October 14, 2010

Midseason report: League by league

Week 7 conference previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-10 | SEC | Others

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We're at the midway point of the season and asked our football writers to break down each league.


Steve Megargee breaks down the league at the halfway point.

Biggest surprise: N.C. State. Picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division, North Carolina State has won five of its first six games to emerge as a legitimate ACC title contender. QB Russell Wilson remains the most exciting player in the conference, and an improved defense and rushing attack have given him more help this season. The Wolfpack received a huge boost from the successful comeback of star LB Nate Irving, who missed the 2009 season after suffering multiple injuries in a near-fatal car wreck.

Biggest disappointment: Boston College. The team that traditionally surpasses preseason expectations won't live up them this season. Boston College has one of the nation's top linebackers in Luke Kuechly and a potential first-round pick in OT Anthony Castonzo, but injuries along the offensive line and an unsettled quarterback situation have resulted in a three-game losing streak. Opposing defenses can focus all their attention on stopping RB Montel Harris because Boston College's passing attack doesn't scare anyone.

I can't believe it: Florida State's defense was expected to get better this year. It hardly could get worse. But I sure didn't expect the Seminoles to take such a giant step forward, particularly after they looked so awful in an early-season 47-17 loss to Oklahoma. FSU has played championship-caliber defense ever since. The Seminoles don't have any superstars, but their balanced attack has produced an NCAA-leading 26 sacks.

Biggest game the rest of the way: Florida State at North Carolina State, Oct. 28. These teams have separated themselves from the rest of the Atlantic pack well enough that the winner of this Thursday night showdown in Raleigh is extremely likely to win the division title. Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and Georgia Tech make the Coastal Division chase a little more complicated.

Midseason player of year: Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor. He's the major reason Virginia Tech has withstood an early two-game losing streak and Ryan Williams' injury-riddled sophomore season. Tech's season could have crumbled after the Hokies followed up a heartbreaking loss to Boise State with an embarrassing setback against James Madison. Taylor made sure it didn't happen, as he led the Hokies back from double-digit deficits against East Carolina and North Carolina State.

Midseason coach of year: Florida State's Jimbo Fisher. He couldn't ask for much better results in his first season. His overhaul of the defensive coaching staff has paid major dividends. He delivered a one-sided victory over one of his in-state rivals. And he's in the process of putting together an outstanding 2011 recruiting class.

Midseason freshmen of year: North Carolina State RBs Mustafa Greene and Dean Haynes. These two have split carries and have helped ease preseason concerns about North Carolina State's rushing attack. Greene has rushed for 344 yards and four touchdowns on 69 carries, while Haynes has run for 254 yards and two touchdowns on 62 attempts.

Midseason comeback players of year: North Carolina State LB Nate Irving and Boston College LB Mark Herzlich. You can't go wrong with either of these picks. Irving has a team-high 45 overall tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss after missing the '09 season to recover from a collapsed lung, broken rib, separated shoulder and compound leg fracture sustained in a near-fatal car wreck. Herzlich has 21 tackles and two interceptions after sitting out all of last season to recover from Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

Top storyline to follow in the second half: The Coastal Division race. While we don't want to overlook Maryland's 1-0 conference record completely, the Atlantic Division looks like a two-team race between Florida State and North Carolina State. The Coastal race seems much more wide open. Virginia Tech is the only Coastal team without a conference loss, but the Hokies still must face Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, among others. All four teams have reason to believe they can make it to Charlotte.


David Fox breaks down the league at the halfway point.

Biggest surprise: Louisville. Syracuse has a better overall record, but the Orange also have beaten two FCS opponents and winless Akron. Louisville opens Big East play this week, but the Cardinals already look like a new team. The offense, which was so inept under Steve Kragthorpe, leads the Big East in rushing, passing and total yards.

Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh. The conference appeared to be wide open to start the season, but the Panthers got many nods (including ours) to win the conference. Those hopes look faint now. Blame some injuries (DE Greg Romeus and LB Dan Mason in particular), but the Panthers' normally stout rushing attack has been ineffective. Besides a poor running game, Pitt is last in the Big East in scoring defense. The Panthers aren't going to win many games if they can't run the ball or play defense.

