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College football takeaways: Florida's all-time bungle opens door for teams in CFP chase

Pete Thamel
·14 min read
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The University of Florida wakes up this morning with a throbbing hangover that most college students can relate to. It involves missing clothing (a tossed shoe), regrettable words in the heat of the moment (from Dan Mullen) and the searing types of headache and heartache that comes with a night of regret.

Florida self-destructed on Saturday night in The Swamp, losing to an LSU team that was equal parts underwhelming and undermanned. LSU traveled just 54 scholarship players, started a true freshman at quarterback and was missing elite cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Florida fell 37-34 when an Evan McPherson field goal went wide left as time expired after Marco Wilson extended the game-winning drive for LSU with a penalty for throwing an opponent's shoe.

The loss drops No. 6 Florida to 8-2 and essentially eliminates it from the College Football Playoff.

The Gators spent a dismal Saturday night in the fog and will now attempt to clear it, searching for their proverbial car the morning after. Their only solace is that their porous defense showed why they don’t have a prayer to beat Alabama in the SEC title game next week. That didn’t stop UF coach Dan Mullen from causing his second post-loss stir of the season.

After losing to Texas A&M earlier this season, Mullen went on an unprompted monologue about packing Florida’s stadium amid a pandemic that offended medical officials and required significant backtracking.

Mullen’s latest emotional outburst lacked any semblance of self-awareness after his team laid a dinosaur egg. “I guess the best thing to do would have been to play less games,” Mullen said, “because you seem to get rewarded for not playing this year.”

It’s rare to see a remark so universally and thoroughly panned, as Mullen's shots at ACC teams not playing this weekend and Ohio State's light schedule were a super-sized order of sour grapes.

The same teams Mullen was attempting to insult were too busy profusely thanking the Gators for their no-show against an awful LSU team to be offended by the comments. Florida’s loss also allowed a few more teams the hypothetical dream of reaching the College Football Playoff.

Florida head coach Dan Mullen stepped in it with his postgame comments for the second time this season after an embarrassing loss to LSU. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Florida head coach Dan Mullen stepped in it with his postgame comments for the second time this season after an embarrassing loss to LSU. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The Gators’ grueling hangover delivered a dawn of opportunity for a few programs around college football. Here’s a look at the playoff opportunities that reverberated through Florida’s flop.

No. 1 Alabama (10-0) – Only COVID-19 or some other virus can stop Bama, as the Crimson Tide stick in the top four even with a blowout SEC title game loss.

No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0) – We’ll spare you the arbitrary percentages that ESPN keeps using and just say that the Irish went from being virtually guaranteed a spot with a loss to Clemson to guaranteed a spot.

No. 3 Clemson (9-1) – The biggest change from Florida’s loss may deliver an uptick in hope for Clemson if it falls in the ACC title game. The one-loss A&M against two-loss Clemson debate would be feverish.

No. 4 Ohio State (5-0) – Could the one-loss Buckeyes get in if they are upset by Northwestern? Well, there’s at least an argument now.

No. 5 Texas A&M (7-1) – The Aggies still need help and could use a thorough flogging of Tennessee next week. The bummer of the Florida loss for A&M is that it devalues A&M’s lone win over a ranked team. No one is clamoring for an A&M/Bama sequel after Bama won 52-24 on Oct. 3.

No. 6 Florida (8-2) – It’s hard to see the Gators in the top four even as SEC champ. Even harder to see them as SEC champs.

No. 7 Iowa State (8-2) – Great team. Great story. Hard pass on anyone in the playoff conversation that lost to Louisiana.

No. 8 Cincinnati (8-0) – The Bearcats have two wins over ranked teams, and a victory against No. 24 Tulsa — which is ranked too low — would give them a compelling case as an undefeated league champ. The playoff committee has shown its hand already, though, dropping them to No. 8 behind a two-loss Iowa State team.

No. 11 Oklahoma (7-2) – Could the two-loss Sooners (7-2) make a leap with a blowout of ISU in the Big 12 title game? Nope. They have won six straight, but that home loss to undermanned Kansas State is tough to overcome.

No. 14 Northwestern (6-1) – It’s hard to see them jumping up and replacing Ohio State, but an upset in the Big Ten title game would earn at least a place in the conversation.

No. 15 USC (5-0) – A great comeback by the Trojans, beating UCLA 43-38 on a late touchdown drive. But no ranked wins and being last-minute miracle workers just isn’t enough.

Texas safe; Michigan trending there

The day’s big news came off the field in college football, as Texas announced in a milquetoast statement from AD Chris Del Conte that coach Tom Herman would be returning for a season.

