The non-conference schedule is nearly complete. There are still a few games out there yet be played, but for the most part, the conference schedule begins in full this weekend. What have we learned after four weeks? Who’s looking better, worse, or about the same?
After four weeks, they definitely look like the team to beat in North, as was expected. After the showing against South Dakota State this past weekend, however, expectations have been tempered slightly. Just as everyone probably overacted after the Washington win, people could be reading more into the lackluster showing against SDSU than they should. It’s one game. Looking at the whole body of work through four games, Nebraska is the team to beat in the north.
Digging a little deeper, the run defense has looked susceptible at times, and the offense continues to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. I’m not so worried about the defense as much as the turnovers. Putting the ball on the turf will cost them a game or two when the competition stiffens up in the Big 12 if they don’t get it cleaned up. If SDSU can frustrate Martinez, you can only imagine Big 12 teams are going to try and do the same. How will he respond? How will the Husker offense adjust when opponents try and take Martinez out of the game as the Jackrabbits did? Both are questions to keep an eye on over the next couple weeks.
Defensively, the Huskers are still looking for more consistent play out of their linebackers. Everyone talks about the loss of Ndamukong Suh, which is obviously a big one, but the loss of Phillip Dillard at linebacker also left a big hole to fill. Losing Sean Fisher and Will Compton to injuries didn’t help the situation, either. LaVonte David and Eric Martin are no slouches but any stretch, but like Martinez, are in their first year and still learning the ropes. As they continue to gain experience, expect the already tough Blackshirts to continue to improve. The group will also be helped by the return of Compton at some point over the next several weeks.
What we didn’t know, but know now: Heading into the season, it was only a possibility that Taylor Martinez would be the starting quarterback. Many figured, myself included, that Zac Lee would be the starter and they would build off the experience he gained under center a year ago. The coaching staff pulled the trigger on the redshirt freshman and the new running attack, however, and it has paid big dividends after four games. As we saw against South Dakota State, Martinez is still only a freshman and the Huskers will have to be prepared to take all the good, with some of the bad, that comes with a first year signal caller getting his first taste of major college football.
The Tigers, as expected, made it through the non-conference portion of the schedule with a perfect record. It wasn’t with a speed bump, however. They needed a 68 yard touchdown pass in the final minute to come from behind to beat San Diego State. Of the six teams in the north, I still feel like I know the least about Missouri. They beat a decent Illinois team to open the season, but have since played three teams that make it hard to gauge what to expect from Mizzou once Big 12 plays begins.
Blaine Gabbert has been solid. The receivers have been helped by the emergence of T. J. Moe and tight end Michael Agnew. And the defense is still a question mark in my book. Their All-American candidate at defensive end, Aldon Smith, has been sidelined with a broken bone in his leg but is expected to return. They gave up 200 yards on the ground to Illinois and another 250 yards against SDSU. The Aztecs also passed for 190 while Miami picked up 246 through the air, as well. The stats may not mean much by themselves, but overall it shows the Missouri defense has some holes in it after four games.
What we didn’t know, but know now: One of the positives we kept hearing out of fall camp was the development of running back Derrick Washington. Washington was supposed to provide a boost to the running game that has often been missing from many of Gary Pinkel’s teams. Well, we never got to see Washington in action after he was dismissed from the team following a few significant run-ins with the law.
The Tigers have used a running back by committee approach in replacing Washington and the emergence of freshman Henry Josey has helped. But outside of the 245 rushing yards against an overmatched Miami squad, the ground game hasn’t been much more than window dressing so far this season. Missouri is going to run into a few pretty decent defenses in the Big 12, and I can’t help but think the lack of a running game is going to come back to bite the Tigers.
As I mentioned earlier, Missouri is still a hard team to gauge. All told though, I’d still say the Missouri is the second best team in the north, but Kansas State is nipping at their heels.
