On the back edge of the first half of the season, with major conference play barely under way, the national championship race remains for the moment as wide open as the mad dashes for league titles. With the right combination of execution, timing, help, and luck, any one of more than a dozen teams could make a convincing case for inclusion in the last-ever BCS championship game. So let’s watch a half-dozen of those schools beat the snot out of one another this weekend, shall we?
And it wouldn’t be midseason sweeps without plot twists. In no particular order: Oregon is ranked second under a new head coach! Washington is wrecking shop! LSU is fielding a watchable offense! Florida might have found a quarterback by complete accident! Missouri is undefeated! Georgia is almost entirely without the offensive skill players with whom it began the year! Let’s watch:
On Your Marquee
All times Eastern.
• No. 2 Oregon at no. 16 Washington (Saturday, 4 p.m., Fox Sports 1). What a welcome border war. It’s the fourth game in the Huskies’ remodeled stadium, and GameDay‘s first visit to Seattle.1 It’s been an interminable wait for anybody wanting to watch some team put up a fight against the Ducks. Under the first-year leadership of Mark Helfrich,2 Oregon has outscored its first five opponents by a combined margin of 296 to 59. Almost as unbearable has been the wait to see Washington again after last week’s gullet-grabber versus Stanford.3
As in 2012, the Ducks enter their meeting with the Huskies ranked no. 2; this year, Oregon comes in carrying a nine-game win streak in the series. The Ducks trail only Baylor in scoring offense, and only Louisville in scoring defense. Washington was also ranked last year heading into this game, and coming off an actual victory over the Cardinal. It still didn’t go well. The Huskies got mauled, 52-21, in Eugene. But the haves in the Pac-12 North clearly number three this season, and Saturday marks the second of three contests that will determine the relative powers of the Ducks, Huskies, and Cardinal.
Some other story lines to track: the development of Johnny Mundt, the freshman tight end who has replaced the departed Colt Lyerla; whether sophomore running back Byron Marshall will be called upon to stage another 100-plus-yard rushing performance in place of the injured De’Anthony Thomas; sack-happy Ducks defensive end Tony Washington versus UW’s veteran sack absorber/quarterback Keith Price; and Washington ground threat Bishop Sankey’s 5.6 yards per carry versus an Oregon defense that’s allowing an average of just more than three.
And through five games against overmatched competition, Oregon redshirt sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota, in his second year as a starter, has completed 76 of 134 pass attempts for 1,358 yards and 14 touchdowns and has rushed for 338 yards and seven more scores. The defenses he’s faced thus far have ranged from miserable to middling; Washington’s has put up good numbers but hasn’t seen anybody of Oregon’s caliber this season. (To be fair, this is because there is nobody of Oregon’s caliber this season save Baylor, and the Bears aren’t on the Huskies’ schedule.)
• No. 17 Florida at no. 10 LSU (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS). This cross-divisional rivalry game always provides a merry atmosphere in Baton Rouge, as long as visitors are not averse to being called terrible names whilst being fed like human foie gras experiments. The marquee matchup within the marquee game here is Florida’s defense, which leads the conference in every major statistical category, versus LSU’s offense, which exists this year, for a change. Zach Mettenberger is the most efficient quarterback in the SEC after finishing 12th in 2012. The Tigers’ six-game streak of 30 or more points to open the season is a school record. They have four talented running backs, a killer receiving tandem, a prolific kicker, crafty return men, and even with the absence of UF’s star defensive tackle Dominique Easley they’re probably going to need every one of them to work around Will Muschamp’s own brand of stifling swamp magic.
As if to level the playing field for the rest of the conference a bit, the gods (and roster attrition) have seen fit to grant the Bayou Bengals a defense that’s young, and fit-and-starty, and not bad, but still very much playing like a crash of baby rhinos. Here, an underrated matchup emerges: Those guys versus replacement-part quarterback Tyler Murphy, who was thrust into the Tennessee game in place of an injured Jeff Driskel, had this happen, and has since gone 39-of-54 for 530 yards, five touchdowns, and a pick.
• No. 25 Missouri at no. 7 Georgia (Saturday, noon, ESPN). “We’ve had the most drama in a two-week period,” Mark Richt said this week, “than we’ve probably had in a long time.” This is an understatement, and this one might get weird.
