It took just one game for the SEC to announce its return in a big way with a big upset (and a big record thrown in for good measure)
It was fitting that on the first official weekend of fall, it finally felt like college football had returned to its normal place in our life.
Much of this is the result of a confluence of factors, chiefly led by the SEC finally entering the fray on the field and the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and MAC each announcing they'd be there in a few weeks. All those questions that dominated the airwaves this summer (and this month) over whether we would even play college football amid a global pandemic have, ethical issues aside, transitioned fully into waiting on kickoff times like every other October gridlocked by six-day TV selections.
Make no mistake, this was a monumental weekend in the sport. We officially went from 76 schools playing to 127 in the near blink of an eye. Then Saturday rolled around and saw No. 3 Oklahoma get shocked by Kansas State (again), the reigning champs get turned into chumps by Mike Leach, and another truly bonkers game emanating from Lubbock. There were Georgia quarterback issues, Texas A&M fumbling mistakes, and even Virginia Tech actually making it to their opener and running NC State out the building — despite being down a fifth of their roster and a good chunk of their defensive staff.
All of which drives the question: amid all of the chaos, decisions, debates, doom/gloom financial numbers and everything else, can college football be trusted to save itself again when it all gets through this to the other side of 2020?
At some point the season will end — the NCAA Football Oversight issued a statement on Thursday saying no later than Jan. 11 (i.e. the national title date). At some point, spring will be here again and college football won't be the only sport going on campus. Eventually, attention will turn to the 2021 campaign on the gridiron.
So then what? What will these coaches, athletic directors with multiple titles and conference commissioners be doing then? Yes, these are busy days. Schedules must be drawn up on a whim and the day-to-day nature of dealing with sports and COVID-19 in the middle of three Zooms and four home-schooled kids is rough on everybody.
Yet college football cannot lose sight of the fact that the changes that seem to be coming by the hour, day or week are also fairly shortsighted. How can we not only move past this time but spring into the future as a better sport for everybody — players, coaches, administrators, TV partners, fans, and the like?
This column hinted at one change a few weeks ago, hoping for a BracketBusters scheduling setup. This would be a good first step but it's simply not enough. More needs to come. More accurately, more has to come.
This 2020-21 school year was already set to be the most consequential in college football (and the NCAA in general) since perhaps 1984's Supreme Court antitrust case. Given the once in a generation pandemic involved, might be safe to say it's surpassed it even just limited to that aspect alone.
But it's not. Name/Image/Likeness legislation is coming for all to see and yet another bill on the subject was even introduced this week in Congress. One-time transfer rules are on the roadmap too, with an unveiling coming in the next two weeks and formal approval coming a week after the national champion is crowned.
Then there are the balance sheets of schools at every single level in the country. Higher education in general is facing a crisis unlike it has ever seen and that is also true of those athletic departments under that same umbrella. Sports are being cut, furloughs implemented and hundreds are losing their jobs. This isn't unique to the industry but it is a reality.
Add in an economic recession impacting donations — to say nothing of large cuts to state/direct school support — and pretty much every accounting department is going to be in the red this year.
Can the system stretching under such a weight truly be tasked with reinventing itself the right way? That is a question that will linger in the air for much of the next four months.
Maybe more accurately, can those in charge even be trusted to take the right steps to address concerns the players themselves have brought up several times this past summer and the media has litigated ad nauseam? NCAA President Mark Emmert has been largely M.I.A. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is under fire on multiple fronts out West, from bonuses being paid right before employees were fired to his league wasting several weeks instead of planning for an earlier return to the field. In reality, they just followed the Big Ten, which is still simmering as Kevin Warren has gotten off to a rough start to his tenure. The top gig in the ACC is set to open with John Swofford's retirement too.
We have seen some sterling examples of good leadership through this current crisis and no doubt a few more examples to note in the weeks and months to come. But we've seen far more of the bad as decisions that should have been arrived at quickly, concisely and with plenty of support simply have not.
College athletics is no doubt in some rocky seas at the moment. Perhaps instead of focusing just on the upcoming wave, it's also time to double down and figure out larger solutions to get out of the storm.
It's time to talk openly about College Football Playoff expansion for 2021 and beyond. Scheduling advancements should be on the table too and we're not just talking about home-and-homes a decade away. How athletes are recruited, how they move around to programs when things don't work out and how they can finally show just what they're capable of away from the field needs to be discussed as well.
