- USC's Sam Darnold, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and Florida QB Feleipe Franks are among those under the most pressure heading into Week 6.
Going into the season, USC quarterback Sam Darnold was the hottest name in college football after his insane performance in the Rose Bowl, when he threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns in the Trojans’ win over Penn State. The sophomore entered 2017 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman trophy, but six weeks into the year, his stock has fallen. USC, which started the season 4–0, did plenty to compensate for its quarterback’s inconsistent performance early, but after it suffered its first loss last Friday to Washington State, the onslaught of criticism arrived.
At face value, it’s warranted. Against the Cougars, Darnold completed just 51.7% of his passes, a mark that ties the season low he first hit in the Trojans’ double-overtime win over Texas on Sept. 16. In addition, he threw an interception, and despite rushing for two scores, he didn’t complete a touchdown pass. It was Darnold’s worst outing of 2017, but it’s not as if the game represented some sort of dramatic about-face. Instead, it was just a low point of an already shaky season.
The most alarming thing about Darnold’s performance thus far has been his ratio of touchdowns to interceptions; he’s thrown just one fewer pick (eight) than he has touchdown pass (nine). Still, the kid is talented, and it’s not as if the player he was last season has up and vanished. Instead, teams are familiar with him, and he’s been prone to turnovers, and he’ll course-correct eventually. Still, USC’s playoff hopes rest largely on Darnold being the player he was in the Rose Bowl, and if he wants to keep his name in the Heisman race, he’d better turn things around quickly.
This weekend’s game against Oregon State will provide just that opportunity. The Beavers are among the worst teams in the Pac-12, and their defense can be downright horrible. That level of competition might be just what Darnold needs to hit his stride again, and if he can go out and throw for a handful of touchdowns and, say, 350 yards, he’ll get the shot of confidence he needs. That said, if he continues to be so turnover-happy against Oregon State—even in a USC win—the criticism will ring even truer.
Kevin Sumlin: The Aggies coach should be riding (relatively) high after his team won its fourth straight game on Saturday. But such early-season streaks aren’t exactly a thing of novelty in College Station—Texas A&M has gone at least 5–0 in each of its past three seasons, all of which saw eventual 8–5 finishes—and October and November could be make-or-break months for the coach whose seat seems perpetually hot. Saturday’s matchup against Alabama marks the beginning of a four-game streak in which the Aggies face the Crimson Tide, then Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn, all of which are or have been ranked this season. Is it reasonable to predict a Texas A&M win Saturday? Absolutely not. But Sumlin’s team needs to at least threaten Alabama to set the tone for a strong midseason run, something it hasn’t been able to do since the Johnny Manziel days.
Feleipe Franks: The redshirt freshman will be back under center for Florida against LSU after Luke Del Rio broke his collarbone—ending his season—against Vanderbilt last week. Franks opened the year as Florida’s starter but was relieved of those duties after a shaky start to the year, although it’s possible to argue that the Gators’ offensive woes go far beyond their quarterback. Regardless, coach Jim McElwain seemed quick to pull the trigger on a change after Week 4, when Florida barely edged Kentucky, but Franks’s time on the bench was short-lived. After Del Rio’s injury, he quarterbacked the Gators in the second half of last Saturday’s win, and he went 10 of 14 for 185 yards as the Gators outscored the Commdores 21–7 over the game’s final two quarters.
Florida still has Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire—who many assumed would start this fall—waiting in the wings, and Franks may not have the longest leash. He certainly didn’t earlier in the year. Still, Florida has yet to find a coherent plan on offense, but if Franks can stabilize the Gators’ attack, he’ll get a ton of credit come season’s end.
Bryce Love: The speedy Stanford running back is coming off a September in which he ran for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns. Through five games, he’s averaging an impressive 11.1 yards per carry, and after rushing for 301 yards and three touchdowns last week against Arizona State, he’s firmly established himself in the Heisman conversation. Relatively unknown outside the Pac-12 before the season, Love is becoming a household name, but for him to keep his name among college football’s best, he’ll have to keep up his frenetic pace against Utah’s athletic front seven—and pull the Cardinal along with him.
Florida State: The Seminoles came close to entering October winless, but thanks to a late touchdown they edged Wake Forest on Saturday, 26–19. Now, No. 13 Miami comes to town, and though Florida State’s playoff hopes are close to nil, it still has a reputation to uphold. Beating a ranked team would go a long way toward setting the Seminoles on a path to respectability and confirming what many people believe: that this is a team better than its bizarre early record.