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Until Saturday, the list of legitimate national title contenders in college football fit in a neat box. There was Alabama, Georgia and LSU in the SEC. Clemson from the ACC, Ohio State from the Big Ten and Oklahoma from the Big 12 were mixed among them. Sure, there were arguments and outliers for other programs and leagues.
But as the season passed its halfway point, there were really only compelling cases for six programs to be hoisting the crystal ball in mid-January. On Saturday, Georgia took a stunning exit that forced us to re-examine the legitimacy of the remaining dozen undefeated teams in college football.
But by Saturday night, two teams in college football loudly stated their case that they needed to be categorized as national title contenders. No. 10 Penn State traveled to Iowa and gutted out a 17-12 victory, the first by James Franklin on the road against a ranked team while at Penn State. It marked Penn State’s first signature victory of the year, a performance that legitimizes it as a top-10 team and formally jams them into the playoff conversation.
The other was Wisconsin, which was already teasing the periphery of the conversation. The tenor of their 38-0 blowout of Michigan State – driving Mark Dantonio to a profane tirade – reminds us that the Badgers are seemingly on a march to be the Big Ten West foil of either Ohio State or Penn State.
Credit Penn State for holding Iowa without a touchdown for the game’s first 57 minutes. The Hawkeyes aren’t exactly going to be mistaken for a Sean McVay unit, but Penn State held them to 2.3 yards per rush and forced a pair of turnovers.
A schedule highlighted by a rock fight against Pitt as the biggest challenge isn’t going to convert a lot of believers. But Penn State has earned a swing at the Big Ten’s best, which will come in quick succession. The Nittany Lions host Michigan in the biggest game of next week. They travel to Michigan State and Minnesota in successive weeks before the league’s potentially marquee regular season game. Penn State plays at Ohio State on Nov. 23. While there are myriad variables that could unfold before that date, that game looms as having potentially giant College Football Playoff ramifications.
Badgers continue bullying opponents
It was difficult to see Wisconsin taking another dip after its uncharacteristic 2018 season. The way the Badgers play – ball control, strong defense and defiant reliance on the run – is football’s version of being virtually recession proof.
But few could have envisioned Wisconsin being this dominant in 2019, especially after backsliding to 8-5 last year. That 2018 struggle bus included a blowout loss to Minnesota and an unexpected loss to BYU.
Wisconsin is back on brand, with its 38-0 blowout of Michigan State the latest example of its dominance. The Badgers have shut out four teams this season, twice as many as they’ve allowed to score. They’ve yet to yield a first-half touchdown, which includes a thumping of Michigan. That’s the highest-end compliment to coordinator Jim Leonhard’s defense.
The Badgers have their latest high-end tailback, as Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor is averaging 7.2 yards per carry this season. The highest compliment to Wisconsin on Saturday is that Michigan State game-planned to not let Taylor beat them (80 yards, 26 carries). Still, quarterback Jack Coan completed 18-of-21 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown.
Wisconsin’s national title competency test will come on Oct. 26 in Columbus when the Badgers play the Buckeyes. (It could well end up being the first of two high-stakes games between them this year.) Ohio State has won nine of the past 10 games in the series and hasn’t lost in Columbus since 2004.
Was this the best coaching move of the season?
The biggest coaching upgrade this past coaching carousel may have come at Louisville. Scott Satterfield has delivered an adrenaline shot of life into the Louisville program, which was suffocated in the toxic muck of Bobby Petrino.
Satterfield doubled the Cardinals’ win total on Saturday with a scintillating 62-59 victory at No. 19 Wake Forest. Yes, that game was played in regulation and did not require overtime. After going 2-10 last season and winless in the ACC, Satterfield has the Cardinals 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the league.
Some of Louisville’s precipitous leap back to relevancy is due to how much life Petrino vampired out of the program. But credit needs to be given to Satterfield, who has instilled discipline, belief and clearly found a way to resuscitate that Cardinals’ offense (winning the second-highest scoring game in ACC history surely shows that).
After an injury to starting quarterback Micale Cunningham in the second quarter, freshman Evan Conley took over and led the Cardinals to a victory. Conley finished with 196 passing yards, three total touchdowns (two passing, one running) and 79 rushing yards on the ground.
How good are the Cardinals? We’ll see next weekend when Clemson comes to visit.
How long will Clay Helton last?
USC’s march to a 3-3 start is about where we thought the Trojans would be at this point. The Trojans may not have arrived here the way we expected, as they surprised Stanford and Utah but got upset at BYU. But the one game that everyone penciled in as a Trojan loss before the season was at Notre Dame.
Credit USC for inspired play in spots on Saturday night against the No. 9 Fighting Irish. They executed well in the first quarter and put on a furious comeback with a 14-point fourth quarter. But Notre Dame recovered an onside kick – with the help of coach Brian Kelly, who was seemingly on the field as a 12th man – and whittled out the clock for another solid victory.
