Ten takeaways from a typically tumultuous day in college football:
• Road teams rule in the Pac-12.
This was a big weekend out West, and all five visiting teams won games in that league. And only one of them was close.
Utah was the most notable winner, romping at Oregon 62-20 – the Ducks’ worst home loss since 1977. The Utes are undefeated and undeniably a threat. USC and UCLA both destroyed desert teams – the Trojans rolled Arizona State and the Bruins jumped all over Arizona. Stanford strolled past Oregon State on Friday night. And in the only game that was decided by single digits, California won at Washington.
The only prior Pac-12 league game? Yes, the road team won that one, too. Stanford won at USC last week.
Last year the Pac-12 was rife with dramatic, close finishes. Maybe this year the characteristic will be road victories.
• There may be a remake of the established hierarchy in the Pac-12.
Utah’s stunning romp in Eugene stamps the Utes as a contender in the South. They’ve never been better than 5-4 in the league, but now they look like a legit challenger to the Los Angeles power base in that division.
In the North, Cal’s victory at Washington could shake up the established order of things. The Golden Bears won in Seattle for the first time in a decade and moved to 4-0 for the first time since 2007. With back-to-back wins at Texas and Washington, Cal has made its biggest statement in a long time.
Suddenly intriguing game: Cal at Utah, Oct. 10.
• Luck favored the visiting team in two dramatic games with berserk endings in Texas.
First Oklahoma State benefitted from some huge penalties and another unforced special teams error by Texas to prevail in Austin. And then all hell broke loose in Lubbock.
TCU beat Texas Tech 55-52 on a deflected fourth-down pass in the end zone in the final 30 seconds. Quarterback Trevone Boykin threw a terrible pass for prime target Josh Doctson (18 catches!), and Boykin did well to elevate high enough to even get one hand on the ball. That popped it up in the air, and running back Aaron Green rushed in for the diving catch to win the game and keep the Horned Frogs undefeated.
One huge break can go a long way in a season, and this one was the kinder and gentler version of the kicked-ball touchdown by Nebraska against Missouri in 1997 that allowed the Cornhuskers to remain on the path to a national championship. But TCU looks like a team on borrowed time.
I picked Texas Tech to win because the Frogs defense has been decimated by injuries and suspensions. That unit looked scarily susceptible all day against the Red Raiders, giving up more than 600 yards – and nearly allowing an all-time miracle touchdown on a multi-lateral play as time expired.
Unless the No. 3 team in the nation finds some answers defensively, TCU is not going to beat Baylor. Or probably Oklahoma. Or maybe Oklahoma State. Injuries stink, and you hate to see a program that is not a perennial contender be compromised in a potential dream season. But injuries also are part of the game, and TCU may not have the depth to overcome all its losses.
• Texas has mastered how to lose.
The Longhorns are 1-3 and have had disasters in every phase of the game.
The Horns were offensively horrendous at Notre Dame in being routed 38-3. They were defensively porous against California last week but still had a chance to win until Nick Rose shanked a tying extra point with 71 seconds left. And then there was this week against Oklahoma State.
Texas scored two defensive touchdowns, got enough big plays from its offense, benefitted from Mike Gundy’s curious quarterback rotation and led 27-24 in the final minutes. But several huge penalties – some of them rather mystifying, and one on head coach Charlie Strong – moved the Cowboys into tying field goal range. Then punter Michael Dickson had a snap go through his hands with less than a minute left, retrieve it and kick it out of bounds for a loss of six yards. That set up the winning field goal for Oklahoma State, which remains undefeated by the sketchiest of circumstances.
The penalty of Strong adds a fourth layer of failure to a team that has managed to implode in the three other key areas of football. Texas doesn’t seem that far away from being a pretty good team after the last two games, yet it still found creative and crushing ways to lose them.
• Florida is 4-0 and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference for the first time since 2012, but the combined victory margin in those SEC games is six points.
