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 on Florida’s superstar 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 this 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 class. “The three years I had him,” Rolle said. “I haven’t heard 50 words out of the kid.”

Instead, 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 Cooper 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 flatfooted 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 patter, the hook ups, the outs. He was even more dangerous if he got the ball right away and in open space.”

video WORK ETHIC

Lane Kiffin marveled at Cooper’s practice habits, too. When he became Alabama’s new offensive coortinator 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 everyday, 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

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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

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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.”

Clemson's Watson proves a quick study

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His teammates called him “Rook” -- short for “rookie” -- back when Deshaun Watson was starting as a 14-year-old freshman at Gainesville High. The nickname stuck, but it was never an apt moniker.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson fans would like to see highly-touted QB Deshaun Watson take the field sooner rather than later.
 His first start was against the defending state champions, but Watson was never flustered. After his first four games, he’d already become a star, and when head coach Bruce Miller called him into his office to talk about handling success, Watson simply shrugged.

“Don’t get a big head,” Miller told him. “I never have,” the 14-year-old shot back.

By the time his high school career was over, Watson had thrown for more than 13,000 yards, run for another 4,400 and produced 218 touchdowns, but during Christmas break last year, just days before his college career would begin at Clemson, Watson called up his quarterback coach and asked to meet him at the field. He wanted to throw for a while.

Watson was the top quarterback recruit in the country last year, a perfect mix of poise, presence, arm strength and athleticism. But if there’s a secret ingredient that sets Watson apart, it's that maturity. The kid has always played beyond his years.

“He watches film like an NFL veteran,” Miller said. “He just knows so much, and he’s so gifted athletically, I’m not sure he couldn’t pick up a set of golf clubs and go play par. He’s just a gifted athlete with a very special personality.”

It’s no wonder then that just two games into his Clemson career, a vocal contingent of Tigers fans are ready to see Watson ascend to the throne as the team’s QB1, and Dabo Swinney is left to deflect the spotlight that inevitably comes with a quarterback controversy.

To hear Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris tell it, there is no debate. Cole Stoudt won the job in the spring, won it again this fall, and the senior who spent three years toiling in Tajh Boyd’s shadow has played well enough to keep the job so far. But that’s all the practical logic. Fans have seen the future and they want more.

Maybe it was Watson's bullet to Charone Peake in the end zone, as pretty a pass as Boyd threw in three years as the most prolific QB in Clemson history. It came on just the third pass of Watson’s career.

Maybe it was the swagger that Watson exuded each time he trotted onto the field in the glorified scrimmage against South Carolina State a week later, leading four touchdown drives in four chances.

Maybe it’s the sales pitch Clemson’s coaches had already delivered so many times in the previous nine months, touting Watson as a can’t-miss talent who would, one day, lead Clemson to the promised land.

“We have a guy [in Stoudt] that won the job clearly, and he’s our guy,” Swinney said. “But we have this other guy in Deshaun that has just, from the time he got here, has gotten better and better. He’s closed the gap. There’s not a lot of drop-off.”

That’s not to say Swinney is ceding ground to the rabble calling for the Watson era at Clemson to begin now.

Away from the prying eyes of the public, Stoudt has shined and Watson has, at times, looked every bit like a rookie.

“His first week-and-a-half of camp, it was really bad,” Swinney said. “But that last week, man, he came on. He did not win the job. But you can't just make a guy a starter on potential. It doesn't work that way. Guys have to earn things.”

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite Watson's progress, coach Dabo Swinney says Cole Stoudt remains his starter.
 Stoudt earned the job. But in these first two games -- a loss at Georgia and a drubbing of an FCS team -- Watson has looked awfully sharp.

Stoudt has one touchdown throw after 60 attempts. Four of Watson’s 13 passes have gone for scores.

On throws of 10 yards or more, Watson is 5-of-8 with two touchdowns. Stoudt is 5-of-17, including an interception.

Stoudt can run a little, but Watson is a weapon with his legs -- a talent he’s yet to fully demonstrate, but a skill that fits Morris’ game plan perfectly.

That’s the other mark in Watson’s column. He’s the new face in the locker room, but Morris’ playbook is old hat. At Gainesville High, Watson ran virtually the same offense.

“He’s been doing [it] since he was 14,” Swinney said. “The learning curve was very small as far as running the zone-read, the snap, the cadence, the timing of the snap, the shifts, the tempo we play at, reading first level, second level, third level. It was second nature to him.”

And so the rumblings get louder and, as Clemson prepares for its showdown against No. 1 Florida State, the program feels like it’s at a crossroads. Stoudt will be the starter, but his performance Saturday may well dictate the direction of the program. If he’s good and Clemson wins, it’s easy for Swinney to remain patient. If he struggles and the Tigers fall, it becomes harder to draw a distinction between Clemson’s present and future. And no matter what, Watson will play Saturday and have another chance to shine on a big stage.

