Top trap games remaining for contenders 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
Oregon didn't see Arizona coming. Baylor was blindsided by West Virginia. Now those teams' playoff hopes are damaged, if not totaled.

It's often the surprising losses -- the trap games -- that derail promising seasons. Just ask Oklahoma State (Iowa State) in 2011 or USC (Oregon State) in 2008.

As for 2014, here are the most perilous traps remaining down the stretch for the top six in the AP poll. That includes Mississippi State, FSU and Ole Miss, the three remaining undefeated Power 5 teams.

1. Ole Miss
Trap game: at Arkansas (Nov. 22)
When they go to Fayetteville, the Rebels will essentially be coming off two open dates (they play Presbyterian on Nov. 8). But Arkansas still presents a classic look-ahead scenario, because Ole Miss has the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State the following week. The "biggest Egg Bowl ever" chatter is buzzing now; just imagine what it will be like a week before the game. If the Rebels' focus is waning, Arkansas is good enough to punish them for it. Mark it down: The Razorbacks are going to end their 16-game SEC losing streak this season, and it wouldn't surprise me if it happened in an impactful game. Mississippi State (Nov. 1) also should be on high alert. Arkansas will slow down the game. Even if Ole Miss isn't running as much up-tempo this season, pace is still something the Rebs want to dictate. The timing and matchup are as dangerous as it gets.

Is the honeymoon over for Kevin Sumlin? 

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
The day after his Texas A&M team blistered South Carolina in Week 1, Kevin Sumlin was downright giddy. Each time he remembered an anecdote about the win and its aftermath, he grew more excited.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/Butch DillKevin Sumlin's season has been in a freefall since the win at South Carolina.
The victory left Sumlin hopeful about the near future -- and the extended forecast in College Station. There was a certainty in place. Sumlin told me he felt as if he had a program that was still climbing the SEC ladder, with or without Johnny Manziel.

Things have changed, and quickly.

Saturday evening, a dejected, subdued Sumlin fielded questions after a 59-0 loss at Alabama.

One line stuck out to me as if it were said in bold print:

“It’s hard to say where we are right now,” Sumlin told reporters after the game.

Here’s where: The Aggies are 5-3 after a 5-0 start. They have a week off and then host Louisiana-Monroe. But after that, the slate ahead is no picnic: at Auburn, and then home games against Missouri and LSU. A 6-6 finish isn't out of the realm of possibility.

The Aggies trailed Alabama 45-0 at halftime, outgained by 400 yards. A Sumlin-coached team had never been held to single digits, let alone shut out.

“There’s no excuse for that regardless of how young they are,” a coach texted me Saturday night.

The honeymoon is over, clearly.

Since beating Bama in Tuscaloosa in 2012 -- in what some thought might be a changing of the guard -- Texas A&M is 0-6 against ranked SEC West opponents. That’s where the Aggies are. But is it where they'll stay?

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A week ago, projecting the top breakout player for the second half of the college football season would have seemed relatively simple. But Deshaun Watson, Clemson’s blossoming freshman quarterback, broke a bone in his right hand last weekend. We will not see Watson for another month or so.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSince the loss to Virginia Tech, J.T. Barrett has steadily improved.
However, there’s another first-year quarterback on the rise. Ohio State has quietly improved since its Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett’s progress is a huge reason why.

Since the loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State has averaged 56 points per game in its three wins -- six more than anyone else in the country. Barrett has completed 75.3 percent of his passes and thrown 14 touchdowns (one interception). He has run for another 150 yards and a score.

Let’s be clear: Kent State, Cincinnati and Maryland are not the standards for defense, but those numbers are still indicative of a QB finding his way.

It’s no wonder it took some time. Barrett didn’t win the backup job until the middle of camp, and the following week, Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury pressed the youngster into action.

OC Tom Herman didn’t want to lose the zone-read element of the offense after losing Miller, who was adept at making something from nothing. Barrett has been efficient, however. As Big Ten reporter Austin Ward pointed out this week, Barrett is averaging 7.8 yards per rush on his option keeps.

