Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Wilson, Badgers legit, but can they handle SEC?


The clever folks in the Wisconsin sports information department picked a very good time to launch Russell Wilson's official Heisman Trophy campaign/Twitter feed, just a few hours after the Badgers finished hammering No. 8 Nebraska 48-17 on a national TV.

The name fits perfectly: @RussellManiaXVI

That's what is gripping Wisconsin, the Big Ten and many parts of the national media: Russell Mania. And it's a cool story. The N.C. State transfer, whose slick running style adds a dimension the Badgers offense has never had, looks like he has transformed Wisconsin into a legit BCS title contender. Wilson, who came to Madison sporting a 3-1 touchdown-interception ratio after three seasons as a starter in the ACC, makes a biting play-action game, fueled by a punishing running attack, only that much more potent. He is a whiz in the red zone and on the third downs, the two areas that often separate "good" offenses from "great" ones. He is -- in a word that makes every college offensive coach's eyes light up -- efficient. Wilson also has a touching personal story that no doubt many fans and the media will connect with, and that too figures to boost his Heisman stock.

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It's all great stuff. Wilson more than passed his first big test in Madison. OK, make that second big test. (The first one was joining a team right before camp and not only learning the system, but winning over a team full of strangers.)

After Wisconsin, the Huskers appeared to be the next best team in the conference, a bruising bunch in many ways quite similar to the Badgers, right down to the uniforms and color schemes. Nebraska's defense wasn't lacking for star power either, with big-play 'backer Lavonte David and rugged D-lineman Jared Crick. Their schemes, drawn up by the Pelini brothers, also are well-regarded within coaching circles, but Saturday night in Madison, Wilson shredded them. The QB, who had never completed better than 59 percent of his passes at N.C. State -- where he never had a supporting case like this -- came into the game connecting on 76 percent of his throws, carved up the Huskers right from the start, going 12 of 16 for 233 yards and two TDs. He was adept at keeping plays alive and putting the Huskers back on their heels. He also had no trouble taking advantage when his receivers kept getting behind the NU defense. Making the most of the opportunities when they come up is vital to playing championship football.

He finished 6 for 6 on third downs, and he made good on another third down, when he picked up 16 yards on a third-and-5. For the night Wisconsin was eight for 12 on third downs, improving to better than 62 percent to lead the country in that department. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said he was "embarrassed" by his team's performance.

The Badgers D was almost as impressive when you consider they were without three starters: CB Devin Smith, strong safety Shelton Johnson and DE David Gilbert, the team's top pass-rusher. Then, Wisconsin lost Dezmen Southward, the guy filling in for Johnson, late in the first half. No matter. The Badgers still rattled Taylor Martinez, who couldn't solve the Badgers coverages or find open receivers. Junior linebacker Mike Taylor seemed to be everywhere, piling up 14 tackles to go with one of three interceptions of Martinez.

So we now know that Wisconsin is indeed very good, but just how good is that really? Probably good enough to win the Big Ten and run the table, although Michigan State's defense again looked formidable Saturday, shutting down a shaky Ohio State team. (Wisconsin also does have to go play at MSU on Oct. 22, the week before the Badgers visit Columbus.) Big Ten teams have had a woeful record against teams from other powerhouse leagues, particularly against the SEC. They no longer get the benefit of the doubt. Not after the past decade or so, and certainly not after what the SEC has done the past five years.

I'll admit I couldn't help but wonder just how well Wilson and the Badgers would do if they were facing the LSU or Alabama D. The comparisons to another one-year transfer QB sensation who carried a good team to greatness have already been broached, but Wilson isn't the freak talent Cam Newton was. That doesn't mean he can't lead the Badgers to a national title. We'll see. At this point, we don't know enough about Wisconsin to call them a great team yet.

But this RussellMania stuff will be interesting, and it'll feel like a steel-cage match if Wilson and his team are fortunate enough to get to face the SEC champ in the BCS title game.

