October 13, 2011

Midseason report: League by league

WEEKEND PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-12 | SEC | Others

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ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | C-USA | Independents | MAC | MWC | Pac-12 | SEC | SBC | WAC

Here's a midseason look at each of the 11 conferences plus the independents.

ACC

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Clemson. Coming off a 6-7 finish in 2010 and with a new starting quarterback, not much was expected from Clemson. The Tigers were picked second in the ACC's Atlantic Division and were unranked in both preseason polls. But when little is expected, Clemson often is dangerous. That's holding true this season. The Tigers are 6-0 with three victories over ranked opponents, including two over teams (Florida State and Virginia Tech) that were predicted to play for the ACC championship. Clemson was the first team in ACC history to ever beat three ranked teams in a row.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Florida State. While we could have made equally strong arguments for three teams as the league's biggest surprise, Florida State is the clear-cut choice as the ACC's biggest disappointment. Ranked as high as fifth in the nation before its heavily anticipated showdown with Oklahoma, FSU (2-3) now is unranked. The Seminoles aren't running nearly as effectively without departed G Rodney Hudson anchoring the line, and an injury to QB E.J. Manuel has limited the passing attack. A defense that showed such promise against Oklahoma has given up 35 points in each of the two games since.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Nov. 10. This Thursday night showdown should go a long way toward determining the Coastal Division champion, though North Carolina and Miami still might have something to say about that. Wake Forest's Nov. 12 trip to Clemson also suddenly has more meaning than anyone could have expected, though we still have a hard time believing the Deacons will seriously challenge Clemson for the Atlantic Division title.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Clemson QB Tajh Boyd. Miami RB Lamar Miller and Boston College LB Luke Kuechly also have produced outstanding seasons thus far, but Boyd gets the nod because he's had the biggest impact on the ACC title chase. While Miller and Kuechly have delivered exceptional performances for disappointing teams, Boyd has directed Clemson to a 6-0 start. Boyd has done a masterful job of adapting to new coordinator Chad Morris' hurry-up, no-huddle attack. He has thrown for 1,742 yards with 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Boyd struggled a bit in his only road game - going 13-of-32 in a 23-3 victory at Virginia Tech - but he's been virtually unstoppable at home.

MIDSEASON FRESHMAN OF YEAR: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins. A five-star prospect who was ranked as the No. 15 overall recruit nationally, Watkins has more than lived up to his considerable billing. He scored in each of Clemson's first four games. He caught 10 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over Auburn. He followed that up with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Florida State. This true freshman already has emerged as one of the ACC's most electrifying performers.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: Boston College's Frank Spaziani. Injuries have played a major role in Boston College's 1-5 start, but this still seems like a program on the decline. BC also got off to a slow start last season before rallying late to earn its 12th consecutive bowl bid. It's hard to imagine the Eagles making a similar late-season surge without TB Montel Harris. A losing season won't necessarily lead to Spaziani's exit, but it would put plenty of pressure on him next season. North Carolina State's Tom O'Brien also deserves mention. The Wolfpack (3-3) haven't built on the momentum from their 9-4 record last season and instead could be headed toward their fourth losing season in O'Brien's five-year tenure.

BIG EAST

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Rutgers. At the midpoint of the season, Rutgers is the Big East frontrunner at 2-0. That comes with an asterisk. Only two teams have played two conference games, and two teams (Cincinnati and Louisville) haven't played any. Still, Rutgers already has doubled its conference win total and matched its overall win total from last season. The Scarlet Knights lead the Big East in pass efficiency defense and scoring defense. The progress of the offense will determine how far Rutgers can go in the Big East.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Realignment. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are still in the league, but their pending departures to the ACC have cast a shadow over the season. Their departures will reshape the league for the second time in a decade. Regardless of who the Big East adds in their place, the conference's stature among the major conferences likely will diminish - that is, if the football league remains in existence at all.

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BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: West Virginia at USF, Dec. 1. The Mountaineers' entire stretch run (at Cincinnati on Nov. 12, Pitt on Nov. 25 and USF) likely will determine the Big East's representative in the BCS. The only question is what Bulls team West Virginia will face in the finale. The Bulls looked like a Big East frontrunner for the first four games, but their 44-17 loss to Pitt raises questions.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: West Virginia QB Geno Smith. Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham has been just as productive, but Smith has transformed WVU's offense. He has flourished in the new system, passing for 2,159 yards (third nationally) and 16 touchdowns. And he's done it despite a lackluster rushing attack.

