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Seven-Step Drop: Statement Victory Saturday Helps Change Perception for Several Coaches

Sam Pittman, Arkansas Razorbacks Football

With an impressive win over Texas A&M, Sam Pittman has Arkansas back in the top 10 and the national spotlight

If you sat through 14 hours of college football on Saturday, taking in all the fantastic finishes and incredible plays, one would be forgiven if you flipped through the mental thesaurus we all use and pulled out the tried and true word "chaos" to try and sum it all up.

It’s a crutch we all use far too often, labeling outcomes few believed or expected becoming reality and then slapping it with such a description because, well, this sport is benchmarked by it on a weekly basis. It’s so natural it is the default by this point.

But in reality, much of Week 4’s results were less a product of the random nature of the college football universe however and more about processing the conflict between preconceived notions, limited sample sizes and what unfolded between the lines. For at least eight head coaches in particular, victories on Saturday not only upended the traditional pecking order in various parts of the country but represented serious statements at where their programs were in particular.

You can start deep in the heart of Texas, where Sam Pittman and Arkansas all but locked up the mythical 2021 SWC title with a win over Texas A&M — a program that had been a particular boogeyman to the Hogs since joining the SEC and one that sported national title aspirations of their own. Besides the obvious division implications, the 20-10 victory said plenty about the team that has been transformed the past two years under the former offensive line coach.

After thumping Texas, it was easy for some to dismiss that as just a one-off outcome over the Longhorns but the fortitude and attitude Arkansas displayed carried over against the Aggies in not only jumping out to that 17-0 lead in lightning-quick fashion but holding on after quarterback KJ Jefferson left. It’s almost hard to forget the remnants of a team that went two years without a conference victory (and just four wins in 24 chances) now occupy a spot in the top 10 of the polls prior to a marquee meeting with another title contender.

Pittman’s hire was widely mocked when it was made initially but thanks to a series of savvy coordinator hires, instilling self-belief in a rudderless program and leaning into what they can do well, Arkansas has returned to a place they have not seen since 2012 — with far more of the happy feelings than the last time around with Bobby Petrino in charge around Fayetteville.

Elsewhere, Dave Aranda and Baylor doubled their win total from a forgettable 2020 in moving to 4-0 by beating Iowa State with another topsy-turvy second half. It’s a little too early to think the Bears have a legitimate claim on being one of the top two in the Big 12 (that might come next week) but the signs of progress are evident and were building toward that somewhat ugly win over a top 15 opponent on Saturday. Special teams played a massive role obviously but those teething pains Aranda experienced as a first-time head coach while also dealing with a pandemic seem to have given way to a team that plays hard every week and finds ways to win. That’s some quality progress down by the Brazos.

In a similar vein, Geoff Collins finally earned a signature win by putting on a masterclass against a ranked North Carolina team down at the dome. Especially in light of the loss to Northern Illinois, there was increasing chatter about all of Collins’ antics since arriving at Georgia Tech and how little the on-field product has been able to match. Such a narrative might finally have reached a pivot point after beating the Tar Heels though, not only thanks to entering it into the win column but because of how the team itself has quickly righted itself since that inexplicable loss to nearly knock off Clemson in the rain and finally deliver a death blow to the Coastal favorites on Saturday.

UTSA’s Jeff Traylor and SMU’s Sonny Dykes can be on the list too. Traylor and the Roadrunners already knocked off a Power 5 opponent this season but following that up to remain updated by coming back from three touchdowns on the road at Memphis is worthy of a statement about UTSA’s progression into being far more than an upwardly mobile Group of 5 team. Dykes also has notable wins on his resume already but the Mustangs going into TCU and beating them not just 42-34 but the way they did so — with 350 yards rushing by an Air Raid team — is eye-opening. The program has already planted the flag in Dallas and backed it up with wins but doing that to the Horned Frogs in their own house could well be something that keeps reverberating far beyond this local rivalry.

One can’t overstate what Dave Doeren did Saturday either, not just in shaking up the ACC Atlantic standings but sending a shock throughout the national landscape with NC State’s win over Clemson. The Wolfpack have been close to notching this one on their belt before but always fell just a tad short in inexplicable ways — as they nearly did again after missing a field goal that would have avoided overtime and won things outright. Instead NC State didn’t wallow but stood tall thanks in part to the heroics of Devin Carter.

