(Photo: Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports)
The most obvious coach to hire for any major program that had an opening last year was Justin Fuente. Anyone who watched closely as he took Memphis from the ashes to the top 25 knew what he accomplished there wasn’t a fluke. He’s the real deal.
Virginia Tech athletics director Whit Babcock took notice and, once Frank Beamer announced he was retiring at the end of last season, aggressively moved to get a deal done before he hit the open market. Babcock’s skill and diligence paid off, because not only did he get Fuente but worked the deal so that Bud Foster would stay on as defensive coordinator.
It’s looking like a really good fit already for Virginia Tech, which moved to 4-1 after a 34-3 victory at No. 16 North Carolina. The Hokies, who should move back into the Amway Coaches Poll this week, are now in the driver’s seat for the ACC’s Coastal Division and will get Miami at home on Oct. 20.
If you take away Virginia Tech’s five fumbles in the 45-24 loss to Tennessee in the Battle at Bristol — a game in which it still racked up 400 yards of offense — this has been a really dynamic and efficient offensive team.
Though it certainly helped for Virginia Tech to face the Tar Heels’ pass-happy offense in the wet and windy conditions brought by the outer reaches of Hurricane Matthew, you have to give the Hokies a lot of credit for going on the road and handling a good team and putting together their third consecutive blowout since the Tennessee loss.
Meanwhile, quarterback Jerod Evans has been a revelation. The junior college transfer, whom Fuente picked up late in the recruiting process, has 15 touchdowns and just one interception on the season.
Though it was hard to know what to expect from the Hokies this season, there’s a lot to like about this team. Fuente’s offense seems to be maximizing talented skill players like Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford, and the defense is firing on all cylinders. Don’t count out Virginia Tech as a stealth contender in the ACC and perhaps the biggest threat to knock off Clemson in a potential conference championship. game.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers:
Auburn: Saturday felt like a tipping point game for embattled coach Gus Malzahn. With a win, you could easily see a path to a good season at Auburn that would allow him to continue, and perhaps even built momentum, into 2017. If he lost at Mississippi State, things were going to get a lot tougher. The Tigers didn’t just win in Starkville, they rolled 38-14 and put together their best offensive effort against an SEC opponent since scoring 44 points the 2014 Iron Bowl in a losing effort.
Auburn seems to be functioning much better since Malzahn turned playcalling duties over to Rhett Lashlee, and they’re figuring out how to effectively use quarterback Sean White, who had 204 passing hards on 14 of 18 attempts. They’re also leaning heavily on sophomore running back Kamryn Pettway, who torched Mississippi State for 169 yards and three touchdowns.
North Carolina State: The biggest knock on Dave Doeren has been his lack of signature victories, and it was very important this season for him to show progress. It’s hard to count beating this Notre Dame team as a great victory, but it’s still Notre Dame and it was a game the Wolfpack had to win. They did, 10-3, surviving miserable conditions and a weather delay at halftime.
N.C. State had just 198 yards of offense but navigated the wind and rain much better than the Irish, which oddly threw the ball 26 times and had just 113 yards. This isn’t a program-changing victory for Doeren, but at 4-1 he’s on schedule to make a bowl game for a third consecutive season.
Texas A&M: The two biggest knocks on Aggie football under Kevin Sumlin over the years have been consistently bad defense and lack of big wins at home. That certainly isn’t the case anymore. No. 7 Texas A&M emerged as the second-best team in the SEC on Saturday in a thrilling, wild 45-38 win against No. 9 Tennessee in two overtimes. After blowing a two-touchdown lead, then missing a 38-yard field goal at the end of regulation, Texas A&M finally pulled it off and drove a stake through the heart of the Zombie Vols.
