The Weekly National Champion
Clemson is still here.
Nobody has had a more impressive start to 2017 than the defending national champs. Last week they ransacked Auburn, grinding quarterback Jarrett Stidham to a fine dust by sacking him 11 times. Saturday night they frustrated Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman winner, in a pounding of 14th-ranked Louisville, 47–21.
Lamar Jackson isn’t supposed to be frustrated. He’s shown time and time again that there are few throws he can’t make and few pickles he can’t escape from. And yet there Jackson was, smacking the ground in disappointment after being sacked. He had to be frustrated with his offensive line, which left him sprinting from Clemson defenders all night. (He made it work sometimes.) He had to be frustrated with his receivers, who couldn’t get separation on the few plays in which the offensive line gave him a pocket — and sometimes couldn’t do anything when Jackson made magic. And he had to be frustrated with himself, dealing with the unfamiliar emotion of facing an opponent with answers. Jackson played a pretty good game — he finished with 317 yards and three touchdowns — but also threw an ugly pick-six, and was far off the pace he normally sets for himself. A noncompetitive game in one of Louisville’s two matchups with a prominent opponent probably torpedoes Jackson’s hopes of repeating as Heisman winner, although I promised not to care about that.
It’s hard to imagine that there are many defenses as vicious as Clemson’s. It obliterated a team that might be good and made a college football god look mortal. But that was to be expected — we knew this defense ate souls. More surprising was the play of Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant, the man hoping to fill Deshaun Watson’s shoes. Clemson’s national championship last year was won by Watson’s superhuman performance against Alabama. Bryant, meanwhile, seemed like a regular human, a three-star recruit at a school that primarily turns to blue-chippers: Watson was a four-star, freshman Hunter Johnson is a five-star, commit Trevor Lawrence is the best QB in the class of 2018.
But Bryant has been just fine thus far. He’s made a few big throws and has shown that he can use his body well in the run game. But mainly, he’s thrown to open guys, and there have been a lot of them.
Watson tweeted Saturday night that Bryant will be better than him, which I doubt, but Clemson doesn’t need Bryant to be better than Watson. It has a defense that sends opponents to hell and a cabinet of weapons at wide receiver. I don’t know whether Bryant can be good enough to beat Alabama in a hypothetical third consecutive national title matchup — winning that game last year took every ounce of Watson — but I do know that no team has looked better this year than these Tigers.
Play of the Week
Recently there’s been an uptick in NFL writers acknowledging that college football has become more entertaining than the NFL. (My only question: Y’all just realized this?) The NFL has been a slog this year, with low scores, few entertaining games, and a raging debate about whether the league is experiencing a QB crisis or an offensive line crisis. Maybe it’s both.
Of course, college football has awful games, too, but while a bad NFL game is a tragedy, a bad college football games is a comedy, a rip-roaring slapstick roller coaster with a killer punch line. Take Florida-Tennessee, which began Saturday with 53 minutes of sustained garbage and finished with a crescendo of increasingly stupid and beautiful plays. It ended with this:
I’d like to pick a nit here: Virtually every outlet, including this one, described that 63-yard touchdown pass as a Hail Mary. In spirit, that’s probably accurate — it was a game-ending pass thrown from a long way away to the end zone, with little chance of success. But “Hail Mary” doesn’t just refer to a desperation toss, it refers to a specific play. There’s some sophistication in how Hail Marys work — typically there’s a trailer to catch a tipped ball — but the premise is that four or five receivers all head to the end zone and camp under a sky-high pass.
Florida wasn’t really running a Hail Mary here. This was just a regular-ass football play: One running back blocking and eventually setting out on a short pass pattern, two receivers running intermediate routes that never brought them within 40 yards of the end zone, and two players running to the end zone. In a postgame press conference, McElwain said that the play was the same play Florida had run to beat Tennessee with a 63-yard touchdown pass in 2015, and that play was certainly not a Hail Mary — it was designed to pick up a fourth-and-14.
The Gators were running a relatively conventional play that didn’t attack the end zone as proactively as a team should in a tie game with seven seconds remaining. And yet the Vols still failed to defend the end zone. Most Hail Marys end with a jump ball. This ended with a Florida receiver getting wide open behind Tennessee defenders on a play when only a deep ball could hurt them.
Look at this screencap, from the moment Florida QB Feleipe Franks hurled the ball:
Look at the top right of the image. That little blur is a Tennessee player sprinting as fast as he can from downfield to guard a Florida player 52 yards from the end zone. I imagine he was worried about the Gators running an out route to set up a long game-winning field goal, but any play like that would’ve needed to be about 20 yards longer and taken significantly less time. The Vols should have camped out at least seven players at least 30 yards downfield. Instead, they began the play with three players deep and finished with two.
This was a cataclysm of failure: poor decisions made by foolish players put in bad positions by egregiously awful coaching. The NFL might have the best football players on the planet, but college football has teenagers coached by people whose most valuable skill is marketing to even younger teenagers. Here, the catastrophes are beautiful.
Game of the Week
I’m supposed to say that it was USC-Texas, a double-overtime thriller between the top-five Trojans and the plucky Longhorns, who are either back or not back. It had everything — marquee programs, upset potential, clutch play, and ample flashbacks to one of the best college football games of all time. It was good.
