by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

When the college football campaign reaches its midway point, we usually like to hand out “grades” to the teams for their efforts. Although such reviews are by nature subjective, they nonetheless can provide a useful barometer on how teams have performed, and, perhaps, what they’re likely to do in the last half of the campaign. And an examination of the following “grades” could always help to uncover some useful info for the serious handicapper seeking to identify overachieving, and underachieving, pointspread performers.

We’ve been doing these midseason “report cards” for years, and those of you familiar with our annual mid-October exercise know we don’t use these progress reports to grade teams in relation to one another. Rather, we have weigh how each team has performed against preseason expectations, with concessions for extraordinarily good, or similarly bad, performances.

And, as we’ve seen from past experience, pointspread marks (both good or bad) can often be a more-revealing element of these midseason check-ups than pure straight-up records. Consider some of the examples in the “A” category as of mid-October; we’re not really saying that New Mexico or Western Kentucky is the equal to Alabama (after all, Bame did beat the Hilltoppers 35-0). But, when comparing their performances vs. preseason expectations, the achievements of the Lobos and WKU are no less impressive than the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

Plus, for handicapping purposes, remember that the the Tops actually covered the number in their loss at Tuscaloosa, and New Mexico has been a better ally for wagerers than Alabama, too. Thus, we’ve rewarded the Lobos with an “A” grade for its efforts, while saving the most-exceptional “A+” marks for Oregon State and Willie Taggart’s pesky Hilltoppers from WKU (who, by the way, have now covered the spread an astounding 15 straight since last season!).

Keep in mind that these grades are subject to weekly review and can change quickly. We’ll try to provide another update at or near the end of the regular season.

Following are the five traditional grading categories —A, B, C, D, & F, with “+” and “-” addendums on each level—and the teams we believe fit into those categories thru the games of last weekend.

A...Outstanding performance, or far beyond preseason expectations: A+...Oregon State, Western Kentucky; A...Alabama, Arizona State, Cincinnati, Florida, Kansas State, UL-Monroe, La Tech, New Mexico, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Oregon, Penn State, Rutgers, Texas A&M, Utah State; A-...Arizona, Duke, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Ohio State, South Carolina, Texas Tech, Toledo, UCLA, West Virginia. Notes...Some fluidity within these and all ranks, although we stand by our “A+” grades to the Beavers and Hilltoppers. Earlier in the season, the likes of Arizona, Duke, UCLA, and West Virginia would have received pure “A” marks, although each risks slipping into the “B” category soon. We’d be on the lookout for drop-offs in those locales, and perhaps Cincinnati and Notre Dame, in the upcoming weeks.

B...Above-average performance, or generally exceeding preseason expectations. B+...Fresno State, Maryland, North Carolina, San Jose State, Temple, UAB; B...Ball State, Boise State, Bowling Green, Clemson, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Georgia, Iowa, Iowa State, UL-Lafayette, Louisville, Middle Tennessee, Minnesota, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Texas State, Tulsa, UNLV, UTSA, Vanderbilt; B-...East Carolina, North Carolina State, North Texas, Purdue, Wake Forest. Notes...Cases can be made for “A” grades with some of these sides, as Fresno State, North Carolina, and even Maryland have proven pleasant surprises thus far. In the “B” group, it looks like Oklahoma is coming in a hurry, and the Sooners could soon be moving into “A” territory if they maintain the momentum from their last two outings, impressive wins over Texas Tech and Texas. Meanwhile, North Texas and recently-stumbling Purdue were the last cuts before “C” grades, which each could be receiving soon if respective form doesn’t turn around.

C...Average performance; not much better or worse than initial expectations; or lack of consistency in efforts. C+...Akron, Buffalo, Cal, Houston, LSU, Navy, TCU, Troy, Wisconsin. C...Air Force, Arkansas State, Baylor, BYU, Miami-Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Pittsburgh, Rice, San Diego State, South Alabama, Southern Cal, Tennessee, Washington, Western Michigan. C-...Army, UConn, Florida International, Kansas, UMass, Memphis, Miami-Ohio, SMU, Texas, Washington State. Notes...Moving up soon? Most of the “C+” teams could be ascending into the “B” category within the next week; keep an especially close eye on Cal, Houston, TCU, and Wisconsin, each appearing to hit stride after some indifferent efforts early in the season. We’ve just dropped a Texas into the “C-“ after its gutless showing against Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl last week (more on the Longhorns in just a moment).

