In the wake of Florida’s stunning, 38-10 ambush of no. 3 Ole Miss, here’s a thought I never could have imagined articulating prior to Saturday night: Maybe Will Muschamp was right.
Seriously. After all, as wrong as he was about virtually everything else during his ill-fated tenure as the head Gator, it was Muschamp — and, in retrospect, pretty much Muschamp alone — who had the foresight to express any semblance of confidence in the roster he left behind. “We’ve got a deep and talented roster, so don’t let that new guy tell you he ain’t got no good players,” Muschamp warned reporters last November, mere hours after the ax fell.
Based on what we saw against the Rebels, it was obvious they still do. Given Muschamp’s success as a recruiter,1 maybe it should have been obvious all along: When has Florida, of all places, ever lacked for talent?
His last three classes, from 2012 to 2014, all ranked among the top 10 nationally, according to 247Sports, and 21 of 22 starters on Saturday night arrived on Muschamp’s watch, the lone exception being tackle Mason Halter, a graduate transfer from Fordham.
Just as Muschamp (sort of) predicted, though, Jim McElwain arrived in Gainesville last winter dragging an offseason’s worth of rhetorical sandbags behind him, and even those of us who pride ourselves on our immunity to coach-speak found it hard to resist the vision of a proud program submerged in mediocrity for the foreseeable future.
“You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt,” McElwain said in March, shortly after seeing his new charges in pads for the first time, and in his humble estimation the hand he’d been dealt was “really insufficient.”
On paper, it was hard to argue. A few months later, preseason magazines obliged McElwain’s genial poor-mouthing by pegging Florida as a fringe bowl team, at best, and reporters on hand at SEC media days in June picked the Gators to finish fifth in the SEC East, behind Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, and South Carolina.
And yet: After an opening month defined by narrow escapes against East Carolina and Kentucky, and an improbable comeback to vanquish Tennessee, the team that showed up against Ole Miss — the same Ole Miss that had already supplanted Alabama as the de facto SEC front-runner a couple weeks back — was as close to the Platonic ideal of Florida football as we’ve seen at any point since the late-aughts heyday of Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer.
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The night’s biggest revelation was redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier, who overcame the flu to hit 24 of 29 passes for 271 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and the best pass efficiency rating against Ole Miss (206.8) of any opposing quarterback since 2012. Grier’s breakthrough on offense was accompanied by hugely encouraging performances by the offensive line and the wide receivers, two groups that earned nearly as much scorn in the Muschamp years as the maligned quarterbacks who had the misfortune of succeeding Tebow.
On the other side of the ball, this was a vintage ass-kicking by the Gators defense, which swarmed Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly with such abandon that it was often impossible to tell who got to him first. Eight different Gators were credited with at least a share of a sack or a QB hurry. As a result of the pressure, Florida forced four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception), which led directly to 17 points on UF possessions that began inside the Rebels’ 25-yard line. After hanging 43 points on the Crimson Tide, Ole Miss didn’t reach the end zone on Saturday until the end of a meaningless, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter that significantly inflated its final statistics but did nothing to diminish the overall effect of an offense under relentless siege.
The fact that the romp was led largely by underclassmen just beginning to glimpse their blue-chip potential was enough to radically alter perceptions of how good this team can be, literally overnight: On Sunday morning, Florida leaped 14 spots in the new AP poll (from 25th to 11th) and 11 spots in the Coaches Poll, from no. 23 to no. 12.2 The fact that it came on the same day that Georgia was crushed by Alabama helps create a sense that an unexpected opportunity is there for the taking — with five conference games to go, the Gators are squarely in the driver’s seat of a watered-down SEC East, and likely to be favored now in at least four of those five, with an October 17 trip to LSU looming as the next litmus test of their staying power.
The leap in more sophisticated, stat-driven polls was even more dramatic: According to Football Outsiders’s S&P+ rankings, the Gators rose from no. 21 to no. 5.
There’s always the possibility that with a team this young, the killer instinct that possessed the Gators on Saturday night could vanish again as abruptly as it arrived. Going forward, should we expect the Florida that laid waste to the no. 3 team in the nation by 28 points, or the Florida that eked out victories in its first two SEC games by a combined six points? The Will Grier who just torched a defense loaded with future draft picks, or the Will Grier who treaded water during the slugfests against the Wildcats and Volunteers? At what point is it fair to begin heaping expectations on an outfit that could just as easily respond to the sudden hype by laying an egg this weekend at Missouri? Maybe we should wait until, I dunno, midseason before we start grasping for definitive, long-term answers?
