Joe Burrow and LSU's explosive offense have been one of the biggest surprises this season
We’ve made it through seven weeks of the college football season and, with seven more to go before championship weekend, have officially hit the halfway mark in 2019. Fresh off a wild weekend that saw a pair of top-10 teams go down and a host of other ranked teams fall, now is a good time to hit pause and see what has been surprising and what hasn’t lived up to the hype coming into the year.
College Football Playoff Race Isn’t Just Alabama and Clemson
If you weren’t convinced otherwise, this weekend further reiterated that a march to Clemson-Alabama V isn’t quite as assured as we all thought preseason. While it’s true that the last two national title winners still occupy rarified air atop the polls and the sport itself, both have looked a little mortal in certain areas. The Tide’s run defense isn’t at the levels we historically associate with Nick Saban and there are a host of talented, but young, true freshmen all around the two-deep for the front seven. The defending champions haven’t quite been clicking on all cylinders offensively since August, nor have they really been tested (and are unlikely to be until the College Football Playoff).
Then there’s the rest of the field, which understands where the target is come the postseason with those two elites and have been making appropriate strides to join them. Both Oklahoma and Ohio State have not missed a beat from historic highs on the offensive side of the ball (despite new starting QBs and a host of new faces along their offensive lines) and have really made some significant strides on defense. Units that were once a liability have instead turned into an asset with better tackling and turnovers. The Sooners have given up 19.3 points per game against Power 5 teams in 2019, a mark better than others like Florida, Notre Dame, and California — and a far cry from the 35.9 points per game mark they gave up last season. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are No. 2 nationally behind the stout Wisconsin defense in yards per play allowed. The 2018 edition of the Buckeyes were just barely better than Charlotte at 5.77 yards per play allowed.
Such numbers might not hold up for an entire year but the improvement is there to see for everybody on film and the stat sheet.
The same can be said of LSU, which has the best resume of anybody in the country after beating Texas in Austin and locking down Florida on Saturday night. Joe Burrow is very much in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race and the Tigers’ new-look offense has gone from costing them games to winning them in a hurry. They still have to get past their nemesis Alabama (in Tuscaloosa) but if anybody can afford a loss and still make it to the final four, it’s this group.
Penn State and Wisconsin also could fight their way into the mix, with the Badgers’ stellar defense forming quite the tandem with an offense that doesn’t seem as limited as it was a year ago to just ground and pound. The Nittany Lions netted their first road win over a ranked team under James Franklin and have an impressive amount of team speed just about everywhere you look to go with some future high-round draft picks in their front seven. And though they have one loss already, Auburn, Oregon, and Georgia can’t be ruled out either based on overall talent level and their ability to navigate their schedules back into contention.
We may still wind up with Tigers-Tide Part V on Bourbon Street in early January but if that is indeed the case, the pair will have been extremely tested along the way.
Narratives Around Kirby Smart, Ed Orgeron Heading in Opposite Directions
This is a trend that started even before last season but we’re seeing it in full bloom after Week 7 like ships passing in the night. So just take a moment and ponder, if you had to choose, would you rather want Kirby Smart as your head coach or Ed Orgeron? That answer might have been easy to decide two years ago, but now it’s a lot closer than folks in Athens would like to admit they ever could have thought possible.
A lot of that has to do with changes Orgeron has made ever since ascending to the permanent gig at LSU. This is far from the same person who couldn’t put it together at Ole Miss and he’s clearly become more of a complete head coach as time has worn on. No longer can you label him just a recruiter or a motivator (though he is both in spades) but somebody clearly on the ascent as he leads his dream job. By beating Florida on Saturday, the barrel-chested Cajun notched his eighth win against a top-10 opponent (against just three losses) and his team thumped Smart’s Georgia squad last year in a similar position too.
The Tigers have had the talent to be a title contender year-in and year-out but the key difference in 2019 is Orgeron adapting to shore up some of his weaknesses that became apparent last year. He always made it a priority to retain Dave Aranda to keep LSU’s defense among the nation’s elite but prior to this season decided to keep pace with the Alabamas and Oklahomas of the world by doubling down to fix the often messy offense the team had been running. It’s not often you would entrust a 28-year-old analyst for an NFL team to do that but it’s paid off in the hiring of Joe Brady to be the team’s passing game coordinator.
