What truly makes college football a special sport is the out-of-nowhere nature of the games that take place each and every Saturday.
There are 130 teams at the FBS level and for the most part, the vast majority of results come and go as expected. A bigger program beats a smaller one and that is that. Blowouts happen when things get too far out of whack or luck is on the side of the ranked team. Close results between evenly matched squads tend to play out in a back-and-forth affair with plays made at the margins being the ultimate determining factor.
Yet for all that, it is the "Did you see that score?" moments and surprises that truly make college football stand out from its professional sibling and worth doing a double-take. Every given Saturday the unexpected somehow rings true and delights the unattached observers and makes things like ranking teams such a difficult exercise.
We found that out in Manhattan, Kansas, in particular during Week 9 as Kansas State topped No. 5 Oklahoma for a seismic shock to the previous status quo that few not wearing purple on Saturday (and maybe a few who did) could have expected when they woke up.
The game itself looked like it was going to plan early on as the Sooners got a defensive stop to open and then jumped out to a 17-7 lead. But credit to the Wildcats, they stayed true to their game plan despite the early struggles and continued to chip away before eventually taking control in the third quarter. The offensive explosion behind Skylar Thompson was eye-opening but so too was the defense. KSU stopped the run (seven carries, six yards by OU players not named Jalen Hurts), ran the ball themselves to milk the clock and then held on in the end as the best offense in the country finally woke up.
The competition level was certainly higher than what he's been used to but credit to first-year K-State head coach Chris Klieman for adapting what worked so well at North Dakota State to the team he inherited from the Wizard himself, Bill Snyder (a watchful eye in the suites with his binoculars no less). His kids believed in doing the unthinkable and simply dug in and went to work. It's a signature victory if there ever was one and quite the way to keep his inaugural campaign rolling despite a few doubts from some skeptics in the fan base.
Pulling away from the game itself, the bigger picture is that the result has sizably reset the College Football Playoff picture in an unexpected manner. Though it has not eliminated the Sooners by any stretch of the imagination, it has reset the status quo and opened up new avenues to a final four that were much more on the fringe of reality than what we find ourselves with a week prior to the CFP Selection Committee's first rankings.
Some might point to Wisconsin's equally inexplicable loss against Illinois the week prior as doing that first but the Badgers, as we also found out Saturday, were never quite to the level needed to be a true contender for one of those precious four spots. OU had, up to facing Kansas State, looked the part however and combined that with a track record and the Heisman Trophy candidate leading the way to make for an easy choice.
Now it's time to pick up the pieces as the picture has been reset. What does the Sooners' loss really mean?
You can start with who it benefits most directly, and that would undoubtedly be the Pac-12. Larry Scott's conference was written off by mid-September but find themselves very much in the thick of things. Oregon and Utah both sit there with one loss and have been playing well on both sides of the ball outside of the games they dropped. The Ducks, in particular, will bang the drum about playing a good opponent at a neutral site in non-conference play while the Utes' sheer dominance of some of their opponents not named USC has to go a long way in the eyes of the committee.
Both would be placed behind an undefeated Power 5 champ but when the equation involves either a one-loss Oklahoma or Baylor at the end of the season, the folks out West may have a better claim due to the number of top 25 victories and the way they've played down the stretch. And don't forget that only a single one-loss conference champ in the playoff era has ever missed a semifinal (2018 Ohio State with that blowout loss to Purdue).
OU faltering also opens up the possibility of a one-loss SEC team that doesn't win the league making it into the field as well. The doomsday scenario for many after it already occurred with Georgia and Alabama, there's a case to be made that LSU, even with a loss to the Crimson Tide, has enough of a resume to get past the Big 12 and Pac-12 champs. The committee highly values wins over good opponents much more than losses and given how the schedule has played out, it's not hard to think the Tigers will have enough even if Texas, Auburn, and others slip further down the polls.
