Twelve takeaways from a freaky Saturday in college football:
1) Last week, The Botch. This week, The Block.
Endgame special-teams plays have blown up badly the past two weeks on a pair of favored teams trying to close out close games. First it was Michigan giving away a huge game against Michigan State. Then, Saturday night in Atlanta, it was Florida State losing to Georgia Tech on a Kick-Six Redux walkoff shocker.
Lightning-strike losses don’t happen very often. Except in October 2015.
Roberto Aguayo, the nation’s most reliable kicker, was attempting a 56-yard field goal on the final play to break a 16-all tie against the Yellow Jackets. The kick was blocked up the middle but traveled past the line of scrimmage, which prompted Tech coach Paul Johnson to signal for his players to get away from the ball. Thankfully for the Jackets, defensive back Lance Austin ignored that and picked up the loose ball around his own 22-yard line. He circled to the far sideline, picked up blockers and returned the ball all the way to the end zone – a play reminiscent of the Kick-Six return Auburn put on Alabama two years ago.
Like some of the Crimson Tide field-goal unit members in that game, several of the Seminoles stood flat-footed at first before giving chase to Austin. And, like Alabama’s unit, they were not particularly well-suited for an open-field, high-speed tackling chase. Austin had to make a move or two, but mostly it was open space and a key block to unleash bedlam.
The result of both games was the near-certain eviction of the losers from the College Football Playoff. Michigan, with two losses, is a goner. Florida State could still wind its way back into contention by winning out – including victories at Clemson and Florida – but a defeat at the hands of a five-loss team is hard to overcome. And the first half of FSU’s schedule was very weak.
This Seminoles team doesn’t have a huge margin for error, which is why their single turnover on the season was such a vital part of starting the year 6-0. But here came the huge mistakes – an interception in the Tech end zone and that blocked kick – and here came the first regular-season loss since November 2012.
2) The only other unbeaten to go down this weekend was Utah. And the Utes went down hard at USC.
The betting line on this game got a lot of attention when the three-loss Trojans were favored over the top-five Utes. Then the line jumped Saturday up to USC giving 6 ½ points – the bettors clearly saw something a lot of the rest of us did not.
Turned out USC could have given 17 points and still covered – thanks to a freshman linebacker who inhabited the brain space of Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. Cameron Smith intercepted him Wilson three times – the first set up a touchdown that turned the momentum after the Utes took a 14-7 lead, the second was a pick-six, the third was just showing off. Smith clearly is a precocious talent – but senior Wilson imploded after a very good start to the season.
3) That leaves 12 undefeated teams. And one-fourth of them are from the American Athletic Conference.
The AAC remained relevant in triplicate. Houston demolished winless Central Florida on Saturday, Memphis rolled over Tulsa on Friday and Temple rallied to beat East Carolina on Thursday. The Tigers got a sizeable strength-of-schedule boost Saturday night by Mississippi – a team they beat last week – blowing out Texas A&M. Houston and Temple have games against power teams on Halloween: the Cougars host Vanderbilt and Temple hosts Notre Dame in what can only be called the biggest game in school history.
The rest of the unbeatens: Oklahoma State, which played shortly after a campus tragedy (see below) and rolled over Kansas; Baylor, which may have lost its star quarterback to injury (see below); Ohio State, which finally started its best quarterback and also played its best game; Clemson, which destroyed Miami and has won its last three games by a combined 94 points; Michigan State, which blew open a close game late (see below); LSU, which got the customary 150 rushing yards from Leonard Fournette in dispatching Western Kentucky; and Toledo, which rallied from 18 down at halftime to beat Massachusetts. TCU and Iowa were idle.
4) If you thought the “Fire Golden” plane banners were plentiful before Saturday ...
... Wait until Miami’s next home game, Nov. 7, against Virginia.
Unless, of course, Golden has been fired by then. He was safe Saturday night, but Sunday is a new day and this is an old story. Al Golden’s fifth season at Miami is in danger of being his worst, currently at 4-3 with several losable games remaining. And after the worst loss in school history – 58-0 to Clemson – Golden's support is eroding rapidly.
Golden labored under the cloud of a long NCAA investigation that damaged recruiting, and his program is dealing with scholarship cuts as well. But nobody is listening to any excuses being offered right now. Even if he makes it to the end of this season, the Miami fan base may mutiny if athletic director Blake James brings him back for a sixth season.
5) Oklahoma State suffered another unthinkable tragedy Saturday. And played anyway.
Four people were killed and many more injured by an alleged drunk driver who crashed into a crowd along the school’s homecoming parade route Saturday morning. It was a horrifying, graphic incident at a school that has endured other awful losses in plane crashes.
Despite the trauma, the school opted to still play its schedule game against Kansas. These are hard decisions to make, with a lot of practical difficulties involved in rescheduling on the fly. But it didn’t feel right to me to go on with the game – especially since both the Cowboys and Jayhawks have an open date Dec. 5.
If I were an administrator at either school, I would have lobbied for a postponement to that date.
6) Next man up at the most fun position in football.
Baylor quarterback Seth Russell suffered a broken bone in his neck against Iowa State, the school reported after the game. Baylor said he will see a specialist before determining how much time he will miss and what his treatment will be.