MIDSEASON FRESHMAN OF YEAR: Connecticut LB Yawin Smallwood. Going into the season, linebacker was the least experienced group on UConn's defense, with only junior Sio Moore returning. Smallwood has alleviated some concerns and is the Huskies' second-leading tackler. He has been responsible for three turnovers - a fumble recovery for a touchdown against Vanderbilt, an interception against Buffalo and a forced fumble against Western Michigan.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: None. Six of the eight coaches are in their first or second seasons. The longest-tenured coach, Rutgers' Greg Schiano, isn't going anywhere. Nor is third-year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone.

BIG TEN

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Illinois. Many felt Ron Zook was on the hot seat, as he had had just two winning records in six seasons and was working for a new athletic director. He figured to have a good team in 2011, as the Fighting Illini were projected by most to be in the postseason. But no one thought Illinois would be unbeaten at this juncture of the season and in contention for the Leaders Division title.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Ohio State. The Buckeyes had issues entering the season. Four key players were suspended for the first five games and QB Terrelle Pryor had left school amid a scandal that also swallowed up Jim Tressel. But it's doubtful anyone thought it would be this bad. The Buckeyes are 3-3 and have lost two in a row. The defense is doing its part. But the offense lacks playmakers and is directionless under the stewardship of two overmatched quarterbacks. It may be impossible to rebound from last week's collapse at Nebraska.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Wisconsin at Illinois, Nov. 19. With Wisconsin seemingly the only league team with national title hopes, there are no blockbuster matchups left. The biggest game looks to be the Badgers' trip to Illinois in what could be a de facto Leaders Division title game. The biggest game left in the Legends Division could be the same day, when Nebraska plays at Michigan in what also could serve as a division title game.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson. Wilson, a transfer from North Carolina State, has been a revelation for one of the best offenses in America, serving as the perfect complement to a bruising Badgers rushing attack. Wilson also has been a leader, being voted a team captain after only a few weeks on campus.

MIDSEASON FRESHMAN OF YEAR: Illinois RB Donovan Young. He has carried 47 times for 314 yards (6.7 ypc) and four touchdowns to lead all Big Ten freshmen. He is part of a strong Illini offense.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: Purdue's Danny Hope. He spent a year as coach-in-waiting and is in his third season running the program. But Hope will be hard-pressed to earn his first bowl bid as Boilermakers coach or the program's first since 2007. Even more of an indictment of Hope: Attendance and interest are minimal. Yes, myriad key injuries have hampered the team, but fans are tired of excuses. The team looks unprepared, is rudderless on offense and soft on defense. A humiliating loss at Rice and total domination at home by Notre Dame further undercut the waning credibility of Hope, who is 11-18 in his tenure.

BIG 12

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Kansas State. Most probably thought at this point the Wildcats would be 2-3, especially after a lackluster 10-7 season-opening win over FCS member Eastern Kentucky. Instead, the Wildcats (5-0) are unbeaten. They made a big goal-line stand to beat Miami, came back in the fourth quarter to edge Baylor, then beat Missouri by a touchdown. There still are some doubters, but Wildcats already have exceeded many expectations.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Texas A&M. The Aggies opened the season ranked in the top 10 and had national championship aspirations. Now, they're 4-2, but it's the manner in which the Aggies lost those two games that are especially gut-wrenching. A&M led Oklahoma State by 17 at halftime, only to lose 30-29. The following week, the Aggies led Arkansas by 18 at halftime, only to lose 42-38.

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BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Dec. 3. The "Bedlam" game typically is wild, but this season it could be more intense and important than ever. The Sooners are No. 1 in the coaches' poll; the Cowboys are No. 7. Both are undefeated. The Big 12 championship likely will be on the line. More than that, a place in the national championship game could be at stake.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Baylor QB Robert Griffin. A costly interception in a loss to Kansas State hurt his Heisman campaign, but no player has been more impressive than "RGIII" so far. He leads the nation with 19 TD passes and has thrown just 28 incompletions. Griffin also has completed more than 80 percent of his passes to rank second in the country in passing efficiency. He also has rushed for 280 yards and is fifth in the country in total offense.

MIDSEASON FRESHMAN OF YEAR: Texas WR Jaxon Shipley. Just five games into his college career, Shipley already is established as the Longhorns' best receiver. He leads them with 16 catches for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He's also completed two passes, with one going for a score.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: Kansas coach Turner Gill. He's only halfway through his second season in Lawrence, but the Jayhawks are only 5-12 in his tenure. This season, they've allowed at least 42 points in four games and more than 60 twice. And they still haven't faced Oklahoma, Baylor or Texas A&M, whose offenses are among the highest-scoring units in the country.

