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Ten takeaways from a no-Alabama, no-Clemson weekend in college football that allowed some teams other than the winners of the last four national championships to shine. Pete Thamel has Michigan State-Ohio State covered, so I’ll deal with everything else.
1. Dan Mullen continues to be one of the best third-choice hires in recent history
Florida wanted Chip Kelly. Then Florida wanted Scott Frost. It got neither, “settling” on the guy who had the best run in Mississippi State history. After beating previously undefeated Auburn 24-13 Saturday in The Swamp, Mr. Third Choice is now 6-0 this season and 16-3 since taking the job.
That is a six-game improvement over the previous 19 games at Florida, under Jim McElwain. Now, let’s check in on how Kelly and Frost have done compared to their predecessors at UCLA and Nebraska, respectively.
Kelly at UCLA, after a brutal home loss to Oregon State: 4-14. Bruins’ final 18 games before Kelly: 7-11.
Frost at Nebraska, after a 13-10 victory over Northwestern over Saturday: 8-10. Cornhuskers’ final 18 games before Frost: 6-12.
A season and a half is hardly a full body of work, but it is enough time to see that Mullen has had the strongest early impact on his program. The upset of Auburn showcased a dominant defense that has been the key to this season, but also one of Mullen’s best traits: coaxing winning performances out of his quarterbacks.
Since Feleipe Franks went down with a season-ending injury against Kentucky on Sept. 14, backup Kyle Trask has kept the offense moving. Against the Tigers, Trask linked up with Freddie Swain six times for 146 yards and a touchdown — the most single-game receiving yards for a Gator in five years, and Swain came into the game with two catches this season. But that’s not all — when Trask took a shot to the knee and briefly left the game, third-stringer Emory Jones led the Gators on a field-goal drive at a time when Auburn was mounting a rally.
“[Mullen] is not lying when he says he prepares multiple starters for every game,” Trask said. “Emory stepped up big time for our team when we needed it most.”
The victory raises the stakes for next Saturday, when Florida travels to face unbeaten LSU.
“Winning a big-time game like this means you have to show up tomorrow and get ready to win an even bigger one next week,” Mullen said. “That’s what it’s like in the SEC.”
Florida got the best man available to bring it back to contention in the SEC. Even if he was the Gators’ third choice.
2. Auburn was undefeated despite Bo Nix, not because of him
The freshman quarterback was completely overmatched by the moment at Florida, and his coach didn’t help him much.
Through four games, Nix had a game-winning drive against Oregon and not much else dazzling on his college résumé. Then he tore up Mississippi State last week, and the hype started to exceed the production. When the nation’s No. 67-rated passer met up with Todd Grantham’s Florida defense Saturday, his weaknesses were exposed.
Nix finished 11 of 27 for 145 yards, with a touchdown and three interceptions. But he really struggled in the second half when Auburn had a chance to steal a win.
Trailing 17-13 in the third quarter, Nix had receiver Seth Williams wide open for a touchdown bomb, but threw it too far — Williams still reeled it in, but lunging for the ball cost him his balance and he went down at the Florida 13-yard line. Two plays later, Nix missed an open Williams on a slant for the touchdown. One snap later, he underthrew into the end zone and Florida intercepted.
The following possessions continued the unraveling with a succession of missed receivers and disastrous sacks.
“Our freshman quarterback is going to grow,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “I have to put him in better situations, but you’ve got to give Florida credit.”
Indeed, the Gators have a top-20 pass defense, and Malzahn didn’t do much to take the pressure off Nix at certain times. Too many straight dropbacks, too little wildcat formation, not enough to keep Florida guessing.
With LSU, Georgia and Alabama still to come on the schedule, the Tigers will need more from Nix in the latter half of the season.
3. Don Brown bounces back
The Michigan defensive coordinator had seen his unit be strafed in its last three games against ranked opponents: 62 points and 567 yards against Ohio State; 41 points and 427 yards against Florida; 35 points and 487 yards against Wisconsin. The Wolverines’ offensive struggles have been a constant, but a formerly rock-solid defense had become a problem area as well.
