Louisiana's road upset of Iowa State could set the tone for a most unusual fall
Step back a moment from this past weekend in college football — yes, we had one — and ponder how much things have changed in the past nine months it's taken to berth a new season.
Just last December we were remarking on how that Clemson-LSU title game was such an epic matchup for the national title that it was a fitting conclusion to the sport's 150th anniversary. After Joe Burrow pointed to his ring finger jogging off the field in New Orleans and Ed Orgeron hoisted a trophy in January, there was some well-deserved discussion about those bayou Tigers being the best team of all time.
Fast-forward to Power 5 play beginning in earnest this weekend and the world, much less this sport, has been transformed and barely recognizable from what it once was. Heck, it felt like the first real week of college football yet it officially was the second and really the third. Just one team is even playing this fall right now west of Texas and you can count on one hand the number of stadiums in action with more than, well, a handful of actual fans. Masks are mostly prevalent and something like 33 players being ruled out for a game minutes before kickoff is just something to roll with.
So yeah, things are strange. Very strange.
So we might as well embrace that very unease. There are real warts, health concerns and ethical quandaries to still deal with but there's really nothing stopping the march of a college football campaign based on what we've seen so far.
Instead, it will just be a series of bizarre and unexpected twists and turns from now until... whenever the final kickoff is down in South Florida. Veteran college football fans can point to the 1990 or 2007 seasons as some of the most abnormal in the modern era.
Well, 2020 is something like 2007 on a mix of numerous narcotics emerging from days in an isolation tank.
Just this Saturday we saw weather delays galore. There were large swaths of rosters unavailable. There were suspensions. Notre Dame — Notre Dame! — played a conference game. Upsets? Plenty. Hastily rescheduled games on six days' notice in the middle of all the action? Absolutely. Ten-minute quarters in the second half of a blowout? Check. Special teams errors en masse? Correct.
Today in college football (all times ET)— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) September 12, 2020
8am: Next week's Va-VT game ppd
noon-3p: FUN BELT!!
5:30p: Big Ten maybe back!
6:30p: Memphis-Houston ppd
6:35p: Houston-Baylor scheduled
7p: Half of Oklahoma plays Petrino U
7:35p: Next week's BYU-Army ppd
Heck, there was even a literal dumpster fire (but enough about Kansas football…).
UPDATE: GFR and University of Florida has confirmed: it was a dumpster fire on the 3rd level. No one was injured and the the fire has been contained.— Claudia Bellofatto (@CBellofattoTV) September 12, 2020
Yes, every single game will be weird. Every single one will be strange. Yes they will all be sloppy. That's simply a feature of college football, not a bug. It's especially the case in 2020.
So soak it up. Nothing we've ever seen will be like this season and (hopefully) nothing ever will. We're about to embark on a potential nine-month (!) journey where there simply is no constant but chaos.
The easier we accept that, the easier it will be to tune in each Saturday and get a bit of enjoyment out of this grand experiment amidst a grand pandemic.
Other thoughts from a fascinating week in college football:
2. Billy Napier, Louisiana make impressive opening statement amid Fun Belt weekend
If this were a normal year, Louisiana head coach Billy Napier might have been the hot coaching carousel name. In a year with extremely limited openings he still might be. Putting together an impressive resume at Louisiana to go along with tutoring from both Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban will do that.
But Napier truly showed his value in striking the first big blow in the Group of 5 bid race over the weekend with an upset of Iowa State. Fresh off the winningest season in school history, the Ragin' Cajuns notched their first-ever top-25 road win and found themselves with the first poll ranking by their name in the modern era.
Most impressive? Louisiana accomplished this all despite a mediocre game out of star quarterback Levi Lewis and a disjointed offense in general. It helped to have those two return scores in one of the very few bright spots on special teams Saturday. The victory was extra poignant for the team given it was their first since the passing of assistant coach D.J. Looney this summer. The affable line coach certainly smiled at the performance between the lines on Saturday in what is so far the marquee upset of the season.
That was not the only one, nor the lone Sun Belt-Big 12 upset of the afternoon either. Thanks to the tandem of Layne Hatcher and the terrific Johnathan Adams Jr., Arkansas State shook off their opening loss to Memphis and managed to stun Kansas State in the Little Apple 35-31.
The Red Wolves were down eight starters — eight! — and nearly a quarter of the roster was out due to COVID-19 as well. To not just grab the victory but look dramatically better than you did in the opener sure was a testament to head coach Blake Anderson and crew.
