NCAA Football News

Florida State Has a Long Way to Go If It Wants to Be a Playoff Team in 2014

Jimbo Fisher still gets fired up and gives motivational speeches. But he's big on the short mantras that more often stick with teenagers and 20- and 21-year-olds that prefer Twitter-like bursts of conversation.

Last year, the Florida State coach embraced "find me a crumb," a saying meant to emphasize making the little plays, fighting for extra yards and forcing turnovers. He used "play don't care who makes it" to encourage freshmen and sophomores to not just learn on the fly but deliver results on the field.

This year, it's "don't eat the cheese." Fisher doesn't want FSU to buy into the hype, the No. 1 ranking, the repeat talk. He wants FSU to focus on the next play, not look past an opponent and stack up wins on Saturdays. It's fancier (and less boring) than saying "take care of business" or "play one game at a time."

In an offseason in which Fisher preached focus and did whatever he could to warn the Seminoles against complacency, FSU was sluggish and clearly took Oklahoma State for granted.

This was a wake-up call. The Seminoles never trailed on Saturday night and eventually escaped with a 37-31 win over Oklahoma State.

But FSU nibbled at the cheese before realizing what it had done.

The lesson to be learned needs to be this: Games like these, against better, deeper, more experienced teams, will be losses. FSU won't win anything in 2014 based on its 2013 resume. It's just one game into the season, but the Seminoles still clearly have a long way to go if they want to earn a spot in the four-team playoff.

FSU's 2013 team was one that systematically dominated teams, winning 12 of 14 games by 30 or more points. Will the 2014 team be one that fights to win games? Or does this game cause the Seminoles to rededicate themselves and focus on playing up to their potential each Saturday?

Fisher said this week that he hates season openers, then softened that comment before explaining. There are too many concerns, not enough game film, especially of a team like the Cowboys that lost so many starters. He said season openers are like "chasing ghosts."

FSU spent much of Saturday night chasing Tyreek Hill, who ran for 44 yards and caught six passes for 62 yards and had 140 yards in kickoff returns. Those numbers may not seem like a lot, but he kept extending drives and breaking the FSU defense's back. Often, shaky play at defensive tackle, a concern the coaches knew could be an issue following the early departure of junior Timmy Jernigan to the NFL, hurt Florida State. That's something FSU will need to shore up in the weeks ahead.

The defense certainly made plays. Safety Nate Andrews' nine-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter gave FSU the early momentum. Cornerback P.J. Williams forced a crucial fourth-quarter fumble of Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh, and defensive end Mario Edwards was disruptive against the pass.

But there was inconsistent play at receiver, where Jameis Winston seemed to drop back and look for Rashad Greene as often as possible. While Winston threw for 370 yards, and had a critical, leaping 28-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, there were two head-scratching interceptions. Winston and Greene have always had great chemistry, and on Saturday, last year's Heisman winner completed 11 passes to Greene for 203 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Karlos Williams, the starting tailback, was the second-leading receiver with five receptions. Christian Green had two catches early. Tight end Nick O'Leary had three receptions. Winston needs to establish more chemistry with FSU's young receivers and spread the ball around better.

Perhaps the most stunning development was that the Seminoles offensive line was pushed around. Five seniors, four of them veteran starters and FSU struggled to protect Winston. And the running game was ineffective as FSU had just 106 rushing yards on 31 carries.

Last year, Winston won a Heisman, but FSU won games with a balanced attack. There was no balance on offense on Saturday. Williams ran for 66 yards but averaged just 2.9 yards per carry.

FSU was just too flat on Saturday. Too many penalties (eight for 71 yards), and the offense was awful on third down (4-of-14). By contrast, Oklahoma State was able to sustain drives and convert on 8-of-16 third-down plays.

The Dallas-to-Dallas mantra that FSU embraced in the offseason was all well and good. But Fisher rightly has asked the Seminoles to let that chatter go in August. 

FSU is 1-0. Forget "Dallas to Dallas." The Seminoles need to remember not to eat the cheese.

 

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bob on Twitter.

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Winners and Losers from Week 1 of College Football

College football is back, and it looks better than ever.

You know what they say: 2014 is the new 2013. 

While our beloved sport's return is a cherished moment, it also means everyone is no longer undefeated. Sometimes, in fact, optimism can be brutally crushed in a single game. 

That's why, with the start of the new season, we're starting a weekly "Winners and Losers" recap to capture all that was good—and all that was painful—during the first week of action. 

As you have probably noticed, Winners and Losers is live before all the games have ended. Fear not, as this post will be updated as events warrant. 

So let's get the conversation going. Which teams, players, coaches and/or moments were the best from Week 1? Which ones were the worst?

The answers are in the following slides.

Begin Slideshow

FSU vs. Oklahoma State: Score and Twitter Reaction

The No. 1 Florida State Seminoles learned quickly on Saturday night that being the reigning national champion comes with a few drawbacks, namely that every opponent is extra motivated to knock you off your perch.

FSU struggled to put away Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after going ahead early, eventually downing the Cowboys 37-31.

Going into Saturday night, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher preached humility to his team, per Tim Linafelt of the Miami Herald:

And to make that point clear, he's adopted a new phrase: "Don't eat the cheese."

He picked this one up from one of FSU's guest speakers. It roughly translates to, "Don’t believe the hype."

"It means don't buy into everything everybody's telling you," Fisher said. "How great you are, how this, how that. Don't eat the cheese.

"Don't be the rat that eats the cheese."

His players didn't appear to heed that advice.

This game was supposed to be easy for Florida State. Oklahoma State lost a ton of talent from last year's team, while the 'Noles lost only a few key pieces from the group that beat Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game.

Add to that OK State's history against No. 1-ranked teams, and everything pointed to a comfortable 'Noles triumph, per ESPN Stats and Info:

However, the game went down to the wire.

Rashad Greene's 50-yard touchdown reception with a little under four minutes remaining in the game gave Florida State enough breathing room to seal the win. Jameis Winston threaded the ball through the tiniest of windows, and no Cowboys defender could track down Greene from there, as the strike put FSU up 37-24, per ESPN College Football:

Cowboys quarterback J.W. Walsh scored on a three-yard run with 1:55 to go, making it a one-score game at 37-31. Oklahoma State couldn't recover the onside kick, however, and the Seminoles killed off the clock.

Many eyes were on the incumbent Heisman Trophy winner, Winston. The Seminoles quarterback played somewhat poorly compared to the sky-high standards he set for himself in 2013, which was one of Florida State's biggest problems.

He completed 25 of his 40 passes for 370 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Greene was huge all game, recording 11 receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown.

Early on, the game looked like it would turn into a rout.

