Casting aside shadows is the fun
College football’s biggest flaw, charming nuance will be missed
On Saturday, one 2-0 team beat another 2-0 team. The winner is now 25th in the nation in scoring defense and has a plus-6 turnover differential through only three games. The loser, despite leaning heavily on its offense, fell to 41st in scoring, stands merely 95th nationally in rushing and has only mustered three more turnovers than its opponents through as many games. So, we shouldn’t be shocked at which 2-0 team won, right?
But we are.
We are because of two other small numbers – 21 and 2 – displayed next to each team’s name throughout the game. There was a 21 next to Stanford, the game’s winner. The 2 stood beside visiting Southern Cal, which entered the game a significant favorite despite losing four of its previous five matchups against Stanford, including three in a row. Nevertheless, the Trojans’ loss dropped a boulder into the placid waters inhabited by college football’s elite. The ripples are being felt in Norman and Eugene and Baton Rouge.
How important was this game? Any feeble attempts of mine to capture the alleged enormity of Stanford’s win pale in comparison to those of a man who is paid to do just that. I’m talking about everyone’s favorite (or at least mine) Red Bull-junkie, Gus Johnson, of course:
“Stanford! Shocks! The! College! Football! World! And! They! Storm! The! Field! In! Palo! Alto!” he said as the clock wound to zero and a green field turned red. When the cameras cut back to the Fox studios, host Erin Andrews said, quite seriously, “Wow, Gus, take a breath.”
Maybe we all should.
I was captivated by the game and sucked in by Gus’s enthusiasm only because of those little numbers: 2 and 21. But, remember, those numbers were determined by a slew of people, like me, who know the game well, but will never truly understand it. We spend 12 hours watching games on Saturday, countless more on the phone and poring through statistics and highlights through the week, trying to find some deeper understanding of what we’re watching and what might happen next weekend.
Some, like me, are tasked with having an above-average knowledge of dozens of teams. Others know one team – and a handful of its rivals – inside and out. They can recite rosters and statistics, but that doesn’t tell you anything about a quarterback’s ability to play a road game on the West Coast a week after doing the same in New York. No matter how much someone watches, no matter how many stats they soak up, no one is qualified to adequately determine that one team deserves a 2 while another deserves a 21. And being asked to make these judgments after the teams have played no games, one game or two games, is even more impractical. There are too many factors behind the scenes, too many things we don’t see, too many things we’ll never understand about this game to be able to definitively say that Stanford’s victory “Shocked! The! College! Football! World!” rather than simply met expectations.
What I’ve just described is simultaneously one of college football’s biggest flaws and one of its most unique, endearing traits. The drama manufactured by those two little numbers is arbitrary, yet thrilling. In reality, it’s a matchup of 2-0 conference foes, who are close enough in skill and coaching acumen that the result is unpredictable. Through the lens of 21 and 2, it’s a harrowing battle between David and Goliath.
The decision to adopt a playoff system in 2014 will eliminate some of the power those little numbers hold, especially early in the season. If the tournament expands to eight or 16 teams, a school with a little No. 2 next to it losing in Week 3 won’t cause Gus Johnson to test his microphone’s limits and scald our eardrums. And that’s ultimately the fairer system. It will remove the subjective might held by rankings. It will take the power of deciding who competes for a national title out of the hands of people who know the game, but don’t really understand it.
And I’m all for it. I had long vouched for a playoff and was elated when I heard that one was finally being adopted and may expand in coming years. Any system that brings the season to a more logical, reasoned, satisfying conclusion has to be an improvement, right?
In the grand scheme, it probably is. But Saturday night, I sat on my couch enthralled by two teams I have no rooting interest in and know relatively little about. I found myself screaming alongside Gus, veins in my neck standing up just like his. I shouted when USC executed a brilliant play and converted on 4th-and-19 rather than attempting a field goal. I leapt to my feet like an intruder had just burst through my apartment door when Stanford tight end Zach Ertz scored the game’s deciding touchdown.
And 21 and 2 were the only reasons I reacted that way, the only reasons I was truly invested.
When the playoff arrives, I’ll enjoy the end of the season far more than I ever have. But, USC’s loss made me realize, for the first time, how much I’ll miss those random Saturdays in September when teams like Stanford have the power to Shock! The! College! Football World! I’ll miss the weight carried by those arbitrary little numbers. I’ll miss college football’s biggest flaw and its most charming nuance.
