College Football

The 12 hours of chaos that turned college football upside down

Jimbo Fisher told us this day was coming, and we laughed.

We laughed because the idea that Texas A&M, fresh off back-to-back losses, would somehow end Alabama‘s 100-game winning streak against unranked opponents seemed ludicrous. We laughed because Nick Saban had never lost to a former assistant, a perfect 24-0. We laughed because Saban himself laughed, suggesting Fisher’s prediction of an eventual win over Saban must have been in reference to golf.

Saban’s probably not looking forward to his next round of 18 with Fisher now.

Week 6 gave us Oklahoma‘s remarkable comeback against Texas, Iowa‘s defense punishing Penn State‘s overwhelmed backup quarterback, Michigan and Notre Dame surviving on late field goals and a showdown between the two worst teams in the country, and yet none of it could have prepared us for what happened in College Station.

Saturday was nuts — like, literally.

It was just a week ago, after all, that Alabama appeared unbeatable. The Tide dominated Ole Miss, Saban dumped popcorn on yet another former assistant, and the path to a college football championship appeared to converge in the SEC title game, with Alabama and Georgia clearly the dominant forces.

And now, we’re living in a world where Jim Harbaugh is undefeated, Florida State has a winning streak and UMass has won a game more recently than Nick Saban. What a time to be alive.

There is a theory that the world is made up of infinite universes, where every possible reality is manifest in its own alternate timeline. Saturday’s college football action would certainly offer some credence to that hypothesis.

Texas A&M, Michigan, Iowa, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Wake Forest all trailed in the fourth quarter Saturday. All of them won.

At the Red River Showdown, we came oh-so-close to being able to make another round of “Texas is back!” jokes, before a fox ran across the field, the Longhorns imploded and Lincoln Riley benched his preseason All-America QB in favor of freshman Caleb Williams, who led the Sooners to 25 fourth-quarter points and a stunning 55-48 win.

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During the Oklahoma-Texas game, a fox is spotted running on the field early in the first half.

Ole Miss and Arkansas combined for three touchdowns in the game’s final 90 seconds. The Razorbacks ran 94 plays, but the final one — a two-point try with time expired — came up short. Scott Frost had a chance to change the narrative that has dogged his tenure at Nebraska, but an Adrian Martinez fumble led to a Michigan field goal, which led to a facepalm for the ages.

Iowa fans booed Penn State players they thought were faking injuries to slow the Hawkeyes’ tempo, marking the first time “Iowa” and “tempo” have been used in the same sentence. Still, it was Iowa’s defense (four more takeaways) and Tory Taylor‘s punting (398 punting yards and six punts downed inside Penn State’s 20) that made the difference. It was the most Iowa of all game plans.

The best team in the country is now clearly Georgia — a team being led by a passing duo named Stetson Bennett IV and Ladd McConkey. Seriously, neither of those names are made up.

And in College Station, the real chaos unfolded. That Alabama was down early was a stunner. The Tide hadn’t trailed by more than a touchdown in two years. Still, an Alabama comeback felt almost preordained. This was Saban toying with Fisher, letting him get fitted for his own Aflacket before delivering another humiliating defeat.

Down 24-10, Alabama finally found its footing. A blocked punt resulted in a TD. Bryce Young connected with Jameson Williams for two touchdowns. When the Tide twice settled for chip-shot field goals in the fourth quarter, it seemed a perfectly reasonable concession, a way to string the Aggies along a little more.

But Saturday was that rare occasion in which the inevitable is overmatched by the incredible, and when Zach Calzada connected with Ainias Smith to tie the game with three minutes to play, the sense that Alabama would find a way was replaced by the feeling that Fisher would have two or three more contract extensions before the season’s over.

We’re at the halfway point of the 2021 season, and Wake Forest, Kentucky and Michigan are undefeated. Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson are not.

This is, indeed, a strange new universe.

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Oklahoma and Texas go back and forth in the fourth quarter, with the Sooners eventually scoring the winning touchdown with seconds remaining.

Everything’s bigger in Texas

Texas is back.

Well, not the Longhorns. They blew a 21-point lead to Oklahoma and will spend the next year in agonizing misery reliving how that game possibly got away.

