Senior College Football Columnist

Big Picture: Mariota, Manziel, Mannion and ... Jimmy G?

Mariota (USATSI)
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota throws for 17 TDs and runs for eight more this season (zero INTs). (USATSI)

You're going to hear -- and read -- a ton about Marcus Mariota over the next week. We're at the midway point of the season and it's that time where the media likes to reflect on the past seven weeks, and the sophomore QB is coming off a dazzling show on the road against No. 16 Washington (now No. 20) that left folks gushing. A veteran football coach I know who has been in the game for four decades marveled at what he saw from Mariota on Saturday, texting me, "Ever seen a QB who could run and throw like Mariota? I haven't."

My first thought was Cam Newton. I thought he was superman for college football.

Still, I am curious to see how well Mariota and the Ducks' offense keeps playing as the schedule stiffens. They have a double of UCLA (Oct. 26) and Stanford (Nov. 7) coming up.


"I haven't been around that long but Marcus Mariota's "as good of a quarterback as I've ever been involved with," Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox told reporters after the game. "... He's one of the top two, three fastest guys on the field, he makes extremely good decisions and he's an accurate passer. Special guy."

We've got two "Wow" stats to underscore Mariota's exploits.

The first: This season, he's thrown 17 TDs and run for eight more and has thrown zero INTs.

The second: Courtesy of Ducks SID Andy McNamara: Other QBs facing Washington's defense threw two TDs and seven picks. Mariota's statline: 3-0. Then again, this stat also touches on my "Body Blow Theory" about teams coming off a physical opponent like facing Stanford and then having to get up to speed for Oregon's frenetic pace.

The Ducks, by the way, opened as 37.5-point favorite against visiting Washington State next Saturday. The Cougars are coming off a epic fourth-quarter meltdown against Oregon State, but are also 4-3 with two Pac-12 road wins, but that huge spread shows you the perceived gulf between Oregon and an average conference opponent.

Brown (USATSI)
If Texas' win over Oklahoma is Mack Brown's last Red River Rivalry game, it's a great one to go out on. (USATSI)

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If this was in fact Mack Brown's last Red River Rivalry game, it was quite a performance to go out on. Texas just looked a lot more focused and like they were the hungrier team, something you haven't been able to say much of late. Case McCoy was much sharper than Blake Bell and Texas kept the chains moving.

In the previous two meetings with OU, when Texas was outscored 118-38, the Longhorns only converted on nine third downs. On Saturday, they opened the game hitting on eight of their first 10 third-down tries and converted on their first five plays on third-and-7 or longer. Ballgame.

The Sooners made only 2 of 13 third-down tries and, once again, the Sooners' QB situation seems to have taken a turn for, like, the fourth time this season. And the Big 12 seems even more unpredictable than it was only a few days ago.

How explosive is the Baylor system? Try this: the Bears attack not only leads FBS in offense this season, it also lead FCS too.

Huh?

"We're like the Baylor Junior Varsity," Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers told me Saturday. "Everything that Baylor does, we do. You can't look at us and not see Baylor."

Babers, Eastern Illinois' second-year coach, spent four seasons on Art Briles' staff at Baylor. Four career-changing seasons.

Prior to Babers' time in Waco, he'd been an OC in the Pac-10 (Arizona) and in the Big 12 (Texas A&M), but after four seasons at UCLA, he was unsure if he was going to stay on the staff. In 2008, he went to the Coaches Convention in hopes of lining something up. He'd interviewed with Urban Meyer for a wide receiver job at Florida, and then met with Briles.

"I'd been in [the coaching business] for 22 years before I met Art," said Babers, counting up that he was on 11 different college coaching staffs before linking up with Briles. "He changed my thinking. I never met a man like that before. He's so positive. So forward in his offensive thinking. He's completely committed to what he's doing and he gets people to drink the Kool-Aid."

Babers guzzled that Kool-Aid.

"The system is not the easiest thing in the world to learn," he said. "It probably took me a year and half before I was comfortable with it. The cool thing about it, is the offense never stays the same. First, it's a caterpillar and then it's a butterfly and then. ... It's always green and grown."

Eastern Illinois is averaging 584 yards per game, more than 40 yards better than the next most prolific offense in FCS. The Panthers (5-1) started off the season with a bang, thumping FBS San Diego State on the road, 40-19. Their lone loss was a 43-39 defeat against unbeaten NIU. Babers' QB, 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jimmy Garoppolo, threw for 800 yards and nine TDs and only two INTs in the games against FBS opponents.

Babers says there's a lot of misconceptions about the Baylor system. He points to comments former colleague Nick Holt, then the DC at Washington, made before the 2011 Alamo Bowl.

