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Seven-Step Drop: "Eye-Test" Season in College Football Now Begins in Earnest

This past weekend's slate in college football was less than inspiring

After factoring in cancellations, there was just a single college football contest this past weekend involving two ranked teams. The elite programs in action mostly took care of business in blowouts (both Clemson and Notre Dame posted shutouts). Just four games matched up a pair of Power 5 teams.

 

That's not to say it wasn't completely drama-free though. Tulsa had a number of opportunities to pull a shocker against banged-up Oklahoma State. Georgia State pushed freshly ranked Louisiana to overtime, Appalachian State went down, Navy pulled a stunning second-half comeback, Louisiana Tech got a score near the death, and Wake Forest and NC State traded blows late into the night.

 

Still, things are changing. The SEC is on the doorstep. The Big Ten is on deck. The Pac-12 may not be far behind. Even the Mountain West and the MAC may get in on the action.

 

Yes, it feels like the college football season is really starting to spin up.

 

And in THIS era — an era where nothing is normal except for the omnipresence of thinking about COVID-19 — that also means the hotly debated "eye test" is never going to be more important locally or nationally. Yes, the very thing fans love to rail against in a normal year is going to be the defining metric of the 2020 campaign. Especially for those select teams with an eye on a College Football Playoff or New Year's Six bid.

 

Wins against top-25 teams? That's semi-meaningless given the fractured state of affairs. With unequal schedules far and wide, statistics don't carry the same weight in the ACC as they might in the Big 12 or SEC because playing Texas Tech's defense is such a far cry from figuring out Mississippi State's.

 

In such an information vacuum then, all we will have to fall back on is what we see. This team looks good because they piled up the points. That team doesn't because they struggled two Saturdays in a row. As much as we want more nuance, this simply isn't going to be a feature of 2020's disjointed effort at rolling the ball out there for kickoff.

 

Perhaps most damaging to some of the potential Cinderella stories is that we're going to likely be over-reliant on giving the blue bloods the benefit of the doubt. Had Oklahoma and not Oklahoma State struggled with a Group of 5 opponent while down to a backup QB and out several other starters, most will probably overlook the performance. The Cowboys, on the other hand, likely will garner a little extra time under the microscope.

 

Nobody will come to find this out more than the CFP Selection Committee. The group's rankings and decisions are already hotly discussed and with far less evidence to support their conclusions, will be picked apart like a carcass in the high desert.

 

Having gone through the mock selection exercises and poured over the protocols, it's pretty obviously that all those minute details like head-to-head, common opponents and the elusive strength-of-schedule will be relied on less than ever. In lieu of being able to note this result or this stat, simply stating the group thinks Team Y is simply better than Team X might be the default new normal despite its unsatisfactory nature.

 

But every college football fan out there should at least have some practice to fall back on. After all, we've been debating plays, results and even national champions for over a century.

 

Now it's time to apply that ethos to pretty much every aspect of the sport and especially so when it matters. The eye test is back in a big way even if it's never been worse to rely on.

 

Such is life in 2020, we just have to get used to it. It may not be fun to say "because I think so" in these times after watching what happens between the lines but it is where we're at heading into the final throws of September.

 

2. Big Ten is back, so are Nebraska's complaints

Yet again the oft-discussed league was in the news without taking a single snap on Saturday, as FOX's pregame show was turned into a reveal party for the Big Ten's third attempt at a fall schedule.

 

And, friends, it really does start to feel real again that we'll be seeing college football in the Midwest.

 

Of course, with the schedule officially on the docket, the complaints came almost immediately. While the limited number of crossover matchups led to grumbling all over, nobody made a bigger stink of the actual potential of playing football than the one school that has raised the most noise about doing that in the first place.

 

"I'm sure my friend (Ohio State Athletic Director) Gene Smith is smiling today. His friend Bill Moos is not," Nebraska AD Moos told the Omaha World-Herald. "I've got a good football team with a great football coach that deserves a break here or there to start getting back on track to being a contender in the Big Ten West."

 

Eye. Roll.

 

The latest bit of spin to come out of Lincoln continues to portray the Cornhuskers as some sort of victim. Pffft. Yes, a game against Rutgers was dropped while Ohio State and Penn State remained on the slate.

 

It says more about the state of the program, as a corollary of Moos' statement, that Nebraska is looking to avoid the competition it should be measuring itself against and instead is running toward the programs it should not.

 

Where you been Tommie (Frazier) indeed. Instead of looking at what can be, NU instead looks at what isn't. If Scott Frost wants to recruit better athletes his program desperately needs to that, good luck.

 

Around the rest of the Big Ten there was excitement. Elsewhere in the division, Jeff Brohm used words like "excited" and "can't wait." As it should be, football is indeed back on track.

 

The fractures that have developed over the past few months in the conference will take several years to repair and are Kevin Warren's biggest obstacle toward harmony after getting through everything involving 2020. The Cornhuskers top the list on that front. But they need to first take a moment to look around and take stock as to where they're at in the pecking order and just how far they have to go in order to reach the level of status they think they deserve to be at.

 

Until then, the Huskers can enjoy that Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State gauntlet in the first four weeks of the season as a thank you from the folks in Rosemont.

 

3. Pac-12, MWC to follow?

In the on-deck circle to play could be the folks out West.

 

While coaches, ADs and presidents are making progress, it may be a few days before we officially get a plan out of the Pac-12 for fall football before Thanksgiving. Obviously the daily testing component has accelerated the timetables for the league but the schools are in just such a different spot compared to their fellow non-playing peers at the moment.

 

At the same time, perhaps that's one factor in why the Pac-12 might be the best positioned of any league to actually play uninterrupted this year. Not only will they have the daily testing that can help mitigate some of the contract tracing elements that have led to cancelations but nearly half the league does not have students on campus this semester. Outbreaks that have popped up locally have started to get under control.

 

Maybe, just maybe, the Power 5 league that waited the longest could pull something off nobody expected. One never knows given how quickly things change but it could be worth noting in the back of your mind.

 

The Mountain West is a bit further behind in terms of the restart but seems nimble enough to spin up quickly. If they can procure the same kind of testing, the ability to at least mount some sort of challenge to the AAC for the Group of 5 bid (to say nothing of getting some TV revenue) could be a boon to the conference.

 

No matter the date, it all can't come soon enough. UTEP After Dark or, this coming week, BYU After Dark just doesn't have the same feel.

 

It took a while but the Pacific Time Zone might finally be on the verge of joining the party.

 

4. The U is... back as ACC middle class grows more intriguing

Fool me once... okay fool me twice... okay fool me a dozen times over the past decade and... ahh, you know what, forget the past mistakes and start expanding that Miami bandwagon.

 

Given the paltry slate on Saturday, there was always going to be an oversized focus on Miami's trip to Louisville and a growing narrative around the victor as the hot team to break up the potential Clemson-Notre Dame duopoly atop the ACC.

 

To which the Hurricanes gladly said: yes, we'll seize that mantle with aplomb (and a new turnover chain too).

 

The 47-34 final didn't even reflect just how in control the Hurricanes were against one of their bigger tests of the year. They pretty much felt in control at all times despite the Cardinals' stable of playmakers and looked much more in rhythm than they did against UAB in the opener. D'Eriq King looked like his own self with 325 yards (3 TDs) even if his NCAA record streak of throwing and passing for at least one touchdown each was snapped. Tailback Cam'Ron Harris already seems like the next big thing (134 yards) and the defense was fast, physical and as swarming as ever.

 

Heck, even kicker Jose Borregales put his heckling of the team as a former FIU player behind him and delivered four field goals, one of which was an incredible 57-yarder.

 

So is Manny Diaz' crew really, truly back? Well, still TBD in the long term but for now — in *these times* — they're certainly back on the national stage and relevant. Beat the rival from Tallahassee in primetime next week and momentum will keep growing.

 

While we still don't quite know if the 2-0 'Canes are ready to really make a run at the Tigers (or even the Irish), it's pretty clear they're leading the pack of what we'll term the ACC middle class in 2020. Louisville, despite their truly dreadful defensive lapses against UM, is still in the conversation but appears not too different from what we saw in 2019.

 

Still, maybe it's a more robust group bunched in the middle of the league than first thought — noting the caveat of it still being early in the season while a global pandemic rages on.

 

Earlier in the day, it was Jeff Hafley who made a quality impression in notching his first win at Boston College. The Eagles looked significantly more competent on both sides of the ball, playing stout defense while showing some downfield passing trademarks with QB Phil Jurkovec they haven't displayed in years. They may still be closer to No. 14 in the league than No. 1 but Boston College seems intriguing enough to become a tough out in this strange ACC race.

 

The same could be said at NC State, which looked relatively energized and explosive with Bailey Hockman at QB compared to where we last left off in Raleigh. The defense still clearly needs work but signs of progress are certainly there with the Wolfpack.

 

It's probably still too early to make any sort of declarative statement re: Florida State at the same time — outside of the fact that Mike Norvell's terrible, horrible, no good start to his career at the school continues in light of him testing positive for the coronavirus. On the other hand, Pitt has taken care of business and could prove just as feisty as close observers think they can be.

 

We'll know more about the rest (we haven't even seen Virginia or Virginia Tech play for example) but for now maybe that conference we wrote off this summer, last summer and most recent summers is actually a little more intriguing in the middle than we thought.

 

5. AAC as intriguing as ever

We'll see what becomes of efforts to restart in the MW/MAC down the road but, for now, the Group of 5 bid is pretty much the AAC's to lose (sorry Sun Belt aficionados, we still love you). And it sure seems like the league is the most competitive of any from top to bottom in light of the Big 12's recent struggles.

 

We caught our first glimpse of UCF against Georgia Tech and the Knights were as advertised. QB Dillon Gabriel picked up where he left off and the Hawaiian posted 417 yards and 4 TD passes while barely breaking a sweat. The speedy playmakers that stock the roster were on full display but the Knights' defense against Georgia Tech was the real takeaway from knocking off (an albeit rebuilding) Power 5 squad.

 

League favorite Cincinnati rolled as expected against FCS Austin Peay and has a chance to get a pretty big win next week too. We'll see how SMU holds up but so far so good for Sonny Dykes' team as they continue to pile up yards and points as one of the top offenses in the country in this young season. We all know the baseline for Memphis is quite high and Houston is much improved on paper even if we haven't seen that in action. Even Tulsa appears as pesky as ever despite shooting themselves in the foot down the stretch against their in-state rivals.

 

Mix in a USF that is trying to figure a lot of moving parts out in short order, an under-the-radar Temple squad and a TBD East Carolina and the AAC might be truly wild even in these crazy times.

 

It may well result in a one- or two-loss champion when all is said and done but it will sure make for one heck of a ride between now and late November from a group that is really adding credence to that Power 6 label.

 

6. The master of the seas remains the USN

Hat tip to The Athletic's Nicole Auerbach and the folks at the "Fear the Wave" blog for pointing out that there's a growing social media trend surrounding a so-called #TridentTrophy going to the winner of the Tulane Green Wave and the Naval Academy meeting in AAC play.

 

First off, it's a trophy that very much needs to exist given how powerful control of the high seas is in the world at large and how wild this rivalry has become.

 

 

I joked early in the third quarter after Navy missed a field goal while trailing by four scores that they couldn't even muster a bit of a saving grace with three points. It was just that kind of effort from the Midshipmen and that kind of performance from the Green Wave up to that point.

 

Call it a jinx or whatever you will though, Navy just fought through it and found a way. The maligned defense finally started tackling and wrapping up. The normally prodding offense suddenly became a quick-strike group. Shockingly they not only outgained their New Orleans counterparts through the air but they won their seventh in a row when throwing for 100-plus yards in the air.

 

All while making a quarterback change and, well, practicing as we know college football teams to do for the first time this year.

 

Tulane's second-half play-calling did them no favors but credit goes to Navy, who stepped up with their backs to the wall and came through unexpectedly — including a 10-play drive down the stretch that led to a perfectly executed walk-off 33-yard field goal to secure the victory.

 

As a result, the Trident belongs in Annapolis for the rest of 2020 in what is becoming a must-see college football rivalry.

 

7. NFL blue bloods

The NFL kicked off last week and thanks to rosters being set around the league had released some data on which schools produced the most opening weekend players.

 

The numbers were fairly expected given the blue bloods involved but it was interesting to dig up past years and compare them to now. Here's all of that visualized in a cool way:

 

Made with Flourish

 

Two trends to look at in particular: how Alabama has taken off in a big way and how Cal and, especially, USC have done the exact opposite. Enjoy.

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Play of the Week

 

 

Stats of the Week

 

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: Ulysses Bentley IV, SMU

Team of the Week: Navy

Goat of the Week: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Heisman Five: 1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 2. Sam Ehlinger (Texas), 3. Najee Harris (Alabama), 4. Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State), 5. D'Eriq King (Miami)

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

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Alabama, Sugar Bowl — Clemson vs. Texas, Orange Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — UCF vs. Oklahoma, Peach Bowl — Georgia vs. Penn State

 

The 25

 

Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall, including Big Ten squads for the first time:

 

1. Clemson

2. Ohio State

3. Alabama

4. Florida

5. Texas

6. Georgia

7. Oklahoma

8. Texas A&M

9. Penn State

10. Notre Dame

11. LSU

12. Auburn

13. UCF

14. Wisconsin

15. Michigan

16. Cincinnati

17. Oklahoma State

18. Tennessee

19. Army

20. North Carolina

21. Kentucky

22. Miami

23. BYU

24. Memphis

25. Pitt

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

Kentucky at Auburn

One of just a handful of ranked-vs-ranked matchups as SEC play begins and it involves the Wildcats? That's a testament to just how far Mark Stoops has brought the program. Lynn Bowden Jr. is no longer leading the charge, but I expect the UK offense to be able to move the ball in a bit more balanced fashion. That should help take some pressure off on their defense to carry them at times in what should be a pretty fun and evenly matched game. The Tigers still have the overall talent edge and are playing in Jordan-Hare though so they are the lean to get what is perhaps the first conference win of the year. The Pick: Kentucky +13.5

 

Florida State at Miami

The Hurricanes are riding high after their start to the season and return home to face a bitter rival. Meanwhile, the Seminoles have gone through the ringer in 2020 and will be without head coach Mike Norvell. While I'd normally say such a loss can be a bit overblown, that's not the case here given his abilities as one of the best play-callers in the game. FSU will fight hard and make things uncomfortable for longer than expected but in the end "The U is back" chorus will grow a little louder. The Pick: FSU +9.5

 

Army at Cincinnati

Few probably could have seen this coming as one of the most intriguing games of the week but that speaks a lot to how the Black Knights have looked early so far. Add in their unique style of play and this one could be quite compelling as Cincy looks to notch a quality win to boost their Group of 5 credentials. This game figures to be tight into the final quarter before the Bearcats' playmakers ultimately secure the "W." The Pick: Army +13

 

— 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 clemsontigers.com)

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