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Seven-Step Drop: Familiar Woes Keep Dooming High-Profile Head Coaches

Tom Herman was just one of several highly-paid, high-profile head coaches to that had a rough Saturday

Even in the middle of a pandemic where evaluating college football head coaches has never been more difficult, Saturday's results seemed to underscore that some across the landscape still haven't found any sort of solution to their Achilles heel. What has bitten several high-profile names in the past once again rose up and helped a number of coaches snatch a loss (some even of the lopsided nature).

 

While fans of these programs were reminded of those problems for the umpteenth time, here's a look at some of the woes that popped up again on Saturday for a number of highly-paid head coaches.

 

The result: Alabama 52, Texas A&M 24

The coach: Jimbo Fisher

The issues: Consistent quarterback play, closing the gap in SEC West

Steps taken to fix: Generally recruited at a high level

Now what: Fisher has stuck by Kellen Mond despite results indicating that he's not an upper-tier quarterback in the SEC, much less a special talent that can elevate the program to the next level. The four-year starter has just a 56:25 TD/INT ratio and has beaten only three ranked teams over that tenure, not one outside of the state of Texas. He wasn't bad against Alabama on Saturday but not a true difference-maker that can take over a game either. The roster's talent level has generally risen since the expensive head coach's arrival but not anywhere near enough to truly contend in the division. Much will continue to be made about Fisher's salary ($7.5 million per with seven more years to go) as Aggies will keep pondering if their investment will ever pay off.

 

The result: TCU 33, Texas 31

The coach: Tom Herman

The issues: defense, special teams, playing against unranked teams

Steps taken to fix: Overhauled staff in offseason

Now what: Herman's record as an underdog is well documented but it's when his team is the big favorite against unranked foes that have proven to be tricky at Texas and elsewhere. The program has had a quarterback to build around for a while in Sam Ehlinger but has yet to actually take meaningful steps to develop the roster. FOX's pre-game show displayed a graphic noting UT had signed eight top-10 recruiting classes the past decade but produced just three first-round picks. That's not even in the same league as some of their blue-blood peers and behind a conference rival like Oklahoma. Herman did reboot his staff and brought in Chris Ash to help fix the defense but that move so far has produced zero results — maybe even a little regression. There's been plenty of talk the past 18 months of the head coach being on the hot seat but even for the richest athletics department in the country, that's not happening. You would think this could be a year where the Longhorns might be able to take advantage of all the chaos going on but instead they've found themselves trapped in its vortex yet again.

 

The result: Iowa State 37, Oklahoma 30

The coach: Lincoln Riley

The issues: the entire defense

Steps taken to fix: Bringing in Alex Grinch as defensive coordinator, recruiting better

Now what: It's somewhat hard to believe that it's been just over three years since OU was in the Rose Bowl, holding a second-half lead over Georgia with the Heisman Trophy winner behind center and looking like a true national title contender. Since then the Sooners have returned to the College Football Playoff but the distance between them and the rest of the sport's elite has seemingly gotten further with each passing season. The issue is a consistent one, with defensive woes plaguing the team in critical spots time and again during both wins and losses. There was hope that the team could turn the corner with Alex Grinch calling plays given the terrific work he did at Washington State but the now experienced roster continues to look lost and on their heels at every turn. Missed tackles happen with such regularity that it is truly surprising when the team gets off the field without allowing any damage. In the past, the offense was just too good that there was a margin for error. Given the youth movement on that side of the ball though, the error is now zero and OU is paying the price in the loss column.

