NCF Nation: 2011-midseason-overview

SEC midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
You can’t mention one without the other.

It’s Alabama and LSU. Then again, maybe it’s LSU and Alabama.

They’ve been the class of the SEC to this point, and for that matter, the class of college football.

Six weeks into the season, the Tigers are ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and Harris Interactive Top 25 polls. The Crimson Tide are right behind them at No. 2 in both polls.

Their dominance has made it a two-team race in the SEC, the only problem with that being they’re both in the Western Division. Only one can play in the SEC championship game, which means chances are that only one would have a shot to play for the national championship and potentially make it six crystal trophies in a row for this league.

Their Nov. 5 matchup in Tuscaloosa has been circled since the preseason, and the anticipation only swells each time one of the two goes out and smothers another opponent.

The Tigers (6-0, 3-0) have already beaten four Top 25 teams, and three of those wins have come away from home. They’ve won each of their first six games by double digits for the first time in school history. The closest anybody has come to LSU is 13 points.

“I like the position we’re in,” LSU coach Les Miles said following last Saturday’s 41-11 rout of Florida.

Alabama’s résumé is equally impressive. The Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0) have also won every game by double digits. The closest anybody has come to them is 16 points, and nobody has scored more than 14 points against them.

The NFL talent on both defenses is jaw-dropping. Of the combined 22 starters on the two defenses, as many as 17 of those players have a legitimate chance to be drafted.

Alabama is ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense, and LSU is ranked No. 5.

Both teams are playing a different game than everybody else right now in the SEC.

Don’t completely count Arkansas out of the mix. The Hogs (5-1, 1-1) are the league’s third-best team and still get a shot at LSU the final weekend of the regular season.

In a lot of conferences around the country, they’d be the team to beat. But in the Western Division, they have two superpowers in front of them.

The Eastern Division race looks about like it did last season, meaning a two-loss team may end up in Atlanta. South Carolina won the East last season with three losses.

Sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw revived a South Carolina offense that had been running on fumes last Saturday with four touchdown passes in a 54-3 destruction of Kentucky.

It looks like it’s his show the rest of the way if he stays healthy after Stephen Garcia bumbled his way to nine interceptions and four touchdowns in his first five games.

Georgia has also come back from the dead after losing two in a row to start the season, and the Bulldogs have the easiest schedule from here on out. They’re coming off a huge win at Tennessee last Saturday and are playing lights out on defense.

Everybody else in the East already has at least two conference losses.

Of course, given the way Alabama and LSU are going right now, winning the East this season may be more of a punishment than a prize.

Stay tuned and be sure to block off the afternoon on Nov. 5.

Offensive MVP: Alabama RB Trent Richardson

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireArkansas running back Trent Richardson is averaging more than 100 yards rushing this season.
He’d patiently waited his turn to be the Crimson Tide’s go-to running back, and now Richardson is putting on the kind of show everybody in and around that program thought he would. The 5-foot-11, 224-pound junior is working on a streak of five straight 100-yard rushing games and leads the SEC with 12 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 729 yards and is averaging 6.3 yards per carry. His 181-yard, two-touchdown performance against Florida and the way he punished defenders was as good as it gets.

Defensive MVP: LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu

Some around the league have joked that Mathieu must have a homing device implanted somewhere in his body that tracks the football. That’s because wherever the ball is, he is. Mathieu, the Tigers’ designated roamer in their nickel package, leads the team with 41 tackles, including five for loss. He’s also tied for the team lead in interceptions with two and leads the SEC with four forced fumbles and is tied for the lead with three fumble recoveries, two of which he’s turned into touchdowns.

Biggest surprise: Georgia

It’s not so much a surprise that Georgia is tied for the Eastern Division lead. But considering where the Bulldogs were to start the season, not a lot of people saw them battling back and getting right back into the race. They’ve won four in a row after those losses to Boise State and South Carolina and have a very manageable schedule the rest of the way. This team has continued to believe, even during the darkest moments back in September. Now the Bulldogs head into the second half of the season with a real chance to make their first SEC championship game appearance since 2005.