USC being where they thought they’d be at this point means that Clay Helton’s future is as perilous as we expected. The brutal USC schedule made a 3-3 start a near expectation, which is why his firing has become an inevitability.
Helton isn’t going to be fired on a tarmac like Lane Kiffin, no matter how many games he loses. USC has an interim athletic director, and there’s no ill will toward Helton. It can’t be overstated how much Helton is appreciated within the athletic department at USC, as he brought an era of respectability and maturity to a department after the tumult of Steve Sarkisian.
Helton’s tenure is done, even if USC rips off some games here. But he’ll be able to see the season through and the new athletic director will have autonomy determining his replacement.
Baylor forges new identity
Baylor outlasted Texas Tech in double overtime to improve to 3-0 in the league and 6-0 overall after a dizzying 33-30 victory. The Bears scrambled to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation, scoring a field goal after a drive where they were pinned at their own 1-yard line.
No. 22 Baylor nearly won in regulation, but Denzel Mims dropped a touchdown pass. They tied the game on a field goal by old friend John Mayers – not Mayer – and won the game in the second overtime on a 5-yard run by JaMycal Hasty.
Baylor is now bowl eligible, a remarkable achievement considering the off-field mess Matt Rhule inherited three years ago. The Bears went 7-6 last season, and this year have already dangled the possibility of how much further they can go. Certainly, no one would argue that the Bears are a College Football Playoff threat. But they could end up as a spoiler in the Big 12 race, as quarterback Charlie Brewer – 352 yards on Saturday – keeps figuring out ways to win games.
“I think we’re a fun story,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said by phone late Saturday. “We’re gutty and gritty and go out and battle and fight. On any given Saturday, we can go out and beat you.”
That may be more complicated after star linebacker Clay Johnston left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter after nabbing a critical interception. There’s a fear the injury to Johnston, one of the elite defensive players in the conference, is serious.
As Baylor has figured out a way to beat Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas Tech, an identity has emerged. Similar to Rhule’s teams at Temple, Baylor has defined itself as a punishing, no-nonsense team that figures out a way to make plays and win games. “We’d like it to be easier,” Rhule said with a laugh. “We have a toughness to us. We don’t panic in fourth quarter and find a way to win.”
Gophers still surprisingly perfect
It’s funny looking back on how brand bias impacted the preseason pecking order. Nebraska went 4-8 last season, yet somehow ended up in the preseason Top 25. Minnesota closed the regular season last year with a blowout win of Wisconsin and thumped Georgia Tech in a bowl game to finish 7-6.
Yet both the Gophers’ strong finishing run and start to 2019 have been ignored by voters. Entering the weekend, Minnesota was unranked in the Associated Press poll, which should change after they pounded the Cornhuskers, 34-7, in a statement win for P.J. Fleck’s tenure at Minnesota.
Rodney Smith ran for 139 yards to lead the Gophers, who ground out 322 total yards on the ground. The Gophers have improved precipitously as the season has gone on, as they survived early scares from South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern.
But Minnesota controlled its Big Ten opener against Purdue and took Nebraska to the woodshed, which improves the Gophers to 6-0. They’ll be heavily favored to get to 8-0, as the Gophers play at Rutgers and host reeling Maryland in their next two games.
Biggest divisional question marks left
The two biggest mysteries in college football may be who wins the Pac-12 South and the ACC Coastal. Three teams are tied atop the ACC Coastal with 2-1 league marks – Duke, Virginia and North Carolina. Arizona State made a statement about its candidacy to win the Pac-12 South by outlasting Washington State, 38-34. (The Cougars are 0-3 in Pac-12 play a year after going 7-2.)
Arizona entered the night undefeated in conference play before getting throttled by Washington. After USC’s 30-27 non-conference loss to Notre Dame, the Trojans are 3-3 overall and 2-1 in league play. Utah could re-establish itself as the favorite after an early season loss at USC. Right now, it’s safe to cast Arizona State as the slight favorite, and it’s worth noting that it hosts Arizona to close the regular season. (Who’d have imagined the location of Arizona and Arizona State would have been discussed a few months back when determining who’d win the Pac-12 South.)
It’s also worth noting that Arizona State hosts Oregon late and Arizona travels to Eugene.
CeeDee Lamb’s star-making performance
The breakthrough performance by Oklahoma’s defense in the Red River Showdown overshadowed an epic performance by Sooners receiver CeeDee Lamb.
He finished Oklahoma’s 34-27 victory over Texas with three touchdowns, as he appeared virtually untackleable on Saturday night. He caught 10 passes for 171 yards and danced all afternoon through Texas’ under-manned secondary.
