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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Ten Themes for Saturday: Week 6

Ten teams, themes, games and players to watch on Saturday. Pretty straightforward. Here we go:

I’m ready to believe I think Kansas State has done enough through four games to justify a national ranking — I think so, at least. This is based largely on the last two weeks, when the Wildcats first beat Miami (Fla.) on the road and then outlasted Baylor, 36-35. The first two games weren’t impressive, no: Eastern Kentucky and Kent State. But Kansas State has done what it’s needed to do to gain some national recognition in a top-heavy Big 12 that is also dealing with some off-field issues, if you haven’t been paying attention. When will it be fine to really believe in Kansas State’s ability to be the conference’s surprise team? If you’re not yet on board, a win today over Missouri should seal the deal. The Tigers are 2-2, but it’s a solid 2-2: the losses came via road setbacks to Arizona State, in overtime, and Oklahoma. Missouri is the best team Kansas State has played, in my estimation, and a win will provide a firm illustration of how good coaching and a dedication to doing the little things wins football games.

“A lot of guys are making a rough transition” So said former Maryland receiver Emani Lee-Odai, who described to The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Barker the difficulty the current roster has had adapting to Randy Edsall’s more regimented coaching philosophy when compared to the coaching style preferred by his predecessor, Ralph Friedgen. What was Maryland expecting, a smooth transition? Anyone who was either didn’t know Edsall or didn’t know Friedgen, as if the two don’t lie on opposite poles along the coaching spectrum each certainly brings a different flavor to how they run a football program. Edsall is no-nonsense from the Tom Coughlin tree, as Barker notes in his article; Friedgen was far more laid-back, which explains why he maintains a relationship with many of his former players — active players, playing under Edsall. It’s up to Maryland to weather this storm, even if it means 2011 doesn’t end up going as planned. Here’s guessing today’s game, against Georgia Tech, really doesn’t go as planned for Maryland.

B.Y.U. pulls the trigger That the decision wasn’t all that surprising doesn’t seem to make it any less shocking. After he led the Cougars to the game-winning drive in beating Utah State last Saturday, Riley Nelson will get the call at quarterback ahead of Jake Heaps when B.Y.U. hosts San Jose State later tonight. Not surprising, based on how the offense reacted to Nelson against the Aggies, when he hit on 10 of 14 attempts for 144 yards and 2 scores. The two touchdown passes are only one less than Heaps has thrown all season, and Heaps’ steady decline as a passer — he was 11 of 25 against Utah State — only made Bronco Mendenhall’s decision a little easier. Easier, but not easy, I’d think. Heaps remains the future of the program. For now, however, it seems like Nelson gives B.Y.U. the best chance for victory. And for Nelson, the return to the starting lineup after losing the job to the then-true freshman Heaps last fall gives him the opportunity to end his winding career on a high note.

San Diego State aims for 60 minutes For 14 minutes of game time last Nov. 13, San Diego State was the best team in college football. The Aztecs outscored T.C.U. by 14-0 over the first seven minutes in Fort Worth; the Aztecs outscored T.C.U. by 14-0 over the final seven minutes in Fort Worth. In between, however, the Horned Frogs dominated. The final score was 40-35 — or 40-14 between those seven-minute increments — and while a loss is a loss, San Diego State did take a moral victory of sorts from the defeat. A year later, with T.C.U. reeling, the Aztecs aim for 60 minutes of success.

These aren’t the same Horned Frogs. Last year’s team was sneakily explosive offensively and positively dominant defensively. This year’s team is still somewhat explosive on offense but has been all too sieve-like on defense — hence the 3-2 start. This is the year for the Aztecs, if it’s ever going to happen. And not just because this series ends once T.C.U. heads to the Big 12: S.D.S.U. will score on T.C.U., and can control the clock with a strong running game. But the Aztecs are even more pitiful defensively, if that’s possible. There will be points in bunches.

Is this the week it happens? Is this the week? Will it happen? It’s going to happen eventually: Houston can’t keep pulling out close win after close win against weak competition, and that first loss is coming sooner or later. It may come sooner, what with E.C.U. coming to Houston this evening. The Pirates have gone toe-to-toe with a few of the nation’s best — and lost, to be fair — in South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and have shown varying shades of offensive potential and defensive stinginess along the way. Nevertheless, the Pirates are 1-3. But it’s a strong 1-3, even if you’d always rather be a weak 5-0, as is Houston, than a strong 1-3. The loss is coming, believe me. And E.C.U. is as good a team as the Cougars will face the rest of the way, with the best being S.M.U., and Houston will continue to be on upset alert until they can show themselves worthy of its undefeated mark.