For now, let’s stick to the facts: Florida is 5-0 for the first time since 2012, and it just buried a legitimate SEC heavy in the Swamp for the first time in much longer. That’s substantially further along the learning curve than anyone ever imagined the Gators would be a month ago, including (probably) their head coach. When I interviewed him this summer, I thought McElwain’s cold-water campaign was sincere, and I suspect now he’s as pleasantly surprised by the early returns as anyone. But whether or not he had any inkling then of what kind of team he had on his hands, at this point I think it’s fair to say that the time for underselling is over.
So, um, remember that thing I said last week about the erosion of Alabama’s “aura of invincibility”? Yeah, go ahead and scratch that. With its season at stake, playing in a rainy, raucous environment, Bama came out playing like the best version of the best Bama teams of the Saban era, which is to say that for most of the afternoon it looked like potentially the best team in the country.
Predictably, the dominance started with the defense, which turned Georgia’s hyper-efficient passing game into a sputtering, incoherent mess, and rendered hyper-productive tailback Nick Chubb largely obsolete. The Bulldogs’ first 13 offensive possessions3 yielded nine punts, three turnovers, and a field goal, and by the time Chubb finally broke free for UGA’s only touchdown — an 83-yard run at the tail end of the third quarter — they were already at the bottom of a hopeless, 38-3 hole.
Excluding a short, clock-killing drive at the end of the first half.
The Bama offense was fueled largely by massive junior tailback Derrick Henry, who set career highs for carries (26) and yards (148) in the slop. The ultimate goal under Saban has always been to play the exact same game every single week, and when the defense and running game converge, and the quarterback looks as comfortable in the offense as the often-erratic Jacob Coker did on Saturday, the result is almost always going to be the same.
Compare Coker’s comfort level in Athens to his comfort level in the shootout loss to Ole Miss, against whom he attempted 45 passes, completed fewer than half of them for 4.5 yards per attempt, and was picked off twice. Against Georgia, he attempted 16 passes, completed 11 of them for nearly 12 yards per attempt, and didn’t commit a turnover. Not coincidentally, Coker’s only touchdown pass (a 45-yard bomb to true freshman Calvin Ridley that drove a stake into Georgia’s heart just before halftime) came off a play-action fake to Henry on first-and-10, which remains almost impossible to stop once opposing safeties are more concerned about how to tackle the former five-star prospect running at them than how to cover the five-star prospect running past them.
As for Georgia, I think the surplus of surrender cobras in the first half and the mass exodus of the home crowd early in the third quarter pretty much sums it up. Although they’ve ceded the pole position to Florida until further notice, the Bulldogs are still very much alive to win the SEC East, and possibly to climb back into the fringes of the playoff picture if they recover quickly and don’t lose again. But the reaction from fans wasn’t just in response to an ugly game on an ugly day: It was a response to a solid decade of squandered opportunities and qualified ambitions, and in its first real test there was nothing at all to indicate that the 2015 edition is going to be any different.
It was fun at first, and maybe kind of useful, too. But at some point enough is enough. So please, for the love of god, can we finally retire the notion of “Clemsoning”?
For starters, as it has entered the sport’s mainstream lexicon, the term has been increasingly misused to describe almost any Clemson loss (or potential Clemson loss) in any circumstance, even when it runs totally counter to the reason “Clemsoning” was coined in the first place. A classic Clemsoning is a random, momentum-killing flop by a ranked team against an unranked opponent, the kind of defeat that Clemson used to supply with regularity.4 Applied to the 2015 schedule, Clemsoning would mean beating Notre Dame in dramatic, emotional fashion (check), then blowing next week’s game against a Georgia Tech team coming off three straight losses.
From 2004 to 2011, the Tigers lost 10 games that fit that criterion in eight years, including four bona fide Clemsonings in 2006 alone.
Besides, it’s been years now since the last true Clemsoning. The Tigers have taken 32 straight games against unranked opponents dating back to November 2011. (Even if you understand “Clemsoning” to mean some kind of inexplicable failure in the clutch, note that the Tigers have also won 41 straight in which they led entering the fourth quarter.) Entire recruiting classes have come and gone without having Clemsoned even once. Over that same span, they have logged nonconference wins against the likes of Auburn (twice), LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and now Notre Dame, and it looks like they’re well on their way to finishing in the top 15 in the AP poll for the fourth year in a row. “Clemsoning” exists to mock predictability and futility; in reality, under Dabo Swinney, Clemson has become one of the most predictable winners in the nation.
The Tigers (like virtually all teams) have suffered some high-profile losses under Swinney, as well as their share of heartbreakers, and Saturday night became another one after Notre Dame rallied from a 21-3 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, getting within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime. But it didn’t, and as long as quarterback Deshaun Watson remains upright, there’s every reason to believe that Clemson is the ACC’s best playoff hope.