“I wasn’t expecting to get as much playing time as I am right now, to be honest,” Watson said. “I always work to compete and play. You don’t want to sit on the sideline and watch. You want to be out there playing. So any time I have an opportunity I want to take advantage of it.”

He has, and that’s why there’s a debate now. That’s a good thing, Swinney insists. He says there’s “an urgency” at quarterback that hasn’t existed at Clemson in a long time, a battle between a veteran in his waning days with the program and a freshman whose future seems limitless. That’s fun, not controversial.

Watson hasn’t stoked those fires, either. He wants the starting job, but he’s not campaigning for it.

“He’s Cole’s biggest supporter,” Morris said. “They’re a great tandem together.”

How the dynamics of that tandem will work on the field Saturday remains covert information. Morris says there’s a plan in place for Saturday and beyond, but he isn’t sharing, and Watson insists even he doesn’t know how much playing time he’ll see against Florida State.

What’s clear is that Watson intends to take advantage of the opportunities he'll get. He’s proven, Morris said, that no moment is too big for him.

“He’s to the Nth degree of what you want in a quarterback,” Swinney said. “He’s got everything. There’s nothing this man lacks to be a great quarterback, but he’s also the type of person you want as a leader of your program. He’s on his way to quite a career, and it’s going to be fun to watch this young man blossom.”

It’s just a matter of time. Everyone agrees on that. The question is simply whether the time is now.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Ricky Seals-Jones' introduction to Aggieland was an emphatic one.

In his collegiate debut as a true freshman receiver and a landmark recruit in Texas A&M’s 2013 class, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver quickly showed why he was so highly regarded, catching a 71-yard touchdown pass in the Aggies’ season-opening win against Rice last August.

It was also the last pass Seals-Jones would catch in 2013. A knee injury he suffered on the play knocked him out of the rest of the game and -- after trying to give it a go two weeks later -- the rest of the season, once he elected to have surgery.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesNow healthy, receiver Ricky Seals-Jones is making an impact for Texas A&M.
It has been a waiting game for Seals-Jones and the Aggies for him to truly make his mark.

"The toughest part about it was knowing that the season was over with, really, and it had just started,” Seals-Jones said. "I was kind of part of the game. So I had to get surgery and bounce back."

So far, Seals-Jones is proving he was worth the wait.

Now a redshirt freshman (Seals-Jones applied for and was approved for a medical hardship waiver to regain the lost year of eligibility), the Sealy (Texas) High product is carving himself out a significant role in Texas A&M’s passing attack.

Seals-Jones has hauled in a touchdown in each of the Aggies' three games, and has 13 receptions for 154 yards so far this season. Receivers coach David Beaty said Seals-Jones has taken the biggest step forward in his route-running.

Blocking is also a big part of Seals-Jones’ game. Beaty said Seals-Jones has the most knockdown blocks and most "scoring blocks" among the Aggies receivers.

"Does he affect the game every play?" Beaty said. "Ricky affects it every play. That’s what you want out of a guy like that."

It’s also the first time in a long time that Seals-Jones is fully healthy. His senior season at Sealy was marred by injuries, including a dislocated kneecap that knocked him out for half the season, and he spent the last year recovering from knee surgery to get ready for Texas A&M’s 2014 campaign.

Now injury-free, Seals-Jones has developed a solid chemistry with Aggies’ quarterback Kenny Hill and become a critical part of the passing game by playing multiple roles: inside receiver, outside receiver and a hybrid tight end/H-back type role after tight end Cameron Clear left the season-opening win against South Carolina with an injury.

Clear is likely to suit up against SMU, so Seals-Jones' tight end duties won’t be as prominent, but he is showing he can handle whatever the coaches throw at him, making him a valuable weapon.

"He handles it great because he’s smart," Beaty said. "He doesn’t need a lot of time to learn things. You tell him things one time and he gets it."
David Ash's decision to retire was not unexpected but the former Texas Longhorns quarterback has received support from around the country, including the reigning NBA MVP.

Former Texas standout and current Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, who won the 2013-14 NBA MVP award, took to Twitter to express his appreciation for Ash's contribution to the Longhorns.


Ash responded with a thank you of his own for his fellow Longhorn.

Travis WilsonRuss Isabella/USA TODAY SportsTravis Wilson's is one of five Pac-12 quarterbacks who have not thrown an interception this season.

The old saying goes that you don't really know what you have until it's gone. And for Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, that time came last season.

