Ten takeaways from a tumultuous final Saturday of September in college football:
1. Bye, bye, Butch?
Ed Orgeron has one fan left in the Southeastern Conference. His name is Butch Jones.
The last time Tennessee lost by more points at home than it did Saturday, the year was 1918. Because of World War I, the school didn’t even field a formal varsity team, instead constructing an unofficial team out of Army recruits and students. That’s how Sewanee 68, Tennessee 0, happened on Nov. 2 of that year.
Ninety-nine years later, Georgia 41, Tennessee 0, might mark the effective end of Butch Jones’ tenure in Knoxville. Here in Year Five, after a lot of recruiting success, a once-a-century home defeat should push his tenure toward the brink.
The Volunteers were astonishingly inept offensively, producing just 142 yards and seven first downs, while turning the ball over four times. If any play was emblematic of their putrid performance, it was one in the third quarter in which the Vols were flagged for two different holding infractions – on a one-yard run.
That is not fake news, a term Jones applied to media coverage of his team earlier in the week; those are facts. Butch would like to pin his program’s travails on the media, but he’s far more deserving of blame.
Here’s another fact: Tennessee is 0-2 this year against Georgia and Florida, greatly increasing the likelihood that, for the 10th consecutive season, the Vols will not win the SEC East . Which, given the shoddy state of that division in recent years, is an indictment of the Tennessee program that Jones was supposed to be rebuilding brick by brick, to quote one of his catchphrases. Heading into a bye week, Jones must find a way to instill some hope into what feels like a hopeless situation.
2. Georgia is for real
The flip side of Tennessee’s trauma is Georgia’s joy. The Bulldogs are playing at an increasingly high level as the season progresses.
In consecutive weeks, Georgia has won SEC games by a combined score of 72-3, throttling Mississippi State the week before. The ‘Dogs have allowed a total of just 183 passing yards in those two games, playing defense the way you’d anticipate a Kirby Smart team would play. Offensively, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has taken hold of that position by being more steady than spectacular – he hands off most of the time, because the Georgia backs are spectacular. Fromm became the starter after Jacob Eason was hurt early in the season opener, but Eason is now healthy enough to play and Fromm is still the guy.
Georgia now is 5-0, with games against Vanderbilt and Missouri plus a bye week before playing Florida Oct. 28 in a contest that could well decide the SEC East. The ‘Dogs still have difficult trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech in November, but all signs are pointing to this being the breakthrough season Georgia fans have been envisioning for years.
Of course, any of those fans looking ahead to facing Alabama in Atlanta for the SEC championship might want to check what the Crimson Tide is doing thus far in league play. A week after beating Vanderbilt 59-0, they annihilated Mississippi 66-3. The days of the Rebels upsetting or scaring ‘Bama are officially over.
3. Pac-12 After Dark
The Pac-12 After Dark movement has been a fun Twitter hashtag to commemorate last-call football. With Washington State out to a 5-0 start and the trappings of a once-in-a-generation type season beginning to appear in Pullman, is it worth asking if the late kickoffs have hurt Washington State’s bid for national attention?
Washington State’s 47-44 triple-overtime victory against Boise ended at 2:42 a.m. EST. And the Cougars’ 30-27 upset of USC on Friday night ended at 2:10 a.m. EST.
Washington State isn’t going to get left out of the College Football Playoff because its kickoff times are too late, so let’s not get carried away here. But Washington State’s two marquee games this season lasted past last call in most towns on the East Coast. Again, we’re not naïve — games have been reduced to inventory and television windows are chosen to optimize network cash. But when do these late kicks offer diminishing returns?
“We don’t live in a perfect world,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “We’d all love to get all the value and benefits of our television partners, and we could choose the time that we play. We’re not in that situation.”
Scott pointed to two programs reaching the College Football Playoff in the past three seasons and Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy as signs the late kicks haven’t hurt the league. “We’re very, very valuable to our broadcast partners, when we’re able to kick after seven [Pacific Time],” Scott said. “There’s no other major conferences who play at that hour.”