But outside of Austin, the state of Texas is doing quite well.

Texas A&M’s shocking win over Alabama was the showstopper of Saturday’s action, but down the pecking order of Texas football, a few other teams are looking good, too.

Houston toppled Tulane on Thursday. UTEP, SMU and UTSA all won on Saturday. The combined record of those four teams is now 22-2.

Heck, even Texas State won Saturday, finding the end zone on the final play of regulation to tie South Alabama, then winning 33-31 in four overtimes.

So, while things look bleak for Texas, the school, the state of Texas is riding high. That should surely be enough to cheer up a few Longhorns, right? Hello? Anyone?

Hope emerging at Tennessee

Tennessee’s offense stayed red hot in a 45-20 win over South Carolina on Saturday, and the Volunteers have now scored 107 points in their past two games. The key to the Vols’ success has been QB Hendon Hooker, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another against the Gamecocks.

The Virginia Tech transfer came off the bench in Week 2 against Pitt and nearly pulled off a dramatic, come-from-behind win. Since then, he has blossomed into one of the country’s top passers.

Hooker has thrown for multiple TDs in five straight games — the first Tennessee QB to do so since Tyler Bray in 2012 — and Hooker already has matched his career high with 13 TD throws. All this success for Hooker has been a marked change of pace for the Vols, who managed just 14 TD throws all of last season and haven’t had a QB toss 20 TDs since Joshua Dobbs in 2016. If Hooker can keep up this pace, and with a few more months of extensive psychotherapy, Tennessee fans might finally sleep through the night without waking up in a cold sweat screaming, “Guarantanooooooo!”

Cinderella stories

A popular narrative emerged last week in the aftermath of Cincinnati’s signature win over Notre Dame. What if the Bearcats weren’t the best team outside the Power 5? After all, BYU was undefeated too and had wins over Utah and Arizona State.

Consider the situation resolved.

BYU turned the ball over four times in a 26-17 loss to Boise State on Saturday, officially ceding the high ground among future Big 12 members to Cincinnati.

Of course, the Bearcats aren’t the only undefeated team outside the Power 5 with big dreams. SMU edged Navy 31-24 to move to 6-0, with QB Tanner Mordecai tossing two more TD throws to bring his season total to an FBS-best 26. The Mustangs have a date with Cincinnati on Nov. 20. Meanwhile, last year’s Cinderella team, Coastal Carolina, routed Arkansas State 52-20 on Thursday to get to 6-0, and the Chanticleers will now travel to Appalachian State for a Wednesday kickoff on Oct. 20.

In a potential 12-team playoff, this would make for some interesting conversations about multiple teams outside the Power 5 making the cut. But since we’re still stuck at four teams in the College Football Playoff, we look forward to one of these teams beating an unmotivated Florida in the Peach Bowl.

Heel turn

There was a time — believe it or not, it was just six weeks ago — when North Carolina was ranked in the top 10 and was something of a playoff dark horse. And for every media member who helped perpetuate that preseason absurdity, Mack Brown thinks you need to take some time to sit and be alone with your wrongness.

Oh, sure, you might be inclined to blame UNC for its woeful 3-3 start to the season, which included another embarrassing loss, 35-25 to Florida State, on Saturday. The Tar Heels’ defense was flummoxed by FSU QB Jordan Travis, who racked up four TDs on the day, despite the fact that Travis also flummoxed the Heels with a nearly identical game plan just a year ago. But you’d be wrong. The problem was the media.

“The expectation for us to be a top-10 team [was] wrong,” Brown said after Saturday’s loss. “I guess we should all be critical of the media for picking us that high.”

It’s a fair point. Yes, North Carolina is arguably the biggest disappointment in college football this season, but you can’t disappoint without first having expectations. Set the bar low and everything can become a success. So, here’s betting UNC’s bus breaks down on the side of I-85 and the team spends next Saturday camped out in a Sheetz parking lot. Now, if the Heels even make it to kickoff, it’ll be something to celebrate.

The best of the worst

Sure, we got some epic comebacks by undefeated powers like Oklahoma and Iowa and, yes, even Wake Forest, and if that’s the kind of football you like, it was a fun Saturday.

