NCF Nation: what we learned 110412

What we learned in the SEC: Week 10

November, 4, 2012
Another weekend is in the books, and here's what we learned about the SEC:

1. It's still Alabama's world: The Crimson Tide went right down to the wire with fifth-ranked LSU. Alabama was outplayed for most of the game, but when it needed a game-winning drive, AJ McCarron delivered, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 72 yards and the decisive 28-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Now the rest of the nation has to continue looking up at the Tide. If LSU had won, the SEC's BCS world might have been turned upside-down, but now Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame are all jockeying for position to play Alabama (if the Tide can continue their winning ways). Alabama controls its own destiny not only on the path to the SEC title game but also the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.

2. Mississippi State isn't who we thought it was: The Bulldogs might have started 7-0, but it's clear that the soft early schedule helped mask some of the offensive and defensive issues this team has. The Bulldogs were pummeled by Alabama and then routed by Texas A&M, showing glaring weaknesses in their game. The defensive line is the biggest problem -- the Bulldogs just can't get any pressure on opposing backfields. That defensive line has been pushed around, and junior college transfer defensive end Denico Autry and veteran defensive tackle Josh Boyd haven't lived up to their preseason hype. The Bulldogs are losing the battle up front, and it's hurting the rest of the defense. There's no creativity, and the aggression is minimal. The offense hasn't found any consistency or rhythm in the past two weeks, and with a tough slate remaining in November, the 10 wins we thought Mississippi State could get might not happen anymore.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Spruce Derden/US PresswireTexas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is this week's big threat to Alabama's undefeated season.
3. There's some fight left in sputtering teams: Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee entered the weekend with losing records, but all found ways to win Saturday. All of them could have rolled over Saturday. Auburn was the most impressive, routing New Mexico State 42-7 behind a superb running game and new starting quarterback Jonathan Wallace. The Tigers could have stumbled through this game, but after a slow first half, Auburn scored 35 second-half points. Tennessee and Arkansas were both in dogfights Saturday. The Razorbacks slipped past Tulsa by four points, while Tennessee survived a shootout with Troy to win 55-48. Both Arkansas and Tennessee still have bowl hopes. Arkansas has to get two wins in a tough month of November, while the Vols could still get eight wins by sweeping November and getting a bowl win.

4. Johnny Manziel poses a real threat to Alabama: With the way Zach Mettenberger threw the ball around Saturday, the coming weekend's Alabama-Texas A&M game just got a lot more interesting. Mettenberger registered a career-high 298 passing yards and a touchdown. Manziel has walked all over defenses this fall and he should be able to make some plays through the air on Alabama's secondary. He should be able to run around a little bit as well. Manziel struggled against Florida and LSU, but ran through Mississippi State over the weekend. He's growing each week and the Aggies offense is getting better and better. There are some holes in Alabama's defense that weren't there last season and Manziel has the ability to exploit them. Alabama should adjust through the week, but keeping up with Manziel will be a tall task for the Tide.

5. Georgia has the talent to take the SEC: When the Bulldogs can play a complete game on the field, they are very hard to stop. We've known that both sides of the ball are loaded with talent, but neither side has been able to live up to its potential at the same time in a game. Saturday, the Dawgs did that in their 37-10 victory over Ole Miss. The offense churned out 533 yards, while the defense held the Rebels' high-flying offense to just 234 yards and forced three turnovers. If Georgia can get past Auburn and play a complete game in Atlanta, the Dawgs could take the SEC title. Could this team beat Alabama? That's yet to be seen, but the team that we saw Saturday would have a chance with an offense that could test Alabama's secondary. Mettenberger picked on the Crimson Tide defensive backs all night, and Aaron Murray has the ability and the weapons to do the same thing. When that defense is clicking it could give Alabama's offense fits.
Notre Dame somehow reached 9-0 Saturday. Here's what to make of the performance.

1. Everett Golson withstands test: The young quarterback passed a different kind of test Saturday. Yes, one week earlier in Norman, Okla., might have been his coming-out party, but his ability to bounce back from getting curiously pulled, then recover from a potential game-changing interception shows the poise the Irish need under center. The redshirt freshman climbed another big step.

