TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is a game-changing talent at receiver. His ability to catch the football, make one guy miss and take it the distance is uncanny. His yards-after-catch numbers are gaudy. As of Monday, he leads the country with 33 receptions and is third overall with 454 yards receiving. And that’s not counting the passes he hauls in behind the line of scrimmage, of which he has three “carries” for 29 yards. But those are just the cherries on top.

Cooper is arguably the best receiver in the country. But for Alabama's offense to be successful, he can’t continue to do it alone.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAmari Cooper has accounted for just over half of Alabama's receiving yards this season.
It’s fine that Cooper is the focal point of the offense, but he can’t be the entire playbook on a weekly basis. Teams like Florida won’t allow it. Cornerbacks like Vernon Hargreaves III and safeties like Jabari Gorman will get in the way of an Amari Cooper-centric attack. Florida's Will Muschamp didn’t look great coaching against Kentucky last weekend, but the man knows defense and understands how to double- and triple-team a receiver.

Take last season for instance. Despite the mess that it was for Florida, the defense held down LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Neither receiver had more than 60 yards receiving or a single touchdown. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri’s most talented receiver last season, was held to 52 yards and no touchdowns, too.

Receivers are reliant. Quarterbacks are not. Blake Sims, despite all the good work he’s done in winning the starting job, must get the ball to his other weapons on Saturday against the Gators.

So far, Cooper has accounted for 48.5 percent of all of Alabama's receptions and 50.8 percent of all passing yards. He’s been targeted 43 times. The next closest is Christion Jones, who has been thrown to only 14 times. Chris Black, who has started in place of DeAndrew White, has three total receptions. Starting tight ends Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard have combined for just one reception.

While there’s been a lot to like about Sims and the new life Lane Kiffin has breathed into the offense, there’s still a lot of uncharted territory to be discovered. Kenyan Drake has shown flashes of Reggie Bush-like ability, Jalston Fowler has caught the ball a few times in his versatile H-back role and even young ArDarius Stewart has gotten somewhat involved. But none have been truly featured.

Howard, who has the ability to be a mismatch against any defense, simply hasn’t gotten the football. We’re waiting on an APB to be sent out on the All-America talent. He’s been thrown to once all season and it resulted in an interception. You could say he’s not worked to get himself open, but that’s a faulty argument because good coordinators find a way to get their best players the football in space. Sometimes that means setting a pick, dump it off into the flat or dialing up a screen pass. Howard is fast and athletic enough for any of those options.

Before Saturday’s win over Southern Miss, Saban insisted that Howard needed to be more involved in the offense. That obviously didn’t happen. Following Alabama’s 52-12 beat down, Saban reiterated the need for more playmakers to emerge.

“We need to get more people involved offensively,” he said. “Coop has had a great start, but we have other guys that are capable players. Chris Black dropped the ball tonight. He’s a capable playmaker. We need those guys to play and get confidence. Getting DeAndrew White back will help us. Christion Jones had four catches tonight. We need to get more guys involved.”

Ameer Abdullah makes his way

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
12:30
PM ET
video

LINCOLN, Neb. -- When Ameer Abdullah arrived in the summer of 2011, an unheralded afterthought of a recruit, 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds soaking wet, bent on excelling in a conference loaded with bigger, heftier running backs, there were doubters. He was used to that.

People who judged him with a tape measure did so at their peril, as far as Abdullah was concerned. He found the negative feedback useful. It drove him to build his psyche, his body and his game, to try to be beyond athletic reproach.

Three years later, three games into the final season of a stellar college career, Abdullah has willed his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation. The 21-year-old from Homewood, Alabama, has shown he can grind out tough yards when needed, but he is most celebrated for his agility and elusiveness in the open field, for changes of direction that fake opposing players out of their socks, for magical spinning escapes from the clutches of would-be tacklers and afterburner accelerations into the end zone, all of which he displayed on a lightning-strike, game-winning, 58-yard pass play in the final minute two weekends ago against McNeese State.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah is closing in on some hallowed marks at Nebraska.
Heading into Nebraska's home game Saturday against the University of Miami -- the first time the teams have met since the national championship in January 2002 -- Abdullah is closing in on Johnny Rodgers' school record of 5,586 all-purpose yards. It was a standard few imagined he would reach, but Abdullah has always drawn his own hashmarks.

Abdullah knows there is another measuring system out there that he can't control, one in which people size him up based solely on his Muslim faith and a name that does not allow him to hide. He navigates this invisible gantlet in a variety of ways, some less obvious than others.

A couple of minutes before every opening kickoff, Abdullah finds an empty spot on the Nebraska bench and faces east, toward the compass point he was taught to find as a little boy.

"I say a little prayer before every game, wishing myself, my teammates and the opposing teammates the best of luck, asking the Lord to help us use our talents just to glorify him [and] not to be selfish or self-motivated today, just to let our talents glorify him and keep us safe from injury, to allow us to go out and show everything we've worked for the week before," he said.

