Who’s Hot (and not) in college football entering Week 8. Alabama and West Virginia keep rolling, while Louisville and Tennessee continued to struggle for the second consecutive week.
Florida International’s Ron Cooper
Think of him as Conference USA’s Ed Orgeron. When the Panthers fired Ron Turner last month, the program was in disarray, winless at 0-4 and coming off a 53-14 loss to UCF. Flash-forward to today and FIU is one game below .500 under its interim coach after rallying at Charlotte for a third straight win. An imperfect team, yes, but if the Panthers are in bowl contention a month from now, Cooper is liable to get his second opportunity to be a head coach at this level.
Now that the Cougars have figured out how to survive close games under rookie head coach Kalani Sitake, this will be a very dangerous second-half squad, beginning this Thursday in Boise. BYU, which has now participated in six games decided by a touchdown or less, has taken three straight, capped by Friday’s double-overtime against Mississippi State. Spearheaded by RB Jamaal Williams and a solid D, the Cougs have also beaten Arizona and Michigan State, giving them wins over SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten teams.
LSU RB Derrius Guice
Of course, Ed Orgeron would love to regain the services of Leonard Fournette, one of the nation’s premier backs. But what’s the rush? Guice has been sensational, first as a complement and now as a starter. He’s averaging more than nine yards a carry, racing for 163 yards and 162 yards in his two starts. Ideally for the Tigers, Fournette is ready for this week’s visit from Ole Miss—or Bama on Nov. 5 at the latest—which would give the offense a dynamic one-two punch during a most wicked portion of the schedule.
Okay, so Michigan State is improbably brutal in all phases this year. Still, the Wildcats slapped 54 points on the Spartans in East Lansing, the most ever on a Mark Dantonio-coached team. And earlier in the month, the Cats scored 38 on the road in a win over Iowa. It’s been quite an about-face for a team that stumbled out of the gate with two losses, including a 9-7 clunker to FCS Illinois State. Pat Fitzgerald will roll into the second half with his offensive triplets, QB Clayton Thorson, RB Justin Jackson and WR Austin Carr, who’s blossoming as a senior.
Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook
The Sooners are soaring back into the discussion as the Big 12’s premier team. And Westbrook is one of the keys to the program’s turnaround. The senior has emerged into the missing link for the Oklahoma passing game, catching 26 passes for 574 yards and eight touchdowns during the current three-game winning streak. Plus, he’s beginning to attract the attention of NFL scouts who’ve become increasingly impressed with his ability to take the top off defenses.
Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
Cunningham is one of the two or three best defenders in America that you probably haven’t watched in action this season. The junior is a legitimate Butkus Award contender, an old-school thumper who will not be outworked on the field or in the film room. Cunningham was at his stifling best Between the Hedges Saturday, tallying a career-best 19 tackles and 2.5 stops for loss to lead the Commodores to an upset of Georgia. His final stop of Isaiah McKenzie ended a Bulldog drive that appeared headed toward a game-winning field goal attempt.
It took eight tries, but the Buffaloes have finally defeated Arizona State. And they did it convincingly, 40-16, to remain in a dead heat atop the Pac-12 South Division. Colorado engineered a smooth transition behind center, with Sefo Liufau coming off the DL to supplant Steven Montez, and Phillip Lindsay running for 219 yards and three touchdowns. The Buffs can become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007 this Saturday at Stanford, but Mike MacIntyre’s kids are eyeing much bigger prizes in 2016.
The Mountaineers? Yeah, they might be for real after all. It’s been hard to get an accurate read on West Virginia so far in 2016, and it’s not as if Texas Tech qualifies as a quality win these days. But Dana Holgorsen’s kids went into Lubbock Saturday to absolutely smoke the Red Raiders in all phases. The Mountaineers kept QB Patrick Mahomes in check and dominated the line of scrimmage to open holes for more than 300 rushing yards. There’s a lot of football ahead, beginning with this week’s visit from TCU, but West Virginia is looking more and more like a legitimate Big 12 threat.
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Hurts is maturing and settling down with each passing week, and that’s really bad news for any other program looking to dethrone the Tide. Bama is scoring enough on defense and special teams alone to defeat most of the teams on the schedule. Hurts, though, has brought something different to Lane Kiffin’s offense in Tuscaloosa, an element of athleticism to the usually methodical attack. The rookie was average through the air in Saturday’s demolition of Tennessee, but he ran for three scores, and his confidence is peaking heading into this week’s showdown with Texas A&M.
Arkansas QB Austin Allen
Allen bounced back from a rough outing versus Alabama, which included three picks to Minkah Fitzpatrick, to outplay Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly in the battle of the fastball pitchers in Fayetteville. Allen tossed three touchdown passes for the third game in a row, showing off his poise, moxie and arm talent in a pivotal 34-30 Arkansas victory. It was a turning-point victory for the Razorbacks, which continue the gauntlet in upcoming games with Auburn, Florida and LSU.
The Buckeyes were pushed to their limits Saturday in Madison, physically beaten down by a very well coached Wisconsin squad. And they lived to tell about it, their ranking and their unblemished mark still intact. Ohio State earned a gut-check win on an evening that the defense wasn’t very good and the offense was held below its usual output. It’s the type of outcome that’ll serve this team very well down the road, but especially against Michigan, which shares many of the Badgers’ characteristics.