2. Louis Nix, Matthias Farley rise to occasion: Nix did not start after spending two nights in the infirmary, but he played plenty and finished with four tackles and half a sack. Farley suffered a right hand injury in last week's win and, according to coach Brian Kelly, had two plates and six screws inserted into his hand Tuesday. He practiced the next two days with a cast, which he played with Saturday.

3. Defense, for once, was not perfect: Ray Graham broke free for a 55-yard run on Pitt's first offensive play and set the tone early. Graham finished with 197 total yards and a rushing touchdown, the first the Irish have surrendered to a running back this season and just the second rushing touchdown they have given up in 2012. The Panthers took advantage of good field position and did not turn the ball over, giving themselves a good chance to win. The Irish's defense did not have its best performance, although it stepped up late and finished the day with five sacks.

4. Special teams, anyone? Kudos to Kyle Brindza for tying the game in double overtime with a 37-yard field goal. But he missed one earlier, and an extra point, though not all of it was his fault. The coverage unit gave up 25.6 yards per kick return and 19 yards per punt return, and Davonte Neal fumbled one punt and misplayed two others.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Nebraska remains in the Legends driver's seat: Nebraska survived its toughest remaining road test -- barely. The Huskers drove 80 yards in the final 80 seconds to score the winning touchdown and escape with a 28-24 victory at Michigan State. We've written in the past that Nebraska needed to win a crucial league game on the road to become a legitimate Big Ten power. Well, coming back from double-digit fourth-quarter deficits against both Northwestern and Michigan State was pretty good. Quarterback Taylor Martinez can be a frustrating player at times, but he also has been clutch several times this season. Bo Pelini's team still must deal with a very tough Penn State squad in Week 11. But the game is in Lincoln, where the Huskers play extremely well. If they can get through that one, all that's left between them and the Big Ten championship game are games against Minnesota at home and struggling Iowa on the road. Even in a wacky, unpredictable year for the conference, that's about as clear a path as any contender could hope for in the homestretch.

2. Indiana is a serious threat in the Leaders Division: Wisconsin comes to Bloomington next week, and it figures to be the biggest Big Ten game at Indiana since ... well, we can't really remember when. Even though the Hoosiers are just 4-5 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten, they control their own destiny in the bizarro Leaders race after beating Iowa 24-21 at home Saturday. If they can defeat Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) next week, they'd pull even with the Badgers for the right to represent the eligible teams in Indianapolis. Sounds crazy, since before two weeks ago Indiana hadn't won a conference game since 2010, and before Saturday, hadn't won a league game at home since 2009. But the Hoosiers have one of the top offenses in the Big Ten, with a deep corps of skill players, and their defense has played better the past two weeks in consecutive league wins. Kevin Wilson's team finally has some momentum, and it's coming at just the right time.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireDevin Gardner threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns in a rejuvenated Michigan offense.
3. Michigan's offense can survive -- and even thrive -- without Denard Robinson: The Wolverines had nothing offensively last week at Nebraska after Robinson, their senior quarterback, aggravated a nerve problem in his throwing elbow. Things looked bleak when Michigan ruled Robinson out minutes before Saturday's game at Minnesota, and the first quarter didn't do much to change anyone's view. But then quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback Devin Gardner kept a play alive with his legs and heaved a 45-yard touchdown strike to Drew Dileo midway through the second quarter. Suddenly a Michigan offense that went more than two games without a touchdown -- mostly with Robinson on the field -- caught fire behind Gardner and a rejuvenated passing attack. Gardner stepped up and received a lot of help from receivers such as Dileo, Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree in the 35-13 win. Gardner threw for 234 yards, or 100 yards more than Michigan had averaged in its previous five games when the offense looked to limit Robinson's exposure in the passing game. The Wolverines' attack was far more balanced and unpredictable on Saturday. And while the knee-jerk reaction from some fans will be that Gardner should start over even a healthy Robinson going forward, the truth is that Michigan needs both aspects of its offense to click for it to stay alive in the Legends Division race and reach its full potential.

