As usual, the college football season has delivered an exhilarating sequence of chaos and surprises, but as we hit the final stretch this year, perhaps the most surprising twist of all is just how many of the pieces have wound up landing almost exactly where we initially expected they would. In lieu of any obviously dominant team, 2014 is shaping up to be the season of the resurrection.
Consider what everyone expected to happen three months ago, compared with what actually has happened. The top three teams in the preseason AP poll? Florida State, Alabama, and Oregon, in that order. The top three teams heading into the last full weekend of the regular season, after months of musical chairs? Florida State, Alabama, and Oregon, in that order.
Lower down, Baylor, Ohio State, UCLA, and Michigan State have all made good on top-10 projections as well, despite having fallen out of the top 10 at various points this season. Georgia, which opened at no. 12, has followed a similar trajectory to no. 8 in the latest poll. On the whole, 18 of the teams in the most recent set of AP rankings appeared in the initial Top 25 in August. The obligatory surprises (Mississippi State, TCU) and disappointments (South Carolina, Stanford) have hardly dislodged the status quo: If the playoff field ultimately consists of FSU, Bama, Oregon, and either Baylor or Ohio State, as it very likely will, it will match the most boring, by-the-book preseason projections.
For all of them, the course of the season has been less of a straight line than an orbit, but no team’s path has cast it further afield of expectations than UCLA’s. At times, the Bruins have struggled even to remain on the radar: As recently as mid-October, they looked like one of the first victims of the chaos, having fallen out of the polls entirely following back-to-back losses to Utah and Oregon. They continued to linger on the fringes as the calendar turned to November. Now, less than a month removed from that midseason purgatory, they’re back in the top 10 and back in control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. After a 38-20 thumping of no. 19 USC on Saturday night in a game that was even more lopsided than the score suggests, UCLA is finally beginning to look like the team the summer hype anticipated.
The emergence has been a long time coming. Right out of the gate, the Bruins looked out of sorts on an opening-week trip to Virginia, managing a single offensive touchdown in a turnover-riddled, 28-20 escape; from there, they narrowly avoided upsets at the hands of Memphis and Texas, generally looking listless enough to fall five spots in the AP poll, from no. 7 to no. 12, despite a 3-0 record. October brought the aforementioned losses to the Utes and Ducks, plus further cause for concern in subsequent wins over Cal (by two points) and Colorado (in overtime). Through eight games, the Bruins’ record stood at 6-2 overall (3-2 in Pac-12 play), but they had yet to play up to their potential outside of an out-of-the-blue, 62-27 romp at then–no. 15 Arizona State; the other victories were nail-biters at the expense of unranked underdogs, as the Bruins’ descent in the polls reflected. Meanwhile, UCLA’s fledgling offensive line was routinely portrayed as an insurmountable liability to quarterback Brett Hundley’s bid for the Heisman, or anything else.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the light came on. For his part, Hundley has been as advertised more or less from day one: For the season, he ranks first nationally in completion percentage, sixth in pass efficiency,1 and 13th in total offense. The offensive line has been trending upward from about midseason on, having allowed just 10 sacks in the last six games after yielding a whopping 23 in the first five. On the ground, UCLA ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, behind only Oregon. Finally, the defense bared its teeth in a November 1 win over Arizona, holding the Wildcats to their fewest yards (255) in three years under coach Rich Rodriguez.
Against FBS opponents currently boasting winning records, Hundley is the most efficient passer in the country.
Against USC, everything synced up to produce arguably the most complete game the Bruins have played under their third-year head coach, Jim Mora, and certainly the most satisfying. Hundley was sharp, completing 22 of 31 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns to three different receivers; meanwhile, the Trojans accomplished nothing offensively, finishing with season lows for total offense and yards per play. (On top of that, also note that a huge chunk of USC’s production came on a meaningless, 91-yard touchdown drive in garbage time.) Alongside UCLA’s convincing, double-digit wins over Arizona and Washington earlier this month, it was hard to mistake Saturday night for anything but a portrait of a talented outfit finally hitting its stride.
The question now, of course, is whether there’s still enough time for that stride to carry the Bruins into the top four when the playoff field is announced in two weeks. The good news: If UCLA gets by stagnant Stanford on Friday, it will clinch the South and get a chance to redeem the more lopsided of its two losses against North champion Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Even if it carries two losses, the Pac-12 champion should have a compelling case for the committee that it deserves to make the cut over, say, an SEC runner-up like Mississippi State, or even prospective Big Ten champ Ohio State, based on strength of schedule alone.
