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Bet you didn’t see this coming.

Washington State is 6-0 for the first time since 2001. In his sixth season in Pullman, Mike Leach has a Pac-12 and College Football Playoff contender — and it’s because of the Cougars’ defense.

Bet you didn’t see that coming.

The Cougars as contenders, the sorry state of the SEC and the return of (the state of) Texas are among the most surprising developments in 2017.

Will they last through the second half of the season? Maybe. How does Mike Leach vs. Nick Saban in the CFP sound?
Meet the man behind the most impressive turnaround of 2017

To celebrate Washington State’s 30-27 upset win over then-No. 5 USC in Pullman, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch did what he always does after a game.

He ate pepperoni pizza rolls with his wife and two kids.

“Nothing exciting,” Grinch told ESPN last week. “That’s the deal.”

It’s a postgame tradition for Grinch and a few other coaches after any win, even if you’d think they might have indulged themselves with a shrimp or two after topping the Trojans. But the Cougars have a strict, 24-hour celebration rule, and Grinch strictly abides by it to keep his focus on improving one of the nation’s stealthiest defenses.
Hercules Mata’afa leads Washington State’s defense with 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire

Washington State has seen incremental improvement under Grinch in his first two seasons coaching the defense, but 2017 has been something totally different. Wazzu ranks 11th nationally in total defense, allowing just 275.5 yards per game, and 13th in opponents’ yards per play (4.5). The Cougars are giving up just 18.5 points per game and are fifth nationally with 15 takeaways. Opposing teams are converting just 24.7 percent of their third downs (20 of 81), and Washington State has registered 21 sacks and 49 tackles for loss in six games after having 20 sacks and 72 TFLs for the entire 2016 season.

“There’s a brand of football on the video that we’d like to be — playing fast, playing aggressive, playing hard,” Grinch said. “When you do those things, you got a chance.

“The [defensive] expectations are never coming to our program, so we have to create them ourselves. We’re not in it to seek people’s approval. We’re trying to play the best brand of football we possibly can.”

He’s absolutely right. As long as Mike Leach is coaching in Pullman, defense will be overlooked. But Grinch is making fools of us with how good he has made this defense. Over the weekend, Wazzu held an Oregon run game that was averaging 260.8 yards per game to just 132 yards and 2.9 yards per carry in 31-10 win in Eugene.

It’s not like he’s recruiting first-round NFL draft prospects. No, Grinch knows the Cougars “aren’t going to get them fast, big and ready” in recruiting, so he’s having to develop more than a lot of coaches at bigger schools do.

“We can’t have a model that we put on the board and say, ‘This is what they look like,'” Grinch said.

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He has created his own by finding measurables when he can, while refusing to compromise on athleticism and fitting guys in their correct positions. Grinch moved Isaac Dotson (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) from safety to linebacker — he’s currently second on the team with 30 tackles. He moved Frankie Luvu from Will linebacker to the outside, and he has 6.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks this season. Both starting safeties — Jalen Thompson and Robert Taylor — are former cornerbacks. Thompson leads the team in tackles (34) and interceptions (three), while Taylor has two picks this season.

Grinch also has the league’s most disruptive interior lineman in Hercules Mata’afa, who has 10 TFLs and 4.5 sacks, but he has been able to make that entire line dangerous with the different looks they’ve given and some of the movement up front. It also helps that Grinch sees guys constantly competing with and against Mata’afa to try to duplicate his on-field success.

“That culture is starting to take over a bit,” Grinch said. “That’s how you take the next step as a defense. It’s not just being in the right spot, but making plays.

“I’m the first one to admit that we’re better, but we’re not there.”

With the way the Cougars are playing, “there” might end up being the Pac-12 championship game and a playoff berth.
The best defensive line isn’t in the SEC

Sorry, SEC. Your claim to fame has always been speed and trench warfare, but right now, it’s Clemson that has the nation’s best defensive front.

(Braces ears for thunderous “A-C-C!” chants)
Left to right, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins headline Clemson’s fearsome defensive front. Mike Comer/Getty Images

Clemson’s line has accounted for a Power 5-best 65.9 percent of the Tigers’ sacks (14.5 of 22). Defensive end Austin Bryant is tied for second in the ACC with five sacks and 10.5 TFLs, but this entire line gives opposing offenses a migraine.

Clemson is tied for first nationally with 16 sacks when the Tigers don’t blitz, 10.5 of which have come from defensive linemen, which is best in Power 5, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Four of the Tigers’ sacks when they do blitz have come from linemen.