CONFERENCE USA

BIGGEST SURPRISE: SMU. Truthfully, no one really has been a surprise - at least not yet. But SMU won at TCU, which was the Mustangs' first win over a ranked team since 2005.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: UAB. It's not as if anybody thought the Blazers were going to win the East Division, but the general consensus seemed to be that there was enough returning talent for UAB to go bowling for just the second time in school history. Instead, the Blazers are 0-5 overall and 0-2 in the league, and they are the only school in the nation that has not thrown a TD pass. They have scored just 59 points and are last nationally in scoring offense.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: SMU at Houston, Nov. 19. This looks as if it will determine the West Division title - and it also appears to be Houston's best chance to lose a game this season. The Cougars rolled over the Mustangs 45-20 last season - and that was without star QB Case Keenum.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Houston QB Case Keenum. Speaking of Keenum, he has returned in fine form from last season's ACL injury. He has the Cougars 6-0 and in the top 25 and is on pace to break numerous NCAA career records. Keenum has thrown for 2,309 yards and 17 TDs this season.

MIDSEASON FROSH OF YEAR: East Carolina LB Jeremy Grove. Grove, a redshirt freshman, is the leading tackler in the league and is No. 3 nationally at 13.2 stops per game. He has made at least 12 tackles in each of the Pirates' five games - including contests against South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia Tech - and also has 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass breakup and three quarterback hurries.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: UAB's Neil Callaway. The 0-5 start likely means Callaway isn't coming back. It's hard to see a team that has been this inept on offense suddenly finding the "on" switch, which means a three- or four-win season might be all that can be expected now. Second-year Memphis coach Larry Porter also could be in trouble. The Tigers are flat-out bad and have lost 22 of their past 23 to FBS opponents. But you figure he gets at least one more season.

INDEPENDENTS

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Nobody. No independent has exceeded preseason expectations. Army, Navy and Notre Dame are all sporting worse records than we figured they would have at this point in the season. BYU's 4-2 mark is what we anticipated, but one of the Cougars' defeats was an embarrassing 54-10 home loss to in-state rival Utah.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Navy. The Midshipmen's string of eight consecutive seasons with at least eight wins is in serious jeopardy. Navy has dropped three in a row and carries a 2-3 record into Saturday's game at Rutgers. Navy can run the ball on just about anyone; the Midshipmen lead the nation with 366 rushing yards per game. The problem is that just about anyone can run on Navy. The Midshipmen rank 112th in run defense and have allowed 5.4 yards per carry. Navy still has a good shot to earn a bowl bid, but a second-half schedule that includes trips to Rutgers, Notre Dame and SMU could make it difficult for the Midshipmen to finish much better than 6-6.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Navy at Notre Dame, Oct. 29. The Irish will try to end their two-game losing streak in this rivalry. Navy hasn't lost at Notre Dame Stadium since 2005, the debut season of former Irish coach Charlie Weis. Navy's Alexander Teich rushed for 210 yards last year in a 35-17 victory over the Irish that represented the low point of Bob Diaco's two-year tenure as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator. The Irish got more experience against the option in a 27-3 rout of Army last season and a 59-33 victory over Air Force last week. In a couple of weeks, we should learn whether those games made the Irish more prepared to handle Navy's option attack.

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MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd. He has caught at least 12 passes in three of Notre Dame's first six games. Floyd owns just about every Notre Dame receiving record at this point in his career. He has 53 receptions for 639 yards and four touchdowns. After a spectacular start to the season, Floyd has been held below 100 yards in four of his past five games as opposing defenses do everything in their power to contain him. All that attention on Floyd merely has created more opportunities for teammates Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones.

MIDSEASON FRESHMAN OF YEAR: BYU WR Ross Apo. This former four-star recruit played in the 2010 season opener before an open dislocation of his left index finger caused him to take a redshirt. He caught a touchdown pass in each of BYU's first three games this season and has 16 receptions for 187 yards despite suffering a mild concussion Sept. 23 in a 24-17 victory over UCF.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: None. Although the independents by and large are having disappointing seasons, the coaches at Army, BYU, Navy and Notre Dame don't have any reason to worry about their immediate job security.

