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College Football Midseason Awards: The Good, the Bad, and the 0-6 Nebraska

With the 2018 season at its midway point, it’s time to celebrate the biggest stories of the first half—from Tua Tagovailoa’s transcendence to whatever is happening to Scott Frost’s team in Lincoln

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The college football season begins when it’s still overwhelmingly humid, but now you can walk outside and feel a breeze. That means we’re at the point in the calendar when it’s really football season, and it’s time to take stock of what we’ve learned. With the first half of the 2018 campaign in the books, let’s hand out awards celebrating the best, worst, and weirdest of what’s happened so far.

Halfway Heisman: Tua Tagovailoa

Before the season, I theorized what it would look like if Alabama chose to start Tua Tagovailoa, a dynamic sophomore quarterback, over returning junior Jalen Hurts, a QB more reminiscent of the oodles of game managers who have previously played the position under head coach Nick Saban. I thought that Tagovailoa, a 6-foot-1 lefty, had the potential to emerge as the best quarterback in the country and bring a new gear to college football’s most successful program.

One game into the season I recoiled in abject fear upon seeing what Tagovailoa brought to the Crimson Tide. He really did look like the best quarterback in the land. Tua dismantled Louisville in a 51-14 win, making Alabama appear even more frightening than usual.

Two months into the season I have accepted the fate of the college football universe. Nobody else has a shot so long as this guy is playing QB for the Tide. Alabama won last season’s national championship after Tua torched Georgia upon making a dramatic halftime entrance; Bama is going to win the national championship again this season and next season, and then Tua will go on to become the no. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft.

Alabama is murderous with Tua under center. The Tide have scored touchdowns on their opening possessions of all seven games they’ve played in, with four of those drives lasting less than a minute. Efficiency-wise, Tagovailoa is on pace to record the best season in the sport’s history, averaging almost 15 yards per pass attempt with 21 touchdowns against zero interceptions. Every other quarterback in college football with more than four touchdown passes this season also has at least one interception. Then there’s Tua, who has no picks despite being tied for fourth nationally in passing touchdowns. (And to think, the main concern with Tua heading into the fall was that he was more turnover-prone than Hurts.)

Tua isn’t going to challenge for volume-based statistical benchmarks, but that’s only because he’s scoring so much that he doesn’t need to—he hasn’t thrown a pass in the fourth quarter of a game all season. He just does something like this during every first quarter:

Tagovailoa has given college football’s most dominant machine an innovative offensive feature. The Tide are even using a two-quarterback set in which Hurts splits out at wide receiver, functioning as an option to catch a pass, take a handoff, or throw the ball.

This is happening at Alabama, a place where football fun is typically stomped into submission during a 24-7 beatdown. It’s thrilling to watch when you forget how horrifying it is.

Now we know what Tua is, and I have accepted it. I will appreciate Tagovailoa’s transcendence as his death ray blasts me into oblivion.

Best Single-Game Performance: Some Guy in Oklahoma Who Filmed His TV Screen and Feet

The Army-Oklahoma matchup in Week 4 was my platonic ideal of football. The Sooners run a variant of the Air Raid, the offense of the future, which is based on passing, passing, and more passing. The Black Knights use the triple option, the offense of the past, which is based on running, running, and more running. The two schemes are polar opposites, but both stem from a similar philosophy: If a team practices a few offensive sets over and over, that team will master every version of those sets and thus become unstoppable. When these two teams took the field on September 22 in Norman, Oklahoma, that philosophy was proven right.

The Sooners and Black Knights combined to score five touchdowns on their first five drives. The three Oklahoma touchdown drives lasted a grand total of 7 minutes and 10 seconds; the two Army touchdown drives lasted at least 8 minutes and 54 seconds each. The Black Knights tied the game in the third quarter with a 19-play drive that lasted 10:47. They almost won the game in the fourth quarter with a 17-play drive that stretched 10-plus minutes. Oklahoma averaged 11.0 yards per pass attempt and 7.6 yards per carry but finished regulation with just 21 points because Army maintained possession for more than 45 damn minutes.

The game went to overtime tied at 21. This was must-watch TV: The Sooners entered as 29-point Vegas favorites and College Football Playoff front-runners, and they could lose to a bunch of kids with military commitments who seemingly hadn’t discovered the forward pass. It was also can’t-watch TV: Due to the Big 12’s licensing agreements, every conference school has one football game that is not accounted for in national television deals. OU sells its game to Fox, as do several other Big 12 schools. With the other Big 12 schools, Fox typically airs this lone game on one of its affiliate channels. But since Fox knows it can make money off Oklahoma’s huge and dedicated fan base, the network puts the Sooners’ 12th game on pay-per-view, charging $55 for the right to watch.

