Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where Lamar Jackson just scored again on Florida State:
After a weekend in which the Nos. 3, 4, 10 and 11 teams in the preseason AP poll were all but eliminated from the College Football Playoff – that’s Oklahoma, Florida State, Notre Dame and Mississippi – it’s time to freshly appraise the new landscape.
NOT EXACTLY LIVING THE DREAM
Coaches with dream jobs that have developed some nightmarish qualities recently:
Bob Stoops (1), Oklahoma. There are a couple of ways to view the Sooners’ 1-2 start. The first is that they lost to a pair of quality teams in Ohio State and Houston and still might be the best team in the Big 12 and go 10-2 and earn a big-time bowl bid. The second is this: if Oklahoma wants to be what it so often has been in its history – a national championship-caliber program – then it has fallen far short. Again. Oklahoma operating on a high level doesn’t lose by double digits to Houston, no matter how good Houston is. And Oklahoma operating on a high level doesn’t lose by three touchdowns at home to an Ohio State team replacing 16 starters. The 45-24 loss to the Buckeyes shows that Stoops and his staff simply are not operating on the same level as Urban Meyer and his staff – not in recruiting, not in player development, not in game-planning, not in play-calling. In a league that has wandered way out of contention in 2016, Stoops is the leader of the lost brigade.
Mark Helfrich (2), Oregon. Had the very difficult task of following Chip Kelly into the job, and for two years the results were fine – 11-2 followed by 13-2 and a loss in the first CFP championship game. But then Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota left, and the standard started slipping. In 2015 the Ducks lost four games for the first time since 2007, and they’ve started ’16 an unimpressive 2-1. The victories don’t register (FCS-level UC Davis and winless Virginia), and the loss to Nebraska left ample room to second-guess the coaching. Helfrich went for two after every touchdown and went 1-for-5, in a game Oregon lost by three points. The two-point thing has become part of Oregon’s DNA, but it’s only smart if it works. Oregon lost star running back Royce Freeman, offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby and Olympian wide receiver Devon Allen to injury in the game – major deletions from the arsenal – but nobody in the Pac-12 will feel sorry for the school with the biggest facility bankroll. Circle Oct. 8 as a big game for Helfrich: unbeaten Washington comes to Eugene, and the Ducks haven’t lost to the Huskies since 2003. Helfrich would do well to keep that Mike Bellotti-Chip Kelly streak alive.
Gus Malzahn (3), Auburn. His Tigers racked up 700 yards and 51 points in an empty-calorie victory over Arkansas State. On either side of that, Auburn lost to Clemson and Texas A&M and averaged 14.5 points and 330.5 yards. Going back to last year, the one-time offensive genius coach has overseen an attack that has failed to score more than 16 points in its last four games against Power 5 opponents. Malzahn also has lost seven straight home games against Power 5 opposition, with LSU coming to The Plains on Saturday. That game could be vital for both coaches, and only one will win.
Les Miles (4), LSU. The good news: the Tigers scored more than 20 points against an SEC opponent last weekend, the first time that’s happened since last October. The bad news: for the third straight game, LSU recorded at least two scoreless quarters. The offense, now firmly in the hands of Purdue transfer Danny Etling, remains a stop-and-start operation. Miles’ continued tenure in Baton Rouge could go as far as a former loser of the Purdue QB derby will take it. Think about that.
Charlie Strong (5), Texas. After giving up 50 points to California – and 47 to Notre Dame in the opener – the head coach with a defensive pedigree said Monday that “each coach will be evaluated” during the Longhorns’ bye week. Last year in September, Strong demoted offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. This year it’s the defensive staff’s fault. Eventually, Strong will run out of fall guys. Consider the greater schedule context as well: the stirring victory over the Fighting Irish was diminished by Notre Dame’s home loss to Michigan State; and Cal already had lost this year to San Diego State. An extremely soft Big 12 might be Strong’s saving grace.
