Upset-filled weekend was exciting but could end up having little impact on how the final four shakes out
Years ago, Bill Hancock must have uttered the phrase going on a thousand times: As great as a playoff sounds, it would devalue college football's regular season.
The now-Executive Director of the College Football Playoff said those things in his previous day job as the no-win public face of the oft-criticized BCS. Credit to Hancock, who is as nice as they come, he never wavered from the ridiculous talking points.
Years later however, we all know that sentiment is not the case. Perhaps the best example of this new postseason era avoiding precisely that came in a busy, chaos-filled Week 7 that brought us upset after upset everywhere you looked. Two of the top five went down. Four of the top 10 fell. All told, seven of the top 25 lost in one weekend. There was so much action, you wished the broadcast powers that be got their act together and had an NFL-style Red Zone channel going on Saturday.
Yet the biggest takeaway of the wins, losses and upsets might be that postseason picture changed hardly an iota.
No. 2 Clemson fell on the road to Syracuse on Friday night thanks to a gimpy Kelly Bryant giving way to a backup quarterback. Yet the Tigers are still a favorite to make it in. They’ll be favored the rest of the way on their schedule and it goes without saying that the team’s defense won’t play as bad as they did this weekend after seeing what the Orange did to them. Beat Miami (or Virginia Tech again) down in Charlotte and the only question is Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl? This is still very much a team that controls its own destiny.
In the past, such a loss would have been a killer to a team’s national title hopes. Now? It’s just a blip on the radar, similar to last year when Clemson won it all despite that November loss to an average Pitt team.
How about the Washington schools too? UW’s and Washington State’s disastrous showings are cause for concern but not an automatic out like they would have been. Is their path harder and the margin for error slimmer? Sure, especially in the Pac-12. But luckily for both Apple Cup sides the path is still there if they win out and place their faith in the committee to see past their off nights on the road.
USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and others? All in similar spots too as the postseason picture wasn’t so much shaken up as reset in Week 7. And yes, even Auburn (see below) still has a path to the final four if it can regroup. Win the SEC title, beat Georgia twice, top Alabama and that’s a resume few could argue with even if the possibility seems quite distant.
So no, the playoff didn’t hurt the regular season one bit as we’ve come to find out heading into year four of the new system — it’s enhanced it in a way few could have predicted. Now we can enjoy a memorable night at the Carrier Dome and savor an inexplicable performance in Tempe for what they are in the moment without causing panic over the bigger picture.
In college football, we can now very much have our cake and eat it too.
More takeaways from a wild week:
2. A tale of two halves in Baton Rouge
It’s probably illustrative of life in the SEC that one can go from pariah to genius to hot seat in a 10-14 day span. Nothing was a better example of that than a tale of two very different halves down in Baton Rouge.
Auburn opened its semi-annual trip to LSU in about as impressive fashion as one could hope for, jumping out to a big lead and quieting the crowd in a place the visiting Tigers hadn’t won at in nearly two decades. Jarrett Stidham looked like he was ready to start sneaking into the Heisman conversation and the topic at halftime could have been whether Auburn or Georgia was best positioned to challenge mighty Alabama.
But then Ed Orgeron’s team got some momentum going into the locker room to chip away at the lead late in the second quarter. Adjustments were impressive at the break on a day where Les Miles was honored for a national title, and the home Tigers responded by forcing four straight punts and two turnovers on downs. The offense kept hitting some big plays using the jet sweep and suddenly Orgeron has authored quite the turnaround with two straight SEC wins following a rough month of September.
As important as the win was for everybody’s favorite Cajun, it only further increased the pressure on Gus Malzahn. Considering the first half performance and that this was a victory the fan base wanted so, so badly after so many frustrating outcomes, lots of folks on the Plains are rehashing the talking points from earlier this year when the team lost to Clemson.
While we like to talk about the pressure cooker that every SEC coach faces, in Malzahn’s case it’s something that he has brought on himself with the way the offense has performed. Even if Chip Lindsay is the one calling plays, where is the creativity on first down? The designed QB runs? Screens? Some offensive line issues played a role, but Stidham shouldn’t have six yards passing in the second half given his abilities and it’s becoming clear that the running backs are approaching a wall if they keep getting worn down.