I sure as hell was not going to pay $60 to watch overtime of a nonconference game in Week 4. I don’t even pay for cable! It’s 2018!

Thankfully, a hero emerged. Somewhere in Oklahoma, one man who had paid the $55 pay-per-view fee opened a Twitch account, pointed his cell phone at his screen, and filmed.

More than 32,000 of us watched that man’s stream. He was a gracious host: When commenters criticized his cinematography or threatened to report his stream, he giggled and noted that he’d already paid the $55 and would watch the game in peace if he got banned from Twitch. We were the ones who needed to be on our best behavior, because we’d be stuck without free viewing options if his stream went bottom-up. He joked, provided in-game commentary, and at one point showed us his feet.

Oklahoma won 28-21, much to the streamer’s delight. Because Army merely approached a monumental upset and didn’t actually pull it off, the game quickly vanished from most fans’ memories. So did the streamer’s Twitch account, presumably because what he did was absolutely a breach of Twitch’s terms of service. Still, I will never forget the night that me and 30,000 of my closest friends virtually journeyed onto the couch of a random Oklahoman. It was the strangest possible way to watch the strangest game of the year.

Most Disappointing Duo: Kevin Sumlin and Khalil Tate

In January, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate sent a tweet that influenced the program’s coaching search. “I didn’t come to Arizona to run the triple-option,” he wrote before deleting the post, a strategy he has since claimed was engineered to create the maximum amount of social media buzz. The point was clear: The Wildcats were reportedly in talks to hire Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, and Tate, a dual-threat quarterback and the breakout star of the 2017 season, felt that his talents would have been misused in Niumatalolo’s preferred style of offense.

I would’ve rather seen Tate play in a triple-option offense than in new Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin’s system. Tate ran for at least 137 yards in each of his first six starts last year, including a 327-yard game at Colorado, a 230-yard outing against UCLA, and a 206-yard showing against Oregon State. He’s rushed for 113 yards in seven games this year. Arizona is 3-4.

Some of that dip in production is due to his ankle injury, which Sumlin asked Tate to play through for six games before announcing that he would bench the QB for this Saturday’s matchup at UCLA. But Tate completed just 50 percent of his passes and rushed eight times for 14 yards in Arizona’s season-opening 28-23 loss to BYU. It’s not all the injury. It’s partly an offense better suited for a duller quarterback.

Sumlin has a strange history with quarterbacks: He was responsible for overseeing Johnny Manziel’s meteoric rise at Texas A&M, served as Sam Bradford’s offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and led a Houston offense that put up huge numbers from 2008 to 2011. Yet he also played a role in a slew of high-caliber QB prospects floundering at A&M, including Kyler Murray, who’s since transferred and become a star at Oklahoma. Tate entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, with Sumlin’s pedigree considered a plus. But now we know which side of Sumlin he’s getting.

Best Josh Allen: Kentucky Linebacker Josh Allen

Kentucky is the most delightful surprise of this college football season. The SEC race is often boring and predictable, as the same handful of schools rule the conference year after year. But this fall the Wildcats—who have never won an SEC East division championship, and whose only outright league title came in 1950 under Bear Bryant—are serious contenders. They snapped a 31-game losing streak to Florida on September 8 and are an overtime loss to Texas A&M away from being 6-0.

The Wildcats’ star on offense is junior running back Benny Snell Jr., who wears a customized mouthguard featuring a pinwheel that spins when he breathes. His mouth has rims; nothing can harm him.

The Wildcats’ best overall player, however, is linebacker Josh Allen. With Ohio State’s Nick Bosa going down with an injury and recently declaring that he won’t return to campus, Allen is probably the best edge rusher in college football.

According to Pro Football Focus, Allen has 33 quarterback pressures (six sacks, seven quarterback hits, 20 pressures) on just 138 pass-rush snaps. He’s getting to the QB on almost a quarter of his rushes.

This year I strongly advised NFL teams not to select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen with a first-round draft pick. Next year I’d strongly advise NFL teams to take Kentucky’s Josh Allen early.

Best Quarterback in Buffalo: Tyree Jackson

Speaking of former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen: This spring he became a fascination among NFL scouts, ostensibly because he is an enormous rocket-armed passer who led a school most fans don’t follow to a surprisingly good 2017 season. I was skeptical, because his stats were awful and every throw I saw him make nearly killed an innocent bystander. His reputation upset me as a college football fan: Allen got all of the credit for Wyoming’s 8-5 campaign, even though the Cowboys’ real strength was their defense. They had a top-10 scoring defense and the best turnover margin in the FBS. Meanwhile, Allen led the nation’s 104th-ranked scoring offense and probably held back a team that otherwise could’ve been special.

