It's the final day of October and the first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings is slated to be unveiled on Tuesday, and one thing is clear: if there's one team that can stop Alabama from winning its second consecutive national title, look no further than the Michigan Wolverines.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has pulled off one of the most impressive turnaround jobs in recent memory, and his Wolverines have all the pieces to not only win the Big Ten but also make some noise in the CFB Playoff.
As the old saying goes, "defense wins championships," and Michigan is certainly set in that regard. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has presided over the best defense in the country, a unit that is stocked with playmakers all over the field. The Wolverines lead the country in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense and rank 15th in rushing defense.
Opposing teams are averaging only 231 yards and 11.6 points per game, and Michigan has held its opponent to eight points or fewer in half its games.
But beyond the stats, Michigan's personnel is built for beating fellow juggernauts like Alabama, Ohio State and others.
Jabrill Peppers is aiming to become the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy since former U-M legend Charles Woodson did it in 1997.
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Jabrill Peppers was regarded by most as the best safety coming into the season, but now U-M has him playing in a hybrid linebacker-type role to maximize his athleticism. Jourdan Lewis is one of the best cornerbacks in the country and has made two big interceptions this season, including an ultra-acrobatic one against No. 8 Wisconsin earlier this season.
It's one of the best you'll see, courtesy of SportsCenter:
The linebacking corps lost its top three players from last year's team, but others have stepped up and haven't missed a beat. Ben Gedeon has taken over the leadership role in that group and has blossomed into the team's top tackler. Senior Mike McCray, a former 4-star recruit who entered the season with minimal game reps under his belt, has played superbly as well.
Simply put, this Michigan defense is downright stout. It doesn't rely heavily on forcing turnovers -- which can be dangerous come the postseason when the opponents are better and are more careful with the football -- it just limits big plays, doesn't miss many tackles, consistently gets penetration through the offensive line and has excellent defensive backs who don't let opposing receivers run free in the secondary.
Still don't think U-M's defense is legit? Consider this: Michigan State, a team that prides itself on controlling the line of scrimmage and running the ball effectively, ran seven plays inside the Michigan 10-yard line on its first drive of the third quarter and came away with zero points.
It's why the Wolverines can beat any team in the country -- their defense is that good. The one question that remains, though, is whether or not their offense can score enough to win. And I think right now, the answer is yes.
Harbaugh has installed a pro-style offensive attack that isn't as high-powered as some offenses around the country, but it gets the job done and complements the U-M defense perfectly. The Wolverines scored on six of their first seven drives against the Spartans, and first-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight continues to mature and look more comfortable.
Junior Wilton Speight boasts a 13:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio so far this season.
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He has plenty of weapons around him, including pass-catchers Amara Darboh and Jake Butt and three running backs that have rushed for at least 400 yards. And if those options aren't enough, there's always Peppers to fall back on.
Peppers, who remains a Heisman candidate due to his incredible versatility and explosive big-play capability , has taken handoffs, caught passes and taken snaps in the Wildcat formation throughout his career and has the ability to electrify the offense every time he touches the ball.
About that versatility from Peppers -- he gives the term "Swiss Army knife" a new meaning:
Now, there is still a ton of football to be played this season and if there's one thing we learned this past weekend it's that any team can go down at any time. Just ask the three top-10 teams that lost and the four others who barely hung on for victories against lesser opponents.
But that's how college football is -- any team can win on any given Saturday -- which is why Michigan has so much potential moving forward. Harbaugh has built a team that can win in a variety of ways. It can win sloppily in a defensive struggle and it can also score plenty of points when it has to, as it recently did against its big rival Sparty. It can win top-ten matchups where the margin for error is minuscule and it takes care of business when heavily favored.
And it has a coach in Jim Harbaugh who possesses so much fire and intensity that he seems to will his teams to win. Whether it was at Stanford, in the NFL with the 49ers or now with his alma mater, he has constantly proven that he has that quality, which comes in handy in December and January when winning is rarely easy.
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Moving forward, the Wolverines have three games on the schedule that they should win. That would put them at 11-0 and set up a massive matchup in The Game against their archrival Ohio State. It will certainly be an interesting matchup, but the Buckeyes are still searching to find their identity on offense and haven't been impressive of late.
All in all, an undefeated regular season is well within the realm of possibility for Michigan. That would put them into the Big Ten championship against either Wisconsin or Nebraska, both of which would be hard-pressed to beat the Wolverines at a neutral site with a trip to the CFB Playoff on the line.