Rutgers, OSU's opponent on Saturday, is 5-1 -- but is next-to-last in the Big Ten in yards-per-play allowed (5.94), so it could be another chance for Barrett and the Buckeyes' offense. Penn State and Illinois are on deck, and then the ultimate measuring stick -- or remeasuring -- for Ohio State comes Nov. 8 at Michigan State.

Here are nine other second-half breakout candidates from Power 5 leagues, players who will shape the playoff race.

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How bad can it get for Alabama? 

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
Nick Saban, Lake KiffinScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe once-mighty Alabama offense has taken a step backward during the 2014 campaign.
Alabama isn’t a top-10 team. It isn’t a playoff contender. Let’s face it: Alabama just isn’t Alabama in 2014.

We pondered this through the first month of the season. We suspected it after Alabama's 23-17 loss at Ole Miss. Now we know it after a sluggish showing at Arkansas in which the Crimson Tide eked out a 14-13 victory Saturday.

The defense has holes in the secondary and is lacking a dominant pass-rusher. The offense has been turnover-prone and has lost its ability to go vertical. Things have been so bad on special teams that coordinator Bobby Williams might soon be a candidate for reassignment.

With each elapsing week, we learn -- and really wrap our minds around the fact -- that the SEC race goes through Mississippi. Not Alabama.

Anticipation of the Egg Bowl (Mississippi vs. Mississippi State) has passed, and is lapping, the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn).

That’s where the Week 7 Takeaways begin. Later: the wait for the rankings that matter, Todd Gurley's admirable understudy, our weekly look at breakout players and thoughts on Michigan and Florida.

Next week now

So how did this happen? How did Alabama slip?

It starts with the offense.

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Auburn preps for the Tebow of 2014 

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
Dak PrescottMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsThe Auburn Tigers' focus this week has been on Bulldogs QB Dak Prescott.
Several comparisons are beginning to float around Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, a rapid riser in the Heisman race. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson offered me his view this week as these teams prepare for Saturday’s anticipated top-5 meeting in Starkville.

“He’s a lot like Tim Tebow,” said Johnson, who was the DC at South Carolina when Tebow was at Florida. “He’s an inside runner. He can hurt you outside, but he likes to stay inside. They’ll stretch the field with the running back on the outside, and that opens up 3, 4, 5 yards in the middle for [Prescott].

“He’s really good in short yardage. They go to him a lot in short yardage. You have to load up at the point of attack -- but you do that, and then they have easy throws.”

Johnson recalled defending Prescott in September 2013, in Prescott’s SEC debut. He has evolved since then, without question, but he did run for 133 yards and two scores in that game.

“He hurt us,” Johnson said, “but he’s a much better passer this year, with the experience. If you take him out of the lineup, it’s a whole different team.”

The chess match between the Mississippi State offense (crafted by coach Dan Mullen) and Johnson’s defense -- which could again determine Auburn’s ceiling as a team -- is where we begin Saturday's storylines. We’ll continue with rumblings about Todd Gurley’s suspension at Georgia, the SMU and Troy jobs, and a freshman QB to watch this weekend.

As much as I talked with Johnson about other elements, Saturday’s Auburn-Mississippi State showdown kept coming back to Prescott.

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Dan MullenAP Photo/Jim LytleMississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has had an upswing in momentum.
College football is a love-me, love-me-not world. We know that. It’s emotional, and those emotions cause opinions to shift, and shift quickly, based mostly on wins and losses.

The lesson: If you’re winning, cash in while you can.

A year ago, Dan Mullen was the captain of yet another buoyant-but-not-beautiful ship at Mississippi State -- yet another .500-ish team. I didn’t have him on any sort of hot-seat watch, but some peers did. There was little momentum in Starkville.

And now? Mullen’s team is a 5-0 darling, having smashed LSU on the road and Texas A&M at home. His name has and will come up for probable openings at Florida and Michigan.