"Nick and I were on the same staff at UNLV once, and I saw he said, '[Baylor] is exactly like Oregon.' I felt so bad for him. I'm thinking, 'If you play us like Oregon, God bless you.' "

Baylor ended up scoring 67 points and rolling up 777 yards on Holt's defense. Holt was fired soon after.

"The biggest thing about what we do is that no one really understands what we do," Babers said. "People really think it's like Oregon. It's nothing like Oregon. We throw the ball horizontal and vertical. I see us as throwing team. I see Oregon as more of a play-action throwing team. We don't have to play action to throw it."

Like Babers, Garoppolo's stock is skyrocketing. Babers said when he first arrived he had three people inside the EIU program tell him Garoppolo couldn't play in his system. "They thought I needed an option QB," Babers huffed. "My point was, they don't know my system. As soon as I saw him throw five passes in the spring I knew he was my guy.

"Jimmy's got the fastest release I've ever seen. He's super competitive and intelligent. He's gotten so much better with the speed of the game and being a coach on the field." Babers has given Garoppolo the freedom to run the offense at the line this season.

"He deserves to get the keys to the Cadillac at night. The guy's gotten so much better, it's ridiculous."

On the season, Garoppolo has thrown 28 TDs and four INTs.

What's up with QBs whose last names start with "M" this season? The SEC is stacked with them: Manziel, McCarron, Mettenberger, Murray. The Pac-12 has two more surging into the Heisman picture: Marcus Mariota and Sean Mannion. The latter tends to get lost in all of the talk about Mariota but the 6-5, 220-pounder is putting up such gaudy stats you have to keep an eye on him. The Beavers' season started off with such a clunker, losing to FCS Eastern Washington -- although it's hard to blame Mannion for that. He was 37 of 43 for 422 yards. On the season, he has a 25-3 TD-INT ratio and the fewest passing yards he's had in OSU's six games is 367.

Mannion's improvement in decision-making from last season has been impressive. Coming into this season he had a 31-31 career TD-INT mark. He did have one really bad Red Zone INT on Saturday night at Washington State but overall he was excellent, carving up an average defense. Does Mannion have a legit shot to make a Heisman run? We'll see in the final five weeks -- when they face Stanford, USC, ASU, Washington and then visit Oregon.

Hats off to Bill O'Brien and Penn State for the four-OT win over Michigan, sparked by a true freshman QB (Christian Hackenberg) and a very underrated group of receivers. For the second consecutive year, the Nittany Lions beat a previously unbeaten, ranked team on Homecoming in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions beat No. 24 Northwestern 39-28 in 2012.

There is a dominant junior defensive end playing in South Carolina who has been wrecking offenses all season. His name is Vic Beasley. The former high school hoops standout, who also excelled returning punts, scooped and scored the game-sealing TD for Clemson in the Tigers' tense 24-14 comeback victory against Boston College. Beasley was part of a Tiger D that held the nation's leading rusher Andre Williams to only 70 yards rushing and 2.9 yards per carry, both were about half his average. Beasley also had a sack and two TFLs. On the season Beasley has 12 TFLs and nine sacks.

Connor Shaw: best QB Steve Spurrier's had since. ... The gritty 6-1, 210 senior has a 10-0 TD-INT ratio, while completing 69 percent of his passes and also run for 319 yards this season. I floated the question to my Twitter followers and got a mix of best since Rex Grossman or Danny Wuerffel. I'll say since Grossman, who was the 2001 SEC Player of the Year. Also a nod to the Gamecocks' D, which took one drive Saturday to get locked in and completely shut down Arkansas on the road. The Hogs managed 64 yards on their opening TD drive but their next six series totaled all of 10 yards on 17 plays and produced zero first downs.

Straight off the Don James Coaching Tree: Nick Saban's team is 6-0. Same as Gary Pinkel's.

Pinkel's team went into Athens and knocked off the No. 7 Bulldogs to give the Tigers their first road win over a Top 10 opponent in 32 years. I know Georgia is really banged up. The Tigers can relate. They were rocked by injury last season, and as I reported Saturday, sustained another big blow when standout QB James Franklin left the game with a Grade 2 shoulder separation, as a source told CBSSports.com, adding that the dual-threat quarterback is expected to miss at least six weeks. On Sunday morning, Gary Pinkel confirmed that it was in fact a Grade 2 shoulder separation but said it was too soon for anyone to pronounce just how long Franklin will be out.

K-State held Baylor to "only" 35 points and 446 yards, although the Bears were often shooting themselves in the foot. Star WR Antwan Goodley, who had four catches for 129 yards, did have three costly drops, including one on third down late in the game.

No Charles Sims. No problem. Houston is 5-0 despite being losing their star RB on the eve of the season (he opted to bolt to play at West Virginia) and the Cougars also lost veteran QB David Piland to concussions. Still, Houston is unbeaten and already matched last season's win total. Credit Tony Levine's move bringing in David Gibbs to take over the D. The Cougars lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-2.8, which is a lot better than the next best teams in the stat. It's also very impressive considering the new QB, John O'Korn is a true freshman. UH has forced 18 turnovers in just five games. Better still, they've only turned the ball over four times. Last season, they gave the ball away 35 times.

Whatever UCLA DC Lou Spanos is saying at halftimes seems to be working. The Bruins are the only team in the country that hasn't allowed a point in the third quarter.

Beware of the LSU Tigers. Les Miles' young D is growing up fast. They bottled up Florida on Saturday, overwhelming the Gators. Florida's O-line had only allowed seven sacks in the first five games, but surrendered four against LSU. LT D.J. Humphries was flagged for a couple of false starts and UF was held to below three yards a carry on 48 attempts. DE Jermauria Rasco was credited with four hurries.

Stat of the Day: With Nick Foles starting Sunday for the Philadelphia Eagles, he will become the ninth former Texas high school QB to start an NFL game at quarterback this season. Foles joins Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Matt Stafford, Christian Ponder, Ryan Tannehill, Andy Dalton and Matt Flynn. Of that group, only three of those nine actually played college ball in the state of Texas.

Stat of the Day, Take II: Johnny Manziel, who has the most "Don't worry, I got this" vibe of any player in college football, rallied Texas A&M on the road in Oxford thanks largely to his 346 yards passing and 124 yards rushing. Manziel's ability to extend plays -- and drives -- is uncanny. The Rebels got A&M into third-and-long situations nine times Saturday night. Manziel turned them into six first downs. That's about twice as many times as most offenses could even hope for. It was Manziel's fourth career 300-yard passing/100-yard rushing game. That's the most in NCAA FBS history. What's even more impressive is the guy's done that in only 19 career games.

Speaking of Manziel, he shredded Alabama for 562 total yards and 42 points. In Bama's five other games, the Tide has allowed 26 points and 1,041 yards.

Army's Terry Baggett ran all over EMU, going for 304 yards on only 18 carries in a 50-25 win. Those 50 points were the most scored by Army against an FBS team in 14 seasons.

He probably has taken more criticism than any QB in the country, but Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas has settled in the past month and now has gone 14 quarters without an INT and the Hokies have won six in a row.

It has been a very long time since Tulane has been even close to just being decent. But in his second season Curtis Johnson has the Green Wave on top of Conference USA. On Saturday, Tulane notched its biggest win of the season, beating an East Carolina team that came in 4-1. The Green Wave is 5-2, giving Tulane its first season with more than four wins since 2004. Johnson, who was the reason Miami found Ed Reed in Louisiana (the Canes beat Tulane to get Reed) and why Marshall Faulk ended up at San Diego State, has wasted little time showing he's a lot more than just a great recruiter.

"The thing that's really great about it is that we're still so young," Johnson told me Sunday morning. "We started 13 freshmen last season. Those guys are playing out of their minds. They all really believe in what we're doing."

Among the youngsters to keep an eye on: Safety Darion Monroe, the team's No. 2 tackler. CB Lorenzo Doss, a lock-down cover man who Johnson, a former NFL assistant with the Saints, predicts will play in the NFL ("he reminds me of Duane Starks.") Jordan Batiste, a 5-8, 170-pound sophomore Tulane beat Ole Miss to get. Batiste has been a standout at the nickel and has forced two fumbles and picked off a pass. "The way he plays reminds me of the Honey Badger [Tyrann Mathieu]," Johnson says. Nico Marley, a 5-8, 180-pound true freshman listed as a linebacker is the team's No. 3 tackler and second in TFLs. Marley's style evokes memories of his dad, former hard-hitting, undersized LB Rohan Marley, the son of music legend Bob Marley.

The Green Wave beat ECU despite not having starting QB Nick Montana and instead played freshman Devin Powell, which forced Tulane to be much more "generic" scheme-wise. Tulane has a bye week up next. Johnson is hopeful that Montana will be back for the Oct. 26 game when Tulsa visits.

As a reward for Saturday's victory -- and for the terrific start, Johnson is taking an unusual tact with his team. He's giving them the entire week off. "I made them a promise if we won," he told me. "We're pretty banged up and I know they have midterms coming up and this is a tough school. I want them to do well. All they have to do is go lift weights and they can't miss class.

"I guess that's the NFL in me," he said before adding, "I think they thought they'd just won the lottery."

 
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