James Franklin (6), Penn State. The biggest issue is off the field, and it may be more a case of Franklin being worn out by it than Penn State being worn out with him. (Though at 16-13, nobody in Happy Valley is turning cartwheels.) The ongoing obsession in some quarters with attempting to restore honor to Joe Paterno simply serves to keep an uncomfortable storyline alive during a time when Franklin is desperately trying to move the football program forward. For the faction that wants Paterno deity status returned at the expense of the present-day team, congratulations. It’s working.
Clay Helton (7), USC. With 10 returning offensive starters, the Trojans have punted 17 times and scored seven touchdowns. That’s not an ideal ratio. Granted, USC has played two heavyweights already – Alabama and Stanford – but ranking last in the Pac-12 in scoring and total offense probably isn’t what Pat Haden envisioned last year when he kept it in the Trojan family by promoting Helton from interim coach to the boss. USC is 1-4 in the full-time Helton Era and heading to Salt Lake City this weekend to take on unbeaten Utah.
Jimbo Fisher (8), Florida State. No, he’s not on anything remotely resembling the hot seat – not after consecutive seasons of 12-2, 14-0, 13-1 and 10-3. But that 43-point crushing at Louisville will leave a mark on this team’s psyche, one that might be hard to erase in time for a road game Saturday against a 3-0 South Florida team that might be sneaky good. Three other current unbeatens are on the schedule as well: Miami, Clemson and Florida.
DO WE BELIEVE? OR ARE WE BEING DECEIVED?
There are six matchups of undefeated teams this week, and all of the participants bring some doubt to the table. The Dash decides who might be legit and who might be counterfeit.
Clemson at Georgia Tech (9). Thursday night game matches a team struggling to live up to 2016 expectations against an opponent that knows the feeling from 2015. The Tigers are the defending national runner-up and struggled for two weeks before steamrolling FCS South Carolina State. The Yellow Jackets were a complete bust last year, going 3-9 after starting the season ranked No. 16. This time around Tech is 3-0 with nobody watching – which generally seems to be coach Paul Johnson’s preferred mode of operation. Clemson hasn’t won at Georgia Tech since 2003, but The Dash still believes much more strongly in the Tigers than in the Jackets. Prediction: Clemson 31, Georgia Tech 17.
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (10). Pair of SEC West teams each has a stirring non-conference victory that they tried to give away late – Razorbacks over TCU, Aggies over UCLA. But A&M also has a conference road win over Auburn to its credit. Kevin Sumlin has been Mr. September, winning his last 13 games in that month. Bret Bielema has not, going 9-5 in September as coach at Arkansas. A&M will still have to prove it can sustain another hot season start, but for now it looks like the more complete team. Prediction: Texas A&M 34, Arkansas 27.
Florida at Tennessee (11). The Volunteers were a plus-four turnovers against Virginia Tech and won easily. They were a combined minus-two turnovers against Appalachian State and Ohio and struggled to win. Tennessee’s passing-game playmaker has been Josh Malone (four of the Vols’ six touchdown receptions), but Florida’s No. 1-ranked defense likely will make quarterback Josh Dobbs find an alternative target. If the Gators weren’t starting Purdue transfer Austin Appleby (19 career TD passes, 19 career interceptions), The Dash would take Florida. But after the injury to Luke Del Rio he is starting, so: Tennessee 16, Florida 14.
Wisconsin at Michigan State (12). The Badgers reportedly are making a change at quarterback, going with backup Alex Hornibrook after he led a comeback to avert an embarrassing defeat against Georgia State. The Spartans looked spectacular for most of the game against Notre Dame before needing to hang on at the end. These are the top two rushing defenses in the Big Ten to date, which makes it likely that the offenses will have to pass to win. Michigan State has gotten off to a good start in that department. It doesn’t have the luxury of attacking Notre Dame’s depleted secondary this week, but should be able to make enough plays. Prediction: Michigan State 24, Wisconsin 17.
Wake Forest at Indiana (13). Neither is likely legit, but the game has gotten at least a small boost in intrigue thanks to Wake’s first 3-0 start since 2008. The Demon Deacons have a pretty good defense to match up against the Hoosiers’ pretty good offense. Wake’s offense has gotten better each game, but still isn’t anything to sing about. Indiana’s defense appears much improved from last year’s dreadful unit. Prediction: Indiana 28, Wake Forest 21.
Georgia Southern at Western Michigan (14). Not exactly the clash of unbeatens you were thinking about, but here it is. Georgia Southern has beaten two fellow Sun Belt teams and an FCS opponent, while the Boat Rowers from Kalamazoo have taken down two Big Ten teams. WMU outrushed Illinois 287-3 Saturday, which is both outstanding for the Broncos and horrifying for the Illini. Prediction: Western Michigan 45, Georgia Southern 21.
THE FIVE HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL TEAMS
If you’re looking for statistical commonalities among the teams off to the best starts in 2016, The Dash has found some.
Don’t beat yourself (15). Army, Western Michigan and Maryland are the final three teams without a turnover on the season. They’re also all 3-0, which is hardly business as usual at those schools.
Defense wins (16). It doesn’t just work in the NFL for the Denver Broncos; it works in college, too. The top 17 teams nationally in scoring defense are all undefeated.
Stop the run, and stop it early (17). The top nine teams in rushing defense, 12 of the top 13, and 17 of the top 19 are all undefeated. Six teams are holding opponents to fewer than two yards per carry on first down, and they’re all undefeated: Air Force, Central Michigan, Wake Forest, Miami, Washington and Houston.
Score in multiple ways (18). Alabama has five touchdowns via defense and special teams. Ohio State and Michigan have four. Washington has three. Houston, Indiana, Arkansas, Maryland and San Diego State all have two. What do they have in common? All undefeated.
Win third down (19). The top four in percentage of third-down conversions to keep drives alive: Toledo, Air Force, Florida and Army. All undefeated. So are 10 of the top 14. Defensively, the top four in stopping third-down conversions are Michigan, Central Michigan, Toledo and Clemson. All undefeated. So are 13 of the top 18.
TO THE BALL DROPPERS: THINK OF THOSE LESS FORTUNATE
It keeps happening. Players speeding unmolested toward the end zone keep dropping the ball short of the goal line – because there is simply nothing cooler in football than giving away a touchdown for no good reason. It has become the dumbest play in the game, yet instead of watching others do it and swearing, “That will never be me,” at least three guys have committed the same sin against ball security in just three weeks.
In an effort to educate and not condemn, The Dash is here to instruct the Ball Dropping Four on how hard times can be at a school that cannot find the end zone nearly as easily.
For California running back Vic Enwere (20), whose drop against Texas could have given the Longhorns a chance to win the game had officials realized that a defender pounced on it quickly: think of Boston College (21). The Eagles have scored just five touchdowns this season, and three of those came on one-play “drives.” They didn’t score at all last Saturday against Virginia Tech, and haven’t scored more than 17 points in their last 10 Atlantic Coast Conference games. Think of the Eagles, Vic, and how desperately they would love to have a clear path to the end zone. Ever again.
For Oklahoma running back/return man Joe Mixon (22), whose ball drop before the end zone against Ohio State on Saturday night went undetected by officials on the field and the replay booth – thus keeping the Sooners from losing a touchdown and looking even worse against the Buckeyes – think of Florida International (23). The Panthers have four touchdowns in three games, and scored only half as much against vaunted Massachusetts (13 points) as the aforementioned Boston College (26 points). When BC is twice as explosive as you against a common opponent, you need an offensive intervention.
For Clemson return man Ray-Ray McCloud (24), who gave away six on a punt runback against Troy on Sept. 10, think about Buffalo (25). The Bulls have managed three touchdowns in two games – one in an opening loss to Albany, and two in a 24-point drubbing at Nevada. Buffalo has scored one punt-return touchdown in the last 14 years – you think they’d love to have the chance you dropped against Troy?