Add in the absolute bonkers final quarter for UTSA-Texas State (albeit in a loss), Appalachian State's victory over a very solid Charlotte squad and a nightcap that featured Coastal Carolina outclassing Kansas and it was perhaps the most memorable weekend in the aptly-named "Fun Belt" in recent memory.
While it would seem as though the AAC has a bit of a stranglehold on any Group of 5 bid in December with the Mountain West not playing, don't discount a surprisingly deep Sun Belt sending a team to a major bowl even if somebody doesn't go undefeated. Non-conference games are so scarce that the few we get mean just a little more and few are making the most of the opportunity quite like those down South.
3. Florida State rinses, repeats
Openers have not been kind to the Seminoles in recent years. To say the least.
In 2016, they memorably beat Ole Miss in a wild affair but stunk up the joint in the first half and needed the largest comeback in school history to get the W. In 2017, the 'Noles were thumped by Alabama and lost starting quarterback Deondre Francois for the year with a knee injury. That turned out to be the start of a somewhat unfathomable slide for the program that was coming off a national title, Rose Bowl appearance and Orange Bowl win.
The following season saw FSU commit five turnovers and barely avoid a shutout to lose Willie Taggart's debut as head coach. Come 2019, the team got hit by a hurricane the week prior to a game against Boise State but then blew an 18-point home lead to the Broncos (who were led by a true freshman QB).
All of which is to say that having a lengthy weather delay and blowing a lead to the team picked last in the ACC is really just par for the course.
There was one point where Florida State's 10-point lead felt like 30 in the second quarter (a number of blocked kicks helped). But of course the wheels eventually started to fall off in Tallahassee to spoil head coach Mike Norvell's first game in charge after a very eventful offseason away from the field.
As any fan of the garnet and gold would tell you, the offensive line deserves the lion's share of the blame as it simply wasn't good enough again. That led to a cascading effect that included mental mistakes from James Blackman with less time to throw and wideout Tamorrion Terry dropping balls he normally hauls in.
Just as concerning was several starters up front went out injured as the game wore on, even more of a red flag given that this was the team's first 60 minutes of the year. As much progress as the Yellow Jackets have made under Geoff Collins' massive rebuilding project, they still don't come close to the kind of front that a Miami, Notre Dame, Clemson (or heck, even Wake Forest) can throw at the ‘Noles.
Norvell can truthfully explain some things away with the strange fall camp set up teams have had plus the lack of spring practice under a new coaching staff implementing a new system. But those underlying issues that have plagued the program for much of the past half-decade are still holding a team back from truly starting their ascent back up the ACC standings. Fixing FSU will start there and control both the floor and the ceiling of the team in 2020 and beyond.
It's not yet time to panic about Norvell's hire but, let's face it, any hopes of a quick fix in Tallahassee seriously overlooked just how much the offensive line needs to be revamped. Maybe one day those concerns will be a thing of the past but that looks like a date far into the future at FSU.
4. As the world turns in the Big Ten
Soap operas are not yet back in production but there's little need for that kind of TV drama when we have an on-going series full of twists and turns playing out in the Midwest.
To the surprise of nobody following along, this weekend was an important 48 hours in the maybe/kinda/sorta return of Big Ten football. After announcing sports were postponed back on Aug. 11, the league took the first steps needed for a return to play — initially with a presentation from the conference's medical committee and then a lengthy Sunday videoconference with the full slate of presidents/chancellors.
Such steps come in the wake of advancements in the availability of rapid COVID-19 testing the past month and increased political pressure both locally and nationally.
While an actual vote hasn't yet been taken as of publishing of this column, there is finally some momentum for football this fall in the Midwest. Just as important, there's a game plan in place to return to the field too, complete with actual steps, protocols and dates. TV partners are on board and the coaches that have pushed so hard for a restart have cut down on the amount of practice time they want to as little as two weeks in the case of Jim Harbaugh and three for Scott Frost.
Though the optimism is running high across the footprint, things are by no means a slam dunk. Any formal vote would need nine presidents to vote yes and the league would still have to move forward as one. No opting out if you're one school so that Ohio State and Penn State can see if they can make it to the College Football Playoff.
And make no mistake, for as much as the presidents/chancellors are coming around to the idea of a restart, work is left to be done beyond the realm of sport. Michigan's president is dealing with an open faculty revolt, Wisconsin remains shut down for workouts and health authorities in East Lansing are pushing for a Michigan State student body quarantine over the coming weeks. The local issues are as much an obstacle for the Big Ten as anything but something ADs are hoping can be sorted out well before kickoff in mid-October.
Either way, it shapes up to be a massive week in Chicago and beyond as the league that has bungled their pandemic response could finally be back on the path to playing. Like any good soap though, a last-minute twist nobody sees coming still can't be ruled out.