The navy shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves and a gold “GT” boldly pasted on the chest has been collecting dust in my middle drawer since the Jackets dropped an ugly 24-21 game at Virginia last October. Well, on Saturday, I pulled it back out (it was still a bit crusty from the mixture of buffalo sauce and tears) somewhere in the middle of the 56-20 romp against Virginia. I’ll wear it with pride until either 1.) I smell like Gheorghe Muresan 2.) I get fired for taking the “casual” portion of business casual too seriously or 3.) The Jackets give away a winnable game at home against Miami (Fla.) next week.
Paul Johnson has run the triple-option through what feels like five presidencies – including four-plus years in the ACC – and it seems opposing coaches still haven’t solved it, despite many pundits’ assumptions to the contrary. Fifty-six points against a team that beat you last year is undoubtedly a strong statement, one that Johnson needed to silence critics.
Braxton Miller did a great Cam Newton impression in Ohio State’s 35-28 squeaker against Cal. And what a cool name. I’d totally call him Brax if I bumped into him off campus. “Nice game, Brax,” I’d say. “Brax, those were some sick jukes that set up your 55-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against Cal.” Then Brax would say, “Thanks, man, but don’t call me Brax. I don’t know you. And, what are all those orange stains on your shirt? Why are you wearing Georgia Tech gear in Ohio? And why do you smell so bad?”
Then Brax might suggest I leave, lest one of his 300-pound offensive linemen decide to remove me while Brax went back to doing awesome Brax things, like juking through the line to the bathroom or tossing a bag of Cheez-Its across a crowded room into sophomore receiver Devin Smith’s waiting hands. Long aside short, Brax is really good – he accounted for all five of Ohio State’s touchdowns in the win against Cal. The game shouldn’t have been as close as it was, but Brax ensured, almost by himself, that the Buckeyes wouldn’t suffer an early nonconference disappointment.
A few facts, loyal reader: Alabama has outscored opponents 128-14 through three games. Two of those opponents were ranked in the preseason AP top 10. The Crimson Tide has forced 12 turnovers in those games. In the last two weeks, Alabama has pitched two shutouts and allowed a combined 361 yards of total offense. Alabama just beat Arkansas 52-0 in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks hadn’t been shut out at home since 1966. Every member of Alabama’s defense – including all those five-star backups – was designed by Cyberdyne Systems and sent back in time to destroy any quarterbacks who may go on to lead the human resistance movement against the machines. Okay, that wasn’t a fact. Of course, Cyberdyne Systems is a fake company from the Terminator movies. But good luck beating these guys, everyone in the FBS.
The orange and white overalls were out in full force in Knoxville on Saturday against Florida, and so was Tennessee – for a half. The Gators rested many of their starting defensive linemen sporadically through the first half so they’d be fresh in the second. The risky strategy paid off as Tennessee didn’t post a single point for the final 22 minutes of the game after controlling much of the contest early. The Burton/Driskel combo at quarterback (think Leak/Tebow lite), which confounded me two weeks ago, confounded Tennessee on Saturday. The athletic Burton played far fewer snaps than his pass-happy counterpart, but he made them count. The change of pace fooled Tennessee defenders as Burton had two key touchdown scampers – one for 14 yards and a shocking 80-yarder in the third that tied the game. Despite all the pregame hype surrounding Tennessee and the embattled Derek Dooley, the Vols have now dropped eight in a row to the Gators, who mustered a 253-yard rushing advantage in this one. SEC rivalry games are often won on the ground; this was no different.
They do things bigger, better and louder in Texas (which it seems people from Texas are contractually obligated to say twice-a-day). The same holds true for their beloved football team. The Longhorns are accustomed to being part of the national conversation. They have their own $295 million network after all. But, this year, silence is golden. The boys in burnt orange are cruising below the radar. Though it may be unaccustomed to standing on the periphery of the national discussion, Texas may relish being off the grid this year as the program recovers from the scrutiny and uncertainty that accompany 12 losses during the previous two seasons.
Though they haven’t squared off against any teams this year that warrant their own TV network, the Longhorns have stayed away from giving money to FCS opponents. So far, Texas has throttled Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss. That victory may have turned some heads nationwide, but still isn’t enough for Texas to get the kind of national love most of the other traditional powers have gotten early this season. Surprisingly, the silence may be just what the Longhorns need to make noise again.
