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Is the Big 12 doomed again?
The Big 12 may not have a bigger stage the rest of the regular season than it did on Saturday afternoon. The Red River Showdown actually resembled a Shootout, the old name before it got changed in the name of political correctness. It was quintessential Big 12 – 93 points, 1,033 yards and a breathtaking ending when Texas won, 48-45, on a field goal with nine seconds left.
Texas pulling the upset of the No. 7 Sooners, however entertaining, may have been the worst result for the long-term playoff viability of the Big 12. The Big 12 team best positioned for the playoff is its only remaining unbeaten – West Virginia. But the Mountaineers haven’t been tested, as their best win is a road victory at Texas Tech. With No. 9 West Virginia having to come to Texas on Nov. 3, it’s reasonable to consider Texas the Big 12 favorite.
The Longhorns, of course, played miserably in their opening loss to Maryland. Oklahoma lacks a marquee out-of-conference win, as UCLA is among the worst Power Five teams. And then there’s the not insignificant matter of the Big 12 title game, which gives whomever has positioned themselves ahead of the pack in the Big 12 another chance to lose.
As of now, there’s a better chance of the Big 12 being left out of the College Football Playoff than being included. Texas’ victory reinforces the notion of the league undercutting itself and lacking a defining team. There are myriad scenarios that could play out, but for now the Big 12 appears poised to be looking out for the third time in five seasons.
Herman’s hit from Texas’ big win
Texas’ upset over Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon will be forever tied to the 40-yard field goal by true freshman Cameron Dicker with nine seconds remaining. Gus Johnson delivered an indelible call – DICKER THE KICKER! EARTHQUAKE! – and the victory will vault Texas to the Top 10 of the rankings and solidify them as Big 12 favorites.
For Texas coach Tom Herman, the moments he’ll cherish about the win transcend the euphoric final crescendo. Late Saturday, Herman told Yahoo Sports that the moments he’ll most remember revolve around snapshots of Texas’ resiliency through adversity. The Longhorns squandered a 21-point fourth-quarter lead, and Herman came away impressed at the distinct lack of fatalism on the sideline.
“To give up the lead we had,” Herman said. “There was no dejection or negativity or head-hanging. We still had two-and-a-half minutes to go win the game. And we did.”
How? Well, the short answer is a gutsy drive by Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger. He led the Longhorns 52 yards on nine plays to set up Dicker’s immortal moment.
Herman said he’ll always remember the swagger through adversity. In the second half, senior defensive lineman Breckyn Hager traversed the sideline encouraging his teammates to thank Texas’ strength coach for their ability to endure the humid day:
“He was walking up and down the sideline telling them they need to thank Yancy McKnight,” Herman said via phone on Saturday. “They were in great shape. We didn’t have anyone falling out in the heat and humidity. [Hager] was fired up.”
He saw the same confidence in Ehlinger, as he told on the sideline after a called quarterback sweep call in the red zone: “If we don’t get this, be ready because we’re going to tempo to such and such….,” Enlinger responded: “Now we’re not. I’m going to score.” Herman chuckled: ” And we did.”
Biggest mystery among the undefeateds
Who is the biggest enigma among the major conference undefeated teams? That would be N.C. State. The Wolfpack desperately tried to hand the game to Boston College on Saturday, turning the ball over four times and having a field goal and punt blocked. (The blocked punt led to a BC score late in the game that pulled BC to 28-23, where the game ended.)
So are the Wolfpack good enough to contend in the ACC? Well, we’ll find out in two weeks as they play at Clemson following their bye. N.C. State entered the weekend No. 23 and should be in the top 20 by that marquee game. There’s skepticism surrounding who they’ve beaten – James Madison, Georgia State, Marshall, Virginia and Boston College. (Their game against West Virginia was canceled.)
N.C. State has the ACC’s most established quarterback, as Ryan Finley has modest statistics – 10 touchdowns and three interceptions – but has shown the type of steady game manager who makes pinpoint throws when needed and has drawn significant NFL interest. He threw two interceptions on Saturday, but calmly executed a final drive that helped N.C. State drain the clock, including hitting the fullback on a wheel route to ice the game.
“He’s played well, but he can play better,” NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz told Yahoo Sports on Saturday night. “That’s the exciting thing about the second half of the season.”
N.C. State administrators are rightfully skeptical of the Wolfpack, as they scheduled a make-up game with ECU on Dec. 1 that coincides with the ACC championship game. (They can cancel it in the event N.C. State makes the ACC championship.) But for now, State has shown that it can grind out victories, impressive considering the defensive talent they lost to the NFL draft last season.
“It’s hard to win in college football,” Drinkwitz said. “We’ve actually been tested in every game.” That will continue in earnest in two weeks.