Alabama, which has higher hurdles left ahead than the Badgers, made just as strong of a statement as Wisconsin on Saturday night. The Crimson Tide rolled into the Swamp against No. 12 Florida and brutalized the Gators, knocking QB John Brantley out of the game and short-circuiting a dynamic running game. Florida came into the game averaging nine runs of 10 yards or more. Against Bama, the Gators managed one -- on a 31-yard scramble by backup QB Jeff Driskel. Most impressive, they limited UF speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to just 8 yards on 14 carries.

Offensively, Trent Richardson pounded away at the Gators, running for a career-high 181 yards, and barreled his way into the Heisman discussion. Behind a superb O-line, the Tide converted on 7 of 13 third-down attempts against a UF defense that entered the game No. 1 in the nation in third-down stops at 21 percent (11 for 52). All head-nodding stuff. Yes, there is still going to be some skepticism with QB A.J. McCarron, but Nick Saban doesn't need him to be Russell Wilson. With the cast around him, he may not even need him to be Scott Tolzien.

The footprint Nick Saban has put on SEC territory may be best summed by up this: Three years ago, the Gators were the standard-bearer of the SEC, and since then, 'Bama has outscored Florida 101-29 in the past three meetings.

Random Stuff

 I am stunned by what Clemson has been able to do the past three weeks. First, the Tigers rally from a deep hole to end Auburn's long winning streak. Then, the Tigers prove they can handle success but taking down FSU. But what they were able to do Saturday on the road in a very hostile environment such as Lane Stadium was really something. It doesn't look like the same old Clemson that has to have been so frustrating for its fans. This is a program that had lost four of its previous five ACC road trips, and playing at Virginia Tech is as rough as any of them. Tajh Boyd wasn't sharp, but his defense was, holding Tech to without a TD at home for the first time in 16 years. D-lineman Andre Brance, a Virginia native, was a monster, notching 11 tackles, five TFLs and three sacks for Clemson.

Dabo Swinney's team can catch its breath now for a bit, but they still have a couple of tests ahead this month, with a visit from UNC and a trip to Atlanta to face hot Georgia Tech.

 Bill Snyder has never been a media darling, but you have to be wowed by what he has done at Kansas State. The turnaround job he did with a hapless program 20 years ago is one of the great coaching efforts in college football history. And now what he has been able to do since returning to the job has been quite a feat too. The Wildcats are 4-0 after knocking off No. 15 Baylor and winning at Miami last week. It's a team without stars, although one-time five-star recruit Arthur Brown, the Miami transfer, is blossoming fast. It was Brown who made the interception on Robert Griffin's first INT of the season and it was Brown who was chasing down Bears sideline to sideline as part of an eight-tackle, 1.5-sack day. My hunch is KSU doesn't have enough on offense and is still probably looking at 8-4, but if it can get the passing game going a little bit, the Wildcats could be a problem for some of the top teams in the Big 12 down the stretch.

 As great as the SEC West is, the SEC East is a mess.

South Carolina, which seemed to be the best team, looked very ordinary against a young, shaky Auburn defense. The Gamecocks, whose QB issues were the reason I wasn't picking them to come out of the East this summer, managed to convert on just 2 of 10 third-down tries. Stephen Garcia has now thrown six INTs in the past two games.

Florida got mauled by Alabama and might've lost QB John Brantley for more games, which is a scary thought considering they have to go to LSU next and then visit Auburn.

Tennessee hasn't beaten anyone of note in two years and is without its most dangerous offensive player (Justin Hunter) for the rest of the season.

The best bet: Georgia, the team that started out 0-2 and is riding freshman star Isaiah Crowell.

 I figured after last week's disastrous second half, Texas A&M would rebound well against an Arkansas team that got pounded by Alabama. It looked like that was happening. .. for the first 30 minutes, where the Aggies ran all over the Hogs. A&M had 26 rushes in the first half for 225 yards, with 16 of those carries going for at least 5 yards or a TD. That's an amazing percentage of, um, gashing.