 

The result: Florida 38, South Carolina 24

The coach: Will Muschamp

The issues: offensive play in general, late-game management

Steps taken to fix: Hired Mike Bobo as OC, brought in transfer QB

Now what: This is really just a section designed to call attention to how insane it was that for all the talk of Muschamp making progress in terms of having a quality offense for one of the first times in his head coaching career, the Gamecocks instead managed to take 7:23 off the clock late in the fourth quarter on a drive while trailing by just 14. South Carolina not only mounted such a lengthy drive with zero sense of urgency, the Gamecocks got zero points out of it too. This, mind you, after kicking a field goal several times this season while trailing when those three points don't really change the math needed to mount a comeback. That's not just a way to lose to a division rival but how to get humiliated while doing so. Despite the overall level of play improving this year, those same old issues continue to plague Muschamp down the stretch in games.

 

The result: Arkansas 21, Mississippi State 14

The coach: Mike Leach

The issues: Following up big wins, not taking what the defense gives, general stubbornness

Steps taken to fix: None

Now what: While the wild swings from top of the mountain to the bottom of the sea are nothing new for MSU fans, Leach brings a special flavor to things given his penchant for pulling off this stunt — often several times a year. It makes for some entertaining teams to say the least but also plenty of frustration if you're a supporter too. The Razorbacks clearly watched a bit of Jimmy Lake's defensive performances at Washington leading up to the game because DC Barry Odom had no qualms dropping six or seven and waiting for the Bulldogs to make their own mistakes. The loss of running back Kylin Hill played a big factor in this game no doubt but also underscored that adapting in-game has never quite been a strong suit for Leach despite all the success he's had. There's simply no fixing this, it's a feature and not a bug of having the pirate in charge.

 

The result: Georgia 27, Auburn 6

The coach: Gus Malzahn

The issues: Lack of elite QB, offensive consistency

Steps taken to fix: Recruited five-star legacy at QB, hired Chad Morris to help offense

Now what: Since making the BCS title game, Malzhan is just 14-22 against ranked teams. For a team that has championship aspirations quite a bit, that's just not good enough. The defense has consistently been one of the better units in the country since DC Kevin Steele was brought on board but they've been held back regularly by their offense not picking up first downs and not finding the end zone consistently. Bo Nix came in with a lot of hype but the numbers (and eye test) don't back up his play. His predecessors have been Jarrett Stidham, Sean White, Jeremy Johnson, and Nick Marshall, all of who have had moments but never elevated the program to where many Auburn fans think it should be. Malzahn has been one of the few coaches who can claim multiple wins over Nick Saban but also seems to be on the hot seat every other year due to the wild swings in offensive consistency. Based on what we saw against the Bulldogs, especially in the trenches, doesn't make it hard to figure out where Gus and the Tigers are trending in 2020.

 

Other thoughts on the weekend in college football:

 

2. Big 12's woes continue

In what is becoming a rinse, repeat situation every single week of the season so far, the Big 12 continues to shoot itself in the foot in pretty much every way.

 

Two of the conference's ranked teams lost as heavyweights Texas and Oklahoma (who doubled as the Big 12's top College Football Playoff hopes too) both fell the week before meeting at the Cotton Bowl. Officiating issues were front and center most of the afternoon as well while the same Kansas State team that is tied atop the standings at 2-0 saw their starting quarterback relegated to the sideline in a sling. Special teams mistakes were also common and one has to pour one out to those tortured souls who watched every snap of a Baylor-West Virginia game that was lightyears from the days were either side were topping the 70-point mark.

 

At least there was some semblance of normalcy in having a Kansas team getting boat-raced in an uncompetitive fixture, in this case at the hands of Oklahoma State in a 47-7 laugher.

 

As strange as it is to think, maybe TCU's upset of Texas down in Austin was normal too in retrospect. Yes, the Longhorns sported a top-10 ranking but their neighbors to the north in Fort Worth also managed their seventh victory in the last nine of the series since joining the league. It was another case of Gary Patterson adding to his coaching resume, the team gutting out a win despite clear offensive deficiencies and a defense that bent at times but didn't break in the end.

 

Much of the Horned Frogs' game plan seemed to rely simply on their counterparts making the back-breaking mental mistakes on Saturday. Penalties were almost omnipresent for both sides but it was UT's turnovers that really nipped them, including on what could have been the go-ahead touchdown at the goal line that sealed their fate.

