For a sport that’s in a constant state of flux, college football is often a victim of brand bias. There are dominant logos, coaching pedigrees and preseason assumptions that cloud our views.
For a sport where change is the normal — transfer portals, recruit flips and Etch-A-Sketch schedules — there still remains an inherent hesitancy to resist our preconceived notions.
A few weeks into the season — or, well, still before the season for some leagues — results have started to outweigh our biases. And a frenetic Saturday made it clear that any high-end expectations for No. 18 Oklahoma, No. 9 Texas, No. 11 UCF or No. 7 Auburn were completely unjustified.
We’ll start with Oklahoma, which is 0-2 in the Big 12 and headed out of the Top 25. Considering the historic back-to-back clunkers the Sooners delivered, it could be a while before they return.
Oklahoma has lost back-to-back weeks to a short-handed Kansas State team and a pedestrian Iowa State team that flopped at home against Louisiana earlier this season. Fourth-year coach Lincoln Riley's sun-kissed tenure has hit its first major crossroads.
This Oklahoma team is allergic to tackling, light on playmakers and staring at three consecutive games it could easily lose — Texas, followed by road trips to Texas Tech and TCU.
The amount of historical markers of this Oklahoma loss show how sharp it’s fallen from its perch as one of the elite programs in the sport. Saturday marked the first back-to-back regular season losses for OU since 1999. It marked just the third time that Oklahoma’s program lost in Ames, with the others coming in 1960 and 1928. Oklahoma hasn't been 0-2 in the Big 12 since 1998, John Blake's last season.
Up until this point, the biggest on-field adversity of Riley’s tenure at Oklahoma was needing to explain the three consecutive College Football Playoff losses. But after three Big 12 championships in three seasons, a fourth seems to be a crimson fever dream.
Oklahoma yielded 417 yards to Iowa State, including 4.4 yards per run and 11.3 average yards per pass. In other words, the Cyclones gashed Alex Grinch’s defense at will. Breece Hall carried the ball 28 times for 139 yards and two touchdowns. The OU defense looked overmatched, as it committed four pass interference penalties and two defensive holdings on the night.
New OU starter Spencer Rattler can’t be scapegoated. While his lone interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter essentially sealed the game for Iowa State, he finished 25-for-36 for 300 yards and two touchdowns. That was impressive considering how porous OU’s offensive line proved in front of him.
There are a lot of ways to diagnose OU’s issues. But the simplest one may be that they aren’t very good. And while it would be foolish to completely write them off amid this inevitable mud fight to win the Big 12, it’s hard to envision them making a hairpin turn from this free fall.
This edition of Oklahoma simply isn’t what it has been. The Sooners can’t tackle, can’t hit the same gear on offense and can’t match up to what we all assumed they would be. Oklahoma looks a lot like everyone else in the Big 12.
And in 2020, no one is mistaking that for a compliment.
Texas also falls on abysmal day for Big 12
One of the few things that could give Oklahoma fans solace on Saturday night was how miserable Texas looked in losing to TCU, 33-31, earlier in the day in Austin. The Longhorns committed 12 penalties for 92 yards and fumbled away the game at the goal line in the final minutes.
The loss brings an element of panic to the Texas program, one notch above the five-alarm fire its rivals up in Norman are enduring. Things aren’t peachy in Austin, as these Longhorns’ most consistent trait so far in 2020 has been the ability to self-destruct.
Who’d have imagined that the most compelling storyline going into next weekend’s Red River Showdown would be which program will be descending into the more searing circle of hell? “We can’t continue to beat ourselves the way that we have these last two weeks and expect to win many more ball games,” Herman said after the game.
Texas did come back from a 15-point deficit in the final minutes against Texas Tech and win in overtime last week. But any notion that would be remembered as a turning point for a team learning how to win appears Pollyannish. Texas missed 19 tackles in that overtime loss and that trend continued against TCU.
Texas had plenty of opportunities against TCU, including a chance to take the lead in the game’s waning minutes. But Keontay Ingram’s fumble on the TCU 1-yard line with nearly three minutes remaining in the game sealed Texas’ fate.