And that’s why the Pac-12 will keep playing after dark.
4. Christian who?
Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren took a reporter’s phone call at his son’s baseball game on Saturday evening. He’s happy to spread the word about star tailback Bryce Love, the nation’s leading rusher.
Love has begun to accomplish things that former Cardinal star and first-round pick Christian McCaffrey hasn’t, which is a bit like comparing him to the top physicist or code writer to come from Stanford. Love broke the school rushing record with 301 yards on Saturday night, ripping off runs of 61, 43 and 59 yards in a 34-24 home win against Arizona State.
“What I don’t think people are seeing is how well he’s running between tackles and dragging defenders, four, five, six, seven yards,” Bloomgren said. “Impressive for a kid not big in stature [5-foot-10, 196 pounds]. He’s playing and running like a big back.”
Bloomgren is also worried about people not seeing Love at all.
“His 31st carry against UCLA,” he said, “went for 69 yards and happened at 2 a.m. EST.”
The back-to-back victories over UCLA and Arizona State come off losses to USC and San Diego State. Love has 1,088 yards, and Stanford’s offensive line is again asserting itself like, well, the Stanford we’re accustomed to.
“I hope we’re feeling and looking like Stanford,” Bloomgren said when asked if an identity is forming.
With Love’s outburst thrusting him into the conversation with Saquon Barkley as the nation’s best back, there’s a familiar feeling for Stanford having one of the country’s top tailbacks. Catch him if, and when, you can.
5. Two and done?
A head coach checked in recently after the news of Nebraska’s athletic director change to see if Mike Riley would make it past this season in Lincoln. When told the pessimistic future for the Nebraska head coach, he responded, “That’s what we get now, huh? Three years.”
That three-year range is the safe modern estimate to see what kind of mark coaches get to make on their program. But as the blowouts pile up at East Carolina, the tenure of second-year coach Scottie Montgomery appears to be testing that. He’s 4-13 in his second season at ECU, but it’s the tenor of the recent losses that are the most concerning.
ECU is 1-4, with the four losses coming by an average of 33.3 points per game. The most inexcusable of those came to James Madison, the defending FCS champion, which crushed East Carolina by 20 on opening day.
Could East Carolina move on from Montgomery if there are no signs of life in the program? It comes at a bad time fiscally, as ECU is expected to part ways after this season with longtime basketball coach Jeff Lebo, who is 114-118 at ECU with no NCAA Tournament appearances. Reports indicate Montgomery’s buyout would be $1.2 million. If there are no signs of progress, would it be too early for ECU officials to admit they made a mistake?
6. The next Tom Herman?
Sharp athletic directors are keeping an eye on 32-year-old Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell. He’s performing a Tom Herman Lite coaching job, with an injury-decimated quarterback corps.
You might remember Herman going from Braxton Miller to J.T. Barrett to Cardale Jones at Ohio State in 2014 and still winning the national championship as offensive coordinator. His work with those QBs was a big factor in setting him on the path to becoming a head coach, first at Houston and now at Texas.
Saturday, Maryland won with its third starting QB of the season, Max Bortenschlager. The sophomore was very solid in a 31-24 road upset of previously unbeaten Minnesota, completing 18 of 28 passes for 154 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was another example of Bell maximizing the ability of what he had to work with.
“If we get past quarterback No. 3, you may see me dive out of the press box,” Bell joked Saturday night. “The first role of a coordinator is making your quarterback successful, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
With Bortenschlager, that meant fewer quarterback run reads than the Terrapins were doing earlier in the season.
“We want to let him make his plays with his arm,” Bell said. “He’s a good distributor and a really smart kid. There were days [in spring practice] where he looked like he was going to be the starter.”