That doesn’t even include Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (26) dropping the ball accidentally on the way to score against Mississippi, when he inexplicably shifted it away from his body inside the 5-yard line. (Cook’s Heisman Trophy candidacy has been dropped as well, with just 228 rushing yards in three games.)
Nor did it include this gaffe by South Carolina State’s Ahmaad Harris (27), who flipped the ball to the official without taking a knee on a kickoff into the end zone against Clemson Saturday. That led to a touchdown for the Tigers, balancing out the bonehead play McCloud committed the week before.
The five players who have The Dash’s attention every time they’re on the field:
Lamar Jackson (28), Louisville. Averaging 10.5 yards per play, Jackson is tied for the national lead in touchdowns accounted for (18) and leads in rushing yards for a quarterback (464). He’s had nine plays of 25 yards or longer already. The hurdle at Syracuse looked like a Heisman moment – until he flowed through Florida State 47 yards for a touchdown a week later.
Jabrill Peppers (29), Michigan. Has there ever been a skill set like this guy’s? He leads the nation in tackles for loss with 9.5, yet he somehow also ranks fourth nationally in punt return yardage at 21.7 per return. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound linebacker/safety/running back/kick returner is simply a football player – plug him in anywhere and watch him go. He’s following the Charles Woodson tradition of all-around studs at Michigan, but with even a few more twists.
Isaiah McKenzie (30), Georgia. Role seems to be expanding by the week. The little man (5-foot-8) has had four receiving touchdowns and one rushing thus far, in addition to yardage as a kick returner. He crushed Missouri Saturday with three TDs, including the game-winner on fourth-and-10 from the 20 with less than two minutes remaining. (Everyone in the stadium knew Georgia was throwing to McKenzie on that play, and Missouri made sure it was easy for the Bulldogs by single-covering him and giving him a free inside release. One of many Mizzou late-game errors that made Georgia’s comeback possible.)
Janarion Grant (31), Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have a long way to go to be good, but they do have a dynamic talent in Grant. He returned a punt for a touchdown and threw a TD against New Mexico; returned a kickoff for a score and rushed for 100 yards against Howard; and had 160 all-purpose yards against Washington. Which makes him a poor man’s version of this guy …
Christian McCaffrey (32), Stanford. The reigning king of all-purpose running remains at the top of the national statistics, averaging 235 yards per game – and that’s despite having a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown called back in week one. Opponents are reticent to kick to McCaffrey, and with good reason. When he gets a few more opportunities for runbacks he will add some more spectacular plays in that area soon enough.
HOSTING THE TIDE
Some fans may not know it, but even home games usually come with hotel stays in football. Coaches want their players rested and focused heading into a game, and the best way to ensure that is to remove them from the Friday night dorm/apartment environment and sequester them in a local hotel.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama (33) has been hunkered down the night before home games for a quarter century at the Hotel Capstone (34), which is just a few Jalen Hurts spirals from the stadium. What does it take to house the Crimson Tide for a home game?
Forty-two cases of sports drinks, because hydration matters. Fourteen pounds of food prepared per player, with 56 hours of kitchen prep spread over three days, because they are large and hungry. And 1,890 dishes washed, because all that food leaves a lot of mess behind.
“We put together a pretty massive amount of food,” said the Capstone’s Ashley Russell.
Russell has become so familiar with Alabama’s pregame rhythms and schedule that she now accompanies the team on the road to help make the road trips function as smoothly as the home games.
“The road games are a much bigger undertaking,” she said.
Those call for 120 rooms. The Capstone generally holds 60 rooms for a player group that numbers about 85, plus additional rooms for coaches and support staff. (Not all coaches stay at the hotel the night before games; it usually depends on how late they are preparing on Friday and how early kickoff is on Saturday.) Player floors are monitored by security throughout their stay to keep fans or other thrill-seekers away.