A guy who has worked to distance himself from being “Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator” is legitimately doing that. He’s built a team, but fellow coaches are taking note of something more than personnel. There’s a new mojo.

The Mississippi State of old would have had a late collapse at LSU, succumbing to Les Miles’ voodoo ways. It was a hurdle cleared, a new day.

“Look out,” another SEC coach said following the Bulldogs’ win in Baton Rouge, “Dan Mullen gets the bounces now and Les Miles doesn’t. How about that?”

Besides bounces, it helps -- a bunch -- to have the SEC’s best quarterback, Dak Prescott, a nice balance of speed and size around him and pro-quality linemen on both sides of the ball.

It’s a team equipped with the players to win the country’s most difficult division. If it does that, or even gets close, coaches agree that Mullen, 42, should get the heck out of there.

Winning in Starkville is possible, but in spurts and with short windows. Sustainability is an incredible challenge even where the resources are greatest. It’s a better job than it has ever been, coaches say, but let’s not mistake Mississippi State for Florida.

Here are other Power 5 head coaches who have upped their stock in the first six weeks

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Ty MontgomeryJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesStanford couldn't really get its ground game rolling on Saturday, and lost 17-14 to Notre Dame.
It’s Oct. 5, and there’s one remaining undefeated team in the Pac-12: the Arizona Wildcats.

Cal, which didn’t beat a single Power 5 team a year ago, is leading the Pac-12 North, despite giving up more than 100 combined points in its past two wins.

These are strange, unpredictable times in college football, and there’s no place wilder than the West. It hasn’t been merely odd; it’s been damaging. No conference was hurt more by a historically volatile college football weekend: Oregon went down. UCLA went down. Stanford went down again.

The result: The Pac-12 isn’t going to have a representative in the College Football Playoff. It wasn’t the league we projected to be shut out, but that’s where we’re heading.

That’s where the Week 6 takeaways begin. Also included: Mississippi State is the most complete team in America; the day’s biggest coaching winners; why North Carolina is suddenly broken; TCU and its vastly improved QB come through; and Ohio State’s quiet move.

Next Week now

Taking stock of the Pac-12

There’s undoubtedly an impressive level of depth in the Pac-12, but that depth is devouring a shrinking group of contenders that appear more flawed and less viable by the week. After seeing Arizona need a late stop to win at UTSA and a Hail Mary to beat Cal, there isn’t great momentum for the Wildcats to continue their undefeated run. They’re young and fun to watch, but not yet a contender.

Next week’s game between Oregon and UCLA, a prime choice for “College GameDay” before both teams lost in Week 6, has been taken down from the marquee. It’s now a playoff eliminator, though both teams have flaws -- most notably their offensive lines -- that will lead to additional losses.

In surviving Washington State and losing to Arizona, Oregon looked closer to an 8-4 team than a title threat.

“They’ve got problems,” a Power 5 head coach said Friday.

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Who should replace Brady Hoke? 

October, 3, 2014
Oct 3
videoMuch-needed change is on the way for Michigan football.

AD Dave Brandon and coach Brady Hoke have provided only more on- and off-field reasons for their ousters in the time since I wrote that they should be gone, 13 days ago. It’s a broken program in need of new leadership and direction.

Still, some questions remain:

Will things devolve to the point of in-season firings? (We might reach that point Saturday at Rutgers, whether that’s been fully realized.)

Can Michigan pull off simultaneous searches for a new AD and a new coach?

And where will it ultimately turn?

From talking with coaches and those intimately familiar with the program, my sense is that Michigan really wants to wait until December to move on from Hoke, though Brandon could be gone before then.

And when the time comes, LSU coach Les Miles -- not Jim Harbaugh, or anyone else -- should be the first and only call. For one, Miles is established enough that he wouldn’t feel unsettled if an AD were named after his hiring. He wouldn’t feel pressure from that office the way others might.

Miles is being dismissed in some circles because of his age. But he’s 61, not 71. And he’s a young 61, at that.