I bring this up because I regret to inform you that I have fallen in love with a different enormous rocket-armed passer leading a school most fans don’t follow to a surprisingly good season. That quarterback is the University at Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson, my favorite QB in the 2019 draft class.

Jackson is 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, and can chuck the ball over Niagara Falls. He’s huge, and perhaps his best asset is his ability to throw on the move. And Buffalo, which has registered only two winning seasons since joining the FBS in 1999, is off to a 6-1 start.

I, uh, should probably show some videos of Jackson doing cool things against opponents who are not Rutgers. Here:

Jackson is a better prospect than Allen was in every way: He’s taller, bigger, and faster. His arm looks as strong, and he’s significantly more accurate. His yards-per-attempt average is a full yard higher than Allen’s was as a senior, and Jackson has already thrown for more touchdowns through seven games (18) than Allen did in 11 games last year (16). Jackson has taken one sack, giving Buffalo the fewest sacks allowed in the nation.

If I were an NFL executive with a first-round pick, I probably wouldn’t draft Jackson. But the case for Jackson seems to be a lot stronger than the case for Allen was, and the hype is virtually nonexistent. Jackson is the best quarterback in the city of Buffalo.

Funniest Team: Rutgers

Rutgers is bad. It has almost always been bad and is doomed to always be bad. There was some thought that the program would take a step forward upon joining the Big Ten in 2014, as realigning to the conference from the Big East was supposed to lead to an uptick in competitiveness. But no: The move has only highlighted the huge discrepancy in football caliber between Rutgers and its Big Ten counterparts. In 2016 Rutgers was shut out by Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State by a combined score of 224-0.

And somehow, it has gotten worse. In 2016, Rutgers ranked 114th in Football Outsiders’ S&P+. This year, the Scarlet Knights rank 124th.

How is that possible?

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh.

In a 34-7 loss to Maryland on October 13, Rutgers’ quarterbacks combined to go 2-of-17 for 8 yards with five interceptions. This marked the first game in the Sports-Reference database in which a team’s quarterbacks completed two or fewer passes with five picks and the first time a team threw 17 passes while notching two or fewer completions since … Rutgers did so in its blowout loss to Michigan two years ago. Quarterback Artur Sitkowski leads college football with 15 interceptions—nobody else has thrown more than eight. He’s basically lapping the field.

That 2016 Rutgers team got trucked by great opponents, but at least it played one-possession contests against programs like Indiana, Minnesota, and Iowa. This year’s team is also getting trucked by great opponents (it lost 52-3 to Ohio State in Week 2), but it’s getting trucked by the bad ones as well. The Scarlet Knights lost 55-14 to Kansas. Kansas hadn’t previously beaten an FBS team since 2016! Rutgers also lost by three touchdowns to Illinois, which went 0-9 in Big Ten play last season. The Scarlet Knights’ two-completion, five-pick performance came against Maryland, which also lost to Temple by 21 points.

Rutgers inspires me. Just when you think that the Scarlet Knights have hit rock bottom, they find new ways to sink even lower. That takes innovation. I believe in their ability to sink lower still. Maybe they can finish a game with more interceptions than passing yards.

Worst Prediction: Me, on Nebraska

I evaluated every coaching hire made by a power-conference school at the end of last season and reached the conclusion that one program was the clear winner. Nobody made a better hire than Nebraska, who brought in former UCF head coach Scott Frost. Frost, after all, transformed a Knights program that went 0-12 in 2015 into one that went 13-0 and boasted the best offense in the sport in 2017. He was not only a coach with an obvious mastery of offensive schemes and a track record of turning college football teams around quickly. He was also the only person whose dream was to turn things around at Nebraska, the school where he once won a national title as a quarterback. Frost combined Nebraska’s need for a modern head coach with Nebraska fans’ desire to relive the 1990s. He was perfect.

The start of his career has not been perfect. The Cornhuskers are 0-6 for the first time in their 129-year history. They lost to Troy at home on September 15; they lost to Michigan by 46 points on September 22; they surrendered a 99-yard game-tying touchdown drive to Northwestern just last week. After Nebraska’s 34-31 overtime defeat to the Wildcats, Frost went out of his way to say that the 99-yard drive was the fault of a) his defensive coordinator and b) the players on the field, which is the sort of thing that bad coaches say.

Meanwhile, UCF looks … exactly like it did with Frost. The Knights are 6-0 and once again ready to wreak havoc on the College Football Playoff debate.

I still think Frost was the perfect hire for Nebraska. But his start to this season has disproved some of the things we thought we knew about him. Part of his allure was that he transformed UCF seemingly overnight, on the pure power of his coaching skill and ability to motivate players. He didn’t need to wait to recruit his own talent—he could win with the guys UCF already had. It didn’t matter to Frost if, say, his best defender had only one hand. Frost could scheme and will his team to victory.