Biggest disappointment: Mississippi State

After the way last season ended with the blowout win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl, the expectations surrounding the Mississippi State program entering this season were sky-high. Even coach Dan Mullen said prior to the season that this could be the most important season in the history of the program. To this point, it’s been a huge disappointment. The Bulldogs (3-3, 0-3) are still looking for their first SEC win. They had to go to overtime to beat Louisiana Tech at home and trailed UAB 3-0 at the half last week before coming back and winning 21-3. Injuries on the offensive line have played a big role, but it’s an offense that hasn’t found any continuity.

Best game: South Carolina at Georgia, Sept. 10

How many times do you see a team go on the road and score three non-offensive touchdowns? And how many times do you see a 276-pound defensive lineman (Melvin Ingram) race 68 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt? In one of the wildest games you’re ever going to see, South Carolina found a way to outlast Georgia 45-42 the second week of the season and grab what could be the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bulldogs in the Eastern Division. When it was over, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he’d never won a game like that, but he wasn’t about to give it back, either. “Sometimes it just happens like that,” he said.

Best coach: LSU’s Les Miles

Alabama’s Nick Saban, Auburn’s Gene Chizik and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin were also considerations here. But everything Miles has navigated this LSU team through gives him the nod. There was the bar brawl back in August. He lost quarterback Jordan Jefferson for four games, receiver Russell Shepard for three games and one of his best offensive linemen, Josh Dworaczyk, for the season. Steve Kragthorpe also had to hand over the offensive coordinator duties to Greg Studrawa after announcing in August that he had Parkinson’s disease. Through it all, the Tigers haven’t lost a step and have four wins over Top 25 teams, three of those away from home. The Mad Hatter catches a lot of grief, but the results speak for themselves.

MWC midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
The Mountain West knew 2011 would be a critical season. The league needed some pretty standout performances in this, the final year during the four-year qualification cycle for an automatic bid into the BCS.

[+] EnlargeKellen Moore
Brian Losness/US PresswireKellen Moore and Boise State have been a bright spot for the Mountain West this season.
But so far, Boise State is the only school that has done its part. The Broncos are undefeated and ranked No. 5. TCU, which started the season in the Top 25, is now unranked at 4-2. San Diego State and Air Force, two teams some thought could make some national noise this season, are 3-2. Mountain West teams are 2-8 against teams from AQ conferences so far this season.

New Mexico and UNLV have lost to FCS teams. The Lobos remain one of the worst teams in the nation, and fired coach Mike Locksley after an 0-4 start. They are one of three winless teams remaining.

If you are looking for good defense, you are going to have to look elsewhere. Six of the eight teams in the league rank No. 69 or worse in total defense. That includes four teams -- Air Force, Wyoming, UNLV and New Mexico -- ranked No. 106 or worse.

It appears more likely than ever that the Mountain West will fall short of meeting the three criteria to get an AQ bid for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. That means it would have to appeal to the presidential oversight committee for a waiver to become an AQ conference. Of course, conference realignment has made much of college football uncertain.

Commissioner Craig Thompson has talked to Conference USA about partnering up with football in an attempt to see whether this would help get an AQ bid. Though TCU is leaving the conference, its performance this season does count for the Mountain West. But if it is up to the presidential oversight committee to decide, it could weigh this huge factor: Utah, TCU and BYU are no longer in the league. Those three schools put the Mountain West on the map.

In any case, the Mountain West needs Boise State to keep doing its part as the second half of the season gets underway.

Offensive MVP: Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State. Moore remains in the Heisman discussion one year after getting an invite to New York. Moore has thrown for 1,391 yards with 17 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Nordly Capi, DE, Colorado State. Capi is No. 2 in the nation with eight sacks, and has had a breakout season for the Rams. He also leads the nation with five forced fumbles. He set an NCAA record with four against New Mexico in the season opener.