The season is by no means over but the difference between a good campaign and a great one may have slipped through Auburn’s fingers once again if things don’t get back on track.
3. The U is back (in the top 10) thanks to a little smoke
While overreacting is the name of the game, calling a school “back” has been uttered seemingly every week for one school or another. Nobody has been called “back” more than Miami but it’s time to finally acknowledge that the Hurricanes are certainly no longer the tease they’ve been the past 15 years.
Part of that is the fact that they’ve come back to win two straight games they should have lost. That makes this 5-0 start a bit of a smoke and mirrors look but it’s pretty impressive how such a young team keeps finding ways to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. Once again, it was Darrell Langham’s turn to play hero with another improbable catch that eventually set up the game-winning field goal to beat Georgia Tech in an obvious trap game that turned out to be just that.
One thing is for sure though, it would be a massive upset if this team doesn’t win the Coastal Division right now and there’s a pretty clear path to a New Year’s Six bowl too. Their two toughest remaining games are Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, both of which come at home. Going undefeated seems like a massive stretch but this has the potential for being an excellent season in South Florida (after such a difficult beginning thanks to Mother Nature).
Let’s get something straight though, “The U” won’t officially be back until the team wins the ACC, makes the playoff and is regularly competing for national titles. That’s the standard at the program right now and anything less will just be a nice season. But, this is certainly a different team than past editions and suddenly holders of a 10-game winning streak. While a semifinal appearance might not be realistic until 2018, it’s pretty clear that things are well ahead of schedule in Coral Gables under Mark Richt and something to be impressed with.
4. Tennessee, Nebraska playing out the string
When, not if. That’s basically the assumption regarding the tenures of both Volunteers head coach Butch Jones and the Cornhuskers’ Mike Riley after this weekend in which each left the field with that look on their face that they knew what was coming sooner rather than later.
Let’s start in Knoxville, where Tennessee extended their streak to a full 10 quarters without an offensive touchdown. While everybody expected the Vols to take a step back after losing so many upperclassmen, this kind of slide is what leads to changes and it’s pretty clear the mental mistakes that have plagued the team are not going to change. While AD John Currie would prefer to keep Jones around and not make a change, it seems we’re quickly approaching go time. If Tennessee gets run out of the building against Alabama as expected (the Crimson Tide are a 34-point favorite), it’s a pretty logical time to announce Jones is either gone at the end of the season or they’ll part ways on Sunday afternoon.
Let’s face it, the team has three home games in November and the department will not like the look of swaths of empty seats at Neyland Stadium down the stretch. A move after facing the Tide would allow the interim head coach to take a trip to Kentucky, return home to face Southern Miss and then go to Missouri — all winnable games that could help sell out a stadium that would love to support their team even if a coaching staff is needed. Let’s just hope Currie elevates offensive coordinator Larry Scott or special teams coordinator Charlton Warren instead of Brady Hoke if he knows what’s good for public relations.
Over in Lincoln, the nexus has changed slightly with the recent hire of Bill Moos as athletic director. This was always going to be the first step in making a change and seems even more obvious after an effort against Ohio State saw the Blackshirts give up touchdowns on all but one drive late in the fourth quarter. It would be surprising if Riley doesn’t serve as head coach through the Iowa game given his and Moos’ track record, but a lackluster loss to Purdue or Northwestern in the next few weeks could lead to a parting of ways statement right after Thanksgiving.
Once Moos gets settled in Lincoln over the next few weeks, he’s likely to shift right into a coaching search that will try to be as under the radar as much as such a major hire can be. One thing seems pretty certain given recent events: the Cornhuskers’ new head coach will be introduced in early December in order to allow him about two weeks to recruit prior to the early signing period.
No matter how things play out over the next few weeks, the inevitable scenario sure seems like it’s going to happen in both Knoxville and Lincoln.