I can't believe it: The ineffectiveness of Pitt RB Dion Lewis, Rutgers QB Tom Savage and USF QB B.J. Daniels is surprising. All have plausible excuses - Lewis is running behind a rebuilt offensive line, Savage has faced injuries and Daniels is in a new offense. Still, for all three to have been non-factors through the first half of the season is shocking.

Biggest game the rest of the way: West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Nov. 26. Despite's Pitt's woes, this still likely will be one of the biggest hurdles for the Mountaineers. By the time these rivals meet, Pitt could have solved some offensive issues and have Romeus back. The Mountaineers face Connecticut and Louisville on the road, too, but Pitt has shown in the past that records don't matter in this game.

Midseason player of year: Connecticut RB Jordan Todman. Todman rushed for 1,188 yards despite splitting carries with Andre Dixon last season. He should eclipse that total easily as the Huskies' primary runner. If he didn't miss the win over Buffalo, Todman might be in Donald Brown territory. Todman has topped 100 yards in all five games he has played and gone for more than 150 yards twice. Randy Edsall isn't afraid to ride his star running back: Todman had 37 carries against Vanderbilt.

Midseason coach of year: Louisville's Charlie Strong. Syracuse's Doug Marrone is in this mix, too. But Marrone is in his second season and Strong in his first. What's been most encouraging is the way players such as RB Bilal Powell and DE Rodney Gnat have gone from part-time roles to potential all-conference selections. Adam Froman also appears to have solidified the quarterback spot.

Midseason freshman of year: Rutgers RB Jordan Thomas. USF starting LB DeDe Lattimore deserves mention, too, but Thomas gets the nod. He has rushed for 144 yards and caught nine passes for 134 yards. Rutgers' offense needs a spark, and a versatile threat such as Thomas could be the one to provide it as the season moves along.

Midseason comeback player of year: UConn QB Cody Endres. Huskies coaches have gone back-and-forth with Zach Frazer and Endres through the past three seasons. Maybe Endres has claimed the job for good this time. He came in at halftime against Buffalo for his first action since Oct. 31 of last season and threw two touchdown passes. He threw two more against Vanderbilt. He wasn't great against Rutgers, but perhaps that was a product of playing a solid defense on the road.

Top storyline to follow in the second half: Can West Virginia run the table? The Mountaineers' only loss this season was a hard-fought 20-14 setback at unbeaten LSU. The Big East struggled mightily in the non-conference schedule (just two wins over Big Six competition), and the Mountaineers looked like the league's strongest team by a lot. Is West Virginia so far ahead of the pack it can go 7-0 in the league? Despite the hits the Big East has taken in the past six weeks, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers and Syracuse have looked like teams starting to find answers. They might have enough to catch up to the Mountaineers.


Tom Dienhart breaks down the league at the halfway point.

Biggest surprise: Michigan State. No one was talking about the Spartans being a Big Ten title contender coming off a 6-7 season. But Michigan State is off to a 6-0 start, with a good chance to finish 11-1 or 12-0. Too bad the Spartans don't play Ohio State.

Biggest disappointment: Penn State. A moribund offense threatens to make this the Nittany Lions' first losing season since 2004. Penn State, 0-2 in the Big Ten, has been hindered by myriad injuries on defense and a true freshman quarterback.

I can't believe it: Illinois coach Ron Zook sat on one of the hottest seats in the country after two losing seasons in a row. But he has the Fighting Illini thinking big and primed to make just their second bowl under him.

Biggest game the rest of the way: Ohio State at Iowa, Nov. 20. These have been the Big Ten's best overall programs for the past decade, so it's fitting they will meet in what may be a de facto Big Ten championship game.

Midseason player of year: Michigan QB Denard Robinson. He single-handedly may save Rich Rodriguez's job. "D-Rob" is college football's most exciting player since Reggie Bush. Without Robinson, Michigan wouldn't be 5-1.

Midseason coach of year: Ohio State's Jim Tressel. Tressel has his Buckeyes machine humming toward a fourth BCS title game appearance in the past nine seasons, but there is lots of heavy lifting remaining with games at Wisconsin and at Iowa.

