Ten observations from Week 9 of the college football season:.
Texas isn’t ready for prime time: Though the Longhorns had risen to No. 7 in the Amway Coaches Poll this week, did anyone really believe they were one of the seven best teams in the country? Did it seem likely they could get all the way through the rest of the Big 12 schedule unscathed and make the College Football Playoff? While Tom Herman’s team had improved significantly since that debacle of a season opener at Maryland, trying to imagine how Texas might fare against an LSU or a Clemson, much less an Alabama, should have clearly illustrated that the Longhorns were still a cut below the elite. So it wasn’t too big of a surprise that Texas walked into a trap in Stillwater and lost, 38-35, to Oklahoma State. This isn’t a game you need to read too much into. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy called a great game offensively, start to finish, built a big lead early at home and held on at the end. Texas is making progress as a program, but it’s hard to be perfect — and playing at Oklahoma State is a bright, neon warning sign on the schedule for anyone.
The dream scenario for the Big 12 would have been for Texas and Oklahoma to win out and rematch in the conference championship game for a potential playoff bid. With Texas losing this one, you now have to factor in West Virginia, which will go to Austin next week. But the lay of the land hasn’t changed much. Oklahoma, even with a loss to Texas earlier this month, is still the Big 12 favorite.
More:College football’s winners and losers for Week 9 topped by rise of Northwestern.
Clemson-Florida State doesn’t look like a rivalry anymore: Four years doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you look at the trajectories of Clemson and Florida State since Sept. 20, 2014, it almost looks like dog years. That night is important because Clemson absolutely blew it in Tallahassee, and it would have been totally fair after that game if you wondered what it would take for the Tigers to finally get over the hump. Remember the circumstances: Despite Jameis Winston getting suspended for yet another episode of immaturity and Deshaun Watson showing all the signs of future stardom, Clemson shot itself in the foot over and over again and left with a 23-17 overtime loss against the reigning national champions. While the Tigers were getting closer as a program, the Seminoles were just better and seemed poised to stay that way for a while.
But that’s not how it’s played out at all. In the blink of an eye, the Clemson-Florida State rivalry has tilted all the way to an orange crush, which is the only way to describe the Tigers’ 59-10 laugher in Doak Campbell on Saturday.
More:Clemson, Trevor Lawrence deal Florida State its worst home loss in school history.
More:Clemson All-America defensive lineman Christian Wilkins turns ball carrier for touchdown.
There’s not much to analyze here. Clemson is the No. 2 team in the country for a reason, but it’s still striking and noteworthy how unthreatening Florida State has become to the Tigers’ ACC dominance just four years after seemingly having Clemson’s number.
Maybe the pendulum will swing back at some point, but Florida State just isn’t in the same league from either a talent or coaching perspective right now. Heck, the Seminoles barely seem like they can line up right half the time these days. It’s been a rough first year for Willie Taggart on a number of levels, but this is the kind of beatdown that puts the gap between the programs in stark relief.
So, Kentucky-Georgia for the SEC East, huh?: Remarkably, that’s what we’re looking at next Saturday in Lexington. While Georgia predictably pulled away from Florida in the second half Saturday, Kentucky’s 15-14 win at Missouri qualifies as a minor miracle. Down 14-3 with 7:36 left, the game seemed unwinnable for Kentucky after Mark Stoops decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Missouri 3-yard line and didn’t get it. Then after pulling within 14-9, Terry Wilson’s interception with 4:10 left should have been a game-ender. But Kentucky kept giving itself chances and went 81 yards in eight plays over the final 1:24 for a walk-off win after Missouri committed pass interference in the end zone with no time left on the clock. That gave the Wildcats an untimed down from the 2-yard line, and Wilson found C.J. Conrad in the short corner of the end zone for the clutch touchdown.
More:No. 14 Kentucky beats Missouri with walk-off touchdown.
So Kentucky is now 7-1, and if the Wildcats can somehow beat Georgia they will clinch a trip to Atlanta regardless of their final SEC game against Tennessee. Really. And while the Bulldogs will undoubtedly be favored, it’s one home game — and Kentucky is on one of those rolls where things just seem to fall in place. So who knows! If Kentucky actually pulls this off, it will be one of the great stories in SEC history.
More:Yes, Georgia got a nice win against Florida, but the Bulldogs aren’t title contenders yet.
Jake Fromm isn’t giving up the quarterback job: Coming off a disastrous performance at LSU, it was curious but telling that Georgia doubled down on Fromm against Florida. In fact, Justin Fields, the highly-regarded freshman who has seen limited action in some special packages this season, didn’t even get on the field Saturday. In other words, anyone thinking Georgia was going to change directions at quarterback coming off a bye week or try to integrate Fields into the offense to a greater degree was sorely mistaken. It’s very clear at this point: Fromm is the guy Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney trust, and it’s not going to change next week against Kentucky or the next time Georgia plays a high-leverage game (perhaps against Alabama in the SEC title game). Fromm responded in the second half against Florida and finished with 240 passing yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-24 attempts. But that won’t stop fans from wondering what’s up with Fields next time Fromm throws an interception, nor will it slow down any speculation about whether Fields is willing to be patient while many of his peers (like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence) are already in starring roles.
