Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (ball-security instructional video sold separately in Ann Arbor):
FOUR WEEKS IN – WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
The Dash certainly has learned a lot in these first four weeks of the college football season. It has been a crash course of new knowledge. It’s great to arrive in late September so much smarter than before Labor Day.
Among the revelations to date:
We learned about a delightful internet meme that apparently is popular on college campuses. Yeah, the language is a little coarse, perhaps better suited for biker bars and minimum-security prisons, but isn’t it funnnnnn?
We also learned that said internet meme is best not shouted from a table top by a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who is under Title IX investigation at his school for alleged sexual assault.
Thus we learned that Jameis Winston (1) may never learn.
We learned that the Florida State equipment staff (2) is as mentally absent as Winston is for laying out his full game uniform on a night when he was suspended, thus setting up this priceless look from head coach Jimbo Fisher as he beholds No. 5 fully dressed out Saturday night before the Seminoles played Clemson.
We learned that Stanford Stadium has sufficient wireless signal that SOS distress texts can be exchanged between the visiting sideline and visiting athletic director’s box. And that Pat Haden (3) will heroically heed the call to badger the officials. Which at least beats the saved-my-drowning-nephew heroism concocted by USC defensive back Josh Shaw (4) in trying to explain his sprained ankles.
We learned that it’s not over until it’s over, and that mass emails proclaiming victory and pushing get-on-the-bandwagon fan gear at a discount price before the final gun can end up looking silly. Right, California (5)?
We learned which fans are fastest off a sinking ship. The crowd shot at Tiger Stadium Saturday night was shocking: LSU (6) was throwing for the end zone in an effort to beat Mississippi State on the last play in front of tens of thousands of empty seats. Fans started bailing when the Tigers were down 34-10 and missed a near-miracle comeback.
We learned that a preseason quarterback quandary isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because look at three guys who weren’t named starters until late in fall camp, and what they’re doing now:
Kenny Hill (7), Texas A&M. Presumed starter going into August: hotshot freshman Kyle Allen. Hill named starter: Aug. 16. Since then: He and the undefeated Aggies have been one of the surprise stories of the season, making everyone forget Johnny Manziel rather quickly. Hill is ninth nationally in efficiency, and none of the eight players ahead of him are throwing the ball as often (34.8 attempts per game). He’s completed 70 percent of his throws, with 13 touchdowns and one interception. Hill and the Aggies will face their toughest test since the opener Saturday when they play Arkansas in JerryWorld.
Blake Sims (8), Alabama. Presumed starter going into August: Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Sims named starter: shortly before kickoff of the season opener Aug. 30, when Nick Saban told ESPN. It had been reported two days earlier by CBSSports.com, but the school didn’t acknowledge it until gameday. Since then: The Tide has rolled unimpeded through four opponents, with Sims getting better with every start. Alabama turned him loose against Florida, throwing deep early and leading the Tide to more yards (645) than the Gators had ever surrendered in school history. Sims is fourth nationally in efficiency, but he has a bruised throwing shoulder to deal with during this bye week.
Anu Solomon (9), Arizona. Presumed starter going into August: USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, who had the best spring out of four candidates for the job. Solomon named starter: Aug. 25. Since then: Wildcats are 4-0, capped off by their ridiculous comeback to beat Cal late Saturday night. The redshirt freshman threw the Hail Mary game winner on the final play, part of a 73-attempt, 520-yard, five-touchdown passing night. For the year he’s thrown for 1,454 yards and 13 touchdowns, and run for another 167 yards. Next time we see him will be on a big stage: at Oregon on Thursday, Oct. 2.
We learned that the SEC West (10) isn’t as good as it was forecast preseason. It’s better. Texas A&M is exceeding expectations, to the point that The Dash would rank the Aggies No. 1 in the nation. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are exceeding most expectations (The Dash did tout the Bulldogs all summer as the league dark horse). Arkansas appears much improved. The only team that has its fans upset so far is LSU – and the Tigers’ rampant youth should have prepared everyone for the possibility of a step-back season. As it is, LSU still has one of the league’s better non-conference victories, the comeback thriller against Wisconsin in Houston.
