Given that most teams have six or seven games in the books, it’s time to distribute some midseason awards. Watching the annual end-of-season awards show always leaves me confused. I can’t be the only one, can I? Will someone explain why are there two trophies — Heisman and Maxwell — doled out to the year’s most “outstanding player” and another, the Walter Camp, bestowed upon the “player of the year?” There are two awards — Bednarik and Nagurski — for “defensive player of the year” and another, the Lott, for “outstanding defensive player.” There’s a quarterback award (O’Brien) and a senior quarterback award (Unitas). It reminds me of little league — everyone goes home with a trophy, a slice of pizza and a smile. Well, that’s not the case with these midseason awards — we’re keeping it simple. It’s limited to one fictional trophy that the players will never hear, or care, about, per category. The competition is high and the stakes are low. Good luck, gentlemen.
The Heisman typically doesn’t reflect the player who has dominated statistically. No, it’s often given to the running back or quarterback who has been the centerpiece of one of the nation’s top teams (Except for Peyton Manning). Among the remaining undefeated squads, no one has a better résumé than Klein, so the award is seemingly his by default. He doesn’t dazzle with long runs – he’s averaging only 5.1 yards-per-carry – but his punishing, yet nimble-when-it-needs-to-be, running style keeps the chains moving. And serving as his team’s best red zone option doesn’t hurt his case – Klein has 14 rushing scores on the year. Through the air, he’s completing more than 70 percent of his passes at just over 200 yards-per-game, not bad numbers for a man who relies on his feet. Leading the Wildcats through impressive road wins at Oklahoma and West Virginia pushed Klein to the midseason lead in the fickle race for the Heisman. Kansas State’s second-half schedule doesn’t relent – five tough conference games remain – but they’re all winnable and the typically-porous defenses of the Big 12 will keep giving the 6-foot-5 signalcaller chances to put up big numbers.
Other Candidates: Manti Te’o (LB, Notre Dame), Geno Smith (QB, West Virginia), Braxton Miller (QB, Ohio State)
Like I said, the Heisman is often given to the best player on one of the nation’s best teams – and no team this year has been better than Alabama. Yes, they’ve done it on the back of a defense that has led the nation in nearly every major statistical category from wire-to-wire, but McCarron is starting to step out of the shadow of that impenetrable 11. So far, he’s thrown 16 touchdowns and no picks, is completing 68.8 percent of his passes at a 9.6 yards-per-attempt clip and has quietly become the nation’s top-rated quarterback. Should Nick Saban start asking his quarterback to handle more of the offensive burden as teams stack the box against Bama’s potent run game, those numbers could improve. And should Alabama run the table, McCarron would be the quarterback of the nation’s best team, which has never hurt anyone’s Heisman chances.
Smith lost the Heisman when Collin Klein marched into Morgantown last weekend and snatched it from him, but that doesn’t mean his scintillating first-half should go unrecognized. Just in case the consecutive losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State made you forget about Smith’s early dominance, let me offer a refresher. This season he he’s averaging 344.9 yards-per-game (3rd-nationally), has thrown 26 touchdowns (2nd) to only two picks, has a 74.2 completion percentage (1st) and a 172.04 rating (4th). Those aren’t video game numbers – they’re Stephen-Hawking-playing-a-video game numbers. There’s no doubt that he’s been the nation’s most potent offensive weapon, but can he keep pace in the second half? In the past two games – both losses – Smith has mustered only two touchdown strikes and averaged under five yards-per-attempt. And, next week, he has to square off against an opportunistic TCU defense. Any more clunkers from Geno and the eight-touchdown performance against Baylor will feel like a relic from another season.
Other Candidates: Seth Doege (QB, Texas Tech), Nick Florence (QB, Baylor), Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)
Who? You ask. Well, after Geno fired his first two picks of the season against Kansas State on Saturday, Cameron became the quarterback who has thrown the most touchdowns (20) without tossing an interception. Not to mention, under the tutelage of Mike Leach disciple Sonny Dykes, he’s guided the Bulldogs to a 6-1 start, including wins against Illinois, Virginia, and a near-comeback against Texas A&M (more on that one later). In the second half, Louisiana Tech jumps into their WAC conference schedule. If the Bulldogs’ first conference game, a 70-28 win against Idaho last weekend in which Cameron threw for 400 yard and a pair of scores, is indicative of how they will fare against conference foes, expect the quarterback’s already impressive numbers (330 YPG and a 71.3 completion percentage) to spike. And can he finish the season pick-free?