During the Arizona State game on Nov. 9, Wilson took a bad hit. It wasn't until the following day that Wilson started feeling sick and dizzy, displaying concussion-like symptoms. That Monday, he took a concussion test and failed, prompting a CT scan of Wilson's head the next day.

"I didn't think it was any big deal," Wilson said. "I just thought it was just a concussion and maybe I'd have to sit out a week. I didn't think it was anything more than that."

The scan revealed an enlarged intracranial artery that had calcified.

Wilson's parents flew in from San Clemente, California. But even with the family there, the doctors really weren't able to give them very much information because it wasn't available. They didn't know when the injury had occurred. There wasn't much information regarding young people with this type of injury. They didn't know if football had played a part in it. They didn't know if he'd ever be able to play again.

"It was difficult," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "But football was a distant second in our minds as far as making sure that he was going to be healthy for the duration of his life and not have something like this have an impact on his quality of life. That was the main concern."

The decision was made to have Wilson sit out for three months -- with his only activity being running and lifting -- and do another CT scan to see if anything changed when football was taken out of the equation. He would act as a glorified student-coach for the Utes, helping back up Adam Schulz.

"All I could really do was try to coach," Wilson said. "It was tough not being able to play. I felt sick to my stomach not being able to play. It didn't feel right just standing on the sidelines and not being able to do anything."

In February, the scan revealed no changes and the doctors said that Wilson could return to football with no-contact. Pending another scan in June, he'd be able to return for good.

He went through spring ball without contact, glad to be playing a non-contact form of football. And when his June results still showed no change, Wilson was able to get back into full football form.

"I was very grateful," Wilson said. "I got a second opportunity to play this game."

"When the potential was there for him to never play again, I think he realized how much he loved it," Whittingham said.

Wilson has wasted no time in making his mark with the Utes, who are 2-0 going into a huge matchup with Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Wilson has the second highest passer efficiency rating in the country this season and is averaging 11.7 yards per attempt. He's also one of five Pac-12 quarterbacks who has yet to throw an interception this season.

Though the Big House and the Wolverines offer a different test than one he has seen in his career, he knows that the Wilson that steps on the field now is far different than the one that stepped on the field before.

"I'm definitely playing more calm," Wilson said. "I'm just really happy with the overall success [of the team]. I think we'll continue to get better as well."

Make-or-break time for North Carolina

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North Carolina has only played two games this season, but it is not an exaggeration to say the Tar Heels are about to embark on make-or-break time.

Starting at East Carolina on Saturday, North Carolina begins its toughest stretch of the season -- seven straight games against teams that currently have winning records. Three of the next four are on the road, including games next week at No. 22 Clemson and at No. 9 Notre Dame on Oct. 11. Also in the mix are games against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Miami.

"We know that the next couple games are tough and of course they’re all away, but we know we have to buckle down and we don’t need to start as slow as we have and hopefully we’ll get it together starting ECU week," defensive back Tim Scott said. "We’ll be ready for the games when they count."

North Carolina certainly has not looked ready in its first two games, closer-than-expected contests that turned on defensive plays. That defense has been a puzzle to figure out in the early going. It has the capability of creating turnovers -- it has forced nine in the first two games. Scott's interception in the end zone saved the win against San Diego State in Week 2.

But the defense also has given up way too many big plays. North Carolina ranks last in the ACC in total defense and scoring defense, and No. 13 in the league in pass defense.

None of that is encouraging considering the team it faces Saturday. East Carolina has one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in Shane Carden, who already has 1,031 yards passing in three games.

Getting off to a slow start in a third straight game cannot be an option. It is not as if North Carolina needs any more reminders, given the way the Pirates beat them in 2013. In that game, East Carolina jumped out to a 28-10 lead at halftime and North Carolina never recovered. Then last week, East Carolina built an early 21-0 lead on Virginia Tech and won.

Scott said he would give his team a C-plus for its performance in the first two games.

"We’ve come out with the Ws but we came out both games very slow, very unenthusiastic," Scott said. "San Diego State, they were a big test and they showed they were a good team and we weren’t ready to play at the time but in the second half we came to play and we showed what our team is capable of doing."

When asked for an explanation about why there have been lapses, Scott said, "We’re not sure. Our effort’s there at times. On defense, if you’re not running to the ball, then the big plays show up. That’s what happened. We weren’t running to the ball. Coach just has us making sure we’re running to the ball and making sure we get in our positions really quick because ECU, they’re one of those spread teams that likes to go fast and they can expose you if you don’t get there."

North Carolina is headed into this tough stretch off a bye, so the hope is that extra time in practice going over the fundamentals and getting extra reps for its young players will help. Coach Larry Fedora said he was happy the bye week came so early because it would help his young team get more work in "so that we can continue to get better at each and every position, which is going to help us as we get into that stretch."

