ALABAMA-TEXAS A&M: BATTLE FOR THE SEC'S SOUL?
While the Southeastern Conference (1) has enjoyed the longest sustained run of dominance in college football history, the immediate success of newcomer Texas A&M (2) in 2012 has called into question whether the league needs to modernize its hallowed brand of ball or be overhauled by outside challengers.
And if the Aggies upset Alabama (3) for the second year in a row on Saturday, expect that theory to gain traction.
When Texas A&M entered the league, it brought with it a Big 12 identity: no-huddle, up-tempo, spread offense. There were significant preseason doubts whether that style would survive against the punishing defenses of the SEC. But the Aggies didn't just survive; they thrived.
Kevin Sumlin's team won 11 games, went 6-2 in the league, led the conference by a mile in total offense and saw peripatetic freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel (4) win the Heisman Trophy. Perhaps just as significantly, the Aggies also led the SEC in plays per game (78.9) and plays per minute of offensive possession (2.8) – similar to go-go Oregon's averages of 81.4 plays and 2.92 snaps per minute of possession.
In short, they brought up-tempo offense to the SEC, and it worked. The classical, methodical, defense-first SEC style worked too, as Alabama showed by winning yet another national title. But the A&M culture shock was significant.
Nick Saban (5) was not a fan. And not just because A&M beat him. Well, maybe just because of that, but his stated dislike of no-huddle football during the offseason was because of player safety.
Saban's Crimson Tide team prefers a more deliberate style of play. Alabama averaged just 64 offensive snaps per game and 1.98 snaps per minute of possession in 2012, both ranking 12th in the SEC. The only teams that played more slowly were Florida (coached by former Saban assistant Will Muschamp) and Auburn (which was a dumpster fire on offense).
Alabama was unhurried as usual in its 2013 opener against Virginia Tech, averaging 2.02 snaps per minute of possession. Texas A&M, meanwhile, has upped the tempo even more through two games, averaging 2.93 snaps per minute of possession. But the Aggies have some fast company in the league this year.
Mississippi actually is playing fastest in the SEC through two weeks, clocking in at 2.97 snaps per minute of possession. Georgia threw some up-tempo at South Carolina last Saturday and got good results. Missouri is pressing the gas pedal a bit as well, more closely resembling the attack used in its Big 12 heyday of 2007-08.
So Saturday could be a referendum of sorts on pace of play in the SEC. And, by extension, the SEC's identity going forward.
Some in the league consider A&M's 2012 season something of a gimmick-based fluke, a mindset that was articulated in one condescending question to Sumlin at the SEC spring meetings in May. A reporter asked whether it might be tougher going for Manziel & Co. now that the league has a year of film on the Aggies.
"We have a year of film on them, too," was Sumlin's cocksure response.
What A&M lacks this year that it had in 2012 when it played Alabama is a scheduling advantage.
It's true that the Aggies' trip to Tuscaloosa was its third straight league road game, but trips to Auburn and Mississippi State paled in comparison to the dramatic and brutal battle Alabama played seven days earlier at LSU. Coming off a thrilling victory in Baton Rouge, the Tide looked flat, sore and slow as A&M ran off to a shocking 20-0 lead after one quarter, then hung on for the 29-24 victory.
"They did not look like they had their legs early in the game," said Alabama radio analyst and former NFL exec Phil Savage. "Bama came up a half step, a full step, maybe even a step-and-a-half short in the first quarter. This time around they should be full of energy. I think it will be a little different in that regard."
The Dash suspects Savage is right, and expects the Tide to exact revenge for last year's loss. But if A&M wins again, it might force a reassessment of what it takes to succeed in America's best football league.
THE 2006 ROSE BOWL WAS A LONG TIME AGO
You remember that Texas-USC classic, right? One of the best games anyone has ever seen, matching a pair of power programs that seemed perfectly prepared to stand the test of time.
Eight seasons later, time's up. Or it may be up for the coaches of the two programs.
Lane Kiffin (6) and Mack Brown (7) might both have seen the beginning of the end Saturday night – Kiffin with an offensively inept performance at home in an upset loss to Washington State, Brown in a defensively pathetic performance on the road against BYU. If you put any stock in recruiting rankings, neither was beaten by superior talent.
From 2010 to 2013, the Rivals.com average recruiting class at USC was ranked fifth nationally; Washington State was 67th. Texas' four classes in that time period were ranked 8th; BYU's 58th.
For a pair of coaches who entered the season with plenty of detractors, a Week Two meltdown pumped up the volume on the criticism.
