Conference play began in earnest nationally last weekend, and in light of early-season upsets like Stanford over USC and Kansas State over Oklahoma, now seems like as good a time as any to reassess the state of each of the six AQ conferences. After four weeks, plenty has already changed.
• Preseason favorite: Florida State
• Current favorite: Florida State. With a 49-37 win over No. 10 Clemson, a game in which the No. 4 'Noles exploded for 667 yards, Jimbo Fisher's team got an early leg up in the Atlantic Division. It also signaled that it's finally ready to live up to its lofty preseason billing. We expected FSU to rely heavily on its touted defense, but through four weeks it also ranks in the top five nationally in total offense (574.5 yards per game).
• Dark horse: Virginia Tech. One should never count out the Hokies, even after a humbling Sept. 15 loss at Pittsburgh. That's especially true given that Frank Beamer's team hosts a key Thursday night showdown against FSU Nov. 8. If you think any team besides the Hokies, 'Noles or Clemson can win the ACC, you probably also own Facebook stock.
• Preseason favorite: Oklahoma
• Current favorite: Kansas State. Many may opt for West Virginia or Texas here, but I'm done doubting Bill Snyder's team after Saturday night's 24-19 win in Norman. Collin Klein has matured into a true dual-threat quarterback, and the emergence of former Boston College quarterback-turned-K-State linebacker Justin Tuggle has only bolstered a defense that's athletic enough to slow down the Big 12's pass-heavy offenses.
• Dark horse: TCU. The 3-0 Horned Frogs still have offensive issues to address following the offseason departure of Ed Wesley and the season-ending knee injury to top rusher Waymon James. But Gary Patterson appears to have another top-flight defense on his hands. The Horned Frogs have allowed just one touchdown in three games.
• Preseason favorite: Louisville
• Current favorite: Louisville. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater cooled his torrid pace in his return to South Florida, as he completed just 19-of-36 passes for 194 yards with two interceptions in a 28-21 win at FIU. But the Cardinals are clearly still the Big East's most talented team. Rutgers, also 4-0 and with consecutive road wins at USF and Arkansas, may not be far behind. The two don't meet until Nov. 29 in what could be a de facto league title game.
• Dark horse: Cincinnati. We don't know all that much about the Bearcats since they've only played two games in 2012. But their Sept. 6 rout of Pittsburgh -- in which Butch Jones' defense blew up the Panthers' offensive line -- looks a lot better now that Pitt beat Virginia Tech. Cincinnati happens to face the Hokies next week in Washington D.C.
• Preseason favorite: Michigan, Michigan State or Wisconsin
• Current favorite: ????. The Big Ten's highest-ranked team, 4-0 Ohio State, is ineligible to win the conference. Its other expected contenders all have dysfunctional offenses. Consider this: Nine of the league's 12 teams are ranked 52nd or lower in total offense. At this point I'm inclined to favor Nebraska, the rare team with a productive quarterback in Taylor Martinez. The Huskers' defense got shredded at UCLA, but they won't face another offense of that caliber for the rest of the year.
• Dark horse: Northwestern. The 4-0 Wildcats defeated three admittedly lightweight BCS-conference foes (Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College) and don't face the three best teams from the Leaders Division: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue. Pat Fitzgerald's team could conceivably sneak its way to Indianapolis.
• Preseason favorite: USC
• Current favorite: Oregon. Don't say I didn't warn you about the Ducks' defense. Saturday, coordinator Nick Aliotti's group shut out an Arizona team that came in averaging 46 points and 605 yards by notching two pick-sixes and denying six Wildcat trips to the red zone in a 49-0 win. Chip Kelly's normally seamless offense wasn't particularly crisp, and Arizona contained SI cover boy De'Anthony Thomas. But, through four games, first-year quarterback Marcus Mariota is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes.
• Dark horse: Oregon State. The Beavers have played two games. They've beaten two ranked opponents (Wisconsin and UCLA). Oregon State's defense has shut down two renowned running backs, Monteé Ball and Johnathan Franklin, and its offense suddenly has a bevy of weapons. Let's see if Mike Riley's team can keep it up.
