Last week, we examined the puzzling malaise of the defending national champion, Florida State, which despite a 4-0 start had failed to live up to its reputation as the cruel master of all it surveys. The Noles were surviving, but didn’t we expect more from the nation’s top team than a razor-thin escape against Clemson and a shootout against NC State? Barely a month into the season, FSU had lost a majority of its preseason votes as the top team in the Associated Press poll and had ceded the no. 1 spot in the Coaches Poll altogether, to Alabama. The Crimson Tide, though; there was an outfit that knew how to win with flair.
Ah, how innocent we were in those days, hailing Lane Kiffin as a resurgent genius. This week, Florida State looks like the last man standing at the end of a debilitating, nationwide bender. It’s in the running for the Will Smith role in the I Am Legend reboot. Beginning on Thursday night, when Arizona ambushed no. 2 Oregon, five of the top 10 teams in the AP poll suffered their first loss of the season; 11 of the AP’s Top 25 lost in all, five of them to unranked opponents. Of the four teams (FSU, Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma) that earned first-place votes last week in both major polls, only the Seminoles emerged unscathed, thanks to a routine, 43-3 win over Wake Forest on a weekend when “routine” became a mark of considerable virtue. Because the rest of college football is so drunk right now.
No. 3 Alabama, the new hotness after racking up record-breaking offensive numbers against Florida in its last game, was held to a single offensive touchdown in a 23-17 loss at no. 11 Ole Miss. No. 6 Texas A&M, facing its first hostile road environment since its opening-night romp at South Carolina, suffered a near-identical thrashing by no. 12 Mississippi State. No. 4 Oklahoma, the consensus front-runner in the Big 12, fell victim to a 37-33 upset at no. 25 TCU. No. 8 UCLA, which stood to replace Oregon as the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12, lost a 30-28 decision against unranked Utah. No. 18 BYU, the last team outside of the Power 5 conferences that had any hope of crashing the four-team playoff field, was outmanned in a 35-20 loss to Utah State, a game that cost the Cougars their star quarterback, Taysom Hill, for the rest of the season.
Sunday morning dawned to reveal a barely recognizable, thoroughly hungover landscape in which Auburn had nearly overtaken Florida State atop the new AP Poll, the upstart Mississippi schools suddenly shared no. 3,1 and 30 percent of the top 10 was composed of teams (Mississippi State, TCU, Arizona) that were unranked three weeks ago. Nationally, only 10 undefeated teams remain (Arizona, Auburn, Baylor, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Marshall, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, and TCU) with nine weeks2 to go in the regular season; five games are still on deck between the squads in that group, beginning with Auburn’s trip to Mississippi State this coming weekend, and not including a long-shot matchup between FSU and Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game.
Only Army and Navy play in Week 16.
The lesson, as always, is that we know nothing; give it a few more weeks, and our collective preseason predictions may actually amount to negative knowledge. The more we pretend to know about college football, the more wrong it will inevitably prove us to be. We are idiots, hear us roar.
Of course, a certain insistence on randomness and chaos is part of the fundamental nature and appeal of the sport. While pundits like me may not stand to gain much by abandoning the pretense of weekly polls and other arbitrary pecking orders,3 the sport is certainly better off defying our attempts to impose context at every turn. In the course of a few hours, the past weekend tore asunder months of easy assumptions and empty hype, and left in their place something 100 times more compelling: a flattened landscape that refuses to conform to any semblance of hierarchy or sobriety, the direction of which no one — including the participants who will determine it — has the slightest fucking clue.
The only reason prediction magazines and polls exist, or ever existed, is because readers/viewers have an insatiable appetite for them. Shit sells.
Not that we’re about to stop pretending otherwise. Polls will continue to roll off the presses, bowl projections will continue to be updated, mock playoff brackets will continue to dominate broadcasts, and they’ll all continue to succeed in capturing an audience, as if the next two months aren’t going to set those measuring sticks alight. When we write about ranked teams on Grantland, we’ll continue to use their AP ranking on first reference, because it’s the house style, and because context, context, context.
These things don’t mean anything in terms of the eventual results, but try not to think of them as meaningless: Think of them as a public service, an exercise in setting up every Saturday as a potential surprise party with random mascots jumping out from behind the couch. Unless your favorite team was on the losing end of an upset, you probably found this weekend as much fun from start to finish as you can reasonably expect a single sport to ever be. And even if your team did lose, the unifying theme of complete and utter chaos is a comfort in the long run: There’s still so much time, and so much craziness left to unfold. There’s still a realistic chance the earth will crack in your favor, as it did for Auburn last year, and for Alabama two years before that, and for so many others that have discovered that a blemish (or two) along the way won’t necessarily put their most ambitious goals out of reach.
