November may be the college football month we remember most, but October is about positioning. And the first October weekend of 2015 presented us with enough jarring results that we should step back and take stock. What did the season's first WTF Weekend tell us about where we are headed?
Florida, SEC East favorite?
With an experienced defense and a fresh start on offense, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that first-year Florida head coach Jim McElwain would be able to engineer some improvement. And through four weeks, that's what we'd seen: "some" improvement. The Gators handled New Mexico State, survived East Carolina without star corner Vernon Hargreaves III, rode defense to a win at Kentucky, and rode strangely great fourth-down offense to a comeback win against a Tennessee team that blows leads.
That the Gators, so young at quarterback and on the offensive line, were able to survive three tricky contests was an awesome sign for the future. But it wasn't a sign of what would happen on Saturday.
Against Ole Miss, a top-five team and holder of what was the most impressive résumé win of the early season, Florida was instant and relentless. The Gators forced a three-and-out on the Rebels' first possession and a fumble on the second. Against the same defense that had Alabama's Cooper Bateman so rattled, redshirt freshman Will Grier took a sack on Florida's opening possession, then completed six of his next seven for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
Florida took a 13-0 lead with a nearly perfect first quarter, then got out of the way as Ole Miss self-destructed with missed field goals, missed tackles, and fumbles. The Gators were composed and explosive, and their 38-10 victory moved them from "nice story" to "um, are they Playoff contenders?" in the span of a few hours.
With Georgia laying an egg against Alabama, you could make the case that the Gators are now the SEC East favorites. The advanced stats see it that way. With an efficient passing offense and aggressive defense, they now rank fifth in S&P+, and in terms of win probabilities, they now have a 74 percent chance of winning in four of their last five SEC contests.
Improvement is rarely linear, so perhaps we'll see regression in trips to Missouri, LSU, and Jacksonville (to face Georgia). Maybe the offense shows its age and the defense cannot make up the difference. But if you erase preconceived notions, what we've seen to date is a talented, improving team.
A few weeks ago, the primary story involving McElwain was one of a nasty sideline tirade. Now, it's of him potentially being a national coach of the year.
Ohio State-Michigan for the Big Ten East?
The Big Ten East hasn't been as good as expected, with Ohio State battling Seminole-itis (i.e., a national title hangover) and rarely looking the part of a contender and Michigan State having no idea how to close games. Penn State has rebounded since losing to Temple, but it still lost to Temple, and Maryland and Rutgers have been extreme disappointments.
Two East teams, however, have been anything but disappointing. Indiana, 4-1 after a narrow loss to Ohio State, looks likely to reach its first bowl since 2007. But the real surprise has been from The School Up North.
We assumed Jim Harbaugh would be able to do pretty good things with Michigan's defense in his first season, and his track record suggested competent offense as well. The offense is nothing more than competent, but the defense has been brilliant, holding each opponent well under its season averages.
On Saturday, the Wolverines held a second consecutive opponent to zero points and 105 total yards. First, it was BYU at home; then, it was Maryland on the road.
Since limiting Utah to 4.8 yards per play (season average: 5.5) and 24 points, the Wolverines have been almost impossibly stingy, allowing 3.5 points per game and 2.6 yards per play against Oregon State, UNLV, BYU, and Maryland. They haven't allowed a point since late in game 3 and haven't allowed a point outside of garbage time since the first series in game 2.
Harbaugh and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin have crafted something masterful, and of the Wolverines' six opponents between now and the Ohio State game, only two have solid offenses: Michigan State and Indiana.
Michigan State could wreck any sort of "MICHIGAN BACK?" story in two weeks, and that's only if the Wolverines score enough to get past Northwestern this Saturday. But despite the loss to Utah, Michigan has been the best team in the division so far. If that doesn't change, then wow, did a huge Michigan-Ohio State game figure out a way to get even bigger.
The Big Game for the Pac-12 North?
Already, only two Pac-12 North teams remain undefeated in conference play: Stanford and Cal. Just as everyone predicted.