Much as the rest of the SEC-fatigued nation doesn’t want to hear it, this isn’t just hype. As a whole, the seven teams of the SEC West are 20-0 in non-conference play. They are 6-0 against the Sagarin Ratings top 40. They are 4-0 against non-conference opponents from power five leagues. They are 3-0 against the SEC East, and there may only be a couple of cross-divisional games in which the East team is favored over the West.
Sobering thought: someone has to finish last in this division. Which is a reminder that there will be blood. Losses are inevitable, perhaps even lots of them. If any division of any league is going to test the commitment to strength of schedule by the College Football Playoff selection committee, the SEC West is it.
We learned that Michigan (11) is the biggest bust of the season to date, 2-2 after Saturday’s dispiriting home loss to Utah. The Wolverines are a minus-10 in turnover margin, worst in America, and on pace for minus-30. Nobody in FBS over the last six years has even come close to that (worst in that time: Washington State was minus-25 in 2008). As much as everyone has banged on error-prone quarterback Devin Gardner for his turnovers, Michigan’s defense isn’t doing much to even it out – the Wolverines have yet to recover an opponent’s fumble and have just two interceptions.
But that doesn’t mean the offensive problems aren’t real. They’re very real. Michigan has failed to get a single drive into the red zone in the two games it has played against real opponents, Utah and Notre Dame. It has not scored an offensive touchdown in those two games. A rushing attack that averaged 7.7 yards per carry against Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio) produced just 3.1 yards per carry against players of comparable size and talent.
Michigan has never been a mid-season firing kind of place, and it won’t be now with Brady Hoke. But nobody’s job security is more tenuous than Hoke’s heading into conference play.
We learned the falsest hype of the first month: the new offensive coordinator (12) who will save the day. Doug Nussmeier hasn’t saved anything at Michigan, as the above illustrates. And neither has Kurt Roper at Florida, where quarterback Jeff Driskel is still inaccurate, completing just 9 of 28 passes with two interceptions in a loss to Alabama on Saturday. (That inaccuracy can lead to wide receivers retweeting unflattering things.)
Iowa State made a change after ranking in the 90s nationally the last two years in total offense, bringing in Mark Mangino. Now the Cyclones are 115th.
Ralph Friedgen has made some progress at Rutgers, budging the Scarlet Knights up from 96th to 79th in total offense. But against Penn State, Rutgers scored 10 points and its final eight drives of the game ended thusly: punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, interception, punt, interception. Like the new coordinators at Michigan and Florida, Friedgen is trying to work a radical makeover of a veteran quarterback (Gary Nova) who still looks a lot like the old quarterback – Nova had 51 career touchdowns and 39 career interceptions coming into this year, and has added six more of each.
Lesson: better to have good players than good schemes. Though it’s nice to have both.
We learned about a mid-major team with good players and good schemes: East Carolina (13) has become an offensive volcano, erupting for 70 points and 789 yards on defensively pathetic North Carolina to run its record to 3-1 against a quality schedule. The Pirates only had nine returning starters from the 2013 team that went 10-3, but three of them were quarterback Shane Carden and receivers Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones. They’ve been stellar, and Ruffin McNeill and his staff have stockpiled enough talent that the new guys have stepped in on the offensive line and in the secondary and performed ably. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see East Carolina 7-1 going to Cincinnati for a Thursday night shootout on Nov. 13, with the American Athletic Conference title perhaps on the line.
We learned that Penn State (14) is more than just Christian Hackenberg’s cannon arm and a lot of pluck. The Nittany Lions have a defense, especially against the run. Bob Shoop’s unit leads the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (49.5) and per carry (1.75). The caveat: three of Penn State’s four opponents rank 118th or lower nationally in rushing. It will get tougher to maintain those stats – though perhaps not for a while, with a schedule that reads Northwestern, bye week, Michigan and another bye week before Ohio State comes to Happy Valley on Oct. 25.
