Big Picture: Why Oklahoma can live up to hype, ECU’s upset and more

On Friday night our “Countdown to Kickoff” show on FOX Sports 1 had a panel discussion about why there seems to be more skepticism about Oklahoma than any other Top 5 team. My answer was some of that probably stems from this: In the past five years, the Sooners have been ranked in the preseason Top 5 three times and all three times they didn’t finish in the top 14.

That said, this OU team appears to have a better shot at living up to the hype than those other ones. 

What’s different?

For starters, the Sooners are much better on both lines than they have been in recent years. Their D-line, led by budding star Jordan Phillips — an athletic 6-foot-6, 335-pound force — is emerging as one of the best in the country. Against an extremely young Tennessee team, OU’s front overwhelmed the Vols, racking up five sacks and 12 TFLs, making it the first time since 2009 that the Sooners have limited their first three opponents to 17 points or fewer. And, with the 24-point victory over UT, OU has now defeated its first three opponents to open a season by 20-plus points each for the first time in six years.

"The thing they do such a great job of is moving the front, applying pressure because they’re so big, physical and can run," Vols head coach Butch Jones told FOX Sports Sunday morning. "They have suddenness and are very explosive. They’re just so disruptive, but they can also match you up on the back end and play man-coverage. Their team speed is very good. They also execute their scheme very well. 

"They do a great job schematically of tying up your double-teams. It’s hard to get to the second level against them, so their linebackers can run. Any time you can play man-coverage on the back end, it allows you the freedom to do many more things in terms of applying pressure and moving the front."

The Vols, as green as they are, especially in the trenches, were ripe for the Sooners to take advantage of. Tennessee started five true freshmen in Norman with three of them on their offensive front (two linemen and a tight end).

OU figures to get a tougher test this coming week when they have to travel to Morgantown to face a much improved Mountaineers squad. WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, who knows the Sooners staff very well, is very impressed by the defense he’s going to face Saturday night.

"We already played two good defenses this season in Alabama and Maryland, and without a doubt Oklahoma is a bigger test than Alabama," Holgorsen told FOX Sports Sunday afternoon. "Alabama was damn good on defense last season, but they lost a few people. Oklahoma was damn good on defense last season and they really didn’t lose anybody."

A bigger wildcard with OU is its offense. For much of last season, the Sooners struggled on offense. They didn’t seem to have an identity on offense — they were kinda stuck in between offenses, explained one rival coach. But that changed in the Sugar Bowl, where the Sooners lit up Alabama for 348 passing yards and 45 points, and they found an identity and now know who they are. They essentially snagged Auburn’s identity, said one coaching source noting that OU saw how much trouble the Tide had with the run-pass conflicts the Tigers put Bama in. 

BEST IMAGES FROM WEEK 3

Sophomore QB Trevor Knight, a capable runner who torched the Tide through the air, is good in the play-action game although there are still some questions whether he can be consistent enough as a downfield passer in the drop-back game if OU is truly going to be a national title contender. Wideout Sterling Shepard is a big-time player that is a match-up problem for defenses. If OU had towering WR Dorial Green-Beckham on the other side, they’d really be scary. The good news for OU fans is Durron Neal is starting to come on. He had a career-high seven catches Saturday night. If he can blossom, that’d be a big key, especially since OU lost a playmaker in dangerous slot receiver Jalen Saunders. 

Back to WVU: It’s too soon to proclaim that Holgorsen’s Mountaineers are back to being a force and one of the most explosive offenses in college football as they were just two seasons ago. Last year, they were a mess, shuffling in quarterbacks, ranking No. 63 in offense and No. 69 in yards per play. The low-point in a 4-8 season blotted with many low-points was a stinker of a showing against Maryland, where they were blanked 37-0 by an unranked Terps team. WVU managed just 175 yards in total offense.

On Saturday afternoon, the Mountaineers shredded the Terp D for 694 yards on a whopping 108 plays. Senior QB Clint Trickett passed for 511 yards. It came after an impressive showing where the Mountaineers had Alabama on its heels with its up-tempo, multi-faceted attack that has made it seem like Holgorsen, one of the most creative offensive minds in football, has his mojo back.