If a "brand" such as Michigan got 10 or so years from Miles, wouldn't that be more than sufficient given the recent run of turnover and turmoil? The "30-year college coach" isn't a thing anymore, right? We can agree on that. Take what you can get, and a decade is gold.

After the rumblings in 2007 and then again in 2011, this could finally be the right time for Miles to return to Michigan, where he got his start as a GA in 1980. Someone close to Miles told me last fall that he could see him heading back to UM, for his "last job." Coaches are buying it, too.

"I would think Les would try to get Michigan this time," a Power 5 head coach suggested this week by text.

That's where we begin the Saturday Storylines, with a hearty dose of CoachSpeak. If Miles were to leave, where would LSU look? And would Harbaugh consider a college program other than Michigan? Some of his friends think so.

Later, we'll hit the breakout players to watch this weekend. Plus my off-the-radar upset pick that would dramatically shift the playoff picture.

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TCU will stun the Big 12, and soon 

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
Trevone BoykinAP Photo/LM OteroTrevone Boykin has exceeded expectations under center for the TCU Frogs.
Mark it down. One of the next two weekends, TCU is going to wreck the marquee November game that everyone believes will decide the Big 12.

The Frogs are going to beat either Oklahoma this weekend or Baylor next weekend, giving one of those conference favorites an early-season L. (Personally, I believe it’ll be Baylor.)

Here’s why.

They’ve been close

The Frogs lost eight games in 2013 by an average of 8.5 points per loss, including four in conference by two or three points in each game. Think about that. A field goal, #collegekickers and all, decided half their losses.

Two of those games were, you guessed it, Baylor and Oklahoma.

And here’s the takeaway: If you’re continually in games, you’re bound to win games.

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Top candidates to replace Charlie Weis 

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
Kansas is the first Power 5 head coaching job to open up in 2014, but a school in the American Athletic Conference might prove to be more appealing to those on the rise.

So what does that say about KU?

It’s not flattering, clearly, but it’s still a head coaching job in the Big 12, and that means it’ll still be highly sought.

The primary issues: Resources are so-so, the recruiting pool is even worse, and SMU -- the AAC job I was referencing -- can probably pay as much, if not more. Oh, and you’re a distant No. 10 (out of 10) in perhaps the country’s most balanced conference.

No way around it: The new coach will be starting from zero. It was a tough league to win for a long time because of Oklahoma's and Texas’ dominance, but in some ways it’s tougher now because any one of a half-dozen schools could win it every year.

Those close to the program say it’s time for KU to go after the long-term fix, rather than some “name” retread in the vein of the Charlie Weis hire. And it would be beneficial to get a PR bump with the certain trendy sex appeal of an offensive-minded coach. That could help stem the transitional growing pains.

Whomever Kansas hires can’t be worse than Weis, who was 6-22 -- and had just one victory against a Power 5 school.

Really, the first order of business should be ensuring that the Jayhawks never again wear Saturday’s uniform combo -- red jerseys and red pants, with blue shirts underneath. Those should be burned, unless Spider-Man is the new hire.

Peter Parker isn’t going to Lawrence, so here are six realistic options, according to those familiar with the program and league.

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The Aggies are not a playoff-caliber team 

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
 Jonathan WilliamsAP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Aggies had a lot of trouble with Jonathan Williams and the Razorbacks' offense Saturday.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- I learned something Saturday during my first trip to Jerry World: The Arkansas Razorbacks are better than we thought, and the Texas A&M Aggies are overrated. Those were my suspicions entering Saturday’s SEC showdown, and they were confirmed after the Aggies had to rally for a 35-28 overtime win.

The Aggies were prematurely included in most pundits’ four-team playoff field before Saturday, but they’ll be part of very few bracket projections after their comeback win over the Razorbacks.

Listen, that’s no knock on the vastly improved Hogs; there’s no weak link in the SEC West any longer. The run game is consistent, and a few coverage lapses aside, the defense is much quicker to the ball. They’re a handful.

