Punt, Pass & Pork: What do we know at the season's midway point?
We’ve hit the halfway point of the 2014 campaign, and we’re probably just as clueless about how everything will shake out as we were during the summer. Still, this feels like a perfect time to take a look back, a look around and a look ahead before we hit the downhill portion of football season.
In August, the following things seemed true:
• South Carolina would compete for the SEC East title.
• UCLA would compete for the Pac-12 title and a College Football Playoff berth.
• Mississippi’s two SEC schools would have their best teams in years, but that probably wouldn’t matter in a loaded SEC West.
Well, how did we do?
The South Carolina pick wasn’t our best work. Texas A&M crushed the Gamecocks 52-28 in the season opener, and then coach Steve Spurrier's team fooled us for a few weeks by beating East Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt. After the Vandy victory, Spurrier proved he wasn’t fooled. His team had just eked out a win over a weak opponent, and he knew disaster lay ahead. Losses to Missouri (21-20) and Kentucky (45-38) followed, and the Gamecocks are probably already out of the title race in the worst SEC East in years.
We didn’t do much better with UCLA. The Bruins tried to warn us with lackluster wins over Virginia, Memphis and Texas, but they tricked us by clobbering Arizona State on Sept. 25. A loss to Utah (30-28) and a blowout defeat against Oregon (42-30) in which the defensive coordinator attempted to hand in his headset (more on that below) later, the Bruins don’t look like contenders for a title of any kind.
We were correct that the Mississippi schools had their best teams in years, but we underestimated just how good they would be. Raise your hand if you predicted we would come to a point this fall when Mississippi State would be ranked No. 1 and Ole Miss would be ranked No. 3 and receiving first place votes in both polls. To paraphrase Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen: Put your hand down. You’re a liar.
Conceivably, Gurley and Winston could still compete for the Heisman. But at this point, we can’t be sure how many more games either will play. Georgia suspended Gurley indefinitely last week pending an investigation into an accusation that he sold autographs for cash. He has already missed more time than Johnny Manziel did last year, and if the NCAA finds evidence he accepted money, he could sit for much longer. School officials are hoping for some kind of resolution this week, but no one seems to know exactly what that resolution will be.
Winston, meanwhile, should play when the Seminoles face Notre Dame on Saturday in a clash of unbeaten teams. It gets murky beyond that. Winston was notified last week that he will face a school disciplinary hearing stemming from a December 2012 sexual encounter that resulted in a rape accusation from another student. Winston has to schedule an informational hearing by late this week, but it seems unlikely Florida State could convene the actual disciplinary hearing -- which will feature an independent arbiter instead of someone from the school -- before the Notre Dame game. It seems quite likely the hearing will take place some time between the Notre Dame game and Florida State’s next game, at Louisville on Oct. 30. Winston could be disciplined in a way that could cost him playing time, or he could not be disciplined at all. Further complicating the matter, as SI.com legal analyst Michael McCann pointed out, is the fact that Winston’s attempt to clear his name in the hearing is a risky move given that he can still be charged criminally and almost certainly will be sued by the woman in civil court.
Conventional wisdom was pretty much on target regarding Hoke and Muschamp.
So, what do we absolutely know now based on half a season?
• While Mississippi State may or may not remain atop the rankings, quarterback Dak Prescott has planted himself squarely in the middle of the Heisman race.
• Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the nation’s most dynamic player, but his fortunes will rise or fall along with the health of his offensive line. Mariota got an important blocker back on Saturday (more on that below).
• Unless Stanford’s offense improves dramatically in the next few weeks, the Cardinal’s streak of Pac-12 titles will end at two.
• Brady Hoke will not coach Michigan next season.
What questions still must be answered?
• Can the Magnolia State stay on top? Mississippi State and Ole Miss have looked like the most impressive teams in the most impressive division in college football. But to create the ultimate Egg Bowl, Mississippi State still must win at Alabama, and Ole Miss still must defeat Auburn. They both also have to beat Arkansas, a task that seems to grow more difficult with each passing week.
