An Assessment of the College Football Landscape Six Weeks into the Season
Almost halfway home in what has been a predictably unpredictable first six weeks of the college football season. Since the last Quarterly Report (https://amateurhourgolfpod.com/2018/09/19/the-quarterly-report-volume-i/), the playoff picture has begun to take shape and the number of unbeaten teams has dwindled to 11. As I did in Volume I, I’ll react to the last three weeks of action and look ahead to the next quarter of the season. Let’s get right to it:
What We Know
- Texas has turned the corner
Texas is back, folks. The infamous Joe Tessitore sound drop had been a punch line after numerous head scratching defeats in recent years. Tom Herman’s hiring was supposed to turn around the Texas offense, given his track record of success as a coordinator and head coach at Houston. However, the defense was the team’s strength all last year as the offense held the Longhorns back from statement wins over Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and TCU. Texas was not back, and the jokes only grew louder after a sloppy opening weekend loss to Maryland this season. The offense still looked out of sorts and some were wondering whether it was time to look elsewhere to restore the glory of the Mack Brown-era Longhorns.
This past weekend’s victory over Oklahoma completely changes the conversation. Home wins over USC and TCU were encouraging and showed their improvement since the beginning of the season. Winning the Red River Showdown cements Texas as a program that is once again relevant in the national conversation. The offense and defense both played well in their 48-45 win, sealed with Cameron “Dicker the Kicker” (https://twitter.com/TGHSports/status/1048659691184824323) hitting a 40-yard field goal with 9 seconds left in regulation. The Longhorns defense almost faltered late, but kept an incredibly explosive Oklahoma offense in check most of the afternoon. Defensive Coordinator Todd Orlando has had the best success out of any other coach in the country at slowing down the Sooners the past two seasons, which bodes well for the Longhorns long-term success in this rivalry.
But the biggest reason Texas is back, and here to stay, is the improvement of sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Ehlinger’s decision making has greatly improved from last season, and he carved up the Sooner defense for 314 yards through the air and 5 total touchdowns. He did an excellent job distributing to playmakers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson. Their size and strength overwhelmed Oklahoma’s defensive backs throughout the contest, combining for 214 receiving yards. The drive Ehlinger orchestrated to set up the game-winning field goal was especially impressive considering it appeared the Longhorns offense had lost all momentum during the fourth quarter. Ehlinger displayed his biggest strength of tough running during the 9 play, 52 yard game-winning charge.
While Texas won the game on the field, the biggest “L” from the matchup may have gone to Baker Mayfield via social media. Baker posted about how much he couldn’t stand Texas before the game Saturday and boasted about his success in the rivalry. After the game, Baker was the target for a few Longhorn players (https://twitter.com/KeondreCoburn99/status/1048677285086355456) and fans, with the funniest troll coming from Kevin Durant’s “mood” after the win (https://www.instagram.com/p/BompNIPngwK/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet).
The schedule appears manageable the rest of the way, and Texas has a legitimate chance to run the table to finish the regular season undefeated in conference play. An improved Baylor team presents an interesting test this week for the Longhorns coming off the biggest win the program has had in years. The remaining games include in-state rivals and a matchup with West Virginia. There should be plenty of motivation for the Longhorns to finish the season strong, as they are now a playoff contender.
- Notre Dame is a legitimate playoff contender
Speaking of playoff contenders, I was not sold on the Irish as one of them a few weeks ago, as I mentioned in TQR: Vol. I. Since then, the Irish handled what appears to be their toughest stretch of games with ease. Convincing wins on the road against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech along with a thumping of Stanford at home have firmly put the Irish in the playoff discussion. The defense, led by Jerry Tillery up front, has been strong all season long. The emergence of Ian Book and Dexter Williams have transformed the offense into an explosive unit. All of a sudden, it’s difficult to find a weakness on this team.
Book’s efficiency since taking over the starting job has brought balance to a previously one-dimensional offense. He’s completed over 70% of his passes as a starter and accounted for 11 TD’s. Book is not the runner Brandon Wimbush is, but still brings the threat of running to the game, keeping defenses honest. Dexter Williams has been a beast since being inserted into the starting lineup against Stanford. The improved quarterback play has opened up things for him, as defenses have been unable to key on one area of the Irish offense to stop. Williams ran wild this past weekend, with 178 yards on 17 attempts. His combination of size and speed have been difficult for opponents to handle.
