Better Get Defensive
No. 1 Alabama beat a top-10 opponent on the road thanks to a powerful offense and a will to win that, even after three BCS championships in four seasons, is stronger than week-old garbage. America tips its collective hat to you, Crimson Tide, for an exciting Saturday afternoon, and hopes it will keep you warm as you descend down the rankings.
Descend may be too strong a word. I looked at my power rankings and couldn't justify putting anyone other than Oregon ahead of Alabama. But let's face it: No one wins a crystal football with that kind of defensive performance. Not even Nick Saban.
The Crimson Tide pulled its ripcord at Kyle Field Saturday afternoon, and you know what happens then. The parachutist actually goes upward before descending. That must explain how Alabama actually received two more first-place votes in the AP poll this week than it did last. In fact, the Tide received 59 of 60 first-place votes.
This would be the Alabama that escaped No. 6 Texas A&M with a 49-42 victory. If anyone can find another top-ranked team that has allowed 600 yards of total offense -- not to mention 628 -- and remained atop the rankings, please don't keep it to yourself.
It's quite possible that only quarterback Johnny Manziel could pull off what the Aggies pulled off Saturday. In terms of individual performance, Manziel leaped over the bar he set at Bryant-Denny Stadium last November. For the record, in two games against the sport's premier defensive program, Manziel has completed 52 of 70 passes for 717 yards, 7 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He also has 32 rushes for 190 yards.
And yet Alabama must take its share of responsibility for the show the Aggies staged. Think of the top-ranked teams that suffered defensive meltdowns in recent seasons: Notre Dame last January? Alabama gained a mere 529 yards. USC in the BCS championship game loss to Texas eight seasons ago? Vince Young and the Longhorns gained 556 yards. Kansas State beating No. 1 Oklahoma 35-7 in the 2003 Big 12 championship game? The Wildcats petered out at 519 yards.
Saban told Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin that the game took 10 years off of his life, which brings to mind the 1969 Alabama-Ole Miss game, in which Rebels quarterback Archie Manning passed and ran for 540 yards in a game that Alabama managed to win 33-32. At the postgame handshake, Tide head coach Bear Bryant said to his friend and opponent, the Rebels' Johnny Vaught, "That was the worst God damn game I've ever seen."
Pardon the nostalgia, but some of us are old enough to remember when the SEC played defense. It is way too easy to say that the conference's seven-year streak of BCS championships will end this season. But three weeks in, Alabama's defense is in tatters, No. 9 Georgia has allowed 68 points in two games. No. 6 LSU, a league turns its lonely eyes to you.
And the SEC had better watch it. The Pac-12 looks as strong as it has been in years. Oregon, nestled safely at No. 2, did at home to Tennessee (59-14) what it did on the road to Virginia (59-10) the week before. The Volunteers and Cavaliers share more than the color orange and mascots that wear funny hats. Both are rebuilding, so swallow the Ducks' 3-0 record with a sprinkle of Morton's. But routs are routs.
No. 5 Stanford methodically put away Army, and the teams that defeated Big Ten teams moved up in the AP poll as well. No. 19 Washington and No. 16 UCLA won impressively on the road, and No. 25 Arizona State won inventively at home. The Sun Devils' 32-30 victory over No. 20 Wisconsin left Badger fans sputtering in anger and raised the question of how good the winners are. This Saturday, at Stanford Stadium, Arizona State will provide a more definitive answer.
The Pac-12 isn't the only league looking better. Eight ACC teams began 2-0 for the first time since the league expanded in 2004. The league had never had more than six teams begin 2-0, and even that happened only twice (2005, 2012).
While it's true that one reason the ACC has started so well is fewer conference games to begin the season -- they're not beating each other -- it's also true that a number of programs are better. No. 3 Clemson and No. 8 Florida State have earned their way into any BCS discussion. No. 16 Miami upset Florida earlier this month, and Maryland is 3-0 for the first time since the Terps won the conference championship in 2001.
To recap, the ACC looks healthier, the Pac-12 looks strong and No. 1 Alabama isn't playing like a No. 1. The Tide yet might prove that this argument is about style more than substance, that a W is a W. Perhaps so. But 628 yards and six touchdowns looked pretty substantive in College Station, Texas.
On The Mark: Quarterback play
• Let us stipulate that we didn't see any No. 15 Oklahoma practices in April or August. But is anyone really surprised that junior Blake Bell has done a better job running the Sooners offense than freshman Trevor Knight?
• Jameis Winston threw three incompletions in his second college game, Florida State's 62-7 rout of Nevada. That's one more than he threw in his debut. Man, I knew he was too good to be true. Seriously, Winston went 15-of-18 for 214 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in little more than a half. The fun continues.
• Not only did UCLA score the last 38 points in its 41-21 defeat of No. 23 Nebraska, but the Bruins, in a hostile environment, committed only three penalties for 21 yards. Last season, UCLA averaged 9.3 penalties per game for 93 yards. In his second season, head coach Jim Mora has the Bruins looking like the best team in the Pac-12 South.
• It might not have hurt Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien more than it did for the Nittany Lions to lose at home 34-31 to UCF and one of O'Brien's mentors, UCF head coach George O'Leary. All losses hurt, but if the crusty O'Leary allowed himself to smile, I bet it was a little bigger than usual.
Off The Mark: Refs complaints
• If you're an optimist, you noted what an improvement new Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson made in the Longhorns' defense. Texas allowed Ole Miss 272 rushing yards, less than half what BYU got (550) last week. To paraphrase President Reagan, there must be a Longhorn in here somewhere.