But we already wrote about that, so I’m gonna talk about UCLA-Memphis instead. USC-Texas was tied at 0–0 for damn near an entire half; meanwhile, the Bruins and Tigers were trading huge plays and huge mistakes for a whole game. Like, UCLA went on a 99-yard drive to take a 45–41 lead, Memphis answered back to take a 48–45 lead, UCLA’s Josh Rosen responded with an awful interception, and Memphis countered with a fake field goal that resulted in a sky-high, wobbly pass by a kicker. Sure, Texas-USC had a true freshman walk-on kicker nailing back-to-back game-tying and game-winning field goals, which is cool, but UCLA-Memphis had a true-freshman kicker throwing the ball terribly under duress in the most critical situation in the game. That, my friends, is the good stuff.
Memphis got the win, marking the program’s third consecutive season with a win over a ranked opponent at home. The Tigers appear to have picked up under Mike Norvell where current Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente left them, and might be the best non-power-conference team in football this year. Meanwhile, UCLA is going to need Rosen to throw seven touchdowns a game to win games, apparently.
Officiating Decision of the Week
Let’s head down to Division III football, where Texas Lutheran kicker Tyler Hopkins made magic against Belhaven:
Hopkins’s initial 18-yard attempt was blocked, but as Hopkins saw the ball bounce in front of him, a little light bulb went off in his head. He decided to kick the skipping pigskin, and somehow managed to drill it through the uprights.
I’m pretty confident that’s not legal. The rulebook obviously doesn’t specify what happens if a kicker rekicks a bouncing ball off a block, but it does tell us that the only types of legal kicks are punts, place kicks, drop kicks, and free kicks, and that “kicking the ball in any other manner is illegal.” This isn’t a punt, it isn’t a place kick (the ball is extremely not in place), it’s not a drop kick (Hopkins himself would have needed to drop it), and it’s not a free kick (the most common example of a free kick is a kickoff). So it must be illegal. This should have been a flag for illegal kicking and the play should have been blown dead. The Bulldogs (that’s Texas Lutheran) had the opportunity to advance the ball because it was blocked and remained behind the line of scrimmage, and hypothetically could have scored via a second place kick. But they never put the ball back into a place hold, so it was illegal.
Luckily, the officials ignored the rulebook and gave Hopkins three points. No, it wasn’t the technically right call, but it’s only right that somebody who accomplished this once-in-a-lifetime feat of luck, genius, and skill was rewarded with points. Heck, why stop at three points? This should’ve ended the game on the spot.
Anti–Play of the Week
Kansas lost 42–30 to Ohio, making this the Jayhawks’ second straight season with a loss to the Bobcats. The 42–30 scoreline looks respectable, but Kansas did most of its work in the second half after giving up 18 straight points to start the game. It was a game that destroyed Ohio’s cheerleaders, apparently unused to the deadly mix of a high-scoring offense and the old “pushup for every point” tactic. The defeat was the 42nd-consecutive road loss for the Jayhawks, and, well, if you’re losing on the road to MAC teams, the Big 12 schedule probably isn’t going to be great for you. Here’s the play of the game: Come for the graphic that shows Kansas being outgained 101 to negative-1 in rushing yards; stay for the extremely doomed quarterback.
As Richard Johnson wrote at SB Nation, it’s a legitimate football strategy to have an offensive line cut-block on a play. It can ensure that defenders will stay clear of passing lanes on a quick throwing play. Unfortunately, that was news to Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender, who held onto the ball instead of passing to the open receiver at the bottom of the screen. Although this looks like a pathetic mistake by the offensive line, it really falls on Bender for not realizing how screwed he would be if he failed to get rid of the ball. So he stood behind a line of men face first on the ground, and became a living manifestation of Kansas football.
Whuppin’ of the Week
I wouldn’t want to play Oklahoma State right now. The Cowboys are averaging 54 points per game, and likely would have scored more if they hadn’t taken some mercy on opponents after flying to mega-leads.
The Cowboys scored touchdowns on their first seven first-half possessions against Pitt, with quarterback Mason Rudolph racking up 428 yards and five touchdowns before halftime. The Cowboys probably could’ve won by 100, but coach Mike Gundy either became bored or merciful. Pitt’s fans made the most of a lovely Pittsburgh afternoon by taking sunny naps in the Heinz Field seats:
Let's check in on Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/Gu9TZxjwbJ— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) September 16, 2017
Pitt promised a beverage to every student who stayed the whole game. It appears that this is a weekly bit and not a spur-of-the-moment decision to maintain crowd support through a 40-point blowout, but the promotion still went viral. So raise a beverage of your choice and toast the proud Pitt few who waited this one out. It was bad.
Weekly Heisman Winner
Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook went 18-for-19 with 256 yards and four touchdowns against BYU on Saturday. He could have put up more gaudy stats if the Badgers hadn’t run the ball 49 times in an attempt to end the 40–6 blowout as quickly as possible.
