Alabama 42, Auburn 14

Trent Richardson and No. 2 Alabama have convinced Nick Saban that they’re worthy of competing for college football’s top prize. They’ll have to wait a while before for the final decision is rendered.

Pressure Gauge: Georgia Must Rebound to Keep Playoff Hopes Alive

Going into Saturday’s game against unranked Kentucky, No. 7 Georgia has already clinched the SEC East and a berth to face Auburn or Alabama in the conference’s title game. But after losing to Auburn last week in grand fashion—the Tigers won 40-17—the Bulldogs’ playoff aspirations are on the ropes. Lose this week against Kentucky, and Kirby Smart’s team can count itself out. But win out—including in the SEC title game against a team that’s almost certain to be ranked in the top four at the time—and Georgia has as good a case as any team at being included among the ranks of the four playoff teams.

So why this week, you ask, is the pressure highest on Georgia? It’s won seven straight against Kentucky and is 56-12-2 against the Wildcats over time. But Mark Stoops’s team is 7-3 and poised to finish with its best record in a decade. Should it win out, including a bowl game, it’d reach a win total it hasn’t seen since 1977. The Wildcats are no automatic win for Georgia—plus, the Bulldogs haven’t had more on the line this season than they do this week. Sure, a sloppy loss to an inferior team might have shaken up their playoff bid earlier in the year, but that didn’t happen, and we’ve now reached the point where a two-loss Georgia team is almost certainly out of the hunt.

The game against Kentucky will pit the No. 10 rushing attack in the country—Georgia’s top two backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, have combined for 19 touchdowns on 1,625 yards this season—against the No. 19 rushing defense. Kentucky has allowed opponents just 121.9 yards of rushing per game this year; meanwhile Georgia is averaging 256. Something will have to give, and it’ll likely be Kentucky. Of the Wildcats’ opponents thus far in 2017, Mississippi State and Missouri are the only two with top-40 rushing offenses, and they rushed for 282 and 213 yards, respectively against Kentucky. The Bulldogs won handily and the Tigers lost by a touchdown.

If Chubb and Michel can play like they have all season, Georgia should be golden. Kentucky’s pass defense has been downright abysmal all season, allowing opponents an average of more than 280 yards per game, meaning that QB Jake Fromm (who’s been more than just a game manager even as a true freshman backup forced into a starting role) might be able to let loose on the Wildcats as well. The Georgia defense has been inconsistent at times this season, shutting out Tennesee and holding Mississippi State to three points while also allowing Missouri 28 points and Auburn 40, but Kentucky’s offense hasn’t been prodigious, and as long as the Bulldogs don’t put up another defensive performance like last week’s, they should be just fine.

Still, it’s impossible to predict how a team coming off its first loss and facing the most pressure it’s faced all year will perform. Playing at home will help—the Auburn loss came on the road—as will the clarity of the stakes. Lose, and this is a good season. Win, and Georgia has a chance for something great. It gets Georgia Tech next week in the teams’ annual rivalry game, which won’t be a cakewalk but seems manageable at the end of an inconsistent season for the Yellowjackets. And from there, it’ll either get an Alabama team that’ll almost certainly be ranked No. 1 or Auburn and a chance at redemption. Winning either of those matchups would almost certainly elevate Georgia back into the top four and guarantee the Bulldogs’ best season since it won the Sugar Bowl in 2002.

What We Know About Each School Implicated in the FBI’s College Basketball Investigation

The college basketball world was turned upside down on Sept. 29 when the the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York laid out findings from an F.B.I. investigation that uncovered mass corruption, bribery and wire fraud involving some of the sport's top programs.

Four assistant coaches were charged with varying violations: Tony Bland of USC, Emanuel "Book" Richardson of Arizona, Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State and Chuck Person of Auburn. No universities nor head coaches have been charged, but the investigation is ongoing, and multiple schools (most notably, Louisville) have been implicated even if no individual from the program has been charged...yet.

It’s a massive story. The U.S. House’s Energy and Commerce Committee has even requested a briefing on the matter.

First, let's outline who the notable non-coaches named in the various suits are. Each of the following men are facing federal charges relating to bribery.

James "Jim" Gatto — Adidas' global sports marketing director for basketball.

Merl Code — a former player for Clemson who is now affiliated with Adidas.

Munish Sood — the founder of Princeton Capital, an investment services firm that, among other ventures, manages professional athletes' money.

Christian Dawkins — Former agent for ASM Sports

Jonathan Brad Augustine — Program director for the Orlando-based (and Adidas-sponsored) 1Family AAU team.

Rashan Michel — Founder and owner of Thompson Bespoke Clothing, a high-end manufacturer based in Atlanta. He was reportedly indicted by a federal grand jury Nov. 7.

Also important to note is the fact that there are three different criminal complaints.

United States of America v. Lamont Evans, Emanuel Richardson, Anthony Bland, Christian Dawkins, and Munish Sood

United States of America v. Chuck Connors Person and Rashan Michel

United States of America v. James Gatto, Merl Code, Christian Dawkins, Jonathan Brad Augustine, and Munish Sood

?The scandal has received an overwhelming amount of coverage, with every piece focusing on a different aspect of the investigation. The legal documents outlining the situation are filled with legal jargon. This is an attempt to compile the most important information pertaining to each university and present it in a digestible way.

Louisville

Louisville finds itself engulfed in yet another embarrassing scandal—this one so salacious that even noted escape artist Rick Pitino couldn't pull another Houdini—but no coach from the university has been charged yet.

Louisville is referred to in the U.S. vs. James Gatto complaint, though no individual working at Louisville is named.

What the complaint says

"In or around May of 2017, at the request of at least one coach from University-6, DAWKINS, James Gatto, a/k/a "Jim," MERL CODE, MUNISH SOOD, the defendants and other agreed to funnel $100,000 (payable in four installments) from Company-1 to the family of Player-10. Shortly after the agreement with the family of Player-10 was reached in late May and early June, Player-10 publicly committed to University-6."

And, later:

"Shortly thereafter, Coach-1 left the room, and DAWKINS, AUUSTINE, UC-1 AND CW-1 proceeded to discuss the Player-10 scheme described in paragraphs 27 to 35, supra, and, in particular, the involvement of Coach-2 in securing funding from Company-1 for Player-10's family. DAWKINS, who had been negotiaating directly with Player-10's family, noted that Company-1 had originally agreed to pay a "certain number" to Player-10's family, but that a rival athletic capparel company was "coming with a higher number," such that DAWKINS needed to "get more" from Company-1 to secure Player-20's commitment to attend University-6. DAWKINS then said that he had spoken with Coach-2 about getting additional money for Player-10's family and informed Coach-2 that "I need you to call Jim Gatto, [the defendant,] who's the head of everything" at Company-1's basketball program.

Based on my review of call records, I am aware that on or about May 27, 2017, JAMES GATTO, a/k/a "Jim," the defendant, had two telephone conversations with a phone number used by Coach-2."

What it alleges

Gatto, Code and Sood paid $100,000 at the request of at least one Louisville coach to Player-10 to get him to commit to Louisville, have Sood manage his money and sign with Adidas upon entering the NBA. Player-10 then committed to Louisville and has been suspended indefinitely.

University-6 is Louisville. We know this because it's described in the suit as a public research university in Kentucky with approximately 22,640 students and 21 varsity sports teams; Louisville's official enrollment is 22,640 and it fields, you guessed it, 21 varsity sports teams. Player-10 appears to be Brian Bowen, as he's the only guy to commit to Louisville in that late-May, early-June time frame (plus, he's the type of five star who could cost $100,000).

The second and third paragraphs is where we see really damning accusations against Pitino. Pitino is believed to be Coach-2, which means this complain accuses him of calling Gatto after being told Bowen needed more money. The third of three calls between Pitino and Gatto came two days before Bowen’s commitment. If you connect the dots, the complaint alleges that Pitino did indeed have direct knowledge of the pay-for-commitment scheme.

Personnel Changes

Pitino was put on administrative leave a day after the complaints were released, and he was officially fired on Oct. 16. Louisville hired David Padgett, who coached under Pitino last season, as its new head coach. Louisville also fired assistant coach Jordan Fair and placed another assistant, Kenny Johnson, on paid leave.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich also lost his job as a result of the scandal.

Bowen was immediately suspended from basketball activities but remains a student at Louisville. He has reportedly hired an attorney in hopes of eventually being reinstated.

Two five-star recruits—Anfernee Simons and Courtney Ramey—have decommitted from Louisville as a result of the scandal.

Arizona

What the complaint says

"(Undercover Agent)-1, working with CHRISTIAN DAWKINS and MUNISH SOOD, the defendants, paid and/or facilitated the payment of $20,000 in bribes to Emanuel Richardson, a/k/a 'Book,' the defendant, some of which RICHARDSON appears to have kept for himself and some of which he appears to have provided to at least one prospective high school basketball player ('Player-5') in order to recruit Player-5 to play for University-4. In exchange for the bribe payments, RICHARDSON agreed to use his influence over the student-athletes he coached to pressure them to retain DAWKINS and SOOD as a manager and financial advisor, respectively."

What it alleges

A government agent, in conjunction with Dawkins and Sood, paid Arizona assistant Book Richardson $20,000 so he'd use his clout with Arizona players to sway them toward Dawkins' and Soot's respective businesses. Richardson kept some of the money and gave some to a recruit, believed to be 2018 point guard Jahvon Quinerly.

It's also important to note the Adidas officials—Gatto and Code—aren't implicated in this part of the scheme, as Arizona is a Nike school.

But that's not the only nefarious action Arizona is accused of participating in. There's something really nasty hidden in a part of a complaint that addresses allegations about Miami (we'll get to them later).

What the complaint says

"CODE discussed with GATTO... the involvement of CHRISTIAN DAWKINS and JONATHAN BRAD AUGUSTINE, the defendants, in the scheme to facilitate payments to Player-12 in order to secure Player12's commitment to attend University-7. CODE explained that another Division I university ('University-4') was offering Player-12 $150,000 'and we're trying to keep him from going to one of their schools.'"

What it alleges

Code is trying to get Gatto to agree to pay "Player-12" $150,000 to commit to Miami instead of Arizona.

We know "University-4" is Arizona because it's described in a separate complaint as the school that employs Book Richardson. We also know that Miami is University-7 because the school has confirmed it is being investigated and University-7 is the only school named in the case that fits Miami's description.

Player-12 is believed to be five-star recruit Nassir Little, who plays for Augustine's AAU team—Augustine is accused of funneling Player-12 the money— and was being targeted by Arizona and Miami.

Little's family denies asking for or being offered any money for his commitment.

Personnel changes

Little ended up committing to North Carolina.

Arizona fired Richardson. He has been charged with conspiracy to commit bribery, solicitation of bribes by an agent of a federally funded organization, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and travel act conspiracy. He's currently out on $50,000 bail but was indicted by a federal grand jury on Nov. 8.

Sean Miller remains the head coach of an Arizona team that is ranked third in the preseason AP Poll and favored to win the Pac-12.

After Richardson's arrest, Miller released a statement saying he was "devastated" to learn of the allegations and that he will comply with any investigations into the matter. The statement did not acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part, and he insisted that he has done all he can to "promote and reinforce a culture of compliance."

Miami

Like Louisville, no individual at Miami has been charged, but the school is referenced in the complaint against Gatto, Code, Dawkins and Augustine.

What the complaint says

"JAMES GATTO, a/k/a "Jim," MERL CODE, CHRISTIAN DAWKINS, and JONATHAN BRAD AUGUSTINE, the defendants, and other known and unknown, conspired to illicitly funnel approximately $150,000 from Company-1 to Player-12, another top high school basketball player expected to graduate in 2018, to assist one or more coaches at University-7 in securing Player-12's commitment to play at University-7, and to further ensure that Player-12 ultimately signed with DAWKINS and with Company-1 upon entering a professional league."

"CHRISTIAN DAWKINS and MERL CODE, the defendants, discussed—on a telephone call intercepted over the Dawkins Wiretap—paying Player-12 and/or his family at the request of at least one coach at University-7 ("Coach-3"). During the call, DAWKINS and CODE discussed the involvement of Coach-3 in ensuring that Company-1 would funnel payments to Player-12 in order to secure Player-12's committment to play at Univeristy-7. In particular, on the call, DAWKINS told CODE that, according to JONATHAN BRAD AUGUSTINE, the defendant, "[Coach-3] knows everything," and that they could "start the process" to funnel the payments to Player-12 in order to ensure that Player-12 would commit to attend University-7 upon his graduation in 2018."

What it alleges

Gatto, Code, Dawkins and Augustine funneled $150,000 to a player, likely Nassir Little, to get him to commit to Miami, then sign with Adidas and Dawkins' agency once turning pro. This is the scheme described above involving Miami and Arizona.

What's interesting here is the mention of Coach-3, whom the complaint alleges knew about the bribes. Miami head coach Jim Larranaga told reporters that he is indeed Coach-3, but also said he's done nothing wrong and neither have any of his assistants. That would seem to suggest that Larranaga believes either Dawkins or Augustine was lying when they told Code that Coach-3 knew about the scheme.

We know University-7 is Miami because it's described as a private D-I university in Florida with 16,000 students, and Miami is the only school that fits that description.

Personnel changes

Nassir Little eventually committed to North Carolina.

Larranaga remains the head coach at Miami and has been steadfast regarding his absolute innocence. “I cannot state more emphatically that I absolutely have no knowledge of any wrongdoing by any member of our staff and I certainly have never engaged in the conduct that some have speculated about,” Larranga said. He turned over phone calls and documents to government officials.

USC

What the complaint says

"CHRISTIAN DAWKINS, and MUNISH SOOD, the defendants, working with (Undercover Agent)-1, paid and/or facilitated the payment of at least $13,000 in bribes to ANTHONY BLAND, a/k/a "Tony," the defendant, in exchange for BLAND's agreement to exert his official influence over certain student-athletes that BLAND coached to retain DAWKINS and SOOD's business management and/or financial advisory services once those players entered the NBA. In addition, and as part of the scheme, DAWKINS and SOOD paid and/or facilitated the payment of an additional $9,000 directly to the families of two student-athletes at University-5 at BLAND's direction.

What it alleges

Dawkins and Sood paid Bland $13,000 to get him to nudge USC players to their respective businesses. The $9,000 went to two families—one incoming freshman and one rising junior—for similar reasons. We know "University-5" is USC because it's described as a private D-I university with over 40,000 students, and it's the school Bland is recruiting for.

Personnel changes

Bland was arrested and subsequently released on $100,000 bail. He is no longer with the program and was indicted by a federal grand jury on Nov. 8.

Head coach Andy Enfield avoided getting into Bland’s arrest in his initial meeting with reporters. “The situation this week with Coach Bland has been difficult and very challenging and emotional for all of us,” Enfield said, according to the LA Times. “Due to the situation, I’m not allowed to comment, I’ve been instructed not to comment.” When asked about Bland's antics at Pac-12 media day, Enfield said he found out when everybody else did but wouldn't comment further.

Four-star recruit J'Raan Brooks decommitted from USC due to "unforeseen circumstances from the recent news that has come to light in regards to the Trojan basketball program."

While the report does refer to two players currently on the USC basketball team, the players have not been identified and every player on the roster has been participating in preseason activities.

Sophomore De'Anthony Melton, who is linked to the investigation, has not played this season due to "a potential eligibility issue," according to the school. His absence is thought to be tied to the F.B.I.'s investigation.

Oklahoma State

What the complaint says

"MUNISH SOOD, the defendant, and (Cooperating Witness)-1 — having learned from CHRISTIAN DAWKINS, the defendant, that DAWKINS prevoiusly had paid bribes to LAMONT EVANS, the defendant, in order to obtain access to student-athletes coached by EVANS — paid at least $22,000 in bribes to EVANS in exchange for EVANS' agreement to exert his official influence over certain student athletes, first at University-2 and then at University-3, to retain SOOD and (Cooperating Witness)-1's business advisory and/or investment management services once those players entered the NBA."

What it alleges

Before coming to Oklahoma State, Evans was an assistant to Frank Martin at South Carolina for four seasons. He received a total of at least $22,000 in bribes from Sood and the cooperating witness. He was paid roughly $2,000 per month. The bribes started while he was at South Carolina and continued after he joined Brad Underwood's staff at Oklahoma State before the 2016 season.

One Oklahoma State player is identified, "Player-4," who Evans described as "the motherf----- that's scoring 22 points a game."

We know "University-3" is Oklahoma State because its description as a public research university with 25,000 students matches Oklahoma State, and it's where Evans was employed.

Personnel changes

Evans, who was arrested and released on $50,000 bond, was fired on Sept. 28. Evans has been indicted by a federal grand jury.

Underwood has since left Oklahoma State for the Illinois job. He released the following statement via the Illinois Athletic Department: “Like many in our industry, I was surprised by yesterday’s events. From our first conversation in March, athletic director Josh Whitman and I have shared a mutual commitment to Illinois men’s basketball upholding the highest standards of integrity. I appreciate his ongoing encouragement and support. I stand ready to assist as needed to protect the game of basketball, and those who play it, on our campus and elsewhere.”

Four-star recruit Antwann Jones, who was ranked No. 45 in the class of 2018 by ESPN, decommitted from Oklahoma State. He tweeted: "Due to the recent events that have taken place, my family and I have decided it's in my best interest to de-commit from Oklahoma State University."

Mike Boynton is now the head coach at Oklahoma State. He's said he does not fear he'll lose his job in the wake of the scandal.

OSU forward Jeffrey Carroll is out indefinitely, pending review of the program the school announced Nov. 10. He will still practice with the team but miss games, including the school's opener against Pepperdine on Nov. 10. Carroll was expected to be the Cowboys' top performer this year, averaging 17.5 points and 6.6 rebounds last season.

South Carolina

No individual from South Carolina has been charged, and the university is mentioned only in connection with Evans.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said his university is not being investigated.

Auburn

What the complaint says

"(RASHAN) MICHEL told (Cooperating Witness-1) that CHUCK CONNORS PERSON, the defendant, needed money, and exchange for such money, PERSON would agree to steer student-athletes on University-1's Division I men's basketball team to retain (Cooperating Witness)-1 's financial advisory and business management services, as well as MICHEL's services as a suit maker."