And it brings us to yet another bizarre new reality. The Red River loss is typically a painful one. But rarely could it be considered a bad loss. And that’s exactly what losing to 1-2 Oklahoma (its only win is over FCS Missouri State) or self-destructive Texas would be. Whoever loses the Red River game will be facing another low in 2020.
Missing in Athens
The day’s biggest no-show came from the Auburn offense at Georgia.
The Tigers cobbled together just 216 yards, including a pathetic 1.8 yards per carry. The Gus Bus broke down somewhere along I-85 North, as Auburn didn’t have a pulse for much of the night. This has become a pattern against Georgia, as Auburn has scored 37 points in the past four games against the Bulldogs. “We got whipped in all three phases,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We got outcoached.”
The lack of the run game heaped responsibility on sophomore quarterback Bo Nix, who sputtered through a 21-for-40 passing performance, finishing with just 177 yards.
Losing to Georgia certainly isn’t enough to wave a white flag on the season. But the tenor of the loss, especially getting whipped on both lines of scrimmage, shudders any optimism of competing in the SEC West.
Hope for Auburn lies in the closest thing to a soft schedule available in this all-SEC season. The Tigers host Arkansas and then travel to South Carolina and Ole Miss. While nothing is a certainty, it surely beats the five-game gauntlet that follows — LSU, at Miss State, Tennessee, at Alabama and Texas A&M.
UCF fading fast
Considering the gilded run that the UCF program has been on the past four seasons, it’s difficult to be overly critical. UCF went undefeated in 2017, Scott Frost’s now-infamous “national championship” year. It followed that season up with an undefeated regular season in 2018, Josh Heupel’s first year in Orlando.
Since then, the Knights have slipped from otherworldly to just good. UCF lost three games last season by less than three points — at Pitt, at Cincinnati and at Tulsa.
This season appeared to be trending in the right direction after authoritative wins over Georgia Tech and East Carolina. That optimism was quickly dashed on Saturday when UCF fell to Tulsa for the second consecutive season.
The No. 11 Knights fell, 34-26, to a three-touchdown underdog despite jumping out to a 16-0 lead and being up 23-5 late in the second quarter. It ended UCF’s 21-game home-winning streak, the sport’s second longest. It also eradicated any veneer of invincibility from those back-to-back undefeated regular seasons.
UCF devolved into self-destruction on Saturday, with an astounding 18 penalties and three turnovers. While teams that run tempo trend toward being heavily penalized, it’s difficult to win giving away 124 penalty yards. In one of the season’s more astounding statistics, UCF has 19 false-start penalties the last two games.
The big loser on Saturday was the AAC, which has two undefeated teams. (This doesn’t count Temple and Houston, which have yet to play.)
It would be a joke if SMU wasn’t ranked this week after improving to 4-0 following a win over No. 25 Memphis. No. 15 Cincinnati is the league’s other ranked team. The issue for the AAC is that SMU hosts Cincinnati on Oct. 24, meaning neither is likely to see another ranked team the rest of the regular season.
Zach Wilson, BYU making noise early
The quarterback hierarchy in college football had long been set heading into the season. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields ranked at the top, in that order. In the eyes of NFL evaluators, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance was next.
The rest proved a bit muddled, with one of the tantalizing subplots of the season being who would join them. On Friday night, BYU’s Zach Wilson showed how he’s rocketed into that tier just a hair below the sport’s elite quarterbacks. And he did it with a flair that’s left many thinking he'll be the latest BYU quarterback we'll someday be watching on Sundays.
Wilson submitted another spectacular performance on Friday night in BYU's blowout of Louisiana Tech — 24-of-26 passing for 325 yards and two touchdowns. (He ran for three more TDs.)
Wilson has led BYU to a 3-0 record with a mind-bending 84.5% completion percentage. He entered Saturday leading the nation in passing yards — 949 — and BYU leads the nation in team passing efficiency. A college quarterback completing 85% of his passes is like a college basketball player averaging 42 points a game.