Quarterbacks have a QBR of 18 when Clemson doesn’t blitz. When under duress without a Clemson blitz, quarterbacks have completed 7 of 32 passes for 79 yards. Teams are also rushing for zero or negative yards 29 percent of the time against Clemson.

You would think Alabama would maintain the SEC’s reputation as having the nation’s best defensive line. The numbers aren’t that much different, but Clemson has the statistical edge.

Eight of Alabama’s 14 sacks have come from defensive linemen, led by Raekwon Davis with three, which is ranked 13th in Power 5. Seven of them have come when Alabama doesn’t blitz (10th in Power 5). When under duress without a blitz, Alabama’s opponents have completed 13 of 35 passes for 178 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

The Tide are better at stopping the run (2.57 yards per carry vs. 2.82 yards per carry for Clemson), but when you add the way Clemson’s defensive line has fared against the pass, the Tigers top the Tide once again.
Texas is back!

OK, not necessarily the Longhorns (sorry, Joe Tess!), but the state in general has remembered how to play football. Through six weeks, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, SMU, Texas Tech, Houston, North Texas and UT San Antonio all have winning records, going a combined 30-11.

Texas A&M is 4-2, and while it didn’t beat Bama over the weekend, the Aggies played the Tide better than anyone all season. Texas Tech is averaging 46.8 points per game, but more importantly, it’s allowing nearly 20 points fewer after surrendering 43.5 points per game and 7 yards a play last season.

Houston is 4-1 without Tom Herman, while Herman is 3-2 with Texas Longhorns. The Longhorns are getting better, and Saturday’s Red River Rivalry is much more interesting today than it was when Maryland Terrapins was embarrassing UT in Week 1.

The leader of the pack is (surprisingly) TCU. The sixth-ranked Horned Frogs won at Arkansas 28-7 and just wrapped up back-to-back wins over ranked teams, first beating then-No. 6 Oklahoma State 44-31 in Stillwater and then surviving No. 23 West Virginia 31-24 over the weekend.

TCU’s defense hasn’t been talked about enough, even though it’s allowing around 60 fewer yards and nine fewer points than it did per game last season. This weekend was a perfect example of how frustrating the Frogs can be, as West Virginia quarterback Will Grier completed 15 of 33 passes outside the hashmarks, his lowest completion percentage in a game on such passes this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Grier completed all but two of his 12 attempts over the middle of the field with two touchdowns. TCU came into the game allowing opponents to complete 47.8 percent of passes outside the hashes, which was the sixth-lowest completion percentage among Power 5 defenses.
Kenny Hill has completed 69 percent of his passes this season. Ron Jenkins/AP

West Virginia also gained 90 of its 142 rushing yards before contact Saturday, more than 2 yards per rush fewer than its season average and its fewest in a game since it had 28 such yards against Alabama in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Coming into Saturday, the Mountaineers ranked third among Power 5 teams in average yards before contact per rush, but the Frogs were having none of it.

Then there’s the improvement of quarterback Kenny Hill. He scored throwing, rushing and receiving on Saturday, and he’s learning to stand in the pocket with poise and command. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Hill completed nearly 64 percent of his passes against standard pressure versus the Mountaineers, including his lone touchdown pass. Entering the game, Hill completed 73 percent of his passes against four or fewer rushers, best completion percentage in the Big 12.
Sideline swag is the newest fad

Swag is something non-millennials greatly despise, but sideline swag has been a tremendous addition to in-game aesthetics. Miami has appropriately donned a thick, gold, “turnover chain” with a gaudy “U” emblem for takeaway-hungry defenders, and Georgia Bulldogs defenders transform into “Mad Max” extras with their golden, spiked shoulder pads with a black Georgia “G” in the middle and the word “savage” underneath.

“We get the ball off someone, we get the spikes,” Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter told reporters of the shoulder pads earlier this season.

Alabama has its way-too-perfect and way-too-obvious title belt for defenders, and Texas A&M has a big-play scepter for players to twirl on the sideline.

Yes, they’re gimmicks, but they’re fun. They are rewards for being ruthless, and we approve.

“In Miami, what are we famous for? We’re famous for the Cuban chains,” Anthony John Machado, the jeweler who made Miami’s chain, told the Sun-Sentinel. “But we need to add a little something to it.
Tennessee got in on the sideline-swag action with a trash can to celebrate turnovers. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“So we did a big U charm — orange stones, green stones in there to flash it out.”