After two heartbreaking losses, Penn State cruised to an easy win against Navy and place-kicker Sam Ficken got a big confidence boost. One extra-point attempt failed, but he connected on four others. Watching what happened in Virginia a week before was tough, but I’m rooting for this kid for the rest of the year.
Penn State’s final nonconference game comes against local rival Temple. The Nittany Lions badly need this win, because, afterward, the Big Ten gauntlet begins. Hmmm…gauntlet might be too strong of a word. SEC teams have to run the gauntlet. I’ll amend the statement – it’s Penn State’s last nonconference game before it has to run the Big Ten obstacle course. (Hey, those are tough too. You can twist an ankle).
Flu-like symptoms (though no exact details have been confirmed) got the best of Bo Pelini in Nebraska’s 42-13 romp against Arkansas State. At halftime, the Huskers already ahead 28-3, Pelini was taken from Memorial Stadium by ambulance after a sickness overwhelmed him. Given the recent rash of coaches with severe – often stress-induced – health issues, I hope that it really was just a bad flu bug that caught up with Pelini and nothing more severe.
The good news, he was already back at work Sunday, as is Nebraska’s run game, even without injured running back Rex Burkhead. After a letdown on the road against UCLA in Week 2, the Huskers still find themselves eighth in the nation in rushing with one more game to play before they have to run through the Big Ten with, hopefully, a healthy Burkhead.
Oklahoma State starting quarterback Wes Lunt – the heir apparent to Brandon Weeden – went out with an ugly knee injury after only six plays against Louisiana-Lafayette. It seemed like awful news for the Cowboys, who got jumped by Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona squad in the desert the previous week. All backup J.W. Walsh had to do was manage the game and make sure that the Cowboys escaped a potential upset. Instead, he opted to pitch the ball all around the yard (copyright Head Ball Coach).
Walsh amassed 347 yards and four scores. Oh, and the effort was also part of a school record -- the Cowboys’ 742 yards of offense on Saturday set a new mark. Good news for Lunt is that it might not be season-ending. Bad news for Lunt? Walsh helped set a school record. The Cowboys will be okay without their starter, it seems. Walsh played so well that Brax would likely have no qualms about hanging out with him off campus.
Charlie Strong stood proudly in the background for nearly a decade at Florida. He coached defenses that took home a pair of national titles and, finally, got a shot to take over his own program in 2010. The first two years at Louisville bore mixed results – the Cardinals were 14-12 – but they seem to have turned the corner and, with the departure of West Virginia, don’t seem to have many challengers for the Big East title and an automatic BCS bowl bid.
Louisville has already trounced rival Kentucky and held off North Carolina 39-34 this past Saturday. It was a blowout until the fourth when Strong’s defense uncharacteristically yielded 20 points in the final quarter. The Cardinals sit at No. 20 in the nation now. I don’t see them making a push up the rankings, but I don’t see them falling off either. Strong is gradually building an above-average football program in basketball country. They’ll make a little noise this year, but, at this rate, won’t be able to be ignored in years to come.
I’m paying close attention to a pair of rising powers in the west. Arizona and UCLA both have overachieved out of the gate under the tutelage of a pair of big-name coaches who have endured their fair share of turmoil. The rise of the Wildcats and Bruins make the Pac-12 easily the second best – and second deepest – conference in the nation behind the NFC South – sorry, I meant SEC. In last week’s preview column, I worried that the Wildcats might look a little sloppy against South Carolina State after a big win against Oklahoma State and with a showdown with Oregon on the horizon Saturday. Rich Rod had his boys ready – they blanked the bulldogs 56-0. The Wildcats are already dangerous, but look out once Rich Rod gets a few years of recruiting under his belt, a luxury he wasn’t afforded at Michigan.
At UCLA, Jim Mora has pushed the Bruins to a perfect record through three weeks. The only bad news? Johnathan Franklin ran for “only” 110 yards in the 37-6 romp against Houston after eclipsing 200 yards in each of the first two games and earning my unabashed adoration. The streak is finished, but the man-crush lingers.