Let's put an end to the Kabuki theater every conference puts on. It's time to rock the boat in a way that hasn't been done so far. It's time to put aside regional differences (and self-interest) to come to agreement on what can truly take college football to the next level as a national sport. It's time to lay it all out on the table, warts and all. Coaches do it all the time with their team in breaking down game film the following week and now it's time for everyone involved in this massive athletics enterprise to do the same and figure out innovative new solutions for a more modern game.
Given the way things have gone for much of the past 40 years or so though, one probably shouldn't hold one's breath.
Other thoughts on the weekend in college football:
2. Down goes Oklahoma as Big 12's awful 2020 continues
With all due respect to the folks in the SEC, but there may have been no conference that privately pushed for a return to the field amid the coronavirus more than the Big 12 did the past three months. After actually kicking off though, it's worth wondering if that was a severe miscalculation given the results the league has put on tape the past few weeks.
It's not just going 0-3 to the Sun Belt, it's results like we saw on Saturday as heavyweight Oklahoma lost and Texas nearly did too. In a year where perception matters more than ever, the Big 12 looks closer to a tire fire (or, say, the Pac-12) than it does the conference that normally would stake a claim to being the toughest top-to-near-bottom in the country.
In short, the Big 12's depth has been replaced by the Big 12's gagging.
You can start in Norman, where the Sooners squandered a 35-14 lead and wound up with a losing streak to Kansas State despite being back-to-back 20-plus-point favorites. The Wildcats were severely shorthanded (especially on defense) yet came up big down the stretch at nearly every turn.
Freshman QB Spencer Rattler looked equally impressive and flummoxed in following up every "wow" throw with a questionable interception (one was, however, tipped at the line early on). The quarterback does not look like the problem for Lincoln Riley though, as the team's normally sure offensive line and run game was lacking. Defensively, the tackling was non-existent down the stretch. Mistakes beget more mistakes for the team that has won five straight Big 12 titles.
Maybe this will just be the case of history repeating itself come December, given the number of normally inexplicable losses OU has suffered yet still rallied to make the playoffs. Or, perhaps, we'll zero in on those glaring issues a bit more over the coming weeks before a high-scoring Red River arrives.
The "eye-test" element has never been more important and those in the Big 12 simply aren't passing it so far this season.
3. Welcome to the SEC Mike Leach!
In a normal year, Leach would have been must-see TV at the annual SEC Media Week extravaganza.
He would have committed a faux pas of not making an opening statement, delivered a short answer to the legendary Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Bob Holt and probably wound up on a tangent about Civil War battles after a question from an online magazine.
Instead, we got no Media Days nor a summer filled with outlet after outlet doing stories on Leach in Starkville and Lane Kiffin's arrival in Oxford. The pandemic thus robbed us of some of the hype as one of the more underrated coaches of the past two decades made his debut in the league where it just meant more.
Still, it took just one game in the SEC for Leach to set a new single-game passing record. Against the reigning champs. In Death Valley. In front of the entire country on CBS no less.
In the words of pirates everywhere, "Aye!"
Of course, you would have to start and end at K.J. Costello, the Stanford transfer who lit up the passing charts unlike any other. When he initially announced his transfer it seemed like a bit of a round-peg-in-a-square-hole kind of fit. A SoCal native heading to the heart of the Deep South. Stanford's pro-style signal-caller joining the Air Raid. A prodigious QB picking up the simplest offensive system in the game.
Yet we saw the results and it's hard not to sit back impressed. Nearly every drop back had an explosive play and Costello delivered some absolute dimes — particularly along the sidelines and downfield. It wasn't perfect, but it was unlike anything the league had seen before. All while not being able to develop the critical timing the system needs during the past five months of no practice.
LSU lost despite five sacks and four turnovers in Bo Pelini's return to Baton Rouge, which was spoiled by a quarterback whose last on-field action was in a loss at Colorado. It was a deeply impressive Mississippi State performance given the stage and, yet by sheer numbers, rather routine for the head coach who has written books involving pirates and Native Americans as much as the ones containing records.
One word of caution though: for all the highs that Leach brings, those lows are always around the corner too. For every Michael Crabtree toe-tap, there's a blowout by Oklahoma. For every top-five upset of USC, there's a no-show in Berkeley. For every nine-win campaign, there's an inexplicable struggle against an FCS opponent.
Maybe that won't be the case in StarkVegas with what is arguably his most talented team Leach has ever coached.
But coming off the high of that shocker at LSU, it's still time to wait and see about the long term outlook of the cantankerous Leach and his Air Raid hitting the SEC at full blast.