What it alleges

Person received bribes from Michel, the owner of the clothing label. In exchange, Person would tell his players to use the Cooperating Witness as a financial advisor and buy suits from Michel. The document features multiple anecdotes in which Person negotiates for more money; he brags about the quality of players coming to Auburn and about his level of influence over them. In total, Person was paid $91,500 over a 10-month period.

We know "University-1" is Auburn because of its description as a public research university located in Alabama. It is also referred to as Person's alma mater, and Person went to Auburn.

Player suspensions/personnel changes

Person was arrested on six federal charges of fraud and conspiracy and was reportedly indicted by a federal grand jury Nov. 7. He has been suspended indefinitely without pay by Auburn.

Two Auburn players, sophomores Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, have been suspended indefinitely.

Five-star recruit E.J. Montgomery decommitted from Auburn shortly after Person's arrest went public.

Video coordinator Frankie Sullivan and special assistant Jordan VerHulst were put on administrative leave as a result of the school's internal investigation. Auburn offered refunds to season-ticket holders shortly after the school was referenced in the F.B.I. complaint.

Bruce Pearl remains the head coach at Auburn.

Alabama an Even-Money Favorite on Latest National Championship Odds

The No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide are 10-0 SU and 4-6 ATS this season. With an undefeated record and the best scoring defense in the nation, the Crimson Tide appear to be one of the safest bets in the nation to advance into this year's College Football Playoff.

Alabama is now going off at +100 on the odds to win the National Championship at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. After a tune-up game at home against Mercer this Saturday, the Crimson Tide will finish up their regular season schedule with a road game at No. 6 Auburn (+900 to win the championship) and then potentially the SEC Championship Game against No. 7 Georgia (+1200).

If the Crimson Tide win both of these games, they will in all likelihood be the only team to represent the SEC in this year's College Football Playoff. But if Auburn or Georgia is able to upset Alabama, the conference could very well send two teams, as a strong case could be made for both Alabama and the team that beat them to advance if other teams currently in the mix slip up.

Like Alabama, the other four teams currently ranked in the Top 5 all now appear to control their own destiny. No. 2 Clemson (+800) and No. 3 Miami (+900) are set to clash in the ACC Championship Game to determine which of these teams will represent the ACC in the College Football Playoff. The loser of that game would likely fall out of the playoff picture, leaving the remaining two spots open for No. 4 Oklahoma (+400) and No. 5 Wisconsin (+1200) if both win out.

Wisconsin has a tough spot this Saturday at home against the Michigan Wolverines, and will have another obstacle to overcome in the Big Ten Championship Game. Should No. 9 Ohio State (+1800) win its last two regular season games and then beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, it could sneak into the postseason with some other help around the nation.

Bettors looking for total chaos in the coming weeks might consider the No. 11 USC Trojans at +6600 to win the National Championship. A two-loss Pac-12 champion would need an awful lot of help to get into the College Football Playoff, but this team has the talent to be competitive should enough teams above them crumble and get them in.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Upset Watch: Which Top-10 Teams Can't Sleepwalk Through Week 12?

To combat the looming predictability of a weekend of potentially one-sided games, we are losing our minds. There’s only a single game between two ranked opponents (No. 24 Michigan vs. No. 5 Wisconsin), and many of the best teams in college football have lined up lambs to slaughter the weekend before their season-ending rivalry games.

Yes, there are some conference matchups that are potentially tricky enough to knock teams out of the playoff hunt—looking at you, No. 7 Georgia vs. Kentucky and No. 11 USC vs. UCLA—but for the purposes of this week’s column, we’re going to focus on results a little farther outside the realm of possibility. The criteria: Each game features a top-10 team that’s favored by double-digits (with the exception of No. 2 Clemson, whose game against an FCS opponent has no line) against a non-Power 5 foe. This is not a prediction all three underdogs will win—just an exploration of whether they might have some semblance of a shot, and why.

No. 6 Auburn vs. Louisiana-Monroe: Auburn is riding high after beating Georgia handily last weekend, and it gets UL-Monroe Saturday before finishing out the season against Alabama. It would only be natural for the Tigers to be focusing on their chance to beat the Crimson Tide next week and crash the SEC title game. The Warhawks are 4–5 and on the upswing after winning just two games two seasons ago. They beat Wake Forest in 2014 and put up two touchdowns against Georgia in ’15, and last weekend they handed Appalachian State its first Sun Belt loss of the season. Monroe has a balanced offense, with two players (including quarterback Caleb Moore) who have topped 450 rushing yards and three players with more than 450 receiving yards. Auburn went through moments of inconsistency this year, such as when it squeaked by Mercer 24–10.

No. 2 Clemson vs. The Citadel: Again, this one is a long shot. The Citadel is 5–5 and hasn’t won in Death Valley in 91 years. The Bulldogs play in the Southern Conference, and their triple-option offense has yielded one of the best rushing attacks in FCS. The Citadel is averaging more than 300 rushing yards per game (compared to just 98.1 yards per game through the air) and the defense is fine—ranked 25th among FCS teams—but any prayer of a historic upset lies with a tight, disciplined attack, almost devoid of dumb penalties. That was present two years ago, when the Citadel upset South Carolina, 23–22, in 2015. In that game, the Bulldogs rushed for 350 yards and passed for just 37. If there’s a recipe to pulling off the upset against Clemson, it looks a lot like that.

No. 8 Notre Dame vs. Navy: This is the most likely upset on the list. I went with Navy in our staff picks list this week, in part because the Midshipmen are good, in part because their triple-option scheme can pile up yards and points on even the most prepared opponents, and in part because Notre Dame’s offense is sputtering. Running back Josh Adams, after playing only a quarter against Wake Forest two weeks ago because of myriad unspecified injuries, didn’t look himself against Miami and barely played in the second half. It’s still unclear what’s going on there, but without him at full strength, Notre Dame’s offense wasn’t able to do much of anything against Miami. Granted, Navy doesn’t have a turnover chain, but it beat Notre Dame during last year’s down campaign and is more than capable of pulling it off again.

Dispute between Alabama and Auburn fans reportedly ends with one getting shot

Dispute between Alabama and Auburn fans reportedly ends with one getting shot

Dispute between Alabama and Auburn fans reportedly ends with one getting shot

The victim claimed the other man pulled out a gun after becoming angry and shot him in the thigh before fleeing on foot.

Dispute between Alabama and Auburn fans reportedly ends with one getting shot

Dispute between Alabama and Auburn fans reportedly ends with one getting shot

Manny Diaz's Resurrection of Miami's Defense Isn't All About the Turnover Chain

Like all good coaches, Manny Diaz knew the power of a history lesson. Diaz arrived at Miami in 2016 as the defensive coordinator on Mark Richt’s new staff after a solid season in the rough-and-tumble SEC at Mississippi State, but this was a unique job for him. Diaz grew up in South Florida as a huge Hurricanes fan. He spent many Saturdays of his youth in a raucous Orange Bowl, especially in the ’80s, when Miami was the dominant program in college football. Diaz was in the stands when the Canes took down No. 1 Oklahoma. He was there for the famed “third-and-43” game in 1989, when the Canes crushed No. 1 Notre Dame, 27–10.

Diaz’s primary point of emphasis with his new charges was getting them to “play like Hurricanes.”

“What that means," Diaz says, "is playing fast, being very physical, playing violent on the field, because that really was the identity of that program back in the day, and that’s really what you saw whenever they played [and dominated] in matchups vs. physical, power-running teams like Notre Dame."

Miami looked eerily similar to the teams of three decades ago in last weekend’s 41–8 mauling of No. 3 Notre Dame. The Irish came in riding one of the nation’s top ground attacks, averaging over seven yards per carry; Miami held them to just three yards per carry and forced four turnovers, becoming the first FBS team to notch at least four takeaways in four straight games against FBS opponents in at least 13 years—a feat that’s even more impressive when you consider Miami only starts one senior on defense, has 10 freshmen and sophomores on its defensive two-deep and is playing with just 73 scholarship players.

Diaz says that aggressive, suffocating defense is practically in the DNA of South Florida football, tying into the way the game is taught right down to the earliest levels of the area's storied Optimist Football programs. “Even when you watch the little league football down here, it’s coached tough,” Diaz says. “It’s hard to score points. UM should be an extension of that.”

Of course, talking about playing great, physical football is one thing. Making it happen is another. After all, Miami’s defense ranked 86th in yards per play allowed, the year before Mark Richt and Diaz showed up. [The Canes rank 12th in that category this year and were ninth last season.]

Building a team defined by its toughness was non-negotiable for the new Miami staff, Diaz says. And he demanded they become a better tackling team. As a big proponent of the rugby tackling system Pete Carroll employs with the Seahawks, Diaz knew it’s all about leverage and trusting your teammates.

To help put some teeth back in the Canes’ defense, Diaz created new ways to measure their performance. Players were awarded “a bite” for any sign of physical domination, such as making the opponent go backwards against his will—these players could get their names called out and receive a helmet sticker. On the flip side, they would get “a poodle” if they ran away from contact or were doing something that was not “setting the standard.” The punishment for that was having to push a 45-pound plate across the field.

The most well-known incentive that Diaz has brought to Miami is its now-famous turnover chain, the 5 1/2–pound Cuban link of 10-karat gold that has become a college football phenomenon. “We didn’t know how it was gonna work,” he says. Turns out, it’s been like a turnover magnet.

Turnovers themselves are hard to forecast. Last year Boise State ranked No. 126 in turnovers gained; this year the Broncos are up almost 100 spots to No. 29. And every team has turnover stations and ball-security drills at practice. Diaz says he believes that turnovers happen if you stop the run and force the other team to have to throw the ball. Interceptions and strip sacks come into play when an offense feels like it must takes some chances. He also suspects the turnover chain may have some pyschological impact on both teams, especially after Miami gets its first takeaway. “It sort of puts blood in the water, and maybe it’s planting a seed in the other team’s minds,” he says, pointing out that both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame are excellent ball-security teams, with each suffering nearly half of its season-long turnover total against the Hurricanes.

Credit Richt, a former Miami backup QB, for bringing back the connections to the Canes’ glory days. That bond has no doubt also helpe spark the resurgence. Many of the program’s old stars have come back for summer recruiting camps and are enjoying seeing Miami back in the national spotlight.

“Dan Morgan texted me [right after the Notre Dame game], and that made my day,” says sophomore linebacker Mike Pinckney. “He texted me and said, ‘I love the way you guys are playing as a defense,’ and that kind of brought a tear to my heart. That’s someone I always looked up to when I was younger. That just made my day. D.J. Williams, [Jon] Beason, [Jon] Vilma, they text us all and as a younger guy that makes us feel special.”

It also makes some older guys on the Canes staff feel pretty special, too.

Other Notes

• Coming off a dominant showing in knocking off No. 1 Georgia, folks are raving about Auburn’s defense (rightly so) and star running back Kerryon Johnson has shot into the Heisman race (rightly so), but the Tigers have also gotten a jolt from one of the better under-the-radar stories in college football this season. Center Casey Dunn was named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against the mighty UGA defense. Dunn graded out 91 percent for the game and had a season-high six blocks that led to first downs or touchdowns for Auburn. In addition, he helped pave the way for the Tigers to roll up 488 total yards, including 237 rushing yards—the most for any team against Georgia in two years.

Not bad who a guy who began his college career as an FCS walk-on player.

Dunn, a grad transfer, is listed at 6' 4" and 292 pounds—those inside the program say he’s probably more like 6' 2"—but his toughness is off the charts, he has good feet and he’s extremely smart. At Jacksonville State, he earned All-America honors, anchoring the unit that sparked the top offense in the Ohio Valley Conference and propelled the Gamecocks to the FCS title game in 2015.

How did a guy who clearly has SEC talent end up as an FCS walk-on? Dunn played at a very good program in Alabama, Hewitt-Trussville High, and had the grades. His high school coach Hal Riddle said Dunn went down with a knee injury midway through his junior season that required surgery.

“When all the college coaches are rolling through and coming by practice, he’s standing over there helping coach with a big old brace on his leg,” Riddle says. "He didn’t get clearance until August, so he couldn’t attend football camps that most kids would, so he was flying under the radar.”

Riddle had coached several other SEC linemen and says Dunn was as good as any of them, but he just got caught up by some bad timing and the numbers game. “So many coaches today will get into this ‘If you want us to be interested in you, you need to be at our camp.’ ” Riddle says. “But he wasn’t cleared for that and then all the big schools have this template that they’re looking for, where you need to be this tall and weigh this much and run this speed. Casey’s got all the intangibles. He’s an incredible young man. Just by his presence he makes your team better. So humble and thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the team. He’s the one who’s always lifting kids up.

“I never once heard him say [while getting passed over in the recruiting process] ‘I don’t know why?’ or act like poor, pitiful me. And then Casey enjoyed every minute he was up there at Jacksonville. I’m so happy for him to see how things have turned out.”

• Defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is quietly having another record-setting season. Last weekend he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. This year Jackson has thrown for 3,003 yards and rushed for 1,176. Yet he’s pretty far off the Heisman radar right now. Why? It’s a question I’ve gotten a few times this week.

For starters, Louisville has had a pretty underwhelming season, at 6–4 with two games to go. Any early momentum the Cardinals had was torpedoed by a blowout home loss to Clemson in Week 3, which was followed by three losses in October. Three of Louisville’s four losses have been by double-digits, and its lone win over an FBS team with a winning record just came last week against 6–4 Virginia. On top of that, Jackson wasn’t great in his two games against ranked opponents, rushing for 69 yards a game on just 3.8 yards per carry—about half of what he’s done in the other eight games. His QB rating in those two games is 30 points lower than it has been against non–Top 25 teams.

• Name of the Week: Bull Barge. The 5' 10", 225-pound South Alabama linebacker had a career-high 13 tackles against Arkansas State in a 24–19 win last Saturday. His full name is De’Themeyus Terrill Barge.

• Stat of the Week: Notre Dame has played two huge games in Miami in the past five years: one agianst Alabama for the national championship at the end of the 2012 season and the other last Saturday against Miami, a playoff elimination game of sorts. The Irish were outscored by a combined 55–0 in the first halves of those games. Mercy.

Alabama Fan SHOOTS Auburn Fan!

Alabama Fan SHOOTS Auburn Fan!

Alabama Fan SHOOTS Auburn Fan!

Alabama Fan SHOOTS Auburn Fan!

Should Oklahoma Be Panicking About Its College Football Playoff Position?

The College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings always inspire angst, but that’s especially true after a big shakeup. This time, that angst seems to be emanating from Big 12 country…

From @P1Hood86: If OU wins out there will be hell to pay if they don’t make it. Best offense in the country along with a soon-to-be Heisman winner. This is coming from a Texas fan too.

I understand the dismay over Oklahoma being ranked No. 4 by the College Football Playoff selection committee. The Sooners have an excellent résumé, and logical arguments can be made as to why Oklahoma should be ranked ahead of Clemson. (Logical arguments also can be made in the other direction.) What I don’t understand is the concern that a 12–1 Oklahoma holding a Big 12 title trophy will get left out of the playoff. That simply isn’t happening. If Oklahoma wins the rest of its games, Oklahoma is in.

Heck, I can even envision a scenario in which Oklahoma loses to West Virginia on Nov. 25 and still makes the playoff. Let’s say Auburn beats Alabama and then goes on to win the SEC by beating Georgia. Then let’s say Clemson loses at South Carolina. (It’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened. See Clemson losing to Syracuse.) Clemson goes on to beat Miami for the ACC title. Then let’s say Ohio State beats Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. Ohio State can’t possibly rise above Oklahoma in that scenario because the Buckeyes and Sooners would have the same record and the Sooners thrashed Ohio State head-to-head in Columbus. There might be arguments for Alabama and Miami to make the playoff as one-loss, non-conference champs, but the committee could struggle putting in teams that lost to two-loss conference champs. Oklahoma would likely be in.

So quit worrying, Sooners. If Oklahoma wins out, nothing will keep it out of the playoff.

From David: Doesn't it seem to you that the CFP is laying the groundwork to keep a 12–1 Big 12 champ OU out of the playoff? [Answer linked here, and in the video atop this post.]

From @errxn: #DearAndy, is there ANYTHING on the planet that’s dumber than #Grumors right now? Please help before my eyes roll permanently into the back of my head!

In the video answer to the question below, I’m pretty sure I promise to eat a hat if Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach. (I’m not entirely sure, because like Will Ferrell’s character in Old School, I tend to black out when I answer questions under pressure.) Nothing about the Grumors makes logical sense. Why would Gruden leave a very cushy, high paying job to take a demanding, high-pressure job that pays about the same?

If your answer to that is “the coaching bug is a powerful thing,” I understand the sentiment. But consider this: The life of an NFL coach and the life of a major college head coach are very different. An NFL coach worries about ball. A major college head coach—especially at an SEC school with title aspirations—must worry about recruiting more than he worries about ball. Gruden may want to coach again, but it’s difficult to imagine him wanting to talk to high schoolers for hours every day. (Though Gruden’s natural charisma does suggest he’d be an excellent recruiter.) Plus, after so many reports over the years of Gruden looking at houses in Knoxville and not buying, I’m not sure there is a Realtor in town who will work with him. I could be hilariously wrong here, but common sense would also be wrong if Gruden wound up coaching at Tennessee.

From @gmannvols: Gruden? [Answer linked here, and in the video below.]

From @VanGogh_0: Should the committee treat Kelly Bryant’s injury against Syracuse the same as Nick Bosa’s ejection against Iowa? Both are somewhat random. Both are somewhat the fault of Clemson/Ohio State. Clemson shouldn’t have exposed Bryant as much. Bosa should not have put anything in the ref’s hands.

I understand the logic here, but the situations are pretty different. Clemson lost 27–24 at Syracuse, and it’s not a logical stretch to believe that the Tigers would have won with a healthy Kelly Bryant. It’s difficult to make an argument that the ejection of a player from the Buckeyes’ deepest, most talented position group cost Ohio State a game that it lost 55–24. Bosa’s ejection did not make J.T. Barrett throw four interceptions. Perhaps Bosa’s presence in the second half might have kept Iowa from averaging 6.4 yards a carry, but Ohio State’s defense still would have been placed in some horrible field position situations. Plus, there is the not-insignificant matter of that second loss on the Buckeyes’ résumé. Unless Clemson loses again, there isn’t much reason to compare the two teams.

