Who's had the roughest start to this college football season?

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (short-yardage offense tutorial sold separately in Tucson):

[More Dash: Who won September? | 10 most improved teams | Worst fight songs]

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In the Dash First Quarter, we covered the winners from the first month of the season. Now on to those who made a mess of it:

Scott Frost (11). Nobody doubts or disputes that the first-year coach at Nebraska inherited a bad team. But he’s made it worse. A team that most expected to win 6-to-8 games has started 0-4 for the first time since 1945. Yes, there has been some bad luck — if the opener against Akron hadn’t been stormed out, maybe the Huskers win that and get off to a more confident start. Then there was the transfer of No. 2 quarterback Tristan Gebbia and the injury to starter Adrian Martinez that left the team in the hands of walk-on Andrew Bunch for a game. But Frost has also played to the fan base more than to the guys in the locker room by publicly ripping the team. When the new coach is saying that, don’t be surprised if the player check-out rate is higher than at the Lincoln Marriott Cornhusker Hotel the morning after a home game.

Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers are off to a 0-4 start to the season. (AP)
Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers are off to a 0-4 start to the season. (AP)

Virginia Tech (12). The single worst loss of September: the Hokies’ 14-point gack at Old Dominion, which currently is No. 138 in the Sagarin Ratings and winless against teams not named Virginia Tech. Maybe the Hokies could climb back into playoff contention by beating Notre Dame on Saturday and Clemson in December to take the ACC championship at 12-1 — but even then, no team has ever had a loss that bad and made the playoff. In fact, none of the 16 previous playoff teams has lost a game to any team from outside the Power Five, much less No. 138 in the nation.

The Big Ten West (13). The West is 0-4 against the East in early cross-divisional play — but the non-conference performance is what really hurt. There were home losses to Akron (by Northwestern), Troy (Nebraska) and Eastern Michigan (Purdue). Plus home losses to Duke (Northwestern), Colorado (Nebraska) and Missouri (Purdue). Plus a semi-home loss to South Florida (Illinois). But the most damaging in terms of playoff potential was Wisconsin’s home loss to BYU. The Badgers started the season ranked in the top five and played their way out of that prime position by losing to a team that Washington just beat by four touchdowns.

The American Football Coaches Association (14). For two years, the AFCA pushed the NCAA to alter its redshirt rules so that players could compete in four games without losing a season of eligibility. AFCA executive director Todd Berry said support for the rule was “unanimous. … There were no dissenters on any level.” Then the rule passed for this season, and here came the unintended consequences. Namely, players bailing on teams four games into the season to go elsewhere — most notably receiver Jalen McCleskey at Oklahoma State and quarterback Kelly Bryant at Clemson. Here’s what Nick Saban had to say about the rule Monday: “I think the intent of the rule was so you can play a young player, a freshman player, and enhance his development. This has turned into something that I think is less than what we all desired it to be.”

Bobby Petrino (15). He’s coached 170 FBS games, and in 169 of them his team has scored at least seven points. The exception: a 27-3 skunking at Virginia on Sept. 22. Then it got worse Saturday against Florida State. Holding a three-point lead with two minutes left and a first-and-10 on the Seminoles’ 19-yard line, Petrino was three running plays away from, at worst, a field-goal attempt and FSU facing a drive with no timeouts remaining. Instead, Petrino called a first-down pass play from his raw and erratic quarterback, and Jawon Pass threw it directly to a Florida State player. Five plays later, the Seminoles scored the winning touchdown, the Cardinals fell to 2-3 and, for the first time, 0-2 in the ACC. The onetime offensive mastermind’s approval rating is plummeting in Louisville.


A week-by-week look at one play that made a huge difference in a huge game:

Sept. 1: The Washington (16) red-zone option disaster. Trailing Auburn 15-13 in the third quarter of the season opener in Atlanta, the Huskies faced a third-and-goal at the Auburn 3. They chose to send quarterback Jake Browning on an option right. While it’s not completely foreign for Browning to run some red-zone option, he’s not the most accomplished runner — and Auburn’s defensive front is not your average bunch. Browning waited too long to pitch to the running back and was hit, with the ball skittering away. The Tigers recovered on their own 20-yard line, Washington came away with zero points and wound up losing 21-16. It’s the Huskies’ only blemish to date.

Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Browning (3) lies on the turf as an Auburn player celebrates during the second half Sept. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. Auburn won 21-16. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Browning (3) lies on the turf as an Auburn player celebrates during the second half Sept. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. Auburn won 21-16. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Sept. 8: The Texas A&M (17) goal-line fumble. Late in the fourth quarter against Clemson, Aggies receiver Quartney Davis was hit near the goal line while trying to extend the ball to the pylon. The ball flew out of bounds, but officials ruled that it had crossed the goal line first — making it a touchback, and not A&M’s ball inside the 1-yard line. The ruling was questionable, but there was no definitive replay to overturn it. That reprieve mattered in a two-point Clemson win that kept the Tigers undefeated.

Sept. 15: The Joe Burrow (18) do-or-die dart. With two minutes left at Auburn, trailing 21-19, LSU faced a fourth-and-7 from the Auburn 48. An incompletion would end the game. Burrow took the shotgun snap, planted his right foot and delivered the most pressure-packed pass of his career squarely into the chest of receiver Stephen Sullivan — a giant target at 6-foot-7, 232 pounds. Sullivan was well covered but hung on to the pass for nine yards and a first down. Five plays later, LSU kicked the winning field goal as time expired.

Sept. 22: Nothing. But that set the stage for two huge ones last Saturday.

Sept. 29: The Chase Brice (19) fourth-down throw. He never figured to be in this position, but Kelly Bryant’s departure and Trevor Lawrence’s injury left Clemson’s season in the hands of little-used Brice on Saturday against Syracuse. With the Tigers trailing 23-20, they embarked on a drive from their own 6-yard line and ran the ball seven straight times to get to midfield. After a false start by a lineman turned fourth-and-1 into fourth-and-6, it was time for Brice to throw the biggest pass of his life. It had been a struggle for Brice most of the day, but he feathered an out route to Tee Higgins on the money for 20 yards, then ran for 17 more the next play, and Clemson scored the winning touchdown four plays later.

Sept. 29: The Ben Victor (20) bolt for six. There were a handful of huge plays in Ohio State-Penn State, the last of which was the Nittany Lions’ perplexing play call on fourth-and-five that ended the game. But there is no late-game drama if the Buckeyes don’t mount a fourth-quarter comeback from a 26-14 deficit. With a first down near midfield, quarterback Dwayne Haskins and receiver Victor got Ohio State back in the game. Haskins took a seven-step drop, was flushed up into the pocket by pressure, threw a risky pass late and high to the middle of the field — and was rewarded by a leaping catch from the 6-4 Victor. He shook an attempt to break up the pass by Amani Oruwariye, broke a tackle attempt by Tariq Castro-Fields, reversed course and outran three other Nittany Lions to the end zone. That quick strike changed the game, and Ohio State scored the winning TD on its next possession.

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