Realistically, though, the fact remains that the Bruins entered last weekend ranked ninth in the selection committee’s weekly poll, and only one team in front of them lost (no. 8 Ole Miss; more on that below). UCLA can still take care of one more of those front-runners (Oregon) directly. Otherwise, the Bruins are almost certainly going to need a minor spree of upsets in the SEC and/or Big 12 to clear the way for a two-loss team to have any chance of claiming one of the four golden tickets.
Still, for the first time this season it’s impossible to deny that the Bruins look like a playoff contender, and not only according to the futures market. Depending on how things shake out over the next 13 days, they’ll have reached their appointed station either too late or just in the nick of time. In any case, it’s clear that, just as we gave up waiting for them, the Bruins have finally arrived.
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• No. 21 Oklahoma 44, Kansas 7: Unfortunately, last week I used up all of my allocated rhapsodies for the season on Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who not only shattered a major record that had stood for 15 years, but also did it against a ranked opponent. By contrast, it’s harder to muster quite the same enthusiasm for Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine, who surpassed Gordon’s single-game FBS rushing record just seven days later at the expense of a perennial Big 12 punching bag. (Perine also logged 34 carries to Gordon’s 25 and didn’t break the record until the fourth quarter, while Gordon didn’t leave the bench after the third.) It really is unfortunate, because under any other circumstances the fact that a true freshman ran for 427 yards and five touchdowns against a conference opponent would be mind-boggling, above-the-fold business. But the meters can’t withstand Sosa/McGwire levels on a weekly basis.
Anyway, if you were unfamiliar with the 5-foot-11, 243-pound Perine prior to Saturday, you know him now, and you’ll presumably have plenty of chances to watch him chase his own prolific, ludicrously proportioned ghost over the next couple of years. He’s had a tumultuous debut: After a breakthrough performance at West Virginia on September 20, Perine subsequently struggled in October, averaging fewer than 4 yards per carry in consecutive weeks against TCU, Texas, and Kansas State — that is, in two upset losses sandwiched around OU’s worst offensive outing of the season.
Against Baylor, he managed just 21 yards on five carries in a 48-14 blowout, but he rebounded nicely last week against Texas Tech (as most running backs do), pounding out 213 yards and three touchdowns against the worst rushing defense in the conference.2 On Saturday, Perine came off the bench (sophomore Keith Ford earned the start) and was barely touched by a waterlogged, three-win defense that looks like it’s ready for the season to be over. Seriously, count the number of hands would-be Jayhawks tacklers lay on Perine in this highlight reel:
Incredibly, Saturday’s debacle wasn’t enough to drop Kansas below Texas Tech or Iowa State as the Big 12’s worst against the run.
The numbers speak for themselves, although in this case I suspect they have at least as much to say about the defense in question as they do the immensely gifted teenage bowling ball who happened to be rolling through it.
• Arkansas 30, no. 8 Ole Miss 0: Leave it to the SEC West to produce a last-place team that looks like it belongs in the Top 25: Between Saturday’s shutout win over the Rebels and last week’s shutout win over LSU, Arkansas has emerged from the cocoon of a 17-game conference losing streak by outscoring two of the division’s heavy hitters by a combined margin of 47-0. Before you dismiss the nascent winning streak as a fluke, recall that these are the same Razorbacks who played Alabama within one point back in October, just a few weeks after they pushed then–no. 6 Texas A&M to the brink in an eventual loss in overtime; a few weeks later, they came within one play of upsetting then–no. 1 Mississippi State in a 17-10 loss in Starkville.
Altogether, Arkansas has faced seven ranked opponents this season — that is, in every conference game, which must be some kind of record — and has played each of them to a virtual standstill: Including A&M’s winning touchdown in overtime, the Razorbacks have been outscored in those games by a grand total of five points. On Friday, they’ll make it a clean 8-for-8 against no. 19 Missouri, which can win the SEC East outright with a win; under the circumstances, the Tigers would almost certainly rather be facing A&M, Auburn, LSU, or Ole Miss right now than the West’s supposed doormat. Bret Bielema’s team has been on the brink all season, and given that 17 of Arkansas’s 22 starters from the Ole Miss game are scheduled to return in 2015, rest assured the breakthrough hasn’t gone unnoticed around the league.
