An uneven first half against FCS opponent The Citadel couldn't prevent Nick Saban's Alabama team from cruising to another big victory
It’s been written in this space several times that when you have large slate of lackluster matchups in college football, the sport tends to throw you a curve ball. Boring weekend? Well, here’s a slew of wild upsets.
Such was not the case during Week 12 though. Sure there were a few fun games, like Oklahoma State storming back to beat West Virginia or the thrilling back-and-forth contest between Purdue and Wisconsin. Throw in the bizarre overtime between Vanderbilt and Ole Miss and there were certainly things to watch and be entertained, even if the stakes weren’t high.
That said, the Snoozy Saturday we just went through really seemed to underscore what a relatively boring — or, at least drama-free — season this has been in college football. There have been great moments and tons of fun games but the season as a whole seems the same in late November as it did in late September.
There’s Alabama and Clemson, dominating as ever even if both took a while to get going on Saturday against overmatched foes. Ohio State and Oklahoma are both very good on offense and a leaky faucet on defense. Outside Pitt, Northwestern plus some surprises in the Pac-12 and perhaps in the Mountain West, most of the preseason conference favorites will meet in their respective title games. Even Notre Dame and Michigan fans have to have the thought in the back of their minds of Tigers-Tide Part IV in the Bay Area to end the season.
Why is there little separation between teams ranked seventh or 47th? There are a number of factors at play in 2018 but it’s easy to identify a few right off the bat.
Obviously instability is one of them. A huge number of schools have made coaching changes in the past few years, with over a third of FBS programs changing their head coach in the past two seasons alone.
Quarterback play, already subject to wide swaths of variance, has been stellar among the elite crop of schools but somewhat middling after that. Key injuries have hampered teams from Arizona to Wisconsin and the fact of the matter is, parity is as much a part of conferences like the ACC and Pac-12 as it is in the NFL. Mix in a little dominance at the top from the blue bloods we’re used to seeing and there just hasn’t been the kind of drama down the stretch we’ve all come to expect in this sport.
Maybe that means we’re in for some ups and downs after Thanksgiving or some truly incredible upsets during conference championship games. Lord knows we need it after not having much to write home about the past few weeks. Time will tell if that does indeed become the case but until then, sit back and relax and enjoy the journey as is because it doesn’t happen often in college football like this.
Other thoughts from the weekend:
2. Urban Meyer’s health takes center stage over his team in Columbus
Right from the get-go on Saturday afternoon, you could tell that Ohio State was in for a dogfight against a plucky Maryland team with little to lose against one of the sport’s giants. The Terrapins exposed the Buckeyes' defense time and again with big plays and were just a stop away from knocking them off for good.
OSU did wind up squeaking out a 52-51 win in overtime after a wide-open two-point conversion saw the ball hit the turf, but it’s clear there are significant issues with the team across the board even as the Buckeyes sit there at 10-1 with a potential College Football Playoff or Rose Bowl spot left to play for. As concerning as things are on the field though it’s the, at times agonizing, looks on the sidelines from their head coach Urban Meyer that have to be much more of a topic for discussion in Columbus.
Urban during that timeout. pic.twitter.com/cJBbUG6ix0— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) November 17, 2018
Urban seriously looks unwell. pic.twitter.com/tXLbcz4rPd— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) November 17, 2018
There’s little question that this is a trying season for Meyer, starting with the Zach Smith saga to begin the year to his disclosure of medical issues related to brain cysts to the state of the program not quite being what we’re all used to. All that can be wiped away with a victory this coming Saturday against Michigan but those looks he had on the sideline have to be alarming for Meyer, the administration and the rest of Buckeye nation.
Meyer has insisted that he’ll be the head coach of Ohio State next season and for the foreseeable future. That may still ring true. Even so, every painful wince after a play or hands going to his knees during a break will lead to even more speculation over the head coach’s future. Everybody involved would probably like another decade of Meyer at the helm but it’s hard to come away from that game against Maryland and think that will be the case without significant changes on and off the field.
