Biggest Question Facing Each Top 25 Team Heading into Week 3

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2013

Biggest Question Facing Each Top 25 Team Heading into Week 3

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    The 2013 college football season is two weeks old, and for every question that's been answered since the opening kickoff, another couple have popped up.

    After weeks upon months spent dissecting each team in the offseason, the start of the season provided the first semblance of tangible results. And while those results have closed the book on certain controversies, they've also opened doors that were previously unknown.

    Though some ranked teams have yet to face a quality opponent, almost all of them, to some extent, have done something of note through two weekends of play.

     

    Note: Rankings reflect the Week 3 Associated Press poll.

No. 25: Ole Miss Rebels

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    Question: Can the defense stop a good offense on the road?

    Mississippi's defense struggled on the road in 2012, allowing an average of 432.3 yards and 34.5 points per game against Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU.

    Things didn't get off to much of a better start in Week 1 this year, when a good-but-not-great Vanderbilt offense shredded the Rebels in Nashville. Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels looked like a Heisman candidate, throwing for 300 yards and helping the Commodores rack up 35 points.

    Now, with Denzel Nkemdiche injured, the Ole Miss defense is in even more dire straits. The offense is much improved and should be able to score with anyone in the country, but the defense needs to prove that it can play away from home.

    Week 3 starts back-to-back-to-back road games against Texas, Alabama and Auburn, so folks in Oxford won't have to wait long to see this question answered. 

No. 24: TCU Horned Frogs

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    Question: Can Trevone Boykin take TCU to the next level?

    It's a weird dichotomy between Casey Pachall and Trevone Boykin.

    Normally, the more mobile quarterback is the one with the higher ceiling, while the pocket passer is the safer option. But with these two particular characters, Pachall and his gun-slinging mentality have always offered more upside, while the dual-threat Boykin has always seemed like a more sure bet.

    Gary Patterson's hand has been forced in the dilemma, as Pachall fractured his left arm last weekend and will be forced to miss most of the season. Boykin has proved he can adequately run the offense, but after watching the defense struggle (mildly) against LSU, there's a chance he might need to do more.

    Boykin's mobility always adds a new dimension to the TCU offense. Now, he needs to take that dimension and turn it into another gear.  

    UPDATE: TCU lost, 20-10, to Texas Tech Thursday night. Boykin was 23-of-36 for 194 yards through the air and gained 101 yards on the ground. But two picks and no TDs did the Horned Frogs in.

No. 23: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Question: Can the front four show some fight?

    Nebraska's defense is a far cry from the unit it was during the glory years in Lincoln.

    After allowing 115 points in their final two games last season, the Huskers expected at least some progression in 2013. But a Week 1 game against Wyoming saw 602 yards and 34 points yielded, transforming the 'Husker faithful's hopes into doubt for the coming year.

    Every unit could stand to improve, but Nebraska's front four, in particular, has looked listless during this horrid defensive stretch. Nobody has stepped up as a leader across the line, and the unit has failed to get any push.

    Against a good UCLA offensive line and running game, the Nebraska defense will need to play much stronger in Week 3. Otherwise, this question might have an unfortunate answer.

No. 22: Baylor Bears

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    Question: Can the defense hold up against Big 12 offenses?

    What Baylor's offense is doing is no fluke. Offensive wizard Art Briles has done this for long enough, Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese are explosive enough, and quarterback Bryce Petty looks competent enough to say that with confidence.

    But what the Bears defense has done through two weeks has also turned some heads. Playing Wofford, a good FCS team (on a weekend when FCS teams ruled), Baylor allowed just 3.03 yards per play and three points total.

    Then, against Buffalo, which found mild success against Ohio State, the Bears still played well and held the Bulls to fewer than five yards per play. Baylor's schedule is back-loaded, so we won't learn much about its defense in the immediate future. But it ends the season with five games against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas.

    That will be the true test.

No. 21: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Question: What is the team's ceiling with Tommy Rees at quarterback?

    Rees wasn't bad against Michigan, going into an impossible environment (before a college football record crowd) and guiding Notre Dame's offense to 23 points against a pretty good defense.