4. Intrigue atop SEC East increases
It was a little eye-opening last week to see that the media had picked Florida over Georgia in the SEC East for the annual preseason poll. There was a lot made during the long, long offseason about the talent disparity between the two in terms of recruiting stars and much made about the Bulldogs' move to a more modern offensive attack potentially allowing them to take the next step just like LSU did a year ago.
We just have early returns but maybe, just maybe, the thinking was a little more prescient than at first glance?
Much of that had to with the high-flying Florida-Ole Miss game that helped kick off conference play. QB Kyle Trask looked like he was making lunch at times in the pocket before throwing a touchdown pass (six of them) to go with his 416 yards. The downfield component to the passing game was a standout feature of the attack, as guys were finding open space all day. Despite being the biggest threat, that often included TE Kyle Pitts, who sure looked like he had already locked down the Mackey Award with eight catches, 170 yards and four scores.
If you're Dan Mullen, you had reason to smile behind a mask but also to have a bit of a concern on defense. The Gators gave up way to many 3rd-and-longs and had issues all over the secondary. Perhaps that could be ascribed to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham being a bit overaggressive in outing No. 1 or the fact that Lane Kiffin had an offseason's worth of time to draw up some plays for a decent set of skill position talent. Florida should be able to correct a lot of the little issues over the coming weeks before things really ramp up but it was quite the start to 2020 for those in Gainesville.
While there were far fewer questions about the defense at UF's chief rivals, the concerns about Georgia's offense looked like it was on a runaway freight train. Redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis got the start but ineffective would be sugar-coating the effort from the redshirt freshman. Enter Stetson Bennett, one-time fourth-stringer, to save the day and spark a second-half rout that belied the fact that the Dawgs were in real trouble before the break.
And, let's face it, probably still are given their schedule of games this year.
It's easy to think that a medically cleared JT Daniels under center will help things a ton (he will) but you do wonder how much of the structural issues will remain. The team could not get as much push as we're used to seeing along the line and the run game wasn't there early on either. Pull something similar against Florida or Alabama and it will be hard to mount a comeback like UGA did from being down 7-5.
Call it rust, call early-season jitters but both Mullen and Kirby Smart are likely just happy to be 1-0 after the effort it took to even make it to Saturday. The hard part, of course, comes in cleaning up all those issues before they see each other on opposite sidelines down in Jacksonville.
5. Pac-12 sees CFP door opened slightly
It was all-in-all a solid week for the Pac-12 aside from a few issues mentioned above. The conference is firstly returning to the field. Teams will be practicing for real this week. The Big 12 slipped up and the middle class of the SEC didn't really impress in their first showing.
So maybe, just maybe, you're telling me there's a chance out West?
Well, yes. There's always been a chance since the league announced their return but Saturday's results seemed to confirm that door for an elusive final four bid was still ajar. Whether the Pac-12 can take advantage, of course, remains to be seen.
Frankly though, we haven't seen it in the past and we'll have to wait to see it emerge from the 2020 chaos to truly believe it.
Case in point came with the reigning conference champs Oregon — the lone Pac-12 team that wound up ranked in the latest AP Top 25. The Ducks have been hit hard with opt outs and saw another over the weekend in safety Javon Holland. That wipes out the majority of the country's best secondary this fall (as of now) and adds to the team losing the best player in the country, OL Penei Sewell.
Perhaps head coach Mario Cristobal can get a few guys to return but for as good as the team is, the loss of leaders like Justin Herbert and Troy Dye combined with opt outs and some new faces across the board make it a bit of a tough sell.
Then there's USC, which saw some high-profile departures of their own. Maybe the Trojans can rally and get OL Alijah Vera-Tucker and DL Jay Tufele back. Even if they don't, the team seems pretty stacked with QB Kedon Slovis and a slew of talent set to play on both sides of the ball. They and Pac-12 South rival Arizona State might well be the two favorites to make it to a conference title game but will have to seriously lay the style points on to impress the committee — to say nothing of going 7-0. A Pac-12 team has gone undefeated in the regular season just once in 15 years, mind you.
It still seems like a stretch to say the Pac-12 is truly in the playoff race but stranger things have happened in this, the Year 2020. The door was opened slightly to a postseason party out West but we'll still have to actually see it up close come November before seriously buying into the idea the league is going produce one of the four best teams in CFB.