5. Potential job-saving victories
Perhaps the most head scratching result was on a weekend filled with upsets was Louisville falling to Boston College 45-42. As bad as the loss was, the fact that the Cardinals allowed a previously lackluster offense to put up that many points — the most ever for the Eagles in an ACC road game — is borderline criminal and puts an exclamation point on an absolutely terrible month of negative headlines for the school. It once again spoiled a heroic effort from Lamar Jackson, who put the team on his back with 512 yards and five touchdowns.
While a lot of folks will be talking about Bobby Petrino, it goes without saying that the outcome was far more important for Steve Addazio. It’s no secret that he’s in a precarious position in terms of job security given the lackluster results and a new athletic director in place. The school would rather not make a change in both football and men’s basketball in the same cycle and a win over a ranked team like Louisville (and reaching a bowl game) would go a long way toward buying Addazio another season.
Likewise, it was a great weekend for other hot seat coaches — nowhere more so than the state of Arizona. Down in Tucson, the Wildcats ran all over UCLA as Rich Rodriguez has overseen a remarkable turnaround thanks to quarterback Khalil Tate. The electric runner (who looks like the second coming of Mike Vick more so than Jackson) is now up to 557 rushing yards over the past two games since being inserted into the lineup. One wonders what would have happened had regular starter Brandon Dawkins not gotten hurt but it’s safe to say the trajectory of Arizona changed quite a bit in early October. Instead of talking about RichRod’s buyout, perhaps the greater concern is now that he’ll get enticed to leave town.
Similar vibes were happening to the north at rival Arizona State. The Sun Devils didn’t just upset No. 5 Washington, they hit the defending Pac-12 champions in the mouth and smothered them in a downright shocking 13-7 upset. The maligned defense of Todd Graham had perhaps the finest outing in his tenure, sacking Jake Browning numerous times and limiting downfield passes in a way they haven’t in a good three seasons. While their next two games (at Utah, vs. USC) present a far different challenge, the final four of the year are all winnable and a bowl game isn’t out of the question.
That would make a decision on his contract a little more interesting for AD Ray Anderson. Graham still has a very large buyout and that would not include the money needed to bring in a new coaching staff. All told, it could be a $20 million change in Tempe. Maybe the allure of Chip Kelly will be too much but, given how many sophomore and juniors dot the depth chart, it’s possible that getting to seven wins (with or without a bowl win) would extend Graham’s tenure one more year with the eye toward competing in a wide-open Pac-12 South in 2018.
Oh, and don’t tell Texas A&M regent Tony Buzbee about Kevin Sumlin now, but that fourth-quarter comeback win over Florida suddenly has the Aggies sitting at 5-2 on the year and helped avoid the typical post-Alabama hangover the program has come to be known for. Quarterback Kellen Mond still has plenty of freshman moments but the coaching staff has done a good job playing to his strengths and is doing a lot better on the defensive side of the ball as the season has worn on. Given the schedule that is ahead, 9-3 isn’t out of the question and there’s the potential of a 10-2 campaign if things can keep going.
That would be more than enough to save Sumlin’s job, which seemed unthinkable in September.
6. Welcome back UAB!
Don’t look now but the best story in college football is now 4-2 on the season. Yes, we’re talking about UAB, which if you’ll recall didn’t have a football program for two years following a fiasco that saw the school cancel and then reinstate the sport. Despite what amounted to a death penalty, the team is back and surprisingly sitting in second place in their Conference USA division after holding off Middle Tennessee on Saturday.
As you could expect for a team that didn’t have a program, freshmen and transfers are contributing quite a bit. Tailback Spencer Brown was once again the star of the show for the Blazers’ offense and racked up 167 yards, his third effort over the 150 mark in six games. Somewhat ironically, quarterback A.J. Erdely started his career for the Blue Raiders before making the winding path to starting under center for UAB, posting a solid seven touchdown passes against just two picks on the year. It really goes without saying that Bill Clark has done a terrific job under such difficult circumstances.
Now comes the interesting part, as the team has six opportunities to get two more wins and an improbable bowl berth. UAB heads to a winless Charlotte team on Saturday and also has home games against Rice and UTEP in November. It’s not actually a stretch to say it will hit the six-win mark, it actually seems pretty likely at this point. So congrats to the Blazers on having faith and putting together the bounce-back season of all bounce-back seasons.