Biggest surprise: Wyoming. OK, the Cowboys beat two FCS teams, but they already have surpassed their win total from last season at 3-2. True freshman Brett Smith has handled the starting quarterback duties well. The Cowboys are coming off a big loss to Utah State, so we’ll see how they finish up in the second half of the season.

Biggest disappointment: TCU defense. The Horned Frogs are not supposed to rebuild, they are supposed to reload, right? Well, quarterback Casey Pachall has been good in place of Andy Dalton. It’s the defense that has let the team down in two losses this season. That’s not expected of a team that has come to be known for its defense. But the Horned Frogs made huge strides in a win against San Diego State last week, a good sign moving forward.

Best game: Boise State 35, Georgia 21. The Broncos picked up their first win against an SEC team. It was a much needed one, not only to keep BCS hopes alive, but to continue to stay in the national conversation. Moore went 28-of-34 for 261 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, and the defense piled up six sacks.

Best coach: Chris Petersen, Boise State. The Broncos came into the season with high expectations once again, and they have been able to manage those and some off-field distractions, as three players have been forced to sit out because they violated NCAA rules. But they haven’t started conference play yet. That begins this week, so Boise State still has much to do to get back to a BCS game.

Big East midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
Unfortunately for the Big East, conference realignment has overshadowed anything that has happened on the field this season. The surprise departures of Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC hit the league hard last month. Then last week, TCU received an invitation to join the Big 12, leaving the Big East with just six football-playing members moving forward.

While the league wants to aggressively pursue new members, it must be absolutely sure all the remaining members are on board for the future. Until then, the fate of the league remains uncertain, and threatens to overshadow yet another football season.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Tyler EvertGeno Smith has led West Virginia's top-ranked offense to a 5-1 record and a No. 13 ranking.
On the field, West Virginia has lived up to preseason expectations so far, jumping to a 5-1 record and a No. 13 ranking behind an offense that has been as prolific as the others coach Dana Holgorsen has directed. West Virginia ranks No. 4 in the nation in passing, and Geno Smith has passed for 2,159 yards. West Virginia is the only team in the country with two receivers ranked in the top 23 in total receiving yards (Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin). Both are on pace for 1,000-yard seasons.

Pitt, also featuring a new head coach, has flopped to a 3-3 mark. Coach Todd Graham came in promising a hurry-up spread offense, but Tino Sunseri has been inconsistent in running the show and the offensive line has been bad, too. Sunseri has five touchdown passes to seven interceptions, and the line has given up a whopping 27 sacks.

If anything, Rutgers and Cincinnati have delivered the biggest surprises so far thanks to a terrific defense and a superior turnover margin. The Scarlet Knights were picked to finish No. 8 in the preseason poll, but they are atop the league standings at 2-0.

UConn and Louisville, two bowl teams a season ago, also have struggled without veteran quarterbacks to lead the way. Syracuse has made things plenty hard on itself this season, playing three overtime games and winning its four games by an average of five points. USF had a big win over Notre Dame to start the season, but a disappointing 44-17 loss to Pitt the last time it played.

That is how things stand at the midway point of the season. But if the Big East has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected during league play.

Offensive MVP: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith is the slam-dunk choice at the midway point of the season, having thrown for 2,159 yards, with 16 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. Smith has thrown for more than 400 yards twice this season and he also has two four-touchdown games. West Virginia may be relying on him a little too heavily because its run game has been inconsistent, but when you have somebody like him throwing the football, it is hard to hold back.

Defensive MVP: J.K. Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati. Nobody has separated himself just yet, but Schaffer has been as good as any defender in the league. He has 35 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended, and has been heavily relied upon both against the run and the pass. He is a big reason Cincinnati now ranks in the top half of the league in total defense, instead of the bottom half.

Biggest surprise: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were pegged to finish last in the Big East, but lo and behold they are 2-0 in league play for just the second time in 21 seasons. Two more wins and they become bowl eligible.

Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh. For all the promises coach Todd Graham made about turning Pitt into a high-octane offense, the Panthers have been a dud. The offense ranks No. 70 in the nation in scoring, averaging 27 points a game, and is coming off a season-low 10 points against Rutgers.

Best game: USF 23, No. 16 Notre Dame 20. The Bulls opened the season with the surprising win, the only one the Big East owns against a team that was ranked at the time they played. USF survived two long weather delays, and used an opportunistic defense that helped create five turnovers to get coach Skip Holtz a win in his return to his alma mater.

Best coach: Greg Schiano, Rutgers. Dana Holgorsen and Butch Jones deserve mention, but I am going with Schiano for a few reasons. First, fans were disenchanted with him before the season started, wondering whether he should be on the hot seat after a 4-8 season. Second, he is now calling the plays on defense, and the defense is the big reason the Scarlet Knights are in the midst of a turnaround season.

Big Ten midseason review

October, 10, 2011
The doubts remain. The criticism hasn't been curbed.

Halfway through the 2011 season, the Big Ten has done little to improve its position in college football's hierarchy. There are worse leagues -- hello, ACC and Pac-12 -- but after the New Year's Day debacle and with its national title drought approaching a decade, the Big Ten needed a strong start to boost its national image. It didn't happen.

While Wisconsin has done its part and both Michigan and Illinois have been nice surprises, the overall league landscape looks rather bleak six weeks into the season.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
John Gress/Getty ImagesRussell Wilson has elevated Wisconsin to a 5-0 record at the midseason point.
Many expected Ohio State to backslide after a nightmarish offseason that saw the departures of coach Jim Tressel and starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor. But few envisioned the Buckeyes to be sitting at 3-3, 0-2 in Big Ten play, with a tough second-half schedule ahead and quarterback questions to sort out. The program that has won or shared the past six Big Ten championships needs a major surge to join the title race -- and could be in danger of missing the postseason altogether.

New Big Ten member Nebraska hasn't made the big splash many envisioned before the season. After some shaky moments in non-league play, the Huskers got clobbered by Wisconsin in their Big Ten debut. Big Red might have saved its season with a historic comeback Saturday against a Braxton Miller-less Ohio State team, but there's a lot to fix going forward, namely a defense that has underachieved.

Minnesota and Indiana own two combined wins and several unsightly nonconference defeats (North Texas, New Mexico State). Big Ten teams also have lost games to the likes of Rice and Army. The league went 1-2 against Notre Dame (both losses were blowouts) and looked thoroughly overmatched in its lone matchup against the dreaded SEC (Alabama beat Penn State 27-11 in State College). Teams like Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue have disappointed to varying degrees.

Now here's the good news. Wisconsin looks like the real deal, as star quarterback Russell Wilson has put the fourth-ranked Badgers into the national title discussion and himself into the Heisman Trophy mix. Brady Hoke and his staff have revitalized Michigan, which is making tangible strides on defense and performing better during the course of games. Illinois is finally building consistency and will reach consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1991-92 -- and most likely a very good bowl this year.

Michigan State boasts the nation's top-ranked defense, while Penn State's defense has been the league's most heroic unit, overcoming key personnel losses and its own offensive woes to win five of the first six contests.

The Big Ten features several dynamic offensive tandems -- Wisconsin's Wilson and RB Montee Ball, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase and WR A.J. Jenkins -- as well as one of the nation's most exciting players in Michigan QB Denard Robinson. Several surprise defensive stars have emerged such as Penn State DT Devon Still and Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus.

The best news for the Big Ten is that plenty of time remains. Several teams likely will play much better in December than they do right now. Leagues are defined in the postseason -- the Big Ten knows this better than most -- and it's still quite possible the league will send a stronger group of teams to the bowls than it did last year.