5. Big 12 bottom-feeding
With the Pac-12's decision to skip (for now) the fall season, the biggest loser in terms of national reputation in 2020 might wind up being the Big 12.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby saw his league go 0-3 against the Sun Belt, had their highest-ranked team buried behind a PPV paywall and needed a late rally by Texas Tech to hold off an FCS team that got blown out the week before. West Virginia at least took care of business even if the headlines from their romp over Eastern Kentucky focused on 11 players being suspended for the contest.
Maybe the worst part for the Big 12 was the fact that those Sun Belt teams in particular felt like they belonged on the same field as their Power 5 brethren. This wasn't some fluky upset here or there. Iowa State, a trendy dark horse to make it to the conference title game, was thoroughly outplayed everywhere from the trenches to the secondary. In a handful of cases they were just abused and Louisiana didn't just win, they won going away. Arkansas State shut down Kansas State's once-vaunted run game to the tune of 91 yards and the Red Raiders defense gave up 600 yards to an FCS team that has won seven games in three years.
Perhaps this is all a byproduct of limited practices and coronavirus protocols (just ask Navy) but we only have to work with what we saw on Saturday. That should raise red flags for more than just the coaches up and down the central time zone. The Big 12's depth has typically been an asset for it when it comes to comparing it to other conferences but now that looks completely evaporated after their only non-conference efforts.
It's one thing for Kansas to have a losing streak to a brand-new FBS program, it's another thing for the league's middle class to look outclassed too. Oklahoma and Texas can still carry the banner nationally but their duopoly can also serve as a reminder that the conference that may have once looked like it was turning the corner after a turbulent few seasons has instead slipped back to its top-heavy roots.
The Big 12 muscled into the Pac-12's corner with some late night #AfterDark contests on the docket in 2020 and wouldn't you know it but the league may also have taken over that bottom spot in the Power 5 pecking order when it comes to national reputation too.
6. More yawns for Clemson
Saturday's primetime ABC game went rather predictably as Clemson thumped Wake Forest by a not-at-all-reflective final score of 37-13.
What immediately jumped out was not just the talent disparity on hand but how sharp the Tigers looked. While everybody dealt with pandemic disruptions to practice and conditioning, Dabo Swinney's crew made things look like a preseason scrimmage. They got their work in and went home while barely breaking a sweat.
QB Trevor Lawrence was particularly impressive even by his standards in throwing for 351 yards and a touchdown (rushing for two more). He had just two 300-plus yard games last year and has only done it in conference play three other times. Freshman flashed all over the place and it looks like TE Braden Galloway will be much more of a threat than expected alongside Amari Rodgers.
So yeah, Clemson is still good.
Adding to the narrative around the Tigers, they played like they did a few years ago with a chip on their shoulder after losing to LSU in the title game. Even more, the rest of the ACC seemed even more pedestrian.
There may not be any sure thing in sports during 2020 but picking Clemson to return to the College Football Playoff might just be the most reliable thing.
7. CFB BracketBusters should be a 2020 legacy
On Tuesday of last week, Baylor and Louisiana Tech announced that their game in Waco that was slated for Saturday was "postponed indefinitely." It didn't take much to figure out why and the Bulldogs confirmed that some 38 players tested positive in the wake of Hurricane Laura hitting the region and causing issues in Ruston.
Add in the contract tracing elements and it was clear Tech was not going to be able to play the game. That left the Bears in a bind as it was set to be Dave Aranda's first game with the team and their lone tune-up for Big 12 play. The team was busy calling around (especially at the FCS level) prior to official word coming down but even so it left the school scrambling for somebody to play.
Enter their old SWC rival Houston. The Cougars were sitting at home this weekend and next as the AAC announced on Saturday their conference opener against Memphis was officially postponed following the Tigers' own issues with a COVID-19 outbreak. While that figures to be made up later on, that still left UH with an open date on short notice.
By good fortune, Cougs AD Chris Pezman knows Mack Rhoades at Baylor well after the two worked together at Houston. The pair quickly put together a deal for a game in under 48 hours, reigniting a series that had been dormant since 1995 despite the moderate distance between the two campuses. For good measure, they will sort out a home-and-home after *gestures at everything* calms down.
It should also serve as a reminder that there can be some good to come out of this pandemic-induced hellscape of a season in college football too — something that can have a lasting legacy that benefits schools, media partners and fans. As Baylor and Houston reinforced and a number of other schools have proved the past month, you don't need to measure your non-conference slates in decades. You don't have to ink a deal to play an opponent when a class of recruits is quite literally in diapers. Enter, instead, a football version of BracketBusters.
