the team you’re playing, say they’re a 4-2-5 nickel defense, now they have regular people running with a 260-pound tight end, 240-pound fullback and take an iso or counter. How much time do they see it in practice and practice against it?”

Several players have referred to Fisher’s offense as “complex,” and Fisher himself said it’s “probably a little more NFL-laden” with multiple-line protections, formations and the freedom for the quarterback at the line of scrimmage to make checks between a run or pass.

“It’s been successful, and it develops guys for the league,” Fisher said. “You go to school to be a lawyer, you go to the best law school. You want to be an NFL player, you go to teams that run NFL systems. When our guys get [to the NFL] they say they’re very comfortable, the schemes and concepts are very similar.”

Morris not deviating from uptempo style
[+] EnlargeChad Morris
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsOC Chad Morris' fast-paced offense has proved to be a winning formula for Clemson.
 When he met with reporters earlier this week, Morris was asked whether he might slow down his usually fast-paced offense to eat some clock and keep Florida State’s offense off the field. It was a reasonable plan, but it never crossed Morris’ mind.

In fact, if Morris has a regret this season, it’s that he hasn't been aggressive enough.

In the opening week of the season, Clemson was saddled with awful field position throughout a disastrous second half at Georgia. Morris decided to go conservative, hoping to avoid a bad mistake. It was the wrong move. The Tigers had seven second-half drives and punted seven times. A three-point game at the start of the fourth quarter ended as a 45-21 Georgia win.

“Obviously if I had to do it over, I’d have thrown three straight deep balls,” Morris said. “If I’d known we’d be three-and-out, I’d have made everybody in the stands go, ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh.’”

Most of the time, that’s exactly what Morris wants to do. In his three-plus seasons at the helm of Clemson’s offense, the fireworks have been routine, and the pace has been frenetic. Among Power 5 teams since 2011, Clemson has run the second-most plays and ranks seventh in touchdowns, sixth in passing yards and seventh in plays of 20 yards or more. Morris has been at the forefront of the fast-and-loose style that has turned offenses like Clemson, Texas A&M, Baylor and Oregon into the some of the most entertaining spectacles in college football.

Morris’ offensive philosophy stands in stark contrast to the man calling plays for Clemson’s opposition this week, and the contrasts in style between Morris’ game plan and Fisher’s makes for lively debate. In each of the past two seasons, Fisher’s pro style has won the day, and last year, it set scoring records and paved the way to a national title. Still, Morris doesn’t see the head-to-head showdown Saturday as a referendum on his approach.

“We’re going to do what we do,” Morris said. “You’re just trying to get your guys to play at a high level. And in games like this, your big-time players have to show up, and it’s our job as coordinators to put them in a position to be successful.”

And if putting players in position to succeed is the ultimate goal, it’s hard to argue with Morris’ up-tempo style. While Fisher’s playbook is mercilessly complex, the main goal of Morris' offense is simply -- to move fast and make quick decisions. That means paring down the decision-making to the most important details and then letting athletes go out and make plays.

Still, at the end of the day, Morris said the underpinnings of what he does aren't a whole lot different than Fisher’s philosophy.

“You try to find weaknesses and exploit them and do what you do good,” Morris said.

Of course, what Morris does best is to open up the throttle and let the offense test its limits.

“I’m used to putting it in the left lane and put the hammer down,” Morris said.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It wasn’t in this office, all shiny and new.

It wasn’t in the glossy chair with the comfortable white leather he sits in today.

It wasn’t behind the massive desk to his right, the one surrounded by commemorative footballs from games won and Egg Bowls remembered.

No, it wasn’t here overlooking the practice field that he had to be rude and stubborn with some in his administration. This impeccable $25 million facility didn’t exist back then.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Butch DillDan Mullen has worked hard to change the mindset at Mississippi State.
Dan Mullen had to kick people out of his old office to get a new one.

“Early on people would say, ‘We can’t,’ and I’d throw them out,” he said.

Coming from a championship-winning program at Florida, Mullen couldn’t stomach the self-imposed limitations so many at Mississippi State had become accustomed to. Football seasons here were supposed to end in late November. Beating Ole Miss was the only tangible priority. Going to a bowl game was an afterthought.

The ceiling bothered him so much, he decided to tear the whole thing down.

“It was all the mindset,” he said, thinking back on his start late in 2008. “It was everything we can’t do. ‘We’re Mississippi State so we can’t do these things.’ If they wanted to go positive, ‘We can only do this because we’re Mississippi State.’

“To me, that’s not acceptable.”

Admittedly, that attitude was a little abrasive. After someone was thrown out, another person would have to clean up the mess and translate the message.

As Mullen said, “I don’t sugarcoat things well.” But when you’re attempting to rebuild a program that went 21-42 in the seasons prior to your arrival, how can you?

