10 takeaways from an upset-heavy day of college football craziness

One season after The Year of The Quarterback in college football, the 2018 season began with a muddled quarterback class. There were solid players like Missouri’s Drew Lock, West Virginia’s Will Grier, North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Oregon’s Justin Herbert. But no superstars that threatened a class that saw five first-round picks in the 2018 NFL draft.

One-third of the way through this college football season, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the country’s best two quarterbacks may be two first-year starters. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins have beelined to the top of the 2018 quarterback class in college football, keeping their teams entrenched in the top five and wondering if anyone in their respective leagues can slow them down.

Tagovailoa passed for 387 yards while playing just three quarters in Alabama’s 45-23 blowout of Texas A&M on Saturday. Tagovailoa completed 22-of-30 passes for the Crimson Tide, as they cruised to a victory over the Aggies.

The consistent downfield pass threat for the Crimson Tide has given the offense the look of evolving into the most lethal in Saban’s tenure. Not only can Tua hit deep threats like Jerry Jeudy, but he’s proven adept at the intrinsic quarterback nuances like throwing the ball away, extending drives and not making mistakes. He’s completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. Imagine when he gets to actually play a full game.

Haskins has been even better for Ohio State. When the Buckeyes signed Haskins three years ago, Urban Meyer said, “He’s the best quarterback at his age I’ve ever seen.” The quote got lost in the typical Signing Day shuffle, but it’s beginning to appear prophetic. Haskins finished 21-of-24 in two quarters against Tulane, throwing five touchdown passes and no interceptions. For the season, he’s thrown 16 touchdowns, one interception and completed 75 percent of his passes. For Haskins to continue to get Heisman Trophy and NFL buzz, he’ll have to perform in a truly hostile environment at Penn State on Saturday night. “Game five coming up,” Meyer said. “This one is a big one coming up, so I’m pleased with his performance.”

If Tagovailoa and Haskins keep this pace up, don’t be surprised if they’re seated next to each other in New York in December as Heisman finalists.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (R) throws a touchdown pass against Texas A&M during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (R) throws a touchdown pass against Texas A&M during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

2. When the debate comes down to Duke, Syracuse and NC State, it’s usually a sign that basketball season is on the way. But in the ACC this year, there’s a theoretical debate on who could be a foil to Clemson in the beleaguered league: Who is No. 2 in the ACC?

Not Boston College. They laid a big enough egg to supply all of Boston with Sunday omelets, getting suffocated at previously winless Purdue, 30-13, on Saturday. Virginia Tech found itself on the business end of the biggest upset in college football this year, as ODU stunned the No. 10 Hokies, 49-35, on Saturday. Cross those two schools off the list.

The usual suspects are unusually bad this year. Florida State, even after a win against Northern Illinois, is still tracking historical infamy. Miami is still filled with unknowns, including at quarterback after Mark Richt finally appears to have replaced Malik Rosier with N’Kosi Perry, who starred (17-for-25 for 224 passing yards) in a victory over FIU. Louisville is completely inept on offense, which we cover in more detail later.

The only undefeated teams left in the league are Clemson, Duke, Syracuse and NC State. The Blue Devils thumped Northwestern on the road and have wins over Army and Baylor. Syracuse blasted Florida State at home, but still appear vulnerable defensively. NC State didn’t appear to lose a step after their game against West Virginia was canceled last week. State’s defense is still thought to be vulnerable, but it held up just fine in a 37-20 win at Marshall on Saturday.

Syracuse and NC State have the conference’s best non-Clemson quarterbacks (Eric Dungey and Ryan Finley) now that Duke’s Daniel Jones is out with an injury. As for the ACC answer: We’ll find out, as Clemson faces all three in the regular season.

3. Even the most dedicated Nebraska fans couldn’t find much optimism in anything the Cornhuskers did on Saturday in a 56-10 loss at Michigan. Adrian Martinez returned after missing the Troy game with a knee injury, and it did little to recharge the Cornhusker offense. Nebraska fell to 0-3 for the first time since 1945, and Scott Frost told reporters, “I honestly think this is bottom right here.”

Hard to imagine it getting worse than trailing 39-0 at halftime, gaining just 132 total yards and averaging 1.3 yards per rush. Frost went undefeated at UCF last season, and the reason why his success has yet to translate to Nebraska is simple – he has a roster of inferior talent recruited for a completely different system. It’s easy to win with the best players, which Frost had for much of last season. It would be crazy to cast any long-term aspersions on what Frost can do in Lincoln off of three games. It’s also reasonable to be disappointed at just how hapless the Cornhuskers have looked.

If Nebraska fans need to pinpoint the low moment from this one, it may have come from Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. He decided a sack took the heart out of Nebraska’s offense and figured that called for him to mimic, well, we’ll let him explain it: “I figured it was about time I took my heart and ate it, too,” Winovich told The Michigan Daily. “Some people thought I was eating a grenade. That was not the case. That was taking my own heart and eating it.” Pretty good summary for Nebraska’s day.

Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers had a rough Saturday at Michigan Stadium. (AP)
Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers had a rough Saturday at Michigan Stadium. (AP)

4. No program can match the offensive nosedive that Louisville has endured this season. The Cardinals finished last season as the nation’s No. 3 offense with 544.9 yards per game. They entered their game against Virginia on Saturday with the nation’s No. 119 offense and proceeded to fall well below their season average of 307 yards.

Virginia stomped Louisville, 27-3, which was the lowest total in Bobby Petrino’s 169-game career. Louisville (2-2) managed just 214 yards of total offense, which will secure them as one of the nation’s 10 worst offenses, a stunning free fall after Lamar Jackson had them playing at an elite level the past two seasons. The struggles coming against a milquetoast Virginia team may be the biggest concern, as the Cavaliers hadn’t held an ACC team without a touchdown since 2009.

Petrino hasn’t found a remotely adequate replacement at quarterback, as both Jawon Pass (10-for-19 for 113 yards) and Malik Cunningham (6-for-9 for 35 yards) struggled. Each also threw an interception.

The good news for Louisville? Misery loves company. Florida State visits Louisville next week. Two seasons after Jackson broke out against the Seminoles in a 63-20 victory that helped propel him to the Heisman Trophy, this game serves as essentially a vehicle for opposing fans to hate-watch to see how far the programs have fallen.

5. In the wake of the Longhorns’ 31-16 thrashing of TCU on Saturday, it’s unnecessary to make any broad declarations of where the Texas program is in the grand strata of the college football universe. But it’s safe to declare Texas back in two places – the national rankings and the Big 12 race. Texas lost its past four games to TCU by a total of 120 points. TCU has been a consistent Big 12 contender the past four years, and the first victory over the Horned Frogs since the Mack Brown era (2013) puts the Longhorns in the thicket of the league race. For Texas, that’s a signal of progress. “We have many, many steps left to take,” Herman told the local media after the game.

The Longhorns will also be back in in the national rankings next week, with their lone loss to Maryland looking a bit more tolerable after the Terrapins have played relatively well since. (Their hiccup against Temple not included.) That’s another sign – earning a ranking with wins on the field instead of off-season hype – that Texas is trending ahead.

The Longhorns have a classic trap game at Kansas State next week. The Wildcats have been blown out by the only formidable opponents they’ve faced this season – Mississippi State and West Virginia. A win there could mean that the Red River Classic on Oct. 6 has the most national juice in years, as Oklahoma will be in the Top 5 and Texas – provided they don’t trip up at Kansas State – could well be in the Top 20.

The best news for Texas may be how quickly its defense is growing up.

Texas held TCU to a field goal in the second half, continuing a positive trend that saw it hold USC scoreless in the second half last week.

There will be mightier offenses, but the Longhorns’ abilities to adjust and grow are significant positives as they find themselves relevant again.

The most optimism should come from the play of true freshman safety Caden Sterns, who had two interceptions. “A hell of a football player,” Herman told the media after. Easy to say, after a hell of a win.

6. Oregon gave away a game. Stanford willingly took it. And the Pac-12’s College Football Playoff hopes are better for it.

The undefeated but untested Ducks led the undefeated and seemingly overmatched Cardinal from the middle of the first quarter until the final play of regulation — much of that time leading by more than one score. Yet while holding a three-point lead in the final minute, Oregon failed in the two most important elements of endgame football — running the clock and securing the football.

With second down and three yards to go at the Stanford 43-yard line and less than a minute to play, Oregon merely had to be smart. It could take a knee and force the Cardinal to use its last timeout, then take another knee on third down and run the clock inside 20 seconds to play before punting the ball away.

Instead, the Ducks ran C.J. Verdell to the left side in an ill-fated attempt to get a first down. Pushing for extra yardage, disaster struck: He had the ball poked away and Stanford recovered with 51 seconds to play. Given a final chance at a game it had no real business winning, the Cardinal launched a clutch drive for the tying field goal and then won in overtime, 38-31.

If you combine that turn of events with the astonishing reversal of fortune in the third quarter, Stanford might have the luckiest victory of the season. Leading 24-7 and looking to turn the game into a rout, Oregon bumbled a first-and-goal at the 1 situation, turning it into an 80-yard Cardinal defensive touchdown, breathing life into a game that was all but over.

Despite Stanford’s absurd good fortune, advancing the Cardinal as the Pac-12’s top playoff candidate is better for the league than Oregon. The Ducks have zero non-conference clout on the résumé, having played Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State. Stanford has beaten a creditable San Diego State team and has a trip Saturday to Notre Dame that could really enhance its résumé.

But the Cardinal better not be hoping for another gift like the one they got in Eugene on Saturday night. Those don’t come around very often.