What has sparked such a dramatic 180? Well, to say Holgorsen is more involved in the offense is one theory, although as he noted to me Sunday, he’s pretty much been the play-caller since he arrived in Morgantown save for a few games in 2012 when OC Shannon Dawson handled it. The biggest reason for change Holgorsen pointed out was that it’s the second season in the system for Trickett, a Florida State transfer, and for play-making wideouts Mario Alford and Kevin White. Consider this: Last year against Maryland, the receiving duo caught zero passes. On Saturday, they combined for 24 catches for 347 yards and three TDs.

A few seasons ago when Geno Smith was blowing up scoreboards, he had a terrific receiving corps led by Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. WVU is almost as potent now with White, a 6-3, 210-pounder; the 5-9, 180-pound Alford; and 6-1, 200-pound Daikiel Shorts, a quality possession receiver.

In 2013, WVU averaged just 74 snaps a game. This season, they’re at 91, with only two teams running more plays so far.

"It’s easier to call plays when you’re making first downs," Holgorsen said. "We’re really just executing better. Last year, we were trying to out-scheme everybody and we had to go slower because the communication was harder and we had so many guys out of position."

Give a lot of credit to Trickett, the son of old Marine Rick Trickett, the FSU O-line coach. The younger Trickett’s moxie has provided the program with a much-needed jolt. 

"He’s a great leader," Holgorsen said of Trickett. "Last year, the guys didn’t know him. They didn’t know how to take him, but he’s outgoing and he’s like a coach. His rapport with the receivers is awesome and knowledge of the offense is night and day from where it was. They’ve figured out their nuances and gotten their timing down."

It’s helped that Trickett, who has struggled with adding weight, is up to 185 pounds now (he was down to 165 at one point last season). "He can run just enough to extend the play," said Holgorsen. "He’s not unathletic. He’s just frail. Just look at him. 

"He’s doing everything right. We just gotta continue to keep him out of harm’s way."

ECU FINDS A NEW WR WEAPON

How Bud Foster and Virginia Tech jumped all over the Buckeyes at Ohio State was perhaps the biggest story of Week 2. Seven days later, the Hokies were back at Lane Stadium and got ambushed themselves, as East Carolina jumped on them en route to a 28-21 win in spite of 13 penalties and gained 502 yards on the vaunted VT defense. Against the Buckeyes, Foster played a lot of Bear defense with a suffocating front that overwhelmed the inexperienced OSU O-line and redshirt freshman QB J.T. Barrett. They didn’t play it as much against ECU, but the Pirates burned Va. Tech with big plays when they had chances, especially in the first half. The Pirates’ 370 yards in the first half were the most allowed by the Hokies in any half in 10 years.

The aggressive Tech defensive scheme was a challenge to ECU, especially their receivers who knew they’d get manned up. In prior seasons, the Pirates, who hadn’t won at Lane Stadium in 23 seasons, wilted in the face of the pressure. 

WEEK 3 WINNERS & LOSERS

"We hadn’t been aggressive enough against ’em," ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley told FOX Sports on Sunday. "You really gotta try and be aggressive back. Against them, if you get on your heels, they’re gonna bully you around. They’d done that before against us. They made us play their game. (On Saturday), we weren’t perfect, but we had our spurts and we completed a lot of vertical balls."

ECU’s star QB Shane Carden completed 23 of 47 passes for 427 yards, the third-most ever against a Va. Tech defense. The surprise star of the game was ECU WR Cam Worthy, a former walk-on, who caught six passes for 224 yards, including two long-gainers on the game-winning drive. Normally, ECU’s standout WR is Justin Hardy, the school’s all-time leading receiver in every major category, but against the Hokies D it was Worthy who took over.

Worthy’s quite a story. He’s the kind of athlete who would figure to blow up the NFL Combine. He’s a 6-3, 220-pounder with a 43-inch vertical jump, but he was off everyone’s radar. Riley said he came to ECU as a junior college walk-on QB who the program found out about through one of the team’s long snapper’s mothers. 

"It was a real random deal," Riley said. "He’s this really raw kid, but he’s big and he has huge hands and great ball skills, but his route-running was beyond raw. (ECU WR coach) Dave Nichol has done a great job with him, and now Cam’s really just stopped thinking and is just playing, and making a lot of plays for us."

