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Week 8 College Football Awards: Notre Dame Is Back

Plus: UMass gets its moment in the sun and Kansas loses big in prime time

A sad Kansas football player, a happy Notre Dame player, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Somebody forgot to set Notre Dame’s alarm clock last year, but the Irish are awake now.

Simply beating USC Saturday night would’ve established Notre Dame as a national contender and eliminated the Trojans from playoff contention. The Fighting Irish did better than that, taking a 28-0 lead on their warm-weather rivals and eventually winning 49-14. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more while running back Josh Adams ran for 191 yards and the other three touchdowns. The trophy for this game is technically a weapon, and Saturday night’s game is what it would look like to wallop the hell out of somebody with a Jeweled Shillelagh.

I did not believe in Notre Dame heading into this season. As you may have heard, the Irish went 4-8 last year. But that was just the beginning: They lost their best quarterback, DeShone Kizer, to the NFL draft; their second-best quarterback, Malik Zaire, who transferred to Florida; their offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford, who took Western Kentucky’s head-coaching job; his replacement, Mike Denbrock, who left Notre Dame’s wide receivers coaching position to become Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. The school also opted not to retain last year’s interim defensive coordinator, Greg Hudson. And, perhaps weirdest of all, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. left the team to play minor league baseball, even though it seemed like the Angels had used a late-round MLB draft pick on him only as an homage to his father. It felt like everybody who could hop off of Brian Kelly’s ship did so after the 4-8 season.

But two things hinted at a turnaround: Notre Dame still had a hell of a lot of talent, and, even though the Irish lost eight games last year, seven were by a single possession.

The Irish have also lost their only close matchup this season, but that was a well-played game against Georgia, which has turned out to be the only good team in the SEC East. Notre Dame is good enough that it could conceivably run the table and finish the season 11-1, and, if it does, it’ll have five or six wins against ranked opponents. I know you don’t want to hear this, but an 11-win Notre Dame team would make the College Football Playoff.

It’s been suggested that Notre Dame being good now means that the incessant flow of wisecracks about the team’s 2016 campaign should dry up. Ha! Ludicrous. Notre Dame’s 2017 excellence just makes last season’s string of catastrophes even funnier. Being bad all the time isn’t special. Being generally good, with a random season spent slapping rakes into your own face? Now that’s comedy. I will never stop making 4-8 jokes, even if the Irish win the national championship this season. Especially if the Irish win the national championship this season.

Whoopin’ of the Week

Fox aired Kansas’s game at no. 4 TCU in prime time, marking the first time any network had deigned to put the pitiful Jayhawks in prime time since 2009—incidentally, the last year Kansas won a road game. On the surface, the decision was a strange one—TCU is undefeated, while the 1-6 Jayhawks have beaten only Southeast Missouri State this season and were 37.5-point underdogs in their matchup with the Horned Frogs. But Fox didn’t choose this game because the network thought it would be compelling, or because it felt there was a ton of viewer interest in the Jayhawks. In fact, they picked the game for the opposite reason. The network wants viewers for its cable-sports station, Fox Sports 1, so it put a trash college football game on its main network while putting one of the most important baseball games of the season—the winner-take-all Game 7 of the ALCS between the Yankees and Astros—on cable. The baseball game would bump FS1’s ratings and might even convince some people to call up their cable providers and subscribe to the network.The crappiness of the Kansas game was almost a feature rather than a bug in the network’s attempt to get eyes on FS1.

Kansas got smushed. The Jayhawks had just 21 total yards, the fewest in a single game by an FBS team in 20 years. (Mississippi State had 24 yards in the 2008 Egg Bowl.) At one point, the Jayhawks were being outgained 380 to negative-12. Kansas had negative-25 yards rushing. We’re used to seeing negative rushing stats in college football, because a quarterback’s sack yardage counts as negative rushing yardage. But QB Peyton Bender lost only 23 yards on four sacks, meaning even when Kansas was running the ball intentionally, it lost yardage. The Jayhawks didn’t turn over the ball, which is nice, but they also never got past their own 43-yard line. The teams’ coaches agreed to a running clock for the fourth quarter to ensure the game finished before bad weather rolled through. Kansas has now lost 44 straight road games, tying a record set by Western State from 1926 to 1936.

You’d think Kansas would be used to games like this. But you never get used to losing like this. Just look at Kansas’s offensive coordinator, who left a job at TCU to take over the reins of the Jayhawks offense:

Kansas beat Texas last year—still funny—but probably has just one realistic chance at a win this season—in two weeks against Baylor, a program that is currently 0-7.