But for the rest of us, the genuine college football sickos, there was something far better: Winless UConn at winless UMass. It represented two historic programs facing off in something closer to a slumber party pillow fight than a true clash of titans; nevertheless, it technically constituted a football game. On the line was the top spot in the Bottom 10 and, of course, the much-coveted rivalry trophy, which we’re told is a used copy of “Cats” on VHS.

UMass — winless for the past two calendar years — ran for 247 yards. It was the most rushing yards by the Minutemen since 2018, when they hit that same exact total against — wait for it — UConn! The Huskies, meanwhile, went 1-of-10 on third down, missed a field goal, punted five times and turned the ball over three times. We’ll chalk that up to the dominance of the UMass defense.

Fun fact: UMass has won a football game more recently than the New England Patriots. Chew on that, Bill Belichick.

Heisman Five

The leader remains the same, but the line of players hoping to unseat Bryce Young as the Heisman favorite is getting awfully long, and his loss at the hands of Texas A&M certainly opened the door for some serious shakeups. From Pitt’s Kenny Pickett to Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, USC’s Drake London and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker, we could easily go 10 deep on strong candidates this week.

1. Alabama QB Bryce Young

Young struggled early behind a shaky offensive line, but he did his part to give the Tide a chance to win. Young finished 28-of-48 for 369 yards and three touchdowns, but the only stat that anyone will remember is the “L.”

2. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral

Corral’s Heisman campaign lost some shine last week against Alabama. But he reminded the world why he is one of the country’s most dangerous weapons against Arkansas, throwing for 287 yards, running for 94 more and totaling four TDs — all despite the fact that his playbook was covered in popcorn butter stains.

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Matt Corral gets a push from teammate Henry Parrish Jr. and muscles his way in for an Ole Miss touchdown.

3. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud

We wrote off Ohio State after the home loss to Oregon, and certainly wins over Rutgers and Maryland shouldn’t complete a redemption arc for the Buckeyes, but Stroud has been consistently great from the start. Saturday’s 66-17 blowout win against the Terps was the latest eye-popping stat line for Stroud, who completed 24 of 33 passes for 406 yards and five touchdowns.

4. Texas RB Bijan Robinson

It certainly wasn’t Robinson’s fault that Texas blew a 21-point lead to Oklahoma. He finished with 20 carries for 137 yards and a TD for his fifth straight game with more than 100 yards on the ground. No, the bigger issue is that, after Texas went up 41-23 (thanks in part to a 33-yard run from the star tailback), he saw just five more carries, which amounted to just four yards.

5. Georgia defensive tackles Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt and Jalen Carter

Auburn ran for 46 yards on Saturday. It marks the fifth time in six games that Georgia’s defense held the opposition to less than 100 yards on the ground. Sure, it’s unfair for us to add three players to the No. 5 spot, but how do you pick just one? It’s like naming your favorite Hanson brother; they’re all essential parts of one magical group.

Under-the-radar play of the week

Michigan State keeps winning, and Kenneth Walker III keeps putting together a serious Heisman case. The Wake Forest transfer had another stellar outing on Saturday, carrying 29 times for 232 yards, including a 94-yard touchdown run with about a half-dozen ridiculous jukes along the way. But the pièce de résistance came at the end of the play, when Walker reached out to high-five teammate Jalen Nailor at the 15-yard line. Sure, we’d have preferred a fist bump or possibly a quick game of rock, paper, scissors, but this was nevertheless Saturday’s best show of swagger and as good a Heisman moment as you’ll find.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Not since the untimely end of the Civil ConFLiCT has a made-up rivalry meant so much as Saturday’s showdown between FCS Gardner-Webb and Campbell in the inaugural East/West Barbecue Bowl.

The Camels scored the final 21 points of the game, upending Gardner-Webb 42-28 and landing this sweet trophy with a pig on top.

More importantly, the losing team has to furnish a full barbecue dinner for the winners, so Gardner-Webb will be sending over some White Swan Bar-B-Q for the Camels to enjoy. But let’s be serious here: No game is going to change the fact that western North Carolina still has the better barbecue, and vinegar sauce is weak.

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