Players and staff wander by as he bows his head, some seemingly oblivious, some simply giving him space. The moment goes by in a blink and is hard to catch -- like him.

This quietly declarative act is crucial to Abdullah's sense of inner consistency, his desire to keep his balance in a world that can swipe and tug at his jersey.

"That's something very big to me: Be who you are all the time," he said.

To read more about Abdullah's climb to becoming one of the best running backs in college football all while staying true to himself and his religion, click here.

Wake uses Kim K. and Photoshop to recruit

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
12:07
PM ET
It isn't entirely original. As Matt Fortuna detailed in this piece last week, schools have been using graphic design and creating fake magazine covers for a while now to amuse and impress recruits.

Just a few weeks ago, Tennessee created a Rolling Stone cover with Beyonce and Shy Tuttle, one of the Vols' top targets in this year's class.

But the one Wake Forest recently sent to Class of 2015 defensive end Kengera Daniel really caught our eye.



It's safe to say this wasn't the best Photoshop we've ever seen. And fans across the country will no doubt get a chuckle from the claim that the ACC is "the real power conference in college football."

And "KimGera?" Well, we're not sure what to make of that.

But it's not us the Demon Deacons were trying to impress. It's the 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior from Raleigh, North Carolina. And apparently it worked -- even though he has no idea how the Wake staff found out he's a fan of Kim Kardashian, whom they even dressed up in the Deacons' black and gold colors.

"It did impress," Daniel told ESPN.com. "But I haven't really told anyone I was a Kim K. fan. I guess they assume all guys are. But it's a cool edit."

Will it ultimately work? We'll find out Sept. 22. That's when Daniel said he'll release his top 5 finalists.
EUGENE, Ore. -- When Marcus Mariota went airborne last Saturday, diving into the end zone for a second-quarter score against Wyoming, it was as if everyone at Autzen Stadium held their breath.

That includes every Oregon player and coach, every Ducks fan, every bettor, every single person who has found himself/herself rooting for this quiet Heisman contender. For a few seconds, until Mariota got to his feet with his teammates, stomachs were churning.

As exciting as the play was and as happy as fans were to see another six points added to the scoreboard, all of it seemed minuscule when compared to one detail: Is Marcus OK?

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota doesn't play it safe, and that's a good thing for Oregon.
“You can’t really think about those types of things,” Mariota said of playing it safe. “Because that’s when you get hurt. My dad always told me that if you play with your mind worrying or cautious, then you play at half-speed and end up getting yourself hurt.”

It’s no secret: Oregon’s playoff hopes rest on Mariota’s shoulders ... even when they’re closer to the ground than his feet. And though the Ducks preach the mantra of every school, everywhere -- “backups need to come in and play like a starter” -- Oregon’s postseason dreams will be nonexistent if Mariota is sidelined due to injury. And fans need to look no further than last season to know that is a fact.

Many would like to enclose Mariota in bubble wrap, keeping him safe until they “need” him to make those kinds of plays later on down the road. They want his helmet to wear a helmet and for his Nike jersey to somehow deploy airbags when it senses possible injury within five yards.

But that’s not going to happen, though Phil Knight might be phoning in an idea to Nike manufacturers now.

But Mariota knows one fact: You don’t tiptoe the line toward a national title. It’s not exactly a game that welcomes those who bring fruit baskets and tap politely on the door asking to enter. No, it’s a game for the risk takers and those willing to lay it all on the line, which Mariota, if it wasn't evident before that dive, is certainly willing to do.

Especially this season, with no prior knowledge as to how exactly the committee will choose the four teams or which factors they will give the most weight, teams and players can’t leave anything to chance.

So, would Mariota make that flip again?

Yes. He would. Because he’s not playing it safe and no one should want that. If Oregon wins the title, no one will say it’s because Mariota played it safe until it “really mattered.” Because with this new playoff, no one knows exactly which detail matters. Thus, everything matters.

And so, Mariota throws caution to the wind and his body toward the end zone. And as nervous as it might make fans, coaches and teammates -- wide receiver Keanon Lowe said, “I hope he never does that again. Ever.” -- it’s how the Ducks need to play this season if they want to be in that group of four at the end of the season.

Mariota knows how to get there. Now, everyone needs to just trust his lead.

He has an innate playmaking ability that you just can’t coach. So coach Mark Helfrich certainly isn’t going to un-coach it.

“You can’t sit there and say, ‘Hey, don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do this,’” Helrich said. “The way that he plays, the dynamic nature of his play, how he likes to improvise -- that’s one of our biggest strengths.”

 “I’ll just let my instincts take over,” Mariota added. “It’s tough as a football player to kind of stop yourself from doing something.”

And so, one of Oregon’s biggest strengths will also be one of its fans’ biggest fears moving forward. Every time Mariota leaves the pocket or throws his body in harm’s way, every time he dives or hurdles, fans everywhere are going to hold their breath until they see their Flyin’ Hawaiian get back on his feet.