“You had to be brash because people had never heard or seen that here before,” Mullen said. “I’m not a softball pitcher. I don’t throw up the little easy ones in there. I’m going to come hit you square in the face with what I want to get done.”



It worked.

If it hadn’t, this week wouldn’t matter.

As Mississippi State prepares for its Saturday night tilt at No. 8 LSU, there’s a sense of optimism that maybe this is the year things finally change in Starkville. The Bulldogs are 3-0, possess a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Dak Prescott and have a defense that is two deep at every position.

Instead of people saying “We can’t” they’re saying “Why not?”

Rankings be damned.

“We’re projected to lose every game,” senior safety Jay Hughes said. “It’s nothing new to us.”

That chip on players’ shoulders? It’s more like a boulder.

Mississippi State doesn’t have the prestige. It doesn’t have the history of winning big games. The level of talent just isn’t the same.

“I know you look and say, ‘They’re a young team this year,’” Mullen said of LSU. “They’re a young team with five-star starters, five-star backups and five-star third-stringers.”

But so what?

“We’re a bunch of three- and two-star guys,” Hughes said. “We don’t really have stars here. We work really hard. I’ve been here for five years and my body is hurting.”

In that time, he’s seen change take place. He’s seen his coach be stubborn to make it happen.

“You have to step out on a limb to get the results,” Hughes said. “That’s what he did.”

A win over LSU would mean faith rewarded.

“It would set our season off,” running back Nick Griffin said. “We’re feeling confident we can do it and make a little history of our own.”



What would a win mean to Mullen?

“It would mean we have a very nice bye week,” he said. “You know what? We’re in the SEC West. You’re going to have to win a lot.”

By saying that, you know things have truly changed at Mississippi State. A win at LSU wouldn’t be a season maker, it would be a season starter. It would be the first step in the program’s hopes of reaching an SEC title.

And when’s the last time you heard that coming out of Starkville?

“You look at great programs, they embrace those expectations,” Mullen said. “If you go to LSU and Alabama and Florida and Georgia and Michigan and Ohio State, Southern Cal, they’re here to win a championship this year.

“When I said it at Mississippi State, it was laughed upon. Now when we say that, everyone kind of thinks the same way, ‘That’s what we’re here for.’”

Saying it is nice. Showing it is better.

Mississippi State has a lot to prove against LSU. It’s been 15 years since the Bulldogs have beaten the Tigers.

“This is what counts this week,” Mullen said. “Everything about it -- the demeanor, the attitude, the excitement, the focus -- all of that has changed.

“I don’t know if there’s a more challenging game than at LSU on Saturday night,” he added, “but it’s something we have to do to put ourselves in contention to compete for a championship.”

As Mullen said, “There is no ceiling.”

Now Mississippi State must see how high it can go.
Our reporters will periodically offer their takes on important questions in college football. They'll have strong, though often differing, opinions. We'll let you decide who is right.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini's Huskers are close to returning to national prominence.
Nebraska and Miami renew a unique rivalry on Saturday night in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers and Hurricanes have played 10 times -- the past five in bowl games, four of which crowned the national champion. Most recently, Miami beat Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl. Since the Canes joined the ACC a decade ago, neither program has made it to a major bowl game.

So today's Take Two topic: Which is closer, Nebraska or Miami, to a return to the top of college football?

Take 1: Mitch Sherman

I'll go with the Huskers, though almost by default as Miami continues to feel its way through the new world order in college football, having lost five games or more in six of the past eight seasons. Sure, Miami uses a proven recruiting formula under Al Golden, but that's the problem. Florida State does it better. And so does half of the SEC.

Some might make similar claims about Nebraska. After all, the Huskers play in the Big Ten, where Ohio State resonates more deeply with recruits, and Penn State has seized momentum in recent months.

At least the Huskers have stability. Say what you want about coach Bo Pelini's lack of championships, but his teams have played in league title games three times in his six years, and he's never won fewer than nine games. Those 9-4 and 10-4 records do little to soothe the feelings of Nebraska fans who long for the glory years, but that era is long gone.

This week, Nebraska can take some solace in knowing that it's closer, by the numbers, to regaining elite status than Miami. And the weak Big Ten, despite conventional logic, might help Nebraska, which has upgraded its talent while others in the conference have not.

A win over Miami would complete an unbeaten nonconference season. Hurdles remain in the league, but for the Huskers, a re-emergence nationally is closer than many envision.

Take 2: Matt Fortuna

[+] EnlargeMiami
AP Photo/Alex MenendezAl Golden's ability to recruit in talent-rich Miami bodes well for the Hurricanes.
The idea that Miami has not played in a single ACC championship game yet is perplexing. Instead, the men's basketball team is the one that can claim a league title. Go figure.

