How Kansas State can upset Auburn 

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
Nick Marshall, Jake WatersGetty ImagesNick Marshall and Jake Waters lead highly potent offensive attacks in Thursday night's matchup.
The Auburn Tigers will be the most talented team on the field Thursday night in Manhattan, Kansas. There aren’t many people debating that -- not lucid ones, anyway.

The Kansas State Wildcats can beat Auburn, though. And here’s how coaches think it will play out

Key swing games for Big Ten coaches 

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
Brady Hoke Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPressure on Wolverines coach Brady Hoke is mounting in Ann Arbor.
It hasn’t exactly been a sterling September for the Big Ten. You know this.

And we still have two Saturdays this month left for it to get worse. Jobs are on the line.

The term “must-win game” can blur to cliché, but here are five examples where it’s reality for the Big Ten’s hot-seat coaches. Drop one of these, and there’s a strong possibility you’ll be claiming a buyout check by October and there will be a search for your replacement the final two months of the season.

Brady Hoke, Michigan Wolverines
Swing game: Utah (Saturday)

Michigan has already been shut out for the first time since President Ronald Reagan was in office. A loss to Utah, which would drop the Wolverines to 2-2, would be crippling for a team that lost six of its final eight games in 2013.

Those haunting memories would start to creep in.

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College Football Playoff's new problem 

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
Trevor KnightJ.P. Wilson/Icon SportswireTrevor Knight and the Sooners have run their record to 3-0, with a combined score of 134-33.
What do you know, a supposedly weak week in college football turned out to be meaningful. You’d think the public, and some media members, would learn not to judge the week by its schedule.

Losses by the Georgia Bulldogs, USC Trojans and Virginia Tech Hokies -- who had pulled off some of the biggest wins of the young season -- provided illustration that the upcoming 2 1/2 months are going to be wild. But what if it becomes so wacky that 2014 is counterproductive in the broader sense?

Picture this: What if the College Football Playoff's Nos. 1 and 2 seeds are mind-blowingly obvious, light-years ahead of everyone else, and Seeds 3 and 4 are so muddled that there’s great, great consternation over the committee’s final choices (as in, there are five or six teams with legit resumes for the final two spots)?

That means the new system in effect muddied the old one’s ability to decide the best teams playing for a national title. Why do you need three games if one would better determine the proper champ?

“Hadn’t thought of that,” one SEC coach told me late Saturday via text. “Wouldn’t be much point [of playing the semifinals], would there?”

The most dominant teams through three weeks have been, I’d say, Oklahoma and Oregon. Let’s just say they blow through their remaining games and look fantastic doing so. If that’s the matchup everyone’s dying to see, the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds could only foul it up. Or, what if those semifinal games are ungodly bad, because the 3- and 4-seeds have no business being on the field with the top two? That wouldn’t be good, either.

Just to be clear: I hope it doesn’t play out like this. I’m like a lot of other people, especially the playoff folks in Dallas. I want to see three great games at the end, and forward progress for the sport. But it’s worth considering that newfound headaches could lead everyone to regret the system change. Or maybe the angst would just move us closer to an eight-team bracket.

That’s where the Week 3 takeaways begin. They continue with my week in Lubbock, Will Muschamp taking the hot seat “honors” back from Brady Hoke, and Saturday’s breakout performances.

Razorbacks' running backs running wild

• The SEC East is a jumbled mess, as expected. Meanwhile, the SEC West’s seven teams have lost one game in total, and it was to another team in the division. Each week cements it as the best division in the sport.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Tori EichbergerArkansas' Alex Collins racked up 212 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Texas Tech.
I watched as Arkansas, the West’s “worst” team -- the one with that sole loss -- go for 438 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground Saturday at Texas Tech. Arkansas had 14 rushing scores in all of 2013. With improving depth like that, who in the world would blame Texas A&M for going light in the nonconference schedule?

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How Tennessee can hang with Oklahoma 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
Trevor KnightKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsThe Vols would be wise to blitz QB Trevor Knight and force OU to rely heavily on the passing game.
Tennessee has held steady at most Vegas books as a three-touchdown underdog Saturday at Oklahoma. It would clearly be a significant, ahead-of-schedule upset if the Volunteers were to win in Norman, Oklahoma.

