Takeaways: Here’s the 'bubble' that will help college football finish the season

Pete Thamel
·14 min read

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — We’re amid a moment in college football where the amount of games not happening have begun to overtake the games that are happening. Amid the 15 games either canceled or postponed this weekend, the sport faces the uncomfortable reality that crowning a champion will be with a battle of survival.

Somewhat by default, No. 2 Notre Dame’s game at Boston College became the centerpiece of a relatively benign weekend of college football. With four SEC games off the schedule, two Pac-12 games postponed and another arranged via shotgun brunch, the slate was light.

An air of optimism emanated through a relatively dark weekend for the sport at Alumni Stadium however. Notre Dame continued to march toward a College Football Playoff bid after its 45-31 victory, Boston College remained the sport’s paragon for COVID-19 discipline and the top athletic administrators at both schools expressed optimism about the next few weeks for the sport.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and BC athletic director Pat Kraft both predicted that once college campuses clear out for Thanksgiving, the sport will have fewer issues. Many campuses, including BC and Notre Dame, will either limit or eliminate in-person classes until 2021 after students leave for Thanksgiving. That gives the sport a chance to revive its mid-summer bubble modes and should help the run to the finish.

“Increasingly, we’ll be on campuses where students are going home,” Swarbrick told Yahoo Sports. “Beyond what we’ve learned and increasingly the fact that campuses will become mini-bubbles without students, I’m optimistic. I recognize in saying that that the country as a whole is a mess. Those environments may dictate some results.”

Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec (5) greets Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong (8) following an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec (5) greets Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong (8) following an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Under first-year coach Jeff Hafley, Boston College has been a portrait of COVID-19 avoidance. BC football has taken more than 7,000 COVID-19 tests since arriving back at school in early June without a positive. Kraft credited the players for their sacrifice, as he said that when families attend road games they can only see their sons from barriers that are set up six feet apart.

Kraft shared Swarbrick’s optimism that students leaving campus will help the sport. “I do think a lot of campuses are going to be de-densified,” he said. “A lot of communities are going back to more regulations. The outlets are less.”

With Notre Dame controlling its own destiny to play in the College Football Playoff, Swarbrick echoed the sentiment of Big 12 athletic director Bob Bowlsby that the CFP needs to remain nimble to execute the playoff.

“We have to maintain flexibility in our approach,” he said. “We’ll learn a lot over the next few weeks. I do think we need to do everything we can to stay on schedule in terms of when we play the games.”

Brian Kelly took a question about the backdrop of games being canceled this college football season and turned it into a pinch of politicking for Notre Dame’s CFP case. The Irish improved to 8-0 by mowing over BC, and Kelly was quick to point that they’d already “played a Big Ten schedule,” as that league only has an eight-game schedule the entire season.

Kelly said the Irish looked tired at times on Saturday after the double-overtime upset of Clemson last week. And navigating a long season is much different for a team like the Irish than one in the Pac-12, which is attempting a seven-game schedule.

“We’re going to play 11 games, 12 games, that’s a whole different test that we’re going to be facing than some others teams are,” Kelly said.

The biggest test, for any program, remains avoiding COVID-19. On Saturday, amid college football’s gutted weekend, there’s some optimism about a path to the finish.

Jim Harbaugh’s awful season continues

Michigan football remains the horror show we just can’t stop watching.

The Wolverines’ 49-11 home loss to Wisconsin provided new depths for this season of existential Jim Harbaugh crisis, as he suffered the largest margin of defeat in his tenure. The Badgers were coming off a long layoff after two postponed games from COVID-19, but any worry of rust or synchronicity were quickly washed aside thanks to Michigan’s putrid offense and Charmin defense.

Wisconsin led 28-0 at halftime, the final touchdown of the first half revealing perhaps the most puzzling part of Harbaugh’s season of torment in Ann Arbor. Nakia Watson’s 10-yard touchdown run featured him essentially waltzing up the middle of the field with a remarkable lack of resistance from the Michigan defense.

The lack of effort from Michigan epitomizes perhaps the most troubling aspect of this season for Harbaugh. At previous stops at San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh’s best coaching ability was being able to foster a competitive spirit among his team. (Remember the upset of USC as a 41-point underdog in 2007?)

