In an 11-season stretch between national championships in 2002 and 2014, many of the Big Ten’s marquee programs found themselves wading through varying messes. Michigan couldn’t find the right coach after Lloyd Carr retired, Penn State’s program dealt with the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Ohio State navigated the ugly end of the Jim Tressel era.
Everything changed for the Big Ten’s national perception in 2014. Ohio State stunned Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in the semifinals in the first season of the College Football Playoff. Urban Meyer led the Buckeyes to that first CFP title, and Ohio State reset the bar for the Big Ten.
That coincided with James Franklin’s first year at Penn State, Jim Harbaugh’s arrival at Michigan and one of the best runs in Michigan State history. As the Big Ten East built itself into a power, Wisconsin continued a run that found itself intermittently interspersed with the elite in college football.
Well, the Big Ten’s national perception appears to be on a fly route back in the exhaust fumes of the SEC. And outside of Ohio State and Penn State, the league’s only real title contenders who play in Happy Valley in two weeks, Jim Delany’s crew should prepare themselves to be the butt of a few jokes. They’ve been losing credibility with, well, SEC-like speed.
The most critical loss of the week came from No. 6 Wisconsin falling to BYU, 24-21, at home in Madison. The Badgers were a popular pick to win the Big Ten. BYU entered the game improved from a 4-9 season in 2017, but fresh off a loss to Cal. But the Cougars essentially knocked the Big Ten’s second-best College Football Playoff contender out of the race. It provided an exclamation point on a day in which the Big Ten scoreboard was filled with scarlet numbers: Akron 39, Northwestern 34; Troy 24, Nebraska 19; Kansas 55, Rutgers 14; Temple 35, Maryland 14. To a lesser extent, USF 25, Illinois 19. And Purdue losing at home to an SEC team (Missouri) was better than them losing at home to a MAC team (Eastern Michigan).
If Ohio State didn’t come back to beat TCU in a game in which the 40-28 score didn’t indicate the uneasy tenor, the Big Ten logo would have been on so many dumpster fire GIFs that they’d have broken Twitter.
It’s hard to pinpoint any thread that weaves through all the losses. Clayton Thorson imploded (two pick-sixes and a fumble), Nebraska started a true freshman walk-on, Rutgers had a five-alarm meltdown and Maryland failed to score an offensive touchdown. (Illinois gave up 18 fourth-quarter points.)
What does this all mean? Well, in the big picture of championship chases, the embarrassing losses are just embarrassing. Michigan’s loss to Notre Dame, which has looked pedestrian since, and Michigan State’s loss at Arizona State in the weeks prior, mean more in the big picture.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway may be that the Big Ten title game will be devalued as a win. Last year, Ohio State outlasted a good Wisconsin team and that wasn’t enough to out-duel Alabama for the final playoff spot as Big Ten champions. (Ohio State had losses to Oklahoma and Iowa.)
Whomever comes out of the East, the perception of their Big Ten title game opponent will likely be pedestrian. (Iowa (3-0) and Minnesota (3-0) are both undefeated, and Iowa has a showcase game against Wisconsin on Saturday to get a gauge of where it stands).
For now, it’s fair to say the Big Ten is trending down. As the SEC roars, Clemson looks a step ahead of the ACC and Oklahoma appears to be mimicking last season, the Big Ten postseason hopefuls may have already been reduced to either Ohio State or Penn State. And in two weeks, that number could well end up being reduced to one.
2) Three games into his tenure as a starter, the plaudits keep pouring in for Tua Tagovailoa. Alabama rolled to a 62-7 win over Ole Miss in Oxford, which felt like it could have got to triple digits if Nick Saban didn’t take his foot off the gas. Tagovailoa completed 11 of 15 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns, and drew an interesting piece of praise from Rich Bartel, a prominent private quarterback guru who was an NFL journeyman quarterback. On Twitter, Bartel said, “Tua is the best QB in the NCAA. He plays the quarterback position capably, holistically, intuitively better than everyone.” (He ranked Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins second.)
Bartel elaborated in a text message later why he thinks so highly of Tagovailoa already: “He’s the best based on what I know to be the eternal verities of the position. I’m evaluating him objectively against other formidable contemporaries at the position.” He mentions Missouri’s Drew Lock, Haskins, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and West Virginia’s Will Grier.
“His toolbox is deep and wide and there’s nothing he can’t do – no play he can’t create. He’s traditional, uncharacteristic and a unicorn all in one.”