The dream continues The dead horse has been beaten — the dead horse being Washington State and quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, both of whom continue to garner tremendous space on this site. But I can’t ignore what’s happening in Pullman: ignored heading into the year, written off for dead after Jeff Tuel broke his collarbone, the Cougars can take another step towards bowl eligibility by beating U.C.L.A. in Pasadena late tonight. It won’t be easy. No win comes easy for Washington State, whether improved or no, and it’ll take every yard in Lobbestael’s arm to outscore a U.C.L.A. team that can’t stop a soul but has done a better job moving the ball in 2011.

Let’s just say W.S.U. gets the win, however, pushing its record to 4-1. Where do the Cougars gets wins five and six? Oregon State is a must-have. That’s five. Six? I can tell you the sure losses: home for Stanford and at Oregon. Giving the Cougars a win over Oregon State and losses to that pair puts their record at 5-3 — with California, Utah, Arizona State and Washington left to play. I think W.S.U. can get one of those, even if the Golden Bears and the Apple Cup come on the road. It’s vital that the Cougars win today and beat Oregon State, however.

Louisville makes a change Shawn Watson didn’t really flame out at Nebraska, though you would think otherwise based on the glee with which the fan base greeted his departure for Louisville. But the damage to his reputation had been done, to a point, and that Watson took a position job — coaching the quarterbacks — with the Cardinals signaled that he’d have to work his way back into a program’s good graces before getting another shot at running an offense. It took five weeks for him to get his next shot: Watson will replace an embattled Mike Sanford as Louisville’s coordinator for today’s game at North Carolina. The reason behind the move was simple: Louisville enters today ranked 86th nationally in total offense and 105th in scoring, so you can see where Charlie Strong’s coming from. The slow start plays right into Watson’s hands, not merely in his promotion but also in the fact that compared to Nebraska, Louisville’s lowered expectations can only provide a boost to his career goals.

Still good, but not great This isn’t a great weekend. But it’s a good one, with three games between nationally-ranked foes and several games with national and conference importance, as touched on above. Still, when Ohio State’s trip to Nebraska is your prime time game — well, it does say something about Saturday’s slate. So what’s the game of the week? That would be Texas and Oklahoma. Second? L.S.U. and Florida is the popular pick, but I’d go with Auburn’s trip to Arkansas. Both teams will look to carry last Saturday’s meaningful wins over to this afternoon. And that’s all when it comes to two ranked teams. Now watch: this will be the best weekend in college football history.

Five picks to use as you will Some teams are being overlooked after a slow start. Other teams are underdogs, for some reason or another. Here are five lines I’d consider if I was into this sort of thing (13-7 so far):

Central Michigan at N.C. State (-11)
Florida at L.S.U. (-14)
Syracuse (-10) at Tulane
Kentucky (+21) at South Carolina
Louisiana Tech (-4.5) at Idaho

P.S.R. top five, before and after The top five entering the weekend and the top five on Monday, to my best guess:

1. Alabama
2. L.S.U.
3. Oklahoma
4. Boise State
5. Wisconsin

1. Alabama
2. L.S.U.
3. Oklahoma
4. Boise State
5. Wisconsin

The Badgers are off, so there’ll be no leapfrogging Boise State this week. L.S.U. won’t move ahead of the Crimson Tide thanks to its win over Florida. And Oklahoma’s not moving ahead of either SEC team by beating Texas, even if the Longhorns are undefeated.

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  1. Parker says:

    Hi Paul –

    As you saw this weekend, Houston is an entirely different team at home. Case Keenum is now 25-6 in the last 31 games he’s been able to finish, and he’s undefeated at home during that stretch.

  2. Anu says:

    I’d love your opinions on the bottom of some conferences. For instance, if the bottom 4 PAC-12 teams could play the bottom 4 BIG TEN teams, what do you think would happen?

    Minnesota @ Arizona
    Colorado @ Indiana
    Northwestern @ Oregon State
    Utah @ Ohio State

    would be fun to do across the major conferences.

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