West Virginia, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas
Oklahoma's loss to Kansas State proved what we already thought we knew: that the Big 12 is completely and totally up for grabs this year. One can easily figure out a scenario where four or five teams are battling it out to win the conference at 7-2 or so, so this week's two big conference matchups -- Baylor at West Virginia and Texas at Oklahoma State -- are not exactly elimination matches. But they are enormous nonetheless. Of these four teams, only Oklahoma State has been tested against a reasonably solid BCS conference opponent (the Cowboys shot themselves in the foot ~116 times and lost to Arizona). West Virginia beat Marshall, James Madison and Maryland by a combined 75 points. Baylor beat SMU and Sam Houston by a combined 60 points and survived a tricky trip to UL-Monroe. Texas beat Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss by a combined 100 points.
The tune-up is over; now the games begin. Can West Virginia's defense slow teams down enough to win seven or eight conference games? Can the Baylor defense slow down anybody? Can Oklahoma State tamp down the mistakes? Is Texas' offense as good as it looked against New Mexico and Ole Miss? We actually begin to get some answers this week, and both of these games could be wonderfully exciting.
While we're at it...
If you peruse the current F/+ rankings, you don't see too many surprises. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and LSU are the top four teams in the country (which makes sense, because they've looked like the top four teams in the country). Texas, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Georgia are all in the Top 10, Arkansas has sunk like a stone, et cetera. But one particular outlier stands out very, very quickly: your No. 6 Texas Tech Red Raiders. I've long believed that a team can prove something every single week, no matter the opponent; that theory will be tested soon, as no team has manhandled bad teams as well as Tommy Tuberville's squad in the opening weeks. They outscored Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico, 151 to 30. They outgained those teams, 1,793 yards to 481.
Just about any BCS conference team would be 3-0 after playing this slate, but that's not the point; Tech has dominated these teams better than anybody has, and it is a very good sign that the Red Raiders are in position to have a good year. But whether "good year" means "returning to bowl eligibility" or "making a darkhorse run at the Big 12 title" will be determined very quickly. Tech's early conference schedule is incredible: Oklahoma on October 6, West Virginia on October 13, at TCU on October 20, at Kansas State on October 27, Texas on November 3. And it starts with a Saturday evening trip to Ames to face Iowa State. Tuberville is 0-2 versus Paul Rhoads' Cyclones: Tech lost by 14 in Ames in 2010 and infamously lost by 34 in Lubbock last year (a week after becoming the first Big 12 team in a decade to win at Oklahoma). Tech's season fell apart after last year's battle with ISU. Will it happen again in 2012, or does Tech's crazy level of early domination prove that things are different this year?
(Of course, Iowa State is also 3-0 and could also be positioning itself as a dark horse of sorts if it wins its third straight versus Tuberville.)
The 2011 calendar year ended up finishing pretty well for Missouri quarterback James Franklin. His Tigers romped North Carolina to finish 8-5 (the same record as Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert in their respective first seasons as Missouri's starting quarterback), and his lovely stat line (2,865 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns, 981 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns) and the returning talent around him suggested that Mizzou might survive just fine on offense in the SEC.
The first nine months of 2012 have been infinitely less kind. Franklin tore his labrum in spring practice and, instead of building a deeper rhythm with an intriguing receiving corps (and building a rhythm at ALL with five-star freshman Dorial Green-Beckham), he rehabbed. And while the shoulder seemed fine in August, he had to watch an already green line (three players with starting experience) get greener. Both starting guards got hurt, as did three-year starting left tackle Elvis Fisher and his top backup.
The shuffling on the line took its toll against Georgia (Franklin has become a pro at handling iffy snaps), and then matters got worse when he re-aggravated his shoulder in the week leading up to the Arizona State game. Franklin returned against South Carolina but played poorly (he acknowledged after the game that he is struggling with confidence in his shoulder), and now his Tigers are in serious flux. Having already faced perhaps the most difficult schedule in the country (an impressive Arizona State squad sandwiched two Top 10 SEC opponents), Mizzou now must face an incredibly tricky road trip to UCF. With a loss to the Knights, the Tigers might struggle to reach bowl eligibility -- even if they win at home against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Syracuse, the Tigers will still need to find a sixth win somewhere. Meanwhile, Mizzou fans have gone into full-fledged "Bench 'im!" mode. Franklin smiles more than any football player you will ever see, but it has been a trying month. A loss to UCF would turn "trying" into "devastating."
Hey, speaking of banged-up quarterbacks facing more fan hostility than they are accustomed to ...
James Franklin caught flack for admitting he was hurt and didn't feel he could perform well enough against Arizona State. This week, meanwhile, BYU quarterback Riley Nelson is facing flack for doing the opposite.
Nelson is attempting to play through a back injury, and it isn't going particularly well. The senior, who usurped former star recruit Jake Heaps as BYU's starter last year, has proven himself a nice big-play threat when healthy, but he isn't healthy, and backup Taysom Hill looms. Nelson was brutal last week versus Boise State: 4-for-9 passing for 19 yards, three interceptions, two sacks and a fumble. Hill wasn't much better, but he wasn't that, and BYU fans have made it pretty clear where their current allegiances lie.
Nelson is questionable for Friday night's game versus Hawaii, but let's put it this way: if he plays but can't move the ball versus Hawaii, which has given up 118 points to two FBS opponents (USC and Nevada), he probably won't be the first-stringer for very much longer.
The Clemson Defense
In 2012, Clemson won the ACC despite its defense. The Tigers ranked 70th in Def. S&P+ and got pantsed by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, and head coach Dabo Swinney shook up his staff in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was dumped in favor of Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables, and the results thus far have been less than encouraging. Clemson is actually worse right now: they currently rank 78th in Def. S&P+. The Tigers allowed 5.2 yards per play to Furman, 5.5 to Ball State and 5.8 to Auburn, and a devastating 8.9 to Florida State. It is difficult to pinpoint what is wrong with the defense because, to put it lightly, the list is pretty long.
Next up for Clemson: a long trip to Massachusetts to face Boston College. B.C. still doesn't have much of an offense, but quarterback Chase Rettig has been able to bail himself out on passing downs (the Eagles currently rank 26th on passing downs, which would be awesome if they didn't also rank 108th on standard downs), and lord knows Clemson is vulnerable on those downs.
If CU cannot lock things down enough to pull off a win on Saturday (without star receiver Sammy Watkins, no less), the season could take an ugly turn with Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech coming up next.
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