For those not familiar with the concept, ESPN used to hold a late-February tournament where certain schools were able to play others with an eye on getting marquee wins to help their standing with the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
So... let's light some jet fuel under this idea and bring it to college football. We've seen that it's no issue for schools to schedule on short notice so that's not the excuse ADs can use anymore. The TV partners should love it too as it could produce some really compelling matchups. Just at the Group of 5 level, it would really provide a much-needed boost for teams that maybe have been taking care of business on the field but won't get the love from the CFP Selection Committee because they were locked into their schedule a decade beforehand.
Even filtering up to the Power 5 level, imagine a scheduling alliance component like there was originally slated to happen with the Big Ten and Pac-12 years ago. Mix in independents like BYU and Notre Dame and the fun multiplies further. Those FCS laughers typical of the SEC schedule late in the year? Replace them with ACC/Big 12 crossovers between programs of similar caliber and it can offer bottom-feeders opportunities for wins just as easily as it does the top dogs a chance to shed that "They haven't played anybody" label. Given the inevitable playoff expansion forthcoming, this can be the perfect complement to underscore how the regular season matters.
It also creates plenty of incentive for players and coaches too. Imagine winning a late-November game to get a program like Texas coming to your place instead of Kansas State the following season. Then think about those non-conference matchups happening the following season and having the Longhorns come to town when you'd normally be beating up on an overmatched Conference USA foe. If ADs really wanted to enhance the student-athlete experience, why not raise the stakes on the kinds of games they could play?
All everybody would have to do is reserve a week on the schedule after midseason every year and then have those games get slotted in the spring before. While overall record and conference standings could be used to create a formula, ESPN/FOX probably wouldn't mind a UEFA-style draw show to generate some TV ratings in April either.
The coronavirus has resulted in some outside-the-box thinking with regards to the sport recently and now it's time to ensure that we keep flexing those brain muscles and don't simply return to the status quo in 2021. Creative solutions are needed to help the sport evolve and adding something new and fun might help everybody involved.
Tweet of the Week
So they’ve stopped play at the Georgia Tech-Florida State football game because of lightning in the area. I don’t know why. More people die of the flu every year than being struck by lightning.— Mike “Antisocially Distant” (@caltagm) September 12, 2020
Play of the Week
The Citadel's poor punter will live in infamy for this one against USF:
OH NOOOOOOOOO pic.twitter.com/1DQ0fWxXwx— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 13, 2020
Stat of the Week
It had been 2,121 days since Oklahoma won a game with a non-transfer starting quarterback they signed out of high school (Trevor Knight over Kansas in 2014). In doing so, Spencer Rattler became the fourth straight Sooners starter behind center to have a career game with more touchdowns (4) than incompletions (3) in his career.
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Jonathan Adams Jr. (Arkansas State)
Team of the Week: Georgia Tech
Goat of the Week: Les Miles
Heisman Five: 1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 2. Sam Ehlinger (Texas), 3. Najee Harris (Alabama), 4. Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State), 5. Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma)
Projected Playoff: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Texas, 4. Texas A&M
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Alabama vs. Texas, Sugar Bowl — Clemson vs. Texas A&M, Orange Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — Cincinnati vs. Oklahoma
Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall:
7. Texas A&M
8. Oklahoma State
9. Notre Dame
16. North Carolina
22. Virginia Tech
23. Appalachian State
Miami at Louisville
Both these teams started out a bit slow in their openers before eventually finding a bit of a rhythm offensively. That will need to pick up in a big way as they face their first conference test under the lights. The lean here is the Hurricanes thanks to a slightly better defense but this could be a shootout featuring a ton of QB scrambles throughout. The Pick: Miami +1
Houston at Baylor
Long Live the SWC! These two old rivals renew a series last played before most of the roster was even born. Given that we haven't seen either and the Bears have a new coaching staff, it's going to be hard to gauge this (live bet if you must!). The Cougars should be much improved from their sabbatical season in 2019 but we'll trust Charlie Brewer to at least deliver a win and restore some confidence in the Big 12. The Pick: Baylor -7.5
UCF at Georgia Tech
Maybe the biggest surprise of last week was Georgia Tech's win over Florida State but can the Yellow Jackets make it two in a row over Florida-based teams? Given that the Knights have few chances to look impressive in non-conference play, they understand the stakes and will enjoy going up to Atlanta and showing they've got better offensive talent than the Seminoles do in delivering a comfortable win. The Pick: UCF -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.
(Top photo courtesy of @RaginCajunsFB)