10 takeaways from an upset-heavy day in college football that whittled down the playoff field

Ten takeaways from a Shakeup Saturday in college football:

1) On a day of seismic upsets and stressful escapes in the Top 10, the only way to be safe was to have an open date (Clemson) or be Alabama. And even the untouchable Crimson Tide came away with a limping Heisman Trophy front-runner.

It was dangerous out there for the big dogs. Second-ranked Georgia was blown out by 20 at LSU, beaten up and out-executed in Tiger Stadium — colleague Pete Thamel has the details of that game here. Sixth-ranked West Virginia was easily dispatched at Iowa State, losing by 16 points to an unranked opponent. Seventh-ranked Washington was too cautious at the end of regulation and lost in overtime at Oregon. Eighth-ranked Penn State never trailed until 19 seconds remained at home against Michigan State, surrendering a 76-yard drive in the final 90 seconds to lose.

Even the winners had to work for it. Third-ranked Ohio State beat Minnesota by 16 but trailed for a sizable chunk of the first half and didn’t put the game away until the fourth quarter. Fifth-ranked Notre Dame didn’t lead unranked Pittsburgh until less than six minutes remained, pulling out a 19-14 white-knuckler. Ninth-ranked Texas had to survive Baylor throws into the end zone on the final two plays to hold on, 23-17. Tenth-ranked Central Florida trailed Memphis by 16 points, then scored the final 17 to extend its unbeaten streak to 19 games.

And Alabama, while beating Missouri by 29, was held to its lowest point total of the season (39) and sent star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to the sidelines for good in the third quarter when he came up limping after a scramble. The Heisman front-runner came into the game with a sprained knee, and while nothing looked serious it was enough to leave a minor ripple of concern with the Tide.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) gestures after throwing a touchdown pass during the first half against Missouri in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) gestures after throwing a touchdown pass during the first half against Missouri in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

2) As a result of the Top 25 carnage, the list of leading College Football Playoff contenders has thinned considerably.

The Southeastern Conference still has five contenders — and while you can make a flimsy case for the league to get three in the playoff, it more likely looks like one. Alabama heads the list, and a second SEC team (LSU, Georgia, Florida or Kentucky) would have to win out — including beating the Crimson Tide — to get there.

The Big Ten list was whittled to three: Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa — and the Hawkeyes still are swimming upstream to even win their division. If the Wolverines can get past nemesis Michigan State next Saturday, the Ohio State-Michigan game will loom extra-large at regular season’s end. The Big Ten could have a scenario where two teams make it if the Wolverines win that game and both end the season with one loss.

Notre Dame continues to sit very pretty at 7-0, with an open date and then five games in which it should be solidly favored. The win over Michigan is aging nicely.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is a two-team picture that will cut itself in half next Saturday when 6-0 Clemson hosts 5-0 North Carolina State. Duke theoretically is still viable at 5-1, but the Blue Devils need help to even win their division after losing to Coastal-leading Virginia Tech.

Everyone in the Big 12 has lost, and only three teams have lost just once: Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia. A 12-1 league champion would need at least one currently undefeated team to falter, and even then a résumé comparison with other one-loss teams could be an iffy proposition.

With Colorado’s defrocking at USC, the Pac-12 is realistically out of options. Three teams remain with one loss — Washington State, Oregon and Colorado — and between the three of them they have zero quality non-conference wins. Neither the Cougars nor the Ducks played a Power Five opponent out of conference, and the Buffaloes’ lone Power Five game was against winless Nebraska. Never has a win in Lincoln counted for so little.

And then there is UCF, which barely got out of Memphis and will — wait for it — probably be leap-frogged in the polls by LSU and Michigan. Perhaps justifiably. The Knights need a couple more upset-intensive weekends like this one to further thin the herd and allow them to keep moving up.

3) Michigan has found its offensive equation. And it’s a classic Harbaugh formula.

After a first-game identity crisis against Notre Dame’s very good defense, in which the Wolverines threw it 36 times and ran it 33, they have settled into a run-heavy approach that suits their personnel — and the head coach’s mentality. Every game since that opener Michigan has run it at least 12 more times than it has thrown it, and the 38-13 beatdown of Wisconsin on Saturday was straight out of the Harbaugh fantasy playbook: 48 runs, 21 passes, 320 yards on the ground.

Quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey provided an added dimension in the running game Saturday — Patterson peeling off an 81-yard run and McCaffrey going 44 for another. Those two runs were more than Michigan’s passing yardage for the night (124).

The Wolverines are going to have to be able to hit some big throws to keep winning, and Patterson is capable of it. But the best Michigan attack is when he doesn’t have to chuck it very often.

4) Chris Petersen is a great coach. But he left himself wide open for second guessing on two key possessions in the fourth quarter.

With 10 minutes to play in a tie game, the Washington coach opted to go for a fourth-and-1 from the Oregon 26 instead of try a field goal with his inconsistent freshman kicker, Peyton Henry. Browning, who has been an effective short-yardage runner, was stopped and fumbled on the play.

But then at the end of the fourth, Petersen basically made the opposite decision with the game on the line. Facing a third-and-1 from the Oregon 21 with 40 seconds left, Petersen opted not to run another play in an attempt to get a first down and get closer to the end zone. He took the game out of the hands of his senior quarterback and put it on the shoulders of his freshman kicker.

