Big Picture: Prescott, Gurley, Gordon top messy Heisman Trophy race

While much of the country’s college football focus was riveted to what was going on in the state of Mississippi last weekend, as MSU’s Dak Prescott carved up the Texas A&M defense, it dawned on me how dramatically the Heisman race had already shifted from how it looked in August. The four leading contenders then: Jameis Winston, 9/2 odds; Marcus Mariota, 6/1; Braxton Miller, 15/2 and Bryce Petty, 12/1.

Miller’s Heisman hopes ended before the season with a shoulder injury. Petty was sidelined with a back injury early and has drifted off the Heisman radar for the time being before the Bears’ schedule heats up. Mariota had been superb, but his campaign hit a big bump when Oregon lost at home to unranked Arizona Thursday night. Mariota wasn’t his usual dynamic running self, but he does still have a sterling 15-0 TD-INT ratio. Winston has had more off-field issues and was suspended for the Clemson game and has a pedestrian 8-5 TD-INT ratio.

The new QB at the center of the Heisman race: Prescott, a guy who was a 50/1 shot back in August. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder from Louisiana is evoking more comparisons to another Dan Mullen protege, Tim Tebow. In State’s last two games — wins over Top 10 opponents — Prescott has been awesome, accounting for eight TDs and zero INTs. Winning at LSU on a Saturday night, even against a down Tigers team, is impressive, as was how he attacked Texas A&M Saturday.

Aggies DC Mark Snyder noticed a significantly improved Prescott from last season, especially as a passer (Prescott had a 10-7 TD-INT ratio in 2013 — this year, it’s 13-2).

"He looks like a different guy," Snyder told FOX Sports Sunday afternoon after MSU’s 48-31 win. The long-time defensive coach was asked whether Prescott has the kind of arm to be a legit NFL QB and said, "I know one thing: He throws the back-shoulder really, really well."

Snyder had already seen the film of the Mississippi State game Sunday morning and counted up at least seven times where Prescott threw pinpoint passes on back-shoulder throws to move the chains. Snyder also winced watching Prescott carry six people into the end zone on a QB sweep, the same kind Tebow used to do so much damage on. Another similarity to the former Gators star is Prescott’s knack for always falling forward for what seemed like 5 yards.

It’s even more impressive how MSU moved the ball considering that its leader of the O-line, center Dillon Day, was suspended for the A&M game. The Aggies did a solid job of limiting the Bulldogs’ ground game between the tackles, but it was on the perimeter where MSU did much of its damage.

If I had to fill out my Heisman ballot this week, Prescott would be No. 1, but he’s got another big test this week when No. 2 Auburn visits. The Tigers have their own candidate in QB Nick Marshall, who has a good chance to get a lot of voters’ attention.

The rest of my ballot: 2. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia; 3. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin; 4. Mariota; 5. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska.

The Huskers star’s candidacy was derailed at Michigan State, where he was held to 45 yards on 24 carries — 122 yards below his average coming into the game

HUGH FREEZE HAD IT COMING

I wrote about the scene in Oxford on Saturday night. Just a couple of more thoughts on the way out of Mississippi:

Having been inside the Ole Miss program for two years, I’m not shocked Hugh Freeze has had this kind of success. As I’ve said before, he’s perhaps the best speaker in front of a group I’ve ever seen and he gets guys believing and helps them be at their best, and I’m not just talking about his players — his coaches, too. Watching Freeze’s emotional postgame interview reminded me of the scenes you often get in March when a No. 15 seed shocks the world.

Freeze’s style sometimes reminds me more of a college hoops coach than a football coach (he was a very successful high school girls basketball coach in Memphis before coming to Oxford). I bet a lot of high school coaches are getting a kick seeing that three of the top four teams in the country in this week’s Coaches Poll – No. 2 Auburn, No. 3 Baylor and No. 4 Ole Miss — are coached by ex-high school guys, and two of them, Freeze and Gus Malzahn, were actually high school football coaches just a decade ago.

"No. 1, Gus and Art [Briles] are great men," Freeze said Sunday. "That’s a common thread those two have. And I think this really speaks to the quality of high school coaches around the country, and I know there are so many more out there, but I think there’s another part of this. I do think there is some merit to the notion that high school coaches tend to think outside of the box and are willing to adapt and adjust to their kids, and they have the ability to motivate all types of kids."