And for as much as we talk about two SEC West teams making the playoff, the Big Ten East has their own case in two top-five teams. Imagine Penn State upsetting Ohio State but the Buckeyes otherwise dominating the rest of their schedule. Would the Buckeyes have a case over Oklahoma? Based on the eye test, they probably would and could wind up with a number of top 25 wins on the resume as well.
Then there's Lincoln Riley's squad. The Sooners are by no means eliminated from the chase but their path did just get narrower. They not only have to win out but will need to look as impressive as they did earlier in the year while doing so, including beating somebody like Baylor not once but twice and doing so convincingly. Their non-conference schedule isn't as good as Oregon's but they might get the edge over somebody like Utah or even a one-loss Alabama who would not have many signature victories.
Plus, there's still a lot of football left to be played and plenty of tricky games for all of the contenders to grapple with. Assuming zero or one losses the rest of the way for multiple teams just isn't how reality in college football tends to work.
In the end this weekend served as a nice reset button as we cruise further past the midway mark of the 2019 season and come closer to its conclusion. The Selection Committee's rankings are just around the corner and the upcoming mega-matchups in the SEC and Big Ten are bound to provide further clarity on just how the pecking order is this year.
If there is anything to take to heart going forward however, it's that the unexpected is to be expected — which is just what makes it all so fascinating each and every weekend.
Other thoughts from a wild week in college football:
2. Big 12 turned upside down
As crazy as things were in the Little Apple, that was just a taste of things to come for the Big 12 as it went full-on ACC Coastal Saturday. All three of the conference's ranked teams wound up losing to unranked opponents and the other league game featured Les Miles and Kansas miraculously getting the ball back in the final seconds to kick a game-winning field goal over Texas Tech.
It was just that kind of weekend in middle America and one that new Big 12 leader Baylor (incredible to say in its own right) has to be glad they sat out on.
Perhaps the most surprising to those who haven't been following along closely was TCU upending Texas 37-27. The Horned Frogs opened the week as a home favorite but quickly moved to an underdog as money rolled in on a Longhorns team ranked in the top 15 but playing more like one in the 30s. Tom Herman's offense has been good enough to provide cover for the atrocious tackling on defense but that wasn't the case in Fort Worth on Saturday.
TCU freshman QB Max Duggan looked like a crafty veteran all game long and showed why head coach Gary Patterson entrusted him to run the offense despite a few early growing pains in 2019. The youngster wisely targeted Jalen Reagor often and did well moving around to avoid the rush when pressured. Maybe just as big for the team was the defense rising up to look much more like the Horned Frogs unit we're used to seeing — flying all over in the secondary and creating havoc up front. It all made life miserable for Sam Ehlinger (career-high four interceptions) and when he's not on point for the burnt orange, things can get away from the team in a hurry given the margin for error being razor thin on the other side of the ball.
Things played out somewhat similarly up in Ames, where Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy was good until he wasn't in attempting 62 passes (!) ... but also tossing three interceptions in the fourth quarter. That spoiled a pretty solid defensive effort as the Cyclones held Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard to only 116 yards on the ground. It spoils quite the run in recent weeks and results in a third loss on the year — all by a combined 10 points in games they led in the fourth quarter. Matt Campbell has done a terrific job with the program overall but a few mistakes here and there have been the difference between being 8-0 and their present 5-3 with a trip to Norman up next.
All that drama paled in comparison to the ending of Jayhawks-Red Raiders, however, as Tech's Douglas Coleman inexplicably tried to lateral after recovering a blocked field goal. KU eventually recovered and capped off a 17-point fourth quarter in a game where they once trailed by that same amount. Credit where credit is due for Les Miles, who has made his program competitive pretty much on a weekly basis after a slow start to the year. The move to fire his OC has paid off and it's been proven quite a bit the past two weeks that this isn't your annual homecoming opponent you can roll by getting off the bus like the Jayhawks once were.
Then there's Baylor, which hosts both the Sooners and Longhorns in Waco, is suddenly the lone team atop the standings in the conference and two games clear of third place. The Bears might be the most balanced team in the Big 12 and at this point, are looking like a favorite to make it to the conference title game at JerryWorld. The rebuilding job Matt Rhule has done is incredible but the story around the program isn't done being written and may have gotten even better without playing this past week.
3. Ohio State further distances themselves from Big Ten
We're still over a week away from the very first College Football Playoff rankings but at this point on the calendar, it would be a surprise if the Selection Committee went with anybody but Ohio State atop their weekly straw poll when next Tuesday rolls around.
Perhaps the biggest feather in the Buckeyes' cap is that they have not displayed any obvious weakness and their closest game so far came by 24 points. No the schedule has not been world-beating like LSU's (whose has though?) but this team tackles as well as anybody in college football, has a dynamic QB running the offense (24:1 TD-to-INT ratio), a great tailback in J.K. Dobbins, and a cornerstone defensive player operating in a different stratosphere from just about everybody else in CFB.
Perhaps Penn State or Michigan or somebody in the West Division will rise up and challenge this group or they'll suffer an inexplicable performance like they have in the past (see Purdue, Iowa, etc. the past few years). But as it stands right now, the gap between the Big Ten's best and the rest of the league might be greater than any other Power 5 conference.
Justin Fields got a lot of the attention this offseason and during the early part of the schedule but while he's been fantastic under center, you're starting to see why this is very much a complete team. They're 15-0 when Dobbins runs for 100-plus yards and the receiving corps, while maybe not Alabama/Clemson level, is a veteran outfit and one of the best in the country.
Against Wisconsin, we also saw that defensive end Chase Young's Heisman Trophy case is very much a real one too after a four-sack afternoon. When you factor in a conference title game and bowl game, it's possible he could even come close to Terrell Suggs' modern FBS record of 24 and his dominance is easy to spot on just about every play he disrupts.
If he keeps this up, it seems like a spot in New York is more than realistic as a finalist for the sport's most prestigious trophy. If he sniffs Suggs' record while making it to the playoff, we can't rule Young out actually winning the award either. Attitudes are changing on the tired trope of giving it to the quarterback on the best team or the guy with the most prolific numbers. Defenders, whether they be LSU's Honey Badger, Ndamukong Suh or even Quinnen Williams last season, are changing the minds of the Heisman's voting block and we're continuing to inch closer to the day where somebody joins Charles Woodson on the podium.
Maybe the biggest obstacle to all that for Young isn't the video game numbers Jalen Hurts is putting up or the big wins from Joe Burrow but the guys on his own team. We've seen multiple candidates on one roster split votes before and with Dobbins and Fields making their own case on a weekly basis, some in the Midwest might have a very difficult task at hand when it comes time to vote in December.
Good problem to have if you're Ryan Day right now as OSU keeps stating their case to be No. 1.
4. Kansas, Rutgers, UConn and other bottom-feeders notch victories
If this weekend gave off more than a few 2007-ish vibes in college football, it turns out that's for good reason. For the first time since that truly bonkers season, UConn/Rutgers/Illinois/Kansas all beat FBS opponents on the same day.
Other historically struggling programs got in on the action too. San Jose State went across the country for a 9 a.m. PT kickoff and beat Army. Charlotte knocked off preseason Conference USA favorite North Texas. There were even a few other near-misses too in close losses by Rice, UNLV, and others.
Even once-lowly UCLA thumped Arizona State to record their second win in a row and Indiana became bowl eligible before Halloween. Pretty much top-to-bottom this year in college, the phrase any given Saturday has applied and that seems truer than ever when you see some of the fight in the teams at the bottom of the standings.
5. Stage set for Game of the Century 9,213 between Alabama-LSU
As we've been building to for several weeks now, the stage is now set for No. 1 (AP) LSU meeting No. 1 (Coaches) Alabama in two weeks after both the Tigers and Tide took care of business.
While we do have to wait a little extra time (and CFP rankings might mean it's not a 1-2 matchup either), the massive SEC West tilt continues to shape up as perhaps the most impactful game in the national title chance of 2019. LSU faced the bigger challenge on Saturday in Death Valley, finding some key plays down the stretch to hold off Auburn 23-20. That final score was a little deceptive as to how close the game really was but the effort was just what the team had to do against the best defense they'll see this season.
