Do you know what they call the guy who finishes last in his class in med school? They call him doctor.
That’s the lesson of Week 7’s Saturday misery, a day in which six top-16 teams fell and a few more came oh-so-close to doing the same. But for all the hand-wringing at Notre Dame or UCF after near misses, there’s something to be said about simply enjoying a win as the dominoes crash around you.
Ask any coach, and they’ll argue the same refrain: Winning’s hard. Certainly if you watch enough Alabama games, it doesn’t seem like it, but don’t let Nick Saban fool you. He spends his postgame appearances talking rat poison and fan malaise for a reason. Finding motivation, maintaining the emotion, executing consistently — these things just don’t happen every week, even for the truly great teams.
So when it comes time to parse playoff résumés, fans will invariably point at Texas and say, “Hey, they needed a late stand to escape Baylor!” and Florida haters no doubt will remember that the Gators waited until the final moments to deliver the final dagger to Vanderbilt. But, hey, they won.
Want to knock UCF for a close one against a marginal Memphis team? OK. But give some credit to the Knights for some astounding second-half adjustments on defense. Memphis scored on its first six drives, but the second half went like this: punt, punt, fumble, fumble, punt, punt, clock. No, a one-point win isn’t earning UCF any style points, but that second half was impressive.
Think Notre Dame should feel lucky to escape Pitt? Go ask Miami and Clemson and Penn State what it feels like to come out on the other end. And sure, the Irish offense looked out of sync for most of the game, but Ian Book still delivered one of his best passes of the year with a 35-yard bullet to Miles Boykin to take a late lead.
Or ask Oregon how this feels. The Ducks took advantage of Washington’s kicking woes Saturday to pull off a huge win in the Pac-12 and effectively end the Huskies’ hopes for a playoff bid. Of course, Oregon knows that pain. If the Ducks had just taken a knee in the final minutes against Stanford two weeks ago, they’d be undefeated, in the top 10 and in great position to push for one of those four playoff spots.
Saturdays like this one offer the perfect reminder of how hard it is to keep winning. Only two teams have made it through seven games unscathed, and only a few more have a chance to join them. That list no longer includes West Virginia or Georgia, and they’d gladly trade their ignominious fate for a long week of grim film review that comes with the asterisk of a win in the standings.
Ugly wins? No such thing. Like pizza, whiskey and movies by The Rock, some are better than others, but they’re all good.
Digging into the division races
Who’s the best team in the ACC Coastal? Probably best not to think too much about it. You’re liable to end up with a migraine. But if we were to tell you that it’s potentially a team that lost to Indiana, or one that lost to Old Dominion, or one that lost to the team that lost to Old Dominion … well, you see where this is going. Miami’s offensive woes have utterly hamstrung the Hurricanes against both LSU to open the season and Saturday against Virginia, which opens the door for the Cavaliers, Virginia Tech and Duke. But really, unless Coastal chaos happens and they all finish 4-4, there are no real winners here.
Over in the SEC, meanwhile, the Cocktail Party is looking a whole lot more interesting than anyone might’ve thought a few weeks ago. The East could come down to this game, with Florida ascendant and Georgia potentially dealing with quarterback questions. Luckily, the bars at The Landing in Jacksonville, Florida, have two weeks to stock up. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s just sitting back and biding its time.
Wisconsin’s loss opens the door for Iowa again in the Big Ten West, too, and with Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue all playing good football at the moment, what figured to be one of the least interesting divisions in football suddenly has some drama.
Then there’s the Pac-12 North. Stanford beat Oregon. Oregon beat Washington. Washington has a date with the Cardinal in three weeks. Oh, and Mike Leach has Washington State in control of its destiny, too, with Oregon on the docket next week. Maybe we’re looking to the wrong coast for coastal chaos?
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa throws for 265 yards and three touchdowns in a 39-10 win vs. Missouri to remain undefeated on the season.
1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
No, Alabama was never close to being in danger during Upset Saturday, but that doesn’t mean the news was all good, as Tagovailoa tweaked a knee and left the game. Before he left, however, he threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns, so he remains atop this list, but his health is the difference between the Tide being really good and utterly dominant.
2. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State
Ohio State slumped through the first half of its game against Minnesota, befitting this horrendous Saturday for top-ranked teams. But Haskins did a nice job of rallying the troops for what ended up being a pretty easy win, in which the Buckeyes’ QB was once again exceptional, completing 33-of-44 for 412 yards and three touchdowns.
3. Darrell Henderson, Memphis
Henderson’s first half against UCF was insane, with 172 yards and a touchdown in 21 carries. The second half? Eh, not so much. Still, the guy leads the nation in rushing and is averaging better than 10 yards a carry. He belongs in this conversation regardless of where his team finishes.
4. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
5. Travis Etienne, Clemson
How do you avoid getting caught up in upset Saturday’s wake? Take the week off, as both Murray and Etienne did. Sometimes doing nothing is the best way forward.