I had Pitt in this one, I swear. No, that’s not true, and if you said you did, I may not believe you. Few expected Pitt 35, Virginia Tech 17. I thought it was too early for the annual, “What did you say the score of the Virginia Tech game was?” game. In six of the last seven years the oft highly-ranked Hokies have dropped a game before the calendar flipped to October. (Does anyone own a calendar anymore? I wouldn’t have a clue how to go about actually flipping one. Do they have touch-screens?)
Pitt had only mustered 27 points combined in its first two games of the season, which were contested against an FCS opponent and a Big East rival – neither, obviously, known to be defensive stalwarts. On Saturday, Pitt had 21 points a mere 17 minutes into the game. It was essentially over before halftime. The surprising win will be a massive confidence boost for a program with a first-year head coach – Paul Chryst – that will move to the ACC next year. Knocking off the new conference’s longtime alpha dog certainly helps boost morale.
What are they putting in the crawfish in the cafeteria at Louisiana-Monroe? The Warhawks knocked off former No. 8 Arkansas on the road and just went to Auburn and pushed the Tigers to overtime, before falling by a field goal this past weekend. Both of those teams play in the big, bad SEC, mind you. Prior to this season, the Warhawks had exactly zero winning seasons through 18 years in FBS, now they’re pushing elite programs in the nation’s top conference. I guess it makes sense, given that every male born in Louisiana is recruited to play college football. (Just like mandatory military service in some other countries.) That may be only a slight exaggeration, but Louisiana does produce the most NFL players per capita than any other state and is second only to Hawaii on the college level. The Warhawks seemed crazy when they scheduled a pair of road games in the SEC, but the decision has pulled the program from under the shadow cast by Les Miles’ ball-cap.
I have to offer an apology to the following parties: Catholics; leprechauns; Notre Dame grads; Notre Dame students; people who applied to Notre Dame and couldn’t get in, yet still root hard for the team; Touchdown Jesus; Brian Kelly; Rudy; the janitor from Rudy; Ireland; the color green; scrappy linebackers; Lou Holtz; players with high motors; and to the golden dome itself.
Notre Dame made me eat my words with its dominant 20-3 win against a Spartan team that I thought had one of the nation’s top defenses. But the dominant defense in this one belonged to the Irish. Though I thought otherwise a last week, the Irish deserve to be ranked this year. Michigan State will bounce back – the Big Ten belongs to it or Michigan this season, by my estimation – but this one was ugly. The Spartans miss Kirk Cousins more than I’d assumed – they mustered only 4.2 yards-per-pass even though Notre Dame’s defense was focused on bottling up Le’Veon Bell, who “only” got 19 carries against the Irish.
In the Holy War between BYU and Utah last weekend, the Utes entered without senior quarterback Jordan Wynn who hung up his spikes for good after suffering his fourth severe shoulder injury last week. Backup Jon Hays was admirable in his stead, tossing a pair of scores and no interceptions. This one was a shocker given that Utah fell to Utah State a week before and BYU had surged into the AP top 25. A pair of missed field goals at the end of the game preserved the 24-21 win for the Utes. Maybe that means that there was some divine interv…nope, not going there. Good game, everyone.
Todd Graham propelled Arizona State to a pair of impressive early wins and Mizzou was reeling after Georgia’s unfriendly initiation to the SEC, so the buzz arrow (just invented here) was pointing Arizona State’s way this past Saturday. But sloppy play after a long trip eastward proved to be the Sun Devils’ undoing. Four turnovers on the road are too tough to overcome, no matter how electric your offense may be.
1. I, and much of the country, assumed that TCU would march into Lawrence and blow out the Jayhawks this weekend. While the Horned Frogs won, the 20-6 conquest wasn’t pretty. Kansas will be one of the easier opponents that TCU faces in its first trip through the Big 12. That it wasn't able to easily dispatch the Jayhawks – or even muster a fourth-quarter point – tells me the Horned Frogs may not acclimate to the Big 12 as easily as I’d imagined. TCU is a top-notch program, but playing elite programs from an automatic qualifying conference on a weekly basis can take a toll and cause problems that just can’t be fixed overnight.
2. The pirate is back. Pirate is a figurative term, of course. At a glance, it appears Mike Leach doesn’t strike me as someone adept at pillaging or celestial navigation. He did, however, make his name plundering defenses in the Big 12 for a decade with his wide-open pass happy, vidja-game offensive attack at Texas Tech. (Say “vidja game” in DA-BO voice for full-effect).