Roberto Aguayo broke the scoreless deadlock with a field goal a little less than six minutes into the game, putting Florida State up 3-0. On the very next play from scrimmage, Walsh was intercepted by Nate Andrews, who ran back the pick nine yards to the end zone, as illustrated by College GameDay:

The Seminoles defense, Andrews included, wasn't a stranger to scoring last year:

Things looked dire for Oklahoma State when Mario Pender scampered 11 yards for a touchdown, putting Florida State ahead 17-0 with 8:19 left in the first half. Overcoming a 17-point lead against the reigning champion is no small feat. Not to mention that FSU gave up 17 or more points on only three occasions during 2013.

The Cowboys slowly chipped away the lead, scoring on the very next drive. Desmond Roland punched it in from a yard out to make it a 17-7 game with 3:58 to go in the half.

The two teams exchanged possession on the next two drives, giving Florida State a great opportunity to build upon its 10-point lead, but then it shot itself in the foot with a turnover.

On a 1st-and-10 at his own 29-yard line, Winston threw an interception to OK State's Ashton Lampkin, who was brought down for no gain on the FSU 49-yard line.

Kyle Fredrickson of The Oklahoman felt that play accurately encapsulated how Oklahoma State's defense has often looked suspect in the past but then came up with a few big plays that completely swung momentum:

The Cowboys had 29 seconds to either go 49 yards for the touchdown or at the very least get inside field-goal range.

A 14-yard pass to Jhajuan Seales and a subsequent unsportsmanlike penalty on Florida State moved the ball to the FSU 20-yard line, which allowed Ben Grogan to nail a 37-yard field goal in the final seconds of the second quarter.

Getting to within a touchdown going into the half was a major momentum boost for OK State. As Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde pointed out, what looked like a blowout earlier all of a sudden became a close, competitive game:

Fox Sports Southwest's David Ubben thought the early pick-six also made things look worse than they were for the Cowboys:

As CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd tweeted out, the Seminoles looked listless in the first half, which allowed Oklahoma State to claw its way back into the game:

Florida State got the ball to start the second half, and Aguayo added a 27-yard field goal to give the 'Noles a little breathing room, 20-10.

Their tranquility was short-lived, though, as a major breakdown in the Florida State secondary left Dan Glidden wide open, and he went 55 yards to the end zone a little over four minutes into the third quarter:

Florida State had an answer, though.

Up until the third quarter, Winston had been largely silent. The lack of a steady running game in turn hampered Winston and the Seminoles passing game quite a bit. So Winston simply took things into his own hands, tucking the ball and running 28 yards to the end zone, giving the 'Noles a 10-point lead once again, 27-17, with 5:26 left in the third frame:

Sports on Earth's Matt Brown felt it was the first time all game that the Heisman winner truly lived up to his name:

One QB touchdown run begets another, as Walsh answered back with a 24-yard TD run of his own in the fourth quarter, bringing Oklahoma State to within three points, 27-24, with 11:51 to play in the game.

Another Aguayo field goal put Florida State up 30-24 with a little over five minutes left.

The next drive essentially decided the game. On a 2nd-and-5 on his own 49-yard line, Walsh fumbled after being upended by P.J. Williams. Two plays later, Winston hit Greene for the touchdown that all but sealed the victory.

Closing a double-digit gap in such a short amount of time was too big of a task for Oklahoma State.

Florida State will look to take full advantage of what should be a much easier game against The Citadel next week. The Seminoles will need to get themselves mentally prepared for the Clemson Tigers, whom they meet on Sept. 20.

Oklahoma State welcomes in Missouri State next week and takes on UT-San Antonio two weeks from tonight. With the way the Cowboys played on Saturday, they could be serious contenders in the Big 12.

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Jameis Winston Scrambles for Sensational Career-Long TD vs. Oklahoma State

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston faced off against Oklahoma State in Week 1 of the 2014 college football season. After a disappointing first half, Winston got the crowd going with one of the best runs of the weekend, hurdling and sidestepping his way for 28 yards and the score. After a close call with the Cowboys, does Florida State still have what it takes to run the table?

Watch the video to see Winston make a highlight-reel touchdown run.

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Despite Loss to Auburn, Bret Bielema Has Arkansas on Right Path in the SEC

Saturday's loss at Auburn wasn't exactly what Arkansas bargained for when it hired Bret Bielema. At Wisconsin, Bielema's teams didn't just hang tough for two quarters; they hung tough for four quarters, then won.

Regardless, even in a 45-21 defeat, Arkansas played the defending SEC champion and national runner-up to a draw after 30 minutes, and in the process it showed something it didn't in Bielema's first season with the team: a genuine pulse.

The Razorbacks did not crumble to the pavement after Auburn's first haymaker, a 49-yard touchdown strike from Jeremy Johnson to Melvin Ray. They didn't fold after falling back 21-7 early in the second quarter. They scrapped and they clawed and they fought back into the game, and even though it didn't hold, it spoke volumes.

The biggest reason for that improvement? It has to be the play of quarterback Brandon Allen. As a sophomore last season, Allen was up and ddown (but mostly down), in large part because of injuries. But he came back looking stronger and more confident than ever, finishing with 175 yards and two touchdowns on 31 passes.

He did throw a pick-six that essentially sealed the game in the fourth quarter. But before that, Allen was even better than his numbers. If not for an ugly drop by Keon Hatcher on a should-have-been-70-yard-touchdown in the first quarter, his final line would have read even finer (and the score might have been much different).

Greg McElroy of the SEC Network came away impressed with Allen's performance—regardless of the final outcome:

Bielema never had (or needed) a dominant quarterback at Wisconsin. What he had (and needed) were efficient ones.

Russell Wilson broke the NCAA's single-season passing efficiency record (191.8) under Bielema in 2011, and he did it in a season in which the Badgers rushed almost twice as many times as they passed. The ideal Bielema offense leans on running the ball, then running the ball and running the ball some more—then making you pay for expecting the run.

That system broke down a little bit in the second half, and it's hard to tell exactly why. It might have been fatigue, and it might have been a schematic adjustment made by Auburn. It might have been a little bit of both. The lightning delay in the fourth quarter definitely did not help (although the game had slipped away long before that).

Still, for at least 30 minutes, Arkansas did to the SEC Champion what Wisconsin did for so many years to teams in the Big Ten. The offensive line had its way with Auburn's front seven, and Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall ran with grit. When Auburn came up to cheat on the run, Allen hit it over the top.

The defensive line looked very good, also. Against what might be the best offensive line in college football, Arkansas held its own. The defense as a whole looked overmatched, but Auburn's offense will make a lot of defenses look that way this season. Whether it's Johnson or Nick Marshall at quarterback—it doesn't matter either way.

With such a difficult schedule this season, it is still unlikely that Arkansas makes a bowl game. But that's not how it should measure its success. Going 6-6 will be difficult, but finishing below .500 would not mean Bielema has made no progress.