It's halftime of the 2011 season, and the Big Ten needs to regroup and recharge. There's a lot of football left to play.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. The NC State transfer has been all the Badgers could have hoped for -- and much, much more. He had a simply sensational first five games, completing 74.8 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and only one interception. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards and leads the nation in efficiency. Michigan's Denard Robinson is a close second, as he tops all Big Ten players in both rushing and total yardage. But Wilson gets the nod because of Robinson's nine interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Few people talked about Mercilus in the preseason, but he has been a beast off the edge for the Illini in the first six games. Mercilus leads the Big Ten in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (four) for Vic Koenning's aggressive defense. Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still deserves mention, too, as the league's most dominant interior lineman so far.

Biggest Surprise: The undefeated starts for Illinois and Michigan. We thought both the Illini and Wolverines could get off to good starts because of their schedules, which allowed them to play their first five games at home. Still, both are 6-0 and ranked in the top 16, which qualifies as a surprise. The Illini are off to their best start in more than 50 years, while Michigan has greatly improved on defense.

Biggest Disappointment: Ohio State. It's no surprise that the Buckeyes have had some struggles after a tumultuous offseason and the suspension of several key players. But hardly anyone predicted this much struggle. The offense was impotent in losses to Miami and Michigan State, and a program that hadn't lost more than one Big Ten conference game since 2004 is already 0-2 in league play. With games against Illinois and Wisconsin remaining this month, Ohio State is in danger of going 0-for-October. Other disappointments include Nebraska's defense, Northwestern and Iowa.

Best Game: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 on Sept. 10. This game featured three scores in the final 72 seconds and a 17-point comeback by the Wolverines in the fourth quarter. Michigan looked beat after the Irish scored with 30 seconds left but managed to drive the field for the game-winning touchdown with two seconds to go. Add in the electric atmosphere for the first night game in Michigan Stadium history, and there wasn't a better game in college football during the first half of the season.

Best Coach: Brady Hoke, Michigan. Hoke is a candidate for national coach of the year honors after leading the Wolverines to a 6-0 start and engineering a defensive renaissance. Of course, Rich Rodriguez had some strong starts, too, so Hoke still must prove he can keep it up in the second half. Illinois' Ron Zook and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema are right in this conversation as well.

ACC midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
This was supposed to be Florida State’s year.

The Seminoles were picked by the media to win this year’s ACC title and many were giving the Noles a legitimate chance as a darkhorse contender for the national title.

As it turns out, the only title Florida State has earned in the first half of the season is the ACC’s most disappointing team.

No matter.

Florida State is out, and Clemson and Georgia Tech are in. It happened faster than Maryland changed uniforms in the season opener against Miami. The ACC enters the second half of the season with two undefeated teams, a surprise winner in Wake Forest, and marquee wins over Auburn and Ohio State. Rarely, if ever, does the ACC follow the script, and the first half of the 2011 season has been no exception. Florida State and Miami are on the brink of irrelevance in the ACC race, Wake Forest is 3-0 in ACC play for the first time in school history, and Clemson and Georgia Tech – two programs that had losing seasons a year ago -- are now the teams to beat.

And that’s just the ACC stirring things up on the field.

On Sept. 18, following the biggest nonconference weekend the ACC has ever seen, the league announced the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh as the ACC became the first BCS conference to expand to 14 teams. It happened quickly, quietly, and stabilized the ACC in one of the most uncertain times ever in college football. The news came on the heels of a weekend in which the ACC hosted four ranked teams for the first time in conference history and came out with a respectable 2-2 record. The weekend was no doubt a highlight for the conference in the first half of the season, as it took a step back the following week with four unexpected losses, none worse than Maryland’s 38-7 home loss to Temple.

Maryland coach Randy Edsall and Miami coach Al Golden have both struggled in their first seasons, but they’re hardly alone. Wake Forest and Clemson are the only two teams in the Atlantic Division with winning records. The Coastal Division has proven more competitive, with Virginia Tech and North Carolina both hovering over Georgia Tech, waiting for the Jackets to trip up. UNC first-year coach Everett Withers is on pace to win more games than his predecessor ever did, and is building his résumé to be the Tar Heels’ next coach.