3. Red River II still on deck
While most of the conference title races across the country have lacked for drama, the round-robin nature of the Big 12 has proven that league is the antithesis to spots getting locked up in early November.
You can start in Stillwater, where Oklahoma State’s confounding season once again produced an epic home upset by knocking off West Virginia. The Cowboys had an incredible second-half rally from down 31-14 at the break and did so almost entirely by simplifying things instead of trying to do too much. Mike Gundy said afterward that the offense went four wide and only ran five base plays that weren’t even in the game book coming in.
It was a simple change, but an effective one for sure. QB Taylor Cornelius wound up throwing for five touchdowns and rushing for 106 yards and another score to cap off Senior Day in style. While it has not quite been a great season by recent standards, the program has still shown a lot of fight in getting back to a bowl game and certainly been entertaining in affecting the Big 12 title race in more ways than one.
That included an upset of Texas a few weeks ago, which will wind up not costing the Longhorns one bit thanks to their impressive statement victory against a good Iowa State team. Even without starting QB Sam Ehlinger for the second half, the stout defense of the burnt orange was imposing and the physical nature of the offensive line really took over on their scoring drives to put the game away. Nobody is quite ready to fully say Texas is truly back, but it’s clear that the program has turned a corner under Tom Herman and it’s a near certainty they will be returning to the Big 12 title game for the first time since 2009.
Who they will face will get decided on Black Friday in Morgantown. The aforementioned Mountaineers may be firmly out of the running for the College Football Playoff now but still control their destiny to get to AT&T Stadium. While the game against OSU was upsetting, they have to be encouraged watching tape of Oklahoma give up 40 points (!) to Kansas in their final home game of the year. The Sooners still have a bona fide Heisman candidate in Kyler Murray carrying them to wins but it’s become very apparent that the issues on that side of the ball run much deeper than a coordinator change.
Could that be enough to trip up OU and cost them another trip to the playoff themselves? We’ll see. Either way, you can bet the folks in the Big 12 offices are licking their lips over the potential to host a Red River Shootout Part II at the site of the other Cotton Bowl. That may wind up being a sight to behold but the conference still has one more weekend of potential chaos to get through in order for it to happen.
As we’ve come to find out, drama is not lacking in Big 12 country this year.
4. UCF gets some primetime respect
For a team that complains about, well, everything it seems, you have to take care of business when on the big stage and that’s exactly what UCF did on Saturday night in primetime against a very solid Cincinnati squad. While the final score of 38-13 was telling enough, it didn’t really convey just how impressive the performance was on both sides of the ball for the Knights in allowing just one offensive score and scoring several times on big plays in space.
The program certainly heard quite a bit in the past few weeks about their defense being a weak link and made adjustments to correct that assessment against the Bearcats. While it won’t be enough for the selection committee to sneak this team into the final four, it’s getting harder and harder to deny that this one of the better teams in the country. While they’re clearly not in the same class as the Alabama/Clemson/Notre Dame trio, there’s a good case to be made that they can beat the Oklahomas, Washington States and Ohio States of the world in a one-off bowl game. Given that this year’s team isn’t quite as good as last year’s, that’s probably a larger reflection on the state of college football in 2018 but should still take nothing away from McKenzie Milton and company.
Plus, let’s face it, it’s incredibly hard to win 23 games in a row and UCF deserves every bit of credit for doing just that — not only over two seasons but with two very different coaching staffs leading the way. The constant playoff talk is getting tiring out of Orlando (and on social media) but a well-deserved kudos should head the Knights' way for showing up big time over the weekend with the spotlight on the program and wrapping up another division title.
5. Bowl eligible does not mean bound
Not all 6-6 records are created equal in college football and that may especially be true this postseason. We could have anywhere from three to six teams that will be left out of a bowl game if projections hold and that could be especially a bummer for some programs like Western Michigan that got left out a year ago.
As it currently stands, thanks in part to Hawaii’s second-half rally against UNLV deep into the night on Saturday, there are 71 teams who are eligible for a bowl game and 78 total slots. Twenty-two programs still have a shot to hit the threshold — including 15 from the Power 5 leagues alone. We probably won’t have any of the major conferences scrambling for tie-ins like we have in the past which means several Group of 5 teams could be on the outside looking in.
It’s a common lament for fans to complain when they hear of new bowl games being announced but we’re reaching a saturation point where they’re actually needed at some of the lower levels. We probably are past the crisis we had a while back where numerous 5-7 teams were needed to make it to the postseason but now things have gone the other way with a host of recent additions to the FBS level.
So bring on that Myrtle Beach Bowl and let’s hope others like proposed games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Wrigley Field eventually come to pass. A few teams will be wondering why they couldn’t have come sooner the way things are trending in 2018.
6. Mike Leach leading for Coach of the Year?
Amid Washington State’s destruction of Arizona on Saturday night, I got to wondering if the Cougars' quirky head man had already locked up national coach of the year honors.
Just think back to this offseason. Wazzu was picked to finish fifth in the division by a healthy margin, had tragically lost their starting quarterback, and saw the majority of the coaching staff depart for greener pastures. The Cougars are now 10-1 and on the cusp of a Rose Bowl berth at worst if they can get things done the next two weeks against rival Washington and then in the Pac-12 title game against the Pac-12 South champion (most likely Utah). Heck, there’s still a chance of sneaking into the College Football Playoff and it would be a shock if graduate transfer QB Gardner Minshew — who didn’t arrive in Pullman until August — wasn’t invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City.
While Leach all but has the confernece's coaching honors on lockdown, his competition nationally still seems a step behind.
Yes, Josh Heupel has done a fantastic job at UCF but he did take over a team that was undefeated a year before. Nick Saban probably deserves every coaching honor but won’t get consideration and the same could be said of Dabo Swinney. Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi was feeling heat from the fan base in September but has the Panthers in the ACC title game in December so he’ll get plenty of consideration and the same should be said of Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald after guiding the Wildcats to the Big Ten title game. Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Buffalo’s Lance Leipold, Utah State’s Matt Wells and Troy’s Neal Brown also will be mentioned.
But add everything up and it’s hard to discount what Leach has done in perhaps the remotest outpost in all of college football. The Cougars have taken advantage of a weak Pac-12 sure, but that shouldn’t take away from how the team is playing in 2018. Wazzu even being the slightest bit relevant nationally is a testament to Leach’s coaching job in general but the fact that this is a historic run for the school should only confirm that he’s the easy choice to get some coaching honors when all is said and done.
7. Les Miles to Kansas and other hot seat thoughts
While most of the action in the college football world took place on Saturday, it was nevertheless a busy Sunday in the sport as well.
You can start at Kansas, where Miles was formally introduced as head coach of the Jayhawks. There will be a ton of debate about this hire over the coming years but the buzz in the fan base for football — football! — is certainly palpable. That’s part of the reason why he was brought on board and it’s not hard to think that he can help stabilize things in Lawrence to the point where the team can settle into a 7-5 to 5-7 grove most years. Still, it’s a brutally tough job and there are going to be a ton of questions about Miles’ staff that will need to be answered before we can reach that point of comfortable mediocrity for one of the worst Power 5 programs around.
It would have been nice had Kansas thought outside the box and been innovative but at least we’ll have Miles’ antics on the sidelines and in press conferences back in college football. Hopefully he knows not to eat the artificial turf though.
Elsewhere, Texas State and Charlotte not surprisingly opened up. Both programs figure to get a ton of interest from assistant coaches throughout the region and each has a lot of intrigue. Alabama WR coach Josh Gattis and Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman have already been mentioned in connection to the 49ers and one could see either of Clemson co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott show interest if other opportunities don’t come up for the pair. Ole Miss OC Phil Longo would be a great fit for the Bobcats but that search could go a number of different ways.
The biggest job to come open though was undoubtedly Colorado, where Mike MacIntyre is out after six seasons and a 30-44 record. While it’s not a huge surprise, athletic director Rick George was able to come up with the hefty buyout in recent weeks and it became clear that the team losing six in a row was going to make bringing back MacIntyre difficult to stomach. Utah State’s Matt Wells makes too much sense in Boulder but we’re sure whatever search firm that George hires will recommend fellow MWC coaches like Bryan Harsin and Jeff Tedford too. Mike Norvell and Ryan Day could also see their names surface in this one too.
Staying in the Pac-12 South, it certainly seems like we’ll get a change at USC too as that 34-27 loss to the Bruins underscored to the Trojans administration that they can’t continue with Clay Helton in charge. Not going to a bowl game with a program like this is bad enough but the fan apathy with the current coaching staff in place is now past a point of no return. A Coliseum crowd with mostly Notre Dame fans should seal the deal after Thanksgiving and the hefty sums for a coaching change are already in the bank ready to be paid out.
USC has nobody to blame for this situation but themselves, from the short-sighted hire of Helton in the first place to giving him an extension when nobody else wanted him. Helton may very well be one of the nicest coaches in all of college football but it has been clear for three years that the job is too big for him and his teams are not well coached, undisciplined and lack that killer instinct they used to have.
He also signed his own walking papers too: In Tee Martin’s final game as primary play-caller, USC scored 21 second-half points. In the three games with Helton calling plays, the Trojans have scored a combined 20 points in the second half.
James Franklin would be the big fish that the program badly needs to hire but there is zero confidence in the industry that the Trojans make a move they should make rather than the one which is most convenient. The cardinal and gold should be far from the only program to make a change next Sunday too as it sounds like buyout money is suddenly appearing in several athletic directors’ laps after the past few weeks.
A light coaching carousel may very well turn into a fun and interesting one before too long.
Stat of the Week
USC had not lost to an eight-loss team since 1960 before falling to their crosstown rivals.
Tweet of the Week
I liked the amazon hq2 vetting process process better the first time I saw it when it was called “big 12 expansion”— Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism) November 13, 2018
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Joshua Kelley, UCLA
Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 3. Gardner Minshew (Washington State), 4. Quinnen Williams (Alabama), 5. Will Grier (West Virginia)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Michigan
Team of the week: Oklahoma State
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Dana Holgorsen
Quote of the week: “Going to ask the fans on both sides not to throw snowballs onto the field. That’s dangerous for the players for both teams. Please, no snowballs onto the field.” — A Pac-12 referee in the Utah-Colorado game.
Play of the Week
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 13.
3. Notre Dame
6. Washington State
10. Ohio State
11. West Virginia
14. Penn State
Best of the rest: Syracuse, Kentucky, Utah State, Iowa State, Utah, Pitt, Boise State, Fresno State, Army
Michigan at Ohio State
Based only on how these two teams are playing recently, it would make sense to have the Wolverines as the overwhelming favorite. This is a bitter rivalry game though, and it’s in Columbus, so as much as everybody is leaning toward Michigan there’s at least a little hesitation when you mix those factors with the fact that the Buckeyes do have plenty of talent on their roster. We’ll still go Big Blue in this one but it will be close for three quarters.
Washington at Washington State
Wazzu fans must have a deep fear of Cougin’ it given the stakes involved in this one. The Huskies have been playing a lot better lately, combining that good defense with an offense that seems to have hit a bit of a groove. They would like nothing more than to ruin their rivals dream season and make it to the Rose Bowl in the process. This has been an incredible campaign for the Cougars though, so something says they’ll still get it done at home, even if they do give their fans a scare by falling behind early.
Oklahoma at West Virginia
The over/under for this game is set just shy of infinity. A shootout probably favors the Mountaineers at home, but I’m still not sold on the team in Big 12 play even before the meltdown in Stillwater. Kyler Murray wants to make things interesting with the Heisman Trophy race and does so with another 400-plus-yard effort to take the country roads home to a Sooners victory by a touchdown.
— 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.