Among the year's most baffling college football storylines is the disappointing results from many of the preseason's Heisman hopefuls. Spencer Rattler was benched. D.J. Uiagalelei has struggled mightily. D'Eriq King got hurt. JT Daniels has barely played.
That seems to be the narrative anyway, particularly given the Tar Heels' 4-4 record. They were ranked 10th in the preseason, and now they'll need to beat No. 9 Wake Forest to get above .500. Surely that's on the QB.
"I'm more impressed with him this year than last year," Wake coach Dave Clawson said.
The numbers support Clawson's take, too.
Through eight games in 2020, Howell had 2,868 total yards, 26 TDs, 42 plays of 20 yards or more and a Total QBR of 76.8.
Through eight games this season, the numbers are nearly identical: 2,967 yards, 25 TDs, 41 plays of 20 or more and a Total QBR of 76.4.
What's different is Howell is doing much of the damage by sheer force of will. Last year, UNC featured a pair of 1,000-yard running backs in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and two NFL receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. All departed after 2020, while remaining veterans Beau Corrales (injury) and Khafre Brown (transfer) haven't helped fill the void.
"He's been outstanding," Miami coach Manny Diaz said of Howell. "With the exodus of elite talent they had last year, he is leading them almost single-handed."
So why has all the preseason buzz around Howell disappeared?
"Once a Heisman candidate loses," UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said, "it's over."
If the rest of the country has decided to ignore Howell's production, Clawson and the Wake Forest defense certainly haven't. Indeed, Howell's ability to run the ball presents the Deacons with a whole new set of challenges.
While Howell hardly looks the part of a dual-threat QB, he's topped 90 yards on the ground five times this season already. Remove lost sack yardage, and Howell is the ACC's third-leading rusher. Through eight games, Howell has 2,192 pass yards and 550 (post-sack) rush yards along with the 25 total TDs. Three other QBs have put up such numbers in the past decade: Johnny Manziel, Lamar Jackson (twice) and Jalen Hurts. Each was a Heisman finalist.
All part of the plan, Longo said. With Carter and Williams gone, UNC knew it needed more production on the ground from the QB, and Longo was certain Howell could be a threat with his legs.
"We just didn't want to use it because we didn't have depth in the QB room," Longo said.
That changed in 2021, however, and the results have been better than expected.
Howell certainly has the attention of Wake's secondary, led by Caelen Carson and Ja'Sir Taylor, which has struggled against dual-threat QBs this season. Virginia's Brennan Armstrong threw for 407 yards against the Deacs, while Louisville's Malik Cunningham had a season high 309 passing yards to go with two rushing TDs. Even Army -- an option offense -- threw for 179 yards against Wake, the Black Knights highest tally in two years. Forcing Wake's defense to choose between spying the run or putting an extra defender in coverage has proved a successful formula.
The key, Clawson said, is fundamentals.
"You have to tackle him," Clawson said. "The amount of tackles he breaks is incredible."
That's what's especially impressive, Clawson said. He's less five-star athlete and more downhill bulldozer, and for a QB, that's a rare quality.
"He plays with so much courage and so much guts and he is holding the ball to the last second to give his receivers every chance to get open," Clawson said. "His willingness and ability to run the football. He doesn't slide or get out of bounds. He breaks tackles. He breaks every arm tackle. He's a much better athlete than people give him credit for." -- David Hale
No. 5 Ohio State at Nebraska (noon ET, FOX): The focus headed into this game is not on the team trying to get into the College Football Playoff. Rather, it seems as if the "Scott Frost Watch" has been renewed once again in Nebraska now that the Huskers are on a three-game slide and must win out to clinch bowl eligibility.
The chances that happens remain remote, especially with the No. 5 Buckeyes coming to town. The question is whether athletic director Trev Alberts has seen enough progress to grant Frost another year. Frost believes he deserves that, saying earlier this week during his weekly news conference:
"We're close. I don't want to overstep here, but I'm really excited about the rest of this year, I'm really excited about next year. I hope we get it. I think we should. With the young guys we've got coming back and the 'opp' to get a few more pieces to add to that, I think this thing could be really good."
The issues remain the same: Too many mistakes at inopportune times, leading to way too many close losses. All six of Nebraska's losses this year were one-score games.
Last week against Purdue, quarterback Adrian Martinez threw four interceptions after entering with only three on the season. But as Frost pointed out, Nebraska seems to play its best against the best teams this year -- taking top-10 Oklahoma, Michigan State and Michigan down to the wire before losing in heartbreaking fashion.
