A decade ago, the 2007 college football season set the volatility benchmark for this generation. The season unfolded with a relentless flurry of upsets, surprise contenders and more visceral plot twists than a Dennis Lehane novel. Consider that two-loss LSU ended up the national champion, Missouri was ranked No. 1 and the No. 2 ranking was held by California, Boston College, South Florida, Kansas and West Virginia at different times during the year.
A lot has changed in college football in the past decade. There’s a new playoff format, conference realignment has jumbled the landscape and the inherent cyclical undulations have shaken up the logos of the contenders. But seismic upsets in the Big Ten – Iowa throttling No. 6 Ohio State and No. 24 Michigan State beating No. 7 Penn State – have put that league in danger of not having a team in the playoff. The Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 have to be worried that their champion could get nudged out as well (see more below). There are still infinite scenarios that could play out, but all signs point to an echelon of chaos that’s largely been avoided in the first three years of the College Football Playoff. And maybe last seen during that wild season in 2007.
Will Saturday be remembered as the day college football took its DeLorean back to 2007? The signs of imminent anarchy are aplenty.
Here are 10 Takeaways from a wacky weekend in college football:
1) Let’s start with the Big Ten. Jim Delany went to bed on Saturday night likely humming “On Wisconsin.” The Badgers are the Big Ten’s best chance to reach the playoff. The problem is that Wisconsin’s best victory came over Northwestern, and Iowa is the only likely Top 25 team they’ll play the rest of the regular season. Beating Ohio State in the Big Ten title game would help, as the Buckeyes remain the Big Ten favorite if they beat Michigan State at home next week. No one really knows how good the Badgers are yet, and any loss would likely strike them from the playoff race. Could a two-loss Big Ten team reach the playoff? It’s difficult to cast that as impossible after the hijinks of 2007 that left LSU at the top. But boy, they’d need a lot of things to fall into place. But as you go through the difference scenarios, a lot can still happen.
2) ACC commissioner John Swofford’s fingers are likely calloused from all the praying he should have been doing in the waning seconds of No. 20 NC State’s upset bid against No. 4 Clemson. If the Tigers had lost again, it would have effectively eliminated them from the College Football Playoff race. (Again, assuming two losses is too many this year). In order to stay alive, Clemson needed an illegal shift penalty on N.C. State to bail them out of a first-and-goal situation in the waning seconds of their 38-31 win. The call was absolutely correct. But the game did leave some gray, as N.C. State coach Dave Doeren called for an investigation into the use of a laptop on the Clemson sideline. (A school official told the Raleigh News & Observer that it “belonged to the school’s social media team and was removed during the second half after a call from the ACC.”
Like we said, things are starting to get weird in this college football season. If No. 4 Clemson does survive the gauntlet and reach the playoff, it will be the second straight year an N.C. State final-minute blunder got them there. The Wolfpack missed a 33-yard field that would have won the game last year.
3) The ACC’s next best chance to get a team in the College Football Playoff is with No. 10 Miami (8-0), which beat No. 13 Virginia Tech 28-10. Who’d have thought that the Notre Dame and Miami reprisal of “Catholics vs. Convicts” from the depths of the late 1980s would have an indelible impact on the College Football Playoff race? That’ll be the stakes next week in South Florida, with the No. 3 Irish having a chance to solidify their spot near the top of the College Football Playoff rankings. Before the Tech win, Miami’s schedule looked about as thin as Wisconsin’s. (Was Toledo their best victory? Considering the sorry state of Florida State, it’s at least an argument). But thumping No. 13 Tech – including four appearances of the turnover chain – should move Miami up the Top 10 and give next Saturday night’s game a quintessential throwback feel. (With Stanford’s loss at Washington State on Saturday, Miami will likely be the last ranked team Notre Dame gets to play this season).
4) The Pac-12 has emerged as a tarpit of middle-class mediocrity, as just one team remains with one loss. That would be Washington, which trounced Oregon 38-3 on Saturday night. The Huskies handled their business, and it would be surprising if they didn’t beat the rest of the teams on their schedule. But Washington entered the week No. 12, which means they’ll need requisite chaos to unfold to end up in the top four. Good thing it has become expected at this point. The two biggest things working against Washington will be their atrocious out-of-league schedule – sorry, Rutgers being 3-3 in the Big Ten doesn’t get the Huskies off the hook – and the likely lack of another potential marquee victory on their schedule. Sure, games against Washington State and potentially the Pac-12 title game will be nice. But Washington would still likely rank behind potential one-loss teams like Clemson, Notre Dame, the SEC title-game loser, Wisconsin (if they lose), and the winner of next week’s game between Oklahoma and TCU. Washington’s first game against a ranked opponent won’t come until Nov. 25, which sums up both the 2017 Pac-12 and Washington’s playoff problems perfectly. At this point, the Pac-12 has the longest odds of getting a team in the playoff of any major conference.