The Gators have managed to be resilient and fortunate and made enough big plays at the right time to beat Kentucky by five and Tennessee by one, yet the jury is still out heading into an October murderer’s row of Mississippi, Missouri, LSU and Georgia.
Credit Florida quarterback Will Grier for going 5-for-5 on fourth downs to salvage what had been an iffy performance for much of the game. The last of those was for the winning touchdown, which went 63 yards to freshman Antonio Callaway on fourth-and-14 with less than 90 seconds remaining. The Gators scored 14 points in the first 55 minutes and 14 more in the final five.
At the very least, Jim McElwain has maintained Florida’s utter dominance of Kentucky and Tennessee. The Gators beat the Wildcats for the 29th straight time last week, and beat the Volunteers for the 11th straight time Saturday.
• On the flip side of Florida’s stirring comeback is a second brutal collapse of the season by Tennessee in a prove-it game.
The Volunteers squandered a 17-point lead in the second half at home against Oklahoma two weeks ago, losing in overtime. They squandered a 13-point lead in the final five minutes against Florida. A fan base that has been starving for a return to relevance is still waiting for the breakthrough victory.
Through 29 games, Butch Jones’ victories have come against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, South Alabama, South Carolina (twice), Kentucky (twice), Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Vanderbilt, Bowling Green and Western Carolina. Not a lot of big skins on that big orange wall yet.
• Look out, Big Ten. Here comes Michigan.
After an opening road loss at Utah – not a bad loss at all, as has become increasingly clear – the Wolverines have gradually coalesced into a Jim Harbaugh-looking team. They’ve won three straight games by a combined 80 points. Along the way, Michigan has developed a dominant defense and a physical running game.
The Wolverines gave up 24 points to Utah and seven on the first possession to Oregon State in the second game. Since then, they’ve surrendered just seven points in the last 178 minutes of game action. Brigham Young, which had averaged 30 points per game against quality competition through three weeks, was shut out Saturday in the Big House. Tanner Mangum threw for just 55 yards, and BYU had just 105 total yards.
Offensively, Michigan has tapped into pounder back De’Veon Smith. The 228-pound junior had 125 yards against Oregon State and 126 against BYU, most of them after contact. Smith doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he runs as hard as any back in America. He’s emblematic of the Harbaugh toughman attitude that seems to be sinking in with Michigan.
The Wolverines should be favored at Maryland next week, and then comes a couple interesting games against unbeaten Northwestern and Michigan State. The intrigue is building in Ann Arbor.
• Alabama’s quarterback quandary continues.
The Crimson Tide went back to Jake Coker as its starter against Louisiana-Monroe, after starting Cooper Bateman last week against Mississippi. Coker was pedestrian against the WarHawks: 17 of 31 for 158 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. Bateman played but threw just one pass in the 34-0 Tide victory.
With a date at Georgia on Saturday, Alabama would seem to need a quarterback who can be a star. But Coker hasn’t proven to be that guy yet in a big game against a quality opponent. The big-time QB vigil continues in Tuscaloosa.
• East Carolina owns the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Pirates sit within the league’s footprint but outside its membership, relegated to the American Athletic Conference instead. But they have made the absolute most of their opportunities to beat ACC teams in recent years.
East Carolina’s 35-28 victory over Virginia Tech was its fifth straight against the ACC. It destroyed North Carolina 70-41 and beat Virginia Tech 28-21 last year, and beat the Tar Heels 55-31 in 2013. Ruffin McNeill was just 5-3 in the American last year and is just 2-2 overall this year, but he knows how to beat up on John Swofford.
• Central Florida has collapsed.
The Knights have been 31-9 over the previous three seasons, but the bottom has fallen out beneath George O’Leary (who, as interim athletic director, might consider asking himself to retire). With the loss to South Carolina on Saturday, the Knights fell to 0-4 for the first time since going 0-11 in 2004.
UCF made a change at quarterback against the Gamecocks, without success. The Knights scored 14 points, one less than their season high. Sadly, they didn’t have a run longer than seven yards in the game.
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