This week marks the rough midpoint of college football’s regular season — seven Saturdays down, eight more to go1 — and if you’re just showing up for a seat on the S.S. Magnolia, sorry, but that ship has sailed. What were you waiting for? What can we tell you today that we didn’t already know on Friday?
Mississippi State and Ole Miss punched their cards as improbable but very serious contenders last week, staging scene-stealing upsets over Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively, that vaulted both Mississippi schools into the top five in the AP poll, put the Cinderella narrative to bed, and launched the bandwagon into orbit. We personally introduced you to MSU’s Tebow-esque quarterback, Dak Prescott, back in September, just before the Book of Dak was canonized with passages concerning his late mother and his recruitment out of Louisiana. We’ve exhausted the refrains “first time since” and “first time ever” while putting decades of mediocrity into context. We’ve examined the overachieving recruiting profile in Starkville and the staggering fourth-quarter efficiency of Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace. In the past 10 days, the Bulldogs and Rebels have hosted GameDay, shared the cover of Sports Illustrated, and helped assuage the collective inferiority complex of a state accustomed to finding itself at the bottom of the national rankings. If you’re just now coming to the part about the glass slipper, the zeitgeist didn’t wait for you to catch up.
What we’re left with after all of that is not a fairy tale, or some kind of magic, but two damn good teams that look very much at home atop the food chain. If Saturday’s dates with no. 2 Auburn and no. 14 Texas A&M were supposed to be another test of the Mississippi schools’ staying power, both squads responded by devouring the administrator.
In Starkville, Mississippi State forced two turnovers on Auburn’s first two plays from scrimmage and led 21-0 less than nine minutes into the game; ultimately, Prescott accounted for 367 total yards and three touchdowns in a 38-23 cruise. In College Station, Ole Miss abandoned its usual rope-a-dope routine, bludgeoned A&M into a 21-0 deficit early in the second quarter, and went on to prevail by the same margin as its in-state rival, winning 35-20 in a game that might as well have been called at the half. After three consecutive victories against top-10 opponents, the Bulldogs ended the day ranked 10th nationally in total offense and ninth in scoring against FBS opponents; after back-to-back encounters with Alabama and A&M, the Rebels emerged seventh in total defense and first in points allowed. Six games in, we know who these teams are, where they’ve come from, and what they look capable of achieving over the next six. They’re not just good relatively speaking for a pair of perennial afterthoughts in the SEC West. They’re just good.
In the AP poll, Mississippi State is the new no. 1, having displaced Florida State to complete the most rapid rise from unranked to número uno in the 78-year history of the poll. (Only a month ago, the Bulldogs were still languishing in “Others Receiving Votes” limbo, a testament to the rise of an all-encompassing national consciousness in a sport defined for so long by staunch regionalism. For most of the AP poll’s existence, voters outside the Southeast would have barely been aware of what was going on with an out-of-the-blue upstart in the SEC, and certainly would not have been exposed to hours of highlights, pundits, and tweets reshaping the image of said upstart as a viable front-runner.) The Bulldogs are no. 1 in the Coaches Poll as well, while Ole Miss is no. 3 in both polls for the second week in a row and received a handful of first-place votes in each. Last week, perhaps, the official imprimatur of an elite SEC/playoff contender felt like one for the storybooks. This week, it’s the status quo.
Still, like every poll on every weekend of every season, it’s also a mere snapshot of a particular point on the spectrum. Just as there was nothing magical or destined about the Rebels’ and Bulldogs’ abrupt ascents, any sense of inevitability from here on out is as fragile as it was for the more familiar powerhouses they’ve replaced. Ole Miss’s next five games include dangerous trips to LSU and Arkansas2 and a visit from Auburn, which will likely arrive in Oxford on November 1 with a top-10 ranking and every preseason goal still on the table. Mississippi State has to play at Alabama on November 15, its largest hurdle of the season; Bama also remains on track (however tenuously) to fulfill its standing championship-or-bust mandate. If the rankings were more predictive than descriptive, the pecking order at this point would be too convoluted to make any sense at all.
The Razorbacks are primed and ready to blow a better season than their own to smithereens; see below.