3) While we’re in the business of comparing quarterbacks, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the scorching start of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. In Oklahoma’s 37-27 victory over Iowa State on Saturday, Murray was 21-of-29 for 348 yards and three touchdowns. His total yardage of 1,032 through three games this season, as pointed out earlier in the day, is one yard behind where Baker Mayfield was at this point last season.
With Oklahoma appearing to be hurdling toward another playoff bid, Murray is trending toward the rarified territory where Mayfield led Oklahoma last year – nation title contention, Heisman candidacy and Big 12 supremacy. Murray is different than Mayfield in that he presents more of a threat with his legs, as he rushed for 77 yards against Iowa State. Murray was Oklahoma’s leading rusher, something we could see more this season with star Sooner tailback Rodney Anderson out for the season.
And here’s a reminder to enjoy Murray’s dynamism while we can. His signing with the Oakland A’s has him headed to a full-time baseball career after this season. He was widely second-guessed for taking one last shot at football this year, but so far his performance and talent have vindicated that unconventional decision.
4) Texas’ 37-14 blowout victory likely says more about USC in the macro than it does about Texas. Certainly, this is a signature victory – in terms of brand – for Herman in his second year at Texas. Cornerback Kris Boyd re-opened the old debate by telling the Associated Press, “I feel like we kinda proved that we’re back.” The manner of the victory may have been more impressive than actually beating USC. Texas shut out USC for the final three quarters and scored 34 unanswered points to pull away and blow out the Trojans.
Those two statistics will draw a lot of questions at USC, where coach Clay Helton has been successful by most conventional metrics but not yet fully embraced by the Trojan faithful. And that includes athletic director Lynn Swann, who didn’t hire Helton. Swann did extend Helton through 2023 in February after he led USC to its first Pac-12 title since 2008. But it’s long been perceived that extension was signed with gritted teeth. Helton has done a marvelous job restoring stability and credibility at USC, and the school is recruiting at a juggernaut pace.
What may end up likely if USC’s slump continues in Pac-12 play – a big if in a down Pac-12 – is that Helton could be forced to make staff changes. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin will be in the crosshairs in the immediate future. USC finished the Texas game with nine scoreless drives, and that comes a week after not scoring a touchdown on 12 drives against Stanford. (Both Maryland and Tulsa moved the ball better against Texas.)
Firing Helton this season seems drastic. He’s won the Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title in consecutive seasons and been everything the school wanted him to be off the field. True freshman quarterback JT Daniels percolates with promise for the future. It would also be prohibitively expensive, as he’s signed through 2023 and a conservative estimate of the buyout – USC is a private school – would be well over $10 million.
But USC is a funny place that fancies itself as a program that should be in consistent championship contention. These back-to-back losses combined with blowout losses to Notre Dame (49-14) and Ohio State (24-7) show that the Trojans are a notch below where they feel they belong.
5) Florida State has started out the season 0-2 in the ACC, and it’s difficult to quantify just how hopeless things feel three games into the Willie Taggart era. On a day when Florida State got blasted 30-7 in the Carrier Dome, there were more low places than a Garth Brooks karaoke night. Florida State committed 11 penalties for 90 yards, converted just 1-of-14 third-down opportunities and it took the Seminoles 114 minutes to score a touchdown in an ACC game. The blowout loss to Syracuse – and it could have been much worse without Syracuse’s early goal-line issues – snaps a 10-game win streak FSU had over Syracuse. (It stretched back to 1966.)
One assistant coach who has studied FSU this season told Yahoo Sports on Saturday that the lack of effort has stood out the most on film.
“There’s either not a concise plan on both sides of the ball, or their kids haven’t bought in,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they fixed it. Their skill players [on offense] and talent on defense is really good. But for whatever reason they don’t look like they’re playing hard.”
Taggart’s lowest moment on Saturday came at the end of the first half.
With 11 seconds left in the first half, FSU trailed 6-0 and had a third-and-10 from the Syracuse 21-yard line. FSU had no timeouts – another indictment of Taggart’s game management – and decided to take a shot at the end zone. Quarterback Deondre Francois completed a pass to receiver Keith Gavin short of the first-down marker. He got tackled inbounds, which ran the clock out and exposed Francois as completely unprepared to manage the game. He needed to throw the ball into the end zone, but at the very least safely past the first-down marker, in that situation. Taggart watched helplessly from the sideline as FSU looked unprepared for the most basic situational football.