It’s the way Mariota wants to win the national title this season. And as much as a national title might mean to Fan X or Fan Y, it means more to Mariota.

He’s a smart player. Any risk he takes is one that’s going to be calculated. And, if he does get injured, then it will happen because it was a risk that he believed was worth it.

Isn’t that the kind of player you’d want to lead your team? Those are usually the kinds of players who are standing on the top of the podium or in the winner’s circle.

“You can’t squelch somebody’s gifts and the stuff that he does,” Helfrich said. “We can’t, we won’t ever approach offense with any kind of handcuffed mentality.”

What does that mean? Well, it means a lot more stomach-churning moments as Oregon fans wait for Mariota to climb from the bottom of the pile or stand and walk without a limp. It means some hesitance as folks let Mariota fly free. It means letting the player make the plays that he believes in.

Because at the end of the day, he’s driving this machine. And no one buys a Maserati to go 30 mph.

Certainly not Oregon.

Campaign Trail: South Carolina

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
11:19
AM ET
Which teams will make the College Football Playoff? Ultimately, the selection committee will decide. Until then, there will be a lot of campaigning. Each week we'll unveil what we think one team's campaign message should be.

South Carolina is back in the College Football Playoff hunt after taking down Georgia, 38-35. Steve Spurrier continues to have the Dawgs' number, and his glee after the game was palpable. “Some wins are better than others,” said Spurrier. “This one was better than most others.” Spurrier has the Gamecocks back in the race for a conference and national championship, and that's a good thing for everyone.

South Carolina posterIllustration by Sam Ho

ECU looks to do it again vs. ACC

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
11:00
AM ET
Ruffin McNeill has not approached East Carolina's rugged three-game nonconference stretch here as proving grounds. The fifth-year Pirates coach has always believed his teams belong with whoever they're playing, Power 5 program or not. They entered South Carolina two weeks ago intending to leave with a win, the same way they entered this past weekend at Virginia Tech, the same way they will approach a home tilt with North Carolina this Saturday.

"We did not go down thinking 'upset,'" McNeill told ESPN.com, referring to the loss to the Gamecocks. "We went down expecting to win, and that's saying it as humble as I can. And that's how much I believe in our staff and our team."

[+] EnlargeShane Carden
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThrough three games this season, East Carolina senior QB Shane Carden has already thrown for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns.
Such a mentality hardly hindered ECU last season during its 100-plus mile trip to Chapel Hill, as the Pirates had their way with the Tar Heels in a 55-31 rout. It helped earn them more notoriety nationally three days ago in Blacksburg, Virginia, as they jumped on the Hokies early and scored late for a 28-21 win.

This week? ECU is actually favored over in-state neighbor UNC, the first-year American Athletic Conference program looking to make it back-to-back wins against the Heels before it embarks on league play.

"Oh it's been brought up since we lost to them," UNC safety Tim Scott said. "For 365. Every day our coaches remind us if we don't come ready to play, they already showed us the results when we don't come to play and this year we're trying to make sure that doesn't happen again."

To do that, UNC needs to do what it couldn't do last season, and what few have been able to do since, including NC State late in 2013: Stop Shane Carden.

Carden accounted for six total touchdowns last season against the Heels, throwing for 376 yards. Saturday at Virginia Tech, he was responsible for all four ECU touchdowns and threw for 427 yards. The Houston native's rise has mirrored that of his staff's, each in their fifth years in Greenville.

With McNeill getting hired at ECU roughly two weeks before signing day, Carden appeared to be Stephen F. Austin-bound. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons, who had played for the Red Raiders while McNeill was an assistant there, called McNeill about Carden, whose dad was Symons' wife's boss. Carden visited ECU, was intrigued by the idea of running an offense designed by Mike Leach proteges and signed with the Pirates a week later.

"He's always been pretty strong on the mental toughness, the leadership, being one of the guys, the guy that they can rally behind," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Lincoln Riley told ESPN.com. "Some of that can be taught, but some of that is natural, God-given ability. Sometimes people just follow people and you can't really nail down exactly why. Some people just have that presence about them, and Shane has that."

Carden's first career pass was picked off, at South Carolina in 2012. But he found his footing late that year, leading the Pirates to five wins in their final six regular-season games, during which they scored 42 points per game. Last season, Carden finished in the top-10 nationally of virtually every passing category, leading ECU to a 10-3 mark while making a leap that McNeill described as going from the quarterback of the offense to the quarterback of the team.

"He works every day like he's losing his job, and he works on his craft," said McNeill, who played defensive back at ECU from 1976-80. "The kids call him cap'n: C-A-P-apostrophe-N."

The 31-year-old Riley, meanwhile, has become one of the hottest names on the assistant coaching circuit, based largely off his work with Carden and before that with Michael Crabtree, whom he mentored when coaching receivers at Texas Tech.

Everything seems to be falling into place right now for ECU, which has one of its favorite sons ushering it into this new era in a new league.

