Early Offer: Why MSU going big in 2015 

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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What happens when you have a large senior class about to graduate? You target a large recruiting class like Mississippi State is in 2015. Michigan’s recruiting remains in chaos, as another Wolverine commit is having second thoughts.

Week 6 Vegas Rankings

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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It's a new week for the College Football Vegas Rankings, but the same story at the very top, with Alabama retaining the No. 1 spot. All of the top teams in the rankings are in action this week, with six matchups of AP top 25-ranked teams.

The CFB Vegas Rankings are the composite power ratings of a panel of professional handicappers and college football statisticians, including fellow Insider Phil Steele, Brian Edwards and Bruce Marshall of The Gold Sheet. The ratings are intended to weigh the relative strength of the teams if they met on a neutral field and to be compared to the point spread on a given game.

For example, if Alabama and Texas A&M were to play on a neutral field this week, the Crimson Tide would be considered a 3.5-point favorite by our ratings.

To take a look at the 25 best teams in college football, according to Las Vegas, become an Insider today.

Auburn, LSU swap roles from 2013 game

September, 30, 2014
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Every championship team faces adversity at one point or another. For last year’s Auburn team, it came in the form of a September road trip to Death Valley.

The Tigers began the season 3-0, snapping their SEC skid against Mississippi State along the way. But in the first half at LSU, Auburn simply looked outmatched. It was pouring rain; the offense couldn’t move the ball; the defense couldn’t stop Jeremy Hill; and it was 21-0 after the first 30 minutes. It felt like the team should get back on the bus and head home.

Auburn didn’t, though. As the rain tapered off in the second half, Gus Malzahn’s team fought back and nearly made it a one-possession game before eventually losing 35-21.

Looking back, the game can be remembered two different ways. On one hand, it was the lone blemish on an otherwise flawless resume heading into the BCS title game and a contest Auburn would rather forget. On the other hand, it was a turning point for Auburn, a loss that would create momentum and ignite a nine-game winning streak.

As for the players, all they remember is the rain, or the “very stiff, wind-driven dew,” as LSU coach Les Miles so eloquently put it.

“It was raining in Death Valley, and that’s always a good time,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “It was a night game. I remember that was kind of our turning point in our season. We lost the game, but it really showed that we had fight. It came down to the wire at the end.”

“Wet, rainy,” running back Corey Grant said. “Started off slow. Came back second half, made some adjustments and we kind of got back on track, but it was a little bit too late.”

“I kind of remember the rain a lot,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “It was really slippery. It was my first road game as a college player and I didn’t know I was going to play that much, but coach put me in so I tried to do what I could.

“And I remember losing. That’s the big thing I remember. I think it’s going to be better this year. I hope we get the win.”

“We didn’t really come out the way we should’ve,” cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “We didn’t have that edge. By the time it was time for us to adjust, we didn’t really put the proper points on the board or we didn’t make the correct stops, fill in gaps.”

It’s been more than a year since that game, and Malzahn admits it still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. To this day, it’s his only SEC loss as a head coach.

However, he also remembers the second-half comeback and how it was a defining moment for Auburn last season. He remembers how the players responded after halftime and how they were an onside kick away from making things interesting.

“Our guys came back,” Malzahn said on Monday’s Tiger Talk radio show. “They responded like champions in the second half, and it gave us momentum the rest of the year.”

This is a new year, though, and the roles have reversed. Auburn is the overwhelming favorite at home against a young, inexperienced LSU team that has a quarterback in Brandon Harris who is making his first road start in a hostile environment. Sound familiar? Nick Marshall made his first road start in Baton Rouge last year.

The good news for Harris is there’s no rain in the forecast this year. The bad news is Auburn is hungry for a win.

“I haven’t beat them all four years and I’m coming up on the last time playing them, so I’ll be excited and especially motivated to play those guys,” Dismukes said.

"We lost last year in their house," added Adams. "They’re coming to our house now, so we’re going to try and get that win."

Is Georgia Tech for real?

September, 30, 2014
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The stats do not scream perfect team! But through four games, Georgia Tech has an unblemished record, emerging as one of the big surprises in the ACC through the first month.

Still, it is hard to get a gauge on just how good these Jackets are, considering how they have gotten to 4-0. They looked uninspired in a win over Wofford. They trailed early to Tulane. They needed a last-ditch rally to beat Georgia Southern. And they needed a last-second field goal to beat Virginia Tech.

Are they lucky or good?

We may have an answer Saturday, when the Jackets face Miami in a crucial Coastal Division game. Their overall defensive performance to date may not inspire much confidence, but a big reason Georgia Tech has remained undefeated has been its ability to make game-changing plays.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Justin Thomas
Michael Shroyer/Getty ImagesCoach Paul Johnson, QB Justin Thomas and the Yellow Jackets have opened the season 4-0.
All seven Georgia Tech takeaways have resulted in points. In each of Georgia Tech’s last two games, the Jackets have gone on game-winning drives thanks to takeaways. Down 38-35 with Georgia Southern driving to the Jackets’ 24 in the closing minutes, Jamal Golden forced a fumble that KeShun Freeman recovered.

Quarterback Justin Thomas marched the Yellow Jackets 72 yards for the winning score, capping the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Deon Hill with 20 seconds remaining.

Then against Virginia Tech the following week, D.J. White got an interception with 1:58 to play, setting up Harrison Butker's 24-yard field goal to win.

“I think we've gotten better each week. I wouldn't sleep too much on Georgia Southern,” coach Paul Johnson said during the ACC coaches call last week. “They got a pretty good football team. We got off to a big lead, 35-10 at halftime. As a young team, we relaxed. They got the momentum and it was hard to get it back. To our credit, we found a way to get it back.

“We've got a young team. Hopefully they're going to get better each week. We're going to have to play better than we played.”

Doomsday scenarios and dark clouds seemed to hover around the program headed into the season, as Johnson had to deflect questions about fan discontent and his own future as head coach after four straight seasons with mediocre results.

Yet the Jackets have found ways to win. Sometimes, that means getting a little lucky.

Like all teams, they are a work in progress. Johnson wants to see more consistency, especially on defense. For all the big plays the Georgia Tech D has made, the Jackets rank No. 11 in scoring defense in the ACC, No. 14 in rush defense, No. 12 in total defense, last in sacks and No. 12 in opponents’ third down conversions.

They have fit the "bend-but-don’t-break" motto this season. As for the offense, Thomas has been an upgrade over Vad Lee. Thomas ranks No. 3 in the ACC in rushing, and Georgia Tech has gone from No. 9 in the ACC in pass efficiency to No. 2 because Thomas is better throwing the football.

His connection with DeAndre Smelter finally gives the Jackets the type of passing combination they need to keep defenses off balance. Still, improvements must be made there. Georgia Tech missed on several big pass plays against Virginia Tech and Thomas is completing just under 50 percent of his passes.

But there are plenty of reasons for encouragement. In addition to scoring off the takeaways, the Jackets have been able to hold onto the football. Georgia Tech only has four turnovers -- second fewest in the ACC. Last year, Georgia Tech turned the ball over 24 times.

And beating Virginia Tech was big, considering it ended a four-game losing streak in the series. So now that they have ended one losing streak, the Jackets have a chance to break a five-game skid against the Canes on Saturday. Johnson has never beaten Virginia Tech and Miami in the same season.

The last time Georgia Tech did that was 2006, the year they lost to Wake Forest in the ACC title game. There is little doubt, then, that a "prove it" moment awaits this weekend.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The physical difference is plain to see.

The height is the same, but Ezekiel Elliott is about 20 pounds lighter than the guy who came before him.

The unique mentality requires a bit more of an explanation.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott has proven to be a worthy heir to Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.
Ohio State's current starting running back is the first to admit he'd prefer to make tacklers miss and get to the perimeter, while his predecessor thrived on contact and seemed to go out of his way to bowl over defenders.

The offensive system isn't even exactly the same now, either, with the Buckeyes dialing up the tempo to unprecedented levels and rotating through their personnel at the skill positions instead of largely relying on two main guys to carry the load.

But for all the ways he might not fit the mold Carlos Hyde left behind, it looks clear that the two share at least one key trait after Elliott tallied 112 yards after contact last week in a performance that would have made his old mentor proud.

"Well, yeah, I'm not as big of a back as Carlos," Elliott said. "I can't take as many hits as him. He's more of a bruiser-type back, and I have a little more finesse to me.

"But just being a running back, you've got to be tough. You have to have some bruise to you."

Elliott might not pack quite the same punch, but Cincinnati certainly left Ohio Stadium black and blue last weekend after the sophomore relentlessly pounded away at its defense. He unofficially announced himself as a worthy heir to Hyde in the backfield.

He also showed the same ability to handle a healthy workload while appearing to gain strength as a game goes on. Elliott wore down the Bearcats with his 28 carries for 182 yards while adding 51 more on 5 catches. The record-setting outing with 45 first downs and 710 yards was sparked largely by Elliott and the rushing attack, a throwback to last season ago when Braxton Miller was teaming with Hyde and posting eye-popping statistics at nearly every turn.

That explosive dynamic was notably absent during the Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, with redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and Elliott struggling to make an impact. The defeat put Ohio State's playoff candidacy on the ropes quickly. Elliott finished with just 32 yards on 8 carries against the Hokies, and there certainly wasn't much happening after contact in that game.

But like seemingly everybody else on an inexperienced offense, the improvement every week has been pretty evident as Elliott grows more comfortable with his role and responsibilities. The Buckeyes figure to only grow more dangerous as a result.

"On Saturday, he did the job you would want a Carlos Hyde to do," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "But he's a different runner than Carlos. He's playing with very low pad level, he plays with great energy, he's explosive and he finishes runs with great pad level. He doesn't want to make direct contact. He wants to edge defenders, which always allows you to finish runs and come out the other end.

"He's developed, and here we go starting to show that on the field."

Against the Bearcats, Elliot left a lot of defenders having to pick themselves back up while he kept moving down the field.

That's been a familiar sight for Ohio State opponents over the last few seasons. While the guy doing it now has a different method, it's already shaping up to be just as effective.

"That's definitely one of our core values in the running back room," Elliott said. "Get those yards after contact, fight with that extra effort.

"You can't just be all outside, you know? You've got to have a downhill aspect to you."

After a bit of a slow start, Elliott has the ball rolling that way now and Ohio State is building momentum again in the process.

Commitment to Braxton Miller no surprise

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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There’ll be no quarterback controversy in Columbus next season.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer addressed reporters Monday and expressed his commitment to Braxton Miller, who still plans to return for a final season. So, no matter how well J.T. Barrett performs, Miller is the clear starter in 2015.

Is that a surprise? Not at all. It’s a no-brainer. Miller was on pace for an unprecedented third Big Ten offensive-player-of-the-year award. And, while Barrett has shown flashes this season, he still has a long way to go before fans start forgetting about the quarterback who twice finished within the top-10 of the Heisman voting.

If anything, it’s a smart move by Meyer to get out ahead of any foreseeable controversy. Barrett is progressing every week, and this pre-emptive statement should put to rest any future murmurs on the subject. The fact is, even at Barrett’s best, he’s still no Braxton Miller. And even he knows that.

“I’m not Braxton,” Barrett said matter-of-factly back in August. “I’m J.T.”

That being said, the redshirt freshman is still on pace for a solid season. He’s thrown for 1,087 yards -- along with 13 TDs to five INTs -- and only Illinois’ Wes Lunt and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg have passed for more yards per game. Sure, he’s padded his stats against some suspect defenses like Kent State. But he’s only going to get better.

As long as Miller remains a part of the Buckeyes, this will always will be his team. Meyer’s statement just reinforced that. Miller was always expected to be the starter next season. But, on the bright side, Barrett has shown he’ll make for one capable backup in 2015.

Why Ole Miss can upset Alabama 

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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Bo Wallace, Ole MissThomas Graning/AP ImagesBo Wallace's impressive QBR numbers suggest he could lead the Rebels to a win at home.
Ole Miss could be embarking on one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history.

The Rebels are 4-0 for the first time since 1970 and have a top-10 ranking in the Associated Press poll for only the second time in the past 44 years. To top it off, ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew is headed to the Grove for the first time in the pregame show’s history, as the Rebels host Alabama in one of the most important games ever played in Oxford.

Since Alabama has won the past five meetings between these teams by a combined score of 155-34, many may be writing this game off as one of those early season tests the Tide tends to pass with ease.

Anyone with that mindset would do well to reconsider.

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video 
Entering Week 6 of the college football season, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Georgia running back Todd Gurley have separated themselves as the front-runners for the Heisman. This week, Pac-12 reporter Chantel Jennings and SEC reporter Edward Aschoff engage in a friendly (-ish) debate regarding the two players:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesOregon QB Marcus Mariota is dangerous with his feet or his arm.
Jennings: Mariota is the best player in college football right now. The only thing that could derail that fact would be if his offensive line can’t keep it together and continues to put up performances like it did against Washington State, in which it allowed seven sacks. But when we come to the Mariota-Gurley Heisman talk, I’m really interested to see what your argument is, Edward. Mariota is a machine. As a quarterback, he has the highest passer efficiency rating in the nation. There are only 10 quarterbacks in the country who haven’t thrown a pick yet, and none of those signal-callers has thrown more than 10 touchdowns. Mariota has thrown 13. Then, look at his feet. He doesn’t even play running back but he still has about a third of Gurley’s rushing yardage and half the number of rushing touchdowns (Mariota: 214 yards, three touchdowns; Gurley: 610 yards, six touchdowns). Please, Ed, let’s hear your side ...

Aschoff: Listen, Mariota is a heck of a player. I think he's hands down the best quarterback in the country and should be the first quarterback taken in next year's NFL draft. With that said, he's no Gurley. He's a machine, yes, but he's more of a Prius compared to the Cadillac Escalade with a V-8 that Gurley is. The scary thing about Georgia's junior running back is that he's slimmed down yet he looks bigger. He's faster and more agile yet he's stronger. Gurley can bowl his opponents over, sprint to the outside and take a run to the house, or he can leave defenders dizzy with his elusiveness. Gurley has 610 rushing yards, but he should have even more. His coaches limited him to just six carries against Troy (73 yards), and the argument could be made that his 28 carries (career-high 208 yards) against Tennessee on Saturday weren't enough. Oh, and did I mention that this tank of a human being is averaging a gaudy 8.8 yards per carry and that out of his 69 carries this season he has just 11 lost yards? Take Gurley off Georgia's team and the Bulldogs aren't 1-1 in SEC play. You really think Mariota is better than that? He's flashier than that? Come on.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
David Goldman/AP ImagesGeorgia RB Todd Gurley has a rare blend of speed and power.
Jennings: First off, most people in the Pacific Northwest would rather be a Prius than an Escalade. Sure, an Escalade might look fancier and be in more music videos, but at the end of the day, don't you want the vehicle that doesn't require maintenance every other month? The vehicle that doesn't need to stop every 40 miles to fill up the tank? A vehicle that so many other vehicles of the future are going to be based on?

Anyway, back to the nitty-gritty, which is yes, when it comes to the facts, Mariota is better than that. His pass attempt-to-touchdown ratio is the best in the country: every 7.4 times the ball leaves his hands, it's ending up in the end zone. OK, fine. Gurley doesn't pass the ball. Let's talk about running again. Every 11.5 carries, Gurley ends up in the end zone. Guess what? Every 11 carries, Mariota finds his way there. He has the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the country. And he has already led his team to a victory over a top-10 team this season. Everyone can agree a Prius is more efficient than an Escalade, and in football, it's good to be efficient. That's exactly what Mariota is.

Aschoff: I see what you did there with the Prius and the Escalade. But if I need someone to bust through a brick wall and grind out that extra yard -- or three -- I'm handing it off to that environment-destroying driving machine. While we're talking about rushing, which is Gurley's specialty, he's already had 19 runs of 10 or more yards in just four games. If you're keeping score at home, that's 4.8 of those runs per game. Two of those runs went for 51 yards. What has Mariota done? He has 11 of those runs and hasn't even touched a 50-yard scamper yet. And it should be noted that Gurley is excellent when he takes contact. It seems to make him better. He drags defenders with him like Linus drags his blanket. Heading into last week, he was the only player in the country to average more than 100 yards after contact in multiple games (102 vs. Clemson and South Carolina). In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, Gurley was incredible against an improved Tennessee team. He ran for a career-high 208 yards (and now he has 16 career 100-yard rushing games), had two touchdowns, registered 30 receiving yards and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. How good was he? Well, Tennessee had so little confidence in its defense stopping him late in the game that it attempted an onside kick with two minutes left and three timeouts remaining in order to try to keep the ball away from him. All Gurley did after that was run the clock out with 26 rushing yards on six carries.

But hey, that Mariota performance over Washington State was cool and all ...

Jennings: You're right. I'll give you that. Washington State might not be better than a 2-2 Tennessee team that has already given up 4.4 yards per rush this season (cough, cough, No. 81 in the nation in that category). But it's not fair to look at the most recent performance since the slates are so different. Let's look at both players' best wins so far. Gurley's was against Clemson in the season opener, no? He carried the ball 15 times, scored thrice and accounted for 198 rushing yards and minus-5 receiving yards. That's cool. Mariota's best win was Week 2 against Michigan State, a game in which he threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns and added nine rushes for 42 yards. Michigan State is one of the best defenses in the country. Clemson isn't even one of the top three in the ACC. Now, I know I was an English major and all, but 360 yards of total offense plus three touchdowns is still bigger than 193 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, right?