    But he also threw a couple ugly (and patented) interceptions, which Irish fans have used to deflect blame away from their defense. 

    Much of that is unfair, but Tommy Turnover's interception relapse does beg a salient question: How high is Notre Dame's ceiling with him under center, and how far can this team really go if its quarterback keeps giving the ball away?

    Rees needs to prove he can play less recklessly.

No. 20: Wisconsin Badgers

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    Question: Can the secondary keep up with FBS offenses?

    Wisconsin has looked scary good in the first two games of the Gary Andersen era, but its competition has been more like Andersen's schedule at Utah State than what he can expect to see in Madison.

    After beating up on UMass and Tennessee Tech, though, the Badgers now finally enter the tough part of their schedule. The warmups are over, and with a trip to Arizona State looming this weekend, the preseason questions finally have a chance to be answered.

    The biggest question regards the team's secondary, where not-quite-ballyhooed freshman Sojourn Shelton is starting at cornerback amid an underwhelming cast of veterans. Can he hold up against a quality and competent FCS offense?

    Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils will try to find out.

No. 19: Washington Huskies

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    Question: Can they keep up momentum on the road?

    Washington might have been the most impressive team in Week 1, beating up on Boise State in a manner unfamiliar to Broncos head coach Chris Petersen. The talent is certainly there for the Huskies to succeed, but there are still a few causes for pause.

    First and foremost, the Boise State game was a unique circumstance. Washington was opening a newly renovated stadium (which is beautiful, by the way), the crowd was out of control, and the adrenaline helped carry its team—specifically its defense—to a season-defining win.

    But the Huskies have traditionally struggled away from home, including last year when they went 2-4 on the road, with losses against LSU and Oregon, which isn't so bad, but also Arizona and Washington State, which stings a little bit deeper.

    With Pac-12 away games looming at Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State, Washington's schedule will do it no favors. The team needs to prove it can take its show on the road, and its Week 3 contest against Illinois will be a good opportunity to do just that.

No. 18: Florida Gators

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    Question: Will the offense stop shooting itself in the foot?

    Technically, the final scoreboard is the only thing that matters, but it's worth mentioning how badly Florida outplayed Miami last week.

    The Gators out-gained the Hurricanes by 200 yards. That was largely thanks in part to a dominant effort from their defense, especially against stud running back Duke Johnson, but also due to surprising offensive efficiency between the 20s.

    Inside each 20-yard line, though, Florida's offense was a train wreck. The Gators turned the ball over four times in five opportunities, leaving points on the board and handing points to the Hurricanes. It's impossible to win games when one unit shoots itself in the foot that much.

    How will Brent Pease adjust the game plan to mitigate those mistakes, and when will Jeff Driskel ever learn to grow up and realize his physical upside? Where does this offense go from here, and can they stop squandering these defensive gems?

No. 17: Northwestern Wildcats

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    Question: Can Kain Colter and Venric Mark hold up physically?

    Northwestern's backfield features two of the most underrated playmakers in America. But for quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, that quickness and agility come with a caveat: They're both very fragile.

    The Wildcats' diminutive duo has already been hamstrung by injuries this season, with concussion-related symptoms forcing Colter from the Cal game and a leg injury limiting Mark to just 12 offensive touches through two games.

    Northwestern is blessed with depth at both positions (all hail Trevor Siemian), though, and coach Pat Fitzgerald always gets the most out of his two-deep. But if the Wildcats have genuine thoughts of winning the Big Ten, they will need their two best players on the field.

    And that might be an issue.

No. 16: UCLA Bruins

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    Question: Will the whole equal the sum of the parts on defense?

    Between Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and freshman Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA has three of the highest-upside and potentially dominant defenders in college football. Not just the Pac-12, but the whole, entire nation.

    That being said, its defensive unit, as a sum, has yet to put it all together and look elite. It has shown flashes of dominance and created big plays, but the Bruins still feel like a team that can be gashed by a good offense.

    They looked very good against a decent Nevada team in Week 1, but that was at home against an inferior opponent. If UCLA truly fancies itself as the Pac-12 South favorite, it needs to prove its ability to stop BCS offenses away from Los Angeles.

    It will get a perfect chance to do that in Lincoln this weekend.

No. 15: Miami Hurricanes

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    Question: Can the defense hold up against elite offenses?

    Miami's Week 2 victorywhile still impressiveshould not be blown too far out of proportion. It still was outplayed by Florida.

    Though the Hurricanes defense created big turnovers at the right times, it didn't exactly look dominant against a not-that-good Florida offense. The Gators were able to move the ball with ease in spots, which can't portend good things for the 'Canes.

    The defense allowed 6.11 yards per play last season, and even though the unit is more experienced and improved this year, it will still be a question mark against elite offenses.

    Clemson isn't on Miami's schedule, but even teams like Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State should all put them to the test.

No. 14: Oklahoma Sooners

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    Question: Does either quarterback know how to pass?

    After four years of Landry Jones under center, the Oklahoma offense has finally had to break in a new quarterback this season. And while Norman was suffering from a little bit of Landry fatigue (and rightly so), given the early returns this season, it would sell its soul to have him back right now.

    Blake "Belldozer" Bell lost the job out of camp, but after redshirt freshman Trevor Knight flopped with his arm in the first two games, Bell will make his first career start in Week 3 versus Tulsa.

    Still, while both quarterbacks possess enough playmaking ability to move the ball, neither has given fans any reason to trust in their arms. Together, they're averaging just 4.5 yards per attempt, including 4.3 from Knight on his 48 passes (an adequate enough sample size from which to make a judgment).

    One of the two needs to step up in the passing game—if not all the way downfield, then at least far enough to put it in Jalen Sanders' hands. If they can't, despite a seemingly reborn defense, it could be a long year in Norman.

No. 13: South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Question: Is the defense overrated?

    Just to be clear: this has nothing to do with Jadeveon Clowney.

    Even if he's not putting up hype-justifying numbers (though one sack in two games is fine), Clowney has been just as good as advertised. He affects the game in ways that transcend the box score, and the extent to which opposing offenses have game-planned around him is proof of that.

    But in all the hoopla surrounding South Carolina's defensive line this offseason, perhaps fans and experts overlooked how big the losses were behind it.

    Safety D.J. Swearinger and a host of other important back-seven players are gone, and it showed at Georgia last week. Despite opposing one of the nation's best D-lines, Aaron Murray was able to find open receivers at will.

    Can newer, younger players in the Gamecocks linebacking corps and secondary step up? If not, a lot of additional pressure will be on Connor Shaw and the offense.

No. 12: Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Question: Can J.W. Walsh stretch the field against quality competition?

    The Sooners aren't the only Big 12 team with questions surrounding its passing game. And while J.W. Walsh has looked much better than either Blake Bell or Trevor Knight, his arm still makes Oklahoma State fans a little nervous.

    That being said, he did look great against UT-San Antonio last week, completing  24-of-27 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns—but that was against UT-San Antonio.

    Walsh is still a dynamic playmaker with his legs, but teams can game-plan around one dimension, and he needs to prove he can stretch the field against a real defense.

    Fortunately for Walsh, he has one of America's deepest stable of wideouts, which should give him adequate passing options each and every week. So, if he struggles against good defenses, the sophomore signal-caller won't have anyone but himself to blame.

No. 11: Michigan Wolverines

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    Question: Is the defense strong enough to win the Big Ten?

    If ever there was a game for Michigan's defense to make a statement, Saturday against Notre Dame was it.

    Playing at homewith high expectations, before a capacity Big House crowd and going against Tommy Reesthe Wolverines defense had no excuse not to dominate from start to finish. Though the unit played well enough, it hardy did anything to scare future opponents. Rees was allowed to look good, in spots, as he led the Irish offense on a few encouraging drives.

    Once Michigan starts taking its show on the road, or playing better quarterbacks, will its defense show the same fire? Or will Devin Gardner and the offense need to score 40-plus points each week?

No. 10: Florida State Seminoles

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    Question: Will depth issues eventually catch up with the passing game?