Kansas State (4-0, 1-0 in the Big 12)
Bill Snyder continues to find a way to win ballgames in his return to Manhattan. The Wildcats are in great position to qualify for a bowl game in only the second year following the Ron Prince disaster. I had them pegged at 3-1 at this point with a loss to UCLA (that same Bruin team that just knocked off Texas) but Daniel Thomas single handedly took care of the Bruins. It isn’t always a thing a beauty with K-State, but so far, they find a way to score more than their opponents which is really the only stat that matters.
The offense is centered solely around the running of Thomas and after four games, he’s been nothing short of spectacular. He’s averaging 157 yards per game heading into the off week prior to their showdown with Nebraska.
Defensively, they have given up some yards, but are only allowing 19.75 points per game. They’ll need to improve their run defense which has given up 195 yards a game, but as long as they continue to keep opponents out of the end zone, they should be in most of the games on the schedule.
Kansas State won’t always be the most talented team on the field, but they’re a team that will put a scare into anyone they play. I had them pegged third in the north , and I’ll leave them there for now, but I’m more optimistic than I was at the beginning of the season. Without pulling a big upset, it wouldn’t be hard to see K-State picking up at least four more wins the rest of the way (they still have N. Texas in the non-conference).
What we didn’t know, but know now: The one thing we knew was Daniel Thomas would be a force. What we didn’t know was where the rest of the offense would come from. We still might not know, but quarterback Carson Coffman has made nice strides through four games. He hasn’t been asked to do a lot yet, but when called on against Central Florida he came up with a couple big plays on the final drive, including his seven yard touchdown run with 24 seconds remaining. When Thomas is shut down, KSU has to move the ball somehow and will need to count on Coffman to get the ball to some talented receivers. It started on Saturday and the Wildcats hope to see more of the same the rest of the way.
The Buffaloes are the only team in the north to have played only three games and currently sit 2-1. That looks good on paper, but the one loss was a 52-7 shellacking at Cal and left many believing the final nail was all but in Dan Hawkin’s coffin at Colorado. Maybe it is, but I think the Buffs have shown just enough (barely) to keep the door slightly ajar for a few more weeks. It won’t get any easier on Saturday as Georgia travels to Boulder and should give us a better idea where the Buffs sit at the moment.
Colorado may have found something against Hawaii. They trailed the Warrior, 10-0 at the half, and it looked like the wheels had officially and completely fallen off. The turned to the running game, however, and scored 31 second half points in the 31-17 victory. They had two backs go over 100 yards for the game and if they can keep it going, it will help take some of the pressure off quarterback Tyler Hansen.
Even with the 2-1 record, the Buffs are on thin ice and it likely wouldn’t take much to completely derail them. I’ll wait a couple more weeks before making a total judgment, but based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s going to be an uphill battle. They have some above average talent, but for whatever reason, just can’t put it together with any type of consistency.
What we didn’t know, but know now: What we didn’t know, and really still don’t know, is how the offensive line has improved. Better times were supposed to be ahead with the Buffs having two lineman on the preseason All-Big 12 team, but those thoughts went by the wayside after Colorado gave up six sacks in the Cal game. Hawkins continues to adjust up front and hopes he might have found the right combination after the good showing against Hawaii. They’ll continue to be tested going forward, and whatever success the Buffs have the rest of the season, will in large part hinge on the performance of the group up front.
Many had the Jayhawks at 2-2 after four weeks, but no one had them losing to North Dakota State and then beating the defending ACC champions, Georgia Tech, in getting there. It’s been a wild ride so far if you’re a Jayhawk fan.
Kansas was hit hard by injuries in preseason camp and into the fall. They’ve had to adjust and still remain a team completely lacking in depth. But give Turner Gill some credit. They have plugged the holes the best they can and the team has stayed together following the potentially disastrous loss to NDSU in the opener.
Considering the injury situation at linebacker, the defense has been relatively stable. This isn’t a unit that is going to shut down most teams in the conference, but Carl Torbush has done a decent job with the pieces has to work with.
