1) The forecast called for a dreary weekend of college football, devoid of marquee games with no match-ups between teams ranked in the Top 25. By the time Arizona State stunned Washington, 13-7, to pull off the fourth Top 10 upset of the weekend, the barrage of unpredictability, field-stormings and College Football Playoff chaos reminded us of an eternal truth in college football: Sometimes the weekends with the lowest expectations yield the ridiculous results.
Consider that 13 teams entered the weekend undefeated and five lost – No. 2 Clemson, No. 5 Washington, No. 8 Washington State, No. 19 San Diego State and No. 25 Navy. (No. 10 Auburn had already lost, but they lost again on Saturday.) The biggest loser from the onslaught of upsets is the Pac-12, which no longer has an undefeated team and takes the midseason poll position as the conference most likely to have a team left out of the College Football Playoff. On consecutive nights that saw both Washington schools lose as two-touchdown favorites, the #Pac12AfterDark hashtag signified a horror movie with an NC-17 rating for league officials. (California smoked Washington State, 37-3, late Friday).
The tenor of Washington’s faceplant in Tempe, Ariz., was as surprising as the result. Washington entered the game a 17.5-point favorite, much thanks to a porous Arizona State defense that ranked No. 119 in the country. The Sun Devils yielded more than 30 points in 11-straight outings, but somehow transformed into the 1985 Bears on Saturday night. Arizona State shut out the Huskies for the game’s first 54 minutes, a stunning performance for vagabond defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s crew.
“One of the more frustrating nights we’ve had in a long time around here on offense,” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
Washington helped out with self-induced misery, as kicker Van Soderberg missing field goals from 27 and 21 yards. The most amazing statistic of the night was that the last time a top-5 team had a kicker miss two field goals under 30 yards it was 2010, when Kyle Brotzman did it for Petersen’s Boise State team. With history clearly not guiding his game management, Petersen’s decision to kick the second field goal on fourth-and-short will be second-guessed at yachting tailgates on the outskirts of Husky Stadium for years to come. Soderberg doinked the 21-yard chip shot off the upright, the prologue to the end rest. Sometimes, luck and karma are needed to pull off seismic upsets, too.
And Arizona State got that on a fourth-and-3 with just over two minutes remaining. When everyone assumed the Sun Devils would punt, ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins completed a sun-kissed pass coated with a lifetime of good karma, serendipity and fortuitousness to tight end Ceejhay French-Love for 30 yards. The pass somehow made it past five players – two ASU receivers, one of which it was intended for, and between three UW defenders – before settling in French-Love’s hands. It was the fourth-down version of a blackjack player hitting on 19 and getting consecutive aces. They shouldn’t have tried it, shouldn’t have completed it but somehow ended up cashing in.
Arizona State earned its first top-five victory since 1996, potentially salvaging coach Todd Graham’s job after an offseason when his firing appeared an inevitability. “We’re not surprised,” Graham said. “We expected to be here.”
No one else expected them there, including Petersen. He went from his biggest issue last week being a cold war with ESPN to now needing to run the table to have a chance to earn a second-straight spot in the College Football Playoff. Washington will have potentially just two ranked teams remaining on its schedule: Stanford and Washington State.
Those two games will mark Washington’s only two chances over ranked teams this season, as UW’s feather-pillow non-conference schedule of at Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State could end up being the difference between the Huskies and other one-loss teams.
For now, all Washington can do is win out and root for more chaos like the events that unfolded this weekend. They need the whole season to take on the funky vibes that seem to appear every week during the Pac-12’s late-night shenanigans.
2) Tennessee athletic director John Currie would best be described as a hardline pragmatist. Currie is the opposite of emotional or reactionary. Put it this way: Currie wouldn’t have hired Bill Stewart after winning the Fiesta Bowl as an interim coach as West Virginia administrators once did.
So the weekly predictions that Tennessee will fire Butch Jones soon after emotional losses or listless victories are really just knee-jerk fodder and clickbait. Currie wanted nothing more than Jones to succeed upon arriving in Knoxville, and it would go strongly against Currie’s nature to execute a mid-season firing.
That said, Jones’ tenure at Tennessee can now be reduced to a timing issue. It’s going to happen, but not likely until deep into the season or immediately after it ends. The Vols lost 15-9 to South Carolina on Saturday to fall to 0-3 in the SEC. It marked their second loss this season on the final play of a game.
