Alabama has clearly looked like the No. 1 team thus far, but there's still a long ways to go
We’ve hit the halfway point in the college football season and it seems like the most intriguing storyline from the first half of the year is just how bad the situation has gotten in a number of surprising places.
Things are downright jaw-dropping in South Bend after Notre Dame dropped to 2-5 on Saturday. Michigan State may not go bowling just 10 months removed from playing for a national title game berth. The worries in Westwood have, by this point, been transferred from caring about UCLA to hanging on every Dodgers postseason pitch. At least there are other distractions in Los Angeles; those in Eugene don’t really get that luxury on the sports front.
The same apocalyptic tones could be brought up elsewhere at smaller programs. Cincinnati used to be the easy pick to win the American Athletic Conference but are stuck at .500 and trending downward. Rutgers is giving Kansas a run for its money at the bottom of the Power Five. Texas Tech is wasting a generational talent at quarterback because the Red Raiders can’t stop a fly, and things are starting to get antsy in Athens after Kirby Smart and Georgia lost at home to Vanderbilt. Bowling Green won 10 games last season but will need help to win three in 2016. Even Rice, which used to be a budding Conference USA power, crosses the midway mark as the nation’s only winless team.
Perhaps the most puzzling situation to wrap your head around has been that of the Irish, which hit a new low in their cringe-worthy loss to Stanford on Saturday that once again had people questioning the decision-making of head coach Brian Kelly. While the quarterback shuffling was indeed inexcusable, and the defense bad once again in an untimely manner, those calling for the coach’s head and a change made at the top must take a deep breath.
Kelly may not make a bowl game this year but he’s still a quality coach and easily the best the program has had since Lou Holtz won a title. He was in the national championship game just four years ago and let the short-sighted among us forget that he was in the running for the College Football Playoff at Thanksgiving. Yes, the Irish were sitting sixth in the country on Nov. 24 and were probably a late 45-yard field goal away from a final four berth over either Oklahoma or Michigan State. Remember, their only loss prior to the Cardinal was to undefeated Clemson in a monsoon.
A guy who gets a team into a position like that at a place that is difficult to win at in this day and age simply doesn’t forget how to coach. Is an attitude adjustment in store? Sure. And you can bet that gets talked about with athletic director Jack Swarbrick well ahead of any hot seat talk in South Bend.
The situation is the same for the Spartans, who have endured the worst hangover imaginable since getting blanked in the Cotton Bowl by Alabama and have not recovered. Mark Dantonio hasn’t forgotten how to coach nor has his staff gone brain dead. The margin at a program like Michigan State is always extremely thin and losing five NFL Draft picks plus a host of other key starters in one fell swoop are always going to make life difficult the next season.
Maybe not to the point where anybody could have predicted you allow the most points ever in a home game (to Northwestern of all teams) but such is life in East Lansing right now. Dantonio didn’t lose his magic touch overnight either and things will eventually get better. But as restless as Spartans fans are right now, they probably need to understand that regression to the mean can sometimes be brutal and it’s simply all the more painful when everything hits in one fell swoop.
As we move past the midway point of the 2016 season and stories like ‘What’s wrong with _____?’ become more of a background piece, it’s time to wonder where all the chaos is going to come from now. It happens every year and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again this year. Close calls like Clemson against NC State on Saturday should only further validate things.
Just look back to this point in 2015. The top four of the AP poll were Ohio State, Baylor, TCU and Utah. None made the playoff and only the Buckeyes even cracked the New Year’s Six. Eventual national champion Alabama was 5-1 and ranked 10th. The same was true in the first year of the playoff, where Ohio State was 13th and runner-up Oregon sat ninth in the polls. The top four that year at the time were Mississippi State, Florida State, Ole Miss and Baylor.
Where could the chaos come from this year? One could start with Alabama hosting Texas A&M on Saturday.
The Aggies have started hot before but this year’s team might be the only one that can come close to the Crimson Tide in terms of talent across the board. They have an experienced quarterback who has a W over Alabama on his resume, a solid running game and a crop of receivers that will give every secondary issues with their size and speed. Plus that pass rush might be just what you need to rattle freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and a very young offense.
Beyond A&M though, who’s left? Perhaps LSU, which will host the Tide after a bye week and are playing better under interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Things can always get strange in the Iron Bowl and Auburn’s defense is nothing to overlook. Still the No. 1 team in the country has earned every vote up until this point and their head coach certainly will allow no complacency to set in until holding up the trophy in January.
