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Seven-Step Drop: Big Ten Runs the Gamut in Thrilling Return to Action

Indiana's stunning upset of Penn State was the biggest highlight of an entertaining B1G debut

If it felt like college football had truly returned to action when the SEC joined the party a few weeks ago, this past weekend seeing the introduction of the Big Ten to the fold was like a delicious dessert arriving to cap off a tasty five-course meal. The drama surrounding the league after an on-again, off-again, on-again start to the 2020 campaign seemed to fade away almost completely come kickoff amid near-empty stadiums in the Midwest but felt completely normal all the same.

 

And what were we treated to?

 

Chaos of course! There were fullbacks hurdling, special teams blunders, several incredible catches, a number of punts from inside plus territory, and a host of tackling issues from the heartland to the east coast. It felt ever so familiar to see all those big brand names from the early noon window through to primetime under the lights. And with all due respect to those in the MAC and Pac-12, Saturday's B1G return evoked some feeling of settling in to watch football with a good warm blanket and glowing fireplace on a cold evening.

 

It also gave us one of the 2020 season's most memorable games almost right off the bat too as Indiana snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and finally — finally! — managed to knock off one of the conference's big names. In fact, the Hoosiers' 36-35 upset of Penn State was their first win over a top-10 team since 1987, something made more notable given that offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan was not even born when that last happened.

 

Numerous times over the program's history, and especially so in the past half-decade, IU has come ever so close to notching that season-defining win but it took Michael Penix Jr.'s out-stretched hand and all 6-foot-3 of his frame to come through and get the team over the hump. If college football had a March Madness-esque "One Shining Moment" compilation, the controversial two-point conversion would be on there for sure.

 

Though Nittany Lions fans will still be crying that the quarterback was out of bounds or short of the plane before crossing amid curses at Big Ten referees (a true sign nature is healing in the league's footprint), it was even more incredible that such a moment should have never even happened in the first place. But hey, this is college football where the miraculous and unexplained happens three to four times every Saturday with regularity.

 

After all, if Penn State running back Devyn Ford had just taken the handoff with 1:46 left and fallen to the ground the game likely would have been over and his team could head home to Happy Valley with a one-point win that was reflective of how many missed chances they had. Instead, he sprinted 14 yards to the end zone nearly untouched, seemingly recognizing as soon as he crossed the goal line that he did so by mistake instead of falling down and allowing for the offense to kneel the rest of the time off the clock. Indiana defenders celebrated just as Ford realized he will likely never live the gaffe down.

 

But the latest example of James Franklin's late-game mismanagement was further compounded by the team just kicking the extra point like normal to go up eight. Had the coaching staff seen a similar situation play out a week earlier in the NFL between the Titans and Texans (though the latter ultimately lost in OT too), they should have known they could have ended the game right then by going up nine had they converted on a two-pointer of their own — knowing they still had a seven-point lead and 102 seconds left.

 

 

Instead they allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive the other way and a conversion to tie, miraculously getting a field goal attempt of their own before the game officially went to overtime. Penn State never did stop Penix, who had just a single incompletion after going down by eight in the final minutes.

 

All of which leaves Penix immortalized in Hoosier lore and gave an emotional Tom Allen a signature victory that had been lacking after putting in yeoman's work to bring the standards around the program up to near-historic standards in Bloomington. By virtue of that 2020 is a success for Indiana regardless of what happens in their remaining set of games while those on the opposite sideline on Saturday are staring at an 0-2 start to a campaign that barely got off the ground in the first place.

 

Even wilder was the fact that the outcome was far from the lone takeaway in the Big Ten race either. Northwestern's quarterback upgrade (of a former IU player no less) and coordinator change produced a surprisingly competent offensive outing in throttling Maryland to earn Pat Fitzgerald his 100th win with the Wildcats. Michigan likewise looked like a new team with a new offense in taking it to a ranked Minnesota side with high hopes on their side of the division standings. Wisconsin appeared to find the signal-caller of the future as former top recruit Graham Mertz dazzled in a remarkable Friday Night Lights outing while Ohio State looked every bit a playoff contender despite an early punch or two from Nebraska. Add in Purdue winning without Jeff Brohm/Rondale Moore to all that and you'd be forgiven if you needed a double-take to see that Rutgers destroyed Michigan State in such convincing fashion as they ended their 21-game conference losing streak to kick Greg Schiano's return off in style.

 

The Big Ten's return certainly did not disappoint in the least as a result as the conference that kicked up the most angst in the lead up really ran the college football gamut in a thrilling opening act to this eerily bizarre season.

 

Other thoughts from the weekend in college football:

 

2. Jaylen Waddle's injury another 2020 bummer

While the Big Ten and others provided numerous highlights, there was a particularly upsetting lowlight that seemed to cast a shadow on the annual blowout that is the Third Saturday in October.

 

For those that missed it, this is of course a reference to Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle fracturing his ankle while getting tackled on a kick return. Nick Saban confirmed at halftime the potential Heisman Trophy finalist was lost for the year and CBS' shots of him being loaded into the ambulance sure put a damper on the team's convincing victory.

 

 

Even non-Tide fans will hate to see the loss of Waddle as he is one of the true game-breakers in both the passing and return games. He's a special talent for sure and you just hope he'll be healthy enough to look like his old self as he auditions for NFL teams in the spring.

 

If there's any silver lining to the entire ugly situation it's at least that Mac Jones continues to play at a super high level and there's enough depth at receiver to help absorb the loss. John Metchie III has been a 2020 revelation even before Saturday's game and that will likely continue with increased touches going forward and it's still somewhat unfathomable that title game hero DeVonta Smith remains as productive as ever.

 

Interestingly enough, the 48-17 lopsided score didn't seem to turn off Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt either as he remarked afterward that he thought the gap was still closing between the two programs when speaking to reporters. That comment can get sliced two ways.

 

First, is the depth improved during his three-year tenure to the point where the Volunteers at least have a chance every week? Sure. But is that enough against the elite teams in the SEC? Nope, in that respect, the gap still remains quite large.

 

The fact is Pruitt is just 15-15 overall as a head coach and has gotten just a handful of those wins against good teams — not to mention 12 of the losses coming by three scores or more. The Vols are just 4-34 against the big three of Bama/Georgia/Florida since last winning the SEC East and given where all three are operating don't seem to expect any orange-shaded company anytime soon.

 

It's understandable to try and spin the state of things on Rocky Top after the losing streak in the rivalry stretched to 14 but the results on the field still illustrate the cold hard truth to how much further there is to go.

 

3. Kentucky's offensive struggles, LSU's resurgence, Auburn escapes again

It was an interesting day around the rest of the SEC on Saturday too.

 

Mizzou continued their winning ways with a 20-10 win over Kentucky that was marked as much by the Tigers competitiveness as it was the Wildcats' lack of offense. While Mark Stoops has pretty much been in every game during the fourth quarter this year, the inability to move the ball for the second year in a row — while mostly at full strength — remains troubling. UK has just 227 passing yards in their past three games combined, just slightly more than what option-oriented Navy posted on Saturday alone (206 yards). Add in running just 36 plays and whatever defensive advantage the team has gets reduced to virtually nil.

 

On the flip side, Connor Bazelak showed them how it's done as the freshman QB continues to look like the real deal for new head coach Eli Drinkwitz. While nobody is ready to throw Mizzou into any sort of title race just yet, fans in Columbia will certainly take this start to their generally unproven coaching staff and rest assured that their days of being a thorn in opposing sides won't be stopping anytime soon.

 

As for the set of Tigers they already upset, LSU returned home and had a true "get right" game against South Carolina. Tigers freshman quarterback T.J. Finley had the look of a taller Rohan Davey in slicing up Will Mushcamp's defense (265 yards, 2 TDs, INT) in place of an injured Myles Brennan. The youngster also barreled into the end zone on the ground and didn't at all look out of place as Ed Orgeron's squad remained balanced and efficient. Just as encouraging was the defensive performance, including holding SC to just 3-of-10 on third down and getting a number of stops throughout the game. It may be a flash in the pan or it may be the start of Bo Pelini finally earning his keep in Baton Rouge but you'll find no complaints around the reigning champs after such a horrid start to the season on that side of the ball.

 

Finally, what was an SEC Saturday if not for Auburn escaping down the stretch thanks to a controversial call and Ole Miss' head coach Lane Kiffin finding himself creating a stir on social media afterwards? Good to know there's some consistency in either team amid this pandemic-induced strangeness of 2020.