This team is slowly starting to mold in his image, and the results down on the Plains—at least for 30 minutes—were assuring. This team can't beat any opponent in the country, but it can hang with them.

"We had two quarters we can live with and two quarters that we can't," said Bielema after the game, per Phil Buck of KTHV in Little Rock. And that seems like a pretty fair assessment.

But on the heels of a season in which less than 50 percent of the quarters were good ones…well, two out of four ain't bad.

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Arkansas vs. Auburn: Game Grades and Analysis for Razorbacks and Tigers

Arkansas and Auburn did battle at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and both offenses were able to put on a show in the first half. But the Tigers were able to use their depth and talent to overpower the Razorbacks in the second half and come away with an important conference win 45-21 (the final box score can be found on NCAA.com).

Both teams will have a lot of things they will need to work on as they move forward in the 2014 season. But both teams also showed they have the firepower to compete with any team they face in their division. Here are some grades to hand out for the Razorbacks and the Tigers.

Pass Offense: Arkansas’ passing attack was not able to blow past the Auburn secondary. Brandon Allen started off strong, throwing two touchdown passes in the first half, but he was not able to get anything going in the second half. AJ Derby led the Razorbacks with four receptions for 40 yards and one touchdown.

Run Offense: The three-headed monster of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall got things going in the first half, but was shut down in second half. The Razorbacks rushed for only 153 yards per game after rushing for 208 yards per game last year. Collins was the leading rusher with 68 yards on 10 carries.

Pass Defense: It was not a good first half for the secondary as it let Jeremy Johnson throw for 243 yards and two touchdowns. But it was able to pick it up in the second half because Nick Marshall only threw for 50 yards. Alan Turner was the top player in the secondary, tallying 10 tackles in the loss.

Run Defense: It was a difficult afternoon for the Razorbacks in terms of stopping Auburn's rushing attack. The Tigers rushed for 302 yards, and the majority of the yards came in the second half. The front seven looked worn down, and the lighting delay did not help.

Special Teams: Even with Marshall and D.J. Dean, Arkansas was not able to make any impact plays on special teams. Kicker John Henderson was a non-factor, and the coverage units were solid but could have played better. Sam Irwin-Hill averaged 43 yards per punt, which was the only highlight.

Coaching: Bret Bielema did a good job getting his players ready in the first half as they were able to run and throw all over the Tigers. But he did not make the proper adjustments, which was why the Razorbacks were blown out in the second half.

 

 

Pass Offense: Johnson lit up the Razorbacks in the first half. He made good decisions and looked poised in the pocket. Marshall only threw for 50 yards, but he was 4-of-6, and his yards came in the second half when Auburn took over the game with the running attack. 

Run Offense: And speaking of the run offense, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant ran all over the Razorbacks. Artis-Payne tallied 177 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown, while Grant rushed for 87 yards on 10 carries and one touchdown. Marshall got in the mix with a rushing touchdown as well.

Pass Defense: The Tigers' pass defense was on point as it limited Allen to only 175 yards. But the play of the game came when Jermaine Whitehead retuned a 33-yard interception for a touchdown. He also added seven tackles in the win as did Jonathon Mincy.

Run Defense: The Tigers' front seven did a strong job containing Arkansas' rushing attack. With the efforts of Cassanova McKinzy and Montravius Adams, the Tigers did not let Williams, Collins or Marshall run wild in the second half. The Razorbacks did get most of their rushing yards in the first half, but the Auburn's defense was able to make adjustments afterward.

Special Teams: Daniel Carlson did miss a field-goal attempt, but he was able to nail a 45-yarder in the second half, racking up six extra points. Grant had a kick return for 32 yards, and both kick- and punt-coverage teams never let the Razorbacks go for any explosive plays.

Coaching: Gus Malzahn never had a hard time getting his playmakers in the right position to make plays on offense. The defense was unstable in the first half, but defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson tightened things up in the second half, which led to the defense pitching a shutout in the third and fourth quarters.

 

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Clemson vs. Georgia: Game Grades, Analysis for Tigers and Bulldogs

A powerful running game and defensive adjustments made the difference on Saturday as the Georgia Bulldogs ran away from the Clemson Tigers for a 45-21 victory.

Check out the game's final stats here and take a look at first- and second-half game grades as well as analysis below.

 

 

Clemson Tigers Grade Analysis

Pass Offense:  The Tigers came out firing and moved the football to a very competent degree in the first half.  Both Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson had success in finding open receivers down the field.  Unfortunately for Clemson, things fell apart in the second half as Bulldog adjustments on defense kept both passers from finding any semblance of a rhythm. 

 

Run Offense:  Similarly, Clemson ran the football well in the first half.  C.J. Davidson found holes and ran hard. His backup, D.J. Howard, also churned out yardage.  In the second half, however, things fell apart—partially because Georgia got out to a larger lead which made the slowness of a ground attack unattractive.

 

Pass Defense:  Clemson's efforts against the pass were admirable throughout the night, but it was clear that the deep ball was not a priority for Georgia's offense.  Nevertheless, holding Hutson Mason to just 131 yards on 26 attempts is quite a feat given his weapons at wide receiver.

 

Run Defense:  The Tigers run defense was practically non-existent.  Georgia racked up 328 yards as both Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb averaged more than 13 yards per carry.  Clemson couldn't stop runs up the middle or to the outside.

 

Special Teams: Special teams play was equally unimpressive for head coach Dabo Swinney's squad.  The Tigers allowed a 100-yard kickoff return to Gurley and missed their lone field-goal attempt.  If these holes aren't patched up, the Tigers could be in trouble all year.

 

Coaching:  Swinney's team was outmatched in every phase of the game, and it showed—particularly late in the game.  Swinney's commitment to playing two quarterbacks was understandable this early in the year, but at times it seemed like the swaps did as much to halt momentum as the efforts of Georgia's defense.  The Tigers' inability to stop the run and abysmal offensive performance in the second half showcased this team's shortcomings.

 

 

Georgia Bulldogs Grade Analysis

Pass Offense: Mason, the consummate team player, will always remember this win.  But he won't remember it as an outstanding individual performance.  To be clear: Mason was more than adequate, but the Georgia passing attack was not a focal point of Georgia's offense on Saturday.

 

Run Offense:  It's hard to get much better than 41 carries for 328 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.  Gurley was Heisman-like with his 198 rushing yards on just 15 carries, Chubb was a highlight reel with 70 yards on four touches. A host of other backs found success, too.

 

Pass Defense:  For much the first half, Georgia's secondary seemed susceptible to the pass.  A number of halftime adjustments by defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt altered alignments and created confusion for Clemson passers.  As a result, the Tigers were completely unable to move the ball through the air in the game's final two quarters.

