STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It’s hard to believe, but true: Dan Mullen told me Thursday that when Mississippi State hosts Arkansas this weekend, it will have played more games as the Associated Press’ No. 1 team in the country than Florida did when Mullen was the Gators’ offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer.

Florida ended the 2006 and 2008 seasons at No. 1, winning two BCS titles, but it played just one game with the tag.

So everyone here, Mullen included, is getting used to the business of being the top-ranked team in America. And Mullen admitted that, yes, it appeared to be a burden last week at Kentucky. The crown hung heavily.

How close is Kansas to hiring a coach? 

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
Kansas is 0-3 since interim coach Clint Bowen took over Sept. 28, but those familiar with the school’s coaching search told me this week that there is still momentum to retain Bowen.

[+] EnlargeClint Bowen
Orlin Wagner/AP PhotoThose surrounding the program are hopeful that Clint Bowen can lead Kansas to a win or two this season.
They say the energetic 42-year-old, a Lawrence native who played for KU from 1991 to '94, just needs to win a game or two.

Under Charlie Weis, Kansas won just one of 18 Big 12 games. So it’s a tall order for a midseason sub to get two victories -- and that’s without considering that four top-20 teams remain in the final five games. And three of those four games are on the road.

Here’s KU’s remaining schedule: at No. 13 Baylor, Iowa State, No. 7 TCU, at No. 18 Oklahoma and at No. 9 Kansas State.

So yeah, if Bowen wins two of those, he absolutely should be the guy. One victory would make it interesting, especially if Iowa State is the one.

Despite being winless since the change, it’s clear Bowen has given the Jayhawks (2-5, 0-4 Big 12) a spark. Their last two games, against then-No. 16 Oklahoma State and at Texas Tech, have been decided by less than two touchdowns. (Weis’ final two losses, at Duke and against Texas, were decided by a combined score of 64-3.)

At a minimum, those close to the program say they’re hopeful Bowen would stay on the new staff as a defensive coordinator.

Beyond Bowen, who is Kansas considering? And who should it consider?

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Life after 82 begins for Texas Tech 

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
I had a few coaches text me late Saturday and Sunday with just a number: “82.” Sometimes it was followed by exclamation points, other times question marks -- and once it was both.

TCU scored 82 points Saturday against Texas Tech, setting a Big 12 record for a conference game. And when a team scores 82, it also means that a team gave up 82. As high of a high as it was for TCU, it was every bit as low, and embarrassing, for Texas Tech.

Those close to the program said Sunday that, as you’d expect, it was a solemn trip back to Lubbock from Fort Worth.

“At least it was close,” one said.

So what do you do if you’re Kliff Kingsbury, a young, first-time head coach who already was laboring to hold together a limping program? What’s life after 82?

Kingsbury told me Sunday that he plans to move forward to Texas, this week’s opponent, as quickly as he possibly can.

“We won’t even show the tape to the players. [You] basically burn it and move on,” Kingsbury said.

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In the spring, when quarterback Matt Joeckel decided to transfer from Texas A&M to TCU, the Frogs' coaching staff exhaled.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah set a Nebraska record with 341 all-purpose yards in a win over Rutgers.
Finally. Gary Patterson and his assistants could move Trevone Boykin to his natural position, receiver, and let Joeckel, who was familiar with a fast-paced offense as an Aggie, handle the transition to the hurry-up, tempo offense.

A funny thing happened during those summer months: Boykin took to TCU's new offensive assistants, playcaller Doug Meacham and quarterbacks coach Sonny Cumbie.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Boykin never relinquished the position. He never made it over to receiver.

Now look where we are.

TCU, a program founded on stingy defense, scored 82 points Saturday against Texas Tech. Eighty-two. TCU very much remains a playoff contender, even after its late collapse at Baylor.

And Boykin, after a school-record seven touchdown throws in three quarters, is now in the heart of the Heisman conversation.

“I told people before the year this would happen, that he was going to have this type of year,” Frogs running back Aaron Green told “Seeing how comfortable he was in the offense, I was like, ‘You’ll see. You’ll see.’”

Boykin now has 24 total touchdowns and just four turnovers and is averaging a healthy 8.1 yards per pass attempt.

Scoring 50.4 points per game, TCU is the only FBS school averaging more than half a hundred. Now’s a great time to remind you the Frogs scored 25.1 points per game a year ago. They went 4-8.

It’s been an incredible turnaround and a recreation of the program’s identity. Credit Patterson for the willingness and adaptability to do it. Credit the hires of Meacham and Cumbie, who should be co-favorites for the Broyles Award for the country’s top assistant coach.

And of course, credit Boykin for growing into the position.

I’ll have Boykin third on my Heisman Watch poll this week. Here’s how the rest of the top five looks as we enter the stretch run for the award:

First, a wild card who is currently an asterisk on my ballot:

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Can the SEC East return to power? 

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
Hey, no pressure, Jeremy Foley, but the balance of power in the SEC is riding on your next move.

It looks likely that Florida will have a new coach in 2015, and Foley, the Gators' longstanding and highly respected athletic director, will make a decision that could greatly influence whether the Western Division continues to dominate the league and capture national acclaim.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMark Richt and Georgia rule the SEC East now, but could that change?
Sure, Georgia remains in the national and conference title race discussion, even without star running back Todd Gurley, but beyond that it’s a cluster of disappointing, regrouping and reconstructing teams.

The division in the divisions is enough to make you believe that things have always, always, always been this way in the SEC.

That made an SEC East assistant laugh this week. He didn’t quite offer Rust Cohle’s “time is a flat circle” soliloquy from “True Detective,” but he reminded me of college football’s cyclical nature.

“It’ll turn,” he said, “and then it’ll turn again.”

Back to Florida and Foley’s next hire: The other six schools might not want to hear this –- and especially Georgia -– but because of its past success and location in recruiting heaven, it’s the flagship in the SEC East.

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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.

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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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