The divisions, though, are Georgia Tech’s and Clemson’s to lose.

Clemson’s success, which included wins over three straight ranked opponents, has given the ACC’s image a boost. The Tigers -- so long as quarterback Tajh Boyd recovers from a hip injury he suffered against Boston College -- are a legitimate top 10 team with a win over the defending national champs. The hire of offensive coordinator Chad Morris has proven to be one of the best in the conference. Georgia Tech has far exceeded expectations, as it was only months ago that there was some uncertainty surrounding quarterback Tevin Washington’s grasp on the starting job.

Florida State, meanwhile, has been troubled by a rash of injuries to key players, including starting quarterback EJ Manuel, poor play on the offensive line, a lack of discipline and three straight losses.

It was supposed to be FSU’s year, but the conference has heard that story before. Once again, ACC fans can expect a different ending.

[+] EnlargeBoyd
AP Photo/Richard ShiroQuarterback Tajh Boyd has led the Clemson Tigers to a 6-0 start to the season.
Offensive MVP: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. He started his career with six consecutive wins, tied with Mike Eppley for the most consecutive wins to start a career as a Clemson quarterback. Before he was injured against Boston College, Boyd had 320 yards of total offense. He has had three 300-yard total offense games this year and six straight games of at least 200 yards passing.

Defensive MVP: Clemson defensive end Andre Branch. He is tied for 15th in the country in tackles for loss (1.58 per game and 9.5 overall), and he is tied for seventh in the country in sacks with six. He is second on the team with 39 tackles, which is unusual for a defensive lineman. He also has one pass breakup, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.

Biggest surprise: Wake Forest. The Deacs are 3-0 in the ACC for the first time in school history. It’s the program’s best start since 2006, and the team is 4-1 for the first time since 2008. Not a bad start for a team that was 3-9 last year.

Biggest disappointment: Florida State. No national title. Likely no Atlantic Division title. No wins over BCS-caliber opponents. A roster decimated by injuries, including a shoulder injury to starting quarterback EJ Manuel. Not much has gone right for the Noles in the first half of the season.

Best game: Virginia Tech 38, Miami 35: In a game that featured two teams trying desperately to avoid an 0-2 start to conference play, both teams played like their season was on the line. Quarterback Jacory Harris and Logan Thomas, both who have been criticized for their uneven performances, were spectacular. The game featured two of the ACC’s best running backs in David Wilson and Lamar Miller. It was a wild, entertaining finish that came down to Thomas’ 19-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-one with 56 seconds remaining.

Best coach: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. You could easily make a case here for Paul Johnson or Jim Grobe, but what the Tigers have done in the past four weeks is both remarkable and out of character. Not only did they become the first ACC team to defeat three straight opponents ranked in both polls, but they have also shown a consistency that has been lacking. Clemson is 6-0 for just the ninth time in school history, and 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 2000. It’s also the earliest the Tigers have been bowl eligible since 2000. And they’ve done it with a new offense, a new quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator.

Big 12 midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
A look back at the first half of the season.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Rod AydelotteBaylor quarterback Robert Griffin III is the offensive star of the Big 12 through six weeks.
Offensive MVP: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor: Griffin's team isn't one of the Big 12's three undefeated squads, but RG3 made a big debut in the Big 12's first game, a Friday night showcase against then-No. 14 TCU. That thrust Griffin into the spotlight, which has been well-deserved. He leads the nation by two with 19 touchdown passes and almost five full percentage points while completing 80.4 percent (115-of-143) of his passes. When he runs for 100 yards like he did Saturday night and people remark he had an "off night," you know he's good.