Cincinnati relevant again
One of the nation’s most impressive turnarounds has come at Cincinnati under second-year coach Luke Fickell. The Bearcats are 6-0 after beating Tulane, 37-21, and already clinching bowl eligibility in the wake of a 4-8 season last year. Fickell has often been the paragon of a hyper-focused coach throughout his career, but said he’s taken a little time to reflect on what his team has accomplished. That included attending the eighth-grade volleyball match of his daughter, Luca, at All Saints Middle School on Saturday.
“Being at Ohio State for so long, you get spoiled and tunnel vision where you’re only satisfied if you’re undefeated and you don’t want to relax,” Fickell told Yahoo Sports on Saturday night. “I told myself a few weeks ago I was going to take time to enjoy the things that are happening. I don’t know if I’ve done a great job of it, but since we have a bye week I got to go to a volleyball game.”
Cincinnati won with a redshirt freshman starting quarterback (Desmond Ridder), redshirt freshman center (Jakari Robinson) and a true freshman tailback (Tavion Thomas) playing big roles. Fickell said the change in the locker room has fueled the turnaround more than an uptick in talent, and he credited sixth-year lineman Garrett Campbell as the “heart and soul” of the turnaround. (Campbell broke his leg last week against UConn and Fickell said he’ll either be a GA for the Bearcats or go to medical school.)
The Bearcats’ surge into relevancy is good for the AAC. UCF ends the season with games against Cincinnati and USF, both of which are undefeated, and it appears to give the league a chance to host some marquee games with national relevancy at the end of the season. Fickell isn’t looking that far ahead. His coaching tunnel vision turned to his daughter’s match last night. Even though her team won, he gave her some quick coaching tips after. “She hit it out of bounds on game point,” Fickell said with a laugh.
The SEC East matters again
Last year the habitually weaker of the Southeastern Conference’s two divisions produced a league champion (Georgia) for the first time in nine years. Now the division might produce the biggest conference game of the year (Georgia-Florida on Oct. 26).
That’s because Florida has revived itself in half a season under Dan Mullen. The Gators are contenders, having just pulled off the biggest East-over-West win in several years by beating No. 5 LSU 27-19. They’re now 5-1 after a second straight gritty league victory in a raucous atmosphere that suggests The Swamp is back as one of the game’s toughest places to play.
“I want to thank the Gator Nation and all the fans, our student body for the atmosphere,” Mullen said after the game. “I came back to Florida, and there’s a Florida I know and there’s a Florida that I love and I know players love. … The Swamp was an intimidating place to come play. It gave us an incredible home-field advantage.”
The Gators buttressed the home advantage with yet another opportunistic game defensively. Florida came into the LSU contest tied for the national lead in takeaways with 14, then added three more — doubling the Tigers’ number of turnovers lost on the season in a single game. That included the first two interceptions of LSU quarterback Joe Burrow’s career — he’d thrown 170 passes at Ohio State and LSU without a pick until the Tigers’ final two possessions of the game. The back breaker was a pick-six returned by Brad Stewart Jr. with less than two minutes left.
At present, the SEC East has actually beaten the West in three out of four meetings — and the lone loss was a game Kentucky took into overtime at Texas A&M on Saturday night (see below). If one of the few legitimate knocks against the SEC was that the East was a weak division, that knock is losing legitimacy. Which only solidifies it as America’s dominant conference.
LSU exposed on Saturday
The limitations of the LSU offense, and Burrow in particular, were exposed by Florida on Saturday.
The Tigers had wallpapered over some weaknesses by simply refusing to make mistakes — just three fumbles and zero interceptions in the first five games, and 134 fewer penalty yards than their opponents. Then LSU turned it over three times in Gainesville and only took the ball away once, and Burrow once again looked ordinary at best at quarterback.
He was the No. 10-rated passer in the SEC coming into the game, and likely will drop coming out of it. Burrow completed just 19 of 34 passes for 191 yards and no touchdowns, for an in-game efficiency rating of just 91.3. He only completed two passes of longer than 15 yards.
Burrow’s struggles and a curious lack of touches for No. 1 running back Nick Brossette left LSU’s offense spinning its wheels most of the game. Brossette’s 15 carries (for 95 yards) were a season low, and strangest of all was the decision not to give him another touch after he single-handedly powered the Tigers 79 yards for a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Brossette didn’t get a touch in LSU’s final 18 offensive snaps.
Kentucky stumbles over itself
With an undefeated record and a Top 15 ranking on the line, Kentucky outsmarted itself in College Station.
All night against Texas A&M, the Wildcats limited the touches for star running back Benny Snell — until they eliminated them completely in overtime. Snell ran the ball just 13 times, 10 less than his season average, for 60 yards. On Kentucky’s overtime possession he didn’t carry the ball at all — and the Wildcats didn’t score, on their way to a 20-14 loss.
The UK play-calling was never more curious (or costly) than on third-and-1 in overtime. First, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran lined up Snell at quarterback in a wildcat formation — but then Kentucky called timeout, changed the ball, and opted for a Terry Wilson roll-out that resulted in a critical sack. The Wildcats’ subsequent field goal try from 43 yards out hit the crossbar, short.