“That’s a good team,” one of the Aggies’ coaches told me afterward. “Better than we thought they would be, and we thought they were pretty good.”

And really, it’s no slight of A&M; it’s talented and evidently stubborn in the face of adversity, a better collective group than I anticipated it would be post-Johnny Manziel, and with a work-in-progress defense.

But one of the four best teams in America? No way. Get real.

The secondary and skill players are too inconsistent, and I’m not nearly as sold on the quarterback as the staff. Three or four more wins? Sure. I don’t see a contender, though. The 5-0 Aggies are content to prove me wrong, and they’ll have chances the next three weeks at Mississippi State, against Ole Miss and at Alabama.

“You haven’t been big on us all year, so let’s keep it that way,” OC Jake Spavital texted me Saturday night, after I floated this central thesis that I called “realistic.”

That’s where Week 5 Takeaways begin. Also included: I took it too easy on Brady Hoke when I wrote last week that he should be fired by December; it’s a subtly big week ahead in the Big 12; and coaches wonder if a "sleeping giant" job in the ACC will soon be available.

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Are Texas A&M Aggies overrated? 

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
Kevin SumlinIllustration by Sam HoKevin Sumlin and the Aggies will have a chip on their shoulders against Arkansas.
ARLINGTON, Texas – Here is the question everyone might not be asking but many are wondering as we head into Saturday: Is Texas A&M a legit playoff contender or just a Week 1 wonder?

The Aggies are being penciled into the playoff by most pundits, largely because of their punishing efforts at South Carolina in the opener.

But that was on Aug. 28, and they’ve played Lamar, Rice and SMU since then. A&M is 4-0, and it’s only fair to wonder whether everyone is drunk on the Midnight Yell punch.

“All I’ve seen is the South Carolina game,” an SEC coach said earlier in the week. “That was enough to tell me they’re pretty damn good. If they’re capable of that kind of game on the road to start the year, they’re good.”

But top-four good, or did A&M have one great game -- and game plan -- to stun the Gamecocks? Let’s put it this way: There’s absolutely no way it can fake the next month.

First, it’s Arkansas on Saturday, then at Mississippi State, then Ole Miss at home, then at Alabama. Skate through that stretch even 3-1, and believers’ sentiments will be cemented. Go 4-0, and the Ags will be the unquestioned No. 1 team in America.

(I actually think they’ll go 2-2, losing the two road games. As another SEC coach suggested, if Mississippi State's Dan Mullen can win at LSU, perhaps his big-game fortunes have changed.)

But hang on a second. Don't roll over on the Hogs. This means a great deal for an Arkansas team that wants to prove just how far it has come in a year’s time. It currently has the distinction of being the only unranked SEC West team.

“This is Arkansas’ Super Bowl,” a coach in the league said this week.

I attended the Razorbacks' win going away in Lubbock, but that pales in comparison to what a victory Saturday would do for Bret Bielema in Year 2.

Don’t fall into the trap, however, of starting to compare Texas Tech and Texas A&M just because Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury learned from A&M's Kevin Sumlin.

“I love Kliff, but we aren’t Texas Tech,” Sumlin said this week.

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Time is running out for Miami's Al Golden 

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24

While the hot-seat watch is largely focused on Brady Hoke at Michigan and Will Muschamp at Florida, there's another endangered coach at a high-profile program who has surprisingly managed to remain under the radar.

Like Hoke and Muschamp, Miami Hurricanes coach Al Golden has had only three full seasons to prove he can turn around a team. Which just goes to show how short the evaluation period has become, doesn't it? The window of success opens, or begins to open -- and then it slams shut on your pinkie finger.

Take Golden. If he wins a few more games a little bit sooner in Coral Gables, he would have been a prime candidate for Texas when it was done with Mack Brown.

And now? Well, Golden's .500 team is favored at home this week against Duke, and that's somehow newsworthy. Win or lose, the Hurricanes, in Golden's fourth season, are in a glut of mediocrity that defines the ACC's Coastal Division.