From @HistoryOfMatt: I know people are saying UGA getting spanked by Auburn is The Most Georgia Thing, but The Most Georgia Thing would be Richt winning a title this year, or any year before Kirby Smart. THAT is The Most Georgia Thing. [Answer linked here, and in the video below.]

With Iron Bowl looming, man shoots other man over Alabama-Auburn argument

A man shot another man in Alabama over an argument about whether Auburn or Alabama was the better football team.

With Iron Bowl looming, man shoots other man over Alabama-Auburn argument

A man shot another man in Alabama over an argument about whether Auburn or Alabama was the better football team.

College Football Picks: Playoff races break for mismatches

FILE - At left, in an Oct. 14, 2017, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban yells during the second half an NCAA college football game against Arkansas in Tuscaloosa, Ala. At right, in this Oct. 7, 2017, file photo, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn calls to players during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Auburn, Ala. The Southeastern Conference as usual is doing its part to give many of its fans a chance to re-charge for the final stretch run with matchups such as Mercer at No. 1 Alabama and Louisana-Monroe at No. 6 Auburn. (AP Photo/File)

With Iron Bowl looming, man shoots other man over Alabama-Auburn argument

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

FILE - At left, in an Oct. 14, 2017, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban yells during the second half an NCAA college football game against Arkansas in Tuscaloosa, Ala. At right, in this Oct. 7, 2017, file photo, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn calls to players during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Auburn, Ala. The Southeastern Conference as usual is doing its part to give many of its fans a chance to re-charge for the final stretch run with matchups such as Mercer at No. 1 Alabama and Louisana-Monroe at No. 6 Auburn. (AP Photo/File)

The ACC Eyes Dream Scenario and Oklahoma Looking at Nightmare After Latest Playoff Rankings

After a weekend filled with losses for top-ranked teams, this week's College Football Playoff rankings have plenty of changes.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is seeing Clemson moving up from No. 4 to No. 2 and Miami sliding in at No. 3. Although, we probably shouldn't be all that surprised. The Tigers had been sitting at the four spot in each of the first two rankings before Tuesday and Miami's emphatic win over Notre Dame had us thinking the Canes would find themselves at two. Instead of falling for that recency bias, however, the selection committee valued Clemson's top-25 wins vs. Auburn and NC State over Miami's lone top-25 win vs. the Irish.

With that out of the way, let's figure out what these new rankings mean as we approach the final few weeks of the regular season.

HOW ABOUT MIAMI AND CLEMSON IN THE PLAYOFF?

Two weeks ago we were discussing Alabama and Georgia meeting in both the SEC title and national title games. We were also discussing how the other Power 5 conferences were going to complain about two SEC schools making the playoff. Whether it's Auburn continuing to tear everything apart, Georgia recovering in time to win the conference, or Alabama winning out, that's probably not going to happen.

Instead, the ACC could get two teams in the final four. Clemson and Miami will meet in the conference title game. Let's say 11-1 Clemson beats 12-0 Miami in a close, thrilling game giving both teams one loss on the season. If most of the favorites around the country win out and the ACC Championship Game ends like we've laid out above, the ACC will have a genuine case to make for taking up half the playoff spots.

OKLAHOMA AND THE BIG 12 MAY GET HOSED

Sitting at No. 4 is NEVER a good thing. It's why we were looking at Clemson and thinking it may tumble prior to the ACC title game. Now the Sooners, despite just joining the top four, could end up in such a scenario.

As you've just read, two ACC teams in the playoff isn't an outlandish idea. Assuming the SEC champ gets a third playoff spot—and it will—the final slot would be a fight between the Big 12 and Big Ten champions. If it comes down to this, Oklahoma must root for Ohio State to take down Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. OU already beat the Buckeyes in Columbus earlier this season. If the Badgers win out, there's simply no way the committee would leave out a 13-0 power conference champion.

The part of college football where you have to root for your opponents never gets old.

Here are the third full College Football Playoff rankings of the 2017 season:

1. Alabama (10-0, SEC)
2. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
3. Miami (9-0, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (9-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (9-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (8-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (9-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (8-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (8-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (8-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (9-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (8-2, Big 12)
13. Oklahoma State (8-2, Big 12)
14. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)
15. UCF (9-0, AAC)
16. Mississippi State (7-3, SEC)
17. Michigan State (7-3, Big Ten)
18. Washington (8-2, Pac 12)
19. NC State (7-3, ACC)
20. LSU (7-3, SEC)
21. Memphis (8-1, AAC)
22. Stanford (7-3, Pac 12)
23. Northwestern (7-3, Big Ten)
24. Michigan (8-2, Big Ten)
25. Boise State (8-2, MWC)

Alabama Tops This Week's College Football Playoff Ranking

After an eventful weekend that saw several top-ten teams lose, there's been a major shakeup at the top of the College Football Playoff rankings.

A familiar face tops this week's ranking, as the Alabama Crimson Tide claim the top spot with a 10-0 record. No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Miami, No. 4 Oklahoma join Alabama in position for the four-team playoff.

The first two teams out are No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Auburn.

Alabama came back from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to eek out a 31-24 road win at Mississippi State.? The Crimson Tide have been No. 1 in both the AP and USA TODAY Coaches' poll since the preseason, but the committee rewarded Georgia with the No. 1 spot for the first two weeks, as the Bulldogs had more impressive wins.

Last week's top-ranked team Georgia fell six spots to No. 7 after a 40-17 loss to Auburn. If Georgia wins out, the Bulldogs will likely play the winner of the Auburn-Alabama game in the SEC championship game, the winner of which will be in great position to earn a Playoff berth.

Miami moved up five spots after its impressive 41–8 win over Notre Dame in primetime. The turnover chain-wearing defense kept its magic going by forcing four turnovers, and Miami's game against No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 2 could go a long way in finalizing the playoff picture. Notre Dame, on the other hand, had its Playoff hopes crushed and tumbled to No.8.

In a matchup of last week's No. 5 and No. 6 teams, Baker Mayfield cemented his status as the Heisman front-runner by throwing for 333 yards and three touchdowns as Oklahoma beat TCU 38–20.

Wisconsin moved up after comfortably beating then-No. 20 Iowa. The win clinched the Big Ten West title for the Badgers, meaning they'll get the chance to post another much-needed impressive victory in the Big Ten championship game.

The Pac-12's Playoff hopes were all but ended with Washington's loss at Stanford on Friday night.

No. 15 Central Florida of the AAC is in pole position to earn the group-of-five conferences' bid in a New Years Six bowl.

The full ranking is as follows:

1. Alabama (10-0, SEC)
2. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
3. Miami (9-0, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (9-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (9-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (8-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (9-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (8-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (8-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (8-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (9-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (8-2, Big 12)
13. Oklahoma State (8-2, Big 12)
14. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)
15. UCF (9-0, AAC)
16. Mississippi State (7-3, SEC)
17. Michigan State (7-3, Big Ten)
18. Washington (8-2, Pac 12)
19. NC State (7-3, ACC)
20. LSU (7-3, SEC)
21. Memphis (8-1, AAC)
22. Stanford (7-3, Pac 12)
23. Northwestern (7-3, Big Ten)
24. Michigan (8-2, Big Ten)
25. Boise State (8-1,

Auburn Will Be Making Its Push for Playoff History With Swagger Intact

AUBURN, Ala. — In SEC rivalries, no slight goes unremembered. Few of those slights go unpunished.

Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium featured one such comeuppance 10 years in the making. Auburn led 40–10 when Tigers coach Gus Malzahn challenged the spot on a fourth-down play that appeared to result in a Georgia first down. Challenging a fourth-down spot up 30 with 3:38 remaining is salty enough, but that only bought the time for the Tigers’ next move(s).

The massive speakers of a video board visible from space roared to life…

YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUU!

Then came a few familiar plonks on a steel drum. Was Auburn doing this?

YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUU!

Yes. Auburn was doing this.

To understand why Auburn players dancing to a 10-year-old song had so much meaning besides the obvious—they were celebrating whipping the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings—requires a history lesson. In 2007, Georgia commemorated the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry by doing three things:

1. They wore black jerseys.
2. They crushed Auburn.
3. They danced to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” during a late timeout.

The Bulldogs even got Verne Lundquist to shake what his mama gave him. That indignity would not stand, and the Tigers finally took their revenge at the most appropriate time. Not long after the callback to “Crank That”, Maino’s “All The Above” blasted across the Loveliest Village on the Plains. This was another bit of nostalgia. That song soundtracked the dance parties that erupted on the sidelines between the third and fourth quarters when Auburn’s 2010 national title team played at home.

The message was clear, and given what had just transpired in the previous three hours, it didn’t feel unrealistic. Playing the way they did Saturday, the Tigers absolutely can compete for a national title. But first they have to answer an important question: Was Saturday evidence of an evolved team that just needed time to reach its peak, or was it simply a perfect day when everything clicked?

We’ll find out on Nov. 25 when Alabama visits Jordan-Hare Stadium. The winner of the Iron Bowl will play Georgia for the SEC title and a place in the College Football Playoff. In the days after Auburn took its second loss at LSU on Oct. 14, that seemed impossible. Now? There isn’t much doubt that if the Tigers can go 3–0 between now and Dec. 2, they’ll be the first two-loss team to make the playoff. And if they pull that off, they’d likely enter as the team no one wants to play.

So which team will Auburn be going forward? The Tigers offered hints by their play and by their postgame comments that they had to grow into the team that pounded Georgia and that the performance is repeatable. “We knew we were a good team,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We knew we had some growing pains early. Obviously, this team is light years away from the one in Week 2 and in the second half against LSU. … The top teams in the country, this time of year, they find a way to get better.”

So how did Auburn get better? The obvious answer is dominant play on both lines of scrimmage. Auburn has a loaded defensive line, and Jeff Holland, Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell shut down Georgia’s running game—allowing only 1.4 yards a carry against a team that entered Saturday averaging 5.8 yards a carry. Holland, who had five tackles and a sack, also was named “Crank That” dance-off champ by his teammates for his mastery of a craze that peaked when he was 11 years old. “I was young, but I still remember. I’m a dancer, you know. I can do a lot more than football.” Meanwhile, Auburn’s offensive line routinely reset the line of scrimmage late in the game. At times, it appeared tailback Kerryon Johnson had only gained a yard or two because he went down shortly after hitting the line. But those gains actually went for five or six yards because Auburn’s line had shoved Georgia’s line back. “You can just feel when someone is wearing down,” Tigers guard Braden Smith said. “You’ve just got to feast upon that.”

In the LSU loss, Auburn failed to adjust in the second half after LSU’s defense dropped a safety into the box to stop Johnson in the Wildcat. Against Georgia, Auburn tweaked its offense to make it less predictable. The Tigers opened their first four possessions with passes on first down and then sprinkled in short and intermediate passes throughout. LSU loaded the box on first down and then settled back when Auburn got into bad down-and-distance situations. Georgia couldn’t do that because Auburn broke tendency so often. It also helped that the Tigers didn’t allow themselves to get behind the sticks. They only faced five third downs in Saturday’s second half, and the average distance needed was 3.4 yards. Against LSU, Auburn faced nine second-half third downs with an average distance of 7.6 yards.

Meanwhile, Malzahn believes first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and first-year starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham have learned how to work together better than they did earlier in the season. The 11-sack disaster against Clemson on Sept. 9 was their second game together. The LSU game was their seventh. Plus, Malzahn pointed out Saturday, Stidham didn’t exactly have extensive experience as a starter as a Baylor freshman in 2015. “You’ve got to keep in mind that Jarrett played four games before he got here,” Malzahn said. “Everybody was talking about his experience.”

It wasn’t empty talk that Malzahn could be in trouble if he lost to Georgia and Alabama. With massive tumult in Auburn’s athletic department, only a championship contender could keep him secure. He has one of those now. And even though this team has one more loss at this point, its momentum feels similar to the 2013 Auburn team that won the SEC and played for a national title. But that team needed a miracle to beat Georgia and an even bigger miracle to beat Alabama. This team needed no miracles to beat Georgia. Whether Auburn can deliver a similar performance in the Iron Bowl remains to be seen.

Malzahn and company know the challenge that lies ahead. They also know what they did Saturday should not be taken lightly. Malzahn described the performance perfectly as he left the field.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who may see the Tigers again Dec. 2 if Auburn can keep playing this way, couldn’t disagree. “I’ll be honest with you,” Smart said, “I think when you perform the way they did on the field, you earn the right to say really whatever you want.”

Playoff Rankings Preview: Get Ready to Talk About Ohio State Again

Well, that was quite the weekend.

No. 1 Georgia endured a beatdown at the hands of No. 10 Auburn. No. 2 Alabama barely escaped with a road win at Mississippi State. No. 3 Notre Dame was obliterated by No. 7 Miami's turnover chain–sporting defense. No. 6 TCU fell to No. 5 Oklahoma. And No. 9 Washington lost to Stanford late on Friday night, effectively eliminating the Pac-12 from the playoff.

All that means the season’s third edition of the playoff rankings will look quite different. Here's our best guess:

1. Alabama, which has felt like No. 1 all year to everyone but the playoff committee.
2. Miami, still undefeated and fresh off a dismantling of Notre Dame emphatic enough to delay the Oklahoma vs. Miami debate for now.
3. Oklahoma, which slides in front of Clemson on the strength of its quality wins.
4. Clemson, still chilling in the playoff field but hanging on by a thread.
5. Wisconsin, which is in line to make a natural jump after what happened in front of it but is still being kept out of the top four by that meh schedule.
6. Auburn, here despite its two losses because it beat No. 1 and made it look easy.
7. Georgia, the nation’s second-best one-loss team that falls farther because its loss came to a team Clemson beat.
8. Notre Dame, which lays claim to the highest-quality losses of the remaining two-loss bunch.
9. TCU, which can’t be pleased its Iowa State loss is not holding up better.
10. Ohio State, despite an infinitely baffling loss to Iowa.

Now let’s dive into what those rankings, or an outcome close to them, would mean.

Ohio State is very much in the conversation

How, you may ask, can the Buckeyes make it back into the top four after their most recent loss was such an embarrassment? The answer: Scheduling.

As bad as that 55–24 meltdown at Kinnick Stadium was, Ohio State’s first loss of the season at the hands of Oklahoma looks more than reasonable. Then you add in quality wins over Penn State and Michigan State and another potential quality win in the regular season finale against Michigan, and the Buckeyes could find themselves with the No. 4 seed when the season ends if they get past a 12–0 Wisconsin team in a Big Ten title game. (Advanced stats give the Badgers a greater than 50% probability of finishing the regular season undefeated.) Meanwhile, a minimum of three other teams above them in this hypothetical top 10 are guaranteed to lose at least one more time before Selection Sunday.

Things are lining up well for Auburn

We had previously presented the absurd scenario of Auburn winning out to improbably reach the playoff as more of a fun thought experiment than anything else. Then the Tigers ran Georgia out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 40–17 whooping. Beating the Bulldogs was only Step One of an improbable path to the playoff. Auburn won so convincingly, however, that a similar win over Georgia in the SEC title game after taking down an injury-riddled Alabama in the Iron Bowl doesn't sound all that crazy anymore.

Notre Dame is done

The Irish making the playoff would have meant at least two Power 5 conferences would have been left out. That scenario is now gone. There will be a bunch of two-loss teams at the end of the season, and there’s no way the committee would choose a 10–2 Notre Dame over an 11–2 Power 5 conference champion.

Week 12 Power Rankings: Auburn Isn't Playing Like a Two-Loss Team

It’s getting increasingly likely that one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff field will finish with two losses for the first time in the format’s history, and the strongest candidate to make that history is the one that just dominated the No. 1 team in the nation.

Fresh off a 40–17 win over Georgia, Auburn in the best position to crash the playoffs based on who the Tigers have beaten (their blowout win over Mississippi State is looking better with time) and who they still have to play. Just imagine where they would be if they hadn’t spoiled a 20–0 lead over LSU, or if they had found a way to contain Clemson’s loaded defensive line in a September non-conference test.

If the Tigers beat Alabama on Nov. 25 and beat Georgia again in the SEC Championship, they’d have the country’s most impressive set of wins in the last month of the season. Make no mistake about it; this is a complete team, equipped with a quarterback who can stretch the field, a running back capable of 30-plus carries and an opportunistic defense capable of shutting down any SEC offense.

Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (10–0, 7–0 SEC)

Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Mississippi State, 31–24
Next week: vs. Mercer

Alabama was finally challenged this season, but it remains to be seen how this performance will look in two weeks when the SEC West crown will be decided against Auburn. In beating Mississippi State for the 10th straight time, the Crimson Tide should vault to No. 1 when the College Football Playoff rankings come out this week.

2. Oklahoma (9–1, 6–1 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat TCU, 38–20
Next week: at Kansas

TCU was supposed to be the one Big 12 team that played defense, but it was not equal to the task of slowing the nation’s best offense. Baker Mayfield threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns, cementing his Heisman frontrunner status as Oklahoma gained 533 yards to take sole possession of first place in the conference. The Sooners’ rushing attack was led by Rodney Anderson’s 151 yards and two touchdowns.

3. Clemson (9–1, 7–1 ACC)

Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Florida State, 31–14
Next week: vs. The Citadel

The ACC title game is set, and Clemson will take on Miami with a playoff spot likely on the line. Kelly Bryant completed 20 of his 30 passes, but those completions went for only 151 yards against a talented Seminoles defense. The Tigers get a chance to tune up their offense next week against an FCS opponent.

4. Miami (9–0, 6–0 ACC)

Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Notre Dame, 41–8
Next week: vs. Virginia

The turnover chain seemed to get more screen time than ever on Saturday night thanks to an onslaught of miscues by Notre Dame that led directly to 24 Miami points. The Hurricanes secured their place in the ACC title game, but they still have trap games against a decent Virginia squad and a late-November road trip to Pittsburgh before they see Clemson in Charlotte.

5. Wisconsin (10–0, 7–0 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Iowa, 38-14
Next week: vs. Michigan

Wisconsin moved to 10–0, wrapped up the unspectacular Big Ten West and continued to get little national respect. The Badgers’ defense has beat up on its divisional competition all season, with Iowa the latest victim. The Hawkeyes had only four first downs and 66 yards of offense. Running back Jonathan Taylor has all but claimed Freshman of the Year honors, rumbling for another 157 yards on 29 carries.