Bortenschlager stepped in for freshman Kasim Hill, who started the two previous Maryland games before a season-ending injury against Central Florida. Hill, in turn, had stepped in for Tyrrell Pigrome, who started the season-opening upset of Texas but was lost for the season during that game.
That’s impressive work by Bell and the Terrapins staff. It’s one thing for a recruiting powerhouse like Ohio State to have three quality QBs on the roster; at Maryland, winning a Big Ten road game with your No. 3 guy is pretty amazing.
7. The Big Ten East vs. Big Ten West
Maryland’s win at Minnesota further helped establish this fact: the Big Ten East is a lot better than the Big Ten West. Again. The record is 4-1 East over West thus far, with the only loss by Rutgers against Nebraska – and let’s face it, Rutgers really doesn’t count as a Big Ten team.
In addition to the Terrapins over the Gophers, Michigan State beat Iowa on Saturday. Last week, Michigan won at Purdue and Penn State won at Iowa. As usual, the West Division looks like Wisconsin (4-0) against the world. The Badgers have played in the Big Ten championship game two of the three years with the current divisional alignment.
8. Mike Leach winning … with defense?
Mike Leach is famous for his offense. That’s always been the case. But this Washington State team has the best defense of his 16-year head-coaching career.
After upsetting USC Friday night to go 5-0, the Cougars are allowing just 275 yards per game. That’s on pace for the fewest yards they have allowed in a season since 1994. USC quarterback Sam Darnold’s pass efficiency rating of 93.3 Friday was his lowest as a college starter, and Wazzu leads the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense.
A few factors may be skewing those defensive stats a bit: Washington State hasn’t yet played a road game; it did not play a power-five non-conference opponent; and it got to play Oregon State, which looks like a lost cause. But still, the Wazzu defense looks legit heading into five road trips in the final seven games of the regular season.
9. Clemson is ready for its title defense
Twice this season, defending champion Clemson has gone on the road to face a hot Atlantic Coast Conference opponent in a stoked, “GameDay” atmosphere. Twice, Clemson has dominated.
Two weeks after blowing out Louisville, 47-21, the Tigers went into Virginia Tech and handled the Hokies, 31-17. Clemson didn’t trail for a minute against either team, led by at least 14 points for every minute of both second halves, and didn’t commit a turnover. They are playing on an extremely high level.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant has been a pleasant surprise, but the show-stopping element of the team has been the defense. Brent Venables’ unit scored a touchdown in each of those big road wins, and Clemson has allowed just two touchdowns all season in quarters 1 through 3. The Tigers have such an active and athletic front four that quarterbacks are easily unnerved.
10. Directional Florida is good
With apologies to Navy, the state of Florida has become the seat of power in the American Athletic Conference.
South Florida and Central Florida aren’t just winning; they’re winning big. The Bulls (5-0) have won every game by at least 14 points, and their two conference games by a combined 66 points. The Knights (3-0) have won every game by at least 27 points, and thrashed previously unbeaten Memphis 40-13 Saturday.
If first-year South Florida coach Charlie Strong could somehow delete the Texas experience from his résumé, he’d be on an 11-game winning streak – his last six games at Louisville in 2013, and his first five at USF. Those two programs were much better fits for Strong than the Texas fishbowl. He inherited a very good team from Willie Taggart at USF, but the Bulls have cranked it up another notch this season.
UCF coach Scott Frost’s stock continues to rise with each rout – at Nebraska, where he was a standout quarterback, and elsewhere. Despite a schedule badly disrupted by Hurricane Irma, the Knights have played three games as crisply as anyone in the country.
The two rivals meet on the Friday after Thanksgiving in a game that could be for the AAC East championship. USF has the smoother road to that point – of its next five opponents, only Houston (3-1) has a winning record. It’s a little more tricky for UCF, which has to visit 4-0 Navy and 4-1 SMU.
In addition to a berth in the league championship game, a possible New Years Six bowl bid could be in the balance when they play the “War on I-4” in Orlando.
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