Oregon's big win over Washington has Justin Herbert and the Ducks in control of the Pac-12 North
What an absolutely incredible — and bonkers — week in college football that was to send us firmly into the halfway mark of the regular season. Hard as it is to believe we’re at that point already, but the events of Week 7 certainly reinforced that nothing is given in this sport and everything has to be earned out on that field. All told, four top 10 teams fell and three more had close calls. Five ranked teams wound up losing to unranked foes too.
It was all a series of events and final results that will force us to reshape how we think about what has happened so far in 2018 and what’s left to determine the rest of the way this year. With that in mind, let’s look back and go over seven of the biggest surprises of the season... and seven things that leave us shaking our head in disappointment.
Cincinnati and the AAC East: The Bearcats are 6-0 on the year and lead a strong top third of the division that includes fellow undefeated teams UCF and USF. Only four divisions in the country have three ranked teams and this is one of them. ECU and UConn are among the worst teams in all of FBS but that’s balanced out by the heft of the heavyweights. Even Temple has turned things around after a bad start and made things interesting with a 3-0 start to conference play.
Texas is back atop the Big 12: Year 2 is typically when it’s moving time for head coaches and big jumps are made on the field and in the locker room. Initially, it looked like that wasn’t the case for Texas under Tom Herman after they lost to Maryland but the Longhorns have rebounded and found ways to win games instead of lose them. This is a tough group that wants to go toe-to-toe with opponents in the trenches and have benefited quite a bit from the addition of assistant Herb Hand. Plus, there’s plenty of contributions from young players and all those recruiting stars finally paying off. Surviving a conference game against an in-state rival when your quarterback goes down is not something UT would have done a year ago (or the past decade really).
There’s only one team undefeated in Big 12 play right now and the ‘Horns could lock up a Big 12 title game trip by the first week of November given the way things are trending.
Coach O and LSU: Nobody owns a better collection of wins than Ed Orgeron does this season, as his Tigers have throttled two teams picked to win the division (Georgia this past weekend and Miami in the opener) and started Auburn off to a road of misery on the Plains. The defense has impressed as usual after coordinator Dave Aranda got paid this offseason but it’s been the offense that has come through in the clutch with some big plays in the second half. Things have been a bit up and down at times but Joe Burrow has become somebody to lean on making some on-target throws and the Tigers are doing it all without the kind of bell-cow back we typically associate with the program.
It might not be enough to enter the stratosphere of Alabama this season but the Tigers are the second-best team in the SEC right now after talk of Coach O being on the hot seat in Baton Rouge coming into the year.
Tua is as advertised: It’s hard to live up to the hype and is often even harder to do so at a place like Alabama. Yet Tua Tagovailoa is doing just that.
Many were skeptical when the Crimson Tide QB was installed as one of the Heisman favorites based on just a half of work in the national title game and wondered how he would handle being "the guy" in Tuscaloosa instead of everybody’s favorite backup. Turns out, better than anybody imagined — likely including Nick Saban himself. Tua’s not only the favorite for the Heisman, he’s the prohibitive one at this point with an incredible 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions despite barely playing in the second half and taking zero fourth quarter snaps.
If he goes into Death Valley in a few weeks and keeps rolling like this, we can go ahead and start engraving the trophy in New York.
Notre Dame has something special brewing: In order to go undefeated, you have to be both lucky and good. The Irish are certainly both this season. Yes they needed to eke out a win against Pitt and Vanderbilt this year and have gotten off to slower starts at times but the defense is legitimately a top-20 unit and the offense has explosive playmakers at every spot. Since taking over under center, Ian Book leads the nation in completion percentage and has thrown 10 touchdowns in just four starts. The path to the playoff is opening up each more with every passing week and Brian Kelly is pushing all the right buttons. This train can still get derailed at some point but all signs are pointing toward a semifinal spot for one of the top 10’s most surprising teams.
Mario Cristobal ahead of schedule: The Ducks have control of the Pac-12 North and the conference itself after this weekend and are surely ruing their mistakes in that second-half collapse against Stanford or else there would be playoff talk in Eugene for the first time since Chip Kelly was in town. This is still a program that is a bit ahead of schedule but there’s been unquestioned progress up front along the offensive line and on defense where there are some playmakers in the front seven that we really haven’t seen on this team. Given the way this staff is recruiting (a top-five class at last check), this program is back on the map after a few years of rebuilding and are primed to be much more competitive with non-Pac-12 foes given the way they are being built.
The one downside is that QB Justin Herbert is quickly becoming a lock to go in the top 10 of the upcoming draft the way he is playing and that decision at the end of the year for the Eugene native might be as difficult as they come.