Based on its showing in the first two games, North Carolina could use all the help it can get headed into the next seven weeks.

North Carolina's upcoming schedule

Saturday at East Carolina

Sept. 27 at Clemson

Oct. 4 Virginia Tech

Oct. 11 at Notre Dame

Oct. 18 Georgia Tech

Oct. 25 at Virginia

Nov. 1 at Miami

Butt's return provides options for Michigan

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Michigan sophomore Jake Butt saw teammate Dennis Norfleet running toward him pointing to the sky and decided to break doctor’s orders. Butt, having just caught his third career touchdown pass last Saturday afternoon, met his fellow receiver in mid-air at the goal line with a flying chest bump. He thought he had earned a brief celebration after all.

"I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but yeah, I did," he said. "It’s not like I have big hops anyways. It was a baby jump."

[+] EnlargeJake Butt
AP Photo/Tony DingJake Butt's touchdown catch Saturday against Miami (Ohio) was the third of his career.
Six and a half months after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee, Butt found himself back in the end zone. His second of three catches so far this season was good for a walk-in 29-yard score against Miami (Ohio). Team doctors told Butt to avoid any unnecessary risks while his joint rounds back into shape, but he couldn’t help but get airborne to enjoy the moment.

Pushing limits helped put Butt on the field sooner than expected, even in a new era of knee rehab that has turned once-dreaded ACL injuries into surmountable obstacles. The 6-foot-6, 249-pound tight end is still working his way to full health, but his return comes at an opportune time for the Wolverines. Without star receiver Devin Funchess, whose status remains a mystery after missing last week with an apparent leg injury, Michigan’s offense is searching for new options in the passing game.

"We may play more tight ends. It just depends on what we want to do," head coach Brady Hoke said when asked about contingency plans if Funchess can’t play in a key non-conference game with Utah this weekend. "... I think again, you go back to the tight end position with getting guys ready for different personnel groups, I think that’s a positive."

Hoke said Butt’s versatility opens parts of the playbook Michigan wouldn’t be able to use if he remained on the sidelines. He expects the sophomore’s impact to grow in the coming weeks as he ramps up to full speed and loses the restrictive play count the Wolverines have set for him.

Butt made the ESPN.com All-Big Ten freshman team last season after catching 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. The coaching staff considered him a big part of the offensive game plan for this season, even after he hurt his knee in early February.

At the time, the Wolverines didn’t expect to have the sophomore in their lineup until the team started Big Ten play in late September. Butt had other ideas. His maternal grandfather, Bob Lally, won two national championships for Notre Dame under Frank Leahy in the 1940s, and Butt was determined to play on the same field as one of his childhood idols before Michigan’s series with the Irish expired. He set a goal the day after he was injured to play in South Bend the second week of the season. Though he took only four snaps in that game, he reached it.

"Jake was committed to getting on that field for his Papa. That was a big deal for him," said Rob Butt, Jake’s father, who attributes the fast recovery to hard work, a positive attitude, and a knack for mending quickly.

Butt broke a bone in his foot in fifth grade and shocked doctors when X-rays showed it was completely healed a little more than two weeks later. That was about the time he started scouring the Internet for ways to become a better receiver. Butt cut tennis balls in half and taped them to his palms to force himself to catch with his fingertips when his dad threw him passes in the backyard. His reputation for working hard followed him through an all-state high school career in Ohio.

The same attitude led Butt to impatiently grind away at whatever the Michigan training staff allowed him to do during the past six months. He set up camp in the trainer’s office, receiving treatment while he ate or studied or did just about anything else. After rehab sessions, he went home and repeated the drills on his own in his apartment.

"When he got hurt he said I’m going to have the quickest ACL recovery in history," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "When you know the kid, nothing would surprise you. Each and every day we’re trying to give him a little bit more. He’s a phenomenal football player."

Butt’s ability to create matchup issues for opposing defenses will make him a key piece in Nussmeier’s offense, especially if Funchess needs more time to return to the lineup. He took a big step forward last weekend with three catches for 59 yards and his touchdown. That return to the box score happened sooner than anticipated for just about everyone except himself.

"I hold myself to a high standard," he said. "Once they called that play, I knew I was going to get into the end zone."

Kickoff Live: Week 4 (1 ET)

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
10:35
AM ET
ESPN.com reporters Ted Miller, Edward Aschoff and Heather Dinich join host Chantel Jennings to discuss the latest on Jameis Winston and preview the weekend slate of games.

If you're reading this blog, you probably already know about Florida State's ball boy celebrity, Red Lightning.