• Is Oregon back in the hunt? The Ducks looked great at UCLA, and the schedule seems manageable from this point forward.
• Can Muschamp save his job at Florida? The SEC East is historically weak, and wins in the next two games (Georgia and Missouri) would make the Gators 4-0 in the East with only Vanderbilt and South Carolina to go. Of course, losses in the next two games would seal the deal.
• Can Baylor repeat in the Big 12? TCU would have had a stranglehold on the league had it held its fourth-quarter lead on Saturday. Now, it remains anyone’s guess which team will win the conference. The key matchups in the next few weeks are Kansas State at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at TCU on Saturday, Oklahoma State at Kansas State on Nov. 1 and Baylor at Oklahoma on Nov. 8.
• Is Notre Dame for real? Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long for the answer to this question. We’ll find out on Saturday in Tallahassee.
Projected College Football Playoff
If I learned anything from my mock selection committee experience last week, I’m really bad at this. But here goes …
1. Mississippi State
It’s tough to distinguish between Mississippi State and Ole Miss at the top, and these two could wind up swapping spots even if both keep winning. After seeing each in person over the past two weeks, both Mississippi schools have excellent defenses. The Bulldogs just seem to have a few more weapons on offense. To borrow a phrase from the Ole Miss vernacular, we saw a bit of Good Dak and Bad Dak on Saturday, yet Auburn -- a team that could wind up reaching the playoff -- still couldn’t get within eight points. When the Bulldogs needed to score, Prescott made it happen. That’s quite a luxury.
2. Ole Miss
That said, if the Rebels keep dominating the way they did on Saturday in College Station, they could swipe the top spot. Ole Miss gets Tennessee at home next week before visiting LSU on Oct. 25. If the Rebels remain consistent, they should win both of those games comfortably. That would keep them undefeated heading into the Auburn game in Oxford on Nov. 1.
3. Florida State
The Seminoles eased past Syracuse this weekend, and Rashad Greene looked healthy as he broke the school receptions record. Now comes the hard part, on two fronts. Florida State faces its toughest remaining test when Notre Dame visits Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday. The Fighting Irish looked sloppy in a 50-43 win over North Carolina, but they were probably looking ahead to Florida State. The Seminoles should expect Notre Dame’s best shot. As for Winston, the logistics of his disciplinary hearing suggest that he’ll be available against Notre Dame.
The Bears won a shootout against TCU, which appears to have the best defense in the Big 12. When Baylor’s offense is clicking the way it was in the fourth quarter, there might not be a defense in the country capable of stopping it. The Bears return to Morgantown on Saturday for the first time since West Virginia’s face-melting 70-63 win in 2012. If Baylor gets past the Mountaineers, it can relax momentarily. It has a bye, and then Kansas. Then on Nov. 8 it goes to Norman.
A random ranking
After spending last Thursday participating in that mock selection, I wanted to rank something slightly less controversial. So, here are the top 10 ancillary Muppets. How did I decide which are ancillary? The ones whose younger selves appeared in every episode of Muppet Babies are main characters. Everyone else is fair game.
1. Swedish Chef
5. Sam the Eagle
6. Bunsen Honeydew
8. Dr. Teeth
9. Link Hogthrob
10. Lew Zealand
Play of the week
On his Smart Football site, Chris Brown regularly references a statement made by former Stanford and current San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman in 2012: “If you want play action, you’d better pull a guard.” Roman couldn’t be more correct. Want to sell a run fake? Then have the offensive linemen move exactly as they would on a run play. This is especially easy in the college game, in which linemen can drift three yards past the line of scrimmage before they’re called for being illegally downfield on a forward pass. (In practice, they can drift even farther; officials rarely call it.)