Looking down the road, though, I think the Hurricanes have the more direct path back to their glory days, or at least at getting closer to what they once were. For one: Location, location, location. There is simply too much talent in Miami for this program ever to fall on down times. Golden, in his fourth year, has taken advantage of this, on pace for his fourth straight top-15 recruiting class. Let's not forget that this was also a program that was operating under the black cloud of the Nevin Shapiro scandal for two-plus years.

The same argument that the Big Ten provides a clearer path for Nebraska can be used for the ACC and Miami; the Coastal Division is a mess. But the most promising aspect for the Canes may be just that: promise.

Yes, fans want more out of this regime, which has lacked some punch at times. But there is still time to clean things up and for Miami -- which, we should note, has had some pretty awful luck with injuries offensively -- to improve. What Pelini has done in Lincoln is no small task, and I do think he is taken for granted, but I wonder if he has maxed out there. That may be tough to accept for a fan base that is so used to dominance, but as you said, that era appears gone.

What isn't gone is the talent in Florida, and in the Southeast. By virtue of its location, and by surviving a potentially program-crumbling scandal, Miami at least has the upside to make a return to the top of the college football world a possibility in the not-so-distant future.

Latest Dish: Five things I learned

September, 19, 2014
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Here are five things I learned in college football this week:

1. Sure, No. 5 Auburn greatly benefited from No. 20 Kansas State’s red zone miscues and three missed field goals in Thursday night's 20-14 victory at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. But give the Tigers some credit for making plays when it mattered most, especially on defense.

Auburn limited the Wildcats to only 40 rushing yards on 30 carries (1.3 yards per carry) and surrendered only one run longer than 10 yards to KSU tailback Charles Jones, who came into the game averaging 6 yards per attempt. Also, Auburn only allowed two passes of more than 15 yards, and held quarterback Jake Waters to minus-7 rushing yards on 11 attempts.

Auburn might not yet have a championship-caliber defense, but it is certainly making strides under second-year coordinator Ellis Johnson.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Seminoles are used to getting off to a fast start in games when Jameis Winston is under center.
2. No. 1 FSU is used to starting fast with quarterback Jameis Winston on the field. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seminoles had a halftime lead of at least seven points in 15 of the previous 16 games Winston started at FSU. The only team that stayed within six points of the Seminoles in the first half was Auburn, which had an 11-point halftime lead in last season’s BCS National Championship. FSU rallied for a 34-31 victory in the second half to claim the school’s third national title.

We’ll see if No. 22 Clemson can keep it close in Saturday night’s ACC showdown at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida. Winston is suspended from playing in the first half after making vulgar comments in the FSU student union Tuesday, and redshirt sophomore Sean Maguire is expected to make his first career start. Maguire hasn't started a game since November 2011, when he was a senior at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey.

3. Although hindsight is 20/20, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo accepted blame for not having tailback Todd Gurley more involved in the offense when the Bulldogs faced first-and-goal at South Carolina’s 4-yard line in the closing minutes of last week’s 38-35 loss. UGA attempted a play-action pass on first-and-goal, and quarterback Hutson Mason was penalized for intentional grounding. After two more plays, the Bulldogs missed a chip-shot field goal that would have tied the score, and the Gamecocks were able to run out the clock.

Bobo's first-down call was an aggressive one, and it can certainly be argued that he should have put the ball in the hands of Gurley, who might be the country's best running back. But if the play-action pass had worked, we'd be talking about how brilliant Bobo's call was. And, of course, if Bobo had called for Mason to hand the ball to Gurley on four straight plays and the Bulldogs didn't score, we'd be talking about how vanilla and uncreative his play calling was.

4. West Virginia's defense surrendered 447 yards of offense in last week’s 40-37 win at Maryland, but Mountaineers defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said 188 yards came on three plays. Quarterback C.J. Brown threw a 77-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs and had a 75-yard scoring run of his own. The Mountaineers didn't give up a touchdown after Brown’s long run on the first play from scrimmage in the second half (the Terps kicked a field goal and scored on a long punt return in the fourth quarter).

West Virginia will need a similar defensive effort if it’s going to upset No. 4 Oklahoma in Morgantown on Saturday night. Last season, the Sooners defeated the Mountaineers 16-7, their fewest points total during the previous two seasons.

5. Oregon’s recent dominance over Washington State is making it one of the most lopsided conference series in the country. The No. 2 Ducks have won seven straight games over the Cougars heading into Saturday night’s game in Pullman, averaging 52.4 points per game with an average margin of victory of 32.1 points. Ouch.