Conference championship games shaping up as snoozers: It’s been trending this way for awhile, but the first week of December is going to once again highlight a major weakness in the college football schedule. Conference championship games, by and large, have become useless and uninteresting because the sport places far too much emphasis on winning divisions when division titles aren’t a great gauge for a team’s ability. As of today, for instance, 5-3 Northwestern is in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West for the right to play either Michigan or Ohio State. In the ACC, we could very well be heading for a Virginia-Clemson matchup. And in the Pac-12, things are so unbalanced that Utah — which already has two conference losses — has the edge in the South.
Though other Power Five leagues all eventually copied the SEC in putting together a championship game, none of them have been able to replicate its cachet. Mostly, they feel like a waste of time.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In lieu of rewarding a division winner in a league where divisions are extremely unbalanced (like the Big Ten), just get rid of divisions and have teams match up the two teams with the best record. The Big 12 currently does this, and we could very well end up with an attractive Texas-Oklahoma rematch. Or just get rid of the championship games altogether and expand the playoff field to eight. Either solution would be better than seeing Northwestern play for a Big Ten title.
Louisville has reached the boiling point: It feels as if Bobby Petrino 2.0 is beyond rescue. The only thing left to determine is whether Louisville can get the money together for a buyout that could hit the $14 million mark (based on timing and various bonuses he might be owed). That’s a big poison pill to swallow, but losses like 56-35 to Wake Forest at home practically remove any choice in the matter. Louisville is 0-5 in the ACC (2-6 overall) and still has three more ranked teams on the schedule in Clemson, N.C. State and Kentucky. In other words, this is going to be a very, very ugly situation for a program that lost all momentum after the Lamar Jackson era and doesn’t have a bunch of talent coming in to make you think Petrino can turn it around. (Louisville’s current committed class is ranked 55th by 247 Sports and the 2018 class was 30th). Meanwhile, in a small-picture sidebar that will surely delight Petrino’s many detractors, Louisville got absolutely destroyed Saturday by Matt Colburn, who ran for a career-high 243 yards on 20 carries. Colburn thought he was going to Louisville four years ago until Petrino tried to play games with his scholarship offer and delay his enrollment. Instead, Colburn went to Wake Forest and, a few years later, delivered the most embarrassing moment of Petrino’s second tenure at Louisville.
Houston’s American hope: Houston’s authoritative 57-36 win over previously unbeaten South Florida clearly establishes the 7-1 Cougars as the biggest threat to UCF in the American and solidifies coach Major Applewhite after a shaky start last year. Though the Cougars don’t give off the same kind of vibe they did in 2015 (their defense now isn’t nearly as good), quarterback D’Eriq King is a special talent who can beat you throwing (28-of-40, 419 yards, five touchdowns two interceptions) or running. Go watch his fourth-and-7 scramble for a 36-yard touchdown in the third quarter and you can see the kind of problems he’ll present to UCF in a potential conference championship game. Given how poorly some of the typically strong programs in the American have played this year (looking at you Memphis and Navy), it’s important for the league that Houston stepped up after going 7-5 last season.
Something’s got to give at USC: During a conversation with a well-connected person at Southern Cal a couple weeks ago, the mood around the program wasn’t good but wasn’t dire, either. Though there’s always been a segment of hardcore fans who don’t think Clay Helton is capable of bringing USC back to national prominence, he’s brought some stability to the program, won a Pac-12 title last year and would be owed quite a large buyout (believed to be well north of $10 million) if he were fired this year. In other words, Helton’s job wasn’t really thought to be in jeopardy unless the wheels really fell off. Well, they’re kind of falling off. After getting blown out at Utah last week, USC absorbed a 38-35 loss at home to Arizona State in front of lots of empty seats. Though injuries have hurt USC badly, including at quarterback, it’s tough to swallow when you moved the ball (420 yards), only committed one turnover and still lost thanks to a 92-yard punt return by N’Keal Harry that turned the game late in the third quarter. Though USC still feels more like a situation where staff changes will be the short-term remedy rather than changing the head coach, you can’t totally count it out at this point.
Chris Petersen no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt: Many of us started this season talking about Washington as a playoff team. But at 6-3 following a 12-10 loss to Cal, we are now talking about Washington as one of the nation’s biggest disappointments. In fact, it’s an even bigger belly flop than last year when the Huskies started 6-0, got shocked by Arizona State and quickly left the playoff discussion. The bottom line is that for two consecutive years, the offense hasn’t been good enough with Jake Browning at the controls. Though he’s had a fine career, you can’t say there’s been much progress there (he went 11-for-21 for 148 yards against Cal). Next year, Washington will hand the reins over to Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, and perhaps that will solve some of the issues. But as much as Petersen has won both early in his tenure at Washington and before that at Boise State, perhaps we should dial back the expectations a little bit until he can put an offense on the field that produces at a high level in the Pac-12. Petersen is an outstanding coach, but he’s yet to lift Washington from good to elite, and we shouldn’t treat him as elite until he does.