Baylor did this to perfection on its game-tying touchdown against TCU. One reason the play action is so convincing is that it’s not actually a fake. Quarterback Bryce Petty has the option to hand the ball to Shock Linwood, who averaged 6.1 yards a carry on Saturday and who had just run for seven yards on the previous play. By pulling Australian left guard Blake Muir, the Bears sell the run part of the play. Just watch the linebackers flow along with Muir. But again, what makes this so diabolical is that it actually is a run play if Petty wants it to be. So, when he puts the ball in Linwood’s belly, TCU safety Chris Hackett has to move toward the line of scrimmage. Everyone on the defense is flowing to the right side of the offense with the play action, but left tackle Spencer Drango’s pass sets and then kicks out the defensive end, creating a gaping cutback lane if Petty decides to hand off.
Meanwhile, Hackett’s move toward the line has left him unable to help cornerback Ranthony Texada, who is now in one-on-one coverage against a streaking Corey Coleman. Had Texada, who started the play close to the line, managed to jam Coleman, Petty would have handed off to Linwood for a nice chunk of yardage. But as soon as Petty saw Hackett step down and Coleman sprint past Texada, the quarterback knew he had a touchdown. The beauty of this play is it would have worked either way -- and there was no way for TCU to stop it.
Big Ugly of the week
This week’s honoree is Oregon tackle Jake Fisher, whose return from a left leg injury settled the Ducks’ offensive line and allowed Oregon to truly run its offense in a 42-30 win at UCLA. “He’s got, I don’t know if I want to call it a calming effect, but there’s confidence there,” Ducks offensive line coach Steve Greatwood told reporters. “It’s apparent. The guys aren’t trying to do too much.” After allowing 12 sacks in the past two games, Oregon allowed zero against the Bruins. The Ducks also averaged 6.3 yards per carry, which probably helped with the sack figure. The Bruins had to respect the run, and they couldn’t rush as hard upfield.
Fisher was originally slated to play right tackle this fall, but he moved to the left when Tyler Johnstone suffered a season-ending injury in August. Fisher went down against Wyoming on Sept. 13, and his absence was obvious against Washington State and Arizona. “It was really good to have him back,” left guard Hamani Stevens told athletic department site GoDucks.com. “With Jake out there, we don’t really have to talk. He knows what I’m thinking, I know what he’s thinking and we’re just able to put our hands on the ground and move the ball.”
1. If Notre Dame hopes to pull the upset in Tallahassee, quarterback Everett Golson will have to stop his recent turnover binge. After not giving the ball away in his first three games, Golson has committed nine turnovers in the past three. In Saturday’s 50-43 escape against North Carolina, Golson lost two fumbles and had an interception returned for a touchdown. The Fighting Irish will face a talent deficit for the first time all season on Saturday. Golson can’t afford to give the 'Noles’ superior athletes any more help by handing them the ball.
2. Once again, Arkansas came close to its first SEC win since Oct. 13, 2012. Once again, it fell just short. The Razorbacks held Alabama to a season-low yardage total (227), but they fumbled a ball through the end zone that might’ve been a touchdown and missed a chip shot field goal in a 14-13 loss. Arkansas gagged away a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime to Texas A&M on Sept. 27.
The Razorbacks are definitely better than last season, and possibly quite a bit better. But they’re tired of moral victories. “To me, an L is an L. We work so hard during the week and to see it not pay off, it hurt us,” safety Alan Turner said. “At the same time, we know we are headed in the right direction. It’s not coming the way we would like it to, we still have not gotten a win but we know we are headed in the right direction. If we keep pushing forward, the win is going to come.”
It could come next week in Little Rock against Georgia. It’s unclear whether the Bulldogs -- who won 34-0 at Missouri on Saturday -- will have Gurley, who was suspended indefinitely because of an investigation into an allegation of selling autographs. It is clear that SEC East teams have not looked as impressive as SEC West teams. Arkansas will break through eventually. It’s only a matter of when.
