Cover 3: Buy your stock in Nebraska, Arkansas and UCLA before they start to heat up
These three floundering powers are about to catch fire on the back end of the season
It's time to go shopping for some penny stocks. There's value to be had as we enter into Week 7 of the college football season and one of the best places to look for that value is rock bottom.
In a year where first-year coaches are struggling all over the country, the bar has dipped the lowest at Nebraska, Arkansas and UCLA, three proud programs without an FBS win among them. That's going to change soon.
Here's a bold 'buy' rating for you for each: None will finish with fewer than three wins by season's end. A group that is 1-15 through their first 16 games will go no worse than 9-11 through their next 20. It's always darkest before the dawn, and here's why the sun could be coming out for three struggling programs.
We're not at rock bottom anymore in Fayetteville. That took place in week three after a 44-17 loss to North Texas. Since then, here's what Arkansas has given us:
- It lost to Auburn by 31 points but outgained the Tigers by 65 yards, held Auburn to 225 yards of offense and fell victim to Auburn scoring drives of 27, 1, 10, -10 yards and a kick return touchdown.
- It lost to a Texas A&M team that is starting to round into form as a top 15 caliber squad by only one touchdown despite giving up a kick return touchdown on the opening boot.
- It took its beating against Alabama but never laid down, producing more offensive production than any other Alabama opponent to date in terms of total offense (405 yards), yards per play (5.7) and points (31).
- It has finally settled in on a quarterback in Ty Storey, a guy that has improved each of the last three weeks in terms of quarterback rating, completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and yards.
The back stretch of Arkansas' schedule features winnable games against Ole Miss, Tulsa and Vanderbilt followed by a grueling three-pack against LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri. While LSU and Mississippi State appear to be unrealistic wins on the surface, both teams will be experiencing the infamous Alabama hangover and play Arkansas immediately after they take their shots at the Tide.
As discouraging as UCLA's winless record may be, the silver lining is that while the Bruins have been unable to beat their five opponents, just about nobody else has either. The five teams to take on the Bruins have compiled a remarkable collective record of 25-3 through six weeks. If Washington beats Oregon and Colorado beats USC this weekend, we're looking at five teams that are likely division, if not conference champions.
Like Arkansas, the arrow also appears to be pointing up. The triggerman for Chip Kelly's offense is a true freshman -- albeit a talented one -- who was not an early enrollee and supposed to be learning from the sidelines. KJ Carta-Samuels transferred in from Washington and was expected to win the job, but backed out instead to go sling it around at Colorado State where he has put up huge numbers. Next up was an experienced grad transfer from Michigan in Wilton Speight, but he was injured in the opener, thus thrusting the freshman, Dorian Thompson-Robinson into the starting job.
Thompson-Robinson just played his best game against the best defense the Bruins have faced. In a 31-24 loss to Washington, he completed 71 percent of his passes for 272 yards and two scores. In the process, UCLA piled up more yards per play on offense (6.49), more total yards (422) and more points (24) than Washington's defense had given up to any opponent all season. On the other side of the ball, only Utah held Washington to fewer yards per play than the 5.7 UCLA's defense was able to hit.
The schedule gets easier for UCLA but there aren't any gimmes. A stretch of Cal, Arizona and Utah in the next three weeks is Kelly's best opportunity to gather some momentum, but this feels like a team that has a bigger upset in them somewhere along the way, too. Oregon, USC, Stanford, and Arizona State are all also looming at the tail end of the schedule.
Among the three struggling powers, Nebraska's record may be the most deceiving.
- It missed an opportunity for a warm-up win against Akron in Week 1 due to weather.
- In Week 2, it outgained Colorado by 170 yardsm lost its true freshman starting quarterback late and still nearly won.
- It held Troy to 12 first downs and outgained it by over 100 yards but lost in part because of a punt return touchdown and that Week 2 quarterback injury.
- A loss to Michigan was humbling, but a disappointing result against Purdue overshadowed another performance in which the total yardage count landed in Nebraska's favor.
- Even in a blowout loss to Wisconsin, Nebraska matched the Badgers in first downs and had more yards per play on offense (7.62) than any other Wisconsin opponent all year.