Texas Tech has a defense and Ohio State is still sorting out theirs: The Red Raiders will have a shot at eight wins or more this season thanks in part to their, well, defense. Yes, you read that right, Kliff Kingsbury and David Gibbs have a veteran-laden unit on that side of the ball and just pulled off a nice upset of TCU on Thursday night by becoming only the fifth team to beat Gary Patterson after scoring less than 17 points (he had previously been 111-4). Tech is 20th in the country in third down defense and have forced 10 turnovers already. Though they got off to a bad start in the opener against Ole Miss, they held three teams under 17 points this season and have helped play a role in going 4-2 despite a revolving door at quarterback for an inconsistent offense.
As surprising as it is to see hard-hitting defense emanating out of Lubbock, the lack thereof out of Columbus is becoming a little more concerning by the week. Ohio State has already given up two, school-record 93-yard plays (one passing, one rushing) this season and allowed nearly 400 yards to Minnesota and their walk-on freshman QB this past Saturday. Big plays have been this group’s Achilles heel so far even if they’ve stiffened in the red zone often and it appears that all those seasons of replacing the entire secondary is finally starting to show a crack or too. Yes Nick Bosa has been out for four games and the rest of the front seven has been banged up but for a team with national title aspirations, things aren’t trending in the right direction just yet.
New coaches: There were 18 head coaches hired this offseason (two more had the interim tag taken off) and all took over varying degrees of a rebuild. While optimism may have reigned supreme in the summer, hitting the midway mark there’s only four with winning records vs. FBS teams — Jimbo Fisher, Dan Mullen, Josh Heupel and Joe Moorhead. Combined record? 17-5. The rest of the lot? 14-64.
Of course, that makes sense. The four with winning records all took over programs that won quite a bit in recent years and are returning plenty of talent. Heupel is keeping the nation’s longest win streak (19 in a row now) going, Mullen is at a talent-rich blue blood and both Fisher and Moorhead inherited more than a few five-stars on their roster and some good options at quarterback.
But it’s those not in that group that have disappointed the most. Fans wanted to buy out Willie Taggart at Florida State after just a few games. Chip Kelly has UCLA getting better by the week but the Bruins have only won one game and have a brutal stretch upcoming in a few weeks. Perhaps the most of disappointing of them all is Scott Frost, who has let victory slip through the Cornhuskers’ fingers several times and is 0-6 with his alma mater after making an undefeated run last year. Kevin Sumlin, widely lauded as a great hire for Arizona, has the Wildcats bordering on irrelevancy while handcuffing their star quarterback.
Coaching changes are hard and the transitions are often tough. It’s not time to give up on anybody in the class of 2018 but with precious few exceptions, there are not a ton of honeymoon periods around the country this season.
The AAC West: There’s just two teams in this entire division that are over .500 and disappointments all around this year. Houston is 5-1 but hasn’t played a full four quarters at all in 2018. SMU is nominally in second place but needed a late two-point conversion at home to escape a similarly bad Navy squad. Tulane hasn’t made much progress but did beat the most disappointing team in the league itself, Memphis. The Tigers were the preseason pick and sport the nation’s leading rusher but are 1-3 in conference play already and once trendy head coach Mike Norvell may need an incredible second half of the season to turn things around given how bad the play is at quarterback.
Heisman favorites: Where art thou Bryce Love? Or Jonathan Taylor? Hello, Will Grier or Khalil Tate? Hardly any of the preseason Heisman favorites have lived up to the early billing with their numbers or team record. Love has been injured but even when he was in the lineup, he was borderline ineffective running the ball. The same goes for Tate. Grier started off the season well enough but has trailed off once Big 12 play began. Taylor has been solid but the Badgers haven’t as they’ve faltered so far.
ACC, Big Ten West resurgence: It was a trendy storyline in August to think that the ACC had turned the corner and was on the upslope. Yes there was Clemson being among the national elite but a lot of the positive vibes around the league were centered on the rest of the conference stepping up and putting together big seasons. The middle class with teams like Boston College and Florida State and Wake Forest and Pitt (and even Syracuse) could take a step forward. Miami and Virginia Tech were top-25-caliber.
What has happened instead? ACC Coastal Chaos has reared its ugly head (we were one Hokies drive away from a four-way tie) and the Atlantic is filled with teams not quite meeting expectations. NC State could sneak their way into a New Year’s Six bowl given how their schedule sets up but nobody is yet putting the Wolfpack into the elite of the league given how untested they are. In short, there’s not corner turned, it’s just the same ol’ ACC we’ve been used to.
The same is true for the B1G West. Wisconsin was supposed to be a playoff contender but is hitting the halfway mark with two losses. Northwestern, at 3-3 overall, is in first place in the division. Purdue lost to Eastern Michigan and yet might be the most exciting program offensively in the division. Iowa is sneaky good and has the potential to reach the New Year’s Six if the Hawkeyes keep winning, but that’s balanced out by Nebraska being winless with their new staff. And at Minnesota, the boat has been rowed to an 0-3 mark in league play. In short, not quite what we expected after all the signs of progress in the offseason.