3. Just imagine if Arkansas hadn’t made those mistakes. What would we be saying about Alabama today? The Crimson Tide (5-1, 2-1) can still reach all their goals, but they have not looked impressive since beating Florida 42-21 in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 20. Alabama will return home to face a reeling Texas A&M this Saturday. The Crimson Tide can knock the Aggies from the SEC West race with a win. They can make things even more muddled if they continue to struggle.
4. There hasn’t been much nice to say about Michigan this season, but congrats to the Wolverines on their first conference win. Their 18-13 victory over Penn State was ugly, and it ended with quarterback Devin Gardner banged up. But Michigan got to celebrate. “It was obviously good to win, and we had some tough times and tough weeks, but the resiliency of our football team, the resiliency of how they go about every day in practice and the hard work that they put in paid off,” Hoke said. “And it wasn't pretty at times, but things aren't pretty all the time.”
The win probably won’t save Hoke’s job, but it gives the Wolverines a bit of relief heading into a bye. They have two weeks to prepare for Michigan State, which likely won’t be enough. Still, the Wolverines can smile for the first time in a while.
5. The jury remains out on the subject of icing the kicker, but USC coach Steve Sarkisian is a believer. The anecdotal data collected on Saturday night seems to support his strategy. Twice against Arizona -- once at the end of the first half and once at the end of regulation -- Sarkisian called timeout before the Wildcats’ Casey Skowron could kick. Skowron’s second attempt at the end of the first half was blocked. Skowron’s second attempt at the end of regulation sailed wide right. This might be a good time to mention that USC won 28-26.
“My thinking is, generally speaking, it’s hard to make two kicks in a row. I think there is some timing involved,” Sarkisian said in his postgame press conference. “You’d like to have the guy have to kick it and then kick it again. We got fortunate. We timed it well tonight. He made both of the first kicks and missed both of the seconds. It’s just practicing it, looking at the film and studying the cadence of the snapper so you know when to call the timeout.”
6. Any doubts about Charlie Strong’s ability to succeed at Texas likely disappeared on Saturday. The Longhorns were severely outmanned by Oklahoma, but they fought for every minute of a 31-26 loss. This team could have already gone into the tank. It is thin because of attrition, and its talent level isn’t equal to the best teams in the Big 12. But the week after its defense flustered Baylor in a 28-7 loss, Texas made strides offensively and defensively against a good team.
That’s why fans gave a standing ovation as Texas left the Cotton Bowl. “I think you look at this game, and you say ‘They fought. They believed.’ We were down at the end, and what we did at the end, what the offense did -- there’s no quitting in this team,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “We’re not going to quit. There’s no disbelief in who we are. There’s none of that. We believe in who we are.”
Now, imagine when Strong begins recruiting in earnest the type of players who fit his personality and playing style. It won’t take long for this program to be favored in games like Saturday’s again.
7. Meanwhile, the way Texas kept that game close should give Oklahoma pause. Obviously, the Longhorns gave their best shot in the Red River Rivalry. But if the Sooners hope to play for a title, they should beat teams like Texas soundly.
The road gets no easier for Oklahoma. Kansas State comes to Norman this week. The Wildcats are coming off an open date, and their only loss is a 20-14 squeaker against Auburn that would have been a win if not for three missed field goals.
8. The blame for Florida’s 30-27 loss to LSU seems to be heaped upon quarterback Jeff Driskel, who threw the late interception that set up the Tigers’ game-winning field goal. But as Gators coach Will Muschamp pointed out after the game, it was a team collapse. Particularly galling to Muschamp was the fact that Florida’s defense allowed LSU to convert a third-and-25 from its own 33-yard line late in the fourth quarter with the Gators leading 24-20. Quarterback Anthony Jennings hit Travin Dural for a 41-yard gain, and a personal foul on Florida added 15 yards. LSU took the lead two plays later on Dural’s spectacular one-handed catch. “You cut a guy loose in that situation, you don’t deserve to win,” Muschamp said of the third-and-25 conversion.
