Here are 10 takeaways from a wild weekend of college football:
1. The center of the college football universe, for the greater part of the past two decades, has been located in the Southeast. Datelines from Gainesville to Tuscaloosa, Clemson to Baton Rouge have dominated the sport. And as Alabama’s march to the 2018 national title appears as much of a coronation as a competition, there’s little argument that the sport’s heartbeat this season lies deep within SEC country.
That’s what makes the next two weeks such a compelling anomaly, as Boston and New York City project to become the epicenter of college football in consecutive weeks. Think of a hockey showcase in New Mexico, a soccer one in Saskatchewan or cricket in Reno. That’s college football in Northeast, the region where the sport resonates the least.
Next week, the marquee game in college football will feature No. 22 Boston College (7-2) hosting No. 2 Clemson (9-0) in the game that ESPN’s “GameDay” will feature. The following week, No. 4 Notre Dame (9-0) plays No. 19 Syracuse (7-2) in Yankee Stadium. Both games loom as Clemson and Notre Dame’s trickiest tests remaining, including whatever flotsam or jetsam washes up across from Clemson in the ACC championship.
This has been a funny year in college football. Miami, Florida and Florida State all lost on consecutive weekends for the first time ever. And so it’s fitting that the towns pro sports fans love to hate and college football fans view as Timbuktu – Boston and New York — will earn the eyeballs and ire from around the sport.
“College GameDay” hasn’t visited Boston College since 2009, and the Clemson game resonates as the most relevant game for the Eagles since Matt Ryan matriculated there.
“This is the biggest game we’ll host in 10 years,” said Boston College athletic director Martin Jarmond, who at 38 is the youngest athletic director in the Power Five. “Our campus will be electric. The energy with this team and our fans is real.”
And BC’s chances will hinge on the health of the star tailback A.J. Dillon, who didn’t play in the fourth quarter of BC’s win at Virginia Tech on Saturday and still ended up with 96 rushing yards and a touchdown. Dillon has been practicing sparingly since spraining his ankle on Sept. 29 against Temple and has missed two games. Dillon is the ACC’s Preseason Player of the Year, one of the few personnel advantages that the Eagles could have against Clemson.
Dillon de-committed from Michigan to attend BC and had envisioned a night like this. “If you have the city of Boston behind us, that’s something that I really want,” Dillon told Yahoo Sports this spring. “I don’t know what that’s going to take, whether that’s going to be winning the Heisman or winning the ACC, but I want to have the sense that everyone is included.”
Syracuse has been at the forefront of the college football conversation this season since blowing out Florida State in the Carrier Dome in September. They’ll have consecutive showcase games in the next two weeks, as they host the remaining remnants of the Louisville program in an ESPN game on Friday night. If the Orange win that game, they could well be deep into the Top 15 by the time the take on the Irish in Yankee Stadium.
Syracuse’s won’t flinch, as it led at Clemson for most of the game earlier this season and ranks No. 14 in the nation in total offense. Nearly every fan will be rooting for Syracuse, as a victory could knock Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff and potentially open the door for a one-loss conference champion – think Oklahoma, Michigan, West Virginia or Washington State – or a team that loses in the conference title game.
With big stakes that reverberate through the whole country, the eyes of college football will be directed to an unusual place. Will chaos follow?
2. The great Kentucky football revival was fun while it lasted. The atmosphere matched the historical moment on Saturday, as Kentucky hadn’t had these types of stakes since Bear Bryant roamed the sideline in Lexington. But the reality of Kentucky’s place in the college football universe soon collided with Georgia’s, and the result was No. 6 Georgia rolling to a 34-17 victory over the No. 11 Wildcats.
That result, combined with Alabama’s thrashing of LSU in Baton Rouge, means that we’ll have a rematch of last year’s national title game on Dec. 1 in the SEC title game – Alabama vs. Georgia.
It’s hard to envision Alabama not being a double-digit favorite in that game, as Georgia got blown off the field at LSU, 36-16, on Oct. 13. The place where LSU exposed the Bulldogs was the interior, and that’s where Alabama seemed to have the most distinct advantage on Saturday night in winning 29-0.
The LSU loss, both in execution and tenor, significantly dims the chances of a second SEC team reaching the playoff this season. (Unless, of course, Georgia upsets Alabama in the title game. But judging by the Baton Rouge eye test, the possibility of that would appear to be remote at this juncture. As long as Tua Tagovailoa remains healthy, the teams capable of challenging Alabama remain few.
3. Lost a bit amid the big clashes today was the manner of which Michigan eviscerated Penn State in Ann Arbor, 42-7. Michigan entrenched themselves deeper as the Big Ten favorite, even with their annual rivalry game with Ohio State being played in Columbus this year.
What was so impressive about this game was that Penn State won this game 42-13 last year. So this essentially doubles as a complete role reversal, as Penn State didn’t score until the final two minutes and generally looked overmatched all day.
The momentum for Michigan is building by the week, as Shea Patterson is playing with more confidence at quarterback as he finished with two touchdown passes and one rushing. The best news for Michigan was the return of All-American defensive lineman Rashan Gary, as he finished the game with two tackles and a quarterback hurry after playing for the first time in a month. The other big news for Michigan came with the return of star receiver Tarik Black, who saw his first game action of the season. He had a 41-yard touchdown called back on a penalty, but he and Gary’s return gives Michigan two of its best players for the stretch run and makes the Wolverines look even more formidable.
As for Ohio State, their only potential regular season foil remaining in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes looked pedestrian in sputtering past Nebraska, 36-31. Ohio State beat Nebraska by 101 in the past two meetings, and this game showed the symptoms of the Buckeyes issues – offensive line play, linebacker productivity and tackling – still remain. “We had every chance in the world to win that football game,” Scott Frost told the media after the game. Nebraska was victimized by third down two drops by streaking players – JD Spielman and Devine Ozigbo – that could have changed the tenor of the game. The search for answers will continue in Columbus this week, especially in the defensive meeting rooms.
4. A hearty congratulation goes out to the UTEP Miners, which ended a 20-game losing streak and became the last FBS program to register a victory this season. The Miners downed Rice, 34-26, in a road game that led coach Dana Dimel to use three Miners pickaxe emoticons in his postgame celebratory tweet. Rice made a late push after trailing 34-10, but UTEP held on.
Rice has lost nine straight games after beating Prairie View A&M on a last-second field goal to open the season. The Owls are in the first year of a massive rebuild under new coach Mike Bloomgren. The bad news for Rice? They still have to play LSU on Nov. 17.
5. Even with an extra hour of sleep with the clocks being would back an hour, it can be tricky to stay up for the late Pac-12 games. If you dozed off, you missed Washington State keeping the Pac-12’s wheezing College Football Playoff hopes alive and another underwhelming performance by USC in a victory over Oregon State.
Washington State coach Mike Leach has emerged – considering his recent flurry of texts to league officials – as the unlikely savior for the Pac-12. Washington State is one of just two Pac-12 teams ranked in the CFP rankings. The other, Utah, got blown out on Saturday by Arizona State. (The Pac-12 South is an interminable slog, with three 4-3 teams – Utah, USC and Arizona – all tied on the top.)
Washington State (8-1) won on Saturday night, on a touchdown pass from Gardner Minshew to Easop Winston with 32 seconds remaining to break a tie and win 19-13. (Because this is Pac-12 After Dark, the Cougars bungled the snap on the extra point.)
The Cougars overcame themselves in the second half. Washington State foiled two seemingly easy scoring opportunities. Blake Mazza pushed a 30-yard field goal wide right with 3:31 remaining and two Washington State defensive players combined on a Keystone Cops effort to fumble what should have been a pick six through the end zone.
Washington State surprised many by entering the CFP rankings at No. 8. It will be interesting to see if two-loss LSU, which was No. 3, falls past the Cougars.
The Trojans won, 38-21, but the reality was that the game was closer than the score. Early in the fourth quarter, Oregon State appeared to tie the game when USC’s Vavae Malepeai fumbled and Oregon State’s Jalen Moore recovered it and returned it for a touchdown. But the Pac-12 officials whistled Malepeai down, which was later overturned. Oregon State got the ball, but missed out on the return that would have tied the game, 28-28. Instead, Oregon State went out on four straight downs and USC’s Aca’Cedric Ware ran USC’s next offensive play 62 yards for a touchdown. USC survived, but the victory made few in Los Angeles feel better.