“He’s been dang near perfect,” said John Beck, a former BYU star and private quarterback coach with 3D QB out of Huntington Beach, California. “Sometimes you see a quarterback have a game like that. To see him have three in a row is pretty remarkable.”
BYU’s schedule features wins over Navy (55-3), Troy (48-7) and Louisiana Tech (45-14), all of whom aren’t imminently going to join the SEC West. BYU should be favored nearly every remaining game, as playing at Boise State on Nov. 7 is the only daunting game on the schedule.
Both Wilson’s production and flash have put him on the NFL’s radar, as he’s showcased the arm talent, creativity and ability to conjure plays outside the pocket.
“From an athletic standpoint, he’s top of the charts,” Beck said. “And from an ability standpoint, he’s top of the charts. Yes, there are guys with stronger arms. But those are the elite of the elite, like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.”
It’s early, but there’s a chance that Wilson’s season could resonate in BYU quarterback lore. Which means it will have distinguished company, as the school has produced Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer.
One record in danger is Steve Young’s single-season completion-percentage record of 71.3% in 1983. There have been a lot of high-end BYU quarterbacks since then, as names like John Walsh, Taysom Hill and Steve Sarkisian all dot the record books.
BYU passing game coordinator and quarterback coach Aaron Roderick said this season has been the culmination of coach Kalani Sitake and the BYU staff deciding to go all-in with a crew of young players two years ago. They're now seeing them grown up. That includes Wilson, who endured injuries and inconsistencies amid BYU's hectic 7-6 2019 season that saw wins over Tennessee and USC and losses to Toledo and USF.
"Most of our starters are in their third year in this system and the execution around Zach is helping him a ton," he said.
Now that Wilson and No. 22 BYU have announced themselves, one of the most fun stories to follow this season will be how far he can soar.
“As a coach, it’s a challenge to stay one step ahead of him with film study and game-planning,” Roderick said. “He works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen to study the game.
Going forward, there will be plenty of eyes studying Wilson’s game.
Trey Lance finishes a winner as NDSU ekes out win
It wasn’t the perfect ending that many had scripted for North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. In NDSU’s one-game fall season, they sputtered a bit in the first half before scoring 21 fourth-quarter points to beat Central Arkansas, 39-28, to extend the country’s longest win streak to 38.
Lance improved to 17-0 as a starting quarterback, but he did throw what could end up being the lone interception of his college career. He also fumbled. Lance finished the day with 149 passing yards and 143 rushing yards. He threw two touchdown passes and added another pair of rushing touchdowns. The interception snapped a streak of 307 passes without one.
North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl said in a phone interview on Saturday night that he didn’t want to make any excuses, but attributed some of the slow start to rust, field position and bold defensive calls by UCA that the NDSU staff could have provided more help with.
“They were bringing seven with Cover Zero behind it,” Roehl said. “There were some calls, I commend them. The calls that they had and the pressures that they brought, they were betting big. Go big or go home.”
Eventually, Lance and the Bison settled in. And Roehl appreciated that Lance didn’t flinch amid the early adversity. UCA led 20-18 heading into the fourth quarter.
“Just the look in the eye,” Roehl said when asked what he’d remember about the night. “He had the utmost confidence in what we were doing together. Knowing that we were going to win. Honestly, there was no wavering. We’re going to get to this, and we’re going to win the ballgame.”
Lance likely didn’t appreciably help or hurt his NFL stock with the game. One scout in attendance said NDSU looked rusty and started slow. (The scout also blamed the fumble on a missed offensive line assignment, which he didn’t consider Lance’s fault.)
The scout said NDSU didn’t run Lance in the first quarter, which could have been to protect him. Once the Bison did, the tenor of the game changed.
“The thing watching him, he was bigger and stronger, which was good to see,” the scout said. “They were losing going into the fourth quarter, but the thing is, I never really thought he wasn’t going to do it. That says a lot about who he is as a player that you’ve watched.”
The 26 NFL scouts from 20 franchises included multiple people from the Detroit Lions, Las Vegas Raiders, Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, which could be an indicator of interest and quarterback need. (Minnesota is local, to be fair.) There were no GMs, but Panthers executive director of player personnel Jeff Morrow, Lions vice president of player personnel Kyle O’Brien and Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds were among the scouting boldfaced names in Fargo.
