Quarterback situations determining fates of several high-profile teams
Auburn and Alabama have found QBs; Ohio State, Notre Dame, others have not
Most are writing Mark Richt's obit, but Georgia's schedule could produce nine wins
Plus: Inside USC-Utah call, Michigan magic, the incomparable T.Y. Hilton and more
AJ McCarron led Alabama to a 27-11 road win against Penn State in front of 107,846 mostly hostile spectators, and yet afterward coach Nick Saban said: "We still have a competition" at quarterback.
So do several other high-profile programs -- and that's usually a bad thing. After two games, a team wants to know who its starting quarterback is going to be the rest of the season. And it'd like to know it can count on that quarterback. Some of the teams that entered the year with uncertainty are feeling considerably better today. For others, the "competition" continues.
On the positive end of the spectrum we find defending national champion Auburn, where offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn continues to work wonders. Never mind losing Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and six other offensive starters. In their first SEC game Saturday, the Tigers beat No. 16 Mississippi State 41-34 for their 17th consecutive victory overall and 10th consecutive in games decided by eight points or fewer. We'll stop doubting these guys one day.
Newton's replacement, junior Barrett Trotter, didn't engineer consecutive last-minute touchdown drives against Mississippi State like he did against Utah State, and he threw a pick-six in the second quarter. But look closely and you'll see that Trotter, who beat out sophomore Clint Moseley in preseason camp, is doing exactly what we've come to expect from Malzahn's QBs: He's completing 71.7 percent of his passes, albeit for modest yardage (146 on Saturday), while Auburn leans on its talented running backs. Michael Dyer had 150 yards on 18 carries against MSU.
"He bounced back from that one [interception] like a champion," Malzahn said of Trotter, who plays with a veteran's confidence and poise. Auburn's defense made the crucial goal-line stop at the end, but it still has work to do after giving up 531 total yards Saturday; the offense is seemingly in good hands.
The same is true at Alabama, even if Saban won't say so. McCarron played every meaningful snap at Penn State and was an effective 19-of-31 for 163 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Redshirt freshman Phillip Sims will likely see the field again next week against North Texas, but Saban knows the winning formula: With a dominant defense and dynamic tailback Trent Richardson, his quarterback need only stay out of trouble. McCarron did that. "AJ did a nice job," said Saban. "No but."
Ohio State also went with just one quarterback Saturday, but in this case the decision was unexpected and slightly troubling. Coach Luke Fickell went in with a plan to get true freshman Braxton Miller meaningful playing time behind fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman, just as he did last week against Akron. But then Toledo gave the Buckeyes everything they could handle -- going up 22-21 in the third quarter and driving for the win at the end before the Buckeyes finally stopped the Rockets for a 27-22 win -- and Bauserman (16-of-30, 189 yards, one touchdown, no picks) never left the field.
"It was just the flow of the game," said Fickell, who planned to play Miller in the second quarter. "It's just one of those gut decisions you've got to make out there. ... Things just weren't going the way we had them planned."
If Fickell didn't trust the freshman enough to insert him into a close game in which the defense was struggling, it stands to reason Bauserman may go most or all of the way next week against Miami. With the Buckeyes' offense limited by the suspensions to Dan Herron and DeVier Posey, one could expect a return to "TresselBall" against the Hurricanes.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly might also want to think about keeping the ball on the ground more often. For the most part, sophomore Tommy Rees acquitted himself nicely in Saturday's thriller at Michigan, finishing 27-of-39 for 315 yards and three touchdowns and throwing what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown with 30 seconds left. But he also had three turnovers, including a mystifying fumble at the Michigan seven-yard line midway through the fourth quarter during the Wolverines' frantic comeback.
The Irish are now 0-2 in large part because Kelly, who was so adept with his quarterbacks at Cincinnati, can't find the right answer in South Bend. But it doesn't sound like Dayne Crist will be coming back just yet. "[Rees] made some critical mistakes, but he kept battling," said Kelly. "At the end you're looking for your quarterback to lead you on the road and he did a terrific job of that."
But the most intriguing quarterback mystery in the country may be taking hold in Austin, where Mack Brown played three signal-callers in Saturday night's 17-16 squeaker against BYU.
Coaches finally pulled the plug on oft-maligned junior Garrett Gilbert after he started 2-of-8 for eight yards and two interceptions. What followed was a frenzied rotation of Case McCoy and true freshman David Ash, who combined to go 9-of-11 for a modest 92 yards. But down 16-10 on a third-and-nine at the BYU 34 midway through the fourth quarter, we saw a familiar hook-up: McCoy (younger brother of Colt) to Jaxon Shipley (younger brother of Jordan) for 20 yards, setting up the go-ahead touchdown. (And yes, they are roommates.)
"[McCoy] was very comfortable in the pocket," said Brown. "He's very accurate, and he obviously made the plays he had to to help us win the game."
That's really what it comes down to: Coaches feel better about their quarterbacks when they win. Saturday night Brown was beaming like he'd just won the national championship; in Ann Arbor, Kelly was visibly exasperated. They're both managing complicated situations, and the sooner they're resolved, the better. At least we think. Ask Saban.
On the day after his team's heartbreaking 45-42 loss to South Carolina, terminally upbeat Georgia coach Mark Richt sounded no different at 0-2 than he would have at 2-0.
"We played more physical in this game than we did in the first game [against Boise State], especially up front," Richt said. "We're playing extremely fast and intense. We've got a lot of spirit. ... I really liked what I saw."
Unfortunately for Richt, the majority of his fan base no longer likes what it sees: a program that has now lost 10 of its past 15 SEC games dating to 2009 and is 6-9 overall since the start of last season. The Dawgs are indisputably mediocre in the lone department that counts, yet those who watched Saturday's game saw a team with a talented quarterback and no shortage of playmakers. By Steve Spurrier's own admission, Georgia outplayed the 12th-ranked Gamecocks. And as Richt said, "Our defense really and truly only gave up 17 points in the game," citing three non-offensive South Carolina touchdowns (a fumble return, an interception return and a fake punt) and another fumble return to the five.
Rarely has a coach's obit been written just two games into the season, but that seemed to be the consensus regarding Richt after the loss. Richt had two games against ranked opponents right off the bat in which to appease critics, and he didn't win either. To judge by Twitter, he might as well pack his bags now.
I wouldn't be so sure.
Georgia's next five games come against Coastal Carolina, at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, at Tennessee and at Vanderbilt. The Georgia team that put up 436 yards on Saturday -- including 118 on 16 carries from touted freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell -- is capable of winning all those leading into its always-important Oct. 29 date with Florida. After that, it's New Mexico State, Auburn and Kentucky at home, ending at Georgia Tech.
No question, Richt is down to his ninth life. His kind demeanor, respect in the community and .727 winning percentage have already helped him last longer than the typical SEC coach in this same situation, but fans can only take "we're getting better" for so long. Provided the players don't get discouraged, the Dawgs are fully capable of rallying to a nine-win season and possible division title, which is probably what it would take at this point to save Richt's job.
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