Defensive MVP: Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State. A year ago, Kansas State had an argument as the slowest defense in the Big 12. Not anymore. Brown, a Miami transfer, is the biggest new piece to coach Bill Snyder's puzzle that none of the five coaches standing across from him this season have been able to figure out. K-State is 5-0, Brown has 38 tackles, two sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and a game-changing interception. Kansas State leads the Big 12 in total defense by almost 25 full yards per game, and are second in the Big 12 in scoring defense, which ranks 15th nationally.

Biggest Surprise: Kansas State. The Wildcats have done it with defense, but quarterback Collin Klein has made his case as the Big 12's toughest player, leading the league in carries and making enough plays to keep the Wildcats undefeated. His running back, John Hubert, is sixth in the Big 12 in rushing, and Kansas State's old-school attack is plodding along in a conference full of spread offenses. "Who even huddles anymore?" Tigers defensive end Jacquies Smith asked the Columbia Missourian last week. "They play like their coach." Yes, yes they do.

Biggest Disappointment: Texas A&M. No question about this one, either. The Aggies are in a class of their own when it comes to early-season disappointment. Big halftime leads against Oklahoma State (17) and Arkansas (18) evaporated into postgame gut punches and a 2-2 start. The Aggies began the season in the top 10 before sliding down to No. 24 last week. Their Big 12 title hopes took a huge hit by losing the tiebreaker to the Cowboys, and a week later, another blown halftime lead reduced A&M to a college football punchline. The defense was supposed to be one of the best in the Big 12, but currently ranks last nationally in pass defense, 99th in total defense and hasn't forced a turnover in 19 quarters.

Best Game: Oklahoma State 30, Texas A&M 29. Brandon Weeden had one of the best halves of football of anyone this season, rallying the Cowboys from a 20-3 halftime deficit to a season-defining win that may have lit a two-month fuse for an explosive finale in Stillwater on Dec. 3 against Oklahoma, a rematch of last year's 47-41 game that decided the Big 12 South. Oklahoma State shocked the Kyle Field crowd, and its fans unleashed what may have been the first Big 12 chant in league history.

Best Coach: Bill Snyder, Kansas State. For all the reasons above. Admittedly, this award parallels coach's abilities to prove preseason polls wrong, and the Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the league by the media. They're one of just three undefeated teams remaining. Maybe we were wrong, but I still maintain that in terms of pure talent, Kansas State is no better than sixth in the league. So far this season, the Wildcats are far, far above that mark.

Pac-12 midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
The good news at midseason is the Pac-12 has two top-10 teams -- Stanford and Oregon -- and a couple of other programs that are -- or look like -- Top-25 teams.

The bad news is the conference was pretty rotten during the nonconference schedule, which means the national perception has taken some heavy blows.

While the Pac-12 is 12-10 against all FBS nonconference foes, it went 4-7 against other automatic qualifying conferences. And the only win of note was Arizona State beating Missouri, which is now 2-3. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State all took double-digit whippings.

The biggest blow, however, was Oregon falling in the opener to LSU. No shame in that; LSU is a national-title contender. But the Ducks thought they were, too. And seeing another A-list defense -- particularly one from the SEC -- control the Oregon offense damages the perception of the Ducks and the conference they've won the previous two seasons.

The conference's image of great offenses/great QBs with questionable defenses held true. Six Pac-12 passers rank among the nation's top 25 in passing efficiency, while just one team -- Stanford -- ranks in the top 25 in the nation in both total and scoring defense.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesLaMichael James is averaging 9 yards per carry so far this season.
The QBs and offenses, in general, have been pretty fun to watch, though. Everyone knew about Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley, Arizona's Nick Foles and Oregon's Darron Thomas. But some newbies made big impacts, such as Arizona State's Brock Osweiler and Washington's Keith Price. Washington State lost starter Jeff Tuel in the season opener, but Marshall Lobbestael came off the bench and led the Cougars to three wins, ranking 17th in the nation in passing efficiency while doing so.

