Sunday, October 13, 2013
LSU a legit challenger to Bama in SEC
By Travis Haney
Zach Mettenberger and LSU are well-positioned in the SEC race.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Lined up in this week's Takeaways are items on Texas' big win, the shakeup in the Pac-12 and the continued rise of Baylor and Clemson, but we'll start with the wide-open SEC race and one team in particular that looks like it has what it takes to win the league.
1. LSU is a legitimate challenger to Alabama in the SEC
As he cycled through film of his own offense and Florida’s defense Friday afternoon, LSU first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron looked over at me.
“You know,” he said, “we aren’t trying to have the No. 1 offense in the country. We’re trying to win games.”
Cameron knew that the Tigers were going up against Florida’s highly rated defense the next day. He knew that something like what happened, a no-frills 17-6 victory, was a distinct possibility for a team and offense that was averaging a gaudy 45 points a game.
And he was fine with it. So was much-improved quarterback Zach Mettenberger. So was head coach Les Miles.
Flash? Whatever. The iconic bar hanging above the players’ tunnel leading to the field says “WIN!” It doesn’t say “WIN SEXY!”
“I want to win and I like to win prolifically,” Miles said. “But will I take this one? You betcha.”
Adaptability and offensive balance are reasons why the Tigers remain legitimate contenders in the wide-open SEC.
Yes, LSU does have to go to Alabama on Nov. 9. Yes, Texas A&M comes to Death Valley two weeks later.
But LSU now believes it can win both slugfests and shootouts. I asked Cameron about Mettenberger and the two emerging big-play receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, but he was more excited to talk about the development of the offensive line.
He said the positions up front were finally settled, and it showed versus Florida’s staunch defensive front seven. Mettenberger wasn’t sacked and Jeremy Hill, often running through gaping holes, averaged 6.4 yards a carry and finished with 121 yards.
“If we can keep playing like that week in and week out and execute a little better in the passing game, we’re going to be a very tough team to beat,” said Mettenberger, who completed a season-low nine passes for 157 yards.
No one is going to mistake Florida's offense for those of Baylor or Oregon, but the young-and-criticized LSU defense made strides against the Gators. Florida averaged just 3.5 yards in 68 plays; its longest play was 20 yards and one of the team’s longer plays was a 14-yard fake-punt pass in the fourth quarter.
“We’re going to continue to grow,” defensive coordinator John Chavis told me Friday. “We’re headed in a much better direction.”
Skill players such as Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Texas A&M’s Mike Evans -- not to mention Johnny Manziel -- will stretch the LSU defense. Ole Miss this week will, too, despite three consecutive losses. But there’s a “groove” that the Tigers are settling into, defensive end Jermauria Rasco said.
“Everyone is saying how young we are,” Rasco said. “We’re not young. We’re just getting comfortable with each other and starting to play LSU football.”
What’s “LSU football”? Well, the current team could ask the 2003 national championship team that was reunited Friday night and honored at halftime. The standard was set then, and it’s been repeated more often than not.
“Even though all those guys left [for the NFL], there’s still a great tradition and expectation here,” Chavis said, “and we are determined to live up to that tradition and expectation. I can assure you of that.”
2. The SEC East is up in the air
(Note: This section has been updated to correct an error about an SEC West tiebreak scenario.)
I would write about Missouri as the new “it” team, but QB James Franklin will reportedly miss the rest of the regular season with a shoulder injury. That’s unfortunate for the Tigers, who had seized momentum after an upset win at Georgia.
Florida and South Carolina are still coming to Faurot Field in the next two weeks, but it’ll be Maty Mauk asked to deliver instead of Franklin, the veteran. It makes it difficult to enjoy the school’s first road victory versus a top-10 team since 1981.
The narrative for the Gamecocks is certainly different than it was a week ago. Jadeveon Clowney does in fact seem to care and the team’s defense appeared galvanized Saturday in a 52-7 blowout at Arkansas -- and Fayetteville is not a place where the Gamecocks have traditionally played very well.
The Razorbacks had just 37 plays, and Mike Davis, with his fifth 100-yard game in six outings, is making a case that he’s the best back in the SEC. He might soon join the Heisman race if he keeps it up and some others fade.
Florida and Georgia are presently enigmas, but relevant factors nonetheless. The Gators’ offense is still very much limited. The downfield passing game appeared to progress with Tyler Murphy in recent weeks, but was that just because it was against Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky?
As for Georgia, it’s not only a matter of weathering the offensive injuries. The defensive woes, with youth and inexperience prevalent, are even a bigger problem. One SEC coach I spoke with this week thought the ends and linebackers would get better, but he suggested that Georgia’s personnel in the secondary would continue to be an issue.
“So the front had better be good and stay good,” he said.
3. Something (very) good happened for Texas
The national media (myself included) spent the better part of the week wondering what would happen to Mack Brown when Texas again lost to Oklahoma -- and probably lost again by a whole bunch of points.
So what happens now after a 16-point win for the Longhorns, their first victory versus OU since 2009? Is that enough for Brown to hang around as long as he wants, just by virtue of one victory (albeit a very big victory)?
“We’re not in the grave,” Brown said afterward. “We’re crawling out.”
So that’s an admission that the near-miss at Iowa State was at least one foot in for UT. The officiating crew gave the Horns a hand in Ames, and then the team played inspired in Dallas to continue the self-exhuming process.