Muschamp now must decide if Driskel will remain Florida’s starting quarterback. Freshman Treon Harris, who led the Gators’ offense to two fourth-quarter scores in a 10-9 win at Tennessee, was reinstated to the team on Friday after the woman who had accused him of sexual battery withdrew her complaint. Muschamp elected not to play Harris against LSU, but he’ll have to decide if Harris should take over the offense moving forward. “It’s a very difficult situation for everyone involved,” Muschamp said. “It’s a learning experience for all of us, and we certainly welcomed him back Friday. And I know that he was happy and trying to move forward. Everybody’s a victim in this situation, including Treon. This isn’t good for anyone. No one wins in this situation. And I feel sorry for all of the parties involved.”
9. One of Saturday’s strangest scenes was the sideline argument between UCLA coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. As the Oregon offense shredded the Bruins, Ulbrich took issue with something Mora said. The men argued, and Ulbrich handed over his play card and took off his headset. It looked like he was quitting his job right there in the middle of the Rose Bowl.
After the loss, Ulbrich blamed only himself for the incident and promised it wouldn’t happen again. “I was in a moment where, obviously I lost a little bit of control,” Ulbrich told the Los Angeles Daily News. “And I can’t do that. I can’t do that. That’s not a good message for my players.”
10. Cole Stoudt is Clemson’s starting quarterback again after Watson broke a finger on his throwing hand in Saturday’s 23-17 win over Louisville. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said on Sunday that Watson would undergo a surgery in which four screws will be inserted in the injured finger. Swinney hopes Watson will return in time for the Georgia Tech game on Nov. 15.
What’s eating Andy?
I thought I had no complaints this week. Then, as I was working on this column, my wife flipped on the ’80s music channel. Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love” came on. I haven’t heard this song in at least 20 years. I still know the words. Why have they not been purged from my brain to accommodate more useful information?
As a bonus, you get to have this dreck stuck in your head, too.
What’s Andy eating?
On Friday, I ate about a dozen of the world’s greatest hush puppies at The Catfish Hole in Fayetteville, Ark. I didn’t feel bad. The place serves about 10,000 on a busy day. Is there video of this hush puppy consumption? Of course there is.
While driving from Arkansas to Starkville for the Auburn-Mississippi State game on Saturday, I finally got to try a place that had been recommended to me by about a dozen different people. When I saw my route would take me past De Valls Bluff, Ark., I knew I’d stop at Craig’s. Craig’s is one of those places a lot of people swear is their absolute favorite. It’s a tiny shack that has operated since 1947, back when a divider separated white diners from black diners, who had to enter through a side door. Thankfully, we live in far more enlightened times. The divider is gone, but the barbecue still draws travelers moving between Memphis and Little Rock.
Now everyone comes through the front door at Craig’s. If you’re more than 6-foot, prepare to duck. That doorframe is awfully low. A handwritten sign warns patrons no shirt and no shoes equals “no services,” which is more accurately translated to “no sandwiches.”
The star at Craig’s is the sliced pork sandwich. They make a chopped beef sandwich, too, but skip it. Just get the pork sandwich with hot sauce. I had tried Craig’s sauce before visiting the building. My friend George Schroeder, who grew up in Arkansas and covers college football for USA Today, sent me a bottle a while back. The sauce tastes as if a vinegar-based barbecue sauce mated with a bottle of Pickapeppa sauce. Don’t know Pickapeppa? It's from Jamaica, and it adds a bite to any meat it touches. Like Pickapeppa, Craig’s sauce is best in small doses. Fortunately, the ladies on duty didn’t douse the meat. They added just enough of a glaze to allow the sauce to accent the smoky pork and toasted bun. As handheld barbecue goes, this was ideal. My shirt went unblemished, and my belly was full.
If you’ve read much of my writing on barbecue, you know where I’m headed when I spend an entire paragraph writing about sauce. Truly great barbecue requires no sauce. Craig’s pork needed the sauce. The sandwich was quite tasty, but the meat didn’t quite justify the hushed tones used by Craig’s proselytizers.