Plays that changed the game: Auburn

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It might not have been pretty. It might not have been what everybody expected. But all that matters to Auburn is the final score, and the Tigers left Bill Snyder Family Stadium with a 20-14 win over No. 20 Kansas State. It was the program's first road win against a ranked nonconference opponent since 1984.

A little luck

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Kansas State had a chance early in the game to take a lead and grab the momentum, but that chance bounced right off the chest of Tyler Lockett as the star wide receiver tried to make a catch at the goal line, but the ball deflected off his hands into the air. To make matters worse, Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones was there to haul it in for the interception. It turned out to be a theme for the Wildcats, who missed three field-goal attempts, lost a fumble and threw another critical interception later in the game. Meanwhile, Auburn turned the ball over only once and was a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone.

A little skill

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Auburn wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams had to be kicking himself after dropping a potential touchdown in the first half, but the junior college transfer, playing in his first road game, more than made up for it with a spectacular touchdown grab at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The score capped off a 15-play, 80-yard drive and gave Auburn a 17-7 lead. Williams, who later had a clutch 39-yard catch to seal the win, finished with eight catches for 110 yards and the lone touchdown.

Auburn 20, Kansas State 14

September, 18, 2014
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Auburn fended off Kansas State 20-14 to improve to 3-0 on the season.

Early Offer: Hogs beef up defensive line 

September, 18, 2014
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Arkansas needs all the talent it can get at defensive tackle, and the Hogs landed a key defender Thursday. Chris Petersen continues to uncover sleepers at Washington, but can he attract enough talent to win in the Pac-12?

Nick Marshall makes the right read

September, 18, 2014
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AP Photo/Butch DillQB Nick Marshall is the key to Auburn's potent running game.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Auburn ranks in the top three in the FBS in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per rush.

The Tigers have had an FBS-high four players with at least 800 rushing yards during that time, including three players currently on their roster (Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant).

Quarterback Nick Marshall has been the key to Auburn’s rushing success. With him under center, the Tigers are averaging 6.2 yards per rush and scoring a rushing touchdown once every 15 carries. The FBS averages are 4.5 yards per rush and a touchdown every 20 carries.

It took head coach Gus Malzahn a few games to adjust to Marshall’s strengths.

The Tigers passed on at least 40 percent of their plays in two of their first four games last season, including their 14-point loss at LSU on Sept. 21.

Since that game, Auburn has passed on 28 percent of its plays and has not had a game above 36 percent. During that time, Marshall has had the highest Total QBR in the FBS.

Marshall and the zone read
What sets Marshall apart is his ability to implement Auburn’s zone read. The Tigers have run zone read on 41 percent of their rushing plays since the start of last season. On such plays, they are averaging 7.1 yards per rush and have a Power Five-high 28 rushing touchdowns.

When Marshall keeps the ball on the zone read, he is averaging 8.0 yards per rush and leads all active Power Five players since the start of last season with 948 rushing yards.

His ability to make the right read has also translated to success for his teammates. Running backs Cameron Artis-Payne (7.8) Corey Grant (8.5) and Tre Mason (5.4) all have averaged more than five yards per carry on zone-read plays with Marshall at quarterback.

Why K-State might be able to slow Auburn’s run game
Auburn’s run game is predicated on its ability to find space, both when running the zone read and in standard run plays.

The Tigers are averaging 210.5 rushing yards per game before first contact this season, which is on par with their numbers from last season.

To put that into perspective, since the start of last season 99 FBS teams do not average 212 total rushing yards per game.

However, in a small sample size, Kansas State has been among the nation’s best at limiting opponents’ yards before contact.

On designed runs, only Alabama (20.3) is allowing fewer yards before contact per game than the Wildcats (22.5) this season.

Kansas State has also been able to stop the zone read the past two seasons, allowing 3.7 yards per rush on such plays, which ranks second among Big 12 defenses behind TCU.

The number to watch on Thursday night is 200. Kansas State is 21-2 when it allows fewer than 200 rushing yards in the last three seasons and 0-5 when it does not.

Alabama offense more efficient with Sims

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
3:42
PM ET

Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims (left) and Jake Coker (right) are still competing to be named Alabama's starting QB.
Alabama is off to a 3-0 start for the eighth time in eight seasons under Nick Saban. The offense is a big reason. The Tide are averaging 42 points per game and rank seventh in offensive efficiency.

Blake Sims has started all three games for the Tide and has the sixth-best Total QBR (86.6) in the FBS, ahead of players such as Jameis Winston and Everett Golson.

Sims is one of 12 quarterbacks who are averaging more than 10 yards per attempt. Yet, he has not been officially named Alabama’s starting quarterback.

"Jake (Coker) needs to play and he needs to develop confidence. I think we're going to have to make a decision on a week-to-week basis on what gives us the best opportunity to win.” Saban said in his postgame news conference on Saturday. “Right now, Blake probably is a little more confident. If that remains that way, he's probably going to start the game.”