It's not just QBs. Running backs -- particularly Oregon's LaMichael James and Washington's Chris Polk -- and receivers -- USC's Robert Woods, Washington State's Marquess Wilson and California's Keenan Allen -- also have stood out.

As for the big picture, there haven't been too many surprises. Oregon and Stanford in the North Division still look like the class of the conference, and they appear to be headed toward a red-letter matchup on Nov. 12 in Palo Alto. Arizona State has surged in the South Division, which looks fairly weak after the Sun Devils and USC, which is ineligible to play in the Pac-12 championship game due to NCAA sanctions.

Some preseason hot seats -- UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Washington State's Paul Wulff -- are still warm. And some we didn't see coming -- Arizona's Mike Stoops -- are heating up.

So the second-half questions will be about what the top and bottom will end up looking like. Will Stanford or Oregon play itself into national-title contention? And might the conference again get two BCS bowl berths? And, at the bottom, which teams will be looking for new head coaches at season's end?

Offensive MVP: Oregon RB LaMichael James

James started slowly in the LSU game, but has been lights out since then. He leads the nation in rushing with 170.4 yards per game , with an eye-popping 8.97 yards per run and eight TDs. He's eclipsed 200 yards in his last three games.

He also, by the way, has caught 11 passes for 159 yards and a TD, leads the nation in all-purpose yards and is tied for second in punt returns.

He dislocated his elbow, however, in the win last Thursday over California, making his second-half prospects questionable.

Defensive MVP: Stanford LB Chase Thomas

Stanford is the only Pac-12 team ranked in the top 25 in the nation in total and scoring defense, and Thomas has been the Cardinal's best defender.

Thomas leads the conference in sacks (five) and ranks second in tackles for a loss (seven) and forced fumbles (three). He also has 20 tackles overall.

Biggest surprise: Washington

Truth be told, there aren't any big surprises in the Pac-12. Most thought the Huskies would be competitive in the North Division, battling for the No. 3 spot behind Oregon and Stanford.

But that perception was based on Polk and what looked like a potentially stout defense. The Huskies are 4-1 because of Price -- his 17 TD passes is tied for second-most in the nation -- Polk and a high-scoring offense and a defense that took three weeks to join the part.

The Huskies haven't started 4-1 since 2006.

Biggest disappointment: Arizona

The Wildcats had big questions in the preseason, most particularly five new starters on the offensive line and a questionable defense. But the feeling was that Foles and an outstanding corps of receivers would be able to outscore a lot of foes.

And, really, Stoops wouldn't ever have a terrible defense, right?

Well, the Wildcats, now 1-5 after losing to previously winless Oregon State, do have a terrible defense, one of the worst in the country, and Foles isn't getting much help on offense.

That bottom line: A 10-game losing streak against FBS opponents and a hot seat for Stoops that few anticipated during the preseason.

Best game: California 36, Colorado 33 (OT)

The nonconference game that was a conference game -- but wasn't -- was a barnburner featuring four lead changes and a lot of passing and just one turnover. It wasn't over until Cal receiver Keenan Allen hauled in a 5-yard touchdown pass in overtime from his half-brother, Zach Maynard. It was Maynard's fourth TD pass.

In a losing effort, Paul Richardson caught 11 passes for a school-record 284 yards and two TDs to help Colorado rally from a 10-point deficit in the second half. Buffs QB Tyler Hansen threw for a team-record 474 yards passing with three TDs.

Colorado forced overtime with a 22-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in regulation after a 16-play, 70-yard drive that took 6:40 off the clock and required three third down conversions.

Best coach: Dennis Erickson, Arizona State

He entered the season on the hot seat. Some said he was mailing it in after a long career. Instead, he's turned in one of the better coaching performances of his career. Erickson has taken a team ravaged by injuries to the top of the Pac-12 South Division and a No. 18 national ranking.

He's helped develop a QB, Osweiler, into a potent passer and charismatic leader, and he's got a defense missing a bevy of inured starters playing better than any other the conference, other than Stanford.