The hottest, the best and the brightest going into Week 13 of the 2015 college football season.
Toledo RB Kareem Hunt
When Hunt is healthy, he’s one of the Group of Five’s premier runners. He’s been healthy this month, reeling off three straight 100-yard, two-touchdown games, including Tuesday night on the road at rival Bowling Green. Hunt carried the offense with a season-high 153 yards on 29 carries to keep the Rockets in the thick of the MAC West race. It was also Toledo’s sixth straight “Battle of I-75” victory over the Falcons.
Bob Diaco has the biggest win of his brief career in Storrs, handing No. 19 Houston its first loss of the season. And you could kind of see this upset coming, because the Huskies have been playing better in the second half, shutting down East Carolina and Tulane in the previous two weeks. UConn is getting it done on defense, Diaco’s forte, holding the Cougars nearly four touchdowns below their season scoring average. Plus, with the win, the Huskies are bowl eligible for the first time since 2010, a huge achievement for the staff.
There’s been a changing of the guard in the Mountain Division this fall, with the Falcons supplanting Boise State at the peak. Air Force seized control of the division with Friday night’s 37-30 defeat of the Broncos behind 607 offensive yards and a half-dozen sacks. The Academy, which hasn’t lost since Oct. 17, can punch its ticket to the league title game with a win next week at New Mexico, while Boise State has dropped consecutive home games for the first time in 18 years.
No one in the American wants to the see the Bulls at this stage of the season. And for good reason. USF is on the kind of epic tear that would make former head man Jim Leavitt proud, winning six of the last seven, including Friday night’s 65-27 obliteration of Cincinnati. The offense has found its groove around the timely strikes of QB Quinton Flowers and a ground game that gashed the Bearcats. It’s taken three years, but Willie Taggart finally has this program approaching its considerable potential.
Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott
Just because Prescott hasn’t generated as much attention as he did a year ago does not mean that his game has tailed off. In fact, he’s elevated his play in the eyes’ of pro scouts and helped carry his Bulldogs to an 8-3 mark with the Egg Bowl to be played. In Saturday’s 51-50 win over Arkansas, Prescott rallied Mississippi State from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit by throwing for a career-high 508 yards and accounting for seven touchdowns. In a year that MSU was pegged for the bottom of the SEC West, it still has a shot at a 10-win season.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald
Just when you think Fitz has run out of magic in Evanston, he goes out and wins nine games with a team that doesn’t have nine-win talent on offense. The Wildcats have rebounded from disappointing back-to-back 5-7 campaigns to start 9-2, despite averaging just 21 points per game. Northwestern moved to 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, winning at Wisconsin for the first time since 2000 behind another great effort from LB Anthony Walker, DE Deonte Gibson and the rest of the stout D.
The Bears delivered quite an answer to last week’s Oklahoma loss, becoming the first team in 2015 to upend Oklahoma State. And they did it despite having to use third-string QB Chris Johnson in the second half after Jarrett Stidham was injured. Art Briles once again showcased his mastery of coaching up young quarterbacks, racking up more than 700 yards of total offense to remain in the Big 12 hunt if the Cowboys can knock off the Sooners in Bedlam this week.
With Michigan State-Ohio State commanding so much attention in Week 12, it’s easy to forget that the Wolverines have lost just a single game since the opener in Salt Lake City. And, of course, that defeat came in the uber-fluky finale to the Spartans on Oct. 17. Michigan bounced back on defense to beat Penn State in Happy Valley Saturday and remain in the Big Ten East title hunt.
Oregon QB Vernon Adams
Adams continues to validate his offseason decision to leave Eastern Washington for Eugene, dissecting USC for six scoring strikes in a 48-28 rout. There isn’t a better Pac-12 team right now than the Ducks, which have rebounded from a 3-3 start to win five straight games. And the offense is back to being its old explosive self, averaging more than nine yards a play in back-to-back games with Stanford and the Trojans.
The star quarterback didn’t play, and yet the Spartans are a win away from capturing the Big Ten East and facing Iowa for a possible shot at a playoff berth. Michigan State, sans Connor Cook, absolutely floored Ohio State in Columbus behind an epic effort from the defense. Sparty snapped the nation’s longest winning streak, while turning the conference on its ear by miraculously holding the defending national champs to just five first downs and 132 total yards, fewest ever by an Urban Meyer-coached squad. It was quintessential Mark Dantonio, still one of the most underrated and underappreciated head coaches in college football.
The disappointments from this week in the college football world.