Maybe the more encouraging sign for fans of Ed Orgeron's crew is the fact that the defense had a number of opportunities to pick up their normally high-flying offense and pretty much did every time. We'll have to find out if the ankle injury to safety Grant Delpit is serious in the coming days but it was otherwise their best effort as they've finally gotten healthy in the front seven. The rest between now and Nov. 9 will continue to help and it sure seems like everybody inside and outside Baton Rouge believes this is the program's best shot at knocking off their rival in about a decade.
Actually getting over the hump is something we'll have to wait to see for real but Tide fans have to like the effort their own team put forward Saturday night. Yes, Arkansas was an overmatched opponent but Alabama executed nearly perfectly in every phase for their most complete win of the year. Quarterback Mac Jones, with a week to fully prepare as the starter in place of Tua Tagovailoa, was pretty impressive in his own right in spreading the ball around and the ground game continues to push forward on a weekly basis.
There will be plenty of time to break down the latest edition of the Game of the Century with both sides on a bye to start November but for now; the rankings besides both Alabama and LSU continue to indicate just how massive this one will be in the division, conference and national playoff picture.
6. Number of impressive bounce-backs across the country
The race for the various Coach of the Year Awards can always be difficult to handicap given how differently voters value things but it goes without saying that Scott Satterfield, Ken Niumatalolo, Troy Calhoun, and even Tom Allen should have their names in the conversation given what they've done as part of some spectacular turnarounds from 2018 to '19.
You can probably start off with Louisville, who may well be able to lay claim as the ACC's second-best team and have the inside track for an Orange Bowl berth — unthinkable to those who watched the Cardinals in their final year under Bobby Petrino when they very simply gave up. In sharp contrast, this year's group fights hard no matter if they face a little adversity and have already knocked off Wake Forest and, on Saturday, one-time Coastal favorite Virginia.
Micale Cunningham seemed to flash his own Lamar Jackson impression late in the game against the Cavaliers — with the Heisman winner in the house to watch too. He's quite the backfield tandem with Javian Hawkins and it speaks to the staff's coaching abilities that they've had to rotate so many guys behind center and pretty much everywhere on both sides of the ball. There's a toughness on defense that has been lacking in recent years and the overall group has dug down to pull out some rallies despite the circumstances several times already this year. They sit at 5-3 on the year and if they can get past a trip to Miami after their bye, it's possible they could hit eight or nine wins just one season after going 2-10 and becoming one of the worst in the Power 5.
It's been an equally wild turnaround in Annapolis, where the Midshipmen are suddenly 6-1 and helping make the AAC West one of the most competitive divisions in all of college football. They jumped out to a big lead over a good Tulane squad before nailing down the win with a wild ending that saw them kick a 48-yard field goal at the gun. Navy is 16th in the country in scoring offense ahead of Oklahoma State, Oregon and others, which isn't something you would think about an option squad.
Niumatalolo has done a particularly good job in developing QB Malcolm Perry. The senior is third in the country in rushing yards per game and his passing numbers are well ahead of any of the marks he had in previous years. Maybe more than that, there's a confidence that the signal-caller has on the field as part of this run that wasn't there last year when Navy went a surprising 3-10.
Academy counterpart Air Force is another team that is rolling right along as well after going 5-7 a year ago. Timothy Jackson has turned into a bowling ball rolling downhill out of the backfield and Falcons QB Donald Hammond III remains just as dangerous. Defensively the improvement is apparent too as the Falcons clamped down on Jordan Love Saturday night to become bowl eligible and their only losses are to teams (Boise State, Navy) that are a combined 12-2.