Though there’s still some comfort in having long-time OC Steve Ensminger around as a veteran presence running the show on that side of the ball, there’s little doubt that Brady has supercharged the team’s attack and married all those long and speedy athletes with a scheme to match. The end result is not only a prolific offense that is in the top five of nearly every category but also one that is suddenly the heartbeat for a team that was long hard to watch on that side of the ball.
It’s a sharp contrast to the position Smart is sitting in at the moment after a truly inexplicable, unexplainable and embarrassing loss to South Carolina between the hedges. While his tenure started off strong in Athens, suddenly those creeping doubts about his game management being the Bulldogs’ Achilles Heel are growing louder. Nobody is questioning Smart as an assembler of elite talent with all the pieces in place to win a national title, what is being questioned is how things go when things get tight in the second half.
There are at this point enough examples to point to. The championship game against Alabama and then subsequent trip to Atlanta against the Tide that produced a disastrous fake punt call. There were numerous examples in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and some more even in a big win earlier this season against Notre Dame. While he gets equal credit for comebacks like the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma, there’s enough there that tilts the wrong way for Smart at this point in Year 4.
Talk to Your Kids about an Undefeated Minnesota
Back in 2015, Iowa piled up win after win and often looked unconvincing while doing so even if the outcome fell on the right side of the ledger. The Hawkeyes, 7-6 the year prior, didn’t get ranked until mid-October and eventually made it all the way to the Big Ten title game undefeated thanks to a weak division.
While it might be a little early to draw the same comparison to this year’s edition of Minnesota, it’s pretty clear that P.J. Fleck’s crew is no joke. The Gophers are averaging 7.62 yards per play against Power 5 opponents, a mark better than Ohio State and Clemson and good enough for fourth in all of FBS. They destroyed Nebraska 34-7 on Saturday to move to 6-0 and very well should be 8-0 with Rutgers and Maryland coming up.
What’s really been impressive is seeing the team grow from week-to-week. They could very well have been 0-3 to South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern but survived them all in the final minutes. Though they let Purdue back in the game last month, that’s about the time things started to click offensively and they’ve been just rolling over opponents ever since. The competition level hasn’t been phenomenal of course but wins are wins and Fleck could pose a real problem with Penn State and Wisconsin at home down the road.
Making it to Indianapolis is probably too much to ask but the boat sure is rowing in the Twin Cities.
The Appalachian State Way
While one could sit around and argue all day about some of the best coaching jobs around the country at the midway mark, it’s hard not to focus on Boone, North Carolina, being a focal point for two of the easiest calls in the running. That, of course, is the home of Appalachian State, where the Mountaineers of past and present are looking like some of the best hires out of the 2018 cycle after just a few months of on-field play.
You can start with the man who currently runs the Mountaineers, Eli Drinkwitz. He was a bit of a left-field hire for the school, which was fairly insular in terms of both their head coach and the rest of their staff ever since Jerry Moore turned the program into a powerhouse back at the FCS level. The 36-year-old though, has a unique background having come up the ranks initially under Gus Malzahn but also learning from Bryan Harsin and the trick-play-loving Boise State coaching tree. Now he has taken the keys to a well-maintained sedan and got it running laps on the Nurburgring.
Appalachian State became ranked for the second time in school history on Sunday and, at No. 24 in the AP and Coaches Polls, hit the highest mark a Sun Belt team has ever achieved. They knocked off North Carolina earlier in the year and have a shot at doing the same to a South Carolina squad that just upset previous No. 3 Georgia. The offense has turned the ball over just twice all season so far and they’re No. 9 in FBS converting on third downs. QB Zac Thomas has been impressive under center but Darrynton Evans is the one really worth tuning in for considering how quickly he can slice through a defense. This may not be the best Mountaineers team in school history but they’ve got a shot to run the table and capture the Group of 5 bid if Boise State or the AAC slip, which is hard to fathom for a program just five years removed from the FCS level.
Things are going pretty well for the man Drinkwitz took over for too in Louisville’s Scott Satterfield. Long hailed as a good hire by the school even if he was their No. 2 choice, it’s been night and day for the program on the field in 2019 compared to last year under Bobby Petrino. Guys fight hard instead of quit the moment there’s any adversity now, they line up in the right spots on defense and there’s even plenty of cases of actual player development from game-to-game.
The Cardinals have already doubled their win total from last season and it’s not hard to fathom them finishing second behind Clemson in the ACC Atlantic despite the depths from which the team came from last year. The Tigers will provide a litmus test for just how far the program has to go to be back on the national stage but some confidence-building wins in the clearly down league still make for a good start to Satterfield’s tenure as he tries to boost recruiting and overall depth.
Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, and Joe Burrow Leading Transfer QB Revolution
These three are pretty much all found in some order on every Heisman voter’s top five and for good reason. The funny thing is, the transfer portal blowing up prior to this season seems to only further reinforce how player movement to the right spot has allowed a number of quarterbacks to thrive in their new homes. Seven top 25 teams sport a transfer signal-caller at the moment and there are a number of success stories of guys being the right fit at nearly every level of the game.
It should also send a message to coaches across the country that the old days of sitting and learning or fretting about transfers because they won’t have time to pick up a new system are over. It’s a brave new world out there and we’re probably going to need to get used to more guys having a “Previous School:” line in their bios from now on given how good some of these players have been in 2019.
SMU, Baylor, and Others Back From the Depths
In 2014, SMU bottomed out when they saw their coach bail after two games before going 1-11 for the season. It’s been a steady march back to respectability in the years since under Chad Morris and, now, Sonny Dykes, who has SMU off to their best start since the Pony Express days. The Mustangs are in the top 20 of the polls at 6-0 and positioned to be the favorite in the AAC West.
Another ex-SWC team went through much the same journey a few miles down I-35 from homecoming opponent to top-25-caliber in Baylor. The situation Matt Rhule took over in Waco was far worse than what happened in Dallas but on the field, the rebuilding process was certainly a bit more challenging given that the Big 12 has been among the deepest conferences in the country the past few seasons. Through it all though, the Bears have gotten better at every turn and quietly turned into a defensive group that you have to fight for every yard against. They’ve pretty much established themselves as the league’s third-best team so far in 2019 and have a real shot at making it to the Big 12 title game in December.
Elsewhere around the country, Georgia State went from being at the bottom of the Sun Belt to upsetting Tennessee and possibly their league’s second-best group. San Jose State is sitting pretty with three wins (as many as the past two years combined) and an SEC victory among them. Western Kentucky dropped their opener to an FCS team but has beaten UAB, Army and FIU already. Tulane and Navy both only have one loss so far and don’t sleep on Louisiana Tech’s hot 5-1 start either. Speaking of depths, Sean Lewis has Kent State atop the MAC East and has exceeded last year’s win total despite having to play top-10 teams like Auburn and Wisconsin.
Pac-12 Playoff Hopes
Oregon is still lurking out there as a possibility but this is shaping up as another year for the conference’s CFP hopes to dwindle to next to nothing by October. Don’t get us wrong, the league is still extra fun to watch on a weekly basis and might actually be the deepest conference in the country in terms of teams that can win on any given Saturday, but the national conversation just isn’t there out West yet again. At least there’s always the Rose Bowl, which is a pretty good thing to focus on down the stretch because that’s the real prize on New Year’s.
UCF’s Cinderella Run is Over
Some may celebrate the Knights’ run the past few years but we’re going to lament it because it certainly provided a talking point each and every week. They can still regroup and win the AAC with a little help but the quarterback position has not been the same ever since McKenzie Milton went down — and neither has the team itself. That’s to take nothing away from one of the best stories in the sport lately but it’s pretty clear the boisterous talk can come to an end now.
Power 5 Disappointment One-Liners
Boston College: Blown out by Kansas will be on Steve Addazio’s obit after this gig is up.
Syracuse: Everything that could go wrong, has for what is clearly the ACC’s biggest underachiever in 2019.
Georgia Tech: We all knew the triple-option transition would be rough… but this?
Michigan State: Rearranging deck chairs, er, coaches on the Titanic turned out exactly as we thought.
Northwestern: Wildcats are dead last in yards per play in FBS and have turned a five-star QB into a cautionary tale.
Nebraska: Big Ten West favorites haven’t improved in one area as high hopes have been turned into low bars going forward.
Purdue: Injuries were a factor but any progress Jeff Brohm was making has hit reverse.
Washington State: Minshew Mania is long gone as this season reiterates how hard it is to win in Pullman long-term.
UCLA: This team looks lifeless as everybody in the country is wondering if Chip Kelly has lost his fastball.
Tennessee: Beating Mississippi State helps take the sting out of the roughest start to the season for Jeremy Pruitt as he continues to look over his shoulder at the AD.
Vanderbilt: Derek Mason has done a solid enough job over the years but losing to UNLV is as low as it gets.
Group of 5 Disappointment One-Liners
Houston: Fire coaches for going 8-4? No, the Cougars would love to wind up 8-4 after this start.
North Texas: All-conference quarterback back as a senior and plenty of solid recruiting classes have resulted in two wins. Graham Harrell was a loss, but not that big of a loss.
Army: Can anybody make sense of the Black Knights? Barely beat Rice, barely lost to Michigan and WKU.
The MAC: See below.
Fresno State: Defending MWC champions lost some close games early and never recovered.
ACC Stuck in Neutral
Clemson is back to being the league’s only ranked team after Saturday and that feels appropriate because the gap between the Tigers and everybody else continues to be enormous. The middle of the pack was supposed to wind up being a strength but teams continue to shoot themselves in the foot with every opportunity. Coastal Chaos appears to be upon us all once again and the number of quarterbacks you can trust in this league is probably set at over/under 2.5. It makes for some interesting games to watch for fans on a network not everybody gets but it isn’t great for being taken seriously in other parts of the country as they make the Pac-12 look like world beaters by comparison.
MACtion takes a hit
We haven’t quite hit the mid-week MACtion time of the calendar but the MAC has been brutal the first part of the season despite netting a few early victories over Group of 5 teams. The entire East division is chasing a 3-3 Kent State team while everybody seems beatable in the West. Toledo should be the class of the league but they were thumped by four-TD underdog Bowling Green. Eastern Michigan beat a Big Ten team but is 0-2 in conference and needed a blocked punt to hold off an FCS foe. Western Michigan has been solid and Central Michigan seemed much improved but just lost their QB to a failed PED test. It might produce some whacky Wednesday games and must-see Tuesday outcomes over the coming weeks but things haven’t been great the past few weeks in the MAC.
Houston Hitting Reboot
It has been a fascinating start to 2019 in Houston — and not in a good way. There was a ton of press for the school in the offseason after they went out and hired a Power 5 coach like Dana Holgorsen and plenty of dark-horse Heisman talk surrounding QB D’Eriq King. What did all that hype turn out to be? 2-4 with the program fully hitting reboot on their 2019 campaign.
King and WR Keith Corbin announced last month that they were redshirting to prepare for a better 2020 and then this week the school dealt with a Twitter thread from former offensive lineman Justin Murphy that called into question just how Holgorsen was running the program on and off the field. There’s been a revolving door at quarterback, the defense stinks and they’ve lost every way imaginable the past few weeks.
This is supposed to be a program that is doing everything it can to earn a Power 5 conference invite but the lesson from 2019 is that the Cougars are where they are for a reason. Holgorsen and company are lucky their big booster has been preoccupied with geopolitical incidents recently or else the brass would really be feeling some pressure to get back on track.
