NCF Nation: what we learned 101313

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
Five things we learned in the Pac-12 in Week 7:

1. There is a clear front-runner: Oregon’s 45-24 win over No. 16 Washington was a clear signal to the league and the country that the Ducks are every bit the national-championship contender we thought they were. Now they have the quality road win against a ranked opponent to back it up. Marcus Mariota is the hands-down Heisman favorite after throwing for 366 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 88 yards and a score. He has accounted for 25 touchdowns with zero turnovers. Coupled with Stanford’s loss at Utah, the Ducks are the unquestioned front-runner in the Pac-12. We can’t talk about that game, however, without tossing a bone to Washington running back Bishop Sankey, who added 167 more yards on the ground, giving him five 100-plus-yard games this season

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillAnthony Barr and UCLA whipped Cal to set up a showdown with Stanford next Saturday.
2. Don’t count out the Trojans: UCLA seems like the front-runner in the South after improving to 5-0 with Saturday’s win over Cal. But USC looked invigorated in its win Thursday over Arizona under interim coach Ed Orgeron. The offense produced a season-high 546 yards. Cody Kessler had touchdown passes of 62 and 63 yards (without Marqise Lee!). The Trojans have seven games to go -- two against ranked teams (Stanford, UCLA), two against teams that used to be ranked (Oregon State, Notre Dame), two against the bottom of the conference (Colorado, Cal) and one against a surging Utah team. They are in a hole already with two conference losses -- including a head-to-head with ASU -- but a decent bowl game should still be a realistic goal.

  • Stanford’s strengths appear suspect: Defense and the offensive line were the supposed strengths of Stanford. And Utah tore down whatever mystique either had and exploited/exposed them in their 27-21 win on Saturday. The Utes totaled 410 yards of offense -- which included a 99-yard touchdown drive. Defensively, they sacked quarterback Kevin Hogan twice and pressured him several times more. The explosive passing game that broke out against Washington State two weeks ago has been absent ever since, while Utah made sure no one is going to be comfortable against them the rest of the season. A return to the postseason seems very much in Utah's grasp.
  • Back to the basement: UCLA and Arizona State made short work of the two bottom teams in the conference, Cal and Colorado, respectively. The Buffs seem to have regressed after their 2-0 start and looked anything but competitive in their 54-13 loss to Arizona State, which led 47-6 at halftime. With four turnovers, they looked more like the 2012 Buffs. In Pasadena, the Bears lost their 10th straight game to an FBS team after UCLA won 37-10 behind 410 passing yards and three touchdowns from Brett Hundley. UCLA’s trip to Stanford next week was already super intriguing. Stanford’s loss makes it super-duper intriguing.
  • The Beavs appear to be back: Oregon State continues to rebuild its once-shattered image week by week and yard by Sean Mannion yard. Mannion tossed four more touchdowns and threw for 493 yards as the Beavers exploded for 35 unanswered points at the end of the third and into the fourth quarter. While Oregon has clearly established itself as the North Division front-runner, the second tier looks extremely crowded with Washington, Stanford and Oregon State. For as bad as the season started for the Beavers, coach Mike Riley has kept the ship from coming apart with five straight wins. A sixth win is likely with Cal next week, setting up a very intriguing showdown with Stanford.

Five lessons from the four-pack of games on Saturday in the Big Ten.

1. The honeymoon is officially over for Brady Hoke: Michigan fans generally have been very happy with Hoke as their head coach, and rightfully so. He's a "Michigan man" who took the team to the Sugar Bowl his first season, and though last year's 8-5 season was a disappointment, the schedule made it understandable. What's more, Hoke's recruiting successes had fans very optimistic about the future. But even though this year's team started off 5-0, the lack of progress and development was puzzling. Penn State finally handed the Wolverines their first loss, and Hoke's very conservative play calling at the end of regulation and in overtime was a major reason why. On repeated occasions, Hoke played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime, and it cost Michigan big time. Maize and Blue fans will grumble about the play calling for a long time, just as they did about last year's loss at Ohio State. The sky is not falling in any way shape or form, since the Wolverines are still 5-1 and have loads of talent on the way. But Hoke will need to start delivering on that potential and promise soon.

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AP Photo/Nati HarnikRandy Gregory and Nebraska are proving to be a tough matchup for Big Ten opponents.
2. Michigan State and Nebraska need to be taken seriously: With Michigan faltering and Northwestern getting blasted in Madison, suddenly it looks as if Michigan State and Nebraska are no worse than co-favorites to win the Legends Division. Granted, both teams got exactly what they needed Saturday in facing the Indiana defense (for the Spartans) and Purdue (for Nebraska). Still, it's easy to see that both teams are building confidence in their most troubling areas. Michigan State is getting solid quarterback play at long last thanks to Connor Cook, while the receivers and running backs are rounding into form. Nebraska's defense has put together three solid efforts in a row, and though the competition has been weak, the fundamentals have been noticeably better. And defensive end Randy Gregory is a blossoming star. Both teams should enter November undefeated in conference play. Don't be surprised to see one of them in Indianapolis.

3. Ohio State had a very good off week: The Buckeyes might have been idle Saturday, but it was a productive day for their national championship hopes. We know Ohio State will need lots of help even if it goes undefeated this year. It got some assistance in Week 7. Stanford, ranked one spot behind Ohio State in The Associated Press poll and two spots lower in the coaches' poll, lost to Utah. No. 7 Georgia, a threat to win the SEC, fell to Missouri. No. 12/10 Oklahoma, which was undefeated and might have gotten a bump past the Buckeyes if it won the Big 12, went down against Texas. Clemson's struggles against Boston College might even cost it some votes in the polls. It's true that Michigan's loss might end up hurting Ohio State down the road because of strength of schedule ratings. But no Buckeyes fan is going to complain about seeing the Wolverines lose. Urban Meyer's team will still need some help from Alabama, Oregon and the ACC champ, but at least some dominoes started to fall its way.

4. Wisconsin has an outside chance at a BCS bid: The first thing Badgers coach Gary Andersen did after his postgame news conference was go and chat up the representatives from the Fiesta and Capital One bowls. Smart move. Wisconsin is in pretty good shape for the rest of the season after blasting Northwestern and could even sneak its way into a BCS game. If Ohio State gets into the BCS title game, heck, the Badgers could even make a fourth straight appearance in Pasadena. The 4-2 Badgers' remaining schedule looks like this: at Illinois, at Iowa, BYU, Indiana, at Minnesota, Penn State. Not exactly layups, but they will be favored in every single one. If Wisconsin can run the table, that would equal a 10-2 record, with an asterisk by one of the losses. The only team to beat Andersen's team without an officiating crew being disciplined afterward would be Ohio State. Wisconsin was unranked last week, which should be rectified later today. A lot of things would have to go the Badgers' way for them to climb the polls and the BCS standings, and the schedule doesn't provide any more opportunities for marquee wins. But Wisconsin at least could put itself in the discussion.

5. Purdue might be worse than last year's Illinois team: For the second consecutive season, the Big Ten features arguably the worst team among the BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. Illinois struggled through a 2-10 season in which nothing went right in 2012, and Purdue knows the feeling so far this year. An open week and a quarterback switch didn't fix the Boilers' many problems, as they fell 44-7 to Nebraska at Ross-Ade Stadium. Freshman quarterback Danny Etling might have a bright future, but he's going through some growing pains now. He completed just 14 of 35 pass attempts, as Purdue failed to enter Nebraska territory until the fourth quarter. The Boilers' defense isn't faring much better, allowing 140 points in the last three games. It's hard to envision Purdue winning anytime soon, as first-year coach Darrell Hazell is going through some of the same issues Tim Beckman did last year at Illinois.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
Here are five things we learned in the SEC on Saturday:

We've got a race (Part 1): With its win against depleted Georgia on Saturday, Missouri jumped into the driver's seat in the SEC East. But this might be an ugly horse race as we move down the stretch. The Tigers are 2-0 in league play for now, but they lost quarterback James Franklin to a shoulder injury and still must face Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M. Previous division favorite Georgia has major injury issues of its own with a game against Florida and a trip to Auburn still on tap. Florida dropped its first conference game on Saturday (at LSU) and still must visit Missouri and South Carolina and face Georgia in Jacksonville. With its dominant win over Arkansas on Saturday, South Carolina suddenly looks like a contender again, but it still needs Georgia to lose another SEC game and must win at Missouri and at home against Florida. In other words, we've got gridlock ahead. It's entirely possible -- maybe even likely -- that whichever team represents the East in the SEC championship game will come in with two conference losses.

We've got a race (Part 2): Have we forgiven Alabama for its defensive shortcomings against Texas A&M yet? Because it's high time we did. A week or two back, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Florida has the best defense in the SEC. Alabama has thrown its hat back into the ring lately, however. Kentucky's third-quarter touchdown on Saturday ended a 14-quarter streak (dating back to the A&M game) in which Alabama opponents (Colorado State, Ole Miss, Georgia State and Kentucky) had failed to reach the end zone. Over that stretch, Alabama had outscored its opponents 125-9. Florida hasn't done anything to lose the crown -- the Gators held LSU's talented offense to just 327 yards and 17 points on Saturday, after all -- but Alabama is making up ground quickly.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney and South Carolina made it clear they aren't taking the rest of the season off.
Rumors of their demise ... : There has been a seemingly endless array of drama at South Carolina since the season started, much of which centered around star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Entering Saturday's game at Arkansas, Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks had won three straight since their Week 2 loss at Georgia, but each game saw the Gamecocks barely holding on for narrow wins. Then came Saturday's 52-7 win against the Razorbacks, which represents the biggest loss in Arkansas coach Bret Bielema's career and perhaps a corner turned by the Gamecocks.

No Marshall, no problem: Nick Marshall missed Auburn's 62-3 win over Western Carolina on Saturday, but that's not the main reason freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson played -- and started -- for the first time this year. He played as an insurance policy, in case Marshall's injured knee prevents him from playing next week against Texas A&M. Marshall led the Tigers to a 4-1 record to open the season, and coach Gus Malzahn said he will reclaim the starting role once his knee is healthy enough for him to play again. But just in case Marshall's not ready come Week 8, Johnson's performance -- 17-for-21 for 201 yards and four touchdowns -- in Saturday's win was nice practice for the freshman ahead of a trip to College Station.

Road warriors: Once Texas A&M survived Ole Miss' upset bid, the Aggies joined three other SEC teams that won on the road Saturday. Missouri ended Georgia's 15-game home winning streak -- which was the league's longest active streak -- South Carolina won big at Arkansas, Alabama blasted Kentucky and the Aggies rallied to win 41-38 in Oxford. Florida was the league's only road loser on Saturday. Alabama, Missouri and Texas A&M are all 2-0 away from home in league play this season.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
Here’s a look at five lessons learned in the ACC in Week 7, in no particular order:

Clemson can win with its defense. This is the biggest difference with the Tigers this year, and the reason they are still in the hunt for the national title heading into Week 8. For the second time this season, the defense found a way to win when the offense wasn’t clicking for four quarters. Led by national sack leader Vic Beasley, Clemson’s defense was the difference in its 24-14 win over visiting Boston College. Much like NC State did, the Eagles gave Clemson quite a scare. Clemson scored just three points in the first half against BC, but the game changed when Beasley scooped up a fumble by quarterback Chase Rettig and ran it back 13 yards for a touchdown.

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Liz Condo/USA TODAY SportsJerome Smith helped power Syracuse's offense to 362 rushing yards.
Virginia Tech is shaking the shadow of 2012. Last year, it took 12 games for the Hokies to reach this milestone. This year, after reeling off six straight wins since its season-opening loss to Alabama, Virginia Tech is bowl eligible for the 21st straight season. With a 19-9 win over Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech is back in familiar territory, and further proving that last year was an anomaly, not the beginning of a trend. The Hokies have shown enough improvement on offense that they’re once again front-runners to win the division along with Miami. Virginia Tech’s defense was simply dominant against Pitt, yet another sign of improvement from a year ago, when Pitt’s offensive line had the upper hand. The Hokies are once again atop the division standings and can continue to stay there if they can continue to avoid turnovers.

Syracuse’s running game deserves respect. For the second straight game, the Orange have racked up more than 300 yards on the ground. Say what you will about NC State’s defense, but the Cuse did it against No. 3-ranked Clemson, too. Syracuse’s ability to run the ball was key in the Orange’s 24-10 win at NC State, the program’s first ACC win as a member of the conference. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley each ran for more than 100 yards and a touchdown as the Orange finished with 362 yards on the ground. Smith finished with 140 yards and ran for a 1-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Gulley ran for 132 yards and the 18-yard go-ahead score with 6:13 left. It was the first time Cuse has had two 100-yard rushers in a game since last year’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl win against West Virginia. Quarterback Terrel Hunt also added 92 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Duke can play a complete game. With the defense on lockdown against Navy’s option offense and quarterback Anthony Boone back in the starting lineup, the Blue Devils finally put together a complete four quarters. With all due respect to backup Brandon Connette, there’s a reason Boone is the starter. Duke is a different team with him in the lineup. In his first start since suffering a fractured collarbone against Memphis on Sept. 7, Boone threw three touchdowns and completed a remarkable 31 of 38 pass attempts. Equally as impressive was Duke’s defense, which has long been the program’s Achilles' heel. Clearly having played Georgia Tech a few weeks earlier helped with the preparation. Navy had three turnovers in its lowest-scoring output of the season. Duke went 4-0 against its nonconference opponents and is looking more and more like a bowl team.