 

4. SEC beating each other up solidifies case for avoiding nine-conference games

P.S.: the mighty SEC looking like it has a growing middle class of mediocrity will only further reinforce why the league won't be going to nine conference games anytime soon too. All that record padding from non-conference games helps when it comes to perceived strength of schedule and tends to enhance all those "tough" SEC wins in October and November.

 

Now that the league is just beating itself up though, we can see that the final records won't be as sterling as we're used to and the play on the field has reinforced a clear line of demarcation with the handful of elite teams in the SEC and just how close the rest of the pack are to the rest of the lot in college football. Take the latest Coaches Poll, which has just four SEC teams in it (though all in the top 10) — as many as the Big 12 and fewer than the Big Ten.

 

This year may well mean more down South but the ol' eye test is saying that isn't the case between the lines for most of the conference in 2020.

 

5. Oklahoma State, Kansas State seize Big 12 control

The Big 12 has felt like it's been out of sight, out of mind the past few weeks after dropping early games to the Sun Belt and then seeing typical powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas both tumble out of the top 25.

 

Yet there are two programs that have used the destruction to their advantage to take control of the title race in both Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

 

The Wildcats did so almost by default in becoming the first 4-0 team in the standings following their effortless Sunshine State romp over rival Kansas. KSU at one point forced a punt late in the first half and wound up returning it for a touchdown which should tell you all you need to know about the 55-14 romp over the in-state foe.

 

Of far more interest inside and outside of the league was Oklahoma State's 24-21 win over Iowa State in what could prove to be a key head-to-head result later on. The Cowboys remain the sole College Football Playoff contender in the Big 12 but it's still hard to get a true read on how good or mediocre they are given the start/stop nature of their season so far. Chuba Hubbard had a nice afternoon as usual but despite looking healthy for the first time since the opener, QB Spencer Sanders still had at least a little rust (2 INTs, not all of which were his fault) in him despite decent play otherwise.

 

Saturday represented the biggest test so far for Mike Gundy's squad and them passing it sets up a really fascinating final kick to the season. If they can get past Texas at home on Halloween, they can likely secure at least a trip to the Big 12 title game with a win in the Little Apple a week after that. You can never assume anything in these coronavirus times but that's the way the schedule sets up for the Pokes even if they can't get past local nemesis Oklahoma (who themselves looked like their normal selves in a routine win over TCU).

 

Still a long ways to go in what has proven to be the closest bunched of the Power 5 leagues but we may finally be hitting a point of some sort of separation based on the closing kick we're seeing in late October out of the 10 good-but-not-great teams in flyover country.

 

6. Boise State's defense and SJSU upset highlights crazy MWC debut

The Big Ten was not the only conference/team to take the field for the first time on Saturday. While Conference USA's Rice played their first game of 2020, we're of course referring to the much-anticipated debut of the Mountain West and the resulting late kickoffs the league brought with it.

 

Naturally, attention turned to the Blue Turf first and foremost as Boise State laid it on Utah State 42-13. The Broncos' offense would typically take the headlines for putting up those points but it was actually the defense that stuck out in this initial foray into action with five three-and-outs, one turnover, three sacks and a general suffocating effort. They allowed just one real scoring drive in the game as the Aggies' other points came off by way of the bigger special teams blunders of the day:

 

 

Boise State appears to be the team to beat as usual out West but they won't be alone in the chase. San Diego State showed no signs of slippage with Brady Hoke in charge during their 34-6 romp (most points scored by the Aztecs in the regular season since late 2017!) while Nevada notched a critical overtime win over Wyoming. The Wolf Pack avoid Boise in the regular season and get SDSU at home in the non-divisional format this year it should be noted and QB Carson Strong was particularly sharp in throwing for 420 yards and 4 TDs against one of the league's typically stout defenses.

 

That said, tip of the hat goes to San Jose State's Brent Brennan on the team's 17-6 upset of Air Force, which put an end to the second-longest winning streak in the country at the same time. The Spartans were in control throughout and Texas A&M/Arkansas transfer Nick Starkel looked quite comfortable leading the way and throwing for two second-half touchdowns. Given that SJSU had less than 10 days on campus prior to the game, the victory was even more impressive.

 

Kudos also to Todd Graham as the former Arizona State head coach won his debut with Hawaii, 34-19 over Fresno State. The Warriors' defense forced four turnovers and were assisted by a running game on the other side that posted 323 yards on the ground and four scores. Sophomore QB Chevan Cordeiro was central to the effort too and last season's MWC runners-up could play a big role in the 2020 race too.