Saturday against No. 14 Iowa, No. 19 Michigan got a Don Brown classic — a blitz-fueled defensive gem when it acutely needed one.
The Hawkeyes had built their 4-0 start on the absence of errors. They had turned the ball over just once, and quarterback Nate Stanley had not thrown an interception. They were the least-penalized team in the Big Ten, averaging just 26 yards in infractions per game. They had allowed just six sacks.
Saturday in the Big House, Iowa turned the ball over four times, three of them Stanley interceptions. They were penalized eight times for 60 yards, many of them on the offensive side as the Hawkeyes flailed in the face of the Michigan blitzes. Stanley was sacked eight times, looking helpless to either anticipate or elude the relentless pressure.
Iowa wound up with one rushing yard and three points.
“A defensive masterpiece,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.
It certainly was no offensive masterpiece from his team, yet again. The Wolverines scored 10 points in the first half of the first quarter, and zero the rest of the way. They had one play longer than 20 yards. Their 267 total yards was the lowest since 2017.
A Michigan defense playing that way will keep the Wolverines in every game. But a Michigan offense playing that way will not beat Penn State or Ohio State or Notre Dame.
4. Is Baylor legit?
The Bears are 5-0 following their biggest back-to-back victories since the high-flying (and bad-acting) Art Briles days. One week after beating Iowa State with a dramatic last-minute field goal drive, Baylor went to Manhattan and pounded Kansas State, 31-12. There certainly are more difficult games to come, but Matt Rhule has built a confident team that is counter-programming the Big 12.
Baylor is the only team in the conference that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in a game, and is surrendering a league-low 15.4 points per contest. Offense remains the coin of the realm in the Big 12 at the top, but a defense-first, no-nonsense approach has helped Rhule revive a decimated and disgraced program. Since his 1-11 debut season in 2017, Rhule has gone 12-6.
No wonder he got a big contract extension last week, and so did his boss, athletic director Mack Rhoades.
5. What about Minnesota?
Like Baylor, the Gophers are 5-0 and coming off consecutive conference victories. Minnesota rolled to a big lead over Purdue last week and held on, 38-31. This week P.J. Fleck’s team dominated Illinois, 40-17 — its first win by more than seven points this season.
The schedule offers an opportunity for Minnesota to take an 8-0 record into November. The remaining October games are Nebraska at home, at Rutgers and Maryland at home.
The Gophers are an improving offensive product at just the right time: They averaged five yards per play in narrow escapes over South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern; 7.8 yards per play against the Boilermakers and Illini. After lighting up Purdue with big pass plays, they turned around and pounded Illinois for 332 rushing yards, most in a game in five years.
Fleck’s recruiting prowess has upgraded the talent level at Minnesota in his three years, but the star Saturday was senior holdover running back Rodney Smith. He trampled the Illini for a career-high 211 yards.
6. Kudos to one more unlikely unbeaten, SMU
The Mustangs’ blissful undefeated start to the year seemed to be meeting a rude end Saturday night when Tulsa took a 30-9 lead into the fourth quarter in Dallas. The lowlight to that point for SMU was a failure to field a kickoff, which resulted in the Golden Hurricane falling on the football in the end zone for its second touchdown in one second.
But Texas transfer quarterback Shane Buechele led three long touchdown drives to tie the game and force overtime. From there, James Proche (11 catches, 153 yards) made a balletic touchdown catch in the second overtime for the win.
And like that, SMU is 6-0 for the first time since 1982. Could the Mustangs still end up 6-6? It’s not out of the question. But there hasn’t been this much excitement about SMU football in a very long time.
7. Luke Fickell nabs first signature win at Cincinnati
Colleague Pete Thamel filed this takeaway from Cincinnati’s 27-24 victory over Central Florida on Friday night:
In his third season at Cincinnati, Luke Fickell has registered several notable victories. He’s beaten Virginia Tech in a bowl game, toppled UCLA twice and throttled Navy 42-0 last year.