That UCF hasn’t skipped a beat tells us that Frost wasn’t solely responsible for the Knights’ turnaround. UCF had some damn good players. And that Nebraska is 0-6 tells us that Frost isn’t capable of working miracles. That should be a completely unrealistic expectation of any coach, but keep in mind that it was Frost’s primary selling point.

In my coaching evaluation last December, I said that the second-best power-conference hire was Chip Kelly, whose UCLA team is now 1-5. I’m not sure why you’re still reading.

Best Play: The Side Snap

Basically every football play starts with a snap between a center’s legs. Fun fact! You don’t have to start a football play this way. The NCAA rulebook specifically states that a “snap need not be between the snapper’s legs.” It only says that a snap “must be a quick and continuous backward motion.”

In college football, 2018 is the year of the side snap. Here is Iowa scoring a touchdown against Minnesota with a direct snap to a running back:

The Hawkeyes are not the only team to attempt the side snap this season. Washington State has used a sideways snap for multiple plays, running a somewhat conventional offense behind a line shifted all the way to the far side of the field.

This is not a new concept: Oregon successfully deployed a side-snapped two-point conversion against Stanford a few years ago, with the Ducks’ pass ultimately going to the player who snapped the ball (in most side-snap formations, the snapper is legally allowed to receive a pass). Texas Tech used a side snap to get 308-pound offensive lineman Le’Raven Clark into the end zone two seasons ago.

Plays with side snaps are proven to be effective—look at the blocking on the Iowa touchdown! Minnesota never stood a chance of stopping a run behind the Hawkeyes’ offensive line when most of its defenders were stationed in the middle of the field.

This is an idea whose time has come. You may have thought that the spread offense solely revolved around a quarterback throwing the ball to every part of the field. The truest form of the spread, however, also involves a snapper spreading the ball from sideline to sideline.

Most Intriguing Player: Kelly Bryant

Coaches overwhelmingly backed an NCAA rule change this summer that alters the definition of a “redshirt” season. For a football player to redshirt, he used to be required to sit out an entire year. Now, a player can play up to four games in a given season and still redshirt to retain a year of eligibility. The reasons coaches were in favor of this change are myriad. For example, they can now play freshmen who have had several months of practice time during bowl games without losing full seasons of those athletes’ availability. If a quarterback gets hurt during a game and the best option to replace him is a freshman, that freshman doesn’t have to sacrifice a whole season just to take a few snaps. The concept of “burning a redshirt” seems dead.

However, there was perhaps an unintended consequence to this update. Players have long been forced to sit on the sideline for a full season if they transferred between schools. Now, players can play up to four games in a season, then transfer and have that season count as their mandatory year off. Four weeks into this season, we witnessed college football’s first true spate of in-season transfers—players who decided their role in a program wasn’t exactly what they wanted and jumped at the opportunity to better use their talents at a different school.

By far the most prominent of these situations came at Clemson. Last year the Tigers started Kelly Bryant at QB and made the College Football Playoff. Bryant was more steady than spectacular, but the only regular-season game Clemson lost was the one in which Bryant got injured before halftime. This year, though, Clemson brought in freshman Trevor Lawrence, the top-rated QB recruit in the country and a walking Garnier Fructis commercial. He is a clear statistical improvement over Bryant: Last fall, Bryant averaged 7.0 yards per pass attempt with 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Through his first six games this fall, Lawrence is averaging 8.6 yards per pass attempt with 11 scores against two picks.

After four weeks, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney decided that Lawrence gave Clemson the best chance to make the playoff for the third year in a row, thereby naming the freshman the starter. And that decision came in time for Bryant, now a senior, to make the decision to transfer so that he could start in his final season of college eligibility.

The drama this created has been incredible. Lawrence got dinged up in his first game as Clemson starter, prompting some to wonder whether Swinney could call Bryant up in the middle of the game and convince him to change his mind. Now, Bryant is figuring out where he’ll enroll next—last week, he showed up at North Carolina’s home game against Virginia Tech and was publicly wooed by fans.

But for all the drama, this situation played out in a stunningly effective way: Everybody is going to get what they want out of the rule change. Swinney got an extra month to name the Tigers’ 2018 starter instead of thrusting an unprepared freshman into the fire and later finding out that was a bad idea. Bryant will get the final starting season he deserves. Clemson fans might find it uncouth that Bryant abandoned his team in Week 4—somehow, of all the bad things in college football, this is what some people have decided is uncouth—but the new setup ensured that they’ll get the best quarterback moving forward. And some other program will get a damn good QB.

The Bryant situation may have been odd, but it represents the new normal in college football. That’s a good thing. We’ll get more good seasons out of good players instead of having rules force them to the bench. It’s better for the players, and it’s more fun for the fans too.