The 2020 college football season has been filled with twists, turns, and unexpected outcomes almost from the moment it started. Yet amid the long slog toward a finish line later this month, there has always been an overriding theme that the process has been more remarkable than the overall outcome on the scoreboard each Saturday night.
That theme entered a bit of a new chapter in Week 14 however, crystalizing a combination of both an inexplicable process and an incomprehensible result into one triumphant win for an FBS newcomer over an outcast former powerhouse.
Just take a step back for a second and imagine telling yourself back in July not to worry, there would be college football this fall. Then tell yourself that you'd be locked in on a teal field near the beach for a game scheduled on less than four days' notice instead of Alabama-LSU. The game of the year on... ESPNU? Indeed!
Yes, Coastal Carolina's 22-17 win over BYU had a little bit of everything on Saturday night to deliver us a new contender for game of the year (sorry Notre Dame-Clemson). The Chanticleers and Cougars combined for an effort that was illustrative of what makes college football — especially in this 2020 environment — so endearing to fans far and wide. A game scheduled on a whim after a team backed out following test results? Mormons vs. Mullets shirts flashing across social media and the TV broadcast? A close game throughout culminating in a thrilling finish?
With all due respect to the professional brethren on Sundays, there's not much that can top the fun that the college football world had in a game where few had any vested interest in either team or the outcome.
On Tuesday, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, perhaps the most heavily weighted voice the sport has right now, lamented the fact that there's too much focus on the College Football Playoff nowadays. It was a statement that rang true to many despite the fact that he opened his Clemson-Virginia Tech telecast by doing highlights of Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Ohio State and talking about that very same playoff several times the rest of the night.
Coastal Carolina-BYU was the antidote to all of that though. It was a story and a game that reinforced that there are 130 different threads (albeit not in 2020) that weave a season together despite the oversized attention paid to the top four. What would you rather watch, that classic in Conway, South Carolina, or the blowouts Alabama, Florida and a host of other contenders turned in?
Don't get anybody wrong, discussing the merits of Buckeyes vs. Aggies or the Crimson Tide's dominance matters too. But it shouldn't be the lone headline above all others in a sport that continually reminds you to celebrate diversity and plurality as much as it does quality between the lines.
It wasn't just the Chants that reinforced the point this week either.
Iowa State clinched their first ever conference championship game berth and have a chance to win a league title for the first time in a literal generation (or put another way, two worldwide pandemics ago). You think the folks in Ames are heartbroken over missing a chance to play this latest Nick Saban juggernaut or living in the moment with this Cyclones team? Hint: they're loving every bit of this run and the Natty Lights that go with it.
San Jose State was kicked out of its own county earlier this month and yet moved to 5-0 for the first time since 1939. Colorado was widely mocked for its late-cycle hire of Karl Dorrell yet the Buffaloes are the ones sitting at 4-0 for just the third time in two decades. Indiana's feel-good vibes continued with a remarkable win at an eerily empty Camp Randall. Tulsa clinched a spot in the AAC title game despite just nine wins combined in the three years prior to this.
Heck, even lowly ol' Kansas covered a spread for the first time this year and the longest losing streak in the country was snapped.
College football will always have a postseason bent and especially so in the closing stretch before Selection Sunday. But as a Saturday stand at the one-yard line reminded us, it's also so much more than just those final four.
Six other thoughts from the weekend in college football:
2. Texas A&M, Ohio State issue statement wins
All of the above notwithstanding, allow for a little bit of hypocrisy to note that it sure felt like Ohio State and Texas A&M both set out to make a few, well… playoff statements this past week after Tuesday's committee meeting noted how close a call it is between the pair.
For the Buckeyes, their 52-12 demolition of Michigan State was extra impressive considering the absence of head coach Ryan Day, three offensive line starters and defensive signal-caller Tuf Borland among the 23 names that failed to make the trip to East Lansing. No matter, it was the same OSU squad we're used to seeing run over Big Ten teams like they typically have week in and week out.
QB Justin Fields bounced back from his rough performance against Indiana to rack up more than 300 total yards and four scores and the defense forced seven three-and-outs, had a pick-six, and was generally dominant despite the missing pieces in the back seven.