Even UT coach Butch Jones was aware this week of Bob Stoops’ 88-5 home record. (I tried to be comforting, reminding Jones that three of the five losses have come since 2011.)

But c'mon, we've learned enough about college football to know that the unexpected is to be expected. Week 3 looks on paper like a dud, so naturally it will provide indelible games and impactful results. That’s how it goes.

For Tennessee, here's the game plan that can, at minimum, keep the Vols hanging around in the second half on the road against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Knight under center

Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight is the central character, after talking with Big 12 and SEC coaches about the game.

If Tennessee has designs on winning, or at least staying in the game, it needs to do the following where Knight is concerned:

Hit him: “Knight doesn’t like [to be hit],” a Big 12 coach told me. “He didn’t finish some games last year.”

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating trying to injure a player, not at all, but it’s significant to note that coaches still aren’t sold on Knight’s durability.

We know Knight became a darling after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama -- but he could not finish the previous game against Oklahoma State. Backup Blake Bell entered and bailed out the Sooners with a late TD drive, the only offensive TD of the game for OU.

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Spartans' playoff hopes all but gone 

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
Oregon Ducks Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon dealt a crushing blow to the playoff hopes of Michigan State on Saturday afternoon.
Fast-forward to Tuesday, Oct. 28. The first College Football Playoff rankings have just been released.

Here’s an important, precedent-setting question for the 13-person committee: Where will you have the highest-ranked Big Ten team in your top 25?

It cannot be anywhere near consideration -- surely not after Saturday, a debacle for the league that featured the first same-day losses for Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State since 1988.

This isn’t an overreaction because, simply, the conference’s best hopes just blew it in their biggest nonconference tests. The ink ran dry in their attempts at signature wins. It’s the second week in September, and there aren’t any more.

The Big Ten, barring a miracle, will miss the sport’s first playoff.

That’s where the Week 2 takeaways begin. Later, you’ll go behind the scenes of USC's and Virginia Tech’s big wins, as well as receive our weekly look at breakout players and the coaching hot seat. It’s a Hailstorm for the Victors

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Coaches size up MSU-Oregon matchup 

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
Mark Helfrich, Mark DantonioUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesA trip to the inaugural College Football Playoff could be on the line in Week 2 of the season.
You have no doubted noticed this, but college football is rapidly moving toward two unofficial divisions: Tortoise and Hare. (Still beats Leaders and Legends, by the way.)

Saturday’s Michigan State and Oregon heavyweight bout presents not only a playoff-esque matchup but also an intriguing intersectional game between

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Ranking Week 1 overreactions 

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
Nate AndrewsTom Pennington/Getty ImagesA scare against Oklahoma State may have been just what the Florida State Seminoles needed.
It’s just one game.

That single sentence is a handy guide to avoid a very natural reaction -- which is to overreact.

There was plenty of that after Week 1. In several cases involving playoff contenders, it didn’t matter whether a team won or lost. The new playoff has made knee-jerk the preferred way to respond to any one game. Struggle, even in victory, and the court of public opinion will immediately dismiss a program from contention for the four-team field.

So to bring some order, I’ll break down whether an early reaction is fair.


1. Alabama Crimson Tide

The text I got from an SEC assistant during the second quarter of Alabama's 33-23 win over West Virginia on Saturday certainly caught my eye: “[Alabama] looks like every other team.”

See. Even coaches are subject to overreaction.

There are reasons for that perception, but those reasons could fade over the next few weeks.

Alabama has a new QB, a new OT, etc., but the most legit evidence of being pedestrian is at cornerback.

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LSU, other contenders will evolve 

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
Kenny HillardBob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hilliard ignited a Tigers ground game that gained 77 yards in the fourth quarter.
HOUSTON -- Let’s set something straight about the new College Football Playoff: The only teams in real danger of being out of contention after Week 1 are the ones that lost.

UCLA looked bad -- really bad in spots -- but it won. Ohio State missed Braxton Miller, but pulled away from Navy. FSU and Alabama were not great, either, but they won. Here in Houston, LSU had to come back from 17 down in the second half against Wisconsin, but the Tigers won.

You cannot even fully write off teams that did lose. But you particularly can’t relegate any 1-0 teams.

