Team of the Week: LSU (def. Auburn, 22-21)
There is power in being yourself. When Ed Orgeron was trying to get LSU to hire him full-time about 22 months ago, he promised to go out and land blue-chip coordinators for both sides of the ball.
On defense, that was easy: he just had to keep Dave Aranda in Baton Rouge.
But on offense, that became tricky. Once his friend Lane Kiffin landed the FAU head coaching job, he moved to the next name on the “Top Offensive Coordinators of 2016” list: Pitt’s Matt Canada, seemingly sight unseen. Orgeron became unimpressed with shifts and a lot of the things that made Canada’s offense Canada’s offense, and he began to meddle, one of his worst habits as Ole Miss’ head coach long ago.
After a frustrating loss to Troy, Canada and Orgeron seemed to reach a detente, and the Tigers won six of seven to finish the regular season. But this was not an arrangement Orgeron was comfortable with. So he let Canada go to Maryland and re-promoted Steve Ensminger, his coordinator back when everything was in “interim” stage.
Three games in, Ensminger’s offense is far from dynamic. LSU backs are averaging just 4.5 yards per carry, and new quarterback Joe Burrow has posted a completion rate of 46 percent and a passer rating of 117. Gross.
But when you’re acting like yourself, you are comfortable in your surroundings, and you have a feel for how you’re going to win.
For Orgeron’s LSU, that means playing greedy defense — the poetic license has been stretched to include the fact that LSU’s best defensive player is named Greedy Williams — and grinding, run-run-pass offense. It is old-school, and it is very, very LSU. (In fact, it’s so LSU that it makes you wonder why Les Miles isn’t still running the show.)
I don’t know if it’ll keep working — or at least, if it will work at a level higher than what Miles had established — but it worked on The Plains on Saturday.
Burrow was a paltry 15-for-34 against Auburn, but a Grant Delpit interception set up an early touchdown, and a Williams interception prevented Auburn from putting the game away late in the third quarter. Auburn failed to score on its last five drives, and after enduring a 5-for-18 stretch, Burrow completed five of nine fourth-quarter passes (including a gorgeous 71-yard bomb to Derrick Dillon) and, as importantly, drew two defensive pass interference penalties. They helped to set up a 42-yard Cole Tracy field goal and a 22-21 win.
This offense isn’t pretty. It isn’t dynamic. Hell, it might not even be good. But three weeks in, LSU has left home twice to play as an underdog against a current top-10 team, and the Tigers are now 3-0. For now, that is more than enough.
2. BYU (def. Wisconsin, 24-21)
After LSU, BYU is Exhibit B. Third-year head coach Kalani Sitake, a career defensive coach, brought in BYU legend Ty Detmer as his first offensive coordinator.
We don’t completely know what Detmer’s intended philosophy was (BYU wasn’t good enough offensively to even establish one), but after fielding maybe the worst BYU offense in 50 years and losing nine games for the first time in more than 60, Sitake dumped Detmer and found an offensive coach who matches his personality.
And, strangely enough, Sitake went to Baton Rouge to find him.
Jeff Grimes, BYU’s offensive line coach from 2004-06, spent the last four seasons as LSU’s run game coordinator. He was tasked with making the Cougars more physical, an identity that matches the Sitake defense. And in Grimes’ third game, he helped to deliver a signature win.
BYU just went to Madison, the home of run-first football, and scored its first road win over a top-10 team in 34 years. Against No. 6 Wisconsin, the Cougars forced two turnovers on downs and two missed field goals in UW scoring opportunities.
BYU out-Wisconsin’d Wisconsin. Cougar backs, led by Squally Canada, rushed 21 times for 191 yards (UW star Jonathan Taylor had 26 carries for just 117 yards). Quarterback Tanner Mangum — who has had an incredible up-and-down journey over his four years — was asked to do as little as possible, and it worked. Every time Wisconsin looked like it was about to seize control, BYU responded.
There is downside to a “physical > dynamic” approach. BYU is now 2-0 on the road (the Cougars beat Arizona to start the season) but lost at home to Cal, scoring just 18 points and averaging 3.9 yards per play, in between. It isn’t great for putting away games you’re supposed to win, but it’s awesome for keeping games close as underdogs.
And it’s very much worked for LSU and BYU so far in 2018. All hail burly manball.
3. Kansas (def. Rutgers, 55-14)
A year ago, it looked like Kansas might actually have a solid defense. The offense was going to be a problem, but the Jayhawks looked power-conference-worthy on D. And then linebacker Joe Dineen got hurt, the line massively underachieved, and Kansas continued to look like Kansas.