• Preseason favorite: LSU
• Current favorite: Alabama. The Tide have played 16 quarters of nearly flawless defensive football. In the fourth quarter against Florida Atlantic Saturday, 'Bama allowed its first points since the season opener against Michigan. On offense, Quarterback AJ McCarron is the nation's fourth-rated passer and the Eddie Lacy-led rushing attack is averaging more than 200 yards per game. The Nov. 3 showdown in Baton Rouge will get here soon enough.
• Dark horse: Georgia. It's hard to label a top-five team a dark horse, but the Dawgs have the firepower to end the SEC West's title run. Aaron Murray has been sensational, freshman back Todd Gurley is averaging 101.5 yards per game and the Georgia defense is about to improve behind the return of suspended star safety Bacarri Rambo.
One other revision: Boise State, which failed to score an offensive touchdown in last Thursday's painful-to-watch 7-6 win over BYU, is no longer my Mountain West favorite. That nod goes to Nevada, which hosts the Broncos Dec. 1.
You can decide for yourself whether Florida State asserted itself as a bona fide national title contender with Saturday's showcase win over Clemson. But one thing is certain: Seminoles quarterback E.J. Manuel is primed to do his part.
After FSU fell behind 31-21 in the third quarter, Manuel ignited a 35-point second-half explosion. He amassed a staggering 482 yards of total offense, including career highs for both rushing yards (102 on 12 carries) and passing yards (380 on 27-of-35 attempts), and became the first Seminoles quarterback since Charlie Ward to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game. On a prime time stage, Manuel delivered his most definitive performance to date.
"They were mixing up looks and bringing in blitzes from everywhere and he made plays when he had to," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher. "I don't remember him making a bad decision all night."
Fisher and Manuel have been tied together for more than five years. Back in June 2007, the Virginia Beach native became the first high-profile quarterback to commit to then-coordinator Fisher, whom Bobby Bowden had hired away from LSU that offseason to resurrect a moribund offense. FSU fans have been waiting for the program's resurrection ever since. Manuel spent three years backing up Christian Ponder, filling in to lead Florida State to victories in the 2009 Gator Bowl and 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Last year, however, in his first as the full-time starter, Manuel was beset by injuries and upsets. Though FSU was tabbed with lofty preseason rankings, Manuel -- despite garnering a top-20 passer rating -- remained one of its biggest question marks.
"I think it was my biggest victory, yes," said Manuel after Saturday's game. "... This is what you signed up for when you come to Florida State -- games like this."
Manuel speaks regularly with Ward, the 1993 Heisman winner who delivered Bowden the first of his two national titles. The 'Noles have spent the past 11 years trying to return to that elite status, and often quarterback was the missing piece.
"I just want to win and leave a legacy at Florida State for our fans," Manuel said.
Saturday was not as kind to two other veteran quarterbacks, Michigan's Denard Robinson and Oklahoma's Landry Jones. Both have been in the spotlight seemingly forever. Both have shattered records and appeared on various Heisman lists. But both have also had their share of detractors, and lately, the quarterbacks have been providing no shortage of fodder.
Painful is the only word to describe Robinson's nightmarish performance Saturday night at Notre Dame. The same player who shredded the Irish in each of the previous two seasons threw interceptions on four straight second-quarter series (in fact, on four straight pass attempts) and later lost a fumble. "In the 22 years I've been living, this is the most disappointed I've ever been in myself," he said.
Robinson has never been an elite passer, but he seems to be regressing. In his past three games against ranked foes (Virginia Tech in last year's Sugar Bowl, Alabama in this year's opener and Notre Dame Saturday) he's completed just 46.5 percent of his passes for an average 151.7 yards with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's also rushed for a modest 43.3 yards in those games.
When I visited Ann Arbor in August for a Robinson feature, offensive coordinator Al Borges talked of working with his quarterback to stay in the pocket longer and trust his progressions. But in doing so, he's seemingly neutered Robinson's greatest talent (running). Robinson also keeps forcing throws into coverage.
Oklahoma's Jones also began trending down late last season, as he threw one touchdown and six interceptions in his final four games after All-America receiver Ryan Broyles went down with a season-ending ACL injury. Against Kansas State Saturday, Jones looked uncomfortable throughout. He suffered from an injury-depleted offensive line and an inexperienced receiving corps, but he had plenty of time to throw on both a sack and forced fumble that produced K-State's first touchdown and an interception that set up the Wildcats' go-ahead drive in the second half.
