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College Football Mid-Semester Report

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

CFN’s Matt Zemek talks about Lane Kiffin, Alabama and which teams might be able to knock them off.

College Football Mid-Semester Report

It isn't quite the middle of the college football season, but we are getting into conference play where the dust will begin to settle and some real conclusions can be made about teams.

But there are still plenty of things to discuss even with the season in these early stages. Lane Kiffin is out at USC and Mack Brown is in trouble at Texas. Alabama looks solid, but can they be beat? Which teams are standing out after that? We wanted to know this, so we talked to Matt Zemek, college football columnist at College Football News. Matt was kind enough to answer some of our questions on these topics that were of interest. Check out his insights on some of the big story lines of the the young season below:

CHARGED.fm: First up, Lane Kiffin gets a pretty rough exit at USC. What ultimately was his undoing there and where does USC go from here?

Matt Zemek: Kiffin's attitude was ultimately his undoing. It seemed that after the breakthrough at USC in 2011, Kiffin had turned the corner in terms of comportment and his overall approach to his job. The same person who was genuinely happy to lose a game (to Urban Meyer as Tennessee's coach in 2009) had made substantial forward strides in 2011, setting everything up for a big 2012 that would have stamped Kiffin as a coach worthy of the USC job. A successful 2012 would have silenced critics such as myself who thought that Kiffin had not achieved enough to deserve the Tennessee or USC jobs in the first place. Winning at least the Pac-12 South with 10 wins in 2012 would have put to rest the notion that Kiffin was the Anna Kournikova of college football, a publicity-magnet personality who never won anything when it counted.

However, Kiffin alienated his team throughout the 2012 season. A coach who earns the trust of his players would not have been swamped by a tsunami of controversy and an ocean of dissent in the days leading up to the Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech. The way Kiffin and his players handled that whole experience - including the game itself - showed how out of his league Kiffin really was... at the end of a season USC began with the No. 1 national ranking. It was one thing to win 10 games when being ineligible for the postseason and thereby being subjected to minimal high-stakes pressure. When USC had a chance to win the whole enchilada in 2012, the Trojans couldn't even win eight games or their own division in the Pac-12. It was reasonable to think that issues pertaining to depth would prevent 2012 USC from winning the national title, but failing to win eight games or the Pac-12 South? No way. Kiffin didn't handle a rare taste of success, and when he couldn't correct his mistakes in 2013, it was clear that his attempt to revive USC football had failed. The point of no return had been reached.

What's next? Chris Petersen should be Pat Haden's first move, but Petersen might like the quiet life in Boise. USC fans are split about the next coach in terms of "traditional offense versus modernized offense" and the "offense-first or defense-first" tension point as well. The main point of emphasis should be competence. Good coaching is its own strength. Getting a proven X-and-O man who has done something substantial in his career (Pat Fitzgerald and James Franklin have not yet reached the top tier in this regard) should be Haden's first point of focus. The rest should take care of itself.

Texas seems to be in a similar situation with Mack Brown. AD DeLoss Dodds is apparently resigning before the start of next season, so what does this mean for Brown?

It means he can't lose more than one game the rest of the way if he wants to keep his job. (Good luck with that, Mack.)

Alabama certainly looks like the best team in the nation again. If you're an opposing coach, what are the keys to knocking off this team?

There's a nuance here: Alabama is the team that's most likely to win the national title, but based strictly on form, it is anything but the clear No. 1 at this point. Alabama's offense has been average in every game other than the Texas A&M game, and one must point out that Texas A&M's defense has allowed over 30 points to Rice and Arkansas.

To beat Alabama, you either have to have the best defense in the history of mankind (unlikely), or -- and this is the more reasonable ask -- you have to throw the ball down the field, repeatedly testing Alabama's corners.

Let's put it this way: You don't beat a muscleman by playing muscular football. Alabama is the ultimate muscleman team in college football, so you're not going to overpower the Crimson Tide. You must finesse Bama to death and aim for tons of big-gainers through the air. Texas A&M did this; if the Aggies had some remote semblance of a defense, they might have beaten Alabama. However, A&M didn't have a defense.

Keep this in mind with respect to the national title game: Teams usually have five to six weeks off before the game. This long layoff hurts modern tempo/spread offenses while rewarding simpler plans. This advantage for SEC teams versus Pac-12 or Big 12 teams cannot be emphasized enough.

There are a slew of unbeaten/one-loss teams below Alabama that make up the top 10. Is there a clear #2 in your eyes among that group that stands out?

Not yet. Let's see what Florida State-Clemson and Oregon-Stanford produce, while also keeping an eye on Ohio State and Georgia. An Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship Game would be a tough game for Alabama on many levels. Georgia would have the weapons needed to win that game, and the Bulldogs would be consumed with thoughts of revenge after last season's crushing last-second loss.

What team outside the Top 10 right now has the best chance of crashing the party by the end of the season?

If "the party" means the BCS National Championship Game, Fresno State, simply because Louisville's strength of schedule will be so poor and Northern Illinois won't have higher-quality wins.

If "the party" means a BCS bowl, Northern Illinois faces a less imposing slate of games.

It's a ridiculous question, but who has been the top player in the country so far?

With September being a cupcake-filled month, it is indeed hard to legitimately identify the best player in the country. Up to this point, Virginia Tech defensive lineman Derrick Hopkins has been a total beast. At the skill positions, Todd Gurley of Georgia has been outstanding against quality competition.

And with this small sample size, what is your pick for national title game and national champion?

It's still Alabama's world until proven otherwise. The Tide will beat Oregon for the title. I had said Ohio State before the season, but the Buckeyes might not keep Braxton Miller healthy the whole way.

You can find Matt Zemek on Twitter (at)MattZemek_CFN and every week he produces three analytical columns: Enemy Territory (charting plus-territory drive starts for the seven top conferences and the major independents); By The Numbers (a numerical week-in-review piece); and Grading The Games, an attempt to identify what is and isn't "great" football solely on the merits of what I see on TV each week.

He also produces a new feature called "StoryBox" that is an advanced, non-traditional box score that tries to tell the game's story. An example is this StoryBox created for the Alabama/Texas A&M game by freelance researcher Candice Hare (at: chare889):  http://cfn.scout.com/2/1326456.html

Matt would love to produce more of these innovative pieces for more than just isolated games, but that requires a bigger budget. If any readers are interested in donating to help create more of these, they can email Matt at mzemek(at)hotmail.com and all of the funds will be used for paying freelance researchers, nothing else.

Want great football tickets and NO FEES? Check CHARGED.fm and save big all year!

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