Harbaugh had the ability to bore into the souls of his players and push them to believe. But it’s safe to say after another non-competitive performance that this Michigan team has no tangible competitive spirit. The Wolverines were pushed around by 1-3 Michigan State, bullied by Indiana and now swallowed alive by Wisconsin. Or, as Harbaugh put it after the game: “Thoroughly beaten in every phase, really did not do anything well.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

At 1-3, Michigan heads to Rutgers next week with a legitimate chance to lose the game. Last year, they beat Rutgers 52-0. Harbaugh said Michigan is in “not a good place” as a team, and that responsibility “falls on me.” He added that he needs to find players who want to “fight like hell for Michigan.”

The free fall of the Michigan program really began with a blowout loss at Wisconsin last year, which Michigan also trailed 28-0 at the half. In the past two years, Wisconsin has outgained Michigan 718-140 on the ground.

By the end of the game, Wisconsin’s social media trolled Michigan by tweeting out the lyrics to “Bored in the House,” a play off of Big House. But the reality is that Michigan flailing has become so reliable that it’s not surprising anymore. We’ll tune in next week to see if the Wolverines can muster up a fight.

Northwestern flexing in Big Ten West

Lost in the horror show of Michigan’s latest loss was Wisconsin setting up a Big Ten West showdown with Northwestern in Evanston next week. Northwestern is 4-0 after beating Purdue, 27-20, in West Lafayette on Saturday.

The No. 23 Wildcats are one of the sport’s best bounce-back stories this season, as they free fell to 3-9 last season after reaching the Big Ten title game in 2018.

How good is Northwestern? Well, this win and the credibility of winning at Iowa earlier in the year should push them toward the top 15 this week. And while next week will go a long way in determining Northwestern’s ceiling, it’s safe to say the Wildcats are back to their old identity.

Northwestern held Purdue to two rushing yards, a sign that Northwestern is back to being Northwestern. The biggest difference this season comes from the competency at the quarterback position as Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey threw three touchdowns, all to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, and continues to steady a position group that was one of the least productive in major college football last year.

Next week, we’ll get a chance to see just how far Northwestern has come.

Ducking the issue

The spree of canceled games on Saturday gave Oregon’s trip to Washington State this weekend an added dash of spotlight. The Ducks scored 22 fourth-quarter points to win 43-29 on Fox, with little competition elsewhere on the airwaves.

At 2-0, Oregon is the Pac-12’s best hope for a College Football Playoff bid. The question remains whether it'll be enough games and opportunity to get the Ducks there.

Quarterback Tyler Shough threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns and has transitioned nicely into Justin Herbert’s old job. CJ Verdell ran for 118 yards, and the Ducks clearly look like a dynamic team with new OC Joe Moorhead calling plays.

But here’s the issue for No. 11 Oregon: With just four weeks left and no games left against ranked opponents, what more can Oregon do to jump into the national picture? Probably not much.

As dreadful as USC has looked in sputtering out to a 2-0 start, it’s hard to imagine that even the ideal Pac-12 scenario – undefeated Ducks vs. undefeated Trojans – would muster enough juice to get a team into the top four.

Perhaps something changes over the next few weeks. But for now, it’s hard to see a path into the playoff for the Pac-12. There are too few games, too few quality wins available and too many years of reputational atrophy to overcome.

CJ Verdell #7 of the Oregon Ducks is tackled by Brennan Jackson #80 of the Washington State Cougars in the first half at Martin Stadium on Nov. 14. (William Mancebo/Getty Images)
CJ Verdell #7 of the Oregon Ducks is tackled by Brennan Jackson #80 of the Washington State Cougars in the first half at Martin Stadium on Nov. 14. (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

Buffalo's developing situation

Nearly every year, Buffalo ranks at the bottom of the MAC in the recruiting rankings. Coach Lance Leipold also points out that the Bulls also rank near the bottom of the country.

But in his sixth season at Buffalo, Leipold has developed the program to the point where winning seasons are now an expectation. And after blitzing out to a 2-0 start by blowing out defending league champion Miami University, 42-10, this week, the Bulls have declared themselves a threat to win the MAC this season.

“It was the plan when Danny White hired me to build it for consistency and for the long haul,” Leipold told Yahoo Sports this week.

For Buffalo to succeed, it has to be a developmental program. And nothing epitomizes that better than the story of star tailback Jaret Patterson, the 5-foot-9 jitterbug who is the MAC’s most dynamic player.

Patterson, who is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has four touchdowns, came to Buffalo as a greyshirt. He and his twin brother, UB linebacker James Patterson, both helped out at their high school, Saint Vincent Pallotti, in the fall after graduation and joined Buffalo the following winter.

Jaret Patterson greyshirted after the Bulls’ running back scholarship was taken by Kevin Marks, who is averaging 6.4 yards per carry for the Bulls.

Jaret Patterson didn’t take long to prove he belonged, as he emerged as a dominant back his freshman year and started in the MAC title game. “He’s always had that fight to prove people wrong,” Leipold said.

Buffalo went 10-4 two years ago and 8-5 last season. It’s too early to say if this team has a higher ceiling, but the development of quarterback Kyle Vantrease and a more dynamic pass game to compliment the stout run game have certainly made that a worthy discussion.

Much like the roster under Leipold, the Bulls’ reputation is a program that can identify under-the-radar talent is continuing to develop.

We are Marshall

Marshall football players had the No. 75 on their helmets on Saturday to honor the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed 75 people associated with the program back in 1970.

On an emotional day as a community mourned its loved ones, Marshall rolled to a 42-14 victory over Middle Tennessee. “You should try to be the coach of a game you can’t lose,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said by phone on Saturday night. “That’s a game you have to find a way to win. That’s an important game for our fan base and school to rally around each other.”

The anniversary of the crash brought a wave of attention to the current Marshall program, which is 7-0 and a favorite to win Conference USA. Quarterback Grant Wells, a 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman, has been one of the sport’s best young quarterbacks this season. He’s completed nearly 66% of his passes, thrown 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He had five touchdown passes against MTSU on Saturday.

“He’s a special kid,” Holliday said. “He gives us a chance to play with anyone if we have that opportunity.”

Marshall will be heavy favorites the final three games of the year. It’s unlikely Marshall will get a look at a New Year’s Six Bowl, as the traffic ahead of them is significant with Cincinnati the heavy favorite to land that spot.

But Marshall has a good chance to land in the Conference USA title game, as it leads the West division. And that could be a fitting way to commemorate the team from 50 years ago.

“This year, you have to cherish every day you get an opportunity to play,” Holliday said. “You get seven games in and pray we get one in next week versus Charlotte.”

Change in a Flash

No program in the country has consistently played as demoralizing a non-conference schedule as Kent State. The Golden Flashes were scheduled to play Penn State, Alabama and Kentucky prior to the pandemic. Last season, Kent played at Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin, losing by a combined 133-23.

Many MAC programs play these so-called buy games, which fund their athletic departments. But Kent’s non-league play has stood out as particularly sadistic, as those games can take a physical and mental toll on a program.

The MAC’s decision to play league-only games hasn’t been great for Kent State’s bottom line, as it missed out on nearly $5 million in guaranteed game money. But for the bottom line of winning, not serving as high-major chum has been good for Kent State.

The Golden Flashes are 2-0 in the third year under coach Sean Lewis, as they’ve squeezed past Eastern Michigan (27-23) and blasted Bowling Green (62-24).

“We wanted to be urgent in our development from Day 1, we wanted to compete and learn the really hard lessons as we went through it,” Lewis told Yahoo Sports this week. “We took all those lessons and applied them.”

The turning point in Kent’s turnaround under Lewis came last season against Buffalo, as it scored 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win, 30-27. That matchup in two weeks could end up deciding the MAC East, as both are 2-0 and alone atop the division.

Kent’s hyper-tempo style has been anchored by a veteran offensive line, which returned four experienced players and has had junior Jack Clement emerge as a capable starting center. That’s allowed senior quarterback Dustin Crum to thrive, as he’s at the point in his second season as Kent’s starter that he’s completed just under 70% of his passes and has six touchdowns and one interception.

Crum is refined this season, Lewis said, understanding the nuances of protections and has earned the autonomy to check and change things at the line of scrimmage.

Ten NFL scouts were at Kent State’s blowout of Bowling Green on Tuesday, Lewis said, many to see Crum and star receiver Isaiah McKoy. It’s just another sign of how far the program has come, as Lewis went 2-10 his first season and 7-6 last year with the program’s first-ever bowl win.

The expectations have changed in a flash for Kent, and the Buffalo game in two weeks will go a long way in determining if the team can win its first MAC title since 1972 when Don James was the coach.

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