7. Midseason awards
Offensive player: RB Bryce Love, Stanford
Defensive player: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
Freshman: RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
Coach: Kirby Smart, Georgia
Offensive coordinator: Sonny Cumbie, TCU
Defensive coordinator: Tim DeRuyter, Cal
Biggest disappointment (player): QB Sam Darnold, USC
Biggest disappointment (team): Tulsa (AAC), Louisville (ACC), Texas (Big 12), Minnesota (Big Ten), Old Dominion (CUSA), BYU (Ind.), Western Michigan (MAC), Air Force (MWC), UCLA (Pac-12), Arkansas (SEC), Georgia Southern (Sun Belt)
Most under the radar player: RB Diocemy Saint Juste, Hawaii
Biggest surprise (player): WR David Sills, West Virginia
Biggest surprise (team): UCF (AAC), Virginia (ACC), Iowa State (Big 12), Purdue (Big Ten), Marshall (CUSA), Notre Dame (Ind.), Akron (MAC), Fresno State (MWC), Cal (Pac-12), Texas A&M (SEC), Georgia State (Sun Belt)
Projected New Year’s Six:
Rose Bowl (semifinal): Ohio State vs. TCU
Sugar Bowl (semifinal): Alabama vs. Clemson
Peach Bowl: Wisconsin vs. UCF
Fiesta Bowl: USC vs. Oklahoma State
Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Penn State
Orange Bowl: Miami vs. Georgia
Stat(s) of the Week
Jim McElwain now 5-11 in games that the opponent scores more than 14. #Gators— Thomas Goldkamp (@ThomasGoldkamp) October 15, 2017
Auburn lost despite leading 20-0.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 14, 2017
Entering today, AP Top-10 teams were 182-0 when leading by 20+ vs unranked opponents since 2014.
Tweet of the Week
For your viewing pleasure... Jimbo Fisher's shocked reaction when he heard the BC-UL score pic.twitter.com/ZIrGLgbRHB— Ryan Kelly (@RyanLKel) October 14, 2017
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: A.J. Dillon, Boston College
Heisman five: 1. Saquon Barkley (Penn State), 2. Bryce Love (Stanford), 3. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 4. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Joel Lanning (Iowa State)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. TCU, 4. Clemson
Team of the week: Syracuse
Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Quote of the week: “It wasn’t no fluke, either. We whipped ‘em.” — Arizona State’s Todd Graham.
Play of the Week
Look Familiar? ðð±— Cal Athletics (@CalAthletics) October 14, 2017
Ross "Flipping" Bowers pic.twitter.com/C1djsFPTYH
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.
4. Penn State
7. Ohio State
8. Notre Dame
10. Oklahoma State
11. Miami (FL)
13. N.C. State
15. Washington State
Best of the rest: Auburn, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, UCF, Michigan State, Michigan, USF, West Virginia, San Diego State
Michigan at Penn State
The Nittany Lions haven’t truly been tested this season but that should change when the Wolverines roll into Happy Valley for the biggest Big Ten game of the season to date. Don Brown’s defense has been the highlight for the Maize and Blue and it’s going to be a juicy matchup trying to watch them attempt to contain Saquon Barkley. I trust Penn State’s defense more than Michigan’s offense so roll with the home team by double digits on Saturday night.
Oklahoma State at Texas
The Longhorns return home after a tough Red River Showdown loss to Oklahoma but do not get much time to breathe with the Cowboys coming to town. While Texas should be able to move the ball and put up some points, not sure the stamina is there to do it all game if the defense can’t get some stops. OSU by at least two scores.
USC at Notre Dame
The greatest intersectional rivalry in college football is going to live up to the billing with a pair of top-15 teams in action and each having a pretty clear path to the playoff if they emerge victorious. This feels very much like a back-and-forth game decided in the fourth quarter but the Irish playing at home and coming off a bye give them a slight edge. We’ll be the first to jump on the bandwagon of Notre Dame making it to the final four if Brian Kelly and company win this one.
— 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.