Saturday Storylines: Maryland tops list of unbeaten teams with something to prove
To hear Maryland offensive lineman De’Onte Arnett tell it, the Terrapins are ready to break down the door of success. “Talent-wise, we’re as good as we’ve ever been, and chemistry-wise we’re coming together like a team who’s had the same head coach forever,” Arnett told reporters this week. “We’re just jelling completely, everyone wants to be here and everyone’s bought into the program. Now is our time.”
Maryland won a total of six games in coach Randy Edsall’s first two seasons at the helm, with injuries hitting the program especially hard in 2012. This year the team is healthy, and Arnett has good reason for optimism. The meeting on Saturday between the No. 25 Terrapins (4-0) and eighth-ranked Florida State (4-0) suddenly looks like a game that could go a long way toward determining who will challenge Clemson for first-place in the ACC's Atlantic Divsion.
Maryland isn't the only surprising team in college football with a spotless record. No. 17 Baylor (3-0) has outscored its first three opponents 209-23 behind one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. Nineteenth-ranked Michigan (4-0) beat then-No. 14 Notre Dame on Sept. 7, but its unbeaten record also comes courtesy of close calls against lowly Akron and UConn -- the jury is still out on the Wolverines. Missouri (4-0) is the only other SEC team besides Alabama to still be undefeated.
How many of those undefeated records are sustainable? The Bears and the Tigers have yet to face a defense ranked among the country's top 50, while Michigan's win over the Fighting Irish seems less impressive now that Notre Dame has dropped out of the AP Top 25. This weekend should provide a chance to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Baylor can get off 4-0 start for the first time since 1991 by beating visiting West Virginia in the Bears' Big 12 opener. The two teams hooked up in memorable shootout last fall, with the Mountaineers winning 70-63. Two weeks ago West Virginia looked helpless in a 37-0 loss to Maryland, but coach Dana Holgorsen’s team rebounded to shock No. 11 Oklahoma State 30-21 in Morgantown last Saturday.
Missouri faces a test against pesky Vanderbilt, a team that lost to No. 23 Ole Miss and No. 13 South Carolina by a combined 14 points. Michigan opens Big Ten play against Minnesota, another early-season surprise that currently sits at 4-1.
No team, however, has a better opportunity to solidify its status as BCS contender more than the Terrapins. Maryland already accomplished a few firsts this season, from the team’s first shutout since 2008 to its first jump into the Top 25 since 2010. To date, the Terps have been solid on both sides of the ball. Quarterback C.J. Brown and receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long have helped the offense score 30 or more points in each game, while the defense leads the country in sacks (17) and is third in scoring defense (10.3 points per game).
Maryland's resurgence is well-timed, considering the pressure on Edsall entering the season. Thanks in part to an injury-plagued roster, his team lost eight games last year, including three by three points or fewer. He was widely seen as being on the hot seat entering 2013. “What we went through a year ago, I think made us stronger,” Edsall said on this week’s ACC football teleconference. “We went through a lot of adversity. When you see how people react to that, knowing we were going to get some guys back, I had a good feeling.”
The Seminoles pose the biggest threat thus far for the Terrapins. Florida State ranks 14th nationally in total defense, allowing just 290 yards per game. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston has been spectacular since picking apart Pitt in Week 1. Maryland has eight interceptions already, but the Terrapins' defense hasn’t been tasked with containing a player anywhere near Winston’s caliber.
Keep in mind, this is Maryland’s final season in the ACC before it jumps to the Big Ten in 2014. The ACC championship race was supposed to be between Clemson and Florida State, but on Saturday the Terrapins -- along with a handful of other unbeaten programs -- have a chance to prove that their early-season success is not an aberration.
“You never know how it's going be until you get on the field and play,” Edsall said, “but through all [the players’] hard work, they've put themselves in the position they’re in. But we're only four games in, so we have a heck of a lot more to go than just four games.”
The big ones
• No. 4 Ohio State at No. 16 Northwestern: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald might not like watching film of Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin from last week. The Buckeyes held the Badgers’ prolific backfield to a season-low 104 rushing yards. Northwestern averages almost 250 yards per game on the ground and returns Venric Mark (1,366 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2012) to its backfield. Something has to give.
• No. 15 Washington at No. 5 Stanford: The Cardinal remember who ruined their unbeaten season last year. A 3-0 Stanford squad didn’t manage an offensive touchdown in its 17-13 loss at Washington in 2012. But it’s the defense that will be tested this time around: Behind Keith Price and Bishop Sankey, the undefeated Huskies average 574 yards per game, fifth in the country.
• Tajh Boyd vs. Syracuse: The Orange have held their own against talented quarterbacks in recent years. Syracuse upended both Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville and Geno Smith and West Virginia last season. But Boyd seems like too much to handle, particularly given the success Dabo Swinney’s crew has found in domes as of late. Clemson’s wins over Auburn and LSU last season both came in the Georgia Dome.
