The cardinal sin in college football is looking too far ahead. Well, that or using the port-o-johns after a night game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But instead of looking too far ahead, let’s look back.
Back to January 2018, when Alabama battled Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, an appetizer before another national championship.
Back to January 2017, when Deshaun Watson went from great quarterback to Clemson legend by finally felling the Crimson Tide.
Back to January 2016, when Watson went toe-to-toe with Bama for three quarters before Alabama finally pulled away.
It’s not this season that suggests we’re bound to see Alabama and Clemson in the postseason again. It’s history. You see the sun come up every day; it’s reasonable to expect it again tomorrow.
So let’s start there: Clemson-Bama IV seems like a near inevitability, with Ohio State adding to that certainty with its loss to Purdue. But what Saturday showed us — and what all of 2018 has shown, really — is that, if we do get yet another sequel, this one won’t be at all like the first three.
Look at Alabama, after all. Less than 10 minutes into Saturday’s game against Tennessee, a team coming off a signature win over Auburn, with a coach who knows Nick Saban’s system as intimately as anyone, the Tide led 28-0 and the only question was how embarrassing it would get.
Then look at Clemson. Saturday’s game against NC State was supposed to be the last true challenge for the Tigers, an undefeated opponent who’d taken them to the wire in each of the past two seasons. And by the half, Clemson was up 24-0, its freshman quarterback looking every bit a burgeoning star.
It’s obvious on its face that Clemson and Alabama have been the dominant programs of the past three seasons, but it’s also clear their genius was tinged with just a bit of mortality. Remember how the Clemson offensive line struggled to open any running lanes against the Tide, even as Watson worked his magic to win a title. Remember how Alabama’s passing game was a predictable palate cleanser between run plays and defensive dominance. Both programs have been the college football equivalent of the Death Star, the planet-destroying behemoth in “Star Wars” that, for reasons not entirely clear, always included one problematic self-destruct button.
We can see these same flaws in the chief competition for Bama and Clemson. Ohio State’s struggles against TCU, Minnesota and Penn State finally caught up with it against the Boilermakers. Notre Dame remains something of an offensive enigma. Texas and LSU have battled, but it’s all felt like a struggle. And then there’s the two teams at the top.
And perhaps there is a flaw somewhere on Alabama’s roster this year, too. Saban certainly has tried to nitpick, even imploring the media to chip away at the impenetrable machine that has won its first eight games by an average of 38 points.
Or maybe the burgeoning confidence of a Clemson team that’s outscored its opposition 124-17 in the past 10 quarters is just a blip, and the close calls against Texas A&M and Syracuse are a better indicator. It’s just that the trend seems to be moving in the other direction.
The reality through eight weeks is pretty clear, though. Tua Tagovailoa has opened up the Alabama offense to a level where the Tide are scoring at a pace equaled by only the best of the tempo teams of Art Briles and Chip Kelly. Plus the Tide still have that ferocious defense and powerful ground game.
Through eight weeks, Clemson has weathered its biggest storm, and Trevor Lawrence has emerged on the other side as the obvious successor to Watson’s legend. He dismantled NC State’s secondary Saturday, tossing lasers toward the sideline, one after another. The Wolfpack knew what was coming, but they were powerless to stop it. And this comes just a week after the ground game racked up 471 yards against Wake Forest.
Yes, we’ve seen Bama-Clemson before. And yes, we’re likely to see these two face off again. But we haven’t seen anything quite like this.
Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio argue their sides about what happened before the Michigan-Michigan State game Saturday.
A good day for Michigan
When Baker Mayfield celebrated on Ohio State’s logo, he was forced to apologize. Michigan’s Chase Winovich wasn’t feeling quite so magnanimous after the Wolverines won for the seventh straight time, this time an ugly, rain-soaked victory against “little brother” Michigan State.
I’d like to take this moment to apologize… FOR ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Go Blue!
— Chase Winovich (@Chase_Winovich) October 20, 2018
From the pregame dustup at the Michigan State logo to the postgame war of words between the coaches in their news conferences, the in-state rivalry suddenly became every bit as entertaining as the one with Ohio State.
Of course, the only thing that could add some extra fun to a win over “little brother” is to watch your other rival fall in embarrassing fashion. That’s exactly what Michigan saw happen to Ohio State, which was walloped by Purdue in the Buckeyes’ annual “Wait, how did that just happen?” game. (Note to Jeff Brohm: Please check with Frank Beamer for your membership card and Kirk Ferentz can provide you with the customary smoking jacket.)
So, this was among the better Saturdays in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a while. But the bigger question now is: Just how much should we trust this Michigan team?
The defense is really good. No one has mustered more than 319 yards of offense against the Wolverines this season, and Michigan State’s performance was particularly dreadful. The Spartans managed just 94 yards of offense and were an abysmal 0-of-12 on third down.
What’s less clear is what to make of Michigan’s offense, which has been spectacular in five home games against lesser competition, but has struggled to find consistency in three road tests, including a loss to Notre Dame and a near miss against Northwestern. That may not bode well for a season-ending trip to Columbus, Ohio. Then again, who’s feeling great about Ohio State right now.