To review: In addition to injuries to two safeties and the punter, five games into the season Georgia is currently without favored receivers Malcolm Mitchell (out for the season, ACL), Justin Scott-Wesley (out for the season, ACL), and Michael Bennett (had meniscus surgery this week and could return before the end of the regular season), plus both halves of what had been a stellar rushing tandem in Keith Marshall (out for the season, ACL) and Todd Gurley (ankle sprain, doubtful for Week 7). “You can panic,” said Richt, “you can get mad, you can start blaming things, or you can assess where you’re at and realize what resources you have.” At receiver, Aaron Murray still has the excellently named Rantavious Wooten and the astonishing big-play threat Chris Conley (more on him in a little bit); the Gurshall pair, who first wowed as freshmen, are being spelled by youngsters J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas.4
About the last things Georgia would want to see at this point are either of the other two SEC East teams with undefeated conference records, so guess which squads make up two of the Bulldogs’ next three opponents? The extra couple of weeks between now and the Cocktail Party are surely much appreciated by Murray and his constantly reordering list of offensive options, but in the meantime, here’s an undefeated Tigers team whose early schedule has made their hardiness mighty difficult to discern. A healthy James Franklin will take the helm against a Dawgs defense that has been as enthusiastic about tackling ball carriers as Uga IX is about moving off his bag of ice. The forecast for Saturday in Athens calls for another whoever-scores-last-wins fireworks show, and scattered showers of spiritual exhaustion.
Weeknight Football: Should I Bother?
You can, although for best results confine your college football intake to Thursday night in Week 7. Rutgers’s visit to no. 8 Louisville will mark the Cardinals’ second game of the season against an FBS opponent that has recorded more than one win through Week 75 (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN). Should any of you late birds find yourselves overcome for some perverse reason with nostalgic longing for the Ed Orgeron era at Ole Miss, he’ll be making his first head coaching appearance with USC, at home versus Arizona (Thursday, 10:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
Take care not to accidentally flip the channel to CBS Sports, lest you catch whatever has infected San Diego State and Air Force. And whatever you do, we cannot under any circumstances advise watching Friday-night ball, when the only game on offer is 0-5 Temple playing a Cincinnati team that just lost to South Florida. Go see Gravity instead.
Q&A: Aaron Murray
We spoke with Georgia’s senior quarterback, who’s been around so long it’s like talking to a coach at this point, as he prepares to face an undefeated Missouri team of unknown quality without the majority of the excellent offensive weapons that surrounded him in September. Bloomin’ Onions were also discussed.
How is the team rebounding after that bizarre streak of injuries?
I think our guys will be fine. We’ve overcome injuries the past couple years, and had a couple big ones already earlier in the season with Malcolm [Mitchell] and then Todd [Gurley] being out for a couple games already. So we’ve had to go through it a lot, and it’s always just — it’s the next man up. We feel like we have some great young guys ready to show that they can play, and we just have to get a little extra work, myself with some of the younger receivers, this week in practice. I think, just at the receiver position, we were pretty deep headed into the season, so while we’d love to have Malcolm, with him going down we had a lot of talent behind him. Michael Bennett, Justin Scott-Wesley, and some other guys. So we weren’t extremely worried. And it stinks that they’re out now, but I feel very comfortable with the guys we have, and they’ve just gotta step up.
So speaking of stepping up: Chris Conley had been stuck behind some very good receivers the past couple years, and since last year’s bowl game he’s been making some amazing long catches. Was there a particular moment when you guys clicked on those big plays in practice?
I think it just happened. The thing with Chris, there’s nobody that’s going to outwork him, in practice, in the film room, in the weight room. He’s definitely earned the trust from the coaches and from myself. He runs his routes extremely well, and I trust that if I throw a long one out there, he’s going to do a great job of getting in position for me. Just a fantastic receiver. Big guy, too.
How do you go about developing chemistry with so many different receivers? Have you got a system at this point?
Just getting some extra routes. Monday is a pretty chill day, really not doing too much, a little bit of install but really just getting the bodies back and moving, but we stayed afterward, me and some of the young guys, and got maybe two or three routes in. And we’ll get a couple more routes in today. I just told them, every day after practice, let’s just get five, 10 throws in with those routes, to make sure we’re on the same timing, what I’m looking for, things like that.
You don’t seem to have a favorite target when it comes to scoring, and right now that seems like a really good thing.
My freshman year, when we had A.J. Green, it was just getting the ball to him as much as possible. And that really closed off half the field. There’s a lot of trust in me right now, with my knowledge of the playbook, to allow me to work the full field, to allow me to make checks and utilize all my targets. It makes it great, to be able to spread things out and keep a defense guessing.
You’re a veteran of the Manning Passing Academy. Did you pick anything up from him as far as creating a workflow with your receivers?