Tennessee didn’t score a touchdown for the second consecutive week, as Jones’ inability to find a competent offensive coordinator will go down as one of his biggest failures in Knoxville.
Tennessee’s SEC losses clearly illustrate Jones’ failings. The last-second losses to Florida and South Carolina reinforce the notion that Jones struggles in-game on the sideline. (Tennessee blundered the clock on its final possession, failing to spike the ball and wasting seven seconds). The Georgia game reminded Tennessee fans just how far they are from contending in the SEC East, never mind the league.
There’s little advantage to firing Jones now. Currie spent his final years as Kansas State’s athletic director preparing to someday replace Bill Snyder, a common-sense approach when your coach is in his 70s. Few athletic directors have worked harder over the years networking with up-and-coming coaches, getting to know established ones and generally navigating the intricate football coaching market. The aura of mystery that’s surrounded the end of Snyder’s tenure at Kansas State forced Currie to have a real-time understanding of the nuances of the coach hiring space. In other words, Currie is as prepared to hire a new coach as any athletic director and won’t be starting from scratch.
After Tennessee gets blown out at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday to fall to 0-4 in the SEC, don’t expect Currie to react. The end is coming for Jones, just not as fast as some may like.
3) The most intriguing story on Saturday came at Maryland, which has a mysterious case of a missing athletic director. Maryland’s Kevin Anderson hasn’t attended the school’s past three football games, and multiple reports of his firing emerged on Saturday. Those reports, at least technically, appear to be incorrect. The school issued a tweet – “Kevin Anderson is UMD athletic director. Media reports to the contrary are false.”
But no one at Maryland is saying why Anderson hasn’t been showing up. It appears some type of buyout, job transition or exit plan has been in the works for weeks, as Anderson and president Wallace Loh have been at odds. Since that plan doesn’t appear to be finalized, Maryland doesn’t appear to be comfortable to comment. Two different Maryland athletic spokesmen declined comment on Saturday, pointing to the tweet and pointing a reporter to a university spokesperson. A university spokesperson responded by text: “Kevin Anderson is our AD.” The lack of information, context and detail hints at a sensitive high-end legal standoff.
The funniest part of Maryland bumbling through all this with no explanation is that they are drawing far more attention to themselves than a typical athletic director transition. As a bonus, the internal candidate most likely to replace Anderson will likely bring up another public-relations headache. Senior associate athletic director Damon Evans “arrived instead of Anderson at [Coach D.J.] Durkin’s postgame press conference” on Saturday, according to The Washington Post. Evans got fired as the athletic director at Georgia in 2010 after being pulled over for a DUI and found with a “red pair of lady’s panties between [his] legs.” They belonged to a woman in the passenger seat who was not his wife. Evans later told the officer, “I’m not trying to bribe you, but I am the athletic director at Georgia.”
Oh, and Maryland lost at home to Northwestern on Saturday. A staredown between the university and its athletic director has everyone looking and laughing at the Terps. The only certainty is that more awkwardness is surely to follow.
4) Syracuse coach Dino Babers stood amid a mosh pit of orange-clad fans on the Carrier Dome turf late Friday night. He strained to hear ESPN sideline reporter Jen Lada in the wake of the Orange’s 27-24 upset of No. 2 Clemson, as the celebratory din drowned out her questions. “I don’t know how much closer she could get to me,” Babers said, “being on national television and with my wife in the stands.”
Babers let out a hearty laugh at the impetus of that awkward moment, which he recalled in a phone interview on Saturday to illustrate the power of a pulsating Carrier Dome for the future of the program. It was just Syracuse’s second-ever victory over a team ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. And for a Syracuse program that lost to Middle Tennessee more than a month ago, it marked the manifestation of the vision Babers laid out when he took the job nearly two years ago.
Babers predicted before the 2016 season that his hyper-tempo, extreme spread system would hit its stride between games four and six of his second season. Well, Friday night marked game seven, which meant Babers wasn’t far off. Quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 278 yards, three touchdowns and sealed the game with a Go-Go-Gadget-Arms backwards reach over his head to secure the game’s final first down. Dungy missed the final three games of last season, which slowed his development, and Babers predicted he’s on the precipice of breaking out. “I really believe he’s about to come into his own,” Babers said. “He’s about to take it to a totally different level. He’s knocking on door and about to open it.”