Then there's Allen, who entered this campaign on a number of hot seat lists after two straight 5-7 seasons but has rather improbably gotten the Hoosiers to a bowl game before we've even hit November. The staff has had to juggle the quarterback position and have taken full advantage of a pretty easy schedule but they've taken care of business in ways that previous IU squads have not. Given the way they're operating right now, eight or nine wins for the first time since before anybody on the roster was born seems like a possibility and they may prove to be a tough out for Penn State and Michigan as well.
There's often talk on the national level about the teams at the top of the polls but it's worth paying attention to some of the bounce-back campaigns going on across the country too.
7. Cathartic Michigan victory
There were a lot of big victories this weekend but few compared to how momentous the one that the Victors got at the Big House. In what felt like a monsoon, Michigan took Notre Dame's lunch and dinner money on Saturday night in a thrashing that felt absolutely cathartic to those on the Wolverines sideline and for Jim Harbaugh in particular as he doubled the number of top-10 wins under his belt at his alma mater in the process.
Make no mistake, this is still going to be viewed as an underwhelming season given expectations around the program but wins like that one over the Irish can at least salvage part of it. The playoff bid and trip to Indianapolis still haven't been realized in Ann Arbor but Harbaugh has raised the floor to where it should be at Michigan while also being the poster boy for showing how difficult it is to go from being good to being great in this sport.
The win, which was smartly built on their ground game turning back the clock to the 1970s in some respects, felt so good to the team that it was clear as day to see despite the raging rainstorm for most of the night. Players understand the pressure that comes with being at a place like this but were embracing the elements against Notre Dame and were often seen smiling and jumping around on the sidelines as the game got more and more out of hand. There's still an outside shot at a New Year's Six bowl on the table and getting to nine wins isn't a bad place to be considering the amount of attention devoted to the program's shortcomings just a few weeks ago.
Building upon this kind of performance is going to be tricky but things are finally starting to click under Harbaugh, OC Josh Gattis and DC Don Brown — even if it took a few months longer than most wanted or expected while dressed in maize and blue.
Tweet of the Week
Play(s) of the Week
Special teams for the win (and loss) this week.
Stat of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Chase Young/J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
Team of the Week: Kansas State
Goat of the Week: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Heisman Five: 1. Chase Young (Ohio State), 2. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 3. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 4. Joe Burrow (LSU), 5. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama)
Projected Playoff: 1. Ohio State, 2. LSU, 3. Clemson, 4. Alabama
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Penn State vs. Oregon, Sugar Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Florida, Orange Bowl — Wake Forest vs. Georgia, Cotton Bowl — Baylor vs. Boise State
Quote of the Week
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
1. Ohio State
5. Penn State
16. Appalachian State
Best of the rest: Iowa, Notre Dame, Boise State, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Wake Forest, San Diego State, Navy, Louisiana Tech
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Gators have played better on average than the Bulldogs by a greater margin than anybody thought possible this season and will be by far the best defense on the schedule dating back to last year's SEC title game. Both teams will be coming off a bye before heading to Jacksonville but while everything says UF in this one, the rivalry game nature of this one plus Kirby Smart getting his guys focused on the task at hand lends me to believe the Dawgs will take control of the SEC East. The Pick: UGA -3.5
SMU at Memphis
Both of these teams can thank Tulsa for absolutely blowing near sure-fire victories against each in order to preserve this enticing AAC matchup that will be the early benchmark in determining the Group of Five 5 New Year's Six bid. The Tigers have looked like the more ordinary of the two outside of terrific tailback Kenneth Gainwell but are playing at home and won the last five in a row — mostly comfortably since Mike Norvell arrived too. Turnovers will be key as the Ponies sneak out with a win on the margins. The Pick: SMU +3
Oregon at USC
It says plenty about next week's slate that this is a marquee matchup but upon second glance this might be a Pac-12 title game preview. The offensive skill position talent on display is ridiculous and we are coming off a weekend in which both sides proved to be pretty vulnerable against inferior competition. The Trojans play a lot better at home but the stage might be a little too big for them as the Ducks' dream run in Pac-12 play continues at the Coliseum. The Pick: Oregon -6
— 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 @KStateFB)