There are issues. Nebraska is ranked No. 130 out of 130 teams in penalty yards per game. It has given up two punt return scores and is among the worst kick coverage teams in the country. But like UCLA, Nebraska is also growing around a true freshman quarterback and he's played good football in the last two weeks.
Who can Nebraska not beat on its remaining schedule? Ohio State is a likely loss and a date with Iowa in Kinnick Stadium for the season finale is daunting, but aside from those two, Nebraska has the most approachable remaining schedule of our battered trio. Northwestern, Minnesota, Bethune-Cookman, Illinois and an unimpressive rendition of Michigan State looks like at least three wins to me, maybe more.
Buy in now for all three teams. The wins are coming.
1. When Lincoln Riley goes defensive coordinator shopping, his first phone call should be to Alex Grinch. Riley is one of the sharpest offensive minds in the game and he's got Oklahoma on the cusp of perennial national title contention. But to get over that hump, he needs a coordinator that can match wits with him while also complementing his style.
Grinch has already excelled at what has historically been one of the toughest coordinator gigs in the game when he transformed a Mike Leach defense from a liability to a strength at Washington State. Leach's high volume, pass-happy offense creates some of the same challenges as Riley's quick-strike high scoring unit, and Grinch excelled under the circumstances.
At Washington State, Grinch's defenses created 25 turnovers per season after taking the ball away only eight times the year before his arrival. In terms of yards per game allowed, Washington State ranked 16th nationally in 2017, a far cry from the 99th ranked defense he inherited.
After a year working under Urban Meyer as the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State alongside veterans like Greg Schiano and Larry Johnson, Grinch is poised to take the next step and that's what Riley needs to take a national title step.
2. The most Iowa thing happened over the weekend in the Hawkeyes' win over Minnesota. A pair of two true freshman cornerback starters combined for three interceptions and their background is a microcosm of Iowa's impressive recruiting process. Julius Brents snagged one of those picks and he was a relatively highly recruited prospect out of Indianapolis, ranked as the No. 30 safety in the country with offers from the likes of NC State, Boston College, Indiana and Michigan State. Iowa regularly lands those type of players and produces with them. Remember the name because he's going to be special.
The other two freshmen interceptions on Saturday came from the type of player that Iowa regularly gets too: an in-state kid that no other major programs wanted. As limited as in-state talent in Iowa may be, the Hawkeyes make it a point to know about all of it. Riley Moss was a North Dakota State commit that never even camped at Iowa. But the staff tracked him through a senior season where he played cornerback and returned kicks for Ankeny Centennial. In December 2017, Iowa offered Moss a greyshirt opportunity (walk-on during the fall with the promise of a scholarship in the following January) and he took it.
The gamble started to pay off as soon as the next spring when Moss validated his athleticism by winning the state 110-meter hurdle championship. His best time was a nationally elite number of 13.85 seconds. At the start of fall practice, a scholarship offer came available and was given to Moss. Saturday was his first start and Moss delivered two interceptions to go with five tackles and looks like the next big time Iowa product from nowhere.
3. James Franklin is converting an OG to DT and here's why it could work out great. C.J. Thorpe is considered a top talent among the Nittany Lions' offensive line. This isn't the first time Franklin has taken a talented offensive lineman and moved him to defense with big returns. Back at Vanderbilt, Franklin's staff recruited a physical, nasty offensive lineman out of Texas named Adam Butler. He brought an edge and a toughness to practices and was the type of player that feared no upperclassmen. After redshirting his freshman year, a need at defensive tackle necessitated a move to the other side of the ball.
Butler looked like a future star at offensive line but he would go on to be a four-year starter for Vanderbilt on the defensive line under Franklin and then Derek Mason. He went undrafted in the 2017 NFL Draft, but was picked up by the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent and made the team, earning a trip to the Super Bowl in the process. He has five tackles and a sack through the first five games of 2018.
Franklin has indicated that Thorpe will find his way back over to the offensive line and there is no shortage of excitement about his future on that side of the ball. Turn on the tape, though, and he shows a physicality and demeanor that will work anywhere in the trenches and should continue to give Penn State a boost as long as he's on the field.
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