6. Auburn (8–2, 6­–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat Georgia, 40–17
Next week: vs. Louisiana–Monroe

The Tigers took apart a Georgia defense that was among the best in the country and did so with relative ease. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham had three touchdown passes, and Kerryon Johnson had 167 yards rushing and a touchdown on a 55-yard fourth-quarter screen pass that sealed the statement win.

7. Georgia (9–1, 6–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 2
This week: Lost to Auburn, 40–17
Next week: vs. Kentucky

The narrative of Georgia as a one-dimensional team on offense came to fruition as freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was unable to compensate when Auburn’s front seven shut down the running game. Georgia ends the season with Kentucky and Georgia Tech before the SEC title game.

8. Notre Dame (8–2)

Previous ranking: 5
This week: Lost to Miami, 41–8
Next game: vs. Navy

The question the Irish needed to be answered before Saturday's game was whether they could do enough with Brandon Wimbush in the passing game to balance the running attack. The answer turned out to be an emphatic no, as the Hurricanes harrassed Wimbush all night to end any playoff hopes in South Bend. Turning the ball over four times didn’t help either.

9. Ohio State (8­-2, 6–1 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 12
This week: Beat Michigan State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Illinois

It’s baffling how Ohio State can look like the biggest fraud in college football one week and one of the nation’s best teams the next. In a rout of Michigan State, the Buckeyes set the stage to win their division if they can take their next two games. Ohio State’s defense showed up in a big way, holding Michigan State to 195 yards of offense, racking up six sacks and forcing three turnovers.

10. UCF (9–0, 6–0 AAC)

Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat UConn, 49–24
Next week: at Temple

The Knights don’t have many flaws, but the ones they do have don’t bode well for when the schedule gets touger in the final weeks. Quarterback McKenzie Milton continued his steady play with 311 yards passing, but the defense did let UConn have success on the ground. UCF is also one of the most penalized teams in the nation and added 10 more to its count on Saturday.

11. USC (9–2, 7–1 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Colorado, 38–24
Next week: vs. UCLA

Sam Darnold threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns as USC jumped out to a 27–0 lead in Boulder en route to clinching the Pac–12 South title. While the victory wasn’t anything special, the Trojans have now won three in a row since a blowout loss to Notre Dame and are trending in the right direction, even though a playoff berth seems like a long shot at this point.

12. Penn State (8–2, 5–2 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 14
Last week: Beat Rutgers, 35­–6
Next week: vs. Nebraska

In the last three weeks, Penn State went from being ranked No. 2 in two polls and having the player many saw as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner to 8–2 and on the outside looking in on the major bowls. Saquon Barkley had 35 yards on the ground against Rutgers, his third straight game with less than 100 yards rushing.

13. TCU (8–2, 5-2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 9
This week: Lost to Oklahoma, 38–20
Next game: at Texas Tech

All is not lost for the Horned Frogs, who still go to the Big 12 title game if they win out. Their vaunted defense simply could not slow Oklahoma down in the first half, and by the time they did, the game was completely out of reach. TCU gave up 13 plays of 10 or more yards in the first half alone.

14. Washington (8–2, 5–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 8
This week: Lost to Stanford, 30–22
Next week: vs. Utah

Washington shouldn't have to worry about the East Coast viewership of its late-night games anymore now that the playoff is out of the question. Jake Browning threw for 190 yards and Myles Gaskin ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns, but the Huskies’ inability to sustain drives did them in.

15. Oklahoma State (8–2, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 15
Last week: Beat Iowa State, 49–42
Next week: vs. Kansas State

Oklahoma State rallied twice–once early and once late–to keep its conference title game hopes alive, beating Iowa State for the sixth year in a row. Mason Rudolph had 376 yards passing and three touchdowns, including two in the final six minutes, as the Cowboys used a last–minute interception to thwart the upset attempt. The Cowboys’ defense looked like it still hadn’t recovered from Bedlam, giving up 30 first downs and 491 yards to Iowa State.

16. Memphis (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 17
This week: Off
Next week: vs. SMU

Memphis will wrap up the AAC West and a spot in the conference title game with a victory over SMU, which has lost three straight to the Tigers. While their offense is explosive, their lack of discipline could hold them back: The Tigers are averaging more than eight penalties per game.

17. Virginia Tech (7–3, 3–3 ACC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Lost to Georgia Tech, 28–22
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh

Georgia Tech completed two passes the entire game against Virginia Tech, but those two completions went 60 and 80 yards for touchdowns, the last providing the game-winning score. The Hokies had trouble moving the ball for the second consecutive week, averaging a miserable 2.9 yards per carry.

18. Washington State (9–2, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 20
Last week: Beat Utah, 33–25
Next week: Off; next game Nov. 25 vs. Washington

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the Pac-12 record for career touchdown passes. Utah did all it could to help out the Cougars by turning the ball over seven times, and coordinator Alex Grinch’s much-improved defense also had seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Washington State is just one victory from playing in the Pac-12 title game, but Washington has won four straight Apple Cups.

19. Michigan (8–2, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 21
This week: Beat Maryland, 35–10
Next week: at Wisconsin

Michigan has not been in the national conversation for a while, but that all could change in Week 12 when the Wolverines try to beat Wisconsin and officially cast the Big Ten to the fringe of the playoff picture. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Peters has performed admirably since taking over as starter, with two touchdown passes against Maryland.

20. Stanford (7–3, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 22
This week: Beat Washington, 30–22
Next week: vs. California

Stanford got right back in the Pac-12 North race thanks to Bryce Love, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns. Love also got some help from quarterback K.J. Costello’s 211 passing yards, with key completions that helped control the clock and keep Washington’s offense off the field. The Cardinal will represent the Pac-12 North in the conference title game if Washington State loses to Washington.

21. West Virginia (7–3, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 23
Last week: Beat Kansas State, 28–23
Next week: vs. Texas

The combination of Will Grier and David Sills V worked once again as the duo combined for two scores in West Virginia’s victory over Kansas State. Grier finished with 372 yards and four touchdowns and now is second in the NCAA with 34 touchdown passes, 17 of which have gone to Sills. Kansas State has four losses this season by a touchdown or less and is in jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time in eight years.

22. South Florida (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 24
Last week: Off
Next week: vs. Tulsa

South Florida will need to win out to have a chance of securing the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid, starting with a tune-up opportunity against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are absolutely terrible on defense, ranking in the bottom third of the NCAA in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing efficiency defense. You get the point.

23. Michigan State (7–3, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 16
Last week: Lost to Ohio State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Maryland

Michigan State learned the hard way of expecting Ohio State to turn in two sloppy performances in a row. This time, it was the Spartans who looked like they did not come to play by allowing big gains in the running game and doing nothing on offense. A week after shredding Penn State for 400 yards in the air, Sparty managed 131 yards while throwing two interceptions.

24. Mississippi State (7–3, 3–3 SEC)

Previous ranking: 19
This week: Lost to Alabama, 31–24
Next week: at Arkansas

Nick Fitzgerald threw for 158 yards and ran for 66 yards and a touchdown, leading the Bulldogs to the brink of an upset. But the defense could not hold Alabama in the final stretches, allowing the Crimson Tide to march 68 yards in just 44 seconds for the winning score. The Bulldogs had the football the majority of the night, and were efficient on third down but could not capitalize and turn opportunities into points when it was most needed.

25. Boise State (8–2, 6–0 MWC)

Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Colorado State, 59-52 (OT)
Next week: vs. Air Force

Is Boise State a legitimate Top 25 team? Depends on whom you ask and what day you ask, but for now the Broncos continue to hover at the bottom of these rankings because they keep on winning. In a game they had no business taking, the Broncos came back from a 25-point first-half deficit and a 16-point hole with three minutes left to come within one game of clinching a division title.

Out: None. Maybe next week: Army, NC State, Florida Atlantic. By conference: Big Ten (5), Big 12 (4), SEC (4), Pac-12 (4), ACC (3), AAC (3), MWC (1), Independent (1).

Week 12 Power Rankings: Auburn Isn't Playing Like a Two-Loss Team

It’s getting increasingly likely that one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff field will finish with two losses for the first time in the format’s history, and the strongest candidate to make that history is the one that just dominated the No. 1 team in the nation.

Fresh off a 40–17 win over Georgia, Auburn in the best position to crash the playoffs based on who the Tigers have beaten (their blowout win over Mississippi State is looking better with time) and who they still have to play. Just imagine where they would be if they hadn’t spoiled a 20–0 lead over LSU, or if they had found a way to contain Clemson’s loaded defensive line in a September non-conference test.

If the Tigers beat Alabama on Nov. 25 and beat Georgia again in the SEC Championship, they’d have the country’s most impressive set of wins in the last month of the season. Make no mistake about it; this is a complete team, equipped with a quarterback who can stretch the field, a running back capable of 30-plus carries and an opportunistic defense capable of shutting down any SEC offense.

Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (10–0, 7–0 SEC)

Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Mississippi State, 31–24
Next week: vs. Mercer

Alabama was finally challenged this season, but it remains to be seen how this performance will look in two weeks when the SEC West crown will be decided against Auburn. In beating Mississippi State for the 10th straight time, the Crimson Tide should vault to No. 1 when the College Football Playoff rankings come out this week.

2. Oklahoma (9–1, 6–1 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat TCU, 38–20
Next week: at Kansas

TCU was supposed to be the one Big 12 team that played defense, but it was not equal to the task of slowing the nation’s best offense. Baker Mayfield threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns, cementing his Heisman frontrunner status as Oklahoma gained 533 yards to take sole possession of first place in the conference. The Sooners’ rushing attack was led by Rodney Anderson’s 151 yards and two touchdowns.

3. Clemson (9–1, 7–1 ACC)

Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Florida State, 31–14
Next week: vs. The Citadel

The ACC title game is set, and Clemson will take on Miami with a playoff spot likely on the line. Kelly Bryant completed 20 of his 30 passes, but those completions went for only 151 yards against a talented Seminoles defense. The Tigers get a chance to tune up their offense next week against an FCS opponent.

4. Miami (9–0, 6–0 ACC)

Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Notre Dame, 41–8
Next week: vs. Virginia

The turnover chain seemed to get more screen time than ever on Saturday night thanks to an onslaught of miscues by Notre Dame that led directly to 24 Miami points. The Hurricanes secured their place in the ACC title game, but they still have trap games against a decent Virginia squad and a late-November road trip to Pittsburgh before they see Clemson in Charlotte.

5. Wisconsin (10–0, 7–0 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Iowa, 38-14
Next week: vs. Michigan

Wisconsin moved to 10–0, wrapped up the unspectacular Big Ten West and continued to get little national respect. The Badgers’ defense has beat up on its divisional competition all season, with Iowa the latest victim. The Hawkeyes had only four first downs and 66 yards of offense. Running back Jonathan Taylor has all but claimed Freshman of the Year honors, rumbling for another 157 yards on 29 carries.

6. Auburn (8–2, 6­–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat Georgia, 40–17
Next week: vs. Louisiana–Monroe

The Tigers took apart a Georgia defense that was among the best in the country and did so with relative ease. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham had three touchdown passes, and Kerryon Johnson had 167 yards rushing and a touchdown on a 55-yard fourth-quarter screen pass that sealed the statement win.

7. Georgia (9–1, 6–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 2
This week: Lost to Auburn, 40–17
Next week: vs. Kentucky

The narrative of Georgia as a one-dimensional team on offense came to fruition as freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was unable to compensate when Auburn’s front seven shut down the running game. Georgia ends the season with Kentucky and Georgia Tech before the SEC title game.

8. Notre Dame (8–2)

Previous ranking: 5
This week: Lost to Miami, 41–8
Next game: vs. Navy

The question the Irish needed to be answered before Saturday's game was whether they could do enough with Brandon Wimbush in the passing game to balance the running attack. The answer turned out to be an emphatic no, as the Hurricanes harrassed Wimbush all night to end any playoff hopes in South Bend. Turning the ball over four times didn’t help either.

9. Ohio State (8­-2, 6–1 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 12
This week: Beat Michigan State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Illinois

It’s baffling how Ohio State can look like the biggest fraud in college football one week and one of the nation’s best teams the next. In a rout of Michigan State, the Buckeyes set the stage to win their division if they can take their next two games. Ohio State’s defense showed up in a big way, holding Michigan State to 195 yards of offense, racking up six sacks and forcing three turnovers.

10. UCF (9–0, 6–0 AAC)

Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat UConn, 49–24
Next week: at Temple

The Knights don’t have many flaws, but the ones they do have don’t bode well for when the schedule gets touger in the final weeks. Quarterback McKenzie Milton continued his steady play with 311 yards passing, but the defense did let UConn have success on the ground. UCF is also one of the most penalized teams in the nation and added 10 more to its count on Saturday.

11. USC (9–2, 7–1 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Colorado, 38–24
Next week: vs. UCLA

Sam Darnold threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns as USC jumped out to a 27–0 lead in Boulder en route to clinching the Pac–12 South title. While the victory wasn’t anything special, the Trojans have now won three in a row since a blowout loss to Notre Dame and are trending in the right direction, even though a playoff berth seems like a long shot at this point.

12. Penn State (8–2, 5–2 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 14
Last week: Beat Rutgers, 35­–6
Next week: vs. Nebraska

In the last three weeks, Penn State went from being ranked No. 2 in two polls and having the player many saw as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner to 8–2 and on the outside looking in on the major bowls. Saquon Barkley had 35 yards on the ground against Rutgers, his third straight game with less than 100 yards rushing.

13. TCU (8–2, 5-2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 9
This week: Lost to Oklahoma, 38–20
Next game: at Texas Tech

All is not lost for the Horned Frogs, who still go to the Big 12 title game if they win out. Their vaunted defense simply could not slow Oklahoma down in the first half, and by the time they did, the game was completely out of reach. TCU gave up 13 plays of 10 or more yards in the first half alone.

14. Washington (8–2, 5–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 8
This week: Lost to Stanford, 30–22
Next week: vs. Utah

Washington shouldn't have to worry about the East Coast viewership of its late-night games anymore now that the playoff is out of the question. Jake Browning threw for 190 yards and Myles Gaskin ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns, but the Huskies’ inability to sustain drives did them in.

15. Oklahoma State (8–2, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 15
Last week: Beat Iowa State, 49–42
Next week: vs. Kansas State

Oklahoma State rallied twice–once early and once late–to keep its conference title game hopes alive, beating Iowa State for the sixth year in a row. Mason Rudolph had 376 yards passing and three touchdowns, including two in the final six minutes, as the Cowboys used a last–minute interception to thwart the upset attempt. The Cowboys’ defense looked like it still hadn’t recovered from Bedlam, giving up 30 first downs and 491 yards to Iowa State.

16. Memphis (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 17
This week: Off
Next week: vs. SMU

Memphis will wrap up the AAC West and a spot in the conference title game with a victory over SMU, which has lost three straight to the Tigers. While their offense is explosive, their lack of discipline could hold them back: The Tigers are averaging more than eight penalties per game.

17. Virginia Tech (7–3, 3–3 ACC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Lost to Georgia Tech, 28–22
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh

Georgia Tech completed two passes the entire game against Virginia Tech, but those two completions went 60 and 80 yards for touchdowns, the last providing the game-winning score. The Hokies had trouble moving the ball for the second consecutive week, averaging a miserable 2.9 yards per carry.

18. Washington State (9–2, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 20
Last week: Beat Utah, 33–25
Next week: Off; next game Nov. 25 vs. Washington

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the Pac-12 record for career touchdown passes. Utah did all it could to help out the Cougars by turning the ball over seven times, and coordinator Alex Grinch’s much-improved defense also had seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Washington State is just one victory from playing in the Pac-12 title game, but Washington has won four straight Apple Cups.

19. Michigan (8–2, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 21
This week: Beat Maryland, 35–10
Next week: at Wisconsin

Michigan has not been in the national conversation for a while, but that all could change in Week 12 when the Wolverines try to beat Wisconsin and officially cast the Big Ten to the fringe of the playoff picture. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Peters has performed admirably since taking over as starter, with two touchdown passes against Maryland.

20. Stanford (7–3, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 22
This week: Beat Washington, 30–22
Next week: vs. California

Stanford got right back in the Pac-12 North race thanks to Bryce Love, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns. Love also got some help from quarterback K.J. Costello’s 211 passing yards, with key completions that helped control the clock and keep Washington’s offense off the field. The Cardinal will represent the Pac-12 North in the conference title game if Washington State loses to Washington.

21. West Virginia (7–3, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 23
Last week: Beat Kansas State, 28–23
Next week: vs. Texas

The combination of Will Grier and David Sills V worked once again as the duo combined for two scores in West Virginia’s victory over Kansas State. Grier finished with 372 yards and four touchdowns and now is second in the NCAA with 34 touchdown passes, 17 of which have gone to Sills. Kansas State has four losses this season by a touchdown or less and is in jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time in eight years.

22. South Florida (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 24
Last week: Off
Next week: vs. Tulsa

South Florida will need to win out to have a chance of securing the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid, starting with a tune-up opportunity against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are absolutely terrible on defense, ranking in the bottom third of the NCAA in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing efficiency defense. You get the point.

23. Michigan State (7–3, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 16
Last week: Lost to Ohio State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Maryland

Michigan State learned the hard way of expecting Ohio State to turn in two sloppy performances in a row. This time, it was the Spartans who looked like they did not come to play by allowing big gains in the running game and doing nothing on offense. A week after shredding Penn State for 400 yards in the air, Sparty managed 131 yards while throwing two interceptions.

24. Mississippi State (7–3, 3–3 SEC)

Previous ranking: 19
This week: Lost to Alabama, 31–24
Next week: at Arkansas

Nick Fitzgerald threw for 158 yards and ran for 66 yards and a touchdown, leading the Bulldogs to the brink of an upset. But the defense could not hold Alabama in the final stretches, allowing the Crimson Tide to march 68 yards in just 44 seconds for the winning score. The Bulldogs had the football the majority of the night, and were efficient on third down but could not capitalize and turn opportunities into points when it was most needed.