You know, Ohio State being Ohio State.
Maybe just as good for the Buckeyes' case is that the Hoosiers continued to look like the second-best team in the conference in their win over Wisconsin — a stellar defensive effort in particular. IU's dream season continues to help out their division rival in the grand scheme of things and the resilience Ohio State showed on Saturday will doubtless be noted by the committee too.
As for the Aggies, they displayed some impressive fortitude of their own on the Plains despite Bo Nix playing out of his mind for the first three quarters or so of their matchup. Against a pretty solid Auburn defense, Kellen Mond and company seemed noticeably sharper and more active than they did a week ago against LSU, with the QB finding the end zone three times to complement a rushing attack that had three bills on the ground.
Not to be overlooked, A&M also had a bit of luck on their side in the win as Jalen Wydermyer's fourth-quarter touchdown was off a tipped pass that went right through a defender's hands. That helped kick off a 17-point outburst to secure the win and move the program one step closer to the final weekend's final four.
Unless you're wearing maroon on a daily basis, you're probably still a tad skeptical about Jimbo Fisher's team truly being one of the best in the country after close calls against Vanderbilt and LSU plus that blowout loss to Alabama. Here they are though, with a trump card in that win over Florida and just the kind of record that keeps you in the conversation.
To make the playoff most years, one has to be both lucky and very good. The Aggies are starting to show they've got some traits of both as the season winds down.
3. Texas, Tom Herman respond in face of rumors
If you were able to peg Texas 69, Kansas State 31 as the highest-scoring game of the weekend, congrats and well done. The two Big 12 rivals have typically combined for some slugfests over the years and yet this was largely an outcome that seemed decided after the first few series as the Longhorns looked like the team they were supposed to be in 2020 and the Wildcats flashed a glimpse of the team they should have been most of the year.
While the final numbers caught one's attention, it was the way that UT played in this game that seemed a lot more notable. After all, the program was inundated for days with talk over Tom Herman's job status in the wake of a home loss to Iowa State and subsequent swirling rumors regarding the prospects of his former boss Urban Meyer taking the reins in Austin.
None of those external storylines, distracting as though they may have been, seemed to faze the burnt orange. Sam Ehlinger was, well, the Sam Ehlinger we've all come to see in recent years. The UT tailbacks looked the best they've been in ages, particularly young freshman Bijan Robinson in a breakout 172-yard, three-score outing.
Given injuries and a number of high-profile opt-outs prior to the game, the performance was one of the best we've seen in the Herman era against a league opponent — all at a place that has typically been a house of horrors for head coaches dating back to the beginning of the Big 12. It was the first time in school history (!) the Horns won consecutive games in the Little Apple and ensured a fourth straight winning season — something that hasn't been done since 2009.
All of which will only increase the pressure on athletic director Chris Del Conte to make some sort of announcement regarding Herman's future sooner rather than later. It's been no secret that things have been both tense and frosty on the 40 Acres much of the past month but you sure wouldn't have known that had you watched the team compete for 60 minutes on Saturday against the Wildcats.
4. Trying to make sense of the Pac-12
It can be truly confounding to try and make sense of things in college football in this, the year of 2020. That label seems especially apt when it comes to the Pac-12 after a topsy-turvy weekend that finally saw the league play all six scheduled games.
Stanford, which was forced onto the road the rest of the month by county officials, showed no ill effects from their nomad status in knocking off previously undefeated Washington by the all-too deceiving score of 31-26. The Cardinal were the better outfit from the start and looked far more like the teams David Shaw was winning the Pac-12 by rushing for 191 yards on 40 attempts and playing mistake-free in the passing game. They were a remarkable 12-for-15 on third or fourth down and iced their second victory with a perfect 14-play, 79-yard drive that took 7:54 off the clock and resulted in no points.
It was the return of the bully ball we've come to know and love from the team that trademarked "intellectual brutality" and put a dent into the start of the Jimmy Lake era at UW for the first time. The real surprise was not that Stanford won but the manner in which they did it on a weekend where the unexpected happened quite often.
