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Where AP top-5 teams are vulnerable

10/10/2012

It's a new-look Associated Press top five this week, with South Carolina, Florida and West Virginia climbing, and Florida State, LSU and Georgia falling. Saturday marked the first time since October 2008 that three top-five teams lost on the same day.

It might not happen again, not all at one time anyway, but that doesn't rule out additional shakeups along the road to December. Even the coach of the country's best team -- hope that isn't offensive, Nick Saban -- said so.

"You guys are badly mistaken when you make teams so much better than everybody else," Alabama's Nick Saban said during Monday's pre-Missouri news conference. "This [past] weekend kind of proved that your predictability is not very good.

"What it proved is the only thing predictable about college football is its unpredictability."

Let's try, anyway, to predict the unpredictable. Here is our look at the weaknesses of the top five teams, and the opponents on their remaining schedules that are in the best position to exploit them.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide (5-0)

The flaws do not instantly pop to mind for this team, and whatever we're mining is essentially nitpicking compared to some of the others listed below. Saban is probably trying to talk down his team relative to the field -- because it has proved, so far, to be that much better than the others.

Still, we'll dig a bit. Just because the Tide is better right now doesn't mean it's incapable of dropping a game. The most talented teams, the best teams, often don't win national championships -- or, at the very least, they don't win every game. (The Florida title-winning team in 2008 -- think Tebow's speech -- comes to mind, though those Gators at least had the sense to lose early so they could re-enter the title mix.)

The three-game stretch that figures to test the Tide most -- Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M in consecutive weeks, beginning Oct. 27 -- is coming. I asked TideNation reporter Alex Scarborough to help me break down how those teams might best attack Bama, to at least create a competitive game.

He says pass protection is the first place to start, so that would seem to favor LSU's defensive line as well as South Carolina's if the Gamecocks advance to the SEC championship game. Maybe even Mississippi State, although the Bulldogs have had a tough time of pressuring the quarterback so far this season.

Yes, Bama's is a ridiculously talented offensive line, but Western Kentucky still had seven sacks against the Tide and there have been hiccups along the way that could stall drives -- or lead to turnovers -- against better opponents. (They currently rank 71st in the country in sacks allowed per game, which is a big step down from last year's team, which ranked 24th in the nation.) At a minimum, it could reduce the time improving QB AJ McCarron has to throw.

Scarborough told me earlier in the season that he thought Missouri was a dangerous game because of the Tigers' fast-paced offensive system. Even Ole Miss had some success against the Tide when it snapped the ball quickly. But injuries, especially to QB James Franklin, and general dysfunction make Missouri not quite as daunting as it once was. Scarborough now agrees with me that Texas A&M might be the team most capable of disrupting the flow of what Alabama wants to do. The Tide wants to go slow; Kevin Sumlin wants to go fast. And QB Johnny Manziel has really started to settle into the job.

The Aggies have the lines to compete with Alabama, especially if the previous week's game at LSU has worn down the Tide in any way.

Injuries also are beginning to become a factor. The talent-rich backfield has been cut in half after season-ending injuries to Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler. I liked what the coaches were doing with Fowler, using him sometimes as a fullback. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon remain. You can win with that.

2. Oregon Ducks (6-0)

Many East Coast college football fans have probably woken up Sunday mornings to find the Ducks blew out whomever they were playing after you put yourself to bed. Most of Oregon's kicks have been after 10 p.m. Eastern, something for which the school's AD has even apologized.

Here's what you've missed, slacker: The Ducks have wobbled some in recent first halves before stepping on the pedal, using pick-sixes as a mode of transporting a close one into a blowout.

Oregon led Arizona 13-0 through two quarters on the way to 49-0. It was up just 23-19 at the break against Washington State before turning that into 51-26 (and the final Wazzu TD came well after even garbage time).

The point is that whatever the teams are doing early against the Ducks, they must find a way to sustain. For Arizona, it was translating offensive success into points -- something that really hadn't been a problem all year for the Wildcats in Rich Rodriguez's first season (and hasn't been since). The Cats had the ball seven times inside the Oregon 30 -- and scored zero points.