6. The weekend’s biggest onions award goes to the West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who made the delightfully crucial decision that led to a 42-41 victory at Texas.
After star quarterback Will Grier made the best throw of the day, a 33-yard teardrop over the Texas defense to Gary Jennings Jr. to cut the Texas lead to 41-40, Holgorsen made the decision to go for two with 16 seconds remaining. In truth, it wasn’t much of a decision. He said postgame that he’d already made it before the team took the field for the drive. He could be lip-read saying, “Hey, let’s go win the game,” on the sideline.
West Virginia appeared to win it on a hard slant route to star receiver David Sills Jr. But Texas coach Tom Herman called timeout prior to the snap and the play didn’t count. Grier was unphased, as Holgorson called a quarterback draw and Grier sashayed into the end zone untouched. The only flaw from the perfect ending for the Mountaineers game when Grier got flagged for excess celebration. But Texas failed to exploit the field-position advantage in the final seconds, letting West Virginia celebrate in Austin.
West Virginia was ranked No. 13 in the initial CFP rankings, but it clearly loomed as the program that could make the most seismic shift. The Mountaineers took care of that with a win in Austin, and they close with TCU at home, at Oklahoma State and then hosting Oklahoma to end the season.
This West Virginia victory increases the chance the Mountaineers could play Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks. The Mountaineers have just one loss, which puts them atop the Big 12 tied with Oklahoma, which eked out a win over Texas Tech on Saturday. When the Big 12 re-instated its championship game last year, the worry would be two teams playing in back-to-back weeks considering the league’s true round-robin schedule. There’s a lot of football left, but that Big 12 repeat game certainly looks likely.
7. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco was alternately pleased and miffed at the initial release of the College Football Playoff rankings this week. UCF began at No. 12, which is distinctly higher than its start at No. 18 last season, and the highest an AAC school has ever started the five seasons of the rankings. “I think we have a chance to get there,” Aresco said in a phone interview on Saturday. “A lot of things can happen in the top 10. If UCF goes undefeated – and that’s a big if – …. it’s possible.”
He added about UCF’s impressive win streak: “I don’t care who you’re playing. It’s hard to win 21 straight games.”
UCF had a showcase game on Thursday night, beating a solid Temple team 52-40 in front of a raucous crowd. America is clearly intrigued by UCF, which has become a divisive team, as the game earned the highest Thursday rating since the opening week. “I respect the committee,” Aresco said. “I’m optimistic that if UCF keeps winning and things happen we’ll get a fair shake.”
Aresco was disappointed that Houston and USF didn’t appear in the initial rankings. Houston was ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press poll and has a blowout victory over Arizona on its résumé that looks better as the season has gone on. “I don’t know how you don’t include them,” Aresco said. But the Cougars lost at SMU on Saturday night, 45-31, which will keep the AAC with just one team in the rankings.
8. Somewhere around halftime of Arizona’s Week 2 game at Houston, the Wildcats disappeared from the national radar. Arizona trailed that game 31-0 at halftime, and quarterback Khalil Tate’s Heisman Trophy hopes disappeared on the steamy Houston morning. (Arizona had already opened with a 28-23 home loss to BYU.) Tate wasn’t running the ball, and Arizona was retreating from the national radar as suddenly as it had arrived there.
The national spotlight long gone, the Wildcats have rounded back to a formidable team at 5-5 overall and tied for first place in the Pac-12 South at 4-3. Arizona beat Colorado 42-34 on Friday night, with Tate looking like what everyone expected in the preseason – 17-for-22 with 350 passing yards and five touchdowns. Sumlin said Tate’s uptick in productivity can be traced to better health, as he’s had issues with both his ankles that have limited his mobility. “Everyone thinks I’m trying to change his game,” Sumlin said by phone on Saturday. “He’s been hurt. The hardest part for me is that the kid is tough enough to play, but he’s not himself. He’s getting healthier by the week.”