• No. 3 Florida State 20, Boston College 17: For once, don’t call it a comeback: FSU never trailed on Saturday, abandoning its usual M.O. (fall behind early, rally late, drive home safe) for an old-school, clock-consuming slugfest that (appropriately enough) came down to the kickers. With the score knotted at 17 in the fourth quarter, Boston College mounted a 17-play, 67-yard drive that drained nearly nine minutes from the clock yet resulted in zero points due to a missed field goal. The Seminoles responded in kind, methodically marching 66 yards in 12 plays to set up a game-winning chip shot by Roberto Aguayo in the dying seconds.
Technically, the three-point difference on the scoreboard matched January’s BCS championship win over Auburn for the narrowest margin of victory in Florida State’s ongoing, 27-game winning streak, although it also marked the fifth game this season that FSU has won by six points or fewer. At this point, with no other undefeated teams left to threaten the Seminoles’ place at the table, dominance is beside the point. FSU’s survival skills are a marvel in their own right.
• No. 25 Minnesota 28, no. 23 Nebraska 24: A road victory over a ranked opponent qualifies as another watershed win for Minnesota, especially as it sets up the Gophers (8-3 overall, 5-2 Big Ten) for a winner-takes-all matchup with Wisconsin for the right to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game. The real story on Saturday, however, was the triumph of the “$5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy.”
As you may know, the Big Ten has developed a habit of foisting boring, contrived trophies on so-called “rivalry” games involving new-kid-on-the-block Nebraska, which might find the rivalry aspect a bit boring and contrived to begin with: The Cornhuskers haven’t had time to develop any significant history with Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, et al., and none of those teams has been consistently good enough to make its annual matchup very meaningful since Nebraska joined the conference in 2011. Unlike the conference’s many existing, beloved trophies, which include an ax, a jug, a bucket, a bronze pig, etc., and have origins well beyond the memory of any living human, the new-age trophies have tended to revolve around grandiose, fungible clichés such as “Freedom” and “Heroes,” with no hint of eccentricity or irony whatsoever. These totems are roundly despised.
That all changed last week, beginning with a salvo from the official Twitter account of Minnesota’s mascot, Goldy Gopher:
With the concept thus established, “Goldy” issued an open call for a design; naturally, the Internet responded, and within 24 hours of the initial tweet the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy was a reality.
The trophy accompanied Goldy to Lincoln on Saturday, and became a quasi-official fixture of the Minnesota-Nebraska series when Gophers players hoisted it in victory in the stadium — from the hive mind of the Internet to flesh-and-blood bragging rights in a span of roughly two days.
And that, Mr. Delany, is how any trophy worth caring about is born.
It’s Time to Rethink: London’s Burning. This time last week, Virginia coach Mike London looked like a goner: After a promising 4-2 start, the Cavaliers had dropped four in a row, leaving them one loss away from their third consecutive losing season on London’s watch; worse, official attendance in Scott Stadium had dropped below 40,000 for the first time in decades. The Roanoke Times’s Doug Doughty laid out the scenario succinctly ahead of Saturday’s must-win date with Miami, which for London really was a must-win:
If the Cavaliers win their final two games, London returns for a sixth season. If they lose their final two games, which would result in a six-game losing streak to end the season, he almost surely will be gone.
If Virginia (4-6 overall, 2-4 ACC) splits its final two games, a home game Saturday against Miami and a road game six days later at Virginia Tech, it gets tricky.
Actually, it may not be so tricky after all: Virginia pasted the Hurricanes, 30-13, and the local consensus on Sunday morning was that London had likely done enough in rallying the troops to earn a sixth season. To make it official, the Cavs still need to secure bowl eligibility this weekend by beating Virginia Tech, which will arrive bearing a disappointing, 5-6 record itself, and may have already ensured that this season goes down as the worst in Blacksburg in decades (more on that below). On the other hand, the Hokies own a 10-year winning streak in the series, and if London can’t finish off his rival when it’s barely treading water, the pendulum could swing back toward an inevitable pink slip in a hurry.
Quote of the Week
“There’s Jesus, there’s girls, and there’s Marcus Mariota.” —12-year-old Charlie Pape, following the Ducks’ 44-10 win over Colorado, explaining to Oregon coach Mark Helfrich where Mariota’s future stands in the conversational hierarchy of students at O’Hara Catholic
The best of the week …
• Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana: Last week, Coleman racked up 307 yards rushing on 9.6 yards per carry in the Hoosiers’ loss to Rutgers and was relegated to the footnotes by Gordon. On Saturday, Coleman went for 228 yards and three touchdowns in the Hoosiers’ loss to Ohio State — including a 90-yard touchdown run that put Indiana ahead, briefly, in the third quarter — and was relegated to the footnotes by Perine. Mostly, though, he’s been relegated to the footnotes by his own terrible team: For the season, Coleman is putting up Heisman-worthy numbers on a struggling, one-dimensional offense missing its starting quarterback, but meager Big Ten Network audiences are the only ones really noticing.
