Usually chaos comes on a week where you least expect it, the ones full of college football games you ordinarily wouldn’t give second thought to or with overmatched foes from noon until Pac-12 after dark.
But on Saturday of Week 4, stuffed to the gills with fun matchups, chaos came across the country and college football more than answered the door. Seven top 25 teams lost all told, including four on the road to unranked opponents.
Many others were also pushed to unease on the sidelines. No. 2 Georgia needed several turnovers to help find the end zone and was outplayed for much of the afternoon at Missouri. Louisiana Tech was within three points of No. 6 LSU with five minutes to go. No. 7 Stanford had to produce an incredible rally from 17 down to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat up in Eugene. No. 18 Wisconsin gutted things out with a 10-play, 88-yard touchdown drive to escape Iowa in the final minute.
Then there’s No. 5 Oklahoma, who somehow captured the attention of the entire country as they were locked into an overtime battle against Army in, of all things in 2018, a pay-per-view game. Though the Sooners escaped with a 28-21 win, the more impressive effort came from the Black Knights with their game plan fully embracing both their offensive and underdog mentalities.
They ran 87 plays and held the ball 44:41. There were three scoring drives of at least 16 plays and more than eight minutes — including an epic 19-play effort that soaked up 10:47 off the clock in the second half. Their defense played admirably too, holding Trey Sermon to only 119 rushing yards and picking off Kyler Murray, who attempted just 15 passes, completed 11 of them and found the end zone four times total.
Sooners linebacker Kenneth Murray also set a modern FBS record with 28 total tackles and broke the school record in the process. Teammate Curtis Bolton was not far behind him, tying Jackie Shipp’s old OU mark with 23 tackles.
"Our guys hung in there," head coach Lincoln Riley said afterward. "If there are a couple plays that game that you don't make, it's going to be a close game against them. Those couple plays that we had a chance to separate, we didn't do it."
He’s not kidding there. At least his team won though.
No. 23 Boston College got blown off the field by previously winless Purdue (holding AJ Dillon to just 59 yards in the process). No. 17 TCU lost to Texas for the first time in four years. In two incredibly surprising score lines, Texas Tech blew out No. 15 Oklahoma State 41-17 and Kentucky shut down No. 14 Mississippi State as Benny Snell Jr. powered the Cats to a 28-7 win (and likely their first ranking in over a decade).
None of which even really hold a candle to what happened in the 757, where previously winless Old Dominion looked nothing like a 29-point underdog in their stunning 49-35 win over No. 13 Virginia Tech. It wasn’t just that the Hokies lost on Saturday night along the coast, it was the who and the how they lost that is just as eyebrow-raising.
ODU wasn’t just 0-3 coming in, the Monarchs were a bad 0-3 to boot. They were blown out by FBS-transitioning Liberty, lost to FIU and Charlotte too. They were 108th in total offense and 118th in total defense. Against a top-15 team though, none of that mattered. It ended up being the Monarchs' first-ever win over a Power 5 team since the football program was restarted in 2009.
Old Dominion also had to play what amounted to their backup quarterback in Blake LaRussa, who looked like Joe Montana out there against Bud Foster’s defense and threw for 495 yards and four touchdowns. That’s the most ever in Foster’s 23-year career coordinating the Hokies' defense and most against the school since 1993. To put things in perspective, there was not a player in this game who was alive the last time Tech was shredded like this by a quarterback — and possibly their older siblings as well.
LaRussa’s last throw might have been his best too, right between defenders, over the shoulder and into the hands of Jonathan Duhart with just over five minutes to go. For good measure, Jeremy Cox added a cherry on top by busting through the line to not just ice the game but score from 40 yards out.
Such results are shocking in a vacuum but it will still be several weeks before we can truly assess the fallout (the Hokies improbably remained ranked on Sunday for what it’s worth). One loss does not make a season after all and Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU among others still have a path to a conference title game.
On Saturday though, those teams and others got caught up in the chaos. It’s a feature and not a bug in the college football season and one never knows when exactly it will show up. It certainly did on Saturday in a big way and left a number stumbling into Week 5 as a result.
Six other takeaways from the past week of college football:
2. Will anybody beat Alabama?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Think back to 2016. The Crimson Tide were destroying teams left and right and the defense was being bandied about as Nick Saban’s best ever given that they were scoring points and suffocating opponents at the same time. The team looked borderline invincible even if a true freshman was starting at quarterback. They comfortably won a conference title game and a playoff semifinal without really breaking a sweat.
We all know how things turned out though.
An equally great Clemson team put a drive for the ages together, going right down the field on that same defense and knocking off a Goliath in the final seconds of the national title game. Best ever settled for second place.
It’s important to keep that lesson in the back of your mind when discussing what looks like another near invincible Alabama team. Because we’ve reached the point in 2018 where the question "Will anybody beat Alabama?" sure seems like something to talk about. And it’s a serious question after this weekend that we’re all going to have to grapple with all year long.