    It didn't much bother them in Week 1 against Pittsburgh, but Florida State lost a ton of depth on the outside this spring and fall, rendering its wide receiving corp very thin.

    For a myriad of reasons—including off-field conduct, academics and injuries—the list of missing Seminoles receivers/tight ends includes: Greg Dent, Willie Haulstead, Scooter Haggins, Marvin Bracy, Christo Kourtzidis, Kevin Haplea and Jeremy Kerr.

    That's a lot of names.

    Quarterback Jameis Winston looks good enough to compensate for some lost bodies, and the top-end guys on the depth chart are all still there. But if even one more injury takes place, it could throw the balance of FSU's offense out of whack.

    Winston already looks good enough to propel Florida State's attack to new heights, but is he good enough at this early juncture of his career to carry it by himself?

No. 9: Georgia Bulldogs

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    Question: Can the young defense grow up quickly?

    Georgia, by virtue of playing two top-10 opponents in two weeks, has answered more questions than any other team in college football. Everything it's done is far from a fluke, as quality competition begets the truth.

    But that doesn't mean that questions don't remain, especially on defense. Even though it came against Clemson and South Carolina, the Bulldogs are still allowing 6.72 yards per play, 147th in the nation and fifth-worst among power conference teams (not counting the AAC).

    The defense isn't as bad as those numbers suggest, but it hasn't looked that good by any stretch of the imagination. The Bulldogs are young on that side of the ball, though, so there's a chance this trial by fire—while not pretty—might help them coalesce down the line.

    With LSU coming up in a couple of weeks, Mark Richt & Co. better hope that's the case.

     

No. 8: LSU Tigers

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    Question: Will Zach Mettenberger come crashing down to Earth?

    LSU's defense has already answered some questions—at least as much as is possible this early in the year. Even with massive attrition in the front seven, this unit still looks like the same old Les Miles' defense. It isn't gonna give you an inch you haven't earned.

    On the other side of the ball, LSU's early success has been a little more surprising. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron—as some predicted but few wholeheartedly believed—has lit a fire under quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who looks like a bona fide Heisman candidate through two weeks.

    Still, Mettenberger has never been short on talent, but he's always been a little thin on consistency. He looked like a future first-round pick against Alabama last year, but that was on the heels of three putrid performances.

    He's shown that he can do well in Cameron's offense, but can Mettenberger stop from destroying himself? One poorly timed bad game could derail the Tigers' season. 

No. 7: Louisville Cardinals

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    Question: Can they stay motivated, week-in and week-out?

    It's hard to make much of a statement with home wins over Ohio and Eastern Kentucky, but the Cardinals have made one nonetheless. The ease with which they've breezed through their first two games is a welcomed sign in Louisville.

    But last year, though Teddy Bridgewater & Co. looked good in bunches, they never managed to sustain that form on a weekly basis. Their schedule was marked by massive highs, like the Rutgers win and their Sugar Bowl victory over Florida, but it was also tinged by no-shows against Connecticut, Syracuse and Southern Mississippi.

    Louisville needs to prove it can keep its focus every Saturday and beat down on inferior opponents. Doing so, more than winning close games over decent teams, is the mark of a true championship contender.

    With even one or two close calls, voters and fans will poke holes in the Cardinals' resume. But if they roll through an easy AAC slate, this team might be an actual BCS dark horse.

No. 6: Texas A&M Aggies

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    Question: Can the defense show any signs of life?

    Texas A&M's defense has looked to be a far cry from that of a top-six team, struggling in long stretches  against underwhelming opponents like Rice and Sam Houston State.

    After two games, and despite playing teams from C-USA and the FCS, the Aggies have allowed 6.16 yards per play, ranking them 123rd in the nation. That will not cut it when Texas A&M gets into the meat of SEC play, and it especially won't cut it in Week 3 against an All-American-laden Alabama offense.

    Suspensions have crippled the A&M defense, so these problems may be confined to the early part of the season. Perhaps a full depth chart will allow the unit to look good.

    If not, Johnny Manziel may have to settle for individual—not team—honors once again.

No. 5: Stanford Cardinal

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    Question: Are there enough offensive playmakers to keep up in the Pac-12?