Next up is the Playoff, which is when absolutely anything can happen and Michigan will be better prepared than anyone due to its dominant defense and stellar coaching staff.
American is salivating at the possibility of an Alabama-Michigan matchup.
Jim Harbaugh vs. Nick Saban.
Crimson vs. Maize.
It would be an epic slugfest, and the Wolverines just might have what it takes to come out on top.
Let me preface this column by saying this: Mike Trout should be the MVP. He is the most talented, most consistent and simply the best player in the game. He repeatedly puts up the best numbers, he shows up to work every day with an infectious smile and hard-working mentality even though his team is terrible and he positively affects his team in all facets of the game.
But, for some reason, those attributes are not enough for the voters recently. No, they want a player whose team makes it to the playoffs. Never mind that the player might not be as good or as productive as Trout in a given season, even though Trout doesn't have near as much of a supporting cast or as much protection in the order.
Even though it is an absolute atrocity, that is how it is. Which is why, if the coveted award is going to go to someone not named Mike Trout, Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts is the most deserving.
Simply put, he is having a phenomenal season. Betts is slashing .312/.353/.539 with 30 home runs, 105 RBI, 109 runs scored and 23 stolen bases. He is the only player in the American League with at least 100 RBI and 100 runs scored, which is a testament to his dynamic blend of speed and power.
He started the season hitting in the leadoff spot in the order in front of sluggers like Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and David Ortiz. During that time, he hit a bevy of doubles and home runs and scored runs in bunches. Then he moved to third and then the cleanup spot, where he has continued to knock the cover off the ball while also driving up his RBI total.
Betts has used his 30 homers, 40 doubles and five triples to amass a league-leading 332 total bases. His ability to generate so much torque and power out of his 5-9, 180-pound frame is ridiculous. How many players in the majors possess the flexibility of Betts -- someone who could hit in any spot in the order?
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Maybe Mike Trout, but remember, he is obviously not very good or valuable since his team isn't in playoff contention.
"Mookie does it all; that's what's so impressive about him," Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello told Tim Britton of the Providence Journal. "He can go 0-for-3 with a walk, steal a base, score a run, throw a guy out in right field and make a diving play — and basically win you the game doing that."
Said Boston right-hander Clay Buchholz, "He's a special player. Every facet of his game is built to make a team better. He hits for average, hits for power, steals bases, plays really good outfield. That's how they calculate a five-tool player. That's Mookie Betts."
Betts, a full-time second baseman only a couple of seasons ago, leads all American Leaguers not named Trout in wins-above-replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. A big part of his value has come from his defense, where it hasn't taken him long to establish himself as an elite defensive outfielder. He leads all MLB outfielders with 29 defensive runs saved and is fourth in baseball with an ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 16.8.
Betts has found a home in right field after playing in the infield for most of his career.
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And, as Paul Swydan of FanGraphs pointed out earlier this month, when the Red Sox offense was struggling toward the end of July and at the beginning of August, Betts was at his best. During that stretch, when Boston averaged a mere 3.5 runs/game, Betts hit .344 with 166 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). In other words, he was 66 percent better than the average MLB hitter during that span.
In other words, when his team needed him most, Betts delivered. That is what the valuable part of the MVP award is all about. At least I think -- who knows what the voters are looking at these days.
As for Betts' competition, that's probably going to be Jose Altuve and Josh Donaldson. Both players have had terrific seasons, but Betts has been better. Altuve's batting average is what propels him into consideration, but Betts has hit for much more power, created more runs and been an infinitely better baserunner. Plus, barring a miracle, the Astros will not make the postseason.
Donaldson, meanwhile, is mired in an 0-for-23 slump as his Blue Jays are hanging on for their playoff lives. Last year's MVP has been excellent once again in 2016, but, like Altuve, Betts has been the superior player.
He has impacted his team in seemingly every way imaginable, his numbers are outstanding and he has been the best player on a playoff-caliber team.
If Mike Trout can't win, then Betts has certainly built up a resume good enough to be the 2016 AL MVP.
Texas Tech had just dominated Stephen F. Austin in the opening game of the season. The final score was 69-17 and quarterback Patrick Mahomes had amassed nearly 550 yards of total offense and six touchdowns in a little more than two quarters of action, but head coach Kliff Kingsbury was mad.
He didn't care that Mahomes' stats were nearly flawless or that a whopping 17 different Red Raiders caught passes. Even the fact that Tech racked up 758 yards of total offense didn't mean that the 37-year-old coach was going to praise his star pupil after the game.
"I thought he was a little loose, kind of doing his own thing a few times," Kingsbury said of Mahomes. "When things are there within the system, let's take it. And then when it's not, get out and work your magic.