 

More than anything it's good to have yet another conference back in the fold as college football came back with a vengeance in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones for the first time all year.

 

7. Cincinnati keeps top spot in Group of 5 race

Given how uneven everything is in college football, it seems like the Group of 5 race is as open as they come but at least one team has seemingly solidified themselves as first among (undefeated) equals as Cincinnati trounced SMU 42-13 in Dallas during the latest weekly AAC showdown.

 

The Bearcats defense we knew was for real based on limited opportunities but we finally started to see some flashes of brilliance out of the team's offense against an opponent with a pulse on Saturday too. QB Desmond Ridder's passing numbers weren't flashy but he got the job done as usual, including running for 179 yards and three scores while at one point vomiting before a play late in the third quarter. The team eventually pulled away to make the score box look far more convincing than it was for most of the game but the outing was nevertheless quite the statement from Luke Fickell's crew.

 

Still, it will be interesting to see if this is just the first of two meetings between the two sides with vastly different strengths. SMU had their sloppiest outing of the year (by a mile) and saw everything from a dreadful time management blunder before halftime to several receiver several drops and a host of red-zone issues. The Mustangs' injury list continues to grow is a concern for Sonny Dykes but as we saw the week prior, this is still a pretty good team with enough upside to win the league.

 

The execution lacked on Saturday night though and Cincinnati took advantage and suffocated their conference rivals as a result. Maybe things can change by the time a rematch rolls around but for now the Bearcats can point to the entire outing as proof that the trip to the New Year's Six is theirs to lose. They still might but it's looking more and more like they're at least starting to put some distance between themselves and others a month away from the CFP Selection Committee hashing things out for real.

 

Tweet(s) of the Week

 

 

 

Play of the Week

 

The rare quad doink from Rice to blow a win against Middle Tennessee:

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

Rutgers is 1-0 in the Big Ten for the first time ever. The Scarlet Knights won on the road in Big Ten play for just the fourth time and scored 75 percent of their point total from last year (51) in conference play in the win over Michigan State.

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: Nick Anderson, Wake Forest

Team of the Week: Indiana

Goat(s) of the Week: James Franklin, Penn State/Will Muschamp, South Carolina

Heisman Five: 1. Zach Wilson (BYU), 2. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 3. Kyle Pitts (Florida), 4. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 5. Mac Jones (Alabama)

Projected Playoff: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Ohio State, 4. Texas A&M

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Alabama, Sugar Bowl — Clemson vs. Texas A&M, Fiesta Bowl — Notre Dame vs. USC, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — BYU vs. Oklahoma State, Peach Bowl — Cincinnati vs. Georgia

 

The 25

 

Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall:

 

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Ohio State

4. Georgia

5. BYU

6. Texas A&M

7. Notre Dame

8. Oklahoma State

9. Cincinnati

10. Florida

11. Miami

12. USC

13. Wisconsin

14. Michigan

15. Indiana

16. Oregon

17. North Carolina

18. Kansas State

19. Penn State

20. Arkansas

21. Oklahoma

22. Coastal Carolina

23. Marshall

24. SMU

25. Boise State

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

Memphis at Cincinnati

This game would go a long way in helping the Bearcats lock up a berth in the AAC title game or get the Tigers back in the running after their earlier loss to SMU. Something says this will follow a familiar script of Cincy jumping out to an early lead going into halftime before Memphis claws their way back into things before Luke Fickell's defense comes up with some big plays down the stretch to secure a two-score victory. The Pick: Bearcats -7

 

Texas at Oklahoma State

The Cowboys have lived up to the preseason hype and have the inside track at making it to the Big 12 title game based on the way their defense has been playing. The 'Horns have been on the opposite end of the spectrum given their deficiencies but this has always been a somewhat strange series between the two programs. We'll go out on a limb and say this is a Tom Herman underdog special despite UT giving little indication they're capable of beating a top-10 team. The Pick: Texas +3

 

Ohio State at Penn State

Even if the Nittany Lions had taken a knee and beaten Indiana, the gap between the two programs looks like a gulf amid these small sample sizes. The lack of elite playmakers for PSU outside their star tight end could result in a very lopsided final score powered by a runaway third quarter for the Buckeyes. The Pick: Ohio State -10.5

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @ADreyPhotos)

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