Play of the Week

It’s gotta be this run and leap by Delaware Blue Hens running back Jamie Jarmon, who hits a defender after leaving the ground and flips into the end zone. He didn’t stick the landing, but it was still beautiful:

No, no, no, wait—it’s gotta be Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, who also tried to hurdle a Miami defender, but ended up delivering a Liu Kang flying knee to the face:

Dungey, fresh off a thrilling upset of Clemson, played a game that stirred me emotionally. Yes, he was statistically awful, going 13-for-41 with four interceptions, but he had this hurdle and another successful hurdle, plus he yoinked back an interception from an opponent and nearly rallied the Orange to another upset victory and attempted to fight Miami’s entire defense after Syracuse lost 28-20. He is college football’s most unhinged quarterback, and I love him.

But WAIT, that Dungey kick can’t be the play of the week—it has to be this leap by UCLA’s Bolu Olorunfunmi, who planted his feet and stood on top of an Oregon defender en route to the end zone.

Not everybody can clear an opponent like Saquon Barkley, which is why hurdles are outlawed in high school football: Dangerous things can happen when somebody tries to clear an opponent, but clips them instead. But as these three plays show, awesome things can also happen when a defender interrupts a would-be hurdle. These hurdles are the distilled essence of football yes, these plays are incredibly risky and could result in life-altering injuries, but yo, the highlights are dope.

Play Design of the Week

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder was born in 1939, and this play is decades older than he is. This is what football used to look like when the sport was just a way for America’s young men to kill people without repercussions in between wars.

Kansas State lined up against Oklahoma in a QB sneak formation at the goal line

There is only one play that could be run from this formation: a QB sneak. I can’t even call the players lined up behind the quarterback “running backs,” because they’re not even far enough back to take a handoff with a running start. You’ve heard of the spread offense: This is the squeeze offense: no receivers, just 11 players smushed into about 75 square feet. The defense knows what’s coming, so it lined up everybody it could on top of the ball.

But it worked! Kansas State scored two touchdowns out of the clown-car formation. The Wildcats ran for 256 yards in the first half against ninth-ranked Oklahoma—so, roughly 300 yards more than Kansas’s total for the weekend—but the Sooners weathered the attack from the past, holding on for a 42-35 win.

Weekly Heisman Winner

How do you win the Heisman Trophy? Maybe it’s by being the best player in college football. Maybe it’s by having the best stats. Maybe by being the best player on college football’s best team. Saquon Barkley might check all three boxes. But the most important Heisman category is major highlight plays in games sportswriters are watching. Take it away, Saquon:

Barkley didn’t have his most spectacular night; he had just 108 rushing yards, 69 of which came on this one play. And this wasn’t a particularly spectacular play. Real Saquon highlights have a juke or jump somewhere, but here he just speeds through empty field. But he got this touchdown in early enough in Penn State’s 42-13 trouncing of 19th-ranked Michigan that every Heisman voter probably saw it. Wise.

Biggest Coaching Failure

After Florida State’s 31-28 loss to Louisville, the Seminoles dropped to 2-4. FSU could have a better record—three of its four losses are by just one possession—and it could have a worse record—the team’s two wins are against Wake Forest and Duke, and both required last-second pass breakups to prevent a comeback score. The Noles will head into November without a home win and will need to win four of their final five games to avoid breaking their 35-year-long streak of bowl appearances. With Clemson, Florida, a resurgent Boston College, and a feisty Syracuse left on the schedule, that will be a tall order.

After the loss, Jimbo Fisher got into a verbal spat with a fan.

What coaching mistakes did Fisher make in the loss? The offensive play-calling wasn’t great, and Lamar Jackson ran for 178 yards, although Lamar Jackson tends to do that against everybody. I’d say the biggest error made by Florida State in this game, like in the previous three games it’d lost, was scheduling Alabama in the season opener, a matchup that ended the season of star quarterback Deondre Francois.

The Noles could be 6-0 if they hadn’t had scheduled a season-opening opponent that wasn’t a quarterback-destroying tornado of football dominance. Instead, it’s coach-fan fight season. Alabama did this to Florida State, although really, Florida State did it to itself.

Weekly National Champion

The game of the week was the matchup between 0-6 UMass and 0-5 Georgia Southern. The Minutemen and Eagles had nothing in common, no rivalry to speak of, no postseason aspirations, no conference standings to play for—and yet seeing those zeroes, you probably understand the desperation both teams likely felt. It reminds me of a matchup between Roman gladiators, who, despite what the movies say, had little hope of anything good happening in their lives after becoming gladiators. All they could do in a given fight was avoid dying, but those are high stakes.