"I'm beginning to see it come into fruition, because one thing with Coach (Steve) Spurrier and Coach (Frank) Beamer: They don't just win for a season, they win for seasons, and I would like to get our program where it's understood that we are going to be successful for seasons, not a season," McNeill said. "And the belief and commitment to the team and belief and commitment to our mission and vision -- it's very important that that is continued."

Another win Saturday over a bigger program from down the road would only further that progress, as it would make ECU 4-1 against the ACC in the past two years and serve notice to the rest of its new league brethren.

"You always hear about teams that went undefeated or only lost one game and everybody says, 'Who'd they play?' And they don't have anything to show for it," Carden said. "Well, ECU always has a chance to play these good teams and give us a chance to put our name in the mix with some big-name schools if we go out and win those games."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Travin Dural had already learned a painful lesson about perspective during his LSU career, even before a late-night car wreck nine days ago placed him in the hospital with a head wound that required 13 stitches to close.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Travin Dural
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty ImagesTravin Dural had three catches for 151 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin.
As a true freshman who seemed during preseason camp to be on track to contribute to the offense in 2012, Dural's knee buckled while trying to outjump cornerback Jalen Collins and make a catch in practice. The ACL tear he suffered on the play cost the Tigers' speedster a season, but he believes it spawned personal growth that has helped him since then, as it did in the aftermath of the wreck that occurred a few hours after LSU's 56-0 win against Sam Houston State on Sept. 6.

"I'd say that helped me out a lot," Dural said of the injury. "It showed that football isn't guaranteed. You've got to play every play like it's your last play. In fall camp, I was never thinking that I was going to get hurt, especially the way that I got hurt. I didn't get touched, I didn't get hit, my leg just snapped. So that showed me that football isn't always guaranteed and it made me grow up a lot."

Perhaps the experiences from Dural's lost 2012 season might also help him enjoy the success he's experiencing today. He entered last Saturday's 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe averaging a ridiculous 48.5 yards per catch, having scored four touchdowns -- including bombs of 94 and 80 yards -- in six catches.

As No. 8 LSU (3-0) prepares for its SEC opener against Mississippi State (3-0) on Saturday, Dural once again looks like the playmaker teammates expected him to become when he arrived on campus. He ranks second in the SEC with 370 receiving yards and is tied for first with four touchdown catches.

"I remember his freshman year when he came in, we knew he was going to be a great player because he was out there making unbelievable catches just like Jarvis [Landry] and Odell [Beckham]," senior running back Kenny Hilliard said. "He got hurt from there. But now he just has this little firepower that's in him and he's just been great."

Dural put a serious dent in his yards-per-catch average against ULM -- he finished the night with six grabs for 79 yards, lowering his average to only 30.8 yards per reception -- but that didn't seem to bother him much afterward.

"It doesn't matter. We got the win," Dural chuckled. "I'm going to just come out next week and try to make up for it, try to have a better game than this game."

In truth, Dural doesn't need to make up for anything. He played Saturday with the 13 stitches still in his forehead -- he waited until Sunday to have them removed – and still finished as the Tigers' most productive receiver for the third time in three games.

Through three games, Dural leads LSU in receptions (12, six more than John Diarse, the Tigers' next most-productive wideout), receiving yards (370, 254 more than Diarse) and touchdown catches (four, three more than Diarse and Malachi Dupre). LSU quarterbacks have targeted Dural with 21 passes, more than twice as many as the next receiver.

Perhaps instead of Dural making up for only getting 79 yards in a game, his fellow receivers need to get on his level, helping LSU's passing game become something other than the Dural-or-bust show that it has mostly been to date.

But just as the third-year sophomore is one of the leaders in the Tigers' receivers meeting room -- partially a product of his personality and partially because of his status as by far the most experienced player in the room -- he has also become their most reliable pass-catcher.

"He's the highest on the totem pole, and sometimes I go to him because in the room, he's the only person that really played last year," Diarse said. "We look up to Travin. He has the most game experience, he knows what the defense looks like, he knows what the corners look like, so we go to him."

He's also one of the most explosive players on the LSU offense. An ACL injury can be particularly scary for a player who relies on speed the way that Dural, a state champion sprinter in high school, does at receiver. But through hard work during the grueling rehab process, Dural is once again a dangerous deep-ball threat -- as he proved last season while catching the game-winning touchdown in the closing moments against Arkansas, or when he blazed past the Wisconsin and SHSU secondaries this season for long-scoring catches.

As Dural mentioned, he certainly understands how playing sports is a volatile activity where a freak occurrence can take it away at any moment. But he has made plenty out of his opportunities so far in 2013, once Landry and Beckham's early exits for the NFL gave him the chance to become LSU's No. 1 wideout.

"I know he's not one of those guys who gets complacent," Diarse said after practice last week. "He was out here pushing me today at practice: 'Hey man, you've got to make that catch' or 'You've got to get out of that break faster.' Because we all need each other, and I'm happy to see him finally achieve what he's been working for."