Sims should be confident as the offense has been more efficient with him at quarterback.

The Tide have scored a touchdown on 11-of-22 drives with Sims under center compared with 3-of-9 with Coker.

They have lost yards on six of Sims’ 151 snaps (four percent), the second-lowest percentage for any Power Five quarterback with at least 150 plays (behind Duke’s Anthony Boone, three percent).

Why has the offense been successful with Sims?

Accuracy
Sims has been extremely accurate. He has thrown 64 passes this season: 48 were caught, one was thrown away, three were dropped, four were broken up by the defense and eight were off-target.

His eight off-target passes are the fewest for any Power Five quarterback with at least 50 attempts and as many as Jake Coker has had in 33 fewer attempts.

Sims’ accuracy has allowed him to hit receivers in stride and let them run after the catch.

Look no further than his 22-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the first quarter against Southern Miss, in which he hits Cooper on a short crossing route over the middle and Cooper gains 20 yards after the catch for a touchdown.

Great on 3rd down
Sims has been excellent on third down, leading all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage (91.7 percent), conversion percentage (75 percent) and Total QBR (99.9). Amari Cooper has been his favorite target, catching six of Sims’ 11 third-down completions.

One reason for Sims’ success on third down is that he has been in manageable situations. The Tide’s average distance to go on third down has been 4.7 yards, shortest in the FBS. This has allowed Alabama to have the entire playbook available.

For instance, the Tide have run on almost half (49 percent) of their third-down plays, including six rushes by Sims, which have resulted in four first downs. Last season, Alabama passed on 65 percent of its third-down plays, which is on par with the FBS average (64 percent)

Where can Sims get better?
Sims has struggled throwing the ball downfield. He has completed 1-of-6 passes thrown 20 yards or longer, including his only interception of the season.

His completion occurred last week against Southern Miss on a 27-yard pass to Cooper in the third quarter with the Tide up 19 points. Coker, on the other hand, has the reputation of having a strong arm, but he has not fared much better on such passes, completing 2-of-7 attempts.

For now, Sims is expected to get the nod Saturday when Florida heads to Tuscaloosa. It will be a major step up in competition for Sims. The Gators rank fifth in the FBS in points per drive allowed (0.67) this season and lead all Power Five defenses with three interceptions on passes thrown 20 yards or longer. If Sims rises to the challenge, he just may end up being declared the full-time starter.

Film review: Defending Dak Prescott

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
2:30
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s defense will face no shortage of dual-threat quarterbacks in SEC play, and it will attempt to contain one of the best -- Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott -- right out of the gates in Saturday’s conference opener.

Prescott is a dark-horse candidate in the Heisman Trophy race because of the multiple ways he can affect the game, as evidenced by last week’s win against South Alabama, when he threw a touchdown pass, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass on a trick play.

As a passer, Prescott (43-for-72, 696 yards, nine TDs, two INTs in 2014) is effective, but it’s his running ability that makes him especially scary. He is eighth in the SEC with an average of 91.0 rushing yards per game, and he’s averaging 6.8 yards per rushing attempt thus far.

That run-pass combination will be tough to defend, as LSU coach Les Miles is well aware. Miles called Prescott “as good of a player as there is in his position in our conference.”

Let’s take a look at some of the issues LSU must contend with in defending Mississippi State’s quarterback:

RUNS WITH POWER

The multidimensional quarterbacks LSU will face down the road are more from the finesse mold -- think Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace -- than the power mold. Like previous SEC stars Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, the 230-pound Prescott is content to run over tacklers instead of around them.

“I don't know exactly how fast he is, but he carves through the ground very quickly, and when you go to tackle him, you better hit him hard,” Miles said. ”You’d better take him off his feet because he's just a big, physical kid.”

Florida fans might recognize this Tebow-style play from Dan Mullen’s time as the Gators’ offensive coordinator. In last season’s South Carolina game, Prescott takes a shotgun snap, follows a block from running back LaDarius Perkins, and plows between left guard and left tackle for a 1-yard touchdown.

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We could pull any number of short-yardage Prescott clips as visual evidence that there’s more to the Tebow comparison than their matching No. 15 jerseys. Most defenders failed to drag either of them down with arm tackles.

BREAKING FROM POCKET

In addition to power, Prescott runs with impressive speed. Check out this 28-yard touchdown scramble from last season’s LSU game.

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LSU defensive end Jermauria Rasco destroys left tackle Charles Siddoway with a spin move and has a clear shot at Prescott, but the Mississippi State quarterback steps forward into the pocket and slips between Ego Ferguson and Danielle Hunter into the open field. Then it becomes a footrace, and he sprints away from linebacker D.J. Welter for a first-quarter touchdown.