25. Boise State (8–2, 6–0 MWC)

Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Colorado State, 59-52 (OT)
Next week: vs. Air Force

Is Boise State a legitimate Top 25 team? Depends on whom you ask and what day you ask, but for now the Broncos continue to hover at the bottom of these rankings because they keep on winning. In a game they had no business taking, the Broncos came back from a 25-point first-half deficit and a 16-point hole with three minutes left to come within one game of clinching a division title.

Out: None. Maybe next week: Army, NC State, Florida Atlantic. By conference: Big Ten (5), Big 12 (4), SEC (4), Pac-12 (4), ACC (3), AAC (3), MWC (1), Independent (1).

What We Learned About Kentucky From Its Almost-Upsets And More From Opening Weekend

Over a largely ho-hum, headline-less opening weekend, college basketball had two of those games that inspire those hey-you-might-want-to-check-this-out tweets and texts, the kind that alert the uninitiated that something worthwhile and dramatic might be in development. (“Hey, Peter” games, in other words.) Both teased the same potential cause for excitement: vaunted Kentucky losing at home to a mid-major.

First up on Friday was Utah Valley, coached by former Wildcat Mark Pope—a forward on the ’96 Untouchables national title team—and fresh off a 6–8 finish in the WAC. On the back of a 16–2 run, the Wolverines took a nine-point lead into halftime...only for Kentucky to bury them under a flurry of turnovers and fast breaks, pulling away for a 10-point win.

On Sunday the Wildcats hosted Vermont, the experienced America East favorite who was playing its first game of the season. Kentucky led by 12 at the break but this time saw its lead erode in the final 10 minutes, with the Catamounts eventually getting to within three points with 3:32 to play. The margin was the same entering the game’s last minute, where Vermont actually got two chances to tie it in the final eight seconds, only to miss both, allowing the Wildcats to survive.

So what do we know about Kentucky now? Should struggling against two mid-majors at Rupp be cause for concern? Should ultimately putting them away be seen as encouraging? Are the Wildcats too young? Will their lack of shooters doom them? Are these warning signs? Are they in for a rude awakening on Tuesday against Kansas, or in late December, or in SEC play? Is Kentucky as good as expected, or—gulp—overrated?

The truth is as obvious as it is simple: Who knows?

Sure, if the Wildcats had lost one or both of those games, alarms would have sounded across Big Blue Nation, and cheers of Schadenfreude would have gone up around the country. And there were elements of their wins that seem to offer insight into how this team might excel: the potentially unmatchable explosiveness of its transition game, the effectiveness of its stretches of zone defense. But the clearest takeaway thus far on perhaps the most intriguing and unpredictable high-profile team in the country is that they are just what we expected: a work in progress.

“Part of this early is going to be about survival,” Calipari told reporters on Friday. So far, so good. The other part of it is going to be figuring out just how they play; Calipari has said the goal is to be “random”, and after Sunday’s win, when wondering aloud who his go-to player might be, Calipari said, “If you know, write me a note.”

While Kentucky might be a rather extreme case given its extreme youth (a rotation of six freshmen and two sophomores who were bit players last season) and the rather extreme scrutiny under which it perpetually exists (see: this column), its case can be a helpful reminder that early games offer an idea of starting points, not end points. These are young players growing into their games and teams attempting to congeal on the fly, often with a substantial turnover of personnel. Who we see now might not be who we see in March. It might not even be who we see in December.

Which brings us to Tuesday’s Champions Classic. Kentucky will play Kansas in a meeting of bluebloods currently ranked in the top five in the polls. Here we will find out some things about the Wildcats—glimpses into how their strengths and weaknesses translate to a marquee, neutral-floor matchup with an elite opponent. But with a team so young, with so much left still to learn about itself (did Calipari end up getting that note?), we won’t really be getting answers for a while. At some point, we’ll know whether this weekend’s games were warning signs or opportunities for growth. Until then, we’ll be figuring teams out as they are.

If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, you likely missed last week’s column or errantly clicked the wrong link. In the case of the former, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s new weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’ll be sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and maybe share a good recipe or two, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

As the scandal turns...

While no new bombshells have been dropped in the ongoing FBI probe into college basketball recruiting, last week did offer a few bits of news that could prove to be a bigger deal down the line. For one, eight of the 10 men arrested in the sting were indicted. There was also the revelation that, according to the federal indictment, now-former Louisville coach Rick Pitino knew about the scheme to pay guard Brian Bowen to play for the Cardinals. USC guard De’Anthony Melton was held out of the team’s opener due to eligibility concerns stemming from the investigation into indicted former Trojans assistant Tony Bland. And the state of Alabama briefly took center stage in the scandal, as Collin Sexton was suspended for one game and ESPN reported that Auburn could fire coach Bruce Pearl for his refusal to cooperate with their internal investigation.

What might be of the greatest import is that two of the men arrested in the probe were not indicted along with the others last week and reportedly are no longer referred to by name in the indictments at all. Those two are Brad Augustine, the former head of the Adidas-backed 1-Family youth basketball program, and financial planner Munish Sood. Reasonable speculation points to those two possibly cooperating with investigators in order to reduce their own punishment. If that includes providing information on further targets of the probe, those who engaged in similar schemes with Augustine and/or Sood are likely sweating right now. And we may soon find out who, if anyone, that is.

On the court, the team most directly impacted by the investigation thus far—Louisville, which fired its coach and suspended a key freshman—needed a late rally to put away George Mason at home in its opener on Sunday. “I was anxious,” David Padgett, Pitino's 32-year-old assistant-turned-replacement, told reporters after. “I think our guys had some nerves too. I’m glad it’s out of the way now.”

ICYMI

If you didn’t catch any college basketball during its opening weekend, you really missed, uh ... well, there were some games. Always nice to have games to watch. Some of them were pretty fun. And if you’re a fan of a certain team, you probably got to see them play, so that’s nice.

Other than that, it was another quiet, under-the-radar opening weekend. There are few deader horses in college hoops circles than decrying the lackluster way the season tips off, but every time it comes around again, barely registering in the larger American sports landscape, it’s hard not to bring it up again. And it may be especially so this year. If you ask the average casual sports fan what’s going on in college basketball, what are the odds they bring up anything to do with the games themselves rather than the FBI investigation and its fallout? And the latter wouldn’t be wrong. It’s easy to see why the off-court issues would be juicier and more intriguing than a forgettable slate of games that will have little impact on anything come March.

The case for a stronger opening weekend is obvious and easy. Who wouldn’t want to see more marquee matchups between ranked teams or ESPN to revive the 24-hour marathon (which died a quiet death this year), or for there to be some high-profile interconference challenge? It’s hard to know how much that would really change things, and how much room there would be within the given sports news cycle—with football dominating Saturday through Monday, and Thursday too—to put on anything better than the existing Champions Classic. But it sure wouldn’t hurt to try.

High Five

Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the opening weekend.

1. Texas A&M: This weekend’s most impressive win came at a military base in Germany, where the shorthanded Aggies—without star forward Robert Williams and point guard J.J. Caldwell—not only survived West Virginia’s press but turned an early 13-point deficit into a 33-point win against the nation’s No. 11 team. Tyler Davis (who shot 10-for-12) and Admon Gilder each scored 23 points. That’s how you kick things off with a statement.

2. Indiana State: Larry Bird did not walk through that door, but the Sycamores handed Indiana its first season-opening loss at Assembly Hall since 1984. Kenpom.com gave Indiana State just a 9% chance of the upset. So how’d they do it? Making 17 of 26 threes sure helped. With the Hoosiers making just four of 18, that meant three-point shooting gave State a 39-point advantage in their 21-point win.

3. Missouri: Fans who tuned in (or packed Mizzou Arena) on Friday night eager to see Michael Porter Jr.’s debut may have been disappointed to see the all-everything freshman on the bench for all but the game’s first two minutes, due to a balky hip. But junior Kevin Puryear’s 17 points and eight rebounds in his stead helped the Tigers earn a quality win even without their star, beginning the Cuonzo Martin era on the right note.

4. UC-Riverside: Coming off an 8–21 season, the Highlanders hadn’t beaten a power-conference team since knocking off Washington State in 2011. While the Cal team they beat on Friday is projected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12, Riverside’s 74–66 road win will likely be one of the best by a Big West team this year.

5. Georgia Southern: A home loss to a Sun Belt team is not the way Danny Manning wanted to start Year 4 in Winston-Salem. But there were some happy faces in town, as Eagles guard Mike Hughes is a Winston-Salem native and nearly played the hero on a late three-point try that rimmed out. Instead, teammate Ike Smith was fouled on the put-back and sank the winning free throws.

Top of the Classes

Senior: Yuta Watanabe, George Washington guard

The 6' 8" Japan native did a little of everything in the Colonials’ season-opening win over Howard, putting up 19 points (on 72.7% shooting), 11 rebounds, seven (!) blocks and three assists ... all while using just 14.6% of his team’s possessions. Pretty efficient night for a guy who should be using much more in most games.

Junior: Geno Crandall, North Dakota guard

Crandall had just four points at halftime of the Fighting Hawks’ opener, then apparently downed a jug of Michael’s Secret Stuff. He scored 37 points—including 22 in a row—after halftime for a total of 41 (on 78.9% shooting, including 7-for-9 from three) and sealed an 83-80 win over Troy with a trio of free throws in the final seconds.

Sophomore: Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Davidson guard

Gudmundsson narrowly missed what likely would have been the first-ever D-I triple double by a player born in Iceland, registering 24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in the Wildcats’ blowout win over Charleston Southern.

Freshman: Brandon McCoy, UNLV forward

The Runnin’ Rebels’ most prized recruit didn’t take long to make his impact felt, with game-highs of 25 points and 18 rebounds in UNLV’s 42-point win over Florida A&M. The most impressive part: he did it all in just 23 minutes. It’s early, but the excitement around McCoy looks justified so far.

Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Arizona guard Allonzo Trier, the Pac-12’s preseason player of the year, who averaged 31.0 points over two wins this weekend. So, Allonzo, tell us about the best...

...place to eat back home. “I’d say Ivar’s. It’s a big-time place. Big on seafood back home. There’s great fish and chips, great clam chowder. It’s a Pacific Northwest thing.”

...show to binge-watch.Stranger Things is a great one. I haven’t had time to binge-watch the second season, but I did the first one. I finished the first episode [of Season 2] but I’ve been kind of busy with practice and school lately so I haven’t had a chance to get back. Eleven is my favorite [character]. It’s cool what she does for the show, and it’s always kinda scary when she does that thing where her nose starts to bleed. But I think she’s cool, especially when she gets around the boys.”

...month of the year. “For me it would be probably March. You’ve got the Pac-12 tournament, you’re starting the NCAA tournament, wrapping up the season but getting into the best part of the year as a college basketball player. It’s just an exciting time. And it’s starting to get warm again before summer.”

Social Media Post of the Week

Assigned Viewing

Champions Classic, Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Picking between these two games would be difficult and picking any others would be dishonest. First up are Duke and Michigan State. The Blue Devils look scary as advertised so far, with Marvin Bagley III averaging 24.5 points and 10 rebounds through two games and Grayson Allen getting his groove back to the tune of 20.0 points and 10-for-15 three-point shooting. And for the Spartans, freshman Jaren Jackson (13 points, 13 boards vs. North Florida) might open some eyes alongside Miles Bridges Tuesday night.

In the second game, between Kansas and Kentucky, watch to see who establishes control of the game’s rhythm. Bill Self said his team was playing too slowly through their exhibition games, while the Wildcats most excelled this weekend when pushing the ball up the floor. If the Jayhawks want to play fast, Kentucky will likely be happy to oblige.

Before You’re Dismissed...

• According to ESPN’s Arash Markazi, the three UCLA players arrested for shoplifting in China—LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley—are expected to remain in Hangzhou for “a week or two.” For a legal breakdown of the situation, check out this piece from SI’s legal expert Michael McCann.

• Between that and Georgia Tech’s suspension of Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson for accepting impermissible benefits, that UCLA-Tech game in China sure turned out to be quite a showcase for American college hoops.

• Speaking of bad looks, here’s a troubling story on New Mexico coach Paul Weir’s alleged advice to players about reporting potential concussions and head injuries. Weir reportedly told his players that he was going to “fight” the school’s 10-day sit-out policy for players diagnosed with concussions and warned them to consider said policy before reporting concerns to trainers. Weir defended himself to NMFishbowl.com by alleging players had used the policy to avoid conditioning in the past and that he wanted “to remind [players] to think very carefully before they describe their feelings to medical personnel.” That seems to imply a chilling effect was intended. Players shouldn’t be encouraged to second-guess themselves before seeking medical attention.

• He only played 17 minutes, but Wichita State had to like what it saw from sophomore guard Landry Shamet—17 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three—as he works his way back from surgery to repair a broken foot this summer.

• This week’s laughable NCAA ruling comes from Houston, where guard Rob Gray was suspended one game for...playing in a church league game over the summer, for which coach Kelvin Sampson says Gray’s friend paid his $5 entry fee. Thank goodness someone is protecting the sanctity of this sport.

• Rough news for Ivy League contender Yale, who NBC reports will be without guard Makai Mason for up to two months due to a stress fracture in his foot and also lost freshman forward Jordan Bruner for the season to a torn meniscus.

• There’s an ugly situation developing at Creighton, where the Omaha World-Herald reports two employees of the school’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center were placed “under review” for publicly criticizing basketball coach Greg McDermott for the “selfish and reckless” act of presenting an NCAA tournament ring to former guard Mo Watson and posting photos of him doing so on Twitter. Watson was arrested on charges of first-degree sexual assault for an alleged rape at a party last February; charges were dropped this summer, but Watson plead no contest to misdemeanor assault for touching the inner thigh of another woman at the same party. The two employees, Lauren Ward and Meredith Lierk, published a letter in the school’s online student newspaper admonishing McDermott. A university spokesman told the World-Herald that Ward and Lierk should have approached McDermott directly.

• Arizona fans should check out this roundtable of former Wildcats Steve Kerr, Bruce Fraser, Craig McMillan and Tom Tolbert reminiscing about their time in Tucson. As for the current Wildcats, it looks like the combo of Trier and Deandre Ayton should be as enjoyable to watch as we’d hoped. Check out this Ayton alley-oop to boot.

• Not sure how to end these just yet. But if you’re looking for something to watch besides college basketball this week, go see Lady Bird.

What We Learned About Kentucky From Its Almost-Upsets And More From Opening Weekend

Over a largely ho-hum, headline-less opening weekend, college basketball had two of those games that inspire those hey-you-might-want-to-check-this-out tweets and texts, the kind that alert the uninitiated that something worthwhile and dramatic might be in development. (“Hey, Peter” games, in other words.) Both teased the same potential cause for excitement: vaunted Kentucky losing at home to a mid-major.

First up on Friday was Utah Valley, coached by former Wildcat Mark Pope—a forward on the ’96 Untouchables national title team—and fresh off a 6–8 finish in the WAC. On the back of a 16–2 run, the Wolverines took a nine-point lead into halftime...only for Kentucky to bury them under a flurry of turnovers and fast breaks, pulling away for a 10-point win.

On Sunday the Wildcats hosted Vermont, the experienced America East favorite who was playing its first game of the season. Kentucky led by 12 at the break but this time saw its lead erode in the final 10 minutes, with the Catamounts eventually getting to within three points with 3:32 to play. The margin was the same entering the game’s last minute, where Vermont actually got two chances to tie it in the final eight seconds, only to miss both, allowing the Wildcats to survive.

So what do we know about Kentucky now? Should struggling against two mid-majors at Rupp be cause for concern? Should ultimately putting them away be seen as encouraging? Are the Wildcats too young? Will their lack of shooters doom them? Are these warning signs? Are they in for a rude awakening on Tuesday against Kansas, or in late December, or in SEC play? Is Kentucky as good as expected, or—gulp—overrated?

The truth is as obvious as it is simple: Who knows?

Sure, if the Wildcats had lost one or both of those games, alarms would have sounded across Big Blue Nation, and cheers of Schadenfreude would have gone up around the country. And there were elements of their wins that seem to offer insight into how this team might excel: the potentially unmatchable explosiveness of its transition game, the effectiveness of its stretches of zone defense. But the clearest takeaway thus far on perhaps the most intriguing and unpredictable high-profile team in the country is that they are just what we expected: a work in progress.

“Part of this early is going to be about survival,” Calipari told reporters on Friday. So far, so good. The other part of it is going to be figuring out just how they play; Calipari has said the goal is to be “random”, and after Sunday’s win, when wondering aloud who his go-to player might be, Calipari said, “If you know, write me a note.”

While Kentucky might be a rather extreme case given its extreme youth (a rotation of six freshmen and two sophomores who were bit players last season) and the rather extreme scrutiny under which it perpetually exists (see: this column), its case can be a helpful reminder that early games offer an idea of starting points, not end points. These are young players growing into their games and teams attempting to congeal on the fly, often with a substantial turnover of personnel. Who we see now might not be who we see in March. It might not even be who we see in December.

Which brings us to Tuesday’s Champions Classic. Kentucky will play Kansas in a meeting of bluebloods currently ranked in the top five in the polls. Here we will find out some things about the Wildcats—glimpses into how their strengths and weaknesses translate to a marquee, neutral-floor matchup with an elite opponent. But with a team so young, with so much left still to learn about itself (did Calipari end up getting that note?), we won’t really be getting answers for a while. At some point, we’ll know whether this weekend’s games were warning signs or opportunities for growth. Until then, we’ll be figuring teams out as they are.

If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, you likely missed last week’s column or errantly clicked the wrong link. In the case of the former, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s new weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’ll be sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and maybe share a good recipe or two, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

As the scandal turns...

While no new bombshells have been dropped in the ongoing FBI probe into college basketball recruiting, last week did offer a few bits of news that could prove to be a bigger deal down the line. For one, eight of the 10 men arrested in the sting were indicted. There was also the revelation that, according to the federal indictment, now-former Louisville coach Rick Pitino knew about the scheme to pay guard Brian Bowen to play for the Cardinals. USC guard De’Anthony Melton was held out of the team’s opener due to eligibility concerns stemming from the investigation into indicted former Trojans assistant Tony Bland. And the state of Alabama briefly took center stage in the scandal, as Collin Sexton was suspended for one game and ESPN reported that Auburn could fire coach Bruce Pearl for his refusal to cooperate with their internal investigation.