7. In Columbia, Missouri, Kirby Smart’s mood vacillated between disgusted and disappointed, with a fleeting glimmer of grudging happiness mixed in. “We didn’t play with discipline, composure, or really any physicality against the run game,” Smart groused.

The object of his ire: Georgia’s performance in a 43-29 victory over Missouri. Smart is 100 percent correct about the flaws in his team’s play, which included some blown assignments and dumb penalties and (again) a player casually dropping a touchdown before crossing the goal line and (again) the officials not catching it. (Same thing happened against South Carolina two weeks ago.) And, yes, Missouri ran for 172 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

“No human being should run the ball on our defense,” said linebacker D’Andre Walker.

But here is the big picture, which demanding coaches often don’t see — or want to see — when drilling down on the details of a game: Georgia has won its first two road games by two touchdowns or more. Last time the Bulldogs did that: 1992.

They went into the most hyped atmosphere at South Carolina in years and walloped the Gamecocks, 41-17. Then they came into the most hyped atmosphere at Missouri since 2014 and handled that, too. Now the ‘Dogs go back between the hedges for what should be relatively low-stress games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt before hitting a four-week gauntlet that will define the season: at LSU, Florida in Jacksonville, at Kentucky and home against Auburn.

Expect a sharper Bulldogs team for that run of opponents. Part of Smart’s ongoing Sabanation of the Georgia program is being demanding and critical after victories, warding off complacency and self-satisfaction like they are addictive drugs. Not even the program’s best two-game road start in 26 years will change that approach.

Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell returns a Missouri fumble for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept 22, 2018, in Columbia, Mo. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell returns a Missouri fumble for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept 22, 2018, in Columbia, Mo. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

8. Did Oklahoma lose ground in the shock-and-awe race that other members of the top five have undertaken? Quite likely.

While Alabama was blowing out another Power Five opponent (and Nick Saban was asking the media to criticize his team), Ohio State was rolling with Urban Meyer back and Georgia and Clemson were taking care of league business on the road, the Sooners unexpectedly struggled.

Oklahoma had to go to overtime to defeat Army, which lost by 20 points in its only other road game, against Duke. The Oklahoma offense has slowed with each passing Saturday: from 63 points against Florida Atlantic to 49 against UCLA to 37 against Iowa State and now 28 and a season-low 355 yards against the Cadets.

The injury to versatile running back Rodney Anderson has hurt, and leading receiver Marquise Brown was shockingly shut out against Army. Kyler Murray has had a sensational season as a first-year starter, but he also had a few misfires in his fourth career start. And Oklahoma’s vulnerable run defense (ask Georgia) couldn’t get Army off the field, surrendering more than 300 yards on the ground.

If the other teams in the top five are going to continue piling up impressive victories, then the Sooners need to keep pace. Saturday against Army, they won but fell behind.

9. Before Saturday, had a Mid-American Conference team ever beaten a Big Ten team by four touchdowns? That question may have to linger into Sunday before we have an answer, but we have fresh evidence that it can be done.

Buffalo is that MAC team. And Rutgers is bad enough to let it happen.

The 4-0 Bulls — yes, 4-0 Bulls — demolished the Scarlet-faced Knights 42-13 on the road. It was 35-6 at halftime before Buffalo went into preventive maintenance mode, an astonishing circumstance for a program that has had just two winning seasons since moving up to FBS in 1999.

As horrific as this season has been for Rutgers, with consecutive blowout losses to Kansas and Buffalo, it has been that good for the Bulls. “We’re kind of in some uncharted territory for Buffalo football,” said fourth-year coach Lance Leipold.

Leipold credited his generational talent quarterback, Tyree Jackson, for leading them there. At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, he’s a specimen with both mobility and a very live arm (you may have seen video of his uncorking a 55-yard bomb Saturday while rolling out). The junior had been injured the last two years, but has altered his playing style to become more pocket-oriented and stay out of harm’s way.

Result: Jackson has thrown 15 touchdown passes and three interceptions, while leading Buffalo to its best start as an FBS program.

“It starts with Tyree,” Leipold said. Where it ends, who knows?

10. With first-year coaches everywhere off to trying starts, there has been a lot of discussion about getting players to buy into a new program culture. At Tennessee, a clash of wills led Jeremy Pruitt to sending junior linebacker Quart’e Sapp out of Neyland Stadium.

According to Pruitt’s postgame remarks, Sapp refused to go into the game during the Volunteers’ wipeout loss to Florida. So Pruitt told him to leave the sidelines.

“I don’t know how things were done before, but when you tell somebody to go in and they refuse to go in? We’re not going to do that,” Pruitt said. “I asked him to leave — he didn’t leave on his own.”

Pruitt didn’t want to speculate on Sapp’s future with the team immediately after the game. The loss was Tennessee’s 10th straight in Southeastern Conference play.

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