USC BEATEN BY BODY BLOWS

Return of the Body Blow Theory: A while back I came up with this notion of the toll it can have on a program after it faces an especially physical opponent. I recalled then-San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre telling me about his first season with the Spartans and the impact having to play Bama and Wisconsin really had on his players afterwards. My case study when I tried to quantify this was Stanford, widely pegged as the West’s most punishing team. Last week, USC beat the Cardinal but followed it up with a real clunker of a performance at Boston College. The USC blog Reign of Troy took note of my theory and put it in some focus here.

Boston College’s 452 rushing yards was an incredible 310 more yards than the Trojans’ run defense had averaged through the season’s first two weeks. Offensively, USC ran for 196 fewer yards than they were averaging.

The Eagles also ran for 212 yards MORE than their season average and held USC to 155 fewer than what they were allowing on the ground previously.

Speaking of the Eagles’ inspired effort, check out this piece from Pete Thamel about why it was just such an emotional night at BC, as the Eagles dedicated the game to former Boston College lacrosse player/hero Welles Crowther in honor of the 13thanniversary of his death in the terrorist attacks of September 11.

TEXAS A&M FRESHMAN EYEING CLOWNEY’S RECORD

One of the reasons why the Texas A&M D is better than in 2013 is the addition of a few stud true freshmen. Myles Garrett, the top-ranked D-line recruit in the nation last winter, in particular has been as advertised. Actually, Aggie DC Mark Snyder told me Sunday morning the 6-4, 250-pound Texan is even better than he thought. 

"I didn’t know he had this kind of pass rush ability in terms of his power, speed and these counter moves," said Snyder. "It’s pretty freakish. He’s so twitchy. He’s not just some straight-line (fast) guy. He can dip and rip, and bend the corner like I’ve never [seen]."

BEST SHOTS FROM THE TOP 25

Snyder, a long-time Ohio State assistant, has been around some fierce pass rushers before. Will Smith, a 267-pounder who clocked a 4.49 40 at his pro day at Ohio State, had 21 sacks and 47 TFLs in his Buckeye career. While he was Minnesota’s defensive ends coach, the Gophers twice set school records for single-season sacks and Lamanzer Williams led the nation in sacks in 1997, while Karon Riley was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2000.

Garrett’s notched 5.5 sacks through A&M’s first three games and is just 2.5 sacks away from tying Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman record. 

"I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t smash Clowney’s record," said Snyder.

Actually, with a struggling SMU team up next, Garrett could have the record before October.

PATTERSON’S B1G WIN

Gary Patterson has coached in four different leagues as a head man (the WAC, C-USA, Mountain West and Big 12). He’s also proven he can handle the Big Ten.

After TCU blasted Minnesota Saturday, Patterson improved to 4-1 versus Big Ten opponents as a head coach.

THE REAL HOGS?

Hats off to Arkansas and Bret Bielema for getting their first road win, as they mauled Texas Tech at Jones Stadium. The Hogs’ program has been a punchline for the past few years, but it’d be probably a lot more interesting in the SEC if Bielema gets this program turned around given his persona.

The road win notwithstanding, I’m still very skeptical Arkansas will be decent enough on D to be a bowl team, though. Next week’s home game against a solid NIU team will be telling. After that, six of the Hogs’ final eight games come against teams ranked in the Top 20.

Watching the Red Raiders, who struggled against two suspect opponents in the first two weeks, and seeing how shaky the their D looks, I’m wondering if Tech will prove to be a lot like the 2012 West Virginia team — explosive on offense but dreadful on D and forced to win games in a lot of Big 12 shootouts. 

IOWA GETS EXPOSED

If the main reason you’re touting a team to crack the Top 20 is because their schedule sets up so seemingly easily, then you should hold off talking up this "sleeper." Case in point: Iowa.

Lots of media folks sized up what, on paper, looked like a cushy first nine weeks and saw the Hawkeyes potentially opening 9-0. Iowa, though, had its hands full in the first two weeks and then went down to Iowa State, which has now beaten its arch rival in three of the past four seasons.

TAKE NOTICE OF MIZZOU’S D

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

Mizzou has had two very dominant showings in the past two weeks. On Saturday, the Tigers routed UCF, 38-10, as their D-line was dominant. Freak Shane Ray, arguably the fastest D-lineman in the country, had four TFLs and two sacks while bookend Markus Golden had 1.5 sacks.