Bednarik Award (best defensive player): Chase Young, Ohio State. Runners-up: Evan Weaver, Cal; Jeffrey Okudah, Ohio State; Grant Delpit, LSU; Chris Orr, Wisconsin
Biletnikoff Award (best WR): CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma. Runners-up: DeVonta Smith, Alabama; Jerry Jeudy, Alabama; Sage Surratt, Wake Forest; Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State; Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
Davey O’Brien (best QB): Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama. Runners-up: Joe Burrow, LSU; Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma; Justin Fields, Ohio State
Doak Walker (best RB): Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin. Runners-up: Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State); Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis); Rodney Smith (Minnesota); J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
Broyles Award (best assistant): Alex Grinch, Oklahoma defensive coordinator. Runners-up: Joe Brady, LSU passing game coordinator; Jeff Hafley, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator; Jim Leonard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator.
Coach of the Year: Ryan Day, Ohio State. Runners-up: Matt Rhule, Baylor; Paul Chryst, Wisconsin; Ed Orgeron, LSU; Dan Mullen, Florida; Willie Fritz, Tulane
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Clay Helton, USC
Power 5 Coaches on the Rise: Matt Campbell, Iowa State; P.J. Fleck Minnesota; Neal Brown, West Virginia
Group of 5 Coaches You Should Hire: Bryan Harsin, Boise State; Mike Norvell, Memphis; Jason Candle, Toledo
Defensive Coordinator You Should Hire: Jimmy Lake, Washington. Also, Jim Leonard, Wisconsin.
Offensive Coordinator You Should Hire: Tony Elliott, Clemson. Also, Chip Long, Notre Dame.
Coach out of a Job You Should Hire: Urban Meyer (duh). Also, Todd Graham.
Tweet of the Week
Wisconsin 61, Central Michigan 0— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) October 12, 2019
Wisconsin 35, Michigan 14
Wisconsin 38, Michigan State 0
Send us the deed, @UpperPeninsula
Play of the Week
LARGE MAN TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/jwZzYFWVgm— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) October 12, 2019
Stat of the Week
#USC has now failed to win the turnover battle in 19-straight games, the longest streak in the nation.— Ryan Abraham (@insidetroy) October 13, 2019
The Trojans have also committed a personal foul penalty in 15-straight games (though the call in this one was bogus).
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: CeeDeeLamb, Oklahoma
Team of the Week: South Carolina
Goat of the Week: Kirby Smart, Georgia (Honorable mention: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt)
Heisman Five: 1. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 4. Joe Burrow (LSU), 5. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin)
Projected Playoff: 1. Ohio State, 2. Clemson, 3. Alabama, 4. Oklahoma
Projected New Year’s Six: Rose Bowl — Wisconsin vs. Oregon, Sugar Bowl — Texas vs. LSU, Orange Bowl — Pitt vs. Notre Dame, Cotton Bowl — Penn State vs. Boise State
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
1. Ohio State
7. Penn State
12. Notre Dame
13. Boise State
Best of the rest: Tulane, Cincinnati, Michigan, Appalachian State, Arizona State, Minnesota, SMU, Wake Forest, Pitt
Arizona State at Utah
The more I watch the Utes, the more I think that game against USC was just a very off night for the team in a season where they have generally looked like the favorites for the Pac-12 South. Arizona State just finds ways to win though and their offensive weapons are so dangerous and capable of scoring on every snap. The game is in Salt Lake City in the evening so while this could get into a little Pac-12 After Dark action, something says a motivated Utah takes care of business in a big spot. The Pick: Utah -13.5
Oregon at Washington
Both teams made a statement last week in convincing wins a week after a pair of lackluster performances. The Ducks’ defense has been among the best in the country and there are finally signs that the offense is figuring things out despite a rash of injuries. I still can’t trust the Huskies based on what they’ve shown this year though they should get a little help if they can keep the Montlake crowd in this one. It will be close in the fourth before Oregon pulls away. The Pick: Oregon -2.5
Michigan at Penn State
This has all the makings of a game where Michigan rises up and surprises people by finally looking like the playoff contender we all expected to see in August. Penn State, however, not only has the far superior talent in this one but the Nittany Lions got a little edge to them that has been missing the last few seasons under James Franklin. Both sides will probably play this one close to the vest early but eventually, the home pulls away and particularly overwhelms the Wolverines in the trenches. The Pick: Penn State -8
— 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.