Well, it took him only a week this season to get some competition as the most famous ball boy in college football. His rival -- at least we'd like to think they're rivals -- is from the team the Seminoles beat in last year's national title game, Auburn. In the season opener, Jake Longenecker (aka "Blue Thunder") showed off his blazing speed and inspired Sport Science to compare his quickness to Red Lightning.

video

Auburn vs. Kansas State primer

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
10:00
AM ET
Nick Marshall, Jake WatersGetty ImagesAuburn QB Nick Marshal and Kansas State QB Jake Waters square off on Thursday.

On a rare Thursday night game for both schools, Auburn travels to Kansas State where the Wildcats are expecting the largest crowd in program history. Gus Malzahn's squad is looking to gain national respect after reaching the national title game last year, while Bill Snyder would love to make another run of his own at a national championship.

The fifth-ranked Tigers are the highest-ranked nonconference opponent to play in the "Little Apple" since No. 2 Penn State visited in 1969.

Jake Trotter and Greg Ostendorf break down the Big 12-SEC showdown below:

How Auburn can control this game: It starts up front. Auburn has rushed for at least 200 yards in each of its last 13 games, the longest active streak in the FBS, and has gained more than 300 rushing yards in eight of its past 11 contests. No Tre Mason? No problem. Cameron Artis-Payne has 289 yards rushing and four touchdowns in the first two games. The strength of this Tigers' rushing attack is the offensive line, but the orchestrator is quarterback Nick Marshall. When he's running the show, it's nearly impossible to stop. Look for Auburn to impose its will early and wear down the Kansas State defense by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. – Ostendorf

How Kansas State can pull of upset: So far, Kansas State has been one of the nation's best teams at limiting opponents' yardage before contact. According to ESPN Stats & Info, only Alabama (20.3 yards) has allowed fewer yards before contact this season than the Wildcats (22.5). Snyder will have K-State in position to make tackles against Auburn's ferocious zone-read offense. But the only way the Wildcats will win this game is if they also make those tackles at the point of attack. – Trotter

Auburn's X factor: There have been a lot people who have doubted Marshall and questioned his ability as a passer, and after a game and a half, the Auburn quarterback hasn't done anything to prove them wrong. But he gets his favorite wide receiver Sammie Coates back Thursday, and the importance of that cannot be understated. Coates led the team last year with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. He and Marshall seemed to be in sync from the beginning. All the talk was on junior college transfer D'haquille Williams after Week 1, but don't be surprised if Marshall hooks up with his old pal for at least one big play against Kansas State. – Ostendorf

Kansas State's X factor: The Wildcats quietly have one of the better kickers in college football in junior Jack Cantele, who only missed two field goals last season. If this game goes down to the wire, it could come down to a kick. West Virginia and Iowa State showed last weekend that having a reliable kicker can be the difference in winning and losing. The Wildcats should feel good about their chances if it comes down to Cantele, who has the experience of booting a 41-yard game-winner to beat TCU last year. – Trotter

What a win would mean for the SEC: Despite Oklahoma's win over Tennessee last week, there aren't many folks who believe the Big 12 is better than the SEC. Taking that one step further, there aren't a lot of people picking Kansas State to win Thursday. So while an Auburn loss could hurt the SEC and its perception nationally, I don't think a win does much for the conference. However, it could mean a lot more for Auburn. Nobody's really talking about the Tigers right now as a legitimate national title contender, in part because they haven't had that signature win yet, but a win at Kansas State could change that. – Ostendorf

What a win would mean for the Big 12: It's been a solid, but hardly spectacular nonconference season so far for the Big 12. West Virginia and Oklahoma State played Alabama and Florida State tough on opening weekend. But neither Big 12 team actually won. Iowa State (Iowa), TCU (Minnesota), Oklahoma (Tennessee) and West Virginia (Maryland) landed the league four solid victories last weekend. But none of those opponents were ranked. K-State is the Big 12's final chance of securing the league marquee nonconference win. A Big 12 victory over the defending SEC champs would turn the heads of the playoff selection committee. – Trotter

Edouard paves the way for B-CU

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
10:00
AM ET
In order for your offense to get into high gear, you need some great offensive linemen to create opportunities for your skilled players. Bethune-Cookman has one of those offensive linemen who can really pave the way.

Andrew Edouard, the Wildcats' center, has been a major factor in making B-CU (2-0) the consensus No. 1 HBCU football team in the nation. Edouard is a terrific run and pass blocker. He’s big and strong and has good quickness along the offensive line.

“Andrew has done a phenomenal job coming in and adapting to our program, finding a way to stay there and finding his role,” said Bethune-Cookman head coach Brian Jenkins. “He’s a phenomenal young man. He does an exceptional job of leading our front line. I think his accolades and productivity speaks for itself. It speaks for the job he’s done in the short period of time that he’s been here.”

