America loves comebacks. Whether it was Elvis in 1968 or the Bills in 1993, sports fans are infatuated with watching teams or players or rock 'n' roll legends crawl out of a hole.
Welcome to the club, Adrian Martinez. Though, to call the Kansas State quarterback's play this season a comeback would be assuming there was once a peak he ascended to previously. Not so much in an uneven four-year career at Nebraska.
Oh, Martinez was game. His presence at Nebraska once caused former coach Scott Frost to react this way when Joe Burrow transferred from Ohio State: "You think [Burrow's] better than what we got?" Frost asked me after his first spring game in 2018 in which Martinez starred.
That remark was held against Frost for years by Nebraska fans. It shouldn't have been. History has shown Nebraska would have been worse without Martinez. He was no Joe Burrow, sure, but who has been? Martinez was tough and put in the work, but the prospect from the Central Valley of California also turned the ball over -- a lot.
Martinez was responsible for a staggering 46 turnovers in his four years at Nebraska: 30 interceptions, 16 fumbles lost. If there was ever a guy who needed a change of scenery, it was him. And it's worked.
No. 17 Kansas State heads into Saturday's showdown at No. 8 TCU as the only FBS team yet to throw an interception. In fact, Martinez has no turnovers at all. K-State has lost three fumbles all season.
That would make the one-time turnover machine likely the only FBS quarterback qualified in NCAA statistics (playing at least 75% of games) who has yet to commit a turnover.
That's not an Elvis-level comeback, but it's something. Martinez transferred, changed conferences and underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason -- all to get to this point. The Wildcats probably wouldn't be 5-1 and in contention for the Big 12 title without him.
"I don't know what happened in the past," K-State coach Chris Klieman said. "Everybody asks me about that. I wasn't with him, so I really don't know what happened and don't really care what happened. I'm just excited that he's here."
College football's midseason point is all about comebacks. No. 3 Tennessee is still partying after beating Alabama for the first time in 15 years. No. 14 Syracuse hasn't been this relevant in forever. Washington's Michael Penix Jr. (formerly of Indiana) is leading the country in passing. Sonny Dykes once coached a Super Bowl quarterback at Cal (Jared Goff); now, he has TCU in the top 10.
He and the Horned Frogs will have to get by Martinez and the Wildcats. Used somewhat sparingly as a passer, Martinez is on pace to rush for 1,00 yards. His breakout moment came against Oklahoma four weeks ago when he rushed for 148 yards and four touchdowns against an OU defense that still is figuring things out.
Martinez has been joined at the headset with offensive coordinator Collin Klein. Grab a glimpse of Klein at K-State; he likely won't be there for long. The former Heisman Trophy finalist (2012 when Johnny Manziel won) and beloved former Wildcats signal caller was elevated from quarterbacks coach before last year's bowl game.
"How do you not love Collin Klein?" Klieman said. "He galvanized the football team."
The winner of Saturday's contest might be the frontrunner to advance to the Big 12 Championship Game. In Klieman's fourth season, that would be an amazing accomplishment. His name is already being tossed around as the next coach at Nebraska. For Martinez, it would continue a well-deserved comeback.
Unbeaten ... for now
There will be attrition. Halfway through the season, that is assured. The fact that there are still nine undefeated FBS teams is something near normal. Throwing out the 2020 COVID-19 season, there have been an average 9.28 unbeaten teams at the midway point in the College Football Playoff era (since 2014).
Ah, but the maximum remaining unbeaten -- prior to the conference championship games -- is only four. That was 2018. That year, UCF went 12-0 before losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame all made the CFP. Clemson won it all by stomping Bama in the CFP National Championship. That's another way of indicating there is a lot of losing due at the top. On average since 2014, 64% of those undefeated teams at the halfway point, lose at some point (48 of 75).
Nine unbeatens remain. Based on matchups, only five could potentially make it to the championship games without being defeated. Let's rank them going forward:
- No. 1 Georgia: The Bulldogs will be big favorites against everyone they have left except Tennessee on Nov. 5. That is shaping up now as the SEC game of the year.
- No. 2 Ohio State: The Buckeyes are one of five teams not to play a ranked team this season. Doesn't matter. The season comes down to the game against Michigan on Nov. 26. Win that, and OSU is all but in the CFP.
- No. 3 Tennessee: The Volunteers know exactly who they are. They will have to outscore everyone to win the SEC and -- gasp? -- get to the CFP? Georgia is the biggest remaining challenge.
- No. 4 Michigan: The Wolverines are actually better than they were last year. After blowing out Penn State, the season comes down to a trip to Columbus, Ohio.
- No. 5 Clemson: Once again the class of the ACC, the Tigers have DJU (D.J. Uiagalelei), running back Will Shipley and a smothering defense. Do they measure up to the four teams listed above? The Tigers' 13 consecutive wins leads the country.
- No. 7 Ole Miss: Please, Lane don't leave for Auburn. Guess who leads the SEC in rushing? Plenty of upside here. The schedule is backloaded with LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State.
- No. 8 TCU: Next man up in Fort Worth, Texas. Gary Patterson departs. Dykes becomes a coach of the year candidate. Zach Evans transfers to Ole Miss. Kendre Miller replaces the ball carrier, scoring the game-winner against Oklahoma State and becoming the Big 12's No. 4 rusher.
- No. 9 UCLA: This week's game at Oregon will be a huge test. Chip Kelly already has visited Eugene, Oregon, twice as UCLA coach and lost. Dorian Thompson-Robinson made the right choice to return for his fifth season.
- No. 14 Syracuse: Coach Dino Babers was on the hot seat. Now, he's got a chance to lead the Orange to the top spot in the ACC. Admittedly, a trip to Clemson is going to be difficult. But only once has Syracuse's top-10 defense allowed more than 20 points in a game.
Pac-12 showdown with feathers
When last seen, No. 10 Oregon was dismissed. The season-opening loss to Georgia was so complete (49-3) you wondered just what Oregon had gotten itself into with Mario Cristobal's replacement (Dan Lanning) and its plug-and-play quarterback (Bo Nix).
Well, the true test of a team and a coaching staff is its ability to bounce back. Lanning and the Ducks have done just that heading into the UCLA game. Oregon is in the top 10 and sporting a five-game winning streak. Nix? Four years in, he has matured completing 70% of his passes against only three interceptions. (Consider Nix had 16 career picks before that at Auburn.)
Give credit to an offensive line that leads the Pac-12 in yards per carry (6.2) and sacks allowed (one in six games). Its pass blocking grade is the highest in Power Five, according to Pro Football Focus. That and a full-throated Autzen Stadium might be enough for the Ducks. If so, the Pac-12 is in danger of dropping out of CFP contention with every team having at least one loss three weeks into October.
It will be the ACC's best defense (Syracuse) traveling to the site of the nation's longest home winning streak (Clemson, 37). Cuse has the ability to keep Clemson off the field; it runs the ball 55% of the time. All-American RB Sean Tucker has run for 26 first downs, which is more than Iowa has all season, I think. (More Iowa smack below.) The question is not whether Clemson will win by two touchdowns or so, it's whether there is a spot for the Tigers in the playoff. The CFP Selection Committee will likely favor conference champions over one-loss Power Five runner-ups. But try telling that to Tennessee if it finishes 11-1 having faced five ranked teams.
Repairing the Alabama soul
Bama Nation is so down not even an afternoon listening to Paul Finebaum can help at this point. This was already a bad time for Mississippi State to come to Alabama, but if the Crimson Tide don't tighten up in the secondary, we're looking at Bama's first consecutive losses since 2013 and first back-to-back defeats in the regular season since Nick Saban's first season in 2007.
Tennessee ran huge splits with its receivers last week that seemed to leave Bama defenders on an island. With that much space between the line and the receiver, Tennessee pass catchers had plenty of room to run routes over the top. You saw it time after time with Jalin Hyatt catching five touchdowns.
That sort of formation is vintage Mike Leach, who likes to run wide splits. The Bulldogs come to town second to the Vols in SEC passing. Will Rogers is the league's leading passer and its most accurate.
Alabama had won 15 straight against Tennessee. It has won 14 consecutive over Mississippi State. It continues to amaze that Alabama leads the nation in penalties committed (66).
Texas is back...ing it up
No, really. There has been definite progress. The No. 20 Longhorns' only two losses are by a combined four points to Alabama and Texas Tech.
No. 11 Oklahoma State always seems to play Texas tough, but this beyond that. The 'Horns suddenly control their own destiny in the Big 12. And with Quinn Ewers, anything seems possible. In the three games the Texas quarterback has played in their entirety, Texas has outscored the opposition 125-31. Take Bijan Robinson and Bevo against the Cowboys, who absolutely let one slip away last week at TCU.
The Pokes have a missed tackle rate of 18% (that's high!). Robinson leads the country 56 forced missed tackles (that's a lot!). That's not a good combination for Oklahoma State in what shapes up to be a shootout. Be advised: The 'Horns are 1-5 under Steve Sarkisian in true road games
Best vs. worst
In 2017, Iowa shocked the world beating No. 3 Ohio State 55-24. The Buckeyes entered the game as a 20.5-point favorite. That remains the most points given up by Ohio State since 1994. It was also the most points given up by an Urban Meyer-coached team.
You're permitted to laugh out loud at the prospect of Iowa scoring 55 against anyone these days. That would take a month -- or two. Iowa has scored a total of 88 points this season, Meyer is long gone, and the Buckeyes lead the country in scoring halfway through the season. Actually, no surprise there, but something will have to give Saturday at The Shoe.
It is a battle of the nation's best offense (Ohio State, 48.8 points) vs. the nation's worst (Iowa, 24.5). The over/under in this game (49.5) is essentially double what the total has been in Iowa games this season (24.5). Iowa is so one-sided, it is a larger underdog (+29) than the most points its defense has allowed this season (27).
Oh, and Ohio State has learned its lesson. It is 25-0 as at least a 20-point favorite since that shocker five years ago.
Ole Miss is seeking its first 8-0 start since it claimed a national championship (going 10-0) in 1962 ... amaze your friends with trivia nugget: At the halfway point, the only Division I team that hasn't trailed at any point is FCS Sacramento State (6-0) … Cincinnati (at SMU) is once again the Group of Five favorite for a New Year's Six spot; it leads the country with 18 consecutive conference wins … … Notre Dame (vs. UNLV) hasn't scored a first-quarter touchdown this season and has been outscored in the opening frame 27-6 … welcome to the fight, No. 25 Tulane, which is ranked for the first since 1998 when Shaun King led the Green Wave to a 12-0 record in the first season of the BCS; Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator on that team