What might be of the greatest import is that two of the men arrested in the probe were not indicted along with the others last week and reportedly are no longer referred to by name in the indictments at all. Those two are Brad Augustine, the former head of the Adidas-backed 1-Family youth basketball program, and financial planner Munish Sood. Reasonable speculation points to those two possibly cooperating with investigators in order to reduce their own punishment. If that includes providing information on further targets of the probe, those who engaged in similar schemes with Augustine and/or Sood are likely sweating right now. And we may soon find out who, if anyone, that is.

On the court, the team most directly impacted by the investigation thus far—Louisville, which fired its coach and suspended a key freshman—needed a late rally to put away George Mason at home in its opener on Sunday. “I was anxious,” David Padgett, Pitino's 32-year-old assistant-turned-replacement, told reporters after. “I think our guys had some nerves too. I’m glad it’s out of the way now.”

ICYMI

If you didn’t catch any college basketball during its opening weekend, you really missed, uh ... well, there were some games. Always nice to have games to watch. Some of them were pretty fun. And if you’re a fan of a certain team, you probably got to see them play, so that’s nice.

Other than that, it was another quiet, under-the-radar opening weekend. There are few deader horses in college hoops circles than decrying the lackluster way the season tips off, but every time it comes around again, barely registering in the larger American sports landscape, it’s hard not to bring it up again. And it may be especially so this year. If you ask the average casual sports fan what’s going on in college basketball, what are the odds they bring up anything to do with the games themselves rather than the FBI investigation and its fallout? And the latter wouldn’t be wrong. It’s easy to see why the off-court issues would be juicier and more intriguing than a forgettable slate of games that will have little impact on anything come March.

The case for a stronger opening weekend is obvious and easy. Who wouldn’t want to see more marquee matchups between ranked teams or ESPN to revive the 24-hour marathon (which died a quiet death this year), or for there to be some high-profile interconference challenge? It’s hard to know how much that would really change things, and how much room there would be within the given sports news cycle—with football dominating Saturday through Monday, and Thursday too—to put on anything better than the existing Champions Classic. But it sure wouldn’t hurt to try.

High Five

Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the opening weekend.

1. Texas A&M: This weekend’s most impressive win came at a military base in Germany, where the shorthanded Aggies—without star forward Robert Williams and point guard J.J. Caldwell—not only survived West Virginia’s press but turned an early 13-point deficit into a 33-point win against the nation’s No. 11 team. Tyler Davis (who shot 10-for-12) and Admon Gilder each scored 23 points. That’s how you kick things off with a statement.

2. Indiana State: Larry Bird did not walk through that door, but the Sycamores handed Indiana its first season-opening loss at Assembly Hall since 1984. Kenpom.com gave Indiana State just a 9% chance of the upset. So how’d they do it? Making 17 of 26 threes sure helped. With the Hoosiers making just four of 18, that meant three-point shooting gave State a 39-point advantage in their 21-point win.

3. Missouri: Fans who tuned in (or packed Mizzou Arena) on Friday night eager to see Michael Porter Jr.’s debut may have been disappointed to see the all-everything freshman on the bench for all but the game’s first two minutes, due to a balky hip. But junior Kevin Puryear’s 17 points and eight rebounds in his stead helped the Tigers earn a quality win even without their star, beginning the Cuonzo Martin era on the right note.

4. UC-Riverside: Coming off an 8–21 season, the Highlanders hadn’t beaten a power-conference team since knocking off Washington State in 2011. While the Cal team they beat on Friday is projected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12, Riverside’s 74–66 road win will likely be one of the best by a Big West team this year.

5. Georgia Southern: A home loss to a Sun Belt team is not the way Danny Manning wanted to start Year 4 in Winston-Salem. But there were some happy faces in town, as Eagles guard Mike Hughes is a Winston-Salem native and nearly played the hero on a late three-point try that rimmed out. Instead, teammate Ike Smith was fouled on the put-back and sank the winning free throws.

Top of the Classes

Senior: Yuta Watanabe, George Washington guard

The 6' 8" Japan native did a little of everything in the Colonials’ season-opening win over Howard, putting up 19 points (on 72.7% shooting), 11 rebounds, seven (!) blocks and three assists ... all while using just 14.6% of his team’s possessions. Pretty efficient night for a guy who should be using much more in most games.

Junior: Geno Crandall, North Dakota guard

Crandall had just four points at halftime of the Fighting Hawks’ opener, then apparently downed a jug of Michael’s Secret Stuff. He scored 37 points—including 22 in a row—after halftime for a total of 41 (on 78.9% shooting, including 7-for-9 from three) and sealed an 83-80 win over Troy with a trio of free throws in the final seconds.

Sophomore: Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Davidson guard

Gudmundsson narrowly missed what likely would have been the first-ever D-I triple double by a player born in Iceland, registering 24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in the Wildcats’ blowout win over Charleston Southern.

Freshman: Brandon McCoy, UNLV forward

The Runnin’ Rebels’ most prized recruit didn’t take long to make his impact felt, with game-highs of 25 points and 18 rebounds in UNLV’s 42-point win over Florida A&M. The most impressive part: he did it all in just 23 minutes. It’s early, but the excitement around McCoy looks justified so far.

Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Arizona guard Allonzo Trier, the Pac-12’s preseason player of the year, who averaged 31.0 points over two wins this weekend. So, Allonzo, tell us about the best...

...place to eat back home. “I’d say Ivar’s. It’s a big-time place. Big on seafood back home. There’s great fish and chips, great clam chowder. It’s a Pacific Northwest thing.”

...show to binge-watch.Stranger Things is a great one. I haven’t had time to binge-watch the second season, but I did the first one. I finished the first episode [of Season 2] but I’ve been kind of busy with practice and school lately so I haven’t had a chance to get back. Eleven is my favorite [character]. It’s cool what she does for the show, and it’s always kinda scary when she does that thing where her nose starts to bleed. But I think she’s cool, especially when she gets around the boys.”

...month of the year. “For me it would be probably March. You’ve got the Pac-12 tournament, you’re starting the NCAA tournament, wrapping up the season but getting into the best part of the year as a college basketball player. It’s just an exciting time. And it’s starting to get warm again before summer.”

Social Media Post of the Week

Assigned Viewing

Champions Classic, Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Picking between these two games would be difficult and picking any others would be dishonest. First up are Duke and Michigan State. The Blue Devils look scary as advertised so far, with Marvin Bagley III averaging 24.5 points and 10 rebounds through two games and Grayson Allen getting his groove back to the tune of 20.0 points and 10-for-15 three-point shooting. And for the Spartans, freshman Jaren Jackson (13 points, 13 boards vs. North Florida) might open some eyes alongside Miles Bridges Tuesday night.

In the second game, between Kansas and Kentucky, watch to see who establishes control of the game’s rhythm. Bill Self said his team was playing too slowly through their exhibition games, while the Wildcats most excelled this weekend when pushing the ball up the floor. If the Jayhawks want to play fast, Kentucky will likely be happy to oblige.

Before You’re Dismissed...

• According to ESPN’s Arash Markazi, the three UCLA players arrested for shoplifting in China—LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley—are expected to remain in Hangzhou for “a week or two.” For a legal breakdown of the situation, check out this piece from SI’s legal expert Michael McCann.

• Between that and Georgia Tech’s suspension of Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson for accepting impermissible benefits, that UCLA-Tech game in China sure turned out to be quite a showcase for American college hoops.

• Speaking of bad looks, here’s a troubling story on New Mexico coach Paul Weir’s alleged advice to players about reporting potential concussions and head injuries. Weir reportedly told his players that he was going to “fight” the school’s 10-day sit-out policy for players diagnosed with concussions and warned them to consider said policy before reporting concerns to trainers. Weir defended himself to NMFishbowl.com by alleging players had used the policy to avoid conditioning in the past and that he wanted “to remind [players] to think very carefully before they describe their feelings to medical personnel.” That seems to imply a chilling effect was intended. Players shouldn’t be encouraged to second-guess themselves before seeking medical attention.

• He only played 17 minutes, but Wichita State had to like what it saw from sophomore guard Landry Shamet—17 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three—as he works his way back from surgery to repair a broken foot this summer.

• This week’s laughable NCAA ruling comes from Houston, where guard Rob Gray was suspended one game for...playing in a church league game over the summer, for which coach Kelvin Sampson says Gray’s friend paid his $5 entry fee. Thank goodness someone is protecting the sanctity of this sport.

• Rough news for Ivy League contender Yale, who NBC reports will be without guard Makai Mason for up to two months due to a stress fracture in his foot and also lost freshman forward Jordan Bruner for the season to a torn meniscus.

• There’s an ugly situation developing at Creighton, where the Omaha World-Herald reports two employees of the school’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center were placed “under review” for publicly criticizing basketball coach Greg McDermott for the “selfish and reckless” act of presenting an NCAA tournament ring to former guard Mo Watson and posting photos of him doing so on Twitter. Watson was arrested on charges of first-degree sexual assault for an alleged rape at a party last February; charges were dropped this summer, but Watson plead no contest to misdemeanor assault for touching the inner thigh of another woman at the same party. The two employees, Lauren Ward and Meredith Lierk, published a letter in the school’s online student newspaper admonishing McDermott. A university spokesman told the World-Herald that Ward and Lierk should have approached McDermott directly.

• Arizona fans should check out this roundtable of former Wildcats Steve Kerr, Bruce Fraser, Craig McMillan and Tom Tolbert reminiscing about their time in Tucson. As for the current Wildcats, it looks like the combo of Trier and Deandre Ayton should be as enjoyable to watch as we’d hoped. Check out this Ayton alley-oop to boot.

• Not sure how to end these just yet. But if you’re looking for something to watch besides college basketball this week, go see Lady Bird.

Butch Jones Paid a Steep Price for His Own Progress at Tennessee

As his Tennessee program stood at a crossroads, Butch Jones chose a word that looks far more prescient today than it did when he uttered this statement.

“As the caretaker of Tennessee football, I also have to be a realist,” Jones said in March 2015. “I have to understand where we’re at. We’re still a couple of recruiting classes away from being where we expect to be, but that’s why you come to Tennessee—because of the expectations. We want that.”

Caretaker. It’s such an interesting word. Jones used it out of respect because Tennessee’s program really belongs to Gen. Robert Neyland and Johnny Majors and Condredge Holloway and Phillip Fulmer and Al Wilson and all the other Volunteers who built it. But as it turned out, Jones had described himself correctly. He came along at a dark time and pulled the program out of a hole. But once he got Tennessee back on level ground, he couldn’t take the Vols any higher.

If first-year Tennessee athletic director John Currie—who fired Jones on Sunday following a 50–17 loss at Missouri—makes his first football hire as an AD a good one, that should be Jones’s legacy. He was a caretaker. That word has negative and positive connotations, and in the case of Jones at Tennessee, both are true.

The week that Jones so aptly described himself, he and his staff had apologized to NFL coaches, executives and scouts who made the trip to Knoxville for Tennessee’s pro day. Two seasons removed from the end of the Derek Dooley era, the Vols didn’t have any outgoing players those people wanted to draft. But at a spring practice session the next day, Jones could look across the field and find future NFL players at multiple positions. Those were his players, the ones he had recruited to help bridge the talent gap Dooley’s recruiting had created. (Dooley signed zero offensive linemen in his final class in 2012. There are few more blatant acts of coaching malpractice.) The members of the class of 2014—when the typically up-and-down state of Tennessee produced a bumper crop and the Vols cleaned up—were coming of age and would be major contributors in ’15. Josh Dobbs, the quarterback Jones and his staff had flipped from Arizona State following their arrival in Knoxville from Cincinnati, was an established starter.

But with that surge in talent came the expectations Jones mentioned in the above quote. And though he claimed to want them, he never seemed comfortable with them during his tenure. Jones thought the Vols still needed more time. He had made “brick by brick” his mantra as he restocked the program, but he failed to understand that he had enough bricks and just needed to deploy them properly. The Vols had grown accustomed to winning big during the Fulmer era, but Lane Kiffin’s one-year tenure and the Dooley era had lowered the bar. The fan base was patient as Jones restored the roster, but once that fan base realized Jones had the talent to compete in the mediocre SEC East, it started expecting more. As the 2015 season loomed, Missouri was coming off two consecutive East titles. Georgia fans and boosters were growing increasingly frustrated with Mark Richt’s inability to dominate a division dying to be dominated. Florida had just fired Will Muschamp and replaced him with Jim McElwain. The time was right.

Then came fourth-and-14 in Gainesville. The Vols gave up a 37-yard Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown and wound up losing 28–27. That stretched Florida’s winning streak against Tennessee to 11. The following week, still reeling from the loss to the Gators, the Vols lost to Arkansas at home. That crushed their chances to win the East, but it didn’t crush the fan base’s spirit. Tennessee hadn’t won big in a while. The players needed to learn how to win such games and deal with the emotional highs and lows of the season. When Tennessee won seven of its last eight and brought back a loaded roster, 2016 felt like the year.

And it started well enough. Tennessee whipped eventual ACC Coastal champ Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. After a terrible first half the two weeks later, Tennessee stormed back and roared to a 38–28 win that snapped the losing streak against Florida. The following week, the Vols won at Georgia on a Hail Mary. Everything was falling into place.

The next week, a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M gutted the Vols’ defense. The banged-up group wasn’t expected to beat Alabama the next week, but it was expected to compete. It did not, falling 49–10. Still, all Tennessee had to do to force a rematch in Atlanta against the Crimson Tide was hold serve against the worst teams in possibly the worst division in the Power 5. And after an open date to correct any lingering issues, Tennessee went out and lost to South Carolina.

That was the beginning of the end for Jones. He bristled at the criticism that came his way as Florida stumbled into a second consecutive SEC East title. And after the Gators clinched that title with a November win at LSU, Jones was asked about the seniors who would leave Tennessee without a title of any kind. This is how he responded.

The Championship of Life was a noble enough sentiment. Jones wanted to thank those seniors for enduring some tough times in the hope of creating a better future for the program. But because Jones was so reluctant to publicly express disappointment for any of the team’s failures, it came off as him being O.K. with the fact that the Vols didn’t win the East. It wasn’t O.K. with him, but his words didn’t convey that message. It got even worse that Saturday when a Tennessee team that would have gone to the Sugar Bowl with a win lost 45–34 to Vanderbilt.

It probably was over for Jones then, but he’d made too much progress given where Tennessee was when he arrived to be denied another chance. Unfortunately, a last-second loss to Florida on Sept. 16 started a slide that still hasn’t ended. Tennessee now has lost its last game against all 13 fellow SEC teams. The Volunteers look headed for an 0–8 conference record this season. Currie had hoped to wait until the season’s end to jettison Jones, but losing a local five-star recruit (Class of 2018 offensive lineman Cade Mays) and the apathetic performance at Missouri left Currie no choice.

Despite this season’s record, Tennessee is a far better job today than when Jones got it. Given what the Vols return, a solid hire by Currie should have Tennessee winning immediately. While Florida—which also has an opening—has easier access to good recruits and might have a higher ceiling long-term, Tennessee has better facilities and might be a quicker turnaround.

In 2012, coaches contacted about the job looked at Tennessee’s roster and blanched. Charlie Strong wanted to stay at Louisville another year. Mike Gundy was destined for even bigger things at Oklahoma State. This time around, more candidates will be interested because they’ll see a roster they can win with quickly.

That roster is there because of Jones. He didn’t finish the house, and the mounting construction delays necessitated a sale to another builder, but he brought in enough bricks to lay a solid foundation. Now it’s up to Currie to find the coach who will finish the job.

A Random Ranking

This week, I’ll be ranking my favorite cartoon organizations bent on world and/or intergalactic domination. I’m sticking to intellectual property that is best known for its television cartoon version, so no Star Wars, Marvel or DC here. Also, these must be organizations with a name and a defined organizational chart. Groups of enemies that never bothered incorporating—such as the creatures that fought the ThunderCats—are ineligible.

1. Cobra

2. The Decepticons

3. V.E.N.O.M

4. The Really Rottens

5. Hordak and the Evil Horde

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide looked vulnerable in Starkville, but they survived. For the first time since the national title game, Jalen Hurts had to lead his team down the field for a score late in the fourth quarter. Just as he did in the national title game, Hurts came through. (Unfortunately for Alabama in that game in Tampa in January, so did Deshaun Watson on the ensuing possession.) The Iron Bowl doesn’t look like a guaranteed win for Alabama after the way Auburn played in its win against Georgia, but Hurts’s ability to escape the pocket and turn an opponent’s successful pass rush into a big gain will help tremendously if Auburn’s defensive front is as dominant as it was Saturday.

2. Miami

Notre Dame is a good team, and the Hurricanes crushed the Fighting Irish. The Miami team that barely squeezed by some average opponents seems to have shed its skin and emerged as a dominant group that looks capable of winning the ACC and making the playoff. Now a team unaccustomed to dealing with this kind of success must win two games it should win and then beat a team very accustomed to playing in high-stakes games (Clemson) in the ACC title game.

3. Oklahoma

The Sooners have hit their stride at the perfect time, and the way things are going, they might even be able to survive another loss and still make the playoff. If Oklahoma lost to West Virginia on Nov. 25 and still won the Big 12 title game and then Ohio State beat Wisconsin to become a two-loss Big Ten champ, the Sooners would have to be in over the Buckeyes by virtue of their head-to-head win in Columbus. But if Oklahoma keeps playing the way it has the past few weeks, this won’t be an issue at all. The Sooners will just be playing for a higher seed.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers held an Iowa team that rolled up 487 yards against Ohio State the previous week to 66 yards. That’s not a total for a quarter or for a half. That’s all Iowa gained the entire game. Wisconsin still must get past Michigan, Minnesota and the Big Ten East winner (probably Ohio State), but if the Badgers keep playing that kind of defense and freshman back Jonathan Taylor keeps averaging around seven yards a carry, they can run the table.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s impossible to single out one Auburn offensive lineman for this week’s honor because the entire group routinely reset the line of scrimmage against Georgia. The Tigers were getting such a good push that some Kerryon Johnson runs looked like solid stops for the defense and wound up being five-yard gainers. So congratulations to Austin Golson, Marquel Harrell, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Darius James.