Evolution is a part of college football. The issues seen in Week 1 -- UCLA’s offensive line, Alabama’s corners, LSU’s youth -- could ultimately prevent those teams from making the playoff, but they could also be immediately correctable. For now, don’t exaggerate imperfection.

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Fournette, LSU will live up to hype 

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
Leonard FournetteAP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette has been dubbed 2014's "prodigy" -- before even playing a single game.
Leonard Fournette is not a freshman.

Just keep repeating that to yourself, over and over, though not so loud that people think you’re strange.

I’ve spent the past few months working to condition and program myself to this thought. Maybe we should just call him LSU’s “first-year” running back.

Fournette doesn’t look, act -- or, most importantly -- run like a freshman. So let’s just move past the fact that he is one.

It’s a dangerous game, hyping those who have yet to gain a yard, throw a pass or make a tackle. It’s one that can make someone like me look quite foolish, causing hand-wringing from fans. (“He’s 18, HANEY!”)

But what happens when we’re right? What happens when Jameis Winston, as a first-year starter, wins the Heisman?

From all I’ve gathered, including a stop last week in Baton Rouge, we’re right on Fournette. You’ve seen the comparisons, from Michael Jordan’s determination to Adrian Peterson’s physique as a teenager.

“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” someone close to the program told me. “Never.”

College football’s 2014 prodigy will debut Saturday night in Houston, when LSU meets Wisconsin in a top-15 matchup at the Texans' stadium.

In addition to Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn are expected to be in the receivers rotation. Jamal Adams is a defensive back who isn’t getting enough buzz because of the offensive guys.

And, oh by the way, coach Les Miles has said QB Brandon Harris will play. He might even start.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman QB Brandon Harris will also headline LSU's young group of impact players.
These players, and other youngsters, were recruited to play immediately.

“We just want to get the best players on the field,” defensive coordinator John Chavis told me last week. “We don’t care what year they are. We tell them that.”

In addition to natural attrition, LSU has lost 17 underclassmen to the NFL draft the past two cycles. That precipitates need unlike anything we’ve ever seen, really.

“These kids have embraced that idea since day one in the recruiting process,” said Jeremy Crabtree, senior recruiting writer. “They knew they were good. They knew they were going to have to play early. And they didn’t back away from it one bit.”

If some or all of the freshmen hit, LSU will be a dark horse playoff contender. Three of the 20 coaches I polled this week had the Tigers in the four-team field.

“They can sneak up on you some years,” one of them told me. “That’s when they’ve won [titles]. There’s a lot of attention on Alabama and Auburn right now, and Les probably likes it that way.”

ESPN analyst and national recruiting director Tom Luginbill, who covered Harris in the Under Armour game, said his arm is in the top three for the past decade.

“He’s a great kid with a high ceiling,” he said. “[He’s] a superior talent to [Anthony] Jennings, but he hasn’t played yet.”

Even with Fournette, expect veteran RBs Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee to get the first carries. Second-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will roll Fournette in gracefully; those on staff agreed with my theory that the frosh would see between 10-15 planned carries. Don’t expect Peterson’s bruising running style as much as power mixed with elusiveness. Fournette would rather juke than bulldoze. And he’ll be more effective in the screen game.

But if he gets hot, the script could soon flip, with Hilliard and Magee serving as the complements. And that’s what I would expect, given the preface of his legend.

Fournette goes for 100-plus. A star is born.

Other breakout players to watch this week

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Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen Icon SMI/USA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen have high expectations to fill in Aggieland.
TGIF: Thank God, it’s football (season). And with the final installment of our Ultimate Season Preview -- what a journey it has been -- we’re wondering who will feel the loss of its QB more in tonight’s SEC Network kickoff: South Carolina (Connor Shaw) or Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel)?

Admittedly, I was leaning at first toward Shaw, the gritty 27-game winner for the Gamecocks. Then I did the “Championship Drive” podcast Wednesday with host extraordinaire Rece Davis and he talked some sense into me. (Thanks, Rece.)

“Let me help you with your story. The answer is Manziel because no team will miss their quarterback, or any player, like A&M will miss Manziel,” Davis said, lecturing me a bit when, really, I needed to be lectured.

He’s right. After all, Davis was on the broadcast team for Manziel’s final college game, when he led the Aggies on one last improbable, heart-racing comeback -- for old time’s sake -- in the 52-48 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Duke.