I think everybody looks up to him [laughs]. I mean, he’s a guy that’s a workaholic, he’s a very smart guy, very rare you see a wasted play. The one thing he told us is just to be greedy with reps. Get as many reps as you can, always be working.
Your close relationship with your linemen has been well documented. What’s their favorite dinner spot when you take them out?
I think they like the ice cream best, more than any of the dinner spots. They definitely enjoy it when we go to Ben & Jerry’s.
What’s the most disgusting amount of food you’ve ever seen them eat?
I remember when we went to Outback, and I think we got two of every appetizer. Then one guy got cheese fries. Bloomin’ Onions, and wings, and then they had a salad, which is funny. Then they got steak and lobster, and we got a milkshake afterward. It was pretty disgusting, I’m not gonna lie.
Week 7 Superlatives
• Most promising undercards: Oh, gobs of them. No. 19 Northwestern and Wisconsin, both last seen playing no. 4 Ohio State close, now pivot to face one another in Madison in what should be a smash-bangy display of ground-ball skills (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2). The no. 15 Baylor Bears descend on Kansas State like a shiny torrent of score-happy locusts, and Art Briles and Bill Snyder will share the most resolute, cowboy-gentlemanly handshake imaginable between two coaches whose teams’ scoreboard differential will be at least 30 points (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Fox). All-purpose yardage nightmare Dri Archer will do battle with a very good Ball State team in Muncie (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN3). And did you ever guess this preseason that East Carolina’s clash with Tulane might (a) be a clash, and (b) involve teams with four wins each (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports ULive)? You did not, liar.
• Biggest guaranteed reversal of fortune: In the saddest event we’re still academically obligated to call a football contest, winless Miami (Ohio), which has already fired its coach, visits also oh-fer UMass (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN3). This much is assured: Somebody will leave Gillette Stadium no longer at the very, very bottom of the FBS well. If Southern Miss and FIU can’t both lose playing each other, nobody can.
• Best rivalry game: Based entirely on our exclusive metric that rewards weird-ass trophies, the Red River Shootout is this week eclipsed by Indiana at Michigan State (Saturday, noon, ESPN2), where, in a tradition dating back to the Peloponnesian War, the Hoosiers and Spartans will compete for the Old Brass Spittoon. (You know how we get about brass spittoons around here.)
• Where are our would-be BCS busters this week? Fresno State is on a bye, not that Derek Carr needs to rest before hanging a cool hundred points on UNLV next week. Meanwhile, in the MAC, no. 23 Northern Illinois is hosting a 1-5 Akron outfit (Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPN3). The Zips are currently allowing 436 yards of offense to opponents per game. Jordan Lynch and pals may manage that in a half.
• What’s going to be grislier: Watching Texas squirm under Oklahoma’s thumb in the Red River Shootout or the morning-after stomach ailments brought on by the Texas State Fair? The uniforms are gilded; the spicy Spam empanadas, regrettably, are not. It’s going to be close, but we’ve got to give the edge to the football here. Watching this game (Saturday, noon, ABC) may actually be more hazardous to your health than eating a deep-fried Thanksgiving dinner.
• What the hell’s Bama doing on ESPN2, PAAAOWL? Out of state for the first time in a month, bless their tideful hearts, and visiting their poor conference cousins in Lexington (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN2). Look for Kentucky to pull off a few spiteful stunts that make the game look closer than it should before Nick Saban’s grimly efficient executioners get their axes together for a decisive yet visually unsatisfying victory.
• Where’s Johnny Football? What’s he hiding? Is he running a counterfeit Texas Longhorns apparel ring out of his daddy’s garage? In order: probably on his way to Oxford for the Aggies’ date with Ole Miss (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN); hopefully a secret and abiding affection in his heart for the music of the Moody Blues, because sometimes a gunslinger6 just wants to feel; and probably not, because he’s savvy enough to know nobody’s buying burnt orange right now.
Arbitrary Power Rankings: Terrible Fonts
1. Papyrus: The use of this wretched collection of belligerently antiqued letters in his subtitles cost James Cameron the Academy Award for Avatar, and is the sole reason we haven’t seen the much-ballyhooed sequel yet. You cannot prove otherwise.
2. Harrington: Wouldn’t waste it on a suicide note. Unless we were offing ourselves in a strip-mall cupcake shop.
3. Comic Sans: Not letting CS have the satisfaction of garnering even a runner-up slot is the least we can do for the good fight.
4. Chiller: Disproves the axiom “Show, don’t tell.”
5. Souvenir Gothic: It knows what it did.
— Barry Switzer (@Barry_Switzer) October 9, 2013