Doeren, who showed up to postgame interviews with a cigar in hand, spoke openly about ending the curse the Tigers held over the program but crucially noted also that breaking the seal is just as much about moving forward as it is celebrating the moment in Raleigh Saturday night. For eight years, Doeren has seemingly been a college football version of Jeff Fisher — enough consistency to earn contract extensions but also an unmemorable record filled with enough empty calories that the wins never really had any weight behind them. That could all change in a big way if the Pack navigate the rest of the manageable ACC in light of the head-to-head win over Clemson now.

Few had as resounding a final score as Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith, however. The Beavers simply didn’t win at the Coliseum for the first time since 1960 — the Eisenhower administration was in office! — they downright beat up USC in Los Angeles. Oregon State has made some tremendous on-field progress in short order after the former Beavs QB took charge thanks to some impressive development stories and a handful of key transfers but the wins weren’t quite coming in Corvallis. Yet the staff and administration stayed the course and they finally got the payoff late on Saturday night. While it was assumed that making a bowl game would be the best sign Oregon State had made the next step, such expectations might need to be raised after the manner they bullied the South division favorite at home.

Then there’s Brian Kelly, whose statement came not so much in the way his team squashed Wisconsin but rather by what win No. 106 represented in making him the winningest coach in Notre Dame history. Rather aptly, it came in a manner befitting his tenure: unapologetically ugly enough the fan base nitpicks it to death and obscures how Kelly has continually brought a historic power through to the modern ages.

As if passing Knute Rockne wasn’t enough for some, Kelly rarely gets enough credit among Irish faithful for bringing alignment to South Bend between coach, athletic department and university in a way that has rarely existed in that place in modern times. So much about Notre Dame being Notre Dame revolves around living in the past. But that Wisconsin victory should serve as a reminder that the Irish, here and now under Kelly, remain a damn good football program. The warts are magnified each Saturday because of the golden domes and the associated pageantry but lasting this long, in that job, and winning this much, is quite a statement about Kelly the coach, program builder and way-finder. It has rarely been harder to guide a blue blood in this day and age given how many pine for the unobtainable stratosphere Nick Saban alone occupies but Kelly has done an excellent job at threading the needle with the Irish.

Seven Up This Week

2007 vibes: Maybe it’s a lack of elite quarterbacks (or at least QB play) across college football right now. Maybe it’s the confluence of NFL draft losses running smack dab into super seniors. Maybe it’s a litany of uninspired offensive coordinator hires at several major programs. Whatever it is, but as we venture into October, this season sure is giving off some whacky 2007 vibes across college football. Maybe not to that level, but it’s a bumpy road it sure looks like we’re traveling on.

Wake! The competition has not been stellar but you have to admire how the Demon Deacons are handling their business in looking like the class of the ACC so far. Dave Clawson continues to be one of the great underrated head coaches in the game and after already matching last year’s win total, the noted program builder could have his best group yet on the field.

Fresh CFP Blood: So much talk coming into the year about the concentration of playoff bids among a handful of teams and what role that is playing in the drive to expand to 12. Well, it sure looks like we’re in for some new faces at the end of the year. Sure there’s Bama, etc. but Clemson appears out even if they were a two-loss ACC champ, Ohio State and Oklahoma are both suspect and it wasn’t long ago Notre Dame was being pushed to the brink by a MAC team. While we could see second appearances by Oregon and Georgia, the “look” of this year’s Final Four seemingly will be far different than it has been in some time.

Bottom 25 staples rising up: Bowling Green, ULM, UTEP and Temple all netted wins. Even UConn and UNLV nearly walked away with shocking victories. The gap between the top and bottom has seemingly never been smaller.

Lester-less Western Michigan: Hats off to the Broncos, who had one of the most underrated wins of all on Saturday when they thumped San Jose State 23-3 in Kalamazoo without head coach Tim Lester. WMU held the reigning Mountain West champs to just 119 yards and controlled the game from start to finish to move to 3-1 after previously knocking off Pitt the week prior. The MAC remains hard to sort out on a yearly basis but this has the look of a team that is more than capable of winning the league.

All Gas, No Brakes: Maybe everybody has been burned by "Texas is back" too many times in the past that they’re preemptively overlooking the Longhorns but Steve Sarkisian has actually started his tenure off in Austin quite well. UT comfortably beat a Sun Belt favorite in Louisiana during the opener and has bounced back from a quality loss in retrospect at Arkansas to beat the stuffing out of Rice and now Texas Tech by a combined 128-35. Success for Sark in his first year will come to be defined by the coming three-game stretch at TCU, against Oklahoma and at home vs. Oklahoma State but it actually isn’t a stretch to think this just might be the best team in the Big 12.