Del Conte was never firing Herman without a replacement wired up. And Del Conte’s failure to recruit Urban Meyer to Austin and inability to lure another top candidate left him to return to Herman. Let the awkwardness begin.

It’s also becoming clearer that the other high-profile job that appeared in flux this season won’t likely be opening.

While nothing is certain at Michigan, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that embattled Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh communicated to his staff late last week that it’s likely he’ll return next season. That could be on an extension or just the final year of his deal. This notion was not reiterated by the administration to the staff, but Harbaugh returning to attempt to fix Michigan in the wake of its disappointing season is how the staff understands the situation going forward.

Even if Harbaugh and AD Warde Manuel decide upon a return for Harbaugh in their end-of-season meeting, there’s still difficult decisions looming.

Decisions have to be made soon on six of the 10 Michigan assistant coaches who have contracts that expire in January. Those do not include both coordinators, OC Josh Gattis and DC Don Brown, who are likely in the crosshairs after underperforming the past two seasons.

The prevailing thought in NFL circles is that there’s virtually no market for Harbaugh. So if he returns to Michigan as expected, one of the fundamental tensions will appear to be his ability to lure talented staff to a program that’s 2-4, lacks a sure-fire starting quarterback and hasn’t flashed much young talent this season.

San Jose State’s improbable push

Where did the most improbable undefeated season of 2020 celebrate? Well, in the most perfect 2020 place – the concourse of an empty neutral site stadium. “Right where you go to buy a hot dog and a beer,” laughed San Jose State coach Brent Brennan to Yahoo Sports. “It was literally Friday night lights.”

San Jose State overcame a 13-point halftime deficit to beat Nevada, 30-20, on Friday night. That landed the Spartans (6-0) in the school’s first-ever conference title game. They play Boise State on Dec. 18. (The location and time of the Mountain West game will be announced on Sunday, with Las Vegas looming as a possibility.)

San Jose State held camp hundreds of miles from campus, camped out in Las Vegas for essentially the final two weeks of the season and even took an extra road trip to Hawaii after they could no longer host games. They played Friday in UNLV’s old home stadium, which has been New Mexico’s temporary home this year. Of course.

But they kept on winning, behind transfer quarterback Nick Starkel, star tailback Tyler Nevens (184 rushing yards) and a stout defense that shut out Nevada in the second half.

“Hugs and tears and real joy,” Brennan said of the locker room scene. “The majority of our team has been in this struggle, we’ve been in this thing together for three or four years. When you put it in perspective, it’s so exciting and rewarding.”

Brennan went 3-22 his first two seasons at San Jose, but flipped the program from 1-11 in 2018 to 5-7 last year. Still, few could have seen an undefeated regular season this year, which has made Brennan savor it even more. He credits his team’s belief, love for each other and the old-fashioned ability to endure difficult times.

“Absolutely, the most important thing for us is how much our players care about each other,” he said. “When they line up, how hard they played for each other.”

Sarah Fuller’s inspirational run continues

Sarah Fuller’s football career, which began with a serendipitous flourish and intense flurry of attention, is starting to feel more normal.

Fuller made history again for Vanderbilt on Saturday, becoming the first female to score in a Power Five football game. She kicked a pair of extra points for Vanderbilt, which installed her as the team’s short-yardage kicker after charting her accuracy in practice.

Fuller, the starting goalkeeper on the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team, had never kicked before being asked by the Vanderbilt coaches if she’d be interested during Thanksgiving week. Vanderbilt’s specialists had been wiped out by COVID-19.

Fuller’s kickoff against Missouri on Nov. 28 made history and she became a viral sensation. In Vanderbilt’s 42-17 loss to Tennessee on Saturday, Fuller’s presence still made a splash but didn’t cause nearly the same stir.

This is in line with Fuller’s wishes, as she said after the game she’s glad that the staff judged her on her credentials. Fuller’s short-yardage accuracy, according to interim coach Todd Fitch, earned her the assignment for extra point and short field goals. Vanderbilt’s Pierson Cooke kicked a 39-yard field goal for Vanderbilt, as he’s been tabbed as their long-distance kicker.

“That’s what they’ve done this entire time,” Fuller said in a postgame Zoom. “The Vanderbilt football staff this whole time has been if I can do it, if I’m good enough to do it. It wasn’t if I was a girl or not. So that’s something I’ve really appreciated. At the end of the day, they treated me like an athlete. And that’s the best I could ask for.”

Fuller is returning to Vanderbilt this spring to play in the NCAA tournament for the women’s soccer team and to graduate. She’s transferring to North Texas for the final two years of her eligibility and has no plans to play football. That means Vanderbilt’s game at UGA on Saturday could be her final time playing football. She’s still on track to play.