Three and Out

1. Tennessee made its move Sunday after an embarrassing loss at Missouri. Nebraska laid a similarly huge egg Saturday with a 54–21 loss at Minnesota but stood pat on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that the Cornhuskers are keeping Mike Riley. It only means the end probably won’t come until after the season finale against Iowa on Black Friday.

The game didn’t end Riley’s tenure, but it did hand Cornhuskers defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a bit of karmic justice. A few days after Diaco criticized the rugby tackling techniques used by former coordinator Mark Banker—and used by Washington, which tackles much better than Nebraska does—Diaco’s defense got shredded for 409 rushing yards (a 9.1-yard average) by the Gophers, who entered the game averaging only 3.8 yards a carry on the season.

Banker told the Omaha World-Herald that Diaco was just making excuses, and he was correct. Coaches like Diaco who insist that only their genius can save a unit or a program tend to get exposed. Diaco’s day came Saturday.

2. Two banners flew over the Rose Bowl as UCLA beat Arizona State on Saturday to even its record at 5–5. Both banners demanded the firing of Bruins coach Jim Mora.

UCLA players noticed the banners, and quarterback Josh Rosen was not pleased. “It’s just absurd,” Rosen told the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s disrespectful, it’s disgusting. If you don’t think Coach Mora should be our coach, go talk to our AD yourself. Don’t publicly do something stupid that costs an unnecessary amount of money. That’s ridiculous. We love our coach. We all would do anything for him and know he would do anything for us.”

3. When the season began, Austin Peay hadn’t won a game since October 2014. After Saturday’s 31–24 comeback win against Eastern Kentucky, coach Will Healy and the Governors are now 7–4 and have a shot to make the FCS playoffs with a win Saturday against Eastern Illinois.

For Your Ears

On this episode of the Place At The Table podcast, SI’s own Bruce Feldman joins me to discuss the firing of Butch Jones and the playoff picture after a wild weekend.

What’s Eating Andy?

If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know I’m terrible at picking games. But my predictions of wins for Georgia and Notre Dame on Saturday were particularly egregious. Fortunately, this could be a good thing for Tennessee fans angry at the state of their program. I’ve been adamant that Jon Gruden would not take a lower (or equal) paying job that requires him to talk to 17-year-olds eight hours a day in between coaching a football team. Given that I’ve been wrong about everything else, maybe I’ll be wrong about the GRUMORS, too.

What’s Andy Eating?

I drank my first bourbon barrel-aged beer sometime in 2015 for two reasons.

• I like bourbon.

• I like beer.

That beer was Boulevard Brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Quad. (Which now is available in four-bottle packs instead of only wine bottle-sized bombers.) The aging process takes an already great beer (The Sixth Glass, a Belgian Quadrupel) and adds a rich, complex sweetness. It also jacks up the alcohol contend a tad. Bourbon Barrel quad remains my favorite beer to this day, but I bet I’d have a new favorite by now if I lived in Seattle. Brother Barrel would give me plenty of choices.

The proprietors of Elliott Bay Brewery love the bourbon barrel-aged stuff even more than I do. As they watched the progress of the craft beer business and plotted their next move, they reasoned that barrel-aged and sour beers seemed like the next big thing. So they began stashing beer in barrels beneath their building in the Lake City neighborhood, and they waited. Some beers stayed in those barrels for a year. Some stayed for 18 months. This past spring, once enough of the beers had finished the aging process, they opened Brother Barrel next door. Now, thirsty and hungry patrons can swing by and sample a rotating selection of the aged stuff while nibbling on house-made charcuterie.

When I visited, my favorite was the barleywine aged in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel. It packed a punch (9.9% alcohol), but it drank like dessert as the faint flavor of bourbon paired with caramel, vanilla and chocolate notes. The most interesting entry was Brewer’s Blend No. 4, which mixed a previous blend with a porter, a stout and an imperial stout. That mixture was then aged in a bourbon barrel, and it came out with a tart cherry kick followed by a deep, sweet finish.

The gin barrel–aged Belgian golden took me out of my bourbon barrel comfort zone, but I’m glad I left. A blend of two saisons and a tripel, this one came out of the barrel as the hairiest-chested fruity beer ever concocted.

Between sips, I ate slices of salami and prosciutto and hunks of bread dipped in olive oil. It was neither the fanciest nor the most decadent meal, but the small plates are on the menu to help prepare the palate for the next wave of barrel-aged goodness.

If you visit now, you might not encounter the same beers I did. That’s part of the fun at Brother Barrel. When one barrel gets emptied, another takes its place. I only wish I didn’t live 3,000 miles away, because I’d cherish a taste from every one.

Butch Jones Paid a Steep Price for His Own Progress at Tennessee

As his Tennessee program stood at a crossroads, Butch Jones chose a word that looks far more prescient today than it did when he uttered this statement.

“As the caretaker of Tennessee football, I also have to be a realist,” Jones said in March 2015. “I have to understand where we’re at. We’re still a couple of recruiting classes away from being where we expect to be, but that’s why you come to Tennessee—because of the expectations. We want that.”

Caretaker. It’s such an interesting word. Jones used it out of respect because Tennessee’s program really belongs to Gen. Robert Neyland and Johnny Majors and Condredge Holloway and Phillip Fulmer and Al Wilson and all the other Volunteers who built it. But as it turned out, Jones had described himself correctly. He came along at a dark time and pulled the program out of a hole. But once he got Tennessee back on level ground, he couldn’t take the Vols any higher.

If first-year Tennessee athletic director John Currie—who fired Jones on Sunday following a 50–17 loss at Missouri—makes his first football hire as an AD a good one, that should be Jones’s legacy. He was a caretaker. That word has negative and positive connotations, and in the case of Jones at Tennessee, both are true.

The week that Jones so aptly described himself, he and his staff had apologized to NFL coaches, executives and scouts who made the trip to Knoxville for Tennessee’s pro day. Two seasons removed from the end of the Derek Dooley era, the Vols didn’t have any outgoing players those people wanted to draft. But at a spring practice session the next day, Jones could look across the field and find future NFL players at multiple positions. Those were his players, the ones he had recruited to help bridge the talent gap Dooley’s recruiting had created. (Dooley signed zero offensive linemen in his final class in 2012. There are few more blatant acts of coaching malpractice.) The members of the class of 2014—when the typically up-and-down state of Tennessee produced a bumper crop and the Vols cleaned up—were coming of age and would be major contributors in ’15. Josh Dobbs, the quarterback Jones and his staff had flipped from Arizona State following their arrival in Knoxville from Cincinnati, was an established starter.

But with that surge in talent came the expectations Jones mentioned in the above quote. And though he claimed to want them, he never seemed comfortable with them during his tenure. Jones thought the Vols still needed more time. He had made “brick by brick” his mantra as he restocked the program, but he failed to understand that he had enough bricks and just needed to deploy them properly. The Vols had grown accustomed to winning big during the Fulmer era, but Lane Kiffin’s one-year tenure and the Dooley era had lowered the bar. The fan base was patient as Jones restored the roster, but once that fan base realized Jones had the talent to compete in the mediocre SEC East, it started expecting more. As the 2015 season loomed, Missouri was coming off two consecutive East titles. Georgia fans and boosters were growing increasingly frustrated with Mark Richt’s inability to dominate a division dying to be dominated. Florida had just fired Will Muschamp and replaced him with Jim McElwain. The time was right.

Then came fourth-and-14 in Gainesville. The Vols gave up a 37-yard Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown and wound up losing 28–27. That stretched Florida’s winning streak against Tennessee to 11. The following week, still reeling from the loss to the Gators, the Vols lost to Arkansas at home. That crushed their chances to win the East, but it didn’t crush the fan base’s spirit. Tennessee hadn’t won big in a while. The players needed to learn how to win such games and deal with the emotional highs and lows of the season. When Tennessee won seven of its last eight and brought back a loaded roster, 2016 felt like the year.

And it started well enough. Tennessee whipped eventual ACC Coastal champ Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. After a terrible first half the two weeks later, Tennessee stormed back and roared to a 38–28 win that snapped the losing streak against Florida. The following week, the Vols won at Georgia on a Hail Mary. Everything was falling into place.

The next week, a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M gutted the Vols’ defense. The banged-up group wasn’t expected to beat Alabama the next week, but it was expected to compete. It did not, falling 49–10. Still, all Tennessee had to do to force a rematch in Atlanta against the Crimson Tide was hold serve against the worst teams in possibly the worst division in the Power 5. And after an open date to correct any lingering issues, Tennessee went out and lost to South Carolina.

That was the beginning of the end for Jones. He bristled at the criticism that came his way as Florida stumbled into a second consecutive SEC East title. And after the Gators clinched that title with a November win at LSU, Jones was asked about the seniors who would leave Tennessee without a title of any kind. This is how he responded.

The Championship of Life was a noble enough sentiment. Jones wanted to thank those seniors for enduring some tough times in the hope of creating a better future for the program. But because Jones was so reluctant to publicly express disappointment for any of the team’s failures, it came off as him being O.K. with the fact that the Vols didn’t win the East. It wasn’t O.K. with him, but his words didn’t convey that message. It got even worse that Saturday when a Tennessee team that would have gone to the Sugar Bowl with a win lost 45–34 to Vanderbilt.

It probably was over for Jones then, but he’d made too much progress given where Tennessee was when he arrived to be denied another chance. Unfortunately, a last-second loss to Florida on Sept. 16 started a slide that still hasn’t ended. Tennessee now has lost its last game against all 13 fellow SEC teams. The Volunteers look headed for an 0–8 conference record this season. Currie had hoped to wait until the season’s end to jettison Jones, but losing a local five-star recruit (Class of 2018 offensive lineman Cade Mays) and the apathetic performance at Missouri left Currie no choice.

Despite this season’s record, Tennessee is a far better job today than when Jones got it. Given what the Vols return, a solid hire by Currie should have Tennessee winning immediately. While Florida—which also has an opening—has easier access to good recruits and might have a higher ceiling long-term, Tennessee has better facilities and might be a quicker turnaround.

In 2012, coaches contacted about the job looked at Tennessee’s roster and blanched. Charlie Strong wanted to stay at Louisville another year. Mike Gundy was destined for even bigger things at Oklahoma State. This time around, more candidates will be interested because they’ll see a roster they can win with quickly.

That roster is there because of Jones. He didn’t finish the house, and the mounting construction delays necessitated a sale to another builder, but he brought in enough bricks to lay a solid foundation. Now it’s up to Currie to find the coach who will finish the job.

A Random Ranking

This week, I’ll be ranking my favorite cartoon organizations bent on world and/or intergalactic domination. I’m sticking to intellectual property that is best known for its television cartoon version, so no Star Wars, Marvel or DC here. Also, these must be organizations with a name and a defined organizational chart. Groups of enemies that never bothered incorporating—such as the creatures that fought the ThunderCats—are ineligible.

1. Cobra

2. The Decepticons

3. V.E.N.O.M

4. The Really Rottens

5. Hordak and the Evil Horde

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide looked vulnerable in Starkville, but they survived. For the first time since the national title game, Jalen Hurts had to lead his team down the field for a score late in the fourth quarter. Just as he did in the national title game, Hurts came through. (Unfortunately for Alabama in that game in Tampa in January, so did Deshaun Watson on the ensuing possession.) The Iron Bowl doesn’t look like a guaranteed win for Alabama after the way Auburn played in its win against Georgia, but Hurts’s ability to escape the pocket and turn an opponent’s successful pass rush into a big gain will help tremendously if Auburn’s defensive front is as dominant as it was Saturday.

2. Miami

Notre Dame is a good team, and the Hurricanes crushed the Fighting Irish. The Miami team that barely squeezed by some average opponents seems to have shed its skin and emerged as a dominant group that looks capable of winning the ACC and making the playoff. Now a team unaccustomed to dealing with this kind of success must win two games it should win and then beat a team very accustomed to playing in high-stakes games (Clemson) in the ACC title game.

3. Oklahoma

The Sooners have hit their stride at the perfect time, and the way things are going, they might even be able to survive another loss and still make the playoff. If Oklahoma lost to West Virginia on Nov. 25 and still won the Big 12 title game and then Ohio State beat Wisconsin to become a two-loss Big Ten champ, the Sooners would have to be in over the Buckeyes by virtue of their head-to-head win in Columbus. But if Oklahoma keeps playing the way it has the past few weeks, this won’t be an issue at all. The Sooners will just be playing for a higher seed.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers held an Iowa team that rolled up 487 yards against Ohio State the previous week to 66 yards. That’s not a total for a quarter or for a half. That’s all Iowa gained the entire game. Wisconsin still must get past Michigan, Minnesota and the Big Ten East winner (probably Ohio State), but if the Badgers keep playing that kind of defense and freshman back Jonathan Taylor keeps averaging around seven yards a carry, they can run the table.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s impossible to single out one Auburn offensive lineman for this week’s honor because the entire group routinely reset the line of scrimmage against Georgia. The Tigers were getting such a good push that some Kerryon Johnson runs looked like solid stops for the defense and wound up being five-yard gainers. So congratulations to Austin Golson, Marquel Harrell, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Darius James.

Three and Out

1. Tennessee made its move Sunday after an embarrassing loss at Missouri. Nebraska laid a similarly huge egg Saturday with a 54–21 loss at Minnesota but stood pat on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that the Cornhuskers are keeping Mike Riley. It only means the end probably won’t come until after the season finale against Iowa on Black Friday.

The game didn’t end Riley’s tenure, but it did hand Cornhuskers defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a bit of karmic justice. A few days after Diaco criticized the rugby tackling techniques used by former coordinator Mark Banker—and used by Washington, which tackles much better than Nebraska does—Diaco’s defense got shredded for 409 rushing yards (a 9.1-yard average) by the Gophers, who entered the game averaging only 3.8 yards a carry on the season.

Banker told the Omaha World-Herald that Diaco was just making excuses, and he was correct. Coaches like Diaco who insist that only their genius can save a unit or a program tend to get exposed. Diaco’s day came Saturday.

2. Two banners flew over the Rose Bowl as UCLA beat Arizona State on Saturday to even its record at 5–5. Both banners demanded the firing of Bruins coach Jim Mora.

UCLA players noticed the banners, and quarterback Josh Rosen was not pleased. “It’s just absurd,” Rosen told the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s disrespectful, it’s disgusting. If you don’t think Coach Mora should be our coach, go talk to our AD yourself. Don’t publicly do something stupid that costs an unnecessary amount of money. That’s ridiculous. We love our coach. We all would do anything for him and know he would do anything for us.”

3. When the season began, Austin Peay hadn’t won a game since October 2014. After Saturday’s 31–24 comeback win against Eastern Kentucky, coach Will Healy and the Governors are now 7–4 and have a shot to make the FCS playoffs with a win Saturday against Eastern Illinois.

For Your Ears

On this episode of the Place At The Table podcast, SI’s own Bruce Feldman joins me to discuss the firing of Butch Jones and the playoff picture after a wild weekend.

What’s Eating Andy?

If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know I’m terrible at picking games. But my predictions of wins for Georgia and Notre Dame on Saturday were particularly egregious. Fortunately, this could be a good thing for Tennessee fans angry at the state of their program. I’ve been adamant that Jon Gruden would not take a lower (or equal) paying job that requires him to talk to 17-year-olds eight hours a day in between coaching a football team. Given that I’ve been wrong about everything else, maybe I’ll be wrong about the GRUMORS, too.

What’s Andy Eating?

I drank my first bourbon barrel-aged beer sometime in 2015 for two reasons.

• I like bourbon.

• I like beer.

That beer was Boulevard Brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Quad. (Which now is available in four-bottle packs instead of only wine bottle-sized bombers.) The aging process takes an already great beer (The Sixth Glass, a Belgian Quadrupel) and adds a rich, complex sweetness. It also jacks up the alcohol contend a tad. Bourbon Barrel quad remains my favorite beer to this day, but I bet I’d have a new favorite by now if I lived in Seattle. Brother Barrel would give me plenty of choices.

The proprietors of Elliott Bay Brewery love the bourbon barrel-aged stuff even more than I do. As they watched the progress of the craft beer business and plotted their next move, they reasoned that barrel-aged and sour beers seemed like the next big thing. So they began stashing beer in barrels beneath their building in the Lake City neighborhood, and they waited. Some beers stayed in those barrels for a year. Some stayed for 18 months. This past spring, once enough of the beers had finished the aging process, they opened Brother Barrel next door. Now, thirsty and hungry patrons can swing by and sample a rotating selection of the aged stuff while nibbling on house-made charcuterie.

When I visited, my favorite was the barleywine aged in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel. It packed a punch (9.9% alcohol), but it drank like dessert as the faint flavor of bourbon paired with caramel, vanilla and chocolate notes. The most interesting entry was Brewer’s Blend No. 4, which mixed a previous blend with a porter, a stout and an imperial stout. That mixture was then aged in a bourbon barrel, and it came out with a tart cherry kick followed by a deep, sweet finish.

The gin barrel–aged Belgian golden took me out of my bourbon barrel comfort zone, but I’m glad I left. A blend of two saisons and a tripel, this one came out of the barrel as the hairiest-chested fruity beer ever concocted.

Between sips, I ate slices of salami and prosciutto and hunks of bread dipped in olive oil. It was neither the fanciest nor the most decadent meal, but the small plates are on the menu to help prepare the palate for the next wave of barrel-aged goodness.

If you visit now, you might not encounter the same beers I did. That’s part of the fun at Brother Barrel. When one barrel gets emptied, another takes its place. I only wish I didn’t live 3,000 miles away, because I’d cherish a taste from every one.

AP Top 25: Miami Up to No. 2 After Routing Notre Dame

Miami is back in the national conversation and back near the top of the Associated Press Top 25 college football poll.

Alabama is still No. 1, thanks to their last minute victory over Mississippi State. The Hurricanes dominated Notre Dame and are now No. 2 in the polls.

Oklahoma is No. 3 after a win against TCU with Clemson and Wisconsin rounding out the top five.

Georgia, who will fall from the top of the College Football Playoff rankings at a blowout loss to Auburn, tumbled down to No. 7, one spot behind the Tigers.