The Falcons might be this year’s Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy frontrunner, courtesy of a 28-14 win over Navy on Oct. 1, but they haven’t nabbed a win since. Air Force has dropped back-to-back games to Wyoming and New Mexico to stunt its Mountain West hopes, as the once-reliable defense has devolved into a liability. This past weekend, Troy Calhoun’s kids could not contain the Lobo ground game, which got 100-yard efforts from Teriyon Gipson and Tyrone Owens. The Falcons will attempt to snap the skid this week against improving Hawaii.
Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter
Wasn’t it just a few years ago that DeRuyter was one of the hottest Group of Five coaches in America? Seems like much longer that his Bulldogs were winning 20 games, while going 14-2 in the Mountain West, in 2012-13. Since peaking three years ago, DeRuyter and Fresno State have fallen on hard times, plummeting to 10-23 behind inconsistent quarterback play. This season might be rock bottom, as 1-6 FSU slipped to the brink of bowl ineligibility with Friday’s 17-3 homecoming loss to San Diego State.
It appears that the slide is beginning in College Park. The Terrapins opened the season 4-0, including a 50-7 rout of Purdue. But that may have represented the peak for D.J. Durkin’s second team. Maryland has since been blown out by Penn State and Minnesota, unable to stop the run or get its own offense out of neutral. And with games remaining against Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska, an upset will be necessary to qualify for the postseason.
Remember all that uninformed chatter about the Canes being back and ready to rise to the top of the ACC Coastal? Yeah, pump the brakes on that notion for the time being. Over the last two games, Miami was tested by two of the league’s better teams, Florida State and North Carolina. Lost them both … at home. QB Brad Kaaya and the offense are sputtering, bad timing considering there’s a short turnaround before this Thursday’s pivotal game at Va Tech. If the Canes can’t turn things around in a hurry, this season is going to slip away from Mark Richt.
Yeah, the Cards moved to 5-1 with a Friday night escape of Duke. But escaping a Blue Devil program that had previously fallen to Wake Forest, Northwestern and Virginia is insufficient for a team with visions of joining Clemson as the second ACC team in the playoff hunt. Louisville needs to amass style points, particularly with a tissue-soft second-half schedule that no longer includes an unbeaten Houston. However, the Cards could actually drop in the polls, since Duke trailed by just three points late in the fourth quarter at Papa John’s Stadium.
Nice run, Vols, but you could need help in October or November to win the SEC East. The magic has finally run out for Tennessee, losers of back-to-back games to Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter in a blowout. The Volunteers are suddenly a game behind Florida, despite rallying to beat the Gators on Sept. 24. Fortunately for UT fans, their team finishes the season with South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Mizzou and Vandy, while Florida still plays Georgia and LSU in the controversial Nov. 19 makeup game.
Where have all the preseason favorites gone? Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette were physically unable to perform in Week 7. Deshaun Watson has yet to recapture his 2015 form. Even Lamar Jackson was subpar compared to his usual output. Sure, J.T. Barrett was heroic in leading Ohio State back against Wisconsin, but he hasn’t exactly been tearing it up lately. There’s a lane open to New York City, and Jabrill Peppers is angling to fill it when he returns to action this week against Illinois.
The to-do list between now and the Oct. 29 trip to Florida State got considerably longer in Saturday’s close call with NC State in overtime. The Tigers could have lost to the Pack. Strike that, should have lost to the Pack. Clemson was careless with the ball, turning it over four times, and the play of the offensive line was disappointing. True, the Pack is underrated at the point of attack, but the Tigers must do a better job of moving the pile to prevent their perfect season and title run from imploding two weeks from now in Tallahassee.
This is the league that fancies itself as a threat to send two teams to the College Football Playoff? C’mon, not based on this past weekend’s results. Okay, so maybe the glass is half full and the ACC is deeper than expected. That’s possible. But there ought to be concern over how poorly the league’s marquee teams played in Week 7. Clemson should have lost to NC State. Louisville had its hands full with Duke. Florida State needed until the second half to shake Wake. Miami lost its second straight and Va Tech fell to Syracuse. None of the ACC’s ranked teams shined this past week, which needs to be halted before it becomes a trend.
Rosen and Mora
It’s been a brutal season at UCLA. Not quite Notre Dame brutal, but why bother to split hairs? The Bruins had dreams of winning the Pac-12 for the first time since the tail end of last season. It was the second year together for head coach Jim Mora and prodigal QB Josh Rosen, so why not? Instead, the program has regressed, falling below .500 after losing to Washington State, with no guarantees of qualifying for a bowl game. Rosen is hurt, and getting no support from the rest of the offense, while there are growing concerns whether Mora can eventually get this team over the hump and into a Rose Bowl.
Kizer and Kelly
There was ample optimism in South Bend before the season started. Notre Dame was loaded at quarterback and presumably healthier than a year ago. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything. The Irish slipped to 2-5 following Saturday’s 17-10 loss to Stanford, the confidence of gifted QB DeShone Kizer noticeably shattered. Brian Kelly has already fired his defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, and his own future has come under scrutiny. This is one of those lost seasons for a powerhouse program, with tough games still left with Miami, Navy, Va Tech and USC.