Aschoff: That Michigan State (still the Big Ten, though) win was huge, and Mariota was great. I'll give that to you. And Clemson, well, #Clemsoning took over a couple of weeks ago. But don't sleep on what Gurley did against Tennessee and South Carolina. The numbers aren't exactly helping the Gamecocks, but that was a great game, and Gurley did everything he could have ... when his coach wasn't throwing the ball on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Gurley averaged 6.6 yards per carry in that game, on the road. Before Gurley faced Tennessee, the Vols were allowing 3.9 yards per carry. Then Gurley went all Gurley on the Vols.

Both of these players are great, and you have a chance to win any game with either. I want the bulldozer in the backfield who can grind out yards or take it to the house. The good thing is that this debate should rage on because they'll have plenty of opportunities to make us both look good going forward.

Campaign trail: UCLA Bruins

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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Which teams will make the College Football Playoff? Ultimately, the selection committee will decide. Until then, there will be a lot of campaigning. Each week we'll unveil what we think one team's campaign message should be. Take a look at past posters here.

After a week off following a too-close-for-comfort win against Texas (during which quarterback Brett Hundley was injured), UCLA silenced critics that questioned the team's strength with a conference road win at then-No. 15 Arizona State. Hundley and the Bruins looked like the top-10 team they were heading into the season, and the AP voters agreed. The Bruins jumped from No. 11 to No. 8 in the latest poll and can continue to climb with strong performances against Utah and Oregon in the coming weeks.

UCLAIllustration by Sam Ho
What a weekend ahead in the SEC. There are some premier games pitting ranked teams against each other and others featuring teams with plenty to prove in college football’s premier conference. In our SEC roundtable yesterday, we tackled games we’d pay to see.

Today, we pose the question: Which team has the most to prove Saturday? Our SEC writers take a swing at answering it.

Edward Aschoff: It has to be Florida. If the Gators are going to have any chance in the SEC East race, they have to win this weekend in Knoxville. Also, I think it’s pretty clear this is a must-win for coach Will Muschamp. Is this a team that can legitimately compete in the SEC? We didn’t see it two weeks ago against Alabama, and we honestly don’t know what to expect from the Gators this season. Can Jeff Driskel properly direct this offense? Can the secondary stop blowing assignments? Do the Gators have any mettle? We’ll find out Saturday.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/John BazemoreWith ESPN's "College GameDay" in Oxford, Mississippi, this weekend, Ole Miss certainly has the stage to prove itself against Alabama.
Alex Scarborough: Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M are all undefeated. They have something to prove, certainly, but they’re not staring down the barrel of a shotgun. That would be LSU. The Tigers have everything to prove. We’ll find out against Auburn whether LSU can get back on track or whether this is a rebuilding year. It certainly looked like the latter against Mississippi State. Anthony Jennings played so poorly against New Mexico State that he was replaced by Brandon Harris. Is he the answer? When will the Leonard Fournette we all expected show up? For that matter, when will that swarming, physical LSU defense return? Will the real LSU please stand up?

Jeff Barlis: It'd be easy to pick Ole Miss, but my gut says Mississippi State has more to prove. The Rebels have been a trendy pick as a team on the rise for a while now. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, didn't get voted into the Top 25 until they ended a 23-year losing streak to LSU in Baton Rouge. That was also MSU's first win against a ranked team in its past 16 tries. Expectations haven't been this high in Starkville in a long time. But in order to truly contend for the SEC West, the Bulldogs will have to knock off Texas A&M.

David Ching: There are two ways of looking at this one. On one hand, I want to go with Ole Miss because it’s in unfamiliar territory. The Rebels are rarely good enough for “GameDay” to consider visiting. They’re 2-7 against ranked opponents under Hugh Freeze. I think they’re a good team, but they must prove they’re legitimate. Beating Alabama would be a great start. On the other hand, LSU embarrassed itself against Mississippi State. The Tigers need to prove they’re worthy of a No. 15 ranking, not to mention consideration among the contenders in the West. They desperately need to beat Auburn.

Sam Khan: It’s definitely Ole Miss, for many of the reasons David stated. This is the Rebels’ moment: “College GameDay” in the Grove, Alabama coming to Vaught-Hemingway, a chance to finally prove they are ready to take the next step. The past season, when these teams met and many thought the Rebels would give Alabama trouble, they were shut out. If they’re truly going to contend in the SEC West, this is a game in which the Rebels have to thrive. Plus, this isn’t just about them; it’s also about the balance of power this year in the state of Mississippi. Over in Starkville, a rising rival, Mississippi State, is also undefeated and ranked, has a road win at LSU under its belt and will try to knock off No. 6 Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs can, the Rebels -- who seemed to have the momentum at this time a year ago -- have to keep up.

