"You can put him at corner, at safety, at nickel, at linebacker — ultimately probably nickel is his best position," said Harbaugh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers for four seasons. "He could be a returner, he could be a gunner, he could be a hold-up guy.
"Offensively, probably right now he could be our best slot receiver. He could be the best running back. He could play a little Wildcat quarterback. He could play outside receiver with all the reverses and the fly sweeps. I think you get the picture."
Not including a couple of fair catches and a short punt return, here are the first five times Peppers appears in the play-by-play from Saturday's romp over Penn State:
- Returns a punt 53 yards to the Penn State 9 two minutes into the game.
- With Ben Gedeon, stops Saquon Barkley just short of the sticks on a second-down carry.
- Stops Mike Gesicki just short of the sticks on a second-down pass. (Michigan then stuffs Barkley on third-and-1.)
- Hurries quarterback Trace McSorley, who throws incomplete.
- With Gedeon, stops McSorley just short of the sticks on a third-and-8 carry. Penn State punts.
This was a pretty quiet game for him, in other words. He only performed the duties of a solid safety and blitzing linebacker while also ripping a big punt return.
He didn’t add anything to his tally of 9.5 tackles for loss (he shares the national lead with Pitt’s Ejuan Price) and 2.5 sacks, though. Thus far this year, he also has two carries for 24 yards, a punt return touchdown, a 55-yard kick return, and the Big Ten’s best punt-return average.
Last year, he scored two touchdowns on offense while also ranking seventh in the country in pass breakups as a defender, with 10.
When a blueblood ranks highly in the preseason polls despite an iffy recent track record, the natural reaction is to scoff.
So when Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines began the season seventh in the AP poll despite their last top-10 finish coming 10 years ago, there was a forgivable pushback. But thus far, they've made No. 7 look like an understatement. Penn State isn't a great team, but the Nittany Lions probably aren't going to lose by 39 points to many opponents this year.
The Michigan offense has been good enough in the early going. The Wolverines are finishing drives and converting short-yardage opportunities, controlling the ball and the field position battle despite only decent efficiency.
But the defense has been the driving force. New coordinator Don Brown's unit ranks first in havoc rate and second in Def. S&P+, and Peppers has been the catalyst for such successful aggressiveness.
Indeed, he is currently on pace to rack up nearly 30 tackles for loss while serving as one of the nation's best return men. Get him some sildcat snaps and have him throw a touchdown pass at some point, and that almost sounds like a Heisman candidate, doesn't it?
Wisconsin’s 11.8 PPG allowed
Justin Wilcox followed Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC in 2014 and served as the Trojans' defensive coordinator for two seasons. For whatever reason, it never really clicked for him. He inherited a defense that had ranked eighth in Def. S&P+ in 2013 and produced rankings of 35th and 43rd.
Until then, Wilcox's stock as a young mind was high. Safe to say, it might be pretty high again now. Wilcox took over Paul Chryst's Wisconsin defense in 2016, and his Badgers have dominated. Despite playing two ranked teams, LSU and Michigan State, they have yet to allow more than 17 points or 325 yards, and they have risen to sixth in Def. S&P+.
T.J. Watt has 4.5 sacks, corners Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal have combined for three picks and nine breakups. Add awesome special teams, and Wisconsin has begun 4-0 despite a trying schedule.
As good as Michigan has been, the visiting Badgers could have a shot at an upset this coming weekend, because when you play defense like this, you tend to stick around.
The Year 3 surge
I’m sure you’ve already checked it out, of course, but Eastern Michigan’s updated statistical profile has one fascinating number: 73.5 percent. That is the Eagles' chance of reaching at least six wins in 2016.
That's not a high bar, but the only time they have cleared it in the last 21 seasons is when they went 6-6 in 2011, with two wins over FCS teams.
Third-year head coach Chris Creighton's squad stands at 3-1 after a gutty 27-24 win over Wyoming. Unearthing three more wins could mean the program's first bowl since the 1987 California Bowl, and the Eagles are given at least a 59 percent chance of winning in three more games this year. (One of those comes Saturday against a surprisingly wretched Bowling Green.)
Even that might pale in comparison to what Dave Clawson's Wake Forest is doing in Year 3. The Deacs are 4-0 for the first time since 2006 following a 33-28 road win over a decent Indiana. It was lucky as hell, sure; Wake defensed 10 passes to Indiana's five, which typically suggests something in the neighborhood of two interceptions to one. Instead, the Deacs had five to IU's zero, which created about 19.5 points of turnovers luck.
Still, Wake is 58th in S&P+ and a projected favorite in four of eight remaining games. Given a 51 percent chance of reaching 6-6 before the season started, the Deacs are now at 95.2 percent.
Nick Chubb’s 3.9 yards per carry
Nick Chubb rushed 32 times for 222 yards and two touchdowns against North Carolina in Georgia's season-opening win. It was as effective an "I'm back" statement as one can make. Following an ugly knee injury in 2015, Chubb's comeback was complete.
Since then: 51 carries, 200 yards (3.9 per carry), and one score. Opponents are discovering that they can push back against Georgia's line, and Chubb is getting forced to make moves behind the line of scrimmage.