How quickly things can change.
Texas OC Major Applewhite had a great plan, going right at the center of Oklahoma’s defense -- which was weakened significantly by the loss of tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson, who was on the way to an all-conference type of season. The Longhorns had two 100-yard backs (Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown) for the first time in the long series history, thanks to the solid plan and that weakened OU interior.
What floored me specifically about the Sooners’ game plan was that they had no semblance of a quarterback run game, since the Horns were gashed by QB runs in their losses to BYU and Ole Miss earlier this season. It was perplexing, to say the least.
It’s a rallying win for the Longhorns, who are now 3-0 in the Big 12 and travel to play at TCU after an open date. It’ll be interesting to see how they follow up and if they can, as Brown has suggested, win out and win the league.
4. Pac-12 sees a shake-up; Oregon looks untouchable
Marcus Mariota remained at the top of the Heisman race with his performance against Washington.
I thought Washington looked worn out by its back-to-back games against Stanford and Oregon by the end of the Ducks' cruise to victory in Seattle. Turns out the Huskies took even more out of the Cardinal.
Stanford’s loss at Utah was the first upset of the year that we didn’t see coming, a stunner of a national title contender. Coaches I had spoken with believed that the Cardinal had the power-and-speed combo to win a championship.
“They’ve taken another step,” one of those coaches said just this week, obviously before the upset in Salt Lake City.
The Nov. 7 game between Oregon and Stanford remains important, but it won't be the de facto playoff game we thought it would be. Barring losses by several teams near the top of the polls, the Cardinal will likely be limited to spoiler role at that point, at least as it pertains to the BCS title race.
Oregon, meanwhile, looks sensational. And that’s without Colt Lyerla, who left the team this week, and De’Anthony Thomas, who is still recovering from an ankle injury. Marcus Mariota's performance against the Huskies -- 24-of-31 for 366 yards and three TDs, with 88 rushing yards and another TD -- kept him at the front of the Heisman race.
5. Baylor and Clemson survive
The ACC heaved a sigh of relief when linebacker Vic Beasley scooped up a fumble and scored early in the fourth quarter to help Clemson put away Boston College on Saturday. The conference's “Game of the Century” between FSU and Clemson next week was left intact. My former colleague at the Charleston Post and Courier, Gene Sapakoff, says it will be the first top-5 game ever played in the state of South Carolina.
What’s interesting to me is that each time the Tigers have been in trouble this season -- Saturday and earlier in the year against North Carolina State, -- it’s been the Clemson defense that has come to the aid of the revered offense. That has to be considered a good sign if you’re the Tigers; there’s a team element at play, and the defense had previously been considered a liability. The matchup of Clemson’s vastly upgraded defensive front against Jameis Winston’s mobility and FSU’s offensive line will be worth watching next week.
For Baylor, some are dinging the Bears for not approaching their absurd season averages on offense. But Baylor was previously 0-4 all time in Manhattan, Kan., so a win however it came was a good one. And scoring 35 to win by 10 on the road is far from an embarrassment.
With Iowa State and Kansas up next, it still appears the Bears are destined to be unblemished when Oklahoma comes to Waco on Nov. 7.
• Michigan again could have survived, despite a resurfacing of Devin Gardner’s turnover bug, but kicker Brendan Gibbons missed a dead-on, 31-yard kick in overtime that would have beaten Penn State, and the Nittany Lions got the win in quadruple-overtime.
Three first-half turnovers set a disturbing tone for Michigan, and the offense went vanilla in overtime in an attempt to win with a kick -- instead of going for a touchdown. The Wolverines could still rebound to be a factor in their division, but the giveaway trend has to halt.
On the other side of that game, how about Penn State’s Bill O’Brien going for it on fourth-and-1 in the fourth OT to set up the game-winning TD? O’Brien’s hard-nosed, old-school style allowed for PSU to make it through all it had to weather last fall, so it’s no surprise to see him make a call like that.
• Ed Orgeron promised things would be different during his interim stay at USC. It appears that way so far after a 38-31 victory against Arizona.
I proposed this on Twitter the other night, and I don’t think it’ll happen, but is there any scenario in which Orgeron gets support to keep the job? It’s clear USC looked Thursday -- for most of the night, anyway -- like the team we thought it could be. Won’t that be the next coach’s task?
Keeping the interim sometimes works (Clemson) and sometimes doesn’t (West Virginia). Every situation is different, and USC being as high-profile as it is, it’s just difficult to see the school not making an outside hire.
That said, if the Trojans win out or something close to it, Orgeron will at least enter the discussion.
• The college football world enjoyed collective relief when Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel returned to the field shortly after what appeared to be a significant knee injury in the Ole Miss game, and he clearly appeared to be healthy in leading the Aggies to a game-winning drive over the Rebels for the second consecutive season. He finished the game 31-of-39 for 346 yards, adding 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He’s still very much in the race for a second Heisman Trophy, and like LSU, the Aggies are still a factor in the SEC and BCS title races despite their early-season losses.
• A 19-9 win like the one Virginia Tech recorded over Pitt on Saturday isn’t pretty, but the 6-1 Hokies will take it. Their defense makes them a threat in the Coastal Division (they travel to play currently undefeated Miami on Nov. 9). Maybe I shouldn’t be pushing coach Frank Beamer toward retirement just yet.