We relearned that there is something to like about Lane Kiffin (15) when he’s not a bumbling head coach. Yeah, The Dash said it. Kiffy has been an easy target in recent years, and The Dash hasn’t refrained from taking target practice. But the first-year Alabama offensive coordinator was basically under-hyped and has over-delivered since being in Tuscaloosa. Handed an unsettled quarterback situation, Kiffin has helped make Blake Sims into something of a star. His early play calls for deep passes against Florida on Saturday showed creativity, daring and faith in Sims to make big plays in a big game instead of calling it conservatively. In a division where the Crimson Tide is going to have to score some points, Kiffin is off to a very good start.
WHAT WE WILL LEARN OVER THE NEXT FOUR WEEKS
Whether the state of Mississippi (16) is for real. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are both ranked, which hasn’t happened in the same AP poll since 1999. They’ve never been in the top 10 at the same time, but that moment could be coming in a couple of weeks when there are a couple upsets to pull on home soil. October 4 shapes up as one of the biggest dates in Mississippi football history, with Alabama visiting Ole Miss (the Rebels must play Memphis between now and then), and Texas A&M visiting Mississippi State. Current combined record of the four: 15-0. Ole Miss has to play Memphis on Saturday and Texas A&M plays Arkansas, but the stage is set for something special in the Magnolia State. But it gets no easier after that: the Rebels follow the ‘Bama game with Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn in consecutive weeks; the Bulldogs face Auburn on Oct. 11 and then have a bye week before diving back into SEC play. If either of the two programs that have labored under the boot heels of Alabama, Auburn and LSU for decades can break through and make a run at the West title, it will be one of the biggest stories of the season. But it won’t be easy.
A whole lot more about Baylor (17). The Bears have basically played against air so far: SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. The result has been three blowout wins and the usual pyrotechnics (Baylor leads the nation in scoring at 59.3 points per game). But now come three Big 12 road games in the next four weeks – at Iowa State, at Texas, home against TCU, at West Virginia – for a program that has been much different in Waco than away. Baylor has won 21 of its last 22 at home, but just 11 of its last 20 road/neutral games. Last year it averaged 60.6 points per home game, and 42.8 on the road. Baylor should be favored in all of those games, but it has lost four of its last five in Ames, 10 of its last 11 in Austin and its only visit to Morgantown. Sweep those four and the Bears will be taken more seriously as playoff contenders.
Whether anyone wants to win the ACC Coastal (18). More chaotic than rush hour in Rio. Everyone looks average so far, which is why Sagarin crams six Coastal teams between No. 41 (Duke) and 54 (Pittsburgh). Pitt got people excited with a 3-0 start, then flopped at home against Iowa. Virginia Tech got people even more excited by winning at Ohio State, but has lost twice in a row since then. Duke is undefeated but hasn’t played anyone. Georgia Tech is undefeated but untrustworthy after so many fade-to-mediocre finishes. North Carolina’s defense is appalling. Virginia’s passing offense is anemic. But someone will rise above the rubble and win the division. By the end of the day on Oct. 18, we should have a better idea who that is going to be.
Whether UCLA (19) is finally ready to play up to its preseason hype. That answer should arrive Thursday in Tempe against Arizona State, and ensuing home games against unbeatens Utah and Oregon. The anticipated Pac-12 South matchup with ASU has become clouded by quarterback injuries – Sun Devils star Taylor Kelly is out and UCLA star Brett Hundley’s status is a closely guarded secret. Jerry Neuheisel filled in heroically for Hundley in UCLA’s last game, a comeback victory over Texas, but the Bruins have been far from the dominant team a lot of us expected to see. Their average margin of victory in three games is six points, and UCLA is pretty average statistically in all major categories. (Interestingly, the Bruins have not forced a turnover since generating three defensive touchdowns in the season opener against Virginia.) Average won’t work over the next few games.
Exactly how bad it is at Northwestern (20). In a lackluster Big Ten, only one team has a losing record. Say hello (and offer condolences) to the Wildcats, who keeled over last Oct. 5 and have never gotten back up. Northwestern has lost 10 of its last 12, with the only victories over miserable Illinois to end last season and FCS Western Illinois last week. The next four are against Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska – teams that are a combined 14-2. Coach Pat Fitzgerald went with some old-school, hard-core practices on his team during its bye week, and the result was a lackluster victory over Western Illinois. The problems seem to run deeper in Evanston than lack of toughness. The upcoming games should tell us definitively whether there is any hope.
WHAT WE WILL NOT LEARN OVER THE NEXT FOUR WEEKS
What the College Football Playoff selection committee (21) is thinking. Its first rankings will not be released until Oct. 28. For the record, The Dash thinks the committee shouldn’t release any rankings at all. It will only lead to mass hysteria – few things provoke overreaction like football polls – plus more backlash and scrutiny than already existed. The basketball selection committee ranks nothing, just releasing a bracket on Selection Sunday. This committee would have been wise to do the same, but it has already gone another route. Far better to let The Dash’s weekly Fab Four be the voice of both reason and authority until December.
The phone number of Dashette Laura Prepon (22).
WHICH ONE-LOSS TEAMS HAVE THE BEST PLAYOFF CHANCE?
If your team is one of 25 unbeatens left in FBS, congratulations. You can still dream of playing for it all starting New Year’s Eve. Yes, even you, Marshall (23), with your schedule full of marshmallows. If all hell breaks loose everywhere else, you can still linger around the discussion. But if your team has taken a loss already, it gets a little dicey. The Dash looks at the five one-loss teams best positioned to still make a run at a playoff bid:
Michigan State (24). Hit the grand slam of Good Loss characteristics: lost early, lost to a good team, lost on the road, lost in a fairly competitive manner. Being beaten by 19 points at Oregon is not an embarrassment, especially after holding a nine-point lead in the second half. The bigger issue for the Spartans will be finding good wins in the Big Ten – they do play the league’s last two unbeatens, Nebraska (Oct. 4) and Penn State (Nov. 29), plus host Ohio State (Nov. 8). Assuming Michigan State wins all those and advances to the Big Ten title game, a quality opponent there would help as well. So would a Pac-12 title for the Ducks.
Georgia (25). The Bulldogs left Columbia, S.C., kicking themselves for their three-point loss to South Carolina. Now they face a schedule that appears navigable, but may pale in comparison to some SEC West rivals when all is said and done. The only ranked opponent left (as of now) is No. 5 Auburn between the hedges Nov. 15, though a potential SEC East championship would give Georgia a shot at the West champion and another quality win. Mark Richt should root for the booked ACC teams on the schedule, Clemson to open and Georgia Tech to close, to win a bunch of games.
Stanford (26). The Cardinal spectacularly self-destructed against USC on Sept. 6. Error compounded error and it all resulted in a three-point home loss in a game it probably should have won by double digits. Bad as that was, it can be overcome by what lies ahead: Stanford has six undefeated opponents still on its schedule, four away from home, starting with consecutive road trips to face Washington on Saturday and Notre Dame on Oct. 4. There are plenty of quality wins to be had; actually winning all those games will be the hard part.
LSU (27). Operating under the assumption that every SEC West team will find another SEC West team to lose to, the Tigers can now look to rebound from the Death Valley debacle against Mississippi State and set their sights on the four top-10 teams still on the schedule: Auburn (which Les Miles has beaten seven out of nine meetings) on Oct. 4; Mississippi on Oct. 25; Alabama on Nov. 8; and Texas A&M on Nov. 27. If LSU can scrap its way back into the hunt for the division title, everything remains on the table.
Kansas State (28). The Wildcats pretty much pulled a Stanford at home against Auburn last Thursday – did just enough things wrong to let the Tigers escape with a six-point victory. There were three missed field goals, a dropped touchdown that became an interception in the end zone, and two fumbles. If K-State can correct those errors and somehow run the table in the Big 12, it would be right in the mix. But running the table would require winning at Oklahoma, at Baylor, at TCU and at West Virginia. Not terribly likely.