The 2014 season is young, barely an adolescent. Let it find itself. Don’t bother sifting through the wreckage in search of a new order. Enjoy the chaos. Embrace it. Watch every game with your arm slung around its shoulder. Beyond the specifics of the games themselves, the madness is the only thing you’ll remember, because it’s the only thing that’s real.
• No. 11 Ole Miss 23, no. 3 Alabama 17: Before Saturday, the most notable moment of Senquez Golson’s career had come in October 2011, when he was posterized twice on a long touchdown run by Alabama tailback Trent Richardson. Golson (no. 21 in the video below) first failed to bring down Richardson with a hapless attempt at an arm tackle in the backfield, which wouldn’t have been all that memorable had he not caught up to Richardson 75 yards later only to be juked out of his shoes as no. 3 waltzed untouched into the end zone.
That play typified the Rebels in 2011, when they ended the season ranked last in the SEC in total defense, and coach Houston Nutt was shoved out the door in the midst of a 12-game conference losing streak. Golson may have been “a poor true freshman” in over his head against blue-chip competition, but there were few other viable bodies on the roster to throw into the fire instead.
Here was Golson on Saturday, almost exactly three years later, typifying Ole Miss in 2014 by clinching one of the most instantly iconic victories in school history in the same end zone where he was once humiliated:
The symbolism of Golson’s journey from freshman goat to senior hero was impossible to miss. Alabama came into the weekend averaging 42 points per game on nearly 600 yards of total offense. Against Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide went scoreless on nine of 11 possessions, and were forced to punt on six. At the end of the day, the Rebels ranked no. 1 in the SEC in scoring defense and no. 2 in total defense, and all traces of their previous futility had been consigned to a forgotten shelf in the archives, to be retrieved only for the sake of comparison with their newfound status under Nutt’s successor, Hugh Freeze.
After the game, the shock of that trajectory was apparent on Freeze’s slightly bewildered face, and especially in his trembling voice, which held up just long enough to make it through the obligatory interview with CBS’s Allie LaForce amid the uninhibited throng anointing the best Ole Miss team of most of their lifetimes. For the rest of the state, Saturday was an unprecedented party; for Freeze and his counterpart at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen, watching the growing pains finally yield a fully mature contender was the culmination of years of heavy lifting, a payoff that often seemed like it would never arrive. Now that it has, though, making good on the opportunity to win the SEC West is strictly business.
• No. 5 Auburn 41, no. 15 LSU 7: It’s difficult to gauge the value of a win over LSU, which was previously trounced by Mississippi State in its SEC opener and which entered Saturday with a true freshman quarterback, Brandon Harris, making his first career start in very unfavorable circumstances. But the final score speaks for itself: Of all the teams pegged as legitimate national contenders in the preseason, Auburn is the only one that has come close to fulfilling its potential across the board.
Offensively, that’s no surprise: Through five games, Auburn is right on last year’s championship-game pace, albeit with considerably better balance from the passing game. The defense, on the other hand, was an obvious Achilles’ heel in 2013 but is well ahead of schedule this year, ranking 14th nationally in total defense (compared to 87th last year) and ninth in scoring defense (up from 47th). Against LSU, the defense dominated from start to finish, holding the visiting Tigers to eight punts, three turnovers on downs, and zero third-down conversions in 13 attempts; Harris finished 3-of-14 passing for 58 yards, quashing any notions of an instant breakthrough à la Deshaun Watson at Clemson.
If I had to pick a no. 1 team right now — and again, why I would want to do so in the first week of October, I have no idea — Auburn seems like the safest choice, although the rigors of the SEC West don’t exactly lend themselves to long-term security.
• No. 9 Notre Dame 17, no. 14 Stanford 14: The most anticipated matchup of the weekend from a narrative standpoint was Stanford’s defense vs. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, but it wasn’t even a fair fight: Playing through unseasonably miserable conditions, Golson completed fewer than half of his passes (20 of 43) and committed two turnovers: a fumble that led directly to a short-field Stanford touchdown in the first quarter, followed shortly by an interception that thwarted a scoring opportunity inside the Cardinal’s 10-yard line. At the end of the day, Golson was the hero, thanks to a 23-yard, fourth-and-long touchdown pass to Ben Koyack that supplied the winning points with just more than a minute to play. If Notre Dame goes on to secure a playoff bid, that throw will play a prominent role in the subsequent mythology.