4. The Big Ten's most disappointing teams have defined themselves: Three weeks remain in the regular season, but the epitaphs have been written for several of the Big Ten's most disappointing teams after Week 10. Michigan State's season continued to be defined by close losses, as the Spartans couldn't hold a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska. Mark Dantonio's team, which had been so good in close games the past few years, now has four conference losses by a total of 10 points. After sweeping its home schedule in each of the past two seasons, Michigan State now has four home losses, three in Big Ten play. Purdue's season will be defined by blowout losses. The Boilers have been torched in four of their five league games, three at Ross-Ade Stadium, where fans are showing their displeasure by not showing up. Fourth-year coach Danny Hope is in big, big trouble. Iowa's season has been defined by an ineffective offense. The Hawkeyes once again didn't have enough against Indiana, scoring only 14 offensive points. Illinois' season has been defined by utter misery. It continued in Columbus, as the Illini suffered their fifth loss by 28 points or more.

5. The Big Ten could have its smallest bowl contingent in recent memory: The Big Ten has had at least six bowl teams every season since 1998, when it had just five. After Week 10, the league could have a hard time sending half of its teams to the postseason. Ohio State and Penn State obviously would be going if eligible, but the Big Ten has only four eligible teams with six or more wins -- Northwestern, Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin -- with three weeks to play. Minnesota and Michigan State still need one more win -- the Spartans have only two games left -- and Iowa's and Purdue's bowl hopes took significant blows Saturday. The Hawkeyes need two more wins and still must visit Michigan and host Nebraska. Purdue must win out. Indiana has put itself in the bowl mix after winning consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since 2007, but the Hoosiers still need two more wins (Wisconsin, at Penn State, at Purdue). The Big Ten is guaranteed a fifth bowl-eligible team as Michigan State visits Minnesota on Nov. 24, but beyond that, it's up in the air. Neither Purdue nor Iowa has the look of a bowl team, while Indiana has some tough work ahead.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 10

November, 4, 2012
A few lessons learned in the ACC in Week 10, in no particular order:

[+] EnlargeMike James
Steve Mitchell/US Presswire Mike James and Miami are on pace to play in the ACC championship game.
1. Miami is leading the Coastal Division, and Virginia Tech has become irrelevant. This is what the top of the division looks like: Miami. You're welcome. With the Hurricanes’ 30-12 win over Virginia Tech, Miami is the team to beat in the division. If the Canes win out, they will play for the ACC championship for the first time since joining the league -- unless, of course, the program decides to self-impose another postseason ban. The Hokies, meanwhile, imploded in all three phases of the game and dropped to 2-3 in league play. The Hokies’ streak of eight straight 10-win seasons is officially over.

2. Duke still has lots to prove. Yes, the Blue Devils are bowl eligible and have turned a corner in the program’s fifth season under coach David Cutcliffe, but when it comes to hanging with ranked competition, the Blue Devils have been hung out to dry. It happened in a 50-13 loss to Stanford. It happened in a 48-7 loss to Florida State. And it happened again in Saturday’s 56-20 loss to Clemson. The loss didn’t shut Duke out of the ACC championship game -- if it wins out, it can still go to Charlotte -- but it was further evidence that the Blue Devils aren't ready to beat elite competition, let alone stay competitive for four quarters.

3. NC State is an afterthought in the Atlantic Division. That’s being kind. How did Florida State lose to this team? NC State scored only six points against a Virginia team that had lost six straight games. Tom O’Brien has coached himself back onto the hot seat with back-to-back losses, including to rival North Carolina. A questionable decision to punt to Giovani Bernard in Week 9 followed by an inexplicable, abysmal performance against Virginia has amounted to a collapse down the stretch.

