With Week 9 in the books, the conference races are heating up.
To this point, the focus in the Big 12 has been on Texas and Oklahoma, but with the Sooners suffering their first loss, things are more unsettled. Surging Kansas State is part of a five-team logjam at the top of the league, and the Wildcats’ upcoming matchup with the Longhorns takes on greater weight.
Oregon made a statement in the Pac-12, but don’t sleep on upstart Arizona in that star-crossed conference. And while things are lining up for Florida State in the ACC, second place is up for grabs with some surprising contenders.
Here are some of the top takeaways from the weekend.
Kansas State’s Big 12 title defense is accelerating fast
The Big 12 discussion to date has, understandably and appropriately, focused on Texas and Oklahoma. Those are the league’s most talented teams, they delivered another epic game at the Cotton Bowl several weeks ago, and they’ll be departing for the SEC after the season.
But don’t forget about the team that won the league in 2022, and suddenly looks very capable of defending its championship. Kansas State fell off the radar after dropping games to Missouri and Oklahoma State, but Chris Klieman’s team has figured things out lately, which could be bad news for Texas and its upcoming opponents.
Klieman’s tenure is defined by signature wins — Oklahoma in 2019, 2020 and 2022, the Big 12 championship game triumph over TCU last year — but also has featured some dominant, bullying victories. Like, push your face in the dirt and smush it around kind of stuff. Last season, the Wildcats walloped Oklahoma State 48-0 and Baylor 31-3 — and those two teams reached the Big 12 title game in 2021.
Two weeks ago, Kansas State stomped TCU 41-3 and followed up Saturday by handing Houston its first shutout loss (41-0) since 2000. The Wildcats have shut out two opponents in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1936 and 1937.
Although K-State’s defense has been strong all season, the offense needed to sort out some things, as quarterback Will Howard struggled with turnovers early on and the unit lacked a true game-wrecker like Deuce Vaughn. But Howard and freshman Avery Johnson have handled a two-quarterback system well lately, while DJ Giddens, Phillip Brooks, Treshaun Ward and others keep piling up yards.
“We’ve got to keep building on what we’ve done the last couple of weeks,” offensive coordinator Collin Klein told ESPN. “That’s win the line of scrimmage and make people change and defend the width of the field with some of our jets, and some of our run game that has a lot of variety to it with where it can hurt you. We’ve got to continue to push the envelope to establish those explosive plays down the field.
“If we start hitting and become efficient in some of those areas, then we could be pretty dangerous.”
Kansas State is very dangerous right now, and a win at Texas this week would put the Wildcats right in the mix to defend their Big 12 crown. — Adam Rittenberg
Texas’ red zone issues continue
Texas is 7-1, ranked No. 7 and can’t afford another loss if it wants to remain in the Big 12 hunt, much less be a College Football Playoff contender.
But despite the Longhorns’ 35-6 drubbing of BYU on Saturday, there’s a big concern down the stretch: their red zone woes. After coming away twice with no points inside the BYU 5, Texas ranks 120th in the country in red zone efficiency. Kansas State, which is headed to Austin this week, is ranked third in red zone defense, which obviously is cause for alarm.
Texas coach Steve Sarkisian is a gifted playcaller, and he’s breaking in a backup quarterback in Maalik Murphy. The Longhorns have scored 30 or more points in their first eight games for the first time in school history. But the issues have shown up in multiple ways in multiple games, most notably against Oklahoma, when the Longhorns put a defensive tackle in the backfield and lined up in a jumbo package but were stopped four times on a variety of looks from the 1-yard-line.
“It sucked,” Sarkisian said the following week.
On one drive that started at the BYU 6, Sarkisian tried two Wildcat looks with Murphy lined up at wide receiver and direct snaps to running back Savion Red, who had two carries for 4 yards. Murphy then attempted two passes, completing one on fourth down to Ja’Tavion Sanders, who was stopped at the 1.
Texas also had a first-and-10 at the BYU 11 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and tried a more conventional approach. Murphy went 1-of-2 with a 10-yard completion to running back Jonathon Brooks, but Texas’ two rushes, to CJ Baxter and Brooks, went for a total of minus-2 yards. Again, the Longhorns came away without points.
It will bear watching this week. Texas has scored a touchdown on 49% of red zone trips, with just 13 teams in the country faring worse. Kansas State allows a touchdown on just 30% of opponents’ drives, but Texas is even better at 27.3%. Only Michigan ranks better than either of them at 11%.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you there’s a level of frustration as it pertains to that,” Sarkisian said Saturday night about his team’s inability to complete drives. “We’ve got to continue to dig deep into that.” — Dave Wilson
Oregon clears path to Pac-12 title game
Oregon wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.
For the second time in three weeks, it faced a top-15 foe in a hostile environment with an opportunity to make a reverberating statement.
Bo Nix makes a great play to toss his 2nd TD of the game
Bo Nix fakes a defender out and finds Troy Franklin for a touchdown to give Oregon a 21-3 lead.