But that would be true regardless of the teams in the pole position, which frequently arrive at this point in the season with a close call or two under their belts and at least one very visible crack in the facade. Like every would-be contender, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have their issues. (See below.) Unlike with most ostensible dark horses, those issues don’t include raw talent or proven big-game chops. Now that they’ve graduated from that underdog class, the only real question over the second half of the season will be the one that sets every champion apart from the also-rans: Have they established the ceiling, and can they keep hitting it every time out?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
No. 3 Mississippi State 38, no. 2 Auburn 23: Now that we’ve established the Bulldogs’ bona fides, a word about the red flags. First, the turnovers: At one point in the first half, Mississippi State gave the ball away four times in the span of 10 minutes, including interceptions by Prescott on consecutive drives (the first of which led to an Auburn field goal, the second of which cut short an MSU scoring opportunity in the Auburn red zone) and a muffed punt return by freshman Jamoral Graham (which resulted in a short field for the Tigers’ first touchdown). Although four giveaways is a season high (or low, depending on your perspective), the Bulldogs have coughed up at least two turnovers in five of six games this season, and have committed more turnovers altogether (13) than any other SEC offense except Vanderbilt. It hasn’t hurt them yet because the defense is taking the ball away at an even greater rate (16) — three of Mississippi State’s five touchdowns on Saturday came on short-field drives following an Auburn turnover — but in the long run such sloppiness rarely goes unpunished.
Second, there’s the defense, where the numbers have to be taken with a couple grains of salt. The Bulldogs allowed 441 yards to Auburn and are currently yielding more yards per game than any other SEC defense except South Carolina’s — not ideal for an aspiring contender. But consider that (1) 441 yards is actually a pretty good performance against Auburn’s offense, which previously torched Arkansas for 595 yards and LSU for 566; (2) Mississippi State ceded huge chunks of meaningless yardage to LSU and Texas A&M in garbage time, inflating the statistics; and (3) MSU’s defense is forcing a lot of turnovers. So I’m inclined to be a little more forgiving than I would usually be toward a unit that ranks 89th in total defense at this point in the season. For a more accurate assessment, consider that Mississippi State came into the weekend ranked seventh nationally in Defensive S&P+, an advanced statistic from Football Outsiders that adjusts for opponent and excludes garbage time.
On the other hand, there’s the matter of giving up 435 passing yards to UAB on just 15 completions back in Week 2 — at the time, coach Dan Mullen called the performance “embarrassing” — and the fact that only one team in the BCS era played for the national championship after yielding more than 400 yards per game in the regular season: Auburn, in 2013. Every defense takes its licks in the age of the spread, but the bar hasn’t yet been lowered quite so far that those precedents can be ignored entirely.
No. 3 Ole Miss 35, no. 14 Texas A&M 20: If anything, Ole Miss has the opposite problem: The Rebels are undeniably dynamite on defense, so much so that the “Landsharks” scored two touchdowns themselves Saturday while holding the highest-scoring offense in the SEC to just one in the first 51 minutes.3 But is it concerning that the offense went into a shell after a pair of early touchdown drives? In the second half, Ole Miss had six offensive possessions and failed to earn a first down on five of them.
Texas A&M added a pair of cosmetic touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one of them on the last play of the game. Just like last week, the Aggies were juggernauts of garbage time.
Tellingly, the one exception in that sequence was a time-consuming touchdown drive that effectively put the game away at the end of the third quarter, suggesting that the offense is perfectly capable of coming out of the shell when it begins to feel threatened. (In this case, A&M had recently cut the lead to 21-7.) If that’s really the case, though, we should expect to see more fast starts like this one over the second half of the season and fewer frantic finishes like the ones against Boise State (seven points in the first three quarters, 28 in the fourth), Memphis (seven points in the first three quarters, 17 in the fourth), and Alabama (10 points in the first three quarters, 13 in the fourth), when the offense spent most of those games in a similar funk. As much fun as they were at the end, I suspect Rebels fans would prefer more leisurely blowouts like the one Ole Miss delivered on Saturday.
No. 5 Baylor 61, no. 9 TCU 58: Speaking of defense, is there any way I could convince you that Baylor’s defense wasn’t that bad in this game? That it was maybe … even kind of an asset?
Let’s give it a shot! First, two of TCU’s seven touchdowns resulted from its defense (on an interception return) and special teams (on a kickoff return); the Baylor defense yielded “only” five TDs and three field goals on 17(!) TCU possessions. Second, the Horned Frogs actually averaged fewer yards per play (5.5) on Saturday than in any of their first four games, including their much lower-scoring wins over Minnesota (5.9) and Oklahoma (6.0). The Frogs went three-and-out on four possessions in the first half and finished just 7-of-20 on third downs. Most important, after the Bears fell behind 58-37 in the fourth quarter and things were at their bleakest, with TCU enjoying a 95.8 percent win probability as of 6:15 p.m. Central Time …
[protected-iframe id=”9e8b11340b588745b57e06f85d0114b0-60203239-35703816″ info=”http://www.gambletron2000.com/college-football/8108/tcu-at-baylor?embed=1″ ]
… Baylor’s defense buckled down, forcing back-to-back punts while the offense staged a pair of lightning-fast touchdown drives, then holding the Frogs to a critical turnover on downs that set up the game-winning field goal as time expired. Baylor’s offense scored 24 points in the fourth quarter; after finishing off a touchdown drive a few seconds into the fourth, TCU’s offense scored zero. And at the end of the day, incredibly, the Bears still led the Big 12 in both yards and points allowed per game.