LSU’s defensive front seven will certainly have its hands full trying to contain Prescott once he scrambles after initially dropping back to pass.

“It looks like he’s got even bigger since last year, but we’re ready to play physical and run fast. That’s basically what we have to do to prepare for him,” LSU outside linebacker Lamar Louis said.

RUNNING GAME IS DANGEROUS

Prescott’s running ability -- and Mississippi State’s running game in general -- makes defenses that sell out to stop the run susceptible to the occasional big passing play.

Take this 35-yard touchdown pass to Fred Ross from the 2014 opener against Southern Miss. When cornerback Jomez Applewhite abandons Ross to blitz off the edge, Prescott easily hits Ross several yards away from safety Emmanuel Johnson, who is slow in coverage after Prescott fakes a handoff in the backfield. All Ross has to do is make a wide-open catch and break a Johnson tackle attempt at the 5 and he’s in the end zone.

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The threat of Prescott runs and similar run fakes will test LSU’s defensive discipline. If Prescott catches defensive backs looking into the backfield like this, a big play for State might follow.

PRESSURING HIS THROWS

No quarterback likes to throw under pressure. Prescott is not a pro-style passer, but he’s capable of making some impressive throws if he has time to survey the field.

Here’s a pass to Fred Brown from last week’s win against South Alabama that Prescott completes despite cornerback Montell Garner's attempt to disrupt Brown’s route by holding him. Prescott places the ball perfectly over safety Roman Buchanan for a 36-yard gain.

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Earlier in the South Alabama game, Prescott has plenty of time to zip a 15-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Malcolm Johnson where safety Terrell Brigham has no chance to deflect or intercept the pass.

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Thus, LSU’s pass rushers know it will be incumbent on them to keep Prescott in the pocket and make him uncomfortable when he attempts to throw.

“With them having a really good offensive line, we have to make sure that we just attack the line of scrimmage and make sure that we stay in our gaps and clog the holes” LSU defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Prescott has handled the blitz fairly well -- he has five touchdown passes and no interceptions against five or more pass rushers -- although his Total QBR against the blitz is just 48.5. He’ll definitely face extra rushers Saturday, like when defensive back Dwayne Thomas blitzes from LSU’s “Mustang” package.

Regardless of who applies the pressure, the Tigers' rushers will greatly help their cause if they get a hand in Prescott’s line of vision. Take this throw from last season’s 59-26 win in Starkville. Hunter gets in Prescott’s face before he overthrows Jameon Lewis, and Tre'Davious White intercepts the bad throw at the Mississippi State 45. His 40-yard return to the 5 sets up Jeremy Hill's touchdown run on the next play that essentially puts away the LSU win.

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video In advance of the All-American battle between Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, we’re breaking down what makes each player special. Click here for Edward Aschoff's take on Florida’s star cornerback.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is sizing you up. He might not say much, but Alabama’s star receiver is seeing exactly where you stand.

Could you have envisioned the start you’ve had?

“Yeah,” he said, not caring to elaborate.

You talked in the spring about Lane Kiffin and how you’d seen Marqise Lee and you were looking forward to that. Is that why you anticipated this?

“Yeah, that’s the exact reason,” he said, again letting you fill in the blanks.

It’s not cockiness. It’s not arrogance. It’s just who he is.

Cooper isn’t one to make bold statements. His former high school coach in Miami, Billy Rolle, drove him to and from school. “The three years I had him,” Rolle said. “I haven’t heard 50 words out of the kid.”

Cooper lets his play do the talking. Through three games, the junior leads the nation in receptions (33) and yards after catch (245).

So if he isn't going to open up, we allowed those who know him best to break down what makes him arguably the best receiver in the country.

At 6-foot-1, he’s not the tallest. At 210 pounds, he’s not the most physically imposing, either. And while he does possess good speed, almost every defensive back in the SEC runs well.

Instead, it’s the little things that set Cooper apart: his footwork, his ability to read defenses and his tireless work ethic.

video FOOTWORK

Alabama safety Landon Collins is still trying to figure him out.

Collins likes to read a receiver's steps, guess the route and make a play on the football. But with Cooper, the guessing game doesn’t work. The All-SEC defensive back is helpless.

Collins: “His footwork is confusing. If you look at his feet and try to stick him at the line, you’ll get lost.”

Jarrick Williams, Alabama cornerback: “His footwork, how quick he gets around you, how explosive he is. He’s amazing.”

Cooper: “It’s definitely something I pride myself on. Playing as much backyard football as I did as a kid, it’s something that’s instinct now.”

video READING THE DEFENSE

Take, for instance, the SEC championship game in 2012. It was late in the fourth quarter and Alabama was trailing Georgia 28-25. The play called for Cooper to go inside on his release, but he saw the defender shading that way.