Over the past 2 weeks, Georgia RB Nick Chubb has been hit in the backfield on 17 of his 31 carries (54.8%)— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) September 26, 2016
Tennessee heads to Georgia perhaps ripe for a letdown after finally ending a long losing streak against Florida. But if the Dawgs can’t free Chubb up, the Vols will probably cruise.
Seven points on four drives? Louisville’s in a SLUMP!
Keeping tabs on Louisville-Marshall was pretty entertaining. Gauging Twitter’s reaction, you’d have thought Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals were in trouble. Their offense was out of sorts, and Lamar Jackson was having a bad game.
By Louisville’s standards, that was true. But only by Louisville’s standards. The Cardinals scored just one touchdown in their first four possessions in Huntington ... and then scored seven, with a field goal tacked on for good measure, in their next 11.
Poor Jackson finished with 417 passing yards, 62 rushing yards, and seven combined touchdowns. Brandon Radcliff was held in check to the tune of 19 carries for 131 yards. James Quick and Jamari Staples were totally out of sorts, catching only nine passes for 192 yards. And Louisville narrowly survived, taking only a 52-7 lead into the fourth quarter.
We should all be so awful offensively.
A downright casual 31-point comeback
Fresno State was in desperate need of a big win. The once-proud Bulldogs, winners of the Mountain West in 2013, had lost 13 of 17 and 21 of 32. Urgency paid off early on: FS rolled to a 31-0 early lead over Tulsa.
The Bulldogs scored on a 44-yard run and 65-yard pass by Chason Virgil and recovered a fumble for another easy score, and 20 minutes in, they were well on their way.
Over the final 40 minutes, Tulsa outscored Tim DeRuyter's increasingly hapless Bulldogs, 48-10. Dane Evans threw for 273 yards, D'Angelo Brewer and James Flanders rushed for a combined 353, and Tulsa did what Tulsa does: win a shootout.
Fresno isn’t the only recently successful mid-major in dire straits. Defending Sun Belt champ Arkansas State is already off to a disappointing start, going 0-3 against Toledo, Auburn, and Utah State and getting outscored by 72 points in the process. But then the Red Wolves went out and lost to in-state FCS foe Central Arkansas.
Steve Campbell’s UCA Bears are decent — they’re 3-1 and 139th in the current Sagarin rankings (ahead of 14 FBS teams) — but they shouldn’t be good enough to take down one of the steadier mid-majors.
Utah’s 52.1 yards per punt
We headed into 2016 having to replace college football’s most popular punter, Utah’s Tom Hackett. The Aussie won the Ray Guy Award after averaging 48 yards per kick.
With as important as field position tends to be to the Utes, this seemed like a significant loss. Instead, Kyle Whittingham replaced Hackett with a new Aussie, 6’2, 220-pound Mitch Wishnowsky. He’s averaging 52.1 yards per punt so far, and he’s the driving force behind the field position Utah is creating for its opponents (average starting field position: 25.2, 15th in the country). On Friday, USC’s average start was at the 22.9. That and Utah’s big-play prevention forced the Trojans to sustain long, mistake-free drives to score. They usually made mistakes, and Utah won, 31-27.
Ohio State's Cameron Johnston and Texas' Michael Dickson are both averaging over 50 yards per boot, and they're more than a yard out of first place. Maybe the Ray Guy folks should reserve a spot for Random Utah Aussie on their finalists list each year.
Colorado’s biggest win since either 2007 or 2002
By my estimation, here are the benchmarks for Last Colorado Road Win of a Certain Caliber:
- October 27, 2007: Colorado 31, Texas Tech 26. Mike Leach’s Red Raiders were unranked but would go on to finish 9-4 that season.
- September 21, 2002: Colorado 31, No. 20 UCLA 17. That’s the last time the Buffs beat a ranked team on the road.
Oregon isn’t currently ranked, and for all we know, its defensive deficiencies will lead to 8-4 or 7-5 (or worse).
But Saturday was still a major step in Mike MacIntyre’s rebuild. We talked about third-year breakthroughs above, but 2015, MacIntyre’s third season, was a lost year, dragged down by injuries and perilous depth. So he spent his mulligan, and now he’s engineering the third-year breakthrough.
Colorado is 3-1 and legitimate. The Buffaloes are up to 43rd in the S&P+ ratings, powered by an offense that didn't miss a beat when it lost starting quarterback Sefo Liufau to an ankle injury. Backup Steven Montez threw for 333 yards and rushed for 156 (sans sacks), and despite his mistakes — two picks, three sacks — the Buffs rolled up 593 yards to go with their 41 points.
The Buffaloes are setting an example. They've charged forward, they're enjoying themselves, and they're playing relaxed football. Their chances of reaching 6-6 (and their first bowl in nine years) are now 91.3 percent, and they've still got a 4 percent chance of hitting 10-2. Sure, they were 3-1 last year, too. But they didn't look like this.
For the first time at least 2010 (when they were 3-1 with an upset of Georgia but a 45-point loss at Cal), Colorado heads into October with buzz. We'll see if the Buffs can maintain it, but ... welcome back to the land of the living, CU.