Put it this way: I got married that night -- and we still found a way to watch the end of the rally on ESPN3, shivering in the Asheville, North Carolina night as we lit a few stogies. No lie. It was a highlight of the whole evening.

And no offense to Shaw, whom I’ve written about since he was in high school, but I would not have taken a break from the post-reception party to watch the end of his college career. I would have caught the highlights.

Manziel was different from anything I had ever seen on the field. He was magnetic. He was magical. And he was also vitally important to his team, especially given its defensive, um, shortcomings.

The 2013 Aggies scored 42 against Alabama and 41 against Auburn ... and lost both games. The D allowed Duke to score 48, Mississippi State 41, Ole Miss 38 and Arkansas 33, but was bailed out by an offense that averaged 47 points in those four games.

Given this season’s youth and some expulsions, I’m not even sure the 2014 A&M defense will be any better than the group that finished No. 109 in the nation in yards per play (6.4) allowed and 96th in scoring defense (32 ppg).

If Texas A&M is going to again have to outscore opponents, it’s only reasonable to say it will not be able to do that as well with Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen at QB.

“[Coach] Kevin [Sumlin] is going to earn that paycheck,” one SEC rival coach said, referring to Sumlin’s raise in the neighborhood of $5 million.

I see a 4-6 team. The SEC West is that unrelenting. It’ll tussle with Ole Miss for fifth in the division. (But the Aggies would be a contender in the Big 12, for what that’s worth. Just saying.)

Those closest to the A&M program tend to talk more about Allen and 2015 commit Kyler Murray than they do Hill. So that leads me to believe he could be in some trouble when he makes his first start tonight at hostile Williams-Brice Stadium.

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Pivot Points: Power Five conferences 

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
Gary AndersonMichael Hickey/Getty ImagesThe Badgers could very well be playing a playoff contention knockout game in Week 1.
With the countdown to college football’s kickoff now measured in hours, we thought we would revise a feature from 2013 called “Pivot Points.” As a refresher, it’s cause-and-effect: “If X happens, then Y will happen.”

Here's one take for each Power Five conference:

If Wisconsin can get past LSU this week, then the Badgers will be in the playoff.

I’ll quickly lay out why the Badgers will at minimum gain momentum if they win this week.

Up next: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. That takes you to the middle of November, when they close with Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.

So even with some front-seven question marks and a first-time starter at QB, Wisconsin is 100 percent a playoff threat. But the Badgers will likely have to go undefeated to make it, which means knocking out a wild-card LSU team this weekend.

In fact, there’s a shot this could be a playoff contention knockout game. Both teams are on the fringe, and this is a win that both could very well need to woo the committee.

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Coaches reveal their playoff picks 

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26

Hutson MasonTodd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia pulled in multiple votes among coaches -- could this suggest two SEC teams in the playoff?
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it all will be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today's question: We polled 20 coaches and asked them, "Which teams do you predict will be in the inaugural College Football Playoff?"

We've analyzed the College Football Playoff pecking order in almost every way imaginable. I even started my deep dive back in January. All of the speculation will change this weekend, of course, when we have actual game activity on which to base our opinions.

In the meantime, however, I contacted as many coaches I could to poll them. Surely, they've seen, heard and know enough to gauge who will still be playing come January.

In fact, I’ll make a little wager. I’ll bet you an Austin street taco and a local brew that my group of 20 coaches nails all four playoff teams. I’ve got faith in this well-paid-yet-motley crew.

The only teams that didn't get a vote in my poll but still scare me as sleepers are Clemson and Miami from the ACC, Iowa from the Big Ten, Kansas State from the Big 12 and USC from the Pac-12. Clearly, those squads are on the far end of the probability spectrum, but so were 2013 Auburn and 2012 Notre Dame.

And if a playoff team does wind up being one not listed here, well, we’re in for a really fun year -- and I’ll buy you a dang taco and a beer, anyway.

In addition to the 20 responses, three coaches abstained. UCLA’s Jim Mora promptly responded that he "didn't have an opinion," which elicited a chuckle from me.

“I only think about two teams, UCLA and our opponent,” Mora said. “Classic coachspeak!”

Troll on, Jimmay. Your pops is proud as we enter this play-offff?! era.

And then there’s the Power Five coach who suggested this final four: Air Force, New Mexico State, Idaho and Eastern Michigan. There’s one in every crowd, isn’t there?

But on to more earnest efforts: There was a lot of chalk, and a lot of favorites. A ballot I particularly liked was one coach taking Florida State, South Carolina, Stanford and Wisconsin.

“Didn’t want to come with the typical BS,” he said. Perfectly plausible -- and original! Thanks, Coach.

As for the chalk, the coaches picked four conference favorites as the leaders to make the playoff: FSU (19 of 20 ballots), Alabama (16), Oklahoma (10) and Oregon (10).

Let’s cut through that to where the intrigue begins. I have a hunch that the next six teams chosen by the coaches, receiving between two and five votes, wind up being the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds. There will be surprises. And they’ll likely come from this group.

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Connor CookAllen Kee/ESPN ImagesConnor Cook and the Spartans can emerge as new Big Ten favorites for the College Football Playoff.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: In honor of the College Football Playoff, which four teams' stock has been on the rise since the start of preseason camp, and which four teams have seen their stock drop?

Whether or not Ohio State is ultimately hopeless without Braxton Miller, we know that, at the bare minimum, the Buckeyes’ national title chances took a substantial hit when the playmaking senior quarterback re-injured his throwing shoulder last week.

Where there was previously a swirl of uncertainty and optimism around the Buckeyes -- who, mind you, haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2011 -- now only lies unsettling doubt.

“I already wasn’t sure about them,” one coach said last week, just after the Miller news hit. “Without [Miller], there’s no way. He got them out of so many bad plays. Who cares if he ever became a [pure] passer? The kid made things happen.”

You know what’s distinctly possible? An 0-2 start. Would you be all that stunned if the Miller-less Bucks, trying to figure things out and establish a new identity, stumbled against both Navy and Virginia Tech? Those are not bad teams, folks. And ESPN's recently-updated Football Power Index now has OSU ranked No. 12, down six spots minus Braxton.

For the obvious reason of losing what might have been college football’s most valuable player to his team’s playoff chances, Ohio State leads our discussion of teams with shifting stock during August.

And in each case, there is a beneficiary on the rise. That is to say, for every Ohio State, there’s a Michigan State.

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Better offense: '14 OSU or '10 Florida? 

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
Urban MeyerGreg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett has been unexpectedly thrust into a starting position for the Buckeyes.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Could 2014 Ohio State (minus Braxton Miller) be as bad as 2010 Florida (minus Tim Tebow) on offense?

The coaches I’ve talked with this week emphatically say no. There’s too much faith in the offensive system and coaching -- whether it’s Urban Meyer or OC Tom Herman -- and too much respect for Ohio State’s skill position talent.

The Buckeyes might lose a game or two, but the personnel is not going to let them slip far.

“They’ve got guys at every position,” a coach in another league said.

“Guys” is often an understated term in the coaching world. It translates roughly to “NFL talent.”

“They’re loaded,” he said of the Buckeyes, who are on their way to a fourth consecutive top-10 recruiting class under Meyer. “They’re everywhere.”

So don’t expect those esophageal spasms to flare up for Meyer this season, even if his team's playoff hopes are shakier than they were a week ago.

So what will the offense look like without the dynamic and experienced Braxton Miller?

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Week 2 make-or-break for Big Ten 

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
Connor CookAndrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAs new conference favorites, can Connor Cook and the Spartans show up for the Big Ten?
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners – it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: In light of Ohio State QB Braxton Miller's season-ending injury and the Notre Dame academic investigation, how monumental has Week 2 become for the Big Ten?

An academic investigation in South Bend. Miller's shoulder injury in Columbus. It might seem counterintuitive after adversity hit both Notre Dame and Ohio State the past few days, but college football’s second week could be even more meaningful as a result.

Just look at the lineup: Michigan State at Oregon, Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech and Michigan at Notre Dame. It would not be an exaggeration to say each of those games could be make-or-break in terms of the College Football Playoff hopes for those three Big Ten teams.

So let’s take a closer look at how those Big Ten East Division teams have had their chances altered, for better and worse.

Michigan State Spartans

With Ohio State’s playoff chances greatly diminished sans Miller, Michigan State’s game at Oregon takes on even more meaning.

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