Taking Stock of the College Football Landscape at the Midseason Mark

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Believe it or not, this week marks the midway point of college football’s regular season: seven Saturdays down, and only seven more to go before the year-round speculation over playoff bids, Heisman votes, and coaching fates yields to reality. For all we’ve learned so far, there are still far more questions about how the rest of the season will unfold than there are answers — and in college football, the crystal ball never reveals much beyond the next weekend’s slate, anyway. If you’re just catching up, here’s what you should be asking as the season hits the turn.

What’s Wrong With the SEC?

Nothing we couldn’t see coming, although the conference’s path to the playoff narrowing so sharply is an ominous surprise.

The head-to-head purge from the top of the polls was supposed to come later, in November: About this time last year, the Ess Ee See superiority complex was in full bloom. Through seven weeks this year, the SEC has a single top-five team in the latest AP poll (no. 5 LSU) and only one more (no. 8 Alabama) in the top dozen. LSU’s 35-28 victory over Florida on Saturday left the Tigers as the league’s only remaining undefeated team, and the league’s playoff hopes seem likely to rest with whoever wins the LSU-Bama tilt on November 7.

Behind the Tigers and Tide, the rest of the vaunted SEC West is trending in the wrong direction. Texas A&M just suffered its first blemish, a 41-23 decision against Alabama in College Station, but it was decisive enough to effectively rule the Aggies out of the playoff conversation until their season-ending trip to Baton Rouge. Ole Miss has only one conference loss (to Florida) and theoretically is in good tiebreaker position with a win vs. Alabama under its belt and both A&M and LSU on deck. In reality, the Rebels are nursing key injuries on both sides of the ball and have generally looked like an outfit in steady decline since beating Bama in Week 3; as far as the playoff is concerned, last weekend’s loss at Memphis relegated them to spoilers. Mississippi State has two division losses and still has to play Alabama. Auburn has two division losses, both lopsided, and barely escaped Jacksonville State. (If we were handing out awards here, the Tigers would share the title of “Most Disappointing” with USC and Oregon after opening the season in the top 10.) Arkansas, the dark-horse darling of the summer after closing 2014 on an impressive tear, has two conference losses and two additional L’s at the hands of Texas Tech and Toledo.

The only plausible contender from the SEC East, Florida, has vastly exceeded preseason expectations, but the Gators just lost their starting quarterback for the season, followed by their first loss (at LSU). Even if they manage to survive looming dates with Georgia1 and Florida State to make the SEC championship game at 11-1, at this point they still look like too much of a work in progress to expect to knock off the winner out of the West. Behind Florida, it’s all the rest of the division can do right now to keep its head above water from one week to the next.

So assuming that Texas A&M isn’t about to stage an incredible comeback over the next six weeks, that leaves Alabama and LSU to carry the banner down the stretch, which of course is nothing new for either of them. But both of those sides have their limitations, too — just ask a Bama or LSU fan about their starting quarterback — and while the SEC West gantlet doesn’t look nearly as unforgiving as it did in August, their remaining schedules are still a potential minefield. However it unfolds, no one should simply assume that there’s an automatic golden ticket waiting for a one- or two-loss SEC champion on the other side.

Is It Finally Safe to Trust Baylor?

WACO, TX - SEPTEMBER 26: Corey Coleman #1 of the Baylor Bears celebrates after scoring against the Rice Owls in the first quarter at McLane Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Based on the last two years … ehhh, sorry, ask again later.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Baylor. Its rags-to-riches trajectory under Art Briles remains one of the most compelling stories in sports. If we’re still taking sides in the spread revolution, count me firmly on the side of the spread, the no-huddle, the hurry-up, and the attendant fireworks. As the overall talent level in Waco improves, the efficiency and potency of Briles’s offensive system is increasingly a marvel to behold — in fact, the most obvious takeaway from watching last weekend’s 62-38 rout over West Virginia was that, system be damned, Baylor has some serious athletes.

And the Bears are destroying people right now. The 24-point margin against the Mountaineers marked Baylor’s closest call to date, and there’s no doubt it could have been wider if Briles had wanted it to be. There’s been no drop-off at quarterback from Bryce Petty to Seth Russell, just as there was no drop-off from Nick Florence to Petty or from Robert Griffin III to Florence. Corey Coleman is arguably the best receiver in the nation; Coleman, KD Cannon, and Jay Lee are indisputably the best receiving corps, which may be why no one ever seems to notice that Baylor is consistently among the most productive rushing attacks in the nation, as well. I’m not going to start ticking off statistical superlatives, which with this team is the rhetorical equivalent of falling into a well, but the cliché is true: Watching the Bears play is like watching someone playing a video game.