The Ducks' corners are obviously quick enough to break on intermediate routes and take them the other way. If a team can catch Oregon's DBs playing too aggressively, via pump-fakes or double moves, then it might be able to turn the recent success with pick-sixes into a possible weakness.

Meanwhile, Washington State intercepted Ducks freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota in the first half, and it seemed to rattle the youngster for a stretch. If teams with better front pieces -- thinking of Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas and USC defensive end Morgan Breslin right now -- can get to Mariota, it could shake the confidence of the entire offense. Start getting things spiraling, score some points of your own and you could have an upset brewing.

Like Alabama, watch the team's injury situation. The losses of veteran guard Carson York and experienced safety John Boyett haven't hurt yet, but the meat of the schedule remains, and on-field leadership is most critical during adverse times. The Ducks' closing stretch of at USC, at California, home versus Stanford and at Oregon State includes some (if not all) of their toughest tests this season.

3. South Carolina Gamecocks (6-0)

It hasn't been a perfect start for the Gamecocks; some sputtering against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, in particular, stands out. But Saturday was just about a perfect night for the Gamecocks, in a 35-7 dispatching of then-No. 5 Georgia.

The defensive line play wasn't all that surprising, but the way the offensive line neutralized the Bulldogs' 3-4 was something of an eye-opener. Freshman tackle Brandon Shell excelled, as did center T.J. Johnson, who is an unquestioned leader but has been inconsistent -- even with snaps -- during his career. Credit O-line coach Shawn Elliott with the game plan in finding "honey holes" in the Georgia front (translation: soft spots in the UGA run defense). And credit his linemen for protecting Connor Shaw perhaps better than they ever had previously. He had all day to throw.

Duplicating the success is another matter, as history echoes. The 1984 team was ranked second in the country when it lost on the road to a Navy team that won three games. The 2010 team blistered defending national champion Alabama -- and then lost at Kentucky the following week.

So it's not as if the Gamecocks require an opponent as staunch as LSU to be on alert. But that might work both ways, serving also to get the team's attention.

"People want to talk about the Georgia game," linebacker DeVonte Holloman told reporters this week. "That's over."

History (or a lack of it) is something that South Carolina always seems to fight, though that feels less and less the case.

Here's an example from this week: "Don't talk about bowl-eligibility," longtime D-line coach Brad Lawing said. "We quit talking about that a long time ago around here."

Here's another: "Wherever that corner is," one Gamecocks assistant told me even before the season started, "we feel like we've turned it. Playing in Atlanta [for the 2010 SEC title] and winning 11 [games in 2011, a program record] has given us some confidence."

A lot, really. The defense lost two first-rounders, lineman Melvin Ingram and corner Stephon Gilmore, and it's still playing at an extremely high level. The line, led by future first-rounder Jadeveon Clowney, is deep and active.

But the Gamecocks will see tougher offensive lines than Georgia's, which is young. LSU and Florida are both stronger, not to mention Bama if South Carolina wins the division.

Offensively, it comes down to coaching. Spurrier has been doing this a long time. And his peers know he always has been and always will be stubborn. During his South Carolina tenure, it's been fairly easy to shake him from a game plan of which the run game is the basis. Spurrier, deep down, still burns to throw the ball and score a bunch.

Even with perhaps the SEC's most talented back, Marcus Lattimore, Spurrier has shown he'll get away from the run and lean too heavily on the pass -- considering he doesn't have plus talent at the QB position, as far as Shaw's throwing ability. If the pass attempts start spiking, you've likely got South Carolina backpedaling.

It'll happen for at least a stretch sometime in the next two weeks (the Gamecocks follow their trip to Baton Rouge with a road game at Florida). How will the team -- and Spurrier -- respond?

As well-known radio host Paul Finebaum pointed out in comparing South Carolina's three-game stretch of Georgia, LSU and Florida to Alabama's 2010 gauntlet of No. 10 Arkansas, No. 7 Florida and No. 19 South Carolina, during which the Gamecocks walloped the energy-bereft Tide, the cumulative effect of back-to-back-to-back games against elite opponents could drain this team.

4. Florida Gators (5-0)

This is the most surprising team of the top five. This is likely the most vulnerable team of the top five.

