Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (fraud-protection services sold separately in Lincoln, where the Cornhuskers are completely counterfeit):
FIRST, THE POSITIVE …
The five best things we have seen in college football this season:
The Wisconsin defensive rejuvenation (1). For five straight years, from 2013-17, the Badgers fielded a Top 10 defense nationally. For nine straight years, from 2009-17, they were in the Top 20. And then in 2018, undone by a plague of injuries, it fell apart. (Well, by Wisconsin standards.) The Badgers slid to 29th in total defense, and slid to an 8-5 record after four straight seasons of double-digit victories.
This year? The Badgers are back on D. Back better than ever. Michigan State became their fourth shutout victim in six games, a feat ESPN said has not been accomplished at the FBS level since 1967. The defensive unit has scored four touchdowns and allowed four touchdowns. It has yet to give up a TD in the first half.
In trademark Wisconsin fashion, the Badgers are trying their best to stay blasé about this overwhelming first half of the season. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that linebacker Chris Orr called the defense “The Goose Egg Gang” Saturday, a hokey and benign attempt at a nickname. It prompted the following response from fellow linebacker Zack Baun: “That’s not a thing. Don’t let him start that. Don’t let him do that. We don’t need a nickname.”
The LSU offensive revolution (2). The Tigers have played football since 1893, and rank as the 12th-winningest program in FBS history. But they’ve never looked like they look now. The LSU DNA was punishing defense and plodding offense, often winning in spite of underachieving wildly on the scoring side of the ball with lavish talent.
Now look at them: leading the nation in scoring at 52.5 points per game; second nationally in yards per game (561) and passing yards per game (396); one of only two teams to score at least 42 points in every game. The school record for scoring average is 44.1, set in 1908, when the schedule included multiple entities no one has heard of since. It could go down some 111 years later.
The transformative figure at LSU has been 30-year-old passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who brought the vitality of the New Orleans Saints’ offense 80 miles west to Baton Rouge. Football is in the midst of a coaching youth movement, from the NFL’s run on offensive whiz kids to the college game following suit (Lincoln Riley, Ryan Day, Brady). No place needed an infusion of fresh ideas more than LSU, and no place has shown a more dramatic effect of what a great offensive gameplan can do.
The CeeDee Lamb Show (3). We are a nation currently blessed with an abundance of great wide receivers, from the phalanx at Alabama to the stable at Clemson. But has any single wideout been as dazzling as the Oklahoma junior who torched Texas Saturday? He had 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, moving so fast and with such fluidity that he was at times impossible to corral.
Here’s the stat on Lamb: He’s scored 10 touchdowns on 28 receptions, a scoring percentage of 35.7 percent. In the past decade, only three FBS players who had 10 or more touchdowns in a season had a higher percentage of receptions for touchdowns. Two of them were tight ends who served primarily as red-zone targets (Albert Okwuegbunam of Missouri in 2017 and Michael Roberts of Toledo in ’16) and averaged nowhere near Lamb’s current 21.79 yards per catch. The third was Ohio State’s Devin Smith, who had a 36.3 touchdown percentage on the 2014 national championship team while averaging a crazy 28.21 yards per catch.
The thing with Smith: He was the third receiving option on that Ohio State team, after Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall. Lamb is doing it as the top Oklahoma target, making him a defensive focal point. And the defenses are powerless to stop him.
The Ohio State Knockout Punch (4). The Buckeyes have led every game by at least three scores at halftime, jumping on opponents before they can even dare to dream of springing an upset. Ohio State has scored 21 points or more in a quarter in the first half of every game, with some notable eruptions.
The flurries: 24 points in 12:07 against Michigan State; 38 points in 24:01 against Nebraska; 42 points in 13:29 against Miami (Ohio); 44 points in 26:26 against Indiana; 28 points in 21:35 against Cincinnati; and 28 points in 6:27 against Florida Atlantic. The second quarter has been particularly deadly for Ohio State opponents. Give Day and quarterback Justin Fields a series or two to figure out a defense, and the points will follow in torrents.
The Tua-Jalen parallel excellence experience (5). Alabama went years and years without elite quarterback play. Then suddenly it had too much elite quarterback play, and someone had to go. Out went Jalen Hurts, to Oklahoma, and now both he and the QB who beat him out, Tua Tagovailoa, are simultaneously mauling college football.
In terms of total offense, they rank 1-2 nationally in yards per play: Hurts at 11.32 and Tagovailoa at 10.28. They rank second and third nationally in pass efficiency, trailing only LSU’s Joe Burrow. Hurts is second at 215.89, Tua is third at 214.30. They have combined to throw for 44 touchdowns and three interceptions. In their collegiate careers, Hurts is 47-3 and Tua is 33-2, and both their 2019 teams are undefeated.
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF … AND TWO FAMILIAR NAMES THAT DON’T MAKE THE CUT
If today were Selection Sunday and The Dash was the one-man selection committee:
Top seed LSU (6) vs. fourth seed Oklahoma (7) in the Peach Bowl. The Tigers now have two serve-notice victories, having beaten Texas on the road Sept. 7 and Florida at home Saturday night. Neither game was a romp, but LSU was clearly the better team in both instances. What the Tigers did to a good Gators defense was especially impressive, averaging a massive 10.65 yards per play.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma moves into the playoff bracket after also handling Texas with more ease than the score dictated, 34-27 in Dallas. The Sooners lead the nation in yards per play at 9.56, but the reason they have hope of legitimately contending for a national title is the improvement on defense. They sacked Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger nine times Saturday, and have held all six opponents to 31 or fewer points — something they last did at the tail end of the 2016 season.
Second seed Wisconsin (8) vs. third seed Ohio State (9) in the Fiesta Bowl. Yeah, this will assuredly sort itself out in a different way. The Badgers and Buckeyes will play in Columbus on Oct. 26 and could be on a collision course for a rematch in the Big Ten championship game. So the chances of a rubber match in the desert are not great — but as of now, they are both hot on the heels of LSU.
What about Alabama (10) and Clemson (11)? Well, what about them? They have combined to beat exactly no one, unless you count Texas A&M, and we’ll get to the inherent overrated-ness of the Aggies later in the Dash.
For now, the two kingpins of the last four seasons haven’t done enough to warrant anything higher than a No. 5 ranking. That, of course, hasn’t stopped the polls from seeing it differently, putting Alabama first (both AP and coaches) and Clemson either second (coaches) or third (AP). Leaving aside past precedent, neither has a top-four résumé right now.
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