At one point or another on Saturday evening, you had reason to wonder if Oklahoma, Oregon, and/or Florida State were about to lose, damaging their title hopes. Oklahoma trailed West Virginia by seven late in the first half in Morgantown, Oregon was tied with Washington State deep into the fourth quarter in Pullman, and not only was Florida State tied with Clemson in Tallahassee late in the fourth quarter, Clemson had the ball in the FSU red zone to boot.
It had already been a strange Saturday in college football by this point, one that makes you question what you do and do not know moving forward.
Georgia Tech had scored 17 points to rally past Virginia Tech on the road. Alabama had completely forgotten how to hold onto the football for 2.5 quarters against Florida. East Carolina had scored 70 points on North Carolina. Wake Forest and Kansas had both won! So had Southern Miss! Michigan had gotten thumped while outgaining an opponent, for the second time this month. Indiana had upset Missouri in Columbia. Mississippi State was beating LSU in Baton Rouge. Georgia State had led Washington by 14 points at halftime. Northwestern State had scored 20 fourth-quarter points to upset Louisiana Tech. Vanderbilt was putting a serious scare into South Carolina.
The day had a strange vibe from start to finish, and now it was going to wrap up with a major upset.
And then it didn't happen. Oklahoma's running game laid waste to WVU in the second half, and the Sooners pulled away. FSU made yet another red zone stop and stomped on Clemson's throat in overtime. Oregon scored a touchdown with 5:33 left against Wazzu, forced a turnover on downs, and ran out the clock. The national title contenders closed the games like title contenders are supposed to.
Saturday ended with Arizona scoring 36 fourth-quarter points and completing a strangely easy Hail Mary to beat Cal; even without a marquee upset, the day was still strange as hell. And though only one major favorite fell (my Missouri Tigers), Saturday exposed us to potential truths about top teams, good and bad.
Lane Kiffin and Blake Sims were made for each other
Because Alabama is Alabama, we're going to pay pretty close attention when there's a quarterback battle. And because Lane Kiffin is Lane Kiffin, we're going to use an even stronger magnifying glass. But no matter how close we watched, our preconceptions continued to give us the false conclusion that, at some point, Florida State transfer Jake Coker would overtake career backup Blake Sims for the starting job.
Sims didn't have the best round of spring practices, which lent to the assumptions, as did Coker's decent (if rare) play in Tallahassee. But even when Sims seized control late in fall camp, we assumed Coker would eventually win the job. And even when Sims completed 75 percent of his passes (13.5 yards per completion) with four touchdowns and one interception in the first three games, while Coker was less efficient in a backup role, we continued to pretend like the race was nearly even.
Well, if we needed to see Sims and Alabama light up Florida to close the case on the QB battle, consider it closed. Sims did lose a fumble and throw a tipped interception, but he also completed 23 of 33 passes for 445 yards and four scores. He completed two bombs, first to Kenyan Drake, then to (of course) Amari Cooper. He managed the game effectively, throwing safe passes, showing strong stay-or-go pocket awareness, and keeping Alabama calm and steady while the Tide were forgetting how to hold onto the football. Coker showed his backup chops, throwing a third-quarter touchdown pass when Sims was briefly out with injury, but Sims stole the show and stole a job that was already his.
Sims' passes don't have the greatest velocity in the world, and the fact that he didn't put the race away until fall might suggest that he isn't quite as good on average as he's shown so far. But his accuracy and delivery speed are phenomenal -- see receiver, throw ball on-target to open receiver, rinse, repeat -- and he can make all of the throws that Kiffin's system asks him to make. He can catch the snap and throw leading passes to receivers on the perimeter, and his soft, pretty deep ball might be even softer and prettier than AJ McCarron's. His hands are strong enough for him to change his mind on a pass and bring the ball back down at the last second, and ... did I mention his accuracy?
There are plenty of strong defenses left on Alabama's schedule, and Sims will be challenged in every possible way. Ole Miss will clog the lanes for Bama running backs and hit him if he attempts to leave the pocket. So will Mississippi State. LSU defensive backs will force perfect passes downfield. The Auburn defensive line will remain stiff against the run and pin its ears back on passing downs. So we'll pretty specifically know what flaws Sims has as a quarterback by the end of the season. But he's aced his early tests, his arm really is accurate, and, let's face it, he's got one hell of an offensive coordinator in his corner.
Florida's defense did Alabama a few favors on Saturday. If you were watching the CBS telecast with the sound on, you heard Gary Danielson say variations of, "That looked like a defensive bust to me," a few different times. Florida allowed 5.8 yards per play to Kentucky in Week 3, and while that isn't terrible, it doesn't meet the bar set by the 2012 Florida defense, either.
But still. Alabama averaged 7.7 yards per play against the Gators. 7.7! Even at its most demoralized state last year, Florida only allowed 7.2 yards per play to Florida State. Averaging 7.7 yards per play means you have completely outflanked and overmatched the opposing defense.
It's amazing how annoying tactics work when you have the right personnel. Lane Kiffin was wasting Marqise Lee at USC in 2012-13, throwing repeated screen passes to a blue-chip receiver who is at his best when gliding open downfield. Kiffin calls for countless screens at Alabama. He also calls one of the most overused plays in college football, the goal line fade route. But at Alabama, with a wonderfully accurate passer (two of them, actually), the best receiver in college football (Amari Cooper), a deeper-than-acknowledged receiving corps, a great offensive line, and a ridiculous set of running backs, it all works.