The Terps can still win without C.J. Brown. With Brown sidelined with a concussion for what could be the last in the series against rival Virginia, backup quarterback Caleb Rowe and the rest of the offense came through in a 27-26 win over the Hoos. In his first start of the season, Rowe threw for a career-high 332 yards and completed 18 of 34 passes and one touchdown. There were plenty of other offensive answers, too, as Brandon Ross had 169 all-purpose yards, and Deon Long and Stefon Diggs both finished with just under 100 receiving yards each. It was Maryland’s first home win against UVa since 2005, and with the win, Maryland (5-1) has already surpassed last year’s win total.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
What we learned about the Big 12 from Week 7:

1. Texas is alive: The Longhorns were dead on arrival at the Cotton Bowl. Well, that’s what the Sooners thought. Instead, Texas outplayed, outmaneuvered and, that’s right, outcoached Oklahoma to pull off the biggest Red River upset in 17 years.
[+] EnlargeCase McCoy
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesCase McCoy and Texas moved to 3-0 in the Big 12 after a surprising win over Oklahoma on Saturday.
Case McCoy threw a pair of touchdowns that his brother Colt couldn’t have placed any better. The offensive line kicked OU’s tail in the trenches. And the defense forced Blake Bell to deliver one of the worst QB performances in Red River history. After his biggest win in at least four seasons, Mack Brown said the Horns were out of the grave. Texas is more than just out of the grave. The Longhorns are suddenly 3-0 in the Big 12 standings, and right in the thick of the conference race.

2. OU has problems: The blueprint on how to shut down the Sooners is on tape. Load the box. Dare Bell to beat you deep in man coverage. If only that was OU’s lone issue. Mike Stoops’ 3-3-5 scheme predicated on speed worked wonders through September. But Saturday in Dallas, it was exposed in the trenches. The Longhorns got 5 yards between the tackles any time they wanted, as Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown became the first Texas duo ever to rush for 100 yards apiece in the same Red River game. Not having linebacker and senior captain Corey Nelson (torn pectoral) was a killer. But he’s not coming back, either. The defense, however, is the least of OU’s worries. After playing well against Tulsa and Notre Dame, Bell has looked completely discombobulated the past two weeks. He’s been unable to consistently locate receivers down the field, which has emboldened defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage and cover up OU’s running game. After the game, coordinator Josh Heupel said he never considered making a QB switch. But if Bell keeps playing like he did in Dallas, the Sooners will be forced to.

3. Baylor can in fact be slowed: After Baylor became the first team in 83 years to score 70 points in three straight games, the question began to be asked: Can these Bears be slowed down? Kansas State showed in Manhattan the answer is yes. In its first road test of the season, Baylor did not display the same crispness offensively it had at home. The Bears were still impressive, as QB Bryce Petty connected on touchdown passes of 93, 72 and 54 yards. But outside those three quick-strike scores, Baylor was largely handcuffed. After punting seven times through their first four games, the Bears had to punt six times at K-State. The running game, too, was held in check as Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were limited to less than 100 yards rushing combined until Baylor’s final game-clinching touchdown drive. The fact the Bears still scored 35 points on a day in which they struggled offensively says all you need to know about how prolific this offense is. But K-State proved, with the right game plan, it’s an offense that can be slowed, too.

4. Daniel Sams has star potential: This season, the Big 12 is loaded with QBs who can cause damage with their wheels -- notably Bell, Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh and TCU’s Trevone Boykin. But nobody in the league comes close to what Sams is able to do on the ground. The K-State QB shredded Baylor’s defense for 199 rushing yards and three touchdowns, nearly leading the Wildcats to the upset as 17-point underdogs. When Sams was in the game, the Bears knew what was coming. And they still couldn’t stop it. Sams’ big limitation right now is with his decision-making in the passing game. For the second straight week, he was picked off on a potential game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. But Sams quietly has the second-best adjusted QBR (86.5) in the Big 12, behind only Petty (95.1). With an 0-3 start in the league, this has clearly become a rebuilding season for the Wildcats. But they have something to rebuild around in their sophomore quarterback.

5. Tech can win with at least two QBs: Texas Tech became bowl eligible for the 20th time in the past 21 seasons with a 42-35 win over Iowa State. And the Red Raiders did it using their second true freshman starting quarterback of the season. With Baker Mayfield out with an injured knee, Davis Webb got the nod and was solid. Webb completed almost 63 percent of his passes for 415 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception. Webb’s adjusted QBR was only 53.5 (scale of 0-100) in the game. And as coach Kliff Kingsbury pointed out afterward, there were some throws Webb would like to do over again. But his performance was more than good enough for Tech to move to 6-0. "We've got three guys [who] can win ball games," Kingsbury said. Mayfield and Webb have proved that the Red Raiders have at least two. And in preseason projected starter Michael Brewer, who has returned from a disc injury, Kingsbury believes they have a third. In 2012, Oklahoma State’s offense kept humming despite rotating quarterbacks in and out due to injuries. Thanks to comparable skill talent surrounding its quarterbacks, Tech is having success doing the same thus far.