TIME FOR THE FIRST HEISMAN UPDATE
It’s still way early, but The Dash has resisted Heisman Trophy speculation long enough. It is time to appraise the top candidates – and since it is still September, it also it time to cast a wide net and list 10 players:
Marcus Mariota (29), Oregon. What’s to like: The zeroes in the loss column and the interceptions thrown column; his No. 1 national rating in pass efficiency; his 10.46 yards per play (fourth nationally); his elusiveness and athletic ability; his command of the Ducks’ offense; and, given what’s been going on in football lately, his refusal to do or say something stupid. What’s to doubt: After getting nicked up and slowed down last year, can he stay healthy running as much as he does? Where he stands: solid favorite, especially given the recent travails of the defending Heisman winner.
Amari Cooper (30), Alabama. What’s to like: His status as the unquestioned top receiver in the game, leading the nation in yards per game (163.8) and receptions per game (10.8); the ability to play his best against the best, going head-to-head with star Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves repeatedly Saturday on his way to 10 catches for 201 yards; his size (6-1, 204), strength and body control. What’s to doubt: Can a receiver win this thing in a quarterback-centric era? None has since Desmond Howard in 1991, and Howard helped his cause with touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns during his Heisman season. Cooper doesn’t return kicks for the Crimson Tide. Where he stands: solidly in the mix, playing for an unbeaten team that will have no shortage of high-profile games to come.
Ameer Abdullah (31), Nebraska. What’s to like: Third nationally in all-purpose running, fifth in yards from scrimmage, sixth in rushing; already had a Heisman moment with his six-tackle-breaking, last-minute 56-yard touchdown catch-and-run to beat McNeese State; rushing for more than 225 yards in a prime-time spotlight game against Miami; Cornhuskers’ unbeaten record; high-character guy off the field. What’s to doubt: Will voters fall out of love with Abdullah if/when Nebraska starts losing games? Not the biggest guy, can he hold up getting 25 touches a game all season? A running back hasn’t won the Heisman since Mark Ingram in 2010. Where he stands: Definitely a contender as of now. Game at Michigan State on Oct. 4 will be big.
Dak Prescott (32), Mississippi State. What’s to like: Driving force and leading man for a team that has captured national imagination after beating LSU; tough dual-threat quarterback who plays like 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow, for the guy who called plays for Tebow that year (Dan Mullen); also has some Tebow-like leadership qualities; status as a program elevator; people like saying “Dak.” What’s to doubt: Can he keep the program elevated, or is reality arriving in October? If the Bulldogs lose games, do the voters lose interest? Not a 400-yard-per-game passing guy, and reliance on running leaves him susceptible to injury. Where he stands: As long as Mississippi State is unbeaten, he’s right there. Can probably stay in the picture with a couple losses, but not if defeats pile up.
Todd Gurley (33), Georgia. What’s to like: Has proven himself as the premier running back in the nation’s premier conference; among runners with at least 40 carries, none beats his 9.8 yards per rush average; big enough to splatter tacklers in the middle, fast enough to take his only kickoff of the season 100 yards against Clemson; will receive the perks of playing in the SEC spotlight. What’s to doubt: Will Georgia use him enough? Going away from him inside the 5-yard line against South Carolina caused statewide outrage, and he only had six carries (for 73 yards) against Troy; if he doesn’t catch many passes and isn’t used as a returner, his stats will be one-dimensional. Where he stands: In it, but more losses or low rushing output could cost him.
Shane Carden (34), East Carolina. What’s to like: Gunslinger for a giant killer; the Pirates have taken down Virginia Tech and North Carolina with Carden passing for 865 yards and accounting for 10 touchdowns in this wins; he figures to throw it a ton and put up huge numbers in a quarterback-friendly offense, for a 3-1 team that should keep winning; Thursday night game against Cincinnati on Nov. 13 could provide a Jordan Lynch-style spotlight. What’s to doubt: It’ll be easy to disappear over the next six weeks, with games against SMU, South Florida, Connecticut and Temple; even big numbers won’t resonate much if the competition is weak; any losses could be killers. Where he stands: On the periphery at the moment, but not out of the picture.