Offensively, Kansas seems to have found the answer for a much needed ground attack in freshman James Sims. He leads the team in rushing with 290 yards in three games and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Sims, teamed with redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Webb, have provided a spark following the loss to NDSU. Balance is what Gill is seeking on offense and with both of these freshman, KU seems to have found it.
I had Kansas pegged at 2-6 in the Big 12 (tied for fourth with Colorado) and this still seems like a reasonable number. The Jayhawks are really a team that could go either way. Three or four conference wins isn’t completely out of the question, but with the lack of depth, and the rigors of Big 12 play upon them, I still think two, maybe three wins is where the Jayhawks will finish. Combine that with their two non-conference wins and a bowl trip doesn’t seem likely, but crazier things have happened. They beat Georgia Tech which means they’re capable if the ball bounces their way a few more times than not.
What we didn’t know, but know now: This is really two-fold. Two weeks before the season, Gill announced that sophomore Kale Pick would be the starting quarterback. That lasted all of one game. Gill switched to Webb after the disappointing start by the offense. The switch seemed to provide the spark they were looking for as the offense has improved dramatically since then. They had some struggles on the road against Southern Miss, but the offense was back on track with over 500 yards the next week against New Mexico State.
We also had no idea James Sims would emerge as the go-to guy in the backfield. Heck, I thought last year’s leading rusher, Toben Opurum, would be the guy again, but Gill squashed those thoughts when he moved Opurum to linebacker. Angus Quigley was next in line, but he didn’t seem to be the answer either. In steps Sims, and off goes the KU offense. Together, Sims and Webb could be a duo that will give defensive coordinators a few headaches before their careers are over.
Iowa State (2-2)
The Cyclones have been about what most expected so far, if not a little bit better. They opened with a nice win against Northern Illinois but then were clubbed by Iowa the following week. They took Kansas State to the wire in their Big 12 opener, which was a big loss for the Cyclones who are trying to go bowling for the second straight year under head coach Paul Rhoads.
Quarterback Austen Arnaud has been very good at times, but still struggles with consistency as he has for most of his career at Iowa State. He’s thrown five interceptions to two touchdowns while completing 58% of his passes. Running back Alexander Robinson’s numbers have been down slightly averaging 75 yards per game, but he’s still averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
The Cyclone defense has been surprisingly better than most expected thus far. They had a lot to replace including All-Big 12 linebacker Jesse Smith, but A.J. Klein and Jake Knott have done an outstanding job for the ISU defense. They are giving up over 200 yards on the ground but have also faced two of the better running games you’ll see in Iowa and Kansas State.
I had predicted the Cyclones to finish 1-7 in the Big 12 and it’s hard at this point to vary much from that number. As has been well documented, Iowa State faces a killer schedule this year. Utah, Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Nebraska still remain on the schedule. They pulled off the upset over Nebraska last year so it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities for it to happen again, but it will be an uphill battle any way you slice it. Rhoads has done an outstanding job in his second year in Ames, but the Cyclone talent level is still not what they’ll see on a weekly basis through most of the conference schedule. If they beat Kansas and Colorado, they’ll need two beat two of the teams mentioned above to get to the necessary six wins for bowl eligibility. In any case, the record this year is unlikely to reflect the improvements ISU had made under Rhoads.
What we didn’t know, but know now: I mentioned it earlier, but the Cyclones needed to replace eight starters on defense, including Smith who led the league in tackles in 2009. They have found two pretty good replacements in Klein and Knott. The duo leads the team in tackles and have made a questionable front seven a solid unit, in front of what was already a pretty good secondary. Neither Klein or Knott had started a game prior to this season.
So there you have it. About what we expected, really. Nebraska is good, Missouri is about what was expected - although unproven yet - and Kansas State isn't to be taken lightly, Colorado, Kansas, and Iowa State have had their ups-and-downs, but will have their hands full dealing with the other three in the north, not to mention their counterparts down south. What I'm saying is, hold on for the ride, the season is really just beginning.