College football is a 130-team bonanza, packed with incredible, hilarious, awful, and occasionally, meaningful things. We’ll try to round up as much of it as possible, so you can enjoy the best of every weekend without keeping nine televisions on for 14 straight hours.
Normally, a blocked kick is an anomaly: Somebody missed a block; the snap was bad; or, most likely, the football gods just wanted something cool to happen. But not with Alabama. We often make fun of the Crimson Tide’s special teams, but that really boils down to the program’s tendency to sign scattershot kickers. (Still true, after Ole Miss transfer Andy Pappanastos missed two kicks in the opener.) Saturday night, the top-ranked Tide blocked a punt and a field goal, then forced a fumble on a kickoff in a 24-7 throttling of no. 3 Florida State.
The guy who blocked that punt? Damien Harris—the same Damien Harris who led the Tide with 1,037 rushing yards last season, was the top-rated recruit at his position in the Class of 2015, and entered 2017 as one of the team’s featured running backs.
I watched all of FSU’s punts from Saturday night, and learned that Harris is a regular contributor to the punt-coverage team. He took the field on five of the Seminoles’ six punts; the one he didn’t was a punt from the Alabama 36-yard line on which the Tide chose to play conventional defense in case of a fake. But the blocked kick was the only time that Harris rushed the punter. He played on the coverage unit regularly enough that the opposing punt-protection team saw the all-everything running back lined up across from it and thought, Hey, we don’t need to worry about that guy. On their punt late in the third quarter, the Noles didn’t even attempt to block Harris.
He wasn’t the only star on Bama’s special teams. Minkah Fitzpatrick, an All-SEC safety and one of the best defensive players in the country, is also part of the punt-coverage unit. Bo Scarbrough, Harris’s freight train of a backfield mate who dominated the SEC championship game and Peach Bowl in 2016, was lined up three players over from Harris on the blocked punt. You can’t game plan to stop a superstar when you’re lined up across from 11 of them.
This is what Alabama does. The Tide turned the tide in the first of their two consecutive national championship matchups with Clemson on an onside kick. While that kick was effective because of a tiny quirk in the Tigers’ return scheme that Alabama noticed on tape, it also worked because the guy in charge of tracking down the kick was Marlon Humphrey, a former five-star recruit who would eventually be picked in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. He was never getting beaten to the ball by the no-name freshman backup wide receiver Clemson had in the closest position on the play.
Many teams have elite players. Alabama has enough elite players to use them on every down, in every situation, no matter how many cycle out to the pros each offseason. If Harris or Scarbrough got hurt on special teams, Bama would be fine. There is no relief from its talent, no chance for an opponent’s stars to catch their breath.
Florida State played Alabama well for about a half hour in Week 1, and, though their road will be tougher following quarterback Deondre Francois’s injury, the Noles have a great team. Still, even the preseason no. 3 team couldn’t prevent things from getting ugly against Bama in the end. I don’t doubt that there are other teams capable of challenging Alabama for a few minutes—but can anybody outlast them?
Most Beautiful Failure
There is perhaps nothing more awkward than attempting to kick a football and whiffing. The football is so big and unmissable. The kicking motion is so unbalanced and ungainly. No wonder Charles Schulz turned to something as unappealing as special teams to highlight the tragic doofiness of Charlie Brown.
Now let’s pretend Schulz was making a gritty reboot of Peanuts in which Charlie Brown didn’t even have friends to pull the ball away from him. It would look like what happened to Wyoming punter Tim Zaleski against Iowa:
I have never seen a punter swing and miss on his own punt before. Shanks happen, sure, but an all-out whiff? That’s next level.
In order to kick the ball consistently, a punter is just supposed to drop the ball, with no spin or movement. Zaleski decided to spice things up by throwing a slider. Poor choice, but I’m glad I got to watch.
Weekly Heisman Winner
Penn State beat Akron 52-zip, and I think Saquon Barkley juked 52 Zips.
(Seriously, Akron: Change the team name to “the Akron One Hundreds.” Trust me.)
Barkley rushed for 172 yards, including an 80-yard dash that set up a touchdown, and added 54 yards receiving. My favorite thing about Barkley is his tendency to individually humiliate defenders, but few Akron players even got themselves in a position to tackle him one-on-one, so he just ran around entire hordes of defenders. He did almost hurdle a guy, but didn’t quite get over the top. It’s Week 1; he’ll iron that out.
No. 4 USC struggled a bit with Western Michigan. (What? That’s normal! Just two directionally named schools that played in New Year’s Six bowls last year opening a new season with a close contest.) Let’s not focus on the actual game. Let’s focus on the game’s final extra point, because the snapper on the kick was USC sophomore Jake Olson, who is blind:
Olson was born with a form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. He lost his left eye as a baby, and needed surgery to remove his right eye when he was 12. A huge Trojans fan, he asked to spend his last day with vision at USC practice. Yet despite losing his sight, he never gave up on his dream of playing football for the school. He taught himself how to snap on field goals, and got really, really good at the repetitive, mechanical task of firing the ball to a holder seven yards back. He played in high school and walked on at USC.