This victory indicates the same could be said for the Syracuse program, which was in such disarray when Babers took it over there were no defensive ends on scholarship. Babers said the victory should help his staff protect Syracuse’s current recruit class from poachers and help lure more talented players to Central New York. “Maybe this is a game that gets them to decide, ‘I’m going to take a chance to go to Syracuse instead of a traditional power and sit for a few years and wait my turn’. They’ll get an opportunity to play early with us.”
If Babers sounded like he was recruiting, that’s because he was. He called from a high school game in White Plains, N.Y., that faced off Orange commitments from Archbishop Stepinac and Cardinal Hayes. In the aftermath of the victory, Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack told Syracuse.com he wants Babers to be the coach at Syracuse for a “long, long time.” Babers points to his own rebuild to show his commitment to the Syracuse one, as he’s said he’s making $60,000 to $70,000 in improvements to his home near campus. He jokes that he bought homes at both Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green and lost large amounts of money on them when he left. “Wherever I’ve gone, I bought my house and set my family up like that’s going to be the last place I’ll coach,” Babers said. “That’s how I operate.”
5) Cal’s Justin Wilcox has authored as fine of a rookie season of any coach in recent memory and should be the leading candidate for the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year. Cal’s defense has improved by allowing nearly 100 yards less per game than in 2016. The Bears jumped on the radar early with victories over Ole Miss and North Carolina. But Cal’s masterpiece came by smothering No. 8 Washington State, 37-3, on Friday night in one of the most eye-popping results of the season. Cal forced seven turnovers on Friday night, including five interceptions of star Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk.
The victory moved Cal to 4-3, giving them a strong chance to reach a bowl with a finishing kick that includes Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA. Cal could end up favored in three of those games, and a bowl game should assure Wilcox some postseason Pac-12 hardware.
6) After Boston College returned home from upsetting Louisville, 45-42, on Saturday, it was difficult to hear star freshman tailback A.J. Dillon over the commotion on the team bus. Dillon managed to somehow outshine Louisville’s Lamar Jackson on Saturday, as the freshman tailback finished with 272 yards and four touchdowns. Perhaps the most impressive statistic of the day is that Dillon did not lose yards on any of his 39 carries. “I was ready to help the team in any way possible,” Dillon said. “When they needed me, I told them that I had them.”
Jackson put on a show that reminded everyone why he won the Heisman last season, finishing with 513 total yards. But BC’s Colton Lichtenberg kicked a 27-yard game-winning field goal as time expired, set up by a fumble by Louisville’s Jaylen Smith. Louisville falls to 4-3 and 1-3 in the ACC, a season of promise that’s flatlined to irrelevancy.
BC entered the game as a 21.5-point underdog, and their gameplan essentially revolved around riding Dillon. When Dillon arrived on campus as perhaps the most decorated recruit of Steve Addazio’s tenure – Harold Landy was the other big-time high school blue chipper – Addazio didn’t shy away from hyping him up. He said Dillon could develop into a first-team All-ACC tailback. The bruising 242-pound back joined some elite company with his 272-yard night – it the third-best single-game performance in BC history. The top two belong to Andre Williams, who ended up a Heisman finalist.
Dillon did his damage behind a makeshift offensive line that’s improved significantly while enduring season-ending injuries to three linemen. With star right tackle Chris Lindstrom paving the way, Dillon pounded the Eagles to a victory and 3-4 record. “There was some adversity there,” Dillon said of the offensive line. “We didn’t go into panic mode. We knew one of our brothers was going to step up and they did.”
When they did, Dillon put on a performance that turned him into one of the sport’s most promising young stars.
7) Pac-12 After Dark went to nearly pre-dawn on Saturday, with Stanford kicking off against Oregon at 11 p.m. Eastern time. It’s a shame, as college football fans not out chasing last call are missing one of the best shows of this college football season.
Stanford’s Bryce Love entered the weekend as the most dominant running back in the country. His 1,240 yards were more than 250 more than the next highest back and nearly double the output of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. (Penn State had a bye week and Barkley has 649 yards through six games.)
That output is just rushing yards, which fails to capture Barkley’s all-around value in the pass game, kickoffs and even pass protection. (He threw a key block on Penn State’s winning play against Iowa). But as far as pure, dominant rushers, Love deserves some more love.
He continued his closing time onslaught on Saturday, finishing with 147 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon. That gives him 1,387 total yards on the season, and it’s hard to imagine any of the country’s other talented tailbacks catching him from behind.
8) No. 20 N.C. State enters a bye week as one of the most impressive teams during the first half of the college football season. The Wolfpack thumped Pitt, 35-17, making them 6-1 as they prepare to play at Notre Dame on Oct. 28. “Our guys aren’t afraid of the moment,” said NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz late Saturday. “They’ve been there before. We’ll be dialed up and ready to go.”
Quarterback Ryan Finley has emerged as one of the country’s most efficient and effective quarterbacks, as he’s completed 69.4 percent of his passes, thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Finley is a redshirt junior who transferred from Boise State and is as steady as the Sahara is dry. “He just does his job really well,” Drinkwitz said.
He gets by with a little help from his friends. Tailback Nyheim Hines, one of the ACC’s breakout stars, showed his explosiveness on Saturday with touchdowns on an 83-yard run and a 92-yard punt return. He’s a junior from Garner, N.C., who is motivated by Stanford’s Love, a fellow North Carolina native. (He entered the day No. 6 in the NCAA in all-purpose yards, three slots behind Love.)
Finley’s favorite target has been versatile H-Back Jaylen Samuels, as seven of his 10 touchdowns have come via air. He has 54 catches for 453 yards, simultaneously a security blanket and big-play threat.
Can the Wolfpack beat the Irish in consecutive seasons? The Pitt victory portends well. “We didn’t have our best stuff and were still able to win,” Drinkwitz said of the Pitt game on Saturday. “It’s a good sign for our team.”
9) The most impressive outing of the day came from LSU, which went down 20-0 to Auburn and stormed all the way back for a dramatic 27-23 victory over the No. 10 Tigers. Auburn squandering a lead that big may shift the hot seat in the SEC West from Baton Rouge to The Plains.
Since losing the national title game after the 2013 season, Auburn has shown few signs of a program that could return there. They’ve slipped into a rut of mediocrity – 8-5 in 2014, 7-6 in 2015 and 8-5 in 2016 – that surely has infuriated the administrators and boosters who’ve long set the SEC standard for being reactionary and irrational.
By blowing a 20-point lead at LSU, Gus Malzahn confirmed what’s been strongly suspected the past three seasons – he has little chance to lead the Tigers back into an SEC contender. Auburn (5-2) has two home games left in which they’ll definitely be underdogs, Alabama and Georgia. Those programs have emerged as the class of the SEC, an echelon that the Tigers don’t look capable of returning to under Malzahn.
Complicating matters is that Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs is juggling scandals right now, with the Tigers a prime player in the federal probe into college basketball’s underbelly and the athletic department reeling from a sexual harassment scandal in the softball program. Those scandals are compounded by top-ranked Alabama pulling further and further away from the Tigers each week.
Whether Jacobs and Malzahn survive – and their chances are dimming by the week – will be one of the biggest tensions in the final half of the SEC season. They may need a comeback bigger than the one Auburn enabled today.
10) Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin’s coaching fate appeared sealed after he squandered a 44-10 late third-quarter lead against UCLA to open the season. But his fate has gone from a formality to a matter of considerable intrigue, as Texas A&M has rebounded to a 5-2 record and won an impressive game at Florida, 19-17, on Saturday night.
The reality at Texas A&M is that Sumlin can’t feel particularly wanted. Not after his athletic director put him on blast at SEC meetings and a fanboy regent posted a message on his Facebook page calling for Sumlin’s job: “Coaches were dominated on national TV, yet again.” Then there’s the much more serious matter of the racist mail that arrived at the Sumlin family’s home in the wake of the UCLA loss.
Sumlin is a respected offensive mind and one of the country’s most dogged recruiters, a package that could end up attractive elsewhere once the coaching carousel shakes out.
Sumlin got emotional after the game reflecting on attending the funeral of Joe Tiller, his mentor who he worked for at Washington State, Wyoming and Purdue. It has been a trying year for Sumlin at Texas A&M, and don’t be surprised if this solid Texas A&M season leads him to another Power Five job.