What’s the reality? It’s only three games in, so Taggart needs some time. (FSU’s only win was a come-from-behind 36-26 nail-biter over Samford, the tenor of which made all Seminole fans queasy.) FSU would have to pay about $21.2 million to fire Taggart, a staggering sum. In fairness, one season isn’t a fair sample size, especially because he inherited a pro-style program and is trying to install the exact opposite offensive system. The offensive line being atrocious, for example, can’t be fully pinned on Taggart. But Francois could be seen openly squabbling with the line during the game.
“There’s an expectation here, a standard here,” Taggart said after the game. “We’re not living up to it. I will tell you: Don’t give up on this football team. Please don’t give up on the football team.”
Taggart has proven a solid coach at prior stops at Western Kentucky, USF and Oregon, as he has a 48-52 career record. He’s also proven he’s needed time, as those programs went 11-25 during his first season. (He started 2-10 at both Western Kentucky and USF, a realistic projection looking at the rest of this FSU schedule unless something drastically changes.)
But what needs to be seen from Taggart at this point is some ability to adjust, an acknowledgement of how uninspiring things are and a plan to change them. This could include Taggart giving up play calling. It could include a scheme change, something Taggart did mid-stream at USF to some success. But what’s not acceptable is more of the same, as the sour looks when FSU bungled the clock management at the end of the first half has doubled as the portrait of this FSU season. Something needs to change, and it needs to change fast.
Because they came to WHOSE HOUSE?! pic.twitter.com/uaSpAAkhPq
— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) September 15, 2018
6) Things aren’t Florida State-level hopeless at Nebraska. But they are bad. The Scott Frost era has started off 0-2 after a loss to Troy, 24-19. This marks Nebraska’s first 0-2 start to a season since 1957. That’s also the same year that Nebraska lost six games in a row, as the program’s current streak stretches back to last season when they finished with four consecutive defeats.
The lack of panic in Lincoln is tied to Nebraska’s perilous quarterback situation. Starter Adrian Martinez suffered a knee injury in the opening loss to Colorado, and the Lincoln Journal Star reported that he looked OK when warming up in full pads. “If he was limping at all, it was barely discernable.” Backup Tristan Gebbia transferred to Oregon State toward the end of camp after he found out he wouldn’t be starting, leaving Frost bereft of options.
Nebraska started walk-on freshman Andrew Bunch, and it went about as one would assume for a walk-on freshman. He went 19-for-27 with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Perhaps most crucially, he only ran for five yards, which robs a key element from Frost’s offense.
With the Big Ten West a smoldering mess, Nebraska still can put up a decent showing in conference play. The Cornhuskers play at Michigan next week, and Martinez’s health will be a prime storyline heading into that game.
Troy improved to 2-1 after getting blown out at home against Boise State to open the season. The Trojans are a Sun Belt favorite and not your ordinary early season appetizer. (Ask LSU fans, as the Trojans won in Baton Rouge last season.) Frost took over a depleted roster that was recruited for a pro-style system. It’s going to take time. What’s important for him is that the results aren’t so bad on the field that it undermines his work on the recruiting trail.
7) Fill up your flasks. Stock up your tailgates with Red Bull and Slim Jim. The road to the College Football Playoff will be going through Baton Rouge this fall. LSU hosts Georgia (Oct. 13), Mississippi State (Oct. 20) and Alabama (Nov. 3) in three consecutive home games that all could have College Football Playoff implications.
Few people thought that LSU could start 3-0, not with neutral site games against Miami to open the season and an SEC opener at Auburn. But much like LSU’s 20-point comeback victory at home against Auburn stabilized their program last season, another comeback changes its paradigm. LSU vanquished an 11-point, third-quarter Auburn lead, meaning in consecutive seasons Ed Orgeron figured out way to come back from a double-digit, second-half deficit against Gus Malzahn.
LSU transfer quarterback Joe Burrow did just enough on the winning final drive. Aided by two defensive pass interference calls and two Burrow first-down conversions on money throws, LSU drove 52 yards in 14 plays and Cole Tracy kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired.
At the start of the season, many envisioned LSU starting out 1-2. But this 3-0 start makes it a factor in the SEC West and shows signs of what it can become under Orgeron.
8) The Boise Bus, piloted by my colleague Pat Forde for nearly a decade, crashed hard in Stillwater on Saturday afternoon. Boise State entered the game at Oklahoma State as a favorite, with the line swinging more than five points this week because of consumer confidence in the Broncos.