"I played pretty terrible," said Jones. "We played really dumb football, especially me."
Both Robinson and Jones have been around long enough to know that one bad night shouldn't derail their entire seasons. And both can still win their respective conferences. In the words of Mark May, however, Michigan's coaches need to "let Denard be Denard." Meanwhile, Jones needs more help from his running game, but mostly he needs to play with more confidence. At this point, it's too late for either team to completely negate their quarterback's shortcomings.
My reaction to the latest AP and Coaches' polls:
Overrated: Wisconsin (AP: NR, Coaches: 23)
In their latest masterpiece, the Badgers led UTEP 23-19 with four minutes to go before escaping with a win, 37-26. Yet, after another underwhelming performance, Wisconsin didn't drop out of the Coaches' Poll. In fact, it moved up one spot this week. This poll helps determine the BCS Championship Game for another two years.
Underrated: Clemson (AP: No. 17, Coaches: No. 16)
Due to the unforgivable sin of losing to the nation's No. 4 team on the road -- and putting up 426 yards on the nation's second-ranked total defense -- the Tigers fell seven spots in both polls. Is Clemson really that different than we thought it was last week?
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my current edition:
Title game: Alabama vs. OregonRose: USC vs. NebraskaFiesta: Kansas State vs. Notre DameSugar: Georgia vs. TexasOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville
Brace yourselves, America: Notre Dame to the BCS is suddenly a very real scenario. Spare me the e-mails. Before the season, I saw five near-certain losses on its schedule: Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC. The Irish have already conquered the first two foes, and now the Sooners and Trojans look significantly more vulnerable. If Notre Dame can win just one of the other three and take care of business against the rest of its slate, Brian Kelly could be looking at a 10-2 record (and probably a 10-year contract extension).
With Saturday's 13-6 win over the Wolverines, Manti Te'o (eight tackles, two interceptions) and the Irish defense made it two straight weeks without allowing a touchdown. In fact, it's the first time since 1909 that Notre Dame accomplished that feat against both Michigan and Michigan State in the same season. The odd juxtaposition, of course, is that Kelly's offense continues to struggle, and he once again pulled quarterback Everett Golson for former starter Tommy Rees. But there's no controversy. Really. Nothing to see here.
• With so many important games happening at once Saturday night, then-No. 2 LSU's narrow escape over Auburn, 12-10, flew under the radar. Sorry, but Les Miles' team doesn't get the "SEC grind" excuse for this one. For one thing, it was LSU's conference opener. For another, Auburn isn't that good. Fortunately for LSU, it wasn't playing Louisiana-Monroe Saturday.
LSU's defense was as dominant as ever, limiting Auburn to just nine first downs. But after two years of buildup, quarterback Zach Mettenberger's SEC debut was largely unspectacular (15-of-27 for 169 yards, two fumbles). He's not likely to set the Tigers as far back as Jordan Jefferson did, but is he the difference-maker LSU needs against Florida, South Carolina and Alabama? "I think I handled the pressure well," Mettenberger said. It's certainly not going to let up.
• So much for Connor Shaw's bum shoulder. South Carolina's quarterback completed 20 consecutive passes in the No. 6 Gamecocks' 31-10 demolition of Missouri. "I just found a groove and stayed with it," said Shaw, who is 11-1 since taking over as starter last season. Things didn't go as smoothly for Tigers quarterback James Franklin, who, in his third start this year, endured the wrath of Jadeveon Clowney and Co. And yes, Gamecocks fans chanted "S-E-C."
• It's hard to believe Oregon State went 3-9 last season. The Beavers (2-0) not only boast the nation's No. 2 rushing defense, but sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion (24-of-35, 379 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception in Saturday's 27-20 win at then No. 19 UCLA) is emerging as a budding star. It helps to have a pair of big-play receivers like Markus Wheaton (nine catches, 150 yards) and Brandin Cooks (six catches, 175 yards). Coach Riley celebrated the win with an In-n-Out run.