The two men don't have much in common, other than embattled stewardship of flagship programs. Kiffin is a chronically over-employed con man with exactly one good season out of five-plus on his resume as a head coach. Brown is a respected elder statesman who enjoyed a spectacular run of success over a 10-year period, but now seems incapable of finding his way back to the pinnacle.
[Watch: Coaches on the hot seat]
The fall guys at USC are young quarterbacks Max Wittek (8) and Cody Kessler (9), who have been incapable of executing even hyper-conservative gameplans. The fall guy at Texas is former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz (10), who was fired Sunday and replaced with Greg Robinson – whose most recent collegiate work at Michigan and Syracuse left a lot to be desired.
Most suspect that the real problem goes farther up the chain of command. But expect both men to be given every opportunity to turn it around this year. It would be a shock if either were terminated during the season.
So what does Brown have to do to stave off a forced retirement? Winning the Big 12 would seem the logical answer. And even though the league has been unremarkable so far this season, that would be a surprise at this point.
Given Texas' play Saturday, it seems silly to look ahead past Mississippi, Kansas State and Iowa State – but let's do it anyway. The game the Longhorns must win is the annual Red River Rivalry game against Oklahoma, which has destroyed Texas two straight seasons. Nothing has disturbed Bevo backers more than that in recent years.
The Sooners are nothing special to date offensively, but they do have a pair of quarterbacks who can run the ball – and that's precisely what Texas could not stop against BYU.
If Texas loses to Oklahoma for a fourth straight time, the pressure on Mack will escalate. If Texas is blown out a third straight time, the pressure on Mack will spike. It may not matter what happens later against Oklahoma State, Baylor and others – unless the 'Horns can somehow win the league.
USC is an even longer shot to win its conference, given the powerful early-season performances in the Pac-12. If the Trojans cannot win at home against Washington State – which came in with just five wins in its previous 45 league games – a losing conference record is highly probable. And there would be no reason to keep Kiffin in that instance.
It's early. Let's see what happens. But if the Texas and USC positions both come open in the same year, this would be one of the most interesting college football job markets in recent memory.
MEANWHILE, OUT WEST …
Just because USC is an uncontained grease fire doesn't mean the rest of the Pac-12 isn't worth watching – this weekend especially. Five big non-conference games feature Pac-12 teams off to promising starts:
Wisconsin-Arizona State (11). These are the 1-2 teams nationally in defense. The Badgers are No. 1, allowing just 162.5 yards per game and zero points in two games. The Sun Devils are No. 2 at 167 yards and zero points in one game. But those totals were compiled against bad teams, so this will be the first real test for both. Wisconsin went west last year and was upset by Oregon State. The winner takes some solid momentum into conference play.
Dash pick: Arizona State 27, Wisconsin 24.
UCLA-Nebraska (12). This was the game that jumpstarted Jim Mora's debut season with the Bruins, earning the upset in Pasadena. Return match on the road is more daunting, especially with a noon ET kickoff (9 a.m. Los Angeles time). UCLA is also dealing with the emotions of losing teammate Nick Pasquale in an accident early Sunday morning. The Cornhuskers defense has much to prove.
Dash pick: Nebraska 41, UCLA 35.
Tennessee-Oregon (13). The Volunteers have started 2-0 the last two years, then been exposed in the third game. Expect the same in Eugene. Unless the Ducks pull a Western Kentucky and give the ball away five times in the first half, this shouldn't be close. Tennessee gave up nearly 400 yards to the Hilltoppers, who have slightly fewer weapons than Phil Knight University.
Dash pick: Oregon 57, Tennessee 21.
Washington-Illinois (14). Two of the most impressive results of the early season were the Huskies' demolition of Boise State in Week One, and Illinois' romp past Cincinnati in Week Two. Now the two teams come together for a game that looks a lot more interesting than it did in preseason. Washington should be much farther along as a program, but has to prove it can handle the road (6-21 the last five years).
Dash pick: Washington 28, Illinois 20.
Fresno State-Colorado (15). This was the game that turned Buffaloes fans on second-year coach Jon Embree last season – a 69-14 emasculation in Fresno. Embree is gone, replaced by Mike MacIntyre, who has Colorado off to its first 2-0 start in five years. This is a major step up from Colorado State and Central Arkansas, but expect it to be much closer than last year's debacle.
Dash pick: Fresno State 44, Colorado 28.
In addition to the previously mentioned quandary at USC – where Kiffy added comedy to the mix Monday by announcing this week's starter via YouTube video in lieu of meeting with the media – four teams that need to figure it out at the most important position on the field:
Florida (16). Jeff Driskel is a tough guy who played through a knee sprain for most of the game Saturday at Miami. But he's also turnover-prone, committing 10 of them (six interceptions, four fumbles) in the Gators' three losses in the last season-plus. Not all of them are the junior's fault – the entire Florida offense has been dysfunctional – but he's made enough critical errors to become a target of fan dissatisfaction. With the brutal schedule to come, Driskel must get a better grip on his position – especially since there isn't a proven alternative. None of Driskel's backups has thrown a college pass.
Michigan State (17). The Spartans rank 120th out of 123 FBS teams in pass efficiency, completing less than 50 percent with no touchdowns and just 105 yards per game. They've played three quarterbacks in two uninspiring victories over Western Michigan and South Florida. The Cro-Magnon passing game should work for one more week, against Youngstown State, but after that it must improve.
Oklahoma (18). After many years of prolific passing, the Sooners are plodders so far this year. They've thrown for just 243 yards and completed 44.4 percent of their passes, with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Trevor Knight won the job over Blake Bell in preseason but has done little to secure it. Bob Stoops said Knight is out for Saturday's game against Tulsa, so Bell will get his chance to show he's more than just a power-running novelty act.
Cincinnati (19). The season is over for starter Munchie Legaux after a brutal knee injury against Illinois. That means sixth-year senior Brandon Kay must step up, which he did late last year. But Kay is not the run-pass threat Legaux was, which means the Bearcats must retool the offense to fit his strengths going forward.
THE TEN MOST AVERAGE PROGRAMS IN HISTORY
Is your favorite team a historical winner or a loser? The dividing line is simple: above .500 and you’re a winner, below .500 and you’re a loser. These are the FBS programs most closely clustered to break-even, where one good year or one bad year can change the way your program is labeled.
Oklahoma State (20).
All-time record: 543-528-48.
Winning percentage: .507
Heyday: We’re in it. The Cowboys are 51-16 over the last five-plus seasons, highlighted by a 12-1 record in 2011 and Fiesta Bowl victory.
Darkest days: Oklahoma State did not have a single winning season between 1960-71.
Trending: Up. At least until that Sports Illustrated story hits Tuesday morning. If it’s as bad as it sounds, that could change everything at T. Boone University.
All-time record: 575-561-50.
Winning percentage: .506
Heyday: Also currently in it. The Bearcats were an all-time loser until the past six seasons, when they have won 10 or more games five of the last six years and played in a pair of BCS bowls. (Don’t ask about the results of those bowls.)
Darkest days: Cincinnati had 10 straight losing seasons from 1983-92, including a 2-19-1 run in 1989-90.
Trending: Should stay north of .500, unless things go bad under new coach Tommy Tuberville.
All-time record: 552-545-43
Winning percentage: .503
Heyday: The Bears had 10 straight non-losing seasons from 1947-56, capped off by a win in the 1956-57 Sugar Bowl.
Darkest days: From 1996-2009, five different head coaches combined for 15 straight losing seasons, including a 7-37 record from 1997-2000.
Trending: Up, up and away under Art Briles. This Baylor team has the chance to be one of the best in school history.
San Jose State (22).
All-time record: 466-462-37.
Winning percentage: .502
Heyday: From 1973-92 the Spartans had 16 winning seasons, highlighted by back-to-back 10-2 records in 1986-87 under Claude Gilbert.
Darkest days: John Ralston was great at Stanford in the Jim Plunkett days but considerably less great at San Jose in the 1990s. He went 11-34 in four seasons.
Trending: Hard to say. The Spartans were a miraculous 11-2 last year to nudge over the .500 mark, but Mike MacIntyre left for Colorado and the transition begins again under Ron Caragher, the eighth head coach since 1990.
All-time record: 581-583-44.
Winning percentage: .499
Heyday: The Wildcats went 60-23-5 from 1946-53 under a promising young coach named Bear Bryant. Not sure whatever became of him.
Darkest days: Hired away from Alabama amid great fanfare, Bill Curry could not produce a winning season in seven years on the job from 1990-96.
Trending: Up, tentatively. Last year’s 2-10 debacle took the Wildcats under .500, and it looks like they’ll slip further this year. But first-year coach Mark Stoops is recruiting at a rate that will give Kentucky a chance in the future.
All-time record: 578-581-58.
Winning percentage: .499
Heyday: Usually coincides with the start of basketball season. But on the football field it was the Bert Kennedy Era from 1904-10, when the Jayhawks went 53-9-4.
Darkest days: Currently soaking in them. Kansas lost 30 games from 2010-12, most in a three-year span in school history. The total is 37 games over the past four years, spanning three coaches, also a record low.
Trending: Down, down, down.