Everett Golson (35), Notre Dame. What’s to like: Has become the focal point of a glam program that is undefeated and in the top 10; hasn’t thrown an interception in 96 passing attempts; has run when it presented itself, but is playing better than ever from the pocket; blossoming as a leader. What’s to doubt: Another guy who doesn’t figure to pile up crazy numbers, so his team will have to keep winning; competition has been soft in hindsight, especially with Michigan a grease fire; will he still shine when the opposition improves? Where he stands: As long as Notre Dame wins and Golson is considered the team’s focal point, he will be involved.
Kenny Hill, Texas A&M. What’s to like: He’s in the top 15 nationally in every major passing category after the first four starts of his college career – and has won them all; was brilliant in season-opening spotlight against South Carolina; can run well enough to rank sixth in total offense and average 9.45 yards per play; will have all the high-profile opportunities he needs to impress voters playing in SEC West. What’s to doubt: Could be considered a system guy more than a great talent after basically duplicating Johnny Manziel’s success; will be sorely challenged to keep up his current pace against the opponents to come. Where he stands: Involved. Could be a third straight year with an A&M quarterback in New York for the ceremony.
Taysom Hill (36), BYU. What’s to like: Swashbuckling catalyst for an undefeated team with a couple of attention-grabbing wins; Cougars stand a pretty solid chance of running the table, and voters love the star player for unbeaten teams; run-pass threat who ranks third nationally in quarterback rushing and has accounted for 13 touchdowns; has enough sass to his game and personality to garner attention. What’s to doubt: Schedule loses a lot of luster from here on out, with no ranked teams and no power-five opponents until the season finale against Cal; any loss could spell doom; not a pure passer, he’s likely to have a game or two with ugly accuracy stats. Where he stands: Interesting novelty who could be a factor if BYU wins them all.
Jameis Winston, Florida State. What’s to like: Still undefeated as a college starter, still the leader of the nation’s No. 1 team, still one of the premier talents in the country; an absolute attention grabber, every time he does anything; Seminoles showed how much they need him Saturday in flailing past Clemson without Winston in overtime at home. What’s to doubt: An award that has always had a lot of character-related mythology attached seems like an even more awkward fit with Winston now than ever; if his NFL stock dropped like a stone last week, rest assured his Heisman stock took a tumble with it; sitting out a big game for disciplinary reasons doesn’t help the stats or the perception; his passing numbers are not as good as last year, with efficiency down from 185 to 157 to date; is this the guy to sit next to Archie Griffin as the only back-to-back Heisman winners in history? Where he stands: On the outs. But don’t count him out completely.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Kevin Wilson (37), Indiana. Got a big victory for the Hoosiers and the Big Ten at Missouri on Saturday – not the kind of game the program is known for winning over the bulk of its inglorious history. Wilson has worked hard to breed a feisty confidence at Indiana, and there are signs of progress. After inching from 1-11 to 4-8 to 5-7, the next step is a bowl game. Beating Mizzou will help. But does it erase surrendering 45 points to Bowling Green the previous week? No.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Dabo Swinney (38), Clemson. Has made strides in ridding the program of its underachiever rap – and then the Tigers blew the opportunity to beat a Winston-less Florida State on Saturday. Clemson’s refusal to play under center in short-yardage situations led directly to defeat – first with a shotgun snap over the head of the quarterback from inside the 1-yard line, then with an easily stuffed run from the pistol formation on fourth-and-a-foot in overtime. Hard not to feel like Swinney’s team gave away the game more than the Seminoles seized it.
When hungry and in need of TVs to watch football in Tuscaloosa, The Dash recommends Bob’s Victory Grille (39). There are a couple of drawbacks: keeping people waiting with plenty of empty seats at the bar; the “e” on the end of Grill; and an absence of Good People Snake Handler Double IPA (40) from the beer menu. But the chicken wings were excellent, and there are enough TVs to catch just about every game that’s going on at any given time. Check it out and thank The Dash later.