Collins: “He was too far inside, so I jumped outside instinctively.”

To his credit, Georgia cornerback Damian Swann didn’t bite on the play-action fake. Instead, he fell for Cooper’s move toward the middle of the field. Cooper swung his hips back toward the sideline. Swann was caught flat-footed and completely turned around. Cooper was so wide open, he stopped running. He sped up just in time to catch the 45-yard game-winning touchdown that sent Alabama to the BCS National Championship Game.

Cooper: “It’s a thing you can sense. As soon as you start releasing off the line, you can feel he’s leaning toward one way and then you go the other way. It’s a very unique thing.”

But that wasn’t Cooper’s favorite instance of toying with a defensive back. It also took place in the 2012 season, against Ole Miss.

Cooper: “It was third down and I had a slant route. I’d been watching film of this guy because he’s from Miami and I knew him personally. He was really quick. But I was watching film and I noticed he’s really patient at the line. So I used one of my better releases to get open.”

Rolle: “He thrives on reading defenses and knowing how to get open and not just running by people. He liked to run the slant pattern, the hookups, the outs. He was even more dangerous if he got the ball right away and in open space.”

video WORK ETHIC

Former USC coach Lane Kiffin marveled at Cooper’s practice habits, too. When he became Alabama’s offensive coordinator in January, he quickly noticed how much work Cooper puts into his craft.

Kiffin: “Amari sometimes would work out two hours before the workout started. I thought it was a really hard workout we were doing -- the Fourth Quarter program that we do here -- but he worked out two hours before that.”

Christion Jones, Alabama receiver: “Have you seen him? It’s nothing fake. He goes hard every day, every practice. No matter what it is, he’s going to go full tilt.”

Cyrus Jones, Alabama cornerback: “His potential has been evident since the first time he stepped on the campus and on the field. You progress each year as a player and you can definitely say he’s reached another level this year.”

SEC slant: Defense still optional

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
2:00
PM ET
Blame Missouri and Texas A&M. Blame the targeting rule, the emphasis on protecting the quarterback or the failed attempt to slow down the pace of play. Blame whoever and whatever it takes. But it's time to start facing facts about the SEC. The league that has long thrived on defense, the league that made its name on defense, is in the midst of an identity crisis. These last few years -- it feels like it started with the expansion to 14 teams, right? -- defenses have gone missing, particularly against the pass.

Back in the day

Of course it wasn't that long ago, but it feels as if it's been a decade since the SEC was a defense-dominated league.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe SEC's defensive decline has coincided with the arrival of Big 12 coaches such as Kevin Sumlin.
For the longest time, the defenses of Alabama and LSU were measured in feet, not yards. Urban Meyer's Florida defenses swarmed to the football, not giving an inch.

Remember the Gators' thrashing of Oklahoma in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game? The Sooners, who averaged 54 points per game entering the contest, were held to just two touchdowns.

From 2004-11, SEC defenses surrendered an average of 330.2 yards per game, 192.11 of which came through the air. Meanwhile, the rest of the Power 5 conferences gave up 350.1 total yards per game, 219.6 of which came by way of the forward pass.

During that time, quarterbacks completed an average of 55.3 percent of their passes against SEC defenses.

But in 2012, Missouri and Texas A&M entered the league and everything changed.

From 2012-13, SEC defenses allowed an average of 361.3 yards per game. Passing yards per game went from 192.11 to 221.16. Quarterback completion percentages climbed by 4.2 percent.

It was supposed to get better, but it hasn't

Remember the offseason? It feels like only yesterday that we were talking about all the stellar quarterbacks who left the league.

With Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel gone, defenses would finally catch a break. Zach Mettenberger wouldn't be around to rifle those impossible 25-yard outs. Even James Franklin would move on and leave behind his 51 career touchdown passes at Missouri.

The quarterbacks left, but the offense hasn't.

Texas A&M -- without Johnny Football, mind you -- racked up 680 total yards of offense against South Carolina in the league opener. Kenny Hill, a first time starter, threw for a whopping 511 yards.

Then there was this past weekend. Not much defense to be found there either. Georgia's secondary was shredded by South Carolina as Dylan Thompson threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns. And on the other side of the ball, South Carolina's front seven was gashed for 131 yards and a touchdown by Todd Gurley.

So far, SEC defenses are allowing an average of 354.6 yards per game, which is only slightly down from this time last year.

Pass defense has actually gotten worse from 2012-13 to now. Through three weeks, SEC secondaries are allowing 231.5 yards through the air per game, compared to 221.16.

Interceptions per pass attempt are down from 3.6 percent from 2004-11 to 3.2 percent this season. Over time, that adds up.