The Tigers are 14th in the country in TFLs with 22 despite having to replace two big-play ends from last year’s SEC East title team in Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Veteran D-line coach Craig Kuligowski deserves a lot of credit. The guy consistently produces difference-makers, and he has some really impressive ones lining up right now.

CREDIT FOR THE CAVALIERS

Virginia snapped its 11-game FBS losing streak and 10-game ACC losing streak in style with a win over Bobby Petrino’s Louisville team. UVA gave UCLA lots of trouble in Week 1, and many of us reasoned that it was an early kick for the West Coast team and the Bruins were playing with a patch-work O-line.

While all that was true, the Cavs didn’t get enough credit for their talent on D. Against Petrino’s offense, they held Louisville to 2.9 yards a carry. Now, they get a tougher test against a very physical BYU team on the road, UVA’s third Top 25 opponent in its first four games. Another win would do wonders for Mike London’s job stability, especially with Kent State on deck. 

A MEASURING MOMENT FOR VOLS

Tennessee, which has a bye week before its next brutal road trip to Georgia, got quite an education Saturday night in Norman. Butch Jones told me that 47 percent of his players on the plane were making their first college road trip ever. And Norman against the nation’s No. 4 team can be pretty daunting. 

Jones was encouraged by how his players kept competing. His liked how QB Justin Worley hung in the pocket and "showed some grit," and how star freshman Jalen Hurd "didn’t look like a freshman in pass protection." But at times that’s almost all Jones saw out on the field — true freshmen.

"I looked out there at one point and the whole right side of our offense — right guard, right tackle, tight end, wide receiver and running back — were all true freshmen," he said, repeating what has become a mantra of sorts: develop and recruit, develop and recruit, as he tries to rebuild a program that was in complete disarray when he took over.

"It’s just a matter of time. There are no moral victories. None. But as you set the vision, there are some things where you see progress. I think this will be a game that we reference for a very long time. We’ll get it. The thing I do like is the mentality of our football team. The care factor is very high. They take pride in their performance and when you have that, you’re gonna continue to develop and improve."

JERRY WORLD

Former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel is one of the most colorful people in sports and one of the best characters I’ve met in the business. Saturday night, his son Jerry was thrust into the spotlight against Texas after star QB Brett Hundley went down with an elbow injury. It was up to Neuheisel’s son to rally the Bruins, and the kid came through.

The moment was sweet especially for the old man, as you can see from his reaction here as he watched from the Touchdown Room at Pac-12 Studios. 

As for Hundley, as I reported late Saturday night on FS1, he suffered a slight hyper extension of his left elbow, according to a UCLA source, and is expected to be fine by the end of the week.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

This is a good sign for new Ohio State Co-DC Chris Ash. Last season, OSU ranked 110th in pass defense and gave up 41 pass plays of 20 yards or longer. Through three games, the Buckeyes are the only team in college football that has yet to surrender a 20-yard pass play — and that includes teams that have played fewer games.

Va. Tech has given up 22 plays of 20 yards or longer. Only three teams in all of FBS have given up more (Buffalo, UTEP and Southern Miss.)

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

FREAKS WEEK 2014

Few things in football are more crushing that not getting a fourth down stop. Just ask the Buffalo Bulls, who have now surrendered first downs on all eight of their opponents’ fourth-down tries.

The really crazy part: Last year Buffalo actually led the nation in fourth down D, allowing only four first downs on 18 tries (22 percent), with Baylor and Alabama coming in second and third.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

James Franklin keeps on winning. His new team, Penn State, had a nice road win at Rutgers to go to 3-0. One of Franklin’s biggest points of emphasis has to be getting better in the Red Zone. The Nittany Lions are unbeaten despite scoring on just 25 percent of their 12 Red Zone trips, ranking No. 126 in the nation.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE IV

Old Notre Dame QBs threw for 842 yards, nine TDs and just one INT in FBS games this week thanks to the performances of Cincy’s Gunner Kiel, ND’s Everett Golson and Miami of Ohio’s Andrew Hendrix. Good follow-up stat on the Irish from SID Michael Bertsch: Against Purdue Saturday night, ND started only two players who don’t have eligibility remaining after 2014. Those two are CB Cody Riggs and TE Ben Koyack.

The Baylor freshman speedster is averaging a ridiculous 31.7 yards per touch. No one else who qualifies among the top 100 in yards from scrimmage is over 20 yards per play.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.