MID-AMERICAN

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Western Michigan. The Broncos are 4-2, and both losses have come to unbeaten Big Ten teams (Michigan and Illinois). Western has started 2-0 in MAC play and have a huge game Saturday against Northern Illinois. The schedule is rather soft after that, with only a game with Toledo a potential stumbling block.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Northern Illinois. NIU won the West Division title last season, but the defense has been atrocious for new coach Dave Doeren, who had been defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. NIU lost to division foe Central Michigan last month, which means the Huskies don't have much of a margin for error anymore. Indeed, a loss to Western Michigan on Saturday could end NIU's division hopes.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Western Michigan at Toledo, Nov. 8. Toledo and Western are the only teams unbeaten in league play. Temple looks like a lock to win the East, while the West looks to be a three-team race with Western, Northern Illinois and Toledo. Toledo plays NIU and Western back-to-back, with both at home. If Western beats NIU this weekend, the Nov. 8 game becomes huge. But if NIU wins, the Huskies' visit to Toledo on Nov. 1 supersedes the game on the 8th.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Temple RB Bernard Pierce. He had a big-time freshman season in 2009, rushing for 1,361 yards and 16 TDs. But he suffered through an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, and his potential production in new coach Steve Addazio's was something of an unknown entering the season. No one should have worried. Pierce has run for 692 yards and already has 15 rushing TDs; he scored five in the Owls' beatdown of Maryland. He's a big, physical guy who has the speed to also get around the edge.

MIDSEASON FROSH OF YEAR: Bowling Green RB Anthon Samuel. The Falcons were abysmal running the ball last season, finishing last nationally at 62.8 yards per game. BG had 754 rushing yards last season; the Falcons already have 880 this season, thanks to the arrival of Samuel. He has rushed for 487 yards and four TDs in five games; he missed one with an injury. Coincidentally, he is from the same high school - Miami Pace - as Willie Geter, who was the Falcons' leading rusher last season as a senior.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: None. Almost half of the league's coaches - five of 13 - are in their first seasons at their schools, and another six have been at their post for three or fewer seasons.

MOUNTAIN WEST

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Wyoming. This one could have gone to either Colorado State (3-2) or Wyoming (3-2), as both teams already have matched their win totals from last season. The difference is that Colorado State entered the season with promising sophomore Pete Thomas as a returning starter at quarterback. Wyoming had to hand its quarterback job to true freshman Brett Smith after 2010 starter Austyn Carta-Samuels decided to transfer. That Wyoming has overcome an unstable quarterback situation to win three of its first five games makes the Cowboys a bigger surprise.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: TCU. The Frogs have won at least 11 games five of the past six seasons, but they'll have to run the table and earn a bowl victory to reach that plateau this season. TCU figured to slip a little s it attempted to replace two-time MWC offensive player of the year Andy Dalton, Jim Thorpe Award finalist Tejay Johnson and plenty of other key performers from its Rose Bowl championship squad, but it's still surprising to see the Frogs with two losses this early in the season. Replacing Dalton hasn't been the problem, as Casey Pachall has played well as TCU's starting quarterback. But after leading the nation in total defense each of the past two seasons, TCU couldn't stop Baylor QB Robert Griffin or SMU QB J.J. McDermott in its two losses this season.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: TCU at Boise State, Nov. 12. TCU might not be as strong as usual, but its victories over Air Force and San Diego State show that it remains Boise State's toughest competitor for the MWC title. The Frogs have won a record 19 consecutive MWC games and would love to bid farewell to the conference with one more title before heading to the Big 12. TCU's chances of pulling the upset depend on the progress of its young defense. The Frogs won't have a chance unless they contain Boise State QB Kellen Moore much more effectively than they defended Griffin or McDermott.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Boise State QB Kellen Moore. Ho-hum. Perhaps no conference player of the year pick was easier than this one. Although Boise State hasn't played an MWC game yet, Moore has dominated opponents this season as thoroughly as he did during the Broncos' years as a WAC member. Moore ranks ninth nationally in passing efficiency and directs an offense that has scored at least 30 points in each of its games. He has played just about as well as ever despite losing star WRs Austin Pettis and Titus Young to the NFL.

