10 takeaways: Wisconsin's ill-fated Champaign fumble shows this season is still up for grabs

To add insult to infamy, the clever antagonists at Illinois trolled No. 6 Wisconsin’s fans after pulling off this college football season’s most stunning upset. In the wake of Illinois shocking the 30-point favorite Badgers, 24-23, on a last-second field goal, the sound system at Memorial Stadium serenaded the losers with “Jump Around,” the trademark Wisconsin anthem.

Along with providing an adrenaline shot to a sleepy afternoon of college football, Illinois also managed to jumble around the Big Ten and College Football Playoff landscape by defrocking the Badgers’ College Football Playoff aspirations.

The immediate impact begins in Madison, as the Badgers (6-1) entered the game with a résumé that included four shutouts and had brow beat opponents, including Michigan, so mercilessly that they’d muscled their way into the CFP picture. The first fallout from this loss is a fullback dive out of the national conversation for the Badgers.

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The Badgers no longer appearing to be a top-10 team also impacts the national picture. Entering Saturday, there were four games remaining on the college football schedule between top-10 teams, a number that will change when the new rankings come out. That slate began with the No. 6 Badgers playing at No. 4 Ohio State this Saturday, a game that precipitously decreases in luster. The other remaining games include No. 10 Georgia against No. 9 Florida on a neutral field in Jacksonville on Nov. 2, No. 2 LSU at No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 9, and No. 7 Penn State at No. 4 Ohio State on Nov. 23.

The other games on the regular season schedule that will loom large over the playoff race include:

No. 10 Georgia at No. 11 Auburn on Nov. 16 and two games on the season’s final weekend – No. 1 Alabama at No. 11 Auburn and No. 4 Ohio State at No. 16 Michigan. Note the lack of marquee dates for contenders Oklahoma and Clemson, as neither is expected to see a top-10 team until either the league title game (Oklahoma) or the CFP (Clemson).

So what does Wisconsin’s loss mean? For Ohio State, the notion of potentially beating the Badgers twice looks a lot less daunting. (Many had assumed they’d play in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title.) For Penn State, facing Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game also doesn’t loom as that big of a threat. But this could also work against both teams, as a loss to the Badgers now could be more debilitating to both programs and the Big Ten, which is increasingly looking like it will need an undefeated champion to get into the College Football Playoff.

What about the Big Ten race? The Badgers’ loss shifts the focus to the Penn State game in Columbus in late November. It also opens the door for Minnesota to win the Big Ten West. The Gophers improved to 7-0 after a blowout of Rutgers on Saturday and thumped the Badgers, 37-15, in Madison to close the regular season last year. Minnesota is the only team with a perfect league record in the Big Ten West. The notion of Ohio State needing to beat Wisconsin twice or the Nittany Lions seeing the Badgers in the title game loomed large over their seasons, especially considering how dominant the Badgers looked early. That appears to be less of a threat after Saturday.

The Illinois team runs onto the field after kicking the game-winning field goal to beat 6th-ranked Wisconsin, 24-23, on Saturday. (Getty)
The Illinois team runs onto the field after kicking the game-winning field goal to beat 6th-ranked Wisconsin, 24-23, on Saturday. (Getty)

The loss certainly doesn’t mean the Badgers will roll over against top competition. They still have Jonathan Taylor, one of the best tailbacks in college football history. The defense that had carried the Badgers all season will certainly be formidable. They also play a ball-control, conservative style that tends to prevent huge swings. (Coach Paul Chryst went completely out of character by throwing on third-and-5 late in the fourth quarter. The ball was intercepted near midfield to set up the winning field goal, and that pass call will be second-guessed up and down State Street for decades.)

But a victory over the Badgers will mean less, and a loss to them will likely mean a pinch more after their face-plant against Illinois. (Let’s not forget, Illinois lost to Eastern Michigan earlier this season and fell by 23 at Minnesota.) A Big Ten race that had appeared to be coming into focus got jumbled around, as the forgettable tenure of Lovie Smith finally got an unforgettable moment.

Minnesota’s big opportunity

One of the bigger reverberations of the Wisconsin loss is that it puts Minnesota in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten West. When the Gophers struggled early with nail-biters against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern, few could have envisioned Minneapolis playing a critical role in the Big Ten title chase.

But the Gophers improved to 7-0 with a 42-7 win at Rutgers on Saturday and they’ll be heavily favored to go 8-0 with sputtering Maryland coming to town next week. The Gophers host Penn State on Nov. 9 and Wisconsin to close the regular season, giving the school potentially two of its biggest home games this generation. “This team can go anywhere they want to go,” Minnesota Coach P.J. Fleck told Yahoo Sports by phone on Saturday night. “We’re restoring the brand of the University of Minnesota.”

Fleck added a feel-good moment to the victory, as sophomore walk-on Casey O’Brien held for three second-half extra points. O’Brien is a four-time cancer survivor who walked on to the program and fulfilled his dream of playing college football. Fleck presented him with the game ball after the game and his teammates feted him accordingly.

“The whole team mobbed him on the field after the game,” Fleck said. “He found a way to make his dream happen, to keep working and working and working until it did. I know it’s a hold, but that’s pretty important. He’s the biggest motivator … we have on this team.”

Ohio State-Wisconsin showdown imminent

The biggest game of this week isn’t as big as expected. But it will still be highlighted by a showcase matchup of two of the country’s top tailbacks – Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor.

Dobbins enters the game coming off one of his signature performances this season, as he busted through Northwestern’s defense for 121 rushing yards, including a two-touchdown second quarter than allowed the Buckeyes to pull away in a 52-3 win. Dobbins caught a 19-yard touchdown pass and then accounted for both plays of a two-play, 73-yard touchdown drive. He finished with 121 rushing yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns.

What stood out to Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford was how locked in Dobbins was on making sure the Buckeyes were sharp for the Badgers.

“I want to make sure we’re ready for next week,” Dobbins told Alford in the second half. “That’s a big one. We’re going to find out a lot.”

It will be the rare game where Dobbins isn’t the premier tailback, as Taylor has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the elite running backs in college football history. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry this season and has 957 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns through seven games. Dobbins has 947 yards and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry with seven rushing touchdowns.

“He thrives on people doubting him,” Alford said of Dobbins. “He looks at all the GIFs of his stats and pictures on the internet now and thinks that they’re the same people who said all last spring and during training camp that he wasn’t any good.”

‘Drop it on my feet’

A salty temper has always been a part of Will Muschamp’s coaching package, the searing intensity that allowed him to drive up the coaching ranks and, occasionally, is a detriment when things get too hot.

On Saturday after a loss to Florida, Muschamp’s anger with the officials boiled over to his postgame interviews. Two Florida touchdowns featured blatant missed penalties, a holding on a 75-yard touchdown run by Dameon Pierce and an offensive pass interference on the game-winning touchdown pass from Kyle Trask to Kyle Pitts.

Muschamp boiled over on officials after that call and he needed to be restrained on the sideline. Officials apparently retreated from the conversation and then flagged Muschamp for an unsportsmanlike conduct foul.

Muschamp didn’t like anything about the officiating, as his postgame press conference revealed.

“The guy ran 40 yards away and dropped a flag. I have no idea. I’d rather them drop it on my feet.” He later added: “Drop it on my feet next time,” and, “don’t go 40 yards away and drop a flag.”

South Carolina’s 38-27 loss stalled some momentum after their historic upset of Georgia. The Gamecocks led 20-17 early in the fourth quarter before giving up three consecutive touchdowns.

Sad sacks at Syracuse

There’s a gaggle of teams that began the season ranked in the Top 25 that have plummeted out of the national conversation. Preseason rankings, we’ve long learned, aren’t worth the digital space they’re published on.

Nebraska, Washington State and Stanford are among the teams that retreated from their preseason rankings. On Friday night, Syracuse further entrenched itself among the exposed underachievers.

The Orange entered the season ranked No. 22 and entered the year energized by a 10-win season in Dino Babers’ third year in 2018 and the promise of ballyhooed new quarterback Tommy DeVito. The Orange also had a formidable defense for the first time in Babers’ tenure and returned the core of one of the country’s top special teams units.

What’s worked for Syracuse? Well, practically nothing. The Orange fell to 0-3 in the ACC with an apathetic 27-20 loss to Pittsburgh on Friday night. Syracuse’s offense ranks No. 94 nationally, as the Orange have protected the quarterback as poorly as any team in the country.

Syracuse (3-4) entered the day dead last in both total sacks allowed (35) and average sacks allowed per game (5). They are last in both by wide margins. After the game, Babers declared to the media of the offensive line: “Everybody’s job is in jeopardy.” After DeVito took a big hit in the third quarter, Babers essentially elected to not expose him to a further beating.

The real bad news for Syracuse? They likely won’t be favored in any of their final five games.

K.J. Hamler is 176 pounds of toughness

The Penn State wide receiver is known for his speed and hands, the primary reasons he had six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan — the last TD on a bomb that provided the winning margin in a taught, 28-21 victory. But the final play Hamler made was pure physical grit.

The Nittany Lions were clinging to that seven-point lead in the final two minutes, trying to run out the clock, facing a third-and-3 at their own 10-yard line. A first down would all but end the game. A punt would give Michigan solid field position for one last drive.

Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne called a creative and unexpected play. Instead of handing to running back Noah Cain, the Lions’ go-to clock killer, Hamler motioned into the backfield and then reversed course to take the handoff from quarterback Sean Clifford. He cut off left tackle and lowered his body, absorbing three hits but keeping his legs driving until he got the first down.

Game over. Penn State remains undefeated. And an undersized junior from Detroit inflicted the biggest blows upon Michigan.

The ‘Finest Hour’ that wasn’t

Coming out of halftime down 14 in a whiteout cauldron, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor that the second half would be his team’s “finest hour.”

Like many things Harbaugh has said since taking over the Wolverines, this burst of grandiosity sounded good. And like many things Harbaugh has said since taking over the Wolverines, it didn’t materialize.

Give Michigan abundant credit for effort and fortitude, two things that had seemed lacking in a wipeout loss at Wisconsin. Down 21-0, they came back. Down 28-14, they kept coming back. They just couldn’t finish it.

Down 28-21 on a fourth-and-goal with just more than two minutes remaining, Shea Patterson — who was at his resourceful, creative best in the second half — maneuvered in the pocket and lobbed a short pass to Ronnie Bell in the end zone. Bell, who has been the Wolverines’ best receiver this season, dropped the pass with safety Lamont Wade defending.

And with that, the “Finest Hour” opportunity had gone by the wayside. In a results-oriented business, the results remain short of expectation. Like so many other times under Harbaugh, this was just another road loss to a ranked team.

Jeremy Pruitt’s downtrodden Tennessee team played its most inspired game yet

And that won’t be what anyone is talking about Sunday.

The sideline dressing down Pruitt administered to quarterback Jarrett Guarantano after a massive, 14-point turnaround of a play in the fourth quarter will be the point of contention and discussion. On fourth down from the 1, Guarantano attempted to stretch the ball over the top of the line of scrimmage on a sneak for the score. But an Alabama rusher hit him and knocked the ball loose into the end zone, and Trevon Diggs scooped it and went more than 100 yards for a touchdown the other way. What could have been a one-score game became a three-score game, and that was that.

Pruitt, who was frenzied all night, intercepted Guarantano coming off the field for a finger-pointing tirade. Then he briefly grabbed Guarantano’s facemask and gave it a tug — an age-old coaching tactic that has been out of favor for the entirety of this century and probably most of the 1990s.

Facemasks were famously yanked and twisted by coaches for decades. That’s now seen as a line coaches don’t cross.

Pruitt, in the heat of the moment, crossed it.

Now, did it appear likely that Guarantano ignored the play call on that fourth down, went rogue and tried to make a play on his own? Yes, it did. And if so, Pruitt had every right to be furious and bench him — which he subsequently did. But the facemask grab is taking the temper tantrum too far.

Among Pruitt’s postgame comments on the play, per the Twitter account of David Ubben, who covers Tennessee for The Athletic:

"There was some miscommunication out there. That's our fault. It's nobody's fault. Coaches' fault. Starting with me.”

”We elected to run a sneak and we shouldn't have tried to put it over the top.”

"It pissed me off. I don't know about you, but it pissed me off. We just put a great drive together."

Pruitt might want to save some of his rage for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, whose goal-to-go run calls up the middle were futile leading up to that fourth-down play.

Ankle watch is on in Tuscaloosa

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa did not play in the second half against Tennessee after suffering what Nick Saban said postgame was a high ankle sprain. Saban said the 2018 Heisman Trophy runner-up will likely be out “a week or two” with the injury. With the Crimson Tide playing inept Arkansas this week and then having an open date before LSU arrives Nov. 9, the timing of the injury is not terrible.

But here’s the thing: Tua had an ankle issue last year that lingered through November, hampering his mobility and eventually knocking him out of the SEC championship game against Georgia — a game that was memorably rescued by backup Jalen Hurts. The good news for ’Bama fans is that this year’s injury is to his other ankle — but it still might be a persistent problem.

If he’s not 100 percent against LSU, or in later games, an Alabama team with several weaknesses will be more vulnerable. Backup Mac Jones flashed some promise against Tennessee, completing 6 of 11 passes for 72 yards. He’s a talented guy — he’s just not Tua. In a potential shootout against Joe Burrow on Nov. 9, ’Bama would certainly like to have its own gunslinger at 100 percent.

Kalani Sitake adds another big skin to the wall — along with a lot of losses

After upsetting No. 14 Boise State on Saturday night, the BYU coach now has beaten USC, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Arizona and the Broncos in the past 20 games. He’s also lost to Toledo, South Florida, Utah State and Northern Illinois — in addition to being 0-4 against bitter rival Utah.

Sitake has been under fire after the 2-4 start to this season, which included back-to-back losses to the Rockets and Bulls. Maybe taking down Boise gets him off the hot seat, but more likely the BYU brass will wait to see if there are any more bad losses ahead. He’s 23-23 overall, and this team will be heavily favored in three games (Liberty, Idaho State, Massachusetts) and perhaps underdogs in the other two (at Utah State, at San Diego State).

On the other side of the coin, the loss is potentially a huge one for Boise State. It might cost the Broncos the driver’s seat for the Group of Five bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game. The last G5 unbeatens: SMU, which posted a resounding victory at Temple, and Appalachian State. For now, at least, the Mustangs step into that New Year’s Six role.

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