Coming into this game, Texas had come close enough in down-to-the-wire losses against Cal and Oklahoma State to allow UT fans to indulge the fantasy (among other fantasies) that the Longhorns were on the verge of … well, not a breakthrough, exactly, but certainly something more encouraging than what they delivered in Fort Worth — another start-to-finish humiliation that recalled their 38-3 flop at Notre Dame on opening night. That loss felt like enough of a crisis to prompt Charlie Strong to demote his offensive coordinator and his starting quarterback after just one game, in the name of bold, decisive action. This loss, against an injury-plagued TCU outfit, felt like definitive proof that Strong is out of answers.
How depressing was this game? With Texas trailing 37-0 at halftime, a Texas A&M fan tweeted at a pair of touted Longhorns freshmen, Malik Jefferson and Kris Boyd, about transferring to A&M out of sheer embarrassment … and actually got a response from Boyd a few minutes later, apparently while the team was still in the locker room.
Boyd isn’t a scrub: He’s seen significant time this year on defense and returned three kickoffs on Saturday for 52 yards. But at some point I guess even the guys playing in the game itself can no longer feign interest.
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1. Baylor (4-0) My first instinct was to leave the top spot this week vacant, because honestly, at this point, what’s the difference? Any one of a dozen teams could make a plausible argument for no. 1 this week — balanced by an equally plausible argument for why they shouldn’t be no. 1. Straining to make any meaningful distinction between them feels like an exercise in futility. In the face of that deadlock, my next instinct was to hand this week’s Top 10 over to a handful of computer polls, BCS-style, and let them sort it out. The results: Based on an average of rankings published by longtime pollsters Jeff Sagarin and Kenneth Massey, combined with ESPN’s Football Power Index, Baylor takes the top spot by a comfortable margin. Yeah, I know: Gaudy offensive statistics aside, the Bears ain’t played nobody. Address your complaints to math.
2. TCU (5-0) Beating the pants off Texas was the most reassuring possible response to the Frogs’ white-knuckler against Tech last week, although it is worth asking what it means that Baylor reduced the same Red Raiders team to ashes just seven days later.
3. Ohio State (5-0) No team can be expected to come out firing on all cylinders every single week, but when a would-be juggernaut follows an uninspiring effort against Northern Illinois with a down-to-the-wire escape against Indiana, then, yeah, it’s officially time to worry. The defending champs haven’t come close to looking their best, and as Florida State proved repeatedly last year, just because a theoretical ceiling exists is no guarantee that a team will eventually hit it.
4. Texas A&M (5-0) A&M dispatched Mississippi State with relative ease, further deepening my suspicion that the Aggies are secretly the most complete team in the SEC West. Then again, given that that distinction has already belonged to Alabama and Ole Miss this season, maybe that’s not the most promising torch to carry.
5. Oklahoma (4-0) The Sooners are looking more comfortable in their new offensive skin with each passing week. Adjusted for competition, a 20-point win over no. 23 West Virginia is arguably a more impressive outing than we’ve seen yet for Baylor or TCU.
6. Clemson (4-0) It was a lot harder to offer unqualified praise for the Tigers’ defense after it yielded three fourth-quarter touchdowns to Notre Dame, but remember that the reason the Irish’s rally was too little, too late is because Clemson kept them in a straitjacket for the first three quarters.
7. Florida (5-0) This weekend at Missouri will tell us a lot about how carried away to get over last Saturday in the Swamp.
8. Utah (4-0) The Utes took the weekend off, but Michigan’s rising stock is still good for a transitive boost to Utah’s own.
9. Alabama (4-1) Before the beatdown at Georgia, Nick Saban told CBS’s sideline reporter, “The plan we laid out for our team today can’t be accomplished by ordinary people.” Turns out Bama is still a far cry from an ordinary team.
10. LSU (4-0) This is the point where jilted Michigan State fans start pounding out nasty messages addressed to my Twitter account. It’s understandable. Even after struggling with Purdue, the Spartans held in the top four this week in both major polls. Why didn’t they make the cut here? Because they’re nonentities in the computer polls, coming in 12th according to Kenneth Massey, 25th in FPI, and 34th per Jeff Sagarin. That’s an extreme gap — Sagarin ranks MSU behind Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Washington, none of which boasts a winning record — but given how much value the Week 2 win over Oregon has lost already, I’m not entirely convinced the human polls are on the right side of it.
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The best of the week …
As usual, McCaffrey served as the Cardinal’s Swiss Army knife, accounting for 260 all-purpose yards as a rusher, receiver, and return man in a 55-17 win over Arizona. It was his third consecutive game with at least 245 yards across all three phases, two more than any other FBS player this season.
Wisconsin’s offense spit the bit at Iowa (see below), but that didn’t diminish the effort by Schobert, who wreaked havoc on the Hawkeyes offense with eight total tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and five QB hurries in the loss. As a team, Iowa won the Heartland Trophy with 10 points on 221 total yards, and should probably mail Schobert one of the bull’s horns or something as a token of respect.
Fat Guy of the Week: Ohio State OL Billy Price
When Ohio State really started to feel the heat against Indiana, it abandoned all pretense of “balance” and simply handed the ball to Ezekiel Elliott, who in turn charged through the wide-open spaces cleared by his left guard. All three of Elliott’s second-half touchdown runs in Bloomington (covering 55 yards, 65 yards, and 75 yards, respectively) came on the same rudimentary power play that the Buckeyes used to grind Oregon into a pulp in last year’s national championship game. And once again they all began with Price erasing an interior lineman from the eventual path to the end zone. On Elliott’s third scoring run, Price (no. 54 in the video) wiped out two defenders, peeling off a successful double-team at the last second to take on an unsuspecting linebacker at the point of attack:
Whatever happens with the quarterbacks — and make no mistake, Cardale Jones’s status as the full-time starter remains very much in doubt — the Buckeyes are going to be very difficult to beat as long as they remember they’re the better team in the trenches.
Catch of the Year of the Week: TCU WR Josh Doctson
Good try, good effort, Texas bro, but Cosmonaut Doctson is residing on a different planet than any other college wideout right now, and you’re not invited for the trip home.
Afterward, Doctson — a Texas native who began his career as a walk-on at Wyoming — reflected on his nonexistent status out of high school by telling reporters, “I wasn’t good. I wouldn’t have recruited myself.” In that case, he would have been as shortsighted as everyone else: Docston ended the day with more catches (42) for more yards (722) on the season than any other major-conference receiver, and as TCU’s new career leader in receiving touchdowns.
Ideally, Fournette should have been able to take it easy this week against Eastern Michigan, a perennial MAC punching bag that had already been run over by rushing attacks from Wyoming, Ball State, and Army. But the Eagles proved too feisty, and LSU’s passing was too futile for the nation’s best back to hit the showers early. Fournette went ahead and plowed his way to 233 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries, in a 44-22 win that was tighter than the score suggests. The highlight was a 75-yard sprint on the first play of the third quarter that left EMU defenders grasping in his wake but alive to tell the tale:
Fournette is the first back in SEC history to rack up three straight 200-yard rushing games, and in the last two he’s barely seemed to break a sweat.
… and the worst.
Here’s Wisconsin’s offensive drive chart in a 10-6 loss to Iowa:
Note not only how those drives ended, but where they ended. Eight times, the Badgers advanced to or beyond the Iowa 40-yard line, including all six of their possessions in the second half, and eight times they failed to put the ball in the end zone, succumbing instead to turnovers (two fumbles, two interceptions, one on downs), field goals (two good, one missed), and even a pair of infuriating punts in the fourth quarter from plus-33 (!) and plus-40. It didn’t help that starting tailback Corey Clement was on a different continent for hernia surgery, but even in the Big Ten West, winning games requires, ya know, scoring points.
Oklahoma State trailed Kansas State late in the first half, 28-13, and faced a third-and-23 from its own 42-yard line. (The original line of scrimmage was just inside the K-State 45, meaning OSU needed to cross the K-State 35 to move the sticks following a holding penalty and a sack on consecutive plays.) On third down, OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph hit WR Marcell Ateman for a 19-yard gain to the K-State 39-yard line, well short of the first down by about four yards. Officials marked the ball correctly at that spot … and then inexplicably signaled first down Cowboys with no further explanation or review.5
The best guess as to what happened is that the sticks reset in the wrong place following a long Oklahoma State completion on first down that was negated by the holding call; in the official play-by-play, the down and distance following the penalty is initially recorded as first-and-20 at the OSU 45, but then shifts to first-and-15 at the OSU 45 for no apparent reason.
Here’s the full series of downs, cued to the third-down completion to Ateman:
In the moment, the snafu went unnoticed — Fox’s on-air team was oblivious, and after the game Kansas State coach Bill Snyder had a hard time even recalling the sequence. (“I am trying to think what the official told me about it,” Snyder told the Kansas City Star. “I can’t remember right now.”) But it wasn’t merely a random, inconsequential lapse: Gifted a fresh set of downs, Oklahoma State promptly put the ball in the end zone four plays later, cutting the Wildcats’ lead from 15 points to eight at the half. From there, the Cowboys rallied in the second half to win by two points, 36-34, on a late field goal that may not have been an option if not for the touchdown facilitated by the bogus spot.
While K-State fans are unlikely to react with the same voluminous bile that Texas fans spewed into the digital ether after losing to Oklahoma State last week, this is the second straight game in which OSU has benefited from outrageous officiating incompetence. As much fun as it was to watch the Longhorns go ballistic in the aftermath, they were largely justified in their outrage over a handful of late calls that swung the pendulum in the Cowboys’ favor. Which is not to say that Oklahoma State couldn’t have possibly made it to 5-0 without the refs’ intervention — but, you know, every little bit helps.