• Teddy Bridgewater vs. Temple: The Owls’ defense doesn’t have an interception all season, while Bridgewater has thrown just a single pick for the Cards. Last season, Bridgewater notched a career-high five touchdown passes against Temple. It could be another big day for the junior.
• Aaron Murray vs. Tennessee: Once known as the quarterback who couldn’t win a big game, Murray has Georgia rolling after a 3-1 start, including a 2-1 mark against top-10 teams. In his two SEC wins against South Carolina and LSU, Murray threw for 607 yards, eight touchdowns and one pick. Murray could have a field day against a Tennessee team that escaped South Alabama by a single touchdown last week.
• Ole Miss: Quarterback Bo Wallace and the Rebels couldn’t hang with Alabama, as the Crimson Tide ran away with a 25-0 win in Tuscaloosa. Now Ole Miss, a program riding a lot of momentum over the last year, must avoid a letdown against Gus Malzahn and the up-tempo Tigers. Teams coming off a loss to ‘Bama haven’t fared too well in recent years.
• LSU: The good news is the Tigers’ offense didn’t have much trouble in their 44-41 loss to Georgia last week. The bad news is they still lost, meaning the defense might need a pick-me-up after the trip to Athens. Enter Mississippi State, which has dropped 21 of 22 games against LSU, including 13 in a row. Perhaps going against a Bulldogs’ offense that averages fewer than 15 points per game is just what the Tigers need.
• Notre Dame: The reasons behind the Fighting Irish’s struggles in 2013 aren’t complicated. “What we haven't done well, quite frankly, is the ordinary things,” coach Brian Kelly told reporters this week. “Last year we did the ordinary things much better.” Last year, Notre Dame also managed a 12-0 regular-season record and a BCS title berth. Against No. 22 Arizona State this weekend, the Irish need to avoid a fourth straight loss to a ranked opponent.
• Oklahoma State: After falling short against West Virginia last weekend, the Cowboys dropped a whopping 10 spots in the AP Poll. These are the same Cowboys many expected to contend for the Big 12 title. Mike Gundy’s team would have trouble keeping its Big 12 hopes afloat if it can’t survive Kansas State on Saturday.
Who is the real …
• South Carolina: UCF gave the No. 13 Gamecocks quite a scare last week, knocking quarterback Connor Shaw out of the game and rallying to within a field goal in the fourth quarter. Shaw should be back this week, but the Gamecocks haven’t been dominant since their Week 1 win against North Carolina. A meeting with Kentucky should boost South Carolina’s morale, at least according to Wildcats coach Mark Stoops.
• Baylor and West Virginia: This one’s a double-dip of mystery teams. One week, West Virginia is losing by four touchdowns to Maryland; the next, it’s sinking a top-15 team in Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, few can dispute Baylor’s offensive prowess. The Bears lead the country in total offense with an average 751 yards per game. But much of that production came thanks to Baylor’s pillow-soft nonconference slate. Let’s see if it can ring up some points on the team that just upset the Cowboys.
• Michigan: The Wolverines tend to play down to their opponents, something that holds especially true for quarterback Devin Gardner. In Michigan’s big win over Notre Dame on Sept. 7, Gardner was superb with four touchdown passes and one pick. In squeakers against Akron and UConn, he tossed five interceptions and only two scores. Legends Division foe Minnesota isn’t an elite foe, but it will still test a Wolverines team that looks very shaky.
Matchups to watch
• Illinois offense vs. Nebraska defense: Few teams have enjoyed a bigger offensive turnaround than the Illini. Illinois averages 478 yards per game (38th in the country), compared to 297 (119th) in 2012. Its 161 points through four games is a school record. Stopping quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and company could be a tall task for Nebraska’s defense, which allowed 38 straight points at home to UCLA in Week 3.
• Duke Johnson vs. Georgia Tech run defense: Miami’s underappreciated tailback looked like a Heisman dark horse in Week 1, when he rang up 196 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries against Florida Atlantic. But perhaps that game was more indicative of the state of FAU, which has since stumbled to an embarrassing 1-4 mark. Johnson averaged a mere 67.3 yards in this season’s other three games. Georgia Tech allows only 94.3 yards on the ground, and a banged-up Stephen Morris could use some help on the ground for Miami.
• Trevone Boykin vs. Oklahoma pass rush: In the Sooners’ two toughest tests this year against West Virginia and Notre Dame, Oklahoma held both opposing quarterbacks, Paul Millard and Tommy Rees, to 46.2 percent passing, two touchdowns and four interceptions. But TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin offers a kind of dual-threat attack that Mike Stoops’ Sooners’ defense has yet to see.
• Jordan Matthews vs. Missouri secondary: The Tigers have allowed 12 plays of 20 yards or more through the passing game this year. Meanwhile, the Commodores’ primary target has recorded at least 100 yards receiving in four of Vandy’s five contests. Missouri must keep Matthews and quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels at bay if they hope to avenge last season’s 19-15 home loss to the ‘Dores.