Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (hazmat suits sold separately in Baton Rouge):
FIRST QUARTER: ASSESSING SEPTEMBER
We got an XXL introduction to the season in the month just past, with nearly half the nation playing five games before October arrived and two schools (Massachusetts and San Jose State) squeezing in six. So there is a considerable body of work to sift through – some of which will be addressed here, and some of which will spill over to the Second Quarter. For starters, a few Dash picks for best/worst/weirdest thing from September:
Player of the Month: Saquon Barkley (1), Penn State. The junior running back has hijacked the Year of the Quarterback (more on that later). Barkley has been a multitasking maestro, leading the nation in all-purpose yardage (244 yards per game), leading his team in receptions (27) and scoring touchdowns four different ways: running (four), receiving (two), kickoff return (one) and throwing for a score. He’s produced several jaw-dropping plays that will make for a nice Heisman Trophy sizzle reel – the hurdle at Iowa City and the one-handed catch against Indiana topping the list for now. He’s the front-runner for that award as of today, and some huge October games could either solidify that status or throw it open to greater debate. (Runner-up: Stanford running back Bryce Love.)
Coach of the Month: Dabo Swinney (2), Clemson. His cornerstone quarterback of the last two years is now in the NFL, where he produced five touchdowns Sunday. So are his 1,100-yard rusher and two leading receivers from the 2016 national championship team. And his leading tackler. But which team had the best September in America? That would be Swinney’s, which totally controlled ACC road showdowns against Louisville and Virginia Tech and also beat Auburn. The Cardinals, Hokies and Tigers are 0-3 against Clemson and 12-0 against everyone else. The Tigers proved they can survive major losses to the NFL and still dominate, and that reflects nicely on their head coach. (Runner-up: Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma.)
Game of the Month: Penn State over Iowa (3). It came down to the last play of the game and the last play of a do-or-die, 80-yard drive. When Trace McSorley threaded a seven-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson with :00 on the clock in Iowa City, the Nittany Lions had scored one of the most dramatic victories in the history of a heavyweight program. As long as Penn State remains in contention for the Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff spot, that heart-stopping victory will resonate. (Runner-up: UCLA 45, Texas A&M 44. The 34-point comeback earned the game a spot in history, but the Bruins’ two losses since then took the shine off this game.)
Dumpster Fire of the Month: LSU (4). The Tigers wasted little time disappointing the fans who desperately wanted to believe that because Ed Orgeron understood LSU culture, he suddenly understood how to coach. They were an unspectacular 2-0, their new-and-improved offense very similar to the clunky model of recent years, and then Mississippi State blew the Tigers away. That was the warning sign. Full-on disaster arrived two weeks later, with the loss to Troy. With a 3-2 record and four road games remaining, LSU is headed for its worst record of the 21st century. Good job, good effort, Joe Alleva. (Runner-up: Nebraska, which beat LSU to canning the athletic director who hired the football coach.)
Weird Trend of the Month: Sideline talismans (5). First there was the Texas A&M band-major baton, which suddenly found its way into the hands of a running back after scoring a touchdown. Then there was the Tennessee trash can, and players slamming footballs into it after big plays. And the super-sized Miami gold chain. And the Georgia spiked shoulder pads. This is the new form of in-game positive reinforcement – make a big play, get a trinket. Players seem to love the idea, judging from their reactions. We’re a long way from the old pat on the butt or a congratulatory swat on the shoulder pads – but, hey, whatever motivates your millennials.
Broken Narrative of the Month: Year of the Quarterback (6). In August, we told you about the banner year for QBs in college football. The conversation started with L.A. slingers Sam Darnold of USC and Josh Rosen of UCLA. It included seniors Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and J.T. Barrett of Ohio State. There was buzz about Wyoming’s Josh Allen. There was debate about returning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. And now, heading into October, only Mayfield is without a few dents in his rep. Darnold, the darling of the offseason, is 56th nationally in pass efficiency and has thrown eight interceptions. Rosen is 23rd in efficiency, and his rating has declined each of the last three games. Buckeyes fans wanted Barrett benched two games into the season. Allen is 94th in efficiency and losing NFL admirers quickly. The knocks on Jackson’s passing intensified after his ineffective play against Clemson. There is still time for the narrative to repair itself, but it will take some work.
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF
How The Dash sees the College Football Playoff race at the moment:
Clemson (7). Moved the Tigers up to the top spot because, as noted above in the discussion of Swinney’s work, nobody has three more impressive victories to date. They have just been spectacular defensively, further underscoring the value of longtime coordinator Brent Venables and the program’s recruiting ability. Powered by a dominant front, Clemson is in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, tackles for loss and sacks. Next: Home against Wake Forest, which won’t be easy.
Alabama (8). Can you really demote a team that has won its last two games – against SEC opponents – 125-3? Yeah, you can – with reservations. Fortunately, no rankings matter in early October. A month from now, when we hear from the CFP Selection Committee, the Tide very likely will be 8-0 and rolling unimpeded toward an interesting little Iron Bowl against Auburn. Next: At Texas A&M.
Georgia (9). Like the Crimson Tide, the Bulldogs have opened SEC play with a couple of powerful statements. They have stomped Mississippi State and Tennessee by a combined 72-3, and that road victory over Notre Dame continues to age well with the Fighting Irish unbeaten and largely unchallenged otherwise. Georgia, not Alabama, leads the SEC in total defense right now, which underscores the way Kirby Smart is building the program with the same approach he learned under Nick Saban. Next: At Vanderbilt.
Oklahoma (10). The Sooners had a week off, but their big victory at Ohio State still probably ranks as the best win anyone has had to date. With Riley dialing up plays and Mayfield executing them, Oklahoma leads the nation in yards per game (605) and yards per play (9.1). Next: A low-stress home game against Iowa State.
Dropped out: None.
Also considered: TCU, Penn State, Michigan, Washington, San Diego State.