Texas A&M played a good first half on the road in Tuscaloosa. QB Kellen Mond was making some big plays and the Aggies moved the ball. Didn’t matter, 31-13 going into the break. Final score: 45-23. Alabama hasn’t just been great, they’ve managed to exceed even their own lofty expectations through the first month of the season.
What’s wild (or scary, if you’re left on the schedule) is how much better this team can get. Patrick Surtain Jr. had an interception against the Aggies — he’s a freshman. Tua Tagovailoa is a sophomore with only four starts under his belt and might be the Heisman Trophy favorite. Wideouts Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III are first, second and fourth in receiving yards for the Tide this season and all are underclassmen. Sophomore Najee Harris leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns. The right side of the offensive line is made up of fellow members of the class of 2017 and Isaiah Buggs leads the team in sacks too.
If the team could steady the kicking game, this is about an unstoppable machine as you’ll find in the sport of college football when factoring in the coaching staff too. There’s still a lot of season left to go and Saban will hate to hear this rat poison start up in late September but the Tide are rapidly trending toward the conversation of "best ever" if they can run the table.
“I don’t want to get into the rat poison again, we’ve got a good team,” Saban said after the game. “But our team needs to do a lot of things to improve.”
You still can’t put it past Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma, making things interesting in a one-off game with extra time to prepare. They all have elite rosters too and plenty of capable playmakers. After Saturday’s win against A&M though, it certainly feels to many like an inevitable march to a repeat title just one month into 2018.
3. ACC takes one on the chin
A week after the Big Ten and Pac-12 laid down stinkers, it was the ACC’s turn. To say it was a rough Saturday in the conference was putting it mildly.
Two of the ACC’s ranked teams lost to winless teams, including the previously mentioned Virginia Tech and Boston College getting blasted (to put it mildly) by Purdue. Even in victory, Duke continues to look just a tad off without QB Daniel Jones and Miami has been forced to change signal-callers (and hasn’t really been tested since getting flattened against LSU). Florida State got Willie Taggart on the board with an FBS win but it wasn’t pretty against Northern Illinois and deep flaws still exist on the roster and they suffered a few more injuries up front.
Then there’s the middle class of the ACC, which was supposed to be a strength but is nothing of the sort through four weeks. The only Power 5 team North Carolina can seem to beat is Pitt, which is not a flattering thought for either side of that equation. Louisville is absolutely dreadful on offense and missing a bowl game (or even a 2-10 campaign) looks like a near certainty with both roster and coaching issues abound. We’re still not quite sure what to make of either Syracuse or NC State just yet either.
Most concerning if you’re John Swofford, outside of the sarcastic #goacc hashtag trending, is that there appears to be no clear-cut No. 2 in the league behind Clemson. Conference depth matters and the ACC simply doesn’t have it in 2018 after a few pretty good seasons on the uptick. It was but two years ago that there was talk of the ACC turning the corner by posting a 9-3 bowl record and sporting five teams in the final top 25.
Those days are long gone. It’s a what-have-you-done-lately kind of sport and for the ACC, the answer after Saturday was not much.
4. Notre Dame’s playoff path
While it’s not unprecedented for a team to bench a starting quarterback, it is unusual for a team to do so when A) undefeated and B) going on the road. Yet it seems as though it was perfectly normal (and even expected) for Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly to do just that this weekend in officially making the change from Brandon Wimbush under center to Ian Book.
It was a move rooted not just in the necessity of this fragile season but also with this team, which remains in the top 10 in the polls but faced serious questions about their offense being good enough to remain there given the stagnant state it was in under Wimbush after three weeks.
The change paid off in a big way as Book played well in thrashing Wake Forest 56-27, throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns while also proving more than capable as a runner with 43 yards and three more scores on the ground. Kelly’s trust in Book was also quite evident in the play-calling too and the skill position talent around the signal-caller looked like they got a boost as well.
While many will dismiss the performance because it came against the Demon Deacons (who actually fired their defensive coordinator in the, uh, wake of the game), it would not be wise to discount the game as a potential turning point for the Irish. Sitting at 4-0 heading into next week’s mega-matchup against No. 7 Stanford in South Bend, it’s time to at least consider Notre Dame’s path to making the College Football Playoff based on what we’ve seen so far.
First thing’s first: beat the Cardinal. No easy task and certainly not after the resolve they showed on the road up in Eugene. After that though... that schedule really starts to open up to the point where the possibility of a special run can’t be ruled out.
The Irish do have to go to Blacksburg but Virginia Tech just lost on the road to a Conference USA team. Pitt fell to North Carolina this past weekend and Navy lost to SMU to open conference play. Northwestern has an "L" to a MAC team on their resume and Florida State’s issues are well documented. Games against Syracuse (in November at Yankee Stadium) and the trip across country to rival USC could prove tricky but there may not be a ranked foe left to play after this Saturday.
It’s still very early and the upcoming contest will be the toughest of 2018 but if you’re an Irish fan, it’s hard not to get at least a little excited over the prospect of this team doing something special after what could be a season-defining change at quarterback on Saturday.