The Aggies, whose identity has transformed since bringing John Chavis aboard as defensive coordinator, improved to 6-0 and now get a well-timed bye week before going to Alabama on Oct. 22 The reason they have a chance? Texas A&M’s defense has ballhawks and playmakers in the secondary. The Aggies were put on their heels by Josh Dobbs & Co., allowing 684 yards. But they forced seven turnovers, and if they can do something similar against Alabama they’ll have a great chance to win the SEC West.
Southern California: Despite all the early season strife and rumors that Clay Helton may not last even one season as the Trojans’ head coach, the ship seems to have been steadied. USC has now won two in a row and took down No. 23 Colorado 21-17, to get back in the Pac 12 South race. Though the Trojans are only 3-3 overall and 2-2 in the Pac 12, the division appears to be totally up for grabs and there just doesn’t seem to be much separation between any of the teams.
That could favor a talented outfit like USC, which has been much better offensively since turning the reins over to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, who responded with 358 passing yards and three touchdowns, completing 25 of 37.
Penn State: Athletics director Sandy Barbour has spent the past two weeks repeatedly defending coach James Franklin in the media, talking about the importance of giving the program time to dig out of the NCAA sanctions that were imposed after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It’s also important, however, to keep the faith of the fan base and Saturday’s 38-14 win over Maryland will help.
The Nittany Lions still aren’t a huge threat to knock off the best teams in the Big Ten, but they are good enough to win eight or nine games. Meanwhile, running backSaquon Barkley continues to be a star and a joy to watch, piling up 202 yards on 31 carries.
Houston: Well, perhaps all that talk about how the College Football Playoff selection committee would handle an undefeated Houston team was a big waste of breath. The No. 5 Cougars simply got Navy’d on a cold, rainy day in Annapolis and couldn’t stop the option enough to escape with a victory. Though it got close at the end, Navy recovered two onside kick attempts and held on 46-40.
Houston isn’t going to the Playoff, and now may not even win its division of theAmerican Athletic Conference. Though quarterback Greg Ward was really good again with 94 rushing yards and 361 passing, Navy triple-optioned its way to 306 rushing yards and got a pick-six in the third quarter to put Houston down two scores. From there, it was all about clock control and Houston just couldn’t get the stops it needed.
Texas: Third-year coach Charlie Strong knows he’s in deep trouble, which is why he demoted Vance Bedford this week and took control of the defense himself. The initial returns weren’t good. The Longhorns were competitive against Oklahoma, and at times played with admirable spirit and better organization, but yielding 672 yards to their rival is simply an abomination.
It’s fair to wonder if Texas’ defense is simply beyond repair at this point, allowing touchdown plays of 71, 42 and 47 yards. Though the schedule gets easier from here, there simply isn’t much more room for error at 2-3.
Michigan State: The verdict is in. These Spartans are simply mediocre. Stepping out of Big Ten play for a tough non-conference game against BYU, Michigan State suffered its third consecutive loss and second in a row in East Lansing 31-14. The Spartans just don’t have a solid answer at quarterback in the wake of Connor Cook’s departure, and it could be a long, ugly season unless the light comes on for either Tyler O’Connor or Damion Terry.
Neither of them were very effective against BYU, managing just 121 yards passing between them. The Spartans had just 206 total yards and have proven beyond a reasonable doubt they will not be a factor in the Big Ten’s East division just one year after making the playoff.
Cincinnati: It’s no secret Tommy Tuberville came into the year under some pressure, and the results so far in American Athletic Conference play haven’t helped. The Bearcats dropped to 0-3 in the league (3-3 overall) after a 20-9 loss at UConn, mustering just three field goals and 2 net rushing yards — yes, 2 — against Bob Diaco’s defense.
With Cincinnati pushing for a Big 12 invitation, its status as the “safe” option for the league has never looked more tenuous. The trajectory since Tuberville took over is definitely troublesome.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are rebuilding, of course, and Michigan is very, very good. But 78-0? With 5 yards passing and 34 on the ground? This follows up a 58-0 loss to Ohio State.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM WEEK 6