While the Irish seem to have their toughest tests behind them, this team has a history of playing down to their competition. Notre Dame’s always challenging schedule has the added element of more cross-country trips than usual this season. If they do suffer a loss, it will be fascinating to see how the committee evaluates Notre Dame’s body of work against potential one-loss Power Five teams.
- The SEC East is more than just Georgia
The SEC has re-established itself as the best conference in the sport. The overall strength of the league is pretty close to being back to where it was during the BCS-era. The difference in this iteration of the SEC is the number of quality teams across the two divisions, as eight are currently ranked in the polls. Outside of Urban Meyer’s Florida teams, almost all of the conference’s past powers were from the West. The West is still the best division in football, but the SEC East is more formidable than it looked at the beginning of the year. Georgia is the class of the division, but a few of contenders have emerged. Florida has had a great two weeks, with wins over Mississippi State on the road and LSU at home. They have rebounded from a streak-breaking home loss to Kentucky at the beginning of conference play. Kentucky is the biggest surprise of the season, having notched impressive wins against Florida in The Swamp and over Mississippi State and South Carolina in Lexington. Josh Allen has led a stout defense, and Benny Snell’s running has allowed the Cats to control the tempo of their games thus far. South Carolina and Missouri both hung around with Georgia for a half, and these two could play spoiler down the stretch as Florida and Kentucky hope to keep pace with the Dawgs for the division crown.
There appear to be a number of ways in which the conference could put two teams back in the CFP. The class of the SEC resides in Tuscaloosa, but the East has a top contender as well. The ultimate prize at the end of the season for fans would be a Georgia-Alabama rematch, this time in the conference title game. If both teams enter Atlanta undefeated, that game would likely determine seeding for the CFP. Both teams would probably be in the playoff field even with a loss in that game. Even if they don’t meet, the SEC Championship Game should be the marquee contest on Conference Championship weekend.
- Vegas Knows
The point total in the LSU-Florida game was 43.5. This game was a near stalemate statistically, with both teams having nearly identical yards gained (FLA 391 – LSU 372), first downs (LSU 20 – FLA 19) and time of possession (LSU 30:16 – FLA 29:32). The score also reflected how evenly this game was played entering the final stages of the contest, with Florida clinging to a 20-19 advantage. LSU had a chance with the ball down 1, but Joe Burrow was picked off for the first time this season by Brad Stewart Jr. in Tiger’s territory. Stewart had nobody in front of him after making the play until he approached the goal-line. He dove for the pylon and the score, putting the Gators up 27-19 after the extra point, for a point total of 46 and the over.
Now, I understand the argument for Stewart going down short of the goal-line, which would have preserved the under. LSU had one time out remaining when the interception was made, and with 1:45 left, Florida would have been able to run out the clock. The touchdown also gave LSU the ball back with the game still within one score. The Tigers could have driven back down for a touchdown and converted the 2-point conversion, sending the game into overtime. If that would have happened, Stewart would have been crushed for his decision to score off of the interception. However, Stewart made the instinctive move and scored on the play. So much of defense is reading and reacting that it is tough to expect a player who capitalizes on a mistake in that part of the field to slide down. Stewart made the pick at LSU 25 yard line. It’s not like the play was made on Florida’s own 25. The end zone was well within reach. Situationally, it may not have been the perfect play, but fortunately for Florida, it worked out. Under bettors were not as fortunate.
What We Think We Know
These appear to be true for now, but things could change:
- Michigan’s offense is good enough to keep them in the playoff hunt
I have not been impressed with Shea Patterson. His numbers have been respectable, but it seems like he and Jim Harbaugh still haven’t quite gelled as a quarterback-play caller combination. Some of that is on the offensive line which has struggled at times in pass protection so far this season. Teams have keyed on the running game on early downs, setting up third-and-long situations to pressure Patterson.
That being said, I still think this offense is good enough to keep them in every game the rest of the season. They still have time to establish more of a chemistry amongst Patterson, his surrounding pieces, and coaching staff. The offense, while not highly explosive, is very balanced. Karan Higdon has been very effective on the ground, averaging nearly six yards per carry and showing the ability to break long runs. Zach Gentry has established himself as Patterson’s go-to target, which is no surprise given Harbaugh’s history of featuring Tight Ends in his offensive schemes. Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones haven’t broken out yet, but are capable of making a big play at any time.
Most importantly, the Michigan offense does not need to be dominant to contend. The defense is rock solid, leading the country in yards allowed per game (231). There are studs at each level of the defense, highlighted by a front seven that includes at least three top NFL draft picks in Rashaan Gary, Devin Bush, and Chase Winovich. The offense only needs to compliment the defense for the remainder of the year. That begins this weekend when the Wisconsin Badgers come to town. The matchup is a de facto playoff elimination game since both teams already have a loss and we have yet to see a CFP include a two loss regular season team.
- Oregon is the Pac-12’s best team
This will likely be confirmed one way or another this weekend as the Ducks host Washington in Eugene. The Ducks potent offense (45.6 ppg) will face the third best scoring defense in the country (13.7 ppg), a classic match of strength vs. strength. Justin Herbert vs. Jake Browning looked like it could have decided the Conference POY race at the beginning of the season, but Browning has struggled and Herbert has emerged as the favorite for the award. Herbert has been a star, and looks every bit the part of a future top 5 draft pick next April. His performance has given opportunities to his supporting cast as CJ Verdell, Travis Dye and Dillon Mitchell have had their moments on the big stage. Even the Oregon defense has looked good enough to contend.
With Stanford falling off the last few weeks and USC still trying to find their way, the Ducks and Huskies appear to be league’s two best teams. Colorado and Washington State have played well and deserve to be mentioned in this discussion, but still have not truly been tested and have the toughest parts of their schedules upcoming. Even with a conference loss, I think the Ducks are the best team out West.
Regardless of the outcome the rest of the way, this season will be reflected on with the thought of “what could have been” for Ducks fans. The Stanford loss was painful, as two fumbles completely changed the momentum of the game and ignited the Cardinal comeback. A win that night and the season could have gone completely different. The Ducks did a great job of not compounding the loss the following week, and I was very impressed with their performance against Cal in Berkley. That game had all the makings of a potential letdown, but head coach Mario Cristobal and Herbert ensured that the Ducks would keep their postseason hopes alive.
- Wisconsin is the Big Ten West’s best
Wisconsin was able to rebound from a stunning home loss to BYU by defeating Iowa in a hard-fought road victory on September 22nd, leaving Iowa City with a 28-17 victory. Alex Hornibrook was the difference down the stretch in that game. Both defenses were formidable throughout the contest, but Hornibrook’s game-winning fourth quarter drive signaled the much-maligned quarterback’s improvement. He threw for 205 yards and 3 scores, including a 17 yard TD pass to A.J. Taylor to put the Badgers ahead for good. I’m not sure a 10-play, 88 yard drive in that moment was something Hornibrook was capable of in previous years. He was a perfect 5-for-5 through the air on the drive, and looked in complete command of the Wisconsin offense. The win was crucial for the Badgers, as it gave them the tie-breaker over the team that looks to be their stiffest competition in the Big Ten West.
Since then, the Badgers have had a bye week and beat a slowly improving Nebraska team at home, 41-24. The schedule toughens up the next few weeks with trips to Ann Arbor and Happy Valley to face two top-15 opponents. Even if the Badgers drop those two games (in which they will be underdogs) on the road, I still believe they’re the best team in the West. However, they would need some help to reach Indianapolis for the third consecutive season.
- James Franklin and Ricky Rahne called the most perplexing 4th down play in recent memory
I put this in the “Think We Know” section because I could not think of a worse call off the top of my head. Two weeks ago, The Nittany Lions ran Miles Sanders on 4th and 5 with 1:22 left. The play had no chance, as Chase Young blew up the line and stopped Sanders in the backfield. Although they were outplayed for the majority of the game, the Buckeyes escaped Happy Valley with a 27-26 victory. The result of the play was obviously bad, but the decision to take the ball out of Trace McSorley’s hands was what made this such a questionable call. McSorley had gashed the Buckeyes for 175 rushing yards, most of which were not on designed runs or reads. As the pocket broke down throughout the night, McSorley was able to improvise and extend drives with his legs. Allowing McSorley the option to run or pass for the first would have been the Nittany Lions’ best chance to convert on fourth down.
A win would have put Penn State in control of their own destiny in the Big Ten East. Instead, they’ll need to win upcoming games against Iowa at home, Michigan in Ann Arbor and Wisconsin at home in consecutive weeks to give themselves a chance at a Big Ten title berth. The bye week this past weekend came at a great time for Franklin’s group, as they can regroup from an emotional loss for rest of the season.
What We Still Don’t Know
Less than we did in Volume I, but still quite a bit:
- Can Georgia navigate their next 5 weeks without a loss?
There is no doubt that they are talented enough to do it. They are loaded and as deep as any team in the country. But this stretch is challenging:
10/13: @ LSU
10/27: vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)
11/03 @ Kentucky
11/10: vs. Auburn
Two road games and two rivalry games in five weeks, all against opponents that have been ranked in the top 15 at some point this season. All of their opponents are sound defensively and play different styles on offense, presenting unique challenges in each matchup. Kirby Smart and his staff have a daunting month ahead of them.
- How good is Miami?
If there was a “We Really Don’t Know” category, I would put this topic there. Miami is even more of a mystery to me than they were last season. They smacked Notre Dame in South Florida last November, but since then have been underwhelming in their wins and flat-out disappointing in their losses. Saturday’s come-from-behind victory over Florida State was no different. The Canes scored 21 unanswered after the ‘Noles took a 27-7 lead in the third quarter. This game was a microcosm of the Canes season thus far in a number of ways.
Offensively, Miami struggled to sustain drives. They were able to score when they had a short field, but it was not pretty. The one impressive drive came early on, as N’Kosi Perry led a 14-play, 83-yard drive that finished with a 10-yard pass to Lawrence Cager early in the second quarter. Perry was unable to get into a rhythm for most of the day even though he threw four touchdown passes. So far, he has not been a drastic improvement over the incumbent starter Malik Rosier. Miami was also unable to establish a running game, and the offensive line struggled throughout the contest, allowing 13 TFL. Thankfully for Miami, Florida State’s offensive line was equally abysmal. The Canes racked up 12 TFL and forced 2 turnovers that gave their offense golden scoring opportunities. They also held Florida State to 200 yards of total offense, but I’m not sure if that speaks more to Miami’s strength of their team or to Florida State’s overall offensive ineptitude. The Hurricane’s special teams were especially suspect, as they allowed a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown and missed a 28-yard field goal. They were lucky the poor effort in this phase of the game did not burn them.
Miami has a few challenging games upcoming as they face Boston College and Duke after traveling to play Virginia this weekend. The BC game is in a tricky spot on a Friday night in Chestnut Hill (or Thrill), but it comes after the Hurricanes bye week, so it should not sneak up on them. Even if they win those games, will we really know if Miami is a challenger to Clemson in the ACC?
- Can Auburn figure it out offensively?
I can’t believe how much this offense has struggled to score the last few weeks. They’ve played great defenses in Washington, LSU and Mississippi State so far this year but it just seems like they aren’t capable of the big point totals they had last season against the top competition. Sometimes teams that struggle score in basketball say it feels like there’s a “lid on the basket”. That must be what it feels like for the Tigers to get into the end zone right now, and no play better highlights that than JaTarvious Whitlow’s fumble at the goal-line late in the third quarter during their 23-9 loss to Mississippi State.
This is supposed to be one of the most creative offensive minds in the sport running the show. Gus Malzahn has an NFL-caliber quarterback and young, but very talented skill position players. Jarrett Stidham struggled for much of Saturday night. He missed a few open receivers on deep routes, and never seemed comfortable against the Bulldogs. The offensive line has also been unable to get a consistent push and establish the rushing attack, limiting Malzahn’s creativity. Many of Auburn’s offensive actions are effective because defenses key on stopping their usually potent running game. With games against Georgia and Alabama on the road, it’s difficult to envision this offense putting up enough points to hang with the big boys in the SEC.
Thank you for reading! Check back in a few weeks for the next Quarterly Report and to see what else we have learned and if these statements/predictions held true.