The Bears have a bye week coming up, but it still would be surprising to see Russell back by the Thursday night game against Kansas State on Nov. 5. Assuming the leading quarterback in the nation in pass efficiency is out, someone else will lead the top offense in the country. That someone is Jarrett Stidham, a blue-chip recruit who enrolled early, went through spring practice and has an even higher efficiency rating than Russell this season. Stidham is 23 of 27, a ridiculous 85 percent accuracy rate, for 319 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The kid is probably a future star in an offense that surrounds him with playmakers. Still, it would be a lot to ask to send a true freshman into consecutive gunfights against Oklahoma (Nov. 14), Oklahoma State (Nov. 21) and TCU (Nov. 27). Baylor will be hoping Russell heals quickly.
7) Tennessee can’t finish. Indiana really can’t finish.
The Volunteers have four losses on the year, and came from ahead in all four. They gave up double-digit leads in three of them – and two of those double-digit leads were given away in the fourth quarter. They’ve given up three fourth-quarter leads, including Saturday against Alabama. Tennessee led 14-13 with 5:49 remaining, then promptly gave up a 71-yard drive for the winning Crimson Tide touchdown.
The Hoosiers have lost four straight, and in their last two have completely collapsed in the fourth quarter. Indiana was outscored 22-0 in the fourth last week against Rutgers, then was obliterated 24-0 in the fourth Saturday by Michigan State. That’s no way to earn their first bowl bid since 2007.
8) Here comes the pirate resurgence on the Palouse.
There was reason to wonder whether Mike Leach was going to get it done at Washington State – his third season finished 3-9, making his record at the school 12-25. Then this year started with an upset loss to FCS Portland State. But now the Cougars are a rising threat in the Pac-12 North, and pointing to a big Halloween home game against Stanford.
Washington State is 5-2, 3-1 in the Pac-12, after a road win at Arizona on Saturday. Leach has plugged in another mad bomber at quarterback, this time Luke Falk, and he’s produced more than 1,400 yards and 16 touchdown passes in the Cougars’ three-game winning streak.
When Wazzu won at Oregon Oct 10 – its first win in Eugene since 2003 – most people assumed it was merely a negative reflection on the Ducks. But it turns out that Washington State is pretty good, perhaps its best team since that ’03 bunch went 10-3 and beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
9) Arkansas and overtime: quite a combination.
The Razorbacks and Auburn played one of the wildest games of the day, a four-overtime fandango that Arkansas won, 54-46. But that was short and sweet compared to some games in Arkansas’ past. There was a seven-overtime victory over Mississippi in 2001 – a record number of overtimes that still has not been surpassed. But it has been tied – including two years later by the Razorbacks in a 71-63 victory at Kentucky.
10) Great defense, terrible offense: the Missouri/Boston College story.
The Eagles are 0-5 in the ACC and last in their division. The Tigers are 1-4 and tied for last in the SEC in their division. Yet both have top 10 defenses – Boston College came into Saturday first in total defense and fourth in scoring defense, while Missouri was ninth in total D and sixth in scoring D.
The problem: they cannot score, cannot move the ball, cannot find a clue offensively. BC is No. 122 in total offense and No. 113 in scoring offense; Missouri is No. 126 in yardage and No. 125 in points. Both are playing with backup quarterbacks working behind horrible offensive lines and lacking playmakers at the skill positions.
Boston College lost 17-14 to Louisville on Saturday. Its touchdowns came on a blocked punt return and a six-yard drive that followed a long fumble return. The Eagles produced 79 yards of total offense.
Missouri lost 10-3 to Vanderbilt. Its lone scoring drive went three yards after a Vandy fumble. Mizzou produced 188 yards of offense and failed to convert a single third down in the game.
At their current rate, neither team will win another game until 2016.
11) Texas now looks like it can make a bowl.
The Longhorns won their second straight game to get to 3-4, with Big 12 pushovers Iowa State and Kansas next, followed by theoretically winnable games against West Virginia and Texas Tech. But the Horns will have to win a road game or two – Iowa State and WVU are on the road – and they’ve been terrible in that department so far this season. Texas’ two true road games to date were against Notre Dame and TCU, with a combined losing score of 88-10.
12) The ACC Coastal could be decided by mid-November.
Three teams – Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Duke – are unbeaten in league play and 6-1 overall. Now they will play each other over the next three weeks. Pitt hosts UNC on Thursday night, then the Tar Heels host the Blue Devils Nov. 7, and then the Panthers travel to Durham Nov. 14. Neither North Carolina nor Pittsburgh has ever won its ACC division. The Heels certainly have had more chances, since Pitt just joined the league in 2013.
All three have a loss they lament: UNC quarterback Marquis Williams threw two interceptions in the end zone in a four-point opening loss to South Carolina; Pitt lost on a 57-yard field goal at Iowa; Duke outgained Northwestern but turned the ball over three times and gave up a 98-yard kickoff return.
Whoever wins that division figures to be a sizeable underdog in the ACC championship game against the Atlantic Division champ – almost certainly either Clemson or Florida State.