• Arkansas' soap opera continues, as the Razorbacks (1-3) managed to lose to Rutgers, 35-26, despite receiver Cobi Hamilton's SEC-record 303 receiving yards on 10 catches. Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova had a career night (25-of-35 for 397 yards, five touchdowns and no picks) to lead Rutgers to its first 4-0 start since 2006, the year it went 11-2 with Ray Rice. Not a bad start for first-year coach Kyle Flood. Counterpart John L. Smith suffered a much tougher loss last week.
• Central Michigan's David Harman bucked the trend of woeful clutch kicking this season, drilling a 47-yard field goal with three seconds remaining to seal a 32-31 upset of Iowa. This came after the Chippewas scored a touchdown with 45 seconds left and recovered their second kick onside kick attempt, which came after a delay of game call nullified their first try. In converting the kick, Harman ruined a spectacular day by Hawkeyes' walk-on running back Mark Weisman. The 6-foot sophomore finished with 27 carries for 217 yards and three touchdowns.
• Freshman receiver Stefon Diggs is shaping up to be Randy Edsall's potential savior. The former five-star recruit notched 42- and 56-yard touchdown catches in Maryland's 31-21 loss to West Virginia. However, it takes more than a few big plays to counter Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith (30-of-43, 338 yards, three touchdowns), who now has an 18-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio dating back to last year's Orange Bowl, and West Virginia's own stud receiver, Tavon Austin, who corralled 13 catches for 179 yards and three scores in the win.
• USC (3-1) beat Cal, 27-9, despite another spotty performance from Matt Barkley (192 yards, two touchdowns, two picks). With Cal focused on bottling up receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, the Trojans instead rode running backs Silas Redd (21 carries, 158 yards, one touchdown) and Curtis McNeal (10 carries, 115 yards). "Obviously, it's not as fun," said coach Lane Kiffin. "It's fun winning 50-0, but that doesn't happen every week."
• It was a banner day for the MAC, which, in addition to Central Michigan's win over a Big Ten foe, also knocked off teams from the Big 12 (Northern Illinois over Kansas) and Big East (Western Michigan over Connecticut, Ball State over USF). The last time the MAC beat three BCS-conference opponents on the same day was Sept. 20, 2003 -- though those were three ranked foes. The conference isn't back to those days of Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski, but it's certainly gaining back some respect.
• It's also shaping up to be a heck of a three-way race for the WAC title. Louisiana Tech (3-0), the aforementioned winner of a 52-24 rout over Illinois, has scored at least 52 points in all three of its games. San Jose State (3-1), which tested Stanford in Week 1, notched a nice road win at San Diego State, as did Utah State (3-1) at Colorado State. The Aggies previously beat Utah and narrowly lost at Wisconsin.
• Kudos to the resilient Colorado Buffaloes (1-3), which rebounded from embarrassing losses to Sacramento State and Fresno State by rallying from a 31-14 fourth-quarter deficit to win their Pac-12 opener, 35-34, at Washington State (2-2). "I don't get it," Wazzu cornerback Daniel Simmons told the Seattle Times. "In my opinion, we lost to a team we're far better than." Easy there, Cougs. You don't get to start trash talking until Mike Leach wins his first Pac-12 game.
• Additional props to Al Golden's resilient Miami Hurricanes (3-1, 2-0 ACC), which raced to a 19-0 lead against Georgia Tech Saturday, proceeded to give up 36 straight points and then clawed back to capture a dramatic 42-36 victory. The 'Canes stuffed Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington on fourth-and-inches on the first possession of overtime, and then running back Mike James broke a game-winning 25-yard touchdown. "Our kids earned it the hard way," said a jubilant Golden, who sprinted across the field after the game-winning play.
• As with all things Miami these days, Saturday's win came less than day after more revelations surfaced about the Nevin Shapiro scandal. This time the information came from a former Hurricanes equipment employee and the jailed booster's former right-hand man.
• If you sat through the BYU-Boise State offensive horror show last Thursday, you undoubtedly wanted to strangle BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. Trailing 7-0, the Cougars finally reached the end zone after backup quarterback Taysom Hill orchestrated a 95-yard touchdown drive with 3:37 remaining. Despite a lack of any timeouts and the fact that Boise State had given up trying to kick field goals, Mendenhall went for two. "I wanted to win," said Mendenhall. "... I'd do it again." He lost, 7-6.