Lance is a redshirt sophomore who has given no indication of what his decision will be. The overwhelming expectation in the NFL is that he'll declare for the draft, as he's considered one of the top three quarterbacks with Lawrence and Fields.
Mack Brown unfazed after UNC survives scare
One of the trademarks of Mack Brown’s career has been that he’s remained a defiant optimist. Put him in hell, he’ll point out the advantages of the shady areas. Put him in a downpour without an umbrella, he’ll expound on how the water is good for your pores.
Brown’s folksy charm came in handy after No. 12 UNC nearly handed the game away to Boston College on Saturday, outlasting the Eagles, 26-22. They only won after UNC’s Trey Morrison returned BC’s game-tying two-point conversion attempt the length of the field with 45 seconds remaining. “Today we were one play better than they were,” Brown surmised.
UNC’s tortured game management and questionable play-calling left the door open for the Eagles, as the Tar Heels scored just five points in the second half.
The most notable scoreless drive came when UNC marched down the field in the middle of the fourth quarter and had a first-and-10 on the BC 29-yard line. Up eight points and on the cusp of field goal range, UNC attempted back-to-back-to back passes that resulted in two penalties that pushed them out of field goal range.
This came on a day when UNC senior tailback Michael Carter averaged 7.6 yards (16 for 121) and junior Javonte Williams averaged 5.2 yards (11 for 57). Most notable against an anemic BC defensive front, neither had a carry for negative yards. If UNC had handed the ball off three times from the 29, they’d have at least set up the field goal to put the game out of reach. Instead, they got greedy and it nearly backfired and cost them the game.
When asked about the sequence, Brown said it’s easy to second-guess in retrospect. “It’s something you have to look at each week,” Brown said.
UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo neglecting the run foiled two drives to open the second half. Quarterback Sam Howell fumbled deep in BC territory on a third-and-3, squandering a drive that reached the BC 21 and yielded no points. The next drive got to the BC 18 and was stalled on three consecutive pass plays. That drive resulted in UNC’s only offensive points of the half.
After the game, Brown pointed out the irony of criticism that’s accompanied his team starting 2-0. Two years ago before his arrival, UNC went 2-9 on the season.
Brown recalled at Texas he wouldn’t enjoy wins where the Longhorns didn’t play well.
“I’m not going to be that way at UNC,” Brown said. “I’m going to enjoy it and appreciate winning and start being hard on those kids tomorrow and next week. I’m proud of the kids and coaches. Proud of the way they fought. This is about winning.
“Our objective is to be 2-0. We had chances to pull away. Give them credit, we didn’t.”
‘Kind of disappointed’
The clear marquee game on Saturday will be No. 8 Miami playing at No. 1 Clemson, which is the ABC prime-time game. There will be back-to-back monster games in the next two weeks, as Georgia at Alabama will follow on Oct. 17.
It will be interesting to see how Clemson handles its first test, as the Tigers are in the now-familiar territory of being so dominant that they haven’t been closely tracked. (They are college football’s version of the restaurant that’s so popular no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra’s sayings become a bit more delightfully obtuse in COVID times.)
Clemson is 3-0, with tidy ACC wins over Wake Forest and Virginia. Lawrence best summed up the state of the Tigers after the 41-23 win over UVA by saying they must be in decent shape when they are “kind of disappointed” in a three-score victory.
Lawrence has avoided the early season slump that plagued him last year, as he completed 25-of-38 passes for 329 yards. He got plenty of help, as Travis Etienne accounted for 187 yards rushing and receiving and added a pair of touchdowns.
The biggest question will be Clemson’s defense, as it yielded 417 yards to Virginia and relying on a host of new faces on the defensive line and in the secondary.
This weekend will be the most informative look at Clemson in the near future, as it’ll be three-touchdown favorites the next three weeks — at Georgia Tech, Syracuse and BC — before playing at Notre Dame on Nov. 7.
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