• Vince Mayle, WR, Washington State: Like Coleman, Mayle made the cut last week as a charter member of the Patrick Willis All-Stars, and, like Coleman, he lived up to the distinction Saturday by hauling in 15 receptions for 252 yards in a losing effort at Arizona State. (Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk passed for 601 yards and three touchdowns, but also accounted for four interceptions on 74 passing attempts — you know, just another day at the office for a Mike Leach quarterback.) In the process, Mayle broke Washington State’s single-season receiving record, and hopefully earned a little bit of money as NFL scouts see his technical skills continue to catch up to his raw, underdeveloped talent.
• Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: Wilson ran for 218 yards and three touchdowns on just 20 carries in the Wildcats’ win over Utah, thereby becoming the first true freshman in school history to break the 1,000-yard barrier. Given Rich Rodriguez’s track record with productive tailbacks, it’s a safe bet that Wilson has a couple more campaigns like this one in his near future.
• Trey Flowers, DE, and Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas: Seniors Flowers and Spaight were the most disruptive members of a wildly productive front seven against Ole Miss, combining for 17 total tackles, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and four QB hurries in the Razorbacks’ win. The Rebels managed just 63 yards rushing, a season low, and turned the ball over six times.
• Catch of the Year of the Week — Canaan Severin, Virginia: When the head coach’s job is on the line, it always pays (literally) to have a guy who can turn a certain interception into a sprawling touchdown with one hand.
That was the first touchdown of a 30-point run for the Cavaliers, who had previously failed to score 30 points in any of their first six ACC games.
• Fat Guy of the Week — Connor Kruse, Michigan State: There’s only one way to truly honor a fifth-year senior in his final home game, and that’s calling his number on a running play, even if his number is 54, he weighs 325 pounds, and he lines up at right tackle. No, especially if his number is 54, he weighs 325 pounds, and he lines up at right tackle.
Kruse, a former walk-on who has earned a handful of starts this year, ends his career with (officially) one carry for 1 yard. If he’d taken his turn as the feature back for the entirety of the Spartans’ 45-3 rout of Rutgers, the result likely wouldn’t have been any different.
… and the worst.
• Beamer Ball: Virginia Tech has seen its share of wretched offensive football under sexagenarian coach Frank Beamer, to say the least, but nothing quite approaching the depths of Saturday’s 6-3 loss to Wake Forest in double overtime, which went in the books as the first scoreless tie in a regulation FBS game since 2005. Altogether, both offenses combined for 18 punts, four turnovers, and three missed four goals, three by Wake Forest’s Mike Weaver, including a 37-yard attempt to win on the last play of regulation. (The subsequent miss inspired Beamer’s jubilant reaction seen above.) But the Hokies couldn’t even get that far: Their only two trips inside the Demon Deacons’ 35-yard line resulted in a pair of lost fumbles, the cherries on top of a horrifying game against an excruciatingly bad opponent.
At 5-6, Virginia Tech is in very real danger of clinching its first losing season since 1992 this weekend against Virginia, and that alone may be enough to force some very difficult questions about the future in the next few months.
• Penn State’s Offense: Penn State lost to Illinois, 16-14, a rock-bottom effort by any measure: The Nittany Lions finished with fewer total yards (265) and points (14) than any opposing Big Ten offense against the Illini since 2011, and Saturday marked just Illinois’s third conference win in that span. But the futility was made even worse by the coaches’ apparent lack of trust in sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a five-star talent who, back in September, looked like the only thing the ramshackle offense had going for it.
In Penn State’s previous losses, Hackenberg had averaged nearly 40 passes per game, including 49 in an overtime loss to Ohio State and 42 the following week against Maryland. On Saturday, he attempted just 16 passes, completing eight of them for 5.8 yards per attempt. After an early touchdown pass on PSU’s opening possession, the passing game was nonexistent, and the Lions didn’t find the end zone again against the worst defense in the conference until early in the fourth quarter. After their second score, they went three-and-out on six straight runs on their next two possessions, and Hackenberg watched from the sideline as the Illini drove for the winning field goal. Is that what he was recruited for?