 

Run Defense:  Equally futile were Clemson's attempts to run the football late in the game.  Admittedly, this was not a point of emphasis as the Tigers fell behind by multiple scores, but a swarming Georgia defense snuffed out the running game more often than not.

 

Special Teams:  Georgia's special teams play was stellar on Saturday.  Kicker Marshall Morgan was perfect, kick coverage was (for the most part) solid and aggressive, and the return game was much-improved.  Gurley will get the attention for his 100-yard return—and rightfully so—but Reggie Davis was also a threat returning punts.

 

Coaching:  In hindsight, it's clear that Georgia's somewhat ho-hum first half was at least partly strategic.  Offensively, a fresh Gurley took over the game late after carrying the ball just four times in the first two quarters.  Defensively, the Dawgs came alive following adjustments.  When all was said and done, Georgia's coaching staff came away with a huge win against a good opponent.

 

All stats courtesy of NCAA.com.

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Jameis Winston vs. Oklahoma State: Final Stat Line, Highlights, Twitter Reaction

Following an eventful offseason, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was looking to start his sophomore season with the same poise and execution that led to him winning the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Unfortunately, he had a much different start to his second campaign.

Winston finished the night going 25-of-40 for 370 passing yards, two total touchdowns and a career-high two interceptions in a hard fought 37-31 win against Oklahoma State. That was a stark difference from his first game as a freshman, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions against Pittsburgh.

While Winston accomplished nearly everything possible in 2013, he comes into this season with even higher expectations. The sophomore spoke about his improvement this offseason, per College GameDay:

Much has been made this offseason about Winston off the field, and not much of it has been favorable. The FSU signal-caller was caught stealing crab legs along with other issues, but still remained positive throughout the experience.

Rather than living up to that hype created early on, Winston scuffled on the field throughout the first half. The pressure appeared to take its toll on Winston as he failed to find open receivers and threw two interceptions before heading to the locker room.

Mark Cooper of the Tulsa World notes just how well the Oklahoma State defense played Winston:

College GameDay also points out the difference between Winston's start of his freshman year:

The precision Winston showed as a freshman was not evident in the first half, and neither was the decision making. After losing Kelvin Benjamin to the NFL, Winston didn't appear to have the same rapport with his receivers down the field.

Matt Miller of Bleacher Report points out the underwhelming start for Winston:

The second half had a similar start for the signal-caller, but he showed flashes of his dual-threat ability in the third quarter.

Oklahoma State had FSU's receivers covered like a glove, but Winston would find an opening and make a difference with his legs. Winston carved his way through the Cowboys defense for career-long 28-yard touchdown.

That huge run would not prove to be the turning point for Winston, however, as he was stymied on the following drives and left the door open for the Cowboys. But with the game on the line late, Winston pulled through with his best pass of the night.

Up by only six points with 4:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, Winston found Rashad Greene across the middle for a 50-yard touchdown. Despite throwing into a tight window, Greene hauled in the pass and raced away from defenders.

Eye on College Football gives a look at the star receiver's night:

The gutsy pass also got rave reviews from Pat Forde of Yahoo:

Though it was far from a Heisman performance by Winston, it was good enough to keep the Seminoles undefeated. With other players like Kenny Hill of Texas A&M and Todd Gurley of Georgia exploding in Week 1, Winston will need to improve to retain the Heisman.

As all eyes remain on Winston and FSU as a whole, the mounting pressure will only grow as the season goes on. Luckily, Winston has an easy test ahead of him in Citadel at home before hosting Clemson.

Thanks to a fairly easy schedule ahead of the Seminoles, Oklahoma State might have been one of the stiffest test of the season. After a difficult night under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium, getting back to Tallahassee should be a welcomed environment for the quarterback.

It's a different year and a new opportunity for the Seminoles and Winston. Despite a rough first game against Oklahoma State, expect Famous Jameis to return to form before a huge showdown with the Tigers.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Sarkisian, Trojans Block out Distractions in Dismantling of Fresno State

Nothing but about 15 yards of turf separated Fresno State safety Derron Smith from the end zone had the preseason All-American intercepted USC quarterback Cody Kessler's first pass attempt of the 2014 season. 

That play was just about the only thing that went awry for No. 15 USC in its 52-13 romp over Fresno State.

With all the turmoil leading into Saturday, a first-pass pick-six would have been an unfortunate yet fitting start to the Trojans' season. It certainly was not an improbable proposition, either—Smith took an interception of Kessler 41 yards to the house in last December's Las Vegas Bowl.

But after the disaster of Smith's near-interception was averted, Kessler settled in to go 25-of-37 passing, tying the career-high of four touchdowns he set against Fresno State last year and set a new personal best mark of 394 yards. He rushed for a fifth touchdown, just for good measure. 

Running back Javorius "Buck" Allen added 133 yards rushing and a touchdown, 10 different Trojans caught passes and the USC defense locked down Fresno State's spread offense. 

All told, it was a wholly dominant effort for a USC team that could very well have been distracted. 

If there was any distraction in the USC locker room, it was the welcome distraction playing Fresno State brought to take attention from the off-field turmoil the Trojans were mired in this week.

In his first postgame press conference as USC head coach, Steve Sarkisian called the outcome “fun," per FoxSports.com's Rahshaun Haylock: 

Some fun was just what USC needed after its week. 

USCTrojans.com published an account of redshirt cornerback Josh Shaw injuring his ankles while saving his nephew from drowning. By Tuesday, the story began to unravel, and Sarkisian suspended Shaw indefinitely on Wednesday, via Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com.

Just as Shaw started to generate national headlines, former cornerback-turned-running back Anthony Brown added fuel to the fire when he went on a since-deleted Instagram rant against Sarkisian.  

Though Sarkisian addressed the Shaw situation repeatedly throughout the week, including in an interview on ESPN’s College Gameday Saturday morning, it was apparently a non-issue internally.

Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times tweeted that Sarkisian said USC blocked out any possible distraction by not dwelling on it:  

Any frustration the Trojans may have felt was exorcised at Fresno State's expense. In the process, USC started writing a much different narrative for the outset of the Sarkisian era 

Distractions accompanied the 1-5 finish to USC's 2012 season, and distractions persisted through the first month of the 2013 campaign. Constant questions about former head coach Lane Kiffin's status seemingly plagued USC in its 3-2 start. The team's immediate turnaround following Kiffin's dismissal supports the idea.

Sarkisian's forthright manner of dealing with the Shaw story was a positive step toward establishing a different tone from USC's previous era.  

As for the team, it can perhaps thank the previous seasons' turmoil for Saturday's resounding response.

Defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who was one of four Trojans with an interception Saturday, said last month at Pac-12 media days that past issues gave USC “a chip on [its] shoulder,” but had also taught the team to come together.

