College football coaches spend every August practice and the entire nonconference schedule hoping to coax and cajole their teams to perform at an optimal level known as “midseason form.”
Officially, we’ve reached that stretch of the 2015 season. Many of the nation’s FBS programs will play their sixth of 12 regular-season games this week, with No. 2 TCU (5-0), No. 23 California (5-0) and No. 11 Florida (5-0) adhering much closer to August blueprints than Texas (1-4), Nebraska (2-3) and Arkansas (2-3) heading into notable Week Six matchups.
Thus far, we’ve witnessed enough inconsistent performances from perceived frontrunners to realize there is no clear-cut, top team in college football at this juncture. No. 1 Ohio State (5-0) remains this week’s place-holder for the top spot, slightly ahead of TCU and No. 3 Baylor (4-0), based on Sunday’s updated polls.
But five different schools, including No. 9 Texas A&M (5-0), received first-place votes. Baylor got 10, second only to the top-ranked Buckeyes (38) among the top vote-getters. That tells you how wide open the national championship race remains.
4 Offenses in FBS topping 600 yards per game, all from schools in Texas.
The real story as we hit midseason involves the emergence of under-the-radar teams that deserve consideration as College Football Playoff contenders.
A show of hands, please, among honest fans who targeted Saturday’s matchup between Cal and No. 5 Utah (4-0) as a midseason showdown between the Pac-12’s last remaining undefeated teams. Yep, my hand is down, too. But that is what we’ll have for Texans who stay up late enough to watch Saturday’s live telecast (9:15 p.m., ESPN).
Another surprise inclusion on Saturday’s big game slate involves the opportunity for Florida (5-0, 3-0 SEC) to seize control of the SEC East Division race if the Gators beat Missouri (4-1, 1-1) in Columbia, Mo. Mizzou has represented the East in the past two SEC championship games.
But the Gators’ rebuilding efforts under first-year coach Jim McElwain stand in marked contrast to comparable efforts at Texas under second-year coach Charlie Strong. The Gators rolled then-No. 3 Ole Miss 38-10 in weekend action a few hours after Texas fell to TCU 50-7.
The Gators, at this point, have a defense-first identity led by linebacker Antonio Morrison, who recorded 13 tackles (3.5 TFLs) in the rout of the Rebels. Texas, it seems, has a mistake-first identity marked by recurring special teams gaffes and a midgame Twitter post by one of its freshmen.
Strong made it clear the halftime tweet on the account of defensive back Kris Boyd will be addressed as the Longhorns seek to rebound from what he called an “embarrassing” performance in Fort Worth with Saturday’s trip to Dallas to face No. 10 Oklahoma (11 a.m., WFAA/Ch. 8).
As things stand, Texas has flashed the worst midseason form of any team from the Lone Star State while carving out the school’s worst start to any season since 1956. How Strong manages the team’s psyche the rest of the season will determine his legacy, as well as the length of his tenure, as the Longhorns’ coach.
Elsewhere in the state, here are some other midseason forms worth noting:
Best newcomer: Texas A&M receiver/kick returner Christian Kirk, a freshman who ranks fifth nationally in all-purpose yards (191.6 per game), has made the biggest positive impact of any first-year player in the state. Kirk has scored five touchdowns in five games (4 receptions, 1 punt return) for No. 9 A&M (5-0, 2-0 in SEC), which is idle this week before facing No. 8 Alabama (4-1, 1-1) on Oct. 17 in College Station.
Offensive arsenals: Teams from Texas hold down the top four spots in total offense among the nation’s FBS programs. No. 3 Baylor (754.3 avg.) leads the way, followed by TCU (630.0), Texas Tech (602.8) and Houston (602.5). Those four are the only schools topping 600 yards per game at midseason. In addition, three schools from Texas are the only ones averaging at least 50 points per game: Baylor (63.8), the national leader, is followed by TCU (50.8) and Tech (50.0).
Deficient defenses: Of the nation’s 10 defenses allowing opponents to score more than 40 points per game, half are Texas schools: Texas State (49.5), North Texas (44.4), Texas Tech (41.4), UTEP (41.2) and Rice (40.2). Five schools from the state also rank among the bottom 10 in total defense by allowing more than 500 yards per game. SMU (593.4 avg.) ranks last in the FBS but is being pushed by Texas State (585.0), Texas Tech (581.0), North Texas (516.8) and Texas (507.2). The Longhorns check in at No. 119.
The state’s stingiest defense, at this point, belongs to A&M. Under first-year defensive coordinator John Chavis, the Aggies have allowed 374.8 yards and 21.0 points per game.
Biggest surprise: Houston (4-0), under first-year coach Tom Herman, is showing signs it will be a force in the race for an American Athletic Conference title. The Cougars have outscored opponents by a combined margin of 183-93 heading into Thursday’s game against SMU (7 p.m., ESPN2).
Key games this week
No. 23 California at No. 5 Utah: Two under-the-radar undefeated teams meet Saturday, with the winner enhancing its CFP pedigree.
Texas vs. No. 10 Oklahoma (Dallas): The talent gap between the Red River rivals will be wider than usual Saturday in the Cotton Bowl.
No. 2 TCU at Kansas State: Another notable road test awaits the Horned Frogs on their road to a potential playoff berth.