5) So what to make of the Big 12? It appears primed for self-cannibalization, which has been a trait of the league in recent years. The Big 12 has missed two of the three college football playoffs, and it could easily end up being three of four. Next weekend’s game between TCU and Oklahoma could well be considered a playoff-elimination game. An Oklahoma victory, following up on its 62-52 shootout victory at No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday, would likely propel them into the top four. It may get there already after Saturday, as the debate between Oklahoma and Clemson is a thorny one. (Oklahoma’s signature Ohio State win is slightly diminished by the Buckeyes’ blowout loss at Iowa, but it’s still a marquee road win that ranks with Georgia’s at Notre Dame as the class of out-of-conference victories.)
A TCU victory on Saturday in Norman would put the Horned Frogs on the inside track for a spot, assuming they can win out and capture the elusive 13th data point. It’d be their best victory, with their win at Oklahoma State the other solid victory. (That win at Arkansas sure doesn’t look as good as it did back in September). The biggest drama in the Big 12 may be who emerges as the potential title-game foil to the victor of next week’s game. There will likely be three two-loss Big 12 teams after next weekend. Considering the Big 12’s tortured postseason history, it would be fitting if the first year that it returns to playing a conference title game that it works against it.
6) The most stunning result of the day came from the tenor of No. 6 Ohio State’s 55-24 loss at Iowa. It was the fifth-most points ever yielded in Ohio State history and the most since a blowout loss to Penn State in 1994. Many of the same issues that showed up in the first three quarters of Ohio State’s stunning comeback against Penn State last week reappeared. The Buckeyes finished with nine penalties for 95 yards, turned the ball over four times and appeared to be severely out-schemed in all three phases of the game. J.T. Barrett’s brief Heisman Trophy candidacy disappeared after throwing four interceptions, including a pick-six to open the game. It went down as the most points Urban Meyer has ever allowed in his coaching career, and he had few answers or potential solutions after the loss in a clipped press conference that lasted less than four minutes.
Ohio State is 12-4 since losing at Penn State last season, with this loss the first that could truly be viewed as troublesome. Meyer is 44-3 in regular season Big Ten games, so there’s no cause for outright panic. But the most perplexing part of this loss for Ohio State is that the self-destructive qualities that defined the first three quarters of the Penn State win were pervasive again. Ohio State didn’t appear to correct or grow from any of its own mistakes. (Other than kick returns, which were finally clean.)
Ohio State still controls its own destiny, with a critical visit from old nemesis Michigan State looming next week in Columbus. That game will be both for control of the Big Ten East and a barometer for the Buckeye program, which appears reeling from the most embarrassing loss of Meyer’s tenure.
7) Two SEC coaches appeared to seal their fate with lackluster performances on Saturday. Texas A&M’s annual November nosedive commenced as scheduled, with the Aggies losing to No. 14 Auburn, 42-27. A&M falls to 5-4, assuring the improvement that athletic director Scott Woodward was seeking won’t come this season. A&M had consecutive 8-4 regular seasons the past two years, and Woodward made clear he wanted more. Getting thumped at home in back-to-back weeks – Mississippi State did the honors the week before – reaffirms all the hallmarks of the worst stereotypes of Sumlin’s teams: They’re soft, aren’t built for the entire year and don’t play up to their talent. The $10 million buyout won’t be an issue for the deep pockets at A&M, as it would be stunning if Sumlin returned to the sideline next season.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema also likely sealed his fate on Saturday by narrowly beating woeful Coastal Carolina, 39-38. The victory required erasing a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit. The Razorbacks (4-5) could still reach six wins, which was the mark that Bielema was expected to need to save his job. But that appears unlikely and may not be enough. This was the night the Arkansas fan base lost all hope.
8) Of all the memorable quotes that came out of Lane Kiffin’s house-hunting venture last year, a personal favorite came from Pat Chun, the FAU athletic director. Chun is from Ohio, grew up in the business under Jim Tressel and when asked if he’s a risk-taker, responded: “I don’t even like heights.”
Well, FAU’s gamble on hiring Lane Kiffin has, in ways we never imagined, tested that fear. Kiffin’s Owls beat Marshall, 30-25, on Friday night to clinch bowl eligibility (6-3) and maintain first place in Conference USA’s East Division at 5-0. The view from up high in the standings is the one Chun is comfortable with. “It looks good,” he said with a laugh Saturday afternoon. “You knew there was a risk-reward element with any football hire, never mind Lane.”
For FAU, so far, the risk has paid off. Kiffin’s career trend of straddling the line between offensive genius and brash know-it-all happens to be exactly what FAU was looking for. (More so than, say, Nick Saban). FAU president John Kelly made no bones about his desire to have Kiffin’s attention magnet help garner publicity for the university. FAU didn’t start a program until 2001 and is only in its sixth season with an on-campus stadium. Chun said Kiffin is so popular on campus that the student body president informed him this week that dressing up as Kiffin was, by far, the most popular Halloween costume on campus. “We’re still developing as a program and an institution,” Chun said of FAU, which opened in 1964. “Lane has his own brand to himself. He’s brought FAU to a different level of prominence. People definitely know who we are. Our students love having Lane.”
There are still cringes, however. Kiffin retweeted a video of how an intentional safety in the final seconds prevented FAU from covering the spread. He joked in a tweet he didn’t want to cover “because of too much rat poison.” (This is, of course, a friendly joke about a comment made by Nick Saban about positive publicity earlier this season.) Chun could only laugh: “I knew he was joking. I didn’t think much of it until it went viral. That’s just his sense of humor.”
9) Baylor became the last Power Five team to secure a victory on Saturday, winning 38-9 at Kansas. A few hours after the victory, Baylor coach Matt Rhule marveled at what his team had gone through to get to this point. “You can’t make up the stories this year,” Rhule said in a phone interview on Saturday night.
No story sums up these undermanned Bears more than freshman kicker Jay Sedwick, who began the season sitting in the student section and took part in the Baylor Line, a segment of the student section that lines up on the field pre-game to greet the team. After Baylor punter/kickoff specialist Drew Galitz tore his ACL against Kansas State on Sept. 30, the Bears held an open tryout for potential kickoff specialists. The Bears liked Sedwick, but not quite enough. They invited him back for a second tryout with the team at practice. That one stuck, and the next game Sedwick went from the student section to kicking off at No. 14 Oklahoma State. Since then, Sedwick has made tackles on kickoff and executed an onside kick against West Virginia.
That’s emblematic of the type of season Rhule has overseen, as he was brought it to revive the Baylor program after a series of sexual assault scandals ended the tenure of former coach Art Briles. Rhule knows he’s in for a total rebuild and has seen positive early signs. There have been standing ovations after the past three home games, even though Baylor lost. He said 46 of the 70 players who took the trip to Lawrence on Saturday were freshmen or sophomores. He said sophomore Blake Lynch played 40 snaps at wide receiver, 15 snaps at defensive back and 10 on special teams on Saturday. “We didn’t do it because we wanted to,” Rhule said. “We did it because we didn’t have anyone else.”
And that’s why Rhule was so happy to see his players celebrate a win on Saturday. “I was happy for them,” Rhule said. “For them to finally win, it was the right time. These kids have come back to fight every single week. I’m proud of them.”
10) Kansas State’s overtime victory at Texas Tech improbably puts the Wildcats in position to fight for a bowl bid this year. Kansas State is 5-4, but their record belies their accomplishment during this dreadful season. Texas Tech is the only competent opponent they’ve beaten this year, and what this victory may do is enable Bill Snyder to continue coaching. Snyder, 78, remains determined to hand off the Kansas State program to his son, specials teams coach Sean Snyder. Bill Snyder appears determined to keep coaching until he can do this, as his son simply isn’t considered qualified for the job. And since it would be tremendously difficult for Kansas State to fire Snyder for losing considering how much he’s meant to that program, he’ll likely just continue coaching. That’s bad news for Kansas State’s program, as Snyder is disconnected in recruiting, and the strain of the potential Snyder-to-Snyder handoff is wearing on the staff.
The improbable comeback victory may end up costing Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury his job. Texas Tech falls to 1-4 in the Big 12, and the defensive deficiencies that have haunted the program showed up again on Saturday. Kansas State third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson led an 80-yard drive in five plays to tie the game with 42 seconds left. Tech (4-5) has four losses in a row and needs two wins in its final three games against Baylor, TCU and Texas to reach a bowl.