New coach misery rankings
Jeremy Pruitt landed a signature win as his Volunteers housed Auburn. Chip Kelly finally got his offense clicking, and UCLA earned win No. 1 of the season, too. So, it was a good week for first-year coaches, right? Eh, not so much.
1. Scott Frost, Nebraska. Per ESPN’s metrics, with a little over a minute to play, the Huskers had a 98.7 percent chance to snap their losing streak, earn Frost his first win, and turn the page on one of the darkest periods in program history. Instead? Well, those stats aren’t making Frost feel any better.
2. Kevin Sumlin, Arizona. Remember how good Khalil Tate was last season? This season, Arizona’s offense is the complete opposite of that. Oh, and Jimbo Fisher’s strong start at Texas A&M is a nice bit of salt in the wound for Sumlin.
3. Chad Morris, Arkansas. It says something that Morris’ team blew a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter to remain winless, and it’s still not the worst thing that happened to a new coach this week. Whew pig.
4. Mike Bloomgren, Rice. The Owls lost 42-0 to UAB, which wasn’t even a program two years ago, and they’ve scored a grand total of three points in their past two games. But, hey, it takes time to fix Rice. Unless it’s minute rice. That stuff’s good.
5. Willie Taggart, Florida State. He had the week off, which isn’t good for buyout-related internet fundraising.
Gauging the Group of 5
For much of Saturday afternoon, it seemed reasonable to ponder the unthinkable: What happens to the Group of 5 if UCF loses?
Turns out, the Knights rebounded nicely and toppled Memphis for their 19th straight victory. Still, with Cincinnati and USF still on the docket, it’s worth asking about who might be next in the not-so-powerful five pecking order.
Start with those other two teams in the American. Cincinnati was off Saturday, and the Bearcats’ wins aren’t exactly impressive. South Florida is undefeated, too, but easily could have three or four losses by now.
San Diego State might make for a good Plan B. The Aztecs rebounded nicely from an opening-week loss to Stanford with solid wins over Arizona State, Eastern Michigan and Boise State. If anyone outside the American is going to grab the New Year’s Six bowl, SDSU seems like the logical option.
A two-point loss to Louisiana Tech and the overall weakness of Conference USA probably nix North Texas’ chances for a New Year’s Six bid, but the Mean Green remain worth monitoring.
Appalachian State went to Arkansas State this week and dominated, and after taking Penn State to overtime, there’s certainly a little buzz surrounding the Mountaineers. Of course, that Penn State game looks a little less impressive now that the Nittany Lions have two losses, and there really isn’t a chance for another good win left on the schedule (thanks, Troy!).
But here’s the dark horse: How about Buffalo? The MAC isn’t great, and the Bulls’ loss to Army was pretty emphatic, but that’s balanced in part by good wins over Temple, Eastern Michigan, Akron and Toledo. They’ll need to both win out and win emphatically, but Buffalo secured bowl eligibility on Saturday, and it is at least worth keeping the Bulls in the conversation for a while longer.
Belief Index: Week 7
There are a handful of teams lingering on the periphery of contention, and it’s hard to know what exactly to make of them. But at the halfway mark of the season, we’re checking in to see how much we should believe, from “Moon Landing” (that definitely happened) to “Easter Bunny” (patently absurd).
Iowa went on the road and utterly thumped Indiana on Saturday, bringing the Hawkeyes to 6-1. The passing game is never going to be Kirk Ferentz’s bread and butter, but Nate Stanley has been really good, and those tight ends are a matchup nightmare. Now look at the remaining schedule where only road trips to Penn State and Purdue look like real challenges, and even with the loss to Wisconsin, Iowa isn’t completely buried in the Big Ten West. Belief Status: Santa Claus. We know it’s not real, but it’s fun to keep believing a little longer.
One week after Georgia Tech hung 66 on Louisville, Duke went to Atlanta and utterly stifled Paul Johnson’s option. The Blue Devils now have notable road wins against Baylor, Northwestern and Georgia Tech, with a really good defense and an NFL talent at QB. Of course, they also have that home loss to Virginia Tech, which makes the path to the ACC Coastal a tough one. Belief Status: Life on Mars. Maybe it’s there, but we still might never find it.
Mike Leach’s crew was off this week, but the Cougars are 6-1 and unranked, with an increasingly impressive win over Utah. They’ve got three ranked opponents left on the schedule (plus a road trip to Stanford), so there’s plenty of time to prove themselves, even if we’re not sold yet. Belief Status: Blackbeard’s ghost. Because we needed a pirate reference.
South Florida Bulls
Charlie Strong is 6-0 but had to come from behind to beat Georgia Tech, Illinois and Tulsa and struggled to get past ECU this season. The Bulls had no business pulling out the win over Tulsa on Friday, but hey, undefeated is still undefeated, right? Belief Status: Bigfoot. Ugly and not for real.