Fast forward to this season at Washington state and after a couple of less-than-stellar offensive showings, it appears the Cougar offense has the potential to be just as potent as Leach's attacks were in Lubbock. Freshman quarterback Nick Sherry had 49 pass attempts against UNLV en route to a 351 yard, three-touchdown day and a 35-27 victory. It’s a long climb for Washington State, but Leach will turn the program around – he didn’t forget how to send five receivers deep when he was busy writing books.
3. With powers like Duke and UNC firmly entrenched and the likes of Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse on their way, there’s no question that the ACC is a basketball conference. On Saturday, the oft-chided Big East enjoyed a measure of revenge against the ACC for plucking so many teams away. Of course, Pitt’s win against Virginia Tech was tough for ACC backers to swallow. Also, UNC fell to Louisville and Maryland couldn’t get past Connecticut. For good measure, Northwestern knocked off Boston College. Add it up, and the ACC was 0-4 against nonconference opponents from automatic qualifying conferences on Saturday. The Big East may have won the battle, but the ACC will ultimately win the war when their ranks soon swell with Big East emigrants.
My television will be on all day Saturday, as will yours, I'm sure. Here are the games you should be looking for:
No. 15 Kansas State
at No. 6 Oklahoma
7:50 p.m. ET
Much of the nation’s gaze will remain affixed on the Southeast as conference rivalry games begin to litter Saturday afternoons. And quite a bit of attention is being paid to the budding power in the West. With Arizona, Stanford and UCLA joining perennial powers USC and Oregon, the Pac-12 appears deeper than ever. But don’t forget about the conference that fields a few national superpowers of its own. The Big 12 has undergone some drastic cosmetic surgery in recent years, but the scars are starting to heal. Kansas State and Heisman hopeful Collin Klein venture to Oklahoma this weekend to square off against one of the nation’s overlooked juggernauts. This game is a terrific litmus test for both teams.
No. 10 Clemson
at No. 4 Florida State
8 p.m. ET
And don’t forget about the ACC. Florida State’s defense is nasty – dare I say, SEC-caliber? I’m sorry, I do not mean to blaspheme, but they’ve yielded only 3 points through three weeks. Granted, two of those wins came against FCS teams, but the Noles treated Wake Forest like an FCS squad this past Saturday in a 52-0 win. Conversely, Clemson has more weapons than you’d find at a Ted Nugent concert held adjacent to an NRA convention. When Clemson has the ball, it’ll be a battle between one really good, big, strong thing and another really good, big, strong thing (I did all I could to avoid saying “unstoppable force” and “immovable object”. It didn’t work.) The ACC Atlantic title is up for grabs here, and maybe, by proxy, the ACC title itself.
No. 22 Arizona
at No. 3 Oregon
10:30 p.m. ET
Another good conference battle? Yes, please! Like Florida State, Oregon has dabbled in the bakery, sampling several flavors of cupcake, through the first three weeks of the season. Arizona, a rising power under Rich Rodriguez, is ranked and undefeated. I’m not predicting an Arizona win here, but I want to see what happens when Oregon gets tested, especially in the wake of USC’s loss last weekend. If the Ducks want to be in the driver’s seat to see who is playing in January, they’ll need to look good here. (Well, they always look good; those uniforms are what Prince would have his staffers wear if he became president in 2032.)
8 p.m. ET Friday
A Friday treat. If you’re like me, and use Friday night to keep your lady happy (Applebee’s 2-for-$20 and a movie, of course) before you watch football for 30 hours on Saturday and Sunday, this one could cause some strife. Though she’ll be crushed by having to order takeout from Applebee’s this Friday rather than sitting in the booth near the fake fire hydrant affixed to the wall, I’m going to ask her to tough it out. Why risk a relationship for football? Because Kolton Browning (Another strong QB name, a la Brax. “Kolton” would fit well in an above-average, extremely re-watchable, Keanu Reeves film) and Louisiana-Monroe have taken the football nation by storm. I want to see how the Warhawks fare against yet another known program from a power conference. If they emerge from consecutive games against Arkansas, Auburn and Baylor with two wins and an overtime loss, it’ll be one of the more impressive runs by a relative unknown in recent memory (and Kolton will have more than earned the right to hang out with Brax).
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed