NCF Nation: 092413 quarter pole

Big 12 assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
Before the season began it was clear the Big 12 Conference title race would be wide open. Four weeks into the season, it’s even more clear. Oklahoma State remains the favorite, Baylor has looked dominant, Oklahoma is improving and Texas Tech has been the surprise of the league. Yet, the majority of the league is still in the race.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Zuma Press/Icon SMIBaylor signal-caller Bryce Petty has been the Big 12's best player through Week 4.
Best game: The reality is there hasn’t been a great game involving a Big 12 team thus far, unless you want to count Kansas’ 13-10 win over Louisiana Tech on a last-second field goal. But Texas’ 31-21 win over Kansas State on Sept. 21 was intriguing due to all the distractions surrounding the Longhorns’ program. UT responded with a win to start off conference play in a game that was probably the most entertaining Big 12 game this season.

Best player: Bryce Petty runs away with this one. The Baylor quarterback has been outstanding through three games, completing 50 of 67 passes for 1,001 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. And he has done it while throwing eight combined passes in the second half of three games. Many question the Bears' competition as they have rattled off 209 points in three games. But isn’t that what championship-caliber offenses should do to inferior opponents?

Best performance: J.W. Walsh was a monster for Oklahoma State in the Cowboys’ 56-35 win over Texas-San Antonio on Sept. 7. The sophomore quarterback was 24-of-27 for 326 yards with four touchdowns and added another score on the ground. He was brutally efficient while finishing with a 98.1 Total QBR and earning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors. Nine different receivers caught passes from Walsh against UTSA as OSU showed its passing game wasn’t going anywhere following a run-heavy offensive performance in its win over Mississippi State to start the season. KSU’s Tyler Lockett has a case here with his 13-catch, 237-yard performance against UT, but that outstanding individual effort doesn't lessen the pain of the loss.

Best surprise: Wreck ‘em. There wasn’t much expected from Texas Tech in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first season. The Red Raiders didn’t get the message, saying “Why not us, why not now?” with their 4-0 start to the season, including a win over TCU. True freshman quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb have both played a key role in the Red Raiders’ quick start, but their defense has been the overlooked foundation of their success. It is allowing 4.6 yards per play, ranking third in the Big 12.

Biggest disappointment: Every season we hear about how much Texas has improved. This season was no different. But the Longhorns have been a disappointment yet again with an embarrassing loss at BYU and a home defeat at the hands of Ole Miss. Those two performances are so bad people forget the Longhorns almost opened the season by trailing New Mexico State at halftime before a couple of late first-half touchdowns. Now, even after their impressive win over K-State, a season-ending injury to linebacker Jordan Hicks and lingering concerns about David Ash’s head have put a damper on a terrific Saturday in Austin. Disappointing is a perfect word for UT’s start.

ACC assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
For the past decade, the ACC has shared the regional stage with the SEC, but it has been a clear second-class citizen. In the first month of the 2013 season, however, the conference did its best to shed that reputation and deliver a few blows to its neighbor with the long run of national titles. Clemson knocked off Georgia, Miami upended Florida and along with Florida State, the ACC looks to have at least three teams with sights set on the BCS.

Best game: Clemson's win over Georgia

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Liz Condo/USA TODAY SportsTajh Boyd has lived up to his Heisman candidate hype during the first quarter of the season, leading Clemson to a No. 3 ranking.
No one doubted Clemson's offensive potential before the season, but for the Tigers -- and the ACC -- to establish their national-title credentials, they needed a big win, and Georgia provided the perfect foil on the first Saturday of the season. Tajh Boyd accounted for five touchdowns, Roderick McDowell ran for 132 yards, Sammy Watkins hauled in six catches for 127 yards and the Clemson defense did just enough to secure a 38-35 win that set the stage for the ACC's emergence as a challenger to SEC dominance.

Best player: Boyd

Four weeks into the season, Boyd's numbers have only burnished the preseason Heisman hype. He has racked up six passing touchdowns and three more on the ground, and he has yet to throw an interception. His numbers aren't buffered by a stat-padding game against weak opposition, either. He saw a limited workload against South Carolina State, saving his best for a surprisingly close game against NC State and a season-defining win over Georgia.

Best performance: Jameis Winston's debut

There was plenty of buzz surrounding the Florida State quarterback before he ever took a snap, but Winston still managed to exceed expectations in his first game. Winston completed his first 11 passes, finished 25-of-27 for 356 yards and accounted for five touchdowns in a blowout win over Pittsburgh. He followed that up with two more solid games, but his debut ranks among the best for any quarterback in the past decade.

Best surprise: Maryland's hot start

It's not that the Terrapins didn't have talent, but there were so many question marks to open the season. C.J. Brown returned after missing all of 2012, a bevy of defensive stalwarts were gone and the Terrapins were riding out their final ACC campaign before moving to the Big Ten. Through four games, though, things have worked out beautifully. Brown and Stefon Diggs helped the Maryland offense rack up more than 500 yards in its first three games, the defense pitched a shutout against West Virginia last week, and the Terps will enter their Oct. 5 clash with Florida State undefeated.

Biggest disappointment: Virginia Tech's offense

It wasn't so long ago Logan Thomas was being discussed as a future first-round NFL draft pick. Now, he's among the most criticized quarterbacks in the country. His 42.3 Total QBR ranks 98th nationally, and he has more sacks (5) and interceptions (6) than touchdown passes (4). Virginia Tech's offense ranks 106th nationally in yards per play (4.68), and everyone has contributed. The receivers can't get open, the ground game has been stuck in neutral and the line is doing little to open running lanes.

SEC assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
We’re a quarter of the way into the college football season, and two-time defending national champion Alabama is right where it started -- No. 1 in the polls.

In fact, Alabama is the only one of the five SEC teams that opened the season in the top 10 that hasn’t lost a game. So everybody’s still chasing the Crimson Tide, but it’s a race that could still go any number of ways, especially with some of the offensive numbers being generated. If the first four weeks taught us anything, you better be ready to score some points if you’re going to win a title this season.

Here’s a quick recap:

Best game: Take your pick. There have been some dandies to this point. The very first SEC game between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt on a Thursday night produced a thrilling ending in Nashville with the Rebels pulling out a 39-35 win. Both of Georgia’s first two games were incredibly entertaining, their 38-35 loss at Clemson and then their 41-30 win over South Carolina the next week. But nothing tops Alabama’s wild 49-42 win at Texas A&M in Week 3. The two teams combined for 1,196 total yards and 62 first downs. The Aggies jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but the Crimson Tide answered with 35 unanswered points only to have the Aggies come roaring back with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was so much fun that maybe we’ll see them go at it again in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game if everything falls right. Wouldn’t the rest of college football just love that?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAs good as Johnny Manziel was last season when he won the Heisman Trophy, he's even better this year.
Best player: Even though he caused an uproar with some of his antics and a 15-yard taunting penalty in the opener against Rice, the real news surrounding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is that he’s even better than he was a year ago. All he did a year ago was win the Heisman Trophy and set the SEC record for total offense. Manziel’s arm strength has improved. He’s spreading the ball around, and he’s still carving defenses apart with his ability to make something out of nothing. Manziel is averaging 370.8 yards of total offense per game, completing 70 percent of his passes and has already accounted for 15 touchdowns. Honorable mention goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews and LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Best performance: Once again, Johnny Football takes top honors. Yes, it came in a loss, but he was brilliant in passing for five touchdowns and rolling up 562 yards of total offense (the most ever in an SEC game) in the 49-42 setback to Alabama. The guy Manziel was throwing to that day, sophomore receiver Mike Evans, comes in a close second with his seven catches for 279 yards. And let’s also not forget about how good Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was in that game. He finished 20-of-29 for 334 yards and four touchdowns, completing passes to 10 different players. Sticking with Alabama, Christion Jones returned a kickoff for a touchdown, returned a punt for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass in the season-opening win over Virginia Tech. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray deserves a shout-out for his four-touchdown outing in the win over South Carolina, and the same goes for Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott and his 243 all-purpose yards in the win at Texas. Scott rushed for a career-high 164 yards and a touchdown and also scored on a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Best surprise: It has to be LSU’s passing game and how balanced the Tigers have been offensively through four games. In the offseason, Les Miles talked about the need to throw the ball better, and that’s exactly what the Tigers have done under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron. The days of loading up against LSU's running game and not worrying about the passing game are over. Mettenberger has 10 touchdown passes and only one interception. The receiving duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham has been dynamite with 11 combined touchdowns, and then there’s also Jeremy Hill trucking everything in sight in the running game. This has the makings of Miles’ best and most explosive offense since he has been in Baton Rouge.

Biggest disappointment: Granted, the expectations were through the roof, but South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been a mere mortal in the Gamecocks’ first three games. He has been solid, but hasn’t been that consistent of a disruptive force so many people were anticipating to start his junior season. To be fair, he’s dealing with a foot injury that sounds like it will plague him for the rest of the season, and teams have done their best to run away from him and make him chase. Clowney still has two sacks, and at this point a year ago, he had only three and finished the season with 13. The Heisman Trophy chatter may have quieted, but you can bet that No. 7 won’t stay this quiet on the field all season.

Pac-12 assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
We’re four weeks into the season and the Pac-12 has (mostly) made short work of its nonconference foes. Now the fun starts. League play kicks off conference-wide this week. But before we look forward, the ESPN blogosphere is looking back at some of the best and worst through the first four weeks of each conference.

Best game: In terms of excitement, it’s tough to beat an overtime shootout. And that’s what happened when Oregon State traveled to Utah in Week 3. After building a 27-10 lead early in the third quarter, it looked like the Beavers would cruise. But Travis Wilson would lead the Utes back and they’d eventually grab a 38-37 lead. The teams swapped touchdowns in the closing three minutes to force overtime, where the Sean Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks connection gave the Beavers a 51-48 victory.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBrandin Cooks leads the nation in catches, receiving touchdowns and first-down receptions. Yeah, that's good enough to get our best player vote.
Best player: For as shaky as Oregon State’s defense has been, its offense has been sensational. So we’re going to give the nod to Cooks, who has 10 more receptions than anyone else in FBS football. Through four games he leads the nation in catches (43), receiving touchdowns (7) and first-down receptions (23). Mannion gets honorable mention, since someone has to throw the ball. But Cooks is head-and-shoulders above the rest of nation’s receivers right now. Another honorable mention to Washington’s Bishop Sankey, who has emerged over the last nine or so games as one of the country’s elite running backs.

Best performance: How about the Washington State defense -- that’s right, defense -- for its performance in the 10-7 win at USC. Damante Horton nabs a pair of interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six. Daquawn Brown makes his first career start and has a team-high 11 tackles and two pass breakups. Toni Pole blocks a kick, the front seven gets 7.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. You can say USC’s offensive inefficiency played a role. And you’d be right. But give credit where it’s due. Mike Breske had the boys ready to go and the Cougs came to town and pushed their way to a win.

Best surprise: Though his team has played in only two games so far this season, it’s hard not to feel good about the comeback of Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson -- and really the rebirth of the Buffs under Mike MacIntyre. Richardson has 417 yards in just two games, which puts him eighth in the country. Had Colorado played its game against Fresno State (which was postponed due to flooding), it’s likely we’d see Richardson toward the top with Cooks. As for the Buffs in general, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. They still have a long way to go. But you can definitely see an air of confidence about this team that’s been lacking the last couple of seasons.

Biggest disappointment: Head’s: Oregon State's defense. Tails: USC's offense. Go ahead and flip. Either way, you're right. Both have been disappointing. Anytime a BCS conference team loses to an FCS team, it’s disappointing. Anytime one of the country’s proudest football institutions is averaging 22 points per game through four games, it’s disappointing. Anytime a team -- once ranked in the top 25 (I guess that actually applies to both schools) -- is allowing an average of more than 35 points per game, it’s disappointing. Both teams are 3-1. And probably counting their blessings that (1) USC's defense has been that good and (2) Oregon State's offense has been that good.

Big Ten assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
We've completed four weeks of the college football season, which runs 16 weeks if you count byes, conference championship games and bowls (and if you consider the long bowl season as one "week"). In horse racing parlance, we've completed the first two furlongs of a mile race.

Here's a few assessments of the Big Ten at the quarter pole:

Best game: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30, Sept. 14. There were lots of big plays and both offenses moved the ball up and down the field. It all set up what should have been a fantastic finish that was instead ruined by officiating ineptitude. But that controversial ending means this is the one game from the Big Ten nonconference season that people are still talking about.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin running back Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing yards.
Best player: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. He's no longer just the change-of-pace, jet-sweep option for the Badgers. But he's still a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. Gordon leads the nation in rushing yards with 624 and is averaging a mind-boggling 11.8 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with 20-plus carries per game. Honorable mention to Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes while filling in more than admirably for injured Braxton Miller.

Best performance: Michigan's Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon put on a show in the victory over Notre Dame, the Big Ten's only victory over a ranked team. Gardner threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 82 yards and a score. His favorite target in the passing game was Gallon, who burned the Irish for eight catches, 184 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, their offense -- and ball security skills -- haven't been nearly as good since that night game at the Big House.

Best surprise: Illinois has already matched last year's victory total with a 2-1 record. The Illini's offense is immeasurably better under new coordinator Bill Cubit and a healthy and re-energized Nathan Scheelhaase, as the unit is averaging 37 points and 306 passing yards per game. Illinois blew out Cincinnati at home and hung tough in a loss to Washington at Soldier Field, showing that the Fighting Illini should be much more competitive in this year's Big Ten race. Honorable mention to Iowa, which is 3-1 and starting to erase memories of last year's 4-8 season.

Biggest disappointment: Everyone expected that Nebraska's defense would suffer through some growing pains. But the struggles to contain Wyoming and South Dakota State were even worse than predicted, and the offense sputtered through a collapse at home vs. UCLA. Throw in the Bo Pelini audio recording controversy and the Huskers might be one of the least-happy 3-1 teams in the nation. Dishonorable mention to Purdue, which is 1-3 and has looked bad in every game except a close loss to Notre Dame.