Where have all the star DBs gone?

Don't you miss Tyrann Mathieu? No, not for the off-the-field stuff, but for the way he made plays on the back end of the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesStar defensive backs such as Alabama's Landon Collins are rare these days in the SEC.
It seems like there are fewer Honeybadgers in the SEC these days. Outside of Landon Collins and Cody Prewitt, are there any other star safeties in the league? Besides Vernon Hargreaves III, is there another cornerback worth talking about nationally?

Four cornerbacks were taken in the first round of this year's NFL draft. None were from the SEC. Only Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix represented the league's secondaries in the first round.

The year prior, Dee Milliner, Eric Reid and Matt Elam were all drafted in the first round. In 2012, three SEC DBs were taken in the top 10 picks.

How many SEC DBs are projected to go in the first round of next year's NFL draft? According to the mock draft from ESPN's Todd McShay in May, he expects only Collins and LSU's Jalen Mills to be taken Day 1.

Maybe the SEC is just catching up

To be fair, offenses deserve credit, too. Coaches like Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have challenged SEC defenses with their unique brand of spread-you-out, push-the-tempo offenses.

And therein lies the problem.

Big 12 football invaded the SEC when Sumlin, Malzahn and Freeze started entering the league in 2012. Since, it's become the norm to operate without a huddle and use multiple receiver sets. Passing has become a necessity, not a luxury.

Through three weeks of play, eight SEC quarterbacks rank in the top 50 nationally in Raw QBR. Five SEC QBs have thrown for eight or more touchdowns and more than half of the league's starters average more than 200 yards per game through the air.

The SEC might not be as dominant defensively as it used to, but it's still the best defensive league in the country.

From 2012 to now, no Power 5 conference has allowed fewer total yards per game or rushing yards per game, and only the Big Ten has allowed fewer passing yards per game.

Here's the breakdown in total yards allowed per game: SEC (369.0), Big Ten (370.7), ACC (374.0), Pac-12 (399.0) and Big 12 (401.7).

Important game for Cozart, Kansas

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
1:00
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It was supposed to be a different Montell Cozart.

The Kansas quarterback was supposed to be much improved in many aspects of his game as a sophomore.

He didn’t look like it in KU’s 41-3 loss to Duke last weekend.

“He had a bad day at the office,” coach Charlie Weis said. “We all had a bad day that day. He was just one of the guys who had the ball in his hands on every play, so it obviously becomes magnified.”

Cozart’s 22.8 Adjusted QBR was the second-worst single-game performance by a Big 12 quarterback this season. He finished 11-of-27 for 89 yards with two interceptions against the Blue Devils.

[+] EnlargeMontell Cozart
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMontell Cozart hopes to bounce back on Saturday against Central Michigan.
“I never thought that would have happened,” offensive coordinator John Reagan said. “He is still young in his development and has a long way to go and a big upside. I know this: He wasn’t pleased with his performance regardless of whether anybody else was.”

But that was last week. This week is all that matters now, making Saturday’s contest against Central Michigan a game that could define Cozart’s future. He can either prove Weis’ decision to hand the offense over to him in the spring was the right decision or he can prove his doubters right.

“He is looking forward to getting back out there and defining who he is as a quarterback,” Reagan said. “I think there are a lot of things he has shown us he can do and we have to make sure we put him in a scenario to do that. That will be the goal here as we keep going forward. We just have to make sure he keeps developing and keeps moving forward and everyone else on offense keeps moving forward.”

In nine games (five starts) as a Jayhawk, Cozart has passed for more than 100 yards just once and has never completed more than 50 percent of his passes (outside of a 1 of 1 effort against Texas). Even with those discouraging numbers, Weis remains behind Cozart and believes his struggles aren't rooted in permanent problems.

“If you believe that the answers can solve the issues, then you're okay,” Weis said. “It's when you don't have an answer. That's a bigger issue. But there were a lot of simple things that could be done.”

Backup quarterback Michael Cummings better stay ready, as he could be called upon if Cozart’s performance doesn’t improve. Cummings, a junior, has run-pass skills similar to Cozart.

“I expect Montell to play very well this week,” Weis said when asked if Cozart was on a "short leash" earlier this week. “If you're asking me will I have Cummings ready to go if things don't go well, I'll have Cummings ready to go if things don't go well.

“All I know is whoever is going to give us the best chance to win this game, that's who's going to be in there. And right now we think that Montell gives us the best chance to win this game.”

It’s early in the season but KU’s final nonconference game against Central Michigan could go down as a defining moment for Cozart, Weis and the 2014 Jayhawks.

“I think this kind of sets the table, sets the table either way,” Weis said. “Either sets the table well or it doesn't, [and] sets the table where you're really, really fighting, fighting an uphill battle.”

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