5. Lance Leipold emphatically back to his winning ways
When Buffalo hired Lance Leipold after an incredible 109-6 run at Wisconsin-Whitewater, many wondered just how quickly he would be able to adapt from the Division III level and especially so at an FBS outpost like UB. It took a bit longer than some in the program had hoped, but it turns out not all that long. While his first two years were rough, you could see the team really turn things around in 2017 when they finished a very competitive 6-6 but were left out of the postseason.
That campaign has now given way to a 2018 season that could be the best in a decade (or longer) up in Buffalo.
What’s crazy about that game is not that the Bulls led a Big Ten team on the road 35-6 at halftime or dominated on their way to a 42-13 win, it was how vastly superior Buffalo was at just about every position. The skill guys like QB Tyree Jackson (263 yards, 3 TDs), RB Jaret Patterson (104 yards, 2 TD) and WR Anthony Johnson (101 yards, TD) all looked like they belonged playing in the Power 5 league and had a field day against overmatched Scarlet Knights defenders. All told, Buffalo found the end zone four times with plays of 40-plus yards.
As mentioned last week, this isn’t a great look for Chris Ash in Year 3 and there’s already talk of hitting the reset button again with the program despite the hefty buyout owed. The flip side is it’s a great look in Year 4 for Leipold. The team has their toughest test of the season at home against Army next week and, if they get past that, it’s not hard to envision a 6-0 start going into a huge stretch against Akron at home and at Toledo. That could propel the team to the conference title game in Detroit and cement Buffalo as the best team in the MAC during a strong year overall for the conference.
If that happens, don’t be shocked to hear Leipold’s name come up for openings this winter as he possibly moves up another level to the Power 5. You might even hear talk of him moving on to the school he just beat on Saturday to boot.
6. Georgia’s lack of pass rush is a concern
The Bulldogs made a trip to the other Columbia in the SEC on Saturday and got several huge turnovers to set up scores during a 43-29 game where they were largely outplayed early. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game to me was how much time that Missouri QB Drew Lock had in the pocket to throw and how he was barely rattled or forced to move by UGA’s front seven.
As good (and fast) as Kirby Smart’s team has looked early on this season, it’s that lack of pass rush that appears to be the glaring hole so far for a team that is every bit of their top-five ranking. Coming into the week, they had just 15 QB pressures — close to dead last in the country — and recorded only three against the Tigers to go with two sacks.
It might not matter at this point considering how Georgia has played so far but it is something to keep in mind long-term with games against LSU, Florida, a feisty Kentucky and Auburn upcoming.
7. Friday Night Lights
Remember when Thursday night was must-see TV for college football fans? It’s not that way anymore thanks to the NFL making primetime on those days a priority the past few years, giving way to a lackluster (at best) slate of games at the college level now.
No offense to anybody involved, but this past week it was Tulsa at Temple. Next up? UNC at Miami. Not exciting enough? Georgia State goes to Troy and Tulsa travels to Houston the week after that. At least we’ll see Texas Tech at TCU in Week 7 to bring a bit of intrigue but it’s doubtful we’ll see a single game on Thursday night that features two ranked teams — a far cry from the days where Louisville upset West Virginia in a top-five clash.
It makes business sense if you’re ESPN or, especially, FOX of course. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a bummer for those who love to tune in to catch a good game at the college level. If there is a silver lining in all this though, it’s that more and more matchups are moving a night later — better for fans attending and viewers at home if they don’t have high school football obligations.
Friday, it seems, is the new Thursday even if the matchups are not quite as compelling as they once were.
Stat of the Week
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Miles Sanders, Penn State
Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State), 3. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 4. Will Grier (West Virginia), 5. Ed Oliver (Houston)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Oklahoma
Team of the week: Old Dominion
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Quote of the week: "I honestly believe this is going to be the bottom right here," Nebraska's Scott Frost after a 56-10 loss at Michigan.
Play of the Week
He missed, naturally.
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 5.
2. Ohio State
7. Notre Dame
8. Penn State
12. West Virginia
Best of the rest: Oklahoma State, Boise State, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Texas, TCU, Oregon, Miami, Duke
BYU at Washington
What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? We’ll find out on Montlake as the Cougars come to town with a top 25 ranking after already knocking off a top-10 team at home. That won’t happen twice this season however as the Huskies do just enough offensively to get things done in a low-scoring affair.
Stanford at Notre Dame
You’ll find more than a few smart alums on both sides who don’t believe their teams are really top-10-caliber but the Cardinal and Irish have both impressed this season with their toughness, resolve and defense. This is a rivalry game that has almost always come down to the final few minutes and we’ll say that continues with a late Stanford field goal being the difference.
Ohio State at Penn State
The Nittany Lions are staging another "Whiteout" for the Buckeyes and hoping for a repeat of what happened back in 2016 with their upset win in Happy Valley. That won’t be the case again however as OSU rolls by three scores in this one.
— 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 by Bob Bradlee, courtesy of www.odusports.com)