But that was also true last year, when a midseason flop at West Virginia ultimately kept the Bears out of the playoff, and it was true the year before, when a collapse at Oklahoma State derailed their shot at the BCS title game. In both of those games, opposing defenses manned up on Baylor’s receivers, blitzed Petty into oblivion, and held Briles’s attack well below its usual output, thereby proving there is an answer. The Bears can be stopped, or at least contained, and if they’re slowed down offensively, the defense is still vulnerable enough that they can be outscored. Whether that formula also applies to the 2015 version is yet to be seen, but until they successfully navigate back-to-back November road tests at no. 14 Oklahoma State and (especially) at no. 4 TCU, there’s no way of knowing whether we’re watching a breakthrough in progress or merely the inflating of another bubble to be burst.

What’s With All the Injuries?

There’s no way to prove (or disprove) that injuries are up in 2015, because not even die-hard Internet savants have a reliable database of past injuries for 100-plus FBS teams.2 But it certainly feels like there were an alarming number of injuries over the first seven weeks, possibly because so many of them struck down high-profile players. If you assembled all the recognizable names stuck watching from the sideline into a team of their own, you’d have a pretty kick-ass starting lineup once they were all back to full health:

All-injury offense

All-injury defense

Aside from Tuerk, the rest of the offensive line would make for a relatively ordinary front five. But the rest of the lineup is stacked. Chubb and James Conner were legitimate Heisman candidates coming off hugely productive campaigns in 2014; through five games, Chubb was well on his way to fulfilling the hype again before going down on the first play of Georgia’s Week 6 loss at Tennessee. Wright was the most decorated defender in the nation last year; he suffered a knee injury on opening night, followed, in his first game back, by a foot injury that’s kept him out of the last three games. Many of the rest (Marshall, Williams, Tuerk, Vanderdoes, Jack, Fuller, Tony Conner, Joseph) were no-brainers on any preseason All-America list. And that’s not including the many, many other up-and-comers — guys like Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire, Wisconsin tailback Corey Clement,3 and Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson, to name but a few — whose much-anticipated shots in the limelight are on hold.

Hopefully this “trend” has run its course and the rest of the season will unfold in relatively good health. Otherwise, by bowl season I’m not sure how many household names will be left standing.

Who’s on the Proverbial Hot Seat?

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 25: Head coach Mike London of the Virginia Cavaliers (L) and head coach Bryan Harsin of the Boise State Broncos shake hands following the Broncos 56-14 win at Scott Stadium on September 25, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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This is a particularly relevant question in a year in which hot seats have been outnumbered by early pink slips: In the major conferences alone, Illinois, Maryland, and USC are all in the hands of interim head coaches after the ousters of Tim Beckman, Randy Edsall, and Steve Sarkisian, respectively, and South Carolina is in the market for a new CEO after Steve Spurrier’s abrupt resignation (don’t call it a retirement) on the heels of an 0-4 start in SEC play. The specific circumstances in each of those departures were very different — USC and Illinois were left with little choice but to pull the plug, given Sarkisian’s well-documented problems with alcohol and allegations that Beckman mistreated injured players — but when taken as a group, they make the coaches on the “hot seat” look almost like beacons of stability.

The coach who is most obviously toast is Virginia’s Mike London, whose team has done nothing in the course of a 2-4 start to justify the reprieve London received last year following his third straight losing season. The most controversial hot seat is also in the ACC: Miami fans are so torn over whether Al Golden should return for a sixth season in 2016 that they’ve taken the argument to the skies: No fewer than four airplane banners circled Sun Life Stadium during last weekend’s win over Virginia Tech, two of which expressed support for Golden in response to a pair of anti-Golden banners that have flown over every Hurricanes home game this season. Syracuse’s Scott Shafer (whose team just lost to London’s in overtime) and Rutgers’s Kyle Flood (who just returned from a three-game suspension) are also facing the chopping block; Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, and Purdue’s Darrell Hazell are all perennial candidates depending on how much patience their bosses have with dire rebuilding jobs.

But the hardest postseason decisions are looming at Virginia Tech and Kansas State, where a pair of longtime, immensely respected program patrons, Frank Beamer and Bill Snyder, are clearly approaching the end of their esteemed tenures. At 3-4, the 69-year-old Beamer is staring down the barrel of his first losing season in Blacksburg since 1992 after barely exceeding .500 each of the past three years; the Hokies are destined to go an entire season without appearing in the AP poll for the first time in the same span. And while Snyder’s body of work over a quarter-century at K-State is venerated among the great coaching performances of all time, at 76 the speculation over his future intensifies with each loss. The last one, a 55-0 debacle against Oklahoma, was the most lopsided defeat of Snyder’s entire tenure, a beating so bad that he wrote a letter of apology to the entire KSU student body.

In both cases, the main question at this point is whether Beamer and Snyder decide to step aside gracefully (as Snyder has done once already, following back-to-back losing seasons in 2004-05), or whether it becomes a replay of Bobby Bowden’s embarrassing refusal to cede the chair in his declining years at Florida State.

Who’s Going to Win the Heisman?