Little brother blues
Winovich summed up the Michigan-Michigan State game pretty succinctly: “Sometimes your little brother acts up, and you have to put him in place.”
It’s harsh, but is it accurate? Here’s where we put Michigan’s win in our all-time list of “little brother” smackdowns.
1. Michael vs. Fredo in “The Godfather”: At least Sparty wasn’t taken on a long boat ride, never to return.
2. Cain vs. Abel: While Saturday’s beatdown by Michigan’s defense was pretty Old Testament, it wasn’t nearly as bad as this rivalry.
3. Stannis vs. Renly on “Game of Thrones”: Honestly, Winovich has a great “Song of Ice and Fire” look, but until there’s some black magic involved, it doesn’t quite live up.
4. Noel Gallagher vs. Liam Gallagher: We have a feeling that after Saturday’s theatrics, Michigan State might look back in anger.
And we’ll chalk the Michigan win up at No. 5, just ahead of Billy vs. Jimmy Carter and the Jonas Brothers in a Royal Rumble.
Non-Michigan troll of the week
The rivalry between Clemson and NC State had featured all kinds of off-field drama, including last year’s game that included accusations of cheating by Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, who was angry about a laptop on the Tigers’ sideline.
So this year, Clemson added a play card on the sideline with a picture of a laptop on it, just for this game. Said Dabo Swinney afterward: “That was the ultimate troll. Is that what you call it?”
Purdue opened the season with three straight losses, by a grand total of seven points. What might we be saying about the Boilermakers right now had they managed to pull out a win in two of them?
Purdue’s dominance of Ohio State showcased what anyone who has watched the Boilermakers this year already knew. This is a really good team that had some really hard luck to start the season. But in the last four weeks, Purdue has thumped a good BC team, dominated Nebraska and Illinois, then gave us one of the most stunning performances of the season.
From the electric Rondale Moore to the powerful D.J. Knox to the underappreciated David Blough, this is an offense that can do it all. And on defense, we’ve seen Purdue now bottle up AJ Dillon and Dwayne Haskins. After undoing their Heisman campaigns, perhaps it’s time to start talking about Moore’s.
Michigan State’s struggling offense is up next, and then a date with Iowa that could well be the biggest game none of us saw coming back in early September. And if Purdue wins that one, Brohm’s paycheck is going to get a whole lot bigger when the season is over.
Week 8 hot takes
Butch Jones is a champion of life
How do you celebrate a 58-21 win over the team that fired you? Nothing goes better with a big win than a nice stogie and a little social media trolling.
After Saturday’s thumping of the Volunteers, Bama center Chris Owens posted a photo of himself and Jones, now a Tide offensive analyst, smoking victory cigars — something the former Tennessee coach didn’t get to do very often his last season in Knoxville.
— Chris Owens (@BGChrisOwens) October 20, 2018
It’s tough to say how much of an impact Jones’ insight had on Alabama’s win, but the photo is so good, we’re going to go ahead and forgive him for the whole sideline garbage can debacle.
Head coach Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers get their first win of the season by defeating Minnesota 53-28.
It’s good to be back to rock bottom
Scott Frost said Nebraska hit rock bottom three weeks ago, and things kept getting worse. So, technically, Nebraska was below rock bottom when Saturday’s game started. That means the win — much needed, much celebrated, much deserved — over Minnesota should officially bring the Cornhuskers back up to rock bottom. And really, Nebraska has looked pretty good for the past few games, which should offer some hope that, now that win No. 1 is in the books and a few more winnable games remain, this season might turn out to be a nice little stepping stone for the Huskers after all.
These losses were impressive
With apologies to Frost, who doesn’t quite buy into these win probabilities, we’re going to side with the math nerds and point out that, while it’s not going to win over many fans, you have to applaud the ability of Cincinnati and North Carolina.
The Bearcats had a 94 percent chance to win according to ESPN’s Win Probability with less than five minutes to play, but they surrendered a seven-play, 75-yard drive by Temple to tie things up, then lost in overtime.
And North Carolina — poor, poor North Carolina — was even worse. The Heels had a 94 percent chance to win with 2:30 to play, but it didn’t happen, as Syracuse QB Tommy DeVito dropped a 42-yard dime to Nykeim Johnson to send the game to OT less than a minute later. It’s the second straight week UNC had a touchdown lead late in the game only to surrender a long drive and lose. We’re not sure what Larry Fedora did to anger the football gods (perhaps they’re mad he’s in better shape than them) but it’s been a long time since anything’s gone UNC’s way.
But here’s the important thing to remember: Statistically speaking, it’s just as hard to lose when you’ve got only a 6 percent chance to do so as it is to win against the same odds.
27 players is enough to win the ACC Coastal
Bronco Mendenhall raised some eyebrows this summer when he said Virginia had only about 27 ACC-caliber players. The quote was more than a little misinterpreted, but that’s beside the point. However many players he’s got, it appears that’s good enough for Virginia to be a real contender to win the Coastal Division after thumping Miami and Duke in consecutive weeks. The Hoos are now 5-2, with their lone conference loss coming to NC State, and if you scan the rest of the schedule it’s not hard to envision the final-week showdown with rival Virginia Tech deciding the division. And since the Cavaliers haven’t won that game since 2003, they’re due.
One is better than two
Must be something in the water in Ohio, where both Kent State and Miami (Ohio) decided to go for two in overtime in hopes of walking off with a win, and both came up short. We admire the guts to do something risky, but it’s also important to remember that Evel Knievel suffered more than 400 broken bones in his life.
Not Heisman Five
Will these guys be in the Heisman conversation? Probably not. But we want to highlight their Week 8 performances anyway.
• Florida State got off to a horrid start this season, but let’s give a little love to QB Deondre Francois, who was brilliant against Wake Forest on Saturday and over his past four games has completed 65 percent of his throws with 10 TDs and two picks. Guess Willie Taggert might’ve known what he was doing after all.
• Oklahoma has been looking for someone to emerge on the ground after Rodney Anderson went down with a knee injury. Say hello to Kennedy Brooks, who ran for 168 yards on 18 carries — nearly triple the yards per rush TCU has allowed on average entering the game.
• Rutgers QB Artur Sitkowski was just 15-of-33 passing for 81 yards, which normally would be a pretty ugly stat line. But given that he finished 2-of-16 for 8 yards and four picks last week, this was a huge improvement, and we’re optimists — or “Fat Sandwich is half uneaten” people, if you prefer.
• LSU’s strength coach: We can only assume LSU’s strength coach gains power from his beard, which admittedly, is wondrous.
The LSU strength coach is out here HEADBUTTING PEOPLE WITHOUT A HELMET pic.twitter.com/PI6b1Swur3
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) October 20, 2018
Buy or Sell
Buy Oklahoma: The Sooners’ loss to Texas changed their playoff dynamic a bit, but there’s still a chance at redemption in the Big 12 title game, should both teams win out, and Kyler Murray & Co. continue to look like one of the best offensive units in the country after hanging 52 on TCU. Murray’s Heisman campaign would be in overdrive right now if it wasn’t for that guy down in Tuscaloosa.
Sell Penn State: The advanced metrics still loved Penn State, despite two losses. But the Nittany Lions struggled to put away Indiana on Saturday, and with Michigan playing so well, it’s hard to see how the Lions live up to their potential.
Buy Iowa: They’re never going to be sexy, but man, the Hawkeyes just continue to look impressive. They’re essentially the Big Ten’s version of LSU — run game, great defense and just enough from the QB to keep winning.
Sell Lane Kiffin’s brilliance: FAU mustered just seven points against Marshall and fell to 3-4, as QB Chris Robinson continues to struggle and an offense that looked unstoppable last season has been pretty bad this season. We still love Kiffin’s Twitter feed, but the on-field product hasn’t come close to living up to the preseason hype.
Buy D’Eriq King: While Ed Oliver gets all the love, Houston’s QB is having an unbelievable season so far. King finished with 413 yards passing and four touchdowns in a win over Navy. That brings his touchdown total for the season to 32 — tops in the country.
Under-appreciated Play of the Week
It’s not the effective fake punt that we loved here. It’s that Purdue punter Joe Schopper delivers a vicious blow to Ohio State’s Jordan Fuller. Last year, Schopper completed two passes and had a 13-yard run on fakes, too. At this point, he’d be starting at tailback and linebacker for UConn.
Under-appreciated Win of the Week
Texas Tech’s 48-16 win over Kansas was highlighted by another terrific performance from Alan Bowman, who threw for 408 yards. It was clearly one of the two best games in the Big 12 on Saturday. How many Big 12 games were there on Saturday? Never mind.
A pirate’s life
It’s near impossible to explain what the energy in Pullman, Washington, was like on Saturday — maybe some combination of the liberation of a small country and Black Friday at Walmart. And, of course, Mike Leach’s Washington State team offered plenty to celebrate.
The crazy thing about the Cougars this year isn’t that they’re 6-1, though that’s certainly been surprising. And it’s not that Gardner Minshew has stepped in so nicely to the QB job, tossing at least three touchdowns in all but one game so far. It’s the defense.
Washington State held Justin Herbert in check, and Oregon managed a woeful 58 yards on the ground on Saturday. That’s something the Cougars haven’t done since holding UCLA to 43 in 2016.
It’s certainly not the team anyone was predicting to push for a playoff berth from the Pac-12, but Leach’s crew is good. And look at the rest of the slate: all winnable games, with the division potentially on the line in the Apple Cup vs. Washington.
And if the only blemish at year’s end is a three-point defeat on the road at USC, that’s a résumé the playoff committee would have to consider. The fact that we’re saying that at all eight weeks into the season is a huge credit to what Leach has accomplished there.