I would congratulate the Cougars defense for preventing Hornibrook from going 19-for-19, but his lone incompletion was a drop by wide receiver Danny Davis III. So 100 percent of Hornibrook’s 19 pass attempts hit his receivers in the hands. BYU’s defense was hypothetical in this game. Basically, they suited up a team of ghosts capable of scaring opposing receivers away from parts of the field, but incapable of altering a ball’s flight with their hands. It was a good day for Badgers fans, who stunned Mormon-majority Provo with their Wisconsinite ways by attempting to drink the city clean dry of booze.
Texas A&M trailed Louisiana-Lafayette 21–14 at halftime Saturday, a disappointing performance that led Aggies fans to boo their team as the players headed to the locker rooms. At least one Aggie did not appreciate that:
Texas A&M freshman wide receiver Will Gunnell gave a double-barrel one-finger salute to fans as he ran off the field at halftime. pic.twitter.com/8tOMHdRGfi— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) September 16, 2017
It’s been quite the turnaround for A&M under head coach Kevin Sumlin: The Aggies went 11–2 with a Cotton Bowl win and had a Heisman winner in his first season as head coach. This year, they have blown a 34-point lead and struggled to beat Nicholls and Louisiana-Lafayette.
It probably seems like a bad move to flick off your own fans, but hey, it’s not a great move to boo your school’s unpaid student-athletes. Sure, the boos were probably directed at Sumlin, but last I checked Kyle Field doesn’t have horns that direct negative noise toward coaches and athletic administrators.
Either way, Will Gunnell’s birds clearly flipped the game: The Aggies scored 31 unanswered points in the second half and defeated the Ragin’ Cajuns, 45–21. I think A&M should include the Double Bird among the 40,000 cheer-specific hand gestures that all Aggies fans are required to learn to support their team — clearly, it’s a motivator for the squad.
I tabbed LSU as a dark horse national champion pick. I’m gonna go ahead and rescind that after its 37–7 beatdown at the hands of Mississippi State on Saturday. The Bulldogs, now 3–0, might be legit, and someday we should heap praise upon them and their awesome quarterback, who may or may not have received an offer from UT-Chattanooga. But for now: Jesus, LSU.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron had also lost at Mississippi State both times he went there as Ole Miss’s head coach. It’s quite possible that Orgeron can’t operate in the presence of cowbells. When Coach O was promoted from interim to head coach at LSU in December, the obvious question was whether it was a bad idea to give one of the best jobs in football to a guy who had drastically squandered his lone head coaching gig. Sure, Orgeron was a perfect fit, and he hired some great coordinators, and recruited excellently, but he was still Ed Orgeron. This LSU team is talented, and every time it loses under Orgeron, the question of whether he’s incapable of properly applying that talent will arise anew.
Nicest Win of the Week
Austin Peay didn’t win any games in 2016. The Governors also didn’t win any games in 2015. They won a game in 2014, beating Murray State. But they didn’t win any games in 2013. The Govs had a 29-game losing streak, and a 1–47 record over five years of football, until Saturday, when they beat the absolute hell out of Morehead State, 69–13:
Shout-out to all those kids in that video tearing down that goalpost. You went to games week after week, year after year with little more than the promise of chanting LET’S GO PEAY in public. You deserved this.
Peay seems to be a lot better than they have been in recent years — they played Cincinnati awful close Week 1, and Cincinnati is a full-blown FBS team. But sadly, they’re gonna need to lose until 2020 for me to write about them again.
Worst Money Spent
Nebraska paid Northern Illinois $820,000 for the right to lose to them on Saturday. Once the Huskies got used to taking stuff from Nebraska, they couldn’t stop, recording two pick-sixes off Huskers QB Tanner Lee en route to a 21–17 win.
Paying Group of Five teams to play is just a fact of life, but you’ve gotta be smart about it. Northern Illinois has a history of taking down Big Ten teams and taking out full-page newspaper ads about it. If you’re a Power Five team, you should pay somebody bad, instead of somebody you could lose to. But then again, Nebraska’s worst trait is unnecessary overconfidence — for example, firing a coach who had won nine games every season because he wasn’t doing a good enough job.
If only they could take some of the money they put toward paying Northern Illinois and use it to build a time machine that could take them back to the 1990s. Then again, I think a lot of Huskers fans don’t need a time machine to live in the past.
Coaching Move of the Week
Up 56–0 on Georgia State with 11 seconds to go on Saturday, Penn State coach James Franklin called a timeout while the Panthers’ kicker lined up for a field goal, apparently icing the poor kid as his team tried to score their only points of the game. It worked:
Evidence seems to point to the fact that Franklin wasn’t being malicious — he said his reserve field goal unit was struggling to get lined up, which makes sense, because reserve field goal units don’t often go on the field, and video reveals Franklin sadly shaking his head after making the timeout.
But let’s review Franklin’s season: A 52–0 win over Akron, a stomping of Pitt after which Franklin compared Pitt to Akron — boy, not Pitt’s year, huh — and a 56–0 win over Georgia State. He’s got a bit of a ruthless edge, and might be the type of guy to use a mental stalling tactic that may or may not work to preserve an eight-touchdown lead against an overmatched opponent hoping to leave a buy game unscathed.