 

Both TCU and Texas will return to the Dallas Metroplex in the coming days facing an ever more complicated series of questions about where each side goes from here in such a chaotic campaign.

 

One team that will eventually join them there next Saturday should have no illusions of any greater grandeur or even a modest turnaround. While one could have held off on calling Oklahoma done when it came to the College Football Playoff last week given they lost to Kansas State before and still made it to a semifinal, that won't be the case in 2020. In fact, even making it to the Big 12 title game would qualify as an accomplishment the rest of the way for Lincoln Riley's crew after Iowa State won in Ames against the Sooners for the first time in 60 years.

 

While much of the woes in Norman will be placed upon the shoulders of QB Spencer Rattler given his penchant for late, killer turnovers, the blame should be shifted elsewhere. The offensive line that was normally a bedrock for OU has been a shell of previous editions, especially in the run game. The throngs of four- and five-star receivers are simply not living up to the billing and the defense is as predictably bad as usual — maybe even worse off given the number of missed tackles seen pretty much every series. Mix in questionable special teams play and it's pretty clear Oklahoma needs to return to doing the little things right before they can re-enter the conversation as one of college football's elite in 2020 or beyond.

 

Add it all up and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby's league has never felt more behind their some of their peers when it comes to chasing national prestige. Things may yet get better but as we push deeper into October with only one undefeated Big 12 squad and two others atop the standings carrying non-conference losses to Sun Belt teams, perhaps it's best to sit back and enjoy the train wreck.

 

3. Clear eyes, full hearts, can lose

In a related note, the Lone Star State has seen some rough days on the football field but Saturday felt like something else.

 

Texas A&M was run out of the building on national TV by Alabama. Texas fumbled away a win at the goal line to TCU. Baylor fell to West Virginia in overtime after a truly dreadful four quarters. Texas Tech dropped to 0-2 in Big 12 play after losing to Kansas State. Both Rice and Houston still haven't played a game. UTSA lost too and North Texas was nearly run out of the building by a head coach notching the first win of his career in FBS play.

 

There's still plenty of talent on those teams and some good coaches around the state but that was certainly a Saturday of taking it on the chin.

 

4. Pac-12 schedule thoughts

It came as early as 7 a.m. PT over the weekend but the Pac-12 schedule is officially here and resulted in the much-maligned league finally and officially joining the party. For the first time in, uh, a month, we have some dates and games to look forward to out West — even if things are truncated to the point of just seven games.

 

Still, it's something. So here are some thoughts on the Pac-12 docket:

 

— Much like the SEC seemed to do with their crossover games, the conference office seemingly did what they could to help some of the obvious contenders. Reigning champ Oregon drew UCLA and old friend Chip Kelly in Eugene. The Bruins are among the last teams to practice and far behind the eight ball when it comes to being consistently competitive. For a team breaking in a new QB and host of others, the Bruins' defense is a welcome sight. The same is true for USC, which sees Washington State come to the Coliseum. Arizona State had the toughest draw getting a dark horse like Cal but at least that's in Tempe, where the Bears last won in 2011.

 

— Pac-12 After Dark will return of course but Pac-12 After Breakfast debuts too. If ever the league was going to experiment with the early 9 a.m. local kickoffs it was going to be this year without fans and they have an intriguing one in South division favorites USC hosting Arizona State. Kedon Slovis and Jayden Daniels plus some coffee will make for fun viewing even if it will be absolutely surreal to see.

 

— There are no Thursday games this year but Friday will be a featured night for the conference, allowing it to get even more eyeballs. The matchups aside from a three-game rivalry set on Black Friday aren't the most appealing options truth be told but given how starved for football the folks out West are, they probably don't mind.