Utah State (25).
All-time record: 506-510-31.
Winning percentage: .498
Heyday: The first 17 years under Dick Romney, from 1919-36, featured 13 winning seasons. Best one was ’36, when the Aggies went 7-0-1 and shut out seven of eight opponents.
Darkest days: From 1981-92 Utah State had zero winning seasons, bottoming out at 1-10 in ’84.
Trending: Up in the final two years under Gary Andersen, but he’s now coaching at Wisconsin.
All-time record: 574-579-50.
Winning percentage: .498
Heyday: Dan McGugin had 15 seasons with one or fewer losses from 1904-32.
Darkest days: Vandy had a dispiriting 25 consecutive losing records from 1983-2007.
Trending: Up under James Franklin, who is 16-12 in his third year. But will he stick around?
All-time record: 526-537-46.
Winning percentage: .495
Heyday: The Bobcats never had a losing record from 1925-42 under coach Don Peden, highlighted by a 26-1-1 record from 1929-31.
Darkest days: Thirteen straight losing seasons from 1983-95, including four years with 10 or more defeats.
Trending: Up. Ohio U. is working on a streak of four straight seasons with at least eight victories.
Washington State (28).
All-time record: 507-524-45.
Winning percentage: .492
Heyday: From 1997-2003 the Cougars had four 10-win seasons and played twice in the Rose Bowl.
Darkest days: Wazzu is 13-50 over the past five-plus seasons, including a 5-32 three-year run under the regrettable Paul Wulff.
Trending: It’s not pretty at the moment, but Mike Leach just had a potential program-turning victory at USC and should be positioned for better times to come.
There is nothing average about Dashette Jessica Perez (29).
PLAYERS THE DASH LOVES
They may or may not be All-Americans, but they've played their way into The Dash's heart one way or another:
Austin Wentworth (30), Fresno State. The 299-pound, all-Mountain West offensive tackle had one of the great Fatman Touchdowns ever Saturday, churning off the line of scrimmage to score on a hook-and-lateral play against Cal Poly. Never mind that he was clearly an ineligible receiver downfield; the play was too beautiful to overrule.
Shilique Calhoun (31), Michigan State. All he does is score touchdowns. The sophomore has three TDs on the season, which is a nice number – especially when you consider he’s a defensive end. Calhoun has scored on two fumble returns and one interception return, single-handedly finding the end zone more times than an anemic Spartans offense, which has two TDs on the year.
Paul Richardson (32), Colorado. He missed last season with a knee injury and has returned with a vengeance. Richardson has 21 catches for 417 yards and four touchdowns, single-handedly energizing the Buffaloes offense.
Taysom Hill (33), BYU. He throws a blindingly ugly ball (33 percent accuracy this season), but the Cougars quarterback makes up for his lack of skill with great will. He obliterated Texas for 259 rushing yards and three touchdowns, transforming one of the storied traditional passing programs into Single Wing U.
Jared Goff (34), California; Baker Mayfield (35), Texas Tech; and Christian Hackenberg (36), Penn State. They’re all true freshmen quarterbacks. None is playing like it. Goff and Mayfield are 1-2 nationally in total offense, averaging 458 and 431 yards per game, respectively. Hackenberg is No. 32 in that category at 280.5 yards per game. Goff was at least an early enrollee who was on campus for spring practice, but the other two were not. Mayfield is a walk-on, believe it or not.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Al Golden (37), Miami. The NCAA still hasn’t gotten around to telling him where his program stands in terms of sanctions, but Golden informed Florida on Saturday that the Hurricanes are a player once again in the competition for statewide supremacy. Miami gritted out the upset of the Gators and should be 4-0 starting ACC play. Go ahead and circle Nov. 2: Miami at Florida State. It may mean something for the first time in a while.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Bobby Hauck (38), UNLV. For reasons that remain unclear, Hauck still has some backers at Las Vegas despite a 6-32 record his first three seasons. The number of supporters had to dwindle after the start to this season: not just 0-2, but successive beatdowns by Minnesota and Arizona by a combined 109-36. Hauck is 0-22 on the road – and if UNLV can’t win at New Mexico on Sept. 26, it probably won’t win away from home again this season.
When hungry in Denver, The Dash strongly recommends a visit to Euclid Hall Bar and Kitchen (39). The downtown joint celebrates a football fundamental: sausage. Try the brat burger on a pretzel bun with slaw, Thousand Island dressing and cheese, but don’t overlook the sausage sampler platter, either. From there take a short walk to Falling Rock Tap House (40) for a Chimay Cinq Cents on tap. Thank The Dash later.
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