Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Teams with most potential to improve
By Travis Haney
Sometimes it takes a few weeks for a team to hit its stride. Whether the catalyst for improvement comes from a better understanding of offensive or defensive systems, rising players, game experience for underclassmen or an easier stretch on the schedule, each season we see a number of favorites step up their games as they head into the heart of conference play.
Last year, the Stanford Cardinal and Texas A&M Aggies were among the top teams that improved a great deal following the first month of the season. While Stanford came together on both sides of the ball, A&M took off with the rise of Johnny Manziel.
Which 2013 teams could follow in their footsteps?
Here’s a look at six with the most potential to improve in the season’s final two months:
Granted that there are greater challenges ahead, beginning next week at LSU, but QB Tyler Murphy has given the Gators a desperately needed offensive spark. Maybe it isn’t a spark, really, so much as a balance to the excellent defense that is currently first in the SEC in yards-per-play allowed (3.8).
In our new QBR metric, Murphy, in two games, has a rating of 96.1. Former starter Jeff Driskel, who went down in Week 3 with a season-ending knee injury, had a 40.5 rating in two-plus games. He was at 48.1 a year ago. Driskel played enough that it simply wasn’t a trend, and wasn’t something that could be pinned on the offensive line or receivers.
Murphy is learning on the job. But he's also a junior, someone not new to the program. There’s a fluidity with him that the coaches had hoped to see from Driskel; it just had not yet developed.
Some of the competition has noticed, and they'd prefer to face the other guy.
“Teams had a better shot with Driskel playing,” one SEC coach told me this week.
If Murphy continues to steady the offense, the Gators -- despite a schedule that includes road games at LSU and South Carolina -- might have a better shot in the East than many think.
Georgia Bulldogs and LSU Tigers
I paired the two teams that just played an epic game in Athens because their stories and makeups are quite similar; both clubs have young, inexperienced defenses with loads of talent.
Todd Grantham at Georgia and John Chavis at LSU are more than capable of turning around some early struggles in their teams’ respective secondaries. This isn’t some sort of talent deficiency; rather, it’s just a matter of time for both units as each lost more than a half-dozen players to the NFL.
Georgia has improved the past two seasons after slow starts. Remember when it lost 35-7 at South Carolina? Or lost to Boise State in Atlanta the year before? With a potent offense, the Bulldogs’ defense only needs to marginally tighten up for UGA to be in the SEC title game for a third consecutive year.
If you take last week out for LSU, the Tigers were giving up 4.6 yards per play -- fourth in the league. So maybe Georgia’s offense had something to do with an off week, as much as anything else.
Florida State Seminoles
Based on the buzz throughout the spring and summer, I wanted to make Jameis Winston my No. 1 breakout player. I wound up going with Michigan’s Devin Gardner because, quite simply, I had seen him play. It was difficult to know just how good Winston could be out of the gate.
His debut against Pitt provided a pretty strong indication, going 25-for-27 for 356 yards and five total TDs.
I remember asking coach Jimbo Fisher in July whether he thought Winston reminded him at all of E.J. Manuel. He bristled, saying a redshirt freshman could not be compared to the No. 14 pick in the NFL draft.
Oh yeah? How about now?
“I never bought into E.J. as a winner,” one ACC coach told me a couple of weeks back. “I’m already more sold on this kid [Winston].”
Winston just had a better first month than last year’s freshman Heisman winner. It would be surprising to see him regress rather than progress.
There might not be a more difficult team to figure out after a month than the Wolverines, thanks to those close-shave wins against Akron and UConn, but it helps that the defense will get a big boost later this month in the form of linebacker Jake Ryan, who last year led the Wolverines in tackles for loss by a mile.
Ryan, returning from a spring ACL tear, could return as early as the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. His presence from a leadership standpoint is just as important as anything else. He could be the biggest single midseason addition in college football. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told reporters earlier in the fall that the sight of Ryan healing was “beautiful.” Football coaches don’t just throw around words like that. As far as the offense, if Gardner could cut back on the turnovers, the Wolverines appear to have enough balance and artillery to score enough to win in the Big Ten. But Gardner’s 7-to-8 TD-to-INT ratio absolutely will not fly, not to mention his loose ballcarrying on the run.
It's safe to say that’s been a point of emphasis in the bye week leading up to Minnesota on Saturday. It was a bye week that came at the right time. Gardner needs the work, and Ryan is a week closer to returning. If he does in two weeks and becomes a second-half MVP, and Gardner takes care of the ball, we could be gearing up for an undefeated versus undefeated showdown against Ohio State in the Big House.
The Sooners, now that they have found a quarterback in Blake Bell, are already on the way up. The 3-3-5 scheme has done wonders for the defensive personnel, too.
Bell looks so much more settled than freshman Trevor Knight, so you’d imagine that he would continue on his current arc.
“He must have been awful in camp for Bob [Stoops] not to start him,” one Big 12 coach told me last week, before the Sooners’ win at Notre Dame. “He looks pretty good now.”
As far as the 3-3-5, it’s a perfect fit for the personnel. Another Big 12 coach told me in the preseason that Mike Stoops’ defense would pace the team. Through a month, that has mostly been true while the QB situation settled itself. The two early forced turnovers at Notre Dame were huge in the Sooners’ victory over the Irish last week.
“He [Stoops] got his [butt] kicked last year,” the coach said. “He’s a good coach. He knows what he’s doing. They’ll be better. He needed to see how this league had changed.”