Clemson? The Tigers already proved susceptible to a loss by needing a missed field goal to help survive against NC State. Florida State, Syracuse and Pitt are no pushovers (the Seminoles certainly have the talent to win at the end of the month) and each could be an obstacle given their style. Baylor and West Virginia will eventually play each other but the Big 12 is always good for some wild losses and neither have shown they are all that much better than defending champion Oklahoma.
In the Big Ten, there are three undefeated teams. Nebraska has been able to survive a few close calls but should be an underdog at Wisconsin in a game that should decide the West title. Michigan and Ohio State were both pushed to the brink by the Badgers but survived to continue hopes of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup to end the season. Neither has quite put together a complete game against a power opponent so anything is possible and trips to Iowa (by Michigan) and Penn State (by OSU) could prove tricky.
Out in the Pac-12, Washington continues to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the league. Utah is the current top dog in the South and the Huskies do have to travel to a tough environment in Salt Lake City. The Apple Cup also poses a challenge as the rivalry game has produced some bizarre moments and Mike Leach’s offense can be a handful no matter how good a team is.
Even Group of Five teams like Boise State and Western Michigan are not immune from something crazy happening (just ask Houston). The Mountain West’s Broncos nearly had it happen this past weekend when Colorado State recovered two onside kicks and nearly stormed back for an upset. The MAC’s Broncos’ schedule is no walk in the park either, with a resurgent Eastern Michigan up next before a pair of road games on Tuesday night. Circle that game against Toledo after Thanksgiving too.
The fact of the matter is we all can stop wringing our hands about the losses piling up at teams we thought were going to be good this year. As we all shift gears and enter the third quarter of the college football season, it’s time to start wondering just where all the chaos is going to come from.
Because it’s coming at some point and we’ve seen time after time that there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
Stat of the Week
When Ronnie Harrison crossed the goal line to put Alabama up 14-0 against Tennessee, he scored the 11th non-offensive touchdown for Alabama this season — the most in the Nick Saban era. The Tide have had at least one non-offensive score in nine straight games dating back to last year.
Amazing, the Tide’s starting secondary alone has scored nearly double the number of touchdowns this year (seven — four pick-sixes, a fumble return, and a pair of punt return scores) than last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey has (four).
Want an even scarier stat? The Alabama offense is pretty dang good too and a whopping 72 percent of the team’s yards and 81 percent of the touchdowns have been scored by underclassmen. Given that such players usually get better as the year goes on and Saban’s squads in general do the same, it’s a scary thought that this team is only scratching the surface of what it can do.
Tweet of the Week
this is what would happen if an anonymous scout ran for president https://t.co/tRIvdNFcso— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) October 15, 2016
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Heisman Five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), 3. Jake Browning (Washington), 4. Jabrill Peppers (Michigan), 5. Jeremy McNichols (Boise State)
Team of the week: West Virginia
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the Week: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Quote of the Week: “I usually yell a lot — halftime, first quarter, second quarter — I don't give too many breaks.” — Texas head coach Charlie Strong
Play of the Week
Boise St is using a tee retrieving dog and it's a very good dog pic.twitter.com/nqPDPvHtmC— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 16, 2016
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 6.
2. Ohio State
5. Texas A&M
9. West Virginia
12. Florida State
15. Boise State
Best of the rest: Tennessee, Ole Miss, Utah, Western Michigan, Auburn, USC, North Carolina, South Florida, Washington State
Texas A&M at Alabama
The Aggies have everything you need to pull off an upset of No. 1. There’s the experienced signal-caller, a bevy of playmakers, one strong run game and a pass rush that will pose problems for a young quarterback. The question is if they have the luck on their side when they travel to Tuscaloosa. The gut says no but this might be much closer than Vegas thinks until the end.
TCU at West Virginia
The Horned Frogs are coming off a bye and should be well prepared to face one of the biggest surprises of the Big 12. TCU has the talent and the coaching to win this one but haven’t put it all together in a game this season. There’s no reason to expect that to happen on the road against a Mountaineers team that just shut down one of the best offenses in the country so chalk up another WVU victory.
Ole Miss at LSU
These two teams are a bit of an enigma right now. Ole Miss is ranked as the best three-loss team in the country and you can certainly understand that given how the Rebels have played and their brutal strength of schedule up to this point. LSU has looked much better against some lower-level competition in recent weeks but are still a bit of an unknown under interim head coach Ed Orgeron. With the game at Tiger Stadium, LSU gets the edge but it should be a wild one given the amount of talent involved 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.