With Oregon's defense shell-shocked and the Ducks' offense mortal, this is a good time for other North foes to raise their games. Oregon State, Washington, and Washington State have in no way done so, but Stanford is rebounding after a disappointing 2014 season and 2015 opener, and there's Cal, outgunning everybody and moving to 5-0 for the first time since 2007.
Cal and Stanford meet in Palo Alto on November 21. Are we to think the Big Game decides the North champion? Possibly, but Cal has a lot of work to do.
Stanford appears legitimate. After stressing Cardinal by blowing scoring opportunities against Northwestern, the offense has clicked at a level we haven't seen since Andrew Luck's junior season in 2011. Then, they posted at least 37 points in seven consecutive Pac-12 contests; so far this year, they're three-for-three, with 41 against USC, 42 against Oregon State, and this past Saturday, 55 against Arizona.
Stanford's thin defense has held up, ranking 24th in Def. S&P+. But the Cardinal's offense is up to seventh in Off. S&P+, and win probabilities give them at least a 69 percent chance in each remaining game.
Stanford's odds of beating Cal are currently at 86 percent. While the Cardinal are statistically sound all over, the Bears are only on one side of the ball. Narrow wins over Texas, Washington, and Washington State have been thrilling, but the defense is only marginal, and only one of those (Washington) ranks better than 74th in S&P+. Cal ranks 48th overall and is likely to finish with seven or eight wins, but with road trips to Utah, UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford, plus visits from USC and Arizona State, the odds of a North title aren't high.
All B1G West roads lead through ... Evanston?
There's no getting around it: Northwestern's defense is dynamite. In five contests, the Wildcats have allowed 3.9 yards per play and 7 points per game.
They have in no way faced a murderer's row. Stanford has since erupted, but of EIU, Duke, Ball State, and Minnesota, only BSU ranks better than 75th in Off. S&P+. But it's not who you play, it's how; the Wildcats are still dominating these offense more than anybody else. And it's not like there are tons of great offenses on the horizon. Of the remaining seven opponents, only one ranks better than 48th in Off. S&P+, and that one (No. 26 Nebraska) just laid an egg against Illinois.
At 5-0 thanks to Saturday's 27-0 shutout win over Minnesota, Northwestern is now up to 13th in the AP poll, its highest standing in 15 years. This is a thrilling accomplishment and has Wildcat fans thinking about a Big Ten West title.
But because the offense has been so limited, the odds of a major run aren't great. After facing a similar but better Michigan team in Ann Arbor, the Wildcats face quite a few virtual tossup games.
Another battle royale in the Pac-12 South?
Last year, Arizona was the fourth-best team in the Pac-12 South, but the Wildcats won because they didn't lay an egg and lose a game they shouldn't.
UCLA handled Arizona but got rocked by Stanford and lost at home to Utah. USC beat Arizona but fell to Arizona State via Hail Mary and lost at Utah to boot. ASU beat USC and Utah but lost to Arizona and, somehow, Oregon State. Utah went 2-0 against L.A. schools but lost to Washington State and got its doors blown off by Arizona. Arizona won by stinking at the right time, basically.
But with the way UCLA and Utah were playing for much of this September, it was easy to wonder if 2015 would be a one-on-one match instead of an "everyone loses to everyone" battle royale.
Utah was at home on Saturday, taking care of business against Bye. Thanks to less-than-dominant performances against Utah State and Fresno State, the numbers aren't sold on the Utes, which currently rank 19th in S&P+.
UCLA, meanwhile, proved it hasn't moved past last year's egg-laying. Against Arizona State, which was fresh off of a pasting at the hands of USC, the Bruins went punt-punt-punt-safety-punt-punt in their first six possessions. As the offense found its footing, the defense allowed points on four consecutive ASU possessions. Down 29-10 heading into the fourth quarter, they rallied to 29-23 before faltering.
If the Utah we saw against Oregon is the real Utah, then we might not have a wide-open South race. But if the numbers are right about the Utes (not to mention USC, now sixth in S&P+), they could be due a slip-up. And we might only be another upset or two away from another chaotic race, this time between Utah, UCLA, USC, and ASU.