Then, you have Tennessee. The Vols have been the butt of too many jokes for the past year, thanks to too many cheesy news conference remarks from head coach Butch Jones. This season, they introduced a turnover trash can to their sideline. The social media reaction to the Vols’ sideline swag was to be expected, as jokes and parodies have piled onto an already ugly scene in Knoxville to start the season.

I guess you can’t be champions of everything.
Year of the Quarterback is Year of the Running Back

Move over Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen. College football’s golden arms have been replaced by workhorse backs such as Saquon Barkley, Bryce Love and Rashaad Penny.

Barkley might be your new Heisman favorite with his 1,302 all-purpose yards. The Penn State wonder-back has 649 rushing yards on the season, but he’s averaging 217 all-purpose yards per game and has nine touchdowns this season with three multi-touchdown games. He’s averaging 6.4 yards per carry and 13.6 yards per catch (29 receptions). Through the first five games of the season, Barkley had more yards and more touchdowns than Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey had at that point in 2015 when he went on to set the FBS single-season, all-purpose yardage record.

The Cardinal’s Love has been even better from a rushing perspective. Love has an FBS-high 1,240 rush yards this season and has rushed for at least 100 yards in eight straight games dating back to last season. He’s averaging 10.5 yards per carry, and 44.9 percent of his runs have gone for 5-plus yards.

Love has a nation-leading 30 rushes of 10-plus yards, 20 of which have gone for 20-plus yards (six more than anyone else in the country), and eight of his nine rushing touchdowns have come from 20-plus yards out. He’s also second nationally with 390 yards after contact.

Penny is probably someone you’ve never heard of, but he picked up right where Donnel Pumphrey left off at San Diego State when he rushed for a nation-best 2,133 yards last year. Penny hit 1,000 yards last year — as Pumphrey’s backup — and he’s 7 yards away from hitting it again this year.

Penny is second in the nation in rushing and has 14 20-plus-yard runs with 28 10-plus-yard runs. Say what you will about his competition, but against Stanford, Penny ran for 175 yards and a touchdown to Love’s 184 yards and two scores, but his team won. He’s also used in the passing game more, catching 16 passes for 127 yards and two scores.

As it stands now, Penny has 1,325 all-purpose yards to Barkley’s 1,302.
The bottom has fallen out in the SEC

Nick Saban assured us that the SEC was about more than just his Crimson Tide. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Alabama has already playfully batted around three league counterparts like a cat with an injured mouse, and outside of Georgia and Auburn Tigers — and maybe Texas A&M — the SEC doesn’t have much of anything to offer.

Florida and LSU — both unranked and with four combined losses (one of LSU’s being to Troy at home) — just disgraced their rivalry over the weekend in a 17-16 win by LSU that shouldn’t make anyone in Baton Rouge feel better about the direction of the program and should have everyone in Gainesville yearning for Ron Zook’s offensive staff.

Vanderbilt upset Kansas State a couple of weeks ago and has since then gone 0-3, losing by a combined 104 points. Arkansas is 2-3 and just watched South Carolina score three defensive touchdowns in a 48-22 rout. Tennessee should probably be 1-4 and just lost at home 41-0 to Georgia — trash can and all.

Missouri and Ole Miss have taken a zombie-like approach to the 2017 season, and Mississippi State went from a 37-7 blowout of LSU to losing back-to-back games to Georgia and Auburn 80-13 combined.

The SEC has a Power 5-worst three ranked AP teams — Alabama, Georgia, Auburn — and is last among Power 5 conferences with a point differential against nonconference opponents of 14.05.

Because of this, coaching inefficiency chatter is deafening in the SEC. The season started with Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin bearing the brunt of the hot-seat talk. Malzahn and Sumlin have fanned those flames to a degree, but Jones’ uninspiring 3-2 start has him estranged with his fan base.

Jim McElwain’s inability to find any sort of offense or a quarterback in Gainesville in Year 3 (ranking 93rd or worse nationally in passing, scoring, total offense and first downs) has Gator Nation fed up, while Ed Orgeron’s 4-2 without much of an offensive identity himself has a lot of people on the Bayou wondering if he was, in fact, the right choice to replace Les Miles.

Arkansas’ Bret Bielema is at a crossroads with his own program, as the Razorbacks are in danger of missing out on the postseason after a 2-3 start.

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