“I mean, if they want me,” she said. “I’ll be there.”

Vanderbilt Commodores kicker Sarah Fuller (32) gives a thumbs up after successfully kicking her second point after attempt during a game against Tennessee on Dec. 12. (Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Vanderbilt Commodores kicker Sarah Fuller (32) gives a thumbs up after successfully kicking her second point after attempt during a game against Tennessee on Dec. 12. (Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rutgers guts out win

If there’s a scene that will sum up the sacrifices Rutgers made this season, it comes after home games. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said there are bike racks placed as barriers to separate the players from their families to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Schiano’s program had a tough week with two deaths of family members and another “that’s going any day now.”

So when a Maryland field goal fluttered wide in overtime of Rutgers’ 27-24 win, Schiano’s eyes welled up with tears. Rutgers improved to 3-5 on the season, with Valentino Ambriosio’s 42-yard field goal proving the game winner.

“Our kids have done an incredible job eight straight weeks in the Big Ten playing every week and sacrificed so much to be able to play,” Schiano said from the bus on Saturday evening. “We’re not sacrificing to be the Big Ten champs. We’re sacrificing for a chance to be able to go win, to go play in a game. To see them do that. Just makes me really happy that we can win that game.”

The turnaround has been one of the most remarkable in the sport this season. Rutgers is averaging 27.4 points per game in its eight league games, one season after averaging 5.7 ppg in league games. Rutgers is allowing a touchdown less on defense, dropping from 39.4 ppg to 32.6 ppg.

Schiano credited the collective spirit of the team for enduring.

“I was just really happy they were able to win that one for everything they’ve gone through,” he said.

Beyond the laterals

The MAC title game on Friday night will feature a surprise appearance by Ball State, which clinched a spot after surviving a late scare by Western Michigan.

The game became one of the buzziest of the day because of the wild 15-lateral play at the end, which Western Michigan appeared to score on after Ball State players took the field. But officials ruled one of the laterals illegal, which ended the game and gave Ball State a 30-27 win.

“That was crazy,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said by phone Saturday night.

The lateral ran through the highlights all day on Saturday, obscuring attention from the culmination of a remarkable rebuild by coach Mike Neu in Muncie. Neu took the job in 2016 and went 6-18 his first two years.

Ball State has climbed from 4-8 to 5-7 to this year’s 5-1 team that clinched the MAC West and a date with undefeated Buffalo on Friday night in the MAC title game. It hasn’t been a linear journey, which made Neu emotional when speaking of the team’s 23 seniors.

“There were some tough moments and ugly losses and scars,” Neu said. “I like to call them scars. I’m proud of those guys sticking together through that.”

Neu was an unexpected hire back in 2016, as he came from the New Orleans Saints where he worked as a quarterback coach. He brought the Saints’ pass-game offense – the same one LSU rode to its historic season last year – and it has gradually blossomed. Senior quarterback Drew Plitt has thrown 13 touchdowns, five interceptions and completed 66% of his passes.

“He does such a great job of operating the system,” Neu said. “Credit to him for staying the course and doing so many positive things, especially today.”

Minnesota’s miracle

Few teams faced more daunting odds on Saturday than Minnesota, which had 33 players out, dressed 55 players and played 22 freshman at Nebraska on Saturday. They got a clutch performance from a third-string kicker, three freshmen offensive linemen and the country’s most under-appreciated running back.

In the end, the Gophers outmuscled Nebraska, 24-17, to deliver Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck a win he said he’d always cherish.

“This ball will be in a case,” he said late Saturday.

Fleck’s themes for the week were derived from the Revolutionary War, where he compared the COVID-19-ravaged Gophers to General George Washington’s depleted troops at Valley Forge. Fleck is a former history teacher, and flashed his knowledge. “We were on water and flour,” he said, later adding: “We had our pitch forks and muskets and bayonets and axes. Things like that. It was the blacksmiths and the farmers and the militia. We’re going to fight the Redcoats. The kids took to the theme. It made it fun.”

Fleck described attempting to make things fun during a tenuous week where the Gophers were just one or two positive tests away from the game being canceled. They ended up with just two tight ends and limitations at both defensive tackle and on the offensive line.

Minnesota had an egg toss at the end of practice on Tuesday and a virtual roller coaster at the end of Wednesday’s practice to keep things loose.

Fittingly, Minnesota ran out the clock to end the game behind star running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who eclipsed 100 yards for the seventh straight time. He also ran out the clock with six consecutive carries for 59 yards when even the cardboard cutouts knew he was getting the ball. He finished with 108 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.

“It was very gratifying,” Fleck said. “This is something we’ll remember for a long time. It took everyone.”

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