• Georgia crushed Vanderbilt, 48-3. Before you say, "Oh, it's just Vanderbilt," know this: The outcome was the Commodores' worst loss since 2003.
• There's sign of life at Minnesota, off to its first 4-0 start since 2008. The Gophers notched a 17-10 win over Syracuse despite playing without quarterback MarQueis Gray.
• There's also sign of life at UNLV (1-3), where Bobby Hauck's team beat Air Force, 38-35. The result was the Rebels first win in a conference opener since 2007.
• It looks like Utah could be in for a long season. Arizona State (3-1) outgained the Utes (2-2) 512-209 in a 37-7 rout.
Asked Sunday whether he'd ever heard the name David Klingler before this weekend, Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke admitted he had not. Told that the former Houston quarterback was a first-round NFL draft pick in 1992, Heinicke, who was born a year later, replied, "Hah ... I didn't know that."
Heinicke and Klingler are now etched together in history. The former broke the latter's 22-year-old Division I record by passing for 730 yards in a 64-61 win over New Hampshire. Heinicke ran for an additional 61 yards to finish with 791 yards of total offense, capturing that record, too. And oh, by the way, Heinicke rallied the Monarchs from a 23-point deficit as part of the highest-scoring game in CAA history.
"It still hasn't settled in yet," said the sophomore, who completed 55-of-79 passes without an interception Saturday. "I'm pretty sure it wont 'til after the season because I'm so busy around here."
Arguably more amazing than Heinicke's feat is the story of how he even became a college quarterback -- and just how much he's accomplished in a little more than a year on campus.
Despite being named the Old Spice Player of the Year in Georgia, the 6-foot quarterback went nearly his entire senior season at Collins Hill High in Atlanta without receiving a scholarship offer. "I had decided by then that the first person that offered, I was going to commit to," said Heinicke, who once told the Virginian Pilot he used to "stand on my tippy toes" when he went to college summer camps and "sucked air into my lungs and puffed out my chest the entire time" while attending Georgia's.
Heinicke's big break came when his Atlanta-area personal trainer, Earl Williams, happened to board the same LaGuardia Airport rental-car shuttle as Alonzo Brandon, vice president for university advancement at Old Dominion, in September 2010. Old Dominion was entering its second season of football at the time, and Brandon struck up a conversation. Williams told him about Heinicke and word got back to the Monarchs' coaches. Soon, Heinicke had his offer.
Even then, Heinicke was supposed to redshirt as a freshman last season. But he was called into action after senior Thomas DeMarco got hurt in the fifth game. Heinicke proceeded to compile a staggering 25-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and lead Old Dominion to the second round of the FCS playoffs. He threw three picks in the 2012 opener against Duquesne, but he has now thrown for 1,921 yards and 19 touchdowns in four games, all of them victories.
If all goes according to plan, he'll lead the Monarchs back to the playoffs and, over the next two years, through their transition to FBS. (Old Dominion will join Conference USA in 2015.) "It's amazing," Heinicke said of his -- and the program's -- meteoric rise. "There are a lot of people out there now that wish they could commit to Old Dominion." The Monarchs are indebted to their vice president that Heinicke ever committed to them.
If Miami's coach looks like he just spent four hours in the baking heat dressed in a long-sleeve dress shirt ... well, he did.
If Notre Dame's coach looks like he just came in from a leisurely stroll around campus ... well, he didn't. He actually coached a football game.
Mini-previews for three of Week 5's big games:
• Baylor at West Virginia, Saturday (Noon ET): In Friday night's 47-42 win at Louisiana-Monroe, we learned Baylor is primed for another year of defense-optional shootouts. The Bears happen to be the opponent for high-flying West Virginia's Big 12 opener. Oh, there will be touchdown passes.
• Ohio State at Michigan State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller finally take their first trip outside of Columbus, as they'll travel to East Lansing to face a stout Spartans defense. They'll also see a Michigan State offense that needed Le'Veon Bell's 36 carries and 253 yards to put away Eastern Michigan in Week 4.
• Texas at Oklahoma State, Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET): Texas' David Ash ranks third nationally in pass efficiency, but he's yet to face a top-60 defense. Oklahoma State's J.W. Walsh ranks sixth, but he's not even supposed to be starting. (Wes Lunt is hurt.) This game should serve as an interesting litmus test for both players.