Here is the rest of the AP Top 25:

1. Alabama
2. Miami
3. Oklahoma
4. Clemson
5. Wisconsin
6. Auburn
7. Georgia
8. Ohio State
9. Notre Dame
10. Oklahoma State
11. TCU
12. USC
13. Penn State
14. UCF
15. Washington State
16. Washington
17. Mississippi State
18. Memphis
19. Michigan
20. Stanford
21. LSU
22. Michigan State
23. South Florida
24. West Virginia
25. NC State

Bowl Projections: Plenty Left to Be Decided As the SEC's Picture Simplifies

Four top-10 teams fell in Week 11, altering the shape of the playoff race and creating a ripple effect that trickles all the way down to December’s first wave of bowl games through the various conference postseason contracts that fill out the lineup beyond the New Year’s Six bowls. After suffering its first loss of the season in humbling fashion, Georgia’s playoff hopes are still very much alive, but if the Bulldogs can’t upend Alabama or Auburn in the SEC title game, they’re still set up well to land in a marquee bowl—and push another conference’s second- or third-best team out of the New Year’s Six. Whichever conference that would be may have an opportunity to pick up a bowl slot or two from the bottom of the SEC pecking order, where losses by Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt have increased the likelihood that the league won’t be able to fill all of its bowl slots. In any case, the dream scenario in which the SEC lands two of the four playoff spots seems to be off the table—for now.

Below, the latest look at the projected (but far from official) matchups for all 39 bowl games leading up to the College Football Playoff national championship in Atlanta on Jan. 8. Because they take into account predicted results for the final weeks of the regular season, these projections won’t change when the new playoff rankings come out on Tuesday.

Saturday, Dec. 16

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, New Orleans (1 p.m., ESPN)
Sun Belt vs. C-USA
Troy vs. Southern Mississippi

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (2:30 p.m., CBSSN)
AAC vs. Sun Belt
South Florida vs. Appalachian State

Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas (3:30 p.m., ABC)
?MWC vs. Pac-12
Boise State vs. Arizona State

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MWC
UTSA vs. San Diego State

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Montgomery, Ala. (8 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Toledo vs. Georgia State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton, Fla. (7 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA
Temple vs. Florida International

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, Frisco, Texas (8 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA/MAC/MWC/BYU
Houston vs. Middle Tennessee

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, St. Petersburg, Fla. (8 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. AAC
Marshall vs. Akron

Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, Nassau, Bahamas (12:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MAC
Florida Atlantic vs. Northern Illinois

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Boise (4 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. MWC
Western Michigan vs. Colorado State

Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Birmingham, Ala. (12 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. SEC
Memphis vs. Boston College

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Army vs. C-USA
Army vs. Oregon

Dollar General Bowl, Mobile, Ala. (7 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Ohio vs. Arkansas State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Honolulu, (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. MWC
SMU vs. Fresno State

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Big Ten
Texas Tech vs. North Texas

Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Syracuse vs. Central Michigan

Cactus Bowl, Phoenix (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Kansas State vs. Utah

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Independence Bowl, Shreveport, La. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Florida State vs. UAB

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, New York (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Georgia Tech vs. Michigan State

Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara, Calif. (8 p.m., FOX)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Indiana vs. Washington

Texas Bowl, Houston (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. SEC
Texas vs. Cal

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Annapolis, Md. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. AAC
Virginia vs. Navy

Camping World Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big 12
NC State vs. Iowa State

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Pac-12 vs. Big 12
Washington State vs. TCU

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, San Diego (9 p.m., FS1)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Northwestern vs. Stanford

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Charlotte, N.C. (1 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Wake Forest vs. Kentucky

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas (2 p.m., CBS)
ACC vs. Pac-12
Louisville vs. Arizona

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn. (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
Texas A&M vs. Iowa

Arizona Bowl, Tucson, Ariz. (5:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Sun Belt vs. MWC
New Mexico State vs. Wyoming

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
LSU vs. Virginia Tech

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn. (12:30 p.m., ABC)
Big 12 vs. SEC
West Virginia vs. Missouri

Monday, Jan. 1, 2018

Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN2)
Big Ten vs. SEC
Michigan vs. South Carolina

Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (1 p.m., ABC)
SEC vs. ACC/Big Ten
Mississippi State vs. Penn State

New Year's Six Bowls

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Arlington, Texas (Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
Auburn vs. Notre Dame

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz. (Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
USC vs. Oklahoma State

Capital One Orange Bowl, Miami Gardens, Fla. (Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame
Clemson vs. Georgia

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Atlanta (Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-Large
UCF vs. Ohio State

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Pasadena, Calif. (Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Oklahoma vs. Miami

Allstate Sugar Bowl, New Orleans (Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Alabama vs. Wisconsin

College Football Playoff National Championship, Atlanta (Jan. 8, 8 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinal winner vs. CFP semifinal winner

Week 11's Top 10: Nobody's Perfect, but Alabama Is the Closest

Blowout losses suffered by two of the top three teams in the country have shaken up the playoff picture as the dust settles on Week 11. A two-loss team making the playoff is seeming like a more realistic possibility all the time. Who knows—maybe two of them will get in. Here’s how the top 10 teams in the country stack up:

1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide needed a fourth-quarter rally in Starkville, but they got a nice win, their best of the season. Alabama is very banged up on defense and definitely looks vulnerable, but who else in college football do you have more faith in at this point than Nick Saban and his program?

2. Miami: I’m holding off on saying The U is back, but one thing is now for certain: The U is for real. After destroying Notre Dame to remain undefeated, Miami has outscored back-to-back Top 15 opponents 69–18 this month. The Canes looked fast and focused, and they’re playing with a ton of confidence right now.

3. Oklahoma: TCU came to Norman allowing under 14 points per game and 284 yards per game. The Sooners hung 38 on them, racking up almost 400 yards in the first half alone. The Sooners’ much-maligned defense also played well, and star quarterback Baker Mayfield is cruising to the Heisman Trophy.

4. Clemson: The Tigers took care of Florida State, which now drops to 3–6, and they still have to take care of a pretty good South Carolina team on the road to end the regular season before taking on Miami. That Week 2 win over Auburn looks better and better all the time.

5. Wisconsin: A week after Iowa blew out Ohio State, the Hawkeyes were completely shut down by a salty Wisconsin defense that held the visitors to only 66 total yards. This was the best win the Badgers have had this year. Don’t let anyone fool you: If Wisconsin wins out, it will have a spot in the playoff set aside, although it certainly didn’t hurt the cause that the Buckeyes looked so impressive routing Michigan State, setting up a Big Ten title game that gives the Badgers another shot at a statement win.

6. Auburn: Running back Kerryon Johnson was spectacular as the Tigers blew out No. 1 Georgia 40–17. Auburn pulled off the first step of their daunting three-step push to make the playoff. If the Tigers can knock off Alabama and then take care of UGA again in the conference title game, they will have a great case for the top four.

7. Georgia: A terrific defense got wrecked at the hands of an inspired Auburn offense. If the Bulldogs can knock off the SEC West champion on Dec. 2, they probably still make the playoff, but the thumping Notre Dame took in South Florida took some air out of their biggest win of the season to date.

8. Ohio State: Can a team that was blown out twice, once at home and once by an unranked opponent, still make the playoff? It’s looking a lot more plausible for Ohio State, especially after the way it hammered Michigan State in every facet of the game Saturday. If the Buckeyes run the table in impressive fashion, the hunch here is that they’ll end up in the playoff.

9. Notre Dame: The Irish were blown off the field by the Hurricanes, 41–8. A regular-season finale win at Stanford (the Cardinal look formidable again coming off an upset win over Washington) would be nice, but I don’t think Notre Dame had the margin for error to survive a second loss in the eyes of the committee.

10. USC: The Trojans have won three in a row since getting embarrassed in South Bend. Their best wins are over Stanford and Arizona, and they will likely be favored over the Pac-12 North champ in the conference title game, but at this point it seems almost impossible the Pac-12 will get a team into the playoff. The Trojans are the league’s best shot.

Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley Help Alabama Escape Trouble and Win at Mississippi State

Hours after No. 1 Georgia lost on the road to an SEC rival it had dominated over the past decade, No. 2 Alabama found itself face-to-face with the same fate in Starkville, coming dangerously close to losing to Mississippi State for the first time since Nov. 10, 2007. Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, for as rarely as they are seriously tested, head coach Nick Saban and quarterback Jalen Hurts are naturals at those types of staring contests.

Hurts hit receiver Calvin Ridley for a 31-yard completion over the middle to pick up a critical third-and-15 in the final minute, then found DeVonta Smith, who broke free for a 26-yard catch-and-run touchdown, and the Tide held on for a 31–24 win that kept them perfect on the season despite an uncharacteristically imperfect night at Davis Wade Stadium. With Georgia’s loss to Auburn, Alabama should find itself atop the next College Football Playoff rankings, and the teams right behind it have been officially reminded that Hurts and his teammates don’t wilt when they get hit in the mouth in high-stakes games.

After getting by mostly on the strength of his legs over the season’s first two months, Hurts’s 10 completions on Saturday night were massive ones. Half of them went to Ridley, who racked up 171 yards and helped set up three Alabama touchdowns, showing flashes of his breakout 2015 freshman season that have become less frequent in the past two years as the Tide have struggled to find consistency in their passing game. Those big plays helped mask the mistakes of a defense that needed more help than Nick Saban units normally do.

Over their nine-game winning streak in the series, the Crimson Tide had held Mississippi State to seven points or fewer seven times, including demoralizing 31–6 and 51–3 beatdowns in the past two years that cemented the SEC West hierarchy. The Bulldogs established in the early going that this would not be one of those games, running 28 plays and chewing a total of 15:33 of game clock with their first three drives, two of which ended in Aeris Williams touchdown runs.

When it’s not working for Nick Fitzgerald and the offense, it’s really not working, as evidenced by the consecutive blowout losses to Georgia and Auburn that tamped down the hype Mississippi State had drummed up in early September. Both of those defenses jammed the gears of the Bulldogs’ offense by forcing it to the air: Fitzgerald threw a total of 62 times and completed less than 50% of his passes in those two games.

On Saturday night, Mississippi State was rewarded for committing to the run, finding holes in the middle of an Alabama front seven that was thinner than ever at linebacker—Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson were injured in last weekend’s win over LSU, exacerbating a depth issue that dates all the way back to the season opener, when Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis went down against Florida State. The Bulldogs racked up a season-high 172 yards on the ground against Alabama and held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game (38:56)—with help from a few boneheaded Alabama penalties that extended drives. Fitzgerald was held below 100 yards on the ground for the first time in his last five games, but his 21 carries kept the Alabama defense on its heels.

But after Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos’s go-ahead 41-yard field goal try clanged off the left upright with just over two minutes to go, Mississippi State stumbled into a quick three-and-out at the absolute worst time, leaving the Crimson Tide with 69 seconds of clock to put together another potential game-winning drive in regulation. Then Hurts hit Ridley and put a lid on the chaos that had threatened to turn the SEC completely on its head, in the process sending a message to the teams standing in the way of a second national title in three years.

Auburn's mauling of Georgia makes Iron Bowl biggest game left in CFB race

Auburn is playing the best football of any SEC team right now. And that should make the Iron Bowl against Alabama a doozy.

Auburn Continues to Make Playoff Noise as It Decisively Hands Georgia First Loss

AUBURN, Ala. — The College Football Playoff Selection committee’s top-ranked team went to the Loveliest Village on the Plains and left with a resounding defeat. Here are three thoughts about what comes next after Auburn’s 40-17 win against Georgia.

1. The key concern for Auburn this season was never whether the Tigers were talented enough. Athlete for athlete, they can match up with anyone. The question was whether the coaching staff could be creative enough to help that talented roster win when it faced an equally athletic team. Saturday, Auburn looked like a different team than the one that gagged away a 20-point lead at LSU less than a month ago. That team had a predictable offense that put quarterback Jarrett Stidham into impossible predicaments on third-and-long in the second half. The Tigers who beat Georgia mixed the run and the pass on early downs and stayed ahead of the sticks most of the time.

Auburn also made Georgia pay dearly for its mistakes. In the second quarter, Georgia linebacker D’Andre Walker was called for leaping over a blocker while Auburn punted. That 15-yard penalty allowed Auburn to keep possession and led to a 42-yard touchdown pass from Stidham to Darius Slayton.

After an overturned catch ruling forced Auburn to punt on its first possession of the second half, Georgia’s Mecole Hardman muffed the return. Auburn recovered on the Georgia 23-yard line and scored four plays later on a Stidham run. Later in the third, Georgia back Sony Michel was flagged for a personal foul after the Bulldogs punted, giving the Tigers the ball on the Georgia 34-yard line. Two plays later. Ryan Davis caught a short Stidham pass and streaked through the Bulldogs’ defense for a 32-yard touchdown that put Auburn up 30-7.

2. Georgia almost certainly will fall out of the No. 1 spot when the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its next rankings on Tuesday, but the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain very much alive. Georgia would be very likely to make the playoff if it beats Kentucky and Georgia Tech to close the regular season and then beats Alabama or Auburn in the SEC title game.

But to beat either the Crimson Tide or the Tigers, the Bulldogs will have to get more out of the passing game. Georgia has been able to beat most opponents with a steady diet of Nick Chubb and Michel. Auburn’s front seven manhandled Georgia’s offensive line, though. The Tigers dared freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to try to win the game with his arm. In the first half, it seemed Georgia coaches were afraid to let Fromm try—even though Fromm had completed all three of his pass attempts for 56 yards while leading the Bulldogs to a touchdown on the game’s opening drive. For the rest of the half, Fromm only attempted five passes and completed only one. One of those incompletions would have been a touchdown had Fromm not underthrown a wide-open Riley Ridley and a long gain had Ridley not dropped the ball. Georgia coaches opened up the offense in the third quarter, but only after the Bulldogs had fallen far behind. It really didn’t matter what Georgia coaches called, though. Behind a pass rush led by junior Jeff Holland, Auburn held the Bulldogs to 3.77 yards a play.

While Georgia’s loss might not necessarily keep the Bulldogs from making the playoff, it should eliminate the possibility of two SEC teams making the final four. Had Georgia and Alabama met in the SEC title game as undefeated teams, it’s possible Georgia could have lost and still been considered for the playoff by virtue of its win at Notre Dame. Now, Georgia would be out with a loss to Alabama or Auburn in the SEC title game. An Alabama loss to Georgia in the title game might open the possibility the 12-1 Crimson Tide still making the playoff, but a loss to a one-loss opponent would hurt more than a loss to an undefeated team.

3. But what about Auburn’s playoff chances? No two-loss team has made the playoff since its inception in 2014, but the Tigers could make a strong case to be the first. Auburn has losses at Clemson and at LSU. Clemson is a potential College Football Playoff team. LSU is not, but those Tigers could finish 9-3. To get into contention for the playoff, Auburn would have to beat Louisiana-Monroe next week and then beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl in Auburn on Nov. 25.

That’s a huge ask considering the Tigers haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since the Kick Six game in 2013 and have lost their last three to Alabama by an average of 15 points. If Auburn gets past Alabama, it would have to beat Georgia again in the SEC title game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But if the Tigers are as dynamic on offense and as dominant on defense as they were Saturday, they can pull off this trifecta.

How to Watch Alabama vs. Mississippi State: Live Stream, TV Channel, Time

Mississippi State will try to take a nine-game losing streak to Alabama when the Crimson Tide visit for a crucial SEC West matchup.

The Bulldogs need to win and hope for chaos to reach the SEC championship game, but a victory would go a long way in possibly reaching a New Year's Six bowl.

Alabama is on track to reach the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year and are coming off a 24–10 win over LSU.

See how to watch Saturday's game below.

How to Watch

Time: Saturday, Nov. 11, 7 p.m. EST

TV channel: ESPN

Live stream: You can stream the game using the WatchESPN app.

Remaining schedule

Alabama: vs. Mercer (11/18), at Auburn (11/25)

Mississippi State: at Arkansas(11/18), vs. Ole Miss (11/23)

How to Watch Georgia vs. Auburn: Live Stream, TV Channel, Time

Georgia travels to Alabama for a top-25 matchup with Auburn Saturday.

The No. 1 Bulldogs are 9-0 and have allowed less than 20 points in eight games this year. They have also won seven games this season by at least 21 points, and are the only team to defeat No. 3 Notre Dame this year. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have combined for 1,577 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground to help make life easier for freshman quarterback Jake Fromm who is completing 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,459 yards and 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions.

The No. 10 Tigers are 7-2 and riding a two-game winning streak after picking up their first loss in conference play to LSU on Oct. 14. Auburn has scored at least 40 points six times already this year, including all five of their SEC wins. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham has a 66.8 completion percentage 11 touchdowns and 1,996 passing yards while running back Kerryon Johnson has 868 yards and 15 scores on the year.

Last season, Georgia knocked off Auburn 13-7.

How to Watch

Time: 3:30 p.m. EST

TV channel: CBS

Live stream: You can watch the game live on Fubo TV. Sign up now for a free seven-day trial.

Next Two Games

Georgia: vs. Kentucky (11/18), at Georgia Tech (11/25)

Auburn: vs. Louisiana-Monroe (11/18), vs. No. 2 Alabama (11/25)

How to Watch LSU vs. Arkansas: Live Stream, TV Channel, Game Time

LSU hosts Arkansas in a matchup between SEC West foes Saturday.

The 6-3 Tigers are coming off a 24-10 loss to No. 2 Alabama last week. Prior to that, they were on a three-game winning streak that featured wins over Florida and Auburn. The LSU offense is dependent on running backs Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams, who have combined for 1,341 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns and 312 receiving yards.

Arkansas is last in the SEC West with a 1-4 conference record. Overall, the Razorbacks are 4-5 and have won consecutive games. After a 38-37 win over Ole Miss, Arkansas picked up a 39-38 win over Coastal Carolina. Over their last five games, the Razorbacks have allowed 216 points, including 52 in a 32-point loss to Auburn.

Last season, LSU knocked off Arkansas 38-10.

How to Watch

Time: Noon EST

TV channel: ESPN

Live stream: WatchESPN

Next Two Games

LSU: at Tennessee (11/18), vs. Texas A&M (11/25)

Arkansas: vs. No. 16 Mississippi State (11/18), vs. Missouri (11/24)