Arizona heads off into a bye next week after 10 straight weeks of playing with some momentum. They close the season needing a victory at Washington State or at home against Arizona State to clinch a bowl bid.
What’s been the difference? Oddly, it was a loss at UCLA that Tate, a native of Southern California, sat out that may have turned the season.
He’s bounced back and is approaching complete health, Sumlin told Yahoo Sports. “He’s become a different guy,” Sumlin said, noting the bye week should help him be in great health for the final two games. The Wildcats also have gotten a bump from 5-foot-5 tailback J.J. Taylor, who ran 40 times for 192 yards against the Buffaloes.
The narrative has changed sharply for Sumlin, who was roundly criticized for late-season swoons while at Texas A&M. He chuckled at the notion that he’s in a place to sneak up on teams. “We’ve got a chance here,” Sumlin said, with a chuckle of confidence. “These kids have played their tails off. And it’s obvious.”
9. The biggest surprise in the great Northeast uprising has been Buffalo, which is 8-1, 5-0 in MAC play and the favorite to win the conference.
Buffalo’s transformation from a homecoming bye-game staple to a program with authoritative victories over Temple (36-29) and Rutgers (42-13) has been one of the most remarkable stories in college football.
The Bulls won 51-42 over league rival Miami University, the first of four weeknight showcase games.
Buffalo is led by one of the most intriguing coaches in the country, Lance Leipold, who was an astounding 109-6 at Wisconsin-Whitewater with six national titles before taking over at Buffalo for the 2015 season. It hasn’t been instant success for Liepold, who went 5-7, 2-10 and 6-6 before this breakout season. While Buffalo has gone through three full-time athletic directors during his four years, Liepold pointed to consistency as a key to Buffalo building to this point. He’s had just two staff changes over the four seasons, uncommon consistently in the transient MAC.
“I’m pretty proud of the staff continuity,” Leipold said by phone on Saturday. “One thing at a MAC school, you have to retain people have. The common theme in the meeting room, in terms of philosophy and technique, has stayed consistent.”
Leipold wondered when approaching the job about the “patience level and timeframe to get it done” that the school would have. He approached the job hoping to become the Frank Solich of the league, a compliment to the veteran Ohio University coach, and hired mostly rising coaches who’d relish the opportunity in the MAC. (The notable veteran exception being former Akron head coach Rob Ianello, who is the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator.) The administrative patience has paid off, as Buffalo’s 31-17 victory at defending MAC champion Toledo on Oct. 20 included shutting out the Rockets, 24-0, in the second half. Buffalo’s 6-foot-7 quarterback, Tyree Jackson, has earned NFL buzz and will be one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2020 NFL draft. And the school continues to ride an unprecedented wave of winning, which includes both the men’s and women’s basketball team winning NCAA tournament games this season.
10. From predicting Bobby Petrino was quietly on the hot seat prior to the season to highlighting Louisville’s consistently pathetic performances throughout the year, the lowlights of the Cardinal program have been dutifully chronicled on Yahoo Sports. We predicted the hire of Brian VanGorder would be a disaster, just like his time at Notre Dame. And it has. We predicted that Bobby Petrino having three relatives on his staff making a total of $650,000 would be an issue, especially because they were lightly qualified. And, well, they have.
But what no one could have predicted is how obvious Louisville’s decision to fire Bobby Petrino and eat the $14 million buyout would become. Louisville is in shaky financial straits, as the departures of Tom Jurich cost $4.5 million and the hiring of new basketball coach Chris Mack will cost $28 million over the next seven years. (There’s a $40 million lawsuit regarding Rick Pitino looming as well.)
But as colleague Pat Forde pointed out in a tweet on Saturday, the Louisville football program plummeted to a nadir where Louisville can’t afford to not fire Petrino. We’ve become numb to Louisville masquerading as a Sun Belt team and unsurprised by lowlights like the ironically named Marlon Character celebrating an illegal hit on a defenseless returner while trailing by 46. This is the new normal at Louisville, somewhere south of the crossroads of inept and undisciplined. Even the most cynical pessimist couldn’t have predicted these depths.
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