 

— It's going to be even more bizarre than it already is to play five more Pac-12 games the day after the conference title game decides a champion. At least those games should have something on the line as nobody wants to get through all that it takes during this 2020 season only to lose on the final week and wind up in Shreveport for a bowl game instead of the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

 

5. We're going streaking... or not

One of the biggest beneficiaries, if you can even say that amid a pandemic that has interrupted every facet of daily life, of the disjointed football season may have been the champs themselves. No, not LSU, North Dakota State.

 

Instead of playing Oregon in the non-conference slate this year, the Bison instead played a one-off fall game against Central Arkansas. It was a bit of a slow start for the team that has dominated at the FCS level, with both sides trading barbs before NDSU finally took control with 21 fourth-quarter points to capture a 39-28 comeback win that wasn't quite reflective of how close things were for most of the afternoon at the Fargodome.

 

The game was, let's face it, mostly about showcasing quarterback Trey Lance one more time in that green uniform before he heads off to the NFL draft. The signal-caller did keep his record perfect at 17-0 but did toss the first interception of his career and also fumbled. It was certainly a rusty effort for a potential top-five pick but he did flash in other ways, using his legs to run for 143 yards and looking almost Cam Newton-like while doing so against smaller defenders.

 

Still, he accomplished what the team wanted in nabbing their 38th win in a row — giving the team a real shot at the overall Division I record of 47 held by Oklahoma. The Bison will play a full conference slate in the spring and if they run the table there could tie the mark in the first round of the FCS playoffs. Given how good the team is relative to their peers... that seems completely doable if they stay focus — even if they won't have their prodigious first-round quarterback in the fold.

 

Elsewhere, other streaks went down too. Iowa State beat Oklahoma for, incredibly, just the third time ever in Ames and first since 1960. Spencer Rattler was not even born the last time the Sooners started 0-2 in conference play as a result, while Lincoln Riley was barely in high school. UCF's 21-game home winning streak fell to Tulsa (who somehow has a four-game winning streak of their own against the Knights).

 

Most notable though? The 20-game SEC losing streak Arkansas has come to a crashing halt thanks to Mike Leach's stubbornness.

 

6. BYU's best shot

No, the competition hasn't been superb but in terms of passing the eye test, you could quite easily argue that BYU has been the most impressive team to take the field this fall.

 

The Cougars were sharp again at home on Friday night against a solid Louisiana Tech team, looking borderline unstoppable on offense while doing their usual work down in the trenches. Quarterback Zach Wilson almost had a perfect game going with a 24-for-26 for 325 yards and two touchdowns stat line plus three more scores on the ground. He was really zipping the ball all over and made some really impressive throws down the field in particular.

 

Factor in their stout defense and the team has won their first three games by outscoring opponents 148-24 this season. While the national attention on the team in what amount to solo TV time slots have helped their case, there's more than a few folks thinking out loud that this team is very much legit — enough to where you can start to hear the chatter pick up about BYU reaching the New Year's Six.

 

Keep in mind the program is not eligible for the Group of 5 bid and would have to finish high enough in the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings that they qualify for an at-large spot. Given the chaos at hand in 2020 in general, that seems as doable this year as any other. It helps the Cougars case that most of the Power 5 leagues are literally going to beat each other up and the team just added Mountain West powers Boise State and San Diego State to the docket later this season (in addition to a game against Houston). If BYU can somehow find a way to make up that Army game that was postponed due to COVID-19 reasons, the team will have a pretty solid schedule (all things considered) that they can be judged against.

 

Of course, running the table and keeping up this impressive form amidst a pandemic remains as tall a task as ever but thanks to this hot start, BYU is looking more than capable of making far more noise than expected this fall.

 

7. Flip the script

There was at least one thing away from the action on the field this weekend that also wound up catching my attention.

 

I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy of Ed Orgeron's new book, Flip the Script and managed to tear through it in just two short nights last week even amid everything going on. Normally such reading time is a bit limited during the actual college football season but the subject matter really draws you in given Coach O's colorful background and compelling journey through the sport to the top of the mountain top this past January. The numerous anecdotes are all phenomenal and anybody who has the slightest bit of fascination into one of the game's most colorful characters would do well to grab themselves a copy.

 

And there's plenty of interesting stuff for non-LSU/Ole Miss/SEC fans in the book as well. Orgeron mentioned several juicy details about how close he was to getting the USC job and even detailed how then-Trojans athletics director Pat Haden pulled the rug out from under him during his interim stint. While some of the stories about the tension he had with former offensive coordinator Matt Canada were documented back in 2017, it was fascinating to read Coach O's thoughts on the subject and just how icy the relationship was. Then, of course, there's the backstory to Joe Burrow's recruitment to Baton Rouge and his growth during the greatest season any college quarterback has ever had.

 

This column isn't normally one to turn into Oprah's Book Club but if you're looking for a fun read on something from the sports world, this is it. If anything, it will leave you wishing the book was about 100 pages longer and filled with even more details about Orgeron's past and the awesome ride that was that 2019 Tigers team. It may not change some peoples' minds about the head coach himself but it sure gives some great insight into somebody who has truly shed a lot of unflattering labels about his career and been reinvented as the perfect coach at the perfect place at the absolute right time.

 

The book comes out on Oct. 27 and you can preorder on Amazon or grab a copy from your local bookstore.

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Play of the Week

 

An OBJ-esque reception from Clemson corner Andrew Booth against Virginia:

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

Mississippi State was responsible for ending the nation's longest FBS winning streak last week and responsible for ending the SEC's longest losing streak the following week. The Bulldogs went from beating a team that had won 16 in a row against all competition to losing to another that had not tasted victory in 20 straight conference games. The full Mike Leach experience.

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: Reggie Roberson Jr., SMU

Team of the Week: Arkansas

Goat of the Week: Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

Heisman Five: 1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Kyle Trask (Florida), 4. D'Eriq King (Miami), 5. Shane Buechele, SMU

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

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Alabama, Sugar Bowl — Clemson vs. Georgia, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame vs. USC, Peach Bowl — SMU vs. BYU

 

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. Notre Dame

6. Miami

7. Georgia

8. Penn State

9. USC

10. BYU

11. SMU

12. Oklahoma State

13. Tennessee

14. Wisconsin

15. Michigan

16. Oregon

17. Iowa State

18. TCU

19. Cincinnati

20. North Carolina

21. Virginia Tech

22. Auburn

23. Mississippi State

24. LSU

25. Louisiana

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

Virginia Tech at North Carolina

This might well prove to be an early elimination game in the ACC title chase given how the conference has shaken out so far. Both teams have flashed like they're potential challengers to at least make it to the final weekend but are also coming off a pair of less than impressive outings on Saturday. It's hard to really even predict what you're going to get out of the Hokies in particular as they've been without a number of coaches and players due to COVID-19 too. We'll lean the home team in this one but there's not much confidence in anything out of the league aside from Clemson at this point. The Pick: Virginia Tech +7

 

Tennessee at Georgia

The first of several SEC East clashes is a lot more interesting given what the Bulldogs showed against Auburn and how Tennessee has taken care of business to open the season. Neither quarterback situation breeds much confidence and this could be a lower-scoring affair given the two defensive-minded head coaches. UGA can get another big win between the Hedges but something says this will be close into the fourth quarter. The Pick: Tennessee +14

 

Miami at Clemson

Is the U back? It's a question that's been asked both seriously and facetiously in recent years and will be put to the test once again on Saturday night. The Hurricanes have a solid defense as expected and they might finally have the QB to make a dent in the Tigers' persona in the dazzling D'Eriq King. Dabo and company are still the rightful favorites in this one but don't be shocked if Miami can get an early lead before Trevor Lawrence takes over and helps win this one comfortably in the end. The Pick: Clemson -16

 

— 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.

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