The Tigers, the one-time favorite to capture a Big Six bowl berth, never recovered from their Nov. 7 shellacking at the hands of Navy. After falling to Temple on Saturday, 31-12, Memphis has now dropped three in a row, a far cry from the team that gained national notoriety with last month’s shocker over Ole Miss. The Tigers are a good team that proved incapable of handling adversity, stealing some of the luster from head coach Justin Fuente in the process.
Is the end of the regular season here yet? The Blue Devils and head coach David Cutcliffe need a break as much as any Power Five program right now. The Coastal Division favorite on Halloween morning, Duke was robbed by the game officials later that day, and have never recovered from a demoralizing loss to Miami. The team has dropped four in a row, allowing 66 points to Carolina on Nov. 17 and 42 this past Saturday to seven-loss Virginia. The Devils have yet to defeat an FBS opponent that’s currently over .500.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson
Had it not been for last year’s Coastal Division crown and Orange Bowl victory, Johnson may have been headed out the door in a couple of weeks. The coach was in trouble prior to 2014, hitting a wall on the Flats for a few seasons. And now his program is mired in its worst season since 1994 after getting thumped by Miami, 38-21, to fall to 1-7 in ACC play. Johnson ought to be fine no matter what happens this week versus rival Georgia, but he could be on the hot seat in September and out the door by next December if the situation doesn’t improve.
Notre Dame in the red zone
Red zone missteps have plagued the Irish all year, and did so again at Fenway Park. Notre Dame was fortunate to escape Boston College, 19-16, doing no favors to its playoff case. The Irish turned the ball over five times, including three DeShone Kizer interceptions, and the usually reliable Will Fuller dropped a certain touchdown catch. You can leave runners in scoring position and beat BC, but ND won’t topple Stanford next weekend if it fails to clean up its act in the red zone.
Maybe Steve Spurrier knew what he was doing after all when he bolted from the sidelines in-season. At least he avoided the indignity of losing to The Citadel, which instead fell on the shoulders of interim coach Shawn Elliott. Whoever replaces Spurrier on a permanent basis is going to inherent a team with self-esteem issues and, in all likelihood, a five-game season-ending losing streak.
The Utes controlled their own destiny in the Pac-12 South for much of the regular season. In the end, though, they lacked the necessary talent and championship muscle memory to get to the finish line. Utah has dropped three of its last five games to get eliminated in the divisional hunt. And while heart-and-soul RB Devontae Booker missed this past weekend’s UCLA loss, he was available when the Utes fell hard to USC on Oct. 24 and to a depleted, worn-out Arizona squad a week ago.
The film doesn’t lie. This is an ordinary football team, at least on the offensive side of the ball. The Gators as a top 10 team? Please. Over the last three weeks, Florida hasn’t performed as if it belongs anywhere near the rankings, beating Vandy by two, South Carolina by 10 and Florida Atlantic in overtime. Yup, an extra session needed to dispose of FAU. If the Gators don’t find a pulse this week, they’re liable to get run out town in upcoming matchups with Florida State and Alabama in the SEC title game.
LSU head coach Les Miles
First the unexpected rumors that Miles might be coaching for his future in Baton Rouge. And then the 38-17 beatdown at the hands of Ole Miss. Yup, these are trying times for the 11th-year head coach, who has lost three in a row for the first time in his LSU career. The offense has been awful in November, crushing Leonard Fournette’s Heisman hopes as well as hopes for a 10-win season. Miles is a legend, for football and non-football reasons, but folks are getting antsy as LSU stumbles down the stretch for a second straight year.
The SEC East
A forgettable year for the SEC East was encapsulated in one ugly weekend for the conference’s weaker half. In what was supposed to be a pre-rivalry weekend breather for the division’s members, Georgia and first-place Florida needed overtime to escape Georgia Southern and Florida Atlantic, respectively. And South Carolina fell at home to The Citadel of the FCS. Plus, Vandy was no match for Texas A&M and two-time defending champ Mizzou scored in single-digits for the fourth time in the last six games … both at home.
Awful performance. Awful play-calling on offense. And some awful displays of selfishness after the Buckeyes fell to Michigan State … at home … on a day that QB Connor Cook did not play. The defending champs—and prohibitive favorites to repeat when the season began—never played like champions in 2015, right up until Saturday’s loss to the Spartans. Making matters worse, RB Ezekiel Elliot and QB Cardale Jones blurted out post-game plans to head to the NFL, which came off as a little immature, ill-timed and self-serving.