Midseason freshman of year: Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell. He has been a revelation as part of a heavy-duty Spartans ground attack. Bell ranks sixth in the Big Ten in rushing (91.5 ypg), averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

Midseason comeback player of year: Illinois LB Martez Wilson. He missed all but one game of the 2009 season with a herniated disk in his neck. But Wilson has returned with a vengeance to rank in the top 10 in the Big Ten in tackles (9.2 per game), sacks (2.0) and tackles for loss (5.0).

Top storyline to follow in the second half: Can Michigan State continue its storybook run? The comeback of coach Mark Dantonio from a heart attack after the Notre Dame game is a great human-interest story. The rise of the program - led by a balanced offense and tough defense - is a great football story.

BIG 12

Olin Buchanan breaks down the league at the halfway point.

Biggest surprise: Oklahoma State. This was supposed to be a down year for Oklahoma State. Instead, the Cowboys - with a new quarterback, a rebuilt offensive line and an unproven defense - are unbeaten and ranked in the top 25.

Biggest disappointment: Texas. The Longhorns opened the season in the top five, but they have dropped out of the national rankings for the first time in a decade. The offense is lethargic and the defense is inconsistent. The Longhorns' streak of nine consecutive seasons of double-digit victories may be nearing an end.

I can't believe it: Texas A&M LB Von Miller has only one sack. Last season, he led the nation with 17.

Biggest game the rest of the way: Texas at Nebraska, Saturday. This week's grudge match against Texas won't mean as much to Nebraska's chances to win the North Division as, say, the Huskers' Oct. 30 clash with Missouri. But in the offseason, the Texas-Nebraska game was seen as one of the most anticipated matchups in the nation. Even though Texas hasn't played particularly well, this remains a big, emotional game for Nebraska. And it provides Texas a chance for much-needed redemption.

Midseason player of year/Midseason freshman of year: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez. Remember when quarterback was a position of uncertainty for Nebraska? Now the only uncertainty is whether Martinez will be named the All-Big 12 quarterback. He has rushed for 737 yards and 12 touchdowns. Huskers coaches say he's an accurate passer, too, but he hasn't had to prove it yet.

Midseason coach of year: Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. Despite the personnel losses from last season's team, Gundy has guided the Cowboys to a 5-0 start. The Cowboys appear on their way to notching at least nine victories for the third consecutive season.

Midseason comeback player of year: Baylor QB Robert Griffin. He missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, but he has come back strong. He has passed for 1,735 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 239 and six TDs in leading the Bears to a 4-2 mark.

Top storyline to follow in the second half: Nebraska's quest to win the conference championship and maybe make a run at the national title in its final season in the Big 12. The unbeaten Huskers still have Texas, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas A&M looming and perhaps Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. But they likely would be favored in all those games.


Steve Megargee breaks down the league at the halfway point.

Biggest surprise: Air Force. San Diego State was a shoo-in to earn this spot before its disappointing loss to BYU last week. It's not a surprise that Air Force is good. After all, the Falcons have won at least eight games in each of the past three seasons. But they've taken their game to the next level this season. The Falcons (5-1) beat Navy for the first time since 2002 and gave Oklahoma everything it could handle in their only loss so far. Air Force just might turn the anticipated two-way battle between TCU and Utah into a three-way race for the conference title.

Biggest disappointment: BYU. A team that has won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons will have a tough time becoming bowl eligible this season. BYU (2-4) was supposed to take a step backward this season, but nobody expected the Cougars to fall this far. Graduation losses and injuries wreaked havoc with the roster as BYU suffered a four-game losing streak. BYU figures to lose to TCU and Utah later this season, so the Cougars probably need to win all four of their other games to finish at .500.

I can't believe it: One year after they ranked 116th in the nation in rushing, San Diego State has improved to 36th in that category. The Aztecs averaged 2.9 yards per carry and 78.3 rushing yards per game last season. This year, they're averaging 5.8 yards per carry and 181.4 rushing yards per game.

Biggest game the rest of the way: TCU at Utah, Nov. 6. There's an excellent chance both will be undefeated when they meet in Salt Lake City with the MWC title likely on the line, though Air Force could have something to say about that. The last time these teams faced off in Salt Lake City, Utah won a classic on its way to a perfect season.