BC doesn’t flinch: Kudos to Jeff Hafley and crew, who somehow blew two fourth-quarter leads yet didn’t flinch and knocked off an SEC opponent at home for the first time since 1987. The Eagles are 4-0 for the first time since Matt Ryan roamed campus in 2007.

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Parity: Perhaps the SEC aside, is there really all that much of a difference between the top of every conference and the bottom? Lowly Arizona pushed Oregon for three and a half quarters in Eugene on Saturday, winless UNLV almost upset a ranked Fresno State, Michigan State sits atop the Big Ten East standings presently and it really feels like 1-9 in the Big 12 is capable of beating everybody else with even Kansas proving to be far peskier than past editions would indicate. Parity, it’s here and will only become more apparent in the coming months.

Seven Down This Week

Elite QB play: Aside from Bryce Young and Matt Corrall, have any of the so-called elite names under center actually lived up to their preseason billing so far? USC’s Kedon Slovis is 94th in the country in passing efficiency. Spencer Rattler and D’Eriq King have the same number of touchdown passes (and more interceptions) than Kansas QB Jason Bean. Sam Howell has been doing what he can but also is 2-2 overall. Hope there weren’t a lot of NFL teams tanking for top picks because there are no more Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrences lying around.

ACC flagships: The problem with the ACC in recent vintages is that Clemson operating at an elite level and playing in the CFP has continuously helped paper over the league’s reputation as the fifth of the power conferences when you factor in strength from top to bottom. Well, now the Tigers aren’t the Tigers and the talk around Miami and Florida State has been the swirling hot seat discussion about Manny Diaz and Mike Norvell. Commissioner Jim Phillips has a load of challenges on his plate but the football quality one is about to get magnified in a major way the rest of 2021.

Ohio State culture: Seems strange for a program coming off a national title game appearance to be entering a bit of a rocky stretch but Ryan Day sure seems like he has his hands full. Just in the past three weeks the team has seen a home loss, a ‘crootin scandal involving a team site, a fan base that checked out for attending a game at the ‘Shoe, a defensive coordinator essentially demoted, and players literally quitting in the middle of a game vs. a MAC team. Urban Meyer harped on culture so much when he was in charge that the message elicited a few rolled eyes but maybe Day needs to get the Buckeyes refocused on and off the field after a September to forget.

Nick Rolovich: Early last week, Wazzu’s president noted that the head coach still isn’t vaccinated despite state mandates, which means that this continues to be an issue looming over the program for several more weeks. He also noted nobody is getting a free pass either on the same subject. While that looms, Rolo is facing a challenge between the lines too as the Cougars blew their third lead in four games at Utah and have only a win over an FCS program to their name. On and off the field, the Cougs are struggling to get the basics right and that’s resulted in a program spiraling.

Scott Frost: One coach who failed to produce a statement win this weekend? That would be the Nebraska head coach, who continues to look and sound like he’s in over his head in Lincoln and not the guy who can produce some miracle turnaround with the Cornhuskers. He said after losing to Michigan State that he feels like he’s watching the same movie with regard to the way the team is losing game. It’s a refrain remarkably similar to the one he gave after Illinois earlier this year and several others before that. Well Scott, the movie is the same because of the coaching. The results and the journey are the same because of coaching. And the buck stops in one place no matter what the players are doing.

Texas State: Jake Spavital made a few waves during the signing period when the Bobcats didn’t ink a single high school player to a letter of intent, opting instead to take in numerous transfers. Well, that strategy and some additional bad decisions have left things even more dire in San Marcos after the team was run out of the building 59-21 at Eastern Michigan (a week after losing to an FCS program). Spavital blamed the loss on lack of depth but that’s a two-pronged excuse that points directly at the third-year coach who is now 6-22 overall. Not having enough decent players — much less any good ones — is certainly on the staff at this point and trying to fill holes by taking in some transfers clearly backfired. Add in that double-digit players have been out the past two weeks due to COVID protocols and that underscores there’s a lack of leadership off the field in getting players to take the vaccine in order to prevent situations just like this one (before even getting into the ethical concerns of public health amid a pandemic). Texas State remains a program that is seemingly anchored to its floor instead of closer to its ceiling given location and size. It can’t help that UTSA is in the national spotlight so quickly this year under former HS coach Jeff Traylor after the program won just four games in 2019 either.

USC opening: Clay Helton is long gone and USC has earnestly embarked on finding their next head coach but it feels like the narrative surrounding the search is already off the rails. It’s natural when there’s an opening this big that various people will weigh in but perhaps we can just pump the brakes just a bit. We don’t need play-by-play guys saying they’re “hearing” Deion Sanders is in the mix. We don’t need a news cycle thanks to NFL reporters suggesting Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy has interest when the AD fired him a few years ago. The same can be said about suggestions of making Panthers OC Joe Brady say no first when he is in line to get his own team in the league this cycle.

Tweet of the Week

Ohio State linebacker K’Vaughn Pope quit the team in the middle of the game against Akron and promptly went to the locker room to fire this off. He later deleted and apologized but was still dismissed from the program on Sunday.

Play of the Week

Non-play of the week? That easily goes to the Gators on the sidelines against Tennessee.

Stat of the Week

Death, taxes and Alabama:

Make It Make Sense Item of the Week

Colorado State is an enigma this season. The Rams opened with a terrible home loss to FCS South Dakota State 42-23 and didn’t even look in the same class as the Jackrabbits frankly. Then they lose another home game to Vanderbilt late, but turnaround and knock off Toledo on the road after the Rockets pushed Notre Dame to the brink. CSU proceeds to go to Iowa and play the Hawkeyes pretty close to even for three-ish quarters, including in the trenches of a 10-point loss against a top-five team.

Steve Addazio is starting to feel a bit of heat from the fan base for the results but it’s getting to the point where it’s hard to decipher the Rams’ games at this point based on the first month of the season.

No Really, Make It Make Sense

Due to Jaren Hall’s injury, Baylor Romney got the start for BYU at quarterback against USF What’s notable about Romney is not his play in the win Saturday night but his journey there. The guy was a member of the high school class of 2015 alongside guys like Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold, and Drew Lock — you know, some NFL guys who are about to get their second contract in the league.

Never mind that though, thanks to going on the requisite mission, his first year in Provo was actually 2018 when he took a redshirt and his first start was a win against Boise State in 2019. Throw in the free COVID year last year and it’s unfathomable to think but he’s actually just a… sophomore. A sophomore!

Sure you can try to make it make sense, but that is the Van Wilder plan or something.

Superlatives of the Week

Best Player: Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas
Team of the Week: Oregon State
Goat of the Week: P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Heisman Five: 1. Matt Corral (Ole Miss), 2. Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State), 3. Bijan Robinson (Texas), 4. Bryce Young (Alabama), 5. Drake London (USC)
Projected Playoff: 1. Alabama, 2. Georgia, 3. Oregon, 4. Penn State
Projected New Year’s Six: Orange Bowl — Alabama vs. Penn State, Cotton Bowl — Georgia vs. Oregon, Rose Bowl — UCLA vs. Iowa, Sugar Bowl — Florida vs. Oklahoma, Fiesta Bowl — Cincinnati vs. NC State, Peach Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Arkansas

The Super 16

Here’s my ballot in this week’s FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:

1. Alabama
2. Georgia
3. Arkansas
4. Ole Miss
5. Florida
6. Penn State
7. Oregon
8. Oklahoma
9. Wake Forest
10. Iowa
11. Notre Dame
12. BYU
13. Coastal Carolina
14. Michigan State
15. Cincinnati
16. Michigan

Pre-Snap Reads

Arkansas at Georgia
This feels like a reality check for the feel-good story that has become the Hogs. KJ Jefferson getting banged up and going against that UGA defense spells trouble and it sure seems like the Bulldogs are keen to flex their muscles as a title contender. The pick: Georgia -18

Ole Miss at Alabama
The Rebels have been the one team in the recent Saban era to prove to be a pesky foe and they certainly have the offensive firepower to go drive-for-drive with the Tide. If this were in Oxford, it feels like Lane Kffin’s crew would have a better shot but these are the types of games where the build-up might exceed the on field product. The pick: Alabama -17.5

Cincinnati at Notre Dame
This feels like the biggest Group of 5 game since… Houston knocked off No. 3 Oklahoma in 2016? The Bearcats will be well-rested coming off a bye but that can be a double-edged sword for a team that still hasn’t hit on all cylinders this year. The same could be said about the Irish but they are at home and have the better skill position talent so the lean is with the home side in a rock fight decided largely by which defense can force turnovers in plus territory. The pick: Notre Dame -1

— 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.