Cover 3: Why Iowa is a trap game for Penn State and Dan Mullen is so valuable
Penn State better have its eyes wide open with a trip to Iowa City on deck this weekend
After Week 3, the upset bug is spreading in college football. In one instance, it was powered by one of the best coaches in the game that not enough people talk about. In another, it was driven by a bunch of cast-off recruits at a group of five program. Can one of college football's darlings of the 2017 season avoid catching the bug in Week 4? I break down those topics in this week's Cover 3.
1. Penn State is on upset alert
If the college football season ended today, Penn State is probably a College Football Playoff team. A team that shocked college football last year by seizing a Big Ten title from the clutches of preseason favorites Michigan and Ohio State, James Franklin's crew isn't shocking anybody this year. This team has everyone's attention. If it's going to keep that attention, it needs get past a tricky game this weekend in Iowa City, Iowa.
This time last year is when Penn State hit rock bottom. While breaking in a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive playcaller and dealing with significant injuries at linebacker, Penn State went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in Week 4 and got thoroughly dominated. The 49-10 loss is probably what ultimately kept Penn State out of the CFP.
Among the several reasons for that loss, style of play was a big one. Penn State's defense had been practicing against its new spread scheme all preseason. It faced a Matt Canada offense in Pitt that incorporated a lot of jet sweeps and mind games with shifts and motions, and it hadn't seen a physical downhill offense like the one Michigan threw at it.
A similar challenge awaits this weekend at Iowa. The Hawkeyes, like the Wolverines, are built on a big offensive line and a physical downhill run game. Penn State's defense will be asked to set its jaw and play a different style of game than it's used to seeing early this season and in the preseason.
This isn't 2016, though. Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry is settled into his new role and the defense is ranked sixth in the country in yards per play. Even if Iowa's throwback style takes a series or two to absorb, Pry learned some lessons from last season's early slate that should carry over to 2017 from a preparation standpoint.
However, Penn State is vulnerable in new ways this fall. The thing about having everyone's attention is you get everyone's best shot. Iowa was 5-4 last season when Michigan came to town on a Saturday night ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Hawkeyes grinded out a 14-13 win on national television that night in a game that shocked the college football world. Defensively, Michigan was built to withstand that ground-and-pound game, but Iowa's Akrum Wadley brought a contrast to that style that Michigan couldn't handle. His matchups with Michigan linebackers in space and in the passing game were the difference in that game.
Iowa has a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz, but Wadley is back. The offensive line is back. The defense is back. The elements to Saturday's game are eerily similar to that Michigan contest, and the makings of an upset are in place. Iowa may not be a top 25 team, but this is the first real test for a Penn State team with lofty goals.
2. Dan Mullen is the best value in the SEC
Who is a better coach in the SEC than Mississippi State's Dan Mullen? Maybe you like your coach. And why shouldn't you? He's a fine coach. But unless you're an Alabama fan and your coach is Nick Saban, you're just hoping he's better than Mullen. Because he sure hasn't proven it.
A USA Today report of college football head coach salaries for the 2016 season slotted Mullen seventh in the SEC at north of $4 million annually. With Les Miles gone at LSU, he likely sits at sixth for the 2017 season, yet still, Mississippi State is getting a bargain.
Over the weekend, Mullen added another notch to his belt by knocking out No. 12 LSU and its talented roster with a 37-7 cowbell to the head. It gives Mississippi State a 3-0 start and gives Mullen his 59th win since 2010. Over that stretch of seven seasons and change, Mullen has pieced together a better win percentage (.627) than more storied conference programs like Florida (.619) and Tennessee (.521), and he also has a comfortable lead of more traditional contemporaries like Arkansas (.560) and Ole Miss (.510).
Relative to other conference peers like Alabama, LSU, Florida and Texas A&M, Mississippi State is a tough place to recruit, and while Mullen has won a handful of high profile in-state battles, he doesn't have the luxury of going into Florida or California and stealing five-stars like his rivals at Alabama and LSU.