While Te’o isn’t leading the nation in any major defensive statistical categories, that’s not his job. He’s the emotional, and physical, centerpiece of Notre Dame’s No. 2 scoring defense, which is only yielding 9.4 points-per-game. Earlier this season, both Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend died within a six-hour period. Rather than crumble, Te’o has channeled his strife onto the field, pushing the 10 men around him to levels no one anticipated this season. Te’o’s four interceptions are tied for the most among linebackers and his seven passes defended stand third in the nation. But the linebacker and his elite defense have yet to face their toughest tests. The Irish travel to Oklahoma, which is averaging more than 50 points-per-game in its last three contests, this weekend and have to venture to Southern California in November to face a Trojan team stockpiled with weapons.
Other Candidates: Jadeveon Clowney (DL, South Carolina), Phillip Thomas (DB, Fresno State), Damontre Moore (DL, Texas A&M)
Confused? Don’t be. Verrett already has four interceptions. But that’s not the number I’m looking at – he’s tied for the national lead in passes defended with 15, so we know he’s able to make plays on the ball. And look at TCU’s remaining schedule: Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma. All of those teams, save, maybe, Kansas State, love to wing the ball all around the field, so Verrett will get tested repeatedly. Yes, he’s bound to get beat a few times – everyone does in the Big 12 – but all of those passes coming his way will offer more opportunities to bat balls and pick them off. I expect to see Verrett among the nation’s leaders – if not at the top – in interceptions by season’s end.
Is this guy’s movie deal in the works yet? Is it too late to add him to the ballot for president? When he retires, will he be in the Dos Equis commercials? That’s how much respect Snyder deserves. Look at his career arc: In 1989, he took over a Kansas State program that had been to exactly one bowl game, which it lost, in its 93-year history. The team had won a combined six games in the five seasons before he got the job, yet he pushed it to a bowl appearance in his fifth year and a 10-win season in his seventh. Twice, he led the Wildcats to 11-win seasons and a place in the national title discussion. Then he retired in 2005, and the forever-grateful program named the stadium after him. Nice career. Job well done, coach … but he wasn’t finished. After a three-year hiatus, during which the program was careening back towards mediocrity, or worse, Snyder grabbed the headset yet again. Last year, the Wildcats amassed 10 wins and they’ve won their first seven contests this year. In the second half, only two opponents ranked in the BCS – Texas Tech and Texas – stand between Snyder and his first undefeated season.
Other Candidates: Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Tommy Tuberville (Texas Tech), Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech)
While Snyder’s team may be playing at a higher level, it could be argued that Riley has done more with less this season in Corvallis. Oregon State was unranked coming into the season and didn’t even garner a single AP vote until Week 4. The 6-0 Beavers have already knocked off talented squads from Wisconsin, UCLA and Utah. They lost their starting quarterback for a pair of games, but won both. The second-half of the schedule toughens, though, with a trip to Stanford looming on Nov. 10 and what may be the most important Civil War battle since 1863 when the Ducks come to town two weeks later. If Oregon State can derail their big brother’s perfect season, Riley will have done the best coaching job of the year.
If you didn’t know who was getting this award, you’ve been spending your Saturdays watching reruns of House Hunters International on HGTV and shouldn’t be reading this column. The electric Johnny Football is 29th in the nation in rushing yards-per-game, averaging just over 100-per-contest, which is good for second among quarterbacks behind Michigan senior Denard Robinson. Well, he’s a pretty good running quarterback then. Wait, what? He’s 15th nationally in passing yards-per-game, averaging 279 through the air? I was just kidding around about the movie last week, but if he keeps this up, I legitimately do think Disney might make Grown Manziel: The Johnny Football Story within the year. He’s broken the SEC single-game total yardage record twice and he’s already amassed 24 touchdowns (14 passing, 10 rushing), putting him nearly on pace to match the best season from another famous SEC hybrid quarterback (the one who likes flat-top haircuts, jump passes and overenthusiastic first-down celebrations). Manziel did struggle for the first time when he had to face LSU last weekend and two more tough SEC defenses await when A&M has to travel to Starkville and Tuscaloosa. But Manziel will still have chances to shine against Auburn, Sam Houston State and Missouri.
Other Candidates: Brett Hundley (QB, UCLA), Todd Gurley (RB, Georgia), Devonte Fields (DL, TCU)
The Ducks haven’t asked much from their freshman quarterback – just get the ball to the track team and let it do the rest. As a team, Oregon has 371 carries this year, while Mariota has only thrown the ball 180 times. But he’s made the most of those attempts, tossing 16 touchdowns against only five interceptions. Plus he’s added a pair of scores and 356 yards on the ground. But in the second half, Oregon’s schedule – which has been a cupcakewalk until this point – toughens significantly. The Ducks fly south to USC in two weeks, host Stanford two weeks after that and have to fight the aforementioned Civil War in Corvallis in the season’s final weekend. The better opponents will work to take away Oregon’s run game and force the freshman to beat them. If he’s up to the task, his second-half numbers could rival those of Johnny Football.
Given that the Ducks have had an average halftime lead of 25.4 this season, Barner hasn’t had the chance to demonstrate what sort of numbers he could put up over an entire 60 minutes. But I’m not going to blame him for that. In his blowout-limited playing time, Barner has still managed 870 yards and twelve touchdowns. He’s averaging nearly seven yards-per-carry as the centerpiece of the Ducks’ exhausting attack. He’ll get more time to shine in the second half as the competition stiffens, but will have to battle against tougher defenses.
Other Candidates: Stefphon Jefferson (Nevada), Cody Getz (Air Force), Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State)
After recovering from an ACL tear, Bernard has missed two games – and the better part of a third – due to early-season injuries. But in the last three weeks, much to the dismay of ACC rivals, his health has returned. Against Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and Duke, Bernard galloped for 582 yards and four scores. Though he’s 19th-nationally in rushing yards thanks to the missed time, he’s fifth in the nation in rushing yards-per-game, averaging 132.5. That figure is the best among backs who hail from automatic qualifying conferences. If Bernard can stay healthy, expect him to run rampant over UNC’s four remaining ACC opponents and to be the nation’s most dangerous ballcarrier in the second half.
I may or may not have flipped a blue-and-yellow coin on this one. On one side was Bailey; on the other, his teammate Tavon Austin, who typically draws more attention from opposing teams and has subsequently posted inferior stats to his teammate. Bailey leads the nation by a wide margin in touchdown receptions with 14. (Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton is second with 10.) He’s averaging 13.56 yards-per-catch and 114.3 yards-per-game. Baylor’s Terrance Williams has posted more impressive yardage totals – averaging a 168.8-per-game and 21.55 per-catch, but Bailey’s ability to flourish in the red zone has set him apart.
Other Candidates: DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson), Terrance Williams (Baylor), Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech)
It’s tough to be a dark horse when you’re widely considered one of the most dynamic receiving talents – if not the most – in all of college football. But Marqise Lee, and the Trojans offense, have yet to hit the gear so many expected when they were anointed the coveted-yet-valueless preseason No. 1. If that’s going to happen in the second half – remember the Trojans averaged 43.6 points-per-game in their last five contests last season – then expect Lee’s numbers to jump. He’s already eighth-nationally in yards-per-game (112) with eight touchdowns, but his production stands to increase with games against the friendly defenses of Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA still on the schedule.
The 6-foot-6, 256-pound defensive end has taken up residence in opposing backfields all season. Even in the Gamecocks’ blowout loss to Florida last week, Clowney was constantly blowing up Gator offensive linemen. Though he frequently draws double-teams from opposing offenses, Clowney stands fourth in the nation with 14 tackles-for-loss and is tied for eighth with 7.5 sacks. More impressive than his numbers is his mere physical presence. Somehow, he stands out from the other 21 grown men on the field during SEC clashes – not an easy thing to do. The Gamecocks are through their toughest part of the schedule, so Clowney’s numbers should only get better through South Carolina’s final four games against Tennessee, Arkansas, Wofford and rival Clemson.
Other Candidates: Damontre Moore, Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame), Scott Crichton (Oregon State)
The big German is tied for fourth nationally with eight sacks and leads the nation with 69 yards-lost on those quarterback takedowns. Like Clowney, Werner is a monster at 6-foot-4, 272-pounds. He relies more on brute strength to batter offensive linemen than most pass-rushers. As lines tire late in the season, that tactic should pay off against weary linemen unable to keep the giant at bay.
After a full day spent in front of the TV and forgetting to feed either your children or your dog – or both – my guess is that you did what you could to avoid a visit from Social Services, turned off the TV and missed this one. It was tucked away on ESPNU and went on well past midnight, so I can’t blame you too much, but you likely woke on Sunday wishing you’d neglected your family for three more hours. Both teams, surprisingly, came in ranked with a pair of the nation’s most exciting offensive attacks. A&M stormed out to a 27-0 lead midway through the second quarter and it looked like Louisiana Tech’s Air Raid offense was nothing but a gimmick. Turns out, it’s quite the opposite. The Bulldogs stormed back, scoring 41 second-half points to turn the shellacking into a nail-biter. The Bulldogs drew within two early in the fourth when Shakeil Lucas picked off Johnny Football on the A&M five and went 15 feet for six points. But Louisiana Tech’s two-point conversion failed, which came back to haunt the team. It seemed like Manziel put the game away with two minutes remaining when he sprinted 72-yards for a score – he accelerated away from Bulldog players so fast that it looked like Usain Bolt running against a few Norwegians – that put A&M up 59-44. But Colby Cameron answered immediately with a 62-yard strike to Quinton Patton. That was followed up by a rare successful onside kick and another quick Louisiana Tech score. But, once again, The Bulldogs failed when they went for two. Kicking a pair of extra points in the fourth would’ve sent this to overtime, but hindsight is, of course, 20/20. Louisiana Tech lost the game, but gained respect and has maintained an AP ranking. And Johnny Football gained national notoriety with his 576 all-purpose-yard, six touchdown day.
That’s the best game so far, but which ones might top it in the season’s home stretch?
This game is appealing to a different breed of fan than those who enjoyed the aforementioned shootout in Shreveport. LSU captured last year’s contest 9-6 – in overtime, mind you – in a game that was simultaneously ugly and beautiful. When these teams meet, it’s like watching soccer – there’s more drama, tension and excitement in the painstaking buildup to a score than the score itself. Alabama has the better team this year, but LSU is playing under those Baton Rouge stadium lights, which seem to make the Tigers nearly invincible. Strange things happen at night on the Bayou, so don’t be surprised if invincible Alabama is tested, or even toppled.
This one starts an hour before Alabama-LSU, so your thumb and your remote control are going to go through a brutal few hours of circuit training. The undercard in college football’s best night of the season also happens to be one of the top-three games for the rest of the year. Last year, the Trojans shocked Oregon at home 38-35. This year, the Ducks travel to USC to try to return the favor. This will be the exact opposite of Alabama and LSU – points will be scored in bunches here as both offenses are flush with NFL-caliber weaponry. With a win, the Trojans can steal back the national championship buzz they lost on a September night in Palo Alto.
Remember when this game seemed to impact the national championship hunt every single season? You might not, because everyone was wearing salmon and teal shorts and listening to Alanis Morissette then. Yes, it was that long ago. Finally, Florida-Florida State means something again! And it feels as good as blaring “You Oughta Know” after a breakup. (That was a shout-out to my female reader.) Florida has a good chance of entering the game undefeated with an unexpected national title game berth within their grasp. Florida State will likely enter with one loss, and a win against the Gators gives the Seminoles a way-way-way outside chance of sneaking into the big game. Even if neither makes it to Miami in January, this game might mark the rebirth – on a national scale – of what was once college football’s most compelling, and important, rivalry.
When Louisiana-Monroe visited Arkansas in Week 2, we had no idea that the then No. 8 Razorbacks were about to implode. In the context of what’s happened since, Louisiana-Monroe’s win doesn’t seem shocking, but remember how improbable it seemed at the time? Down a field goal in overtime, rather than kick on fourth down, ULM head coach Todd Berry called for his quarterback Kolton Browning to roll left. With his receivers smothered in front of him, Browning found a hole to his right and sprinted towards the pylon. When he beat an Arkansas safety to the spot and extended the ball across the plane, the biggest upset since Michigan fell to Appalachian State in 2007 was in the books.
Remember when Shoelace forgot to tie his shoes? Against Air Force in Week 2, Michigan QB Denard Robinson’s shoe fell off when he was in the midst of confounding Air Force defenders. After he left several linebackers – and the shoe – in his wake, Robinson found daylight along the right sideline and sprinted for a 58-yard score.
If you haven’t seen Ace Sanders’ punt return touchdown against Georgia in Week 6 stop what you’re doing and find the clip immediately. I don’t care if you’re performing open-heart surgery, go watch the clip. Sanders put a series of three left-to-right and right-to-left jukes on Georgia players with quickness and ferocity that are rarely seen, even on Sundays. Forget breaking ankles, he was amputating legs with those moves.
**All photos courtesy of AP Images.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed
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