• No. 12 Oklahoma State didn't make players or assistant coaches available to the media after its 59-3 victory over Lamar. I just don't think that's going to make the Sports Illustrated expose go away.
• The Big Ten lost three of four games to the Pac-12 and No. 11 Michigan needed a goal-line stand to beat Akron 28-24. The Zips have lost 24 consecutive games against FBS opponents. There is good news in Iowa's 27-21 victory at Iowa State, a program that Kirk Ferentz has struggled to beat in his 15 seasons in Iowa City. There's good news at Indiana and No. 17 Northwestern, too. But that's not enough to offset the league's struggles.
• UConn went 5-7 in its first two seasons under Paul Pasqualoni, but the Huskies hung near .500 because of their defense. But UConn has started off 0-2, allowing 33 and 32 points. The Huskies allowed more than 30 points only twice in 2012. Who wins a game first in The American? UConn? Memphis? South Florida? Temple? Of the four, only Memphis hasn't lost to an FCS opponent. The Tigers don't play one until Nov. 9.
When Texas A&M sophomore wide receiver Mike Evans didn't beat Alabama corners on the fast break, he just posted them up and won the jump balls. When a wideout is 6-foot-5, it's OK to describe him as if he were a small forward. Evans caught seven passes for 279 yards, a 39.9-yard average, and one touchdown. Last season, Evans caught 82 passes but for 1105 yards, a 12.5-yard average. Evans has become a vertical threat, both in terms of height and length of field. Seven secondary coaches in the SEC -- the ones who still have to face Evans -- just shuddered.
On The Mark: Precision Passers
1 AJ McCarron, Alabama
McCarron had a career-high 334 passing yards and four pass touchdowns in Alabama's 49-42 win at Texas A&M. It was his ninth career game with at least three pass touchdowns and no interceptions, tied for the second most such games in the FBS since the start of the 2011 season (Geno Smith, 10).
2. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Mariota had a Total QBR of 97.5 in Oregon's 59-14 blowout of Tennessee. It was the sixth game of his career with a Total QBR of more than 95, the most such games in the FBS during the last two seasons. Mariota now has the highest Total QBR (87.2) of any FBS player with at least 200 action plays since the start of last season.
3. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
Mannion had a career day in Oregon State's 51-48 overtime win against Utah. He set career highs in passing yards (443), pass touchdowns (5) and 30-yard completions (5). It was his sixth career game with at least 350 passing yards, second most in school history.
4. Blake Bell, Oklahoma
Bell completed 27 of 37 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns in Oklahoma's 51-20 win against Tulsa. His 413 passing yards were the most by an Oklahoma quarterback in his first start, besting Sam Bradford's record of 363 yards set Sept. 1, 2007, against North Texas.
5. Joe Southwick, Boise State
Southwick had a career-high Total QBR (98.8) in Boise State's 42-20 win against Air Force. It was the highest Total QBR by a Boise State quarterback with at least 20 action plays in the past 10 seasons.
On The Mark: Ground-Gaining RBs
1. Bishop Sankey, Washington
Sankey had career highs in carries (35) and rush yards (208) in Washington's 34-24 win at Illinois. It was his fifth game since Nov. 1, 2012, in which he had at least 150 yards, tied with Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey for the most such games in the FBS.
2 Jordan Hall, Ohio State
Hall had another big day filling in for the suspended Carlos Hyde. He had career highs in carries (30), rush yards (168) and rushing touchdowns (3) in Ohio State's 52-34 win at California. Hyde is averaging 134 rush yards per game this season, ninth most in the nation.
3. Paul James, Rutgers
James had 21 carries for a career-high 192 yards in Rutgers' 28-10 win against Eastern Michigan. He is one of six FBS players this season with a 100-yard rushing game in each of the three weeks.
4. Jeff Scott, Ole Miss
Scott had 19 carries for a career-high 164 rushing yards in Ole Miss' 44-23 win at Texas. Scott was the third player this season to rush for at least 160 yards against the Longhorns.
5. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Gordon had 193 rush yards on 15 carries in Wisconsin's 32-30 loss at Arizona State. It was his third game this season with at least 140 rush yards and a touchdown, the most such games in the FBS.
On The Mark: Big-Play WRs
1. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Cooks caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime in Oregon State's 51-48 win against Utah. He finished the game with nine receptions for career highs in receiving yards (210) and touchdowns (3). Cooks has an FBS-high seven receiving touchdowns this season.
2. Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Evans had a school-record 279 receiving yards on seven receptions in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss against Alabama. It was the most receiving yards in an FBS game this season. He averaged 39.9 yards per reception in the game, the highest for any FBS player with at least five receptions in any game since the start of last season.
3. Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest
Campanaro tied his career high with 16 receptions and set a career high with 177 receiving yards in Wake Forest's 21-19 loss to Louisiana-Monroe. It was his fifth career game with at least 10 receptions and 100 receiving yards.
4. DaVaris Daniels, Notre Dame
Daniels had career highs in receptions (8) and receiving yards (167) in Notre Dame's 31-24 win against Purdue. Daniels scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter in the Irish's come-from-behind win, including an 82-yard reception.
5. Devin Smith, Ohio State
Smith had three receptions for a career-high 149 receiving yards in Ohio State's 52-34 win at California. Smith had touchdown receptions of 90 and 47 yards. He has seven touchdown receptions of at least 40 yards since the start of last season, third most in the FBS.