In their three best wins -- at Texas A&M, at Tennessee and against LSU -- the Gators have been behind each time, finding a way to tighten up for the second halves of those games. And they've all been close.

While improving by the week, there's still a sense that sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel is vulnerable if he can be kept in the pocket. His ability to manufacture plays by scrambling is what is elevating his game as a sophomore. Driskel is keeping drives alive, keeping the other team from possessions on offense.

His receivers are far from top-flight, so other teams see that if they can make Driskel strictly (or close to it) a thrower, they have a shot to really minimize Florida's scoring chances.

Here were the first-half possessions against LSU: four punts, two fumbles. The longest drive was 46 yards. That's because LSU had Driskel contained and it refused to let Mike Gillislee and the offensive line control the line of scrimmage.

As if by magic (or, more likely, as a result of injuries to LSU's defense), Florida's offense came to life in the third quarter, asserting dominance in 85- and 77-yard scoring drives. Notice, though, that the Gators don't have a quick-strike ability like they have in the past. Coaches I've spoken with marvel that UF (and FSU, to a lesser extent) have been unable to land playmaking receivers from the talent-loaded state. With upcoming games against a pair of teams that have demonstrated big-play capabilities so far this season, South Carolina (Oct. 20) and Georgia (Oct. 27), this lack of explosiveness could become a problem.

You'd think the long drives would lean heavily on third-down conversions, but UF had just one on the two TD drives (19 plays). So forcing a third down would be a good place to start for the Gamecocks and Bulldogs.

This is still a young team, especially on offense, that has never been in this position. The Gators are well-suited to win their big games in October because they're all at home or in-state, but as long as they continue to trail early and have trouble getting in good scoring positions, they're going to be vulnerable to upsets. (Then again, this claw-it-out stuff looks like the team UF is, taking a cue from their gritty-and-sometimes-crazed coach.)

5. West Virginia Mountaineers (5-0)

Texas had the plan -- defensive coordinator Manny Diaz disclosed it after the game -- but it just failed to carry it out. Diaz divulged that he wanted to turn the Mountaineers into a running team, get the ball out of Heisman front-runner Geno Smith's hands.

Diaz presumed he had enough able tacklers to bring the score down into the 20s or 30s. But then Andrew Buie, averaging 56 yards a game, went for 207 and two scores. Whoops. Throw in West Virginia's 5-for-5 on fourth downs, and the game was in the mid-to-upper 40s. Double whoops.

Here's the question when it comes to West Virginia (and what Diaz was attempting to do): Who is going to stop it enough to outscore it? Texas, with the game in Austin, figured to be the best shot. Who's next? Oklahoma in November? That game's in Morgantown, where it could be chilly.

Perhaps the weather will slow down the Mountaineers, whether it's a home game or, say, a day-after-Thanksgiving tilt in Ames, Iowa. Another national-title contender from the Big 12 (OSU) saw its hopes flicker and fade at Iowa State on a Friday in 2011. Could history repeat itself?

"It's going to be one of those you don't expect that gets 'em," one coach in the South predicted. "You just don't go from the Big East to the Big 12 without any kind of inconsistency. It's still really early, two conference games in."

In that vein, perhaps this week's game at Texas Tech speaks to that. The Mountaineers opened as just four-point favorites and the number is down a half-point. It's a classic letdown game, but also presents a difficult back-to-back of traveling to Austin and then Lubbock from the northern tip of West Virginia.

As well as the offense has played, the team has still won by 10, seven and three the past three weeks. And it scored 118 points to the opponents' 108 the past two weeks. It's not as if it's crushing teams, so the possibility of a letdown is there.

A home game against Kansas State on Oct. 20 will be a particularly tough test. Perhaps Bill Snyder can unroll a similar plan as the one the Wildcats had to win in Norman, a similar plan to the one Diaz intended to exact: slow the game as much as possible, force the aggressive offense into mistakes and turnovers. It's easier said than done, but it worked well against OU. Even though Smith's no-interceptions-and-counting streak continues, he did have two critical fumbles near the goal line last week that allowed Texas to stay close.

If either Kansas State or Oklahoma (at WVU Nov. 17) -- which has only given up one passing TD in four games, by the way -- has the Mountaineers in the 30s in the fourth quarter, it'll have a shot.