A&M then did what Kentucky did not do — gave the ball to its best player three straight plays. Trayveon Williams dove in for the winning touchdown, and the Aggies escaped an error-ridden game with a victory.
And the biggest surprise of the season goes to …
Who saw this coming in August: Colorado is the last unbeaten west of the Mississippi.
The Buffaloes, coming off a 5-7 season in 2017, are now 5-0 after beating Arizona State 28-21 in Boulder. Last time Colorado started a season 5-0: 1998.
In a sport that seems to increasingly tilt East (and more specifically, Southeast), college football needs quality representation from the West. It remains to be seen whether Colorado is a legitimate playoff contender — we’ll know more about that in the next two weeks after trips to USC and Washington — but the Pac-12 needs all the relevant teams it can get, especially from the South Division.
As has been the case all season, the driving force for the Buffaloes is sophomore receiver Laviska Shenault. He came in leading the nation in receptions per game (9.5) and receiving yards per game (145.3). He added 13 more catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns against the Sun Devils, and also added two scores on runs — Shenault personally put 24 of the Buffs’ 28 points on the board.
But he’s not the whole show. Quarterback Steven Montez continues to have a fine season, and running back Travon McMillian — a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech — has ably filled the productive shoes of Phillip Lindsay. McMillian had his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season, compiling 136 yards on 30 carries — the most carries he’s had in a game since his freshman year at Virginia Tech in 2015.
How long will Bobby Petrino last at Louisville?
A temperature check of the hottest seats in the sport should start in the ACC, where North Carolina and Louisville might be the most likely locales for Power Five coaching changes.
And a heat check on Bobby Petrino’s seat shows that it might have surpassed Larry Fedora’s. Louisville is 2-4, and it’s a bad 2-4, featuring three blowout losses — the most recent a 66-31 home humiliation at the hands of Georgia Tech on Friday night. Tech pounded out an ungodly 542 rushing yards on the Cardinals, who looked completely bewildered by Paul Johnson’s trademark option offense.
That falls squarely on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, a tepidly received hire last offseason. Before coming to Louisville, VanGorder had been fired mid-season at Notre Dame in 2016. VanGorder replaced Petrino’s previous underwhelming defensive coordinator, Peter Sirmon, who resigned after the 2017 season. Louisville likely will not be favored in any of its remaining six games.
Should the Cardinals lose them all and finish 2-10, it would be their worst record since 1997 — the year Tom Jurich arrived as athletic director and turned around the football program with a string of savvy hires and fistfuls of cash.
The new coach in ’98 was John L. Smith, and his offensive coordinator was Bobby Petrino. Now Petrino’s Louisville life could be coming full circle, ending in an expensive firing with a buyout believed to be in the $14 million range, depending on the date of dismissal.
Sad state at K-State
One of the coolest stories of the day intersected with one of the saddest. Baylor outlasted Kansas State, 37-34, with its final touchdown coming from sixth-string freshman tailback Craig “Squirrel” Williams, who weighs 162 pounds. Williams took his first two career carries for 35 yards and became an unlikely hero. Baylor coach Matt Rhule told Yahoo on Saturday night that “Squirrel” is a great example of the positives of the new redshirt rule, as he’ll likely end up redshirting this season. Rhule especially loved how “Squirrel’s” teammates mobbed the pint-sized tailback. “The rule,” Rhule said, “is pretty cool.”
Baylor improves to 4-2, one season after going 1-11. They leave Kansas State 2-4, without a Power Five victory and appearing destined to battle Kansas for last-place in the Big 12. Kansas State, long a paragon for a lack of drama, has turned into a sad soap opera as 79-year old Bill Snyder sputters to the end of his Hall of Fame career.
Have we passed the point where Snyder is starting to undercut his vast legacy as Kansas State’s program continues to decline? It’s a terrible look right now for Kansas State, which looks inept on the field and messy off it. Snyder made headlines again this week by chastising a reporter to “write what the hell you want to write” in regards to Kansas State’s quarterback situation.
Things project to get worse for Kansas State, which hasn’t missed a bowl under Snyder since 2009. They are 0-3 in the Big 12 and face Oklahoma State before road games at Oklahoma and TCU. They’ll be heavy underdogs in those games, as Kansas State’s bowl chances are slim.
The problem with Snyder is the same as it has been the past few years. He wants his son, Sean, to replace him but the administrators doesn’t. So he’s kept on coaching, and there’s constant uncertainty and strife in the athletic department over the future. This is starting to both look and feel like the end, even if it’s against his wishes. We wrote this summer that athletic director Gene Taylor would likely look to coaches he’s familiar with – North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman would be an obvious frontrunner – to replace Snyder.
Here’s hoping Snyder realizes how bad this all looks from the outside and steps down with some dignity.
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