But for the quarterback to be in position for the Rudy treatment, most of the groundwork had to be laid by the Irish defense, which held Stanford running backs and receivers to 76 yards on 3.2 per carry, sacked Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan four times, and intercepted Hogan twice. As usual, Hogan earned plenty of praise from NBC’s broadcast crew for being “tough,” “gritty,” “a winner,” etc. When Stanford struggles to run, however, Hogan’s inability to challenge the opposing secondary downfield without the benefit of play-action is a glaring liability. On Saturday, the Cardinal’s longest pass covered just 23 yards, leaving them ranked next to last in the Pac-12 this season in passes of 20 yards or longer; in three games against Power 5 competition (including Notre Dame), Hogan has yet to complete a pass longer than 28 yards, and Stanford has yet to top 20 points.
And as far as the “gritty winner” rhetoric goes: After Golson drove Notre Dame for the winning touchdown, Stanford used the final minute to complete passes of 7, 6, and 13 yards before taking a sack on the final play of the game.4 Hogan has earned a lot of wins as Stanford’s starter, but in the Cardinal’s two losses this season, the offense has scored a grand total of three touchdowns, and two of those drives started in opposing territory. This defense is too good to be effectively eliminated from the playoff picture before midseason, but here we are.
Although Hogan managed to throw the ball away, he was flagged for intentional grounding, and Irish safety Elijah Shumate was credited with the sack.
• Arizona State 38, no. 16 USC 34: Though it didn’t feature a top-10 team,5 this was the upset that served as a spirit totem for all of college football on a spectacularly volatile day. With four minutes to play, ASU trailed by nine points, 27-18, and hadn’t scored a touchdown since midway through the second quarter. In those final four minutes, the Sun Devils:
- Scored a touchdown, cutting the lead to 27-25.
- Immediately allowed a touchdown, on a 53-yard run by USC’s Javorius “Buck” Allen, pushing the margin back to nine.
- Immediately scored another touchdown, on a 73-yard bomb from Mike Bercovici to Cameron Smith, bringing the score to 34-32.
- Forced USC’s offense into its only three-and-out of the night.
- Scored on a last-ditch Hail Mary from Bercovici to Jaelen Strong for the win.
That all went down in the span of 10 plays from scrimmage. The Pac-12 race appears to be unfolding along multiple, distinct timelines that have accidentally converged into a single plane, and it’s a lot of fun.
On a related note, we’re at a stage in the evolution of college offenses where backup quarterbacks who pass for 510 yards and five touchdowns without a turnover in their second career starts are usually relegated to weekly footnotes (see below), because really, who can keep track? But Bercovici has earned his moment: After failing to win the starting job in 2012, under a different coaching staff than the one that recruited him to Arizona State the year before, he could have done what most jilted passers do and opted for a quiet transfer that would give him a better shot of getting on the field. Instead, Bercovici decided to bide his time behind starter Taylor Kelly and make his move on the job as a fifth-year senior in 2015. Now, he may not have to wait that long: With Kelly set to return next week from the foot injury that’s sidelined him for the last two games, a renewed controversy is not out of the question.
• California 60, Washington State 59: Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday set an NCAA record in this game by passing for 734 yards on 70 attempts — that comes to a little more than four-tenths of a mile, in one game — only to watch his team lose when kicker Quentin Breshears shanked a 19-yard field goal in the closing seconds. Connor?
Altogether, the teams combined for 1,401 yards of offense, 60 first downs, 16 touchdowns (including 12 in the second half), and 10 players with at least five receptions. And yet: After Halliday passed Washington State into a first-and-goal opportunity at the Cal 4-yard line with 25 seconds remaining, the Cougars suddenly decided to play it safe, opting for back-to-back handoffs that failed to crack the goal line. Breshears came on for the decisive kick on third down, with 19 seconds to go, marking possibly the first time in his career that gonzo coach Mike Leach has made a deliberate decision to take the outcome out of his quarterback’s hands and put it on his kicker’s foot. It will probably (hopefully) be the last. Wazzu’s 812 yards are the most by a losing team in FBS history.
Meanwhile, in its first three conference games, Cal has lost on a Hail Mary, won in double overtime, and now won on a glorified PAT veering wide right in consecutive weeks. The Bears have scored 164 points in those games, allowed 164 points, and currently sit alone atop the Pac-12 North standings. This is what first place looks like.
Quote of the Week
“I recognize the Big 12 does not allow comments to be made on officiating and I recognize there’s penalties for that, but folks, our institution has been penalized already. I can think of three situations where the fine has been pretty great — because we lost games as the result of calls that either we were apologized for, or the media certainly felt we should have been apologized to. We can’t get that back. That ends careers for football coaches, AD’s and presidents. Something’s got to be done. I don’t know what it is, but there needs to be more accountability on what happens in certain situations.” — Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard, openly blasting Big 12 officials for their perceived bias against the Cyclones in a 37-20 loss to no. 21 Oklahoma State
The best of the week …
• Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong: The winning Hail Mary against USC goes down instantly as one of the most famous plays in ASU history, but it was only a cherry on top: Before the final play, Strong already had nine receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns, including a 77-yard bomb in the first half. It was his second straight week with double-digit catches for triple-digit yardage against a ranked opponent from L.A.
• Michigan State LB Taiwan Jones: Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah arrived in East Lansing on a wave of early Heisman hype and left as the latest in a long line of casualties of the Michigan State defense, managing just 45 yards on 1.9 per carry in a 27-22 loss that wound up being way more interesting than it had any right to be after three quarters.6 Jones, a senior, accepts this honor on behalf of the entire defense, which he led with 10 total tackles and three tackles for loss.
It speaks volumes about how wildly entertaining Saturday was that this game, involving a frantic finish between two ranked teams in a prime-time TV slot, hasn’t even come up in this column until now.
• Kentucky RB Jojo Kemp: Kemp, a sophomore, ran 17 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats’ 45-38 upset over South Carolina, with all three scores coming out of the Wildcat formation (or the “Wild Kemp,” as it were). The victory was Kentucky’s second in a row in SEC play, on the heels of a 17-game conference losing streak dating back to 2012. Overall, the Wildcats are 4-1, with the only loss coming in a wild, triple-overtime affair at Florida that they came within a split second of winning.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks are wondering who to blame for a 3-3 start and finding no shortage of candidates.
• Georgia RB Todd Gurley: This week’s episode of the Gurley Show saw our dreadlocked protagonist account for 187 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage in the no. 13 Bulldogs’ 44-17 win over Vanderbilt. Plus, as an added bonus, he threw a 50-yard pass to tight end Jeb Blazevich that stands as Georgia’s longest completion of the season.
Gurley ranks second nationally in all-purpose yards per game, even though passing yards aren’t included in that category. Not even fair.
• Catch of the Year of the Week — Utah WR Dres Anderson: Utah’s late-night win over UCLA was appropriately wild, hinging on two lead changes in the final five minutes and not one but two missed field goals by the Bruins’ Ka’imi Fairbairn as time expired. But it was worth the price of admission to the Rose Bowl for Anderson’s second-quarter touchdown grab in double coverage alone:
Backup quarterback Kendal Thompson finished with 95 yards passing on 13 attempts, nearly half of that total coming on this play — an objectively horrible decision that yielded fantastic results.
… and the worst.
• UCLA’s offensive line: UCLA desperately needs quarterback Brett Hundley to remain upright, but has yet to keep him clean for a full game. On Saturday, the Bruins allowed 10 sacks in the loss to Utah, including sacks on three consecutive plays in the fourth quarter. That brings their total to 22 sacks allowed for the season, seven more than any other Pac-12 offense.
• Wisconsin’s quarterbacks: Melvin Gordon is the best big-play back in the nation, and the stat sheet reflects it after he ripped off 259 yards rushing on 9.6 per carry Saturday at Northwestern. In the same game, though, Wisconsin QBs Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy combined to complete just 12 of 29 passes with four interceptions, at least temporarily knocking the Badgers from the driver’s seat in the Big Ten’s West Division with a 20-14 loss. Stave, you may recall, was shelved for the first month of the season because of a debilitating case of the “yips,” an elusive but very real mental block that kept him from throwing the ball with his usual accuracy in practice. Last week, Stave assured reporters that he had been cured, but his numbers against the Wildcats — 8-of-19 passing, 114 yards, three interceptions off the bench — did not reflect it. Unfortunately, McEvoy’s numbers against sentient competition have somehow been even worse.
• Illinois’s Defense: Under coach Tim Beckman, the Illini have operated at such a level of ineptitude that it usually feels unfair to pick on them. But their opponent on Saturday, Purdue, has been even worse, which made the humiliation even greater when the Boilermakers racked up 551 yards of offense in a 38-27 win in Champaign. On the ground alone, Purdue pounded out 349 yards on 7.8 per carry, its first 300-yard rushing game against a Big Ten defense since 2003 (also against Illinois). In 2013, Purdue rushed for a grand total of 415 yards in eight Big Ten games. Is there any chance Beckman’s bosses will accept “charitability” as a reason for keeping him on the job?