Tom Layberger

Conference Call

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Moving into conference play

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It was a fun and most unpredictable opening month of the college football season. With new starters in key positions, it is the time of season when coaches get an idea of what they have to work with heading into conference play. Of course, the start of conference play does not mean everything is settled. Far from it.

Florida State
The Seminoles have a week off before traveling to Wake Forest. They need it. FSU not only has lost two straight, but they are banged up a bit and DB/punt returner Greg Reid was arrested Monday morning and charged with two misdemeanors. The situation in Tallahassee is a far cry from just last Friday when the spotlight heading into the Clemson game was focused on whether E.J. Manuel would play or not. Manuel’s shoulder is coming around nicely, by the way. He is eyeing a return against Wake. Clint Trickett got the start against Clemson and performed admirably.

North Carolina State
Tom O’Brien, I am sure, is having some sleepless nights figuring how to salvage a season that is already slipping away. And the sleep apnea is not because of second thoughts about letting Russell Wilson go. Yes, the Wolfpack are 2-2. But consider those defeats were at the hands of the only two FBS teams (Wake Forest, Cincy) they have played to date and NCSU was outscored by a combined 84 points and allowed 941 yards. Georgia Tech is up this week. Paul Johnson's option will keep you awake.

Virginia Tech
It’s looking like a vintage Frank Beamer defense in Blacksburg. After allowing no more than 13 points in their first four games, the Hokies are yielding only an average of 10 points per outing to rank sixth nationally. Granted, the competition has not been stellar. That’s what will make this week’s game against explosive Tajh Boyd and Clemson one to watch.

Big 12
Kansas State
Saturday’s win at Miami is one that can fuel a season.  Coming down to the wire and keeping Miami out of the end zone with a goal-line stand is reminiscent of the energy that often resonated during Bill Snyder’s initial tenure in the Little Apple. The Wildcats found something in South Florida they were sorely lacking: offensive balance. While QB Collin Klein got it done through the air (2 TD passes) and on the ground (93 yds, 1 TD), the effort of sophomore RB John Hubert was resounding: 18-166-1. He had 148 career rushing yards coming into the game. No time to celebrate, however, as conference foes Baylor and Mizzou occupy the schedule the next two weeks.

Every team in the Big 12 has a winning record except the Tigers, who are 2-2. The losses? Overtime at Arizona State and by 10 points at Oklahoma after breaking out to a 14-3 lead. First-year starting QB James Franklin has been exceptional, averaging 311 yards total offense per game with 7:1 TD:INT while hardening himself early against top opponents. It will be interesting to see how he handles the teeth of the Big 12 schedule when it hits. For now, it’s so far, so good for Franklin.
Big East
South Florida
After beating Notre Dame to start the season, it looked like the Bulls had an outstanding chance of taking a 4-0 mark into Thursday night’s game at Pitt. Not only did they predictably beat Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP, but they did so with authority. So much so, that QB B.J. Daniels enters Thursday’s contest at Heinz Field averaging 322 total yards per game and leading an offense that is tenth nationally with an average of 523 yards per outing.

With OT wins against Wake Forest and Toledo and a close call against Rhode Island of the FCS, the Orange have been far from impressive. Yet, they do have a very good shot at going 5-1 and within one victory of bowl eligibility by the season’s midway point. At 3-1, SU has a home date with Rutgers and a trip to Tulane the next two weeks. Their chances would be much improved if the offense can start showing some big-play ability. QB Ryan Nassib has completed more than 70 percent of his passes and is 9:1 TD:INT. The downside is the passing game has not been able to stretch the field and it has had no help from a running game that ranks 100th nationally. Get that straightened out and there is no telling how far the Orange can go, especially in a conference that is far from scary.

Big Ten
As good as things are looking for Brady Hoke in his first month at Michigan, it is not a stretch for the Wolverines to enter their Nov. 12 game at Illinois 9-0. Michigan State in East Lansing on Oct. 15 and a trip to Iowa on Nov. 5 could certainly alter that scenario, especially if Denard Robinson has to continue to get it done himself. At some point, he will need help from his RBs and Robinson will have to help himself through the air. Outside of his remarkable fourth quarter (202 yards) in the win against Notre Dame, the UM passing game has produced very little – 402 yards in the other 15 quarters.

Dan Persa returns for the Wildcats on Saturday and will see his first action since last November. This is what coach Pat Fitzgerald has been planning for. He wanted to make sure his star quarterback, recovering from a knee injury, was ready for the start of Big Ten play. Persa and the Wildcats had the benefit of a week off to prepare for the bus ride to Champaign. There were some bumps and bruises without Persa, particularly an uninspiring loss at West Point. But the season starts anew on Saturday and Persa will play a part.