6. "Special" teams
Coaches absolutely love to tell you how important special teams is. The third phase of the game is just as critical as blocking or tackling, they'll note.
Yet it seems like many around the country seemed to forget about practicing special teams during the quasi-fall camp period they had before games this year. The pandemic naturally robbed many programs of their ability to go through spring ball and there was quite a bit of catch-up being made on offense and defense in August and September.
It shows, as gaffes in the kicking game have not only decided outcomes but delivered some of the more memorable moments through the first few weeks of the season. Georgia Tech lost to Syracuse and failed to cut into the lead thanks to a chip-shot field goal being drilled low and directly into a lineman's helmet. A muffed punt was the final nail in South Carolina's coffin against Tennessee. Texas and Texas Tech put on a real spectacle, each recovering onside kicks and finding the end zone on both sides of a punt.
All this also comes, mind you, as #collegekickers are doing their best in years to reverse that hashtag from a negative connotation to a positive one. Among the big kicks, Louisiana kicker Nate Snyder bounced back and nailed a game-winner from 53 yards out and Boston College capped their comeback off with a near-walk-off winner with three ticks left. There's been a lot more bad when it comes to critical situations but also a few silver linings early in this unique campaign between the lines.
It's safe to say that coaches all across the sport will be installing about 15 periods of special teams at practice Monday and Tuesday. If you watched at all on Saturday, you might think that isn't even enough.
7. UTEP? UTEP!
The lack of a full slate of college football has meant that we can focus on teams normally a bit further down the pecking order and this year the shining star example of that in September has been UTEP. The Miners dominated ULM on Saturday, jumping out to a 24-0 lead and coasting to a 31-6 win before all was said and done.
As a result the team is 3-1, a notable mark even if it includes a pair of FCS wins. The program managed just two wins in the three seasons prior and it's a testament to head coach Dana Dimel that the players have looked much more organized than in past years and seem to really fight to close games out despite obvious talent flaws.
Given that they're one of just two teams in the Mountain Time Zone to have actually played college football so far, it's worth the tip of the hat in pointing out.
Tweet of the Week
Play of the Week
Bijan Robinson shows you what can go wrong on the hurdle. pic.twitter.com/whXJLyG2tU— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 26, 2020
Stats of the Week
Today’s @LSUfootball starting lineup featured the same number of players that started In national championship game (3)— Michael Bonnette (@LSUBonnette) September 26, 2020
as those who were playing at the #FCS level last year (3) - LB Jabril Cox (NDSU) DB Darren Evans (Nicholls)
C Liam Shanahan (Harvard). #LSU
Since @Coach_Leach became an FBS head coach in 2000, his teams have passed for 600 yards in a game 11 times...— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 27, 2020
all other FBS teams combined have done it 9 times.
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: K.J. Costello, Mississippi State
Team of the Week: Kansas State
Goat of the Week: Matt Wells, Texas Tech
Heisman Five: 1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Kyle Trask (Florida), 4. Sam Ehlinger (Texas), 5. D'Eriq King (Miami)
Projected Playoff: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Ohio State, 4. Texas
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Alabama, Sugar Bowl — Clemson vs. Texas, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame vs. USC, Peach Bowl — UCF vs. Penn State
Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall, including Big Ten squads for the first time:
2. Ohio State
5. Notre Dame
8. Penn State
13. Mississippi State
16. Oklahoma State
20. North Carolina
Texas A&M at Alabama
Nick Saban's Death Star in Tuscaloosa sure looked fully operational in the tune-up against Missouri while Jimbo Fisher's team could not stop turning the ball over against lowly Vanderbilt. Maybe the Aggies were limiting their playbook but what's more likely is that yet another Saban disciple falls to the master on the field as the Tide win with general ease after an early A&M challenge. The Pick: Tide -9.5
Memphis at SMU
Fingers crossed this game ends up happening because it's the first big salvo in the AAC title game race. SMU has looked good early on this season and the offense has been humming as expected. Memphis was a bit herky-jerky in their opener but have the talent to defend their league crown. Something says this one is close and comes down to a turnover. The Pick: SMU +4.5
Auburn at Georgia
The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry is the easy game of the week and will tell us so much more about each side. Much of the focus will be on the Bulldogs' QB situation but it feels, like usual, that this one will come down to turnovers and big defensive lapses. We've seen teams swing widely from their first game to the second already this year and something says both of these will. Between the hedges, UGA gets the victory in a tense, nail-biter. The Pick: Auburn +4.5
— 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 @HailStateFB)