If he stays healthy,4 Leonard Fournette is going to win the Heisman. The level that Fournette is on right now, both on the stat sheet and according to the naked eye, belongs to him alone. He’s been so good in each of LSU’s first six games that the spectacular is routine; the dude just ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Florida in a dramatic LSU victory, but sans obvious highlights — no breakaways into the open field, no would-be tacklers vaporized on impact — it felt like merely another workmanlike night at the office. Averaging 5.8 yards on 31 attempts against a solid defense? Fine, just fine. But if Fournette does to Alabama in a few weeks what he’s done to everybody else, the race is over.

Even aside from the front-runner, it’s been a banner year for running backs in general. Before the season, I was skeptical of the notion that 2015 was shaping up as the Year of the Running Back, if only because the modern Heisman is virtually reserved for quarterbacks: Since the turn of the century, the honor has gone to a quarterback in 13 of 15 seasons, and in three of the past five seasons it went to a first-year starter who began the season in obscurity.5 So far, though, there’s only one above-the-fold quarterback candidate, TCU’s Trevone Boykin, and the running back field is remarkably deep: Stanford’s all-purpose dynamo, Christian McCaffrey; Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who continues to carry the FSU offense on a gimpy hamstring; Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, who has eclipsed 100 yards in every game and almost single-handedly saved the Buckeyes’ bacon at Indiana; Alabama’s Derrick Henry, who has finally turned flashes of greatness as an underclassman into a steady role as the Crimson Tide’s unquestioned workhorse. Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise, Utah’s Devontae Booker: The list goes on.

There’s also a case to be made for the country’s two best receivers, Baylor’s Coleman and TCU’s Josh Doctson, who have been as spectacular as they’ve been productive. But practically speaking, a wide receiver who doesn’t also return kicks on a regular basis is an afterthought: The Bears and Horned Frogs are more likely to be represented in New York by their prolific quarterbacks. If I had to submit a midseason ballot today,6 it would look like this:

  1. Leonard Fournette
  2. Trevone Boykin
  3. Christian McCaffrey
  4. Dalvin Cook
  5. Ezekiel Elliott

Who’s Going to Make the Playoff?

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback J.T. Barrett #16 of the Ohio State Buckeyes passes in the fourth quarter against the Western Michigan Broncos at Ohio Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Western Michigan 38-12. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Oh man, hell if I know. There are still 14 undefeated teams, 10 of them in Power 5 conferences — that’s twice as many perfect records as we had after seven weeks in 2014. A few of those teams have to play each other: Clemson–Florida State in the ACC, Ohio State–Michigan State in the Big Ten, and Baylor-TCU in the Big 12. (The Bears and Horned Frogs will both face 6-0 Oklahoma State, as well, although no one who watched the Cowboys’ skin-of-the-teeth wins over Texas and Kansas State is putting any stock in an OSU playoff run just yet.) Even 7-0 Iowa, arguably the most unlikely and uninspiring of the 1.000 Club, has an easy path to 12-0 until it meets the Big Ten East champ in the conference title game. There are a lot of ways this narrative can break.

So, since all four of my preseason playoff picks are still alive and kicking, I’m going to stick with them:

Ohio State. The Buckeyes just named J.T. Barrett over Cardale Jones as the starter for this weekend’s game against Rutgers, which — just guessing here — is probably the first time the no. 1 team in the nation has demoted a healthy quarterback with a 10-0 record as a starter at midseason. But I’m less convinced after Saturday’s 38-10 thumping of Penn State that it really matters who’s behind center. What matters for OSU is getting Elliott going between the tackles, and although that’s taken awhile in some games, it has eventually happened in all of them.

Baylor. The Bears’ past vulnerability in Big 12 road games has been noted. Still, I trust them away from home more than I trust TCU’s defense in any venue.

Alabama. This version of the Crimson Tide isn’t quite as explosive offensively or imposing defensively as Nick Saban’s best teams, but the pieces are essentially the same. They certainly pass the eye test: No one else has two road wins as impressive as Bama’s blowouts at Georgia and Texas A&M.

Clemson. The Tigers proved their mettle in a prime-time win over Notre Dame, have looked steady against everyone else, and get their only remaining test (vs. Florida State on November 7) at home. I also get the feeling that quarterback Deshaun Watson is due for a run that puts the “game manager” questions to bed.

Way to Go Out on a Limb. Any Dark Horses?

Aside from Alabama, the best one-loss teams are Notre Dame, which has overcome key injuries and came very close to climbing out of a 21-point hole in its waterlogged 24-22 loss at Clemson, and Stanford, which has hit its stride offensively in a way that didn’t seem possible after the Cardinal’s opening-day flop at Northwestern. Both have favorable schedules between now and their season-ending date in Palo Alto, where the stakes could be incredibly high. Unlike the teams listed above, though, neither the Irish nor Cardinal control their own fate: To climb into the top four, they’ll both need teams in front of them to lose.

Filed Under: College Football, SEC, Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, Leonard Fournette, Trevone Boykin, Baylor Bears, Seth Russell, Matt Hinton

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Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton