There have been more impressive victories this season than Oregon’s 45-16 romp over Stanford on Saturday night, which was ultimately just another case of a top-10 team beating the pants off an unranked opponent. In fact, Oregon alone has delivered arguably two more impressive wins, with lopsided takedowns of Michigan State and UCLA. While the Ducks controlled their annual meeting with the Cardinal from start to finish and occasionally dominated, they didn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before.
Yet as the College Football Playoff picture begins to take shape in earnest, it’s hard to imagine a more reassuring performance from a team that was already regarded as a front-runner for one of the four golden tickets that will be on offer next month. The past two years, Stanford’s retro sensibility brought out the worst in Oregon at a point in those seasons when the Ducks seemed to be at the peak of their powers. On Saturday, the Ducks arrived with a 7-1 record, several well-chronicled blemishes, and no margin for error, and they emerged looking every inch the contender we expected to see entering the season.
To be fair, the notion that Stanford somehow held the deed to Oregon’s season or to Marcus Mariota’s legacy as a college quarterback or whatever was probably always overstated.1 But the Cardinal certainly loomed as an obstacle between the Ducks and their full potential. In 2012 and ’13, Stanford manhandled Oregon in a pair of division-deciding, season-defining upsets that brought undefeated seasons to an abrupt end and tipped the balance of power in the Pac-12 North toward Palo Alto. Last year’s game in particular was such a workmanlike mugging that the subsequent narrative was inevitable: For all of its state-of-the-art, spread-era flash, Oregon remained distinctly vulnerable against a muscle-bound mentality straight out of 1973.
Lest we forget, before 2012 the pendulum had swung Oregon’s way: In 2010 and ’11, the Ducks outscored Stanford 105-61 in back-to-back blowouts, handing the Cardinal their only regular-season loss both years and leaving Andrew Luck to play the role of serial bridesmaid.
For the kind of fan who regards the up-tempo revolution as a gimmick exploited by offenses too soft to play it straight, the implication that the Ducks lacked the backbone to stand up to blue-chip defenses was a kind of validation. In that context, one might have gotten the impression that Mariota was in danger of going down as his generation’s Peyton Manning, another transcendent talent whose college career was defined as much by what he didn’t do — namely, beat Florida — as anything he did. Or that Mariota’s coach, Mark Helfrich, was at risk of becoming a symbol of decline in the shadow of his predecessor, Chip Kelly. Those doubts resurfaced only a few weeks ago, leaving Oregon’s season seemingly teetering on the brink in the wake of a random, Thursday-night lapse against Arizona.
Even before Saturday night, though, the uneasy malaise that followed that upset seemed very far away. In the intervening month, while every other national contender was being confronted with its own shortcomings, Oregon began looking more like the platonic ideal of Oregon with each passing week: In the span of 14 days, the Ducks hung 42 points on UCLA, 45 points on Washington, and 59 points on Cal, and atoned for an anemic rushing effort against Arizona by easily exceeding 200 yards on the ground in all three games. In that context, this weekend’s “breakthrough” against Stanford looked more like just another routine day at the office. For once, the Ducks’ ostensible nemesis was indistinguishable from the speed bumps.
To every other offense it has played, Stanford has been more like a full-blown roadblock. Despite their descent from the national polls, the Cardinal arrived in Eugene allowing fewer yards per game (251) and per play (3.7) than any other FBS defense, against a schedule that included USC, Washington, Notre Dame, and Arizona State; between them, that quartet averaged just 17.3 points on 299 yards of offense. Stanford also boasted the nation’s longest streak of holding opponents below 30 points, having done so in 31 consecutive games dating back to October 2012; in its first eight games this season, it didn’t allow a single opponent to score more than two offensive touchdowns.
No matter: Oregon racked up 525 yards on 6.8 per play, split almost perfectly between rushing (267 yards) and passing (258), and marched for three touchdowns on its first three possessions of the game. After Stanford managed to chip the lead down to eight points near the end of the third quarter, Oregon responded by scoring three more touchdowns in the span of eight minutes. Seven Ducks accounted for at least one play of 20 yards or longer, more than the Cardinal allowed in their first five Pac-12 games combined.
Needless to say, between this weekend’s triumph and the aforementioned win over Michigan State in September (still the Spartans’ only loss), whatever lingering doubts existed about Oregon’s productivity against physical, salt-of-the-earth defenses should be expunged. Since senior tackle Jake Fisher’s return to the lineup, the breakdowns that plagued the offensive line during his absence against Washington State and Arizona have been largely resolved. Between running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner and receivers Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford, and Darren Carrington, first- and second-year playmakers are beginning to shed their underclassman anonymity and round into veteran form. Last year, this was the point on the calendar when Oregon began to fade from the national conversation amid injuries and diminishing returns offensively; this year, the Ducks appear to be surging back into it. You could argue that the only real difference between this season and last is better timing. But as far as their championship ambitions are concerned, hitting stride in November makes all the difference in the world.
No. 3 Auburn 35, no. 4 Ole Miss 31: If there’s a crueler way to lose a football game, I’ve never seen it and I never want to see it. In a matter of seconds, the Rebels’ hearts jumped through their mouths in jubilation and then right off a ledge from 100 stories up.
That play is layer upon layer of agony. In the most immediate, literal sense, sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell was carted off with a broken leg, costing the Rebels their most dynamic offensive weapon for at least the rest of the season. I say at least because early reports seem to reinforce that the injury — specifically, a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle — is as severe as it looked in real time. (Coach Hugh Freeze: “He definitely has a fracture. It was obvious, even to me.”) Treadwell underwent immediate surgery, and there’s no initial timetable for his potential return.
Beyond the injury, Treadwell’s agonized fumble at the goal line forced officials to take the apparent go-ahead touchdown off the board after a lengthy review and award Auburn with what amounted to a game-clinching touchback instead.2 The Rebels had also blown a chance to retake the lead on their previous possession, when quarterback Bo Wallace lost a fumble trying to extend the ball for extra yardage inside the Auburn 5-yard line.
Ole Miss did get the ball back, but with 26 seconds to play and no timeouts, the Rebels never threatened to score.
With their second down-to-the-wire defeat in as many weeks, the most capable Ole Miss outfit in decades is effectively eliminated from the playoff hunt barring a wild turn of events over the final month. Apart from the stadium itself going up in flames, I don’t think I could have scripted a more deflating finish if I’d tried. The Treadwell fumble and injury surpasses Billy Cannon’s (in)famous punt return in 1959 as the worst play in Ole Miss history.
Lost amid the grim circumstances of the victory: Auburn remains one of the few teams in control of its own destiny for a playoff spot. The others, in no particular order: Mississippi State, Florida State, Alabama (which still has to play both Mississippi State and Auburn in the SEC West round-robin), Oregon, and Arizona State, which just moved into the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 South with an overtime win over no. 17 Utah. Everyone else needs help.
Florida 38, no. 11 Georgia 20: Under the circumstances, this was the sweetest victory of Will Muschamp’s tenure by a wide margin. Seriously, look at this man’s face. Florida’s previous two SEC wins this season, over Kentucky (in overtime) and Tennessee (by one point), were harrowing affairs that did nothing to mitigate the cloud over Muschamp’s future, and the Gators’ turnover-fueled loss to Missouri two weeks ago left the home crowd in Gainesville calling for the coach’s head on national TV. Before Saturday’s game, there was widespread insinuation that a fourth consecutive loss in the Cocktail Party — which seemed like a foregone conclusion, frankly — would bring down the ax posthaste. The circumstances may not look much different a month from now than they did on Saturday morning, but at least Muschamp has another month, which itself was definitely not a foregone conclusion before the upset.
But what really made Muschamp’s day, I think, was not just the stay of execution, but the fact that his much-maligned, rock-bottom offense lined up and thoroughly dominated a worthwhile opponent on his terms. Florida ran 60 times Saturday for an astounding 418 yards, only deigning to attempt six passes in true freshman Treon Harris’s first career start behind center. (He completed three of them, for 27 yards.) That’s the vision Muschamp has always had for Florida: a Sabanesque attack that can simply rip off runs and plow over a defense like Georgia’s as though it were Eastern Michigan’s.
Is that sustainable? Like, at all? It’s doubtful, given how poor Florida has been on the ground the past two years: Before this weekend, 10 of the Gators’ previous 13 SEC opponents held them below four yards per carry. But it’s the only approach that has delivered positive returns this season, so it sure as hell isn’t going to change over the remaining four games.
No. 7 TCU 31, no. 20 West Virginia 30: Last week I waxed rhapsodic about TCU’s unexpectedly prolific offense, but the Horned Frogs are still in the playoff chase this week because of the D: Playing in windy, wet conditions, the Frogs held West Virginia’s offense to a season-low 357 yards and forced five takeaways while their own offense struggled to put together consecutive first downs. By the fourth quarter, gonzo WVU coach Dana Holgorsen was so spooked by his quarterback that he uncharacteristically opted to play it safe with a late lead, calling for go-nowhere runs on seven of the Mountaineers’ nine offensive snaps in the final frame. (At one point, incredibly, the crowd booed the play calling while the home team still held the lead against a top-10 opponent.) West Virginia subsequently went three-and-out on its last three possessions, and TCU rallied from a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter to connect on a game-winning field goal as time expired.
At any rate, TCU held as the Big 12’s bellwether in the polls, setting up an improbable blockbuster against no. 9 Kansas State for conference dibs. As indicated above, my best guess is that a one-loss Big 12 champion will ultimately fall behind a one-loss Pac-12 champ or a one-loss runner-up in the SEC West in the playoff pecking order. Depending on how the dominoes fall, though, the Frogs are still on schedule: If they get past K-State this weekend, they’ll be huge favorites to run the table against Kansas, Texas, and Iowa State.
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It’s Time to Rethink: The Mid-Major Pecking Order. No. 23 East Carolina lost five fumbles Saturday in a 20-10 loss to Temple, which is bizarre enough in its own right.3 But ECU’s second loss of the season also flung the door wide open for a handful of other teams vying to be the so-called Group of 5 representative in the major bowl games. In the new playoff/bowl system, the highest-ranked team outside of the Power 5 conferences is guaranteed a slot in one of the lucrative “Access Bowls” not slated to host a playoff semifinal. (This year, those are the Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach Bowls; the Sugar and Rose Bowls are reserved as playoff semifinal sites.) As the only Group of 5 team ranked in the selection committee’s initial Top 25 last week, the Pirates were in the pole position for that bid. This week? It’s anybody’s guess.
East Carolina dominated the game statistically, outgaining the Owls by nearly 300 yards, but didn’t score its only touchdown until the 2:15 mark of the fourth quarter.
The most obvious candidate to replace ECU is Marshall, which checks in at no. 23 in the latest AP poll on the strength of an 8-0 record; the Thundering Herd are also two-thirds of the way through a cakewalk of a schedule that embarrasses even by Conference USA standards. (Their best victim to date is either 4-4 Akron or 5-4 Middle Tennessee.) A more attractive option may be Colorado State, which sits just outside the major polls at 8-1 but boasts a solid win over Boston College and looks like the class of the Mountain West Conference. Unfortunately, CSU’s only loss came at the hands of Boise State, which maintains the inside track to win the MWC’s Mountain Division based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Don’t be surprised this week if the committee punts on the question by omitting a Group of 5 team from the poll altogether, waiting to anoint a new front-runner until one actually emerges.
Quote of the Week
“I don’t need to take any questions. You guys watched it, and I need to just get out of here. Thanks.” —South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, wrapping up his postgame press conference after just 54 seconds following a 45-42 loss to Tennessee in overtime.
The loss marked Carolina’s third defeat since late September in a game it led by at least 13 points in the fourth quarter.
James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh: Conner, a 250-pound sophomore, renewed his human wrecking ball routine Saturday by grinding out 263 yards on 38 carries against Duke, an average of 6.9 per carry despite a long gain of just 19 yards. (I may have cracked a rib just typing that.) Conner also scored three touchdowns — two from 1 yard out, of course — but alas, he couldn’t keep the Panthers aloft long enough to avoid a 51-48 loss in double overtime. For the season, Conner has rushed for more yards (1,342) than any other FBS back, on more carries than any back except Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin.
Erick Dargan, DB, Oregon: While the night ultimately belonged to Mariota and the Oregon offense, Dargan led a salty Ducks defense with 12 total tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble in the win over Stanford. Although the Cardinal moved the ball early and only punted twice, they managed just one touchdown and only put three points on the board after halftime.
Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming: Hill, a true freshman making his first career start, smashed a Mountain West record by personally accounting for 387 yards from scrimmage (281 rushing, 106 receiving) in a 45-17 rout over Fresno State, also outgaining Fresno State’s entire offense in the process. Hill had two touchdown runs, covering 32 and 66 yards, respectively, broke an 89-yard run that came up just short of the end zone, and had three receptions for 33, 33, and 40 yards. First career start!
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Prior to his miserable exit against Auburn, Treadwell turned in a career night statistically, finishing with a career-high 10 receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. But the numbers don’t quite do him justice: Many of those yards were of the hard-earned, run-after-catch variety on screen passes, and at one point Treadwell also helped spring his quarterback for big yardage by making two (yes, two) key blocks in the open field. Treadwell is an undeniable NFL talent with a lucrative future, and here’s wishing him the best in fulfilling it.
Catch of the Year of the Week — Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Texas A&M had a mostly forgettable afternoon against Louisiana-Monroe (see below), but at least the cloud over the Aggies offense parted just long enough for Noil to turn a potential pick into a no-look, one-handed gem of a touchdown:
Fat Guy(s) of the Week — Florida’s Offensive Line: Two Gator backs, Kelvin Taylor (197 yards) and Matt Jones (192), rushed for career highs in the win over Georgia, which is the best possible advertisement for starting linemen D.J. Humphries, Tyler Moore, Max Garcia, Trent Brown, and Chaz Green. Collectively, the front five played its best game of Muschamp’s tenure at exactly the right time to keep that tenure alive. But where do the Gators go from here?
Oklahoma State’s Offense: As of mid-October, Oklahoma State had scored at least 20 points in 58 consecutive games, a streak dating all the way back to 2010. Read that again: 58 consecutive games! Now read this: In their last three games, the Cowboys have eked out nine points, 10 points, and 14 points in consecutive blowouts at the hands of TCU, West Virginia, and Kansas State, respectively, and now rank eighth out of 10 teams in total offense in Big 12 play. In those three games, quarterback Daxx Garman has completed fewer than half of his passes with six interceptions to one touchdown.
Against K-State, OSU scored a touchdown on its first possession and didn’t come close to scoring again, finishing with nine punts, two interceptions, and a fumble to close out the game while its best player, Tyreek Hill, inexplicably disappeared from the game plan.4 With Baylor and Oklahoma waiting at the end of the schedule, the Cowboys’ bowl hopes effectively hinge on beating Texas on the other side of a bye week, but be careful asking Mike Gundy about that.
The defense added a second touchdown on an interception return.
Texas A&M’s Offense: The Aggies avoided an outright quarterback controversy by suspending their regular starter, Kenny Hill, for two games on Friday, but true freshman Kyle Allen didn’t exactly seize the reins against UL-Monroe, finishing just 13-of-28 passing for 106 yards in a 21-16 snooze. Before his suspension, Hill was already on the verge of being benched for his spectacular regression during A&M’s three-game October losing streak against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama. After watching A&M manage just 243 yards against an also-ran from the Sun Belt, though, it’s clear the problems go well beyond the signal-caller.
Slate Gray: UCLA and Louisville were the latest in a long line of teams to be rendered unrecognizable by horrendous slate-gray uniforms courtesy of Adidas. Why UCLA in particular would ever pass up an opportunity to wear its classic gold-and-blue motif in the Rose Bowl, I have no idea. (I refuse to believe recruits really give a damn one way or the other; the best recruits flock to the schools — Alabama, LSU, Texas, USC, etc. — that have worn the exact same thing without fail for the past 50 years.) I’ve made my peace with the alternate-uniform thing in general, but there’s a reason that no college, anywhere, ever, has adopted slate gray as one of its actual colors. Draw a line. End the madness.