They could win, they could lose -- this week and every week. But so could the other six teams in the division. Miami is no better or worse than anyone else, and that’s damning because Miami has the wealth of the state’s recruiting base. Remember, that’s why it was such a coup that the ACC got "the U" from the now-defunct Big East in the first place.

So where is that Miami payoff? Tick, tick, tick. Tick. And if Golden doesn’t produce, and soon-ish, it'll be someone else's opportunity (or burden).

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Big changes coming for the Wolverines 

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
Devin FunchessGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDevin Funchess and the Wolverines were roughed up by the visiting Utes on Saturday.
Quarterback Devin Gardner will be the first change for the Michigan Wolverines.

Coach Brady Hoke will be the second, and probably by December.

Athletic director Dave Brandon will be the next, and probably shortly after Hoke.

It’s time to start over at Michigan. There’s no “fixing it” in the middle of the season. Losing at home -- and being dominated at home -- by Utah signals the denouement, as I wrote earlier in the week. The end is near.

“Utah’s a good team -- tough, physical, well-coached,” a Pac-12 coach said Saturday afternoon, “but Michigan can’t lose at home to Utah. You’re Michigan.”

The offense again didn’t score a point, again didn’t reach the red zone against a Power 5 opponent. (It didn’t against Notre Dame, either.)

There’s a deep culture of blah at Michigan, and it has prevailed since last November. It starts with a faulty offensive line, which undermines even a seemingly talented runner like Derrick Green and forces its quarterback into poor decisions. That’s why backup Shane Morris, whenever his number is called, will offer no more solutions than Gardner. It’s still September, yes, but Michigan’s season is doomed.

With Green (the No. 38 overall prospect in 2013) as an example, it’s not as if the Wolverines are bereft of talent. They had RecruitingNation’s No. 6 class in 2013, and No. 5 class in 2012. Shouldn’t those players be hitting their stride about now? If not, why not?

The situation reminds me of Auburn when it was clear that Gene Chizik needed to go (apart from the fact that Michigan has no title year to hang its hat on). Highly ranked recruiting classes yielded little to no results. When the program started to lose the fan base and future recruits, that’s when it made the move.

Hoke is a seemingly good guy, but Michigan will soon do the same. It has no choice, because it will only get worse. Even the next three games -- Minnesota, Rutgers and Penn State -- suddenly look rife with peril.

That’s where the Week 4 takeaways begin. Later: Why Jeff Long, Condi Rice, et al, should send a gift basket to Clemson, South Carolina; Texas A&M will now resume its regularly scheduled schedule; Florida (and LSU and Clemson) needs to give its freshman QB a shot; Oklahoma’s best back emerged in Morgantown.

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Forget Jameis -- Clemson still has to score 

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
Deshaun WatsonJoshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsCan freshman QB Deshaun Watson lead the Tigers' run game on Saturday?
When it comes to actual football, the suspension of Florida State QB Jameis Winston isn’t the most important storyline in Saturday’s Clemson-FSU game. And it really isn’t close.

The Heisman-winning quarterback's absence is irrelevant if Clemson can't run on the FSU front seven. That is the Tigers’ biggest concern -- not who is under center for the Seminoles.

“It’s a mismatch,” one ACC coach texted this week. “Big one.”

In addition to new quarterbacks and receivers, Clemson does not feel great about its tackles or guards. That goes all the way back to a conversation I had with coach Dabo Swinney in January at the Senior Bowl.

“I’m more concerned with who’s going to play tackle,” he said when asked about the Tigers' then-three-way QB battle.

And the offensive line remains the biggest concern. In two games, the Tigers have averaged a very modest 3.8 yards per carry. They’re using a lot of backs, but none has shown breakout ability -- particularly behind that patchwork line, and perhaps because of it.

That’s why freshman QB Deshaun Watson, clearly a more athletic option than Cole Stoudt, has to play a big role Saturday in the zone-read game. Watson can keep the FSU defense honest.

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