Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (humble pie sold separately in Blacksburg):
SEPTEMBER IN REVIEW
We’re five weeks into the season and still in September, so that tells you a lot has transpired. The Dash rips through 10 important developments as we prepare to dive into October:
Team of the Month: Auburn (1). The Tigers are The Dash’s No. 1 team right now, and frankly they should feel insulted about being No. 7 in both the AP and USA Today Coaches’ polls. If you average the Sagarin Rating of every team that the top eight unbeatens have played thus far, Auburn’s is by far the highest at 42nd. The Tigers are the only team in Sagarin’s Top 10 that has beaten another member of that Top 10 (Oregon, on a neutral field). Throw in three more Top 50 wins (Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Tulane) and this is the best résumé to date. Auburn’s start is all the more impressive when you factor in a true freshman quarterback (Bo Nix) and the fact that Gus Malzahn began the season coaching to keep his job.
Radical Makeover of the Month: LSU (2). If Bill Belichick became a standup comedian, it might be less surprising than the Tigers’ metamorphosis from a low-wattage offensive team to the national leader in scoring. LSU’s points per game is up more than 25 from last year and more than 30 from the previous year. The Tigers are second nationally in passing yards per game, after the following rankings in that category the previous five seasons: 67th, 84th, 101st, 106th and 116th. The addition of Joe Brady as passing game coordinator, the continued progression of quarterback Joe Burrow and the willingness of Ed Orgeron to get outside of his hidebound comfort zone are combining to work wonders in Baton Rouge.
Best Return to Identity: Wisconsin (3). Last year, the Badgers were an injury-riddled shell of their normal selves defensively. They allowed 22.6 points and 344 yards per game, and 5.5 yards per play — all of them the highest averages given up by a Wisconsin defense in more than a decade. So far in 2019, coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit is back on shutdown patrol. The Badgers lead the nation in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and yards allowed per play, and Saturday against Northwestern they had two defensive touchdowns. That, in every form and fashion, is more like the Wisconsin we’re used to seeing.
Most improved: Jalen Hurts (4). Playing quarterback for Lincoln Riley makes everyone a superstar, and Hurts is the next man up in the Oklahoma assembly line. The Alabama transfer has seen his pass efficiency rating soar from 150.75 in 2017 (his last season as the starter in Tuscaloosa) to 249.86, which leads the nation by a mile over Burrow and the guy who beat out Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa. It’s early, but Hurts is on pace to break a number of single-season FBS records, including pass efficiency and yards per pass attempt (15.2).
Least improved: Trevor Lawrence (5). The Clemson quarterback looked like the best freshman anyone had ever seen at his position at the end of last season, throwing lasers and tearing up Notre Dame and Alabama in the College Football Playoff. But the sophomore slump has been real. Lawrence threw more interceptions (five) in Clemson’s first three games than he did in the entire 2018 season. After finishing last year 12th nationally in efficiency, he’s currently 57th. He’s still unleashing a couple of throws every game that dilate your pupils, but the overall production has trailed where he left off last winter.
Bust of the Month: The preseason polls misevaluated several teams — Syracuse, Nebraska, Stanford, Iowa State — but the biggest miss was assigning a top-15 ranking to Texas A&M (6). The Aggies were no match for Clemson in Death Valley, and there’s no shame in that. But losing handily at home to Auburn was not what fans envisioned in Year 2 under Jimbo Fisher, and following that with a narrow escape over the worst team in the SEC (Arkansas) further diminishes expectations going forward. With games remaining against Alabama, Georgia and LSU, the ceiling looks like 7-5.
Coach of the Month: Ryan Day (7). Stepping into a legend’s shoes and breaking in a new starting quarterback is a daunting task, but Day has handled it so smoothly that you’d think he’d been doing this head coach thing for decades. His first Ohio State team is the only one in the Top Ten nationally in both total offense and total defense, and the first-half scoring margin thus far is downright scary: 173-18. Tougher tests are coming, but the Buckeyes and Day look perfectly capable of handling them.
Game of the Month: Notre Dame-Georgia (8). This was a marquee matchup everyone circled before the season, while simultaneously wondering whether the Fighting Irish could hang in against the Bulldogs for four quarters. They did, even mounting a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter before Georgia came up with a stop for the 23-17 victory. Both teams came out of the intense evening between the hedges in better position than they entered it.
Overrated Game of the Month: UCLA-Washington State (9). It was one of the wildest affairs anyone has ever seen — and you had to stay up late to see it: a 67-63 regulation freak show that featured a 50-point second half by the Bruins as they roared back from a 32-point deficit. But the lasting effect? UCLA turned around and scored all of 17 points in a loss to Arizona, and Washington State was spanked by Utah. The latter loss prompted Cougars coach Mike Leach to call his players “fat, dumb, happy and entitled.”
Upset of the Month: Georgia State over Tennessee (10). The Panthers currently are No. 131 in the Sagarin Ratings. That’s behind 16 FCS programs, including Princeton and Dartmouth from the Ivy League. Yet they opened the season by beating the Volunteers in Neyland Stadium, and scoring more points on Tennessee (38) than anyone has to date this season. (That should change when Georgia comes to Knoxville on Saturday.) The game underscored the disarray of the Tennessee program, but it didn’t unveil a new rising Sun Belt power — Georgia State has subsequently been routed by Western Michigan and lost to Texas State.
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