Lamb also looked like he was toying with Texas’ would-be tacklers at times, as he broke two tackles and ran around a third potential tackler on a 51-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. It was the type of performance that sparks hyperbole, but OU coach Lincoln Riley declined to say that Lamb, a potential first-round NFL pick, is the best receiver who has ever played for him. “We still got some time together,” Riley said. “I’m not going to anoint him. He knows that.”
He did say that it was gratifying to watch the growth of the day’s two defining stars for OU – Lamb and junior linebacker Kenneth Murray. “They came in here talented, hungry kids. They’ve really both turned into great players. Proud of these guys, certainly proud of how CeeDee played today on the big stage. He’s a big-game player.”
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State embarrass themselves
Being a school’s all-time winningest coach apparently is an excuse to insult the media and patronize your fan base. That’s the only reason why Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio’s behavior could be excused on Saturday night after he refused to take accountability for another putrid showing in Michigan State’s 38-0 loss to Wisconsin.
When asked after the game by Spartan Nation whether not changing the offensive staff last year was a mistake and how the offense could be fixed, Dantonio called it a “dumb-ass question.”
Credit Dantonio for providing the only spark of the night, as he went on the offensive in the wake of Wisconsin holding the Spartans to 149 total yards and 1.4 yards per rush.
Last year, there was no one in charge at Michigan State that would stand up to Dantonio and force him to make staff changes after finishing No. 116 nationally on offense. Dantonio shuffled around a few titles and kept his friends around, a move that’s predictably failed. The current Michigan State athletic director is a gentleman named Bill Beekman, who is the full-time athletic director but lacks the experience and stature to force Dantonio to make obvious decisions on his offensive staff.
In the meantime, Dantonio’s Spartans are falling on their face and cursing at reporters daring to point it out. Not a great look, especially for a guy who is due a $4.3 million retention bonus on Jan. 15.
But when no one is in charge, these things happen. The real dumbasses are the coaches and administrators who think their fan base should put up with a lack of accountability for consistently pathetic performances.
Falcons pull off the upset
The biggest upset of Saturday? That came in Bowling Green, Ohio, when the Falcons stunned Toledo, 20-7. The Rockets entered the game as nearly a four-touchdown favorite and hadn’t lost in the series since 2009.
Even more surprising than the upset was the tenor, as Bowling Green controlled the game and shut out the explosive Rockets in the second half. The game marked first-year head coach Scot Loeffler’s first FBS win, as Bowling Green had lost its past four games 201-27. Loeffler joked that Bowling Green had “beyond earned” its status as four-touchdown underdogs.
Quarterback Grant Loy threw for 185 yards and ran for 137, as Loeffler compared Loy in style to Tim Tebow. Loeffler worked at Florida under Urban Meyer and said they borrowed schemes to match Loy’s skill set.
When reached Saturday night – Loeffler was playing pingpong at home with his kids. He sounded most pleased for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who had rough stints at both Notre Dame and Louisville in the past four years.
Loeffler acknowledged that VanGorder has taken a lot of flak after losing 52-0 to Notre Dame, his former team, last week.
“For him to be coaching at Bowling Green,” Loeffler said. “He’s a difference-maker. To give up seven points against Toledo, which is a rockstar team, come on now. We blitzed the living dog out them. Changed [things up] constantly, disrupted their RPOs and route concepts.”
Loeffler was also happy for the team’s seniors, who won nine games the previous three seasons. “Hopefully it’s the turning point,” he said. “We are light years away, but we were able to beat the best team in the league.”
App State gets it done on the road
There’s a clear-cut favorite in the Sun Belt after Appalachian State dusted Lafayette, 17-7, on the road on Wednesday night. The game dubbed the Sun Belt Super Bowl played out a bit like the actual Super Bowl – little scoring, lots of punts and a final scoring push to seal the game.
The victory capped a hectic week for Appalachian State coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who spent a majority of the week prior to the game sleeping at Watauga Medical Center. His wife, Lindsey, gave birth to their new daughter, Parker, the family’s fourth girl, a month premature at 7:55 a.m. the week before the road game at Lafayette. They spent six nights at the hospital to care for Parker, who is now home and healthy.
“When we knew she was going to have a baby, I had [someone on my staff] bring my laptop to the hospital,” Drinkwitz said.
That created the awkward dynamic of Drinkwitz working on third downs at the hospital between helping his wife and new daughter. “I was trying to be as focused as I possibly could on whatever needed my attention right then,” Drinkwitz told Yahoo Sports.
By the time Drinkwitz left with the team for Lafayette, Parker was back home. He said he slept 10½ hours the night before the game in the hotel and helped his team gut out a victory that included a huge fourth-down stand and touchdown drives of 95 and 97 yards.
“I think it puts us in a position to control our own destiny on our side of the division and potentially host the championship game,” Drinkwitz said. "It also gives us credibility with our players for what we’re trying to do.”
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