"We're looking past all the old, bad stuff in the past and just looking forward to having a great season," Williams said.  

That type of mindset proved useful this week and should help buoy USC throughout its pursuit of the Pac-12 Conference championship.  

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game statistics compiled via USCTrojans.com Season statistics compiled via CFBstats.com

 

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Lane Kiffin Must Keep Offense Conservative for Continued Success at Alabama

Although Alabama could not blow out West Virginia as expected, new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin passed his first test.

In the 33-23 win, the Crimson Tide totaled 538 yards of total offense with a quarterback making his first career start. This was thanks to Kiffin getting the most out of his talent. If he can continue this style of play-calling, he has a chance to have a very successful season.

Unlike most college coordinators, Kiffin enters the year with a lot of pressure after holding a number of high-profile jobs. The 39-year-old coach has already been in charge of USC and the Oakland Raiders, as well as a few other stops. He has not exactly been the most popular person when he left any of the teams.

As a result, there will be a lot more attention paid to the offense throughout the year. ESPN's J.A. Adande joked about how much he was being shown during the television broadcast:

Meanwhile, Colin Cowherd of ESPN was there to question the play-calling right away:

However, it is hard not to be impressed with how the offense performed as a whole. He got the most out of his stars as Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon combined for 239 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Amari Cooper totaled 12 catches for 130 yards.

It is often difficult getting the ball to so many good players, especially two elite running backs who could be among the best in the nation, as Alex Scarborough of ESPN argued:

Kiffin found a way to spread the ball around and keep both running backs fresh enough to be productive from the start of the game to the finish. Meanwhile, he was a big part of Cooper's success thanks to a number of short passes with plays directly intended for the No. 1 receiver.

Not only did this help the stars become productive, but it also took a lot of the pressure off inexperienced starting quarterback Blake Sims. The senior went 24-of-33 for 250 passing yards in his first start to go with 42 rushing yards.

Nick Saban credited Kiffin for helping to develop the young passer.

"He [Kiffin] did a great job," the head coach explained after the game, via Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee, "He really helped Blake manage the game. Very involved and even helped him with some of his checks on the sideline, which is what we thought and why we put him there."

While you can expect Sims to improve throughout the year, the game plan should not change for the Alabama offense. The system should continue to feature a lot of runs for Henry and Yeldon to wear out the opposing defense, while the short passes to Cooper create a chance for a big play.

Both of these strategies will be useful to keep the pressure off a quarterback who should not be overwhelmed on the field.

This brings us to a new problem in Tuscaloosa, a poor defense. Although you can be certain the Saban-coached team will improve as the year went on, the unit struggled against West Virginia. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit was surprised by the struggles:

Even Saban called out his own squad heading into halftime:

Fortunately, the offense helped out by controlling over 37 minutes of possession. The less time the defense is on the field, the fewer points they can give up. 

The main goal for any offensive coordinator is to score points. However, Kiffin has to use his head coaching experience to realize what is best for the team.

In each game, the offense has to control possession and run the ball to keep the pressure off the inexperienced quarterback as well as the defense. Kiffin made sure this happened in Week 1, and it is the perfect strategy to help in every game going forward.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Auburn Defense Looks Championship-Worthy, Shows Ability to Adjust vs. Arkansas

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's defense was in disarray heading into the locker room at halftime Saturday.

Arkansas' talented trio of running backs averaged 7.2 yards per carry in the first half. Quarterback Brandon Allen was hitting wide-open targets on play-action passes.

Worst of all, the defensive struggles bled over into the offense, which lost momentum after scoring three straight touchdowns to open the game.

But, following a go-ahead touchdown by returning quarterback Nick Marshall to start the second half, Auburn's defense clamped down on the Razorbacks' power-running offense.

"I’m very proud of our guys coming out facing an SEC team," head coach Gus Malzahn said. "We talked to our guys and told them it would be a dogfight. I’m proud of the way our guys responded the second half. Our defense made the adjustments. We started playing physical football."

A shift in the secondary allowed the Tigers to close down quicker on Allen's receivers in the flats, and the Razorbacks were forced to go a quick three-and-out. Middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy rebounded from a quiet first half and got in the backfield to drop Alex Collins for a loss on the ensuing drive.

Then, the Auburn defense commanded all of the game's momentum with a pick-six that was caused by the newly reinstated Robenson Therezie and finished by fellow senior Jermaine Whitehead.

"[Therezie] is a freak," Whitehead said. "He does a lot for the team. With all the experience he got last year, he feels a lot more comfortable. At practice, he knows exactly what’s going on. He’s definitely going to make something this year."

Even after a lengthy lightning delay early in the fourth quarter, Auburn's defense held on for the second-half shutout, with McKinzy recording a monster sack of Allen to end any hope the Razorbacks had of a comeback.

"They brought more pressure," Allen said afterward. "They did a good job of slowing down our rush game in the second half. We didn’t make the plays we needed to get to get some drives going."

Defensive improvement out of the locker room is nothing new for the Tigers.

Auburn's rush defense was ranked 105th nationally last year in the first half of games, but halftime adjustments helped that ranking jump to 57th in the second half. The Tigers also allowed five fewer touchdowns on the ground, and those changes resurfaced again in the 2014 season opener.

That shift in ratings did not turn Auburn into an elite second-half defense, but it was one of the deciding factors in several tight games for the Tigers in their run to the SEC title.

When another conference team jumped out in the first half, it was back to the drawing board for the Auburn defense—literally.

"We just quickly took a look at what Arkansas was doing," senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said. "Early on, it's kind of hard to see what they're all doing and then respond. At halftime, we were able to sit down and put what we needed to change on the board. Guys just focused and played more physical to get the win."

After the game, Malzahn pointed to those halftime adjustments from defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and his assistants as the turning point in what had been a tight SEC contest.

"Ellis is one of the better defensive coordinators in college football," Malzahn said. "He’s been doing this a long time, and he’s good at it. He made the adjustments. They settled down and started stopping the run, and that changed the whole tone of the game, and that was a huge factor in the second half. We got quite a few stops and got the ball back to the offense."

Much like Malzahn's offense, Auburn's strength on defense comes from its ability to adapt to the opposing team.

Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme is designed to counter teams prone to airing it out, but the Tigers had a plan for the Razorbacks' power-running attack.

Auburn started four defensive tackles up front—Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker, Wright and Montravius Adams—in a "Rhino package" that has been practiced since the start of spring camp. 

The larger front four neutralized Arkansas for a quick three-and-out to start the game, but the Razorbacks started rolling on offense when they were able to get Alex Collins, Korliss Marshall and Jonathan Williams into the second level.

When Wright got back into the locker room, his teammates said he rallied the defense to make a change and get back into the form of a championship club.