Midseason player of year: TCU DE Wayne Daniels. We could have gone with a number of TCU players here (OT Marcus Cannon, QB Andy Dalton, RB Ed Wesley), but we'll give a slight edge to Daniels for the role he has played in allowing the Horned Frogs' pass rush to continue to thrive in the post-Jerry Hughes era. Daniels leads the MWC in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (8.5) while starring for a defense that has recorded back-to-back shutouts.

Midseason coach of year: Air Force's Troy Calhoun. The guy who chose to stay at his alma mater after receiving overtures from Tennessee is helping the Falcons produce a special season. Air Force already has delivered a rare win over Navy and threw a scare into Oklahoma. The run-oriented Falcons even showed they could pass the ball last week against Colorado State.

Midseason freshman of year: San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman. You actually could make a good case that Hillman is the midseason player of the year, but we wanted to share the wealth a bit and he hasn't been quite as productive in the Aztecs' past two games. Hillman is the major reason for the resurgence of San Diego State's rushing attack. He has rushed for a conference-leading 594 yards on 94 carries, including a 228-yard effort in a near-upset of Missouri.

Midseason comeback player of year: San Diego State WR Vincent Brown. After missing the last five games of the 2009 season with an injured right thumb, Brown has wasted no time reasserting himself as one of the MWC's premier receivers. Brown has caught at least five passes in each of his five games. He has 11 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns in the Aztecs' past two contests.

Top storyline to follow in the second half: The BCS hopes of the league's winner. Boise State's quest for a national title has been one of the major stories of the season thus far, but TCU and Utah remain undefeated and will have faced tougher schedules by the end of the season. Would an undefeated MWC champion have a shot to play for the national title this season? Would it even get a BCS bid at all?


Olin Buchanan breaks down the league at the halfway point.

Biggest surprise: Arizona. The Wildcats lost so many good defensive players from last season that a decline seemed likely. Yet, the Wildcats are 10th in the nation in scoring defense and the offense is productive. Arizona upset Iowa and followed up with a come-from-behind victory over Cal. The Wildcats are coming off a two-point loss to Oregon State, but remain a contender in the Pac-10 championship race.

Biggest disappointment: USC. There was some thought that even though the Trojans were ineligible for the Pac-10 championship, they could still be the conference's best team. But the Trojans were unimpressive in lackluster early victories over Hawaii, Virginia and Minnesota. Then they suffered back-to-back losses to Washington and Stanford on last-play field goals.

I can't believe it: Arizona State is actually moving the football. A year ago, the Sun Devils ranked 90th in the nation in total offense and 91st in scoring offense. They failed to reach 20 points in half their games. With the additions of coordinator Noel Mazzone and QB Steven Threet, they're averaging 455.1 yards to rank 22nd in total offense and 32.8 points to rank 36th in scoring offense.

Biggest game the rest of the way: Oregon at Oregon State, Dec. 4. Oregon is soaring and has a shot at the national championship game. But the Pac-10 crown - and the Ducks' national title hopes - could come down to the regular-season finale against archrival Oregon State in Corvallis. The Beavers have two losses, but as is usually the case, they appear to be improving as the season progresses.

Midseason player of year: Oregon RB LaMichael James. Although he missed the opener because of a suspension, he's more than made up for that lost time. He's leading the nation with an average of 169.6 rushing yards per game. He's also scored nine touchdowns. James has emerged as one of the top candidates for the Heisman.

Midseason coach of year: Oregon's Chip Kelly. He and his program endured a turbulent offseason in which he disciplined several players, including starting QB Jeremiah Masoli, who eventually was dismissed from the team. Kelly hasn't had any problems during the season, though. The Ducks are unbeaten and sophomore QB Derron Thomas has flourished under Kelly's guidance.

Midseason freshman of year: Arizona DT Justin Washington. There are exciting receivers and good running backs, but no first-year player has made a bigger impact on his team than Washington. The Wildcats entered the season with uncertainty at defensive tackle, but Washington has played extremely well. He has 20 tackles - third on the team - and leads the Wildcats with four sacks. He also has blocked a kick. He's a major reason Arizona is ranked 13th in total defense.