Which is not to suggest that Baylor’s defense is good, only that it may be good enough opposite an offense that is capable of igniting at any moment in a way very few others are. Last week, the defense carried the day against Texas by shutting out the Longhorns for the first 57 minutes, allowing the offense to find its legs in the second half after a sluggish start. Against TCU, the offense wound up with 782 total yards, 39 first downs, and seven touchdowns, but only after running 109 plays, converting four of six fourth-down attempts, and turning the ball over five times, including twice on downs. When it’s good, Baylor really does resemble a customized PlayStation outfit come to life, but any defense that faces 17 possessions in a single game has to be judged by quasi–Arena League criteria. Under the circumstances, nine outright stops and three field goals is far from a dealbreaker in the Bears’ pursuit of another Big 12 title.
No. 11 Oklahoma 31, Texas 26: Oklahoma will never take a win over Texas for granted, regardless of the point spread,4 but this one did nothing to restore any of the luster the Sooners forfeited in last week’s loss to TCU. The Longhorns’ previously moribund offense outgained OU by a full 250 yards of total offense, earned more than twice as many first downs, and racked up a 16-minute advantage in time of possession. Oklahoma’s offense converted a single third down in 11 tries and finished with its worst output in terms of total offense (232 yards) since 2007.
The Sooners were pegged as 14-point favorites Saturday against a struggling, shorthanded bunch of Longhorns.
The game turned on two plays: a 91-yard kickoff return by OU’s Alex Ross in the first quarter and a 43-yard interception return by OU’s Zack Sanchez in the second. Every other factor favored Texas in lopsided fashion, including the quarterback duel between sophomores Tyrone Swoopes and Trevor Knight. Despite the pick-six, Swoopes otherwise looked like the gifted up-and-comer the Longhorns have been waiting to see, turning in career highs for attempts (44), completions (27), yards (334), and yards per attempt (7.6) and tying his career high for total touchdowns (3) against a defense that is (or was) generally regarded as the best in the Big 12; had Texas’s defense been able to get the ball back for him in the final two minutes, Swoopes looked capable of finishing off a defining comeback on the heels of back-to-back touchdowns on UT’s previous two drives.
Knight, on the other hand, didn’t make any big mistakes, but also didn’t do anything to write home about, aside from perhaps a 24-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard and a successful clock-killing drive that kept Texas’s suddenly hot offense on the bench in the waning minutes. Six games in, Knight has looked like a run-of-the-mill caretaker while completing only 55 percent of his passes; signs of the guy who carved up Alabama’s defense in January’s Sugar Bowl have been few and far between. With one blemish already on the record and Kansas State, Baylor, and Oklahoma State still in front of them, the Sooners can’t keep asking freshman tailback Samaje Perine to pick up Knight’s slack, much less the defense’s and special teams’.
It’s Time to Rethink: Alabama’s Offensive Revival. I have no idea what the Crimson Tide’s offense will look like a few weeks from now, but after Saturday’s 14-13 escape against Arkansas, the widespread notion that first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had somehow elevated Alabama’s offense to a new level already feels like a relic of a simpler, stupider time.
Actually, it was less than a month ago that the Crimson Tide trashed Florida for 42 points on 645 yards of total offense in Kiffin’s first SEC game, the most ever allowed by a Gators defense, which makes the performance in Fayetteville all the more stupefying: For the night, Alabama went three-and-out seven times, earned 10 first downs, and generated just 227 yards of total offense, its worst output in an SEC game since the 2007 Iron Bowl. On the ground, the Tide pounded out 66 yards on an anemic 2.1 yards per carry, their worst on both counts since 2010. The star of the Florida win, Amari Cooper, touched the ball three times against the Razorbacks — once as a rusher, twice as a receiver — for 16 yards.
Taken by itself, the regression into a cloud-of-dust stereotype on the road would be puzzling, but not necessarily a sign of a larger trend. However, on the heels of last week’s flop at Ole Miss, where the Bama offense generated just 10 points and failed to score in the second half, the aerial outburst in Florida is beginning to look like the anomaly. On the bright side for this weekend: If there’s one SEC defense you want to see in the throes of an offensive identity crisis, it’s Texas A&M’s.
Georgia’s Defense: The best player in college football was suspended for some bullshit, but no. 13 Georgia didn’t need Todd Gurley to beat no. 23 Missouri, and in fact could have given the entire offense the afternoon off: The Bulldogs held Mizzou to 147 yards, didn’t allow a third-down conversion, and forced five turnovers in a 34-0 pasting. The Tigers crossed midfield twice, both times with the game already well out of hand in the second half, and showed impressive commitment to the narrative by immediately serving up interceptions on both occasions.
Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon: Far from the #Sacktoberfest debacle everyone predicted, no. 12 Oregon’s banged-up, beleaguered front held no. 18 UCLA without a sack in a 42-30 win in Pasadena, promptly returning the Ducks to the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 following last week’s ambush at the hands of Arizona. Oregon also rediscovered its dormant ground game, gashing the Bruins for 258 yards and four touchdowns on 6.3 per carry. Not coincidentally, the victory was the first game back for Fisher after a two-game absence, in which time MVP quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked a dozen times by Arizona and Washington State and the running game averaged 3.8 yards per carry without a rushing touchdown. Obviously, it appears reports of the Ducks’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Javorius “Buck” Allen, RB, USC: Allen sliced up Arizona for 205 yards on 26 carries, supplying three of the Trojans’ four touchdowns in a wild, 28-26 win that knocked the Wildcats from their newly won top-10 pedestal and back into the chaotic Pac-12 fray. The safety who attempted an open-field tackle around the 40-yard line on this play is lucky to still be walking:
Through six games, Allen is on pace for 1,562 yards rushing in the regular season alone — not including a bowl game or a possible appearance in the Pac-12 championship game — which would be the most by any Trojan back since Reggie Bush went for 1,740 in his 2005 Heisman run.
Fat Guy of the Week — David Parry, Stanford: Six days after Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday set the NCAA passing record against Cal, no. 25 Stanford beat the living daylights out of him on Friday night in a 34-17 mugging that could serve as a warning for Air Raid offenses everywhere, like one of those over-the-top driver’s ed crash videos. Officially, Halliday was sacked four times on 73 attempts; unofficially, he was hounded, hit, and harassed on a couple dozen more, at least, often by Parry, a 300-pound nose tackle who spent most of the night depositing Washington State linemen in Halliday’s lap. In the box score, Parry was credited with one sack and five quarterback hurries, which is a lot more pleasant to read than it was to watch.
Catch of the Year of the Week — Travin Dural, LSU: Unless it’s aimed at Calvin Johnson or Jimmy Graham, the goal-line fade is a statistically horrible decision doomed to near-certain failure. It should be torn from the pages of every playbook. But on the rare occasion that it actually works, it’s a thing of beauty, and it doesn’t get any prettier than this one-handed, go-ahead haul by Dural with Florida’s Brian Poole hanging all over him:
LSU won, 30-27, with the decisive margin supplied by style points alone.
(Runner-up: Javess Blue, Kentucky.)
Florida in the Clutch: In a more just world, Jeff Driskel would have been the hero against LSU, striding confidently into victory in front of a home crowd that would just as soon have seen him on the bench after last week’s miserable, three-interception performance against Tennessee.5 And he might have been the hero if senior tight end Tevin Westbrook had been able to hold on to an easy, go-ahead touchdown pass in response to Dural’s showstopping grab on the other end. But of course, this is Florida’s offense; since when is anything easy?
After the drop on third down, Florida settled for a field goal to tie the game at 27, and still had a chance to win when it took over at its own 42-yard line with 54 seconds to play. Given new life, Driskel responded in sublimely Driskelian fashion, by throwing an interception to LSU’s Rickey Jefferson that set up the Tigers’ game-clinching, 50-yard field goal two plays later. The decisive pick was Driskel’s second of the game, and his eighth in four SEC games this season.
Big Ten Refs: Penn State trailed Michigan, 18-13, following an idiotic clock-management gaffe by Penn State coach James Franklin, which we mercifully don’t have time to get into here. Long story short: The Nittany Lions took an intentional safety and faced a free kick with 1:43 to play. Somehow, the Lions recovered the subsequent onside kick, renewing their chances of … you know, etcetera, forget all that because there was a flag on the play. Offside, Penn State! Recovery negated, new kick recovered by Michigan, clock run out, brief moratorium called on burning Brady Hoke in effigy.
This is the call that ended it:
Oh, thank goodness the official was there to admonish this blatant transgression at such a pivotal moment. Had the call gone in the Nittany Lions’ favor, could their offense have put together any semblance of a drive after a dismal second half that made the quarterback appear to forget everything he knows about being a quarterback in a reversion to sheer survival instinct? Maybe, maybe not. Well, probably not. But it would have been a lot more interesting (not to mention, you know, correct) if we’d gotten the opportunity to find out.