Hogs QB Tyler Wilson and WR Jarius Wright seemed to be the only ones who showed up for Arkansas. Wright actually accounted for an unreal 80 percent of its 284 yards of total offense. But the Razorbacks staff tweaked their defense at halftime, going to a different front they hadn't shown in a while, and it got A&M off-balance, holding them to three points in the second half as the Aggies looked like a team playing not to squander another big lead.

This will be a tough week for coach Mike Sherman, who at a key moment in the third quarter on a fourth-and-2 inside Arkansas territory, opted to punt rather than rely on a ground attack that had been running all over the Hogs, who were without two of their best D-linemen. A&M imploded from that point on. The Aggies have now allowed 52 points in the second half of their past two games.

The Razorbacks, who only had one play of 20 yards or more last week against Alabama, had nine against A&M.

 The Honey Badger, aka Tyrann Mathieu, struck again Saturday. The undersized CB/Sam linebacker, who makes big plays at an unbelievable rate, forced two more fumbles, giving him an LSU record nine for his career in just 18 games. His first forced fumble Saturday came after he blitzed and swatted the ball free, scooped it up and ran it back for a touchdown. I can't recall a defender in college that size with such instincts surrounded by such talent that enables him to shine the way he is now. There have a been a few guys who have elements -- Zeke Gadson, Rohan Marley, Bob Sanders came to mind -- but none quite like him.

 My latest Heisman top five: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Trent Richardson, Kellen Moore, Tyrann Mathieu. I know lots of folks didn't stay up late to watch Luck play Saturday night, but he was usual outstanding self picking apart a defense, in this case UCLA's. Luck also delivered his Heisman moment thus far: a sweet, diving one-hand grab along the sidelines that came on the back end of a trick play. Luck proved he's just one of many tight end-sized guys with great hands that Jim Harbaugh recruited to Stanford. Luck threw two more TD passes to tight ends Sunday; eight of his 11 touchdowns this year have been to TEs.

Coach David Shaw told Jon Wilner after the game: "[Luck] could play about five positions: Receiver, tight end, outside linebacker ..."

I suspect safety and obviously quarterback would be the other two.

Even more impressively, according to Jon Wilner, for parts of five possessions, Luck called his own plays out of the no-huddle offense, which is something you almost never hear of with a college QB. Two of the no-huddle drives orchestrated by Luck resulted in touchdowns.

 There are a bunch of great receivers in the Big 12. Each Oklahoma program has a stud, as does Baylor and A&M. Texas doesn't have that kind of weapon outside, but young Jaxon Shipley is rapidly emerging. He had six grabs for 141 yards in the 37-14 rout of Iowa State, including an acrobatic grab away from a defender.

 June Jones' SMU beat TCU 40-33 in OT to end the Horned Frogs' 22-game home winning streak. The victory was just the Mustangs second over a ranked opponent since returning from the death penalty in 1989. One-time New Mexico State QB J.J. McDermott was the latest to exploit a very suspect TCU secondary. McDermott threw four TD passes, two of more than 20 yards. That means TCU has now given up 10 TD passes of at least 20 this season, twice what the Horned Frogs had allowed in all of last season.

 Michigan, which surrendered 25 points per game when it was 5-0 last year, has only given up 51 points in its first five games of 2011. Greg Mattison's D has only allowed 10 points in the past three games.

 Overshadowed by how big sophomore Robert Woods has been for USC has been the breakout of his former high school teammate, freshman Marqise Lee, who is taking advantage of all the attention Woods is getting from rival defenses.

 Ever heard of Nordly Capi? I hadn't, but the sophomore D-lineman at Colorado State, a 6-3, 249-pounder from Florida is clearly an impact player. Capi (KAPP-ee) leads the nation in sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (five). You don't see too many elite pass-rushers who were water polo players in high school, but Capi was. The Rams, by the way, also had the nation's leader in forced fumbles in 2010 in Mychal Sisson.

 Tweet of the Day: From LSU offensive guard T-Bob Hebert:

@TBob53 Anybody who booed #jj9 today needs to stop watching #LSU games and stop cheering for the tigers, we don't need you and don't want you.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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