One year Freeze had a power team. Another season he relied on an empty backfield. He’s also never been shy about some draw-it-up-in-dirt-style trick plays. That creativity that Freeze speaks of is reflective in the types of offense all three men run in college. Freeze gets a lot of emails from high school coaches but says he feels "fairly helpless because of the (limited number of) opportunities to get that break." And sometimes, like in his case, you need to be willing to go a route some may not to get that break. He accepted an off-the-field job at Ole Miss on Ed Orgeron’s staff and then later took a shot as an NAIA head coach at Lambuth in Tennessee. "I had to prove that I could score points," he said. "You have to be willing to take a shot, whatever that shot is."

Freeze’s experience is why he says he raises his hand at every AFCA coaches meeting and pushes for legislation to expand staffs to an 11th coach. "These guys just want a chance," he says. "They’d be willing to do it for $25,000. You know there are more Gusses and Arts out there."

BARRETT NOW A DIFFERENT BUCKEYE

A month ago, young J.T. Barrett, Ohio State’s redshirt freshman QB, had a nightmarish game when the Buckeyes were upset at home by Virginia Tech. Barrett went just 9 of 29 with three picks as Hokies DC Bud Foster suffocated the OSU offense by playing in a Bear defense with Cover 0 on the back end. That ultra-aggressive approach, which essentially meant there would be two more defenders in the box than an offense can block, was quite a wrinkle, since normally OSU in the gun spread has the capability to handle one extra defender in the box.

With two, though, it means Barrett had to burn the Hokies with his arm. OSU on that night did hit four plays of over 40 yards and drew three PI flags, but the Hokies kept lining up in that defense and ended up with a two-TD victory. 

In the past two weeks, both Cincinnati and Maryland have adopted a similar tactic, and Barrett and the Buckeyes have made them pay. He’s completed 75 percent of his passes and thrown eight TDs and zero INTs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

The answers often are post patterns and fades or crossing routes. Buckeyes OC Tom Herman said on Saturday that Barrett connected on three TD passes against Maryland off his checks working against Cover 0 (Barrett’s fourth TD pass also came against Cover 0, but that wasn’t on a check).

It is impressive what Herman’s guys have done considering the Buckeyes offense is without former Big Ten MVP Braxton Miller and playing with a completely rebuilt O-line and still averaging 45 points. Granted, Cincy and Kent State aren’t known for fierce defenses, but Maryland did hold a potent Indiana offense to just one TD.

Barrett’s development stems from a couple of key points. "It sounds cliche, but for a guy like him, his biggest thing was to stop trying to be perfect," Herman told FOX Sports on Sunday, adding that young QBs tend to not trust themselves and get stuck in a middle ground of, “Should I throw it or not?” And by the time they decide, it’s already too late.

"He was hesitant,” Herman said. “We told him, ‘Dude, don’t be perfect. Nobody’s perfect. You didn’t luck into this job. Just trust yourself. Hey, just pull the trigger, man.’"

Another adjustment for Barrett has been staying a little deeper into the pocket to enable him to see the field better. QBs sometime end up hitching and gaining too much ground. Herman likened it to a crow-hop in baseball or where the young QB is trying to amp up too much to zing the ball like the strong-armed Miller does.

Barrett is also getting some really good help from a couple of other guys who have blossomed — Mike Thomas, a 6-3, 215-pound sophomore wideout with great ball skills, who has improved as a route runner and is playing with better focus, and bruising Ezekiel Elliott, who has run for over 300 yards in the past two weeks. Elliott, a 225-pound sophomore, is almost as much of a physical force as former OSU standout Carlos Hyde was but has a little more burst and more wiggle.

Whether OSU can play its way back into playoff consideration is a question for much further down the road. Herman just said he’s excited to see how his guys respond to their next test against a formidable Rutgers team in two weeks.

BERCOVICI COMING UP BIG FOR ASU

One of the sweeter stories of the weekend was ASU’s stunning rally capped off by a Hail Mary to beat USC in the Coliseum behind the big arm of backup Mike Bercovici, an LA native. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for the 6-1, 200-pounder. Playing in place of injured starter Taylor Kelly, Bercovici made his debut against another LA team, UCLA, at Sun Devil Stadium on a Thursday night national TV stage. He was impressive, but he also had a few shaky moments and two turnovers. An inexperienced Sun Devils D was shredded that night and ASU lost by 35. On Saturday night, he not only faced many old friends, but also a team he grew up rooting for and one that hadn’t allowed a TD pass all season. 

Bercovici had a night that seemed like a dream the way it unfolded.

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

His 46-yard Hail Mary throw was actually only his third-longest TD pass of the night. In all, he threw for 510 yards, five TDs and no picks. Not a bad effort, especially since it came in front of some 50 members of his family and friends in the crowd. 