Conference USA
The Golden Hurricane must feel like the weight has been lifted. That is, the weight of an early-season schedule that featured three top 10 teams: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State. Phew! No disrespect to North Texas, which beat Indiana last week, but the Tulsa might find facing the Mean Green a breather. G.J. Kinnie would certainly like to get on track after throwing four INTs. The quarterback played against BSU despite suffering a knee injury the week before.

It’s already been a memorable year for Owls fans. A first-ever win against an ACC opponent, Bernard Pierce rushing for a school-record 5 TDs in that road rout of Maryland and a defense that heads into the fifth week of the season leading the nation with 7.8 points allowed. It sets up what should be a heck of a game in Philadelphia on Saturday against Toledo. The Rockets are coming off three straight losses to Ohio State (by 5 points), Boise State and a controversial OT setback at Syracuse.  Both teams would figure to have something to say about the MAC title. In fact, they may meet again on Dec. 2 in Detroit to decide just that.

Boise State
The Broncos are No. 4 in the AP, Kellen Moore has completed nearly 80 percent of his passes with 12 TDs in three games and all is well in Boise. Maybe not. Coach Chris Petersen is unhappy about the running game, something he has made rather clear. The Broncos are 76th nationally with an average of 135 yards per game. Doug Martin, who piled up 1,260 yards while averaging an eye-opening 6.3 per tote last season, has only 202 yards in three games with a meager 3.2 average. A remedy could come as soon as this week against visiting Nevada, however. The Wolf Pack is allowing nearly 210 rushing yards per game to rank 108th. The game is on Versus Saturday at 2:30 ET.

Arizona State
Beating USC was a major early hurdle in the race for Pac-12 South supremacy. Junior running back Cameron Marshall, who had a very nice 2010 with better than 1,000 yards from scrimmage (787 rushing) and 10 total TDs, had a bit of a slow start in the first three games of 2011. Then he broke loose in the win over the Trojans with 25-141-3 and a couple of receptions to boot. It’s efforts like this that give ASU the balanced offense it largely lacked the first three games, but need to have if they are not only going to win the division, but become a real player on the national scene.

Are the Ducks ready to run the table? Little has gone wrong for Chip Kelly’s squad since losing to LSU in a much-anticipated season opener. In their victories the last three weeks, the Ducks are averaging 60.3 points per contest and exactly 600 yards per game. LaMichael James torched Arizona to the tune of 288 yards rushing in the Ducks’ conference opener. The effort placed James atop the nation in rushing yards with 613 – on only 65 carries. The defense, though, could take advantage of this off week and prepare for the next two opponents, Cal and Arizona State. The unit is allowing 390 yards per game, which is 79th nationally – and that’s with LSU having totaled only 273 yards.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a comparison between freshman Isaiah Crowell and Herschel Walker and how each fared after their first four games as a freshman. The numbers are remarkably similar. In his first four games, Crowell has 411 yards on 77 carries and Walker had 419 yards on 77 attempts. Let’s visit this in 2014, if Crowell is still around. The bottom line is, Crowell has emerged big time and is the nation’s second-leading rusher among freshmen. He has a pair of 100-yard games, both against SEC opponents. He goes for No. 3 at home against Mississippi State on Saturday.

South Carolina
A 4-0 mark is 4-0 no matter how you slice it. In the case of the Gamecocks, they continue to teeter on the edge. They allowed 37 points to an East Carolina team that scored 35 its next two games, outslugged Georgia by a field goal, slipped past Navy by three and topped Vandy in a game Stephen Garcia threw four picks. With Auburn and its sieve-like defense and Kentucky the next two opponents, the Gamecocks could be looking at 6-0. Still, with a passing game that ranks 99th nationally coupled with an offense that has turned the ball over 11 times, you have to wonder if that edge might get pretty slippery. Thank goodness for Marcus Lattimore.

Sun Belt
Florida International
Well, so much for the Golden Panthers’ shot at finishing undefeated. They allowed 36 points to UL-Lafayette after yielding 43 in a 3-0 start that included wins over Louisville and UCF. Of larger concern, though, is receiver T.Y. Hilton. A right hamstring has limited the star receiver the past two games during which he went 6-62-0 after compiling 14-333-3 the first two weeks.

Louisiana Tech
Keep an eye on the Bulldogs. They are 1-3 with the defeats to Southern Miss, Houston and Mississippi State (OT) by a combined nine points. The conference schedule starts with a visit from Hawaii on Saturday and, in a WAC that no longer boasts Boise State and otherwise appears wide open, the Bulldogs could be primed for contention. 

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