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Inside the Pocket: Sims, Winston lead early-season surprises


We're through four weeks of college football action, but a huge chunk of the season remains. Who has been the biggest surprise and can they keep things up -- or turn things around -- this season?

Here are 10 that stood out and what their biggest question mark is right now:

Blake Sims: For observers of Alabama's spring practices or spring game, one probably didn't walk away impressed with the group of quarterbacks under center. Whether it was a lack of knowledge about Lane Kiffin's offense or simply going against the Crimson Tide defense, the signal-callers were timid and lacked play-making skills. It was one reason why many viewed Florida State transfer Jacob Coker as a bit of a savior for the team given reports about him.

Fast-forward to Saturday as Blake Sims shredded yet another defense by going 23-for-33 for 445 yards and four touchdowns against Florida. It was yet another impressive early-season performance for Sims, who has been just about perfect under center. It certainly helps to throw to Amari Cooper and have T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry to hand the ball off to, but Sims has been the conductor of Kiffin's symphony and done a great job.

The question mark:*AJ McCarron* was so underrated as a quarterback who could nail a big play down the field when Alabama needed it most. Sims hasn't been in that pressure-packed situation yet with the bulk of SEC play ahead. How he handles those moments are the only thing we don't know how the Tide starter will handle.

Jameis Winston: Can he learn? At this point you have to question whether the Florida State star understands his place on the team and as a public figure. We were reminded constantly the past week that he's still young and immature. His latest stunt of getting dressed for a game in which game was suspended was funny to some, but incredulous to most. You would think he would have figured things out after a bumpy ride last season, but it appears Winston has not so far. On the field, too, there are question marks that remain, but at least the Seminoles are 3-0.

The question mark: Seriously, can he follow a few simple rules? I've laid them out here.

The State of Utah: When you think of terrific football states, Texas and Alabama probably come to mind first. Don't leave out the Beehive State this year, though. Flagship powers BYU and Utah are both undefeated with many expecting the Cougars to run the table. The Utes look significantly improved and just went into the Big House to beat down Michigan. The only disappointment might be the play and additional injury of quarterback Chuckie Keeton at 2-2 Utah State.

The question mark(s): BYU has the chops to run the table with a quality defense and star quarterback in Taysom Hill. The biggest obstacles on the schedule appear to be road games at UCF and Cal. They're capable of beating both, so only injuries or not getting up for a game will rain on the team's parade. As for Utah, the competition hasn't been on a world-beater level, so Pac-12 play will provide a real test. Early indications suggest Utah's shot of at least going to a bowl game are positive. With Keeton, let's just hope that knee injury is anything but serious.

Michigan: The Wolverines looked great on offense in their opener against Appalachian State and there was reason for hope in Ann Arbor with Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess looking primed for a breakout campaign in 2014. The defense hadn't been proven, but it featured plenty of four- and five-stars on the depth chart. Then Notre Dame happened. They struggled more than expected against an awful Miami (Ohio) team. Last week's game against Utah was made even worse by a weather delay and shots of Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison cursing at each other. Things are bad and there's not much hope they'll get better for the maize and blue.

The question mark: Will there be some midseason firings? The schedule should provide enough Big Ten wins to get to a bowl game, but if the team gets blown out on the road at Michigan State, will athletic director Dave Brandon start his coaching search early? Is Brandon, the athletic director, on shaky ground himself? It's possible given a few recent missteps when it comes to football. We're not yet to October, but it seems like a lost season for the Wolverines right now.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs land on this list thanks to an impressive win at LSU on Saturday that caused them to shoot up into the top 15. Dak Prescott has been terrific at quarterback and looked like he was able to do whatever he wanted against John Chavis' defense on his way to 373 yards of offense. Add in the rushing threat of **Josh Robinson** and Dan Mullen's offense is humming. The defense, led by stud linebacker Benardrick McKinney, also looked good up until the final five minutes of this week's game, too.

The question mark: Beating LSU at night in Tiger Stadium is impressive no matter how you look at it, but the Tigers were vastly overrated and their youth at key positions showed up plenty on Saturday. The real test will come with a one-two whammy for MSU after their bye week: Texas A&M and Auburn. Only the faithful think they can win those games, but a good showing will bode well for a quality season in the brutal SEC West.

Notre Dame's resilience: Key players were dismissed before the Irish even took a snap, including the team's best receiver and cornerback. People were quick to take one look at that brutal schedule and wonder if a lower-tier bowl game was the best the team could muster. While the competition level hasn't been top-notch, Brian Kelly has his squad looking good so far this season and the play of quarterback Everett Golson has been outstanding despite a youthful supporting cast. Throw in a deep set of running backs and a solid defense, and Notre Dame has a chance at making noise heading into the game at Florida State.

The question mark: We'll see if the team is for real next week against Stanford. Right now the play in the trenches on both sides of the ball has been OK, but it needs to improve a lot with heavyweights like Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State and USC on the schedule. A double-digit win total is not out of the question for the Irish at all.

The ups and downs in Los Angeles: UCLA came into the year with expectations of making a run at the College Football Playoff, while USC's new up-tempo offense looked to be just what was ordered to complement a talented defense led by a potential top-five pick. Fast forward to Week 5 and the concerns could not be greater for either team. Boston College gashed the Trojans' front seven a week after the offense was slowed to a halt by Stanford. The Bruins' offensive line has been one of the worst-performing units in the country and star quarterback Brett Hundley is injured. There's boatloads of talent in L.A., but living up to expectations has been an issue so far.

The question mark: Does either team have enough depth to make a run at the Pac-12 South? USC's issues are well-documented, but the defensive line is getting awfully thin and things will only ramp up with the teams on the upcoming schedule. Hundley might return this week for UCLA, but the team has yet to put together a complete game on both sides of the ball -- and that's a big issue for a team hoping to make it to the title game in San Francisco. They can get better, but the signs of progress are not there yet.

Kenny Hill: Replacing Johnny Manziel is no easy task, but that's exactly what Hill has made it look like. With an inexperienced but talented wide receiving corps, the sophomore has posted better numbers in his first four games than his predecessor and sits ninth in the NCAA in passing efficiency. Not bad for a first-time stater.

The question mark: The best defense he's faced so far was South Carolina's, and the Gamecocks have been nothing but iffy this season. Things will pick up considerably with the start of SEC West play this week, so Hill will get tested. How well he plays in games against top-five teams will be interesting, but his ability to get the Aggies out of a jam with his play-making abilities will be the real test in replacing Manziel.

The American and Mountain West Conferences: After a very good year for both leagues in 2013, there were some expectations that things would be just as competitive -- if not more -- this year. While the AAC has picked up some notable out-of-conference victories, it looks increasingly like East Carolina or Cincinnati are the league's only hope of having a ranked team at the end of the year and bonafide New Year's Six Bowl contender. The Pirates have been awfully impressive, but the thing is the bottom of the AAC has been just as awful as one can be.

The question mark: Will a terrible league slate be enough for ECU, or can Boise State's brand help them more? USF, Tulsa, Houston, SMU, UConn and Tulane have all been embarrassed in the non-league schedule and are performing well below expectations. UCF sits at 1-2 and is still trying to figure things out. The bright spot might be the improvement of Temple and Memphis, but that's not enough to help ECU's case with the Selection Committee. Time to circle Nov. 13 on the schedule in the AAC.

As for the Mountain West, it appears to be Boise State or bust once again with lackluster play from just about everybody else and the Broncos owning a head-to-head win over Colorado State already. The game against BYU looms large on the blue turf, as the team tries to make a case against East Carolina and, possibly, an undefeated Marshall.

The SEC East: Everybody talks about the SEC West and division's six ranked teams, but things are just as impressive in the East -- only not in a good way. Georgia looked impressive in a win over Clemson and then failed to hand the ball to Todd Gurley in a loss to South Carolina. The Gamecocks were blown out by Texas A&M and struggled against Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Commodores have been awful, by the way, and Florida has done nothing to help Will Muschamp's hot-seat status. The death-blow might have been defending champ Missouri losing at home to Indiana (that's in football, by the way).

The question mark: When the lone divisional bright spots might be a stud offensive player (Gurley) and the improvement at Kentucky, you know it could be a long year. This is anybody's division to take right now, but will anyone step up? There's enough talent on a few squads, but right now it's looking like another loss in Atlanta for whichever team emerges.

Stat of the week

From Mississippi State's Bill Martin, the number of 100-yard rushing games vs. LSU's defense since 2005: 1. Dak Prescott -- 2; 2. Cam Newton -- 1; Johnny Manziel -- 0. Nobody ever did it in Death Valley, either. Prescott is also the only QB to run for 100 and throw for over 200 vs. LSU since 1993.

Stats to chew on

» In 56 games as a college head coach, Lane Kiffin's team had 600-plus yards of offense five times. It's happened twice this year at Alabama.

» Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is now tied for the NCAA career record with former Army star Glenn Davis at 8.26 yards per carry. The Badgers set a modern Big Ten record for rushing yards on Saturday, too.

» Per Lenny Vangilder, LSU allowed a 70-plus-yard run and 70-plus-yard pass against Mississippi State. Prior to Saturday, the Tigers had only done that in the same season once since 2000.

» Fox Sports's Bruce Feldman points out there's not a single SEC defense ranked in the top 12 in fewest yards per play, while at least two Power Five teams from every other conference make the cut.

» Michigan hasn't scored a single offensive touchdown against a Power Five team this year and is now 1-7 in its last eight against that level of competition.

» Bob Stoops became the first coach to win 100 Big 12 games over the weekend. The AP's Chuck McGill tipped us off to this additional nugget: Stoops is now 32-0 when he has a 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver.

» Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is on pace to shatter Russell Wilson's NCAA record pass efficiency mark of 191.8. The Oregon signal-caller is at 217.96 after Saturday. He did all that despite being sacked a career-high seven times by Washington State, more than double his previous most in a game.

» Florida State's 19-game winning streak is actually an ACC record, surpassing the Seminoles' streak set between 1999 and 2000.

» Pitt's James Conner leads the nation in yards and is tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns. He has bettered Tony Dorsett's mark for yards in a four-game stretch by an astonishing 135 yards.

Quote of the Week

"We've got all the voters fooled thinking we're pretty good because we beat Georgia. I don't know exactly what all can help this team. I really don't." -- Steve Spurrier after a narrow win over Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Sound from Saturday

The most thrilling game of the week might have been the one that came last. Here's Brian Jefferies' call of Arizona's crazy Hail Mary against Cal.

Tweet of the Week

Sideline standouts

Gold medal: Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, for getting that marquee win at Tiger Stadium by running over LSU.

Silver medal: Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, for guiding redshirt freshman Anu Solomon to a 47-of-73, 520-yard, five-touchdown performance and a 36-point fourth-quarter comeback for the ages.

Bronze medal: Alabama's Lane Kiffin, for directing a record-setting Crimson Tide offense against rival Florida and turning Blake Sims (see above) into a budding star.

Pre-snap read

UCLA at Arizona State: A rare week where the Thursday-night game is the best of the bunch. Brett Hundley is likely to play for the Bruins, but he better hope his offensive line does a better job against a Todd Graham defense that knows how to bring pressure. The only way the Sun Devils can score a win is if D.J. Foster goes off because quarterback Taylor Kelly is unlikely to play as the offense's triggerman.

You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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