He makes due turning Dak Prescott into a quarterback who became the best rookie signal caller in the NFL a year ago. He takes a nobody like Nick Fitzgerald and turns him into a potential first-round pick. He's had as much success developing the quarterback position as anyone in the country with only Florida State's Jimbo Fisher putting together a similar resume.
Mullen can handle the offense, but at Mississippi State, he's also had to weather losing defensive coordinators not to head jobs but other coordinator gigs. After a nine-win season in 2010, Manny Diaz took off for the DC job at Texas. Mullen found Geoff Collins at FIU, and after a 10-win season in 2014, Collins departed for the same job at Florida. Diaz returned to Starkville to help the Bulldogs get to nine wins once again in 2015 only to leave for Miami after the season.
This 2017 team is everything Mullen does well. He's lured over another talented DC in Todd Grantham. It's led by a unique talent at quarterback that was unearthed and developed by Mullen. It's comprised of a mixed bag of highly-touted and unheralded recruits that largely came to Starkville in need of significant polish and development that has since been provided. It's buttressed by first-year JUCO contributors like Montez Sweat at defensive end and Jonathan Abram at safety. It's a team that may present Alabama's biggest challenge in the SEC West.
After a win over No. 12 LSU, Mississippi State faces road games against No. 11 Georgia followed by No. 15 Auburn. For those that didn't expect much out of this team in the preseason, that may seem like a tough hill to climb. But this is Dan Mullen, the same coach that took an unranked team to wins over No. 8 LSU, No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 2 Auburn in consecutive games in 2014. It's about time we adjust our expectations.
3. The cast-offs from Memphis
Nothing quite summed up Memphis' 48-45 win over UCLA on Saturday like the play below.
The linebacker in question was Krys Barnes, a former four-star out of Bakersfield, California, who had offers from most of the Pac-12 as well as others like Oklahoma, LSU and Nebraska before choosing UCLA. Plays like that are why a team of cast-offs and backup plans were able to beat a team of four and five-star recruits.
Memphis has recruited well under Mike Norvell, but there's a reason why a lot of those playmakers are on a Memphis sideline and not a UCLA sideline. The best player in the game was Anthony Miller, a two-star walk-on wide receiver from Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. I remember Miller in high school. I saw him at a camp and thought he was an impressive route-runner with good hands. But he never generated much recruiting buzz, and I forgot about him. That was a mistake a lot of schools made on a kid that looks destined for the NFL now.
Miller's quarterback, Riley Ferguson, was once highly recruited but had to get humbled to get back to Saturday's 398-yard performance. He was battling for the starting job at Tennessee before leaving school and leaving the job to Justin Worley and later Josh Dobbs. After a year of painting fences and detailing cars and another year in junior college, Ferguson found his way back to the football field for Norvell's Tigers and he's been one of the best in college football since.
UCLA's Josh Rosen, or "Chosen Rosen" as some call him, was a five-star all-everything quarterback that is a likely first round draft pick in the spring, but he threw a pick-six to Tim Hart that was one of the seminal moments in that upset. Hart is another Memphis native at linebacker that was committed to Tennessee before the Vols decided to move in another direction, leaving him to choose the local program instead.
Jonathan Wilson had Memphis' only sack of the game on Rosen. He was a Tulane commit out of high school who arrived at Memphis late last summer after academic issues thwarted his original plan. The Louisiana native looks like a four-year contributor in his second chance home.
There are some recruiting wins on that roster as well. True freshman Terrell Carter had another one of the game's critical interceptions, and he landed at Memphis over some SEC opportunities. Running back Patrick Taylor was one of Norvell's biggest steals in his first year, luring him to decommit from Colorado for Memphis.
There are stories like that on every roster of a Group of Five school that knocks off a big dog, but Norvell appears to be making those stories work at a high rate in his two years on the job. With a lot of youth making plays, Memphis will be a dangerous team for the rest of the season.
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