I’m not saying the Jayhawks are good all of a sudden, but there’s ample evidence that, with Dineen back, the defense is performing like it should have performed.
And with four-star freshman Pooka Williams Jr. in the lineup, they appear to have a focal point on offense, too. Williams has rushed for 283 yards in two games (he didn’t play in the loss to Nicholls), and despite the slapstick wackiness we all hoped to see in this game, KU proved that, at the very least, it is not the worst P5 program in the country.
4. North Texas (def. Arkansas, 44-17)
It’s almost disheartening to know that we’ve already seen the play of the year and that there’s almost no way it will be topped.
But let’s not lose sight of the fact that, even if you take this play out, UNT still outscored the Hogs by 20 points, out-gained them, and forced six Arkansas turnovers. If Chad Morris and Arkansas weren’t fully immersed in a Year Zero situation, they are now.
5. Oklahoma State (def. Boise State, 44-21)
Saturday afternoon’s Oklahoma State-Boise State game featured two teams that had, from a statistical perspective, looked better than projected so far in 2018. But one seemed to get all the attention. BSU came to town with a chance to score a massive résumé win; the Broncos had quickly become this year’s “Can a G5 team make the CFP?” center of gravity.
Oklahoma State used special teams and a relentless pass rush to erase those thoughts. Granted, two blocked punts made the game easier than it should have been — OSU out-gained BSU by just eight yards, after all — but the Pokes were clearly the better team, sacking Brett Rypien seven times and doing a far better job of establishing the run.
This was a hell of a reminder that, as good as 2017 stars Mason Rudolph and James Washington were, Mike Gundy’s program was rock solid before them.
6. Akron (def. Northwestern, 39-34)
I mean, this is just staggering: the last time Akron beat a Big Ten school, Akron wasn’t Akron, and the Big Ten wasn’t the Big Ten. S&P+ had what I thought was a confusing projection for this game, picking Akron to lose by only six despite a three-touchdown spread. But it still had the Zips losing by six!
Akron, which just beat Northwestern, hasn’t beaten a Big Ten team since the 19th century. (Akron, known as Buchtel College, beat Ohio State in 1894)— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) September 16, 2018
Tear down the John Heisman statue outside InfoCision Stadium and replace it with a Terry Bowden statue.
7. Troy (def. Nebraska, 24-19)
I was pretty thrown when Troy’s Neal Brown didn’t generate a ton of buzz in last year’s coaching carousel. Power conference programs didn’t lure away as many Group of 5 head coaches, and that was great news for the Trojans.
Despite a blowout loss to Boise State to start the season, they are once again a Sun Belt favorite. And now they have another P5 pelt to display.
They LSU in 2017 and nearly beat eventual national champion Clemson in 2016; in comparison, this one almost underwhelms. But I bet they’ll take it.
8. Alabama (def. Ole Miss, 62-7)
Nick Saban has won five national titles in Tuscaloosa with offenses that primarily ranged from “better than competent” to “when your defense is demoralized because your offense isn’t scoring, they’ll run you over.” And now they have maybe the most dangerous offense in the country.
This is terrifying. Ole Miss had almost the perfect start yesterday evening in Oxford: the Rebels scored on the first play of the game, then recovered a fumble near midfield a few minutes later. And they were still down 21 points after one quarter.
9. Texas (def. USC, 37-14)
When Tom Herman has a reason to install a chip on his players’ shoulders, they tend to respond. The Longhorns’ incredibly lackluster performance over the first two weeks of the season, and the terrible press that followed, evidently gave them that chip. Great. Now repeat this effort in the games you’re supposed to win handily.
10. San Diego State (def. Arizona State, 28-21)
Three weeks ago, this wouldn’t have seemed like a particularly startling result. SDSU won 32 games from 2015-17 — winning three games in a row against Pac-12 teams, to boot — while Arizona State won 18 games and replaced its coach.
But the Aztecs began 2018 by losing to Stanford by three touchdowns, limping past Sacramento State, and losing starting quarterback Christian Chapman to injury. ASU, meanwhile, had just moved into the AP top 25 after beating Michigan State.
The Aztecs won with Aztec football. Their defense suffocated ASU in the second half, forcing four consecutive three-and-outs, while backs Juwan Washington and Chase Jasmin ran and ran and ran: 46 combined carries, 269 yards, two scores. Things got a little uncomfortable when ASU cut the lead to seven, recovered a fumble, and moved into SDSU territory. But the Aztecs prevailed, just as all would have predicted three weeks ago.