On Saturday against Florida, Kiffin both leaned on his favorite routes and hinted that he still has plenty of unused tools at his disposal. Cooper caught two short fades for touchdowns in the second half, the Tide threw plenty of quick screens, and when Alabama's fumble problems meant that the game was still tied in the third quarter, he leaned on the run to reestablish the lead, as Alabama tends to do.
But he also rolled Sims out a few times, with great effect. He experimented with tempo (it wasn't always successful, but Alabama did have a non-Tide-like 87 snaps). He lined running back Kenyan Drake up wide on the first play of the game, got him matched up against Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison, and had Sims fake a screen to Cooper before dropping in a perfect lob for an 87-yard touchdown. He dusted off tight end O.J. Howard and got the sophomore a couple of receptions. (Granted, one was likely an improvisation on Sims' part -- Howard lined up wide, and no Florida defender covered him.)
Alabama outgained the once-proud Gators by a more than three-to-one margin and had won by three touchdowns despite a negative turnover margin and despite Florida recovering four of the game's five fumbles. If Alabama recovered one or two more loose balls, the Tide might have won by 35 or more.
Kiffin gave Sims a lot of easy throws, and Sims made some other throws look easier than they are. There are plenty of reasons to doubt Kiffin as a head coach. And at a school that might require underdog tactics, his stuff might not work very well. But he's proving himself to be a perfect offensive coordinator for Alabama. He's willing to adapt (tempo was not a thing for him at USC, even though it should have been), and he's showing that, while keeping cards as close to the vest as possible, he's got tricks to unveil with this ridiculous set of personnel.
This isn't the hardest job in the world, but he's still performing very well. I guess that could go for both Kiffin and Sims.
Oregon's defense still isn't great
For a few years, Oregon's defense was the most underrated, overlooked unit in the country. While the Ducks were making headlines for their explosive, up-tempo offense, they were winning because of a defense that ranked between fourth and 12th in Def. F/+ each year between 2010-12. They went 36-4 in that span, winning 12 games each year and reaching the BCS Championship in 2010.
In 2013, they slipped to 22nd in Def. F/+. It wasn't a huge slide, but it was enough to cost them against Stanford and Arizona (quarterback Marcus Mariota's knee injury obviously didn't help) and knock them out of the title race.
It's early, and the ratings are still very much in flux, but thus far the defense isn't acquitting itself any better in 2014. New defensive coordinator Don Pellum has Oregon playing aggressively and attacking from all directions (10 players have at least 1.5 tackles for loss, and only one player has more than three), and the secondary still features ball hawks like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Erick Dargan. But Oregon is allowing a thoroughly mediocre 5.7 yards per play in 2014, and it's gone up in each game: 5.1 vs. South Dakota, 5.6 vs. Michigan State, 5.9 vs. Wyoming, 6.2 vs. Washington State. The Ducks sacked Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday only once in 63 pass attempts on Saturday night, allowed him to complete 68 percent of his passes. and got doubled up in the TFLs total (11 to 5).
With Mariota and the incredible Oregon offense leading the way, the defense doesn't need to play at a top-five level for the Ducks to be a national title contender. But it's showing cracks, and if Oregon hadn't recovered all three of the fumbles in Saturday night's game (all in Oregon territory), the Ducks might not be undefeated right now.
Oklahoma's offense can live without Keith Ford
Opportunity Rate is the frequency with which a runner gets at least five yards downfield on a given carry. In 2014, injured Oklahoma running back Keith Ford's Opportunity Rate is 47.1 percent, 19th among the 115 FBS running backs with at least 30 carries. Backups Samaje Perine and Alex Ross have combined for 34.0 percent. [...]
[B]oth are bigger than Ford (Perine is a 5'11, 243-pound bowling ball), but neither has been anywhere near as efficient. Ross has an 82-yard run on his résumé but has otherwise averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, and Perine is still a bit too young to properly utilize his girth.
It appears Samaje Perine may have figured out a couple of things about girth utilization. The freshman (!) rushed 38 times for 242 yards, while Ross added 56 yards in eight carries, in OU's 45-33 win at WVU. Now, a lot of the yardage was housed in big plays -- Perine's Opportunity Rate was still only 41 percent while Ross' was 38 percent -- and the passing game wasn't incredible (Trevor Knight: 7.1 yards per pass attempt). But the Sooners were efficient enough to take advantage of big rushes and clamped down on WVU's offense, allowing just three points in six possessions to start the second half before giving up a garbage-time touchdown.
We still don't know for sure how good West Virginia is, but the Mountaineers have improved. And after a back-and-forth first half, Oklahoma seized complete control.
Florida State's run game might really be a problem
With starting quarterback Jameis Winston suspended and sophomore Sean Maguire making typical first-start mistakes against Clemson, FSU needed to lean on its run game if at all possible. It was not possible.
In regulation, Karlos Williams and Mario Pender combined to rush 16 times for 35 yards against a Clemson defense that got gashed by Georgia's run game in Week 1. With Clemson on the ropes in overtime, two Williams carries gained 25 yards and iced the win, but even with those two bursts, Williams is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry in two games against power competition this year. Mario Pender had a big run against Oklahoma State and has still averaged just 4.2 yards in 11 carries in those games.
This is a potential problem. I use "potential" here because we're still talking about only two real games and because few remaining opponents on FSU's 2014 schedule are dangerous in run defense. But even including the Citadel game, FSU's 38.6 percent rushing success ranks just 64th in the country.
The FSU run game wasn't as reliable as the pass during the Seminoles' 2013 national title run, but the 'Noles still ranked 14th in Rushing S&P+ last season.
Michigan State's defense is still ridiculous
First-half yardage in East Lansing on Saturday: Michigan State 320, Eastern Michigan minus-1.