The hotel’s meeting rooms are devoted to offense, defense and special teams, plus one that is used as a makeshift training room for players to receive treatment. Most of the meals are next door at the Bryant Conference Center, and fans have been known to line up on the walkway through the courtyard between the buildings just to get a glimpse of the Tide. Then they line up – along with the hotel staff – to see the players off to the buses for the short drive to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The atmosphere is cordial but buttoned-down and businesslike. Just the way a certain head coach prefers it.
“He’s here to prepare for a game so he’s very focused,” said Capstone general manager Barry Carden. “By choice, we try not to interrupt his thought process.”
Said Russell: “He’s obviously very focused, but he smiles, says hello. He nods a little. He operates on a very strict, fast-paced schedule. He doesn’t slow down.”
Hotel staff does make sure to have some of Saban’s snack of choice, Little Debbies, on hand. However, they told The Dash they do not place them on his pillow before bedtime.
Speaking of Alabama: This guy (35) had the best recap of SEC football over the weekend:
— FunnyMaine (@FunnyMaine) September 18, 2016
YOU THINK THE OFFICIATING IN YOUR LEAGUE IS BAD … ?
Everyone is convinced that the refs in the conference they watch closest are the worst. Just like people are convinced that the drivers in their hometown are the worst. Try getting out more and seeing more football, because when you do, you find calls like this one from the Tennessee Tech-Mercer (36) game:
— Wilson Heres (@Heres_Wilson) September 18, 2016
The Dash realizes that officiating staff probably isn’t getting paid a ton to call a game on the weekends after selling life insurance during the week, but c’mon.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Mike Riley (37), Nebraska. Fourteen times as the coach at Oregon State, Riley had the unenviable task of taking on the richer in-state rival, Oregon. He lost 10 of those. As the Ducks’ Nike-funded machine hit high gear, he lost the last seven in a row. Then Riley surprisingly departed for Nebraska after the 2014 season, and the future schedule offered a payback chance: Oregon in Lincoln in ’16. Riley got the chance and made the most of it Saturday, with a 35-32 victory that ranks as his biggest to date as coach of the Cornhuskers. (Yes, upsetting Michigan State late last season was important, but it wasn’t going to salvage a season that already had six losses. This time around, Nebraska is 3-0 heading into Big Ten play). Riley was asked a lot last week about finally having a fighting chance against the Ducks, and he mostly downplayed the topic. But as Portland Oregonian columnist John Canzano tweeted Saturday, “Mike Riley got the Duck off his back.”
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Jim Grobe (38), Baylor. After the latest forehead-slapping, they-don’t-get-it moment at scandal-ridden Baylor on Saturday, The Placeholder Coach said he doesn’t know what Shawn Oakman looks like. That was after Oakman, the former Baylor player who was indicted on a sexual assault charge that is still being adjudicated, visited the Bears’ locker room after their victory at Rice. Coach, here’s a clue: he’s 6-foot-8, 290 pounds. Guys that size stand out, even in a football locker room. Actually, the fact that Oakman strolled into the locker room is more an issue for the assistants and support staff who generally are charged with policing who can enter a team’s inner sanctum before or after a game. At virtually every school, they do take that job seriously – paranoid secrecy is part of the college football culture. But in this case, there was an absence of that at a time when it actually was needed. Certainly, it would have been awkward to tell a former star player he could not come in the locker room – but just as certainly, Oakman’s presence is exactly what Baylor does not need as it struggles to at least appear like it is distancing itself from the myriad sexual-assault problems that led to massive leadership changes during the spring and summer. So, here’s a suggestion for Grobe: familiarize yourself with the people who caused all the problems at Baylor, and tell them they need to maintain their distance from the program. It’s not like he has much else to do, because the Briles holdover assistant coaches are handling most of the actual coaching.
When hungry and thirsty in the sudden football town of Louisville, The Dash recommends a meal at Seviche (39) — get the blistered shishito peppers and empanadas for appetizers, then the Argentinian skirt steak entrée. Keep it local with a Goodwood Louisville Lager (40) and thank The Dash later.
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