Take conference favorite Oregon dropping their second of the year to in a mistake-prone effort against previously winless Cal. Or UCLA surfacing above .500 for the first time under Chip Kelly after a late scoring drive and subsequent defensive stand. Utah netted another big lead and held on this time around against Oregon State while USC and Washington State gave us a college football side dish on Sunday evening, in which the Trojans served the Cougars a 25-point loss.
Then there was Arizona, taking an early two-score lead over Colorado before the Buffaloes flipped a switch to move to 4-0 for just the third time in more than two decades. Yet even if CU wins out, they could miss out on the conference title game to the Trojans, a team they were supposed to play before the game was canceled and replaced with a non-conference outing against San Diego State.
It's a bizarre season all over but the folks in the Pac-12 are making it even more difficult to make sense of any of it. #Pac12AfterDark isn't just a trendy hashtag it seems, but an ethos adapted up and down the West Coast.
5. South Carolina, SEC laugh at player safety before Gamecocks change story with head coaching hire
Kentucky routed South Carolina 41-18 in Lexington but Saturday night was remarkable far more what the Gamecocks did on and off the field.
Early on, the SEC Network broadcast noted that the Gamecocks had just 16 defensive players make the trip and the team had just 46 total players available in the game. While that no doubt explains the final score some, it doesn't absolve the administration nor the conference office for continuing this "damn the torpedoes" streak of decisions in recent weeks as they try to put pride before pandemic.
In short, the game never should have been played with numbers that low for South Carolina. Not in a regular year, not in this year, not ever. But hey, TV inventory, right?
Commissioner Greg Sankey has, in the past, been a leading advocate for player safety and introduced a number of bylaws and rules to promote the welfare of players over the years. You may have to take some of that with a grain of salt going forward after what transpired Saturday as COVID, opt-outs, a fired head coach, and a lack of will produced just as lifeless a performance as one would expect out of SC in the situation.
One silver lining to all this for those in Columbia is that the headlines quickly changed after news broke within 10 minutes of the game going final that Shane Beamer would be the team's next head coach.
The son of former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer certainly knows the place well as a key component of the program's rise under Steve Spurrier a decade ago. The younger Beamer also had plenty of supporters in his corner among the coaching community and among former Gamecocks, constituencies that likely weighed on the administration in making this choice. Nevertheless, he'll face an uphill battle in his first gig in the big chair given how hard historically it is to win there.
Still, one can't help but think that maybe this is actually a sharp direction to go for SC in avoiding the baggage of bigger names like Hugh Freeze (and in light of others like Billy Napier turning them down). Beamer could well fit the mold of Arkansas' Sam Pittman, who has done wonders with the Razorbacks this season despite himself never being an offensive or defensive coordinator. Just up the road, Dabo Swinney has risen to the mountain top after being just a receivers coach and the reigning title-winning head coach never assumed the coordinator's chair either.
The notion of what is a home-run hire also seems to have changed in light of guys like Tom Herman, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh and others struggling to get their programs where they should be in the pecking order. Hires from more modest backgrounds have still produced results and perhaps Beamer is the next in line to follow that trend.
The tough part for Gamecocks fans and their new head coach however, is that he may well be judged not only by his overall record in the coming years, but directly against those bigger names in Freeze and Napier down the road if they take other SEC jobs.
6. Coach of the Year races may come down to the wire
Speaking of coaching, this year's race for some of the major coaching awards may well come down to the wire. Unlike last year where LSU seemed to lock the hardware up early, this is about as wide open a field as one can remember in recent memory.
At the head coach level alone you have strong contenders in Indiana's Tom Allen, Tulsa's Philip Montgomery, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Iowa State's Matt Campbell, San Jose State's Brent Brennan, and Cincinnati's Luke Fickell among others.
At the assistant level for the Broyles Award, usual suspects like Tony Elliott and Brent Venables of Clemson are on just as level a playing field as ACC foes like Tommy Rees and Clark Lea of Notre Dame. Mike Hankwitz of Northwestern and Nick Sheridan of IU have done remarkable work too and you can go on to make a great case for others like Miami's Rhett Lashlee, BYU's Jeff Grimes, Texas A&M's Mike Elko, Alabama's Steve Sarkisian, and Coastal Carolina's Willy Korn.
Given all the adjustments to the season and uneven number of games, this is about as difficult a year to vote on these awards as ever before and that is especially true when it comes to those on the coaching front.
All of which could put a big emphasis on what happens the next two weekends.
7. Rejoice Akron, rejoice New Mexico.
You'll be forgiven if the Akron-Bowling Green game didn't make it onto one of your TVs/devices on Saturday but for true college football degenerates, it was (to borrow a Bret Bielema line) borderline erotic.
I mean, who among us doesn't embrace a game pitting two winless MAC teams that appear on the bottom of pretty much everybody's FBS rankings for most of the past two years?
Alas, the struggle between the Falcons and Zips wound up being much more of a rout as Tom Arth earned his first victory at Akron in a 31-3 triumph that snapped a 21-game losing streak — a span of 770 days in the football desert. Tailback Teon Dollard is a name that should be much better known outside MAC circles because he was once again the focal point for the Zips in running for 185 yards and two scores for a team that dominated from start to finish.
And, oh yeah, did so amid a driving snowstorm for most of the afternoon no less.
While that was previously the longest active losing streak in FBS, the second-longest wound up getting snapped Saturday too as New Mexico incredibly turned the tables on Wyoming despite both sides turning to their backup's backup's backup quarterback among others. In the process, the Lobos also put an end to the longest conference losing streak (20 games) and did so with a "home game" taking place in Las Vegas to boot after the program was forced out by state restrictions.
It all just goes to show that even amid the lowly in the FBS ranks, there are still a few bright spots left to be had in this unconventional 2020 campaign.
Tweet of the Week
Play(s) of the Week
Stat of the Week
Brian Kelly just had his sixth undefeated regular season: three at Notre Dame, one at Cincinnati and two at Grand Valley State. His quarterback, Ian Book, finishes his career a perfect 16-0 at Notre Dame Stadium too.
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Corey Rucker, Arkansas State
Team(s) of the Week: Coastal Carolina, Stanford
Goat of the Week: Mike Gundy
Heisman Five: 1. Kyle Pitts (Florida), 2. DeVonta Smith (Alabama), 3. Kyle Trask (Florida)/Mac Jones (Alabama), 4. Zach Wilson (BYU), 5. Zaven Collins (Tulsa)
Projected Playoff: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Ohio State, 4. Notre Dame
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Clemson vs. Ohio State, Sugar Bowl — Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Fiesta Bowl — Indiana vs. USC, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — Texas A&M vs. Iowa State, Peach Bowl — Cincinnati vs. Georgia
Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall:
2. Notre Dame
4. Ohio State
6. Texas A&M
8. Iowa State
9. Coastal Carolina
18. San Jose State
19. Boise State
Cincinnati at Tulsa
An AAC title game preview as these two will play for the right to host next week's far more important game. The Bearcats were off so they should be well-rested and well prepared but the Golden Hurricane have been nothing but a pesky team this season. This feels close for about three quarters before a late defensive play helps Cincy stay in the playoff hunt. The Pick: Tulsa +14
North Carolina at Miami
Not exactly the most appealing of slates on Saturday but this has more intrigue than first glance. The Tar Heels were the preseason darlings in the ACC and have a chance to finish strong with an 8-3 mark in the Mack Brown redux. Meanwhile, Miami won't have a conference title game spot on the line but can lock up an Orange Bowl berth with a victory. Expect a wild shootout given the defenses involved as D'Eriq King puts up some crazy numbers to give the U a cover. The Pick: Miami -3
Western Michigan at Ball State
The other half of the #MACtion title game puzzle comes down to this one after both the Broncos and Cardinals found themselves on opposite sides of the ledger this past week. WMU brings the slightly better offense to the table but Mike Neu's group has been able to gut out wins just about every time on the field. It's in Muncie so the home team gets the slim edge as a result. The Pick: Ball State -2
— 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 goccusports.com)