MIDSEASON FRESHMAN OF YEAR: Wyoming QB Brett Smith. This true freshman hasn't been awed by the challenge of running an offense. Smith showed that from his debut performance, as he threw the winning touchdown pass with 22 seconds remaining in a 35-32 victory over Weber State. In his first road game, he led Wyoming to a 28-27 triumph over Bowling Green. Smith even threw two touchdown passes with only one interception against Nebraska's highly touted defense. Smith has thrown for 1,228 yards and already has emerged as a team leader. Honorable mention goes to New Mexic o's Deon Long, who has caught 30 passes for 568 yards and three touchdowns. Long leads the MWC and ranks 12th nationally with 113.6 receiving yards per game.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: None. Now that New Mexico's Mike Locksley already has been fired, all the rest of the MWC coaches seem pretty safe. Colorado State's Steve Fairchild probably has the most reason for concern after going 3-9 each of the last two seasons, but the Rams' 3-2 start should have taken the heat off him. If Colorado State stumbles down the stretch, perhaps Fairchild could get back on the hot seat. Wyoming's Dave Christensen is in his third season and UNLV's Bobby Hauck is in his second season, so it's probably a little early to speculate on the future of either guy.

PAC-12

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Washington State. The Cougars (3-2) already have exceeded their victory totals in each of the past three seasons. Their two losses were tight games into the fourth quarter. They blew a fourth-quarter lead in last week's loss to UCLA, which damaged their bowl hopes. But the Cougars still have a shot at making their first postseason appearance in eight years.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Oregon State QB Ryan Katz. The thought was Katz would have a big year and the Beavers would bounce back from last season's 5-7 record. But Katz has lost his the starting job and the Beavers (1-4) are in danger of an even worse finish than a year ago. They lost the season opener to FCS member Sacramento State and were blown out twice after that. A 37-27 win over Arizona indicates some life remains in Corvallis, but a demanding schedule looms.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 12. Both teams are in the top 10. Last season's game in Eugene enabled Oregon to win the conference championship and reach the BCS national championship game. With a little help and a lot of (Andrew) Luck, this season's clash in Palo Alto could do the same for Stanford.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Washington QB Keith Price. There are no shortage of legitimate candidates: Stanford's Andrew Luck, Oregon's LaMichael James, USC's Robert Woods. But the pick here is Price, who was a big reason there was uncertainty surrounding the Huskies. But he's thrown 17 touchdown passes - the same number Jake Locker had all of last season and more than any other quarterback in the conference. Price has thrown at least three touchdown passes in every game. He threw four in the Huskies' only loss, to Nebraska.

MIDSEASON FRESHMAN OF YEAR: Oregon RB/WR DeAnthony Thomas. The former five-star prospect has emerged as another big-play threat for the Ducks' high-octane offense. After a slow start - he lost a couple of fumbles in a season-opening loss to LSU - he has come on strong. Thomas leads Oregon in receiving with 17 catches for 286 yards and four touchdowns, and he's the second-leading rusher with 191 yards and two touchdowns. Four of his touchdowns were on plays that covered more than 20 yards.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. Arizona already has fired coach Mike Stoops, and he had gone to three consecutive bowls. UCLA is 18-25 in 3 years under Neuheisel. The 3-3 Bruins' most impressive win this season was last week's come-from-behind, 28-25 victory over Washington State. Neuheisel has pointed out that the Bruins still can win the Pac-12 South, and he's right. But it might take that for him to gain some job security.

SEC

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Arkansas. The Hogs lose their best player, star TB Knile Davis, before the season began, but they have overcome his injury and still look to be the third-best team in the league. They were pounded by Alabama, but have rebounded with an impressive come-from-behind win over Texas A&M that was followed by a rout of Auburn. There are two tough games left on the schedule: vs. South Carolina and at LSU, which means a second consecutive 10-2 record is within reach. That would be a solid achievement considering Davis' injury.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Mississippi State. No one expected the Bulldogs to win the SEC West. But they have opened 0-3 in SEC play and could drop to 0-4 Saturday against South Carolina. The defense has struggled at times, which was to be expected with the loss of all three starting linebackers. But the offense has taken a step back, too, and there is a burgeoning controversy. Mississippi State won nine games last season, and a storyline coming into the season was whether the Bulldogs could win nine in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. The answer is no; indeed, the question now is whether Mississippi State will win even seven.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5. This season's "Game of the Century" will be this titanic SEC West struggle. If Les Miles going against Nick Saban wasn't enough, it appears to be a lock that the winner of this one will be in New Orleans for the national title game on Jan. 9. LSU has won eight of the past 11 in the series. (And forgive NFL executives who show up and begin foaming at the mouth at the thought of all those future NFL defensive stars running around on the Bryant-Denny Stadium turf.)