Anyone in the SEC except Alabama
Georgia sure doesn’t look ready to challenge the Tide, even if the Dawgs can still make the SEC title game. Auburn? Heck no. Texas A&M already had its shot. Mississippi State? We’re not holding our breath. It really all comes down to LSU the first Saturday in November, and the Tigers’ secondary should at least be something of a challenge for Tua Tagovailoa. Belief Status: Winning the lottery. So, you’re telling us there’s a chance?
Week 7 hot takes
Moxie is better than accuracy
You hear all kinds of nice things about Joe Burrow. The guy manages an offense well. He has real moxie. He’s the pinnacle of leadership. All of those things are purposefully vague because the reality is, Burrow isn’t the most accurate passer on the planet. Funny thing, though — it hasn’t seemed to matter. Burrow has beaten three top-10 teams so far this season, and he hasn’t topped 50 percent completions in any of those games. In the past decade, no one else has done that in a single season, and only one other QB has three total such wins — Jarrett Lee, another LSU quarterback. So maybe moxie and leadership are all you need. Well, that and an elite defense.
A decoy jersey is reason enough to run a fake punt
Pitt was trailing by five and facing a fourth-and-4 at its own 45. This was the moment Pat Narduzzi had been planning for. Out trotted third-string QB Jeff George Jr., son of the former No. 1 NFL draft pick and a Michigan transfer, wearing a No. 96 jersey. There was No. 96 listed on the travel roster. George had pulled it over his No. 3, lined up as the punter, took the snap and ran the fake. Brilliant subterfuge, right? Indeed. Except the play was a disaster from the outset, and Pitt turned the ball over on downs. It was like a mid-2000s M. Night Shyamalan movie with a convoluted twist that left everyone utterly perplexed.
Helmet catch?! pic.twitter.com/y4HfvwURGG
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) October 13, 2018
No one uses footballs to call people anymore
Remember the old Sports Illustrated football phone? OK, perhaps we had one in high school. It’s hard to remember that long ago. Regardless, Louisville’s Dez Fitzpatrick paid homage to that bit of early ’90s nostalgia in the Cardinals’ loss to Boston College with one of the more impressive helmet catches you’ll ever see, reaching behind him to haul in the pass with one hand, then bringing the ball to the earpiece of his helmet to secure it. Afterward, we assume he used the ball to text David Tyree that his highlight had been one-upped.
Auburn is still a top-25 team
Sure, the Tigers lost — this time in humiliating fashion to woeful Tennessee. But really, that’s no surprise. Since the Kick Six game in 2013, Auburn is just 23-23 against Power 5 opponents. The crazy thing about that, though, is despite that obvious mediocrity, the Tigers have been ranked in 86 percent of the AP polls during that period. Iowa, on the other hand, is 31-19 vs. Power 5 foes in that span and has spent only 17 weeks ranked. It’s tough to get all those quality losses in the Big Ten.
Rutgers should try an option offense
The Scarlet Knights wrapped up their latest embarrassing loss with the following passing stats: two completions, 17 attempts, 0.5 yards per pass, five interceptions. How bad is that? In the past decade, only one other team has ever attempted at least 17 throws and completed two or fewer. We’ll give you one guess which team it was. Yup. Rutgers. In 2016, against Michigan, going 2-of-18. You might remember that game. The Knights lost 78-0. So, really, Saturday was a big improvement. And if you count the five picks, really, they completed seven passes, and that doesn’t sound nearly so bad.
Always set a low bar
Little life advice: screw up early on. Set expectations way down there. Sort of like Northwestern’s Drew Luckenbaugh did on his first field goal try, shanking a 42-yard attempt late in the third quarter. Then, with expectations nice and low, you’re ready to bask in the glory of moderate success. Again, look at Luckenbaugh, who followed that miss with his first two career made kicks, including a 37-yarder in overtime to secure both a win and a ride off the field on his teammates’ shoulders.
Pillow fight of the day
There’s nothing like cellar-dwelling MACtion, and Central Michigan and Ball State put on a show for the six people who watched. The Fighting David Lettermans engineered a painful, 12-play, 56-yard drive, kicking a field goal with 47 seconds left to win 24-23, sending CMU to 1-6 and securing the Chippewas’ place in the #Bottom10 for another week.
Play of the day
Speaking of MACtion, Bowling Green managed to seize defeat from the jaws of victory Saturday, blowing a 21-7 halftime lead to lose 41-35. The most ignominious moment came on a completion to Keishawn Watson at the 25. He promptly fumbled the ball forward as Bowling Green’s defenders tumbled out of bounds, then he scooped it up and ran it into the end zone to tie the score at 28. It’s your classic catch-fumble-scoop-score. Just the way they get drawn up when you’re Bowling Green.
— #MACtion (@MACSports) October 13, 2018
Underappreciated win of the week
Furman’s Harris Roberts, who gained fame before the opening week as the Clemson student who took on Clemson in football for the Paladins, tossed three touchdowns in a 34-14 thumping of No. 4 Wofford.