But Oklahoma State ran Boise out of Boone Pickens Stadium, 44-21.
Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, one of the country’s most dynamic tailbacks, ran for 123 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries.
Taylor Cornelius, in his first season as a full-time starter, ran for two touchdowns and threw for another. He finished 15-of-26 for 243 yards. Perhaps more impressive was Oklahoma State’s defense, which is traditionally not the hallmark of the program.
A week after Boise gained 818 yards in hanging 62 against UConn, Oklahoma State “held” it to 414 yards, forced a turnover and shut it out in the fourth quarter. This loss translates to opportunity for UCF and the American Athletic Conference. UCF’s game at North Carolina was canceled because of Hurricane Florence. With a 15-game winning streak, UCF is the favorite for the Group of Five bid. But give North Texas of Conference USA credit, they blew out Arkansas, 44-17, in one of the day’s most impressive victories.
9) Clemson has won three straight ACC titles and still remains the league’s bellwether. That won’t change until someone challenges the Tigers. But the balance of power behind the Tigers in the ACC Atlantic Division appears to be shifting. Boston College delivered an authoritative 41-34 victory at Wake Forest on Thursday afternoon to announce itself as a factor in the Atlantic Division this season.
Since inserting AJ Dillon as the starting tailback last October, Boston College has averaged 39.4 points per game and gone 8-2. Both those losses came without quarterback Anthony Brown, who went out with a season-ending knee injury against N.C. State on Nov. 11. Brown’s five touchdown passes on Thursday, complemented by Dillon’s 185 yards, shows a glimpse of what the Eagles could be on offense this season.
“That’s what we’ve been pushing to get to,” coach Steve Addazio told Yahoo Sports by phone on Friday. “A dominant run game and an outstanding throw game. They’re going to have to pick their poison. Sell out for AJ and you leave yourself open for strikes.”
BC put up 524 yards at Wake Forest, and that offense epitomizes where the program is under Addazio in his sixth season there. BC will never win the star game on signing day, but they have developed a roster where the tailback is Heisman candidate, there’s a promising young quarterback and a line that rekindles the Tom O’Brien era when BC routinely churned out NFL lineman. Tight end Tommy Sweeney is also an NFL prospect. On defense, both of BC’s ends – Zach Allen (four hurries versus Wake) and Wyatt Ray (four sacks versus Wake) – will be drafted.
“I think we’re in that zone where we have to bear fruit and capitalize on it,” Addazio said. “I think we have that capability, and we have to go do it.”
Tuck this nugget away: Clemson’s most difficult remaining game could be at Boston College on Nov. 10.
10) The Pac-12 After Dark is a fun marketing promo for the league’s late-night football shenanigans. But on Saturday, the league’s performance, especially in the South, had commissioner Larry Scott likely wishing no one was watching. The most wild result came at San Diego State, where No. 23 Arizona State lost after a bizarre – and unfair – targeting call robbed them of a chance to be first-and-goal from the 2-yard-line with six seconds left.
San Diego State’s Trenton Thompson got thrown out from the game for a targeting hit on Arizona State’s Frank Darby, yet Thompson should be named the game’s MVP. Thompson got tossed, but his hit so jarred Darby that he lost the ball after officials ruled it a catch. Officials reviewed the play, ejected Thompson for targeting and then foiled Arizona State’s comeback bid by overruling Darby’s catch. (ASU’s last-ditch throw to the end zone got batted away). San Diego held on for the 28-21 upset, which ended at 2:30 a.m. Eastern time.
That put an exclamation point on a dark night for the Pac-12 South, which already appears hopelessly out of the playoff race. UCLA is unabashedly rebuilding, as it lost 38-14 at home to Fresno. (Imagine how empty the Rose Bowl will be the rest of the year in fair-weather LA?). Arizona (1-2) isn’t far behind in hopelessness. The Wildcats got blown out by Houston last week and struggled early against Southern Utah before pulling away to win 62-31.
Utah is always a quiet candidate to win the South, but the Utes looked inept in a 21-7 home loss to Washington. We covered USC’s issues earlier, although it could still be talented enough to win the South.
Does this leave Colorado as the South favorite? The Buffaloes have a strong win over Nebraska (with Adrian Martinez mostly healthy), but their candidacy to win the division says more about the South than it does about Colorado. No one in the division has been, well, lights out.
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