Greg Ostendorf: It feels like Texas A&M lost this past weekend. Despite a thrilling come-from-behind victory against an improved Arkansas team, everybody is all of a sudden counting the Aggies out. They dropped to No. 3 in this week’s power rankings. They’re underdogs against Mississippi State. Did we all forget how good they looked in the season opener? The past year’s Auburn team didn’t exactly blow out every opponent, and yet they won the conference. I think it’s important for Texas A&M to get back on track this week and play like the team we saw earlier in the season, the team everybody had as a shoo-in for the playoff.

FPI risers and fallers since preseason

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After five weeks there is enough information to dive deeper into which teams have exceeded expectations and which have failed to live up to them.

Football Power Index’s preseason rankings accounted for past performance, returning starters (looks at quarterbacks separately), coaching tenure and recruiting rankings.

Biggest Surprises
Below are the top five risers in FPI rank since the preseason.

We have limited the list below to Power Five teams, but it should be noted Georgia Southern from the Sun Belt had the biggest rise, 53 spots to 71st since the preseason.

• Arkansas has climbed into the FPI top 20 after beginning the season ranked 50th. The Razorbacks are adding 16 expected points per game to their scoring margin on rushing plays, the most of any team in the FBS.

• After losing its final eight games of the 2013 season, NC State began the year 4-0 before losing to Florida State 56-41 on Saturday. The Wolfpack were in control of that game against FSU with an average in-game win probability of 56 percent throughout.

• West Virginia is 2-2 but has played the fourth-hardest schedule in the FBS, including close games against Alabama and Oklahoma. Led by Clint Trickett’s 16th-ranked Total QBR, West Virginia ranks 11th in offensive efficiency after ranking 88th last year.

• Boston College has had an up-and-down year, but its win against USC was the second-most “unlikely” win of the season by an FBS team against another FBS team based on FPI’s pregame predicted win percentage (behind Akron’s win at Pittsburgh). That win caused the Eagles to rise significantly in FPI.

• After losing Johnny Manziel and five other offensive starters, Texas A&M was expected to take a step back offensively. The Aggies rank second in offensive efficiency, and Kenny Hill has the fourth-best Total QBR in the nation. The defense has also improved, resulting in a 5-0 start and the second-best FPI in the nation.

Biggest Disappointments
Below are top five fallers in FPI rank among Power Five teams since our preseason rankings.

• North Carolina was one of the youngest teams in the nation last year, and FPI thought that youth would mature this season. The Tar Heels began the season with the second-best chance to win the ACC behind Florida State, but after an unimpressive start, they now have the 10th-best chance to win the conference.

• We began the season high on Michigan because the Wolverines returned 15 starters (including its QB), brought back its coach and had a top 25 average recruiting ranking in the past four years. The Wolverines have the worst turnover margin in the nation (-12), rank 90th in offensive efficiency and have fallen out of the FPI top 50 after its loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

• Texas Tech has the worst defensive efficiency rating of any Power Five school. The Red Raiders are currently projected to win 4.8 games this season, which is 2.6 less than their preseason projections.

• Despite a 4-1 record, Iowa has struggled to dominate its lesser opponents. The Hawkeyes have played three FBS teams currently ranked outside of the top 75 of FPI and an FCS team. They went 3-1 in those games with an average scoring margin of 5.8 points per game. Iowa’s chance of winning the Big Ten has fallen from 8.4 percent in the preseason (5th in Big Ten) to 0.7 percent (9th in Big Ten).

• Vanderbilt finished 9-4 last season but had to replace its quarterback, 11 other starters and its coach. The Commodores’ biggest issues have been on offense, where they rank 123rd in efficiency and have the most turnovers (14) in the nation.

SEC West: Matchups to watch

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper will match up against a stingy Ole Miss pass defense.
The SEC West has been dominant in the first month of the season. Consider these stats:
  • The SEC West is 25-0 against teams not in the SEC West and has won those games by an average of 34.1 points.
  • Six of the top 15 teams in The Associated Press poll hail from the SEC West -- more than the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC have in the top 15 combined.
  • All seven teams from the SEC West rank in the top 20 of the Football Power Index, including the top three teams in the rankings: Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn.
  • The SEC West has five undefeated teams, which is two more than any other conference in the FBS (the Pac-12 and Big 12 each has three).

Given the quality of the division, it’s no surprise that six of the 10 toughest remaining schedules belong to teams in the SEC West.

This week will be the first real conference test for many of the SEC West’s top teams. Three of the weekend's best games (and perhaps the three best, period) -- Alabama at Ole Miss, Texas A&M at Mississippi State and LSU at Auburn -- all involve SEC West teams. Below is one matchup to watch in each of these games.

Alabama at Ole Miss
Matchup to Watch: WR Amari Cooper vs. Ole Miss pass defense
Amari Cooper is averaging an FBS-high 163.8 receiving yards per game and has the longest active streak of 100-yard receiving games in the nation (six). Ole Miss, on the other hand, is allowing 133.5 passing yards per game and has not allowed a receiver to crack the 100-yard mark this season.

Cooper has accounted for 49 percent of Alabama’s receiving yards and has 41 more targets than any other Alabama receiver. He has more yards after the catch (320) and more receptions of 20 yards or longer (10) than Ole Miss has allowed this year.

The Rebels must limit Cooper downfield, after the catch and on third down. QB Blake Sims is 9-of-10 with seven first downs when targeting Cooper on third down, which is a big reason Sims leads the nation in third-down QBR.

Ole Miss leads the SEC in most major passing categories on defense and has eight more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed, the highest margin in the country. To continue this success, the Rebels must contain Cooper, who statistically has been the best wide receiver in the nation this season.

Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Matchup to Watch: Texas A&M receivers vs. Mississippi State secondary
Texas A&M is averaging more than 400 passing yards per game and has an FBS-high 27 completions of 20 yards or longer this season. It will face a Mississippi State defense that has allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC and has had trouble stopping big passing plays.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs will need to limit Texas A&M's receivers after the catch. The Aggies have 340 more yards after the catch than any other SEC team and are averaging 8 yards after the catch per reception (fourth in SEC).

Determining which receiver to try to shut down may be a challenge. The Aggies have seven receivers with at least 100 receiving yards this season (tied for second-most in the FBS) and have an FBS-high nine players with a receiving touchdown.

LSU at Auburn
Matchup to Watch: Auburn’s run game vs. LSU run defense
Since Gus Malzahn took over as coach, Auburn has run on 69 percent of its plays and ranks third in the FBS in rushing yards per game, behind two triple-option offenses. Auburn is 13-0 in the last two seasons when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-2 when it does not.

One of those losses came at LSU last season, when Auburn was limited to 213 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per rush. LSU forced Auburn to pass on 40 percent of its plays, Auburn’s second-highest percentage in a game last season.

Without DT Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, however, LSU has not had the same rushing defense as the one the slowed Auburn in 2013. LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards. LSU did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in the nation to opposing quarterbacks, which is not a good sign considering Auburn's Nick Marshall ranks third among active quarterbacks with 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season. Nonetheless, if LSU can follow the blueprint that it set in 2013 -- and that Kansas State followed in 2014 -- by limiting Auburn’s run game and forcing Marshall to pass, it might hand Auburn its first loss of the season for a second straight year.

Week 6 playoff implications

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
9:30
AM ET
Claim your spot on the couch now. Reserve your table at your favorite sports bar. Buy another TV. Do whatever you gotta do to make sure you don't miss a snap Saturday because this is going to be a good one.

College football has been a well-kept secret so far, as it has been hiding the true identities of teams. Not this week. It's time to play or go home. There are six games between ranked teams. Of the 17 undefeated teams remaining, eight play against each other this week. It's the most relevant weekend the sport has had in regard to the new College Football Playoff.

Here are the games you can't miss, ranked from least to most likely to affect the playoff:

No. 14 Stanford at No. 9 Notre Dame -- Stanford already has one loss, and this is the second straight road trip for the Cardinal. If Stanford loses again, its playoff hopes will be in serious jeopardy but not over, given that it could still win the conference. This game should reveal more about Notre Dame's place in the playoff, as it will be the first ranked opponent for the Irish.

No. 4 Oklahoma at No. 25 TCU -- ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oklahoma a 64 percent chance to win and predicts this to be Oklahoma's hardest remaining game -- slightly more difficult than Nov. 8 against Baylor. If the Sooners can't handle TCU, they'll be on the outside looking in.

No. 15 LSU at No. 5 Auburn -- LSU gave Auburn its only regular-season loss the past year, but LSU has already lost to Mississippi State, which put the Tigers behind in the SEC West race. Considering the rest of LSU's schedule -- and the hole it's already in -- this is a must-win. For Auburn, this is a chance to erase some doubts and make a push from the bubble into the top four.

No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 12 Mississippi State -- Two terrific quarterbacks will be on display in the Aggies' Kenny Hill and the Bulldogs' Dak Prescott, who both rank in the top 10 in total QBR. A&M's stock dropped a bit this past week after it needed overtime to beat Arkansas, but it could be a top-four team if it can survive the state of Mississippi the next two weeks.

No. 3 Alabama at No. 11 Ole Miss -- This is the most interesting matchup of the day. Alabama ranks third in offensive efficiency, and Ole Miss ranks second in defensive efficiency. Neither team has played a ranked opponent, so there is still some margin for error, but the Tide have a chance to separate from the crowded West.

No. 19 Nebraska at No. 10 Michigan State -- Surprise. The game with the biggest playoff implications is not in the SEC West. This Big Ten matchup could knock Sparty out of the playoff entirely. It's one thing to lose to Oregon; it's another to try to make the four-team playoff with two losses and your best win coming over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Conversely, a win in East Lansing could vault the Huskers into the playoff conversation. They're the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten, and the toughest game left on their schedule is against No. 17 Wisconsin. If Nebraska pulls off the upset, it's time to take it seriously as a playoff team.

Planning for success: Tennessee

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
9:00
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ESPN’s Paul Finebaum nailed it in 140 characters or less when he tweeted compliments to Tennessee for its moral victories against Oklahoma and Georgia, but added that his alma mater’s football team now must justify the hype building in Knoxville.

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That starts with a win Saturday against Florida (2-1, 1-1 SEC) -- a program that has defeated the Volunteers (2-2, 0-1) nine straight years and in 17 out of the past 21 meetings.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones wouldn’t categorize those two road losses -- 34-10 at No. 4 Oklahoma and 35-32 this past weekend against No. 13 Georgia -- as moral victories. Not publicly anyway. That is what a loser would do, and he clearly doesn’t think that way.

"Every individual in this organization believed that we were going to win," Jones said after the Georgia game. "I am proud of them, but we have to continue to learn from this and then move on. We are going to be a good football team and we are going to win a lot of football games."

As of now, Jones’ record at Tennessee might show that he is a loser (the Vols are 7-9 overall and 2-7 in SEC play since he arrived last season), but nobody who has watched Jones’ young team play would expect that trend to continue for long. Despite playing 22 true freshmen, the most of any FBS program in 2014, Tennessee hung with Oklahoma for most of that game and very easily could have defeated Georgia on Saturday. Considering how well Jones’ staff has recruited lately, the Vols look like a sure bet to rank among the favorites in the SEC East in the near future.

Heck, they might even contend this season, but it has to start with a win against the Gators on Saturday. Will Muschamp’s Florida team spent an entire offseason stewing over a humiliating 4-8 record last fall, and things don’t seem much more pleasant right now after Alabama dominated the Gators prior to last Saturday’s open date.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsA victory against rival Florida would be an important step for QB Justin Worley and the young Volunteers.
The Gators are ripe for the picking, and Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium provides a tremendous opportunity for Jones’ program to end its losing streak in what once ranked among the SEC’s top rivalry games. It is relegated to a noon time slot this season while SEC West showdowns dominate the headlines, which indicates one thing: neither program is winning consistently enough.

Jones used last season’s 23-21 upset of South Carolina as evidence that things were moving in the right direction in his first season in Knoxville. That is his only win in nine tries against ranked Tennessee opponents, however. Eventually, showing progress -- but still losing -- against rivals or ranked opponents gets old. That is why Jones’ club needs to end its slide against Florida now, just as Finebaum noted.

Justin Worley has performed well at quarterback and delivered a memorable performance during a comeback effort against Georgia after leaving the game with an elbow injury. Jalen Hurd is a future superstar at tailback. The Vols’ receiving corps is loaded with size and talent.

The offensive and defensive lines face steep experience gaps against most opponents, but their on-the-job training will eventually pay off. And the Vols actually rank first nationally in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 20.8 percent of the time.

There is a lot to like about what is happening at Tennessee, especially if the Vols reach the postseason for the first time since 2010. However, playing in a bowl game becomes a much greater challenge if the Vols fall to 2-3 on Saturday. They still must play Alabama and Ole Miss from the SEC West, along with remaining division games against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. The only non-division gimme left on the schedule is an Oct. 11 date with Chattanooga.

In other words, now is the time, Vols, if you want to show that the "Brick by Brick" stuff that Jones preaches is actually leading toward something meaningful.

This is a beatable Florida team. Tennessee fans could make a reasonable argument that their team is playing better football this season, and this is the Vols’ chance to prove it. Another moral victory won’t be enough this Saturday.

On The Trail Live (noon ET)

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
8:30
AM ET
Join ESPN RecruitingNation's panel of extras as we look ahead to a huge weekend in recruiting.

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