"Guys are excited. They love these games," Frost said. "This team's probably the best, or close to that, we played all year. They're going to come in ready, and our guys are excited to play." -- Andrea Adelson
No. 13 Auburn at No. 14 Texas A&M (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Five weeks ago, Auburn quarterback Bo Nix was playing so poorly that he was benched with the No. 13 Tigers trailing Georgia State at home. LSU transfer TJ Finley came off the bench and threw the winning touchdown for Auburn with 45 seconds left in a 34-24 win.
Now, Nix is playing some of the best football of his career heading into Saturday's SEC West showdown at No. 14 Texas A&M. It's not necessarily as much about what Nix has done to get better as what the players surrounding him have done, according to Tigers coach Bryan Harsin.
"I've said it before: Bo has always prepared well," Harsin said earlier this week. "He works hard, so it's never been [about] that. And I also think it's guys around him, too. At the quarterback position, it's not just you; it's the guys around you. You've got to have protection, you've got to have a decent run game that will help you. You've got to have wideouts that will make plays and catch the ball. I don't know if it's so much one guy as it is multiple players just improving their game and being more consistent weekly."
In back-to-back wins against Arkansas and Ole Miss, Nix completed 77% of his passes for 568 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, while adding 72 rushing yards and three more scores. All of the sudden, Bo knows how to win -- even on the road.
"The other part with Bo is he shows up every single week," Harsin said. "I think in his preparations, all the behind-the-scenes stuff that nobody sees, he's improving on that as well. It's just his maturity, his play in the game. He's been in this offense now and is figuring out how it's going to look at times. That just takes time. But his effort, everything else you want from a player, has always been there."
Harsin also credits first-year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo for Nix's improvement. The former Colorado State head coach has helped Nix with his mechanics and decision-making.
"He's done this before," Harsin said of Bobo. "It's not his first time. I think it's important as a new playcaller for a team, you've got to figure out what your guys can handle. You don't know that until you play -- who's going to perform on game day? And you see that once you get into the games. You kind of know how this guy operates, because some things that look really good in practice didn't look great in the games, and the guys who looked good in practice and also looked good in the games, those are the guys you're trying to make sure that are out there a little bit more." -- Mark Schlabach
Tulsa at No. 6 Cincinnati (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): The spotlight will be on Cincinnati's football team like never before this weekend with ESPN's College GameDay broadcasting live from campus and the unbeaten Bearcats ranked No. 6 in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
The last thing Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell wants to have to do is remind his players they still have a game to play Saturday against a Tulsa team they beat thanks to a last-second field goal a year ago to win their first AAC championship.
Senior quarterback Desmond Ridder said no such reminders would be necessary despite GameDay's presence, despite their ranking and despite any outside noise that the Bearcats might have to rack up more style points than their Power 5 counterparts if they're going to become the first Group of 5 team to make the playoff.
"For us and the football team, it changes absolutely nothing," Ridder said of all the hoopla going on off the football field.
Rather, he said the Bearcats are focusing on getting better after back-to-back road wins that were anything but dominant. Cincinnati trailed early last week against Tulane and then put the game away in the fourth quarter to win 31-12. Two weeks ago, the Bearcats won 27-20 over a Navy team with only one win.
In both games, Tulane and Navy attempted to slow the pace of the game and keep the Cincinnati offense off the field. Ridder said the Bearcats have to be prepared for Tulsa to use a similar strategy and align defensively to keep Ridder from striking down the field with explosive plays in the passing game.
"You're starting to see safeties getting a lot deeper and taking away the deep balls, maybe shading (Alec Pierce) a little bit more," said Ridder, who has thrown 18 touchdown passes and four interceptions this season. "For me, I have to work my eyes the opposite way. We're seeing a lot more teams bring pressure, and that's just going to open up our quick game."
Ridder ran the ball a season-high 13 times last week against Tulane, but he combined for just 12 carries in the previous three games. If Tulsa plays a bunch of man coverage and does indeed back up the safeties to take away the deep passing game, Ridder will again look to be aggressive running the ball.
"The quarterbacks and running backs work one-on-one, hand-in-hand," said Ridder, who rushed for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. "When the defense is focused on Jerome [Ford], they forget about me, and when they focus on me, they forget about Jerome."
Ford has rushed for 864 yards through eight games and is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
"When the time comes, I'm going to pull the ball, going to be aggressive and make plays," Ridder said. -- Chris Low
LSU at No. 2 Alabama (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): Maybe this rivalry has lost its luster this season. LSU, 4-4 with its head coach on his way out the door, isn't playing for much other than pride. Injuries abound, whether it's Kayshon Boutte, one of college football's best receivers, or All-American cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks.
But there's a game within the game to consider here. Because if LSU is good at anything, it's rushing the passer. And if Alabama struggles anywhere on the field, it's up front on the offensive line.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Tigers have the third-most sacks in the SEC with 24, and have successfully disrupted pass dropbacks 57 times. Alabama, meanwhile, has given up the eighth-most sacks in the conference (18) and allowed a pressure rate of 32.9%, which ranks next to last.
The negative plays don't stop with the passing game. A whopping 21.5% of rush attempts have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, a figure that ranks eighth in the SEC.
Quarterback Bryce Young is running more and more. In his first two games, he combined for seven rush attempts. But in the three games since, he has had 7, 6 and 10 carries.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Young is a good scrambler and good at navigating a messy pocket, but those are skills he doesn't want Young to have to rely on.
But if the line doesn't come together soon, he might not have a choice.
Remember, three starters from last season -- the entire left side of the line -- are gone. Evan Neal, a possible first-round pick, is playing a new position. Darrian Dalcourt, Chris Owens and Javion Cohen combined for three starts last season.
At times, they've looked overwhelmed. Alabama has been penalized 11 times for false starts, which is more than LSU and Missouri combined (9).
"We've played really well at times this year, but because of the inexperience, there's been a play here and a play there, which is not what we'd like for it to be, and we want to kind of continue to work on consistency up front, run and pass," Saban said. "And I think that's just something that everybody's got to really focus on and try to improve their performance."
Heading into the homestretch, that process begins in earnest on Saturday. -- Alex Scarborough
No. 4 Oregon at Washington (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): The Ducks got the benefit of the doubt in the first College Football Playoff rankings and debuted at No. 4 thanks to their early-season win at Ohio State. Since that win, however, Oregon's unconvincing performances -- including an overtime loss at Stanford (3-5) -- have provided reason to be skeptical about how good the Ducks are. From this point forward, they'll be even more under the microscope. It's not just about winning anymore, it's about impressing in the process.
Much of the discourse this week has been related to UW coach Jimmy Lake's ill-advised comments about how to measure the rivalry between the two schools.
"Our battles are really, the schools that we go against, have academic prowess, like the University of Washington, Notre Dame, Stanford, USC," Lake said. "We go toe-to-toe, all the way to the end, with those schools. So I think that's made up and pumped up in [the media's] world. In our world, we battle more academically prowess teams."
The comments were bizarre considering there is a long, documented history of Oregon and Washington competing regularly for recruits in the Northwest and California. In hindsight, Lake probably wishes he didn't touch that topic, which drew a snide response from Oregon president Michael Schill.
"UW is a wonderful school with a great football history. I have great respect and affection for its president, its academic and football program and its former exceptional football coach, coach Petersen," Schill told the Oregonian's John Canzano. "I look forward to our team meeting theirs on the gridiron this Saturday."
In the grand scheme of things, Lake's comments aren't a big deal. The intensity of the rivalry just magnified them. The real concern in Seattle is with the on-field product.
The Huskies are 3-2 in the conference -- just a game behind the Ducks -- but have been a disaster on offense all season and are but a shell of what Chris Petersen built. They're still good on defense, but the sharp downward trajectory of the program hides whatever positives can be pulled from the season so far. -- Kyle Bonagura
UTSA at UTEP (10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN app): UTSA isn't sure what else it has to do to get into the College Football Playoff rankings. The Roadrunners are undefeated this year and have won 11 of their past 12, with the only loss coming in the First Responder Bowl last December to No. 16 Louisiana 31-24.
But they'll head to a big game against resurgent UTEP, where coach Dana Dimel is 11-29 in four seasons, but after winning one, one and three games in his first three years, has the Miners at 6-2 this season.
Hopes are high in San Antonio after locking up coach Jeff Traylor to a long-term extension this week. Another reason? The Roadrunners' Sincere McCormick is one of the best running backs in the country, with six 100-yard games this season, including three straight.
A UTEP loss to Florida Atlantic dampened the excitement for this one a bit, but UTSA will have a little extra motivation due to the CFP snub, which added a little insult by CFP committee chair Gary Barta, who called them USTA in his interview after the rankings were announced. This game will go a long way to determining how the two teams' storybook seasons will wrap up.
"This is bigger [than a bowl game]," Dimel said this week. "Bowl games have a different significance; this has conference implications written all over it. We can make a big step in the conference race." -- Dave Wilson