"I just see the potential of this team," Wright said. "You've got a team that runs the ball in the SEC and likes to be the bully, and we held them to a few yards in the second half. Early on, we had some things breaking off because Arkansas did a good job of showing us things we haven't seen. But guys were able to bounce back quickly, and we showed we are going to get the job done.

"It's never how you start. It's how you finish."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

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Fresno State vs. USC: Game Grades, Analysis for the Trojans

It was hard to find much to quibble about from USC's 52-13 blowout win Saturday over Fresno State in the 2014 season opener. The debut of Steve Sarkisian's uptempo offense generated 702 yards on 104 plays, which was not only a school record but set the Pac-12 mark for offensive snaps in a single game.

But it wasn't just the explosive and diverse offense that impressed for USC. Its defense also stifled a Fresno State program that was one of the most prolific in 2013, but which no longer had its record-breaking quarterback (Derek Carr) available.

Final stats from the game can be found here. Check out our grades of USC's position units and coaching against Fresno, as well as analysis on the different facets of the 39-point victory.

 

USC Trojans Game Grades

 

USC Trojans Game Analysis

Pass Offense: Cody Kessler had the best game of his USC career, completing 25 of 37 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns. Kessler hit 10 different receivers, with junior wideout Nelson Agholor catching two TD passes and a pair of freshmen (Adoree' Jackson and Bryce Dixon) also hauling in scoring strikes. Another freshman, JuJu Smith, led USC with 123 yards on four receptions.

Run Offense: Javorius Allen picked up where he left off in 2013, rushing for 133 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Kessler and fullback Soma Vainuku also had scoring runs, and the Trojans ran behind an offensive line that started two true freshman and managed 268 yards.

Pass Defense: Fresno State quarterbacks Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette were both chased all over the backfield, and though neither was sacked, the pressure USC got up front kept either from being comfortable. The Trojans picked off four passes and held the Bulldogs to 160 passing yards and less than 4.5 yards per attempt.

Run Defense: Fresno's Marteze Waller ran for 94 yards on 17 carries with a pair of touchdowns, and he proved slippery in many cases. Burrell had a 32-yard scamper that came as a result of USC failing to contain the edge, though it did manage to shut down Connette's scampering ability.

Special Teams: USC's punter never had to participate in the game, which was a better effort than Trojans kicker Andre Heidari. Though he made a 27-yard field goal, he also missed a kick just before halftime and then booted the second-half kickoff out of bounds, giving Fresno State a short field that it converted into a touchdown.

Coaching: Sarkisian's play-calling was spot on, and he made sure to get numerous youngsters involved. At least a dozen freshmen played in the game, providing them with valuable experience and establishing depth ahead of the Sept. 6 trip to Stanford.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Florida vs. Idaho Season Opener Canceled Due to Inclement Weather

While the rest of the country kicked off the college football season on Saturday, Florida and Idaho will have to wait to get started.

The nonconference game was delayed several times due to harsh weather conditions until it was eventually canceled, according to Anish Shroff of ESPN:

ESPN provided a look at the lightning outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium:

While the game was originally slated to begin at 7 p.m. ET, thunderstorms caused an extended delay while the teams waited in the locker rooms. The game actually got underway with a Florida kickoff return, but another lightning strike once again halted the action.

Landon Watnick of Rivals.com described the only play of the game:

After the game was officially called off for the night, Mark Long of The Associated Press provided the details on the next step for both sides:

Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press pointed out how the money factor could affect the decisions:

Assuming the game is not rescheduled this weekend, Florida will instead begin its season on Sept. 6 with a home game against Eastern Michigan. 

After losing the last seven games last season to finish an alarming 4-8, the Gators will likely want as many "easy" games as possible before starting a much more difficult conference schedule in the SEC. Considering Idaho finished last season with a 1-11 record, Will Muschamp's squad was not expecting this matchup to be much of a challenge.

For the Vandals, this cancellation could end up costing the school a big payday, depending on how the situation is worked out.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Jameis Winston Scrambles for Amazing Career-Long Rushing TD vs. Oklahoma State

2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston had gone two-and-half quarters without a truly breathtaking highlight play. That all changed when he took off running.

Jameis Winston career long 28 yard TD run https://t.co/oH742vywhu

— gifdsports (@gifdsports) August 31, 2014

Winston juked, hurdled and sidestepped en route to a career-long 28-yard touchdown run to bring the score to 27-17 in favor of Florida State after a made extra point.

Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen. College football is back.

[Twitter]

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Video: Todd Gurley Makes Early Heisman Statement vs. Clemson

Todd Gurley had a stellar performance against the Clemson Tigers in Week 1 of the 2014 season. With a handful of offensive plays, combined with a phenomenal kickoff return, he is making a statement for the Heisman trophy.

Check out this compilation of Gurley's explosive runs against Clemson. 

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Alabama Football: Grading Blake Sims' Week 1 Performance

Blake Sims didn't just start at quarterback for Alabama in the season-opening win over West Virginia; he started and played the whole game.

Well, sort of. Presumed rotation quarterback Jake Coker came in for mop-up duty once the outcome was in hand. But for all intents and purposes, Sims was Alabama's starter, and Coker was his backup. The redshirt senior played well enough to stay on the field.

That very nearly wasn't the case. According to Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press, head coach Nick Saban said he thought about going to Coker in the second quarter, scared that Sims was starting to get rattled. But instead of pulling the plug, he settled Sims down by going to—of all things—the no-huddle offense:

 

Playing From the No-Huddle

In many ways, settling Sims down with the no-huddle offense—a concept that seems foreign to Alabama football—was a fitting touch to an impressive starting debut. This is not the archetypical modern Tide quarterback, and he deserves to be handled as such.

What's more: It worked! Sims looked markedly better once Alabama went to the no-huddle, especially in the red zone. He is adept at making quick decisions, and the fact that he is a redshirt senior helps in this regard. He is on precisely the same page as his teammates.

Coker did his best to catch up with Sims, but he only had one fall camp to Sims' five years. Communication and trust are the keys of a no-huddle offense, and if that's something Alabama wants to employ this season, Sims is the right guy for the job.

He proved that on Saturday night.

Grade: A-

 

The Mobility Factor

Sims made a few plays with his legs that the AJ McCarrons, Greg McElroys and Cokers of the world cannot make. He rushed six times for 42 yards, but more than that, he eluded multiple pass-rushers, extended multiple plays and always kept his eyes down the field.

He didn't throw a touchdown pass, but he completed a serviceable 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards—numbers that should have been even better if not for an egregious drop by Christion Jones on a broken-play heave down the field. That was one of many instances where Sims' nifty footwork created an opportunity out of nothing:

Forty-two yards does not jump off the page as a wildly successful running night. But Sims was at his best going east-to-west, shifting around or outside the pocket to elude pressure and buy time.

Especially behind a young offensive line that remains a work in progress, his ability to do that was invaluable.

Grade: A-

 

Pocket Passing

Pocket passing is the weakest part of Sims' game, and it looked that way on Saturday. He wasn't bad, by any stretch, but he wasn't as sharp on first-read throws as he was when he was moving around.

The interception he threw to Daryl Worley was ill-advised and gave West Virginia a pulse late in the game. The incompletion he threw to a wide-open DeAndrew White in the first half was painful to watch. There were places where his arm and his mind have to improve.

Alabama's offense has been among the best in the country these past few seasons, which makes a fundamental schematic change seem crazy. But Sims looked so much better in no-huddle and out-of-the-pocket situations than he did in, well, traditional-Alabama-quarterback situations that it almost has to be discussed.

"We'll certainly consider it," said Saban of running more no-huddle sets, per Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com. "I think we will do what we think benefits our players the most."

If Sims is his quarterback, this is what benefits his players the most.

Grade: C-plus 

 

Finding Amari Cooper

Sims did make a few more traditionally impressive throws, showing decent arm strength to get the ball out to the sideline. He didn't force much but did a great job getting the ball to his best receiver, Amari Cooper, who finished with 12 catches for 130 yards.

On the heels of Cooper's "down" 2013 season, that was important. It was extra important given the struggles USC had getting the ball to Marqise Lee under then head coach Lane Kiffin in 2013.

Sims and Kiffin combined to get the ball into their best weapon's hands early and often, and that deserves to be commended.

Grade: B+

 

Overall

For the most part,  Sims did everything an Alabama quarterback needs to do.

He leaned on the two-headed monster of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry (40 carries, 239 yards, three touchdowns), and he made the defense pay when it bit too hard on run-fakes. He broke the school record for completions and attempts in a starting debut, and he did it without ever feeling overused.

"I didn't think about it too much," Sims said of the pressure that came with finally getting his first start. "I just went out there and played."

After overcoming early jitters, the looseness of Sims' game showed. That's why a B-plus for his first game seems the fairest grade. He didn't blow anybody away, but he wasn't asked to. He was asked to, well, "just go out there and play."

If he irons out the jagged edges of his throwing motion—the ones that led to ugly ducks such as the one he threw to White—Sims can start earning A's later on in the season. He won't be a Heisman finalist like McCarron, but that doesn't mean he can't do just as well at his job.

"Remember when Alabama had a quarterback competition?" asked Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee after the game. "That ended quickly."

For Sims, that means the mission was accomplished.

Overall Grade: B+

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Wisconsin Badgers Freshman Kicker Busts a Move After Hitting 51-Yard Field Goal

Wisconsin Badgers freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone nailed a 51-yard field goal vs. LSU in the first quarter on Saturday night, and the burly athlete decided to celebrate.

[Vine, h/t Next Impulse Sports]


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Cole Stoudt's Performance at UGA Creates More Questions Than Answers for Clemson

Entering Saturday’s much-anticipated season opener at Georgia, Clemson had questions about how it would replace Tajh Boyd in Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

With good reason: Boyd (who was cut by the New York Jets Saturday) owns every significant career program passing record. He is the ACC’s all-time passing touchdown leader and No. 2 in career passing yards behind N.C. State’s Philip Rivers.

Clemson coaches expressed confidence in senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, who had spent his first three seasons on campus as Boyd’s backup. But the No. 16 Tigers’ 45-21 loss at No. 12 Georgia makes it clear: The Tigers haven’t answered their quarterback questions yet, and it’s not clear if they can do so with Stoudt under center.

Stoudt got off to a very strong start, leading Clemson to paydirt on his first drive. But he peaked in the first half and wore down after halftime. Following a 21-21 tie at the break, the Tigers were shut out while managing just 15 yards and no first downs in the second half.

Highly touted freshman quarterback DeShaun Watson—who accounted for more than 17,000 yards of total offense at Gainesville (Georgia) High, just down the road from Sanford Stadium—struggled in the second half but flashed his potential in his first collegiate series.

Clemson coaches said Watson would play against the Bulldogs, and he entered following three consecutive Stoudt-led three-and-outs.

He was very impressive, leading a quick six-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 30-yard touchdown laser to sophomore wide receiver Mike Williams.

But Watson yielded to Stoudt on the next drive—and Stoudt led a touchdown drive of his own, a 10-play, 53-yard excursion that finished with C.J. Davidson’s one-yard touchdown run.

Clemson wouldn’t see the end zone again. The Bulldogs defense (which had questions of its own under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt) wore the Tigers down in the second half. In seven drives, Clemson’s offense gained a total of 15 yards.

While UGA junior tailback Todd Gurley (198 rushing yards, four total touchdowns) was impressive, the Tigers defense was worn down by the offense’s utter inefficiency. Clemson started only one of its seven second-half possessions beyond its own 17, and UGA started only two of its nine second-half possessions inside its own 33, with a pair in Clemson territory.

Stoudt completed 15 of 28 passes for 130 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Watson was 2-of-4 with 59 yards and a touchdown.

It’s fair to wonder how much Clemson missed NFL draft picks Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant as well as 1,000-yard rusher Rod McDowell. And the offensive line didn’t do the offense any favors after halftime, while the running game was so-so—Davidson led Clemson with 66 yards on 13 carries.

Clemson has some time to think about its quarterback situation with a showdown at Florida State still three weeks away. (South Carolina State visits next week, followed by an off-week Sept. 13.)

But if Chad Morris wants to find out what he has with Watson, an extended look might not be a bad idea. If Stoudt’s upside in the offense is what he displayed Saturday, Clemson has little to lose.

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Jeremy Pruitt Proves He Can Make Georgia Defense SEC Championship-Caliber

Of the many revelations from Georgia's 45-21 win over Clemson on Saturday, one stood out: This Bulldog defense can be SEC Championship-caliber.

Yes, Todd Gurley is a Heisman Trophy candidate.  Sure, the special teams play was noticeably improved.  But the play of Georgia's defense—particularly in the second half—was the most pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs.

New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's unit started slow against a surprisingly potent 1-2 punch of Tiger quarterbacks, but halftime adjustments gave way to a havoc-wreaking, pressure-driven second half shutdown.

To be sure, mistake were made.  But quite encouragingly for Georgia fans, the lion's share of those missteps were made in the first half.  Accordingly, this game won't be remembered for missed tackles or an inability to locate the ball on deep passes.  Instead, Pruitt's first game at Georgia will be remembered for two scoreless quarters. 

After experiencing success and posting 21 points in the first half, Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson (Clemson's two quarterbacks) were altogether unable to manufacture anything resembling a long drive after halftime.  Chaotic blitzing schemes dialed up by Pruitt and sound open-field tackling by the Bulldogs kept the Tigers from achieving first down yardage until the final play of the third quarter.

Surprisingly, Clemson did manage to complete several passes during that stretch, but marked improvements in wrapping up elusive receivers in the flats kept the Tigers in check.

In the fourth quarter, Pruitt didn't let up.  To the contrary, he ramped up pressure on the quarterback by relying on various zone blitzes and misdirection.  Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins showed signs of quarterback pursuit before dropping into coverage.  Their feigned attempts proved just enough to allow inside pressure from the likes of Amarlo Herrera to break through the line of scrimmage. 

Simultaneously, middle linebackers and even defensive backs would show blitz alignments before dropping back into coverage.  As a result, Floyd spent the bulk of the second half in the Tiger backfield.  His pressure—and that of the Bulldog front seven as a whole—was relentless.  More importantly, it was effective.

And yet, the individual achievements pale in comparison to the symbolic achievement of the win.  Sure, holding Clemson to just one first down in the second half was a noteworthy feat.  But more significant was the stark contrast of on-field production following halftime.

There were signs of promise early in the game.  The defense seemed to swarm the way fans expected a Pruitt-coached unit to do.  Walk-on redshirt freshman Aaron Davis, who was buried on the depth chart in 2013, made a first-half interception.  A variety of alignments were used to varying degrees of success.

But none of those hints prepared Georgia fans—or Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, for that matter—for what was to come in the game's final two quarters.  Pruitt's ability to tweak defensive packages and completely eliminate the demonstrated strengths of the Tigers' offensive attack while simultaneously patching up (or at least hiding) Georgia's biggest holes was inspiring for a young defense.  Furthermore, it was a welcome change from the coaching style of former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Grantham routinely stuck to his scheme and remained loyal to his personnel—even when success was limited.  Pruitt came ready to adjust anything and everything, and that's what was necessary to put together such a stellar performance on Saturday night.

That's also what it will take to compete for an SEC Championship.

Georgia's individual parts will improve on defense.  After all, Pruitt is an educator who likes to teach fundamentals, as he told Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer earlier this month.  But he's already implementing championship-caliber in-game adjustments.  And that's an immeasurable step forward for this Georgia defense.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.  All stats courtesy of NCAA.com.

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Derrick Henry Deserves to Be Lead Running Back in Nick Saban's System

Alabama clearly has an embarrassment of riches at running back, with Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon all set to dish out plenty of punishment to college defenses in 2014. The pair combined for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's 33-23 victory over West Virginia University on Saturday.

Head coach Nick Saban always seems to have two exemplary running backs under his command to take turns mowing down opposing defenses. It's a strategy that has brought Alabama three national titles since 2009.

Based on the evidence from the victory over West Virginia, this trend is set to continue. It's a fine strategy that gives offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin plenty to work with, but the scheme would be at its best with the 6'3", 241-pound Henry, not Yeldon, in the lead role. 

This is to take nothing away from the extraordinary ability of running back T.J. Yeldon, but when you have a revolutionary combination of size and speed at running back, it's in the best interest of the team to make sure that force of nature is on the field as often as possible. Yeldon will still get his carries, but Henry should get the lion's share.

Henry has apparently already displaced Kenyan Drake, who tallied 694 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns in 2013 and yet carried the ball just three times for seven yards against West Virginia.

Jacksonville Jaguars radio play-by-play man Frank Frangie believes Henry is Alabama's best back:

It is still tempting to take the consistency of Yeldon, who carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns against West Virginia, while continuing to utilize Henry as a freakish change-of-pace weapon—similar to the way UCLA used linebacker Myles Jack as a part-time halfback last season.

However, Henry doesn't have defensive responsibilities to worry about. He could easily be the throwback, workhorse rusher who can make mincemeat of college defenses behind a behemoth Crimson Tide offensive line. In fact, he already dresses the part of an old-school player, via Bleacher Report's own Barrett Sallee:

When—okay, if—Alabama fans think back to the disappointing Sugar Bowl defeat to Oklahoma last year, Henry is likely the only part of the contest they recall with any true fondness.

The then-freshman made a statement, putting up 161 yards of offense on just nine touches. It became increasingly clear he is a dynamic back just waiting to be unleashed.

Henry has the ability to make game-breaking plays at any moment with his athleticism, but those opportunities are mitigated if he isn't on the field enough. Henry needs to be in the game more often to best maximize his game-altering potential.

He also could be useful if Alabama speeds up its normally plodding offense. CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler noted that Saban sped up the team's offense in order to suit the needs of quarterback Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior making his first start for the Crimson Tide:

But then Saban had another thought. He told Kiffin to dial up a faster pace. 

Sims (24-of-33 for 250 yards and an interception) was at his best when the Tide offense fired off six plays in 1:27 to end the half, an average of 14.5 seconds per play, twice the per-play pace of the previous drive. 

During that span, Sims completed all four of his passes for 28 yards and ran for another 21 to set up a 41-yard Adam Griffith field goal.

If Alabama continues to utilize hurry-up packages, it could limit substitution opportunities in the backfield. Henry is the best fit for these situations with his ability to make big plays. If he's designated as the lead back, the Crimson Tide are more likely to have him on the field in these pivotal, fast-paced situations.

He showed off his ability to scamper down the sideline for big gains against West Virginia:

Fox Sports Southwest's David Ubben watched Henry play and questioned the football legality of his presence on the gridiron:

The ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a non-factor in this contest. Henry had that 61-yard touchdown catch in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, but that was his first of the season. Yeldon tallied just 20 receptions in 2013, and had all of one catch for a single yard against the Mountaineers on Saturday.

Clearly, Henry would do well to refine this aspect of his game, but he could get into the flow of things if he sees more snaps. Yeldon hasn't set the bar very high in this aspect of the game, which should keep the opportunities coming for Henry as a possible decoy on obvious passing downs.

He also spoke about making a concerted effort to improve as a pass-blocker this offseason.

"I’ve just really been focusing in the meetings and in practice, making sure I’m paying attention to [pass blocking and picking up the blitz] because that’s really big in college," said Henry, via ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough. "There are a lot of defenses, different defenses, so you’ve got to know the blitzes if you want to play."

It would be tough to take away Yeldon's status as the top back at Alabama, but as the season wears on the Crimson Tide can use a rusher who will dish out plenty of punishment to tired defenses that may be quick to tip back on their heels with a rampaging rusher heading straight toward them.

Henry narrowly edges out Yeldon in this regard, although both backs will need plenty of carries for Alabama to pull out victories without a bona fide star—or even starter, for that matter—at quarterback.

Blake Sims was serviceable against West Virginia, and transfer signal-caller Jacob Coker is lurking in the background. But neither of those players will light up SEC defenses. That is a task designed specifically for Yeldon and Henry, but best left to the latter player.

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