Edouard is truly an amazing story. This is his second year in the Wildcats football program after spending two seasons at Lackawanna College, a junior college in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The 6-foot-2, 295-pound senior started 12 of 13 games last season, when Bethune-Cookman averaged 29.6 points a game and was second in the Mid-eastern Athletic Conference with 5,146 yards of total offense. Edouard was a big reason why the team was so prolific offensively, and his blocking skills helped B-CU capture the MEAC title. For his efforts, Edouard was named first-team All-MEAC and was selected to the Boxtorow All-America team as well.

Edouard played his scholastic football at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School, which is known for its history of producing sensational basketball players like Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Hazzard, Wali Jones, Mike Gale, Lewis Lloyd, Jackie Moore, Malik Rose and others. Edouard appears to be carving a pretty good niche for himself as a football player.

He’s clearly one of the best players at his position, and he can also play guard. His talent and versatility make him a solid NFL prospect. Edouard should get an invitation to all the college all-star games as well as the NFL combine. His style of play is similar to New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl offensive guard Jahri Evans, who like Edouard played his high school football in the Philadelphia Public League.

Bethune-Cookman is off to a good start this season with a victory over Division I Florida International and Grambling State from the Southwestern Athletic Conference. B-CU has a huge nonconference game against Division I UCF (0-2) at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando, Florida, this Saturday. Another big win over a Division I FBS team will bring more attention to Bethune-Cookman, as well as Edouard.

HBCU notes:
  • Howard quarterback Greg McGhee put on an impressive show leading the Bison to a 35-17 victory over Morehouse in the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic. McGee completed 16-of-30 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for three TDs.
  • Alabama State running back Malcolm Cyrus looks like a big-time rusher in the SWAC. Cyrus picked up 171 yards, leading the Hornets to a 47-22 win over Mississippi Valley State this past weekend. The week before, he had 170 yards in a 27-21 win over Tennessee State.
  • Wide receiver Julian Stafford from Mississippi Valley State was the SWAC Offensive Student-Athlete of the Week. Stafford had a career-high 12 catches for 222 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Alabama State. He also had 32 yards on returns for 254 all-purpose yards.
  • Linebacker Kourtney Berry from Alabama State was named the SWAC Defensive Student-Athlete of the Week. Berry had seven total stops, three solo, while playing only a little more than one half in the win over Mississippi Valley State. He had 1.5 tackles for a loss of seven yards and picked up a fumble off a blocked punt and returned it 18 yards for a TD. Berry has 32 tackles in the first three games this season.
  • North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen was named the MEAC Offensive Player of the Week. Cohen had 20 carries for a career-high 234 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Aggies to a 17-12 win over Elon.
  • Strong safety Paul Eatman Jr. of Morgan State and cornerback Tony McRae of North Carolina A&T were named the MEAC Co-Defensive Players of the Week. Eatman had a career-high 12 tackles, seven solo, in Morgan State’s 28-3 win over Bowie State. McRae made nine stops, seven solo, with 1.5 tackles for a loss of seven yards for the Aggies.
HBCU players in the NFL

SEC Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
AM ET
Week 3 brought some serious action in the SEC, including Florida surviving triple overtime against Kentucky and Vanderbilt escaping against UMass. (And to think, Alex, everyone laughed when you picked the Minutemen.) With three high-profile games on the docket this week, let's get on with the picks.


Why Auburn wins big: Kansas State isn't going to be scared by Auburn's breakneck tempo -- the Wildcats see it against Baylor annually. The difference will come in that tempo combined with the strength and athleticism in Auburn's offensive line that powers the Tigers' running game. Look for the game to be close and competitive initially before the Tigers pull away in the fourth quarter as they wear down the Wildcats up front. Auburn 45, Kansas State 24 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Why Kansas State keeps it close: When was the last time the SEC ventured into the Midwest to play a Power 5 opponent? Exactly. It's just not done, and with good reason. Expect Kansas State to load the box and dare Auburn to pass. Nick Marshall hasn't thrown the ball all that well thus far, completing 56 percent of his passes for just 151 yards. Auburn 31, Kansas State 24 -- Alex Scarborough


Why LSU wins: LSU has won 14 in a row in this series, but that won’t matter on Saturday. The Tigers will beat Mississippi State again on Saturday because they are the better team -- and it doesn’t hurt that they’re playing at night at Tiger Stadium, a scenario in which they’re 43-3 under Les Miles. LSU 28, Mississippi State 14 -- David Ching