4. Virginia has a pulse. Wow, Hoos. I stand corrected. On Halloween, I wrote, “Bury ‘em,” but it turns out UVa isn’t going down without a fight. The Cavaliers played arguably their most complete game of the season against NC State. The defense had three interceptions and forced five turnovers after coming into game with only four forced turnovers. They had six sacks and a safety when coming into the game with only seven total sacks. The offense ran away with a 26-0 lead en route to a 33-6 win. UVa had 446 yards of total offense, more than double NC State's 216. Nice job by the coaching staff, regaining the focus and getting the team better during the bye week.

5. Maryland quarterback Shawn Petty is OK. Yep, OK. Not a disaster, not the next Denard Robinson. He is a true freshman, a scout team linebacker playing quarterback, and considering the circumstances, he did pretty darn well in a 33-13 loss to Georgia Tech. The fifth-string quarterback ran for 24 yards on 17 carries, was sacked four times and completed 9 of 18 passes for 115 yards. He also fumbled twice and threw an interception. Had the defense done its job, this might have been a more interesting game. Not bad for the first time in a college football game, ever, after just seven days of practice as a quarterback.
What did we learn in the Big East in Week 10? Glad you asked.

1. Pitt gave it the ol' college try. And by the ol' college try, I mean Pitt blew a 20-6 fourth-quarter lead against No. 3 Notre Dame and found a way to lose. There were so many turning point moments in this game. Forget about the phantom pass-interference call on K'Waun Williams that led to the Irish closing the gap to 20-12. Pitt had several opportunities to put a clamp on the game. But questionable play calling has left many scratching their heads. Pitt had the ball with 3 minutes, 59 seconds left in the fourth quarter, still leading, and the first call from its own 20 was a pass. The Panthers eventually went three-and-out. After Notre Dame tied the game, Pitt went three-and-out again. All of a sudden, an offense that was having no problem running the ball on the Irish could do nothing. In the second overtime, a botched snap led to Kevin Harper missing what would have been a game-winning 33-yard field goal. There are only so many chances you have to take down one of the best teams in the nation. You got the feeling as the fourth quarter wore on that Pitt would find a way to lose. The Panthers did.

2. Louisville is H-O-T. Instead of letting Temple hang with them for four quarters, the Cardinals ditched the Owls midway through the second quarter, ending the game on a 28-0 run and moving to 9-0 -- the best start in school history. Louisville won 45-17 for its sixth consecutive home win, the longest streak under coach Charlie Strong. What more can I say about Teddy Bridgewater, the runaway choice for Big East Offensive Player of the Year? He had another outstanding game, throwing a career-high five touchdown passes on a shaky secondary. Louisville has Syracuse and Connecticut coming up, giving the Cardinals a great shot at being undefeated going into the regular-season finale at Rutgers.

[+] EnlargeBrendon Kay
Frank Victores/US PresswireIn place of the benched Munchie Legaux, backup QB Brendon Kay led Cincinnati past Syracuse.
3. Brendon Kay may be the future at Cincinnati. Bearcats fans have been complaining about Munchie Legaux for the entire season, but the criticism reached a fever pitch the past two weeks, as Legaux threw five interceptions combined in losses to Toledo and Louisville. Coach Butch Jones stuck behind his starter headed into Cincinnati's game against Syracuse, but Legaux struggled in the passing game again. So Jones yanked Legaux in the third quarter with the Bearcats down 24-21. Backup Kay led back-to-back scoring drives, and Cincinnati won 35-24. Jones said after the game he would open up the quarterback competition this week. "I felt we needed a spark," Jones said. "Brendon Kay has been working really hard, and I thought he deserved an opportunity. We will go back and evaluate the film, see where we are and then let those two battle it out in practice."

4. Syracuse cannot avoid mistakes. I said this Saturday on Twitter: Watching Syracuse is so maddening because this team should be bowl eligible by now, given some of the plays we have seen the Orange make this season. But in the same way misery loves company, mistakes love the Orange. They can't quit each other. Syracuse had many opportunities to beat the Bearcats, but mistakes compounded themselves. There were two turnovers that led to 14 points, a blocked field goal, missed field goals, 12 penalties and costly drops. The Orange are now going to need wins in two of their final three games (Louisville, at Missouri, at Temple) to become bowl eligible. "We have people in position to make plays," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "When we make them, we play pretty darn good." Problem is, Syracuse has not made enough of them this year.