Big 12 depth: Texas and Oklahoma are leading the way in the league as usual as two top-10 teams but after that there’s a noticeable drop off in the Big 12 in terms of quality. While this was supposed to be a year where depth was set to be at an all-time best, such has not been the case so far in 2018. West Virginia hasn’t been playing well since conference play began and lost to Iowa State this weekend. TCU has been nothing short of a disappointment after initially going toe-to-toe with Ohio State for three quarters. Kansas is, well, Kansas. Kansas State and Oklahoma State have gone from dark horses to the outhouse in the blink of an eye. To be fair, Texas Tech and Baylor are much improved this season but neither are top-25-caliber. There’s been a ton of focus on the Pac-12 getting left out of the playoff but the Big 12 isn’t jumping up to claim a spot yet either.
The Pac-12: There’s no other way to slice it but things have not gone according to plan out West. There’s no elite team to speak of (sorry, Oregon) and we’re still not quite sure as to how many programs in the league can qualify as good at the midway mark. USC and Utah look like the class of the South and both sport serious, serious flaws on both sides of the ball. Missing the playoff for the third time in five years is all but a given and the standard bearers of Washington and USC have not made much progress from where each has been the past few years. The Ducks are ahead of schedule but fellow North teams like Stanford and Cal look in disarray and Oregon State doesn’t appear as though the Beavers will get out of the basement until 2019 at the earliest.
Add in the growing scandal over officiating — already widely mocked — that surfaced last week to issues with falling behind financially and in terms of exposure and it’s a trying time for Larry Scott right now. Well, same as it ever was.
Auburn: Fresh off a mega-extension, Gus Malzahn had the Tigers in the top 10 of the preseason polls and widely tabbed as the team that could challenge Alabama and Georgia in the SEC to make a playoff run. There was a first-round quarterback and one of the top defenses in the country to lean on. Now, after giving Jeremy Pruitt his first SEC win at Tennessee and the Volunteers’ first since 2016, this team is in free fall. The Tigers can’t run the ball, which is what Malzhan’s system is predicated on, and Jarrett Stidham has regressed to the point where he’s flustered if there’s even a little bit of pressure and feeling ghosts when there’s not. They should still find six wins and make a bowl game but given that’s the state of affairs on the Plains after such high hopes in August only underscores the disappointment at Auburn.
Gus Malzahn at Auburn:— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) October 13, 2018
2013: Seconds from national title
2015: Fans want him fired
2016: Fans want him fired
2017: Bounce-back, Big extension
2018: Fans want him fired
Stat of the Week
Maryland was 68th in the country in pass efficiency defense. Rutgers’ quarterbacks went 2-of-17 for eight yards and five interceptions. That’s the worst passing performance of any team since at least 2000.
Tweet of the Week
Great sign. pic.twitter.com/4Wv5QYfgEg— Nick de la Torre (@NickdelaTorreGC) October 13, 2018
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: K.J. Hill, Ohio State
Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State), 3. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 4. McKenzie Milton (UCF), 5. Justin Herbert (Oregon)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Clemson
Team of the week: Tennessee
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Scott Frost, Nebraska
Quote of the week: From Auburn’s star linebacker:
Deshaun Davis: "If I was a betting man, and you would tell me to put everything I ever own on that we were 4-3 on week seven, I would be naked under a bridge somewhere."— Sam Blum (@SamBlum3) October 13, 2018
Play of the Week
#MACtion (@MACSports) October 13, 2018
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 8.
2. Ohio State
4. Notre Dame
11. Texas A&M
16. NC State
Best of the rest: Duke, Michigan State, Penn State, Washington, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Utah, Appalachian State, Utah State
NC State at Clemson
The jury remains out for the Wolfpack but they have had the Tigers' number in recent years in what is shaping up to be the ACC game of the year by a country mile. Both sides will be coming off bye weeks so it could be a little rusty early on in this one. The defensive front for Clemson eventually gets cranked up and the home team winds up winning this one by at least three scores after forcing a few turnovers.
Oregon at Washington State
Congrats to Pullman for finally getting a long awaited visit from ESPN’s College GameDay for the first time ever. The Palouse should be a rocking all day… right up until game time. The Ducks are the superior team in this one and while the Cougars' offense will keep pace for a bit, the depth of Oregon will win out in the end as the Ducks take out a few years of poundings the other way on Saturday.
USC at Utah
The Pac-12 South may very well be decided in this one as both teams appear to have a bit of momentum behind their backs following a few rough results earlier this season. The Trojans have the edge in terms of overall talent but their linebacking corps is beat up and they haven’t put together a good game on the road yet. Rice-Eccles will be rocking as the Utes secure a 10-point win.
— 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.