You think it’s going to go badly for UMass when the highlight video begins with a huge Georgia Southern pass, but the Minutemen forced a fumble after the catch on that play, then hunkered down and dominated:

The Minutemen went up 21-0 in eight minutes and scored 48 points in the first half before somehow finding it within themselves to take their foot off the pedal rather than run up the score in a season that’s been short on success.

As it turns out, this game had the highest stakes of any from this weekend: After the blowout, Georgia Southern fired coach Tyson Summers, who failed to translate the program’s FCS success to football’s top level.

The Minutemen won’t win a lot more this season—although, hey, they might beat 1-7 BYU—but they avoided death. And for that, I’ll call them Weekly National Champions.

Also, shout-out to the Charlotte 49ers, who avoided an 0-8 start by beating UAB in overtime on a two-point conversion wide receiver pass:

Great weekend for winless teams.

Celebration of the Week

Entering Week 8, Tennessee hadn’t scored a touchdown since Week 4, when the Vols beat UMass 17-13. (Yes, the same UMass team that was just 0-6. Yes, Tennessee only won by four.) So they had reason to celebrate after getting into the end zone against Alabama, and Tennessee defensive back Rashaan Gaulden flipped both birds at his disposal at the Crimson Tide fanbase:

Getting indignant here might seem foolish. This touchdown came with the Vols trailing 28-0. Even with the touchdown, Tennessee wouldn’t cover the 36.5-point spread, losing to the Crimson Tide 45-7.

But when you’re a program like Tennessee or UMass, you have to celebrate the little things in life, like wins over 0-5 opponents or touchdowns in 38-point losses. I mean, what if the Vols never score a touchdown again?

The previous SEC double bird of the season came when a Texas A&M player flipped off his own fans. But this one’s more beautiful, since we have a reverse angle. Like with Marshall Henderson’s famous jersey pop, the fans’ responses to the disrespect introduce a rich array of characters, turning a funny GIF into a Faulkner novel that truly encapsulates the Southern condition:

WTF Ending of the Week

Cincinnati had a win sealed up. It’d driven SMU back 16 yards on the first possession of overtime. To muster points, the Mustangs had to boot a 58-yard field goal or convert a fourth-and-26.

Look away, Packers fans!

The dumbness continued on Cincinnati’s possession. On third-and-4, a pair of SMU defenders wrapped up Cincinnati quarterback Hayden Moore, who made the decision to doink a lefty shovel pass off the face of an unsuspecting teammate.

Moore didn’t need to do this; if he gets tackled here, Cincinnati still could’ve attempted a field goal to send the game to double overtime. Instead, we got to see a team watch a game bounce off its own face.

WTH Ending of the Week (Slightly Less Profane Than the WTF Ending of the Week)

Texas almost pulled off the upset of the week, playing 10th-ranked Oklahoma State to overtime. Like Cincinnati, Texas was down three points and its quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, couldn’t make anything happen on third down. Again, that was fine—if Ehlinger had thrown the ball away or taken a knee, the Longhorns could have forced double overtime with an easy field goal. But Ehlinger didn’t throw the ball away; he floated it to a corner of the field where only a defender could catch it:

This is a dumb play, but Ehlinger’s a true freshman, and sometimes true freshmen make dumb plays. He’s given the Longhorns a chance to win every game this season, including three matchups with ranked opponents. Sure, he’s also committed overtime turnovers to lose two of those games, but Texas has a first-year head coach in addition to a true freshman quarterback. Maybe next year games like these will end in wins.

Surprise of the Week

As a New York resident, I’d say college football cuts off somewhere in the vicinity of State College, Pennsylvania, and everything north and east of that is the college football hinterlands. The South has the SEC; the Midwest has the Big Ten; Texas and the Plains have the Big 12; the West has the Pac-12; the Northeast has fall foliage and the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry.

But the Northeast is fighting back. Boston College hung 41 points on Virginia on Saturday, marking the second consecutive week the Eagles scored 40 points against an ACC opponent. Prior to last week’s game against Louisville, BC had managed 40 points in a conference game only once in the 13 years since joining the ACC in 2005.

Elsewhere, UConn held on for its second straight victory after a 1-4 start to the year, topping Tulsa 20-14. UMass, as previously noted, won, and this column has now set a record for UMass football references in a weekly college football column. Army won its fourth consecutive game and became the first school in the country to accept a bid to a bowl game.

Now it’s time for me to say nice things about Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights beat Purdue 14-12 a week after taking down Illinois 35-24. It’s Rutgers’ first conference win streak since joining the Big Ten. Over the past few years, I had enjoyed making fun of Rutgers, but it is time for Big Ten fans to resume our decades-old pastime of making fun of Purdue instead.

It’s clear that a hypothetical Northeastern Conference would dominate college football. N-E-C! N-E-C! N-E-C!