5. South Florida knows how to win. That was not so clear over the course of the past two months, when the Bulls dropped six straight games, including four close ones in the fourth quarter. The defense took a particular brunt of the criticism from not only fans but also coach Skip Holtz, who said last week he would consider making staff changes when the season ended. Well, the Bulls responded against UConn, winning 13-6 with a particularly strong fourth quarter. When was the last time somebody said that about the Bulls? After team leader B.J. Daniels went down with an ankle injury, the defense got its first two interceptions of the season -- the last Football Bowl Subdivision team in the nation to get a pick -- and preserved the close victory. The defensive front had its best performance of the season, consistently pressuring the Huskies quarterbacks. USF had a dominating defensive performance without starting linebacker Sam Barrington, who was suspended for the game. USF has to win out to get to a bowl game, but breaking a six-game losing streak and winning a close game certainly feels better than what the Bulls have gone through since their last win -- Sept. 8 at Nevada.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 10

November, 4, 2012
Here's what I learned after a feisty week of football across the Big 12.

It'll probably take a miracle (or lingering issues from Collin Klein's head) for anybody but K-State to win the Big 12. The Big 12 standings look mighty boring these days. Kansas State is undefeated and Oklahoma has just one loss, but K-State already beat OU on its home field to earn the tiebreaker. K-State can clinch the Big 12 next week with a win at TCU and an Oklahoma loss to Baylor, but the only way K-State loses two of three down the stretch is if Klein's injury is more serious than it seemed on Saturday night. Most players and team officials seemed optimistic that Klein would return next week, but also prepared to play in his absence. I'd be surprised if he sat out. I was unimpressed with Daniel Sams' throwing ability, and Klein's return is imperative if K-State's run is going to continue through the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeKansas State's Collin Klein
Scott Sewell/US PRESSWIRECollin Klein -- barring a lingering injury -- and Kansas State appear to have the Big 12 locked up.
TCU refuses to give up. These Frogs were on the ropes twice on Saturday. Once, they trailed by seven with less than two minutes to go and failed to score in the first overtime. Freshman QB Trevone Boykin found Josh Boyce for a 94-yard touchdown to force overtime, and the Frogs blocked a game-winning field goal to stay alive. This is the same team that, two weeks ago, rallied from 10 down in the final minutes to force OT with Texas Tech. These Frogs are beat up and seem to be in sticky situations every week. Still, they've soldiered on. It paid off Saturday, and TCU is going bowling.

Baylor can play a clean game. Turnovers have absolutely ruined this season for Baylor to this point. The Bears had lost 12 turnovers in the previous three games entering Saturday, and Kansas is a decent team when it comes to thievery. BU managed to get through Saturday's homecoming win over KU without a turnover, and the result was about what you'd expect: a 41-14 romp with a big second half. Baylor's defense pitched a shutout and the offense hung 21 on the board in the half, but none of that is likely possible without the lack of turnovers.

West Virginia's defense still has a long way to go. Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest made the strategic move up to the more serene coaches' booth to call the plays, and the Mountaineers looked much better on Saturday. WVU gave up just 405 yards to a decent TCU offense, its second-lowest total in Big 12 play. However, there's no excuse for the play that changed the game. The Mountaineers inexplicably lost Josh Boyce with TCU buried deep in its own territory, and the game-tying score was all too easy on the broken play. You can play well for 58 minutes, but one badly timed bust can sure make it easy to forget that progress. WVU proved that Saturday.

Texas Tech is coming back to Earth after an upset ... again. Texas Tech's season took a dramatic turn and the Red Raiders earned a huge chunk of respect when they beat WVU by 35 in Lubbock three weeks ago. Since then, though, Tech needed late heroics in overtime to escape TCU with a win and got soundly beaten by K-State and Texas in consecutive weeks. The Red Raiders are bowl eligible, but have looked pretty unimpressive lately. They'll be happy to know Kansas -- the owner of an 18-game losing streak in Big 12 play -- is coming to town next week. Still, any hope of a Big 12 title is officially out the window.