Why Mississippi State wins: How good is LSU? I watched the first half against Wisconsin and was less than impressed. I still don’t trust Anthony Jennings at quarterback. Meanwhile, Mississippi State comes in with a little bit of a chip on its shoulder, having not won in Death Valley since 1991, and Dak Prescott, a Louisiana native, gave the LSU defense fits in last year’s game. Mississippi State 24, LSU 21 -- Greg Ostendorf


Why Alabama wins big: After scoring just three points in the first half and needing triple overtime to beat Kentucky last week, there are some serious concerns for Florida heading into a tough environment at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama's defensive line should create a miserable afternoon for Florida's offense, specifically quarterback Jeff Driskel. Alabama 36, Florida 16 -- Jeff Barlis

Why Florida keeps it close: After a triple-overtime win against Kentucky, people are down on the Gators. But despite last week's scare, Florida is better than it was last year. I can already hear the silly homer chants, and I'm sure Jeff is snickering at me, but if Florida's communication and pass protection hadn't been so bad last week, I'd be tempted to pick Florida in the upset. Notice that I said "tempted." I think you'll see a defensive struggle, but Alabama's running game will be too much and the Crimson Tide will pull away late. Alabama 24, Florida 13 -- Edward Aschoff

More unanimous picks:

Georgia over Troy: Now you can show off that passing game, Georgia. The Bulldogs won't need much of Todd Gurley, as the coaches look to get more out of Hutson Mason's arm. Georgia 51, Troy 10

Texas A&M over SMU: Kenny Trill adds to his flashy numbers and the defense continues to look better in a road rout that will leave Eric Dickerson looking to take a blowtorch to his former program. Texas A&M 65, SMU 13

Missouri over Indiana: These Tigers don't need -- or want -- respect, and they'll continue to quietly go about their business with another convincing victory that will just lead to more Mizzou fans yelling at that @AschoffESPN Twitter account. Missouri 45, Indiana 20

Arkansas over Northern Illinois: Northern Illinois actually has had a respectable run defense through three games, so maybe the Hogs won't rush for 400 yards on Saturday. Maybe. Arkansas 48, Northern Illinois 21

South Carolina over Vanderbilt: After a thrilling 38-35 victory over SEC East favorite Georgia, the Gamecocks must get back on the field. Expect a slow start, but no fourth-quarter visor-throwing from the HBC. South Carolina 34, Vanderbilt 14

Unanimous summaries and scores by Edward Aschoff.

Standings
Chris Low 32-2
Edward Aschoff 31-3
Jeff Barlis 31-3
David Ching 31-3
Sam Khan Jr. 30-4
Greg Ostendorf 29-5
Alex Scarborough 27-7

ACC Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
AM ET
The ACC has a full slate of interesting games in Week 4. Andrea Adelson, Matt Fortuna, David Hale and Jared Shanker give their takes on who will win and why.

Andrea Adelson: If East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden can rack up 417 yards on one of the best secondaries in the ACC, what hope does North Carolina have in this game? North Carolina can talk revenge all it wants, hoping for a little payback for its embarrassing loss last year. But the Tar Heels have come out flat in both of their games this season, have had problems on the offensive and defensive lines and have been inconsistent in their run and return games. Just about every matchup arrow points in East Carolina's favor. East Carolina 31, North Carolina 21.

David Hale: If we learned anything from last week’s game, it should be this: In September, momentum swings quickly. Virginia Tech was riding high, ECU was overlooked and the end result was a dramatic win for the Pirates. Fast-forward to this week, and we have an overlooked North Carolina against an ECU team with an increasingly crowded bandwagon. The Tar Heels have a chip on their shoulder, remembering what happened last season. UNC’s secondary is solid, and Carden completed just 15 of 36 passes last week after ECU’s first two drives. The Pirates won’t sneak up on North Carolina this time around, and that’s the biggest advantage for the Heels. North Carolina 28, East Carolina 24.

Hale: It was just last year that Virginia’s underrated defense helped knock off BYU in Charlottesville, and those Hoos certainly weren’t as good as this year’s group. Yes, BYU has improved, but the Cougars still don’t have the most explosive offense. More importantly, BYU has thrown four interceptions and fumbled six times (four lost) in its first three games, and UVa’s defense will be by far the best the Cougars have seen so far. The onus will be on the Cavaliers’ offense to put a few points on the board -- no easy task against BYU -- but this could be a game in which the first team to find the end zone twice wins. Virginia 20, BYU 17.

Matt Fortuna: UVa is clearly a much-improved squad from last season and shouldn't need a two-hour rain delay to pull off the upset, as may have been the case last season. But the Hoos will still have their work cut out for them in Provo, Utah. Taysom Hill is a much better quarterback than he was a year ago. He has rushed for 356 yards through three games, second most nationally. Further complicating matters is the altitude of LaVell Edwards Stadium, which will test the depth of the UVa defense. The BYU defense has been flat-out salty against the run, and too much will be put on the Hoos' passing attack. BYU 30, Virginia 27.