Bercovici told FOX Sports that as a kid he attended just about every USC football camp and he recalled meeting coach Steve Sarkisian when he was 10 years old. The Trojans’ scholarship offer never came, though. Instead, they offered Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, two of his buddies. Bercovici went off to ASU, where he’s been through a system change, has reshaped his body, become a little more mobile and settled into more of a groove personality-wise on the field thanks to his time around Kelly, who he calls a much more calm and relaxed guy.

Before he connected with Jaelen Strong on the game-winner, Bercovici acknowledged, he was so fired up, "I was ready to go on the onside kick team to blow somebody up."

Known for his powerful arm, Bercovici estimates he can air it out for about 75 yards, but said Saturday night’s Hail Mary probably went about 65 and had a little flutter to it. "I think I threw it higher than I did far," he said. And that heave couldn’t have turned out any better for him or ASU. The understudy has re-energized the Sun Devils season, as they have a bye week before Stanford visits with the Pac-12’s top defense and the No. 2 D in the nation. Kelly’s status is still up in the air, but one thing is certain: ASU has a very good option if he’s still not ready to return.

IS ALABAMA FALLING OFF?

Alabama has now lost its last three games against ranked opponents, and it’s no stretch to think the Tide may be slipping from their lofty perch atop the college football world. It’s been proven time and time again, for one reason or another, that no program has been able to sustain playing and living at that level for too long. Recent examples of USC and Miami and Nebraska all backslid eventually. We’ll see how the Tide responds from here.

One detail thing that caught my eye is this: From 2007 to 2012 — Nick Saban’s first six seasons at Alabama — the Crimson Tide ranked in the Top 15 in the nation in fewest penalties committed. Last year, Bama was 28th. This year, Saban’s team is all the way down to 58th. The Tide had eight penalties against the Rebels, who committed only three with their turn on the big stage.

WELL DONE, TCU

Hats off to Gary Patterson and TCU after their win over an Oklahoma team that many thought had been the most impressive squad in the nation over the first month of the season. TCU is now 5-2 in its last seven games against top-five ranked opponents. 

PAY ATTENTION TO MEMPHIS

Speaking of TCU, one of Patterson’s old proteges, Justin Fuente, is doing a very nice job at Memphis. His sophomore QB Paxton Lynch threw for a career-high 311 yards and accounted for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) while the Tigers’ D contained an explosive Cincinnati attack in an eye-catching 41-14 win over the AAC preseason favorite on the road. The Tigers are impressing their peers.

The Ole Miss staff I spoke to said Memphis had been the toughest team they’d faced prior to Alabama, because they’ve got some good players and an excellent scheme. DC Barry Odom is emerging as a rising star. His active 3-4 D held Gunner Kiel to just 11 of 27 for one TD and two turnovers before knocking him out of the game. The Tigers scored 14 points off the two turnovers, giving them 45 points off turnovers this year.

"They disguise stuff as well as anybody I’ve seen," said Freeze of Odom’s defense. "And they also tackle very well."

At 3-2, the Tigers are above .500 for the first time since 2007.

ISU’S BRUTAL ROAD

Paul Rhoads has one of the toughest head coaching gigs in major college football. Just how tough has this gig been so far in 2014? Consider this: Iowa State’s opponents are a combined 22-3 with those three losses coming against the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams and against ISU (Iowa). Things should ease up a little in the next two weeks with games against 4-2 Toledo and 2-3 Texas.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

The two L.A. schools, UCLA and USC, rank 128th and 125th, respectively, in surrendering the most negative yardage plays. The Bruins are allowing an average of 10 per game. The Trojans are yielding 9.4.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

Miami has now lost seven of its last 11 games against FBS opponents, with four of those seven losses coming against unranked opponents. Worse still, all seven have been by double digits, and as WQAM’s Adam Kuperstein points out, the Canes have been outscored 130-50 in the second halves of those games. On Saturday, Georgia Tech ran all over the beleaguered UM defense for over 300 yards on the ground.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald notes UM has now allowed an opponent to run for over 200 yards 16 times in Al Golden’s 43 games. For comparison’s sake, in the previous 10 seasons before Golden arrived, they’d given up only 16 200-plus yard rushing performances by the opponent, a span of 138 games.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE IV

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE V

FREAKS WEEK 2014

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Ole Miss DB Senquez Golson, who was juked to the ground TWICE in that Trent Richardson run in 2011, talked about his feeling on making the game-clinching INT in the back of the end zone to take down Alabama: "Well, I owed ‘em."

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