    Stanford had a bye in Week 1 and beat down on San Jose State (who should be pretty good) with predictable efficiency in Week 2. But that one game is not a large enough sample size for its offense.

    Though quarterback Kevin Hogan and, especially, running back Tyler Gaffney looked good in the win, the Cardinal still lost too many skill-position players this offseason to feel comfortable. All-league players like Stepfan Taylor and Zach Ertz don't exactly replace themselves.

    Stanford is ranked this high for a reason, and between its blue-chip coaching, defense and offensive line, it should be able to beat or play with every team in America.

    But when the games get close and the going gets tough, someone will need to make a play on the outside for Hogan and the offense. Does that somebody exist, and if so, who is it?

No. 4: Ohio State

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    Question: Can Braxton Miller hold up all season?

    Miller injured his MCL against San Diego State, needing to be removed from the game after seven plays (though he technically could have returned). It was the second-straight game where he was taken off the field, for at least some stretch of time, with an injury.

    That doesn't seem like a good omen, and even though Miller's injury isn't deemed serious—at least not in a season-long context—his health is something that is troubling for fans in Columbus.

    Backup Kenny Guiton is among the best in America, and he did an efficient job against San Diego State. But people seem to forget how integral Miller was to the Buckeyes' perfect season last year and just how capable he was of making big plays, seemingly on his own, down the stretch in close games.

    Though Guiton might be able to maneuver the offense to some victories, only Miller can take this team to the heights Buckeyes fans expect. And in order to achieve those heights, he'll need to do a better job of protecting his body.

No. 3: Clemson Tigers

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    Question: Was the defense a mirage against Georgia?

    Clemson does not—and will at no point this season—possess a good defense. However, it doesn't need one; it just needs a defense that's "good enough."

    And it was "good enough" against Georgia in Week 1, surrendering 35 points but making enough plays at the right times to secure the victory. The defensive line, in particular, made its presence felt, getting to Aaron Murray without blitzing and helping defensive end Vic Beasley find exploitable pass-rushing matchups.

    The question now becomes one of sustainability. Was the Tigers' defense that made enough plays against Georgia a mirage, or is that the mediocre unit that they will trot out onto the field all season?

    We know they can wake up for big home games, but will this defense go to sleep and allow for a Clemson upset to happen on the road? And honestly, would anyone be shocked to see Maryland hang 40 on them?

No. 2: Oregon Ducks

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    Question: How Will Mark Helfrich handle himself in close games?

     It's hard to find many questions on Oregon's roster, especially after the Ducks walked into Charlottesville and pasted Virginia last weekend.

    But after two straight (of what's sure to be many more) blowouts, the only question Oregon hasn't answered goes hand-in-hand with its success: What happens when the game starts getting close?

    Watching the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night reminded people of Chip Kelly's greatness; not just schematically, but also in the way he handles himself on the sideline. He seemed to have his hand in everything, pacing and making adjustments for the full 60 minutes, which is exactly how he behaved in Eugene.

    Mark Helfrich has proven—though few truly doubted him—that he understood Kelly's system well enough to run it without him. But when the going gets tough, will a man who's never been a head coach know how to properly comport himself, or will there be a little bit of a learning curve?

No. 1: Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Question: Is the offensive line an actual problem?

    Alabama covered a big spread against a good (OK, decent) Virginia Tech team in Week 1, but its performance was worse than the final score indicated.

    The Tide relied on three non-offensive touchdowns to score its 35 points, and the team struggled to consistently move the ball. The Hokies' front seven took the fight to Alabama's offensive line, which looked lost in its attempt to replace D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones from last year's unit.

    Was that a fluke? Does Virginia Tech simply possess one of the best front sevens in America? Or is there reason to be genuinely scared about Alabama's trenches?

    Even though the Crimson Tide is stacked everywhere else, the offensive line is the foundation of a good offense. Without a good—or at least competent—O-line, all the good skill players in the world might be for naught.

    Alabama needs to prove it can play physical in the box. That's been its calling card since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and it will need to stay that way should the Tide plan on repeating as national champs (again).