College football may see a Texas-Texas A&M matchup in the Cotton Bowl. A whole lot of dominoes still have to fall, but Texas' win over Texas Tech gave the Longhorns perhaps the inside track at earning a Cotton Bowl bid. Oklahoma looks likely to reach the BCS if it wins out, and Oklahoma State's schedule is about to get brutal. That may leave the Longhorns there, and Texas A&M looks as if it may represent the SEC West in the bowl after Alabama and LSU snag BCS bids. If Oklahoma or Texas suffer a bad loss or A&M upsets Alabama, it might be off, but if not, we could be due for an epic Lone Star Showdown redux at Jerry World. So, about those eternal bragging rights for the Horns after last year's game-winning field goal at Kyle Field ...

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 10

November, 4, 2012
What did we learn in Week 10? Read on.

1. Oregon makes its national title statement: While USC scrapped and clawed and didn't yield easily in front of 93,607 at the Coliseum, Oregon was in control throughout against the Trojans in a 62-51 victory, mostly because the Trojans couldn't stop the Ducks' offense, which rolled up 730 yards. Those point and yardage totals are the largest ever yielded by USC. The Trojans scored with one second left to cut into the final margin. It's likely Oregon's performance will only enhance its position with pollsters, and it should boost the Ducks' computer rating.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Franklin
Andrew Fielding/US PresswireUCLA piled up 308 yards on the ground -- including 162 from Johnathan Franklin, who became UCLA's all-time leading rusher.
2. UCLA makes its South Division statement: UCLA blows out Arizona, a team that beat USC ... so what does that mean? Well, we all know how the Pac-12 blog hates the overuse of the transitive property of college football, but the Bruins made an impressive statement with their dominant 66-10 win over the Wildcats. As the only team in the Pac-12 South Division with just two conference losses, the Bruins control their own destiny -- win out, and they are the division champs and thereby would play in the conference title game. Of course, there's plenty of work ahead, including a visit from USC on Nov. 17 and Stanford on Nov. 24. Still, after laying an egg against California, the Bruins have rolled up three quality wins against South foes.

3. Stanford and Oregon State are nationally ranked teams with odd QB situations: Stanford will play host to Oregon State on Saturday, and both teams will be ranked in the nation's top 15. Yet both have questions at quarterback nine games into the season. It appears that Kevin Hogan will make his first start after replacing Josh Nunes against Colorado and leading five TD drives in a 48-0 win. While Nunes has been inconsistent, Hogan has sparked the offense as a dual threat. Meanwhile, Oregon State replaced Sean Mannion with Cody Vaz against Arizona State, and Vaz had a slow start and an uneven performance, but the Beavers prevailed 36-26. It would appear that Vaz will get the call against the Cardinal.

4. Washington and Utah are continuing second-half surges: The Huskies and Utes now own modest two-game winning streaks and seem headed toward bowl eligibility. Utah buried listless Washington State 49-6 to improve to 4-5 and 2-4 in Pac-12 play. Washington won a sloppy 21-13 game at California and stands at 5-4, 3-3. These two meet Saturday at CenturyLink Field, with the winner feeling pretty good about its bowl prospects and feeling much better than it did on Oct. 20.

5. To their great disappointment, Cal, Washington State aren't bowling this year: Cal and Washington State both took their seventh loss of the year, which means no bowl game. Both looked like bowl teams in the preseason. While new Cougars coach Mike Leach ripped his team's effort, Cal coach Jeff Tedford is walking a fine line. He's already on one of the hottest seats in the country, so he can't afford to lose his locker room. Further, it appears that the Bears might lose quarterback Zach Maynard to a knee injury, which means junior Allan Bridgford would start at quarterback Saturday against Oregon. The Cougars, meanwhile, were supposed to be better under Leach. It hasn't happened yet, as the 2-7 Cougs play host to UCLA on Saturday.