"I just didn't think offensively we played very technical -- kind of some streetball going on early."
When the expectations are so high that even after such a statistically superb night the coach still has his critiques, that's when you know greatness is on the horizon.
Or, in Mahomes' case, greatness is already taking place. You might not know too much about him since he plays out on the South Plains in Lubbock, Texas, or because his team likely won't be in the National Championship conversation because it can't play defense, but that should in no way diminish his excellence.
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Last weekend, Mahomes played another outstanding game, this one against Arizona State. The junior gunslinger from Whitehouse completed 38-of-53 passes for 540 yards and five touchdowns and also ran for 44 yards and another score. The Red Raiders ultimately lost a 68-55 shootout to the Sun Devils, but it wasn't Mahomes' fault.
All he did was repeatedly carve up the ASU defense, finding open receivers all over the field and scrambling for extra yardage when he had to. He led scoring drives on almost every drive of the game and looked like an elite, dynamic signal-caller.
For the season, he is leading the nation in total offense with 562 yards per game. Lamar Jackson has gotten all the hype to this point, but Mahomes has accounted for nearly 60 more yards per game.
"We did play better on the road [than we did last year] but we didn't win, so I'm not particularly pleased with how we played," Mahomes said in Monday's press conference. "I think we could have scored more points."
As crazy as scoring more points sounds, he's exactly right. The offense appeared to tighten up in the second half and didn't look nearly as efficient as they did in the first. Mahomes admitted that he started trying to pick up big yardage on every play instead of going through his reads and taking what the defense gave him.
Mahomes could be Kingsbury's most talented quarterback yet.
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But that was likely just a byproduct of a porous Tech defense that let Arizona State score at will all night long. Nonetheless, Mahomes is a special talent. He possesses an uncanny ability to extend plays and a cannon of an arm that allows him to find open receivers no matter where they are on the field.
Mahomes exhibits this improvisation with regularity, and it forced Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to make some flattering comparisons.
“The thing that’s different is this guy is kind of a Brett Favre-type quarterback," he said of Mahomes, via Craig Grialou of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. "He has just an uncanny ability to get outside the pocket. He will run to one side and throw back to the middle of the field. It’s a cardinal sin to do that. He does it with regularity. The other night he throws a no-look pass. I mean, he’s looking out here and throws the ball to a guy in the middle of the field, so he’s extremely talented.
“He just has a sense; he has that quarterback-sense that he just feels that pressure and has a unique ability to get back outside of containment and when he does, boy, hold onto your hat.”
But Brett Favre wasn't enough for Patterson, as he went to another legend later on in the session.
Mahomes' elusiveness inside and outside the pocket is a big part of his success.
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“He kind of plays football like Magic Johnson played point guard,” he said, per Grialou. “He’s big. He’ll run up in there (in the pocket) and all of a sudden you’ve got guys converging on him and whoever you left in coverage, he’ll just dump it right over your head. We have a plan to try and cast a net and keep him in, like everyone else does, but that’s easier said than done sometimes with a guy of his ability.”
How many current college quarterbacks can say that they've been compared to both Brett Favre and Magic Johnson? I don't think many, if any, can claim that.
The fact of the matter is that there are very few quarterbacks more talented than Mahomes. DeShaun Watson comes to mind, but he hasn't looked in sync through two close wins. Chad Kelly and Baker Mayfield are both excellent as well, but their numbers are not even on the same page as Mahomes.
Watson became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. That is great, but Mahomes could easily surpass that in 2016. At this rate, it's not even that big of a stretch to say he could go 5,000-1,000. Kingsbury understands Mahomes' immense ability, which is why he puts the ball in his quarterback's hands almost every play. Instead of traditional running plays, the Red Raiders are throwing swing passes and check down throws to the running backs. The result is more mind-boggling video game-like numbers from Mahomes.
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Kingsbury has coached several record-breaking QBs in his coaching career, most notably Case Keenum at Houston and Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. Mahomes has the potential to be better than both. He's not quite as quick as Manziel was, but he has a much stronger and more accurate throwing arm and possesses the same type of escapability that is so hard to defend.
Again, stats aren't everything, but Mahomes has been too productive through two games to go unnoticed in the Heisman picture. I don't care that he plays in Lubbock or that his defense will likely keep his team from double-digit wins.
He has a bevy of speedy and athletic skill players around him, and Mahomes distributes the rock beautifully. He is an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses because of his arm strength, high football IQ and improvisation skills and he very well might go down as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football history.