Most surprising, disappointing things in college football at 2016's midway point
Lamar Jackson is a Heisman favorite and Oregon is winless in the Pac-12, just like no one predicted
We're at the halfway point in the 2016 college football season. Like every season, some predictions and expectations have come true -- but many, many more unexpected things have happened. Let's take stock of the things that have been pleasantly good and unpleasantly bad.
Who would have guessed Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson would become the best quarterback in the ACC? Who would have foreseen Stanford and Oregon plummeting to the middle and bottom of the Pac-12 North?
Kicking off our week of midseason coverage, we give you the most surprising and disappointing teams, coaches and players so far.
Louisville's Jackson: Um, duh? Jackson has been one highlight after another. The sophomore leads the FBS with 30 touchdowns, which is more than 98 teams. Beyond the stats, Jackson has improved considerably as a passer, especially on deep-ball throws. He's still improving, which is even more scary. The moment his passing catches up to his athletic ability will be a great day for football, but a bad day for opposing defensive coordinators. A lot of credit goes to coach Bobby Petrino, who has developed Jackson and modified his offense to fit his quarterback's skills.
West Virginia: Oklahoma probably remains the favorite to win the Big 12, but West Virginia has joined that discussion. A 48-17 Week 7 beatdown of Texas Tech in Lubbock is a legitimate nominee for team defensive performance of the year -- and by a group breaking in a bunch of new starters, too. Quietly, quarterback Skyler Howard has been one of the nation's most improved players. If he can stay healthy and the defense can keep its edge, West Virginia is going to be tough to beat. Remember: Coach Dana Holgorsen entered the year on the hot seat and with no contract extension talks.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts: Hurts became the first true freshman QB to start for the Tide in 32 years but hasn't looked the part of a first-year player. Hurts has accounted for more than 1,800 yards already and is responsible for 17 touchdowns (eight rushing, nine passing). Hurts doesn't fit the traditional mold of a Saban quarterback, but you know offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is thrilled to have such a weapon at his disposal.
Nice of Nick Saban to wait until he'd only won four titles in seven years before starting a QB who can be a real factor in the running game.— David Ubben (@davidubben) October 15, 2016
Colorado: After years of basement dwelling, the Buffs have turned a corner. It wasn't easy; Colorado had to endure blowout loss after blowout loss, then excruciatingly close loss after excruciatingly close loss, but the program is winning again. The only losses are to Southern California, which is playing better football now, and Michigan in a game Colorado led early. Credit the program for not giving up on coach Mike MacIntyre and giving him the time he needed. And, hey, maybe the Buffs make the leap from last to first in the Pac-12 South in one season.
Overachieving 5-2 teams: Don't look now, but Eastern Michigan and Wake Forest are each one win away from bowl eligibility. Eastern Michigan could realistically win eight games, too, with teams like Miami (OH) and Northern Illinois, each 1-6, remaining on the schedule. Wake Forest has a tougher road with Clemson and Louisville remaining. Still, the Demon Deacons have plenty of opportunities to get up to eight wins.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst: It's tough to know quite what to make of Wisconsin. The early-season wins over LSU and Michigan State don't look as shiny now, and while the Badgers gave Michigan and Ohio State everything each could handle, the reality is they're 0-2 in those games. Still, Chryst deserves a lot of credit for what he has done in one-and-a-half years. Chryst led the Badgers to 10 wins last season and was within one touchdown of two top-five teams this year. The change to Alex Hornibrook at quarterback has complemented the running game nicely and the defense is stout even without coordinator Dave Aranda.
Washington: The Huskies were a trendy offseason pick to take a big leap in Year 3 under Chris Petersen, but how many people thought this team would actually look this good? Quarterback Jake Browning has the highest passer rating in the country (204.86) and reliable weapons around him. The defensive front four is playing as well as any D-line anywhere and is capable of getting pressure by itself, allowing a physical, lockdown secondary to do its job.
The Pac-12 North has shifted from Stanford and Oregon to Washington and Washington State and the Apple Cup suddenly looks like a game-of-the-year-type of meeting. Regardless of the outcome, this is the step forward Washington fans sought when Petersen was hired.
Notre Dame: Cue the "Notre Dame is overrated every year" crowd. The preseason top-10 Irish are 2-5 and bowl eligibility looks like a long shot. It's not just the win-loss record, though, that makes the 2016 effort so disappointing. Coach Brian Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into the season. Kelly also has a potential high first-round draft pick in quarterback DeShone Kizer, but playing Kizer and Malik Zaire against Stanford backfired when Zaire failed to provide the spark Kelly thought he would. Granted, Kizer didn't play well against the Cardinal, but Zaire hasn't been an effective "1B" option, either.
Big-name running backs: Remember when this was the year of the running back? How about when the All-American team for that position was half a dozen deep -- at least. Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Royce Freeman, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook ... those were just a few expected to battle for the Heisman.
At the halfway point, the best option is Cook with 900 yards and seven touchdowns. Of course, it's not like these players forgot how to play. LSU, Stanford, Oregon and Georgia have been some of the nation's most disappointing teams. Fournette, McCaffrey and Chubb have battled injuries. There are still great running backs picking up big yards -- San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey already has a nation-leading 1,111 yards and Penn State's Saquon Barkley is a regular highlight reel -- but the household names have largely underachieved.
Clemson's offense: It feels strange to call the Tigers, who are 7-0 and ranked in the top five, disappointing. Maybe "enigmatic" is better. This is a team, after all, that has one of the season's most impressive wins (Louisville) and stills controls its playoff destiny. But if you've watched Clemson at all this year, you know something has been ... off. As David Hale of ESPN notes, the numbers for Clemson aren't dramatically different from last year, but the closer-than-expected wins are noteworthy.
To Clemson's credit, the defense is perhaps ahead of where many thought it would be. There are still five regular-season games for the light to turn on. But Clemson has scraped by more than a couple of times already. Maybe expectations were too high. Maybe it is just that tough to keep the necessary winning edge two years in a row. Whatever it is -- and it's probably a combination of many things -- the Tigers haven't quite clicked.
Texas: We should have known Texas was about to get a heavy dose of reality after its Week 1 victory over Notre Dame when ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore declared the Longhorns "back." The B-word is a bad one and raising it is asking for a jinx. Since beating the Irish, the Longhorns have won only two games, against UTEP and Iowa State. Charlie Strong probably needs to win eight games for a realistic shot at a fourth year.
The problems with Texas are hard to pin down because there are so many and constantly shifting. The defense has been a liability again and Strong demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford to assume play-calling duties. A loss to Iowa State likely would have sealed Strong's fate. Even so, he's still facing the most important six-game stretch of his tenure in Austin.
Stanford and Oregon: The Pac-12 is the only Power Five conference to get super topsy-turvy. It's impossible to be pleasantly surprised at the likes of Washington and Colorado without noting the decline of Stanford and Oregon. Those have been the only two Pac-10/Pac-12 champions dating back to 2009. The Cardinal and Ducks each have their own problems. Stanford's offensive line has been porous and there aren't many playmakers outside of McCaffrey. Oregon's defense continues to be a problem and there are no DeForest Buckners, Ifo Ekpre-Olomus or Patrick Chungs to be found. Oregon has remained successfully insular for many years, but coach Mark Helfrich could be forcing this program into a decision.
LSU firing Les Miles: The decision to fire Miles after four games may not have been surprising, but it was a messy end to a longstanding tenure in Baton Rouge. LSU should have parted ways with Miles after last season, conducted a thorough, national coaching search and moved forward. Instead, it toyed with an inevitable outcome, opted not to go through with it and then did it anyway one month into a new season. LSU may get its home run hire at the end of the year, but its decision to let go of Miles was overdue and messy. Coaches notice that.
Michigan State: Boy, what happened to the Spartans? Heading into this season, Michigan State was the model of high-end consistency with a 36-5 record over the last three years (and 10-plus-win seasons in five of the last six). This year, Sparty is 2-4 and yet to win a Big Ten game. There are many issues with this team, especially with the offense that has poor O-line play, inconsistent quarterbacks and receivers who struggle to get open. It's too early yet to say Michigan State is "coming back down to Earth," but Mark Dantonio, one of the best coaches in college football, definitely has a rebuilding job on his hands.
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