And it seems the Ducks learned a lesson from their trip to Seattle two weeks ago, all but ensuring there will be a new Pac-12 champion after dispatching Utah — the conference’s two-time defending champion — in Salt Lake City.
Dan Lanning’s team didn’t allow Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes to replicate what he did seven days earlier at the Coliseum against USC. Barnes (15-of-29 passing for 136 yards and 2 interceptions) and the Utah offense managed just 241 total yards against the 16th-best defense in the country (303.6 yards allowed per game).
Meanwhile, Ducks quarterback Bo Nix has worked his way back into the Heisman Trophy race after throwing for 248 yards and two touchdowns while running for another score. Oregon’s 35-point effort marked the most points Utah had given up since a 42-32 loss at UCLA on Oct. 8, 2022.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Ducks are 14-1 when Nix accounts for at least three touchdowns. His 78.3 completion percentage leads all of the FBS and his touchdown to interception ratio (21-1) is about as good as it gets.
The path to a sixth Pac-12 championship game appearance and a fifth title — both league highs — is there. Three of Oregon’s four remaining games are at Autzen Stadium, including its regular-season finale against Oregon State. Lanning’s team likely is still smarting over last year’s 38-34 loss in Corvallis. — Blake Baumgartner
It’s time to talk about Arizona
In a conference full of teams that attracted a lot of attention this season, such as Oregon, Washington, USC and Colorado, the Arizona Wildcats have been the true surprise in the Pac-12 so far. After back-to-back wins over ranked teams Washington State and Oregon State, Arizona has five wins, tying its win total from last season and placing the Wildcats one victory from their first bowl berth since 2017.
Even the Wildcats’ losses have been impressive this season. They have lost three games (two in overtime) by a combined 16 points and took both USC and Washington to the brink. The former was a triple-overtime battle that came down to the last play, while the latter was a one-score game.
Arizona’s return to relevancy has come under coach Jedd Fisch, who led the team to five wins last season after a one-win campaign in 2021 and has turned around the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts as well. But it would be hard to imagine this kind of season happening had it not been for the sudden rise of freshman quarterback Noah Fifita.
Fifita’s first start of the year came against an undefeated Washington team following an injury to starter Jayden de Laura, and he hasn’t looked back since. In four games, the freshman has totaled 1,152 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, jumpstarting the Wildcats’ offense.
“There’s no flinch in Noah,” Fisch said after Saturday’s win over Oregon State, when the quarterback completed 25 of 32 passes for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns. “That gives you poise, that gives you confidence. … He did a fantastic job in running the team.”
Things were already trending upward for Fisch’s team, but with Fifita under center, its future in the Big 12 next year and beyond looks far brighter than it may have seemed at the start of the season. — Paolo Uggetti
Florida State’s CFP hopes still strong
With Florida State off to its first 8-0 start since 2014, Mike Norvell has gotten Florida State back where the program believes it should be — at the forefront of the national conversation. But the Seminoles can’t afford to slip up.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Jordan Travis (2,109 passing yards, 18 TD passes) became the first Florida State quarterback over the past 20 seasons to account for 300 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in one half Saturday, as the Noles dropped 34 first-half points on Wake Forest en route to a 41-16 win in Winston-Salem.
Travis’ connection with Keon Coleman (38 receptions for 538 yards and 9 touchdowns) continues to grow for an offense that is averaging 41.5 points per game. Coleman has been recharged after transferring from Michigan State.
The defense has been quite stingy as well, allowing a combined 14 pass completions over the last two weeks against Duke and Wake Forest.
Miami and Florida remain on the schedule, and Louisville, surprising Virginia Tech or North Carolina, could be waiting in Charlotte on Dec. 2 with the ACC crown at stake.
Florida State can provide a significant challenge for Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and Washington on the sport’s biggest stage. But it needs to get there first. — Baumgartner
Virginia Tech a surprising second-place team in ACC
OK, nobody predicted it quite this way, although Louisville was a popular sleeper choice with the addition of favored alum Jeff Brohm taking over as coach. The more surprising team is Virginia Tech, which has won three of its past four, with the lone loss on the road to the Seminoles.
While the three teams the Hokies beat are among the four worst teams in the conference standings, the fact Virginia Tech is sitting at 3-1 in ACC play should be considered progress considering this team went 1-6 in the ACC last year, Brent Pry’s first year as head coach.
Behind dual-threat quarterback Kyron Drones and running back Bhayshul Tuten, the Hokies have significantly improved their rushing game. Both went over 100 yards in a 38-10 win over Syracuse, in which the Hokies rushed for a season-high 318. Even in the loss to the Seminoles, Virginia Tech rushed for 209 yards.
Just how far that rushing offense has come will be tested Saturday, when the Hokies and Cards play in Louisville in what — at least for now — is a de facto tiebreaker game in the race for an ACC championship game berth. Louisville has the No. 9 rush defense in the nation and just held Duke to 51 yards on the ground.
ESPN analytics gives Louisville a 78% chance to beat Virginia Tech. But in the ACC, expecting the unexpected is a recurring theme. — Andrea Adelson