Getting Olson onto the field was not easy. USC had to use a timeout before the extra point, since Olson needs to be guided to the spot to snap from. Since Olson cannot block, coach Clay Helton had proposed a trade to Western Michigan coach Tim Lester: The Trojans would not attempt to block the Broncos’ first extra point of the game, in exchange for Western Michigan not rushing the backfield on Olson’s snap. The umpire gave Olson a pat on the shoulder before the snap, which is not part of ordinary officiating procedure.
Those tiny tweaks to this stupid thing we call football are molehills to the mountains that Olson has climbed. Through no fault of his own, Olson’s life become significantly more difficult, but he didn’t lower his expectations. He accomplished what he dreamed of doing before he became blind; he’s accomplished so much more than many of us who have had to deal with so much less.
This is the best thing that happened in college football this week, and probably the best thing that will happen all season. Also, it involves a dog.
What a good dog.
Worst Coaching Job
Texas A&M started its season on the right foot Sunday night by racing out to a 44-10 lead at UCLA. Then head coach Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies allowed 35 unanswered points in just over 19 minutes, losing 45-44. It was the second-biggest comeback of all time, and easily the game of Week 1, at least for those who didn’t tune out after the Bruins fell behind by 34. (Football should be played on Sundays more often! What a great, novel idea!)
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen essentially ran five straight successful two-minute drills, leading the Bruins on five touchdown drives that all took less than 125 seconds. He had 292 passing yards with four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. The last score came on this fake spike:
A fake spike, by the way, that Texas A&M never should have bought—the Bruins had no reason to spike the ball, considering that the clock was already stopped.
Rosen’s heroics never happen without massive coaching malpractice from Sumlin, who mismanaged the clock, play-calling strategy, and his roster. Running backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford had dominated all night long, combining for 317 rushing yards with five touchdowns. They got only four combined carries in the fourth quarter. Instead, A&M threw the ball 12 times with Kellen Mond, a backup forced into action after starter Nick Starkel got injured. Mond finished a hideous 3-for-17 passing for 27 yards.
There still hasn’t been an adequate explanation for why Mond, a true freshman, was the team’s backup instead of senior Jake Hubenak, who might’ve shown more composure and who completed 58.7 percent of his passes last season. The Aggies also shot themselves in the foot by routinely continuing to snap the ball with as many as 20 seconds remaining on the play clock.
If A&M had called a few more run plays, or simply let the play clock trickle down to one second before snapping the ball, it likely would be 1-0. When you’re up 34 points with about 20 minutes to go, you don’t need to play well anymore. You can play pretty awfully and still win. But the Aggies played awfully and stupidly. And that falls on Sumlin.
As no. 18 Miami walloped FCS Bethune-Cookman on Saturday afternoon, we learned about the existence of the Turnover Chain:
LOL at Miami rewarding their players by letting them wear a huge gold cuban link chain when they make big plays pic.twitter.com/vY07BROrz3— gifdsports (@gifdsports) September 2, 2017
When somebody records a turnover on Miami’s defense, the coaching staff gives that player a monumental Cuban link chain to wear for a few minutes on the sideline. “It’s real gold,” Miami linebacker Shaq Quarterman told reporters after a 41-13 win, blatantly lying. Apparently the Hurricanes only found out about the existence of the Turnover Chain on Saturday morning, making sophomore cornerback Malek Young, the player pictured above, its first bearer.
This is exactly the type of gaudy nonsense that Miami needs to succeed as a football program. The school tried going Golden with its football program; it needed to go Enormous Gold Chain. If the Hurricanes are going to wear anything on their necks, it should be a toddler-sized hunk of indeterminate metal, not a tie.
Least Satisfying Conclusion
I’ve heard the complaints that The Ringer features too much Minnesota Division III football coverage. I don’t care. Here is more Minnesota Division III football coverage.
St. John’s beat the College of St. Scholastica 98-0 in Week 1, a record for a game between Division III teams. St. Scholastica is probably the only program in the country with a nun on its coaching staff, a rarity that stands out even more given the conference championships the Saints have won in the past. St. Scholastica’s coach, Kurt Ramler, was once a star quarterback for St. John’s and was its offensive coordinator in 2013. I guess he hasn’t changed his tactics since changing jobs, because St. John’s seemed to snuff out Scholastica’s offense pretty easily.
But I’m not here to analyze Ramler’s strategy. I’m here to yell at St. John’s. Most normal people probably look at this 98-0 result and see an evil team that ran up the score on its former coach, but I’m not a normal person. I see a team that took its foot off the gas. The Johnnies got to 98 points with more than 10 minutes remaining. After averaging nearly two points per minute for 50 minutes, they decided not to score anymore, as if their opponents would be thankful to lose by a mere 98 points rather than 105.
This is cowardice of the highest order! What are you afraid of, Johnnies? Greatness?
Howard pulled off the biggest upset in college football history Saturday night. The Bison were 45-point underdogs against UNLV, and ultimately topped the Rebels, 43-40.
(Las Vegas apparently overestimates teams from Las Vegas.)
There is a reason the Bison were 45-point underdogs. Two years ago, when they were on their way to losing to Boston College 76-0, the two teams agreed to shorten the second half to 20 minutes to minimize the embarrassment. Last year, Howard lost to Rutgers, 52-14. A 38-point loss against Rutgers is a 45-point loss against most teams, so Las Vegas was justified.
But now the Bison are led by former Virginia head coach Mike London, and clearly they’ve turned things around. Life is hard for football teams at historically black universities: They’re underfunded and forced to play long, rigorous road schedules to recoup money for the program and the school. Howard, for instance, took $600,000 to play in Vegas with the stipulation that it bring its marching band. The massive point spread Howard faced not only tells the story of its own triumph; it also shows the way that the cards are stacked against HBCUs, both on and off the field. It was awesome to see the Bison flip the script.
It might seem tempting to celebrate Liberty, the FCS school that bounced Big 12 team Baylor.
FCS James Madison legitimately whooped East Carolina, 34-14. This was not an upset. I am the no. 1 supporter of extremely good FCS teams. Stay the hell out of the Dukes’ way.
The Lane Kiffin era at Florida Atlantic began with a game against Navy. Already a bad idea: The only FBS team with an ocean in its name has no business playing against the Navy. You will not beat the Midshipmen in a sea battle, literally or figuratively.
Because the game was played in South Florida in September, it was repeatedly interrupted by lightning. Each strike near a stadium leads to a mandatory 30-minute delay. The first lighting delay lasted 59 minutes; the teams played for a minute before lightning struck again. At this point, the score was 42-19 Navy with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
As the storms raged, the sensible thing would have been to call the game. But both teams have to agree to call a game, and Kiffin flatly refused. ESPN gave his Owls a .3 percent chance of winning the game down three scores with less than a quarter to go against a superior team with a knack for running down the clock, but Kiffin would not give up. Navy’s official Twitter wasn’t allowed to say “Hey, we’re being held here indefinitely by a maniacal divorcé, please let us leave,” but they tried to communicate what was going down in code. (They confirmed the situation via fave.) A third delay lasted two hours, and the teams took the field after 1 a.m. in front of a crowd of dozens.
The scene at FAU at 1:40 a.m. pic.twitter.com/KaWrvrr7Sa— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) September 2, 2017
Navy looked a bit sluggish—understandable, the game was going on well past a Midshipman’s mandatory bedtime, and the team had already eaten its postgame dinner in the locker room—but they picked off FAU twice. The final score was 42-19: The teams waited several hours to play a few minutes of football that changed nothing.
I do kind of see what Kiffin was going for. It was his first game in charge of a roster primarily comprising players who transferred into the program to play for him. He took a chance on them, they took a chance on him. He had to tell them he still believed they could win the game. This is a situation covered by the only 100-percent trustworthy manual on coaching ethics, Friday Night Lights, when Coach Taylor forfeits the second half of a game and quickly realizes how much he’s disappointed the players who wanted to keep fighting.
But maybe we’re giving Kiffin a bit too much credit. We also know that in his first game, with a chance to make a new impression and show his maturity, Kiffin denied Navy the common courtesy of a walkthrough at FAU’s facilities, forcing them to use a high school field. Maybe Kiffin’s late-night obstinacy was a valiant stand for the sake of his own team; maybe it was a stubborn hope that by forcing some of America’s brightest, bravest, hardest-working athletes to sit in a locker room for a few hours, he could salvage a game that was already lost.
Most Offensive Defense
Florida lost four games last year, and in two of those, the Gators’ only touchdowns were on defense. A first-quarter Duke Dawson pick-six against Arkansas made the game look somewhat close before Florida lost 31-10; a Marcell Harris scoop-and-score was their only trip to paydirt against FSU. (The Gators haven’t managed an offensive touchdown against the Seminoles since 2014.)
That trend continued Saturday, as Florida managed two touchdowns on interceptions by Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight … and lost 33-17.
Florida’s defense is still its best offense, which is awesome, but troubling. The Gators’ offensive struggles under Will Muschamp were understandable; Muschamp is a pile of construction material somehow made human and taught the concept of anger. But Jim McElwain is an offensive-minded coach, a quarterbacks/wide receivers coach by trade, the former OC at Alabama. Why haven’t things changed since he took over as Florida’s head coach? McElwain now has a pair of talented quarterbacks at his disposal: the starter, four-star freshman Feleipe Franks, and his backup, Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire. If this is the first of multiple zero-offensive-touchdown games for the Gators, McElwain might be in trouble.
No. 23 Texas lost to Maryland. “Texas lost to Maryland” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Texas lost to Kansas,” but they’re definitely both in the same genre.
The calculus of Tom Herman’s early Texas tenure should be a bit different than Charlie Strong’s. Strong was expected to take a while to rebuild things after Mack Brown’s reign concluded. But Strong recruited excellently, and Herman showed his ability to turn things around quickly by going 13-1 in his first year as a head coach at Houston. I think Texas made the right call firing Strong—again, Texas lost to Kansas—but I was still taken by how short of a leash he got. Hypothetically, Herman’s leash should be shorter.