Whittingham, Hoke reunite in Ann Arbor

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
10:00
AM ET
During his two-year stint as San Diego State's football coach, Brady Hoke would often make not-so-subtle overtures about his desire to be the head coach at Michigan. On more than one occasion, Hoke said he envisioned his career arc ending in Ann Arbor, where he'd spent eight seasons as an assistant before head coaching stops at Ball State and SDSU. And he made no secret to his employers that if the maize and blue ever called, he'd be gone.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke has been unable to build upon an impressive first year at his dream job.
Following the 2010 season, Michigan called. Hoke answered with vigor.

Around that time, Kyle Whittingham and the Utah Utes were wrapping up their final season as a Mountain West team. Utah, just two years removed from a 13-0 season and No. 2 BCS ranking, was regarded as one of the top non-AQ teams in the country and was headed to the newly-branded Pac-12.

Since leaving their old league in their wake, things haven't exactly gone according to script for these former A-list Mountain West coaches. And when their teams meet Saturday at The Big House, it's possible the outcome could alter the trajectories of their respective careers.

Hoke enjoyed an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory in his first year with the Wolverines but has seen declining returns after an 8-5 record in 2012 and a 7-6 mark last year. He sits on one of the hottest coaching seats in America.

Meanwhile, Whittingham and the Utes have struggled to adapt to Pac-12 football. The Utes are just 9-18 in conference play since joining the league (a vicious strain of yearly quarterback injuries doesn't go unnoticed) and have failed to reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Whittingham's seat isn't as hot as Hoke's, but if the Utes fail to make the postseason for a third straight year, it will be.

"No coach I know of pays any attention to external chatter," Whittingham said. "We're so focused on what we're doing. That's how you have to be. That's how you have to operate. You can't be distracted."

A victory Saturday puts the Utes at 3-0 heading into conference play and gives them a quality road win over a nationally-relevant opponent. A loss sends a signal that the Utes still aren't ready for Power 5 football.

A Michigan win won't make or break Hoke's career. But a loss could re-ignite an already agitated fan base still smarting from a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame in Week 2.

"They all count as one win," Whittingham said. "If the Michigan game counted as two wins, it would be a lot more important. It's not a conference game, so it obviously doesn't impact what happens in our league. But every game is critical and we're not going to approach this one any differently."

Exactly what you'd expect Whittingham to say. However, after beating up on FCS teams, BYU and Mountain West teams the last three years in nonconference play, this is Utah's biggest non-league test since joining the Pac-12. And it's outside the state of Utah, where the Utes have only won once in the last two seasons.

There really isn't a common denominator for why both coaches have struggled in their new surroundings. Hoke went to an already established Power 5 team, rich in success and tradition. Whittingham was shepherding an entire program into a significantly tougher conference.

Still, Hoke inherited a Rich Rodriguez team that was built for the spread and an odd-front defense. His first three years have been spent trying to install a pro-style attack and an even-front defense.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesKyle Whittingham's Utes have struggled adjusting to life in the Pac-12
"When you're changing from a philosophic/schematic standpoint to a four-down front, recruiting those guys you want to play in there, you have to recruit the genetics," Hoke said. "Recruiting is always going to be part of it. The overall philosophy you have as a coach, how you want to develop your program, that's all part of it."

Both coaches concede the obvious -- that the weekly grind in the Power 5 is significantly harder. In the Mountain West, Utah's season usually came down to one big game against TCU. This year they face a four-game stretch of USC, at ASU, Oregon and at Stanford -- four teams currently ranked in the AP top 20.

"Everyone in the Pac-12 has to deal with that, so it's not unique to us," Whittingham said. "It's a big difference from what we experienced at the non-Power 5 level ... The recruiting is better. It's all about players. Coaches are way overrated. It's all about players and personnel. The personnel in the Pac-12 is markedly better than the personnel in the Mountain West across the board."

In their two Mountain West meetings, Whittingham's Utes beat Hoke's Aztecs both times. But given the coaching and personnel changes, those game films are moot. And while Whittingham is trying to bring his team to the next level, Hoke is scrambling to hold on to the position he called his "dream job" a year before he even had it.

"You have to be comfortable with who you are and who you are representing and I think we've got great leadership on this team," Hoke said of the outside noise calling for his ouster. "... We understand how we need to compete every Saturday and go about our business."

For both coaches, Saturday might be just as much about staying in business.

Planning for success: Kansas State

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
9:00
AM ET
There are similarities in the ways No. 5 Auburn and No. 20 Kansas State approach moving the ball on offense. But good luck replicating that in practice.

Both programs have taken option ball to new heights in recent years. That doesn't mean K-State coach Bill Snyder is feeling any more comfortable this week as his Wildcats prepare to host last season's BCS championship runner-up on Thursday night.

What's the biggest difficulty Kansas State will face against Auburn's offense this week? Good question.

“Take your pick. It’s like throwing at a dartboard,” Snyder said on the Big 12 teleconference Monday. “Probably being in the right place at the right time, being assignment-sound, execution of what you do defensively and having a reaction time to compensate for the quickness they have."

Considering what the Tigers have achieved offensively through two games, it'll take more that just precise execution. This is one of the nation's most efficient offense: Auburn is No. 1 in FBS in third-down conversions (67.9 percent), No. 1 in the SEC in red-zone efficiency (90.9 percent) and is picking up first downs or touchdowns on nearly 40 percent of its rushes.

Playing in the Big 12, K-State does see bits and pieces of the schemes that Auburn rode to a 14-2 record since coach Gus Malzahn took over. This is a copycat sport, and offenses around the country are beginning to embrace the pop pass and some of the wrinkles that the Nick Marshall-led Tigers mastered last fall.

"Everybody in the country has moved into some things Auburn does," Snyder said. "They have a lot more offense than what people might indicate. I mean, they do a lot of different things a lot of different ways, and it’s not just the zone read.

"Zone read is the major part, is starts there, and they make you have to play that first, and then you put yourself in position where you might weaken yourself against other things. It’s not the entirety of it, the entire playbook you don't see it a great deal in the conference, but pieces of it, you see every week."

Though Kansas State will have a total of 11 days to prepare for Auburn, what makes this matchup tougher in practice is the fact no program has scout-teamers who can, as Snyder put it, replicate what the Tigers bring from a speed, quickness, strength and size standpoint.

What stands out to Snyder about this deadly offense isn't just the production, but the "tremendous personnel."

"I think [Cameron] Artis-Payne has really stepped up and proven they're not going to take a step back at the running back position," Snyder said. "Marshall, as good as he was last year, he's gotten invested in his improvement, and he's [an] extremely talented young guy who is, I'm sure, more relaxed in the system because he's been around it a little longer. They have good size and range at the wide receiver position and guys who can go up and make the difficult catches. Big, physical offensive line. Take your pick."

Snyder knows the scouting report well by now. He'll have plenty of time to come up with solutions for a unit that is averaging 7.61 yards per play (seventh-best in FBS) and has allowed just one sack. And, surely, he knows what a win would mean for his perpetually under-the-radar program.

Well, he probably does. But he doesn't have time to get into that right now.

"Ask me Thursday night, and I can tell you," Snyder said. "If you're successful, it's a great thing. If you're not, it's not all it's cracked up to be."
Alex CollinsMichael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAlex Collins has amassed 411 yards on 50 carries and five touchdowns in three games this season.
Before the start of spring practice in late May, Bret Bielema noticed a change in his program. It was Year 2 for him at Arkansas, and the dark days of Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith were fading into the distance. Bielema saw fewer heads down, better communication and a renewed sense of focus. He saw more physical, tough players, which was the goal all along.

Bielema couldn't turn around Arkansas in an instant. His brand of football -- smash-mouth, old school football, that is -- requires time and patience. The losing got old last season, of course, but there was some solace outside the final score. The games were close. On average, Arkansas entered the fourth quarter of games against Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M down by less than a touchdown.

But the divide between building and breaking through is cavernous. Looking at his players through spring and fall camp, Bielema saw the gap closing.

On Saturday at Texas Tech, Arkansas broke through, snapping a losing streak against Power 5 teams that dated back to 2012. And not only did the Razorbacks win big, they won their way, abusing the Red Raiders with a power running game that produced 438 yards and seven touchdowns. "Normal American football," as Bielema so famously described it, won the day.

"When I left Wisconsin we had been winning a long time," Bielema told ESPN on Sunday evening. "It was very hard to see our guys here do anything but that.

"When you haven't tasted success, when you haven't felt those things, it's tough to get it going. But I think we're stepping in the right direction now."

Bielema admitted that there were times last season where, "I don't know if we took the field with 100 percent conviction of expecting success." There was a belief that things would get better, but not much evidence to back it up. Against Texas Tech, there finally was.

Jonathan Williams rushed for 145 yards and four touchdowns. Alex Collins, a star recruit in Bielema's first signing class, carried the ball 27 times for 212 yards and two touchdowns. Their skepticism about sharing carries turned into a full-fledged belief that there is "strength in numbers," Bielema said.

With fullbacks Patrick Arinze and Kody Walker leading the way behind a well-built offensive line, the physical running game Bielema promised finally delivered.

In a day and age of spread offenses, it was a win in the column of the committed.

"The game has evolved so much while we have stayed consistent," Bielema said. "We have remained very, very firm in our beliefs and my philosophy of recruiting a certain player to play in this offense.

"Those programs that don't recruit fullbacks and tight ends and linemen the way we do, it makes us really get a niche on those players. We really truly can go coast to coast and recruit the best linemen in the country. We did it when I was at Wisconsin and we're doing it now."

Arkansas may not play with pace, but it uses plenty of force, and it's a wake-up call to the increasing number of teams that value speed over power.

"Programs just don't have anyone on their roster to emulate a 250-pound fullback," Bielema said. "They don't have a 280-pound tight end. They don't have a roster of 330-pound linemen to simulate that."

Texas Tech learned the hard way.

But how will that translate for Arkansas moving forward?

"In SEC play we have to be a lot more balanced and there might be games where we have to throw it more than we run it," Bielema said. "It's just with that game on the road against that type of offense I thought we had to monopolize the clock and take the wind out of them."

Brandon Allen, Arkansas' second-year starting quarterback, will have to become more involved. He was efficient against Texas Tech, completing 6 of 12 passes for 61 yards, but not inspiring.

"Our numbers aren't huge in volume, but they've been very, very productive numbers," Bielema said. "They've done what we've asked them to do. ... It's been the perfect storm to keep our passing game quiet, and we all feel it's one of the best kept secrets in the SEC right now."

A win at Texas Tech isn't the end of the turn around at Arkansas. It's probably just the beginning. But in terms of perception and recruiting, it was a huge step in the right direction.

With five coaches recruiting Texas -- "We talk all the time about Tex Hogs," Bielema said -- the Lone Star State might be ripe for the picking. Maybe there Arkansas can continue to grow.

"To get a win on Saturday on the national stage, that said a lot for our program," Bielema said. "It does a lot for our recruiting, it does a lot for our players' confidence and, more than anything else, it gives the Hog nation something to smile about.

"There have been some dark days the last couple of years. If they even just began to see what we're doing on the field, it's very positive."

On The Trail Live (noon ET)

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
8:30
AM ET
RecruitingNation's panel of experts will break down the big news from the weekend's big recruiting visits and this week's big recruiting news. Watch On The Trail Live at noon ET.

Watch: Player plays dead during fake punt

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
11:55
PM ET
Just when you think you've seen it all on a football field, something like this comes along.

On a Saturday full of wild action, the Arkansas State-Miami game slipped off the radar. That's too bad, because the world deserved to watch live as the Red Wolves -- who already gave us plenty of laughs this season with their unintentional tribute to a beloved movie dad -- attempted one of the most hilarious fake punt attempts we've ever seen.

The play went horribly awry (the punter was intercepted), but not without a valiant effort by ASU's Booker Mays, who played dead in an apparent attempt to distract the Hurricanes. Despite his best acting, that didn't work either -- and he paid for it once he rose to his feet. Trust us, you'll want to see this:

video

Early Offer: Could LSU lose RB pledge? 

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
11:00
PM ET
video

Should LSU fans be worried that Tigers running back commit Nick Brossette plans to take official visits to other schools, and South Carolina's defense is about to get even better thanks to JUCO linebacker Davon Durant?

OU forged new defense from WVU debacle

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
5:00
PM ET
Oklahoma SoonersJ.P. Wilson/Icon SportswireThe Oklahoma Sooners return to Morgantown with an improved defense.

NORMAN, Okla. -- The Sooners' maiden trip to Morgantown two years ago resulted in the lowest point in the history of the Oklahoma defense.

The Sooners somehow prevailed in a 50-49 shootout. But West Virginia running back Tavon Austin turned the defensive culture that Jerry Tubbs and Lee Roy Selmon and Brian Bosworth built over six decades into a punch line.

The Sooners looked slow chasing around Austin, who set a Big 12 record with 572 all-purpose yards, including 344 rushing.

The Sooners looked discombobulated, with each defensive bust leading to another play bigger than the one before it.

And, perhaps most troubling at the time, Oklahoma looked as if it had no defensive identity, an unforgivable transgression for a program with so much tradition on defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was so disgusted despite the win that he declined to glance at the box score sheet after it was handed to him during a postgame interview.

But as they prepare for a return to Morgantown this week, the Sooners are none of the things they were two years ago.

They are fast. They are focused. In Stoops' new 3-4 scheme -- whose impetus traces back to the West Virginia debacle -- Oklahoma has fashioned a new identity centered on its ability to harass opposing quarterbacks with defenders from many angles.

"Both Bob and Mike Stoops have done a great job revamping [the defense]," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Monday. "They're everywhere right now."

Just ask Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, who was sacked five times Saturday while facing the most recent Oklahoma onslaught.

"We're totally different, in every aspect," said a succinct Bob Stoops, when asked Monday for the contrast between this defense and the 2012 one. "Simplest way I can put it."

This West Virginia offense, however, isn't all that different from the one that torched the Sooners for 778 total yards -- the most an Oklahoma defense had ever surrendered since the school began recording statistics.

The Mountaineers no longer possess a versatile talent like Austin, who probably still haunts Mike Stoops' nightmares. But West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett is second in the nation in passing QBR and trails only Ole Miss' Bo Wallace by a tenth of a point for the nation's top completion percentage. Trickett also has two of the most lethal wideouts in the Big 12 at his disposal in Mario Alford and Kevin White, who is second in the country with 460 receiving yards.

"We're going to have to play a lot better than the last time we went there," Mike Stoops said. "That was a bad night for all of us. Bad game plan, bad execution, bad everything."

Plenty of good, however, came out of so much bad for the Sooners.

The defensive collapse in Morgantown spearheaded the biggest coaching shakeup of the Stoops era, which included the aggressive pursuit and hire of Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. Since, Montgomery has whipped Oklahoma's front into one of the most disruptive and deepest in the country. Under Montgomery, end Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips have developed into All-Big 12-caliber performers. And outside linebacker Eric Striker has emerged into arguably the most ferocious pass-rusher at his position in the country -- even drawing comparisons in "destructiveness" from Bob Stoops on Monday to former Oklahoma 2001 All-American Roy Williams.

But the front isn't where the reconstruction effort stopped.

The Sooners have also assembled a sure-tackling, ball-hawking defensive backfield, which has matched the swagger of the Oklahoma defensive line. Saturday in the first quarter, Quentin Hayes blindsided Worley off a safety blitz to force and recover a fumble. Cornerbacks Zack Sanchez, who how has an interception in five of his last six games, and Julian Wilson both picked off Worley in the end zone. Wilson returned his interception 100 yards for an exclamation point touchdown.

“The secondary is playing great right now,” said Wilson, who had to play middle linebacker at the West Virginia game two seasons ago because they had no better option. "But we still have room to improve."

That's a scary thought. Since last bowl season the Sooners have now produced the third-most sacks and third-most interceptions in college football. And that combination of an overwhelming front and an opportunistic secondary has given this Oklahoma defense the potential to become one of the school's all-time.

"They've got their guys, defensively, playing as good as they have," Holgorsen said, "since I've watched tape on them going back to the 2000 season."

Holgorsen has his guys playing well, too. And a game that appeared to be a cakewalk for the Sooners in the preseason now looks to be one of the toughest games on their schedule.

Just like its last visit to Morgantown, the Oklahoma defense will be severely tested. But this time -- thanks to the foundation forged out of that West Virginia trip two years ago -- the Sooners will be equipped for it.
Notre Dame completed its sixth Shamrock Series this past weekend. This year's stop for the Irish's home-away-from-home game series was Indianapolis.

There were several academic functions held in the area. There was the game morning Mass, at Saint John the Evangelist. There were three community service projects, including a restoration of a high school.

And, of course, there was a football game at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Irish beat Purdue 30-14 to improve to 3-0.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCoach Brian Kelly has led Notre Dame to a 3-0 start despite being without three starters and two other lineup regulars.
They did this without four players who have been suspended from games and practices for a full month, since news of an internal academic investigation became public Aug. 15. (A fifth player was suspended 13 days later.) The investigation was launched by the Office of the General Counsel on July 29, when the compliance office was given evidence. Coach Brian Kelly said Aug. 28 that the investigation was complete. He said Sunday that, as of this past Friday, the five players had not yet had honesty committee hearings to voice their responses to whatever the findings were.

Kelly has said he does not know much. Anyone with a Twitter account can tell that those being investigated are also in the dark. They are far from alone.

This is fine and all, assuming business is being taken care of in a proper, timely manner behind the scenes. And there is no reason to think that it is not. But as the Irish enter their bye week with little clarity regarding if or when they will get any of those suspended players back — and as those players continue to attend classes with their fate at the school still hanging in the balance — it begs the question of how long is too long when it comes to dealing with this matter. At what point do these kids, however innocent or guilty they may be, deserve an answer that could have major implications for their academic and athletic futures?

There is no set public blueprint for this, to be clear. Yes, Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey, who lost leading scorer Jerian Grant for the spring semester last season because of an academic mishap, said recently that the entire honor-code process with Grant took about three weeks. But these cases are often apples and oranges: Grant's ordeal presumably took place with classes still in session last fall, while Notre Dame fall classes this year did not start until Aug. 26, 11 days after the investigation into the football players became public. Grant's case was also not as widespread as with the football players.

To Kelly's credit, he has been remarkably diplomatic publicly, going through the season's first three games without three starters and two other potential contributors to a football team he is paid handsomely to coach to success, and doing so without complaint.

"This is separation from church and state in the sense," he said Thursday. "This is the deans, and they have their domain and that's their business, and it truly is their business, and I respect that. They don't give me advice about play calling, and that's the truth of the matter. Whether that's a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things, and that's their domain and that's their world, and I want my guys back. But I get it, and they work and that's their job, and so I really don't have any say on it."

Notre Dame is about more than athletics; we know. Athletes and nonathletes will receive the same treatment; we get it. But the idea that this whole ordeal cannot be completed too soon for fear of unequal treatment or misguided priorities is a bit much, especially in light of another successful Shamrock showcase of Notre Dame in a major metropolitan area.

"The Shamrock Series has activated our city," Indiana Sports Corporation spokesman John Dedman told the school's athletic website. "Notre Dame has made this so much more than an athletic event. The university has been involved in service projects in the city, and there have been academic events, and the city has embraced it. It's just been great for Indianapolis."

More than an athletic event, but only possible because of athletics. Those are still pretty important, too. And there's no shame in acknowledging that.

SPONSORED HEADLINES