But the upset of the Knights is Fickell’s signature win. It wasn’t just holding UCF to fewer than 31 points for the first time in 32 games, and it wasn’t just a victory that established the Bearcats as the team to beat in the AAC East. It was also the growing big-time atmosphere for Cincinnati home games. With the 10-year anniversary of Brian Kelly’s undefeated team upcoming, Nippert Stadium rocked with an energy from another era.
“What an incredible night,” Fickell said. “Not just us in the football program ... but also for our university, for our campus. For me that was one of the big things when we came here, we wanted to see this place electric.”
The Bearcats (4-1) are likely to be favored in every game until the season finale at Memphis. Given the remaining schedule, it’s not hard to imagine another 10-win season for Fickell. (Cincinnati went 11-2 last year.) Along the way, they’ll be aided by a raucous home crowd. “This is what college football is all about,” Fickell said, shouting out the student section in particular. “I was happy we could give them the show that we did.”
8. Inconsistent, mediocre teams can produce good entertainment
Take, for instance, the ACC Coastal — perhaps the most mediocre of all Power Five divisions. It was a crazy place Saturday.
Miami committed five first-half turnovers and fell behind 28-0 against Virginia Tech, which was giving quarterback Hendon Hooker his first career start, on the road. And yet the Hurricanes, behind onetime savior turned benched QB N’Kosi Perry, tied the game at 35 with 3:16 remaining. Then they proceeded to miss an extra point and watch the Hokies drive 63 yards for the go-ahead score.
Miami had one last chance and drove to the Tech 10-yard line before an incompletion ended the game — the official announced the game was over and everything. Then they put one second on the clock, and Tech had to break up one more pass for the win.
Later Saturday, in Durham, a similarly absurd game unfolded between Pittsburgh and Duke. The Panthers stormed to a 26-3 lead on the Blue Devils, which they held late into the third quarter. Then a fumbled punt return set up Duke inside the Pitt 5-yard line for a touchdown. And Pitt fumbled again on its next offensive play, resulting in another Duke scoring drive. Then Pitt threw an interception and the Devils had a short field for a third TD drive to make it 26-24.
The Panthers resumed holding onto the ball, but still gave up an 86-yard TD drive to put Duke ahead, 30-26. That’s when Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett led the final scoring drive of the night for a 33-30 victory. There were 10 turnovers in the game, six by Duke and four by Pitt.
Watching those games — and Louisville 41, Boston College 39 — you can appreciate the madcap unpredictability of it all. And you can wonder whether any of them are any good beyond Clemson. The Tigers suffer by the company they keep.
9. Wisconsin’s No. 1-ranked defense posts another shutout
The opponent was Kent State, so don’t get too excited. But still, the Badgers have now posted three shutouts in five games, the first time that has happened at the FBS level since Virginia Tech 2001. For the season, Wisconsin’s D has scored three touchdowns and allowed four.
Next up is Michigan State in Camp Randall. The Spartans scored just 10 points Saturday night at Ohio State, and also have a seven-point effort against Arizona State on the résumé.
10. Washington is the biggest disappointment in the Pac-12, and one of the biggest in the nation
The heavily favored Huskies lost to a pretty bad, injury-riddled Stanford team, 23-13. That dropped Washington to 1-2 in the league, whittled the Pac-12’s list of one-loss teams to four (Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State) and likely leaves the Ducks as the conference’s last (slim) playoff contender. It was the fifth time in four seasons that Washington has lost to an unranked team while ranked in the top 15.
It’s time to wonder what has happened to the fertile offensive mind of coach Chris Petersen. Once the most creative and daring play caller in the sport, his Washington offenses have been pedestrian. Their national ranking his first five seasons: 77th, 61st, 32nd (the year the Huskies made the playoff), 58th and 55th.
Washington was 40th this year coming into this game, then produced a 294-yard, 13-point dud that will drop them further. Georgia transfer quarterback Jacob Eason was hoped to be an upgrade over four-year starter Jake Browning, whose career seemed to diminish as it went along, but he’s been underwhelming against Pac-12 opponents.
The Huskies are much better off with Petersen than they were without him, but it is surprising to see them become a program that relies far more on defense than explosive or spectacular offense.
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