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu, a sophomore nicknamed "The Honey Badger," has two interceptions, four pass breakups, four forced fumbles (he already has a school-record nine in his career) and two fumble recoveries, including one he returned for a TD against Kentucky. He has had two 10-tackle games this season, against Oregon and Mississippi State.

MIDSEASON FROSH OF YEAR: Georgia TB Isaiah Crowell. He has lived up to the five-star hype. He is fourth in the league in rushing at 95.5 yards per game and has scored four TDs. Crowell has had three 100-yard games and his presence has helped Georgia QB Aaron Murray, giving Murray a consistent tailback he can count on this season.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: Ole Miss' Houston Nutt. Losing to Vanderbilt for the second year in a row isn't good for your job security. The season started with a fourth-quarter collapse against BYU, and the Rebels' two wins have come over a FBS team and over Fresno State. Ole Miss has scored 20 points in its two SEC games - and gets Alabama this week.

SUN BELT

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin' Cajuns basically were a unanimous pick to finish last in the nine-team league. Instead, they have started 5-1, which includes wins over preseason league favorites FIU and Troy. In short, ULL now is in the driver's set in the league race under first-year coach Mark Hudspeth. If ULL goes on to win the league title, it's hard to imagine a more improbable conference champ.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: FIU. "Disappointment" is relative. FIU opened 3-0, including upsets of Louisville - the first over a Big Six school in FIU history - and UCF. But a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette - at home - means FIU is going to need a lot of help if they hope to repeat as league champs. In addition, the Golden Panthers had a home game against Duke, which was considered a great opportunity for the first-ever home victory over a Big Six school. But Duke prevailed 31-27.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Troy at FIU, Oct. 25. Over the summer, this looked to be the game of the year in the Sun Belt. Now, each team likely will face a must-win scenario to stay alive in the title chase. As it is, both teams need ULL to lose twice. But a win in this one and just one league loss by ULL means a shared title, which is better than no title at all.

[Predicting winners: Expert picks]

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton. He has played through injuries but remains the league's most electrifying player. He had seven receptions for 201 yards and two TDs in the upset of Louisville and also had a TD against Duke in a game FIU lost by three. In all, Hilton has 37 receptions for 641 yards and four scores.

MIDSEASON FROSH OF YEAR: Louisiana-Lafayette RB Alonzo Harris. ULL averaged barely 101 yards per game on the ground last season, and the Ragin' Cajuns didn't have a clear-cut starter at tailback heading into the season. Harris, a three-star recruit from Gadsden, Ala., has provided some relief. He has rushed for 298 yards and three TDs in five games. His numbers aren't that big, but ULL now at least has the semblance of a rushing attack.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: None. Five of the nine coaches are in their first or second seasons. FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger already has said he is retiring at season's end.

WESTERN ATHLETIC

BIGGEST SURPRISE: None. The explanation in the next category will serve as an explanation for this category.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The league as a whole. Seven of the eight teams are under .500 and the only team with a winning record is Hawaii, at 3-2. There is no win that makes you say "wow" - the best is Hawaii's victory over a one-win Colorado squad - and, frankly, close losses have gotten the league its only real attention this season.

BIGGEST GAME THE REST OF THE WAY: Hawaii at Nevada, Nov. 12. Hawaii looks like the league's best team, and the is the Warriors' toughest remaining road game. While Nevada has beaten no one of note, the Wolf Pack's losses have come to Oregon, Boise State and Texas Tech - and they should've beaten Texas Tech.

MIDSEASON PLAYER OF YEAR: Utah State TB Robert Turbin. Turbin ran for 1,296 yards and 13 TDs as a sophomore in 2009. He missed last season with a knee injury and has come back strong this fall. He has run for 599 yards and 10 TDs, and has reached the 100-yard mark in four of the Aggies' five games. His per-game average of 119.8 yards is 10th nationally.

MIDSEASON FROSH OF YEAR: Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton. Keeton, a two-star true freshman from Houston, has thrown nine TD passes with no interceptions and also has rushed for 194 yards. His first college start came in the opener at Auburn, and he had the Aggies on the brink of a huge upset until their suspect defense caved in in the final two minutes. If we had picked a midseason All-Freshman team, Keeton would've been the quarterback.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT: Idaho's Robb Akey. Akey is in his fifth season with the Vandals and owns a 18-38 record. He did lead Idaho to a bowl in 2009, which should get him through this season. But the Vandals are 1-5 and their only win is against a FCS team.

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