Midseason comeback player of year: Arizona State CB Omar Bolden. He played in four games before a knee injury prematurely ended his 2009 season. He's back and playing like one of the top corners in the conference. He has 19 tackles and two interceptions and returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Wisconsin.

Top storyline to follow in the second half: Oregon's quest. The Ducks are aiming to remain undefeated and become the first Pac-10 team to play in the BCS national championship since USC in 2005.


Mike Huguenin breaks down the league at the halfway point.

Biggest surprise: South Carolina. Given the state of the SEC East, the Gamecocks were given an outside shot in the preseason to contend for the league title. But after they lost at Auburn, it looked as if it would be the "same old, same old" for Steve Spurrier's team. But then came last week's 14-point win over Alabama, and suddenly the Gamecocks look like the team to beat in the East. Given that Auburn is unbeaten, the loss on the Plains doesn't look that bad at all. RB Marcus Lattimore has given Spurrier a power back he can count on, WR Alshon Jeffery is a burgeoning star and coordinator Ellis Johnson always will oversee a solid defense. And if junior QB Stephen Garcia can continue to play as he did against the Tide, the Gamecocks could actually make it to the BCS.

Biggest disappointment: Georgia. The Bulldogs were due to slide a bit, but the slide has become a free-fall. WR A.J. Green's four-game suspension hurt the offense, but it didn't hurt as much as the line's inability to block people. There have been some growing pains defensively, too, which is to be expected after switching from a 4-3 set to a 3-4. Coach Mark Richt is said to be on the hot seat, but is Georgia really going to fire a guy who has averaged 10 wins per season?

I can't believe it: There have been a lot of funky happenings in the SEC thus far - Ole Miss' loss to a FCS team, Georgia's pitiful start and the call for Richt's job, Florida's inept offense, Alabama's loss to South Carolina in what could be a program-changer for the Gamecocks, Vandy scoring in the 50s in a football game. But - come on - nothing has come close to what happened at the end of the LSU-Tennessee game. I've seen it about 100 times and still can't believe it. I also can't believe the way LSU won its next game, with that freakish bounce of the ball on a fake field-goal attempt against Florida. Les Miles certainly is living large.

Biggest game the rest of the way: Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 26. This is scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving. If Auburn somehow manages to get there unbeaten and Alabama somehow manages to arrive with just one loss, the anticipation for what would be an epic showdown would cause everyone in that state to blow off Thanksgiving dinner and instead make a pilgrimage to Bryant-Denny Stadium to bask in the heavenly glow that surely would be emanating from midfield. At the least, we're betting the SEC West title comes down to the "Iron Bowl" matchup.

Midseason player of year: Auburn QB Cameron Newton. He arrived as a five-star prospect and last season's national junior college player of the year. He has lived up to the hype. He leads the SEC in rushing and has shown a better feel for the passing game than expected. He has played so well that he's a legit Heisman contender.

Midseason coach of year: Auburn's Gene Chizik. Chizik made his bones as a defensive coordinator, but he seems quite comfortable putting the Tigers' games in the hands of his offense. Auburn is 6-0 despite breaking in a new quarterback and a new running back - and despite a defense that's nowhere near where Chizik wants it to be.

Midseason freshman of year: South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore. For all the attention Spurrier gets for his passing attacks, his best teams at Florida featured running backs who could gobble up yardage and control the clock when needed. In Lattimore, Spurrier has that type of player. And if the Gamecocks' passing attack rounds into peak form - in other words, if safeties can't crowd the line of scrimmage - Lattimore will go for 100 every week.

Midseason comeback player of year: Auburn S Aairon Savage. Savage missed the 2008 season with a knee injury and the '09 season with an Achilles injury. He was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA in February and has made it pay off. Savage, who already has earned a master's degree in exercise science, starts at one of Auburn's safety spots and has 33 tackles to rank third on the team.

Top storyline to follow in the second half: The SEC West race. Because Alabama lost last week, the SEC West has the potential to be a four-team free-for-all. And each of the four teams involved (Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU) could finish the season in the top 15. Plus, there are a million story lines in the division - and only about half involve Miles. Alabama still has to play Auburn and LSU. Auburn and LSU have to play each of the other three. Arkansas still has to play Auburn and LSU. It's going to be wild, especially because of the ... uh ... intensity of the respective fan bases.


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