D...Below-average performance, or falling significantly short of preseason expectations, for any assortment of reasons. D+...Michigan State, Utah; D...Arkansas, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Georgia Tech, Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico State, South Florida, Southern Miss, Syracuse, Tulane,, UTEP, Virginia Tech; D-...Boston College, Colorado, Colorado State, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia. Notes...Michigan State has been dropping like a rock the past couple of weeks, as this supposed BCS contender has fallen upon hard times because it can’t score. Not good. As for Arkansas, we are not quite ready to reward the Razorbacks for essentially one impressive effort at Auburn (we don’t give too much credit for last week’s lightning-shortened game vs. depleted Kentucky). Although the Razorbacks could be moving up soon, as might Southern Miss and perhaps Tulane. We were tempted to affix “F” grades to Colorado, Colorado State, Kentucky, and perhaps Virginia, but decided to show some mercy...at least for another week.

F...Failure, or not remotely approaching preseason expectations. Auburn and Hawaii. Notes... We think the “F” grades speaks for itself regarding these two. If we were a little more cold-hearted, a few of the “D-“ teams might join these two. We won’t have to give any benefit of the doubt in our next rankings near the end of the season.

Meanwhile, a quick update on the coaching hot seat...

Sources in the SEC are telling us that Auburn HC Gene Chizik might not have to wait until next year to sit on a hot seat at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Pressure is mounting on the Plains as Chizik’s team appears to be spinning out of control, now 1-5 and with prospects of a bowl appearance growing more dim by the week.

Of course, it is no secret that Chizik and Auburn have struggled since Cam Newton left campus after the unbeaten, 2010 BCS title season, but the Tigers are now sub-.500 (9-10 straight up) since Newton’s departure, and they’re also just 6-13 against the spread over the past two seasons.

It is no secret that Chizik’s head coaching career at Iowa State and Auburn has the big highlight of the Newton season and not much else; since his hire at Iowa State in 2007, Chizik’s record is 36-34; take away the 2010 season with Newton, and it’s 22-34, numbers that are now being mentioned rather frequently by angered Auburn alums and boosters.

Statistically, the offense is one of the worst in the country, and even a QB switch to jr. Clint Moseley (replacing struggling soph Kiehl Frazier) didn’t pay dividends in last week’s 41-20 loss at Ole Miss, the Rebels’ first SEC win since 2010.

The Auburn offense has also seemed to miss crafty o.c. Gus Malzahn (although not as much as the Tigers have missed Newton), and having junked the old Malzahn spread, Auburn has regressed with new split-back looks out of pro-style sets preferred by new o.c. Scott Loeffler, hired from Temple after last season.

What to watch for at Auburn? The Tigers have a pair of gimmes left on their schedule with New Mexico State and Alabama A&M, but if they can’t win this week at Vanderbilt, we’re hard pressed to identify another win (besides NMSU & Alabama A&M) on the rest of the schedule. Should Chizik come in at 3-9 and winless in SEC play, sources say the chances increase that a buyout could be forged after this season, although most believe Chizik will probably get one more chance and be under a win-or-else edict next season. Loeffler’s career as the Tiger offensive coordinator might also be short-lived, as many envision Chizik being forced to make staff changes if he wants to get another shot next season.

Meanwhile, at Texas, disgruntled Longhorns are wondering about the future of HC Mack Brown after another lopsided loss in the Red River shootout vs. Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl last Saturday. The 63-21 thrashing marked the third time Bob Stoops has dropped a 60+-point bomb on the Longhorns. And Mack, who not long ago had a stretch of four wins in five tries vs. the Sooners, has now lost three in a row vs. Texas’ most-hated rival. Brown has also fallen to 5-9 against Stoops.

Media outlets in the Lone Star State have even started to print Mack’s buyout price (reportedly $3.5 million), while others “in the loop” say that the disturbing downturn the program has endured since the 2009 BCS title game loss to Alabama is an indicator that Brown is not up to another rebuild project. Mack did rebuild a monster in Austin after his hire from North Carolina in 1998, but the past few seasons have been rough. Many sources also indicate that Brown was likely to have retired on top had the Longhorns beaten Bama in that 2009 BCS title game at the Rose Bowl, and his decision to remain on the sidelines has been a negative.

Of course, how events unfold over the next six weeks will determine what eventually happens at Auburn and Texas. For now, however, there’s a possibility that two mega jobs could be opening up in the offseason.

As always, stay tuned.

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