Adelson: The Deacs showed some signs of life on offense in the second half against Utah State a week ago. Now the trick is to limit the turnovers and get the run game going. The bet is that will happen this week against Army, which has a run defense that ranks 84th in the nation, allowing 176 yards per game. The Wake Forest defense has played well for the most part, ranking 17th in the nation in total D, and will do enough to slow down the Black Knights. Wake Forest 21, Army 20.

Jared Shanker: It is not the sexiest matchup in Week 4, as both Army and Wake Forest have struggled in recent seasons. Army has not had a winning season since 2010, and Wake Forest is considered by many to be the worst Power 5 team in 2014. It isn't as much a case of having confidence in Army as it is questioning what Wake Forest will bring to the table. Stanford shut out Army last weekend, but the Black Knights were able to score 47 points against Buffalo, a team much more comparable to Wake Forest than the Cardinal. Wake Forest is playing a true freshman at quarterback and Army has a more experienced player leading the offense, and I think that will be the deciding factor. This will be a game decided in the final four minutes. Army 13, Wake Forest 10.

Fortuna: The Tigers know they are better than what they showed last season in a humiliating home loss to Florida State. Jameis Winston's declaration that Memorial Stadium is his house this past spring only fueled that fire, and now Winston won't even be around for the first half. All of that plays perfectly into the formula for a Tigers upset. Their highly touted defensive front has not lived up to expectations through two games, but if Clemson can create pressure early, get to backup QB Sean Maguire and force him to throw to someone other than Rashad Greene, the Tigers will give themselves a chance. Clemson 31, Florida State 27.

Shanker: It's almost as if this whole Winston half-game suspension sets up for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to add to his legacy. Maguire is a solid backup, so the smart money is on him keeping the game close heading into halftime. At that point, the offense's keys are handed back to Winston, who torched the Tigers last season. The Florida State defense stifled Clemson's offense last season, and this version of Chad Morris' offense is not quite as talented as last season's. If the Florida State defense is motivated, it certainly could give Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson fits. Florida State 24, Clemson 17.

Unanimous predictions

Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech: The Hokies have won four straight in the series, as defensive coordinator Bud Foster seems to always find a way to slow down the Jackets’ triple-option offense. Though Virginia Tech is coming in off a loss, it has looked like the stronger team in the first three games. Virginia Tech 20, Georgia Tech 17.

Iowa at Pitt: If there is anyone in the ACC who should be familiar with the Hawkeyes, it is coach Paul Chryst, who coached against them during his time at Wisconsin. Though Iowa ranks No. 6 in the nation in rush defense, James Conner will find a way to get his 100 yards and lead the Panthers to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2000. Pitt 28, Iowa 17.

Maryland at Syracuse: The Orange beat the Terps 20-3 last year in their first meeting as ACC members, though Maryland was missing several of its best players in the game. In a battle of mobile quarterbacks, Terrel Hunt will better C.J. Brown and get Syracuse to 3-0 for the first time since 1991. Syracuse 28, Maryland 24.

Tulane at Duke: The Blue Devils have gone through their nonconference schedule with ease, but cannot get caught looking ahead to a looming showdown with Miami. The big question is whether Shaun Wilson can duplicate his 245-yard performance against the No. 94 rush defense in the country. Duke 41, Tulane 10.

Maine at BC: BC has to guard against a letdown after an emotional win over No. 9 USC last week. Coach Steve Addazio kept the intensity going at practice this week, hoping his team can carry on the momentum it has gained. Bank on that, behind another 100-yard rushing game from Tyler Murphy. Boston College 34, Maine 7.

Louisville at FIU: FIU put a scare into Pitt last week, so Louisville has to ward against overconfidence. Of course, the last time these two teams met a season ago, Louisville won 72-0. This should be a bounce-back game for the Cards’ offense, which struggled a week ago in a loss to Virginia. Louisville 45, FIU 0.

Presbyterian at NC State: The Wolfpack looked good last week in a road win over USF, and need to build off that win against Presbyterian, with a showdown against Florida State set for next weekend. The nonconference schedule has been weak, but after winning three games all of last season, NC State will take win No. 4. NC State 42, Presbyterian 10.

Miami at Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a big edge on the Hurricanes in the trenches, and that is where this game will be decided. Miami’s defense has played better, but it will have a tough time slowing down Heisman contender Ameer Abdullah on the road in a nationally televised game. Nebraska 35, Miami 24.

Records this season
Shanker: 32-3
Adelson: 29-6
Fortuna: 29-6
Hale: 29-6

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