Petersen drained the clock to three seconds, called timeout and sent in the field-goal unit. After being iced by Oregon coach Mario Cristobal’s two timeouts, Henry missed the field goal. Oregon went on to win in overtime.

It was Cristobal’s first signature win at Oregon. But he was helped out by some poor decisions by the best coach in the Pac-12.

5) It was a day of momentous fake kicks. Some that worked brilliantly, some that failed miserably.

The best:

Florida coach Dan Mullen’s fake punt in the third quarter of a buck-wild game against Vanderbilt. Trailing 21-13 and facing a fourth-and-3 from his own 37, Mullen sent punter Tommy Townsend running straight up the middle for 18 yards. Three plays later Florida scored to make it 21-20, then took the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter to overcome an 18-point deficit and win in Nashville.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who is all about faking kicks, called one on a fourth-and-six from the Michigan State 34 with his team trailing 7-0. Connor Heyward took a short snap and ran around the left end for 26 yards, sustaining a drive that ended in a touchdown.

The worst:

Dantonio also called a fake field goal that entailed holder/quarterback Brian Lewerke throwing downfield to 295-pound nose tackle Raequan Williams. That one was broken up, and at that point it looked like the gamble might cost the Spartans the game. (It didn’t.)

Georgia ran a first-drive fake field goal that turned into kicker Rodrigo Blankenship easily being tackled in space, robbing the Bulldogs of early momentum in Death Valley. That was the beginning of a very bad day for the Georgia coaching staff.

Trailing 19-14 in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh sent transfer quarterback Jeff George Jr. onto the field for the first time as a Panther — at punter. The former Illinois player, wearing jersey No. 96 to conceal his identity, rolled right and threw a pass out of bounds. If Pitt were going to go for a fourth-and-manageable in the fourth quarter, having the first-team offense on the field might have been a good idea.

6) All hell very nearly broke loose in the Florida-Vandy game, and the coaches instigated it.

After a Florida peel-back block on a punt return resulted in a targeting penalty and a (temporary) injury to Vandy’s Dare Odeyingbo, Commodores coach Derek Mason went most of the way across the field to ostensibly check on his player — and wound up jawing at the Gators’ sideline.

Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham started yelling back at Mason — profanely, if the lip reading is correct — and Mason appeared to respond in kind. That got Gators head coach Dan Mullen irate, and he had to be restrained from going after Mason. Benches started to clear at that point, but a full-scale brawl was averted.

“Their player from the sideline said something, and he directed it at me. I say something back, and Dan gets mad,” Mason told the Nashville Tennessean. The paper reported that Mason and Mullen talked and hugged immediately after the game.

Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators are 6-1 with a game against Georgia awaiting after a bye week. (AP)
Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators are 6-1 with a game against Georgia awaiting after a bye week. (AP)

7) Nebraska’s misery got worse. And now the Cornhuskers stand alone among Power Five punching bags.

With UCLA’s blowout of California in Berkeley, Nebraska now is the only winless Power Five team. As bad as the season has been, the 0-6 Huskers took losing to a new level Saturday afternoon against Northwestern.

Because Nebraska had this game. It was over. The Huskers had led most of the day, were up 14 in the fourth quarter, and with less than three minutes left they were up 10. Then with two minutes left they were still up seven, and Northwestern had the ball on its own 1, and it was out of timeouts.

Over, right?


The Wildcats drove 99 yards to score the tying touchdown with five seconds left, then won in overtime. And first-year coach Scott Frost has gone from undefeated in 2017 at UCF to winless at Nebraska in 2018.

“I feel bad for [the players],” Frost said. “This is wearing on me, but mostly I feel bad for the seniors.”

Still, when Frost was asked about the 99-yard drive, he adroitly threw everyone else under the bus.

“One, I don’t call the defense,” he said. “And two, make a play.”

8) Iowa State is Third String U.

For the second straight year, the Cyclones have been forced to go to a third-string quarterback — and the result has been magic. Last year, Kyle Kempt stepped in and led Iowa State to a stunning upset of Oklahoma. This year, freshman Brock Purdy has led the ‘Clones to consecutive upsets of ranked teams — Oklahoma State last week and West Virginia this week.

Purdy’s numbers through two games: 36-of-48 for 572 yards, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s also run for 123 yards and a touchdown.

9) Prior to this season, the last time Iowa State beat ranked opponents in consecutive weeks was 1973. Coach Matt Campbell wasn’t born until 1979.

A guy making this kind of history could be the hottest coach on the market this year. The 38-year-old Campbell signed a new extension after last year’s 8-5 season, and anyone in interested in poaching him would be looking at a $7 million buyout.

10) Leading candidate for Bust of 2018 is now Auburn.

The Tigers began the year ranked in the Top 10. They’re now 4-3 after a home loss to Tennessee, snapping the Volunteers’ 11-game SEC losing streak. Auburn is now 1-3 in league play, and only once against FBS competition has scored more than 24 points. Gus Malzahn, onetime celebrated for his offensive genius, now leads a team that entered the weekend 12th in the league in total offense.

With games remaining against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, 6-6 might be as good as the Tigers can hope for.

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